The Civil War and its Persistent Resonance: An Interview with James McPherson

Historians/History
tags: racism, Civil War, Reconstruction, interview, James McPherson



Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.



You can’t put the past behind you.

It’s buried in you.

Claudia Rankine, American Poet


The Civil War casts a long shadow. In his recent book The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford), eminent historian James McPherson writes that many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought 150 years ago are still with us today: “matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments.’’

The brutal struggle of 150 years ago continues to haunt and to fascinate. The immense toll of this internecine conflict is staggering and heartbreaking. The war left 750,000 troops dead as well an untold number of civilians. As Professor McPherson writes, those military deaths represented 2.4 percent of the American population in 1860, or the equivalent of almost 7.5 million people today. And this toll was almost twice that of U.S. troops killed in the Second World War.

The war resulted in the emancipation of four million African American slaves but, as McPherson writes, an “unjust peace” in the South was “marred by disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, poverty and lynching.” And the legacy of slavery and oppression still lingers in our politics today.

Throughout his distinguished career, McPherson has contributed to our historical awareness with his extensive research and writing for academic and popular audiences alike on the history and legacy of the American Civil War. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Battle Cry of Freedom, has been acclaimed the best single-volume history of the war and its background. Unlike many other historians, he has a reputation for making history accessible to the public.

His devotion to helping ordinary citizens understand history grew from his own experience. Professor McPherson was born in North Dakota in 1936 and raised in Minnesota. His interest in history was sparked when he attended Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota) in the 1950s as the civil rights movement gained traction in the South. He writes that he found the South “exotic and mysterious,” and he wanted to know more about the region and how segregation and the struggle for the rights of African Americans had evolved. He writes, “I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War.”

His small college in Minnesota did not offer a course on the Civil War, but at Johns Hopkins University, where McPherson attended graduate school and earned his doctorate in history, he studied with the foremost historian of the American South, C. Vann Woodward, author of the iconic history, The Strange Life of Jim Crow. Millions of readers have benefitted from McPherson’s scholarship on the Civil War era since.

Now, in The War that Forged a Nation, Professor McPherson shares a dozen essays on the war, ranging from the resonance of the war today to Lincoln’s leadership, the origins of the war, the terrible toll of the conflict, naval campaigns, and more. The book has earned praise for its vivid writing, original synthesis, scholarly research, and concise introductions to several aspects of the war.

James McPherson is George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History emeritus at Princeton University, where he began teaching in 1962. He has written more than two dozen books on the Civil War era covering topics from slavery, abolitionism, the origins of the war, and the role of black troops, to Lincoln’s leadership and the military and naval campaigns. In addition to the Pulitzer-Winning Battle Cry of Freedom, his book For Cause and Comrades, won the Lincoln Prize in 1998. Professor McPherson has served as president of the American Historical Association, Protect Historic America, and the Society of American Historians. He is also a leader in preserving the nation’s Civil War battlefields.

Professor McPherson generously responded by email to a wide array of questions on his life as a historian and his work.

Robin Lindley: Professor McPherson, have you been fascinated by history since childhood?

Professor James McPherson: No. I had no particular interest in history growing up, and had indifferent history teachers in high school (the basketball and baseball coaches--I had more interest in baseball). 

I didn't get turned on to history until my freshman year in college, when I took the introductory course in the history of Western civilization (that's what it was called then) since 1500, using mostly primary sources, and was challenged to think and analyze for the first time.  I discovered an aptitude and eventually a fascination with history, majored in the subject, gravitated toward American history, though not yet the Civil War, because my small Minnesota college did not have a Civil War course, and decided to go to graduate school.

Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in the Civil War and your devotion to this period through your career? Did an incident or a teacher inspire your interest?

Professor James McPherson:  I did become interested in Southern history while in college (from 1954 to 1958) not because I knew anything about the South or had traveled there (I had not), but because I knew almost nothing about a region that seemed so puzzling and bizarre in those years of massive resistance to the Brown decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the conflicts over the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.  I wanted to know more about the historical roots of these events, so I decided to go to Johns Hopkins to do my graduate study under the foremost historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward. 

