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Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson
Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson
This is one of the best single volume studies of a war I have read. McPherson starts at the end of the Mexican War in1847 and follows the chain of events over the next decade that eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The crisis that led to seccession in 1861 is also covered in great detail (over 100 pages).
Once the fighting has started, he provides a clear account of what can be a confusing (or perhaps overwhelming) conflict, taking up two thirds of the volume. Interspersed amongst the battles and campaigns are chapters on the development of emancipation, politics north and south, and Lincoln's plans for post-war America.
For a good view of the war from its causes to the eventual Union victory and the collapse of the Confederacy, this book is hard to beat.
Author: James M. McPherson
Publisher: Oxford University Press (also several reissues)
25 Years of Battle Cry of Freedom: An Interview with James M. McPherson
Twenty-five years after he published one of the bestselling histories of the Civil War, James McPherson talks to Marc Wortman about the war.
Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Civil War, may be the finest one-volume history of any American war ever written, let alone the Civil War. Its publication 25 years ago was a publishing phenomenon. The 900-plus-page, richly footnoted scholarly book from Oxford University Press spent 16 weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list and subsequently 12 weeks on the paperback list, selling more than 700,000 copies in the United States, the U.K., and elsewhere, with several foreign translations. Battle Cry still sells about 15,000 copies each year.
The book’s popularity is not hard to explain. McPherson miraculously manages between to recount the origins of the war and its progress in virtually every theater of fighting through its entire four years, explain the political maelstrom that engulfed both the North and South, touch on heartbreaking stories of individual warriors, follow the machinations of government officials, and describe the military, cultural, and social consequences of the greatest cataclysm in American history, all while carrying the reader along within a brisk and vivid narrative.
The book was the blasting clap that set off the explosion of popular interest in the war that then greeted Ken Burns’s epoch-making PBS documentary The Civil War when it was released two years later. Since then, America has devoured a seemingly endless stream of new histories, film, and documentaries about the war. The ongoing sesquicentennial celebration has only redoubled that flood of new material and public fascination with the war. That fascination—with the Civil War’s causes and violence, its great players from Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln to common soldiers writing loved ones on the eve of battle, and the myriad interpretations of an outcome that still seems not fully resolved today—appears destined to last as long as the United States remains a country.
Now retired after a long career as a history professor at Princeton, McPherson continues to publish about the Civil War. His most recent book, War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861–1865, his 20th, appeared last year. He has previously published a children’s history of the war and books about Lincoln, abolition, why soldiers on both sides fought, Reconstruction, and the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, as well as editing and contributing to scores of other volumes on the war and regularly writing for The New York Review of Books.
To mark the anniversary of Battle Cry’s publication, I reached McPherson at his home in Princeton to ask talk to him the war, the publication of Battle Cry and its aftermath, and the meaning of the Civil War 150 years on:
To get it out of the way, you are not related to Union Army Gen. James Birdseye McPherson, who was killed at the Battle of Atlanta in July 1864. Are you related to any participants in the war?
I am not related to Gen. James Birdseye McPherson. I did have two Civil War ancestors: a great-grandfather, Luther Osborn, who enlisted in the 93rd New York Volunteer Infantry in December 1861, rose to corporal, became a lieutenant in the 22nd U.S. Colored Infantry in January 1864, rose to captain in that regiment and a great-great-grandfather, Jesse Beecher, who enlisted in the 112th New York Volunteer Infantry in August 1862, rose to sergeant, died of typhoid fever in April 1865, is buried in the National Military Cemetery at Wilmington, North Carolina.
Whose idea was it to write a one-volume history of that war, a war that has led to more books—50,000-plus—than any other American event? That must have been a daunting prospect.
I was asked by C. Vann Woodward and Sheldon Meyer, editors of the Oxford History of the United States series, to do the volume on the Civil War era in 1979. It was indeed a daunting prospect, not so much because of the 50,000 books on the Civil War as because of the prestige of the series and the prominence of other authors in the series.
Did you anticipate the book’s success? Few if any 900-page books by history professors can compare in sales here and abroad. What made readers 25 years ago so receptive to your book?
No, I did not anticipate the success of the book. One reason readers were receptive to the book was the growing interest at that time in the Civil War, of which the also unanticipated success of Ken Burns's video documentary two years later is additional evidence. My book got a tremendous send-off by very positive front-page reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World, so it hit the ground running.
