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.

Some thoughts upon reading Battle Cry of Freedom

(1) More context would have been helpful. The beginning of the book feels a bit abrupt. We start with the end of the US war against Mexico in the mid-1840s and a discussion of how that war fed into the dynamics that led to the Civil War. I wonder, though, about the basic issue of slavery in the US—I’d like to know about how the practice in that context developed and what were some of the key elements of the conflict that by 1848 had the US in a state of great tension. I remember Alan Taylor’s excellent treatment of the establishment and expansion of slavery in his book, American Colonies. But I need to know more about the several generations between the Revolutionary War and the Mexican War.

I’d also like to more in general about the dynamics between the South and the North. It does seem as if the South was given many advantages in the sectional struggle that allowed it to dominate the national political scene—consider how many presidents and congressional leaders came from the South in proportion to the respective populations of citizens in the two regions (presumably the South similarly dominated the federal judiciary as well). Yet the South seemed by 1848 to feel constantly under threat. Perhaps it always did and that aggressive defensiveness is a big reason for the advantages that were given.

(2) Linking then and now. It is notable to me the many seeming parallels between the 1850s and the present. The Democratic Party of that era seems just about as corrupt as today’s Republican Party. Perhaps one indication of the level of corruption is the dismal character of national leaders of the two parties in the respective time periods. It would seem that the Democrats were very poorly served by the men from their party who held the office of President of the United States, culminating in the disgrace of the Buchanan presidency; the same is obviously the case with today’s Republicans.

It is arresting to read of a case such as the leadership of Stephen Douglas of Illinois in the Senate and beyond where there appears to be a clear connection between his personal financial aggrandizement (especially in relation to the railroads) and his influence on policy that exacerbated the tensions over the free-state/slave-state controversies.

(3) An “honor/shame” culture. Something else that is notable is the role that “honor” (and, presumably, shame) played in the consciousness of leaders in the South. It appears that quite often they would rear up and refuse to negotiate or compromise and threaten to fight or secede due to perceived violation of Southern “honor.” I suspect attention to the dynamics of so-called honor/shame cultures would shed light on what turned out to be an extraordinarily self-destructive path taken by those leaders.

(4) An opposition in disarray. Another interesting parallel with the present is the political disorder and ineffectiveness of those opposed to the South and the pro-South Democrats of the North. The Whig Party had emerged during the partisan era of the Andrew Jackson presidency (1828-36) as a second national in opposition to the Democratic Party. Only a couple of decades later it basically ran aground following the presidential term of Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate elected in 1848 and succeeded upon his death in 1850 by his Vice-President.

Various alternatives arose, and it was only in the fateful election of 1860 that the Republican Party emerged as a viable rival to the Democrats. That is, though the deep tensions went back to the colonial days, it was not really a Democrat vs. Republican tension until the actual separation that precipitated the Civil War was at hand. And, of course, Lincoln’s fateful election only occurred due to the general chaos of the plethora of political parties (including, of course, a huge split in the end between Northern and Southern factions of the Democratic Party). He received slightly less than 40% of the popular vote.

(5) The ambiguities of “freedom.” One of the truly big issues in this story is that of depth and enormity of white supremacy in the South (and, to a pretty large degree, also, in the North). Though I already something knew about this, it is still a bit shocking to encounter the nonchalance of white supremacists in denying the basic humanity of non-white people.

One basic issue was the conflict between notions of “freedom” between those opposed to slavery and those who supported it (recognizing, though, that many of the former remained white supremacists—which, I think, will likely be a key element of the failure of the Civil War actually to end “slavery” [here I allude to one of the catalysts for my project, the notion that slavery didn’t actually end when it was formally abolished but only evolved to continue more subtly but just as pervasively to exploit black people]).

For many in the South, “freedom” had to do with “property freedom” (which meant, ironically, the unassailable freedom to own slaves). A key part of this mentality was the assumption that blacks were not actually full human beings. Thus, denying their freedom was not seen as incompatible with the emphasis on “freedom.” Of course, for many abolitionists, blacks were seen as human beings who did have the right to freedom. An important question (that McPherson does not directly address) is how many in the North affirmed this notion of freedom.

(6) What animated the North’s war? It seems clear that the tensions leading up to the Civil War and the bases for fighting it among those in the North had little to do with what we could call “abolitionist anthropology” (i.e., the belief that black people are just as human as white people). The center for the North was the inviolability of “the Union,” not a desire to embrace a notion of freedom based on affirming the full humanity of blacks. I suspect this location of the center of concern will be a big part of the explanation of how the Civil War ended up failing to end slavery. So, to a large degree, it seems to me, what we have to do with in this story is the conflict between two kinds of idolatry—the idolatry of white supremacy and the “Southern way of life” on the one hand, and the idolatry of “the Union” on the other.

