Author delves into Civil War psyche

Posted: October 25, 2012

The Winchester Star

James McPherson speaks at Daniel Morgan Middle School. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — The idea of standing in a field amid a blaze of cannon fire and bullets should make anyone want to turn and run.

But if that’s the case, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson asked himself, what could motivate 3 million Union and Confederate soldiers to walk forward into such a horrifying scene?

Finding the answer to that question was the driving force behind “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War,” the 2012 One Book One Community selection.

McPherson appeared Wednesday night at Daniel Morgan Middle School for the year’s culminating One Book One Community event. The book was chosen because of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Letters and diaries represent an almost unique source of firsthand Civil War information, McPherson said. Not only were the two armies the “most literate in history to that time,” but there was no censorship of them.

Politics, ideologies, relationships between officers and soldiers, the recounting of battles — everything was written down and shared with families and friends back home, he said.

From 1987 to 1996, McPherson poured over original letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers, making a systematic investigation into the hearts and minds of the men as they were living the conflict.

“It was not what they wrote later in memoirs or said later in their veterans groups to look back on the war. I wanted what they wrote in their letters and diaries at the time,” said McPherson, who won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for “Battle Cry of Freedom” — also about the Civil War — which has sold more than 600,000 copies.

“For Cause and Comrades” has sold about 100,000 copies since it was published in 1997, and won the Lincoln Prize — awarded annually for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, or the American Civil War soldier, or a subject relating to their era — in 1998.

He talked to a crowd of about 200 people about the driving forces that made men suffer through four years of pain, malnutrition, disease, danger and homesickness rather than return home, where they longed to be.

During the Civil War, the traditional ways of motivating soldiers — discipline, training and leadership — were highly lacking, McPherson said. Instead, it was the bond of the unit, who became “a band of brothers,” that drove the soldiers.

In the words of one soldier, “No man fights for a cause. When the chips are down, one man fights to help the soldier next to him,” McPherson read.

Survival and individual and collective self-respect relied heavily on the unit. The “compulsion of the peer group” was greater than anything exerted by officers or even the state, he said.

The thing many soldiers seem to fear most was the threat of being seen as a coward. The label not only branded the soldier, but since regiments often came from the same town or area, it also brought shame to his family.

The ideology of a war always is a hotly debated issue. While many people question whether the soldiers really knew what they were fighting for, McPherson saw in the materials he read strong evidence that many were aware of and concerned about the “issues at stake.”

The soldiers on both sides strongly identified with the revolutionaries of 1776, but they each interpreted the definition of liberty “in completely opposite ways,” McPherson said.

While Confederate soldiers fought for independence against “a tyrannical government,” Union soldiers fought to “preserve the nation conceived in liberty.”

“They felt the founding fathers were looking over their shoulders,” he said.

McPherson is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, emeritus, in the Department of History at Princeton University.

This is the 10th book the community has read as a group. The goal of the One Book project, which was introduced in 2002, is for the entire community to read the same book at the same time.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com