Battle Cry of Freedom Turns 25

McPherson Battle Cry of FreedomThis year the American Historical Association will mark the 25th anniversary of James McPherson Pulitzer Prize winning book, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era with a panel discussion that includes Judith Giesburg, Lesley Gordon, Michael Todd Landis,and Daniel E. Sutherland. McPherson will also be in attendance as the panel chair. Panelists will offer their thoughts and McPherson will likely respond with comments from the audience taking up what time is left. It is likely that the discussion will focus overwhelmingly on how the book shaped Civil War scholarship.

The book has achieved a level of notoriety beyond academe that is unmatched by any single Civil War study published since. The book’s popularity elevated McPherson to one of the most popular historians in the field.

With that in mind I want to ask you, dear reader, to share your thoughts about the book’s and McPherson’s influence on the scholarship and popular understanding of the Civil War era during the last twenty five years.

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27 comments… add one
  • msb Dec 10, 2014 @ 23:20

    One interesting aspect, which McPherson has commented on in his essay collections, was the hostility within the profession to both the narrative approach and the accessibility of the book: sort of “too readable to be serious”. McPherson clearly thinks that history is the business of a larger group than just professional historians, an attitude that links with Kevin’s work, Andy Hall’s, etc.
    As a nonprofessional, I loved the book for both the quality of the storytelling and the breadth of the approach. Having started out with Catton, I was glad to see a great deal more of women, black people and others obscured by an approach focusing most heavily on the fighting. McPherson acknowledged that social history was well underway when he was writing the book, but I think its popularity may have paved the way for wider reading of, for example, Drew Faust’s work. So BCF is not only an excellent book in itself but also a helpful contribution to a number of current trends in Civil War history.

  • Jerry Sudduth Jr Dec 10, 2014 @ 14:12

    Would it be too much a stretch to say it is the most important Civil War book of the last 25 years because of it’s reach to the general public and it’s breadth as a work?

  • Pat Young Dec 10, 2014 @ 2:50

    One additional thought. As part of the now-nine volume Oxford History of the United States, three of which have won Pulitzer Prizes, Battle Cry is often read by people less interested in the Civil War as a discreet event or era and more as an element in our broader history. In talking to folks who have read Battle Cry, they are likely to have also read at least some of the books by Middlekauff, Wood, Howe, or Kennedy as well. The series is almost a course of study in American history for the educated non-specialist.

    • James Harrigan Dec 10, 2014 @ 6:29

      You are describing me, Pat. I did not study history in college, and my last course on US history was in high school. I read McPherson because I wanted to know what caused the war, although I was also somewhat interested in the military aspect too. I then went on to read Middlekauf on the revolution (1763-1789) and Howe on the Jacksonian era (1815-1848). Wood on the early republic (1789-1815) is waiting, patiently, on my shelf. At some point I want to read the rest of the Oxford series.

      • Jimmy Dick Dec 10, 2014 @ 7:38

        I’ve read the seven of the eight volumes in the series and use sections for my classes. I find them to be great ways to cover history with the wider lens aspect. In looking into the series I found a few things that were interesting. The entire series is supposed to be a 12 volume set with the 12th volume being a diplomatic history (this is the one I have not read). Two earlier works that should have been in the set were not printed as such for various reasons. One was on Jacksonian America.

        Charles Grier Sellers was to have written that volume, but it was instead published as The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 because it was heavily concentrated upon the economics of the era more than anything else. Another volume was to cover 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands, but instead was not printed as an Oxford volume. This was American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900.

        There were other books and authors planned in the series, but things happened as always and plans changed. Currently from what the Wikipedia entry shows an ISBN number has been assigned to one volume, number 8, by Bruce Schulman of Boston University and is supposed to cover 1896-1929. I really want to see Richard White’s entry which is to cover 1865-1896. I’ve also considered Alan Taylor’s The American Colonies to be an unofficial volume and will continue to do so until the Oxford series prints those two volumes.

        In any event, it is a very good series and occupies the first slots in my library system.

