David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages James McPherson, Professor of American History at Princeton University, author of For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.
DAVID GERGEN: Jim, you go out every spring with your students from Princeton out to Gettysburg and you show them where Picketís Charge took place. And they ask you a lot of questions. And that prompted this book. Tell us about it.
JAMES M. McPHERSON, Author, "For Cause & Comrades": Well, this was back in 1976, and it was actually the first time I had taken students to Gettysburg. And we finished up our tour, as Iíve done ever since on many subsequent occasions by walking the ground over which Picketís Charge took place on the third day of the battle.
And the students looked out and saw this open area of nearly a mile, knew that the Confederates who were attacking would have been under fire every step of the way with odds against coming back safely very high. In fact, only half of them did. And they asked me, what motivated these guys to do that? How could they walk in to this wall of bullets? You could never get me to do that. And I thought about it, and I tried to give them an answer, but I wasnít satisfied with my own answer. And that planted the seed of an idea to write a book about the motivation of Civil War soldiers for facing that wall of bullets.
DAVID GERGEN: And then you went out and found this--great stashes of letters all around the country.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Well, I decided that the best way to get at their motives was to read their personal letters written mostly to family members, not subject to censorship, by soldiers who were literate, who were highly politicized by the experience of the 1850's and 1860's . What is it that made these guys tick? And I found in these thousands and thousands of letters by about a thousand soldiers altogether, both Union and Confederate, a great range of explanations to loved ones, to friends, to family members, about why they were doing what they were doing.
DAVID GERGEN: Twenty-five thousand letters, I think you said. But now, tell me, what were the motivations, because this was an awfully tough war with a great deal of carnage.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Well, I separated these motives into three kinds, which I called: initial motivation, sustaining motivation, and combat motivation. Of course, what the students were asking about back 20 years ago was combat motivation and that moment of truth when your commanding officer says go forward, what is it that enables you to do it? And I found that the answer was basically solidarity with your comrades. If theyíre going forward, can you hold back?
And also a sense of personal honor. If everybody else is going forward and you run away, or to use a Korean War phrase, you bug out, or to use a Civil War phrase, you show the white feather, you are branded forever after as being a coward. Youíll carry that brand with you for the rest of your life. Initial motivation was a combination of sort of patriotic enthusiasm, the flag waving at the rallies, the speeches, the pretty girls, everybody else is enlisting, you go too.
DAVID GERGEN: And a sense of adventure.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: And a sense of adventure, yes, but a much more sober motive is mixed in with that, especially for married men. 30 percent of the Civil War soldiers were married. A genuine commitment to the purpose for which youíre fighting, whether youíre Union or Confederate, to defend the flag, to defend your homeland, to defend the Republican experiment launched in 1776, to defend freedom. And both sides could say they were fighting to defend freedom because the kind of freedom they meant was the freedom won by their forefathers in 1776, a Republican government, a democratic society, individual liberties.
And another part of it was kind of Victorian sense of duty and honor, something that we see as being kind of empty words today in 1997 but were taken very seriously by that Victorian generation. And this was bound up with the enthusiasm of 1861. If everybody else enlisted and youíre a young, healthy, able-bodied male and you donít enlist, you suffer shame, suffer dishonor. Itís the same kind of dishonor that you suffer if you show the white feather once youíre in the Army.
DAVID GERGEN: You have this interesting comment about the fact that we almost have to get over a barrier in the 20th century to understand that mind set, that Victorian American mind set, that a lot of that changed here in the First and Second World Wars and for us to go back to the Civil Wars--we really have to, you know, really go back to a very different way of thinking.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: We do. We have to transcend our modern and often cynical Freudian influenced way of looking at things and our tendency to be disbelieving if people talked about duty and honor or religious conviction or a real belief in patriotism or in the "cause" with a capital "c." We tend not to talk that way anymore. We have to transcend that modern cynicism, get back to a different age. As somebody has said, the past is a foreign country. We really have to transcend our insular culture of 1997 and get into this foreign country of America of 1861.
DAVID GERGEN: Did that change in the First World War? I notice you cited Hemingway and "Farewell to Arms."
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Yes. Hemingway in "Farewell to Arms" has a famous passage in which he said that the experience of World War I made such words as "valor" and "patriotism" and "honor" and "glory" almost obscene because of the great disillusioning experience of World War I, that great destroyer of a whole generation of Europeans. And that, I think, is the big change, and it coincided with Freudian--Freudís influence on American thinking so that we no longer take anybodyís professions of certain motives at face values; weíre always looking at the hidden agenda behind. But I think in the case of Civil War soldiers what you see is what you get.
DAVID GERGEN: I was very struck by your notion that the wars--the people who fought in the Civil War, these 3 million soldiers, also were the most religious in Americaís wars.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Well, these people were products of a movement in American religious history called Second Great Awakening, a series of revivals and conversions and revitalization, especially of Protestantism in the 1820's and 1830's. They had been born into that. They had come of age in that. And what struck me in reading these letters was how religious so many of these soldiers were, their sense that they were under Godís protection, their sense that God was on their side, and what was almost in the minds of many of them a Holy War that they were fighting for God and country, and that both were to wind up with each other.
DAVID GERGEN: And they had prayer meetings at night, though.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Prayer meetings, revivals; itís really quite extraordinary. Almost ever regiment had a core of people, and the size of that core could vary from one regiment to another, of very religious people who would hold prayer meetings. And, of course, as the war went on, and as the possibility of their own death became more and more imminent, that tended to make them even more religious. As somebody said about World War II, there are no atheists in the foxhole. That was equally true and, in fact, I think more true in the Civil War.
DAVID GERGEN: Was there a particular letter that you felt captured the spirit of the war out of these thousands that you read?
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Well, one that comes to mind is a letter from a 33-year-old Minnesota sergeant to his wife in 1862 after he had been wounded. He was writing from the hospital--they had three young children--and she had urged him--said, youíve done your duty now, youíve suffered a wound, you can easily get a medical discharge; why donít you apply for a medical discharge and come one--and he said to her, "My grandfather fought to establish this country, and it is our duty and my intent to fight to preserve this country." And I think that captures what I mean by cause in the title of the book, "For Cause and Comrade," and any Confederate soldier just twisting the terms a little bit could have written the same kind of letter, and, indeed, many did.
DAVID GERGEN: I wish I could go to Gettysburg with you one day. James M. McPherson, thank you very, very much.
JAMES M. McPHERSON: Thank you.