Yesterday I commented on my Facebook page about a pretty intense discussion in my Civil War class on what motivated northern men to volunteer for the army in the spring of 1861. We talked about about a collection of letters as well as a short selection from James McPherson’s book, What They Fought For 1861-1865. I’ve commented on the challenges of teaching the importance that northerners attached to union, liberty and their close identification with the founding generation in contrast with Confederates. The latter’s claims to defending hearth, home, and a “way of life” tend to resonate more with my students. Continue reading
This past week The Daily Beast did an interview with James McPherson to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. As we all know it was a bestseller when it was first published in 1988 and remains the go to book for those looking for a reliable survey of the Civil War Era. That is quite an accomplishment.
While it is likely the single most popular Civil War book published in the past two decades I sometimes wonder how many people, who own it or who throw out the name in polite conversation, have actually read it in its entirety. At just under 900 pages it is quite demanding.
I first purchased the book in 1995. At the time I was just beginning to explore the period and everyone recommended that I start with McPherson. I don’t mind admitting that I never really got around to reading it in its entirety until I took a graduate school class in historiography in 2004. On numerous occasions I committed myself to reading it only to be distracted by another book or even a shorter McPherson essay that summarized aspects of the larger study. Of course, that did not stop me from recommending the book to others.
Part of why I resisted had to do with the mistaken assumption that Battle Cry is no more than a survey, heavy on narrative and short on analytical rigor. That certainly is not the case.
So, who else is going to come clean?
Here is a little levity to end the work week. This little exchange from the Southern Heritage Preservation FB Group is worth a good laugh, but it’s also a reminder that many people simply do not understand the first thing about what is involved in historical research. The scholarship that historians produce is not the result of a process, but simply a reflection of personal bias and nefarious motives. It’s a wonderful reminder of why education matters.
Perhaps Dimitri Rotov will offer his legal services as prosecuting attorney.
I was hoping that yesterday’s post would not turn into another round of the same old back and forth over the cause of the war, but that is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, most of what is usually offered in such discussions lacks any serious analysis and/or context. I was hoping to encourage readers to share those books that have informed their understanding of the coming of secession and war. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorites, though I could just as easily have chosen five others.
- James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)
- William Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854
- William Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861
- Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War
- David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861
Feel free to add to this list.
I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862″ symposium on CSPAN-3. It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial. The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas. The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas? Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising. McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted. I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.
There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer. There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians. All of them are well respected scholars. That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year. Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable. Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories. You have to include at least one woman and an African American. In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.
So, who would you choose?
My choice: Benjamin Butler