Fighting the Civil War: a holy cause

March 16, 1997|By Michael E. Ruane | Michael E. Ruane,special to the sun

"For Cause and Comrades," by James M. McPherson. Oxford University Press.186 pages.$25.

During the winter of 1863-64, as the battered armies of the Union and Confederacy awaited the onset of the Civil War's bloodiest campaigns, an anguished debate took place in the armies of the North.

With their three-year enlistments almost up, many battle-hardened veterans, especially of the famed Army of the Potomac, had to decide: Sign on for the rest of the butchery; or go home honorably, while still in one piece.

It is one of the enduring wonders of the war that tens of thousands elected to stay. The question - hotly debated in recent years - has always been: Why?

Now, the renowned Civil War historian James M. McPherson says the answer was simple: Devotion to The Cause.

In a fascinating new study based on close analysis of thousands of letters and diaries, McPherson argues that even after two and a half years of war's brutality, Northern soldiers' devotion to the Union and its causes lay tattered but intact.

The book draws on often blunt and poignant writings to make the case that it was this commitment, unbroken by the bloodshed, that saw the war to its end.

"I am astonished [by] the extent and depth of the [Northern] determination to fight to the last," McPherson quotes a British newspaper correspondent as saying in 1864.

"They are in earnest in a way the like of which the world never saw before, silently, calmly but desperately in earnest; they will fight on ... as long as they have men, muskets, powder ... and would fight on, though the grass were growing in Wall Street."

The findings run counter to other recent scholarship that found Union soldiers disillusioned and demoralized by the grinding reality of war.

In his 1987 book, "Embattled Courage," historian Gerald F. Linderman argued that Northern soldiers were so gloomy about their chances of survival that many re-enlisted just to get an immediate furlough: otherwise, they might never see home again.

But McPherson's Yankees - and Confederates, too - are much more resilient, clinging to their convictions right to the bitter climax.

"We are still engaged in the same holy cause," an Irish-born sergeant wrote his mother after three years in the Union army. "We have yet the same country to fight for."

McPherson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 Civil War epic, "Battle Cry of Freedom," not only illuminates soldier resolve, but climbs inside the heads of Billies and Johnnies to explore much ** about what made them tick.

The author, who teaches at Princeton University, explains that he used only letters and real-time diaries, avoiding post-war memoirs and writings, so as to have the soldiers' purest and most distilled thoughts.

McPherson read 25,000 letters and 249 diaries from what is perhaps the most literate and uncensored war in history, and boiled them down to a statistical "sample" of 1,076.

He found them courageous and humble, ferocious and devout, racist and compassionate, and - striking in the modern age of cynicism - devoted to their duty, their honor and countries.

Michael E. Ruane covers the Pentagon for Knight-Ridde newspapers. Previously, he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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