For Gold, Peace, and Freedom


Civil War Essay: What They Fought For

April 29th, 2007

civil-war-essay.jpgIn the book titled What They Fought For, 1861-1865, James McPherson draws on an abundance of primary source material in the form of soldiers’ letters and diaries in order to examine the issue of what the soldiers of the Civil War believed they were fighting for. He asserts that not only did the North and South fight for political and ideological causes, but that many of the soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies actually understood the issues about which they were fighting. The book largely refutes the popular notion that the people who fought the Civil War were mostly ignorant, uneducated peons who were just blindly following orders and did not really have any idea of the underlying issues pertaining to the war. The literacy rate of the soldiers was surprisingly high (about 90 percent for Union soldiers and 80 percent for the Confederates), and this allowed most of them to express their ideas. However, after reading the book, I have observed that their English proficiency, particularly regarding spelling and grammar, left much to be desired.

In general, the primary reason for fighting given by the Union soldiers was the desire to preserve the United States as a unified republic and to prevent its dissolution by the “rebels” or “secesh”. The grande peur (great fear) of many of the Union soldiers who expressed ideological concerns was that if the South was allowed to secede, or if the Confederacy actually won the war, it would represent a repudiation of representative democracy and majority rule. The country would fragment into many small, petty autocracies, much like medieval fiefdoms, and this would prove that many of the monarchists and reactionaries of Europe were right when they predicted that democracy would not last. Many soldiers invoked scenes from the American Revolution such as Valley Forge, as they believed that they were fighting to preserve the republic that their ancestors had built. Toward the end of the war, slavery became more of an issue for many Union soldiers, especially after Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which officially freed slaves that were being held in Confederate-controlled areas. During the second half of the war, many people in the North who had opposed the idea of emancipation began to change their minds when they realized that emancipation could have the practical effect of bolstering Union morale and resolve, thus making victory more likely. Instead of merely fighting for the relatively abstract idea of “saving the Union”, the soldiers were now fighting for the cause of liberty as well. Contrary to much popular belief, however, the cause of freeing the slaves was not the primary reason that the North fought the war- they were fighting to preserve the Union and their republican form of government.

The South, meanwhile, had an even more concrete reason for fighting the war. For the most part, the Confederates were defending their homes and families from pillage and ruin, and indeed there was much property destruction and loss in the South, especially in the later stages of the war. Confederate soldiers often compared soldiers of the North to “Goths”, “Vandals”, “invaders”, and the like, and promised to defend their land to the death, which many of them did. Southern ideals of chivalry also prompted many of the soldiers to fight for the protection of their women, especially if they had wives or sisters. Probably the most important reason of all that the Confederates fought was for the ideas of liberty and independence. Most Confederates saw the Union as a kind of tyrannical government that no longer represented their interests, and they believed that the time had come to rebel against this government, and replace it with a Confederacy that would protect the rights of individuals and the states from overreach by the federal government. Many Confederate soldiers expressed the fear of being “subjugated” by the North. This sentiment, along with the desire for self-government, seemed to be the primary incentive that upheld Confederate morale throughout most of the war, even in spite of the Union’s military advantages. As in the North, Confederates also appealed to the heritage of the Revolution, and some compared their rebellion with that of the colonies against King George. Finally, since they were attempting to establish a new nation, some Confederates also developed a spirit of southern nationalism, although expressions of the concept of defending the nation as a whole were usually more common in the North.

In some ways, the reasons given for fighting by the Union and Confederate soldiers were similar. The predominant similarity between the two sides that appears in the primary source material is that both sides believed that they were fighting to preserve the heritage and ideals of those who fought in the Revolutionary War. Soldiers in both armies believed that they were fighting for the same basic idea of liberty, but they interpreted it in different ways. People in the Union seemed to believe that the preservation of the U. S. government, not just the natural rights of the people, was necessary in order to guarantee liberty, as well as saving the country from such “evils” as anarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and aristocracy. The Confederates, on the other hand, believed that the government was more a part of the problem than the solution, and that real liberty could be restored by rebelling against the current establishment, just as the founders had rebelled against Britain when that government became a little too tyrannical for its own good. Both sides also appealed to nationalistic and patriotic themes. The nationalism of the Union soldiers was generally more apparent, since the stated goal of U.S. president Lincoln since the very beginning of the war had been to preserve the Union. The Confederacy also developed a sense of nationalism in the earlier parts of the war when Confederate prospects still seemed promising. Many Southerners believed that their nation would go on to fulfill a glorious destiny.

In evaluating the reasons given for fighting the Civil War by the two sides, I believe that the Confederacy ultimately had the better rationale. This is mostly because the Confederates’ reasons for fighting seemed to more closely resemble those for which the colonists had fought the Revolutionary War. Lincoln claimed that secession was illegal, and that the southern states could not be allowed to secede. Yet this is exactly what the American colonists did when they declared independence from Britain in 1776 (the term “secession” may not have been used at the time, but the effect was the same- the formation of a new, independent nation and a severance of ties with the old one). The North had come to resemble the old Britain, using its economic power and greater legislative power to impose more federal control over the states, thereby gradually eroding the rights of the states and individual citizens to decide on their own local laws and customs. The Confederates sought to restore these rights, which were the same rights that the founders had left “to the states or to the people” in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (unfortunately, these amendments seem to be all but forgotten today, as the federal behemoth grows ever larger). The Union’s argument that secession would cause democracy to fail and monarchies to rise in their place, or that the United States would fragment into many small autocracies is mostly a red herring, although I believe that the Union soldiers who expressed these concerns sincerely believed them. The Confederacy did not seek to establish a monarchy, nor did it seek to break up the northern states into smaller political divisions. They simply wanted to be left alone so that they could determine their own political destiny. Is that not what the original founders of our country really fought for?

4 Responses to “Civil War Essay: What They Fought For”

  1. comment number 1 by: garrett sandling

    this was a veryyy interesting essay. i really appreciated the writer’s ability to compare and contrast. i also enjoyed the way they gave the confederacies ideas in neutral way, not subjecting what they did or what they fought for to criticism but actually showing that the south had a reasonable cause.

  2. comment number 2 by: zayreanna

    i love the war cuz i fight wit my brother that is war……………..

  3. comment number 3 by: geralyn

    do you’ll know any one in the Confederacy war with the last name of sprouse if so please email me at egeralyn@yahoo.com

  4. comment number 4 by: NEIL HANKES


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