Did the majority of Northern (U.S.) soldiers fight to free the slaves?

brass napoleon

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That's why I posed the questions. Slavery was a cause but it was one of many.
I'm convinced that part of the confusion over this topic comes from the dual meaning of the word "cause". What caused the war could be entirely different than the cause that an individual soldier fought for. And part of the misunderstanding comes when people focus on one meaning of the word and try to attribute it to the other. So you have some people saying that slavery caused the war (for which there is a mountain of evidence), and therefore it was the cause that each Northern and Southern soldier was fighting for. While you have other people saying that soldiers fought for causes other than slavery (for which there is also a mountain of evidence), and therefore slavery didn't cause the war.
 
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matthew mckeon

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The United States army fought to preserve the Union. As the war continued, I think they realized that not only was slavery wrong, it was what was wrong with the nation. The survival of the nation demanded the destruction of slavery. So they proceeded to destroy slavery, an activity congenial to them because slavery sucks at close range even more.

As for the 180,000 black soldiers in the US Army, their motivation to destroy slavery were pretty clear. Slavery was what was wrong with their lives. Boredom? Not so much.
 

18thVirginia

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That's exactly my point. Peer pressure. Even trying to impress a young lady you were courting could be a cause. I see the causes as being many rather than one. I agree with Slavery as a cause but I don't agree with it being the only cause. Many ask "Was the Civil War fought over slavery?" That's a loaded question that labels southerners as all being slave owners in a sense. I cant discuss modern politics but the Civil War is more about slavery today than it was fifty years ago. As a teacher, I saw history progress over time. Native American History has just begun to open up, and for the most part they are still an invisible people. Yet their history goes back thousands of years and their influence on America was far greater than most will admit. I like intellectual discussions for after I left teaching, Ive had few. Sometimes people do not understand why I say what I say and they don't recognize the sarcasm. The thread was posted to present another side to the "Was the Civil War fought over Slavery?" question. It is all to easy for many to throws rocks at us southerners. Ive read the many statements of the men that organized on my farm. of the 109 men, only 4 owned slaves. I think your point fits the majority of the others. I think there was a jubilant hoorah when they rushed off to war. Of that 109, one came home within a month and is buried across the road from me. He died from disease. I think the passion weakened over time and reality hit.
My ancestors were non-slave holding Southerners of German ancestry. In their extended family, everyone who still lived in Virginia, some 18 members of various branches of the family that came to the U. S. in 1734, fought for the Confederacy. As far as we've been able to tell, no members of the family ever owned slaves.

Many non-slave owning Southerners did fight for the right to one day own slaves or to be able to rent slaves, or to not have a large slave population that would be free and competing with them. It's not rock throwing to point out that the South supported slavery and fought for slavery. Nor does it mean that those on this forum who patiently explain how Southern legislatures framed their reasons for secession, what Southern leaders said about slavery, or what the non-slaveholding Southern public generally said about slavery are "throwing rocks" at those of us whose families have deep roots in the South.

We are not the people who fought those battles and as we don't discuss modern politics here, no one is blaming us--at least on this forum--as current day Southerners.
 

jackt62

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Forgive me if this has been mentioned already, but how many men fought because they were expected to fight? I would think it would be very hard to not volunteer when most of the men around you are.
That is very true of both armies. There have been anecdotal stories about southern women who literally shamed the pants off of any men of military age not in uniform. In the early days of the war, young men on both sides were caught up in a frenzied enthusiasm of volunteerism. Many were actually fearful of the war ending before they got a chance to enlist and fight.
 

MaryDee

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According to Gary Gallagher's The Union War, which I recently read, most Union soldiers were fighting to restore the Union. You really need to read his book, or watch one of his videos, to realize how much the concept of Union (somewhat foreign to us in the 21st century) meant to the majority of them. Abolishing slavery was a motive for some, and probably became more important as the war progressed and many Union soldiers witnessed slavery in the South, but it certainly wasn't the prime motive for most Union soldiers. The exception is of course the brave men of the USCT.