Is there anything that you now feel you should have done differently in Battle Cry?
In retrospect, I don't think I should have done anything differently. If I were writing it today, I would include more social and cultural history and perhaps cut back on the military and political history, but the scholarship to sustain those differences didn't yet exist in the 1980s.
You estimated in a 1994 interview that you had read by that time 25,000 letters written by some 1,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate. I imagine the number is all the greater now. Are there aspects of any of the individual letters that still stand out for you?
The aspects of those letters that still stand out, as they did two decades ago, are the patriotic and ideological convictions of so many soldiers, which kept them in the ranks and fighting for two, three, four years despite their homesickness and fears of the consequences of death or wounds for themselves and their families. I was also struck by the religiosity of many soldiers.
The battle cry of “Freedom” was in fact something you ascribed to both Northern and Southern soldiers. Can you explain that?
Both sides in the Civil War professed to be fighting for the same "freedoms" established by the American Revolution and the Constitution their forefathers fought for in the Revolution—individual freedom, democracy, a republican form of government, majority rule, free elections, etc. For Southerners, the Revolution was a war of secession from the tyranny of the British Empire, just as their war was a war of secession from Yankee tyranny. For Northerners, their fight was to sustain the government established by the Constitution with its guaranties of rights and liberties. Neither side at first fought for the freedom of the slaves, and, of course, the Confederacy never did, but eventually that additional freedom also became a Northern war aim.
Some claim that you are biased in your history against the Confederacy and weigh slavery as a cause for the war too heavily. Some have said that about my book, The Bonfire, about Atlanta in the Civil War. How do you respond to such criticism?
I try to respond to that criticism by pointing to the unfolding of events that caused increasing polarization between North and South in the 1850s, all of which centered on slavery and the issue of its expansion, and to the contemporary statements by Southerners themselves about the salience of slavery in the coming of the war and in their statements about why their states were seceding.
Your concern for Civil War history goes beyond scholarship. Your work since Battle Cry includes a book about the Civil War for children and efforts at battlefield preservation. You are a popular speaker. Why is it important for Americans outside academia to know more about the war? Why should we care about what happened in those four years of war a century and a half ago?
The outcome of the Civil War assured that the United States would remain one nation, indivisible, and that the issue of slavery which had plagued the republic since its founding would plague it no more. The war shaped modern America by assuring the survival and preeminence of a dynamic and democratic capitalist society rather than a plantation slave society. The constitutional amendments that grew out of the Civil War have been the basis for most of the progress in the civil rights not only of African Americans but other minorities as well. Without that war, the U.S. today would be a much different nation—perhaps two or several nations. To understand the society in which they live, Americans need to understand how it got that way, and the Civil War determined a large part of how it got that way.
You have led battlefield tours. What Civil War places should all Americans be sure to visit?
Gettysburg above all, but also the other major battlefields that are national parks and some that are state parks, plus all of the Civil War monuments in Washington and Richmond, and museums such as the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia Pamplin Park near Petersburg, Virginia the Civil War exhibit at the Atlanta historical society and indeed the Civil War exhibits at countless state and local museums, libraries, historical societies around the country during these years of the Civil War sesquicentennial.
What are your favorite books or other media on the war?
There are too many outstanding Civil War books and productions in other media to name briefly, but I will single out Shelby Foote's trilogy on the Civil War, Allan Nevins's eight volumes on the coming of the war and the war itself, Ken Burns's video documentary, Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels, and the movies Glory and Red Badge of Courage.
The current best estimate of the Civil War dead totals around 750,000. The South took decades to recover from the war’s devastation. No family North or South was not in some way touched by the blood spilled. Yet deep North-South divisions remain 150 years later, full civil rights for African-Americans took another century and much struggle to achieve, and still today racial issues remain unresolved. What did the Civil War accomplish?
Yes, North-South divisions do still remain, but we are one country rather than two or more countries. And yes, full civil rights took a century or more to accomplish, but freedom came immediately and from 1865 onward black children could no longer be sold apart from their parents or husbands and wives from each other, and civil rights based on the constitutional amendments and legislation that grew out of the war were finally achieved.