  • Pat Young Dec 9, 2014 @ 19:52

    When I started researching The Immigrants’ Civil War five years ago I asked my facebook friends what books I should read, and the one that was most recommended was Battle Cry. I had read it many years earlier but I reread it because it was clear that that book shaped the way the general educated reader understood the war. In that sense it is essential.

  • Rob Dec 9, 2014 @ 16:51

    I did not expect as much military history and analysis in a book published by Oxford, and was pleasantly surprised. In my decades of reading Civil War history, I have yet to come across a better synthesis of the war in all its dimensions. If I have missed a book that comes close to what Battle Cry of Freedom achieved, please let me know.

  • Jack Dec 9, 2014 @ 10:50

    An excellently written book from a pro-Union standpoint. If I weren’t from the South with many close familial ties to Confederate soldiers I would swear it was the truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 9, 2014 @ 10:58

      Why should your “familial ties” having anything to do with wanting as accurate an understanding of this past as possible?

    • James Harrigan Dec 9, 2014 @ 11:05

      An excellently written book from a pro-Union standpoint.
      Wrong. “Battle Cry of Freedom” was written from a pro-truth standpoint. McPherson is a serious historian, not a propagandist or cheerleader. An implication of this is that McPherson would be the last person to claim that his book is “…the truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God” – like any serious historian, he’d acknowledge any evidence-based criticism or revision of his past work.

      • Jack Dec 10, 2014 @ 11:48

        I’m sorry you don’t have those familial connections to the war that lead you to gather your information from others who have revised the past to fit today’s ideals. Maybe it’s okay if we disagree as someone said, “There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning.”

        • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2014 @ 11:50

          If you are committed to gathering only those sources that confirm what you have a need to believe about your ancestors than you are not engaged in a serious historical inquiry.

        • James Harrigan Dec 10, 2014 @ 12:10

          I have no idea what you’re getting at here, Jack. But as Kevin noted above, familial connections should have no bearing on the search for an accurate understanding of the past. I can see why family connections might make you interested in the Civil War era, just as moving to Virginia made me more interested, but why should family connectionshave any bearing on what you believe about the Civil War era? The evidence doesn’t care who your ancestors were.

          • Jack Dec 10, 2014 @ 12:27

            Who my ancestors were makes up the “evidence” that you speak of. You simply turned reality on its head. And why on earth would you move to the hotbed of rebellion, the Capitol of the Confederacy? Challenging one’s views is one thing, denigrating them is another.

            • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2014 @ 13:12

              No one is denigrating anything. Like I said, if all you are interested in doing is vindicating your ancestors than you are not engaged in anything that remotely resembles the critical analysis of the past. Best of luck.

            • Jerry Sudduth Jr Dec 10, 2014 @ 14:10

              I have a familial connection to Kentuckians who fought for the Union. That’s great and it is something to be proud of, but it doesn’t shade my view of the war. I think for myself and I want as much knowledge and truth as possible. You can admire your ancestors without admiring the cause. They’re not mutually exclusive.

              Vindicating ancestors and getting a clear picture are two entirely different things. You can’t be objective or willing to consider valid views of others if you’re in a family tree defense mode.

              No one’s deginerating anything here, people are presenting truth. If you’re uncomfortable with it that’s your problem.

            • James Harrigan Dec 11, 2014 @ 8:16

              Who my ancestors were makes up the “evidence” that you speak of.
              Jack, this simply makes no sense. I think what you mean to say is something like “Who my ancestors were determines my beliefs about the past, no matter what the evidence is”.
              And why on earth would you move to the hotbed of rebellion, the Capitol of the Confederacy?
              Why not? I like living in Virginia. The Confederacy was destroyed 149 years ago, much to the delight of Black and other Unionist Virginians. I haven’t noticed any armed rebellion since I moved here.

              • Jack Dec 12, 2014 @ 11:13

                I suggest you desist from trying to put words in my mouth and instead digest the words I actually used. I hope you recognize Confederate sacrifice through the historical evidence and is represented by southern symbols, monuments and memorials, all of which are protected by law. Welcome to VA.