During my years at Hopkins (1958-1962), the civil rights movement heated up with sit-ins throughout the South (including the border city of Baltimore), the Freedom Riders, and the ongoing conflicts between the national government and Southern political leaders, which included federal marshals and troops being sent into the South. 

The parallels between the 1860s and 1960s struck me with overwhelming force, and I decided to do my dissertation on the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists, who continued their activism after slavery was abolished in the fields of civil and political rights and freed people’s education.  The dissertation became my first book, The Struggle for Equality (1964)and spun off a second book, The Negro's Civil War (1965). For a decade I continued my work on first and second generation abolitionists, down to the founding of the NAACP in 1910, in which several abolitionist descendants played key roles. 

But I never lost interest in the Civil War itself.  As I studied and taught it, I expanded my horizons to include the political history of the era because the abolitionists who constituted my initial subjects operated within a larger political context, and eventually expanded my horizons further to include the military dimension of the war, because after all it was a war and military events shaped everything else that happened. And I have never grown tired of reading, research, and writing about the period.

Robin Lindley: Why do you think there is so much interest in the Civil War today? Apparently there are more books about the war than on any other American historical event.

Professor James McPherson:  One reason for the widespread and intense interest in the Civil War is the very reason that inspired my own interest, as outlined in the previous answer.  The issues of the heritage of slavery and its abolition in a context of bitter conflict, nationalism versus regionalism, the role of government in social change, racism and anti-racism, civil rights and civil liberties, that were at the core of events in the 1860s are still relevant and contested today.  Second, many of the historical figures associated with the Civil War loom larger than life in our historical consciousness, and have an endless fascination for people today.  Third, the huge loss of life (now estimated to be in the range of 750,000 soldiers plus an unknown number of civilians) dwarfs anything else in American history and continues to cast a long shadow across our consciousness.  Finally, military history is exceedingly popular with the public (not so much within academia), and for Americans no military history can match that of the Civil War for endless argument and second guessing.  

Robin Lindley: Your book Battle Cry of Freedom is considered the best one-volume history of the Civil War. With new research since the book came out in 1988, are there any significant changes you’d now make in telling this story?

Professor James McPherson:  If I were writing Battle Cry of Freedom today, I would pay more attention to the home front in both North and South: the impact of the war on communities and families, on women and children, the demographic and social consequences of massive death and destruction.  Much of the research and writing about the war during the past thirty years has focused on these questions, and I would try to incorporate this material in the book. 

Robin Lindley: Your books, including Battle Cry, are praised by both academic and popular audiences. What is your approach to writing? Who are some of your influences as a writer and a historian?

Professor James McPherson:  I believe that a historian has a duty to make his findings and interpretations accessible to an interested lay audience as well as to an academic audience.  I think that C. Vann Woodward, my graduate-school mentor and the editor of the series in which Battle Cry was a volume, did much to influence me in this conviction by his example. Other historians who have succeeded in reaching both audiences, like Allan Nevins, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter, also shaped my approach to writing during my formative years in graduate school and after. 

Robin Lindley: You’ve said that you called your Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom because both sides were fighting for their own versions of freedom. What were these very different concepts of freedom?

Professor James McPherson: Both sides in the Civil War wrapped themselves in the mantle of 1776 and professed to be fighting for the freedoms won by their forebears in the American Revolution.  Confederates claimed that their ancestors had seceded from the British Empire to fight for self-government and the freedom to determine their own social and political institutions, just as they were seceding from a government that threatened their own freedoms to do the same.  Northerners claimed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed by the Revolution and to preserve the nation established by the revered Founders from dissolution and destruction. 

One of the freedoms fought for by Confederates was their freedom to own slaves; Northerners did not at first fight for the freedom of slaves, but eventually came to expand the concept of liberty for which they fought to include the freedom of slaves. 

These kaleidoscopic evolutions in the meaning of freedom are part of what continues to make the Civil War so meaningful and important to Americans today. 

Robin Lindley: Don’t most historians now agree that slavery was the cause of the Civil War? How do you see the primary causes?

