The Civil War

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.

Penguin Press/AP

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?

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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.