Review: For Cause and Comrades

James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. xviii + 237 pp.

mcphersonFor Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War offers readers a rare glimpse of the private lives of Civil War soldiers. Through an impressive use of the letters and diaries belonging to over one thousand men, from both Union and Confederate armies, James McPherson is able to weave together a compelling image of their thoughts, feelings, and commitments. This book is in many ways a subjective history, mainly focusing on the self-understanding of Civil War soldiers. However, here we should add a caveat, for although as McPherson notes, “Civil War armies were the most literate in history to that time,” (McPherson, 11) what readers won’t find in the pages of For Cause and Comrades is the recorded experience of the ten to twelve percent of white soldiers who were illiterate, and, with great regret, the experiences of Black Union men, both soldiers and sailors, who only made up a sliver of McPherson’s Union sample, a mere one percent.[1]

With more than a comprehensive breakdown of the documents in use and detailed demographic information of soldiers accompanying the book, McPherson is upfront about the lack of sources and the resulting missing pieces in his investigation. Readers should proceed without reservation into what promises to be an excavation into a unique set of records. McPherson asks his readers to regard the book as representing in great part those fighting soldiers who enlisted in 1861 and 1862, i.e., mainly white young men from middle and upper-class homes, most of who left home for the first time to join one of the bloodiest wars in American history. Who was this core group of committed men populating the Civil War armies?  To what do we attribute their dedication? And in what ways do their letters and diary entries help us understand how they conceived of their contributions to the war?

In order to give structure to these records, McPherson borrows a key conceptual framework from John A. Lynn, a historian of the armies of the French Revolution: Lynn presented three categories to his readers: (1) the initial motivation, i.e., why men enlisted; (2) sustaining motivation, i.e., what were the factors that kept them in the army, and thus kept the army in existence over time; (3) combat motivation, i.e., what nerved them to face extreme danged in battle (McPherson, 12). Counter to crude characterization, the author warns readers that “the motives of many volunteers were mixed in a way that was impossible to disentangle in their own minds.” Thus what follows can only be an impressionistic image, affected in great part by the benefit of hindsight but also limited by the role of language in reducing the conflicts of emotion to a two-dimensional outline, at best—or a distorted caricature, at worst.

To provide his readers with a historical understanding of the passions, McPherson reminds us that these exchanges were written by men and women (i.e., lovers, sisters, mothers, etc.) socialized in Victorian America. These citizens had a particular understanding of gender and specific expectations for social behavior. Affirmations of masculinity are common in the private documents of soldiers. Indeed, for many, war was the ultimate test that separated the men from the boys. Concepts like duty, honor, and courage defined masculinity in Victorian America, a time when war was part of the many responsibilities of manhood. In contrast to popular conception, honor was not the monopoly of the Southern Confederacy, as McPherson’s research shows, Union soldiers repeatedly professed their desire to be honorable men. In defense of their honor and in order to fulfill their duty, new conscripts from both armies were compelled to join their fellowmen and justified their desire in the language of Victorian values.

Behind the lines of North and South, “honor” was defined along different political commitments: While Union men fought to uphold the honor of the nation and punish the rebel states, Confederate troops were livid about the attempted subjugation of the South by “Northern Yankees,” and fought to recover the honor of their home states. Both definitions hinged on a particular interpretation of the founding myths of the American Republic. Northerners saw themselves as defending “the experiment of self-government” by protecting the existence of the Union, and in this way upholding the guiding principles of 1776. With the same revolutionary history in mind, Southerners fought to challenge the “tyrannical force” of the North, which—in quotidian parlance—would turn the South into the “slave” of the North. Here McPherson points out the tragic irony: While Samuel Johnson could make eighteenth century men like Thomas Jefferson blush at the obvious hypocrisy of upholding liberty in a land where the institution of black slavery prevailed, Southerners in the nineteenth century claimed that the institution of slavery was the only way in which liberty could be defended. This ideological commitment is particularly important for McPherson’s argument.

Although religious beliefs and, most importantly, close emotional bonds with fellow soldiers were critical in sustaining and boosting troop morale, McPherson argues that “when primary groups disintegrated from disease, casualties, transfers, and promotions, these larger ideals [of nationalism, liberty democracy, self-government, and so on] remained as the glue that held the armies together” (McPherson, 89). In what is probably the most exciting part of the book, McPherson includes the many mentions in letters and diaries of constant political discussion and debate. In this way he shows how the experience in the Union and Confederate armies functioned as a kind of self-propelling political education. The soldiers devoured newspapers and were up to date with the issues of the day—this was also part of the unique experience as part of a war amidst a modern United States. In the end, McPherson seeks to convince his readers that “the Civil War patriotism was not the last refuge of the scoundrel; it was the credo of the fighting soldier” (McPherson, 103). Although many are bound to take issue with this statement, the book certainly presents readers with strong evidence in order to make the case.

For Cause and Comrades would be a great addition to any undergraduate lecture course in American history and a rich source to any student of the American Civil War.


[1] McPherson notes that the radical underrepresentation of black Union soldiers and sailors is greatly due to the fact that some 70 percent of black soldiers were illiterate. In addition, foreign-born soldiers are also substantially absent (“In the Union sample only 9 percent of the men were born abroad compared with 24 percent of all union soldiers”). McPherson adds that, “The biases in the sample toward native-born soldiers from the middle and upper classes who enlisted early in the war are unavoidable. These soldiers were more likely to write letters or keep diaries and their descendants were more likely to preserve them than were working-class, foreign-born, black, or slaveless soldiers” (McPherson, ix).

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