James McPherson’s Work as the Depiction of Civil War Events
The Author, James M. McPherson, is an American Civil War historian, and is the Princeton University’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History Emeritus who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, but also noteworthy is For Cause and Comrades, one of the most significant contributions to the study of Civil War soldiers in recent years.
In the nonfiction book For Cause and Comrades, McPherson illustrated his curiosity about the reason that both the Union soldiers and the Confederate soldiers gave their lives for the American Civil War. Throughout his book, McPherson uses the letters written by these soldiers to understand their reason to fight in the Civil War. McPherson used unrevised letters and diaries from civil war soldiers which were more candid and far closer to the immediacy of experience than anything the soldiers wrote which were specifically for publication.
The most appealing aspect of how McPherson constructs his case it’s a fruitful way of analyzing what at least some soldiers were thinking the problem arises. However, when McPherson uses this methodology in conjunction with a flawed sample and then generalizes too broadly from the sample. The way he explains the motives of civil war soldiers to fight is brilliantly identified why a subset of civil war soldiers fought and fought like bulldogs, but he over states his argument based on the evidence presented.
In considering soldiers’ ideology, he also makes excellent use of military historian John A. Lynn’s concepts of initial motivation “why men enlisted”, sustaining motivation, and combat motivation.[footnoteRef:3] It is in this section where McPherson’s ideas become harder to understand due to the fact most can assume the first two types of motivation when talking about war. A major theme is that McPherson seems stunned by the level of commitment on both sides.
In the second chapter, McPherson explained the American Civil War soldiers’ reasons to fight in the war. During the war, soldiers from both sides had reasons to fight. On the Union side, soldiers fought to defend against the “essence of anarchy”. This meant that the Union soldiers believed that the Confederates were anarchists, causing the union soldiers to face against them. However, the reason that the Confederate soldiers fought in this war to defend their “life, liberty, and property”. Since Confederates soldiers are Southern men who rely on their slaves to keep their farms or industries running, they fought in the war in order to protect their livelihood.
McPherson depicted the soldier’s feelings during this war in chapter 3. When writing this book, McPherson shows how these soldiers were” dying for a fight”. In other words, the solders during this war wanted to kill people even if they were men from the same country. This attitude can be justified when a LT in Rhode Island wrote, “We are all impatient to get into Virginia and have a Brush with the rebels”. [footnoteRef:7] Some of these soldiers fought because they were” dying with monotony and ennui”. [footnoteRef:8] Basically, this meant some of these soldiers fought just because they were board. Nonetheless, the other soldiers fought because of their pride as men.
As McPherson reads more letters from these soldiers, he illustrated how religion motivated the soldiers to keep fighting on the battlefield in chapter five. During the Civil War, McPherson pointed out that these soldiers had “sought the aid or comfort of superstition”. By definition, religion is a practice that people believe in. Since superstition also represents a practice that people believe in, both religion and superstition have a similar meaning. When soldiers took on dangerous jobs, they believed that God will protect them until their day comes. Without a doubt, soldiers’ beliefs were helping them fight and not fear death throughout the war. [9: Ibid.,62.]
While in the chapter 8 and 9, McPherson illustrated Civil War soldiers’ reason to fight in depth. For the soldiers who sided with the Confederates, they fought to protect their ideology, which revolved around “white supremacy and the right of property in slaves”. [footnoteRef:10] On the other hand, the Union fought mainly to protect their nation. Through the corporal’s words, he said that the Union was fighting to “destroy the cause of these diseases”. [footnoteRef:11] When the corporal said those words, he meant that Union most destroy slavery to help the nation, meaning that slavery was not the main reason that Union soldiers fought the war. However, Both Southerners and Northerners, have their unique reason or beliefs to fight the war. Southerners saw their attack on the north as defending their Southern ways of life, slavery and right of self-determination, as George Washington had fought against the British. Northerners, on the other hand, believed that they were fighting to preserve liberty, the constitution and the rule of law against a rebellion that opposed a democratically elected government and was bent on anarchy and destroying the unity of the USA.
Additionally, McPherson also discussed about how family support was important to motivate soldiers to fight in the chapter 10. During the Civil War, soldiers felt homesick while they were on the battlefield.[footnoteRef:13] To help boost soldiers’ morale, letters from their families were extremely important. Because of these motivations from home, soldiers were able to serve faithfully and under a great hardship.
Moreover, McPherson depicted how vengeance drove out the soldiers’ moral for mercy as the Civil War escalated in the chapter 11. Based on both sides, McPherson believed that the Confederate soldiers were more vengeful than the Union soldiers. This was because the South “suffered so much more death and devastation”. [footnoteRef:15] McPherson was able to visualize the Confederate’s vengeance through a Confederate captain from Texas. As McPherson reads his letter, the captain described his “unrelenting hatred to the Yankee race”. From this quote, it illustrated an example for the Confederate’s vengeance towards the Union.
Overall, author used the letters, diaries and memoirs of 1,076 men which he regards as broadly representative of the men who fought in terms of demographics, marital status and geographical origin. Among answers supplied by these primary sources, a concern for honor or to display manhood and courage; discipline; religion; fear of being branded as a coward; bonds with fellow troops; patriotism and nationalism and, especially for the south, love of state; for some northern troops, a desire to end slavery; and so on. This is a fascinating book, well worth reading. It uses the words of the soldiers themselves (North and South) to help us understand why troops would stand and fight and risk death and injury. In short, I highly recommend the book for those interested in the motivations of soldiers in the wartime.
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