Have You Really Read Battle Cry of Freedom?

McPherson Battle Cry of FreedomThis 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?

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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40 comments… add one
  • Jim ZipCode Jul 18, 2015 @ 5:50

    My wife & I read it in the first quarter of 2013, after we saw (within a week of each other) Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained. I realized I didn’t know anything about secession and the Civil War beyond what I learned in 8th grade; Amazon reviews led me to Battle Cry.

    The sheer CLARITY McPherson brings to the subject is astonishing. Events and motivations are complex, but he manages to keep it all straight for you. I’ve dipped into the greater bibliography since, starting with the recommendations in the back of Battle Cry. But I’m grateful for framework that book ave, for grounding me in the topic .

  • Michael Watkins Jun 22, 2015 @ 11:40

    Read it cover-cover. One of my favorite books on the Civil War.

  • Jesse Gant Dec 9, 2014 @ 11:07

    It was actually the first book I ever remember buying on my own. The clerk at the store where I bought it (there are no longer bookstores in my hometown) asked if I was buying a book for my father–it must have seemed impossible that a kid would ever want to read it. I read it once, and then not again for several years–for a Civil War history course in college, circa 2001.

  • Joe Oct 23, 2013 @ 5:05

    I read it cover to cover in 1991 when my interest in the Civil War was rekindled by the discovery of a Civil War ancestor. I still refer back to it once in a while to refresh my memory on certain aspects of the war.

  • Peter Winfrey Oct 21, 2013 @ 20:08

    I own a signed copy of it, but have yet to read it. It’s on my ever growing stack of books to read.

  • jfepperson Oct 21, 2013 @ 11:11

    I read a book review which compared the prose to Catton’s, which I found almost insulting. So my initial intention was to ignore it. Then I got one of those book club offers (“Get X books free if you buy Y at our low price!”) and BCIF was in the catalog, so I got it. Read it immediately, all the way through. I don’t think he is as good a wordsmith as Catton, and I have some quibbles with some of his coverage and interpretation, but I consider it the best single volume on the war ever written.

    To reply to other comments, I doubt Rotov has read it, and I read the first four volumes of Nevins while pursuing my graduate degree in math—it was my break from Sobolev spaces …

  • Mark H. Dunkelman Oct 21, 2013 @ 10:15

    I read Battle Cry of Freedom in its entirety shortly after it was published and since have turned to it repeatedly in the course of my work. If I may, a few words about its author. That Jim McPherson is an outstanding Civil War historian is evident from his body of work. I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time with him and have been further impressed with the depth of his knowledge. He is also very generous–kindly taking time from his busy schedule to thoroughly critique two manuscripts for me and endorse the resulting books. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting numerous Civil War historians and hold Jim McPherson in the highest regard.

  • Don Capps Oct 21, 2013 @ 9:41

    I read Battle Cry of Freedom in its entirety when it first came available in 1988. The following year I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Professor MacPherson at a conference. It was a very interesting meal since the others at the table were Dick Kohn, Mac Coffman, and Steve Ambrose, along with a few others of that stature who came and went during the meal, dropping by to say hello and then often joining the conversation — with one very junior faculty member (recently promoted to major) from a Southern military college graciously being drawn into the discussions that took place. Probably the best seminar I ever sat through.

    I have also read in their entirety, each of the other volumes of the Oxford History of the United States series, to include the one on diplomatic history.

  • Victor Oct 21, 2013 @ 8:18

    Bought it at a used book store one year, didn’t get around to reading it for a while, but I can proudly say I have read it, and read it carefully. I think it’s a great book, not just for its analysis, but for readability. It’s not only a great “go-to” book, it’s just a damn good all around read, despite its size.

  • Rob Wick Oct 20, 2013 @ 18:41

    Yes. But I wonder if Dimitri Rotov has actually read it?


  • Lyle Smith Oct 20, 2013 @ 18:36

    I haven’t read it.

  • Al Mackey Oct 20, 2013 @ 17:08

    I read it cover-to-cover in the early 1990s. I still refer to it, and I think it’s a model of what a scholarly argument should look like.

