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What was it that motivated so many men to volunteer their service in the American Civil War, leaving their homes and loved ones for the hardships, suffering, devastation and bloodshed that so darkly stained the five long years of the war? The question has no single answer, but contemporary scholars tend to cite notions of duty, honor, love for one's country and war fever among the abstract forces prompting men from both northern and southern states to enlist in astonishing numbers -- and keeping them on the picket lines throughout the war. Americans of the early 1860s were more literate, more politically active, and more passionate about their Constitutional rights than at any other point in history. But war put these lofty ideals to the test. Were these convictions powerful enough to sustain the Confederate and Union armies through enormous loss of life? Did the willingness to fight for "Liberty" or "Union" really hold up among soldiers when the bullets began to fly?

It is easy to see how the massive armies of both sides came into existence. Early enthusiasm and excitement of men anxious for combat were by no means limited to the American Civil War. However, this eagerness quickly faded as the casualties mounted. There were many contributing factors to the sustaining motivation soldiers felt that kept them fighting, including the persistently strong notions of duty, honor, Liberty, or the legacy of the Founding Fathers. More powerful than these abstract principles were raw, earnest emotions tying men to the battlefield when the chaos of combat took over. The fear of cowardice, exacerbated by society's image of war as noble and glorious, as well as the strength of relationships among close groups of men continuously served to motivate soldiers to endure the unthinkable suffering of the American Civil War, while the abstract concepts of political idealism and patriotism could not hold up under the stress of combat.

Initial Motivation

In 1861, the United States supported an army of 16,000 men, most of whom were scattered in frontier outposts west of the Mississippi River (McPherson 1, 313). In less than one year, Confederate and Union armies together had amassed 1,000,000 soldiers, and by 1864 the Northern forces alone totaled a million men. The explosion in size of the armies could not have been possible through heavy recruiting alone. Both sides did use a draft to grow their armies, but throughout the war volunteers accounted for the majority of enlistees. Prior to conflict between the Northern and Southern forces a patriotic fervor swept the country. Americans were aware of their country's politics, and Northerners and Southerners both felt strong desires to play a part in shaping their its future. Evidence of citizens' active interest in their nation's future and zealous conviction in their interpretation of the Constitution manifests itself clearest in the presidential election of 1860. 81% of voters cast their ballots in the election, electing Lincoln with a overwhelmingly sectional division. The clear geographic division of the vote -- the Republican North supporting Lincoln and the Democratic South in favor of Breckinridge -- served to fuel the fires of regional patriotism that later convinced soldiers to enlist.

Feeding off the country's political awareness and passion for protecting the Constitution (on both sides), propagandistic portrayals of the enemy further persuaded men that their beliefs were just and their ideals worth fighting for. The Confederates saw the North as an unjustly oppressive, tyrannical, radical culture of abolitionist invaders who were manipulating the Constitution and betraying the nation's Forefathers. Similarly, the Union saw the Southern states as radical anarchists who also were disrespecting the Constitution and breaking away from the Founding Forefathers' intentions. Propaganda helped create the negative stereotypes associated with the enemy on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, which was a substantial factor in initially motivating men to join the ranks of their local regiment and head off to the battlefield.

Once fighting actually began, different reasons for joining developed among Northerners and Southerners. Many Southerners felt strongly about protecting their homeland against invasion, a sentiment particularly prevalent among Virginians, where most of the fighting took place. On the other hand, Northerners were drawn to join after embarrassing defeats early in the war at Bull Run and Wilson's Creek. Their over-confidence had been deflated, and new hordes of men flocked to the army to prove their strength and determination to quell the Southern insurrection.

McPherson (2, 32) explains that, "the zeal of unbloodied troops for trial by combat was scarcely unique to the Civil War." But it was not war-fever that kept them in the ranks after excitement for adventure wore away along with their health and boot soles. "Once they had seen the elephant, few Civil War soldiers were eager to see it again" (McPherson 2, 33).

Dulce et Decorum est...

The primary fear held by most Civil War soldiers was not that of death or a combat wound, nor was it the sobering probability of disease or capture by the enemy. In a sense, the men one fought with on the line, and those he fought for at home were more feared than the ones who had him in the sights of their rifles.

