The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Info

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Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History and a New York
Times
Bestseller, Battle Cry of Freedom is universally
recognized as the definitive account of the Civil War. It was hailed in
The New York Times as "historical writing of the highest
order." The Washington Post called it "the finest single volume
on the war and its background." And The Los Angeles Times
wrote that "of the 50,000 books written on the Civil War, it is the
finest compression of that national paroxysm ever fitted between two
covers."
Now available in a splendid new edition is The
Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom
. Boasting some seven hundred
pictures, including a hundred and fifty color images and twenty-four
full-color maps, here is the ultimate gift book for everyone interested
in American history. McPherson has selected all the illustrations,
including rare contemporary photographs, period cartoons, etchings,
woodcuts, and paintings, carefully choosing those that best illuminate
the narrative. More important, he has written extensive captions (some
35,000 words in all, virtually a book in themselves), many of which
offer genuinely new information and interpretations that significantly
enhance the text. The text itself, streamlined by McPherson, remains a
fast-paced narrative that brilliantly captures two decades of
contentious American history, from the Mexican War to Lee's surrender at
Appomattox. The reader will find a truly masterful chronicle of the war
itself--the battles, the strategic maneuvering on both sides, the
politics, and the personalities--as well as McPherson's thoughtful
commentary 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.
A must-have purchase for the
legions of Civil War buffs, The Illustrated Battle Cry of
Freedom
is both a spectacularly beautiful volume and the definitive
account of the most important conflict in our nation's
history.

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Reviews for The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era:

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Jun 15, 2011

Embarking on reading or in this case rerereading McPherson's civil war at 800 plus pages feels like committing to refighting that four year conflict. One feels the need of a logistics corps to support the reading effort at the front as the page counts mounts and mounts. The book itself, particularly in a hardback incarnation, is virtually a civil war, it could be lobbed with hostile intent at a passerby, or laid on the ground to make a defensive position or strapped to the chest to protect the Embarking on reading or in this case rerereading McPherson's civil war at 800 plus pages feels like committing to refighting that four year conflict. One feels the need of a logistics corps to support the reading effort at the front as the page counts mounts and mounts. The book itself, particularly in a hardback incarnation, is virtually a civil war, it could be lobbed with hostile intent at a passerby, or laid on the ground to make a defensive position or strapped to the chest to protect the heart from musket balls or sabre blows.

McPherson paints a busy panorama, crowded with details finely drawn and occasionally even quotable, starting in the 1830s, going through the divergence in economic development in north and south - suggesting at the end that it was the north with it industrialising and increasingly capitalist society which was exceptional while the South was more broadly typical of mid-nineteenth century societies in being agrarian and reliant on tied labour, the Mexican war, land grabbing adventures in Nicaragua, the collapse of the Whig party and sectional violence everywhere, muskets, swords and walking sticks taken up in anger. As a reader there is a desire to kick back against this portentous handling which reads as though McPherson was writing with Wagner's Gotterdammarung playing in the background, Siegfried's death implying this conflict was inevitable, already perhaps in progress by other means long before Fort Sumter was fired upon. This naturally leads to wanting him to just get on with things rather than continuing to set out his stall for several hundred pages. The downside with this feeling of inevitability is that he then has to dismiss initial votes by Southern states against secession as merely 'conditional unionism' or equally praise Lincoln and the Republicans refusal to negotiate after his election as a realistic course of action. Perhaps, but these it seems to me are debatable points. Ultimately he comes down strongly in favour of contingency -pointing out the impact of victories and defeats in shifting public opinion and the sentiments and opinions of the major political actors.

McPherson pulls out the role of race and attitudes about race, not simply white vs black, but even within 'whiteness' - Saxon vs Norman (view spoiler)[ in which reading the southerners were the gentle yet warlike descendants of the Normans, recognisable as the Cavaliers in the earlier English Civil War, while your Northerner was a rude mechanical (hide spoiler)] (and Irish), which I suppose is the inevitable result of creating a concept of fictive kinship to justify a social position, but still one wonders as in Williamsion's The Penguin History of Latin America, how one gets from such divisive thinking to a nation of liberty, equality and fraternity, or even if this can be done in a reasonable time frame - say before the return of Jesus, the arrival of Maitreya Buddha (view spoiler)[ who in a rare piece of good news can apparently be ordered from a well known internet bookseller (hide spoiler)], or the emergence of the Mahdi, not that this is the topic in hand for this book, simply for society.

McPherson discusses Unionism in Tennessee and West Virginia, divided sentiments in Kentucky and Missouri (view spoiler)[ which interestingly and probably significantly have tended to become far more supportive of the Confederacy since the end of the war than at the time - a process which T.J.Styles describes beginning in Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (hide spoiler)], mind you much of this is conjecture, just as after an election newspaper commentators explain the results, without actually asking people. More significant perhaps then is McPherson's roll call of individuals like George Thomas, Admiral Farragut or Pemberton who didn't side with their state or place of birth. Then again this whole issue of identity and identification was peculiarly intense possibly because anti-bellum America was very mobile, many people had moved away from place of birth to settle and make a living in new developing regions - elective affinities it seems are the fiercest of all.

For McPherson this was a second American Revolution and one which saw the birth of a nation rather than an untidy agglomeration of states who grudgingly had admitted it would make good sense to work together to some limited extent in the wake of their treacherous rebellion from poor old George III.

This account is not purely a muddy slog through an exceptionally violent conflict - McPherson regularly points to battles more bloody than various combinations of other American conflicts - but also shoots off to consider other issues, developing technologies, the role of the war in promoting the production of clothes in standardised sizes a regular feature of shopping that can be attributed to the need for uniforming hundreds of thousands of men without needing to tailor every shirt or pair of trousers. The introduction of income tax, not only the existence of war bonds but how they were marketed and rendered affordable to a broad public, in the North. Other elements of a Second Revolution included the creation of a transcontinental railway, a network of agricultural colleges, a Homestead Act to support the settlement of the West, the introduction of the 'greenback' national paper currency and changes to the prevailing system of local banks issuing their own bank notes, eventually the thirteenth amendment, the Freedman's bureau (view spoiler)[ Freedwomen presumably had to just look out for each other (hide spoiler)], and moves towards universal male suffrage.

Another theme is the disruptive effect of war, providing new opportunities for women - who thanks to increasing mechanisation in the north at least could send off their sons to war confident they could still manage to bring in the hay, but also in industry and professionally, for immigrants, black people, and a host of middle aged men perhaps repressed by the structures and requirements of everyday life who got to have extravagant mid-life crises (and its hard for me not to think of the parade of civil war generals in that way, many of whom I struggle to imagine in civilian life outside of pantomime, apart from McCellan who to me fits perfectly with his Napoleonic pretensions as the prototypical rock-star CEO that he had been of a Railway company.

I get a sense of the overwhelming effort - implicitly implied by the solid heft of this book - required by the war in which both sides, having found themselves at war suddenly had to come up with the armies and logistics to fight it. Originally units elected their own officers, prominent persons with political clout held high commands, it was for almost everyone a learn on the job type war, and those who had combat experience from the Mexican war found that bayonet charges against entrenchments were now unpleasantly fatal given significant improvements in fire-power in the intervening years.

There is emphasis and space given to the politics of the home front on both sides as well as the international diplomacy and espionage of which McPherson occasionally drops heavy hints ought in a just universe be the subject of many rollicking novels. And also we are shown the shifts of opinion in Britain particularly, down to the debated attitude of Lancashire cotton workers towards the conflict

As a war, and whatever else is discussed here this is always the narrative history of a war, the American conflict seems to presage much which is still familiar - total war, the strategic importance of logistics, mobilisation of entire populations, highly technical, mechanised warfare side by side with house to house neighbour on neighbour brutality, massed artillery barrages and scalping.