Of course there was plenty of emotionalism involved, too, ranging from reaction to Fort Sumter (regarded in the Union as Pearl Harbor was in the following century, and in the Confederacy as an inspiring victory), to desire for adventure, social pressure to do one's duty, be part of the community, be a hero for the girls, etc. Many of these motives were equally valid for both sides.

Brass Napoleon once again earns his distinction as Member of the Year by pointing out that the "Cause" an individual fought for was not necessarily the cause of the war.
 

Allie

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A Tennessean might view that differently than one from South Carolina, though I am a Tennessean with all my ancestors coming from South Carolina. Secession is a good point. I know one thing for sure. Many want to join a cause as it is noble, but that passion fades to misery soon after. Im not sure why each soldier chose the route they took. I gave a representative and rough poll of why most Confederates joined, and Ive read many diaries and letters primarily from Tennessee. Very few mention slavery because few had them here. My county had the second highest ratio of all West Tennessee in regard to southern sympathies yet the majority of slaves in this county were owned by a few farmers. I read the slave schedules. The American Revolution had occurred less than a century before and the War of 1812 only 48 years earlier. I feel many southerners felt similar to the colonists when Lincoln won an election without winning in the south. The South didn't elect Lincoln nor do they have much political persuasion today. Im sure many southerners viewed their choice as patriotism too
You can't generalize even from one district in the same county to another, though, or even from one unit within the same district to another. My focus has been on district 1 (Durhamville / Orysa) of Lauderdale county, Tennessee. Examining the men from this district who survived the war to surrender with company M of the 7th cavalry, every single man had at least one first degree relative who owned slaves in either 1850 or 1860. Not one man in this company would have grown up without slaves in his household. And that is borne out by the writing of 2nd Lt. C.S.O. Rice, who said that almost every man in the company down to privates went to war with a personal servant, and some with more than one.

Looking more closely at the individual families and economics of this district, everyone who was not a slaveholder was dependent on slaveholders. There were planters who were slaveholders, poor farmers who rented land from the planters, a handful of teachers, merchants, and craftsmen who sold their services or wares to the planters, and lawyers, clergy and physicians who were usually also planters. It's exceedingly possible that not one single white person in the entirety of district 1 was opposed to slavery.

Move over a few miles to district 2, and there's a little more variation. Broaden the view to the entire county and there were even a handful of people from Lauderdale county who ended up in your ancestors' ill-fated 13th/14th Bradford's. Head over a few more miles to Obion county and suddenly there are "home grown Yankees" everywhere. It's really not possible to say what position a given family held without examining each case individually.
 

ForeverFree

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The question of whether slavery was the main cause of the war is often laid with weight on southerners as if it is a yes or no opinion. I firmly believe that more fought against the north for different reasons and that Lincoln catered in the Slavery Issue to the forefront. Of course years of debates led up to that moment. My question is simple: Did a majority of white U.S. soldiers in the Civil War enlist and fight to free the slaves? Why did the average Union soldier join? Why did the officers defend the Union? Was it because of slavery? If it was, the attitudes in the modern north sure don't match that sentiment today, do they? So why did most Union soldiers join? I think it fair to reverse the typical stereotype of southerners and pose the question to northerners. I am not defending the ideal of slavery. Please be objective and think about this before you reply. I wish we could do a multi-faceted poll on this topic.
In discussing this topic, there are three separate questions:

1) What was the cause of a war? That is, what led the antagonists to seek war?

2) Why did men enlist, or otherwise provide support for, a war?

3) Were the men who enlisted or "fought" or "supported" a war aware of the causes of a war?

These questions can have different answers, from one war to the next. Consider the Viet Nam War, in which the average soldier was around 23-24 years old. The vast majority of those men probably could not locate Viet Nam was on a map prior to their involvement in the conflict. Their understanding of the geo-political issues at stake might have been intangible or opaque at best. Many were drafted, and had no real desire to fight. But there they were.

