Robert Mackey: An army is a grand exercise in group loyalty and cooperation. Understanding what holds it together provides lessons beyond the military.

Roundup: Talking About History

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. ...

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.

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