Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reading Journal: "Battle Cry of Freedom"

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

In What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Daniel Walker Howe traces the developments in transportation, communication, and industrialization that in the first half of the nineteenth century began a profound transformation of American life. As James McPherson notes, the North was greatest beneficiary of most of those changes. The South remained primarily rural and agricultural, and preserved the settled and hierarchical social structure of an earlier era. "Until 1861," McPherson writes at the end of his magnificent volume, "it was the North that was out of the mainstream, not the South." The movements that Howe traces in his volume of the Oxford History of the United States reach a startling and bloody climax in the Civil War, which McPherson sees as not only a victory of abolitionism and free labor against slavery, but a victory of a Northern vision of a modern centralized industrial nation against the conservative agricultural society of the Old South.

McPherson is a meticulous historian and a compelling storyteller, but he has compelling material to work with. The personalities are larger than life: Abraham Lincoln, Grant and Sherman, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The events are almost incomprehensible: more than 600,000 Americans killed in battle on American soil in roughly four years. Moving back and forth between the military and political arenas, McPherson paces his narrative beautifully, and draws on an impressive array of historical sources, from diaries and memoirs to contemporary newspapers and public records to modern historical analysis. That he fits the entire Civil War era into 682 pages, without appearing to sacrifice historical breadth or depth, is astonishing. This has to be the best one-volume history of the Civil War available.

I have now read three volumes of the Oxford History of the United States—Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Daniel Walker Howe's volume, and McPherson's volume—for a total of 2,404 pages. Both Howe's and McPherson's volumes were recipients of a Pulitzer Prize. I'm looking forward to the next volume in the series, Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, which will fill in the gap between Middlekauff and Howe. Wood's volume is expected later this year.

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