The best one volume history of the American Civil War? I couldn't say, however I don't see the need to search for another one, yet. (view spoiler)[ footnotes and a bibliographic essay however shows the paths into the apparently endless ink wars that have raged over it ever since (hide spoiler)] ...more
5

Apr 08, 2012

Being a young history buff, it took me 3 weeks and 3 days to read this. That is, 3 weeks of contemplating reading it and proceeding to finish it in 3 days. This book is undoubtedly the best 1-volume book on the war that divided and reunited America but ended some of our back-then traditions such as slavery. In other words, the Civil War. It has a good balance of the battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam while it does discuss the social, political, and economic factors that also fueled the war. Being a young history buff, it took me 3 weeks and 3 days to read this. That is, 3 weeks of contemplating reading it and proceeding to finish it in 3 days. This book is undoubtedly the best 1-volume book on the war that divided and reunited America but ended some of our back-then traditions such as slavery. In other words, the Civil War. It has a good balance of the battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam while it does discuss the social, political, and economic factors that also fueled the war. It starts off at the end of the Mexican-American War and does so for the first 100 pages. Then, it starts off on the attack on Fort Sumter and what happened the rest of the time during the Civil War. McPherson's prose reads in the style of a novel. It's a very easy read and also very enjoyable. There are always other books on the subject that go in depth on different aspects such as the battles or the figures, but if you want a general overview of the Civil War from its origins to its aftermath, this is THE book! ...more
5

May 29, 2007

It is reported that there are 15,000 books on the Civil War in the Library of Congress, so the natural question is where do you start? Furthermore, Most of the "seminal" Civil War works are volumes and thousands of pages. Well in 850 pages, McPherson provides succint, yet thorough historical writing of the highest caliber. It unmuddies the waters as to the reasons for the country's schism and the start of the war and provides the necessary level of detail as to the prosecution of the war without It is reported that there are 15,000 books on the Civil War in the Library of Congress, so the natural question is where do you start? Furthermore, Most of the "seminal" Civil War works are volumes and thousands of pages. Well in 850 pages, McPherson provides succint, yet thorough historical writing of the highest caliber. It unmuddies the waters as to the reasons for the country's schism and the start of the war and provides the necessary level of detail as to the prosecution of the war without going inot excruciating detail about troop movements and the like.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of the book was the eiplogue in which McPherson presents an interesting point about America's notions of liberty and freedom. Whereas before the Civil War the nation was intent on keeping Americans free from things, the Civil War represented a shift in that the government was now thought of as a agent that gave people freedom to things. ...more
5

Nov 09, 2009

If you want detailed discussion of battles, this is not the book for you. If you want detailed descriptions of key actors during the Civil War, this will not be the book for you. But if you want an all encompassing volume, linking the battles, economic issues, social life, culture, and politics, then this book will be a wonderful resource.

Where does the title of the book come from? A Civil War song, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," written in 1862. Illustrative lines:

"The Union forever, Hurrah boys If you want detailed discussion of battles, this is not the book for you. If you want detailed descriptions of key actors during the Civil War, this will not be the book for you. But if you want an all encompassing volume, linking the battles, economic issues, social life, culture, and politics, then this book will be a wonderful resource.

Where does the title of the book come from? A Civil War song, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," written in 1862. Illustrative lines:

"The Union forever, Hurrah boys Hurrah!
Down with the traitor and up with the star; While we rally round the flag boys,
rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of freedom."

McPherson addresses the purpose of this volume (Page ix): ". . .I have tried to integrate the political and military events of this era with important social and economic developments to form a seamless web synthesizing up-to-date scholarship with my own research and interpretations."

The book begins with background, the Mexican War, slavery, bleeding Kansas, and the election of 1860. We learn about the comparative economies in north and south as well as social and cultural and political issues. Then, as one chapter title says so well, "Amateurs go to war." Starting with untrained forces and many inept officers, the war began.

The difference between this and other histories can be noted in space devoted to battles. Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) is covered in two pages; Shiloh is addressed in 11 pages; 11 pages on Vicksburg; 13 pages are devoted to Gettysburg. But the context in which these battles (and others) were fought provides a deeper view of the Civil War. For instance, a table on page 608 suggests that it was a "poor man's fight," with laborers, farmers, making up the bulk of the Union forces. But McPherson notes that this ignores demographic realities and that, in fact, there was greater representativeness among the Union military than has often been noted.

All in all, an impressive work, integrating the many aspects of the Civil War in just one volume, with 862 pages of text.
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4

Jan 14, 2010

The times, they change so fast, and the Young People Today know nothing of drive-ins… of paper routes…of bizarrely racist street parades:

Indiana Democrats organized a parade which included young girls in white dresses carrying banners inscribed “Fathers, save us from nigger husbands!” (p. 159)

A Democratic float in a New York parade carried life-size effigies of Horace Greeley and a “good looking nigger wench, whom he caressed with all the affection of a true Republican.” A banner proclaimed The times, they change so fast, and the Young People Today know nothing of drive-ins… of paper routes…of bizarrely racist street parades:

Indiana Democrats organized a parade which included young girls in white dresses carrying banners inscribed “Fathers, save us from nigger husbands!” (p. 159)

A Democratic float in a New York parade carried life-size effigies of Horace Greeley and a “good looking nigger wench, whom he caressed with all the affection of a true Republican.” A banner proclaimed that “free love and free niggers will certainly elect Old Abe.” (p.224)

And of course Frederick Douglass’ fame recommended him to white imagination as a spectre of Black Sexual Menace. Here’s Stephen Douglas doing his best, in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, to smear Lincoln as the candidate of most-dread “amalgamation”:

Why, in Freeport Douglas saw a handsome carriage drive up to a Lincoln meeting. “A beautiful young lady was sitting on the box seat, whilst Frederick Douglass and her mother reclined inside, and the owner of the carriage acted as driver. If you, Black Republicans, think that the negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, whilst you drive the team, you have a perfect right to do so. Those of you who believe that the negro is your equal…of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln.(‘Down with the negro,’ no, no, &c.)” (p. 185)

He hath lept into my seat! (The stenographer’s parenthetical capture of crowd comments is priceless.) Have you seen pictures of the young Frederick Douglass? Hot. Smoldering. Dark, needless to say. Brooding over a Tortured, ahem, Past. Daguerreotype pin-up. He’d have been an ideal heartthrob-villain of the smutty pulp Democrats used to terrify-titillate white voters back then. McPherson cracked me up with this description of the literature they distributed during the 1864 presidential campaign:

Numerous cartoons showed thick-lipped, grinning, coarse black men kissing apple-cheeked girls “with snow-white bosoms” or dancing with them at the “Miscegenation Ball” to follow Lincoln’s re-election. The “Benediction” of a leaflet entitled “Black Republican Prayer” invoked “the blessings of Emancipation throughout our unhappy land” so that “illustrious, sweet-scented Sambo may nestle in the bosom of every Abolition woman, that she may be quickened by the pure blood of the majestic African.” (p. 789)

~

Most dramatic for me were the 300 pages before war even broke out. Is there anything more compelling than the death of an old regime? The gradual polarization of opinion…the slow gathering of anti-slavery (or at least anti-slaveholder) sentiment…the revolutionary emergence of the Republicans and the election of Lincoln in 1860…the south’s counter-revolutionary breakaway…a war to restore the Old Union becoming a war to destroy the Old South. And the military-industrial Titanism of the wartime North, and the Congress endorsing “the blueprint for modern America” by passing the Homestead Act, centralizing the nation’s banking system, and voting funds for the transcontinental railway and land-grant colleges, measures that had been successfully opposed by southern representatives while they remained in the Union. McPherson’s subtitle, The Civil War Era heralded this reader’s re-orientation: more than a neatly bounded conflict, the Civil War is a political process of decades, a revolutionary watershed. America 1846-1865 compares to France 1789-1804 or Russia 1914-1923.

