For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. By James M. McPherson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
James McPherson, Princeton University’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History Emeritus, is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, but also noteworthy is For Cause and Comrades, one of the most significant contributions to the study of Civil War soldiers in recent years. Based on an extensive survey of soldier letters and diaries, McPherson’s study explores what motivated the fighting men in blue and gray to enlist and what sustained them through the terror and tedium of war, concluding that the majority of Civil War combatants were sincerely motivated by the political and ideological principles of their opposing causes.
For Cause and Comrades represents one of the most extensive Civil War soldier studies, based on a sample of 1,076 soldiers, 647 Union and 429 Confederate. McPherson discusses this sample and his methodology with both sophistication and clarity. His sample is remarkably representative of Civil War soldier demographics as whole, he submits, comparing proportions of men from different states, occupations, and serving in different military branches. Overrepresented in the sample are officers (who tended to be better educated and well-to-do), slaveholders (in Confederate cases), as well as men killed in action or who otherwise succumbed to wounds or illness. This last sobering imbalance, he reminds us, actually benefits his work, since it ostensibly privileges soldiers from fighting units over those assigned mostly to non-combat duties (viii-ix). In considering soldiers’ ideology, he also makes excellent use of military historian John A. Lynn’s concepts of initial motivation (“why men enlisted”), sustaining motivation, and combat motivation (12).
McPherson’s thesis that Civil War soldiers were and continued to be ideologically motivated and maintained their society’s beliefs in bravery, duty, and honor rejects the arguments of Bell I. Wiley (dean of Civil War soldier studies), who supposed they were politically disinterested and driven instead by senses of adventure and peer pressure, and Gerald Linderman, whose Vietnam Syndrome-tinged work claimed the shock of combat left them disillusioned and their ideals shattered. Although he finds some evidence for these positions, McPherson is convinced by shear weight of evidence that the majority of Civil War soldiers were indeed fundamentally motivated by patriotic or ideological ideals, finding that between Union and Confederate combatants 66 to 68 percent affirmed “assertion of patriotic motivations for fighting” (100-01). The majority of Union soldiers, he concludes, earnestly fought for the Union cause, deprecating the sins of treason and rebellion and fearing the consequences if they allowed the “Slave Power” to destroy the government bequeathed to them by the Founders. Few enlisted primarily to defeat slavery, though in a separate chapter McPherson discusses how a majority of Union soldiers came to espouse emancipation, especially as an effective war measure and punishment for secession. Confederates similarly invoked the American Revolution, seeing themselves as fighting for independence and against subjugation. In addition to fighting for hearth and home, “most Southern volunteers believed they were fighting for liberty as well as slavery” (often citing both in the same breath), and many actively feared the effects of “Black Republicanism” loosed on their Herrenvolk democracy (20-22).
Besides their respective causes, McPherson considers other factors that influenced Civil War soldier mentalité. Military discipline and command authority (forces soldiers blue and gray never fully accepted) significantly sustained combat motivation, especially the personal bravery of officers. Also essential was the group cohesion and “band of brothers” solidarity forged by the shared experience of combat. Soldiers usually lost their eagerness for battle after first “seeing the elephant,” but contrary to the Linderman thesis, McPherson finds that “the motivating power of soldiers’ ideals of manhood and honor seemed to increase rather than decrease during the last terrible year of the war” (82). In a chapter devoted to religious motivation, he finds that a Pennsylvania soldier spoke for many when he wrote that “religion is what makes brave soldiers.” Christian faith not only sustained soldiers’ belief in the righteousness of their opposing causes but also helped steel them to risk their lives in battle, lending itself to either fatalism or optimism regarding their fates in combat. McPherson also considers how change over time influenced soldier motivation. Many men retained their commitment in spite of despondent letters from home encouraging them to leave the fighting by fair means or foul. As Union victory became more probable, Northern soldiers were increasingly buoyed by military success, while Confederate soldiers’ resolve hardened out of a sense of honor and hopes of defending their homes from encroaching Yankee armies.
James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades must rightly be considered one of the finest and most important contributions to our understanding of Civil War soldiers. His work stands out for its extensive scholarship and wonderfully clear prose, as well the author’s bold willingness to reject modern assumptions and cynicism about the past. McPherson convincingly establishes the patriotic and ideological commitment of the majority of the Civil War’s fighting men, possessing a level of devotion a former 101st Airborne commander described to McPherson as simply “mystifying” (5).
For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. By James McPherson. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 237).
For years James McPherson was plagued by the question of what motivated soldiers to fight and die during the Civil War. To find the answer, he turned to thousands of letters and diaries written by soldiers during the war. The result of his research, For Cause and Comrades, explains what soldiers fought for and how they coped with the fear and stress of battle. McPherson analyzes three categories of motivation: initial (why soldiers enlisted), sustaining (why they stayed in the army) and combat (why they engaged in fighting). He finds that, in the Civil War, there was remarkable consistency in the motivations across all three categories. Although factors like training and leadership were important, McPherson asserts that the willingness to fight boiled down to individual character. In the Civil War, the “true fighters” in both the Union and Confederate armies were those who had a strong belief in their cause and a commitment to their brothers in arms.