  • Brad Oct 20, 2013 @ 13:08

    I picked it up when it first came out but didn’t read it through at first. I finished it a couple of years later. Does that count? 🙂

    I’m starting now on Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union. That will take a long time.

    • Pat Young Oct 20, 2013 @ 15:06

      When I “rediscovered” the Civil War in my 20s, I sealed my commitment by reading all eight volumes of Nevins.

      • Brad Oct 20, 2013 @ 15:38

        A rite of passage Pat!

  • David Woodbury Oct 20, 2013 @ 12:21

    Read it cover-to-cover within weeks of its release. It was such a monumental work — it was fascinating to observe how he organized it. It necessarily moves at break-neck pace, but without the hurried flow of shorter texts. I thought it was a page-turner, even though I knew how it was going to end.

    • M.D. Blough Oct 20, 2013 @ 18:50

      I read it cover to cover very shortly after I became interested in the Civil War in the mid-1990s. I thought it was a page turner, too. I’m pretty sure it was at your suggestion, David, shortly after I joined the Civil War Forum. I thought it was a great read and had no problem going straight through it (Of course, I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when I was 10 so length, per se, doesn’t daunt me). I was particularly attracted to McPherson’s coverage and analysis of the political/social both before and during the war as well as the military and the interplay among all of those factors.

  • Rob Baker Oct 20, 2013 @ 12:03

    I’ve gutted it (a term grad students know well). I’ve probably read over half of it all together, just not in order.

  • Forester Oct 20, 2013 @ 10:38

    I’ve never even heard of it. Though the name ‘James McPherson’ does ring a bell. Has he written articles for Hallowed Ground? I know I’ve read something of his.

    Being a child of the Internet, I’m used to Googleing original documents and/or using Wikipedia. Or reading fine blogs like this one.

    The longest Civil War book I’ve read entirely is “Fighting for the Confederacy” by E. P. Alexander (the 1989 one, from his private memoirs).

    • Kevin Levin Oct 20, 2013 @ 10:40

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Porter Alexander’s Fighting For the Confederacy is a must read.

  • Michael Lynch Oct 20, 2013 @ 10:27

    I’ve read it all, along with the Oxford History of the US volumes on the Revolution, early republic, Jacksonian era, and WWII. I love the whole series. Even if you disagree with the conclusions, the way the authors manage to orchestrate all that subject matter is impressive, especially in Battle Cry. One of the longest books I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed the ride.

    I want to read Foote’s trilogy and Freeman’s Washington before I die, but I won’t be getting to those for a long time.

  • freedmenspatrol Oct 20, 2013 @ 9:56

    I read it cover to cover for my one class on the Civil War, back in 1999. It’s long, but I think it’s very readable.

  • guitarmandanga Oct 20, 2013 @ 9:11

    Received it as a Christmas present in 1988 (I was 11). Read bits and parts of it (mostly the military sections), but didn’t sit down and read the whole thing until 2002. As with many people, I think the size of it was daunting at first. Need to buy another copy, preferrably a hard-back one, because the original soft cover I was given has fallen apart along the spine.

  • Norbert Nerdlinger Oct 20, 2013 @ 9:02

    I listened to the audiobook version. Same with the Shelby Foote trilogy. I have more time to listen than I have time to read and I try to take advantage of that time.

  • R. Alex Raines Oct 20, 2013 @ 8:33

    I read it back in college from cover to cover, but I’m obsessive. I’ve also read both the full and abridged versions of Lee’s Lieutenants.

  • msb Oct 20, 2013 @ 8:23

    I read it cover to cover (well, maybe skipping a couple of tables) around the turn of the century (fun to be able to say this), but went through again when Ta-nehisi Coates’ Horde read it a chapter a week a couple of years ago. Subsequently read all his other books I could find; was particularly impressed by “For cause and comrades” and the two books of essays.

  • Randy Watkins Oct 20, 2013 @ 8:15

    I’ve read it and also had the great opportunity of meeting Dr. McPherson. Everyone should read it. I don’t agree with everything his says, but it is a great primer on why the Civil War was fought.

  • Barb Gannon Oct 20, 2013 @ 7:14

    I read it more than once, I loved the book, I loved the prose.

