‘For Cause and Comrades’

Posted: October 9, 2012

Star staff report

James M. McPherson

The following introduction and excerpt were written and compiled by Mary Froehlich, a member of the One Book One Community committee, representing the Literacy Volunteers — Winchester Area

In 1862, a mere 150 years ago, thousands of men were engaged in a military struggle to guard national liberty and defend their homes and families.

Many of them were volunteers eager for adventure. Their officers were often leaders from their own hometowns. All had a great sense of honor and duty and they were deeply religious.

Ironically, half were fighting bloody battles to preserve the United States of America and the other half were fighting to support the Confederate States of America who had recently seceded from the United States.

The reasons for the conflict were cultural, economic and geographic. Selected for the One Book One Community 2012, For Cause & Comrades helps us understand why men from the North and from the South fought valiantly in the Civil War. Thanks to an efficient postal system on each side, archived letters provided Pulitzer prize-winning author James McPherson insights to the feelings and beliefs of the combatants. Also consulting diaries from the war years, he has provided us with a well-researched, balanced look into the past.


Chapter 4, page 61

The old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” has some relevance to Civil War soldiers. The institutional structure of the army could train and discipline them (after a fashion) could station cavalry or a provost guard in their rear, and could (sometimes) furnish courageous leaders. But these were not British redcoats or the professional soldiers of Frederick the Great. Neither the flaccid coercive mechanisms of Civil War armies nor charismatic leadership could alone or together have kept these armies in existence or made them fight. Like the horse that would not drink, these citizens in uniform would not fight unless they wanted to. They came from a society that prized individualism, self-reliance, and freedom from coercive authority. The army broke down some of this individualism, or tried to, but could never turn these volunteer soldiers into automatons.

The cultural values of Victorian America held each individual rather than society mainly responsible for that individual’s achievements or failures. What really counted were not social institutions but one’s own virtue, will convictions of duty and honor, religious faith — in a word, one’s character. God controlled human destiny, but God helped those who helped themselves. These were the beliefs and values that most soldiers brought with them into the army. Training, discipline, and leadership could teach them how to fight and might help them overcome fear and the instinct of self-preservation. But the deeper sources of their combat motivation had to come from inside themselves.


Chapter 5, page 65

Southern or Northern, Protestant or Catholic, soldiers across the class and ethnic spectrum echoed this positive religious fatalism. “The God who protects me in the peaceful walks of every day life, can as well preserve us in the battle’s front as in the shade of our own fig tree,” wrote an officer in the 28th Mississippi, a lawyer by profession. “This is a sustaining thought to me.” During his first months in the army, wrote a captain in the 47th Ohio, also a lawyer, “I thought of death on the battle field so often” that he was almost unnerved until he realized that “I am under the same protecting aegis of the Almighty here as elsewhere . . . It matters not, then, where I may be the God of nature extends his protesting wing over me.” During the Mine Run campaign in 1863, a sergeant in the 20th Indiana, a farmer’s son who had left medical school to enlist, wrote in his diary: At one P.M. we were told we would have to charge on the Rebel rifle pits, and works, this evening. — Felt very much downcast, but putting my trust in God felt more composed. His trust was not misplaced; both he and his brother survived the assault, and also survived the war, even though the 20th Indiana had one of the highest combat mortality rates of all Union regiments.

South defends invasions

Chapter 7, pages 95 and 96

The urge to defend home and hearth that had impelled so many Southerners to enlist in 1861 took on greater urgency when large-scale invasions became a reality in 1862. A Shenandoah Valley farmer serving with the 10th Virginia Cavalry learned that the Yankees had entered his county in April 1862. “I intend to fight them to the last,” he assured his wife. “I will kill them as long as I live even if peace is made. I never will get done with them.” Another Virginian declared to his wife two weeks before he was killed at Malvern Hill that to drive “the insolent invader . . . from the soil polluted by their footsteps . . . has something of the glorious in it, that appeals to other than those of patriotism and duty. Men who had opposed secession feelings were nevertheless roused to fighting pitch by Northern invasion. “If I am killed tomorrow,” said a major in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry on the eve of the battle of Fredericksburg, “It will be for Virginia, the land of my fathers*, and not for the damned secession movement.”


A Web chat with James McPherson scheduled from 10 to 11 a.m. today through The Winchester Star website, winchesterstar.comhas been canceled due to technical difficulties.

Readings from Civil War Diaries will be given at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Old Court House Civil War Museum.

McPherson will speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at Daniel Morgan Middle School with a book signing to follow.

Excepts will be printed Tuesdays through Oct. 23.

All events are free and open to the public.