I was surprised by the amount of violence that took place before war actually started. I knew about Bleeding Kansas, proslavery bushwhackers vs. antislavery Jayhawks, and John Brown and his broadsword-armed sons kidnapping proslavery men in the dead of night and then hacking them to pieces all Charles Taylor-style. But I knew nothing about the southern adventurers, would-be John C. Frémonts, who in the 1850s set out to conquer a Caribbean empire for slavery. At the head of small private armies—“hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization,” said Charles Sumner—and with the tacit support of factions of the Federal government, these gringo conquistadors launched from New Orleans to go filibustering about the gulf (from the Spanish filibustero, freebooter; almost needless to mention their later, senatorial mastery of the art). Cuba was invaded, twice; also Nicaragua and Baja California. These ruffian forays came to naught. Cuban garrotters and Nicaraguan firing squads stayed busy. And Cuba wouldn’t be taken under American “protection” until 1898, when the Federal government dispatched its fleet and its army (those ranks filled with jobless men from the still-devastated south). In mid-nineteenth century America, Joe Average North dreamt of a homestead in the bountiful West, in the honey-glazed Bierstadt landscape, once the Indians were exterminated. Joe Average South dreamt of the annexation of Cuba. The island’s 400,000 slaves seemed to promise that every poor white man “would get some niggers too.” Aw, like a chicken in every pot!

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5

Oct 31, 2015

"The terms of...peace and the dimensions of black freedom would occupy the country for a decade or more. Meanwhile the process of chronicling the war and reckoning [with] its consequences began immediately [after it ended] and has never ceased. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in four years of conflict-360,000 Yankees and at least 260,000 rebels. The number of southern civilians who died as a direct or indirect result of the war cannot be known; what can be said is that the Civil "The terms of...peace and the dimensions of black freedom would occupy the country for a decade or more. Meanwhile the process of chronicling the war and reckoning [with] its consequences began immediately [after it ended] and has never ceased. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in four years of conflict-360,000 Yankees and at least 260,000 rebels. The number of southern civilians who died as a direct or indirect result of the war cannot be known; what can be said is that the Civil War's cost in American lives was as great as in all of the nation's other wars combined through Vietnam. Was the liberation of four million slaves and the preservation of the Union worth the cost? That question too will probably never cease to be debated--but in 1865 few Black people and not many northerners doubted the answer."

This is year 3 of United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent

Oh hey, look what I found: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/w...

If ever there was a one volume history as comprehensive on anything--this is it! I feel this to be a truly monumental achievement for me to complete this book. As good as Ken Burns' documentary on the war was, this is easily more comprehensive a history. It is amazing to believe that this volume was made to serve as an introduction to the American Civil War, but that's what this is. If you are trying to understand why United States of America is the way it is right now you must know the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Much of the turbulence in the current American government can be traced back to a plurality of people in the United States still trying to grapple with the events of the 19th century. It took this book 200 pages to thoroughly explain what the Civil War was fought over, then the action begins.

James M. McPherson is THE preeminent historian on the American Civil War. He came of age, professionally, during the American Civil Rights Movement (which ironically coincided with the centenary of the Civil War). He and his colleagues were inspired by then-current events to re-evaluate all of the histories concerning the Civil War written since it ended and their scholarship has overturned much of the poison of the Dunning School/Lost Cause mythology (at least in the academies. I can say with disappointment that in the heart of many white southerners--even of my generation--the lie remains strong). I cannot wait to read his other books in the future.


This is the second book in a trilogy that I have given myself to read on America in the 19th century. The first book I read last year was The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and the book that will conclude this particular project of mine is Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. For now though, I will make like Grant after Appomattox and meditate quietly on events. ...more
5

Mar 08, 2017

As I have gotten older I have definitely become more interested in reading about history, especially books about the Civil War. My reading tastes have evolved from someone who only used to read Fantasy to someone who now reads a lot of non-fiction. Battle Cry of Freedom has been touted as the best SINGLE volume account of the Civil War. I have read Shelby Foote's magnum three-book, 3,500 page opus, found that to be an amazing experience and one that kept me engrossed for over a year. So I picked As I have gotten older I have definitely become more interested in reading about history, especially books about the Civil War. My reading tastes have evolved from someone who only used to read Fantasy to someone who now reads a lot of non-fiction. Battle Cry of Freedom has been touted as the best SINGLE volume account of the Civil War. I have read Shelby Foote's magnum three-book, 3,500 page opus, found that to be an amazing experience and one that kept me engrossed for over a year. So I picked up McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom with similar expectations. I was not disappointed. I still like Foote's trilogy better, but I agree wholeheartedly that for a single volume account, this one is pretty comprehensive and well-written. Where the two differ is that Foote's trilogy focuses much more on the actual battle tactics, formations, troop movements, etc.... Battle Cry of Freedom delves more into the economic and political backdrop of the time. That's not to say that there aren't vivid descriptions of battles, because there are. But McPherson seemed to be more concerned with setting up the events that led to the war rather than jumping right in the way Foote did. So if you are looking for a wonderful account of the Civil War, and you are intimidated by reading a 3,500 page narrative, then McPherson's book is probably the way to go. You won't lose much because McPherson is a skilled writer who knows his subject well. You'll definitely get all of the necessary detail and the battles that you need to walk away feeling satisfied. ...more
2

Jan 16, 2013

This work is certainly very extensively researched and annotated and abounds in comments from contemporaries-quotations, extracts from diaries etc. This is so much the case that it is arguable that McPherson did not so much write a historical account as piece together as produce a series of quotations from eye-witnesses and those who lived through events and has interspersed them with a linking narrative and his own biased comments. The book is rather like a printed version of popular tv This work is certainly very extensively researched and annotated and abounds in comments from contemporaries-quotations, extracts from diaries etc. This is so much the case that it is arguable that McPherson did not so much write a historical account as piece together as produce a series of quotations from eye-witnesses and those who lived through events and has interspersed them with a linking narrative and his own biased comments. The book is rather like a printed version of popular tv histories where dramatic footage is interspersed with aging eye witnesses making their truncated and edited comments on past events. In other words this is a documentary rather than a history and it has the surreptitious bias of a modern newspaper. Interestingly, the back cover of the penguin edition gives visible support to this by producing in the popular type of the US at that time (Galliard?) for the name of the publications 6 promotional puffs. The worst thing about the kind of bias in a book like this is that it is very difficult for a layperson to argue, since it is not a question of untruths or errors but of truths not mentioned or facts ignored, and McPherson is too good at his job to leave anything out which is well known. Many are also likely to think that this is a fair account since the writer takes pains to give it the superficial appearance of being so. There is no officious sabre rattling or trumpet blowing about this book. It appears to be sweetly reasonable while relentlessly pursuing a pro-Northern line from beginning to end.
Nearly every famous quotations and many obscure ones from the war can be found in the pages of this book. As a mine of quotations it is certainly second to none. The only exception that comes to mind is the remark made by one Southerner on hearing of Lincoln’s condemnation of rebellion and disloyalty-“if rebellion is always wrong, then God save the King!”. Stonewall Jackson referred to the South’s attempt at independence “the Second War of Independence”, an aspect of the struggle which McPherson does not address with any seriousness. The issue is by no means dead. In recent years the state of Vermont has begun to mutter about secession from the Union. At the Vermont Independence Convention held on October 28th 2005 in the state capital, Thomas Naylor declared that “South Carolina and the Confederate states had a perfect right to secede”.

