Thursday, May 16, 2024

What Men Fought For in the Civil War: Confirming Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Scottish, Swedish, German, Irish, and French Soldiers of the Union Army at Corinth, Mississippi

The casualty rate for soldiers in the Civil War was higher than any war in American history. Why were these men willing to fight in such a bloody war.  What motivated them?  Were they fighting for a cause--out of a sense of duty to their country or devotion to some political principle such as liberty and equality?  Or were they fighting only for their comrades in arms?  Or were they coerced into fighting by threats of punishment for those who refused to fight?  And were the motives for the Union soldiers different from the Confederate soldiers?  

To answer these questions, historian James McPherson studied more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 private diaries written by 1,076 soldiers--647 Union and 429 Confederate--to see what they said about their motives for fighting (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]).  Of the almost 3 million men who were soldiers in the Civil War, about 2.1 million were Union soldiers.  So the Union army was more than twice as large as the Confederate army.

McPherson deliberately excluded writing that was written for publication--such as published memoires written or revised after the war was over--because he wanted to see what the men said candidly to their wives, fiancés, family members, and friends during the war, rather than what they might want to present to a public audience.  It was also important that they could speak bluntly and honestly because the Civil War armies did not censor the writing of their soldiers.

McPherson admitted that his samples of Union and Confederate soldiers were skewed in various ways.  The most obvious is that these samples of writing excluded the illiterate.  But that is not a serious limitation considering that about 90 percent of the soldiers in the Civil War were literate.  Most of the soldiers read the newspapers that were regularly circulated among the troops, which allowed them to follow the political news and debates throughout the war.

McPherson's samples were skewed in favor of those who volunteered early in the war in 1861-1862.  His samples contained disproportionately fewer men who entered the war in 1863-1864 as draftees, substitutes, or people who enlisted only because they were paid big bounties.  But McPherson saw this bias as actually beneficial because he wanted to explain the motives of Civil War soldiers for fighting, and it was known that draftees, substitutes, and those paid bounties tended to avoid the real fighting.  

In fact, it was widely reported that about one half of the soldiers were "skulkers" who found ways to hide or run away from the fighting.  Some deserted for good.  The diary entries of a private in the 101st New York candidly recorded his avoidance of the fight at the second battle of Bull Run:  August 29, 1862: "Marched about three miles and fought all day they marched us up to Reb battery and we skidadled then I fell out and kept out all day.  Laid in the wood all night with 5 or 6 others."  August 3o: "Laid in the woods all day while the rest were fighting" (7). 

The fighting soldiers were most likely to be killed, and so we can see that the soldiers in McPherson's samples were most likely to be real fighters.  The casualty rate for all Union soldiers was 5 percent.  But 17 percent of the soldiers in the Union sample were killed or mortally wounded.  Similarly, while the casualty rate for all Confederate soldiers was 12 percent, this was 29 percent for the Confederate sample (ix). 

After World War II, many studies of combat motivation in that war concluded that soldiers in combat are mostly moved by "primary group cohesion"--fighting for the survival of one's comrades--and that devotion to patriotic or ideological causes is unimportant.  Many historians have assumed that this must have been true for soldiers in the Civil War as well.  But McPherson's study of the letters and diaries that he collected refutes this.  Two-thirds of both Confederate and Union soldiers in his samples expressed some patriotic motives (duty and honor in fighting for one's country), and over 40 percent spoke about particular ideological principles such as liberty, self-government, and resistance to tyranny (114).  For example, an officer in the 54th Ohio said he was fighting for "the guaranty of the rights of property, liberty of action, freedom of thought, religion . . . that kind of government that shall assure life liberty & the pursuit of happiness" (112).

I see evidence in McPherson's work that the Union soldiers were more moved by liberal principles, and the Confederates more moved by antiliberal principles, and that Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address correctly saw that the Civil War would be the ultimate test of the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence.  

As Lincoln said, the Civil War was a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure.  If that nation could survive the Civil War and then be dedicated to a new birth of freedom, this would show to the world that popular or republican government shall not perish from the earth.   In McPherson's sample of letters and diaries, we can see that many of the men who fought in the Civil War saw the truth of Lincoln's interpretation of the war.


In 1861, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis appealed to the revolutionary spirit of "our fathers" who fought for American liberty in 1776.  Similarly, both Confederate and Union soldiers said they were fighting for the cause of liberty that began with the American Revolution.  The Confederates said they were defending their liberty from a tyrannical government.  Unionists said they were fighting to preserve the nation conceived in liberty from being destroyed by secessionist anarchy.  Clearly, Northerners and Southerners disagreed in their definitions of liberty.

A Mississippi Confederate private wrote to his wife in 1862 that "if we was to lose, we would be slaves to the Yanks and our children would have a yoke of bondage thrown around there neck."  A Kentucky Confederate wrote: "We are fighting for our liberty against tyrants of the North . . . who are determined to destroy slavery" (106).