Duty, honor, and belief in the cause were the most common reasons that Civil War soldiers gave for enlisting in the army. McPherson suggests that these motivations may have masked other motives like desire for personal glory and adventure, but he concludes that soldiers had a genuine sense of duty and honor. These same motivations kept soldiers in the war and “held them to the firing line” (36). According to McPherson, the convictions that prompted men to enlist did not dissipate after they signed up. Good training, discipline, and leadership encouraged enlisted men, McPherson acknowledges, but those factors often lacked in both armies. The decision to actually fight, then, was an individual decision based upon the quality of character. McPherson analyzes the various factors that sustained soldiers during the war. In addition to persistent feelings of duty and honor, soldiers expressed the importance of religious belief and obligations to defend their homes as reasons for enduring difficult conditions.
Soldiers also wrote frequently about ideological causes. Men in each army often cited similar ideological motivations, namely liberty, slavery, and patriotism, though they interpreted their meanings differently. For example, soldiers on either side interpreted the meaning of the War for Independence in opposite ways; while Confederates believed they fought for their own independence from a tyrannical government, northerners believed they fought to preserve the Union that emerged after 1776. (104). Ideology generally helped to unify armies, but some causes divided troops, such as the issue of emancipation among Union soldiers. McPherson also discusses the role that vengeance played in motivating soldiers, what he calls the “dark side” of patriotism. Revenge as a motivation was more common in the Confederacy because there had been more destruction and devastation in the South.
Courage was a central reason that soldiers actually engaged in combat. McPherson explains that enlisted men gradually came to terms with their fear and eventually recognized that courage was not an absence of fear but a willingness to fight despite its presence. In addition to courage, honor and self-respect prompted men to face battle rather than run away from it or fake illness. Finally, primary unit cohesion was a significant motivating factor in combat, though McPherson maintains that this factor has been overemphasized in scholarship on the common soldier. Not only did men want to avoid looking cowardly in front of others, they understood that working and fighting together made for more effective fighting.
All of the reasons that Civil War soldiers gave for enlisting and fighting influenced the morale among troops. Other factors also influenced army morale. Politics played a role as well. The rhetoric of the Copperheads in the North was especially frustrating to Union soldiers and the reelection of Lincoln in 1864 was a psychological blow to the South. The degree of support from local communities also influenced the attitude of soldiers on both sides. An uplifting letter from home was a boost while a letter complaining of hardship or loneliness could easily lower morale.
McPherson was methodical and thorough in his analysis of uncensored Civil War letters and diaries, and he effectively quotes from his sources in his text. While acknowledging the limitations of his sources, he draws out from them the primary reasons soldiers were willing to fight and die in war and compares their motivations to those of soldiers in other American wars. Civil War soldiers appear to be unique in their awareness and commitment to the cause for which they enlisted. A variety of reasons kept them in the army. According to McPherson, while soldiers certainly fought to protect themselves and those that fought alongside them, they also fought to a surprising degree in support of patriotic and ideological principles.
Jensen Branscombe Texas Christian University
For Cause and
Comrades: Why Men Fought in the
Civil War. By James McPherson.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, Pp. xv, 237.
James McPherson’s enjoyable work For Cause and Comrades addresses the motivations of Civil War officers and soldiers on both sides of the war. Relying upon letters home written largely from front-line units, he delved into initial motivation for war, sustaining motivation, and combat motivation. Using this method, McPherson challenged many existing concepts regarding these three motivations, as well as factors which weakened the motivation. He presents a war where morale exerted a primary force upon the soldiers, arguing that the South lost because it soldiers no longer had the will to fight.
The soldiers on both sides of the Civil War fought with similar motivations and ideals, except that the concepts did not mean the same. Both armies harkened to memory of 1776 and George Washington. Both sides believed they fought for liberty and freedom, just not the same idea of liberty or freedom. Both armies held personal honor as paramount to their personal and family identity, believing that cowardly acts would not only condemn themselves in the post-war era, but their families. Both armies fought with religious fervor for their cause.
Northern soldiers, for the most part, did not believe that they fought for abolition. Many reacted with disgust to the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, they fought to preserve the liberty won in the Revolutionary War, fighting against anarchy and treason. While personal contact with slavery turned many soldiers into opponents of slavery, many felt disgust after the Proclamation regarding the idea of fighting to free slaves. Only after they viewed the practical benefits (including freeing up rear-echelon and support soldiers for the battlefield as well as weakening Southern society) did many accept the necessity of the Proclamation.
