Why They Fought

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War by Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn, Princeton University Press, 315 pages, $27.95

The American Civil War has long been a staple of the publishing industry. Hundreds of books come out each year, ranging from yet another biography of Robert E. Lee to "drums and bugles" hard-core military histories of specific battles and campaigns. Very few break new ground or bring to light any new discoveries, and even fewer have any relevance beyond the four years of fratricidal homicide. Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn's Heroes and Cowards is a rarity -- a book about the Civil War on its surface but with application well outside the conflict.

Literary classics such as The Red Badge of Courage and a number of modern historical studies -- notably the works on the common soldier by Bell Wiley and James McPherson -- have attempted to grapple with the question of why some soldiers fight and die, while others run away. This is the core question in Heroes and Cowards. More generally, Costa and Kahn want to know what makes people, especially in highly dangerous and stressful environments -- for example, in prisoner-of-war camps as well as on the battlefield -- coalesce as unified groups or break apart.

Using the huge amount of data available on soldiers in the Union Army during the war -- their sample includes the records of nearly 35,000 white men and 6,000 black men -- Costa and Kahn gain important insights on why soldiers, both black and white, stood with their companies and died in rates that matched, and often surpassed, the worst battles of World War I. The study is based on company-sized units of approximately 100 men, with 10 to 12 companies forming a regiment, which was the basic fighting unit of the war. These companies were raised from local communities, organized into state-sponsored regiments, and then sent to war. For example, most of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, "Duryee's Zouaves," came from Manhattan, with the exception of one company from Poughkeepsie. Black troops were recruited and organized somewhat differently, either forming federal "U.S. Colored Troops" or state-sponsored regiments, though in both cases companies were also raised locally whenever possible. This system helped to bind soldiers together, as they understood that they and their families would face communal condemnation if they deserted and returned home. In fact, as Costa and Kahn show, unless they came from a region that was anti-war and anti-Lincoln, deserters were likely not to return home at all or to move quickly to another region.

The main argument of the book is that people are more loyal to a group when placed with others who share their socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic background. In the Union army, it was common for Irish or German troops to serve in regiments separate from the native-born. However much we may now disapprove of ethnic segregation, the effect on group cohesion should not be disparaged. Units organized by ethnic group, despite heavy casualties, ended the war with lower desertion rates than those of diverse units that never heard a shot fired in anger. The famous Irish Brigade led by Fenian firebrand Thomas Francis Meagher started with five full regiments of Irish volunteers in 1861 and fought without breaking ranks even though combat losses reduced them to a single regiment by late 1863. All-black regiments like the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made famous by the movie Glory, suffered similarly catastrophic losses. The authors find that a mix of free African Americans and former slaves resulted in a higher rate of desertions but provided other substantial benefits, such as increased literacy after the war. In other words, black soldiers who had been slaves gained personally from fighting by the side of literate freemen, but the units themselves suffered from less cohesion.

How soldiers' lives changed after the war is one of the strongest parts of Heroes and Cowards. Using U.S. Census Bureau data and veterans' records, which provide information about income, occupation, and residence, Costa and Kahn track thousands of former Union soldiers in the decades after the war. A simple fact quickly emerges. If soldiers deserted but came from an area that was generally anti-war (that is, an area that voted for the "peace" candidate in the 1864 presidential election, Democrat George McClellan), they tended to return home and stay. But if deserters came from a region that was pro-Lincoln in 1864, their odds of moving away from their home community after returning nearly tripled. The causal relationship between anti- or pro-war feelings and the chance that a deserter would move quickly and far from the community led the authors to a definite and persuasive conclusion: Community and group mores and expectations, those same factors that made the volunteer units cohesive in war, acted as a means of punishment for those who failed to uphold, in the Victorian Era idiom, "their manly duties."

Overall, Heroes and Cowards is an excellent study, with only a few oversights. Costa and Kahn pass over the intangibles of warfare in the Civil War era, such as the influence of tactics, unit esprit de corps, and other relatively nonquantifiable concepts. The linear tactics of the time, where soldiers stood in long battle lines, shoulder-to-shoulder, did much to reinforce soldiers' cohesion. They rarely ran from the battle line. Deserters usually escaped on the march to the battle, when the opportunity to fall out of the unit was easiest. Soldiers of the era tended to stand and fight until the entire unit fled, was ordered to withdraw, or fell in battle. Examples such as the virtual annihilation of the 5th New York Infantry at Second Manassas in August 1862 -- where the 525-man force suffered 110 killed and nearly 300 wounded in 10 minutes -- abounded in the war. As the authors duly note, the locally formed companies added a strong factor to unit cohesion, especially when combined with the relatively immobile nature of American life in the 19th century.

Costa and Kahn also pass over other intangibles, such as the almost religious devotion to a regiment's flag, referred to in writings of the period as "the colors." It's striking that many of the Medals of Honor awarded in the Civil War were for either capturing enemy flags or saving one's own; losing a flag in battle was considered the greatest dishonor. Unit devotion to the regimental flags does, however, support Costa and Kahn's central thesis -- nearly all of the volunteer regiments, especially those raised in the first year of the war, were given their colors by the local communities. In other words, the wives, sisters, and daughters of the men of the regiment gave them the flags under which they would fight and die. The regimental colors became not only a symbol of a regiment's honor but, in the view of Kahn and Costa, also a visible reminder of communal support and expectations.

In short, rather than just being about war, Heroes and Cowards is about the costs and benefits of community-based organization. While it is an interesting cliometric analysis of the Union Army, it is just as provocative to consider its modern implications. The factors that made Civil War companies, white or black, cohesive groups are the same factors that must be considered when community groups, political and social movements, and even terrorist organizations are formed today. This is social-science history with broad relevance, well worth the attention of anyone -- layperson or scholar -- who is curious about the commitments that lead people to put their lives on the line.