For God & Country Why Men Joined Up for the Us Civil War

By Grant, Susan-Mary | History Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

For God & Country Why Men Joined Up for the Us Civil War


Grant, Susan-Mary, History Today


In a conflict fought largely by volunteers, Susan-Mary Grant looks at the motivations of ordinary citizens to fight their fellow Americans under either the Union or Confederate flags.

THE WORLD WARS OF THE twentieth century prompted many individuals to reassess one of the most decisive wars of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War of 1861-65, Speaking in 1924, the Scottish writer John Buchan drew a clear parallel between the Civil War and the First World War when he argued that superior manpower and resources were useless unless a nation knew how to mobilise these effectively. The problem facing the Union in 1861, Buchan concluded, was `exactly the problem of the Allies in 1914'.

Buchan was addressing an audience of Americans when he drew this conclusion, and it was perhaps in deference to them that he presented the Civil War in romantic terms as `a conflict of great men, leaders on the heroic scale' and, most significantly, as `a clash of honest ideals'. For the South, Buchan argued:

   The vital thing, the thing with which all its affections and sentiments
   were interrwined, was the State. The North, on the other hand, had for its
   main conception the larger civic organism. the Nation.

The Second World War, and particularly The psychological studies of American GI's in combat that were produced after thru war, inspired the historian Bell Irvin Wiley, in The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952, both reprinted 1989) to turn the spotlight away from great men and heroic leaders and examine the Civil War from the common soldier's perspective.

Wiley, like Buchan, detected parallels between the Civil War experiences of American soldiers and the G1 experience in the Second World War. Specifically, he argued that the typical Civil War soldier was untouched by idealism, honest or otherwise. In his analysis of why `the men in blue' went to war, Wiley cited initial war enthusiasm, `the example of friends and associates,' financial need (or greed), a fear of future conscription, a sense of duty and a vaguely-defined but strongly-felt love `of country and hatred of those who seemed bent on destroying it'. As early euphoria gave way in the face of the harsh realities of fighting a protracted war, Wiley uncovered no evidence of idealistic sentiments on the part of Union troops. `One searches most letters and diaries in vain,' Wiley suggested, `for soldiers' comment on why they were in the war or for what they were fighting.' For Billy Yank, Wiley argued:

Although as fond of drinking, women and gambling as his Union counterpart, the Confederate soldier had a similarly limited understanding of `the Constitutional issues at stake'. He did, however, have a `deep-seated hatred of the North' to sustain him. `John Brown's Body' and `Hail Columbia' were stirring songs,' Wiley observed, `but neither possessed the emotional tug of the Rebel favorite `The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland! My Maryland!' Emotion aside, Wiley concluded, the `American soldiers of the 1860s appear to have been about as little concerned with ideological issues as were those of the 1940s.'

The last two decades have seen a growing interest in the motivation of Civil War troops. What was once considered to be the `private Civil War' is becoming ever more public, as soldiers' letters, diaries and memoirs are probed by historians in search of an answer to the question of `what did they think they were fighting for?' Many have questioned Wiley's assertion that ideological issues were largely irrelevant to the Civil War soldier. The evidence presented by, among others, James McPherson and Joseph Allan Frank suggests that political and ideological factors played a large part in sustaining the Civil War soldier's will to fight, while others continue to argue that he was more likely to fight for community and comrades rather than for cause. …

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