by James M. McPherson
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 237 pp.
Append., biblio., index. $25.00 . ISBN:0-19-509023-3
Perhaps the historiography of no war has been as focused on the men in the ranks as has that of the American Civil War. Bell Wiley began the trend with his two famous works, The Life of Billy Yank
and The Life of Johnny Reb
Thereafter a number of historians have weighed in on this subject, including James L. Robertson, Reid Mitchell and most recently Gerald F. Linderman and Earl J. Hess. Now James M. McPherson has produced a very fine piece of work on this topic.
Much like Hess' book on the Union soldier in combat, McPherson seems to be taking issue with Linderman's book Embattled Courage
. In For Cause and Comrades
, McPherson limits his subject to the motivation of the men who fought on both sides. Like Hess, McPherson regards the Civil War as a much more ideological struggle than has previously been thought. Going through the letters and diaries of over a thousand soldiers from both armies (429 Confederate and 647 Union), McPherson has done a most impressive job in researching the motivations of the men who were on both sides of the firing line.
McPherson carefully discusses the ideological factors that motivated men to fight and withstand the stress of battle. Of particular importance for McPherson is religion, a factor in American life and the Civil War that was completely lost on Ken Burns in his documentary. Also receiving careful attention are the factors of support from home, the concept of liberty as seen by Union and Confederate soldiers and the concepts of patriotism, courage and honor, which McPherson finds, contrary to Linderman, still held as much importance in 1864 as they did in 1861.
Consistent with his other works, McPherson stresses the importance of slavery as one of the principal ideological considerations as to why men fought. McPherson argues, convincingly in my opinion, that while many Union soldiers did not initially fight the war to end slavery, many did become convinced abolitionists by 1863-1864. His arguments about the motivations of the average Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves are less convincing. He holds that, because most non-slave holding Confederate soldiers did not mention slavery as a motivation to fight, they simply accepted slavery as the natural order of things, which I find a bit of an intellectual reach. His use of "Herrenvolk
democracy" to describe this strikes me as a rather infelicitous turn of phrase, surprising in a book marked by very carefully crafted prose.
Taken all together, however, this is a very good piece of work, marked by the kind of quality we have normally come to expect from this very fine scholar.