For the common Civil War soldier, you might have expected that he was very die-hard, “fighting for the cause” kind of guy. Reading Civil War letters from the common foot soldier will often give you a different impression.
Most soldiers on both sides were initially following their friends and neighbors to the enlistment office, much like following the Pied Piper. At the beginning of the war, a patriotism drove their decisions both in the North and in the South. If they were not fighting for “state’s rights” or “Slavery” or “to save the Union”, they were fighting because the war was supposed to be short. It sounded exciting. And they certainly didn’t want to be the only lad left at home with the women, children and the old men.
They trained, marched, camped and fought alongside their classmates in school, their life-long friends. Companies of a hundred or so all came from the same town. The common soldier knew the soldier who was in front and back of them and to his right and left. They shared their letters and their care packages arriving from home.
They were lonely and bored. They were hungry and frightened. And when the shooting started, they found that the war they thought was going to be exciting was instead, quite deadly.
They buried their friends routinely and then had to write letters back home to explain to their friend’s family what happened. There was nothing about the Civil War that was “civil” in any way, shape or form. And often the ordinary soldiers were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices.
The war made these soldiers grow up quickly, taking them from young and innocent young boys to shell-shocked men. The excitement had long since been replaced. By 1865 all they wanted to do was to go home and try to find some semblance of sanity.
For an in-depth explanation check out James McPherson’s book “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" which is the “bible” on the subject.
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