James McPherson: Says he's not a military historian (interview)





By the summer of 1862, George McClellan had come within six miles of Richmond and Union forces had obtained 50,000 square miles of key territory in the West. The Confederacy, a fledgling country then only a little over a year old, was an inch away from ceasing to exist. If it had surrendered then, the North would have allowed slavery to persist in the South, at least for a time. But the South was cursed by a hero named Robert E. Lee who took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. “[L]ee’s counteroffensive in the Seven Days battles and other major victories during the next year ensured a prolongation of the war,” James M. McPherson writes in his new book, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, “opening the way to the emergence of Grant and Sherman to top Union commands, the abolition of slavery, the ‘directed severity’ of Union policy in 1864-65, and the Gotterdammerung of the Old South. Here was the irony of Robert E. Lee: His success produced the destruction of everything he fought for.”

It’s with this firm, philosophical and unromantic sense of the period with which McPherson, a professor at Princeton, has become the nation’s leading historian of the Civil War. He is the author of over a dozen books. Battle Cry of Freedom, his best known, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. As the president of the American Historical Association in 2003, he courted some controversy for commenting on the Bush administrations adventures abroad. In light of that, he answered some questions by e-mail. How much can we read the Civil War into our own era? And, Hollywood depictions aside, were there any true heroes of the bloodiest conflict in the history of the Western Hemisphere?

[QUESTION] You write that most Civil War historians, like yourself, have no military experience. It’s a disadvantage, making it a little more difficult to understand the machinations of generals or even the feelings of privates. But there’s another disadvantage that seems even more difficult to surmount. At 70, you’ve seen your country fight five wars, but you haven’t had the brutal experience of living through an actual civil war.

Having had no military experience is indeed a disadvantage in writing about Civil War military history, since some aspects of the soldier's experience as well as the officer's command decisions will be constant across time. Most of the best military historians of the Civil War whom I know, however, likewise have had no military experience, so it is clearly not a fatal handicap. And no American alive who has lived his whole life in the United States has had the experience of living through an actual civil war. Incidentally, while I have written quite a bit about military aspects of the Civil War, I don't consider myself a military historian as such. I learned about the military course of the war because it vitally affected the questions that originally occupied my attention about the war: slavery and its abolition, wartime reconstruction plans, and the political history of the war.

[QUESTION] How useful, if at all, is it to compare the American Civil War to the great internal conflicts of the 20th century, such as those in Spain, Vietnam or the Balkans?

Comparisons of the American Civil War with civil wars in other societies can yield some valuable insights, so long as the comparisons are done with full recognition of the sometimes radically different contexts of time, space, and social orders. Ethnic civil wars such as those in the Balkans or in Iraq today are so different from the issues in the American Civil War that comparisons are not very useful. But ideological civil wars (like those in Spain and Vietnam) are similar enough to the ideological conflicts between the social order of the slave-plantation South and the free-labor capitalist North, that the comparisons can be quite helpful....



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