For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil Warby James M. McPherson
McPherson gives us an excellent and engaging sociological and psychological account of what drove men to endure the horrors of the war and continue to fight. With nearly 700,000 dead and another 400,000 or so wounded, the carnage they saw and the risk they endured is unimaginable today, when war is clean and distant. Early work on what motivated the soldiers has… See more details below
McPherson gives us an excellent and engaging sociological and psychological account of what drove men to endure the horrors of the war and continue to fight. With nearly 700,000 dead and another 400,000 or so wounded, the carnage they saw and the risk they endured is unimaginable today, when war is clean and distant. Early work on what motivated the soldiers has looked rather cynically and simplistically at economic need and loyalty. McPherson, through thousands of diaries and letters, comes to a deeper, more nuanced appreciation of the political and moral beliefs that drove them. He is a well-respected Civil War historian who again brings new insight to the war.
"A stunning, authentic narrative of the war from beginning to end, woven out of totally disparate voices...but strikingly shared experiences." The Boston Globe
"In a prose that is both sensitive and remarkably lucid, [McPherson] helps us to reenter an American society in which ideals were not merely pat phrases but principles that inspired conducthowever hateful some of those principles were."New York Review of Books
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THIS WAR IS A CRUSADE
The origins of this book go back many years. In the spring of 1976 I took several Princeton students to Gettysburg for the first of what became many tours of that memorable battlefield. On this occasion, as on subsequent visits, we finished the day by walking the ground over which "Pickets's charge" took place at the climax of the battle. As we strolled across the open fields in peaceful twilight, knowing that those 13,000 Confederate soldiers had come under artillery and then rifle fire almost every step of the way, students asked in awe: What made these men do it? What motivated them to advance into that wall of fire? What caused them to go forward despite the high odds against coming out safely? I found that I could not give my students a satisfactory answer. But the question planted the seed of a book.
Another experience later that same bicentennial year of 1976 watered the seed. The day after Thanksgiving my cousin and I visited the four Civil War battlefields near Fredericksburg, Virginia. As we stood at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania on that crisp fall afternoon, with no other living creature in sight except a hawk soaring high overhead, the contrast between this pastoral scene and what happened on the same spot 112 years earlier struck me with a painful intesity. Wave after wave of Union attacks against entrenched Confederates during eighteen hours of ferocious fighting in the rain on May 12, 1864, had left thousands of killed and wounded men trampled into the mud and muck. Soldiers on both sides had leaped on the parapets and fired downat the enemy with bayoneted rifles handed up from comrades below, hurling each empty gun like a spear before firing the next one until they were shot down or bayoneted themselves. "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania," wrote a Union officer, "because I should be loath to believe it myself" had he not been there.(1) As I recounted this story to my cousin, he asked in wonder: What possessed those men? How could they sacrifice themselves in that way? Again I was not satisfied with my reply. My determination to find an answer deepened.
With that cousin I share a great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War. This man, Jesse Beecher, emigrated from England in 1857 and became a prosperous wheelwright in an upstate New York village. In 1862, at the age of thirty-seven and with eight children, he enlisted in the 112th New York. What moved him to do so? His obituary and family tradition testify to a sense of duty and gratitude to the country that had given him opportunity. Another clue is provided by the name he bestowed on his first child born in the United States: Henry Ward Beecher, after the famous antislavery clergyman. Jesse Beecher fought in South Carolina, Virginia, and North Carolina. After his regiment broke through Confederate defenses in the successful attack at Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865, he died in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is buried there in the national military cemetery. What motivated him to give the last full measure of devotion for his adopted country? Unfortunately, none of his letters has survived to help resolve this question. But many letters from other soldiers like him suggest possible answers.
My initial grappling with the question of Civil War soldiers' motivation occurred during the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Others also probed this puzzle at the time. A veteran who became a student of the Civil War after his tour in Vietnam was awestruck by the dedication of soldiers in that earlier conflict. In all his Vietnam experience he had met only one American "who had the same 'belief structure' as the Civil War soldiers." In Vietnam "the soldier fought for his own survival, not a cause. The prevailing attitude was: do your time ... keep your head down, stay out of trouble, get out alive." How different was the willingness of Civil War soldiers to court death in a conflict whose casualty rate was several times greater than for American soldiers in Vietnam. "I find that kind of devotion ... mystifying." When General John A. Wickham, who commanded the famous 101st Airborne Division in the 1970s and subsequently rose to Army Chief of Staff, visited Antietam battlefield in the 1980s he gazed at Bloody Lane where several Union assaults had been repulsed before finally breaking through. "You couldn't get American soldiers today to make an attack like that," he marveled.(2)
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 livesindeed, 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 instinctsself-preservation?
