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Review: For Cause and Comrades

Review For Cause and Comrades

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. By James M. McPherson (1997) New York: Oxford University Press, Pp. xv + 178, ISBN 0-19-509023-3 (hardback) $25.00 U.S.

Why do soldiers fight? Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson grapples with this question in his deeply researched and engaging book, For Cause and Comrades. McPherson is a superb scholar and author of over nineteen books and numerous articles on the Civil War, most notable among these is Battle Cry of Freedom, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, published in 1988. He is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, awarded in 1963. In For Cause and Comrades, McPherson offers very balanced and researched approach to the Civil War, typically a very emotionally charged topic. His writing style is eminently readable and his arguments convincing.

McPherson analyzes martial motivations leveraging French military historian, John A. Lynn, methodology of examining motivation at three levels: initial, sustaining, and combat. The initial motivators deal with why men enlisted; sustaining with what kept the armies together; and combat with how men steeled themselves for battle (12).

McPherson evenly spaced twelve chapters across the book to carefully analyze his primary sources of diaries and letters from soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. In doing so, he worked to weigh his data in a reasonably representative fashion from the demographics of the soldiers in the conflict. He statistically balances the values and demography of the ideals and opinions of the writers with their representative places in the armies of the North or the South. In doing so, he hoped to ensure that no one point of view would be given inappropriate weight. In addition to breaking down the basic views of North and South, he worked to further determine whether the writer was a volunteer or a draftee; officer or enlisted; wealthy or common. McPherson paints a convincing portrait of soldiers on both sides of the conflict in well-balanced proportion to their role and place in the ranks. From this complex but convincing composition, McPherson draws his plausible, if not entirely original, conclusions. McPherson further balances his assessment with the widely reported findings after World War II and Vietnam on the same topics of combat motivation. This conveys a sense of ubiquity in modern soldiers and outlines some of the fundamental differences in the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War.

The book focuses on the fundamental ideologies of the Civil War. The overarching motivator at all levels was honor. Honor in personal courage; honor in fighting for comrades; honor in preserving union (or fighting for liberty); and honor in defending home, hearth, and family. The conclusions are not as simple as that, however. McPherson describes complex dualities that exist in both the North and the South. For example, he describes the sustaining power of faith and religion in “the most religious [armies] in American history” (63) followed by a detailed discussion of the power of hate and revenge in both armies, but primarily the South. Unfortunately, McPherson does not offer deep insight into the conflict of hate and Christian fighting and simply dismisses it as normal in the eyes of the soldier.

He notes soldiers in during most of the Civil War were volunteers and that volunteerism had a dramatic impact on the motivations of those soldiers. The reasons men initially volunteered are largely predictable: duty, honor and adventure. Duty and honor to fight for the soldier’s home against an enemy is complexly related to the ideals of each side. The North asserted an ideal of union and responsibility to the legacy of 1776 and that revolutionary spirit. The South asserted an ideal of freedom from tyranny and the same spirit of ’76 strangely on behalf of human slavery. Adventure is a Victorian ethic acknowledged by soldiers of both sides who expressed a deep desire to “see the elephant” followed by a near universal regret for having done so (30). The sense of adventure rarely survives first contact with true combat and is not a deep or prolonged motivator and McPherson argues that once it fades, many soldiers adopt honor and courage as more sustaining motivators.

Sustainment of an army is a critical challenge of any commander. The unit must be built cohesively and remain cohesive through the length of the conflict. McPherson suggests several contributors to sustaining an army during a long war: honor, religion, brotherhood, ideology, and support at home. After the initial search for adventure and rage militaire fade, the army’s spirits are buoyed and challenged by victory or loss on the battlefields, doubt surrounding support from home, political events near and far, and fear that the overwhelming sacrifice will have been in vain. McPherson argues religion and ideology played crucial roles in North and South to keep the armies intact. Deep religious faith took hold in both armies, but most significantly in the South. McPherson reminds us that the chaos of war leads to fatalism and concern for one’s soul driving the combatants to seek refuge in religion. The soldiers, therefore, believed they were truly good Christian soldiers, marching off to war. While the strength of religion was more dominant in the South, ideology was strongest in the North. Both sides leveraged ideals of freedom, but the North fought for union and, McPherson argues, ultimately for abolition (118, 130).

