If you ever happen to visit the Antietam National Cemetery and walk among the cold, white headstones, your eyes will inevitably be drawn to the colossal granite monument that stands at the cemetery’s center. Towering 44 feet, 7 inches high, the monument is capped by a statue of a Union soldier, depicted standing at the “in place rest” position, facing northward, towards what was home for so many of 4,776 Union soldiers who now lie at rest here. However, the most powerful piece of this monument is the inscription etched on its base: “Not for themselves but for their country.”
While this inscription was written at a time when the wounds of the war were fresh and the nation was desperately seeking a reason for its terrible loss, recent research and historiography indicates that the inscription below the soldier, known to the local population around Sharpsburg as “Old Simon,” is very appropriate. To be sure, however, conventional wisdom and history during much of the late 20th century said otherwise. That history said that the young men of both sides during the Civil War joined the fight because romantic 19th century notions of manhood and glory compelled them to enlist, and that, further, they had no real understanding of the reasons behind the war. In addition, so this version of history goes, they saw war as an adventure, but soon lost all their romantic visions and, in fact, their entire motivation for fighting amidst the harshness of camp life and horrors and carnage of war. After that, they simply wanted to survive and for the war to end.
There is little doubt that there is some truth to this perspective. The young man who enlisted in 1861 or 1862 almost certainly was motivated by a sense of “manly duty” and probably did see the war as an opportunity for adventure. And, this “Billy Yank” or "Johnny Reb” was also very likely to have these romantic notions dashed by the reality of war. However, the recent work of historians such as James Robertson and James McPherson indicates there was far more to the motivations of these soldiers than mere romanticism and a desire for adventure. Plus, their work also demonstrates that, despite the horrors the war produced, many of these men never lost their core motivations.
McPherson’s work, which concentrated solely on the reasons Civil War soldiers enlisted and fought, is documented in two different books, What They Fought For: 1861-1865 and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. In developing his theories, McPherson researched the letters and diaries of soldiers on both sides and makes a compelling argument for the authenticity of the feelings displayed in these writings, noting that these were words written in private, either as personal reflections in a diary or in letters to loved ones. They were not meant for public consumption and, therefore, there was no motive to utter them other than as a sincere statement of personal convictions. At the same time, McPherson was careful in that he detailed the size and nature of the material he used in studying this subject. He honestly states that these letters and diaries, no matter how seemingly voluminous, do not approach a truly scientific and accurate sampling of data. He is also cautious in noting that certain groups are over represented or underrepresented, and, therefore, allows the reader to apply caution in accepting his analysis.
However, it also cannot be overstated that these letters and diaries also afford a marvelous window into the minds of the men who fought this war some 149 years ago. The Civil War was the first conflict so abundantly documented through personal correspondence. Literacy rates were at an all-time high, especially in ranks of the Union armies, and the postal systems had advanced to a state where mail was delivered reliably and regularly. Therefore, men not only recorded their thoughts in journals and diaries, they also wrote home to family and friends on a regular basis. Therefore, what McPherson found in these documents is noteworthy and I, for one, believe his insights are on a solid ground.
First, it is apparent from what these men wrote that, while they did have romantic notions about the manliness of their duties in war, the soldiers on both sides also had well developed ideas on what the war was about, and they enlisted based upon what were strong personal beliefs. This counters the arguments of some authors that Civil War soldiers, like soldiers of more recent times, were not motivated by patriotism and had little interest in the ideological arguments surrounding the conflict. McPherson notes that, unlike World War II, where discussions of a “flag-waving variety” were taboo among soldiers, the diaries and letters of these 19th century soldiers contain many references to political debate and discussion among the men. In point of fact, many Civil War units, particularly in the Union armies, actually had organized debating societies to promote discussion of political and ideological subjects.
The other surprising thing is the nature and depth of the ideological motivations held by these soldiers. On the Union side, one sees an intense belief in fighting to save and preserve the nation, the republic, as the last best hope of humanity. Over and over, from officers down to privates, one finds an almost universal expression of the desire to fight to maintain the government that they saw as the great democratic experiment, the hope for the future of all men. Therefore, many of these soldiers seemed to possess a grand vision of their country’s place in the world and in the future of mankind, and were willing to fight for it.