This is a vital question in all wars, for without such sacrificial behavior by soldiers, armies could not fight. Two psychiatrists who studied American G.I.s in World War II put it this way: "What is the force that compels a man to risk his life day after day, to endure the constant tension, the fear of death ... the steady loss of friends? ... What can possess a rational man to make him act so irrationally?" Eighty years earlier the novelist and Civil War veteran John W. De Forest asked the same question and offered an implicit answer. "Self-preservation is the first law of nature," he wrote in summing up his combat experience. "The man who does not dread to die or to be mutilated is a lunatic. The man who, dreading these things, still faces them for the sake of duty and honor is a hero."(3)
Duty and honor were indeed powerful motivating forces. They had to be, for some other traditional reasons that have caused men to fight in organized armies had little relevance in the Civil War. Religious fanaticism and ethnic hatreds played almost no role. Discipline was notoriously lax in Civil War volunteer regiments. Training was minimal by modern standards. The coercive power of the state was flaccid. Subordination and unquestioning obedience to orders were alien to this most democratic and individualistic of nineteenth-century societies. Yet the Union and Confederate armies mobilized three million men. How did they do it? What made these men fight?
In the middle of the war none other than Abraham Lincoln enumerated several motives that might induce a man to enlist: "patriotism, political bias [i.e., political or ideological conviction], ambition, personal courage, love of adventure, want of employment." In 1864 a Union soldier less literate but no less lucid than Lincoln compiled his list of motives in a letter to his father: "A soldier has but one thing in view, and that is two fight the Battles of his country with oner [honor], halve a likeing for all his Brothers in arms, and the Blessings of God and the prayers of his friends at home." Nearly half a century later one of the Civil War's genuine heroes, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who won the medal of honor for his defense of Little Round Top and earned immortality in Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels and Ted Turner's movie Gettysburg, tried to explain the willingness of men to face bullets: "Simple manhood, force of discipline, pride, love, or bond of comradeship'Here is Bill; I will go or stay where he does.' And the officer is so absorbed by the sense of responsibility for his men, for his cause, or for the fight that the ... instinct to seek safety is overcome by the instinct of honor."(4)
Lincoln, Chamberlain, De Forest, and the soldier son of a dirt farmer each in his own way outlined the themes that will be analyzed in this book. Many soldiers did indeed fight bravely for country, duty, honor, and the right. In retrospect almost all soldiers on both sides believed that they had done so. But in practice, many had found ways to avoid fighting when bullets began coming too close. During the war a consensus existed that in many regiments about half of the men did most of the real fighting. The rest were known, in Civil War slang, as skulkers, sneaks, beats, stragglers, or coffee-coolers. They "played off" (shirked) or played sick when battle loomed. They seemed to melt away when the lead started flying, to reappear next day with tight smiles and stories about having been separated from the regiment in the confusion. Some deserted for good. Some really were sick much of the time. Others got what combat soldiers called "bombproof" jobs a safe distance behind the linesheadquarters clerk, quartermaster sergeant, wagon-train guard, teamster, hospital attendant, and the like.
