Book Review – Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
Author: James M. McPherson
Publisher: Oxford University Press, NY; 1988/2003/2005
Best Price/s: Amazon.com – $15.25 (soft cover) – 20.00 (hard)
James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: … is a classic Civil War book first published shortly after Shelby Foote’s monumental three volume narrative. This places it at a time when writing about aspects of the Civil War was just beginning to have the modern renaissance that we are still experiencing. These two authors are probably directly responsible for inspiring many of the authors who have written about this era since then.
McPherson was asked to write a one volume history of the Civil war era, which is technically impossible to do. He did, however, do a good summary of his subject, while leaving room for others to go into greater detail on battles, leaders, generals, etc. He touched on all the major battles and generals, but sometimes only gave a few pages to a battle, campaign or person about which volumes have since been written.
This does not denigrate his knowledge or the book, but is a reminder that even with over 860 pages, the entire story cannot be told in a single volume as requested by Oxford Press.
Personally, I found the most interesting thing about this volume was the detail of the first 275 pages win which he explained the intricate political maneuverings that led up to this war. For instance, I had not known the effects of the changes in the national and regional economy since 1815. Nor the influence and power struggles caused by Southern politicians and presidents during this period.
I didn’t realize that the Southern, not the Northern states, had dominated and controlled the national politics before 1860. Nor that for at least 30 years before that date, every western expansion had entailed vigorous debate by pro-slavery states to expand territory for their “peculiar institution” of slavery. Nor did I realize how many times threats of secession were made and how many political compromises tenuously held the country together.
I was not aware of the number of political parties and their platforms during this 30 year period. The fact that each party had northern and southern wings with slightly different views indicates the difficulty of gathering a consensus for anything by any party. Furthermore, it shows the great cultural divide that was a huge factor in the final motivation to war as a solution.
McPherson does an excellent job of explaining the many factors and the attitudes of those who held them. Most Southerners felt that they were fighting for their freedom and their property in the same manner as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers in the Revolutionary War against Britain. They were fighting for independence to live in safety of homes, property (including slaves whose value accounted for 3/4s of the wealth of the South), and their culture and independent aristocratic way of life. Ultimately, it was to preserve slavery.
Most Northerners joined the fight in 1861 to preserve the Union, knowing that secession, whether constitutionally legal or not, would bring an end to the United States and its experiment in democracy. Only a small number were in favor of the abolition of slavery. Most agreed with the common assumption of the day that Blacks, slave or freed, were inferior to the white race and therefore could never be equal. But these attitudes would change!
McPherson has much to offer the reader of today, even as we are flooded with more detailed books about each element, person, and battle of this war. The author has done two updates and also has an illustrated version available. Battle Cry of Freedom is a book that every Civil War buff will want to have in their collection.