James M. McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades stresses the ideology that supported soldiers’ motivation to fight throughout the Civil War. Although he does not pretend to speak for all soldiers, a sampling of letters and diaries representative of men who enlisted in 1861 and 1862 leads McPherson to assert that volunteers, both Confederate and Union, not only understood ideology but also supported national goals connecting politicized ideals to their respective war efforts. Soldiers, in most cases, were undeniably “sick of war,” but McPherson claims that perceptions of liberty, independence, or simply the “good of mankind” supported men’s sustained motivation to continue to fight and perhaps even die for their cause.
McPherson’s work represents a significant challenge to earlier understandings of Civil War soldiers. Published respectively in 1943 and 1952, Bell Irvin Wiley’s Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank, for example, argued that ideological motivation was not a factor for Civil War soldiers. Rather, similar to American fighting men during World War II, unit cohesion – each man’s reliance on and concern for the other men in his primary unit – was the principal motivational force that kept Civil War soldiers in the ranks despite the constant threat of death. While Wiley’s scholarship was a major achievement in a field that at the time focused on the upper echelons of command and politics, his conclusions were nevertheless problematical. He failed to give proper attention to soldier testimony infused with ideological sentiment. McPherson agrees that mutual dependence and mutual support created the “cohesion necessary to function as a fighting unit” and was an integral factor in “combat motivation,” yet he suggests that this interpretation alone obscures the larger ideals at work. McPherson more closely examines the related thread of “sustaining motivation” and argues that the best combat soldiers were those most ideologically committed.
McPherson’s understanding of ideology is key to this additional layer of interpretation. He combines the broad notion of ideology as a system of beliefs, values, and fears with soldiers’ explicit nationalist sentiment. The politicization of belief systems and soldiers’ determination to advance national goals was the soldiers’ “cause.” Abstractions such as freedom, independence, and liberty coupled with Victorian notions of duty, honor, and manliness were paramount in the minds of many Union and Confederate soldiers alike. Their letters were filled with statements connecting intangible ideals to a national war effort, and in many cases, these connections served as justification to carry the fight forward. Sentiment suggesting ideology as a motivational force remained consistent for many soldiers throughout the war. Further, testimony reveals that issues generally connected only to patriotic sentiment at the point of enlistment were also an important part of sustaining motivation late in the war. Simply put, McPherson suggests that Civil War soldiers continued to fight for their respective causes because they believed in what they were fighting for.
Historians who focus on “war weariness” have exaggerated the connections between “harsh disillusionment” and the lack of determination to fight for ideological ideals. Gerald F. Linderman’s Embattled Courage, for example, argues that soldiers quickly abandoned the “war’s initial tenets” and fought not for cause but to simply stay alive. McPherson agrees that the “romantic flag-waving rhetoric” of the war’s first two years declined but claims that this was of little importance, particularly to those who enlisted in 1861 and 1862. The majority of these men clearly connected rhetoric regarding values such as duty and honor to national goals. Despite near universal grumbling and an acute war weariness that grew with each battle, whether preservation of Union or independence, each side’s national ideology was the primary factor for soldiers’ sustaining motivation.
In contrast, ideology figured little into one of the most well known accounts of soldier life written by a Union veteran. Published in 1887, John D. Billings’s Hardtack and Coffee, while briefly outlining the Republican Party’s ideological platform as a crucial factor in causation, focused primarily on the mundane. Billings, a volunteer artillerist who enlisted in 1862 to “stamp out” secession, offered the “unwritten story” to the public during a period where most first-hand accounts, such as those published in Century Magazine, concentrated on generals and battles. Hardtack and Coffee familiarized the reader with the day-to-day goings on of the common soldier. Concerns such as food, shelter, hygiene, and the idiosyncrasies of the author’s messmates and others are clearly the most important part of Billings’s life while serving in the army. While McPherson argues that ideology figured prominently in the mind of the Civil War volunteer soldier through 1865, sustaining ideological ideals are almost entirely absent from Billings’s story. How does one account for such a glaring discrepancy?
McPherson offers some possible clues. Importantly, works such as Billings’s and scores of others were written with the intention of publication, and thus must be read with a great deal of skepticism. Hoping for a wide public readership, veterans, for various reasons, were highly selective when it came to describing army life. Not unrelated, many soldiers refrained from describing combat experience to those who could not possibly understand. Ideological factors, profoundly connected to a soldier’s motivation to both enlist and continue the fight may have been intentionally filtered out of Hardtack and Coffee. Yet, there is the possibility that Billings lacked concern for ideology both in the 1880s and the 1860s. One cannot tell from his account. The fundamental point, one that McPherson emphatically makes, is that the type of sources used are crucial. Soldiers’ letters and journals, rather than work intended for publication, best reveal soldiers’ actual sentiment. Despite books such as Billings’s, McPherson persuasively illustrates the presence of ideology within the ranks through the unfiltered use of private correspondence. Ideological sentiment that appears so frequently and so forcefully in soldiers’ letters should not be dismissed, but rather, should be understood as the motivational factor that functioned to hold the armies together through the most difficult times until ultimately, either one side or the other prevailed on the battlefield.