I was not surprised after 550 pages of pro-yankee journalism to find McPherson belittling a notorious statement of Northern malice. This is the infamous invitation to the rape of women in the occupied South made by the commander of Union forces in occupied New Orleans. It is termed euphemistically by Mc Pherson as “an incident” and “Butler’s women’s order”. : The writer notes that it “intensified British upper-class alienation from the North” (Is McPherson suggesting that the British middle classes of the time more sympathetic to a bit of rough treatment of snooty belles?) Butler’s statement ran as follows: : “any woman who persisted in the practice of insulting Northern soldiers shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her trade” Even today, with two world wars and countless horrors between then and now, this order sounds appalling and is appalling. It is also historically significant since it breaks the very codex which Gibbon in Decline and Fall had so proudly noted a hundred years before as the hallmark of civilized behaviour-soldiers in the eighteenth century refraining from attacking or molesting civilians. But McPherson who is always more understanding of Northern outrages than Southern ones-finds what he calls “considerable provocation” for Butler’s declaration. What can this “considerable provocation” be? Something pretty drastic to justify an invitation to rape one would think. Nothing less than murder and terrorism surely? Not exactly. Southern provocation was “climaxed by a woman who dumped the contents of a chamber-pot from a French-Quarter balcony on Fleet Captain Farragut’s head.” This would be hilarious if the writer were not so serious in believing this largely excuses Butler’s order. McPherson does not tell us how many women were raped as a result of the green light given by their commander. I am sure that if the history had been in reverse the reader would have received a very different account.. Apart form the relentless bias of the book, it is poorly served by the publishers: the photographs are cramped and mostly anyone’s second choice, more seriously, the maps of the battlefields are so poorly printed as to be almost unuseable. Maybe that suits McPherson’s belief that battles are not half so important as they are made out to be by most historians. Like Tolstoy in War in Peace he sees them and portrays them as a lot of sound and fury and confusion-decisive battles do not take place in this account. Gettysburg is presented as just one more bloody conflict rather than the decisive battle is its traditionally presented as being. Far more important for McPherson is the calibre of generals-this seems to him to be all important, not that he is over-enthusiastic about Southern generalship. It is not brilliance on the part of Lee but timidity, incompetence and rivalry among Northern generals which is here offered as the major clue to the slow progress of the Northern war effort. As for Lincoln, needless to say he, he is the hero of the story, as infallible as the Pope. If McPherson ever criticises Lincoln, I missed it.
This may be, as some claim, the best book on the subject. If that is true I am sorry to hear it. ...more
5

Mar 27, 2012

Widely acclaimed as the best single-volume history of the Civil War around, this is another entry in the Oxford History of the United States, which I am enjoying immensely. The preface had an interesting observation: though this book covers the shortest span of all the books in the series (albeit with some significant overlap), it's one of the longest books in the series. The Civil War is the most-written about period in American history simply because there's so much history in it, as it did Widely acclaimed as the best single-volume history of the Civil War around, this is another entry in the Oxford History of the United States, which I am enjoying immensely. The preface had an interesting observation: though this book covers the shortest span of all the books in the series (albeit with some significant overlap), it's one of the longest books in the series. The Civil War is the most-written about period in American history simply because there's so much history in it, as it did more to turn a bunch of squabbling states into the United States than anything since 1789. McPherson doesn't even get to recounting the actual war until over a third of the way into the book as the country splits and splinters and tries and fails to resolve a vast number of contradictory pressures and choices about its future, and the Federalists' nightmares about factions turned into reality: Northerners vs. Southerns, those who wanted to settle the West vs. those who wanted to preserve the existing balance of the states, wets vs. dries, immigrants vs. nativists, Catholics vs. Protestants, tariff supporters vs. free traders, developers favoring Hamiltonian projects vs. laissez faire adherents, plantation owners vs. industrialists, rural folk vs. urban dwellers, Democrats vs. Whigs, Democrats vs. Know-Nothings, Democrats vs. Republicans, war hawks vs. doves, but most of all, slavery supporters vs. abolitionists.

It's a truism that in elementary school you learn that the Civil War was about slavery, in high school you learn that it was about states' rights, and that in college you learn that actually it was still really about slavery. McPherson completely demolishes the idea that it could have possibly been about anything other than the South's "peculiar institution" - slavery was the bedrock of the South's economy, the keystone of its social structure, and the altar on which they convinced themselves that they were the highest, most advanced civilization on Earth. McPherson somehow works that discussion smoothly into the book among a million other things, from advanced demographic analysis (like his eye-opening mythbusting of the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" canard), to the background political scheming that Lincoln had to overcome, to the shockingly large tolls that disease and poor sanitation took on each army, to the massive economic chasm opening between the modernizing North and the magnolia-tinged South, and most especially, to the battles. You can't really be interested in this greatest of all American wars if you're not fascinated by the senseless, bloody, magnificent meetings between two of the mightiest armies of the 19th century, and McPherson seemingly covers every cavalry raid and clash of picket lines. It's an impressive feat, well-worthy of its 1988 Pulitzer Prize, and though it's rare to describe a book as being the last word on a subject, surely even rarer is the reader who finishes this masterwork unsatisfied. ...more
5

Aug 27, 2012

If you only choose to read one (challenging and sizable) resource on the American Civil War, this is the one. It won the Pulitzer, and although it is a large piece of work, it is immensely readable. It begins with the Mexican-American War because that is where much of the Civil War's military leadership is forged. It also makes it much more interesting to see whose fortunes rise, and whose fall (although these are, naturally, secondary to the issue of the war itself).

This is unquestionably the If you only choose to read one (challenging and sizable) resource on the American Civil War, this is the one. It won the Pulitzer, and although it is a large piece of work, it is immensely readable. It begins with the Mexican-American War because that is where much of the Civil War's military leadership is forged. It also makes it much more interesting to see whose fortunes rise, and whose fall (although these are, naturally, secondary to the issue of the war itself).

This is unquestionably the most thorough and accurate volume about America's last righteous war. It requires a high level of literacy, but with that caveat, it is a surprisingly accessible narrative, from a man who documents everything and knows what he's talking about.

One other thing: I find that in discussions about the Civil War (still referred to in much of the South as "the war between the states"), though it is long past, it isn't over. Feelings are sometimes still heated. And indeed, anyone who writes history is subjective, even if it is only by the facts they include (and which are emphasized); what sections or titles are named; and which generals are given the most air time. Though nobody is entirely objective, McPherson is widely recognized as the go-to expert in this field. Furthermore, his bias is on the side of the angels, to my way of thinking.
When I taught in this field, I kept two copies of this book, the glorious illustrated version shown here at home, and my beloved old paperback copy full of highlighted passages and sticky notes on my desk in the classroom.

Highly recommended, and one of my all-time favorite nonfiction titles. ...more
5

Jun 09, 2010

THE Civil War book. Many thanks to the blogging of Ta-Nehisi Coates to teach me this fact. Reads like Greek myth or Shakespearian tragedy, but with incredible footnotes. And with an unbelievably good first 300 pages about the politics that made war inevitable, and which includes evidence that demolishes the idea that some unsullied struggle for "states' rights" was what spawned the secession.