After the tens of thousands of books, countless articles, hundreds of movies, and documentaries, what don’t we fully know or understand about the Civil War? Why should you or anyone need to write or film more about it?
There isn't much that we don't at least partly know about the Civil War, but there is still a lot that we don't fully know, so new findings (like the new estimate of 750,000 war deaths rather than 620,000) and new perspectives will continue to enhance our understanding. The quest for fuller knowledge and greater understanding will go on.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History
"Anyone interested in Texas and the republic to which it belongs should set some weeks aside for this big, smart porcupine of a book" - Patrick G. Williams, Southwestern Historical Quarterly
"what will surely become the standard one-volume history of the great conflict which forged America as a united nation. Godfrey Hodgson, The Independent _"
"probably the best single-volume history of America's Civil War yet written." - The Economist
Battle Cry of Freedom, Vol 1
I agree with the esteemed scholar and former male model Matt Suder when he says this should be required reading in school. However, I only listened to volume one and not the entire thing. It&aposs just a personal preference. I don&apost like reading about military battles. I care more about the social and political aspects that led to the Civil War. I challenge anyone to read this and still think that the Civil War wasn&apost about slavery. "But Joe, it was about state&aposs rights!"
Wrong! It was about one stat I agree with the esteemed scholar and former male model Matt Suder when he says this should be required reading in school. However, I only listened to volume one and not the entire thing. It's just a personal preference. I don't like reading about military battles. I care more about the social and political aspects that led to the Civil War. I challenge anyone to read this and still think that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. "But Joe, it was about state's rights!"
Wrong! It was about one state right, slavery. Name me another right! I know that some accuse Republicans of simply using this issue as a partisan way to get more votes and to that I say, great! They were doing politics right! I don't care what rationale Lincoln had to use to get those racist white bastards to give up slavery so long as it worked.
Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era
'A remarkably wide-ranging synthesis of the history of the 1850s and the Civil War . 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 . It is a masterful work' New York Review of Books
'Compellingly readable . the best one-volume treatment of its subject I have ever come across. It may be the best ever published . This is magic' The New York Times
This book covers one of the most turbulent periods of the USA's history, from the Mexican War in 1848 to the end of the Civil War in 1865. With a broad historical sweep, it traces the heightening sectional conflict of the 1850s: the growing estrangement of the South and its impassioned defence of slavery the formation of the Republican Party in the North, with its increasing opposition to slavery and the struggle over territorial expansion, with its accompanying social tensions and economic expansion. The whole panorama of the Civil War is captured in these pages, from the military campaign, which is described with vividness, immediacy, a grasp of strategy and logistics, and a keen awareness of the military leaders and the common soldiers involved, to its political and social aspects.
Battle cry of freedom : the Civil War era
Filled with fresh interpretations and information, puncturing old myths and challenging new ones, Battle Cry of Freedom will unquestionably become the standard one-volume history of the Civil War. James McPherson's fast-paced narrative fully integrates the political, social, and military events that crowded the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at Appomattox. Packed with drama and analytical insight, the book vividly recounts the momentous episodes that preceded the Civil War--the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry--and then moves into a masterful chronicle of the war itself--the battles, the strategic maneuvering on both sides, the politics, and the personalities. Particularly notable are McPherson's new views on such matters as the slavery expansion issue in the 1850s, the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession, internal dissent and anti-war opposition in the North and the South, and the reasons for the Union's victory. The book's title refers to the sentiments that informed both the Northern and Southern views of the conflict: the South seceded in the name of that freedom of self-determination and self-government for which their fathers had fought in 1776, while the North stood fast in defense of the Union founded by those fathers as the bulwark of American liberty. Eventually, the North had to grapple with the underlying cause of the war--slavery--and adopt a policy of emancipation as a second war aim. This "new birth of freedom," as Lincoln called it, constitutes the proudest legacy of America's bloodiest conflict. This authoritative volume makes sense of that vast and confusing "second American Revolution" we call the Civil War, a war that transformed a nation and expanded our heritage of liberty
Includes bibliographical references (pages 865-882) and index
From the Halls of Montezuma -- The United States at midcentury -- Mexico will poison us -- An empire for slavery -- Slavery, rum, and Romanism -- The crime against Kansas -- Mudsills and greasy mechanics for A. Lincoln -- The Revolution of 1860 -- The counterrevolution of 1861 -- Facing both ways: the upper south's dilemma -- Amateurs go to war -- Farewell to the Ninety Days' War -- Blockade and beachhead: the Salt-water War, 1861-1862 -- The River War in 1862 -- The sinews of war -- Billy Yank's chickahominy blues -- We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued -- Carry me back to old Virginny -- John Bull's Virginia reel -- Three rivers in winter, 1862-1863 -- Fire in the rear -- Long remember: the summer of '63 -- Johnny Reb's Chattanooga blues -- When this cruel war is over -- If it takes all summer -- After four years of failure -- We are going to be wiped off the earth -- South Carolina must be destroyed -- We are all Americans -- To the shoals of victory
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“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” Book Review
Contrary to the notation “The real [American Civil] War will never get in the books,” Walt Whitman penned, there can be seen in various bookstores books of varying titles pertaining to the subject. Chronicling the Civil War has not been the sole venture of historians for essayists, memoirists and novelists influenced by various academic fields.
