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.
That concept of duty, as Southerners defined it, was thus practically interchangeable with their belief in honor. Because honor was so central to their perception of moral behavior, it is no wonder that, in justifying themselves, Lee and most others of his persuasion preferred honor over any other concept. Honor had a more elemental and virile ring. When Southerners talked of duty they chiefly referred to its most localized or domestic meanings, as did Lee in his letter to his cousin. Not only does For Cause and Comrades omit discussion of these cultural and linguistic differences; in doing so, it also excessively emphasizes how similar, not how far apart, the two sides were in their reactions to the wartime crisis.
McPherson’s own description of the sense of honor deserves close attention. He reminds us that manliness in war was invariably linked to honor by soldiers on both sides, though in different ways. Northern recruits tended to assume, without talking about it much, that they were expected to behave bravely; and they worried how they might react in battle. In the South, a more outspoken response was likely—the war gave the young Confederates a chance for glory, that is, the admiration of others. On the other hand, young men who did not enlist speedily enough might find a petticoat draped over a chair in their quarters. Fear of being ridiculed as effeminate may explain why early in the war, McPherson found, Southern soldiers tended to proclaim their combative virtues. No Rebel exists, a Virginia lieutenant bragged, “who does not in his heart believe that he can whip three Yankees” and who does not think “it beneath his manhood to count on whipping a less number.” Southerners were much quicker than Yankees to express romantic ideas of “chivalry,” and in a very literal way. “I am blessing old Sir Walter Scott daily,” a South Carolinian officer wrote early in the war, “for teaching me, when young, how to rate knightly honour, & our noble ancestry for giving me such a State to fight for.” It is unlikely, McPherson observes, that one could find the same Cavalier sensibility among the Northern “Roundheads.”
For Cause and Comrades persuasively illustrates how concerns about honor fostered the bonding of comrades, especially in the heat of com-bat itself. Under grim battle conditions men who depended on one another to keep up their courage might become almost tender in their affections without loss of manliness. They could even risk an appearance of womanish sentimentality. The historian Gerald F. Linderman tells us that an admirer of the bravery of the Northern General Joshua Chamberlain and his care for his troops exclaimed, “General, you have the soul of a lion and the heart of a woman.”3 In another Civil War study, Reid Mitchell points out that Union soldiers joined up with their friends, cousins, and brothers, with whom they continued to serve throughout the war; news of a soldier’s bravery or cowardice would soon reach home,4 and, as a result, soldiers had additional reason to keep fighting and not disgrace themselves. Honor or, perhaps even more, dread of dishonor, as McPherson shows, was a major factor in keeping soldiers at the front. That a soldier faced ridicule and reprisal if he let down his unit or his tentmates was a powerful incentive against straggling or desertion. To be called a coward had a dreadful sting. One candid veteran of the 122nd New York explained to his sister how he managed in 1864 to bear the savagery of the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. “I myself am as big a coward as eny could be,” but let me die, he said, “before the coward when all my friends and companions are going forward.”
Officers felt particularly obliged to live by the bond of comradeship; and from McPherson’s evidence one suspects that, for the officers in many Northern units, honor merged into duty less because of fears of blasted reputation than worry of losing self-respect. In February 1865, after he had been wounded but could still carry on, General Chamberlain explained to solicitous female relatives that he could never turn his back on the battlefield “when other men are marching to the front.” “Honor and manliness,” he reasoned, required his services.
McPherson points out that in the vocabulary of the day there were few gradations of behavior between “courage” and “cowardice.” A veteran’s sense of honor and shame depended on whether he believed he had shown courage under fire. McPherson draws on modern medical and psychiatric studies to suggest the complex range of mental conditions that soldiers actually experience during battle. Two extremes of behavior are particularly significant. In the chaos of the battlefield, soldiers sometimes discovered what is called “battle rage,” a savage spirit that carried them forward, oblivious to the heat or cold, the earth-shaking thuds of shells, the stricken bodies of the dying men around them. After the fighting stopped, guns were often found with five or six balls jammed down the barrel; the overexcited soldiers did not realize that they had rendered their own weapons useless. The rush of adrenalin to the brain, McPherson notes, had a narcotic effect. It could almost make the sick rise, the lame walk, and the blind see. Marveling at the “prodigies” of valor of his men, an Ohio officer wrote his wife that he saw one man “knocked down by rebels,” but soon he revived, “jumped up, killed and wounded three & knocked a fourth down with his fist.” And, if discipline and order failed, the same superhuman energy could be used to light out for safety.
While Homeric wrath was seen as the height of honor in battle, McPherson recounts, fighters were also acquainted with its very opposite, dishonor. Soldiers wrote of seeing their campmates in the states of lassitude, catatonic gloom, and paralyzed terror that we now identify as symptoms of the post-traumatic stress syndrome. Prolonged exposure to danger, minimal shelter and clothing, poor diet, unclean drinking water, and other miseries, McPherson writes, might lead to a draining of norepinephrine and adrenalin and to chemical imbalances in the brain. The behavior that resulted could easily be taken for chicken-heartedness. Many soldiers also suffered nightmares in which whistling balls, booming cannon, and the agony of dying friends recalled the anarchy of battle, causing them to be all the more demoralized. For most infantrymen, though, sleep, hot meals, and a return to camp routines restored their spirits and the risks of appearing cowardly subsided.
