Civil War Soldiers, North and South, Motivated by Patriotism

Why did the Southern and Northern soldiers fight? If we could survey both sides, what would be the results? We cannot survey those soldiers now. They are long gone. Dr. James McPherson, however, conducted a survey of sorts. In For Cause and Comrade by James McPherson (Oxford Univ. Press 1997), Dr. McPherson did the next best thing. He looked at personal letters and diaries of both Union and Confederate soldiers to ask the fundamental question, what motivated them to join, and then to remain in a very harsh military service.

Dr. McPherson reviewed the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. Dr. McPherson reviewed some 25,000 to 30,000 letters to prepare this study. For Cause, p. 183. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian. He received a Pulitzer for his book, Battle Cry of Freedom.

As a combat veteran I can attest that the willingness to endure hardship and danger is not an easy choice. As Dr. McPherson mentions, once the choice is first made, the typical combat soldier is forced to re-examine his choice at least two more times, once after his first battle and then again when/if he re-enlists. So, the average Confederate soldier had to choose to risk his life and the lives of his family (because life in a rural society without the men was extremely hard) about three times.

Motivated by Patriotism

According to Dr. McPherson’s study, 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic fervor for the South. That is, at the start of the war, their service was motivated by patriotism. After the South instituted conscription later in the war, that sense of patriotism only motivated 14% of soldiers.

Compare these numbers to the Union soldiers who enlisted before 1863 and the U.S. Conscription Act. Some 61% of those soldiers expressed a sense of patriotism as motivation early in the war. That numbers drops to 43% for Union soldiers who enlisted after conscription. That is, for Union soldiers joining the army after the beginning of the war, only 43% mentioned patriotism as a motivating factor.  For Cause, p. 102.

Motivated by the Slavery Issue

Some 20% of Confederate service members espoused pro-slavery views as a motivation for serving. For Cause, p. 110. When controlling for slave holding families, the author found that 33% of Confederates who came from slave-owning families expressed protecting slavery as a motivation for serving. While, among non-slave holding families, only 12% of Confederate soldiers expressed protecting slavery as a motivation for serving. But, even among those slave-holding soldiers, they preferred to talk about liberty, rights and the horrors of subjugation by the North. For Cause, p. 110.

The slavery issue is more complicated for Union soldiers. Opinion spiked considerably during the Fall, 1862 and Winter of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was first announced and then implemented. Pre-war professionals in their civilian occupation and officers generally were more likely to support the Proclamation. McPherson finds that overall 36% of Union soldiers supported the Proclamation, while 16% opposed it. McPherson’s sample is necessarily limited by the fact that persons most likely to write letters and diaries were the pre-war professionals and officers. He suggests the typical regiment was the 15th Iowa regiment which took a poll on the Emancipation Proclamation. Half the men endorsed it. 25% opposed it. 25% had no opinion. For Cause, pp. 123-124.

Avoiding Subjugation by the North

Many Southerners fought to avoid enslavement by the North. They believed the North sought to subjugate the South. For Cause, p. 21. Many enlisted to defend their home from the invading Yankees. For Cause, at p. 22.

John Mitchel, the Irish rebel and editor for a time of two Richmond newspapers during the war, insisted the North was seeking to subjugate the South as Great Britain had subjugated Ireland. The Republican party did evolve from the Know Nothing Party. Most Irish suspected the Republican party of harboring anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.

Secession Resolutions

In assessing the motivation of the individual soldier, McPherson never discusses the secession resolutions issued by the few Southern states that did so. It is doubtful any soldier consider those resolutions in deciding whether to enlist or not.

Anecdotal Evidence

On May 18, 1865, one 1LT William T. Mumford went to the home of my ancestor’s aunt in New Orleans. Entertained by the ladies, likely, including my GGG grand-mother, the lieutenant spoke the words all veterans would like to utter when s/he first returns home, “we could not have received a warmer reception. . . . The New Orleans ladies shall long be remembered for their devoted patriotism.” My GG grandfather likely met his future wife that day.

Consider the persons likely present at that gathering. William Agar and his wife, Theresa. Their cousin, Dick Price, was a captain in the First Louisiana Heavy Artillery Regiment. This author’s ancestor, 1LT George P. Crane served in the same regiment, as did 1LT Mumford. Theresa was sister to Anastasia Crane Chism. The Crane/Chisms lived next door to the Agars. Living a block away was Theresa’s other sister, Katherine and her husband, Edward Rice. George P. Crane likely met his future wife, Katherine Judson, at this gathering. Katherine Judson was daughter to Mills Judson, a well-known and well-love merchant and banker in New Orleans. Mills was a native of Connecticut. Cyrus Chism, husband to Anastasia, was born in Maine.

William Agar and Edward Rice were both commission merchants. They sold crops for the commission. They were heavily dependent on rice, sugar and some cotton crops. Cyrus Chism sold bags and ties, often for rice crops. Mills Judson was deeply involved in general New Orleans business. By the time of 1LT Mumford’s visit, all the men and their families had gained considerable wealth from the slave based economy. William Agar, Edward Rice, and the three sisters, Theresa, Anastasia and Katherine were Irish born. Everyone present for that gathering were looking at economic ruin. Everyone present were likely to lose everything they had gained. Yet, Mumford records in his diary no despair about the loss of slavery and the slave based economy. Instead, his one mention concerned the of the “patriotism” of the ladies.

Folks claim the Confederate memorials represent Jim Crow and an attempt to intimidate blacks. But, that was not the case in San Antonio. At the dedication of the confederate memorial, John H. Reagan spoke. Judge Reagan had been the Postmaster General of the Confederacy. After the war, he urged reconciliation between the North and the South. They called him the “Old Roman” for his efforts to make peace between the two regions. Later, he became the first head of the Railroad Commission in Texas and was noted for his opposition to the unbridled power of the railroad.

As McPherson explains, his study does not mean 57% of Confederate soldiers and 61% of Union soldiers were in fact motivated hy a sense of patriotism. This study does mean 57% of Confederate soldiers and 61% of Union soldiers expressed their motivation in letters or diaries. Unlike an actual survey, the sample pool is limited to persons who chose to express their motivation at the time.  

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