                • Jimmy Dick Dec 12, 2014 @ 13:07

                  I suggest you begin to understand what facts are and how to employ historical analysis. By the way, symbols of hate are not protected because federal law supersedes all state laws. While no one wants to make the CBF into a permanent symbol of hatred while rejecting its historical context and appropriate usage, bigots and racists are doing a pretty good job of maintaining it as such as symbol of racism.

                  Of course, then we have the people that want to fly it all the time and claim the CSA was not fighting for slavery which means the confederate symbology is just more displays of ignorance than anything else.

                  • Jack Dec 12, 2014 @ 14:12

                    You’re not very good with informed arguments are you? Specifically when you babble about “symbols of hate” and the supremacy clause of Article VI of the Constitution, you cite no case law or even rational link with perfectly legal and historically appropriate Confederate commemoration. And it’s kind of creepy the way you follow me around these revisionist blogs.

                    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2014 @ 14:16

                      OK, that’s it. This thread is over.

    • Jerry Sudduth Jr Dec 9, 2014 @ 14:24

      This answer right here is why we needed the BC of F. It is truth as opposed to the regional bias and ancestor-worship claptrap that dominate the Lost Cause and Neoconfederate histories of the war.

      If you let who your family fought for or your being from the south shade how you view the war to such a point where you cannot acknowledge differing opinions as nothing more than Pro-Union cheerleading that’s more of an idictment of you than the quality of McPherson’s work. It is a masterpiece that his highly accessible.

  • Brad Dec 9, 2014 @ 10:23

    It’s hard to add to what has been said but it’s a book I still turn to if I need something answered. Maybe it’s the way my brain is wired but sometimes I have trouble understanding military battles and strategy. However, Battle Cry of Freedom made it very understandable for a person like me.

  • London John Dec 9, 2014 @ 7:41

    Obviously, in the UK the market for popular histories of the American Civil War is less densely populated than in the US, and as soon as Battle Cry of Freedom was published it became the one definitive general history of the ACW, replacing Bruce Catton’s 3-volume Centennial History. (incidentally, and OT, I believe Catton wasn’t a Credentialed Historian?). The position of BC of F hasn’t been challenged since first publication; the only addition has been Ken Burns’s TV series.
    One thing I took from the book was that Lincoln and the slaveholders both understood that slave agriculture had to continually expand onto new land to remain profitable, and therefore Lincoln’s policy of restricting slavery to its existing area would destroy it. I don’t know if that was generally understood before BC of F was published?

  • James Harrigan Dec 9, 2014 @ 7:11

    I don’t know about its influence on scholarship, but it seems to have been very influential with the educated general public (including me). A notable example is Ta-Nehisi Coates, who read “Battle Cry of Freedom” a few years ago and talked on his blog about what an eye-opening experience it was for him. In a calm, clear, and methodical – but also dramatic – manner, McPherson answers the main question that I had and that I think many people had: what were the causes of the Civil War?

    Stylistically, what makes it so effective and readable is the interweaving of the purely military with the political and (much less, if I recall correctly) social developments. He’s a master of English prose as well as history.

    I’d be very curious to know how it is evaluated by serious historians, both at the time it was published and with the benefit of 25 years of perspective.

  • Alec Rogers Dec 8, 2014 @ 15:09

    I used to read a lot of Civil War when I was in school, but hadn’t really read anything about it in years. A few years ago I picked up McPherson to “catch up” on all of the scholarship I had missed. I was truly riveted. Fascinating information on every page. The discussion of paying for replacements was esp. interesting – really added a different perspective.

  • M.D. Blough Dec 8, 2014 @ 14:37

    It’s an extraordinary book. It deals with the political, social, and military aspects of the Civil War and the events leading up to it and shows their interaction. It was a welcome antidote to the “Who shot who where and everyone was noble” school of Civil War history that scrupulously avoided issues like slavery. It’s also very readable and demonstrates that excellent scholarship does not have to be stunningly dull and obscure to attempt to read.

    Another point is McPherson himself. I’ve met him at events more than a few times. He has never been anything less that down to earth and approachable.

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