A comprehensive look at James McPherson’s classic work on the motivation of soldiers in the War Between the States.

Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson may be best known for his classic one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, but the task he sets himself in For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War is truly monumental in scope, a far greater challenge than a straight-forward history of who did what, when, where and how. If history is digging up and interpreting facts to achieve an accurate narrative of events, then those are the basic guideposts of the story. Those avoid the hardest topic of them all, however, namely motive, why history occurs, why things happened as they did; specifically, in this case, why did the Americans who fought on both sides in the Civil War risk life and limb on the battlefield?

“A good many Confederate soldiers also cited the obligations of duty. But they were more likely to speak of honor: one’s public reputation, one’s image in the eyes of his peers. To shirk duty is a violation of conscience; to suffer dishonor is to be disgraced by public shame.”

On the surface it seems to make no sense. Of course, war itself is counter-intuitive as men risk the one thing that is irreplaceable, life itself. “What enabled them to overcome that most basic of human instincts-self-preservation? This is a vital question in all wars, for without such sacrificial behavior by soldiers, armies could not fight.” So why did they do it?

Sorting, analyzing and quantifying the thought processes of men fighting a war nearly 150 years in the past could be done only if the men themselves had left a written record as a reference, and in the American Civil War they did. “Civil War armies were the most literate in history to that time.” The author uses hundreds of personal letters and diary entries in the same way that a pollster uses a comparatively small number of people as a representative sample to illustrate a greater truth. And truth they reveal, for as McPherson states: “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.” He attempts to quantify and catalog these ephemeral ideas using the men’s own words as his baseline, to discover the almost unknowable motives that would send men charging across fields where other men stood trying to kill them. He does this through the book’s organization, breaking down each potential factor using the framework of an earlier historian. “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.” A major factor in favor of his sole reliance on letters and diaries as evidence was the lack of any wartime censorship of mail during the Civil War. “Civil War armies did not subject soldiers’ letters to censorship or discourage the keeping of diaries.” What the soldier wanted to write, he wrote, and the addressee read. As the book progresses McPherson subtly sticks to his framework, evolving his selections from why soldiers signed up to fight in the first place to why they kept fighting until the bitter end. This progression also begets a feeling of fatigue and exhaustion that the reader cannot help but sympathize with.

Great pains are taken to point out where the written material agreed with the demographics of the armies and where they disagreed. To write letters and diaries you had to be literate, of course, and officers tended to be from the higher economic and social classes where education was more common, so the proportion of officers versus enlisted men are a bit skewed. Nevertheless, the reader cannot help being impressed with the downright intelligence of many of these men, their deep and complex understanding of the issues involved in the war. For example, a mill worker immigrant from Philadelphia cut to the core of the matter by writing “If the Unionists let the South secede,” he wrote, “the West might want to separate next Presidential Election…others might want to follow and this country might be as bad as the German states…There would have to be another form of a constitution wrote and after it was written who would obey it?” This is geo-political insight of the highest order, from a common factory worker. Spelling might at times be creative, McPherson chooses not to correct spelling or punctuation unless mandatory for comprehension of what is meant, but the overall level of understanding of the issues from the soldiers chosen is extremely high.

Both sides saw themselves upholding the ideals of their ancestors who fought the American Revolution. “Our Fathers ‘severed the bonds of oppression once,’ wrote a twenty-year-old South Carolina recruit, ‘now [we] for the second time throw off the yoke and be freemen still.” Union soldiers were just as determined that the Secessionists were traitors who had declared war on their own country, betraying the ideals of the Revolution. Confederates believed their cause to be righteous, their nation to be legitimate, and therefore they were repelling Northern invaders bent on occupying their homes and stealing their property, much as the Rebels did in the American Revolution. There was little middle ground.

Other motivations came into play that are, perhaps, harder for modern society to understand. How a man saw himself, what today would be called self-esteem, hinged on different factors during the Civil War, the pressures to conform to a certain way of life being chiefly external. “A good many Confederate soldiers also cited the obligations of duty. But they were more likely to speak of honor: one’s public reputation, one’s image in the eyes of his peers. To shirk duty is a violation of conscience; to suffer dishonor is to be disgraced by public shame.”

