McPherson and Inevitability: A Brief Comment or Dimitri Gets it Wrong Again
It’s been quite some time since Dimitri Rotov took one of his cheap swipes at James McPherson so I guess we should have anticipated one before the end of the year. Dimitri doesn’t disappoint. According to Dimitri, Nelson Lankford’s excellent book Cry Havoc! (which is now out in paperback) is "an attack on James McPherson’s and the Centennialist’s "inevitability of war" thesis." I know this is going to sound condescending, but I do wonder whether Dimitri has ever read Battle Cry of Freedom or anything else by McPherson. Students in my Civil War classes know that McPherson does not subscribe to some kind of inevitability thesis. In fact, one of the fundamental distinctions that McPherson makes in a recent North and South magazine article (Vol. 4, No. 1. 2000), which I teach, is that even after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 the war was not inevitable. After surveying the historiography on the cause of the war which cites both political and economic differences between north and south, McPherson notes that, "Such disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system." He then concludes that "The Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a "repressible conflict," as [Wesley] Craven titled one of his books. (p. 15) Towards the end of the article which covers the period between the secession of the Deep South and Lincoln’s inauguration, McPherson states very clearly that the "refusal [on the part of Lincoln and his administration] to countenance the legitimacy of secession did not make war inevitable." (p. 21). Chapters 8 and 9 in Battle Cry work to explain the complexity of events that followed Lincoln’s election right through the showdown at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
If anything, it’s McPherson’s scholarship which is largely responsible for challenging the inevitability thesis.