I don’t understand yet whether or these two idolatries actually were incompatible—in fact, the post-CW history of the US would seem to indicate that white supremacy and “the Union” were quite compatible. Hence, we have a big question of what the core of the conflict actually was. McPherson does not go deeply into this question. I’m not quite sure what he thinks the core of the conflict actually was.

The idea I get from how McPherson tells the story is that the South may have jumped to a few unnecessary conclusions about the unwillingness of the North under Lincoln to continue to accommodate slavery. Then, once the South initiates warfare for secession, Lincoln’s strong commitment to “the Union” required a response of the utmost force. McPherson does not speculate about this, but I wonder if it might have been the case that there were few if any other major political leaders in the North (Democrat or Republican) who would have shared the depth of Lincoln’s refusal to countenance giving in to the South.

(7) The place of the abolition of slavery. It could be that the intransigence of the South actually pushed the North to make abolition of slavery part of the picture. When the CW started, not even Lincoln understood it to be a war to force the South to give up slavery. It was a war to keep the southern states in the Union, presumably more or less as they were, slavery and all.

The “radical Republicans” and other abolitionists certainly took the opportunity the war afforded to institutionalize abolition—an outcome that perhaps fewer than 1/3 of the prewar public would have desired (or at least thought important). Given the realties in the South by 1880 with the re-establishing of a segregated society that profoundly exploited black labor, it appears that the American people as a whole did not care very much about ending the social realities of the white supremacist culture of the South.

So, the CW led to the formal ending of the South’s central social institution—but in the end, did little to change the broader social realities. So it is a myth, it seems, to imagine that the Civil War was necessary for a true end to slavery—since victory in that war did not lead to social transformation. For several generations (and in some ways down to the present), things may actually have gotten worse for black Americans as a whole.

(8) How the CW unfolded.McPherson’s account of the war itself is impressive in its clarity and concision. It is remarkable how many times the outcome of the conflict seemed to hang in the balance. However, when near the end of the book he summarizes the economic dynamics in the two nations, it seems impossible to imagine that the South could ever have won the war militarily. The North was simply too dominant—and rapidly getting more so as the war proceeded. The war actually helped the North’s economy while it devastated the South’s.

That said, the battles and strategy and conflict on the ground definitely went back and forth. Perhaps the most important issue was the difficulty Lincoln had in finding the right military leader. He went through an amazing number of top generals who shared passivity and incompetence until he finally found the man he had been looking for, U.S. Grant.

(9) An ironic, and self-destructive, Confederate victory. A fascinating moment in the story comes shortly before the war’s midpoint. After an intense series of engagements that came to be known as “the Seven Days” in June 1862, the Confederates were driven back and vulnerable to a further attack that may well have ended the war. The Union commander, George McClellon, showed excessive caution in following up and missed the chance to strike a decisive blow.

McPherson writes of the brilliance of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee in saving the day. But then he points out: “If McClellon’s campaign had succeeded, the war might have ended. The Union probably would have been restored with minimal destruction in the South. Slavery would have survived in only slightly modified form, at least for a time. By defeating McClellon, Lee assured a prolongation of the war until it destroyed slavery, the Old South, and nearly everything the Confederacy was fighting for” (p. 490).

This quote, of course, points to the futility of war—and of this war in particular. By winning what at the time seemed like a great victory, the South set itself up for utter devastation. The Confederacy’s unwillingness to take a longer view, its inability to form an accurate picture of the North’s core commitments (which were not to end slavery much less eradicate the South’s “way of life”), and refusal to think of partial achievements as worthy outcomes, only led to uncountable losses. I suspect the deep, deep corruption born out of the hate and disregard for life that Southern culture was built on led to this self-destructive self-delusion.

A complicated project

At this point, my project does seem quite complicated. Though this is not his intent, McPherson has made me more negative about the South than I was to begin with. Considered through a lens shaped by social justice and the way of Jesus, the South in the Civil War era seems impossible not to despise. Certainly, many differences between the Confederacy and Nazi Germany are crucial to keep in mind. However, the similarities may be even deeper and more profound than I had imagined.

Hence, as with World War II (with many, many profound differences—see my work on World War II’s moral legacy), we have a hateful social system that simply has to be seen as unacceptable to people of good will. At the same time, just as the World War II Allies were not motivated by care for the Jews, so also the North in the Civil War does not seem to have been motivated (very much) by care for the blacks. The methods used to resist the Confederates were quite possibly the exact opposite of what would have been necessary to end the cultural dominance of white supremacy that was the true evil behind the obvious evil of slavery. As a consequence, white supremacy remained intact—perhaps even became more viral.

