What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2018

[I have started a long-term reading and writing project to try to understand the American Civil War (CW), especially in terms of its moral legacy (here’s an introduction to this project). The first step will be to read a number of the standard accounts of the CW and its historical context. As I read these books, I will write blog posts reflecting on some of the things I am learning—both from the books themselves and from my on-going reflections. I will start with this post that responds to what seems to be considered the go-to one volume history of the CW itself.

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era [The Oxford History of the United States] Oxford University Press, 1988. xix + 904pp.

I can see why this book has such a high reputation as the best one-volume history. Though it is 30 years old now, it still seems pretty vital and authoritative. The writing is straightforward and lively. Though obviously McPherson has to leave a lot out, the book is comprehensive. It actually does feel like a coherent volume (unlike many other long historical surveys), even though it is long enough to be broken into three volumes.

I found McPherson to be careful and respectful in his many descriptions of people and events (albeit, I grant that at this point I am just beginning my reading about the Civil War so I don’t have a lot to compare it to). His rhetoric is understated. He clearly writes as a “Yankee,” but I don’t think his tone is at all hostile toward the Confederates. He greatly admires Abraham Lincoln, but he gives us enough information to help us form our own opinions of this central character. Likewise with U.S. Grant. Conversely, he has a low regard for Jefferson Davis—though he is admirably calm and descriptive about Davis. The negative impression comes simply from the description of how time after time Davis supported morally problematic practices and ideals.

I look forward to in the future looking back at this book with much deeper and wider knowledge based on my upcoming reading. I find it difficult to imaging that my positive assessment will waver much, though. I should say that I have read a number of essays by McPherson, mainly in the New York Review of Books, so I already had a pretty positive impression of his abilities and perspectives. I also want to note in these preliminary comments that McPherson’s agenda was quite a bit different than mine. I didn’t get a lot of direct guidance for my assessment of the CW’s moral legacy—partly because the narrative ends abruptly in 1865 so there is not concluding analysis of the CW and its impact, and partly because McPherson strives mainly to describe the events and people with little evaluation beyond what was effective (or not) in the prosecution of the war.

Nonetheless, I feel after reading this book I am more condemning of the Confederate cause than I even was before. Not because McPherson directly insists on condemnation but because he quite effectively simply lays out the historical details. Of course, I obviously need to learn more. But I expect that my condemnation will get ever stronger. I suspect the deeper my antipathy toward the Confederacy, the more complicated it will be to argue against the value of CW—there is a grim satisfaction to be had in seeing the slave society get its comeuppance. Continue reading “What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

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