James McPherson’s exploration of the Civil War soldiers’ minds is based on the close reading of letters and diaries of more than 1,000 men. He looks at why they enlisted, what sustained them through years of hardship, and how they prepared for and reacted to battle.
The letters come from Union and Confederate soldiers alike, but they under represent blacks and immigrants who combines to make up a third of Northern soldiers. I’ve written elsewhere about the problem of immigrant letters, but as more become available they provide a research avenue for a young historian.
Men enlisted in the two armies because of the intoxicating war fever in 1861, because of a sense of duty to their country or their state, to preserve their honor , to demonstrate their masculine virtue, and because they thought it would be the great adventure of their lifetime. What drove them into the army sometimes nourished them throughout their service, but many men had to find new reasons to stick as the reality of war shoved romantic preconceptions aside.
McPherson is one of our best historian-writers and For Cause & Comrades is one of his best books. Economically written but filled with information and insights, this classic takes you deeper into the mind of the white native-born soldier than any other short work.