Thursday, March 24, 2011


A review of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States Series

(Rating 5 of 5)

James McPherson's Pulitzer winning work Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is often referred to as being the best single volume account of the American Civil War*. This book is all it was cracked up to be. It exams the major causes leading up to the conflict and the war itself by exploring them from multiple angles. The book shifts smoothly from the bottom Union ranks to the presidential chair, from radical abolitionists to powerful slave holders. One of the main themes of the book is 'liberty', how it is defined by the major actors and how the definition changes toward the end of the war. McPherson points out that both sides were fighting for their version of liberty, what they felt were the right American traditions, and how they understood the Constitution of the Framers. However, the obvious truth is that part of the South's definition of liberty is the right to own slaves, and that was the right for which they were going to break apart the Union and go to war to defend.

(President Lincoln)

McPherson's narrative begins at the end of the Mexican-American War, where the nation is debating on what to do with the newly acquired territory and the slave issue moves to front and center. In this debate we see the close of a second generation of American leaders and the rise of third. The actors Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun leave the stage after their last act and are replaced by the likes of William Seward, Salmon Chase, Stephan Douglas, and Jefferson Davis. Although his star would continue to rise, at the start of the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was but a minor and unimportant character.

(William Seward, Secretary of State)

The debate heats up and in 1860 Lincoln is elected President but before he can even enter the office, states begin leaving the Union. McPherson points out that some historians have faulted President Lincoln for not taking the South's threat to secede seriously and failing to address it. McPherson continues to describe that view as seriously flawed. To McPherson, the only thing that Lincoln and the Republicans could do to satisfy the Southerners would be to disband and declare that slavery was a positive good.

(The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis)

(The Confederacy's greatest general, Robert E. Lee)

As the war begins the South has the good fortune to have great generals in their cause such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. While the Union's best general, Winfield Scott, was a relic from another age. U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip Sheridan would have to rise up through the ranks by the measure of skill and merit while the conflict was going on. The generals that Lincoln would start with, George McClellan and Joe Hooker, were not very good. Although McClellan thought of himself as the second coming of Napoleon and his fans agreed.

“But perhaps career had been too successful. He had never known, as Grant had, the despair of defeat or the humiliation of failure. He had never learned the lessons of adversity and humility. The adulation he experienced during the early weeks in Washington went to his head. McClellan's letters to his wife revealed the beginnings of a messiah complex.”(p.359)

(The Union's greatest general, Ulysses S. Grant)

The Civil War changed society more than anything since the American Revolution and maybe even more so. Although American Revolution changed things by making a bunch of British subjects American citizens and the Civil War saw everyone remain Americans, the long range changes seemed faster and greater.

“By the beginning of 1862 the impetus of war had evolved three shifting and overlapping Republican factions on the slavery question. The most dynamic and clear cut faction were the radicals, who accepted the abolitionist argument that emancipation could be achieved by exercise of the belligerent power to confiscate enemy property. On the other wing of the party a smaller number of conservatives hoped for the ultimate demise of bondage but preferred to see this happen by the voluntary action of slave states coupled with colonization abroad of the freed slaves. In the middle were the moderates, led by Lincoln, who shared the radicals’ moral aversion to slavery but feared the racial consequences of wholesale emancipation. Events during the first half of 1862 pushed the moderates toward the radical position.”(p.494)

(Fredrick Douglass former slave who became abolitionist leader)

Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation that would free the slaves in the Confederacy and be the first major step to freeing the all the men and women who were slaves in United States of America. But it was only a step and a war measure, in order to permanently eradicate the 'particular institution' the U.S. Constitution needed to be amended. Lincoln would work to insure the passage of 13th Amendment in the Congress and send it to the states.

“Among the spectators who cheered and wept for joy when the House passed the 13th Amendment were many black people. Their presence was a visible symbol of revolutionary changes signified by the Amendment, for until 1864 Negros had not been allowed in congressional galleries. Blacks were also admitted to White House social functions for the first time in 1865, and Lincoln went out of his way to welcome Fredrick Douglass to the inaugural reception on March 4.”(p.840)

(Lee accepts defeat)

The Civil War would end for all practical purposes when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. There were other formalities, other armies that needed to surrender, but the long bloody conflict was over. There was a lot of work to be done and, unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln would not be there to lead it. John Wilkes Booth stole him from the nation. James McPherson does an incredible job bringing these events to life. If you want to know something about the Civil War this is a great place to start, for in the years since it was published it has made Civil War history buffs of many people.

*Several book reviews, including Washington Post, New York Times, and L.A. Times, all use that term.

{Video is from the classic movie Gettysburg}

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