Book review – J. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Baton Rouge, Lo., 1994)

Professor James McPherson makes a convincing case on the importance of ideology and political belief in the explaining why 3 million Americans enlisted, fought and endured during the US Civil War.[1]


James McPherson starts his book by arguing that motivation was critical to persuade men to enlist, fight and endure the war on both the Union and Confederate sides. Discipline in both armies was lax, the coercive powers of both governments, north and south, was ‘flaccid’ and for the vast majority of (white) combatants, subordination and obedience to the state was alien as their civilian experience which was routed in democratic traditions, individualism and self-reliance.[2]

The first area that McPherson tackles is why men enlisted. He believed that the initial rage militare was important for many men joining up in the first few months.[3] The majority of volunteers on both the Confederate and Union sides gave reasons of honour, duty and defending freedom, their home and their way of life from the other side as the main motivators for donning the grey or blue uniform.[4]

Confederate soldiers

McPherson argues that the motivation to endure and fight sprang from a multiplicity of sources. Primary group cohesion was important as was leadership based on paternal care and courageous personal example by NCOs and officers.[5] Letters and support from home was also critical in sustaining morale as nearly all military formations were recruited, raised and financed from and by local communities.[6] Regimental pride, also often based on these local associations, was also essential to persuade men to fight.[7] He also asserts that the religious convictions of soldiers brought solace to many in helping them cope with the dangers of battle, fear of death and even the act of killing.[8]

  However, he argues that the most dominant factor in combatant motivation was ideology. Both sides claimed to be fighting for liberty and that each were the true custodians of the 1776 Revolution’s legacy. Southerners saw their attack on the north as defending their Southern ways of life, slavery and right of self-determination, as George Washington had fought against the British.[9] Northerners, on the other hand, believed that they were fighting to preserve liberty, the constitution and the rule of law against a rebellion that opposed a democratically elected government and was bent on anarchy and destroying the unity of the USA.[10] Few Union soldiers at the start of the war saw the Northern cause as abolishing slavery.[11]

McPherson takes issue with the notion that Civil War soldiers did not know what they were fighting for. He argues that ‘ideological motifs almost leap from the pages’ of letters, diaries and memoirs. Participants were highly literate (80% of Confederate soldiers, 90% of Union men) and men avidly read the newspapers and conducted political debates amongst themselves.[12] The motivation of individuals was closely connected to embedded cultural ideas of honour, valour, courage, duty and patriotism. Society was highly individualistic and self-reliance was prized and men were expected to have ‘character’ and live up to these values which were important aspects of masculinity. He argues that these cultural values and societal expectations created strong individual and social pressures to expound and live by these ideals.[13] These beliefs were more prevalent in the writings of middle class and educated men but they had wide currency across society. Men brought these values and principles into their service in uniform and they formed the basis for their rationale for fighting.[14]

He suggests that the ideas of honour, duty and patriotism were important throughout the war but conditions of conflict created its own series of influencers that persuaded men to fight and withstand.[15] For example, the desire for revenge and vengeance acted as a motivator as the war progressed, states were invaded, communities were damaged and friends killed.[16]

Flag of the Confederacy

An important issue to consider in McPherson’s study is whether his sources are representative of the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies. He used the letters, diaries and memoirs of 1,076 men which he regards as broadly representative of the men who fought in terms of demographics, marital status and geographical origin.[17] Historians have to work with the material that is available but they have to highlight if there are any major omissions or biases in their evidential base. McPherson is judicious in admitting that his sample favours those literate men who left written records who tended by default to be white, officers and drawn from the middle or upper classes.[18]

Flag of the Union

Overall, McPherson’s book is impressive. Many other historians have examined the same material as McPherson and reached different conclusions but he makes a convincing case for the dominant role of ideology in combat motivation of Civil War soldiers.[19] He does not discount other forms of motivation but suggests that an army made up of overwhelmingly volunteer soldiers brought with them their civilian ideals, attitudes and expectations with them into service. He suggests that for modern audiences, understanding that soldiers could be motivated by belief and ideology is difficult but he points out that ‘our cynicism about the genuineness of such sentiments is more our problem than theirs’.[20]



[2] J. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Baton Rouge, Lo, 1994), p.6.

[3] Ibid., pp.14-17.

[4] Ibid., pp.19-22.

[5] Ibid., pp.86, 53-67.

[6] Ibid., pp.131-147.

[7] Ibid., p.82.

[8] Ibid., pp.62-76.

[9] Ibid., pp.104-110

[10] Ibid., pp.110-114.

[11] Ibid., p.118.

[12] Ibid., pp.11, 91-93.

[13] Ibid., p.61.

[14] Ibid., p.100-102.

[15] Ibid., pp.172-174.

[16] Ibid., pp.148-162.

[17] Ibid., p.viii.

[18] Ibid., p.ix.

[19] Review by W.A. Blair, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 119:3 (7/1995), pp. 290-293.

[20] McPherson, For Cause, p.100.