All I can think about now is who would play Grant in the movie, and how much of a dick McClellan was, and THE Civil War book. Many thanks to the blogging of Ta-Nehisi Coates to teach me this fact. Reads like Greek myth or Shakespearian tragedy, but with incredible footnotes. And with an unbelievably good first 300 pages about the politics that made war inevitable, and which includes evidence that demolishes the idea that some unsullied struggle for "states' rights" was what spawned the secession.

All I can think about now is who would play Grant in the movie, and how much of a dick McClellan was, and how incredibly lucky we were that Sherman took Atlanta in time, and all the little amazing bits about how the South wanted to conquer Cuba or how the Crater exploded and all those men charged straight into a smoldering hole in the planet, or Bleeding Kansas or John Brown awaiting execution and feeling sanctified.

Or the glorious terrible revelation as the Confederacy comes crashing down that they got so desperate for about 2 months to try enlisting black soldiers and maybe or maybe not promising them freedom, but tearing each other apart over it because "our whole theory of slavery is wrong" if these men can fight, and because they themselves realized there was no reason to be a rebel if you lost the awful thing you rebelled for.

AMAZING. ...more
5

Jan 28, 2019

This is a very well-written, readable, comprehensive single-volume compendium on the Civil War. McPherson begins in the mid-19th century detailing the events leading up to the war including Lincoln's rise in politics, the Dred Scott decision, and Harper's Ferry. He covers the causes, the political and social climate, and the economic outlook of the times. Interspersed between the various battles of the war, McPherson covers specific side information such as conscription, medical needs, POW This is a very well-written, readable, comprehensive single-volume compendium on the Civil War. McPherson begins in the mid-19th century detailing the events leading up to the war including Lincoln's rise in politics, the Dred Scott decision, and Harper's Ferry. He covers the causes, the political and social climate, and the economic outlook of the times. Interspersed between the various battles of the war, McPherson covers specific side information such as conscription, medical needs, POW prisons, and data on retention and desertion of troops.

This is a great go-to book on all things related to the Civil War that I'm sure I'll reference many times. ...more
5

Sep 22, 2010

James McPherson has created a monumental work on the Civil War and its origins. I read it several years ago and recently re-read the first half, which concerns the United States at mid-nineteenth century and the many political and social issues working toward a collision course between the northern and southern states over the cause of slavery. McPherson is very possibly America's highest regarded Civil War author. This book won him the Pulitzer Prize.

The first time I read this book, I was James McPherson has created a monumental work on the Civil War and its origins. I read it several years ago and recently re-read the first half, which concerns the United States at mid-nineteenth century and the many political and social issues working toward a collision course between the northern and southern states over the cause of slavery. McPherson is very possibly America's highest regarded Civil War author. This book won him the Pulitzer Prize.

The first time I read this book, I was amazed at the complicated political alignments surrounding the slavery issue prior to 1861. I had been familiar with the basic history containing the major events, but McPherson presents the issues and factions of this time in much greater depth than the casual reader may have previously been exposed.

McPherson's premiss is that America was changing by 1850 in ways which would not only affect the dialogue on current events but would inevitably lead to the armed conflict which had been lurking in the background of political compromises for decades. Simply put, the nation experienced tremendous expansion between 1800 and 1850, with its area quadrupling in that time. The issue of whether to allow slavery in new territories, and states, was settled with the fallback position of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It allowed numerous states to enter the Union by agreeing to prohibit slavery in the former Louisiana Territories north of parallel 36-30, covering most of the Great Plains region, but allowing an exception in the case of Missouri (it also allowed Arkansas to come in as a slave state). This band-aid compromise worked well for a time but became stretched to the breaking point by the war with Mexico.

The event most responsible for elevating the arguing about slavery to open hostilities was President James Polk's war for the purpose of grabbing territory from Mexico in 1846. The United States was militarily successful and forced Mexico to grant its earlier demands for the boundary of Texas, as well as ceding New Mexico and California to the U.S. The latter territory became the center of a firestorm. Northern enemies of Polk tried to get a proviso passed in Congress banning slavery from any new territories, which caused southerners to counter with a proposal to allow citizens living in the territory to decide the issue. The Congressional debate centered around the admission of California to the Union was openly hostile. McPherson describes this time as the watershed for political alignment in America. Previously, the two main political parties differed mainly on banking, tariffs, and funding for internal improvements. Now, the dividing line was sectional, between North and South. The major parties splintered on slavery, with "Conscience Whigs" leaving their party rather than support its 1846 slave holding nominee, Zachary Taylor. The Van Buren faction of the Democrats, nicknamed "Barnburners" likewise bolted their party, whose leadership did not support the above "Wilmot" proviso.

The "free soilers" would become united over their rejection of slave labor for economic and moral reasons. Some were hard core abolitionists who called for the immediate expiation of the evil of slavery; a larger percentage of them found slavery socially repressive and economically backward; and the remainder (including Illinios Whig Abraham Lincoln) supported the Wilmot Proviso but were open to compromise. These distinctions started to disappear under the vehement threats of outraged southern "fireeaters" who declared themselves ready to secede from the Union as early as 1850. The Whig party could not stand up under this pressure and gradually disintegrated. Abolutionists were able to incorporate many Whigs into a coalition with fragments of other parties, including nativist "Know Nothings" to form the Republican Party. The hallmarks of its platform were elucidated in a speech of Abraham Lincoln in 1854 which affirmed the moral opposition to slavery; the right and duty of the national government to exclude it from the territories; and its description as a "cancer" which must be cut out of society.

While this ideology was gelling into a movement which would propel the Republican Party to prominence, the section of the country dependent on a slave economy was taking an increasingly hard position of viewing any opposition to slavery as a direct threat to its way of life. By 1860, it was clear that the only way secession of southern states and possible war could be averted was through the election of a president who would commit the national interest to protecting the rights of slaveholders to take their human "property" anywhere they wanted to. Clearly the electorate was not going to continue any longer in this direction, with putting the likes of the recently departed Buchanan and Pierce into office. Too much damage had been done to the political party structure; too much open hostility had been let loose on the floor of Congress among warring factions; too much blood had already been spilled in Kansas; too many ultimatums had been threatened to allow anyone to back down.

The election of Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath threw the entire country into convulsions of confusion, hurt sectional pride, and war anxiety on an unprecedented scale. Seven states each held conventions and voted to leave the Union, with the ultra belligerent South Carolina leading Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, in that order. These states met at Montgomery, Alabama in February, 1861 and formed a new nation. After this new nation provoked war against its former nation in Charleston Harbor, they were joined, respectively, by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Books can be written on just what rationale secession depended on. McPherson explains the Southern ideology as a derivative of the American Revolution. The secessionists were not interested in "egalite or fraternite" in the French model, but "liberte" as in the American Revolution of 1776. A lot of water had flowed over the dam, from the early republic when slave-owning founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could agree that slavery was morally hard to justify but would gradually become extinct with the passing of time, to the present southern position of viewing the rights bequeathed by their fathers as endangered if they were to remain in the Union.


These rights and liberties, McPherson explains, consisted of the right to possess slaves; the liberty to take slaves into the territories; and freedom from central government coercion. With the "Black Republicans" ruling in Washington, the South's liberties would be forever under assault. Staying in the Union would therefore, according to this rationale, be suicidal.

