What did Civil War soldiers fight for?

Aka the War Between the States, you know, the Civil War. These days the motives of the footsoldiers in past wars are often conflated with the overarching theme of the conflict itself.

There are few conflicts with such obvious focus points as the Civil War and the issue of slavery. Over 3 million soldiers fought in that war. What are your educated guesses for what *really *motivated these men to take up arms? How much of a factor was slavery?

I’m finding it really hard to imagine that even a small fraction of Union soldiers went to battle confident that they fought the good fight to free the negro slaves. Similarly, I can’t imagine any Confederate soldiers eager to throw their lives away to maintain the southern status quo for slaveowners far wealthier than they. Particularly interested to hear what kind of percentages you might assign for the various motivations (I’ve no doubt some went to war simply for the loot, some went for bloodlust, but how many?).

They fought for four years.

For the most part, they fought for the same things every soldier in history fought for…their neighbors, their buddies, their friends and the other soldiers in their immediate circle. Sure, some fought for higher ideals or the cause, but for the most part people fight for their friends and neighbors standing beside them and against the other guys who are standing across from them.

They fought because their country was at war.

Only the lucky ones.

We can add a few more reasons as well. They fought because the Home Guard would kill them or their families if they didn’t. They fought because they were paid to so wealthy sons wouldn’t have to.

A captured Confederate soldier pretty much summed it up for his side…

“I’m fighting because you’re down here.”

I doubt that there were five men in the United States between April, 1861 and April 1865 who joined an army because they were afraid that some local hooligans would kill them or their families. I have never seen any reference to anything like this–ever.

= = =

As to the OP: fighting to “free the Negroes” was never a major issue in the North and only became a minor issue in 1863, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At that point, it became part of the overall recruiting effort, but it still was subordinate to the major point over which men enlisted: secession.

There was a very strong resistance to the idea that any state or collection of states had the right to break the Union. It was such a strong feeling that few in the South entertained it until 1860. (In fact, when much earlier in the history of the country, a few people in the North suggested that act as a reaction against the War of 1812, there was a strong outcry and condemnation in the South against that idea–even to the point of threatening war to ensure the union, despite already being locked in a struggle with Great Britain.)

The South, as a region, seceeded on a political platform of preserving slavery, although most of its recruits joined up to show that their state or region had a right to go its own way rather than actively seeking to “fight for slavery.”
In the North, preservation of the Union was the focal point of the vast majority of recruitment. (Note how often the word Union is asociated with that war and its aftermath while the word Abolition is only associated with individuals and their ideas.)

In general, I’m sure this is absolutely true. (For example, see Sullivan Ballou’s famous letter–it’s all about “love of country”, not “freeing the slaves”.) There were approximately 186,000 Union soldiers who probably had somewhat different priorities.

Regarding the payment of bounties to avoid the draft: somewhat more than 5% of the Federal Army included men who had accepted money to fight. That would be about 100,000 men out of the two million who served. This is not a small number, but it is overwhelmed by the number of volunteers who served. (Another 2% - 3% were drafted, so volunteers “only” made up about 92% of the Northern forces.)

A great many, I’m sure, North and South, fought for no more compelling reason than that it was a chance to fight. People back then had different attitudes towards war.

We’ve done this before several times. The South was fighting to defend slavery, but the North was fighting to prevent the South from seceding. The average soldier, though, probably fought because his state said it was the right thing to do. Antebellum US was state-cetnric in a way that few people today can appreciate.

I believe the average Confederate soldier was fighting to defend his home. As far as defending slavery, it seems to me that a better defense would have been to stay in the Union & block every piece of anti-slavery legislation that came before Congress. Fortunately, the fire-eaters in the south weren’t that bright.

Soldiers also fought then for why they fight now: chance at an adventure.

It is important to remember the way that soldiers were recruited and the fighting units were formed. Rather than being an individual signing up and going away to fight alone, like it is today, fighting units were formed often from guys who grew up together. Sons, fathers, your friends, might all join and fight in the same unit.

If all the young men in your town or county were forming up to go to war, well, you were going to go too. Peer pressure, family honor, how are you really going to stay home and talk about the issues involved. You went.

Because of this practice there were some very sad days after a major battle when a whole unit got wiped out, when small towns might learn that none of their men would be coming home.

Thank you for the correction. After some reading (which I obviously should have done before posting) it’s clear you’re right. I was surely conflating some fictional account with historical reality.

Early on, at least a few of 'em signed up in order to wear those cool Zouave uniforms!

According to Mark Twain it was because Southern women wouldn’t have sex with men who refused to fight. He obviously put it a bit more delicately.

More seriously, he blamed Sir Walter Scott and others for creating the concept of chivalry and honor which became so integral to the Southern character and the expectations of Southern men that caused so many of them to throw their lives away in such a stupid cause.

Well, many on each side just plain didn’t like the other side.

Abolitionists were a minority in the North, but by no means a tiny one. It appears about 1/3 were Abolitionists of one sort or another up North. I’d hazard a guess that another 1/3 didnt like slavery but were unwilling to fight about it.

You’re right. I should have have posted something like:

Fortunately, though, you cut off my quote just before that part.