The American Civil War was a whole different animal. But those 3 questions are key to ask.

I have often cited this quote by John Mosby, AKA the Grey Ghost

Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance. Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates and cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age.

If it was right to own slaves as property, it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery... I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery-a soldier fights for his country-right or wrong-he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights.

The South was my country.​

Note the nuance of his statement. He acknowledges outright that "the South went to war on account of slavery.” But that is not why he fought. He fought to protect his country. He would have fought whether the Confederacy went to war over slavery, tariffs, or the price of tea in China. His attitude was, my country right or wrong. He fought out of patriotism.

I think Mosby speaks for a lot of southerners. They were not fighting “for slavery” per se, but they were not ignorant or naive about the fact that slavery, or rather the desire to protect it, is what led to the war. Some might have enlisted out of patriotic duty, some because they were fearful of what the invading northern horde might do, some because they were drafted.

Northerners, I think, did perceive that they were engaged in a war to preserve the Union. They felt that the CSA was an economic, geo-political, and military threat. Some might have enlisted out of patriotic duty, some because they were fearful of what the invading northern horde might do, some because they were drafted.

Related to your question: I have seen various correspondence where Union men do indicate an understanding that the war had evolved into a war in which slaves were to be given their freedom, if the Union won. Some might have interpreted that emancipation had become a war goal. Of course, no less than Abraham Lincoln, more than once, insisted that this was a war to preserve the Union. But certainly by 1864, it was clear to everyone that emancipation had been been proclaimed, and that the Union was freeing slaves.

So, while most US soldiers certainly did not enlist to free slaves, their actions led to that effect, and they knew their actions were leading to that effect. Make of that what you will.

- Alan
 

E_just_E

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In those type of questions, my answer is simple:

Ask them.

Plenty of testimonials about what they fought for. Modern politicking versions of the reasons or the rhymes should be put aside :wink:

Read and thou shalt find :smile:
 

huskerblitz

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The United States army fought to preserve the Union. As the war continued, I think they realized that not only was slavery wrong, it was what was wrong with the nation. The survival of the nation demanded the destruction of slavery. So they proceeded to destroy slavery, an activity congenial to them because slavery sucks at close range even more.

As for the 180,000 black soldiers in the US Army, their motivation to destroy slavery were pretty clear. Slavery was what was wrong with their lives. Boredom? Not so much.
I have a small quibble with the bold part. The Union army did not and could not destroy slavery. It had to be done politically by the men in Washington. The motivation of the men serving in the military must be separated from the political goals of the men sitting safe and sound in the capital. In everything I have read it leads me to believe the motivation of the men in the armed forces was to defeat the enemy troops, preserve the union by doing the first then go home and let the politicians sort the rest out.
 

matthew mckeon

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I have a small quibble with the bold part. The Union army did not and could not destroy slavery. It had to be done politically by the men in Washington. The motivation of the men serving in the military must be separated from the political goals of the men sitting safe and sound in the capital. In everything I have read it leads me to believe the motivation of the men in the armed forces was to defeat the enemy troops, preserve the union by doing the first then go home and let the politicians sort the rest out.
There is some validity in your post, but I have an issue with it:
Civil War soldiers were basically voters in a functioning republic. They were in the army to do something. I'm skeptical of the division between supposedly apolitical soldiers and politicians.
 

huskerblitz

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There is some validity in your post, but I have an issue with it:
Civil War soldiers were basically voters in a functioning republic. They were in the army to do something. I'm skeptical of the division between supposedly apolitical soldiers and politicians.
But until the election cycle, they had no control over what the men were doing in Washington. Many did vote Republican but did they do so because of platform or because the Democrats were being viewed more as a 'Southern' party?
 

matthew mckeon

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But until the election cycle, they had no control over what the men were doing in Washington. Many did vote Republican but did they do so because of platform or because the Democrats were being viewed more as a 'Southern' party?
I wish I could remember what I've read a little better. Good questions.
 


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