Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 11

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. xix + 909 ppg.

            This volume of the Oxford History of the United States came out in 1988 and was the second volume to be published in the series. James McPherson, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, won a Pulitzer Prize for penning this outstanding contribution to American Civil War history. At the time of its release, Battle Cry was immediately acclaimed at the definitive one volume work on the Civil War. McPherson, a lifelong student of the Civil War, managed to compile an outstanding overview of the lead up to the conflict as well as what happened during the war in 900 pages. The downside was that it was only an overview, not a detailed in depth series of volumes on every aspect of the war. Of course, that project would be one in which several historians, specialists in researching various aspects of the Civil War, would rival any history of the war to this date.

            There are two major problems with this work. One is that as an entry in the Oxford History series it focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War itself. It does not cover other aspects of American history from 1848 to 1865 except as they relate to the central conflict. Yes, the conflict was the central story of that time period, but there are other stories that need to be included in an American History volume covering that period. McPherson does mention class, race, and gender in this history, but he doesn’t go into them except as pertains to the war. Granted, he would not have had a great amount of research available during the 80’s to work with comparable to now, 2013. As a result, the book appears to be dated from a modern historiographical point of view.

            In addition, the book is now twenty-five years old and is showing its age in spots where newer research has changed the interpretation of the facts. This is not McPherson’s fault because it is the fate of all historical works. However, while I think the book could stand a good revision to keep it current, McPherson decided in 2003 that he would not write a revised version. Looking at McPherson’s body of work, it is clear that he has written many works on the Civil War for more than forty years and added to his own legacy. I think he is going to leave the project to other historians. We also have to consider whether a one volume book should exceed 1000 pages which would almost certainly happen if Battle Cry were to be revised. 

            Even with these two criticisms, Battle Cry remains an excellent condensed Civil War history. What really made this book stand out from others was the amount of detail given to the cause of the war itself. When we recall the period of time McPherson was working on the book, we have to remember that the Lost Cause myth was still prevalent as the dominant explanation of the war. Battle Cry helped end that erroneous and racist interpretation which deliberately obscured the real history of the war and its cause. McPherson had done extensive research on the United States Colored Troops earlier in his career and he made good use of that knowledge in Battle Cry. The subject was not shoved under the rug, nor was the massacres and murders that took place when black troops surrendered. He also brought up the fact that Confederates hated the USCT with a passion which only serves to drive home the racism of the period. 

            Those looking for a detailed analysis of the battles will be disappointed as McPherson devotes most of the pages to why the battles took, and what the results and effects were after them. Since Battle Cry is an overview of the conflict, deeper analysis of the battles awaits the reader in over books. Instead, McPherson weaves the history of the conflict in the various theatres around the battles to show the overall tempo and pace of the war. This strategic analysis results in a book that is not bogged down in battles, but rather one where the flow of a campaign is laid out as it affected everything around it. Commanders get quite a bit of attention as well as politicians. The anti-war effort of the Copperheads and Peach Democrats are explored as is the last ditch attempt at national preservation in the South via allowing blacks to fight for the Confederacy which came too late for the few units to enter combat. 

            All in all, Battle Cry is still a worthy book to read and a good volume in the Oxford series. As already explained, a revision is necessary and without one over time another one volume history will eventually supplant this as the best overview of the war. It is far more likely that a double volume or trilogy will end up taking its place as it will incorporate additional subfields of American History as well as giving additional space to other historian’s areas of interest. With that said, we must remember that McPherson’s themes throughout the book are still just as relevant today as they were in 1988. Nothing has changed in that regard. Additional research over the last twenty-five years has only strengthened McPherson’s assessment of the cause of the war as well as how the events played out. This makes Battle Cry a durable and still preeminent Civil War history.  

     Update: I think the relevance of this book is such that its use by instructors in high schools and colleges across the nation has made an impact on how we perceive the Civil War. Judging by the screams and howls of indignation at the removal of the CBF in South Carolina and the massive attacks by people against symbols of the Confederacy and racism, I'd say James McPherson's book has played a pretty big role in establishing a factual based history in the minds of people. That is a great thing. This book has been used as the textbook for a lot of Civil War classes and I would have no issues using it myself in a course. 

     McPherson has written a lot about the Civil War so we could use his works to build a pretty solid CW library. Dated as the book might be, it is still right on target with its information. So if you have a neo-confederate in the family who wants to fly the CBF and really has no clue about the Civil War, a copy of Battle Cry of Freedom would make a great gift for any occasion!

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