Professor James McPherson:  Historians today would agree almost unanimously that the slavery issue was the fundamental and ultimate cause of the war.  But it is useful to break this question down into two--or even three--parts.  First, there is no question but that the issue of slavery, its expansion, and its future, was the basic reason that the first seven slave states seceded in response to Lincoln's election on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery as a first step, in Lincoln's words two years earlier, toward bringing about its "ultimate extinction."  Every seceding state and secessionist leader made this point.  Slavery had been the fundamental cause of increasing sectional polarization since the Wilmot Proviso in 1846. 

But secession of those seven states did not inevitably mean war, though it certainly made war a distinct possibility, even a probability.  A series of decisions, actions, and non-actions by Congress, the Buchanan administration, and the incoming Lincoln administration prevented any meaningful compromise during the winter of 1860-61, and then another series of decisions by the new Confederate government and the new Lincoln administration brought the crisis at Fort Sumter to a showdown. 

The immediate cause of war was the Confederate decision to fire on Fort Sumter.  So the bottom line is that without slavery there would have been no secession, and without secession and a Northern majority's refusal to accept the legitimacy of secession, there would have been no war.

Robin Lindley: Many Americans are most familiar with the Civil War through Ken Burns’s documentary series, which first aired on PBS in 1990. What do you think of that documentary today, and would you suggest any major changes in the series now? (Some historians believe there was too much emphasis on the Confederate “Lost Cause” view of the war.)

Professor James McPherson:  I thought that, on the whole, the Burns series was terrific.  It had some problems--a number of small factual errors (which could be easily corrected) and the use of some photographs of certain scenes to illustrate entirely different scenes.  But I don't agree that there was too much emphasis on the Lost Cause view of the war--in fact, quite the contrary (except for the final half hour), I think that the basic perspective was nationalist and antislavery. 

Perhaps the main reason for the belief in some quarters that it was somewhat pro-Confederate was the prominence of Shelby Foote as a talking head.  But that was, in my opinion, counterbalanced by the prominence of Barbara Field as another talking head and the general thrust of the narrative and photographs.  It was powerful and effective in its main purpose, which was to elicit interest in and knowledge about the Civil War.  In that respect, nothing has ever equaled it.  I would suggest only minor changes if it were being re-made now.

Robin Lindley: In your new book The War that Forged a Nation, you discuss the influence of the Mexican War on events before the Civil War. What are the ways the Mexican War led to this greater conflict?

Professor James McPherson: The Mexican War raised anew the volatile issue of the expansion of slavery, which had already been exacerbated by the annexation of Texas, the basic cause of the war with Mexico.  In August 1846 the House of Representatives passed the Wilmot Proviso, which stipulated that slavery would be barred from any territory acquired from Mexico.  Nearly all free-state representatives, Democrats as well as Whigs, voted for the Proviso, while nearly all slave-state representatives voted against it.  This pattern wrenched the usual partisan political division into a sectional one, and thereby set a pattern for the next fifteen years.  The greater representation of Southern states in the Senate prevented passage of the Proviso there, but the question of expansion of slavery into the territories became the flash point of national politics down to 1861, when it precipitated secession.

Robin Lindley: This is a huge questions, I’m afraid, but what are a few significant things you’d like everyone to know about the role of African Americans in the Civil War? I sense that many people don’t know about “contrabands” or about the military contribution of blacks to the Union victory.

Professor James McPherson: African Americans played a huge part in the Civil War, as an issue (slaves or free?) and as actors on both sides.  The war came because of the immediate issue of slavery in the territories and the longer-term question of its ultimate status everywhere.  As the principal labor force in the Confederate states, slaves were the backbone of the Confederate economy and a crucial element in Confederate military logistics as army laborers, teamsters, servants, and the like.  Without slave labor, the Confederacy could not have functioned and its armies could not have moved. But this very fact made slavery vulnerable to attack by Union forces, which took place almost as soon as the war began when slaves began fleeing to Union lines in the hope of freedom, and were confiscated (in effect freed) as "contraband of war."  This label of contrabands was the opening wedge in a progressive expansion of confiscation that resulted eventually in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery everywhere. 

