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

by James M. McPherson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 5, 1998 0195124995 978-0195124996
General John A. Wickham, commander of the famous 101st Airborne Division in the 1970s and subsequently Army Chief of Staff, once visited Antietam battlefield. Gazing at Bloody Lane where, in 1862, several Union assaults were brutally repulsed before they finally broke through, he marveled, "You couldn't get American soldiers today to make an attack like that." Why did those men risk certain death, over and over again, through countless bloody battles and four long, awful years ? Why did the conventional wisdom -- that soldiers become increasingly cynical and disillusioned as war progresses -- not hold true in the Civil War?

It is to this question--why did they fight--that James McPherson, America's preeminent Civil War historian, now turns his attention. He shows that, contrary to what many scholars believe, the soldiers of the Civil War remained powerfully convinced of the ideals for which they fought throughout the conflict. Motivated by duty and honor, and often by religious faith, these men wrote frequently of their firm belief in the cause for which they fought: the principles of liberty, freedom, justice, and patriotism. Soldiers on both sides harkened back to the Founding Fathers, and the ideals of the American Revolution. They fought to defend their country, either the Union--"the best Government ever made"--or the Confederate states, where their very homes and families were under siege. And they fought to defend their honor and manhood. "I should not lik to go home with the name of a couhard," one Massachusetts private wrote, and another private from Ohio said, "My wife would sooner hear of my death than my disgrace." Even after three years of bloody battles, more than half of the Union soldiers reenlisted voluntarily. "While duty calls me here and my country demands my services I should be willing to make the sacrifice," one man wrote to his protesting parents. And another soldier said simply, "I still love my country."

McPherson draws on more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 private diaries from men on both sides. Civil War soldiers were among the most literate soldiers in history, and most of them wrote home frequently, as it was the only way for them to keep in touch with homes that many of them had left for the first time in their lives. Significantly, their letters were also uncensored by military authorities, and are uniquely frank in their criticism and detailed in their reports of marches and battles, relations between officers and men, political debates, and morale. For Cause and Comrades lets these soldiers tell their own stories in their own words to create an account that is both deeply moving and far truer than most books on war.

Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Civil War, was a national bestseller that Hugh Brogan, in The New York Times, called "history writing of the highest order." For Cause and Comrades deserves similar accolades, as McPherson's masterful prose and the soldiers' own words combine to create both an important book on an often-overlooked aspect of our bloody Civil War, and a powerfully moving account of the men who fought it.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Consider a war in which 25,000 soldiers are killed or wounded in a single battle, as they were at Gettysburg, or 16,000 in a single day, as at Antietam. The degree of suffering and hardship during the American Civil War has been well documented and analyzed in books and films from Margaret Mitchell's fictional Gone with the Wind to Bell Irvin Wiley's classic studies of Civil War soldiers, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. All these sources agree on the brutality of the combat, but what motivated soldiers to continue fighting under such bitter conditions is the cause of some controversy. Until recently, the common stance has been that soldiers enlisted out of economic need and stayed out of loyalty to their comrades. The respected Civil War historian James M. McPherson weighs in with a different point of view in For Cause and Comrades.

Professor McPherson posits that the common rank-and-file soldiers did indeed hold political and ideological beliefs that prodded them to enlist and to fight. His research is based on letters and diaries from 1,076 Union and Confederate soldiers. These reveal many motivations, but always they lead back to duty, honor, and a cause worth dying for. For Cause and Comrades is a fascinating exploration of the 19th-century mind--a mind, it seems, that differs profoundly from our own. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

YA. This powerful commentary by today's premier Civil War historian is truly compelling in its depth and intensity. McPherson has extrapolated and quoted from over 25,000 letters and 249 diaries of more than 1000 Union and Confederate soldiers. The documentation is impressive and is successful in substantiating the thesis that many motivations were at work in the hearts of the Civil War fighting men; but on the whole, they were driven by noble ideals of honor; duty; and devotion to God, country, home, and family. Many of the letters tell of the loneliness, depression, discouragement, exhaustion, pain, hunger, and lack of sanitation. The written words of these young soldiers are simple in expression but poignant in emotion. Frequently, after quoting a touching passage written to a wife, mother, or other family member, McPherson comments that the aforementioned soldier was killed on the battlefield or died of disease. The book fills readers with a profound respect for the soldiers who struggled so valiantly for the cause in which they believed. Interesting appendixes on the geographical origins of soldiers and their occupations give students an illuminating view of both armies. Extensive footnotes enhance the value of the volume.?Peggy Mooney, Pohick Public Library, Burke, VA
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 5, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195124995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195124996
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,059 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author


James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, Crossroads of Freedom (which was a New York Times bestseller), Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the Lincoln Prize.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What motivated the Civil War soldier? December 23, 2003
Format:Paperback
This book is a very refreshing twist on Civil War history. In this work, as well as in his book What They Fought For, noted Civil War historian James McPherson explores what exactly motivated men to fight in the war. Having done exhaustive research to the tune of diaries and letters from nearly 1,000 soldiers, most of them obscure and average men, McPherson is aptly qualified to perform this work. He looks at several factors, from group unity to sense of honor to desire for vengeance, in an attempt to understand the average Civil War soldier, and ultimately makes a strong case for the idea that Civil War soldiers were idealistic men who were not ignorant of the issues at stake and who were motivated by an extraordinary desire to fight for their beliefs. This, McPherson argues, sets them apart from soldiers in other wars.

