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

James M. McPherson, Author Oxford University Press, USA $60 (256p) ISBN 978-0-19-509023-9
Twenty years ago, McPherson and several of his Princeton history students retraced Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, where 13,000 Confederate men faced the withering fire of Union guns on that hot Friday afternoon of July 3, 1863. What the students wanted to know was why. This book--like its slim 1994 predecessor, What They Fought For, 1861-1865, is a engrossing and reliable answer to that question. McPherson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his Battle Cry of Freedom, uses data drawn from 25,000 letters and 249 diaries of more than 647 Union and 429 Confederate soldiers, relying on the ""iceberg principle"" for each conclusion. ""For every statement by a soldier quoted herein,"" he notes, ""at least six more lie below the surface in my notecards."" The one distinction of his sample: these men were not ""skulkers who did their best to avoid combat"" but ""those who did the real fighting."" McPherson adds that ""while 7% of all Civil War soldiers were killed or mortally wounded in action, 21% of the soldiers in the samples lost their lives."" In a new democracy not then a hundred years old, whose citizens were generally independent of any overreaching government, the Union and Confederate armies mobilized three million men, and only came to drafts and bonuses in the latter stage of the war. In the weeks following the attack on Fort Sumter, each side was spurred on by patriotic furor, and each had its share of soldiers eager to ""face the elephant"": to determine how they would react on the field of battle. But battle lust died down in the face of reality, to be replaced by more considered motivations. Duty and honor were powerful inducements. Confederate writers subscribed to the strict Southern code of honor, a term that for Northerners more often referred to the demands of conscience. This was combined with respect and affection for the officers and fellow soldiers, who shared danger and provided support. Group cohesion, a sense of family, inspired a sustaining pride that was both collective and individual. But as the war continued, attrition became a deadly foe of cohesion, as loss of comrades and officers left the ""family"" bereft. ""My best friends have fallen so fast,"" wrote one Confederate officer, ""that in the army I feel as if I were left alone."" McPherson uses these letters well: they not only support his arguments but provide the intensely human elements of fear, sickness, loneliness and exhaustion that make the question of motivations so poignant. ""I can tell you I don't care about being in another battle,"" writes one soldier, ""but I have got to stand my chance with all the rest."" (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/31/1997
Release date: 04/01/1997
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 237 pages - 978-0-19-512499-6
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