James McPherson: Looking at Lincoln Through a Prism of War

Historians in the News

SHILOH, TN | James M. McPherson probably knows more about the Civil War than anyone who was actually there. He talks about people like Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal bishop turned not very effective Confederate general, as if they were old acquaintances. This is partly because Mr. McPherson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his one-volume history of the war, has spent most of his career studying that conflict, and partly because, as he remarked recently at the site of the famous battle here in southern Tennessee, strategies on both sides tended to break down, and battles quickly took on a logic, or illogic, of their own, with most units unaware of what was going on elsewhere. Moving armies at Shiloh was a little like herding cats, he said.

Mr. McPherson, 72, retired from Princeton 4 years ago after 42 years of teaching there. He continues to lecture and to write, and over the years has also acquired a reputation as a highly accomplished tactician and commander in chief of Civil War battlefield tours. Last week he led an expedition here that was far better equipped than either the Union or Confederate Armies or, for that matter, than some woebegone Boy Scouts who were straggling through Shiloh’s woods and clearings in weather that was considerably worse than on April 6, 1862, when the fighting broke out. It rained off and on all day; the wind stripped the trees of leaves; and twice in the afternoon there was a barrage, a meteorological Gatling burst, of hail. The scouts shivered and donned makeshift ponchos hacked from plastic bags.

Mr. McPherson’s troops, all members or spouses of members of the Princeton Class of 1972, which has more or less adopted him as its official historian, traveled in a chartered bus that, in anticipation of supply-line difficulties, had been provisioned with some $2,000 worth of wine, beer and single-malt Scotch. The troops were issued official Class of ’72 hats, polo shirts and windshirts, but Mr. McPherson explained that both armies at that stage in the war were pretty casual about uniforms. So battlefield wear also included L. L. Bean duckboots, Patagonia slickers, J. Peterman dusters or waxed-cotton Barbour jackets. One guy had apparently raided his golf bag for a rainsuit and a pair of spiked FootJoys.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the Princeton contingent tirelessly followed an unflagging Mr. McPherson from Fraley Field, where the battle began, to the Hornet’s Nest, where some 2,000 Union troops eventually surrendered, to Bloody Pond, to the bluffs above Pittsburg Landing, where at the end of the first day Grant drew up his troops and bivouacked. ...

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