The Motives of Individual Soldiers Who Fought in the Civil War


The American civil war was fought between 1861 and 1865 in the USA, as a response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The southern states that comprised slaves wanted to secede from the federal government, while 25 states remained and supported the federal government. After the 4-year war, the southern states surrendered and were incorporated within the federal government and slavery was abolished.

The Soldiers’ Motives

McPherson (23) says of how John A. Wickham, a commander of the airborne Division once marveled at how American soldiers could make such attacks and why the soldiers risked their lives in such a manner over the four years. The solders were strongly convinced about the ideals for which they fought: the principles of liberty, freedom, justice and patriotism. They were also bound by their duty as soldiers to offer protection to civilians, retaining their honor by fighting for these ideals and the religious implications of the injustices they were fighting against.

Soldiers from both sides; the federal government and the confederate states, fought for the common motive of defending their country. They also fought to defend their dignity and manhood, both for themselves and their families. The soldiers preferred to die as heroes of the cause rather than as cowards, who stood and watched themselves and their families get disgraced. Three years into the war, more soldiers from the union were willing to reenlist fir more fighting, ready to sacrifice to defend their country. The two sides shared one motivation that made them hold on more to the war, the hatred for the enemy. They were both determined to defeat and conquer the enemy.

McPherson criticizes other scholars who downplay the role of ideological commitments of the soldiers as their main motivation; Ideals like courage, honor and desire for liberty. Slavery also stands out as another major motivation for the soldiers. The confederate states were fighting for its abolishment and while the soldiers from the union did not fight to end it from the initial stages of the war. They became convinced as abolitionists with time and supported its abolition.

The Leaders’ Motives

While the soldiers on the two fronts thought they were fighting for justice, liberty, honor and abolition of slavery, there were deeper and concealed political reasons to the war.

Kelly (1) says that Slavery ceases to be the major issue when we realize that Lincoln and Grant owned saves. The issue bought forward is economic, specifically cotton. The south, which flourished in agriculture, sold its cotton cheaply to European markets than the northern America markets. The leaders from the North took this offensively and this fostered hostility between the two.

The other reason is that the leaders of the south felt that they were being oppressed by the North. They were being imposed upon the northern products which were more expensive and this way, they felt their rights were being taken away from them.

The southerners also felt that they were loosing out on their political power. The northern union was fighting for the introduction of slave states. This was unconstitutional. While the south viewed the constitution as a document to be honored and not be changed, the northern viewed it as an evolving entity, and could therefore be altered to allow the introduction of the slave states. This state created a divided approach on the slavery issues, antagonizing towards the two sides.

Another reason was the tariff issue, the north, with a growing economy feared foreign trade as competition to theirs. The congress therefore passed tariff rules that would benefit the northern trade at the expense of the south. The southern states refused to adopt these rules and troops were sent from the north to enforce the tariffs. So, when the northern soldiers thought they were fighting slavery, they were actually fighting for the implementation of such rules.

According to Hickman (1), another motive that is seen as main to the civil war was the issue of states rights and federal rights. The north wanted the federal rights to be above the state rights, while the south wanted state rights to be above the federal rights. This played to add on to the tension between the two.

Lincoln is said to have been picked by some northern capitalist to intentionally start war with the south. Some areas of the south were industrializing rapidly, and these would make slavery dysfunctional and reduce the competitiveness of the northern products.

Equally, in the south, a small elite group wanted to hold on to the plantation system and aristocratic power at whatever cost, creating a separate nation. Only 5% of families in Georgia owned slaves, while the 95% suffered the practice. Actually, a majority of southerners opposed secession. After much pressure form his puppeteers, Lincoln gave in to invade the south. The true motivation for the war was economic and not abolishing slavery. This can be clearly demonstrated in North West Georgia. After the southern troops had left the regions, Lincoln ordered all ills, factories, schools, court houses, warehouses, and homes destroyed. This was meant to intimidate the unoccupied areas of the south to submit to the northern cause.

Later in his administration, Lincoln became more independent of the puppeteers, and it is claimed that they ordered his assassination, for they feared that he would become too soft on the southerners and let them develop. Lincoln, in his second inauguration speech, called upon the reconstruction process to be just and charitable to the south so as to ensure lasting peace.


From the above, it is clear and evident that the leaders and soldiers of both sides did not share similar reasons for the war. For the leaders, it was a more sophisticated in-depth plan, with far reaching implications than the motives held by the soldiers, who believed they were fighting for the dignity of their people and preservation of justice and equality for all. The war’s major motivation was not to end slavery, but more of a political scheme coupled with the economic aspects.

The north did not want the south to develop its industries, while the south, having realized the antagonism by the north was fighting for its survival and support of its industries and promotion of trade.

In my opinion, the civil war was fought on political and economic basis, a scramble for each region to dominate the two. The fight was for and against repressive laws, which would see either region advance or stagnate economically. The war would have been prevented, if the two regions pursued integration policies, policies that would see them develop with cooperation and not one region (the north) wanting to suppress the south and the excuse of slavery being advanced.

Works Cited

Hickman, Kennedy. The Approaching Storm. American Civil War: Causes. New York: guide, 2010.

Kelly, Martin. Top Five Causes of the CIVIL War: American History. New York: guide, 2011.

McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in The Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print

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Premium Papers. (2023) 'The Motives of Individual Soldiers Who Fought in the Civil War'. 9 January.


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Premium Papers. "The Motives of Individual Soldiers Who Fought in the Civil War." January 9, 2023.