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Tue June 26, 2012
Good Read: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
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 including the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. From there it moves into a masterful chronicle of the war itself–the battles, the strategic maneuvering by each side, 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.
Todd Hatton says:
“I think anyone who completes a reading of James McPherson’s 869-page Battle Cry of Freedom could be forgiven for feeling as though they themselves have lived through the U.S. Civil War. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s enlightening. And it’s largely due to McPherson’s thorough and compelling history of the events and issues leading up to, and beyond, the war. McPherson’s fellow historians, along with reviewer after reviewer, have found Battle Cry to be the indispensible single-volume history of the conflict. For what it’s worth, I’ll add my voice to the chorus. If you haven’t read it, your understanding of the war is at best incomplete.
“Southern apologists have taken issue with McPherson over the causes he gives for the Civil War, misunderstanding or mischaracterizing his study as a simplistic contest over slavery. They argue the conflict was more accurately a principled dispute over sectional economics and political philosophy. A reading of Battle Cry of Freedom makes clear the problem with that thesis. The causes of the Civil War really were many and complex, but African slavery lies at or near the roots of any cause the South cared to name. McPherson makes it clear: no slavery in America would likely have meant no American Civil War. And what’s worse (well, for southern apologists, Lost Cause advocates, and neo-Confederates, at any rate), is that McPherson meticulously sources his work from the words of the southern secessionists themselves. It’s awfully hard to argue that the war wasn’t about slavery when Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, and Edmund Ruffin say it was.
“Nevertheless, Battle Cry of Freedom is not a political tract. It is a rich account of a quintessential American identity crisis. Who are we as a nation or a people? And who do we want to become? Prior to 1861, we referred to ourselves as Kentuckians, Tennesseans, and Illinoians and said that the United States are. It wasn’t until after 1865 that we began calling ourselves Americans, saying that the United States is. This book is a profound insight into why.”
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