Book Review: For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War

For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War, by James M. McPherson

In this book, noted Civil War historian James McPherson provides a work that demonstrates the potential of statistical analysis in history and the combination of social and military history when handled skillfully by someone with a full respect for the texts and the people who wrote them. This particular volume seeks to use the voluminous letter writing and unpublished diaries of Civil War soldiers on both sides to present a statistical answer as to why men fought in the Civil War—why they joined up in the first place, and why they continued to fight despite the risk of death by disease or bullets, in the face of letters from home from people who were not able to understand the horrors of the war they faced. Not only is this book very well argued from a narrative and statistical perspective, with the author including useful cross-tabs, unlike some attempts at similar studies [1] that have much less command of the statistical approaches necessary to enrich history, but the historian also manages to write with gorgeous prose about the difficulties in understanding soldiers of that time from our own cynical age [2].

In comparison to many of his other writings, this is a work that is more fragmented and less narrative [3] than his most famous and well-recognized works. Nevertheless, this work is a masterpiece of its own type, a work that depends for its power both on a familiarity with a wide group of tens of thousands of letters and unprinted manuscript diaries from Civil War veterans who the author refers to by rank and unit in the text, unless they are particularly well-known to the target demographic of readers, and comments about at greater length in the extensive endnotes that follow this book, which even with its statistical appendices included is short of 200 pages. It contains twelve chapters that deal with several overlapping sets of concerns that appear frequently in the private writings of soldiers, such as the feeling that the war was a crusade, that both sides fought in earnest, that they were anxious to fight at first, that they desired to preserve their honor and manhood by not flinching in fear or running from battle, that religion was important to their bravery, that they and their fellow members of their units were a band of brothers, that they were willing to lay down their lives on the altar of their country, that they fought for the cause of liberty, that slavery was a major element of why they fought, that they felt or expected the support of the home front, that they fought to avenge losses suffered, and that they shared with their comrades a devotion to the same holy cause.

This book has many strengths. It is forthright and honest about its sampling techniques and approach, it is generous in its quotation and sound in its discussion of the writings of the soldiers in the sample selected, and it is part of a larger conversation with other books about the thoughts and motivations of the common soldier in the Civil War. Although quite a few of the people who wrote these letters were officers, by and large this is not elite history but is a history of the people, by the people, for the people. The author expresses his regrets that more letters from black soldiers were not able to be found, but given that the book is about the writings of soldiers, and given that the vast majority of black soldiers, and at least some portion of the poorer farmers on both sides in general, were not particularly literate, the author uses the sources available as best as possible. Another aspect of this book that serves to tie it together despite its thematic organization is the fact that the author uses skillful transitions to tie one chapter to the next, which makes the book flow very well. This is an accomplished work by a master historian about that most difficult of questions—what motivated Civil War soldiers to fight and, if necessary, die, even if such conditions are not likely to be present in contemporary society.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example, the following quotes:

“Why not? That is probably the wrong question. The right question is: Why did Civil War soldiers do it? It was not because their lives were somehow less precious to them than ours to us. Nor was it because they lived in a more violent culture that took fighting and dying for granted more than we do. And it was not because they were professional soldiers or coerced conscripts; most Union and Confederate soldiers were neither long-term regulars nor draftees, but wartime volunteers from civilian life whose values remained rooted in the homes and communities from which they sprang to arms and to which they longed to return. They did not fight for money. The pay was poor and unreliable; the large enlistment bounties received by some Union soldiers late in the war were exceptional; most volunteers and their families made economic sacrifices when they enlisted. What prompted them to give up several of the best years of their lives—indeed, to give up life itself in this war that killed almost as many American soldiers as all the rest of the wars this country has fought combined? What enabled them to overcome that most basic of human instincts—self-preservation (5)?”

“Glorious cause. Lives sacrificed on the country’s altar. Hearts bleeding for the country’s welfare. Some modern readers of these letters may feel they are drowning in bathos. In this post-Freudian age these phrases strike many as mawkish posturing, romantic sentimentalism, hollow platitudes. We do not speak or write like that anymore. Most people have not done so since World War I which, as Ernest Hemingway and Paul Fussell have noted, made such words as glory, honor, courage, sacrifice, valor, and sacred vaguely embarrassing if not mock-heroic. We would justly mock them if we heard them today. But these words were written in the 1860s, not today. They were written not for public consumption but in private letters to families and friends. These soldiers, at some level at least, meant what they said about sacrificing their lives for their country.

Our cynicism about the genuineness of such sentiments is more our problem than theirs, a temporal/cultural barrier we must transcend if we are to understand why they fought. Theirs was an age of romanticism in literature, music, art, and philosophy. It was a sentimental age when strong men were not afraid to cry (or weep, as they would say), a time when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great novel and Stephen Foster’s songs could stir genuine emotions. What seems like bathos or platitudes to us were real pathos and convictions to them. Perhaps readers will take another look at the expressions by soldiers quoted two paragraphs above when they learn that all four of them were subsequently killed in action. They were not posturing for public show. They were not looking back from years later through a haze of memory and myth about the Civil War. They were writing during the immediacy of their experiences to explain and justify their beliefs to family members and friends who shared—or in some cases questioned—those beliefs. And how smugly can we sneer at their expressions of a willingness to die for those beliefs when we know they did precisely that (100)?”

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

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