Even the best regiments contained their quota of sneaks. "Strange how many men we have on the rolls and how few we can get into a fight," wrote a captain in the 1st Connecticut Cavalry. "Twenty or thirty men in my company" were "miserable excuses ... for men" who "shirk all duty if they can." According to a corporal in the 33rd New York, by the end of the Seven Days battles "in our company of 60 men 11 were in line.... The rest of the brigade was nearly as bad as ours.... I tell you these things to let you know what a large number of miserable beings there is in the army. In case of a battle these stragglers are the very ones to start a panic." After the battle of Fredericksburg, a disgusted private in the 9th New York (who was later killed in action) wrote his brother that "the sneaks in the army are named Legion.... When you read of the number of men engaged on our side, strike out at least one third as never having struck a blow."(5)
The Confederate army had the same problem. A private in the crack 21st Mississippi thought that in such a regiment "there should be no sloth nor sluggard, no whimperer nor complainer," but regrettably the regiment contained "an absolutely fearful number of these creatures." The fighting was done by the truly dedicated soldiers (including himself of course) who had endured "privations and suffering like men without murmur or complaint ... & this class is sufficiently strong to carry this war through to a glorious end but this good conduct can not efface the shameless acts of the other class."(6) Some soldiers admitted to seeking a bombproof position or to skulking. A quartermaster sergeant in the 149th New York told his sister that he could have been promoted to orderly sergeant (a combat post) "but I prefer staying where I am, besides you know, those Rebel bullets don't exactly suit my fancy." After his regiment distinguished itself at Lookout Mountain on November 24, 1863, he wrote home that "while the battle was going on I wished myself in the company" but "when the wounded began to come in, I congratulated myself that I was not compelled to be where the bullets flew so thick." The diary entries of a private in the 101st New York candidly described his behavior at the second battle of Bull Run. August 29, 1862: "Marched about three miles and fought all day they marched us up to Reb battery and we skidadled then I fell out and kept out all day Laid in the wood all night with 5 or 6 others." August 30: "Laid in the woods all day while the rest were fighting."(7)
Helping a wounded comrade to the rear was a favorite device to escape further fighting. A private in the 53rd Virginia narrated his actions during the battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862: "It is an awful thing to be in a battle where the balls is flying as thick as hail," he wrote to his wife. "I saw dudley on the battlefield soon after he was wounded and I started with him out we got to a place where they did not have such a good chance to hit us and dudley stayed there I went a little further on and come to a ditch and it was crouded with men under the banks." Two months later the same soldier confessed that he was one of the thousands of Confederate stragglers who fell out of the ranks before the Army of Northern Virginia fought at Sharpsburg. "I was not up with them the day of the battle thank god I have escaped so far & I hope and trust I may come out safe in the end." Not to be outdone by the Virginians, a North Carolina private with Lee's army assured his wife in 1864 that "there is as good a chance to keep out of the War here as there is there for if it Gets too hot here We can cross the branch and keep out of it."(8)
Many of the derogatory comments about sneaks and stragglers came from officers and men of upper- and middle-class background. They had enlisted early in the war from motivesin their own eyes at leastof duty, honor, and patriotism. They looked down on the conscripts, substitutes, and bounty men who had been drafted or had enlisted for money. The soldier in the 21st Mississippi who denounced the sluggards and complainers in his regiment as "creatures raised a little above the brutes" was a planter's son who had attended Princeton. The captain in the 1st Connecticut Cavalry who deplored the "miserable excuses ... for men" who "shirk all duty" was a prosperous farmer's son who had left Yale to enlist. With remarkable unanimity, fighting soldiers of middle-class origins commented in their letters home that "it isn't the brawling, fighting man at home that stands the bullets whistle the best." "Roughs that are always ready for street fighting are cowards on the open battle field." "I don't know of a single fist fighting bulley but what he makes a cowardly soldier." "As a general thing those at home that are naturally timid are the ones here that have the least fear. [Patrick Cronan] was a sort of street bully as they term it at home.... He skulked out of the fight and afterwards was court marshaled and sentenced to wear ... a wide board on the back with the word coward.... Others that it was thought would not fight at all fought the best."(9)
The harvest of draftees, substitutes, and bounty men who came into the Union army after mid-1863 had a particularly poor reputation among the volunteers of 1861 and 1862. "The big bounty men are no men at all," wrote a Massachusetts private. "Most of them came out just to get the bounty, & play out as soon as they are able." The twice-wounded colonel of the 61st New York, who won the medal of honor for his performance at Chancellorsville, was shocked by the quality of men he received after the first draft in 1863. "Nearly all that have been sent here are substitutes and are miserable surly rough fellows and are without patriotism or honor," he wrote in August 1863. "They seem to have no interest in the cause and you would be surprised to notice the difference between them and the old veterans who have endured the hardships and borne the brunt of the battles for the last two years."(10)
Perhaps these comments should be discounted because of class or ethnic bias. The fighting reputation of the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac and the Louisiana Tigers in the Army of Northern Virginiaboth composed mainly of working-class Irish-Americansshould give one pause. At the same time, however, it is true that a disproportionate number of conscripts, substitutes, and (in the Union army) bounty men came from the ranks of small farmers and unskilled laborers. So did a disproportionate number of deserters in both armies. And studies of American soldiers in World War II and Korea found combat performance to correlate positively with social class and education.(11) So perhaps the similar observations of Civil War soldiers should not be entirely discounted.