Fear of cowardice propelled soldiers to persistently perform deeds they would have been incapable of without the critical pressure of their peers. Soldiers wanted nothing less than to be branded as a coward; even death held more appeal than the alternative of "shirking" combat and losing the respect of peers. The opinions of the men with whom they fought garnered more respect from both Union and Confederate soldiers than did the enemy's bullets; "I am sure if I had acted just as I felt I should have gone in the opposite direction but I wouldn't act the coward ... I clenched my musket and pushed ahead determined to die if I must, in my place and like a man" wrote a Union private (McPherson 2, 82). As this soldier shows, courage in battle directly related to the strong taboo attached to cowardice.

Likewise, fear of cowardice discouraged men from resigning or deserting, as in both cases a label of coward would follow them and their families in their hometown communities. A Union colonel wrote home, "I cant come home honorably by resigning... All who have resigned without any good reason will never hear the last of it. It will stick to them as long as they live." Similarly, a Confederate officer fears the consequences of resigning and "thus involving you & my innocent little babe in my own personal ruin (McPherson 2, 137).

The reason that this intense aversion to cowardice dominated the lives of soldiers lies in the commonly held social conceptions of war and manhood in the 19th century. The years leading to the Civil War witnessed the continuation of a strong set of Victorian beliefs that war was noble, just, and glorious. Americans still subscribed to a Tennyson-esque ideal of the valiant, unquestioning soldier, as depicted in his poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade": Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Continuing in the Napoleonic tradition, society celebrated the heroic death of the soldier who showed courage and bravery. That these values held so much importance not only to the soldiers themselves, but also to the culture as a whole, that cowardice was passionately feared by both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was not until later in the war that "the seemingly endless carnage by 1863 supposedly eroded the Victorian notions of manhood, courage, and honor that soldiers had carried into the army" (McPherson 2, 81). Until then, however, the old adage, "Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori" (sweet and proper it is to die for one's country), instilled a very intense and powerful fear of cowardice among Civil War soldiers, powerful enough to spur them to the battlefield time and time again in the face of almost certain death.

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βˆ™ 14y ago
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βˆ™ 9y ago

Ordinary soldiers in the United States Civil War endured many hardships. Often their shoes wore out without any to replace them with. Adequate shelter from winter elements was very sparse on the battlegrounds.

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βˆ™ 12y ago

recelis is an ass

^^^ what does that have to do with slavery you rere!

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βˆ™ 8y ago

the soldiers faced starvation, freezing to death, and loading guns slowly.

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βˆ™ 15y ago

because they have worse medication, and starvation.

and they don't have good army supplies. biggest thing is

cause of the disease.

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βˆ™ 9y ago

Three hardships faced by soldiers during the civil war were hunger, heat, and cold. These hardships had to be endured by soldiers fighting on both sides of the war.

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βˆ™ 10y ago

did the soldiers had ammunition did they have food and etc.

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βˆ™ 11y ago

Very difficult they never gotto see their family :) :@ :$ :?

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βˆ™ 14y ago

Continuously being shot at, low food rations, dying comrades that were close friends.

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Q: What was the hardships of freed slaves during the civil war?
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Related questions

How many slaves were freed during the civil war?

449


What is the name of the president who freed slaves during the civil war?

Abraham Lincoln


Which president freed slaves in the south during the civil war?

Abraham Lincoln


how many slaves were freed after / during the civil warΒ ?

nearly 4 million


What act or event during the civil war and reconstruction freed the slaves?

Emancipation


What did freed slaves do during the period immediately following the civil war?

They remained near the farms where they had been slaves


What did most freed slaves do during immediately following the civil war?

They remained near the farms where they had been slaves


What act or event during the civil war and reconstuction freed the slaves?

The emancipation proclamation


What did Lincoln accomplish during president?

He freed all the slaves from slavery and won the civil war.


Which of these is an element of the Emancipation Proclamation?

Slaves living in the Confederate states during the Civil War were freed.


What was the act that freed the slaves?

The civil war.


What happened to freed slaves during the civil war?

They ran their own lives and got jobs and made money