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Letter From Civil War Times - September 2007

Originally published on Published Online: August 02, 2007 
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Who Says What War Is About?

The Civil War was a volunteer war. Yes, there were professional soldiers in the ranks, and eventually even some conscripts. But the vast majority of men who fought in this war—millions of them—enlisted of their own free will. Why did they do it? It is a remarkably simple sounding question with remarkably complex answers, which lie at the heart of our understanding of the Civil War and all other wars in the world's history.

Politicians—the people who start the wars—are never short of explanations for them. Fortunately historians are around to sort through the spin doctoring to get closer to the truth. But we should never forget the voices of the men who left their homes and families behind, shouldered rifles and willingly put their lives at risk. They undoubtedly have a right to say what a conflict is about too—and when they do, they offer us incredible insights not only into the war, but into the character of the warrior as well.

Some of the soldiers' answers are more noble than others: duty, honor, patriotism, belief in a cause or the defense of their homes. When we remember that many of the men who fought in the Civil War had barely reached manhood, motivations such as a thirst for adventure or a desire not to be thought of as a coward are entirely understandable. Men who fought out of a lust for personal glory or political advancement, an impulse to destroy people with different beliefs, or even a base instinct for fighting and killing are harder to forgive—but whether we like it or not, these explanations for war are as real as any other.

In this month's cover story, Susannah Bruce delves into the letters of one of the war's most legendary fighting units: the Texas Brigade. She offers fascinating insights into the minds of men who fought for many different reasons—some that aren't surprising, and some that are. It is striking that these letters offer so little discussion of the reasons that politicians at the time, and historians ever since, provide for the Civil War. They show this conflict at a more fundamental level, and in essence, a more human level. These men chose to fight, and were ready to die. When they tell us why, we had better listen.

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