The author acknowledges the near-impossibility of describing combat to one who has never ‘seen the Elephant,’ and yet is compelled to let the soldiers themselves give it a try. A Virginia private wrote “I have seen enough of the glory of war…I am sick of seeing dead men and men’s limbs torn from their bodies.” Union soldiers generally agreed. And yet “morale was generally higher in the front-line troops than those stationed in the rear.” How so? McPherson goes into some detail about such esoteric subjects as ‘small unit cohesion,’ why military units fight and bond in small groups, a topic familiar to any student of military history. In the Civil War this topic becomes doubly important because Civil War armies sustained enormous casualties and yet kept fighting. For the most part the veterans didn’t want to, once in battle they were not anxious to fight again. As a Sergeant from Minnesota puts it: “I don’t know any individual soldier who is at all anxious to be led, or driven, for that matter to another battle.” A reverse of that coin, however, was men’s behavior once battle commenced, when some went temporarily insane as their bodies pumped out high levels of adrenaline. “Another term for this super-adrenalized fury is ‘combat narcosis,’ because its effect ‘acts almost like a hallucinogenic drug.’” Once combat ended the men collapsed in exhaustion.

In some ways the armies that fought the Civil War were unique in their motivation. “The traditional means to motivating soldiers to fight are training, discipline and leadership. Civil War Volunteer regiments were notoriously deficient in the first, weak in the second and initially shaky in the third.” This was largely because the societies they represented were unique, for both Confederate and Union soldiers were the product of the same republic, one known as the freest government ever created. “American white males were the most individualistic, democratic people on the face of the Earth in 1861. They did not take kindly to authority, discipline, obedience.” Was it any wonder that such men were not naturally drawn to a rigidly authoritarian organization such as an army? And yet they flocked to the standard on both sides, the very conundrum the book addresses.

The old saw is that there are no atheists in foxholes. The Civil War was no different. Religion gave comfort to men of both sides, but combat can mold beliefs, random death under fire makes pre-destination seem quite plausible. “A battlefield offers the extreme challenge to the belief that man can control his fate. Like rain, shells and bullets fall on the just and unjust alike. Soldiers quickly become fatalists.” McPherson goes into great depth about men’s coping mechanisms in the crucible of war, fatalism being one of them. You do your job and if you die, then it’s God’s Will and you are meant to die.  “I feal confident that I have found grace in the sight of god   why then should we be afraid to die.” You might as well fight because if it’s your day to die, there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.

Soldiers also drew comfort from their friends. More importantly, they drew courage from their friends. That is, they were more afraid to appear cowardly before their fellow soldiers than they were to die. “Many soldiers lacked confidence in their courage. But most of them wanted to avoid the shame of being known as a coward-and that is what gave them courage.” The gist of McPherson’s exploration of group dynamics on courage features numerous quotes from soldier’s of both sides and all years of the war, a powerful illustration of just how important appearing brave was in the sight of a man’s fellow soldiers. And it should be noted here that the author alludes to famed historian’s of other wars throughout the book, notably World War Two historians S.L.A. Marshall and Omar Bartov, when their findings on that war are salient to his theme. And this leads to the one quibble this reviewer has with For Cause & Comrades.

Marshall’s famous work on combat, Men Against Fire, includes the assertion that because American culture condemned killing, “fewer than one-fourth of American infantrymen in World War Two fired their rifles in any given action.” McPherson then gives the flip side of Marshall’s declaration, that “even his (Marshall’s) defenders concede that he exaggerated the problem and plucked the figure of one-fourth out of thin air.” He impeaches his own witness, leaving the reader to wonder why he included the discussion in the first place. A few pages later he quotes Marshall again, referencing Americans of World War Two, to support his own argument: “Personal honor is the one thing valued more than life itself by the majority of men.” So what are we, the audience, to make of this? Is Marshall again throwing out unsupported theories as facts? Why use evidence that you have already impeached? It’s more than a bit confusing. But it’s also minor in the overall work.

The impression given by the middle part of the book, investigating the sustaining motivation, if you will, is that morale waxed and waned as casualties mounted, replacements were integrated and the overall war effort resulted in fluctuating success or failure for a given side. Numerous examples of this are given, but one paragraph stands out as clear and definitive. “As the war went on casualties rent the cohesion of some veteran regiments almost to the vanishing point. Cohesion is a renewable resource, with new men bonding to old and veterans bonding more closely. In time, however, attrition became a deadly foe to cohesion-and therefore to the qualitative as well as quantitative combat effectiveness of a unit.” Combat units were dynamic organizations. Cohesion and combat effectiveness increased as the unit gained experience, the men learned who they could trust when the firing started, and decreased as experienced men were lost and new men brought into the ranks.

