If anyone watches a battlefield of the Civil War from a distance and sees hundreds of thousands of men fighting and dying from both the Union lines and the Confederate lines, they would be intrigued to know what propelled these unflinching and lionhearted men to risk their lives in the war. James M. McPherson, an American Civil War historian and an award-winning author of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and Lincoln Prize, wrote the book “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in The Civil War” out of his own curiosity to know why men fought in the civil war. With this primary question (why?) he went on to do some research and dug out letters and diaries written by the soldiers at that time to get different perceptions from different sides of the war. In this book, McPherson presents different reasons for men fighting in the Civil War and what they really thought of it. In this review, I am going to present some aspects of McPherson’s book which I found interesting and impressive, and other parts where the book faltered a bit. I am also going to present views of other reviewers and how their thought of McPherson’s book aligns with my thoughts.
For this book, McPherson did a substantial study, reading over 25000 letters and 250 diaries from 647 Unions and 429 confederates written by Civil War soldiers to get a clear idea about their purpose to fight in the Civil War. After reading and analyzing all the letters and diaries, McPherson was surprised to know that the soldiers at that time were aware of the problems associated with the war, which contradicted his prevailing knowledge at that time. He found out that people held debates and read newspapers aloud in public to spread awareness. Despite knowing the troubles people and a country have to go through in a war, why were these men still willing to fight?
Some of the reasons for men to fight in the Civil War that McPherson infers from the soldier’s letters were to display manhood and courage, fear of being branded as a coward, honor, discipline, religion, patriotism, and nationalism. The main reason he gives for people in the south to fight in the war was to justify avoiding subjugation and maintaining the freedom to enslave. The principal reason for the northern troops to fight in the war was to preserve the nation conceived in liberty from dismemberment and destruction. However, there were still soldiers who though wanted to back out of the war, couldn’t because they feared that they would be called cowards in the society and they believed that they would rather die than to face dishonor. This goes on to show the society in this period and how they thought about life and death in general.
McPherson presents some ways in which the troops went through the war and what their mindset was in the war. Some men found themselves screaming while others sang to settle their adrenaline rush. Some other men were too afraid of their leaders to be afraid, while others had emotional connections with their brothers-in-arms. This made these soldiers go through the traumatic and deadly war. He says that one of the most essential ways to prepare men for battle was through drills when he says, “the traditional means of motivating soldiers to fight are training, discipline, and leadership.”1 Nevertheless, training was minimal as the common public didn’t look favorably towards authority and they would run away because of fear. Due to this, enforcement became a common practice to force these common men into the battlefield. These men were threatened that they would receive severe punishments if they tried backing out, and therefore tried alternative methods to avoid fighting in the war.
This brings us to the point that not everyone fighting in the war actually fought in the war. McPherson writes that during the Civil War “a consensus existed that in many regiments about half the men did most of the fighting.”2 The rest of the men not fighting in the war were called “sneaks, legions, skulkers, stragglers” when he says, “The sneaks in the army are named Legion (p.7).” 3 These men would play sick or sneak out of the battlefields with their wounded colleagues. Even those who fought in the war valiantly could do so only for a short period of time because of the trauma caused to them by the war. Some soldiers also turned towards religion to deal with the fear of going into the battle. They carried pocket bibles into the war zone and placed their faith in God to keep them safe in the battle. McPherson does a commendable job by gathering various information from so many letters and putting it in his own words. He doesn’t lose the writer’s voice at any moment and explains what the writer is trying to convey proficiently.
McPherson is noteworthy in handling the counterarguments that could be raised regarding the credibility of the letters written by these soldiers. He answers these questions when he says, “But these words were written in the 1860s, not today. They were written not for public consumption but in private letters…”4 (p.100) through which he implies that these men didn’t have any reason to lie to their loved ones and that they didn’t have to be pretentious while writing them. In other words, these men didn’t have to be ostentatious because they had no idea that it would be read by people decades and centuries from now. Therefore, these men can be trusted with their words. McPherson in his book manages and handles the use of these immensely invaluable written documents exceptionally well. His overall understanding of these letters and what they meant to the people at that time is pretty accurate as he considers a lot of factors involved behind them thinking this way, which is why his reasoning is persuasive.
While McPherson has been praiseworthy in handling the counterarguments, there is a slight flaw in his approach of using his sample space. He uses various criteria like age and regional origin in an attempt to get an average soldier that could display what most of the soldiers thought at that time. Yet, he underrepresents the privates and non-slaveholding southern farmers, and foreign and black Union troops which makes his average soldier less accurate. However, he admits that his sample size underrepresents these groups of people which goes on to show is honesty and bolsters his credibility.
Some reviewers of McPherson’s book like Daniel Baracskay believe that this book contributes to “the study of the Civil War, and the disciplines of history and political science.”5 Baracskay believes that the widespread research done by McPherson for this book sets a benchmark for research in other fields too. It also goes on to show McPherson’s dedication towards his field on interest. Other reviewers like George C. Rable are full of praises too. He goes on to call the book “intricate and subtle but also elegant and easily understood”6 which very accurately describes what I feel about this book too. George Rable in his review says that McPherson puts the soldier’s voice into his book in such a seamless way, that it forms a series of persuasive argument that forces historians to rethink the nature of combat motivation in Civil War armies. It is therefore not only McPherson’s dedication towards writing this book but also his simplicity, yet graceful and sophisticated way of writing that brings out the beauty of this book.
In conclusion, this is an engrossing and enthralling book by James M. McPherson that every Civil War enthusiast should read. It is engaging and fascinating for even people who aren’t historians or war enthusiasts. This book uses words of soldiers from both the sides to help us understand why soldiers would risk their lives for the Civil War. This book in a way makes us realize how people felt at the time of the war and what their motives and thinking were at that time. Despite minor glitches in the sample space, this is still a very gripping and riveting book. John McPherson supports his main claim with adequate reasons and provides evidence for this from the writings of the soldiers. This makes his argument very persuasive and convincing for the readers to reads. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about the Civil War.
1. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 46.
2. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7.
3. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7.
4. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 100.
5. Daniel Baracskay, Review of For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson. Presidential Studies Quarterly, no. 3 (SUMMER 1997): 616.
6. Georgia C Rabel, Review of For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, no. 4 (WINTER 1997): 1026