Refuting Whitman, the 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, written by James M. McPherson, is the sixth volume of the Oxford History of the United States.
McPherson, currently the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University, is eminently qualified to discuss the Civil War.
The narrative the Princeton University history professor presents to his audience, in crafting a hauntingly detailed picture of mid-nineteenth-century America and what life was actually like for Americans of the period, speeds through no fewer than 28 chapters.
McPherson, with his prologue titled “From the Halls of Montezuma,” raises the curtain on the sixth volume in the Oxford History of the United States. The stage for the opening scene has been set.
The location is Mexico City and it’s 14 September 1847, shortly after “the bloody battle of Chapultepec.”   McPherson outlines the many issues which not only galvanized but divided the American public from 1848, with the conclusion of the aforementioned Mexican War, to 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War.
There is an argument which can be made that McPherson deliberately began his narrative at the point of American history he did because it gave the historian an opportunity to provide his audience with thoroughly detailed explanations of pre-Civil War crises.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act is a perfect example of a pre-Civil War crisis. The same is equally true for the Dred Scott case and the panic over John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. There are no half measures when it comes to McPherson’s work. McPherson’s detailed coverage of the Civil War is similarly as strong and clear as the pre-Civil War crises he discusses.
McPherson addresses arguments pertaining to the origins of the Civil War and systematically pinpoints major causes: hatred of slavery and blind regional prejudice. What unifies the Civil War era as defined in Battle Cry of Freedom is not as much the war itself as it is the politics of slavery and the varying attitudes people of the period had towards the sometimes referred peculiar institution.
McPherson builds an argument which suggests there are “multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed into new patterns in the crucible of war.”
McPherson rightfully places slavery at the centre of the war. In doing so, McPherson emphasises a significant principle of freedom at stake in the conflict. McPherson observes both sides of the conflict, in the beginning at least, “shoved slavery under the rug.” Interestingly, it was actually General Lee, not President Lincoln, that made slavery vulnerable to the vicissitudes of battle.
McPherson writes, “If McClellan’s campaign had succeeded, the war might have ended. The Union probably would have been restored with minimal destruction in the South. Slavery would have survived in only slightly modified form, at least for a time. By defeating McClellan, Lee assured a prolongation of the war until it destroyed slavery, the Old South, and nearly everything the Confederacy was fighting for.”
When it pertains to the treatment of nineteenth-century American politics, McPherson is tad more outspoken than historians such as Allan Nevins, David Donald and David Potter were when discussing similar issues of democracy with freedom.
Whilst McPherson acknowledges the level of racism which permeated nineteenth-century American politics, the history professor is not shy in expressing exactly his thoughts. “Here was the revolution in earnest,” McPherson reveals “the organisation of black regiments marked the transformation of a war to preserve the Union into a revolution to overthrow the old order.”
McPherson, in the placement of black Americans in a pivotal interpretative position, underscores the importance of black Americans and the contribution they made to realise their own liberation.
Interestingly, even though McPherson frequently raises questions pertaining to freedom, the history professor dos not explore directly the exact kind of freedom the end of the war ultimately delivers. It appears McPherson conflates the end of slavery with freedom, thereby presenting a somewhat powerful teleology for not only the Civil War but American history as a whole.
