For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson

What memories of vigils, bloody, by that Cape–
Ghoul-mound of man’s perversity at balk
And fraternal massacre!
Hart Crane, “Cape Hatteras”

McPherson, a Princeton history professor, wrote what many think is the best one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. In this book, he takes a sample of letters by 1,076 soldiers (647 Union and 429 Confederate) and analyzes them for the reasons that the soldiers gave for fighting the Civil War. The book quotes generously from the soldiers’ own letters.

The book is organized by theme:

1. This War is a Crusade
2. We Were in Earnest
3. Anxious for the Fray
4. If I Flinched I Was Ruined
5. Religion Is What Makes Brave Soldiers
6. A Band of Brothers
7. On the Altar of My Country
8. The Cause of Liberty
9. Slavery Must Be Cleaned Out
10. We Know That We Are Supported At Home
11. Vengeance Will Be Our Motto
12. The Same Holy Cause

How much were they putting on a front, and how much saying what they mean? Who knows even if the soldiers themselves could tell us, but this is what we have to go on.

They fought against slavery in the cause of liberty.
“I want to sing ‘John Brown’ in the streets of Charleston, and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of the bayonet.”–a Massachusetts infantry captain

They fought for slavery in the cause of liberty.
“The vandals of the North are determined to destroy slavery. We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty.”–a Kentucky physician

They fought for their personal honor and glory.
“No Jenny . . . while your happiness is as dear to me as life duty prompts me to go.  My country first, home and friends next. Jenny, what would friends be to me if I had no country?”–Recruit, 11th Michigan
“I much reather be numbered among the slain  than those that stay at home for it will be a brand upon their name as long as a southren lives.”–Sergeant, 24th Mississippi

They fought because it was expected of them and their officers commanded them.
“I will go as whare and stay as long as eney of my offersers will.”–Sergeant, 2nd Rhode Island
“Napoleon the first said ‘a man to be a good Soldier must first be converted into a machine,’ & I am inclined after some experience to concur with him.”–Lieutenant, 43rd North Carolina

They fought to “see the elephant”–to have the long-awaited fight.
“We pushed on anxious for the fray.”–Indiana private
“For almost an hour there was the most deafening yells that ever was made by one regiment. It seemed as if they was wild and mad for the fight. I never felt so much like facing the canons.”–Private, 25th Mississippi

They fought because it was God’s will for them, and their fate was determined.
“I think that one place is as dangerous as another, for God has appointed our day and we are perfectly safe until that day comes.”–Color bearer, 4th Virginia
“What little Presbyterianism I have left makes me something of a fatalist.”–Lieutenant, 8th Kansas

They fought to protect their unit, their closest family.
“I am very proud of this company & I am too much attached to my intimate friends to seek an opportunity of parting with them.”–South Carolinian
“I should leave with much regret the men who stood manfully by me in the hours of dainger through which I have passed.”–Quaker captain, 5th New Jersey, later killed at Second Manassas

They fought to defend their country against the invader and to take vengeance against him when they had the chance.
“I certainly love to kill the base usurping vandals.”–Sergeant, 8th Georgia
“I want to fight the rest of my life if necessary before we recognize them as anything but Rebels and traitors who must be humbled.”–Illinois sergeant

They fought to preserve the heritage of the American Revolution.
“Every Southern heart must respond to the language of the great Patrick Henry in the days of ’76 & say give me Liberty or give me death.”–Private, 56th Virginia
“Should We the youngest and brightest nation of all the earth bow to traters and forsake the graves of our Fathers? No no never never.”–Illinois farm boy

McPherson ends the book this way:

“Americans at the end of the twentieth century are also children of that heritage. Whether we are worthy of it will remain a matter of constant reexamination. Civil War soldiers willingly made extraordinary sacrifices, even of life itself, for the principles they perceived to be at stake in the war. Whether Americans today would be willing to make similar sacrifices is unanswerable. One hopes that it will remain unanswered.”

For Cause and Comrades makes the reader keep quiet, or should. Stop talking about what we really know that the Civil War was all about, or the Iraq War, or Vietnam. Let the soldiers have their say about why they fought.

Explore posts in the same categories: Book reviews, Essays, Military

2 Comments on “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson”

  1. This is an excellent post. I will have to look this book up. I am a history buff, especially the civil war, and a homeschool dad. There is a neat multi media download in relation to this at www. called Confederate Story- A History From The Southern Perspective. It has several great books on it. One written by Jefferson Davis, another is a diary of a confederate Girl and a great one written by a private from Tennessee called Company Aytch. Well worth the $12. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Don Says:

    Thanks for the comment. You might also enjoy McPherson’s “Tried by War,” a history of Lincoln as a war president–previously reviewed on this site.

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