Confederates who were slaveholders stressed their right to hold property in slaves as the basis of their liberty.  Even soldiers who were not slaveholders stressed the property they held as members of the white race as the basis of their liberty.  A Louisiana artilleryman in 1862 wrote: "I never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person.  There is too many free niggers . . . now to suit me, let alone having four millions."  A private in the 38th North Carolina wanted to show the Yankees "that a white man is better than a nigger."  A soldier from the Shenandoah Valley told his fiancée that he would fight to assure "a free white man's government instead of living under a black republican government" (109).

The Confederates believed in equality, but it was, as McPherson observed, "the equality of all who belonged to the master race," which supported "herrenvolk democracy" (109).

Thus, as Lincoln had said, the dispute between the North and the South was a conflict between contradictory definitions of the liberty and equality affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. 

In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois, defending his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow the people in the western territories to decide by majority vote whether they would become a slave state or a free state.  He insisted that a congressional prohibition on the expansion of slavery into the western territories would violate "the sacred right of self-government" by denying the right of the people to decide by popular vote whether they would have slavery.

Lincoln was in the audience for this speech, and he immediately responded with his own speech arguing that Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act would violate the policy set by Thomas Jefferson and other American founders--starting with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787--that prohibited the expansion of slavery into the western territories.  Lincoln denounced Douglas's claim that the "right of self-government" could establish slavery because this assumed a peculiar view of liberty: "That perfect liberty they sigh for--the liberty of making slaves of other people--Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago" (1989, 1:309).

In 1864, Lincoln saw this same disagreement about liberty as the underlying cause of the Civil War:

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.  We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.  With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.  Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty.  And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny."

"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one" (1989, 2:589-90).

This is the contradiction between a liberal definition of liberty and an illiberal.  In 1858, Lincoln had stated the liberal definition of liberty as the principle that "each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights" (1989, 1:449).  Notice that this is also a liberal definition of equality--every individual is equally free in his right to do as he pleases so long as he does not interfere with the same right of every other man.


Many of the soldiers in the Civil War--both Unionists and Confederates--believed that this conflict over the definitions of liberty and equality would be decided by God in war--the "God of Battles" as they called Him (67, 72, 122, 157).  These men had been shaped by the Protestant revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that swept over America in the first half of the nineteenth century.  In many military units, the soldiers organized their own revival meetings before and after battles to stir themselves up to a religious frenzy.  The armies in the Civil War might well have been the most religious armies in American history (Ahlstrom 1972, 385-509).

A Pennsylvania soldier explained that "religion is what makes brave soldiers."  One reason why that might be true is that the Christian belief in eternal salvation and life after death in Heaven could lessen the believer's fear of death in war.  A private in the 33rd Mississippi wrote to his wife: "Christians make the best soldiers as they would not fear the consequences after death as others would."  This was confirmed by the worries of nonbelieving soldiers.  A South Carolina artillery officer admitted that death terrified him because "I am not a christian--a christian can afford to be a philosopher because he believes in a certain reunion hereafter but a poor devil who cant believe it hasn't that support" (68).

Another reason why religion might make brave soldiers is that they can believe that God is on their side, and they can pray for God's help.  The problem here, of course, is that both sides in the Civil War thought they were fighting for God's cause.  As I have noted previously, the Civil War created a theological crisis for America that was sharply stated by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural.  "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes."

The Christian churches were split over the Civil War and particularly the issue of slavery.  Many of the Southern churches pointed to the Bible's clear endorsement of slavery.  But many of the Northern churches insisted that a just God must surely condemn slavery.  Lincoln suggested that God had given no clear answer to the question of whether He willed the preservation of slavery: "The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation--the Bible--gives none--or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning" (1989, 1:685).

Both Union and Confederate soldiers prayed to God to give them victory.  This is what Locke and the American Revolutionaries called the "Appeal to Heaven"--resolving a political dispute by going to war and allowing God to decide the winner.  Preparing to go into action at Vicksburg in 1863, a soldier in the 37th Mississippi declared: "Surely the God of Battles is on our side."  An Alabama artillery lieutenant wrote in February of 1863 that "I have always believed that God was with us--if I had not my arm would long since have been palsied."  Even after the fall of Atlanta in 1864, he still could not "believe that our Father in Heaven intends that we shall be subjugated by such a race of people as the Yankees" (72-73). 

But that is exactly what some devout Yankees believed.  A Pennsylvania private was sure "that God will prosper us in the movements about to be made against this cursed rebellion."  A lieutenant in the 16th New York, who would win the congressional medal of honor, wrote in 1862 that "the cause for which we battle is one in which we can in righteousness claim the protection of heaven.  Humanity is largely interested in the issues of this monstrous rebellion hence He who is the embodiment of humanity will bestow in great abundance His blessings upon his and our cause" (73).  In their letters and diaries, many Union soldiers expressed the same confidence that God was on their side of their just cause.