The grumbling and grousing of many soldiers should not be confused with skulking. Soldiers' letters and diaries are filled with complaints about the hardships and suffering of life in the army. A sergeant in the 89th New York sarcastically described to his wife the glory of soldiering: "Laying around in the dirt and mud, living on hardtack, facing death in bullets and shells, eat up by wood-ticks and body-lice, cant hear from my Love and loved ones once a month, cant go where or do as I am a mind ter." Yet most of these complainers were determined and effective soldiers; many reenlisted when their terms expired. Griping has been the privilege of American soldiers in all wars; the biggest war of all was no exception. An Illinois soldier who complained of acute homesickness and almost died of diarrhea wrote to his fiancee that "a soldiers life is a dogs life at best.... I have a decided preference for the quiet pursuits of a citizens life to that of the excitement hardship and danger of a soldiers life." Yet he reenlisted in 1864, married his fiancee during his reenlistment furlough, lost an arm at the battle of Jonesboro, and returned to his regiment as a lieutenant after recovery to finish out the war. A corporal in the 4th Louisiana wrote in his diary in 1863 that he was "weary, so weary with this soldier's life" and "heartily sick and tired of the war, but I suppose that I must make up my mind to go through with it all"which he did, to the bitter end.(12) After a forced march of fifty miles in two and one-half days, a soldier in the 72nd Pennsylvania wrote to his father: "O what deep heartfelt curses did I repeatedly hear heaped upon the generals, the war, the country, the rebels, and everything else." Yet this was one of the regiments that broke the back of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg and broke through the Confederate mule-shoe salient at Spotsylvania. A Massachusetts officer warned the folks at home not to take such grousing at face value, "for these same soldiers will fight like bull dogs when it comes to the scratch, and it is a soldiers privilege to grumble."(13)
Why did so many of them fight like bulldogs? That is the question this book seeks to answer. It does so by going to the writings of the men who did the fighting. A great abundance of such sources exists. One could start with the hundreds of memoirs by soldiers who survived the war, including such classics as "Co. Aytch" by Confederate infantryman Sam Watkins and Hard Tack and Coffee by Union artilleryman John Billings. Most of these accounts were written in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by old soldiers looking back on the most intense experience of their lives. The memoirs shaded into another genre, regimental histories, most of which also appeared during those same decades and were usually written by a veteran of the regiment who drew freely on the reminiscences and letters of his comrades. Another category of first-hand accounts consists of letters that many soldiers wrote for publication in their hometown newspapers during the war. Some of these have been reprinted in modern editions; two fine examples are Hard Marching Every Day by Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont and On the Altar of Freedom by James Gooding, a black soldier in the 54th Massachusetts. Still another genre is the wartime diaries or journals that soldiers rewrote and "improved" for publication after the war; two well-known examples are William Heartsill's Fourteen Hundred and 91 Days in the Confederate Army and John Haley's The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer.
Such sources offer valuable insights into the minds and experiences of Civil War soldiers. Numerous scholars have drawn on them for penetrating accounts of the war from the perspective of the ranks. But these memoirs, regimental histories, newspaper letters, and rewritten diaries are not the sources for this book. They suffer from a critical defect: they were written for publication. Their authors consciously or subconsciously constructed their narratives with a public audience in mind. Accounts written after the war present an additional problem of potential distortion by faulty memory or hindsight. In all such writings the temptation is powerful to put the best face on one's motives and behavior, to highlight noble and courageous actions and to gloss over the ignoble and cowardly. That does not make these sources worthless; if they were all we had we could subject them to critical standards to filter out some of the distortion and construct a partly credible interpretation of soldiers' motivations.
But these sources are not all we have. Indeed, we have a great wealth of evidence that enables us to get closer to what Civil War soldiers really thought and experienced than for almost any other war. This evidence consists of the personal letters written by soldiers during the war to family members, sweethearts, and friends, and the unrevised diaries that some of them kept during their service. Literally thousands of collections of soldiers' letters or diaries are accessible in state and local historical societies, in university and research libraries, and in the possession of descendants who are willing to make them available. Hundreds of letter collections or diaries have been published in books or state historical journals edited according to (more or less) critical standards.