Combat motivation initially is fed by a sense of adventure and ideals, but those fade upon contact with the enemy. McPherson clearly tells how soldiers, weary and exhausted from battle do not march forward into a hail of bullets for glory or union or slavery or abolition or even God. They march forward out of a sense of personal honor and acknowledgement of the comradeship of arms. He writes that soldiers would rather die before showing cowardice or being labeled a shirker. He gives accounts of soldiers fighting while ill and legitimately excused from battle to prevent even the suggestion that they were shirkers (79). Almost as pervasive as honor and comradeship, there was universal hatred for shirkers. McPherson claims that only half of the men actually did the fighting while half found ways to not be present on a battlefield (6). As a result, his claim that men were motivated not to fail their comrades or show cowardice (77, 80) is somewhat misleading. It is possible at least, that men aspired to such goals of courage and honor and those who fought, fought for those reasons.

This is a very well-researched and written book. McPherson is known for his approachable style that succeeds in conveying the point without burying the reader in details. His research sources and analysis lend very fair balance to his findings which, while not terribly original, confirm that certain common motivators prevail in nineteenth, twentieth, and likely twenty-first century soldiers.

Unfortunately, McPherson lacks a certain depth in discussion of some of the more complex aspects of martial motivation. For example, he fails to appropriately address the conflicts of fighting for liberty by fighting for slavery and hating an enemy so perversely who is praying to the same God who commands “love thy neighbor.” Although those are subjects broad enough to fill volumes, a more insightful discussion of them would have materially improved a solid work.

Letters and diaries are usually tricky sources for the historian. Both are greatly distorted by the writer who is not explicitly compelled to write either accurately or objectively. Regardless, the volume of mail and dairies written during the war by the soldiers free from censorship who were beneficiaries of an effective post system cannot be ignored. McPherson deliberately draws from the mass of writings a generally statistically representative sample of material. That feat alone cannot be understated.

McPherson’s approachable style and casual treatment of some of the more complex aspects of martial motivation leave this book best read by the well-educated public. It is informative to the professional historian and should compliment his understanding of the cause and effects of war, but for that John Keegan’s The Face of Battle may be better. Regardless, For Cause needed to be written and does inform debate on what soldiers of both North and South were thinking and feeling during the war. Any text that convincingly describes war as hell should be written. McPherson does not exalt war or its heroes or villains. He treats them fairly while convincing the reader that “seeing the elephant” is not worth the price of admission.


George Mason University                                                                     Carl Allard Young

March 15, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Confederate Nation

Review Thomas The Confederate Nation

The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865. By Emory M. Thomas (1979) New York: Harper & Row, Pp. xvi + 384, ISBN 0-06-131965-1 (paperback) $15 00 U.S.

“To fulfill Southern nationalism, Confederate Southerners had to slaughter some of the sacred cows and overturn some of the shibboleths that had previously defined them as a people.” (p.144) The clear summary of Professor Emory M. Thomas’ 1979 work captures the angst and challenge the South faced as notions of Southern sectionalism rose with radical fervor, congealed into a new confederate government, gave way to Southern nationalism, transformed into a Confederate identity, and failed both on the battlefields of the civil war and in the minds of Southerners. Thomas received his PhD from Rice University in 1966 and prior to publishing The Confederate Nation published The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience and The Confederate State of Richmond in 1971 followed in 1973 by The American War and Peace: 1860-1877. He is a prodigious Civil War scholar who taught at the University of Richmond and retired as the Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Virginia and primarily taught in the South throughout his career.

As a scholar of the Old South during the Civil War, he is a conservative writer seeking to expand understanding of the South and with The Confederate Nation successfully charts the genesis, rise, maturation, collapse, and fall of Southern nationalism. In this pursuit, The Confederate Nation is an extension of arguments he published in The Confederate State of Richmond and his dissertation, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. The Confederate Nation is a well-written and engaging book that charts the internal revolution of Confederate ideals that initially elevated Southern sectionalism into nationalism as a conservative revolution centered on protecting the Southern way of life that ultimately caused Southern nationalism to crumble as protecting the Southern way of life became impossible.

In developing the foundation to his arguments for conservative revolution, Thomas insightfully describes an Old South that in the mid 1800s began to close their minds to alternatives to their way of life and drew the conclusion, “Questions about the Southern way of life became moral questions, and compromises of the Southern way of life became concessions of virtue and righteousness.” (p. 4) The ubiquitous Southerner was developing a bi-polar interpretation of the world around him. He was at once for all things Southern and against all things Yankee. While the argument is logically plausible, Thomas does his work a great disservice by not better defining who this Southerner is. There are weak attempts to define the Southerner as statistically white, non-slave owning, supportive of anti-democratic ideals of aristocracy and puppets of the landed aristocracy, and mobile. Southern mobility is his most damaging argument. He offers no evidence to their mobility and no evidence of the Southern everyman’s political agency yet he presses the issue by describing the Southern everyman as a middle class in an agrarian society. Without proven mobility or agency it is hard to assign the moniker middle class to an uneducated, politically silent (or at least complicit) agrarian class.