Did Lincoln agree with this?  Many people have interpreted his Second Inaugural Address as implying that God had been on the side of the Union, and that the Union soldiers were fighting a holy war.  But in the passage I just quoted, Lincoln suggests that we cannot know whether God is on one side or the other in this war: "The Almighty has His own purposes."

Moreover, in the first paragraph of the Second Inaugural, Lincoln suggests that the outcome of the war will be decided not by God's intervention but by the military actions of the armies: "The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.  With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured."  By the time of the Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) the victory of the Union over the Confederacy was clearly imminent.  Four weeks later--on April 9--Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

As Commander in Chief, Lincoln had always believed that a Union victory would depend on a military strategy to guide the movements of the Union armies and a political strategy for holding together a complex coalition of groups supporting the Union cause.  His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard Lincoln walking back and forth in his bedroom late into the night as he read and digested books on military strategy.  Every day, he studied the military reports coming in from the field; and he questioned his generals and admirals about what they were doing, meeting with them in Washington or in the field, or corresponding with them.

By early in 1862, Lincoln had formulated a military strategy based on the concept of "concentration in time."  In his book on Lincoln as Commander in Chief, McPherson explains this:

"Because the Confederacy's basic military strategy was to defend the territory that lay behind its frontier, Southern armies had the advantage of interior lines.  That advantage enabled them to shift reinforcements from inactive to active fronts, as they had done at Manassas in July 1861.  This concentration in space could be overcome only if the Union employed its greater numbers (a reality despite McClellan's belief to the contrary) to attack on two or more fronts at once--concentration in time" (2008, 70).

In a letter to Generals Buell and Halleck on January 13, 1862, Lincoln explained this strategy:

"I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much" (1989, 2:302).

Unfortunately, for two years, Lincoln could not find any generals willing to take his advice.  But, finally, in early 1864, Lincoln found the general who recognized the shrewdness of Lincoln's military strategy: Lincoln appointed Grant the general-in-chief of the armies.  Grant worked out a coordinated strategy for all major fronts.  Grant ordered five separate armies to advance simultaneously from exterior lines against five smaller Confederate armies so that they could not use their interior lines to reinforce one or another of them.  Lincoln told John Hay that Grant's plans reminded him of his own "suggestion so constantly made and as constantly neglected, to Buell & Halleck et al to move at once upon the enemy's whole so as to bring into action our great superiority in numbers" (Hay 1997, 193).  As carried out in 1864 by the team of Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan, this strategy won the war (McPherson 2008).

Notice that the key to this strategy was exploiting the advantage of the Union in its greater numbers of soldiers--over twice as many as the Confederates.  This was due to the greater population of the Northern states, which gave them a greater pool of potential military recruits.

Not only was the Confederacy weakened by its small total population--about one-third that of the Union--but as a slave society, the Confederacy lacked access to 40 percent of its adult male military-age population, who were enslaved and thus not eligible for service.  This left about 965,000 free white men between the ages of 18 to 45 to draw on for military service.  But then, of course, not every adult white man could serve.  This meant that at most the Confederacy could put an army of no more than about five hundred thousand men in the field (McCurry 2010).

The greater population of the North can be explained as largely the consequence of the liberal social order in the North that had attracted millions of immigrants from overseas and many migrants from the South.  The comparatively open and free society of the North offered more opportunities for people seeking a better life than did the illiberal South where slaves did most of the work.  As Lincoln said, in the free states, an ambitious man "can better his condition" because "there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer" (1989, 2:144).  Of the millions of overseas immigrants to the United States from the 1830s to the 1850s, most of them (about seven-eighths) settled in the North.  Also, the migration of white Southerners to the North was three times greater than the migration from the North to the South.

Over 40 percent of the Union's armed forces were immigrants and the sons of immigrants--totaling about 600,000 out of 2.1 million.  The Confederacy had only a few thousand immigrants fighting for them (Doyle 2015, 158-81).

Previously, I have written about immigration as cultural group selection that favors liberal regimes.

The number of Union soldiers was also increased, beginning in 1863, by the recruitment of emancipated slaves as soldiers.  By the end of the war, there were as many as many as 200,000 black Union soldiers.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was controversial, however.  And it did provoke debates among the Union soldiers.

I will take that up in my next post.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. 1972. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Doyle, Don H. 2015. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Hay, John. 1997. Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.  Eds. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lincoln, Abraham.  1989.  Speeches and Writings.  2 vols.  Ed. Don Fehrenbacher.  New York: Library of America.

McCurry, Stephanie. 2010. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McPherson, James M.  1997.  For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In the Civil War.  New York: Oxford University Press.

McPherson, James M.  2008.  Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.  New York: Penguin Press.

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