These are rich and in some ways almost unique sources. Civil War armies were the most literate in history to that time. More than 90 percent of white Union soldiers and more than 80 percent of Confederate soldiers were literate, and most of them wrote frequent letters to families and friends. Many of them were away from home for the first time; their letters were the only way to describe thoughts, feelings, and experiences to loved ones. Of course, letters to a wife or parent or sibling were written for an "audience." Even a diary was often intended to be read by others. Although the soldier may therefore have been tempted to put the best face on his own motives and actions or to avoid mentioning unpleasant and awkward facts, these letters and diaries were nevertheless more candid and far closer to the immediacy of experience than anything the soldiers wrote for publication then or later. Having read at least 25,000 personal letters from soldiers and 249 diaries, I am convinced that these documents bring us closer to the real thoughts and emotions of those men than any other kind of surviving evidence.
I stated that these letters and diaries were almost unique. Not only are there vastly more of them than for any previous war, but in contrast with twentieth-century wars, Civil War armies did not subject soldiers' letters to censorship or discourage the keeping of diaries. Soldiers' letters were therefore uniquely blunt and detailed about important matters that probably would not pass a censor: morale, relations between officers and men, details of marches and battles, politics and ideology and war aims, and other matters. This candor enables the historian to peer farther into the minds and souls of Civil War soldiers than of those in any other war.
One caveat is in order, however. As in other wars, Civil War soldiers found it difficult if not impossible to depict their combat experience to those who had not shared it. "I can't describe a battle to you," wrote a young officer in the 35th North Carolina to his mother after Antietam. "No one can imagine anything like it unless he has been in one."(14) Union soldiers echoed this sentiment: "A battle is a horrid thing. You can have no conception of its horrors." "Those who have not had the experience of battle cannot imagin what a sensation it does produce." "Of course I saw a great many hard sights the day of the fight but I will not tell them ever."(15)
But despite the difficulty of describing "my feelings while in battle," as a Massachusetts private put it after his first battle, some soldiers tried anyway.(16) And even more of them discussed a range of attitudes and emotions to explain what motivated them to enlist, to stay in the army, and to fight. These are the themes explored in the chapters that follow. I have borrowed part of my conceptual framework from John A. Lynn, an historian of the armies of the French Revolution. Lynn posited three categories: initial motivation; sustaining motivation; and combat motivation. The first consists of the reasons why men enlisted; the second concerns the factors that kept them in the army and kept the army in existence over time; and the third focuses on what nerved them to face extreme danger in battle.(17)
These categories are separate but interrelated. There may be a wide gulf between motives for enlistment in the first place and feelings when the bullets start flying, but an army could not fight if it did not exist, and it could not exist if it had not come into being in the first place. This book will argue for a closer relationship among these three categories for Civil War soldiers than some scholarship on combat motivation posits for that and other wars. The exhaustive studies by social scientists of American soldiers in World War II, for example, found little relationship between the rather vague patriotism of many men when they enlisted (or were drafted) and the "primary group cohesion" that was their main sustenance in battle. (See Chapter 7.) Yet for Civil War soldiers the group cohesion and peer pressure that were powerful factors in combat motivation were not unrelated to the complex mixture of patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood, and community or peer pressure that prompted them to enlist in the first place. And while the coercive structures of army and state were key factors in sustaining the existence of the Union and Confederate armies by 1864, these factors could not have operated without the consensual support of the soldiers themselves and the communities from which they came.
"I am sick of war," wrote a Confederate officer to his wife in 1863, and of "the separation from the dearest objects of life"his family. But "were the contest again just commenced I would willingly undergo it again for the sake of ... our country's independence and [our children's] liberty." At about the same time a Pennsylvania officer wrote to his wife that he had to fight it out to the end because, "sick as I am of this war and bloodshed [and] as much oh how much I want to be home with my dear wife and children ... every day I have a more religious feeling, that this war is a crusade for the good of mankind.... I [cannot] bear to think of what my children would be if we were to permit this hell-begotten conspiracy to destroy this country."(18) These convictions had caused the two men, and thousands of others, to volunteer and fight against each other in 1861. They remained more powerful than coercion and discipline as the glue that held the armies together in 1864.
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