A review of For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997) by James McPherson

Miss Emma Holmes of Charleston, SC, and a survivor of the War Between the States, has left us one of innumerable diaries from the South about the conflict of 1861-1865 (see The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes, 1861-1866 edited by John E Marszalek [Baton Rouge: LSU, 1979]. A few quotes from this source will serve to introduce Prof. McPherson’s latest work which is also a much needed corrective analysis of what the Civil War was all about.

“‘The United States,’ now alas broken into fragments through the malignity and fanaticism of the Black Republicans….Doubly proud am I of my native state, that she should be the first to arise and shake off the hated chain which linked us with Black Republicans and Abolitionists. . .” (Feb. 13,1861, p. 1)

“Old Abe Lincoln was inaugurated today amidst bayonets bristling from the housetops as well as streets. His speech was just what was expected from him, stupid, ambiguous, vulgar and insolent, and is everywhere considered as a virtual declaration of war.” (Mar. 4,1861, p. 11)

“Every day brings fresh accounts of the demoniac fury & hatred of the Northerners towards the Southerners & South Carolinians especially. The fury with which the ‘Sans Culottes’ of the French Revolution sought the Aristocrats never equaled theirs.” (May 1,1861, p. 40)

“It is worthy of remark how many of the descendants of Virginia’s revolutionary heroes are now holding high positions in the C. S. A [Descendants of Light-Horse Harry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and George
Washington are noted.] (May 13, 1861. p. 46)

“Their brothers [of the sisters named Bates] sympathize with the South and think that the North broke the Constitution thereby justifying secession. …” (June 1, 1861, p. 53)

“John Lothrop Motley, who wrote & published only four or five years ago an admirable and most intensely interesting history of the Netherlands, has just been made Lincoln’s second minister to Austria. . . . Motley is a Northerner but having depicted in such glowing, earnest, life-like colors the struggle of the Netherlands for liberty against the oppression of the House of Austria, it seems incomprehensible that he should consider us as rebels and take a strong part against us. I admired him not only for the fine execution of his work, which will undoubtedly take its stand as a classic, but for his heart whole enthusiasm in their struggles for that most glorious of all blessings—liberty—but he is an example for party spirit and inconsistency too common to the age.” (August 14,1861, p. 80)

“The free colored men of this city [Charleston] have had a meeting, collected $450 for the Soldiers Relief Society, passed resolutions very creditable to them indeed, and presented the money.” (Sept. 3,1861, p. 86)

“Cadet [William B.] McKee read a long paper [at the Citadel] giving the causes for Secession extending almost as far back as revolutionary times & ending with the Ordinance of Secession of South Carolina… .’’(Dec. 21,1861, p. 114)

“We, the free-born descendants of the Cavaliers [Whigs], to submit to the descendants of the witch burning Puritans, whose God is the Almighty Dollar. Never! I thank God I am a Southerner and South Carolinian.” (Feb. 14,1863, p. 232)

To encounter such statements nowadays is to be perplexed about 1861-1865. While historians have long settled on the twin themes of slavery and race as the causus belli of the Civil War, Miss Holmes yet refers to other issues and ideas that somehow are forgotten or what is worse even denied. Something is amiss here with Civil War historiography. Facts and interpretation do not quite coincide. This is where Prof. McPherson’s book represents such a valuable addition to the literature of the Civil War. In his view, ideas were important to Confederates and Yankees alike and especially so with respect to Liberty and the meaning of that concept (although and significantly each section interpreted it differently).

Having already defended the South in Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), it was not the South that changed but rather the North and the former “fought to protect their constitutional liberties against the perceived northern threat to overthrow them” based on a “concept of republicanism that had not changed in three-quarters of a century. . .” McPherson emphasis upon conflicting ideologies and constitutional issues is further elaborated in For Cause & Comrades. In what is the most exhaustive analysis yet of Civil War causation, McPherson’s “findings and interpretations. . .rest on [his] reading of letters and diaries in 574 manuscript collections in 22 research libraries and in private possession, plus diaries or sets of letters that were edited and published in 214 books and 403 periodical articles. …” All together, some “25,000 to 30,000 letters helped build up the composite portrait of Civil War soldiers” presented in For Cause & Comrades, (p. 183)

The origins of this particular book go back to a visit undertaken by Prof. McPherson with a history class to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1976. Remembering Pickett’s charge of 13,000 Confederate soldiers “under artillery and then rifle fire almost every step of the way,” the question arose as to why. “What made these men do it?” (p. 3)

