James McPherson is George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History Emeritus at Princeton. His books include Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, and, most recently, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.


The Fugitives Who Changed America

James Hamlet, the first person returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in front of city hall in New York; engraving from the National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850. Hamlet was returned by force to Baltimore, but ‘by the time this appeared in print,’ Eric Foner writes in Gateway to Freedom, ‘New Yorkers had raised the money to purchase Hamlet’s freedom and he was back in the city.’
When the Constitutional Convention met at Philadelphia in 1787, slavery was on the way out in most states north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The bifurcation between slave and free states that would plague the nation for the next seventy-five years and bring civil war in 1861 had already begun. Many …

Our Monstrous War

Winslow Homer: Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, 1864
Living Hell is an extended antiwar sermon. Like all good preachers, Michael C.C. Adams begins with a quoted text, this one from a speech in 1880 by General William T. Sherman to an audience in which many of the listeners were too young to remember the trauma and devastation of …

America’s ‘Wicked War’

The twenty-day siege of the Mexican city of Veracruz in March 1847; painting by William Henry Powell, 1867
“I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico,” said Ulysses S. Grant in 1879, more than thirty years after he had fought in that war as a young lieutenant. As he was dying of cancer in 1885, Grant …

‘A Bombshell on the American Public’

President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan (second from left) after the  Battle of Antietam, October 3, 1862
As the war took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1862, Lincoln fully embraced the idea that as commander in chief he could proclaim emancipation as a means of weakening the enemy. During a carriage ride on July 13, 1862, to attend the funeral of the infant son of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the president startled his seatmates William H. Seward and Gideon Welles, the secretaries of state and the navy. He told them that he had made up his mind to issue the proclamation.

What Drove the Terrible War?

‘Fate of the Rebel Flag’; lithograph published by William Schaus in 1861, based on a painting by William Bauly
As we begin to move through four years of commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the outpouring of new books will add to that conflict’s status as the most-written-about event in our history. One of the largest of these volumes—in length as well as scope—is Amanda Foreman’s spacious narrative of Anglo-American and Anglo-Confederate relations during the war.

The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Macomb, Illinois, August 26, 1858
The central theme of The Fiery Trial is Lincoln’s “capacity for growth” in his “views and policies regarding slavery and race.” Foner does not doubt the sincerity of his statement in 1858 that he had “always hated slavery.” By the time of Lincoln’s death, however, “he occupied a very different position with regard to slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier in his life.” In 1837 Lincoln described slavery as an injustice; by 1854 it was a monstrous injustice; in 1862 he told a delegation of five black men he had invited to the White House that “your race are suffering in my judgment the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.” This was good abolitionist rhetoric. But Lincoln’s purpose at this meeting in 1862 was to publicize his program for government assistance to blacks who volunteered to emigrate. Like his political heroes Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, Lincoln could not yet in 1862 imagine a future of interracial equity in the United States. “Even when you cease to be slaves,” he told the five delegates, “you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.”

Lincoln Off His Pedestal

When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton solemnly intoned: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton’s words were more prescient than he could know. Lincoln’s image and legacy became the possession not only of future ages in America …

The Historian Who Saw Through America

For more than thirty years George Fredrickson was a leading historian of race relations and racial ideologies in the United States and other multiracial societies. By a cruel trick of fate, his unexpected death on February 25, 2008, occurred three days before the official publication date of his book on …

Dark Victories

Americans on the eve of the Civil War were no strangers to death. Life expectancy at birth was forty years, largely because of an infant and child mortality rate nearly ten times as great as today. Most parents had buried at least one child; few young people reached adulthood without …

They Chose Freedom

Next to preservation of the United States as one nation, the emancipation of four million slaves and the abolition of slavery were the most important results of the Civil War. Our understanding of emancipation usually concentrates on its key documents: President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, congressional laws, and the Thirteenth …

Was It More Restrained Than You Think?

In 1992 Mark E. Neely Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.[^1] In the same year that the book came out he published an influential article in the journal Civil War History titled “Was the Civil War a …

The Fight for Slavery in California

The annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845 and the conquest of what became the American Southwest in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 reduced the size of Mexico by more than half and increased the size of the United States by a third. These acquisitions also reopened the …

What Did He Really Think About Race?

Abraham Lincoln was “emphatically, the black man’s President,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1865, “the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” A decade later, however, in a speech at the unveiling of an emancipation monument in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as “preeminently the white …

The Great Betrayal

In his formal acceptance of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant concluded with four words that struck a deep chord with voters: “Let us have peace.”[^1] For more than twenty years the country had been racked by conflict over slavery and its aftermath: fistfights in …

Was It a Just War?

“War is hell,” said General William T. Sherman fifteen years after the end of a war in which he perhaps did more than anyone else to confirm that description. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Sherman wrote on another occasion. Harry Stout certainly agrees. The Jonathan Edwards Professor …

The Bloody Partnership

The authors of the two new Civil War narratives under review are not shy about stating their central theses. The Union Army of the Tennessee, writes Steven Woodworth, was “the most effective fighting force on the continent” by 1864. It “won the decisive battles in the decisive theater of the …

Brahmins at War

In the 1970s, United States Army General John A. Wickham, commander of the famed 101st Airborne Division, visited the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. There he gazed at Bloody Lane, where Union soldiers had attacked repeatedly before finally breaking through after suffering casualties greater than 50 percent in some regiments.

Days of Wrath

As John Brown was led to the gallows in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859, he handed his guard a note: I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly …

Specimen Days

John F. Kennedy famously described Washington, D.C., as a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. Indeed, neither charm nor efficiency was in evidence during the 1850s, when representatives came armed to the floor of Congress, fistfights between Northerners and Southerners broke out in the House, and a South Carolina …

The Greatest Republican

Three months before the Republican national convention scheduled for May 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois did not make anyone’s list of potential presidential nominees. At best he could hope to receive his state’s first-ballot support as a favorite son. Newspaper editors in the East knew so little about him that …

The Moses of Her People

Surveys of freshmen at the State University of New York at Buffalo who registered for the introductory US history course in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that more of them knew of Harriet Tubman than any other woman who lived before 1900 except Betsy Ross. Tubman also ranked higher on …

A Confederate Guerrilla

One of the enduring myths of American folklore is that Jesse James was a home-grown Robin Hood who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” in the words of “The Ballad of Jesse James,” which enjoyed a revived popularity among the romantic left in the 1960s. Supported by …

Could the South Have Won?

The field of Civil War history has produced more interpretative disputes than most historical events. Next to debates about the causes of the war, arguments about why the North won, or why the Confederacy lost (the difference in phraseology is significant), have generated some of the most heated but also …

Southern Comfort

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”[^1] At the war’s outset in …

Blitzkrieg in Georgia

“Atlanta is ours, & fairly won.” This dispatch from General William T. Sherman on September 3, 1864, set off wild celebrations in the North. A prominent New Yorker wrote in his diary: “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!!…it is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the …

The Unheroic Hero

Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs are “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language,” according to the astute British military historian and analyst John Keegan. “If there is a single contemporary document which explains ‘why the North won the Civil War,’ that abiding conundrum of …

Lincoln’s Herndon

Many authors have written trilogies, but Douglas L. Wilson may be the first to publish all three volumes within a few months of each other. Although there is some overlap, they fit together like the tiles of a mosaic to provide a fuller portrait than previously existed of Abraham Lincoln …