1. Archive

The fate of the foot soldiers // For honor and duty


Why Men Fought in the Civil War

By James M. McPherson

Oxford University Press, $25


Writings of war are not new.

Homer, through epic poem, tells us in The Iliad of Achilles sailing upon Troy to win back fair Helen. Eleven centuries later, Julius Caesar took his cohorts on the road and left behind tales of his campaign so detailed that, reading his Commentaries, one can build a bridge. Thucydides shed light on the Peloponnesian Wars, and Sun Tzu codified war's principles.

But they are the words of artists and generals, not of men who screw up gumption and a deep breath, hunker down and rush forward into assured death.

The American Civil War, the first war fought by a literate populace, gave the common soldier a voice.

Literate and vocal they were. They wrote letters home and demanded letters in return, kept diaries, subscribed to and shared newspapers, and vigorously debated among themselves, all without the hint of censorship, and all while fighting a war that would claim more than 620,000 lives.

From their writings _ specifically the words of 1,076 Union and Confederate soldiers _ Princeton University professor James M. McPherson set out of discover how, and why, they accepted and endured the bloodiest conflict America has endured.

It is startling and revealing stuff for those raised on the flash of the Persian Gulf, or the pessimism of Vietnam. Nor is it our fathers and grandfathers World Wars.

These men of 1861-65 enlisted, surely, out of the same patriotism, feelings of community, honor and duty, as generations that followed. But what McPherson found, gleaning through more than 20,000 very personal letters and diaries, was that these convictions stayed, even grew, with these soldiers, fueling them to endure unimaginable hardship and horrors.

"When we enlisted in this war," writes a Pennsylvanian soldier, "we did no idle thing, we were in earnest. One year has passed away ... yet we are still incq earnest, ready for another year of harder, bloodier work, if such is necessary to crush this wicked rebellion."

"I am blessing old Sir Walter Scott daily," offers a South Carolina planter's son, "for teaching me, when young, how to rate knighlycq honour, & our noble ancestry for giving me such a State to fight for." Later, when wounded, he adds, "I am like a knight in a beleaguered fortress & must not pass out with the women & the sick, when the castle is to be stormed, so long as I can put on my harness & wield my blade."

So what were they fighting for?

The same thing: liberty and freedom, though viewed through differing prisms. Both sides, Northerner and Southerner, held George Washington aloft as Father of their Country. Crazy war.

Yet there was a difference.

Most Confederates fought for freedom feeling no conflict with upholding slavery, referred to in many letters as "our own social institutions," "our institutions," "the institutions of the whole South." Northerners, on the other hand, hadn't set out to free the black person, even distained him, but to preserve republican and constitutional government in a world of monarchy. Wrote a Massachusetts soldier: "I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom."

For the South, McPherson concludes, there is an overriding code of honor. In the North, the obligation is to duty. Two words, very similar.

McPherson, arguably the best living Civil War historian (his Battle Cry of Freedom won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize), looks into the letters and diaries to find out why these men keep coming back for more.

"My manhood is involved in a faithful and fearful sticking to the job until it is finished, or it finishes me," wrote an officer on Stonewall Jackson's staff, killed later at Chancellorsville.

"I am a big a coward as enycq could be," wrote a veteran New Yorker, "but give me the ball (bullet) before the coward when all my friends and companions are going forward."

Combat formed brotherhoods, as put by an Alabama corporal, "a strong attachment for those with whom one has shared common dangers, that is never felt for any one else, or under any other circumstances."

This project is an outgrowth of a series of lectures that resulted in an earlier McPherson work, What They Fought For 1861-1865. While that lecture series-book focuses on the what, the thrust of For Cause & Com rades is why they kept on fighting.

McPherson's style leads smoothly through a different age, where the reader comes to know intimately issues facing Civil War soldiers, their morale ebbs and flows, changing world views and maturity made by battle.

For Cause & Comrades contains the words of 429 Confederates and 647 Union soldiers who fought willingly. Of the Rebs whose letters we hear, 29 percent were killed, as were 17 percent of the Yanks.

Discovering what motivates our forebears to face death makes for important, and in McPherson's hands, interesting, reading. It's not a small honor to pay them. McPherson has done this, dedicating the book to his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, both Union soldiers.

Robin Mitchell is a Times staff writer.

+ + +

Turn back to another age

Howard Bahr, author of The Black Flower (review this page), is one of the featured authors at History Alive: A Bridge to the 19th Century, a themed book fair today at the University of Tampa. Bahr will speak in the ballroom at Plant Hall from 1:30-2:30 with a book signing to follow. Reviewer Robin Mitchell will also be participating at the fair, joining other living historians from Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for a re-enactment of a Civil War encampment on the university grounds. The fair runs from noon-5 p.m. and features author's talks, workshops and entertainment _ all with a Victorian flavor.