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

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

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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.

From Library Journal

Volumes have been written on the causes of the Civil War, but less has been written on what caused soldiers to risk their lives on the battlefield. McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, (LJ 3/1/88), fills the gap. After studying thousands of letters and diaries, he discusses what really led soldiers to enlist, what kept them in the army, and what led them to the front lines. Examining Victorian America and its influence on soldiers' sense of duty, he considers factors of religion, liberty, and preservation of the Union and the deciding pull of self-preservation. McPherson maintains that Civil War soldiers enlisted with others from their community and stayed with them as a unit?living, fighting, and dying together. Drawing liberally from primary sources, he has written an absorbing account. Essential reading for Civil War collections in both public and academic libraries.?Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

McPherson's latest Civil War study addresses the question, What kept the soldiers fighting? McPherson has conducted a quasisurvey by poring over collections of soldiers' letters--a procedure he admits leads to biases of social class, education, and high motivation. Within those limitations, McPherson argues that the Civil War soldier not only knew modern unit cohesion (i.e., don't let your buddies down) but felt impelled by genuine political, ideological, and patriotic impulses to both enlist and remain in the field. Both Union men and Confederates regarded themselves as the true heirs of the American Revolution, and McPherson is admirably free of condescension toward those attitudes. He has also, as usual, researched thoroughly and written more eloquently than almost any other Civil War historian since Bruce Catton. The result is an invaluable book, though a saddening one as, time and again, we read that the author of some eloquent statement of commitment died in action, in Andersonville, or of the measles. Roland Green --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

A grunt's-eye account of the Civil War. Drawing on some 25,000 letters and 250 diaries from 1,000 Yankee and Rebel soldiers, Pulitzer Prizewinning historian McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom, 1989; Drawn with the Sword, 1996; etc.) examines what it was that kept these men engaged in a horribly bloody, and often mismanaged, conflict. Pondering the suicidal assault at Gettysburg that history remembers as Pickett's Charge, McPherson asks at the outset: Why did these soldiers ``go forward despite the high odds against coming out safely''? Why, despite frequent opportunities, did they not all cut and run for home, North and South alike? Comparing his findings to data from other wars, especially Vietnam and WW II, McPherson concludes that the seemingly quaint concepts of duty and personal honor motivated the fighters far more effectively than did ideas of patriotism, states' rights, or abolitionism, although those concepts were certainly powerful; and, he notes, ``the motivating power of soldiers' ideals of manhood and honor seemed to increase rather than decrease during the last terrible year of the war.'' Brave though these men were, their letters and diaries, filled with expressions of the loneliness and terror of combat, make for sobering reading. Many of the young writers (the median age of the combatants was about 24) did not outlive the war, and it is touching to read their hopeful words, even at strange turns, as when a Confederate officer urges his wife to buy another slave, remarking that, if the South loses, the money spent would be worthless anyway, while if the South wins, the slave's value would certainly increase. McPherson's own narrative is somewhat flat, but he touches on many points of interest, not least of them a thoughtful exploration of combat stress and the madness wrought by unrelenting battle. McPherson's newest addition to a long roster of books is valuable not only for Civil War aficionados but for students of military history generally. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review


"In For Cause and Comrades the voices of the young men of the North and South sing out to us clearly, colorfully, compellingly, telling us what it was like for them--the battles, the camps, the cold and hunger, the fear, the boredom, the despair, the triumph. "--The Wall Street Journal


"A stunning, authentic narrative of the war from beginning to end, woven out of totally disparate voices...but strikingly shared experiences."-- The Boston Globe


"In a prose that is both sensitive and remarkably lucid, [McPherson] helps us to reenter an American society in which ideals were not merely pat phrases but principles that inspired conduct--however hateful some of those principles were."--New York Review of Books


About the Author

James McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History at Princeton University where he has taught since 1962. The author of eleven books on the Civil War era of American History, he won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1989 for Battle Cry of Freedom.
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