They Fought For A Cause

by Barbara Joy Cooley

Williams McAdams, Sr.

This past Spring, I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know my great-great-grandfather, William McAdams, as I studied and transcribed letters that he wrote while in the Union Army during the Civil War.

I frequently wonder what he’d think of things the way they are now: how much farming has changed since his days, how big our cities have become, how quickly and easily we travel. Except for his 3 and a half years in the Army, he stayed at home or nearby. Home was a busy, multifaceted, yet simple farm on the prairie of central Illinois, near a town called Kansas.

I know that he would be perplexed, to say the least, to know that monuments to Confederate officers stand in places of honor in many public squares, and that schools and military bases are named for Confederate generals. Throughout his letters, he referred to the enemy as “rebels,” “Secessionists,” and “Secesh.” He considered them to be treasonous traitors.

He and several of his neighbors volunteered to serve in the Union Army because they believed they must fight to preserve the Union – to preserve democracy. They enlisted together in August 1861. Miraculously, almost all of them survived, but the personal and economic cost to each of them was great.

In October 1863, upon learning that he was missed at church, he wrote, “I am glad to know that my classmates still remember me at a throne of Grace as well as others who went to fight for the maintenance of the Union. May God bless them and answer their petitions in our behalf and when our trials and battles are o’er may we have a better Union than before and may they who survive the struggle and generations yet unborn enjoy the blessings of civil and religious liberty.”

There was no doubt about it; the cause for which he sacrificed so much was the preservation of the Union. He fought for “generations yet unborn,” meaning that he fought for us.

President Lincoln believed that no state had the right to secession. In his inaugural address in March 1861, the President said, “I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual….It follows….that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances. I, therefore, consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken.”(1)

In 1860, the United States was the only democracy in the world. Lincoln firmly believed that it must be preserved so that there would be hope for the entire world – hope that democracy was possible. The rest of the world was ruled by monarchs, dictators, and other kinds of authoritarians.

When the President addressed Congress in 1862, he said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history . . . We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”(2)

The long and deadly Civil War dragged on. In Georgia in May 1864, when he’d been away from his farm and family far longer than he ever imagined, my great-great grandfather wrote, “May success attend our arms until not an armed rebel will be left to attempt the severing of the Union and may the grace of God be sufficient for us in every trying hour.”

No, he would not have understood the honoring of the Confederate cause at all. He would be aghast to learn that I live in a county named for General Lee.


Comments (8)

  1. Patricia Layton

    Thank you for this well-thought-out and researched article.

  2. Margie PETERS

    Great story… love how you tied past to present. I to was gobsmacked to realize I live in Robert E Lee county.

  3. One of my paternal great grandfathers was a general store owner and a preacher in Kentucky during the 1860s. At one point his store was burned down because of something he said in the pulpit, according to family lore, taking his assets from $17,500 one year to $500 the next. But there was disagreement in the family in this border state about which side he was on. It was my great pleasure to get help from the Fort Myers library genealogy department and solve the mystery: he was enrolled in the union army!
    On the other side of my father’s family, my great, great, great grandfather in Virginia owned slaves, which he freed at his death, leaving the remainder of his estate to his childless wife. At her death, she bequeathed everything to those freed slaves, who were the ancestors of Henry Louis Gates. Genealogical research is not only fascinating, but hopefully gives us some understanding and even empathy for our forebears.

  4. The similarities in behavior whether in 1860 or present day in regards to the Democrats(progressives) then and now are striking. As many have observed the election of Republicans Lincoln and Trump sparked anger in their ranks that now as in 1860 have included calls to secede. California progressives wanted to form their own country. Loss of control over their black slaves then as now concerns them and is clear for instance when Biden recently publicly announces straight to the face of an African American radio host, “you ain’t black if you have trouble deciding between Trump and me.” Biden’s freudian slip reveals not only a racist, but even more troubling, a plantation mentality. The plantation mentality seeks and demands power and control which is at the core of the democrat party mindset. Lincoln summed it up as, “you work, I’ll eat.” Why would anyone want to be in any way associated with the legacy and guilt of the democrat party whether then or now? Something to ponder.

  5. Edina Lessack

    You write so eloquently. Edina

  6. Great article. Interesting how it applies to today. Thank you for sharing your family’s story.

  7. Love how you intertwined and connected the past to the present. Beautiful writing.

  8. My maternal great-grandfather Rasmus, who migrated to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1840 from Holstebro in the Kingdom of Denmark, served on the Union’s steam gunboat USS Marblehead during the Battle of Legareville, South Carolina under Quartermaster James Miller. Miller was a native Norwegian born in Denmark. On December 25, 1863, during an engagement with the enemy on John’s Island, he and his crew acted courageously under fierce hostile fire. I agree with you, Rasmus would not have understood the honoring of the Confederate cause. Thank you for this well written article.

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