I've been mulling over writing this for a while. I'd talk myself out of it and then talk myself into it. I've touched on the topic in various other blog posts, but I never have, as of yet, taken pen to hand to address the issue directly. There seems to be a lot of misinformation and outright misunderstanding as it relates to the motives of Civil War soldiers, much of it due to academic historians with no military service ascribing lofty ideals and values on a topic which they really know little about. I think there is a distinction that can be drawn between what causes a war and why men fight in it just as there is between what motivates a soldier to enlist and what keeps him there after the first shots are fired. They are all different. Historians blur the lines between a war's causes and the reasons why soldiers fight. It is an honest mistake, perhaps. I can sum up the traditional view on the Civil War as follows:
1. Northern soldiers enlisted to preserve the Union or to free the slaves.
2. Confederate soldiers enlisted to defend the institution of slavery or at least a society that tolerated the existence of slavery.
This is problematic for a few reasons. Did Northern soldiers enlist to free the slaves? Not really. And certainly not before the Emancipation Proclamation. Historians who promote the Northern version of the Lost Cause Myth (ie: the North was a racial utopia and freeing the slaves was the objective of the war all along) often ignore the fact that enlistments dropped and desertions increased after the Proclamation was issued. Why do you think the North had to resort to conscription? Historians love to gloss over that small point. As to the Confederate side, I've actually read books wherein historians argue that though it is true that most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, they belonged to a society in which they could aspire to slave ownership and thus all enlisted to preserve it. Seriously? You are going to risk being disemboweled by canister rounds because you want to own slaves one day. I don't buy it. Also, consider that when the Confederacy passed its draft law in 1862 which exempted the planter class from military service, Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion increased quite a bit. Why would this happen if the Southern soldier all ran out to fight so that they could own slaves that they didn't actually own. Sure, there are letters and diaries where Confederate soldiers do talk about joining up over the slave question. There are a lot more that don't mention it. The same is true for Northern accounts as well. Some mention wanting to free the slaves but many others are silent on that point. The truth is, more Northerners cared little about the slave question (as the Northern economy relied on Southern cotton).
So what reasons then motivated soldiers to enlist? They are as varied as the number of soldiers who enlisted. I think it is important to remember that the average Civil War soldier was in his early twenties. Some were older and quite a few were younger. Really, they were no different than the men and women who join the military today. So here are a few reasons why I think soldiers enlisted.
1. Protect their homes. (Very important to the Confederate soldier who's region faced invasion.)
2. Peer pressure. (Men who didn't run out to enlist received women's undergarments in the mail!)
3. Money (more so in the North....especially when bounty money was involved)
4. Adventure. (Most people lived their whole lives within 100 miles of where they were born. The war promised a chance of adventure that their regular lives lacked.)
5. Sense of duty (For many, joining up with everyone else just seemed like it was the right thing to do.)
For some, they may have enlisted for more than one reason. I just think it is insane how historians argue that the average Confederate soldier rushed out to enlist and fought for four long, brutal years because some rich planter wanted him to. Soldiers don't die for causes. They die for their comrades in the ranks. Why would the Civil War be any different? Or is it because historians are sometimes guilty of imposing their own moral judgments and political values on the past. Does this mean that slavery did not cause the war? No, of course not. Slavery was at the root of the Southern economy and if you took it out of the South there would not have been a war. But what causes a war and why soldiers enlist and fight are not always the same thing and historians would do well to remember that. But for those who sit tucked away in academia, far from the smoke and noise of a Civil War battlefield (or any other battlefield) it is too easy to sit in judgment rather than reporting facts. And that is sad.
And yes, I do know that there are documents and letters that may state things other than what I have written about. However, there are also plenty of others which DO support what I am saying. If you discount one because it doesn't support your already arrived at conclusion, then you move lower than Half A$$ Historian and just become an A$$.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.