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James McPherson, What They Fought For (1994)


James McPherson, What They Fought For (1994)


James McPherson, in What They Fought For, explains the reason Confederate and Union soldiers prevailed throughout the bloodiest war ever fought in the United States. He read over 25,000 letters and hundreds of diaries to conclude that Civil War soldiers did indeed know what they were fighting for. In a war where letters were not censured by the military these primary sources reveal the pervading beliefs Southerners held for the ideology behind their fighting. Additionally, many of the Southern soldiers read the newspapers which kept them informed about the South’s motivation to continue fighting as the deaths accrued. The Confederate soldiers were fighting for their homes, their families, and for liberty from the Northern states and patriotic beliefs. The government of the North was seen by Southerners to be tyrannical. Thus, the Southern states, especially North Carolina, formed numerous regiments to fight in the war. Additionally, since the war was fought primarily in the South the preservation of their home-front became a prime motivator for Confederate soldiers. McPherson uses the same method of analyzing letters and diaries to support his claim for what the Northern soldiers fought for. These Northern soldiers were fighting to preserve the republic and to continue the legacy of their forefathers from 1776. McPherson concludes that Union soldiers placed slightly greater significance on the fight for democratization than that of the Confederate South. However, the South’s motivation to separate from the Union, fight for their home front and families also allowed their soldiers to continue the fight for four long, weary years.


McPherson, James


McPherson, James. What They Fought For, 1861-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.



Original Format



This conviction that they fought for their homes and women gave many Confederate soldiers remarkable staying power in the face of adversity. "My dear be a brave woman to the last," wrote a Shenandoah Valley farmer serving in the 10th Cavalry to his wife when their home was threatened by the invaders. "I intend to fight them to the last...I will kill them as long as I live even if peace is made I never will get done with them."


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McPherson, James, James McPherson, What They Fought For (1994), Civil War Era NC, accessed April 19, 2024,