One of the biggest questions about the Civil War is why the men of both sides fought. The answer is not as simple as many might think. The simplistic view is that each side fought for the primary reasons the War started: those on the Southern side to preserve slavery and those on the Northern side to preserve the Union and then later, in a crusade to end slavery and free the black man.
The very nature of why the soldiers of both sides fought was recently explored by Dr. James McPherson in a book titled "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War". While I am not promoting his book here (although it did win the 1998 Lincoln Prize), his book does make some very interesting and intriguing points.
First, it is surprising the amount of men from both sides in his statistical sampling who fought mirrored similar thoughts. Many fought for their country and considered it an honor to be called to lay their lives down on the altar "of their country". Many on both sides also had the strength of conviction of fighting for a holy cause; others fought simply because their neighbors and friends had joined and did not wish to be seen as being cowards or soft. Still others (in the North) fought to eradicate slavery, while those down South fought in the knowledge they would be supported back home (as did those up North) and at the same time taking "vengeance" on those who "would pollute and desecrate our Southern soil". (I kid you not; if you read some of the letters from Southern soldiers of the early war period, you realize they were in earnest about their convictions.)
The cause of liberty, as defined by both sections, figured highly in the reasoning of many soldiers. Those of the North felt they were fighting to not only preserve the Union but to keep alive the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on New Years' Day in 1862, many Union soldiers clearly saw an opportunity to eradicate slavery forever from the nation, thereby extending the full promise of liberty to the black man as envisioned by the framers of the Declaration but not the Constitution. It is ironic that many Southerners, while not slave holding, consented to fight to preserve or maintain what would be a slave-holding republic if successful in winning independence. (And the South claimed it was doing so in imitation of its Revolutionary War ancestors!) However, at the same time, many in the South fought "against" slavery. Not the slavery they were used to living with, but the slavery perceived as being readied to be imposed on them by the hated Yankee. The word "subjugation" was one also heavily used by Southerners in describing the result of the South returning to the Union or being defeated by the North.
Both sides in the conflict revered George Washington; it was the Southern Confederacy that placed him on its Great Seal. Washington's home of Mt. Vernon, while clearly in Confederate Virginia, was neutral ground by both sides. After all, who would want to be responsible for destroying the house of the Father of the Country and the winner of the fight for Independence from the British Empire in the War of 1775-1783?
Lastly, and perhaps more pronounced as the War dragged on, the soldiers of both sides fought for each other. Just like the recent book by World War II historian Stephen Ambrose about the members of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment (and later made into a mini-series for HBO), many soldiers in the Civil War truly became a band of brothers. Perhaps the fictional Chamberlain in "Killer angels" described it best when he tried to explain to the members of the Second Maine (whose enlistments had not expired and were being added to the Twentieth Maine rather forcibly) why they all fought:
"Some of us volunteered to fight for Union. Some came in mainly because we were bored at home and this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came . . . because it was the right thing to do…. But freedom . . . is not just a word. This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow…. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home… It's the idea that we all have value, you and me, we're worth something more than the dirt…. What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other." (The Killer Angels, © 1974, Michael Shaara.)
The reasons why men fought in the Civil War are largely just as true today as they were then. As a Civil War living historian, I can personally say I have felt the power of those emotions: fighting for one's home, cause, beliefs and, in the end, one's pards.© 2002