While defense of home, family and personal honor and religion all played parts in men’s motivation on both sides, his chapter 8 on “The Cause of Liberty” is most instructive because it is the most obscured aspect of tire Confederate cause. To quote McPherson, “The profound irony of die Civil War was that, like Davis and Lincoln, Confederate and Union soldiers interpreted the heritage of 1776 in opposite ways. Confederates professed to light for liberty and independence from a tyrannical government. .. ,”(p. 104)

“The rhetoric of liberty that had permeated the letters of Confederate volunteers in 1861 grew even stronger as the war progressed. A corporal in the 9th Alabama celebrated his twentieth birthday in 1862 by writing proudly in his diary that ‘I am engaged in the glorious cause of liberty and justice, fighting for all that we of the South hold dear.”

“The lieutenant colonel of the 10th Tennessee declared in May 1862 that ‘my whole heart is in the cause of the Confederacy, because I believe that the perpetuity of Republican principles on this Continent depends upon our success.’ ”

From the diary of a Missouri Confederate, the words ‘fighting gloriously for the undying principles of Constitutional liberty and self government’ are to be found. (pp. 105, 106)

In 1863, a Confederate officer wrote the following to his wife: “I am sick of war [and] the separation from the dearest objects of life.” Yet, “were the contest again just commenced I would willingly undergo it again for the sake of…our country’s independence and liberty.” (p. 13)

While the defense of slavery was avowed by some Confederates, “most Southerner volunteers believed they were fighting for liberty as well as slavery.” (pp. 19, 20) “Southern recruits waxed most eloquent about their intention to fight against slavery than for it.. .that is, against their own enslavement by tire North.”

As one South Carolinian put it, “Sooner than submit to Northern slavery, I prefer death.” (p. 21)

“If we should suffer ourselves to be subjugated by the tyrannical government of the North, our property will be confuscated [sic]… & our people reduced to the most abject bondage & utter degradation.” Thus, this Virginia private continued, ‘“every Southern heart’ must ‘respond to the language of the great Patrick Henry in the days of ’76 & say give me Liberty or give me death.’ “ (ibid.)

In quantifying Southern opinion on the Civil War, McPherson concludes as follows: “It would be wrong, however, to assume that Confederate soldiers were constantly preoccupied with this matter [slavery]. In fact, only 20 percent of the sample of 429 soldiers explicitiy voiced proslavery convictions in their letters or diaries.” (p.110) Moreover, “Patriotic and ideological convictions were an essential part of the sustaining motivation of Civil War soldiers.” (p. 114)

Several other points deserve mention here. The first is that “Nonslaveholding farmers are under-represented in the Confederate sample.” (p. ix) Also, “More than 90 percent of white Union soldiers and more than 80 percent of Confederate soldiers were literate… .”(p. 11) Finally, “There is less emphasis on these [social-class] tensions than in recent scholarship.” While anti-Confederate sentiment was expressed, McPherson notes, “The soldiers who felt this way furnished a disproportionate number of deserters and skulkers.. .according to the letters of highly motivated volunteers.” (pp. 102-103) In other words, Prof. Fred A. Bailey’s study, Class and Tennessee’s Confederate Generation (Chapel Hill: UNC, 1987) overstates the matter of social tensions within the Confederacy, (p. 21 In) To his conclusion that “few Tennesseans were conscious of the major issues of the Civil War, and fewer still had any concept of the South’s goals” (p. 91), McPherson argues to the contrary: “Research in the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers will soon lead the attentive historian to a contrary conclusion. Ideological motifs almost leap from many pages of these documents.” (p. 91) (Prof. Bailey, it should be noted, is also a critic of Frank L. Owsley and his plain folk thesis.)

In conclusion, we come to a most perplexing question. If the South was right all along in secession and in its historical interpretation of early American history, and if it was the North that changed, why do Americans and most scholars believe otherwise? Suffice it to say for now that American and Southern history were rewritten by Northerners (and some Southerners) to give us the consensus view that still predominates today. To Prof. McPherson great credit is due for challenging long-accepted myths about the South, the North, and the Civil War. Every one, Southerner or Northerner, Confederate or Yankee, or neither, needs to buy For Cause & Comrades (and McPherson’s other books if they can afford it). There was more to the South than slavery and race after all and to understand the Civil War one needs to look above rather than below the Mason-Dixon line.

W. Kirk Wood

W. Kirk Wood holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of South Carolina. He taught history at Alabama State University from 1986-2010 and is the author of two books on nullification.

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