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

Article excerpt

JAMES M. MCPHERSON. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997. 237 pages. $25.00.

Few events in American history command the level of interest sustained by the Civil War. As with any decisive occurrence, interpretations of the cause and nature of the conflict are frequently influenced by the prevailing social and political climate of the affected society, a fact that should concern historians interested in maintaining the integrity of historical accuracy.

Recent popular scholarship serves as a testimony to the vast variety of interpretations of the causes and purpose of the war, the motives that encouraged soldiers to fight, and the value of accomplishment in relation to the bloody cost. Many arguments remain based on traditional interpretations of events, while others are clearly subject to a political agenda. For many students of the Civil War, resisting the temptation to succumb to regional and/or cultural sensibilities, often separate and distinct from historical accuracy, remains a challenge. A consistent emphasis on the quality of evidence supporting any interpretation, however, continues as the historian's greatest mechanism for maintaining accuracy. Indisputably, the most reliable evidence for answering questions involving motives, perceptions, and the goals of Civil War soldiers are found in the various writings of the participants.

With his new book, For Cause and Comrades, James McPherson both highlights the significance of the soldier's view and furthers his standing as one of our nation's foremost Civil War scholars. Employing more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 diaries, 60 percent Union and 40 percent Confederate, McPherson offers an impressive array of evidence certain to enhance our understanding of why soldiers fought in the Civil War.

McPherson attempts a comprehensive approach, emphasizing many issues that likely influenced a soldier's perception of the conflict, including political debate, support on the home front, and the significance of adrenaline on the battlefield. Readers are treated to the irony of both fear and courage in battle as McPherson demonstrates that the bullies and braggarts in camp often showed the "white feather" under fire, while their timid counterparts frequently emerged as heroes. He downplays the role of skulking and dissent in the ranks, admitting that his evidence is "skewed toward those who did the real fighting" (ix).

His analysis of Civil War soldiers has led him to conclude that they remained unique among modern fighting men. …