Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

Why Men Fought in the Civil War

with 5 comments

Men who hurried to sign up for the armies of the North and South in the early years of the American Civil War, joined – to varying degrees – for the follow reasons: out of a sense of duty and honor to country (whether North or South), to feel and prove oneself “manly,” a trait tied closely to notions of courage, and in search of adventure and the glory and excitement of battle. Historian James McPherson’s readings of thousands of letters written by soldiers revealed that duty and honor were closely linked to “masculinity” in Victorian America and war presented an opportunity to prove one’s self a man.[i]

In the South, the ideas of duty and honor were most prevalent in the upper classes while such notions were less class specific in the North. Some men from both sides shared a sense of shame in “not” serving and this need to carry one’s self well remained a motivating factor for many of the men who actually “did” the fighting.
D.W.C. Arnold Private in Union Army

Money was not an apparent motivation for joining the military. Most men – and their families – sacrificed economically as a result of their service. Many gave up the best years of their lives, if not life itself. Later in the war, when recruits were harder to find, motivations broadened. Money may have become more of a factor and was certainly such for those who scammed the system to obtain more than one signing bonus.

Regardless of what brought men to war, their performance as soldiers varied. A good many served well. Others discovered within themselves a lack of courage and joined the ranks of men who shrank into the shadows during battles, assuring themselves safety from injury or death but not from the stigma of “coward” and “shirker.” As the war dragged on, survivors began to change their perspectives on what constituted courage and cowardice as well as their notions of the proper conduct of war.
Photo of D.W.C. Arnold, a private in the Union Army. Photo from The National Archives [Ref. 111-B-5435
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
[i]James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.


5 Responses

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  1. I didn’t find his arguments particularly persuasive, but historian William Marvel in his recent book “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” attempts to make the case that economics was a major motivating force in enlistments.

    Drew W.

    November 18, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    • William Marvel is a great writer and I agree with him through my own research that I did in 1991 onthe enlistment of Massachusetts during the Civil war.


      Robert T Harrison

      October 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm

  2. Drew,

    Thanks for your comment. I’d like to hear more abut Mr. Marvel’s arguments. I’m curious whether he ackowledges that motivations varied as the war progressed.


    Rene Tyree

    November 18, 2007 at 11:31 pm

  3. Does anyone know any other good sources, preferable a long list of sources :) about why men fought in the civil war?

    Joshua LF

    March 22, 2008 at 9:44 am

  4. Excellent summary. I notice too when reading letters that their intentions seem to change by how long they’ve been in service. Early in the war many wrote about duty and honor and posed for brave portraits of themselves with rifles and knives. There seems to be less of this in later letters, or at least that’s what I’ve noticed. One quote that stands out to me goes something like: “Sister, I can inform you that I have seen the monkey show, and I don’t want to see it no more.” (or something like that). It’s so telling of their style. The more I read of what these soldiers did, the more they just amaze me.


    September 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm

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