Times Past, Pausing to Remember

Civil War Soldiers - Why They Fought

War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over. - William Tecumseh Sherman

The cruelty of war led another Union officer to write these words to his wife: "Sick as I am of this war and the bloodshed, every day I have a more religious feeling that this war is a crusade for the good of mankind. I cannot bear to think of what my children would be if we were to permit this hell-begotten conspiracy to destroy this country."

It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we should grow too fond of it. - Robert Edward Lee

Some officers may have grown fond of the war, but few enlisted men did. One wrote his wife in 1863: "I am sick of war and of the separation from the dearest objects of life. But were the contest again just commenced I would willingly undergo it again for the sake of our country's independence and our children's liberty." Independence and liberty - common themes in the motives about which Southerners spoke, when they tried to explain their reasons for taking up arms against the Union.


The distinctions between South and North blur when talking of the soldiers' - not the politicians' - conceptions of the war and why it came about. They recorded their thoughts in diaries and letters, and one would often be unable to detect whether the writer was a soldier in the Confederate or the Union Army. Both spoke in patriotic terms, of loyalty to their country. Both used strong, even inflammatory words and phrases. A Union recruit: "My heart burns with indignation against armed rebels and traitors to their country and their country's flag." A Confederate recruit: "The war will not last long because the scum of the North cannot face the chivalric spirit of the South."

A young printer in Philadelphia enlisted six days after he wrote the following: "This contest is not the North against South. It is government against anarchy, law against disorder." Another tried to explain to his pacifist wife, "It is better to have war for one year than anarchy and revolution for fifty years." And another, "Our fathers made this country; we their children are to save it." And again, "This second war [after the Revolution] I consider equally as holy as the first, by which we gained those liberties and privileges, now threatened by this monstrous rebellion."

The rhetoric of the Southern soldiers was no less potent. One wrote, "Better, far better! endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar." Along the same line, a slave-owning farmer in Georgia enlisted because "our homes, our firesides, our land and negroes and even the virtue of our fair ones is at stake." Another told his parents, "The vandals of the North are determined to destroy slavery. We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty."

Not all Northerners and not all Southerners spoke of slavery, one way or the other, in their justifications for going to war. In fact, most did not. A common theme in the South was liberty. "Our cause is the sacred one of Liberty, and God is on our side." "Any man in the South would rather die battling for civil and political liberty, than submit to the base usurpations of a northern tyrant." Some of what was written would today be laughed at as purple prose, but at the time, these sentiments were sincere and typical of the writing of the day. A private in the 56th Virginia Infantry Regiment wrote to his wife, "If we should suffer ourselves to be subjugated by the tyrannical government of the North, our property would all be confiscated and our people reduced to the most abject bondage and utter degradation." A further theme among the writings of Confederate soldiers, far more concrete and perhaps more powerful than the common concepts of country, flag, and liberty, was defense of home and hearth against an invading enemy. Here again, the language and ideas used were incendiary, and often intended to be so. A Georgia planter wrote to his wife before the first battle of the war that it would be "glorious to die in defence of innocent girls and women from the fangs of the lecherous Northern hirelings." And another: "I would give all I have just to be in the front rank of the first brigade that marches gainst the invading foe who now pollute the sacred soil of my native state with their unholy tread."

In Victorian America, the consciousness of duty was pervasive, and both Northerners and Southerners invoked duty as a motivating principle. This was an era in which duty was a binding moral obligation, and it was a particularly strong factor in the North. "I went from a sense of duty." "It was a duty I owed my country and myself." "Even if I am killed, I will die knowing I have done my duty." In the South, another concept competed with duty for primacy - that of honor. Confederate soldiers cited the obligations of duty, but they were more likely to speak of honor: one's public reputation, one's image in the eyes of one's peers. "I would be disgraced if I stayed at home, and unworthy of my revolutionary ancestors." "The honor of our family is involved."

On the battlefields, while the men were under fire and whether charging or retreating, the more abstract concepts of states' rights and preserving the Union would get lost somewhere in the mud and the misery. At such times, soldiers wearing gray and soldiers wearing blue were of one mind - doing what their conscience told them was necessary for their country and their families.