Lincoln saw the issue of basic individual and state rights through a different lens. The Confederacy's success in taking up arms, according to him, would destroy the nation born into Liberty through the travails of the revolutionary founders, as representing the only world hope for preserving republican freedoms. His, and his country's, thinking would evolve from taking a hands-off opinion about slavery in the summer of 1861, to making emancipation of slaves in the belligerent southern states a war policy a year later, to calling for a "new birth of freedom", with Constitutional protection, in the Gettysburg Address of November 1863.

The bulk of this book, occurring from slightly before page 300, involves the events of the Civil War. This section is a definitive one-volume history of the war. It flows from, and complements the events building up to the war in the first section. That's a lot of history to put in one book, but McPherson's mastery of the details makes it all work seamlessly. He reminds us there are 50,000 other titles on the Civil War, so anyone wanting to dig deeper into any event of that period will find an almost endless source of material. The book contains an excellent 17-page annotated bibliography. McPherson, in his Preface, acknowledges the monumental works which influenced him, including the works of Bruce Catton (some of my favorite reading); the, in his words, engrossing three-volume, almost 3,000 page "The Civil War" by Shelby Foote; and Douglas Southall Freeman's "magnificent" multi-volume "R.E. Lee" and "Lee's Lieutenants." It seems the classics never go out of style.

Although all of the war's actions are described in detail, with clear maps to guide the reader, this is not just a blow-by-blow history of major battles. McPherson succeeds in his stated goal of synthesizing current scholarship with his own research and interpretations of political and military events, and important social and economic developments. As he puts it, slavery's future, the nature of northern and southern society, the principles underlying the American economy, the fate of competing nationalisms in North and South, how freedom would be defined, even the survival of the United States, rested on the shoulders of those exhausted men in blue and gray who fought each other during four years of some of the greatest wartime ferocity that ever occurred. This book is a fitting record of their sacrifices.

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5

Aug 28, 2010

As other reviewers have noted, this magnificent book is almost certainly the best single-volume history of the American Civil War. It is hard to imagine that there will ever be another to match it.

Here is the way that I have heard the question: "I think I might be interested in learning something about the Civil War. If I wanted to read one book and find out for sure, what should I get?" The simple, unequivocal answer to that question is "Battle Cry of Freedom".

James McPherson is, for me, one of As other reviewers have noted, this magnificent book is almost certainly the best single-volume history of the American Civil War. It is hard to imagine that there will ever be another to match it.

Here is the way that I have heard the question: "I think I might be interested in learning something about the Civil War. If I wanted to read one book and find out for sure, what should I get?" The simple, unequivocal answer to that question is "Battle Cry of Freedom".

James McPherson is, for me, one of the truly great writers in any genre. His mastery of the language is so complete as to be almost hypnotic. His lyrical prose has me re-reading many passages just to savor their magic. As I do that, I see just how deeply he has understood and explained the almost unexplainable: how could such a massive tragedy ever have taken place in this country? As I marvel at the beauty of his writing, I am equally struck by the logical force and the sheer intellect of the narrative.

I spent a lot more time reading this book than I would with most, and I know others who did the same. To read it, carefully, is to understand. I am one who has always believed that understanding a catastrophe is the only way to avoid repeating it. Not a guarantee of anything, but the best insurance that time and effort can buy.

Without question, one of the greatest books that I have ever read. Not to be missed, by anyone who wants to understand how we got to this point in American history, and why we still have so far to go. ...more
5

Nov 30, 2018

5 star. Will reread down the road. 5 star. Will reread down the road. 🇺🇸🤙 ...more
5

Jan 02, 2010

Any review that starts with "this is the definitive X of Y" has to be suspect. But this really is the definitive history of the civil war.

The political pressure on Lincoln... the battles... the economic conditions... the battles... the run up to the war... the battles... the increasingly impossible slave/free state compromises... the battles... the generalship... and did I mention the battles? It's readable, exciting and insightful.

The most interesting segment of the book is the run up to the Any review that starts with "this is the definitive X of Y" has to be suspect. But this really is the definitive history of the civil war.

The political pressure on Lincoln... the battles... the economic conditions... the battles... the run up to the war... the battles... the increasingly impossible slave/free state compromises... the battles... the generalship... and did I mention the battles? It's readable, exciting and insightful.

The most interesting segment of the book is the run up to the war itself. McPherson blows away the (marxist-y) argument that economic conditions led to the war. Ideological and political conflict over slavery started the war, not economic rivalry.

After all, the South *wasn't* a rival to the North - it had only one big specialty crop. The South was just a big debtor, with an economy and social structure that would have collapsed even if the North hadn't collapsed it for them. Ok, so that last part is just my opinion, but I bet McPherson thinks it even if he doesn't come right out and say it ;)

McPherson does show how the free/slace state compromises became increasingly impossible for the South. The increasing weight of a growing North was impossible for the Southern planter class to defeat, either in Congress or - it turned out - on the battlefield.

Or more precisely, the South could win battles, but it was strategically virtually doomed to lose. Or so it seems. Again, McPherson shows how the South could perhaps have "won" the war had the Lincoln been defeated for re-election. But the odds were long - and timely battlefield victory saved Lincoln.

The South didn't know that - they thought they would whip those wimpy, effeminate yanks. That didn't work out so much. But they did know they couldn't win in congress, because the north's growth outnumbered the South's. They knew they couldn't protect their property in a democratic system. The North's abolition movement was winning the political battle.

My only question: maybe we shouldn't have fought it. The South's politics suck - still re-fighting that war. No South, no Newt Gingrich. No South, and we're Sweden or France. Maybew we should have let them go.

Anyway, a great telling. Even if it plows well-worn ground, McPherson puts the entire package of the war together. Not an easy task, and done brilliantly. Bravo! ...more
5

May 28, 2014

Comprehensive, concise and well written, “Battle Cry of Freedom” digs deeply into the politics, economics and social attitudes leading up to the Civil War as well as giving a blow by blow accounting of the battles and their greater impact on the home front. Disparate economies pave the road to war as the North takes off with the transportation and industrial revolutions and the South remains a stagnant agrarian society dependent on slavery. McPherson highlights many points in the conflict where Comprehensive, concise and well written, “Battle Cry of Freedom” digs deeply into the politics, economics and social attitudes leading up to the Civil War as well as giving a blow by blow accounting of the battles and their greater impact on the home front. Disparate economies pave the road to war as the North takes off with the transportation and industrial revolutions and the South remains a stagnant agrarian society dependent on slavery. McPherson highlights many points in the conflict where opportunities were missed or seized with dramatic consequences. He cuts through the mythical stereotypes of the generals. Lee and Jackson had their good days and their bad ones just as did Grant and Sherman.

The war’s legacies included progressive measures that could only be taken in the absence of the South: a national bank, a transcontinental railroad, land grant colleges, homesteading and of course emancipation. The economic ascendance of the country during and immediately after the war would have faced continuous challenge if compromise between North and South continued rather than a decisive war. The progressive unionist attitude of the North vs. the conservative states-rights attitude of the South still persists as the Tea Party and liberals continue the fight, hopefully without a war.