Southern soldiers did not fight for slavery and many refused to even consider the concept as a reason for war. Instead, they fought for liberty and freedom, believing that they must fight to preserve Southern society, institutions, culture, and honor. More soldiers joined to defend the South from a perceived unwarranted invasion. Even in defeat, morale remained high due to the ideological motivations, which included duty and honor, as well as a religious belief in the righteousness of their cause. Only in the end, with Lee’s army defeat and Richmond fallen did morale finally dissipate, even in theatres as far away as Texas where the Rebels had not met with failure.
Soldiers from both armies received mail and newspapers daily, providing them with knowledge regarding other fronts of the war. McPherson showed how a victorious Union army in the West felt depressed from news of defeats in the East. Letters from home had a profound effect on soldier morale—depressed if not received, and sometimes depressed due to critical letters from the home-front. Mail and newspapers also served as conduit of information regarding politics back home, especially the Copperheads. The soldiers almost universally viewed these Peace Democrats as traitors, even soldiers who entered the war Democrats. Soldiers voted soundly for Lincoln, even those who of the Army of the Potomac.
Honor and duty hold a dominate place in this work. The soldiers who fought did so because they felt the profound obligation to continue until the end. Many wounded soldiers returned to the front even after the qualified for a medical discharge because they could not leave their duty to their brothers at the front. Ideology and patriotism also kept soldiers fighting even in extreme difficulty.
If this work suffers from any weakness, it suffers from the sources and the selections process. Letters home could represent the soldiers’ true feelings, but also the reflect desire to pacify the home audience, many of whom felt profound misgiving regarding the soldiers’ continued service in the war. McPherson relied on letters from just over a thousand soldiers, which may limit this work strength. These weaknesses are minor and the author presented his thesis with great skill.
For Cause and
Comrades: Why Men Fought in the
Civil War. By James McPherson.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, Pp. xv, 237.
In the Civil War, what motivated men to enlist, to fight, and to keep on fighting? Borrowing a framework from John A. Lynn, a French Revolution historian, James McPherson attempts to answer these and other questions in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. By using the words of the soldiers as mush as possible, McPherson “challenges some of the conventional wisdom about the motives and mentalite of Civil War soldiers” (p. x).
McPherson begins by noting Lynn’s three categories: initial motivation—why men enlisted; sustaining motivation—what kept them enlisted; and combat motivation—what helped them face the danger of battle. The author divides initial motivation into: rage and patriotic fervor, duty and honor, and adventure. Attributing duty and “combat narcosis” to what sustained combat motivation, McPherson believes that ambition and loyalty to officers motivated the men to fight, while discipline through drill helped them maintain focus in battle. Commanders and provost guards kept the men from fleeing battle with the threat of shooting them in the back; and for those that this did not scare, court-martial and its ensuing public humiliation provided the incentive to keep the other men fighting. McPherson finds that religion did a great deal to sustain morale and support the troops at their lowest points. Group cohesion, peer pressure, and a desire to not let a brother down became other motivating factors; the color guard, which represented regimental and state honor, helped units to rally. The author identifies the defense of home, property, and “‘Herrenvolk’ democracy—the equality of all who belonged to the master race” as Confederate motivators (p. 109). Both the North and the South recalled the American Revolution as each side tried to tap into the Spirit of ’76. Ideology and the desire to show that a Republic can survive motivated a great many Northerners to take up the cause. McPherson finds that the soldier’s reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation proved that not all Northerners fought to free the slaves, but battled to reunite the nation, though they eventually approved of freeing the slaves once they saw how much it weakened the South. Both sides needed to know that their loved ones at home supported them and McPherson observes that this had an enormous negative or positive influence on morale. Vengeance, in the end, provoked a great number of soldiers to courageously or viciously act against their enemies. Looking at all of these factors, McPherson concludes by estimating their cumulative impact on the soldiers.
One must notice the great lengths that McPherson goes through to validate his sample of letters. His quantification and acknowledgement of potential complications of his sample stymie most would-be criticisms. The author notes the statistical variation and standard deviation that a sample of this size may make. His tables, in the appendix, portray the representative percentage of soldiers and compare them to the estimated percentages of soldiers to show the reader how close his sample comes to the actually representing the people the study represents. Unfortunately, not all of the author’s methodological discussion can be found in one place and this limits an in-depth analysis of his process. McPherson does use some of his sampling evaluations in his text to illustrate the exclusion of anomalies. The reader accepts McPherson’s conclusions because his sample epitomizes the soldiers he represents.
McPherson proves that many factors motivated a soldier during the Civil War and that these factors had a potential for change. The soldier’s experience much like the factors that inspired their experience differed from regiment to regiment and messmate-to-messmate. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War augments the notable contribution of Bell Irvin Wiley and gives subsequent historians a potential framework for further examination of the factors for motivating soldiers in this war or any war. Military and Civil War historians are greatly indebted to James M. McPherson for this study. As Muslims wage Jihad and kill in the name of God, McPherson’s chapter on religion will help everyone understand their indomitable spirit.