Sunday, June 01, 2014

Why did Civil War soldiers fight?

I watched Christopher Hamner deliver a lecture on the motivation of Civil War soldiers on television. It was part of the regular series of lectures on American History TV. I was especially taken by the discussion with his students of why soldiers fought in the war. The students did a good job, with his coaching and based on readings assigned for the class, in giving many reasons -- patriotism and ideology, religious conviction (doing God's will), community pressure, seeking adventure, money, etc,

Professor Hamner suggested that there were different decisions made at different times, that different soldiers may have had different reasons, that the reasons for any specific soldier's decision would be complex (and indeed I think it was implicit in the discussion that any individual soldier might fail to fully understand his own decision).

Still as I reviewed the lecture in my mind, I came to the conclusion that many of the key reasons might have been missed.

I suspect that it is instinctive for young men to step forward to fight for their community. Homo sapiens are a social species and I suspect that the species evolved with young adult males defending their social bands -- they would have been the strongest and the most experienced using weapons. Thus I suspect that young men stepping forth to do battle to defend their families and communities is instinctive -- something that comes from unconscious drives. (We are also a species that evolved to be successful by using our brains, and probably the older males in ancient bands organized their defense when necessary.)  I further suspect that all societies have institutionalized mechanisms to harness this instinctive behavior to the preservation of their own social order.

Let me address some additions to the student proposals specific to each of Hamner's three big questions about soldiers in the Civil War by adding some reasons that were not mentioned in his classroom.

Why did they enlist in the military?
  • Young men frequently do foolish things, perhaps due to an excess of animal spirits, alcohol or testosterone.
  • They may have underestimated how hard it would be to serve, how great the risks were in service, or how great the rewards would be from that service; they may have done so because they were misled by their elders.
  • The may have failed to properly consider alternatives to military service, such as emigration to Canada, Mexico or California.
Why did they stay in the military instead of deserting?
  • The task of escaping from ones unit, traveling away from the front lines to a place of safety, and reestablishing a civilian life may have been too daunting.
  • Many did in fact desert and successfully return to civilian life.
Why did they go into battle, especially into the horrific battles later in the Civil War when at least the experienced soldiers knew what they were in for?
  • Some soldiers like battle.
  • Some soldiers may have so hated the enemy after seeing their comrades wounded, maimed and killed and after fighting those enemies for years that they were willing to endure battle for the opportunity to attack the enemy and obtain revenge.
  • Fatalism.
Three more responses to this last question involve more complex answers.
  • They were programmed to do so. I recall reading that a British officer in the War of 1812 said that it took three years of training to produce a good body of professional soldiers. He would have been thinking of soldiers who could fight in formation, firing rapid volleys, and standing up to the fire of the opposition. I suppose such a force would have officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers of the line who all understood and were practiced in their roles in the company, regiment, division, and army. Poorly trained soldiers, especially those in the militia, would frequently break in combat and flee the battlefield. Thus, soldiers over a period of time were acculturated to roles in institutionalized military units, taking part in battle accordingly.
  • Hamner describes the dangers faced by soldiers such as the Confederate soldiers taking part in Pickett's Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg. In that case, there were an equal number of Union soldiers on the ridges above, taking many fewer casualties while decimating the Confederates. Thus the Union and Confederate soldiers had very different experiences in the same engagement. However, before the battle, neither side would have known what the experience would be in that specific battle, and once in the battle it might be to late to back out.
What were the potential outcomes for a soldier in a Civil War battle?
  • He might come out of the battle unscathed. Well that might be all right.
  • He might be wounded, but not disabled. That might get him out of the worst of the war for some time -- perhaps not too bad an alternative. We know that soldiers have shot themselves to get out of the front lines.
  • He might be wounded and somewhat disabled. That might get him to light duty and relative safety, or even a discharge.
  • He might be wounded and seriously disabled.
  • He might be killed.
Hamner pointed out in the lecture that hundreds of thousands of Union troops had enlisted for three years during the first year of the war. The government sought (desperately) to get them to reenlist, and offered them immediate one-month furloughs to go home and visit families if they did so. Many believed that they would not survive the rest of their original tour of duty, and reenlisted in order to get that home leave before they returned to duty and the death that they believed they could not avoid.
  • For such a soldier, serious disability might be preferred to the death he believed was almost surely coming.
  • For such a soldier, immediate death in battle might be preferred to death from disease in camp, death from disease in a prisoner of war camp, or death in a future battle after an extended period of discomfort, boredom and illness in camp between battles, punctuated by the horror of increasingly frequent battles and loss of friends and comrades.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

Here are some books on soldiers' motivation (especially in the Civil War):

Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945 by Christopher Hamner

Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War by Gerald Linderman

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. McPherson

Thanks to Prof. Hamner for identifying them for us.