Another Perspective on McPherson

I make it a point to check out Dimitri Rotov’s blog at least once a day. He offers insightful observations about the state of Civil War publishing that any critical reader can appreciate. That said, I cannot for the life of me understand why he is so obsessed with James McPherson. As many of you know McPherson recently retired from Princeton University’s history department; he enjoys continued popularity in Civil War circles for his Pulitzer-Prize winning, Battle Cry of Freedom (BCF) and other studies. Dimitri criticizes BCF because it tends to simplify certain aspects of the military side of the Civil War. As I understand the criticism, the book emphasizes narrative and tends towards ovesimplification (take for example M’s coverage of the recovery of the Lost Orders) as opposed to critical analysis. It is important to keep in mind the origins of this book. It is part of Oxford University Press’s American History Series; each volume provides a concise overview of a specific period in American history and synthesizes as much of the scholarly work in the field as possible. BCF covers the decades leading up to and through the Civil War years and into the beginning of Reconstruction. I agree with Dimitri that at times McPherson shades off into dramatic narrative that gives short thrift to ongoing debates, but keep in mind that before taking on this project his main area of interest was not military history narrowly understood. At the same time the book anticipates more recent histories that attempt to integrate the military side of the war with events off the battlefield. The strongest parts of the book, in my humble opinion, are on the pre-war years.

It is safe to say that McPherson did not anticipate or even look for the kind of popularity that resulted from strong sales. I agree that to a certain extent he has pandered a bit to the more commercial side of the Civil War, but this is not anything to be too concerned about. Various groups are constantly complaining of the “ivory tower” mentality of many historians that confine themselves to writing books and articles for their academic friends and pay little attention to writing for the general public. McPherson’s recent studies of the ideology of soldiers, though not the first, have shed light on an important aspect of the military side of the war. They are written for a wide audience and are analytically driven. Dimitri’s concerns about the so-called “centennial interpretation” that McPherson and others espouse can easily be offest by taking a wider view of McPherson’s scholarship. One way to interpret McPherson’s post-BCF career is an attempt to address the demands of two different constituencies, one popular and the other academic. Yes, recent books such as Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom present a very straight-forward analysis of the military aspects of the campaign. At the same time the book does an excellent job connecting the battlefield to other issues. This aspect of McPherson’s work is very different from the articles published in academic journals such as the American Historical Review and Journal of American History. Here you will find McPherson at his analytical best. Characterizing McPherson’s scholarship as “centennialist” is simply too narrow and fails to take into account the fact that much of his work over the years falls beyond the confines of the years between 1861-1865.

In his most recent post, Dimitri ponders the absence of well-known Civil War scholars who studied under McPherson, though it is not clear why this is important. I think the simple answer to this question is the fact that academia continues to look down on military history. My guess is that McPherson’s students concentrated on some aspect of 19th century history, including slavery, politics, or social history. Take a quick look at the job postings and you will rarely find a school looking specifically for a Civil War scholar. In short, it would be suicidal to go on the job market with a specialization in the Civil War. Cast your net wider and I am sure you would find scores of professional historians who would be more than willing to make public their connection and indebtedness to McPherson. By the way, if you are looking for another McPherson student in Civil War studies, check out John E. Clark Jr’s, Railroads in the Civil War (LSU Press, 2001). Clark teaches history at MPACT Academy and Garrett Morgan Transportation Academy in Paterson, New Jersey.

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