Thomas attempts to set the stage for a general wellspring of common zeal that held a common view of the Southern way of life and yielded a common voice eager to protect that way of life. Unfortunately, one has to accept significant claims on weak evidence in order to move forward with the book. Accepting Thomas’ argument, however, yields a picture of a conservative revolution that rises in the mid-1800s with the increasingly strong development and adherence to a Southern regionalism. Thomas successfully paints the picture of a South identifying itself as Southern simultaneously as it identifies itself as American. Gradually, over the antebellum period, the Southern identity takes primacy over an American identity as Thomas argues Southerners felt betrayed by the greater American identity which, at its core, is more liberal and open to change. Thomas convincingly uses the Brooks-Sumner incident in 1819 as a herald to the Southern identity and associated honor which must be protected and later with Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Southern cause in 1861 as the full development of this psychological shift.

Thomas builds on the establishment of antebellum Southern identity to 1861 when South had to develop its own government in the wake of secession. While Southern nationalism was crucial in creating a Confederacy, Thomas says, “the fundamental goal of the Southern revolution was the preservation of the Southern life style as Southerners then lived it” (p. 65). It was at this point the challenge of radical conservatives began to surface as embodied in the Montgomery Debate. The radicals who spurred the South to secession faced the very limited objectives of the revolution they facilitated. Southerners wanted to preserve status quo antebellum, not institute a new way. As a result, the Montgomery Debate’s cautious movement forward coupled with a Confederate Constitution that was very similar to the one it meant to disband set the stage for a very defensive approach to Southern independence, militarily and politically. The cautiousness was displayed by other Southern states who did not rush to join the Confederacy until after Lincoln called for volunteers to go to war.

Once hostilities began, Thomas describes the South as caught between the world it wants to protect and the world it must become to survive. Survival won the political day. The South needed a strong central government, a unified strategy, and most importantly, victories on the battlefield. The cries for independence fell quiet to a Confederate President Davis who ran the government and the war effort with singular effort, rapidly cashiering any who would oppose him or show independence of thought without due deference. As the war drew on, continued sacrifice would alter the character of the South so much that Thomas describes it as “more Confederate and less Southern” in character (p. 166).

Ultimately desperation led to the abandonment of most of the Southern ideals. Southern war crimes grew in tragic scope, slaves were granted freedom in exchange for military service, the female ideal was abandoned in the harsh realities of war, and Southern honor was in doubt at the highest levels as even Davis supported notions of guerrilla warfare. The very ideals the war was fought over were abandoned in the desperate hours prior to the war’s conclusion. Thomas says, “”Having sacrificed or been willing to sacrifice most of the ideological tenets they went to war to defend, ultimately Confederate Southerners we willing to lose their national life in order to save itself” (p. 305).

Accepting his troubled definition of the Southern everyman allows the reader to follow an otherwise well-crafted argument that charts the rise and fall of a conservative revolution. Thomas argues it begins with identity and develops into cause as regionalism gives way to nationalism. He points out the risks to a nationalist movement constrained by conservatism, whereby change to secure the national ideals must come at a cost to the ideals of independence. The challenge to create a central government began the long process of compromise that Southerners themselves were fundamentally opposed to. Compromise led to desperation and the Confederate nation became nothing like the Old South it was formed to protect.

Thomas’ argument was logically convincing and showed obvious flaws in Southern political thinking of the 1850s and 60s. Pulling from solid evidence, Thomas argues his points for an intellectual audience well-versed in the chronology of the Civil War. His is not an overtly narrative history of the war, but a political history of the birth and death of the Confederacy. Thomas’ argument could be improved with a more careful definition of the South he examines. His reluctance to make many strong assertions throughout the book makes his curiously adamant assertion of the South as a mobile, middle class society all the more confusing. It did not seem that the South’s mobility or middle-class mores had much to do with the rise and fall of the Confederacy and should have been avoided.

Regardless, the book is an excellent study in conservative nationalism and should be added to any library on the subject of the Civil War South. Although the book cannot stand completely alone as a seminal work, it offers a unique, conservative perspective to Civil War political study.

George Mason University                                                                                                  Carl Allard Young

March 15, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , | 1 Comment