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.
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.