McPherson characterizes this disparity of views in his afterword in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”. Negative Liberty encompasses the hands off position towards government to leave the individual free to do what he wants. Positive Liberty means the intervention of government to ensure that the rights of everyone are protected. Oddly, this characterization makes me think of Lewis Thomas’ book “The Lives of a Cell” which describes the role of cooperation between different organisms in nature to ensure their mutual success. The opposing view being that success in nature is primarily competitive often described as “survival of the fittest”. Certainly there is truth to both sides, but it seems to be an American trait to be strongly on one side or the other with little middle ground.
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5

Feb 17, 2014

“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson is widely considered to be the best one volume history of the American Civil War era ever published. When I first read it twenty years ago I came to that same conclusion. Re-reading it again now has not led me to alter my opinion. If you are looking for a comprehensive survey of the cultural, political, economic, and social landscape of the period, the nature of which all fed into the ultimate decision by the South to try and leave “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson is widely considered to be the best one volume history of the American Civil War era ever published. When I first read it twenty years ago I came to that same conclusion. Re-reading it again now has not led me to alter my opinion. If you are looking for a comprehensive survey of the cultural, political, economic, and social landscape of the period, the nature of which all fed into the ultimate decision by the South to try and leave the union, this is the book you should read.

The Civil War revolved around the issue of slavery. Despite “controversy” over that notion among a segment of our population and in the popular media, very few credible historians would still argue that the peculiar institution wasn’t the issue that drove the South to secession. But why slavery became the catalyst it was is much more complex. The decision made by our founders to “kick the can down the road” and not deal with slavery in the Constitution, along with changing gender roles, increasing religious fervor, a bifurcation in the economic systems of the North and South, and ultimately the struggle over expansion of the slave power into the west culminated in this greatest tragedy of our history.

All of this is expertly dealt with by McPherson in a smooth, very readable way. And while it is clear what he blames the ultimate cause of the war on, he is scrupulously fair in the way he deals with every side of the question, criticizing where it is warranted and praising when it is deserved. Ultimately, he concludes that secession was not the second revolution that is often portrayed, but rather it was the North that was in the middle of a revolution – a cultural and
economic one. By insisting that the South follow it away from the conservative, agrarian, hierarchically dominated culture that had previously dominated western society – particularly some of the discredited traditions that were a part of that culture (mainly slavery) – it induced the South to resort to war to protect it.

There were a couple of minor criticisms I had with the book. First, McPherson accepts without question the brilliance of Robert E. Lee’s military genius. There has been a bit of a re-assessment of that assumption in recent years that calls it into question, much of it persuasive in my opinion. McPherson certainly had the resources to make that analysis himself. Secondly he seems to accept the results of the Appomattox surrender as an example of American exceptionalism, in that both sides immediately laid down their arms and reconciled with little effort. More recent work has cast substantial doubt on that assertion.

These are minor criticisms however; in my opinion this book should be required reading for anyone studying the Civil War era.

Highly Recommended!!!!! ...more
5

Jun 11, 2011

This is a book I have long intended to read. The hard bound edition is 860 pages so it was a challenge. I have long had an affinity for books about the Civil War and biographies of Abraham Lincoln. This book starts at the Mexican War in 1847. The politics of this war shows clearly the persistent greed for more land and the lengths we would go to obtain it. More to the point, many of the best who fought in the Mexican War became the officers who would fight against each other in the Civil War. This is a book I have long intended to read. The hard bound edition is 860 pages so it was a challenge. I have long had an affinity for books about the Civil War and biographies of Abraham Lincoln. This book starts at the Mexican War in 1847. The politics of this war shows clearly the persistent greed for more land and the lengths we would go to obtain it. More to the point, many of the best who fought in the Mexican War became the officers who would fight against each other in the Civil War. The fighting in the Civil War seemed to go on forever just reading about it! I had the same feeling in reading this book that I had in reading 1776. Even though I knew the ultimate outcome of the war, even as late as 1864 with the number of successes the south accrued, I kept feeling that there was no way the north could ultimately prevail. Both sides were battle weary by 1864 and the nothern Democrats were violently opposed to a war that by then included the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's Republican party was splintered as well and a second term for Lincoln looked impossible. The taking of Atlanta and a series of victories came for the north in the nick of time to elect Lincoln for a second term. I had greater understanding of the reasons of "Sherman's March" and why the devastation through South Carolina was necessary to end the war. Worth the time. I'm ready for a few fluffy books now. ...more
5

Jul 14, 2010

I read this when I was still at school, an excellent one-volume overview of a great American tragedy.
5

Aug 03, 2012

James McPherson's Pulitzer winning work Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is often referred to as being the best single volume account of the American Civil War*. This book is all it was cracked up to be. It exams the major causes leading up to the conflict and the war itself by exploring them from multiple angles. The book shifts smoothly from the bottom Union ranks to the presidential chair, from radical abolitionists to powerful slave holders. One of the main themes of the book is James McPherson's Pulitzer winning work Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is often referred to as being the best single volume account of the American Civil War*. This book is all it was cracked up to be. It exams the major causes leading up to the conflict and the war itself by exploring them from multiple angles. The book shifts smoothly from the bottom Union ranks to the presidential chair, from radical abolitionists to powerful slave holders. One of the main themes of the book is 'liberty', how it is defined by the major actors and how the definition changes toward the end of the war. McPherson points out that both sides were fighting for their version of liberty, what they felt were the right American traditions, and how they understood the Constitution of the Framers. However, the obvious truth is that part of the South's definition of liberty is the right to own slaves, and that was the right for which they were going to break apart the Union and go to war to defend.

McPherson's narrative begins at the end of the Mexican-American War, where the nation is debating on what to do with the newly acquired territory and the slave issue moves to front and center. In this debate we see the close of a second generation of American leaders and the rise of third. The actors Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun leave the stage after their last act and are replaced by the likes of William Seward, Salmon Chase, Stephan Douglas, and Jefferson Davis. Although his star would continue to rise, at the start of the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was but a minor and unimportant character.

The debate heats up and in 1860 Lincoln is elected President but before he can even enter the office, states begin leaving the Union. McPherson points out that some historians have faulted President Lincoln for not taking the South's threat to secede seriously and failing to address it. McPherson continues to describe that view as seriously flawed. To McPherson, the only thing that Lincoln and the Republicans could do to satisfy the Southerners would be to disband and declare that slavery was a positive good.

As the war begins the South has the good fortune to have great generals in their cause such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. While the Union's best general, Winfield Scott, was a relic from another age. U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip Sheridan would have to rise up through the ranks by the measure of skill and merit while the conflict was going on. The generals that Lincoln would start with, George McClellan and Joe Hooker, were not very good. Although McClellan thought of himself as the second coming of Napoleon and his fans agreed.

"But perhaps career had been too successful. He had never known, as Grant had, the despair of defeat or the humiliation of failure. He had never learned the lessons of adversity and humility. The adulation he experienced during the early weeks in Washington went to his head. McClellan's letters to his wife revealed the beginnings of a messiah complex."(p.359)

The Civil War changed society more than anything since the American Revolution and maybe even more so. Although American Revolution changed things by making a bunch of British subjects American citizens and the Civil War saw everyone remain Americans, the long range changes seemed faster and greater.

"By the beginning of 1862 the impetus of war had evolved three shifting and overlapping Republican factions on the slavery question. The most dynamic and clear cut faction were the radicals, who accepted the abolitionist argument that emancipation could be achieved by exercise of the belligerent power to confiscate enemy property. On the other wing of the party a smaller number of conservatives hoped for the ultimate demise of bondage but preferred to see this happen by the voluntary action of slave states coupled with colonization abroad of the freed slaves. In the middle were the moderates, led by Lincoln, who shared the radicals' moral aversion to slavery but feared the racial consequences of wholesale emancipation. Events during the first half of 1862 pushed the moderates toward the radical position."(p.494)

Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation that would free the slaves in the Confederacy and be the first major step to freeing the all the men and women who were slaves in United States of America. But it was only a step and a war measure, in order to permanently eradicate the 'particular institution' the U.S. Constitution needed to be amended. Lincoln would work to insure the passage of 13th Amendment in the Congress and send it to the states.

