America Against Itself

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era general editor

by James M. McPherson, The Oxford History of the United States, Vol. VI, C. Vann Woodward
Oxford University Press, 904 pp., $35.00 thereafter

Writing on James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom during Easter week in 1988, one and a quarter centuries after the Civil War, one is struck by the contradiction between the war and the Christian tradition that almost all mid-nineteenth-century Americans, North and South, professed to embrace. This four-year war was the bloodiest of American wars. It claimed the lives of more than half a million soldiers and countless civilians, out of a population, white and black, that numbered only 31.5 million. The military casualties equaled those of all our other wars put together. The death rate was 5.2 times greater than that for World War II.

Despite the bloodshed and because of it, the Civil War holds immense fascination for the American public. Organizations are established with the sole purpose of studying the Civil War, and they pay good money to bring in outside speakers to help them do it. Every little town east of the Mississippi River, and a good many west of it, seems to have its Civil War monument, which tells us something not only about the persisting memories of the war but also about the prosperity of the monument business in the Gilded Age. Special national parks have been established to do honor to the dead, and enthusiasts go to great expense to re-enact Civil War battles. Why should this be so? Given the predominantly southern flavor of most Civil War round-tables, perhaps there is a hint of a longing for what might have been.

The bibliography of the Civil War is already so large that no one can keep up with it, but of the new books one of the best is James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a remarkably wide-ranging synthesis of the history of the 1850s and the Civil War presented in a highly cogent and readable narrative. It is the only recent book I know of that effectively integrates in one volume social, political, and military events from the immediate aftermath of the Mexican War through the sectional strife of the 1850s, the secession movement, and the Civil War, the same years covered by Allan Nevins in his monumental eight volumes.

Indeed, the scope of this work is so broad that it cannot be confined to a single all-inclusive thesis. Nevertheless, McPherson writes that the “multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and re-formed into new patterns in the crucible of war, constitute a central theme of this book.” Clearly he intends not only to recall the vital part that American blacks and racial issues had in the Civil War, but also to counter the notion, which has gained some currency among historians, that slavery was not necessarily the central issue of the 1850s. This makes sense. How many historians seriously believe there would have been a Civil War from 1861 to 1865 if there had been a national consensus on slavery? For if there had not been slavery, or if slavery had been national, what…

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