This is a small monograph of three chapters and an introduction that seeks to answer the question: What did the soldiers of the American Civil War fight for? This isn’t to answer the question about broader political causes, nor is it designed to obfuscate the causes of the Civil War. Instead, using the letters, journals, and other personal documents of Civil War soldiers of both sides, James McPherson simply wants to better understand the personal motivations of the soldiers.
He wants to debunk the idea that a sense of senseless adventure was a motivating cause, as well as debunking the idea that most of the soldiers didn’t really have any sense of why they fought. He also spends some improtant time thinking through the question of what especially motivated Northern soldiers, given that they essentially had little gain, and everything to lose in the war (ie that if they simply went back to their lives, nothing much of consequence would change in their lives, as compared to Southern soldiers who were being asked to give up what they often considered their rights, their property, and their sense of personal liberty). McPherson of course iterates the point that these rights and this property is slavery and the benefits of slavery, as well as the important psychological liberty that white supremacy brought with it. And of course recent elections show the appeal and individual value that white supremacy holds for many voters still. He comes to understand that many soldiers were deeply ingrained with causes and most listed their sense of continuing on the legacy of the American Revolution. Northern soldiers did want to end slavery and Souther soldiers wanted to keep it, though they imbued it with additional, almost spiritual meaning.