How did Confederate and Union soldiers link the issues of slavery and freedom during the Civil War?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In What they Fought For, 1861–1865, author James McPherson analyzes 25,000 letters and personal diary entries written by Confederate and Union soldiers in order to determine their motivations for fighting in the war. Ironically, both Confederate and Union soldiers fought for freedom; however, their views of freedom varied greatly.

Confederate soldiers fought for the right to own slaves and to save democracy, believing it was each state’s right to own and trade slaves. Slavery was necessary for agricultural success in the South, and the institution had been ingrained in Southern culture for one hundred years.

Union soldiers fought for freedom and preservation of the union. Many soldiers equated slavery to bondage and fought to end the racial injustice caused by slavery. However, others were neither for nor against slavery and did not fight to free slaves. The majority of Union soldiers believed the secession of Southern states resulted in anarchy, and they fought to unify the country.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it resulted in a divided North and a terrified South. Confederate soldiers wrote home encouraging their families to invest in slaves while the morale of Union soldiers faded, as controversy surrounding the issue of slavery increased. After the Proclamation was issued, 190,000 freed black men joined Union forces, and the North claimed victory over the South two years later.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Though many historians have claimed that unit cohesion and the desire to stay alive played a far greater role than ideological concerns in the minds of the men fighting for the blue and grey, McPherson claims otherwise.  Through his meticulous examination of thousands of diaries and interviews and other records, he has come up with all kinds of support for the idea that many soldiers thought carefully about the issues of slavery and freedom during the Civil War.

There were, among those whom McPherson cites, men who began the conflict feeling that Lincoln had overstepped his bounds but then found themselves wishing to help abolish slavery once they learned more about it and saw it first hand.  There were others who felt that all along their cause was the righteous one both for the maintenance of the union as well as the abolition of slavery.

For the Confederate soldiers, the link was more problematic but often consisted of the feeling that they ought to be free to maintain slavery if they so chose, that it was not another man's right to tell them how to live their lives.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial