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Background Essay on Why They Fought

This essay explores the motivations of soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War.

For most of the 150 years since the Civil War was fought, what was considered important about ordinary soldiers was that they fought, not what they fought for. In order to promote sectional harmony and reconciliation between North and South after the war, political and social leaders emphasized the valor of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. They chose to remember shared experiences and values like service, military strength, and sacrifice, rather than focusing on the very different political, social, and moral causes for which Civil War soldiers fought. We think, however, that it is critically important to understand why these men joined their respective armies and engaged in such a long, bloody, and costly conflict. It is clear from soldiers' letters and actions that competing ideas of race, class, and citizenship were central to the conflict. 

One of the enduring questions about soldiers' motivations in the war is why did so many non-slaveholding white southerners join the Confederate cause? While it is true that a nascent Southern nationalism played a role for some, understanding the motivations of non-elite white southerners is a window into mid-nineteenth century ideas about social mobility, class, and race. In the antebellum South, to get ahead was to purchase a slave, build up capital, purchase more slaves, and to strive towards the economic, social, and political power of the plantation-owning gentry. This is why so many southerners struck out for cheaper lands in newly opened territories, bringing slaves and rending slave communities in the East, during the 1820s and 1830s; it is why so many supported the war with Mexico in the 1840s and fought bloody conflicts in Kansas in the 1850s. They hoped that new lands would offer new opportunities to get in the slave-holding, plantation-buidling game. This truth about social mobility in the antebellum South, and its dependence on the enslavement of black Americans, is driven home by the quick and fierce loyalty to the Confederate cause on the part of so many poor whites: they fought to preserve slavery in order to preserve the chance to climb the social and economic ladders of their world. Looking at the motivations of white southern soldiers helps students understand the antebellum society they fought to maintain.

When we teach about the motivations of ordinary soldiers, we also see that the North was far from unified in its support for the war. There was political dissent from President Lincoln's war aims throughout the conflict—to some he was a tyrant, pushing the nation into a war it did not want, while for others, Lincoln's desire to "preserve the union" did not go far enough in guaranteeing the end of slavery and the citizenship of African Americans. The issuance of the National Conscription Act in 1863 stoked class tensions, as poor and working-class men, many of them immigrants, found themselves drafted into the Union army. Further inflaming tensions was the law's provision that allowed anyone who could pay $300 to avoid military service. In July 1863, violent anti-draft riots broke out in New York City, where a mostly working-class Irish immigrant contingent burned and looted the Colored Orphans Asylum, the draft office, and lynched African Americans. At least a dozen were killed and the riot was only quelled by the arrival of Union troops, weary from their recent battle at Gettysburg. The draft riots underscore that deep divisions of race and class were alive and well in the North, as well as the South, and that the war, rather than solving these problems, exacerbated them.

In an 1864 letter to Abraham Lincoln, James Shorter, writing on behalf of his fellow soldiers in the 55th Massachusetts regiment, summarized the motivations of many black soldiers: "We came to fight For Liberty justice & Equality" [sic]. Although initially denied the opportunity to serve in the Union army, African Americans continually put pressure on government and military leaders to enlist black soldiers. After they were finally allowed to join, more than 200,000 black men signed up. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, refused to accept lower wages than white soldiers were paid. In their letters and acts of protest, black soldiers repeatedly claimed that they were entitled to equal and fair treatment to white soldiers. Further, they affirmed their right to enjoy the full privileges of citizenship because of their shared participation in the military struggle. Black soldiers often pointed out that they did not passively wait for freedom to be granted but, as soldiers, helped to win the war that ended slavery.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Why They Fought,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2391.

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