"Among the spectators who cheered and wept for joy when the House passed the 13th Amendment were many black people. Their presence was a visible symbol of revolutionary changes signified by the Amendment, for until 1864 Negros had not been allowed in congressional galleries. Blacks were also admitted to White House social functions for the first time in 1865, and Lincoln went out of his way to welcome Fredrick Douglass to the inaugural reception on March 4."(p.840)

The Civil War would end for all practical purposes when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. There were other formalities, other armies that needed to surrender, but the long bloody conflict was over. There was a lot of work to be done and, unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln would not be there to lead it. John Wilkes Booth stole him from the nation. James McPherson does an incredible job bringing these events to life. If you want to know something about the Civil War this is a great place to start, for in the years since it was published it has made Civil War history buffs of many people.

*Several book reviews, including Washington Post, New York Times, and L.A. Times, all use that term. ...more
5

Apr 02, 2016

When American Civil War picked my interest some twenty years ago, two books bubbled up to the top of the pile as a reasonably good place to start digging into that conflict and get a ‘quick’ overview. The first was Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative, the other one was McPherson’s ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’. I went with Foote’s seminal work and the fact that it started my ‘love affair’ with American Civil War that lasts to this very day could be used as some sort of indication of how great that When American Civil War picked my interest some twenty years ago, two books bubbled up to the top of the pile as a reasonably good place to start digging into that conflict and get a ‘quick’ overview. The first was Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative, the other one was McPherson’s ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’. I went with Foote’s seminal work and the fact that it started my ‘love affair’ with American Civil War that lasts to this very day could be used as some sort of indication of how great that trilogy is.

‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ on the other hand had to wait its turn until now. Mainly because I reasoned that after getting through Foote’s three volumes, what new could I learn from McPherson’s single volume that I always assumed dealt with same topic? Still, I was always curious about that book and I am very glad that I finally did decide to read it (well, listen to it).

As it turns out, my suspicion that ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ would be an ‘abbreviated‘ version of Foote’s work was totally incorrect. Foote focuses almost exclusively on the military history of the conflict. ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ has a much wider scope – his story starts in 1840:s and the first part of the book is dedicated to a thorough analysis of developments on economic, social and especially political scene that led to secession of Southern states and the conflict that followed. Furthermore, once the war starts, it doesn’t become the main focus of the book. Rather the events on the battlefields are interwoven into the broad historical tapestry of the first part of the book. Thus, ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ presents a splendid overall view of that period in history of United States, rather than just the war itself.

Judged on purely literary merits, ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ is one of those marvelous books that are very complex but are at the same time delightful reading experience. McPherson’s language is brief and to the point, but never dry and boring. Despite the need of frequent switches of focus between multiple political scenes, events on the frontlines and ‘digressions’ into social and economics topics relevant to the story, author’s narrative is at all times coherent and easily absorbed by the reader. Having said that, I need also to point out that to get the most out of this book, the reader should have at least rudimentary understanding of political currents and ideas that existed in United States during first part of 19th century.

In my humble opinion, ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ may very well be the ‘perfect’ single volume dedicated to American Civil War and should be appreciated by anyone interested both in this particular conflict, but also to people trying to gain deeper understanding that ‘glorious experiment’ called United States of America. ...more
5

Oct 15, 2011

I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book for my first cover-to-cover reading of it in decades. This proved an extremely interesting experience, for several reasons.

Foremost among them was the opportunity to learn the things I had missed the first time around. I credit this to my maturity, as I have a far greater range of interests than my 17-year-old self ever did. This helped give me a deeper appreciation for McPherson's book, as I saw the balance and nuance he displayed on the numerous topics he addressed. I also found myself admiring even more so the fluidity of McPherson's presentation of the era and his ability to range from topic to topic in a way that never weakened my engagement with the text.

Yet for all of the book's strengths and my increased admiration for them, I also saw flaws that I missed the first time through. Foremost among them is McPherson's scope, for as brilliantly as he covers the lead up to the Civil War and the war itself, this remains his predominant focus. Other subjects relevant to the era, such as cultural developments, are ignored so long as they are irrelevant to his focus on the war and the events leading up to it, making his book less comprehensive than some of the others in the series. Another is the increasingly dated nature of the text. Unlike Robert Middlekauf with his volume on the Revolutionary era, McPherson has stated that he has little interest in updating his work. Though his decision is understandable in some respects, the absence of the considerable amount of Civil War historiography that has been published over the past three decades erodes its value and will continue to do so as time went along.

Because of this, I finished McPherson's book with an appreciation both renewed and more tempered than before. While it remains the single best book on its subject, it is one that is showing its age. I expect that I will turn to it again in the years to come, but when I do it will be an awareness that it no longer can serve as the solitary go-to source for understanding this pivotal era of American history. ...more
5

Aug 21, 2012

McPherson's book is a wonderful history of the Civil War. He begins by setting the scene describing what was happening politically, culturally, and socially in the United States before the war began. Using this same wide scope he takes readers through the war years, through the end of the war, and Lincoln's death.

I had not read anything about the Civil War since my college American History survey and so I learned a great deal. Although it took me a longtime to read this book, it wasn't because McPherson's book is a wonderful history of the Civil War. He begins by setting the scene describing what was happening politically, culturally, and socially in the United States before the war began. Using this same wide scope he takes readers through the war years, through the end of the war, and Lincoln's death.

I had not read anything about the Civil War since my college American History survey and so I learned a great deal. Although it took me a longtime to read this book, it wasn't because I wasn't enjoying the roll of history. Death pervades the book. I remember reading that more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined and now I know why. After every conflict the number of the dead was in the thousands. Many more died from disease and hunger. So, I needed a break from this book to read something else from time to time.

Until I read this book, I did not know that Lincoln feared that he would not be elected to a second term as President and that members of his own party were against him. I assumed that Lincoln always enjoyed the well deserved status that his reputation enjoys today.

McPherson's book has shown me how much more there is to read and understand about one of the most important events in our nations' history. I found a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of President Grant and of course Team of Rivals has been on my nightstand forever, and the new biography of Seward all look like wonderful avenues to keep expanding my knowledge.

...more
5

Feb 11, 2013

I had the very good luck to attend a lecture by James McPherson at NCSU right as I was finishing up reading this book. He was an extremely gracious and engaging speaker. He even made a joke about the technical difficulties involving his microphone (causing him to have to talk from the corner of the room (right near where I was sitting!) instead of in the center). He also did a good job of dealing with the crowd, which had some very outspoken Lincoln-buffs who shouted out answers. Of course, I'm I had the very good luck to attend a lecture by James McPherson at NCSU right as I was finishing up reading this book. He was an extremely gracious and engaging speaker. He even made a joke about the technical difficulties involving his microphone (causing him to have to talk from the corner of the room (right near where I was sitting!) instead of in the center). He also did a good job of dealing with the crowd, which had some very outspoken Lincoln-buffs who shouted out answers. Of course, I'm simply biased towards him, because he is also a fellow native North Dakotan, and I figure that is rare enough in these parts to give us a reason to stick up for each other.

The book did an amazing job of being very comprehensive and relatively short. (Face it, any book that covers the entire Civil War in one volume, even if it is 850 pages long, is bound to have to leave out a lot.) I was constantly marveling at McPherson's ability to use language in such a way as to capture the essence of a scene or a battle in a way that is both concise and complete. The book was an absolute pleasure to read. If someone were to ask me for a book that would explain the Civil War to them, I would recommend this one. ...more

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