Saturday, October 04, 2008

For Cause & Comrades: Book Review

James M. McPherson, For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

The Romance of War

The Reality of War

McPherson asks the very basic question: Why did Union and Confederate soldiers fight? And, “Why did so many of them fight like bulldogs?” McPherson’s central argument is that in the Civil War, there was a close and ongoing relationship between group cohesion and peer pressure that were powerful factors in combat motivation and of concepts of duty, honor, and patriotism that prompted soldiers to enlist in the first place. Soldiers fought for both comrades (primary group cohesion) and cause.

McPherson argues that these were very self aware armies, “They needed no indoctrination lectures to explain what they were fighting for…” McPherson argues that convictions of duty, honor, patriotism, and ideology functioned as the principal sustaining motivations…while impulses of courage, self-respect, and group cohesion were the main sources of combat motivation.

McPherson acknowledges that his argument runs counter to those of some other historians of the Civil War. Bell Irvin Wiley, for example, concludes that, “American soldiers of the 1860s appear to have been about as little concerned with ideological issues as were those of the 1940s” (Page, 91). Gerald Linderman indicates that battle made Civil War soldiers skeptical of notions of ideology, duty and honor. (Page,168).

Is McPherson’s argument convincing? It is clear that he is trying to understand the mind of the Civil War soldier, but as he states, “How does an historian discover and analyze the thoughts and feelings of three million people?” McPherson rejects the use of memoirs, letters written for publication, regimental histories, and wartime diaries “improved” for publication. These sources suffer from having been “written for publication”. McPherson relies for evidence on the personal letters written by soldiers during the war to family members, sweethearts, and friends, and the unrevised diaries that some of them kept during their service. These letters and diaries were “…more candid and far closer to the immediacy of experience than anything the soldiers wrote for publication then or later.” This is the most appealing aspect of how McPherson constructs his case, and is a fruitful way of analyzing what at least some soldiers were thinking.

A problem arises, however, when McPherson uses this methodology in conjunction with a flawed sample and then generalizes too broadly from the sample.
McPherson’s sample consists of 1,076 soldiers: 647 Union and 429 Confederate. With respect to age, marital status, geographical distribution, and branch of service, the sample is fairly representative. In other respects it is not. Illiterate soldiers, 10-12 % of all white soldiers on both sides are not represented. Black Union soldiers are not represented adequately, some 1 % in the sample vs. 9 % of the Union army. Foreign born soldiers are substantially underrepresented: 9 % in the sample compared to 24 % of all Union soldiers. Thus, some thirty five per cent of the Union Army is under-represented in the sample.

There are similar problems with the sample regarding the Confederate army. Two thirds of the sample were slave owners vs. one third of all Confederate soldiers in the army who owned slaves. Officers are over-represented in both armies. The bias in the sample is toward native-born soldiers from the middle and upper classes who enlisted early in the war. The sample is skewed toward the ideologically literate and motivated. Logically, one might expect highly motivated ideological partisans to be the very people who would be the first to take up arms and the last to put them down in an ideological struggle (especially a civil war). Is it surprising then that McPherson finds, “For the fighting soldiers who enlisted in 1861 and 1862 the values of duty and honor remained a crucial component of their sustaining motivation to the end.”?

McPherson frankly acknowledges the flaws in the sample, but characterizes these biases as “blessings in disguise”, explaining that, his purpose is to explain the motives of the Civil War soldiers for fighting. “I am less interested in the motives of skulkers who did their best to avoid combat. My samples are skewed toward those who did the real fighting”. (Page ix) This is not a convincing argument if one is trying to generalize about the motivations of the generic “Civil War soldier.” Are we to assume that the thirty five percent of the Union army not represented in the sample did no fighting at all, or that their presence was unnecessary to the final victory? McPherson has brilliantly identified why a sub-set of Civil War soldiers fought and fought “like bulldogs”, but he overstates his argument based on the evidence presented.

Captured in pictures. The last death agonies of the Confederacy.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

In 1860, disgruntled secessionists in the deep North rebel against the central government and plunge America into Civil War. Will the Kingdom survive? The land will run red with blood before peace comes again.

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

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