A key part of emancipation was the organization of 150,000 "contrabands” (plus another 50,000 free blacks) as soldiers and sailors in the Union army and navy. No less an authority than Lincoln himself said that without the contribution of black soldiers and sailors, the North could not have won the war.

Robin Lindley: There was an active antiwar movement in the North with the “Peace Democrats” or “Copperhead” movement. However, some people today may be surprised that the Confederacy raised an army of poor whites to defend a feudal system of rich white landowners founded on slavery. Were there antiwar voices in the South challenging the Confederacy?

Professor James McPherson: Yes, there were anti-war voices in the South that challenged the Confederacy.  Whites from mountainous and upcountry regions of the Confederate states--in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and other pockets where there were few slaves and slaveholders--opposed secession, remained loyal to the Union, and in many cases fought against the Confederacy.  In the western counties of Virginia they carved out the new Union state of West Virginia.  At least one regiment of white Unionists from every Confederate state except South Carolina fought in the Union army.

Robin Lindley: How has your view of President Lincoln evolved since you began writing about the Civil War?

Professor James McPherson: My first two books on the Civil War focused on the abolitionists and black leaders in the North during the Civil War.  Many of them were sharply critical of Lincoln, especially in the early years of the war, for his perceived tardiness to move against slavery, his initial support of colonization, and his supposed deference to the border slave states and Northern Democrats in some of his appointments.  Even after 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation, some of the abolitionists and blacks continued to criticize Lincoln's conservatism on the issues of equal rights and suffrage for freed slaves. 

Because I was absorbed in the abolitionist and black sources critical of Lincoln, I tended to reflect their arguments in my own attitudes.  But as the years went on and I expanded my knowledge of the war and my research in a larger range of sources, I grew much more sympathetic with Lincoln, who had to navigate the treacherous shoals of Northern politics and military demands and could not simply adopt the recommendations of radicals, abolitionists, and blacks if he wanted to maintain the broad coalition of public, political, and military support necessary to win the war.  He navigated these shoals with great skill, and thereby eventually accomplished most of what the abolitionists demanded--by winning the war.

Robin Lindley: Lincoln, with very little military experience, was commander-in-chief and actually participated in military planning. How did he learn about tactics and strategy and then work with his military leaders?

Professor James McPherson: Lincoln appears to have embarked on a crash course of reading books and articles on military strategy during the winter of 1861-1862.  He also talked with military officers like General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs, even General George McClellan, during the first years of the war and absorbed insights from these conversations.  He was an acute observer of military events during the entire war, and drew important lessons from these observations--including his perceptions of Confederate military operations.  Lincoln's mind was like a sponge; from all of these sources he was able to put together a series of strategic and operational ideas that informed his decisions as commander in chief.

Robin Lindley: You’ve written eloquently also about the ordinary people of the war, especially the soldiers on both sides who faced the grim reality of industrialized war and continued the fight despite extreme brutality and enormous casualties. What are a few things you found about these soldiers and their persistence in your research?

Professor James McPherson: One of the most important things I learned from my research in the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers was that many of them perceived the war as an existential crisis.  They believed that the survival of their respective nations--the United States and the Confederate States--was at stake in the conflict.  And they believed that their personal identity and that of their families, friends, and communities were bound up with the survival of their nation.  This belief is easy enough to understand for Confederate soldiers for, if they lost the war, the Confederacy as well as its principal institution of slavery would cease to exist.  But I discovered that the conviction of Union soldiers that the United States represented the "last best hope of earth" for freedom and democracy was equally strong.  These profound convictions help explain the persistence of soldiers on both sides through four terrible years of war. 

Robin Lindley: As you discuss in The War that Forged a Nation, relatively recent studies revise the number of soldiers who died in the war upward from the once accepted figure of about 620,000. Why did that figure change and what is the estimate now for all casualties of the war?

Professor James McPherson:  A few years ago a demographic historian named David Hacker published an article in Civil War History that came up with new estimates of the number of Civil War soldiers who died in the war--about 750,000 instead of the standard estimate of 620,000.  His figures were based on a rather complicated analysis of the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  To simplify, he compared the number of males who would have been of military age from 1861 to 1865 to the number of females of similar ages, and discovered that something like 750,000 (give or take 50,000 or so) men were missing who should have been there, and thus died in the war or soon after it as a result of war injuries or disease.  I found his analysis convincing, but I should also note that it is not universally accepted, so perhaps one should include an asterisk when citing the new estimate of 750,000.