As is always the case with McPherson, this book is very well written and enjoyable to read. Most of this book is composed of quotes from various soldiers with McPherson's interpretation and narrative interjected only often enough to keep the discussion flowing. He does a wonderful job of integrating the quotes and making them fit perfectly into what he's trying to say. McPherson's use of quotations from the men who were actually there is infinitely more effective in proving his point than anything he could say himself, and this is what makes this book so great. There are hundreds of books out there that will tell you WHAT happened, but this book is one of only a few that will try and explain WHY and HOW things happened.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is a wonderful book. Prof. McPherson read over 30,000 letters and diaries for this, and thus I think he has provided one of the most thorough and thought provoking treatments of the psychology of Civil War soldiers and studies on why exactly they fought.
For this work, Prof. McPherson also incorporates theories, reports, and research of the combat motivation, effects of combat, and psychology of men and soldiers in others war such as WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War, not to mention general medical studies from British, American, and German armies. In some instances, he uses modern knowledge to analyze the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers of the Civil War. As interesting as this is to show how soldiers in the Civil War had the same problems and feelings as most men of war, his academic findings illustrate how Civil War soldiers were also very different from soldiers in other wars.
The difference lay in their devout belief in their causes, and their sustained belief in those causes, and the close relationship with the men they fought with (which is a common thread for men of all wars), throughout the war. McPherson rarely goes on for more than a paragraph or two of his own narrating. He lets the voices of the men who fought take up 90% of the book, giving you a real sense of who these people were, and allowing the reader to derive an opinion for themselves, but always with McPherson's voice in the background guiding the reader, teaching you.
The causes brought up by the letters and McPherson are wide and varied, and McPherson makes sure to research each and explain as elaborately as possible, but quite noticable are the few main causes that men on both sides procliamed in verbose rhetoric.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Duty, Honor, and Devotion September 17, 2003
Format:Hardcover
Although Professor James McPherson wrote this study of the motivation of the Civil War soldier, it is not a great exaggeration to say that in this book the soldiers speak for themselves. Professor McPherson has read and analyzed a prodigious amount of source material written by Civil War combatants, Union and Confederacy, officer and enlisted soldier. For this book, he has taken a sample of the letters home and the diaries of 1076 soldiers, 647 Union and 429 Confederate to analyze their candid, uncensored reflections of why they fought. Professor McPherson also draws on many modern studies of combat psychology and utilzes their findings in discussing the Civil War soldiers.
Professor McPherson's sample is not statistically random and it may be skewed in some ways. For example, the sample does not include (obviously) illiterate soldiers or black soldiers. It tends to be tilted in the direction of those individuals who did most of the fighting and who were committed to their respective causes. Professor McPherson recognizes that many of the combatants were unwilling participants, particularly as the draft was instituted in both armies and that both armies included many shirkers. These individuals are not represented in his sample of letters. But still, these letters, written in the activity of soldiering and not intended for publication, are revealing of their authors' thoughts and feelings in a way impossible to replicate in other writings.
The letters reveal much about the motivation of the combatants and about life in Civil War America. Professor McPherson finds that many of the soldiers in the Civil War had a firm idea of why they were fighting. On both sides soldiers fought for the preservation of liberty and the duty they perceived they owed to their country.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Endless stories without a good connection
I read this some months ago and recall it being a struggle. It is more of a disjointed set of stories and letters with far too many names to remember and keep track of. Read more
Published 1 month ago by T. Raymond
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear, Concise and Engaging!
McPherson knows what he's about!! This book is incredible, a must read for everyone interested in the Civil War. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
1.0 out of 5 stars A typical anti-Southern McPherson book
I have read many McPherson books and as usual this one was the same. A well-researched book with an obvious anti-Confederate slant. Read more
Published 4 months ago by The Truth Seeker
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read
McPherson never disappoints. He integrates letters and diaries seamlessly into the narrative which is a moving account of soldiers fighting in the most horrific circumstances who... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Colleen Browne
5.0 out of 5 stars Good study on why men joined the fight and why they stayed after the...
I enjoy author McPherson's style and the way he presents his material; he's very readable and one can grasp what he's saying quite readily. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Jake
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Head of the Civil War Soldier
James McPherson's exploration of the Civil War soldiers' minds is based on the close reading of letters and diaries of more than 1,000 men. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Patrick Young
5.0 out of 5 stars For Cause and Comrades
A Great insight as to how The soldiers of both sides of The Civil War felt about the war and why they were in it.
Published 7 months ago by R. Williams
5.0 out of 5 stars THE BEST
SHOULD BE REQUIRED READING IN ALL AP US HISTORY CLASSES.

I USE THIS DATA AS THE HEART OF MY VETERANS DAY TALKS AT SEVERAL VFW AND LEGION POSTS. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jim Quinlan
4.0 out of 5 stars Insight into the civil war
This book was intriguing, but it was not my favorite book to read. It gave the reader insight into the reasons men fought this battle, and surprisingly it wasn't all about... Read more
Published 8 months ago by T.
1.0 out of 5 stars Displays the usual McPherson bias
There are indeed thousands of letter's, diary's, and articles written by average soldiers and officers, they exist in relatively even numbers among the veterans who fought for both... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Bill Swann
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