Lesson Plans For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

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A decade later Mark Twain, who was to American literature as Lincoln was to American statesmanship, measured the impact of the Civil War with these words: it "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations. These are some of the reasons why so many people, including pretty much all of us in this room, find the Civil War such an important and challenging historical subject. But my own path to becoming a historian of the Civil War, especially of Civil War armies and navies, soldiers and sailors, has been different from that of many of my friends and colleagues.

Unlike some of you in this room, I did not have a youthful fascination with the war. When I arrived in Baltimore for graduate work in history, I did not know that the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction would become my field. Apart from a couple of books by Bruce Catton, I had not read anything specially on the subject.

I had not taken a college course on the Civil War era because my college did not offer such a course. I had a vague and rather naive interest in the history of the South, in part because, having been born in North Dakota and brought up in Minnesota, the South seemed exotic and mysterious.

My senior year in college was also the year that nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock under the protection of the United States Army. I was well enough acquainted with history and current events to know that the constitutional basis for their presence at Central High School was the 14th Amendment, one of the most important results of the Civil War. In retrospect, it seems clear that this awareness planted the seed of my professional interest in the Civil War. That seed germinated within days of my arrival at Johns Hopkins when, like other incoming graduate students, I met with my potential adviser, Vann Woodward.

My appointment had to be postponed for a day because Vann had been called to Washington to testify before a congressional committee about potential problems in Little Rock as a second year of school desegregation got under way. Here was a revelation: an academic historian offering counsel on the most important domestic issue of the time.


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And here also was a dramatic example of what our students ask for in history courses: relevance. If I had not seen the connection between the Civil War and my own times before this experience, I certainly discovered it then. That consciousness grew during my four years in Baltimore.

The last two of these years were the opening years of the commemoration of the Civil War centennial. But that made little impression on me at the time and had nothing to do with my becoming a Civil War historian because these were also the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of massive resistance to federal law by Southern political leaders, of Martin Luther King trying to persuade President John F. Kennedy to issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on the centennial anniversary of the original. I remember one incident with particular clarity.

Several dozen students from Hopkins and Morgan State held a meeting in a church to plan strategy for our picketing and sit-ins. It was customary on such occasions to sing a few songs to buck up our resolve. I can still recall the goose pimples that broke out on my skin as we all joined hands and sang—what? Not "We Shall Overcome. It was the singing of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that really brought the past and present together for me.

Slavery, therefore, seemed to be an absolute necessity for the state's white citizens. White soldiers from Mississippi reflected the state's position on slavery, but they fought for a variety of other reasons, too. Some joined the military to defend home and hearth, while others saw the conflict in broader sectional terms. The soldiers' motivation was generally more personal than it was ideological.

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson

Mississippi's location along the strategic Mississippi River made the state a scene of a number of major battles inside its boundaries or nearby. Black and white Mississippians not only sent soldiers to war, they frequently experienced hard fighting first hand. White and black soldiers from Mississippi contributed to both the Union and Confederate war efforts, fighting within the state and as far away as the battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Around 80, white men from Mississippi fought in the Confederate Army; some white Mississippians fought for the Union.

More than 17, black Mississippi slaves and freedmen fought for the Union.


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  • A large but undetermined number of slaves served as body servants to white Confederate officers and soldiers, built fortifications, and did other manual labor for the Confederate Army. The thought of a black man carrying a rifle was a horror to most white Mississippians, and the state resisted the enlistment of slaves even after the Confederate Congress authorized the policy near the end of the war in March Information on the black Mississippian's role in the Civil War military is limited. The filming of these documents, including material on Mississippi, will begin in and microfilm should become available for public use soon after.

    Not surprisingly, more data is available on the white Mississippi fighting man than on the black one. The typical Confederate soldier from the Magnolia State was very similar to the average Civil War soldier, whether Union or Confederate. Thus, most generalizations about all Civil War fighting men apply to those from Mississippi as well.

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    Most Civil War soldiers were young men, eighteen to thirty years of age, but some were boys and old men who carried rifles. Most came from rural areas, had little education, and had never been far from home.

    Fighting in the great war, despite its horrors, was the greatest adventure of their lives. Historians have been able to write important books on Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, as they were called, because these soldiers kept diaries and wrote letters.

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    An Evening with James M. McPherson

    They also preserved their writings. Probably more personal historical data is available on the common Civil War white soldier than about participants of any other war in American history. Because so much material exists on these fighting men, it is impossible to discuss here every aspect of soldiers' lives or even to present anything but a tiny sampling of the letters and diary entries they wrote.

    These selected writings and this commentary allow the reader to gain an insight into the minds and experiences of the soldiers, though that insight is limited. Perhaps the sampling, although limited, will encourage readers to probe more deeply. The bibliography that accompanies this essay contains a list of books that investigate in depth the experiences of black and white soldiers. These books, part of the excellent historical writing about the Civil War, provide detailed and analytical insights. Numerous histories of military units, biographies of military leaders, and published soldiers' diaries and correspondence, also contain excellent information on these troops.

    State and local history journals, like the Journal of Mississippi History , have, over the years, regularly printed soldiers' diaries and letters. What kind of information is available? As the writings included with this essay show, anyone interested in learning about Civil War soldiers will have no problem finding pertinent material. In a concise, lucid narrative that draws on extensive archival research, he argues that soldiers on both sides expressed a commitment to defend political principles; matters of duty, honor, and proving their manhood also spurred them forward.

    McPherson acknowledges differences between Union and Confederate soldiers as well as some variations within each army: Confederate slaveholders, for example, were much more frank about the need to protect slavery then were their nonslaveholding counterparts in gray. One might wish for more inquiry about regional variations within each army, about those Union soldiers who did not reenlist in , or the increase in Confederate desertions as the war drew to a close, but on the whole McPherson offers a persuasive and provocative account of why Civil War soldiers fought.

    Book Review: For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson

    All levels. Simpson; Arizona State University. 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. 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. Drawing liberally from primary sources, he has written an absorbing account. Essential reading for Civil War collections in both public and academic libraries. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. Log In. My Account. Remember to clear the cache and close the browser window.

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