Robin Lindley: Your early books were on the abolitionists and the role of black Americans in the war. You found that many abolitionists thought their work was unfinished even after the war. What kind of work did abolitionists continue after slavery ended?

Professor James McPherson: The two main areas of abolitionist activity after the war were continued activism in behalf of civil rights and the right to vote for freed slaves, which were embodied in the 14th and 15th Amendments, and freed people’s education.  The various freedmen's education societies, including the largest--the American Missionary Association--were founded and sustained by abolitionists.  Some of them, including the AMA, continued their work for a half century and more, and helped found and support such institutions as Howard University, Atlanta University, Fisk University, etc.  The children and in some cases grandchildren of the abolitionists continued their civil rights activism well into the 20th century; several of them helped found the NAACP in 1910.

Robin Lindley: You note in your new book that the Civil War changed the role of government in major ways and those changes still reverberate. What do you see as the most important political advances from the war?

Professor James McPherson:  The most important change in the role of government brought about by the war was the strengthening and consolidation of the national government.  Nearly all of the Constitutional amendments before 1865 had strengthened state and individual rights against centralized national power; that trend was reversed as a consequence of the war, and national power was used to defend individual rights at the expense of the states.  Most of the postwar amendments, including the 13th, 14th, and 15th, contained a clause stating that "Congress shall have the power to enforce this article."  That was a radical change.

Robin Lindley: I understand that you were an advisor on the new PBS drama series Mercy Street concerning Civil War medicine at a hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria. What is your role as an adviser on a television production? Did you enjoy this series?

Professor James McPherson:  My role as a consultant for Mercy Street was simply to read the scripts with an eye toward correcting any false or misleading historical allusions or facts.  I didn't find many.  I did enjoy the series, though at times I thought it veered a little too closely toward soap opera.

Robin Lindley: The subtitle of your new book is “Why the Civil War Still Matters.” Your words have profound resonance now. In some ways, people are still fighting the war. In the past year, there has been more media coverage of shootings of African American men, a Black Lives Matter movement, a continuing controversy about the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and oppression, and more. How do you see echoes of the Civil War in our world today?

Professor James McPherson: The issues of race and the role of governments in dealing with racial matters were central to the Civil War.  These issues are still very much with us today, as manifested by the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the shooting of unarmed black men, and the continuing controversy over the Confederate battle flag, which represents slavery and racism in the eyes of many observers.

Robin Lindley: I’ve just read recently about the Neo-Confederate movement. What is this “movement” and, at this time in our politics, where does it fit? Does it advocate state’s rights and white supremacy?"

Professor James McPherson: Insofar as I understand it, the neo-Confederate movement is not so neo.  In many respects, it is a continuation of the "Lost Cause" interpretation of the Confederacy that goes back to the late nineteenth century and argues that the Confederacy fought for principles of state's rights, self-determination, civil liberties--but not for slavery.  Although the Confederacy lost the war, it preserved its honor and the value of those principles in the face of overweening and irresponsible centralization of power in the national government. 

What is perhaps "neo" about the movement is its backlash against the campaigns to remove the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols from public places, which has broadened into a backlash against "political correctness" in the current political campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  It certainly advocates state's rights, but would publicly disavow white supremacy.  The covert convictions of many of its adherents, however, may be otherwise.

  Robin Lindley: Would you like to add anything for readers about your work or how you see that the events of 150 years ago still affect us today?

Professor James McPherson: One final observation.  With only a few exceptions, the states that had formed the Confederacy were "red states" in the presidential elections of 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, and are likely to be so again in 2016, while a large majority of Union states in the Civil War were "blue states" in these elections (excepting Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia, which were partly Confederate in heritage).  The Civil War pattern has persisted into the 21st century.

Robin Lindley: Thank you very much for your insights and comments Professor McPherson. I know readers will be fascinated by your remarks. 



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