I wonder about what happened with the abolitionists after the war ended. McPherson does not pay much attention to them in his story of the lead up to and outworking of the war. And he ends his narrative right at the war’s end. So, this is a part of the story I still need to investigate. My sense now, though, is that they must have been pretty quiescent once the efforts to impose a more just society on the South through the efforts of Reconstruction ended not quite a dozen years after the victory of the North. Slavery was formally ended with the 13thAmmendment to the United States Constitution. And other important rights were given in the 14thand 15thAmmendments. But as those rights (most obviously, citizenship and the right to vote) were quickly dismantled after 1877 and the culture of white supremacy returned with renewed venom, it doesn’t appear the remnants of the abolitionist movement offered much resistance. Perhaps their “success” in winning the Civil War undermined their commitments to actual social justice.

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

  1. Would Jim Crow laws been enacted had slavery ended peacefully? How different could history have been with no CW? Brazil is an example of a country where slavery was deeply entrenched and they somehow managed end slavery by 1888 with no war. Would the USA with no Civil War maintained slavery longer than that?

  2. McPherson assumes that the Civil War was inevitable. An alternative narrative should include reflection on how the war might have been avoided, and what the consequences of an avoided war would have been. I gave the topic my best shot in my book, The Missing Peace, The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History (pp. 105-115).

    1. Hi Jim. I think what you write in your book is excellent and I definitely intend to pursue that line of thought in some depth.

      I just finished David Potter’s The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861. I didn’t like the book very well, and he certainly doesn’t develop an argument about this, but he still makes it pretty clear just in describing the events that there were options that weren’t but could have been pursued that would have prevented the war.

      Have you read Michael C. C. Adams’s Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War? I just ordered it; it looks like a good account of the what the consequences of a war not avoided were.

  3. I have been on a similar journey myself. In his book The Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren suggests that the war left the South with the “Great Alibi,” and the North was left with an undeserved “Treasury of Virtue.” Unless we face the truth of our slavery and Civil War past, we cannot escape it and learn from it.

  4. Thank you Ted. I enjoy and am enriched by your comments. I read Noah Harari, “Sapiens – brief history of Human kind” and challenged by Harari idea that, “Imagined orders are maintained by agreed scripts, and society (church) devotes most of it energy maintaining the “imagined orders” into the tapestry of our lives.” Upon reflection and life experience I realize that this is so true!

  5. Thanks Ted for this engaging post. I am a pacifist who has been reading extensively about the CW for about 20 years, albeit less systematically than your approach seems to be. My interest and journey began on the courthouse lawn in Van Buren county, Iowa, where an obelisk stands, inscribed with the name of every man from the county who died under arms during the CW. The number of dead simply staggered me. Van Buren county is not a big place – the proportion of the population that marched off and died somewhere in the South was stunning and called for deeper investigation. I have a few comments and suggestions that I hope add a bit to your quest too.

    In view of your interest in the “honor/shame” culture, I would recommend Steven Keillor’s book “This Rebellious House”. Keillor is fascinating to me simply because he is a self-described evangelical who argues throughout his book that America is not a Christian nation; but his treatment of the CW addresses the concepts of honor held both North and South, and examines the breakdown in antebellum sectional relations in the matrix of a “gentleman’s duel”, with the call and response of aggrieved honor between the two sides ending in bloodshed.

    Keillor also does an excellent job, in my opinion, of demonstrating the idolatries of the North as well as of the South. As I believe you may also be experiencing, it is easy for me as a Northerner to take a very low view of the Confederacy. A clear-eyed view of Northern idolatry helps me keep perspective and, hopefully, keep the proverbial log out of my own eye. In that vein, I consider Thomas Fleming’s (no relation) book “A Disease in the Public Mind” absolutely essential – it goes into great depth to explain why the “South seemed by 1848 to feel constantly under threat.”

    A final note on items #8 and #9 in your list: the inevitability of Union victory and Lee’s brilliance (as well as the old canard about Grant being a drunken butcher) have long been widely accepted tenets of the Lost Cause Mythology. I don’t know how important it is to your quest to rebut such claims, but there seems to be a growing body of scholarship that is reexamining Lee unfavorably and Grant favorably. Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant includes his evolution from being apathetic to slavery, to being theoretically opposed to slavery, to being the last champion of freedmen in the Reconstruction period; historian Edward H. Bonekemper published such titles as “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” and “Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher”.

    Thanks again for the post, I will eagerly await reading more as you explore this subject!

    Aaron Fleming, Wellman, Iowa

    1. Thanks so much Aaron! This is all very helpful. i will check out the resources you recommend—and I hope you do keep reading what I come up with and offer your thoughts.

      You are right, I do tend toward a very low view of the Confederacy. But I have no problem with recognizing “idolatries of the North.” The writings you suggest surely will help me understand better what those might be. Are you familiar with Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (or some such title)? Sounds like the Keilor book will be a good complement to it.

      1. I am not familiar with Stout. I’ll have to add it to my list of must-reads. That list never seems to get any shorter….

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