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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 would there have been to fight about? Not state rights or the tariff.

McPherson brings us back to first principles, to slavery and the question of race. He points out that “the greatest danger to American survival at mid-century…was neither class tension nor ethnic division. Rather it was sectional conflict between North and South over the future of slavery.” The Compromise of 1850 relaxed these sectional tensions by allowing California to enter the Union as a free state, and leaving open the decision on slavery in the territories of Utah and New Mexico, while making the fugitive slave law more stringent. But the compromise worked only briefly, as “northern resistance to the fugitive slave law fed the resentment of fire-eaters still seething over the admission of California.” The decisive event in pushing the nation into Civil War, however, was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, under which slavery would have been banned in both, thereby leaving the question of slavery in those territories open to the decision of the settlers. The battle over the Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the Whigs, and the Republicans emerged as the principal political opponents of the Democrats.

McPherson is careful to note, however, that Republicans of the 1850s were not all free from racial prejudice themselves. Many of them wanted to keep slavery out of the territories simply to protect white labor from black competition. The Dred Scott decision of 1857, which seemed to indicate that Congress could place no restriction on slavery in the territories, threatened the existence of the Republican party as the main political force opposing slavery’s extension; it also widened the divisions within the Democratic party by laying down the principle that while Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories, no one else did either. Thus the peculiar institution would in all likelihood expand, perhaps even into states that had already excluded it.

Republicans were helped by the popular stands they took in favor of such economic measures as tariff revision, a homestead bill, a Pacific railroad bill, and a land-grant college bill. These issues, the slavery question, and the Democratic party’s self-destruction in the campaign of 1860 permitted the “Revolution of 1860”: the election of Lincoln and the overthrow of the alleged slave power. This, in turn, was the immediate cause of the “Counterrevolution of 1861,” which is what McPherson calls secession and the creation of the Confederacy. Counter-revolution may be a rather strong term, but he is making use of Arno Mayer’s notion of “pre-emptive counterrevolution,” a revolution launched to prevent the real revolution from occurring. In any event, Lincoln’s decision to send supplies to Fort Sumter presented Jefferson Davis with the choice of peace or war, and Davis didn’t flinch.

Although blacks clearly were central to the events of the 1850s, their part was largely passive. Except for the occasional runaway, there really was little that slaves could do to improve their lot. Sometimes blacks are even assigned a relatively passive role during the war, simply because their activities are incompletely covered. Too often historians mention their significance for southern agriculture, or their place in the Union army, but not much more. McPherson and other historians demonstrate clearly, however, that once the shooting began blacks became active in their quest for freedom, more active than most Americans today realize. According to one estimate, about 180,000 blacks—mostly slaves—served in the Federal army, and about 10,000 more were in the navy.1 Because of the relationship of slavery to the Civil War, Jefferson Davis’s war turned out to be a revolutionary war—the “Second American Revolution,” McPherson calls it, referring to economic developments and quoting the view of Charles and Mary Beard that the war set in motion the process by which

the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South,… making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development, and in the Constitution inherited from the Fathers.

But McPherson also understands that the true revolution lay in the change in the status of the slaves. Abolitionists favored emancipation, of course, but, although it was not one of the original aims of Lincoln, or most Republicans, many Republicans and War Democrats, as they were called, came to argue that emancipation was a military necessity. The slavery issue “just would not fade away.” McPherson quotes Ben Butler, a clever lawyer turned inept general, who put the hard questions in a letter to Secretary of War Cameron as early as July 1861. “If property, do they [escaped slaves] not become the property of the salvors? But we, their salvors, do not need and will not hold such property…. Has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased?”

While Republicans had problems with party unity even on the slavery question, the Democratic party split more deeply into war and peace factions. Some peace Democrats were so naive as to believe that if the Union granted an armistice, it could persuade the South to reunite with the North, a gross misjudgment that Jefferson Davis was naturally eager to encourage. Despite their internal differences, however, Democrats for the most part were opposed to emancipation. As slavery became a major issue in 1862, many Democrats who were not already against the war became so. They baited the Republicans with racial slurs in the 1862 and 1863 elections and in the 1864 presidential election, and they called for an end to a war that might bring equality to black and white. Indeed, writes McPherson, “the vulgarity of their tactics almost surpasses belief.” “Cartoons showed thick-lipped, grinning, coarse black men kissing apple-cheeked girls,” for example—all this to take place “following Lincoln’s re-election”; and there were reports “that New England schoolmarms teaching freedpeople on the South Carolina sea islands had produced numerous mulatto children.”

McPherson’s account of the military campaigns is lucid and easy to follow, but on occasion misleading. For example, drawing on an old work of the historian Archer Jones, since revised by Jones himself, he argues that Lee’s Gettysburg campaign was an effort to relieve the pressure on Confederate forces at Vicksburg, then under siege by Grant’s army, and to bring off a major victory that would force the North to sue for peace. However, the campaign was really a raid aimed at providing the Army of Northern Virginia with food and other resources. Like Jones in 1961, McPherson was probably misled by the forty-year-old recollections of former Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan.2

On the other hand, McPherson gives an informative account of the changes in weapons and the inappropriate tactics that combined to produce carnage unmatched in the American experience. He reminds us that as early as 1861 Lincoln “believed that the North would win this war only by using its superior numbers to attack ‘different points, at the same time’ to prevent the enemy from shifting troops from quiet to threatened sectors.” If one could not always concentrate troops in all the places one wanted, at least one could coordinate the timing of their attacks. He points out that as Union armies penetrated the South they were drastically weakened by the need to detach troops to guard their lines of communications—the routes by which supplies, ammunition, orders, and replacements would get to the front, and information and the wounded would get to the rear. Thus, in the Atlanta campaign, Sherman had almost as many men guarding his rear as he had facing the Confederates.

Every Union advance had the effect of reducing the odds against the Confederacy, a problem that became especially serious when a hundred thousand hardened Union veterans decided to go home when their enlistments were up in the summer of 1864. Without quite saying so, McPherson thereby lays to rest the simplistic notion that Confederate armies were simply overwhelmed by larger Union forces. Sooner or later the point could have come, had Confederates willed it, at which Union forces would have suffered such depletion of their force that further advance would have been impossible. Their communications would perhaps have been secure, but their striking power would have been nil.

  1. 1

    For demonstration of the active role played by blacks in the war, see, for example, Ira Berlin et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, Series I, Vol. 1: The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 1985). See p. 38 for the estimate of the number of blacks in the Union forces.

  2. 2

    Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won (University of Illinois Press, 1983), pp. 397–398; Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 1986), pp. 259–262.

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