McPherson’s discussion of honor, and fear of dishonor, in the light of modern medical research is illuminating and elegant. As with his discussion of duty, though, he does not take account of the wide divergence between the meanings of the word in Northern and Southern cultures. Instead of exploring the contrasts he more or less adopts the conventional view of honor as Northerners understood it. For Southerners, however, honor involved more than its ordinary principles—valor, courtesy, duty, loyalty, virtue. It was, in fact, the very foundation of the slaveholding ethic. Like the concept of chastity, honor has practically dropped out of our discourse as a worthy ideal, and its complexities are little understood. As the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers has written, it should be seen not only as a personal “sentiment,” a matter of self-esteem, but as “a manifestation of this sentiment in conduct, and the evaluation of this conduct by others, that is to say, reputation.”5 Honor may be felt within, but it must be demonstrated outwardly because the response of others to one’s claim to its dignity becomes a ratification of one’s own identity.
The hierarchical slave South had a much more intense, primitive sense of the ethic of honor than McPherson recognizes. In Southern communities, the order of biological hierarchy was rigidly defined: male over female, age over youth, “good blood” over nondescript, and of course, white skin over black. Slave societies, as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has written, were almost bound to require honor as the ethical basis of the regime. The deference and servility of a slave provided outer and visible expression of the inner worthiness claimed by both masters and mistresses—their sense of who they were. In addition, to possess wealth, political and social power, or a sense of presence or charismatic appeal—or even such a locally valued skill as horsemanship—enhanced one’s honor, to which others, lacking such endowments, might be denied a claim. And the more honor one felt entitled to, the more independence or liberty one also possessed. In fact, just as they interpreted honor in separate ways, so, too, Northerners and Southerners had different meanings for independence and liberty, again an issue that For Cause and Comrades does not treat with sufficient depth.
For the Confederates, the revolutionary heritage of freedom meant the right of community self-governance, the right to preserve family and racial loyalties, and “laisser asservir“—the white man’s right to hold human property and dispose of it as he saw fit, to borrow a term from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.6 Liberty for the white male required all but absolute power over the dark-skinned races. Otherwise it was not to be considered fully achieved. As McPherson points out in another of his recent books, Abraham Lincoln had observed, “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing.” For some it signifies a man’s right to do as he sees fit with himself or his labor, the President continued, but others “mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” 7
Just as honor was posed against shame, so, for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Southerners, liberty’s opposite was slavery. They constantly invoked their claims to liberty in defending their system of labor. This definition of freedom was of course very different from that of most Northerners and entirely at odds with our own. Just as duty seemed to merge into honor in the South, so too did the sentiment of liberty strengthen the concept of honor. Among historians McPherson is not alone in failing to see how such linguistic differences seriously affect our understanding of regional cultures, particularly with regard to slavery. Racial bondage did not entail hypocrisy according to the proclaimed values of white Southerners. Instead, it was the very underpinning of their concept of liberty.
To understand why that was so we must consider the prominent role of violence and its relation to liberty, honor, and shame in Southern discourse. A challenge that questioned one’s manhood, moral authority, or lineage required apology or a physical response, perhaps even a duel to the death. Failure to react aggressively implied submission, dependence, powerlessness, degradation, and even, metaphorically, enslavement, the ultimate loss of manly liberty. According to a recent study by two social scientists, even today the dishonor of a personal insult “is a much more serious matter to the southerner than to the northerner…because an insult makes the affronted southerner feel diminished.” One result is that there is a much higher ratio of physical violence and even homicide in the South than elsewhere in the nation. White male Southerners, they find, are nearly twice as likely to kill during an argument than white male non-Southerners are.8
In his recently published Warrior Generals, Thomas H. Buell brings this persistent regional psychology to bear on his discussion of the Southern martial spirit. It is a psychology to which McPherson alludes but which he seldom scrutinizes. Buell writes that when General Francis Barlow, a New England Puritan of the old school, gazed at a line of Rebel prisoners seized after Cold Harbor he expressed his admiration for their
constancy, endurance, and discipline…. Their long grey lines…, their lank, emaciated forms and pale, cadaverous faces made them seem like an army of phantoms awaiting you. They were terrible…and fearful from their fierce hate.9
The bitterness, despair, and hatred that Barlow detected in their dour faces held them in ferocious bondage against the stigma of defeat.
