McPherson discusses Lincoln and the Civil War

March 03, 1991|By Timothy Kelley

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

AND THE SECOND

AMERICAN REVOLUTION.

James M. McPherson.

Oxford University.

152 pages. $17.95.

Beware of war, says Princeton historian James M. McPherson, when a country's "national" strategy and its "military" strategy diverge. At such time, "a nation fights at cross purposes, with dissension or failure the likely outcome."

"This can happen," he writes, "when a war that is initially limited in purpose takes on a momentum, a life of its own that carries the participants beyond their original commitment without a proper redefinition of war aims."

That cautionary note is all the timeliness that need be claimed for this slender volume; never mind the resurgence of Civil War interest (but did it ever really flag?) triggered by Ken Burns' acclaimed PBS series last fall.

Of course, these seven essays ("variations on the two themes expressed in the title," the author explains) were written too early 1982-1990 -- to include intentional reference to today's Persian Gulf conflict. They represent a final historiographical mopping-up operation for an overreaction that coincided with another war, Vietnam.

"In the 1960s and 1970s several historians questioned the idea that the Civil War accomplished any sort of genuine revolution," Mr. McPherson reports. His title answers such "post-revisionists," and he further rebuts them with an array of statistics and a wise warning against "presentism," the tendency to appraise past events with the bias of today and thus, in a typically pithy McPherson phrase, "read history backwards."

Some historians may dispute the author's acceptance in passing of the traditional view that Lincoln wanted a "soft peace" after the war. But they surely will welcome a Reconstruction tidbit that was new, at least, to this non-scholarly reader. The postwar Southern "counterrevolution" that ushered in the era of Jim Crow began years before the removal of federal troops in 1877, notes Mr. McPherson, with a legal technicality in an 1873 Supreme Court decision dealing not with the civil rights of blacks but with New Orleans butchers.

Mr. McPherson is particularly acute in describing Lincoln's skillful war leadership -- how the president kept "national" and "military" strategies running on the same track. He is not disposed to judge harshly Lincoln's suspensions of civil liberties during the war; they were minor, he says, compared to such 20th century wrongs as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II, while the threat Lincoln faced was far greater. He makes enlightening use of British philosopher Isaiah Berlin's concept of "positive and negative liberty" in explaining how the massive Union war machine came to represent the hopes of freedom in a land where freedom-lovers long had scorned centralized power.

The prose in this book is simple, forceful and persuasive. It's worthy of the author of 1988's "Battle Cry of Freedom." That's high praise; that Pulitzer Prize-winning, one-volume narrative history was at least as great a treasure for the Civil War buff, and introduction for the neophyte, as was the PBS series.

Mr. McPherson shows his writerly hand in the incisive interpretation he gives writer Lincoln in the most charming of these essays, "How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors." But he has earned a mild literary rebuke as well. His preface concedes that the "careful reader may discern slight overlaps" among these essays, but it's worse than that: When read straight through, this thin book bulges with repetitions, and even though Lincoln quotations always bear repeating, their overuse can disorient.

This is not to say that these essays don't cohere. Together, they make a cumulative argument about the Civil War's importance and Lincoln's essential role in its successful prosecution. No student of Lincoln or of the period will want to be without this book. But a narrative history such as Mr. McPherson's "Battle Cry" should be kept on hand as well. However cogent, logical essays alone can't fully communicate something we need just now -- the terrible knowledge of what war is like.

Mr. Kelley is a writer living in Washington.

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