Curious and curiouser is the argument which suggests, considering the way in which McPherson penned Battle Cry of Freedom, the conflation of the end of slavery with freedom makes it conceivable to read what McPherson wrote as a neo-Hartzian metaphorical interpretation of freedom’s eventual birth.
Thinking of Battle Cry of Freedom as being an ordinary book would be a mistake. What distinguishes Battle Cry of Freedom is not that McPherson garnered a Pulitzer Prize, for many history texts have been awarded such sought after prizes. The distinguishing characteristic of McPherson’s work is the history professor’s fluid writing style and his incorporation of anecdote and human interest to flesh out his portrait of the times.
McPherson effectively uses social history, trivia and verified gossip. An example of which is the discussion of The Low Black Schooner: Yacht America and the victory the Americans had over no fewer than 14 British vessels.
McPherson writes, “The victory of America over fourteen British yachts in the 1851 Royal Yacht Squadron shocked the world’s leading maritime power. The race occurred during the international industrial exhibition at the Chrystal Palace in London, where the products of American industry evoked great curiosity.”
As America passed the Needles when Queen Victoria spotted the vessel and asked, “Who is in first?” An attendant of the Queen replied with, “America.” When Queen Victoria asked, “Who is second?” the attendant responded, “There is no second, Your Majesty.”  There is an argument which can be made McPherson incorporated the yacht story into Battle Cry of Freedom because America being victorious over the British heralded the emergence of these United States as an industrially technological force.
 Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplin. (New York: The Library of America, 1982), p. 778.
 From this point in the paper, the American Civil War is referenced as Civil War.
 From this point in the paper, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is referenced as Battle Cry of Freedom.
 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003), p. 3.
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 3.
 The Battle of Chapultepec, 12–13 September 1847, was a United States victory over Mexican forces holding Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City during the Mexican-American War.
 John D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 170–88.
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 15.
 John Rousmaniere, The Low Black Schooner: Yacht America, 1851–1945(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987).
James M. McPherson
Recently, the History Book Club conducted a Military Series Poll. The reason that we did this was because we are launching a Military Series of book discussions similar to how we conduct the Presidential Series at the HBC.
The American Civil War received the most votes from the group membership. Therefore, the first Military Series discussion will focus on the American Civil War.
Therefore we are now voting for the first Military Series selection from books which were all nominated by group members. Killer Angels was already completed by the group so that book was not added to the list for voting purposes. Just as an FYI: this poll took me forever to put together because there were so many group member suggestions and recommendations. We wanted to make sure that we included "all of them". That is why this poll is so long.
So take your time and make sure to vote because if a book does not get at least one vote it will be relegated to the bottom of the list. The book which garners the most votes and comes out on top will be discussed beginning in February 2012. Bryan Craig will be the Assisting Moderator leading this book discussion.
Choose and vote for one book. Vote as soon as possible because the first book will be launched in February. Don't lose out.
If you do not see your favorite book about the American Civil War on this list then just comment or pop me a note and I will immediately add it to this poll.
You can always change your vote at any time so nothing is lost. There are some books which have been nominated by the same author however, skip over those if the particular author does not suit you and vote for your favorite or for one you or others might want to read.
Before making your selection, please try to look up your choice and make sure it really is a book you are interested in or you think others would be do not be lured in by the title. Also, check out the author and what others have said about the book before you (reviewers who you trust). Then of course, make your selection.
And if you do not see your favorite, just contact me and I will add it to the poll.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
Features maps throughout.
"An unparalleled achievement, an American Iliad, a unique work uniting the scholarship of the historian and the high readability of the first-class novelist." —Walker Percy
“To read this chronicle is an awesome and moving experience. History and literature are rarely so thoroughly combined as here one finishes this volume convinced that no one need undertake this particular enterprise again.” —Newsweek
“In objectivity, in range, in mastery of detail, in beauty of language and feeling for the people involved, this work surpasses anything else on the subject. . . . Written in the tradition of the great historian-artists—Gibbon, Prescott, Napier, Freeman—it stands alongside the work of the best of them.” —The New Republic
“The most written-about war in history has, with this completion of Shelby Foote’s trilogy, been given the epic treatment it deserves.” —Providence Journal