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Letter From October 2006 Civil War Times

10/3/2006 • CWT Issues

The Drive for War

What is it that ultimately causes a person to willfully endure the horrors of combat, and if need be, sacrifice his or her life? Certainly the noble inducements of patriotism, honor, belief in a cause or the defense of one’s home are strong motivations. Then there are factors such as a desire for adventure or an impulse to not be thought of as a coward when all your friends and relatives start enlisting. At the bottom of the barrel we find a lust for personal glory or political advancement, a desire to destroy people who are different or have different beliefs, or even a basic, animalistic love of fighting and killing.

This month’s features ask powerful questions about motivation, starting with our lead feature about the Irish experience in the Army of the Potomac. Honor and a desire to prove their worth to their new homeland drove these newly arrived immigrants to enlist by the thousands. But patriotism of another sort — a loyalty to the mother country — also played a powerful part for some, especially men like Thomas Meagher and Michael Corcoran, who had designs on taking battle-hardened legions back to Ireland to win independence from England. It should also be considered that the Army and its regular paychecks probably looked like a good alternative to someone struggling to survive in the brutal conditions of the Irish ghettos.

Glenn LaFantasie’s illuminating look at William C. Oates ponders motivation on a personal level. Certainly Oates saw the war as an opportunity for glory and advancement — he was hardly alone. But as LaFantasie points out, something changed for Oates after the bloody repulse of his regiment by the 20th Maine on Little Round Top — a fight that cost him his brother and several of his men. By the time Oates got to Chickamauga, he seemed to be fighting for different reasons and in different ways. He may have been battling the ghosts of Gettysburg as much as he was the Federals in northern Georgia.

Personal motivation takes a curious twist in our examination of the fall of Forts Jackson and St. Philip — and then New Orleans — in the spring of 1862. The Confederate commander of the forts, Johnson K. Duncan, was a Pennsylvanian. The overall commander of New Orleans and its surroundings, Mansfield Lovell, was raised in Washington, D.C., but was from an old Massachusetts family and had lived in New York for several years. The fall of the forts set off a chain reaction on the lower Mississippi River that culminated in July 1863 at Vicksburg, another critical river city under the command of another Northerner. Northerners who fought for the Confederacy and Southerners who fought for the Union represent a fascinating chapter of the conflict, and drive home just how much of a civil war it truly was.

We see motivation at its worst when we examine David Hunter’s depredations in the Shenandoah Valley. Here was a commander fixated on personal glory and advancement, but even more on punishment and revenge. Hunter was a rabid abolitionist who, like so many of the radicals in that camp, believed that punishing all Southerners regardless of whether or not they owned slaves was not only just but necessary. As is often the case with soldiers of extremist mindsets, their actions quickly degenerate into ruthlessness and cruelty that alienates them from friends as well as foes. In a few short weeks, Hunter managed to repulse many of his men, including top subordinates, to the point where they would barely follow his orders, let alone fight effectively for him.

Motivation to fight, whether it’s at the societal, cultural or personal level, is every bit as complex an issue as war itself — and one that resonates through the ages. The next time someone asks you why studying history is important, throw motivation on the table with everything else. We’ll probably never stop fighting wars — but we should also never stop asking ourselves why we do.

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