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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.1 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 who saw Lincoln and his closest associates as Jacobins secretly plotting the compulsory coupling of black males with white women.

In his most recent book, For Cause and Comrades, McPherson attempts to explain the motives of both sides in the contest, not just the partisans of the Union. Southern troopers, McPherson observes, believed their cause was the defense of liberty and that it was a cause no less just and divinely inspired than that of their adversaries. Yet, as I shall argue, McPherson’s own convictions about the moral correctness of the war sometimes make it difficult for him to understand the complexities of white Southern belief and culture. That misapprehension, it must be added, is not his alone but is widely shared among historians.

Still, it should be said that the author’s empathy for the men who fought on both sides gives us the most thorough and nuanced account yet written on this subject. Bell I. Wiley, the historian who was regarded in the 1940s and 1950s as the leading authority on the views of the common foot soldier, argued that neither the rebels nor the Yankees were “concerned with ideological issues.” After reading the letters and diaries of 1,076 soldiers, 647 Union and 429 Confederate—a remarkable accomplishment in itself—McPherson discovered a strong sense of ideology which Wiley had missed entirely. The volunteers, McPherson asserts, were not fighting blindly just to stay alive. Both sides thought they understood very well why they were at war. And both, in carrying on the war, were concerned about “duty” and “honor.” On both sides, he writes, the soldiers used these terms freely and sometimes interchangeably. An Alabama cavalryman and former planter explained to his unhappy wife why he had to leave her. “My honor, my duty, your reputation & that of my darling little boy,” he said, left him no choice “when our bleeding country needs the services of every man.” A Yankee soldier could have said the same thing.

Southerners, however, usually said that preserving honor—Southern honor, their family’s honor, and their own—was foremost among their reasons for repudiating the Union. Northerners, according to McPherson, were more likely to say that they were fighting because it was their duty to do so. For the mid-nineteenth-century Yankee, as he points out, the word had Victorian and institutional overtones—it was a man’s duty to uphold the Constitution and to suppress disorder. A Union army physician declared, “I know no reason why I should not be as subject to duty as any man, as I have had the protection of government all my life.” Love of the relatively young nation, hatred of its enemies, and the obligation to bear arms in defense of the homeland were all bound together. A bachelor farmer from Michigan solemnly advised his sister, “If the union is split up the goverment is distroid and we will be a Rewind [ruined] nation.”

McPherson demonstrates, moreover, how the two principles of duty and honor came to be applied in different ways during the war. Of course, so great a clash of arms was bound to change attitudes. Following the categories of the military historian John A. Lynn, he distinguishes between “initial motivation” at the time of enlistment, “sustaining motivation” that kept the troops serving in the ranks, and “combat motivation” that “nerved” them for the fight.

As the war went on, according to McPherson, Northern opinions of the war evolved more than those of the Southerners, and he demonstrates diverse ways in which federal attitudes were reshaped. Increasing contact with fleeing slaves and the system of slavery itself gave the idea of abolition an increasingly strong motivating force in the Union army. At first, most Yankee soldiers said they sought to preserve the fractured Union. But early in 1862, Northern Democrats, whose party saw support of racism as a matter of high principle, were already grumbling that the struggle was fast becoming “an abolition war.” Some of them in the ranks delighted in using, as one soldier put it, “insulting langige in regard to the same.” From the outset, however, a good many Republicans and Democrats were much more zealous to crush slavery. With the publication of the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, they were further encouraged.

Thank God,” wrote a pious upstate New Yorker, “the contest is now between Slavery & freedom, & every honest man knows what he is fighting for.” Even those who had once despised abolitionism began to change their opinions, if only for practical reasons. Almost from the start, “contrabands,” as the fugitive slaves were called, spared Union troopers from washing clothes, chopping wood, watering overheated cannon, and other drudgery. As the war lengthened, the soldiers grew accustomed to the presence and the usefulness of the freed people in their midst. Therefore, when the Lincoln government in 1863 authorized black recruitment, most white troops were reconciled to having 186,000 black soldiers who might help to shorten the war—and, perhaps, prolong their own lives.

By that time, McPherson points out, even Democrats in the federal trenches had become disenchanted with the South’s cherished institution. They were marching through a region they had once admired from a distance. Instead of a slaveholding paradise, they had found white illiteracy, backwardness, and hostility. “There is scarcely a man in this county [Prince William] who can read and write,” a Democratic brigade commander in Virginia wrote his wife in 1863, “another of the results of the peculiar and beautiful system.” Duty had now become linked with the antislavery cause, McPherson contends, and thus strengthened the Union’s resolve.

The author’s commentary on duty as Yankees defined it seems to me plausible, but his explanation of the Southern use of the term needs amplification. When McPherson discusses duty and honor, he neglects regional variations not only in usage but in culture. He takes Northern understandings of duty and honor to be the norms—perhaps understandably so since we are all heirs of Northern victory and the resulting advancement of democracy and racial equity (however flawed it still may be). But this does not enlighten us about the Southern point of view and how different it was from our familiar moral understandings.

McPherson does not explain in any depth why Northerners preferred to talk of duty, as he says they did, while Southerners favored the concept of honor. For the most part, the reader must infer for himself that for Northern soldiers duty at first implied patriotism, loyalty to the Constitution, and defense of law and order and the Union, and later, as McPherson demonstrates clearly, the advancement of human freedom. Southerners evidently could not endorse such principles. For white Southerners in revolt, duty instead meant willingness to sacrifice their lives to protect family, community, race, and region against outside forces of evil and ruin. The Southern soldiers were well aware that from a Northern point of view they were seen as traitors sowing disorder. In fact, by way of response, they often referred to the glory of their own Revolutionary forefathers and their own resistance to the new threat of tyranny. Their position lacked the consistency, simplicity, and grasp of the Constitution that characterized the core of the Union supporters—at least as we see it now. For the Southerners, victory alone would show that they were justified in their rebellion.

Whatever remained obscure or crudely stated about the Southern appeal to duty, few whites in the South could acquiesce in the rule of Lincoln and the “Black Republicans,” as they were called. Above all, white Southern males could never imagine that duty required them to kill blood relatives on the Confederate side. For them the word “duty” meant above all obligations to family and kinfolk. In a letter to a cousin, Robert E. Lee, for instance, explained why he had to resign his commission in the US Army: “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”2 In other words, Lee appealed to a higher law—a view of duty that placed fidelity to family, friends, tribe, and race above any accountability to national institutions.

  1. 1

    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Causes of the American Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism,” Partisan Review 16 (1949), pp. 968-981.

  2. 2

    Robert E. Lee to Anne Marshall, April 20, 1861, in Captain Robert E. Lee, Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (Doubleday, 1924), p. 26.

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