For Cause and Comrades

Why Men Fought in the Civil War

by James M. McPherson

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.

  • Oxford University Press; April 1997
  • ISBN: 9780199745227
  • Read online, or download in secure ePub format
  • Title: For Cause and Comrades
  • Author: James M. McPherson
  • Imprint: Oxford University Press

In The Press

"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
"McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, will make all of us rethink the meaning of the Civil War. By asking why men fought, and looking to the diaries and letters to see how and why they thought about war and its moral and ideological costs and consequences, McPherson puts us into the soul of America. This book will provoke and inform class discussions..."--Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's University
"Modern Americans often express astonishment at the commitment to their causes exhibited by Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Anyone hoping to understand what motivated soldiers in that horrific conflict should welcome James M. McPherson's For Cause and Comrades. McPherson uses letters and diaries of more than a thousand men to explore how religion, ideology, notions about honor and manhood, pressure from home, and hatred for the enemy contributed to a quite remarkable willingness to sacrifice. Reflecting the fruitful conjunction of an important topic and the talents of a major historian, this book merits the widest possible readership."--Gary W. Gallagher, Professor of American History, The Pennsylvania State University
"For Cause and Comrades adds to Professor James McPherson's luster as one of our foremost Civil War historians...He takes issue with other scholars who downplay or dismiss the idological commitments of Civil War soldiers, and argues persuasively that courage, honor, love of liberty and country had powerful meanings in North and South."--William J. Cooper, Jr., Boyd Professor of History, Louisiana State University
"Another excellent 'must read' from the dean of modern Civil War scholars. Thought provoking."--Ken Noe, State University of West Georgia
"A brilliant analysis of why they fought by a master of Civil War lore and history."--C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, Yale University
"At a time when the work of some of our leading historians bulge with theory, and carry meager evidence, McPherson shows us history at its best."--Gabor Boritt, Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies, Gettysburg College
"For Cause and Comrades is nothing short of an excellent book. The most accomplished Civil War historian of today has produced a richly-rsearched, elegantly-written volume that shatters once and for all the illusion that Civil War soldiers lacked an understanding of the monumental idological issues of their day. When students of the Civil War wonder what prompted those Confederates to storm Cemetery Ridge, or what motivated Union soldiers to pin their names to their jackets and then assault the ememy works at Cold Harbor, they need look no farther than For Cause and Comrades."--Joseph T. Glatthaar, Professor of History, University of Houston
"This is an excellent complement to McPherson's Ordeal by Fire. For Cause and Comrades lends a personal dimension to the soldiers' perspective of the meaning of this bitter national struggle."--Thomas Best, Monmouth College
"McPherson's newest addition to a long roster of books is valuable not only for Civil War afficionados but for students of military history generally."--Kirkus
"Essential reading for Civil War Collections in both public and academic libraries."--Library Journal
"McPherson convincingly maintains that the chief reason so many Civil War Soldiers fought so long and so resolutely was that they had an iron belief in their goals."--Los Angeles Times
"[McPherson] not only illuminates soldier resolve, but climbs inside the heads of Billies and Johnnies to explore much about what made them tick."--Michael E. Ruane, The Baltimore Sun
"The book fills readers with a profound respect for the soldiers who struggled so valiantly for the cause in which they believed."--School Library Journal
"[A] persuasive and provocative account of why the Civil War soldiers fought."--CHOICE

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.