39 pages 1 hour read

James M. Mcpherson

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1997

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For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War is a 1997 nonfiction book by James M. McPherson. McPherson has taught at Princeton since 1962 and written numerous books on the American Civil War, including Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History. 

After several instances of visiting Civil War battlefields and finding himself unable to satisfactorily answer why so many men gave their lives in the war, McPherson sets out to find an answer for himself. He begins by researching letters and diaries instead of published journalism, because, he says, letters will give him a truer account of the lives of soldiers than will any published work.

Each chapter represents a different reason—or cause—as to why soldiers first enlisted to fight, and then, later, continued to fight. What he finds are varying answers, but most have to do with a sense of duty, either to man, God, or country. Southern soldiers see the war as an invasion of their right to self-govern, while Northern soldiers see it as their duty to keep the country together. Both sides see the war as a way to gain the respect of their peers, their family, and their country. Both sides see failure as dishonor. Fleeing a fight, skulking out of one, or pretending to be sick is dishonorable, as is flinching during battle.

Both sides find strength in religion, as another chapter shows. Both sides believe that they are in the right, and that God will give them strength; if God does not, then they have done their duty by God, and can die peacefully, knowing they will be rewarded in the afterlife. Both sides know they are supported at home. After the initial engagements, both sides fight for vengeance. They fight for their brothers in battle. They fight because they believe in their cause. And though both sides have differing views of liberty, both sides claim to be fighting for freedom. For the South, liberty means their way of life, and defending the institution of slavery, without which their economy will come crashing down. Since this economic downfall will cause them to either starve or become indebted to the North, neither outcome is an option. For the North, liberty means keeping the Union together—the South’s secession is a threat to their liberty, since a nation divided cannot stand.

By the end of the war, the North also fights to end slavery. For the most part, this attempt is pragmatic—the North can win the war more quickly by utilizing freed slaves—though some Northerners see emancipation as a worthy cause, and even some Southern soldiers begin to see that slavery can’t be allowed to continue.

McPherson draws on more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 diaries from soldiers on both sides to attempt to find the reasons men died in the bloodiest war in American history.

Steven Galloway

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