Tuesday, February 2, 2016

For Cause & Comrades by James McPherson

Why I Read It: A Civil War topic with which I've always been fascinated.

Summary: A deep examination of the reasons of why northern and southern soldiers alike fought in the Civil War,

My Thoughts: The author, a talented Civil War historian, dove into this subject with vigor and determination, much like the men of whom he wrote approached the war they fought over a century and a half ago. His tally was somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 letters read, from all the states that existed at the time, plenty of occupations, different levels of social class.

I approached the book with some preconceived ideas. To me, the main reason men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fired their guns at armies doing the same a few dozen yards away was the fact that most units were formed from hometowns. If you skedaddled, news beat you home, and you couldn't go home. And that notion was validated by McPherson's research. It was a factor. But it was only one.

Men signed up at the beginning of the war for different reasons than they reenlisted for three years later. At the beginning there was a cause, and though they were different on either side of the lines, causes were equally as powerful whether you wore blue or gray. Plenty of other factors
- ideology, religion, patriotism, etc. - all came into play, as did loyalty to one's comrades. Many men couldn't pull themselves away from their friends, couldn't fathom leaving them at the front and returning home. Some fought for the people at home. Some fought because they were more scared of their own officers than they were of the enemy. Northerners fought to hold together what the Revolution had wrought; southerners fought against the tyrannical rule of the North, to maintain their rights as given to them by the Declaration of Independence. It was all in the interpretation.

As the war moved on, reasons changed. Slavery became an issue, where before it was masked under states' rights. Politics heated up in 1864 with the presidential election, and the North feared a loss of professionalism as original enlistments ran out and the idea of bounty men filling the ranks permeated. Why did men fight? It depended on the year, the occupation, the personal conviction.

What this book really asks, if you read deeply enough, is why would you have fought (or would you fight today, and why)? Do we carry the same nobility of spirit as we believe they did, and as they believe their American Revolution forbears did?

It's been almost 80 years since manpower was needed in a war to the extent that the Civil War claimed it. I wonder how I would have reacted had my name been called.

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