Some historians argue that a man’s willingness to fight at all is only as strong as their belief in what they were fighting for. McPherson counters that with quotes supporting the belief that “…the primacy of group cohesion and the relative unimportance of ideology remain the orthodox interpretation.” And yet as a 21st Century audience studies the motives of Civil War soldiers, as it tries to understand why men charged over open fields at cannon loaded with grape shot and canister, McPherson cautions us not to ignore the ideology that underpinned their initial motivation, and played a part in sustaining those motives. “Our cynicism about the genuineness of such sentiments is more our problem than theirs, a temporal/cultural barrier we must transcend if we are to understand why they fought.”

So just how much did ideology motivate Civil War soldiers, and what was that ideology? For Union soldiers the issue was clear. “Southern states had seceded in response to Lincoln’s election by a constitutional majority in a fair vote held under rules accepted by all parties. To allow them to get away with it, said Lincoln, would be to fly to ‘anarchy or to despotism.’” The issue of Slavery underscored almost every motive on both sides, as Southerners saw slaves as property to be stolen and Northerners saw them as Men to be liberated. It was the defining issue of the day and, as might be expected, slavery is a running theme throughout this book.. Quotes from both sides are used extensively, but perhaps the most surprising revelation about slavery is “in fact, only 20 percent of the sample of 429 Southern soldiers explicitly voiced proslavery convictions in their letters or diaries.” Given that the Southern economy lived or died with slave labor, this stands out as an astounding statistic.

As the book begins to wind down the author tries to illustrate how difficult it was for combat soldiers to make their loves ones understand their experiences. “The impossibility of describing what war is really like to the folks back home creates a vast gulf between those who have been in combat and those who have not.” Only other soldiers could really understand, even enemy soldiers. “A strange sense of fraternity toward enemy soldiers develops, for they too have seen the elephant and are therefore more worthy of respect-even comradeship-than the shirkers, slackers, war profiteers, and soft-living civilians back home.” And yet, whatever kinship might have been felt with the enemy, the violence of the war grew worse as the years went by, overriding any ‘comradeship.’ “As the Civil War escalated in scope and intensity, the fury of hatred and revenge against the death and destruction crowded out Christian charity.” The author neatly brings evidence to the discussion that makes clear just how much the two armies hated each other, how likely a surrendering man was to be shot out of hand. “If soldiers’ letters and diaries are any indication, bitterness and hatred were more prevalent than kindness and sociability.” Those men began the war as one thing but ended the war as something quite different. “They were instruments of the societies that called them into being, but they also became entities that took on a life of their own.” Their combat motive had changed from the earlier, more complex motives, to something very basic and primal.

In the book’s final chapter McPherson takes on the matter of combat fatigue, as common in the Civil War as in World War Two, Vietnam or any other protracted conflict, even if it were not recognized as such. No matter how much a man might want to keep fighting, at some point a breaking point would be reached and nothing could be done about it. The author quotes Winston Churchill’s personal physician to make his point. “‘Courage is willpower…the fixed resolve not to quit.’ It can be used up by being spent too freely; in combat ‘a man’s willpower was his capital and he was always spending…when their capital was done, they were finished.’” By 1865 both sides were dealing with combat fatigue on a large scale.

Before summing up it is important to reinforce the point, already made twice, that McPherson did not rely solely on Civil War sources for his conclusions, but sought out the best references regardless of what period they described. From noted expert on Americans in World War Two S.L.A. Marshall to Omar Bartov, a specialist in the German Wehrmacht of Hitler’s Third Reich, and even to Winston Churchill’s doctor, McPherson weaves his tapestry using whatever supportive evidence he finds appropriate. In his notes on sources, the author pays homage to one of the most influential works of its type. “I must single out John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (New York, 1976) which helped to inspire me to undertake this Face of Battle for the American Civil War.”

In the end, James McPherson has written a worthy companion for his magnum opus, Battle Cry of Freedom. This study adds another layer of understanding to a war that has been studied and re-studied more than any other war to date, with the possible exception of World War Two. In the hands of a good storyteller, knowing what men did, when and where they did it, and how it came about, can make for a powerful, moving narrative. But knowing why they did it brings the story alive, gives understanding of men’s actions and decisions. James McPherson accomplishes that singular feat here and makes it seem effortless.