In the 1970s, United States Army General John A. Wickham, commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division, visited the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. There he gazed at Bloody Lane, where Union soldiers had attacked repeatedly before finally breaking through after suffering casualties greater than 50 percent in some regiments. “You couldn’t get American soldiers today to make an attack like that,” he said.
Why not? Because neither the soldiers nor the American public would tolerate such losses. But that is probably the wrong question. The right question is: Why did Civil War soldiers do what they did? The number of casualties was far from unusual in Civil War battles. The First Texas Infantry lost 80 percent of its men killed, wounded, or missing at Antietam. Both the First Minnesota and Twenty-Sixth North Carolina similarly experienced 80 percent casualties at Gettysburg. Other units approached these figures in several battles. What motivated these men? How could they endure such losses and keep fighting?
I tried to answer these questions in my book For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Drawing on soldiers’ letters and diaries, I found their motives involved fervent patriotism, ideological convictions about the righteousness of their cause, the cohesion of community-based regimental companies, Victorian cultural values of duty, honor, courage, and manhood, in which cowardice and letting down one’s comrades doomed one to eternal shame and dishonor, and religious beliefs that enabled many soldiers to face death with a composure that seems extraordinary today. I also discussed the importance of leadership by officers who could remain cool under fire, impose discipline without provoking corrosive resentment, command the confidence of their men, and not ask them to do anything or face any danger they were unwilling to face themselves. The best officers led from the front rather than give orders from the rear. Among the most important factors that distinguished the best Civil War regiments from the mediocre ones were the quality and exemplary courage of their officers.
After reading the two books under review, one about the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the other a biography of Charles Russell Lowell, commander of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, however, I think I may have underestimated the significance of leadership in the molding of an effective fighting unit. Most of the original officers of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry and several of those in the Second Cavalry, including Lowell, were Harvard alumni and an extraordinary number of them were killed in battle leading their men from the front. For them the ideals of duty, honor, and sacrifice were not mere words; they were deep-rooted values for which they quite literally gave their lives. Of the 578 Harvard men who fought in the Civil War, ninety-three were killed—eight of them officers in the Twentieth Massachusetts.
Scores of additional non-Harvard sons of the Brahmin elite also served in the Union army. Massachusetts regiments—especially the Second and
Twentieth Infantry and Second Cavalry—included such distinguished …