James McPherson wondered this, so he researched over 25,000 uncensored letters to friends and family, and almost 250 private diaries from soldiers fighting for the Confederacy and soldiers fighting for the Union. He then took what he learned and wrote the book For Cause and Comrades, and found certain ideals that, he believes, are key reasons as to why these men fought each other over this conflict. McPherson argues that the initial impulse of the soldiers to fight the war was the simple “military rage” that follows after the declaration of any war.
In most cases “military rage” is short lived, and mostly just talk, and then people back down when asked to rise up and fight. But in the Civil War, men were tearing down doors in order to enlist, and they continued to do so after the initial excitement had died down. McPherson also follows French Revolution Historian John Lynn in dividing soldiers motivation to fight into three sections throughout the war. “I have borrowed part of my conceptual framework from John A. Lynn, an historian of the armies of the French Revolution.
Lynn posited three categories: initial motivation; sustaining motivation; and combat motivation. The first consists of the reasons why men enlisted; the second concerns the factors that kept them in the army and kept the army in existence over time; and the third focuses on what nerved them to face extreme danger in battle. These categories are separate but interrelated” (McPherson, 12). One important aspect was that men fought because of the desire to have this sense of manliness and doing things to prove it. Two versions of manhood competed in the Victorian era: the hard-drinking, gambling, whoring two-fisted man among men, and the sober, responsible, dutiful son or husband. Some soldiers found that the army transformed them from one kind of man to the other, better kind” (McPherson, 26). Courage played a huge role in determining one’s level of manliness. The more courage you showed, the manlier you were. And with every man trying to prove himself better than the others, it played a key role in why Civil War soldiers continued to fight for as long as they did.
The war started out with the soldiers having a sense of false courage. Most of them hadn’t seen battle yet, and they were often unsure if they war would end before they had the chance to make their mark. But this behavior of being “pumped up” and excited for battle was just pre-battle adrenalin. They were not truly being courageous until after they had experienced the horror of the bloodshed, and decided to continue to endure it all over again. When it had been experienced, the emotional impact of it was overwhelming.
Many wrote in their letters to loved ones saying “I hope I will never be in another…no man can tell me anything about war I have got a plenty” (McPherson, 33), and “I am satisfied with fighting. I wish the War was over”(McPherson, 33). McPherson compared these feelings to those men who fought in World War II, mostly the 101st Airborne Division who took part in the D-Day Invasion. “Before their drop behind German lines on D-Day, men in the elite 101st Airborne Division were ‘gung-ho’.
When the survivors returned to England to prepare for their next mission, ‘the boys aren’t as enthusiastic or anxious to get it over with as they were before Normandy. Nobody wants to fight anymore. ’”(McPherson, 35) This is when the courage began to show. Even after seeing the “elephant”, a metaphor used by McPherson in place of battle, the men remained determined to fight. They came to realize that courage meant to stand up against and conquer their fear, not just feeling fear itself. It was at its worse before the battle had even begun.
Once it began only their courage and adrenaline could keep them going. They also began of noticing ways to relieve their tension. One way was yelling at the top of their lungs, and this it to be thought as the origin of the famous Rebel Yell. The men didn’t understand the changing in their body chemistry, so they were dumbfounded when they could overcome illness, disabilities, and sometimes-even wounds in order to fight. After the battle had ended, most men were overcome with exhaustion. When they finally could rest, thoughts and nightmares of the battle would fill their heads.
They experienced breakdowns, little sleep, appetite loss, and hot flashes quickly followed by the chills. But, nonetheless, they pursued on. The last thing they wanted was to give up or be taken over by their dreams. To them, retreating or going home was a loss of courage. “Civil War soldiers had never heard of the terms ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’ or ‘combat stress reaction’ or ‘psychiatric casualties’. But many of them experienced the symptoms these terms attempt to describe. A word that was familiar to them, however, was ‘courage’.
And they understood that combat stress reaction was a loss of courage, a loss of the will to go on fighting”(McPherson, 163). It soon was known that courage wasn’t only shown and proven on the field of battle, but to have the determination and desire to endure all else that comes along with warfare: scarcity of food, changes in weather, not having proper shelter, little sleep, having to march for hours every day, and not knowing if you were going to see your friends and family ever again. These were the things that took up most of the soldiers’ lives; fighting in battle was only a small percentage.
McPherson quoted a major in the 11th Georgia on his definition of what courage was in 1863; “…not as merely bravery in battle, but also the nerve to endure rain, and snow, and sleet, and the privations of Winter, and the scorching sun of Summer…to undergo extreme fatigue, to subdue the pains of hunger… to do battle with sickness and despondency and gloom as with the Country’s enemies. And above all to hold one’s self patiently and cheerfully ready to meet the shocks of battle” (McPherson, 163-164). Although many other factors were involved as to why the men stuck it out, I believe courage is the root to them all.
It takes courage to defend your family and land, which is what made your honorable. It takes courage to believe in God, and know that he is watching over you, and guiding you. It takes courage to stand up for your country and fight for what you believe in. It’s amazing how these men continued to fight, and continued to be courageous when they had so many things going against them. It’s better understood as to why they volunteered in the first place, but it is amazing how so many stayed until they died or the war was declared over. Courage is a strong factor for anyone, but the way it is displayed through these men is miraculous.