The other interesting motivation was the issue of slavery. Conventional wisdom has always held that only a relatively few Union soldiers enlisted to fight because of the need to abolish slavery, and these letters and diaries support that view. In fact, following the Emancipation Proclamation, these documents indicate an intense anti-emancipation backlash, especially in the Army of the Potomac following the end of George McClellan’s reign as that army’s commander. However, as the war continued, this sentiment began to change and there were several reasons.
First, some Union soldiers began to see that, so long as slavery survived the nation would be divided and that, even more so, the end of slavery was crippling the South’s ability to fight. But, even more interesting was the change in attitude brought about by what Union soldiers saw of slavery and its effects as they moved deeper into the South. They not only experienced first-hand the pitiful flood of former slaves pouring into their lines seeking freedom and safety, they also saw the kind of society a slave-based economy produced. Their letters noted the bad roads, poor towns, absence of schools, and the rundown condition of southern farms, all further punctuated by the opposing magnificence of the plantations of the aristocracy. These factors combined with the rise of the anti-emancipation, anti-war Copperhead movement caused many Federal soldiers to change their views and gave Lincoln 80 percent of their votes in the 1864 election, even after the president proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.
But, what is perhaps even more intriguing is the role of slavery as a motivation for Confederate soldiers. Again, conventional wisdom has long held that, while those soldiers from the Southern aristocracy might have held the maintenance of slavery as a motivation to fight, albeit a secondary one, the majority of Confederate soldiers who filled the ranks were poor farmers who did not own slaves and, hence, they certainly did not fight to preserve that institution. Rather, most Southerners served the cause to defend home and hearth against a Northern aggressor. However, the letters and journals of these soldiers do not entirely maintain this conventional view.
First, a good number of the documents written by soldiers from the Southern landed class do mention slavery as part of the cause and do so very stridently. This isn’t really surprising. After all, black slavery was the primary engine behind their wealth, their social status, and their political power. Therefore they were not likely to surrender all that it gave them in Southern society. However, what is surprising is that a number of non-slaveholding soldiers also mention the preservation of slavery as a primary factor in their service to the Confederacy. So, why would a poor farmer who does not own a single slave, see the maintenance of the right to own slaves as a motivation to fight? The answer is simple: So long as black slaves and the slave economy were the bedrock of Southern society, that poor white farmer would not be on the bottom of the economic and social ladder.
The other interesting thing that McPherson shows us is that these soldiers did not lose their will to fight for these things that they believed in so deeply. While earlier authors such as Bell Irvin Wiley, Gerald Linderman, and even James Robertson argue that these soldiers lost their idealism as they hardened to the war’s harsh realities, McPherson’s work tends to refute what was once an almost universal viewpoint. While McPherson acknowledges there is no hard statistical evidence to support this, he states that the letters and diaries he studied, while they became far less romantic and more cynical and callous as the war continued, still refer to the “glorious cause” they believed in and that kept them fighting. For these soldiers, the hardness of war had perhaps transformed exuberant and romantic idealism into a steely resolve and a determination to set things right, especially in the Union ranks.
Finally, there is motivation of one’s comrades. Modern research has shown that one of the key things that makes a soldier willing to fight, especially once the shooting starts, is the other soldiers around him. This was certainly even truer among the men who fought this war. I remember standing on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg, looking across all that open ground between myself and Cemetery Ridge, and wondering out loud why any of Pickett’s veteran soldiers would even consider following the orders to cross it when to do so meant almost certain slaughter. The answer here was also very simple: Because the man next to them was going to go, and they could not let that man down. One has to remember that this motivation was even stronger than it might be in a 21st century army because of the way Civil War units were formed, particularly from 1861-1863. Regiments on both sides came from individual counties and the companies within them came from individual towns and villages. As a result, the man next to you was likely someone you had known your whole life, a boy you had grown up with and gone to school with, or, in many cases, that man was your cousin, your brother, or even your father—you could not let them down. So, no matter how awful what lay in wait across that field, you would go for cause, for country, and for comrade.