  • MattD Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:57

    Life got in the way , so it took me probably 12 years between first taking it out of a library and finishing it. I finally finished it in 2010 with my own copy, which I got signed by Dr. McPherson last September st Antietam.
    To me, the more difficult question is who got through all three Shelby Foote volumes?

  • Betty Giragosian Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:49

    Who is this person —McPherson?

  • gjvhe Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:38

    I read it in 1998. I was in Saudi Arabia (so I had a lot of spare time on resting on me) and had no distractions (no booze, no sex, no sports, no movies, just a lot of time). I was absorbed in it.

  • Wally Hettle Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:19

    This dates me, but the book came out my first day of grad school. I don’t through this word around lightly, but it is truly a “great” book.

  • Gustav Speed Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:15

    Wow you bought a book in 1995 that was published in 1998. Cool!

    • Kevin Levin Oct 20, 2013 @ 8:29

      The book was published in 1988.

  • Chris Oct 20, 2013 @ 6:09

    I’ve never done it the whole way straight through. But over the course of the years I’ve read the whole thing bit by bit.

    However, my favorite of McPherson’s works is “For Cause & Comrades.”

  • Keith Harris Oct 20, 2013 @ 5:57

    Read it. Twice.

  • Dave Oct 20, 2013 @ 5:43

    Kevin, This may date me, but, yes, I read “Battle Cry of Freedom” all the way through when it came out. I found the history to be superb on at least three levels. First, “Battle Cry” comes across as an excellent straight history of the war years, with an emphasis on the period’s political and social history. McPherson doesn’t ignore the war itself, but weaves it well into the nation’s life. Second, McPherson suggests (what for me was) an entirely new way of looking at the war and the period as a revolution against an establishment largely represented by the plantation culture and slave-holding — and I feel he achieves this remarkably well, without being preachy, or harping on the thought, or interfering with the facts themselves. Third, I love McPherson’s prose. He makes the reading itself very enjoyable (for me).

    I’m sure I’m not nearly as well read as you or others on the list, but for what it’s worth, I put “Battle Cry of Freedom” at the very top of the histories I’ve read.

    (As an aside, like Pat Young, I was drawn in part to “Battle Cry” because of its Oxford History American history series affiliation, but “Battle Cry” stands on its own merits.)

  • London John Oct 20, 2013 @ 4:56

    BCofF got excellent reviews in the UK and I bought it as soon as it came out in paperback and read it immediately with great enjoyment. I’m currently reading it for the 3rd time. Getting stuff I didn’t notice before. History is nothing to do with my work, but I like to read history that I think is relevant to today.
    I enjoyed the stuff before Fort Sumter is fired on on P273, including all you need to know about filibustering in Central America. Also that the Know Nothings weren’t just a bunch of bigots as usually portrayed but contained progressive anti-slavery elements. Also the significance of Free Soil in rallying people who weren’t abolitionists against the slave power.
    Incidentally, before BCofF came out I assumed Bruce Catton’s 3-vol Centennial History was definitive, but I’ve since learned he wasn’t a Credentialed Historian, so was I wrong?

  • Pat Young Oct 20, 2013 @ 4:40

    Sorry to disappoint. I’ve read and have both the original and the lavishly illustrated versions. I’m a sucker for anything that is called “The Oxford History of…”

    Forty years ago when I was a high school student we had to read the old two-volume Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager over our junior and senior years. My Catholic high school shunned the use of high school text books and I was glad they did. Our intense engagement with both the history and the writing generated a love of history among many of my classmates.

    Richard Hofstadter was a huge hero at my school and we all had to read him. (I think that his Paranoid Style book was used heavily at my school because so many of my fellow students had come from families that had once supported Joe McCarthy.) When the new Oxford Histories, a long time Hofstadter project, began to be published 20 years ago, I had to read them. So, I read Battle Cry less as a Civil War book and more as an installment in the Oxford History.

  • wkerrigan Oct 20, 2013 @ 4:34

    I have read it all, but not until I started using it as a text in my Civil War course. And even then, it was probably the second or third time I assigned it that I had read every chapter.

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