Civil War soldiers, on both sides, fought for a variety of reasons. The problem for historians lies in determining what those reasons were, as well as why and how their sentiments may have evolved over the course of the war. War-time letters and journals would often focus on life in the army, inquiries about home and family, and accounts of battles soldiers may have participated in. However, they also contained valuable insights into the mindset of a Civil War soldier and their convictions. Soldiers on both sides believed themselves to be fighting for the preservation of their country/way of life, and would often draw comparisons between themselves and the generation of the American Revolution. They had a heightened sense of nationalism, and this was often combined with the idea that each person must do their duty in the coming days of the war. Plus, soldiers on both sides were motivated by a sense of honor, given that this was the height of the Victorian Era in the United States.
Religion, too, served as a major motivation for soldiers. Most troops were Christian, and believed that God was on their side, directing the course of events towards victory. Those Christian troops who struggled with having to kill enemy soldiers got around their predicament by seeing themselves participate in a “just war,” as well as differentiating between kills in combat and murder.
What did nationalism mean to Confederate soldiers? Were well-to-do Confederates like J. Risque Hutter offering themselves on the pyre of war for the sake of a slave-holding republic? Many Confederate troops viewed themselves as fighting to defend the South as well as slavery, both of which they believed to be the targets of Union “vandals.” They also believed that if the Union won, they would see themselves forced into a biracial society where blacks were to be treated as equals, which would have been more repulsive to most Southerners than the removal of slavery.
Hutter, Confederate soldier in a Union prison camp, was given a prayer book. Certain passages in the text suggested that he pray for the United States of America or for the President of the United States, but Hutter marked out offensive references and replaced them with “Confederacy.” Hutter’s edits indicate his continued resolve and commitment to the Confederacy.
On Wednesday September 7th, 1864, Lieutenant E. Lee Bell of the Confederacy arrived at Ellis Island, a Union prison camp. He was greeted by the 154th Massachusetts Colored Troops, as documented in his diary. Bell was humiliated that African-American troops were designated as guards, “Early in the morning report said that the Captain of the boat said that when we got off of the boat we would go aboard our own boat, but soon, to our chagrin, we saw a negro guard formed for our reception on Morris Island.”
McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.