America’s Holy War

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 237 pp., $25.00

James M. McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades aims to resolve an enduring mystery about the Civil War. Why did the early volunteers, Northern and Southern, pick up arms in the spring of 1861 as eagerly as they did? In response to the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln requisitioned troops from each of the still-loyal states to suppress the rebellion. The federal government asked for thirteen regiments from Ohio, but the governor wired back that he could scarcely call for less than twenty “without seriously repressing the ardor of the people.” On the Confederate side, a London Times reporter observed in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a crowd “with flushed faces, wild eyes, screaming mouths, hurrahing for ‘Jeff Davis’ and ‘the Southern Confederacy,’ so that the yells overpowered the discordant bands which were busy with ‘Dixie’s Land.”’ Like most other Rebel volunteers, a raw recruit in Nashville predicted a short war because “the scum of the North cannot face the chivalric spirit of the South.”

Even as casualties mounted during the war, McPherson writes, the soldiers in the two armies were determined on victory. Although only the diehards still followed Lee to Appomattox, his point is well taken. Had it been otherwise the war would have certainly ended sooner—possibly before the slaves were freed. Today we may be baffled that men in the prime of life should have been so keen to fight and that they continued the war so intensely until just before the surrender of 1865. It would be hard to imagine soldiers fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam with the same steadiness of conviction.

McPherson is particularly well qualified to take on the question of the motivations of the Civil War soldiers. Having written for some thirty years about this period of American history, he knows his subject better than almost any other scholar. Moreover, he approaches it with strong moral concerns. In the 1930s and 1940s, experts on the Civil War—chiefly Southern in outlook and background—had dismissed it as an unnecessary war contrived by Northern politicians for their own political advantage. Slavery, they argued, would eventually have expired of its own economic weight. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., challenged that view. The Union dead, he wrote, had no more died in vain than those who had recently fallen battling Axis tyranny. Stimulated by such sentiments and inspired by the rise of the civil rights movement, McPherson, along with others of his generation, has rewritten the story of the war from the perspective of racial justice and individual freedom, goals no longer in dispute. His most important work, Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989, reflects in its title McPherson’s belief that the outcome of the war justified its sacrifices. His first published study, The Struggle for Equality (1964), favorably assessed the effects of the abolitionists on the racial policies of the Union leaders and exposed the distortions of scholars of the Jim Crow era …

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