McPherson does it again on the Civil War

March 25, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

James M. McPherson

Oxford / 260 pages / $28

James M. McPherson is widely considered one of the most readable and insightful among the burgeoning ranks of Civil War commentators. This collection of essays only adds to that reputation.

The author of perhaps the best single-volume history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson takes on a variety of topics in this volume. Though many were written for journals with academic pretensions, all of the 16 essays are accessible to a general audience.

And, more important, all are well worth reading by anyone with an interest in this brutal chapter of U.S. history.

For instance, the opening chapter, "And the War Came," effectively knocks down the persistent analysis that slavery had little to do with starting the war, that it was fought over other matters, either the sanctity of the Union or the industrialization of the North vs. the agriculture of the South, etc.

This argument is, of course, quite important to those seeking the elevation of Southern honor in the postwar struggle over the war's memory when it was suddenly quite clear that fighting for slavery was less than honorable. But McPherson makes a strong case that slavery was at the bottom of every move toward secession; that "honorable" Southerners defended it all the time, and that if not for that "peculiar institution," the nation would never have gone to war.

In the next chapter, "Escape and Revolt in Black and White," this emeritus professor of history at Princeton University takes a look at two legends of the era, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, examining them from both a historical and a historiographical point of view. The result is that, in relatively few words, he sketches much more nuanced portraits than those painted by much lengthier volumes.

And so it goes throughout the pages of This Mighty Scourge.

On the subject of the lengthy postwar fight for the war's legacy, McPherson records in one chapter the odd story of incessant campaigns, led by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to ensure that textbooks used in Southern schools taught only approved versions of the honorable Southern struggle.

The result: generations of schoolchildren, north and south, taught from books that reflected such ideas as this one suggested by a UDC activist: "Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands."

Who knew?

That chapter, by the way, comes just after McPherson demolishes the myth that Jesse James was some sort of Robin Hood-style outlaw. He shows that James was one mean SOB who arose directly from the brutal guerrilla warfare that was the Civil War in Missouri.

Another fascinating chapter shows that, like many of the more recent enemies of the United States, Robert E. Lee was as engaged in the battle for U.S. public opinion as he was in that on the battlefield. It's a fight he almost won.

One crucial Southern loss in the public opinion war - overseas division - came when Lee failed to win at Antietam, meaning that battle was not to the Civil War what Saratoga was to the Revolutionary War, the victory by the rebels that brought France into that war.

Before Antietam, the possibility of outside help for the South, at the least diplomatic pressure, was pretty high. The death knell for Southern hopes for international aid came when President Abraham Lincoln followed Antietam with the Emancipation Proclamation. England could have fought for cotton for its mills, but it could not go to war for slavery.

Throughout This Mighty Scourge, McPherson seems to be a fair arbiter, not someone trying to advance a particular analysis that has been important in an academic publishing career. So his observations on Lee, for instance, do not come across as an aggressive attempt to knock that Southern hero from his pedestal, but as justified observations that help make the icon into a human being. And when he defends the prowess of Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, it is with an analysis of their military ability, not with some sort of revisionist agenda.

Throughout, McPherson displays an admirable transparency, showing the historian at work. He doesn't just recite the facts that readers are supposed to accept, he shows you how he arrived at his analyses, and how others went astray when they came to different conclusions.

The result is a book that, while it should not be the first one should read about the Civil War, is a fine addition to a well-stocked library on this conflict.

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