Bearing in mind the Southern capacity for bloody vengeance, we should look more deeply than McPherson does into the sources of honor—and of shame as well. Once we realize that honor and its counterpart, fear of humiliation, were among the feelings that drove Southerners into the war, and continued to sustain them, the soldiers’ persistence makes more sense. The Southern pre-war sensibility was tellingly expressed in 1846 by Robert Toombs, later a Confederate cabinet officer, when he announced in Congress that his fellow whites “would be degraded, and unworthy of the name of American freemen, could they consent to remain, for a day or an hour, in a Union where they must stand on ground of inferiority.”10
Among the chief reasons for the secession of the slave states was the determination to free the region from the imputations of political, economic, and, most especially, moral weakness. Equally obnoxious for Southerners was the Yankee assertion of superiority in all these respects. They thought their sectional honor had been grossly violated. Thus, in the white secessionist mind, the conflict resembled a duel, perhaps in its most archaic, Nordic form: it was to be an ordeal by combat under the destiny of God. Slavery, of course, was at the heart of the contest. In the slaveholding South, control of the black race, it must be stressed, was an integral part of the white male’s sense of himself. Honor required a bellicose defense of his inner sense of superiority. If the Southerner were to give up his sense of superiority, he would, in his own eyes, appear to be as powerless and downtrodden as the lowliest slave. Therefore vindication by separation and war alone could satiate the fury of the slaveholder at having his deepest feelings challenged.
With few exceptions the average white male Southerner could not imagine life without bondspeople fully under control—to give labor and deference to their owners and the prestige of the white skin to those without human property. Although McPherson does not take much account of the power of regional psychology, he notes how Southerners often stressed the horror of white degradation if the Black Republicans had their way. “Better far better! Endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham the fair daughters of the South to alter,” wrote one of the soldiers at the front. In his own mind, the officer was not exaggerating; the fear of white sexual vulnerability was felt throughout the South. McPherson does not explain why white Southerners felt so strongly about racial “mongrelization” as it was then called. But the public stain of black blood would have meant family ruin and disgrace, as well as blasted personal and group identity.
It is true that much of the language used by Southerners in their letters and other writings may seem at odds with so harsh an interpretation of Southern psychology as the one I present here. The visceral character of Southern motivation can be hard to detect in the affectionate letters that soldiers wrote to their families; but sometimes we glimpse the darker thoughts and grimmer actions that lay beneath the inhibitions of written discourse. McPherson records, for instance, that one of Longstreet’s officers, riding over the twisted and shattered Union corpses after Fredericksburg, reported how much he “enjoyed the sight of hundreds of dead Yankees.” Such gloating was by no means rare. The shaming of the Yankee enemy in any way possible could give great delight. Union cadavers were sometimes mutilated to send trophies home to the womenfolk. Captured Union soldiers were treated horribly in some Southern prisons.
Confederates, moreover, were particularly ruthless toward Union black troopers; their honor, they felt, was impugned by their very use in warfare against whites. In 1862 President Jefferson Davis had four captured black Union soldiers executed. General P.T.G. Beauregard was so incensed by Lincoln’s official Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, that he urged the garroting of all Union prisoners, white or black, as abolitionist incendiaries. As McPherson recounts, when the federal government refused to exchange prisoners until the Rebels returned captured black soldiers alive, a Rebel officer rejoiced. The army in Virginia, he wrote, “will not take negro prisoners.” The policy was wholly justified because “if we lose everything else” it would enable the Confederates to “preserve our honor.” In April 1864 at Fort Pillow a lieutenant tried to halt an indiscriminate slaughter of black prisoners, but General Nathan Bedford Forrest arrived and at once had the unarmed men “shot down like dogs and the carnage continued.” (During Reconstruction Forrest was to found the Order of the Ku Klux Klan.) Confederates at Fort Pillow or even in the Richmond White House would have endorsed the motto of the Nazi Party—Blut und Ehre—blood and honor. Of course, Northern troops committed atroci-ties, too. On the whole, however, they did not consider the shooting of unarmed prisoners justifiable as a means to uphold the code of honor.
James McPherson may not have grasped some aspects of the Southern mind in his new book, but he has achieved much. In a prose that is both sensitive and remarkably lucid, he helps us to reenter an American society in which ideals were not merely pat phrases but principles that inspired conduct—however hateful some of those principles were. Like the author, we can see that an enormous moral step forward occurred when both the South’s racial dominion and the ethical system that supported it were challenged and at least partly defeated. Without the dedication of Lincoln’s armed forces, we would have inherited a morally impoverished world. Much of McPherson’s work has celebrated that conclusion. In this work, he has given additional nobility to America’s greatest trauma and grandest moral victory.
November 6, 1997
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Causes of the American Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism,” Partisan Review 16 (1949), pp. 968-981. ↩
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. ↩
Quoted in Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (Free Press, 1987), p. 27. ↩
Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (Oxford University Press, 1993). ↩
Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honor,” in David L. Sills, editor, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Scribner, 1968), vol. 6, p. 503. ↩
David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 412. ↩
James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 43-44. ↩
Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Westview Press, 1996), Fig. 2.3, p. 21 (in cities of less than 200,000), and p. 53 (quotation). ↩
Thomas B. Buell, The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (Crown, 1997), p. 335. ↩
Robert Toombs quoted in William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), p. 42. ↩