An Interview with James McPherson: Thirty Years After the Publication of Battle Cry of Freedom

You do not need a license to practice history. Instead, all you need to do is work hard, do research, go to the sources, make the past meaningful, and write in a way that attracts readers.

Few individuals have influenced the understanding of an entire historical topic more than Princeton University historian Dr. James McPherson. McPherson’s bold 1988 narrative, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, examines the social, political, and economic factors related to antebellum America and the Civil War. The book, which earned the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in History, spans over eight hundred pages. And yet, the book’s impressive narrative style makes it entirely accessible for the general reader. Indeed, Battle Cry of Freedom is often described as the “best one-volume” account of the Civil War.

Last November, I was able to sit down with Dr. McPherson in person. I asked him to reflect on the thirty years that have passed since the publication of his seminal work. The interview captured some of his thoughts related to the modern study of the Civil War, his views on various contemporary issues, and his approach to education.

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Howard Muncy (HM): Thirty years have passed since Battle Cry of Freedom’s release. What impact do you think that your research had in shaping the understanding of the Civil War in the years that have followed?

Dr. James McPherson: In conjunction with the Ken Burns series on the Civil War, which came out just a couple of years after my book, along with the release of movies like Gettysburg and Glory, together these did much to increase and awaken interest in the Civil War. As a consequence, I think there was an increase in visitation to Civil War battlefields, as well as a growth in the sheer number of people interested in the Civil War, that followed. This interest manifested in a variety of ways. I received a lot of invitations to lecture, go on television, requests for interviews, and so on. The History Channel also did several pieces on the Civil War during that period as well. At Princeton, I experienced an increase in the number [of] students that enrolled in my course. The academic attention across the country toward a variety of subjects, such as slavery and the history of the South, reflected a broader movement that characterized the late 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s.

HM: Do you feel that this widespread interest in the Civil War was dormant among the American public prior to this period? Or would you care to comment on the timing of this phenomenon?

McPherson: I would not say that it was dormant—that would be putting it too strongly—but there was certainly a growth in attention. Now partly, I think the rising levels of interest could be attributed to the fading of the strong antiwar sentiment, evoked by Vietnam, that existed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. I believe the strength of those feelings was beginning to soften by the end of the 1980s. So, my book, and the other items I mentioned, may have benefited from a decline in the kind of hostility toward the history of conflict and the history of warfare.

HM: Several articles have recently highlighted that Civil War reenactments are experiencing a decline in the number of participants. Are you worried that this spike in Civil War interest from the late twentieth century is starting to wane or “gray,” and do you think any of the gains for the subject will be lost?

McPherson: It does not seem to be fading away, as far as I am aware. Instead, it is broadening out because of the interest in preserving battlefields. What started out with Civil War battlefields has expanded, and now efforts are on the rise to protect areas of significance connected to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and even some of the wars surrounding Native Americans as well. The Civil War Trust, which now calls itself the Battlefield Trust, seems to be flourishing. The trust keeps buying or preserving more land. This can be viewed as a positive sign on the situation.

HM: The number of works related to the Civil War is perhaps unmatched by any other historical subject. Are there any new topics that modern scholars are exploring from the Civil War Era that you view with particular interest?

McPherson: One area, and some work has been done on this already, involves the environmental history of the war. More recent approaches to this topic include historians who examine the tools, the techniques, and the ideas of the period to get a better understanding of the environmental impact of the Civil War. Until the last two or three years, nobody had really looked at that seriously with that kind of approach. But the war did have, I think, a serious environmental history. Part of this includes the impact of the spread of certain kinds of diseases. Also, large areas of the South, especially Virginia, suffered well beyond the war years from the sheer environmental destruction of armies crisscrossing and chopping down large swaths of forest. These types of events impacted the farming and water quality of the areas long after the armies were gone. I mean, you fire thousands and thousands of shells with gunpowder in them, and some of them explode and some of them do not. That is going to have a kind of toxic impact on at least limited areas of the environment. Another example is the thousands of horses and mules that died as a consequence of the war. Agriculture was set back, pretty seriously, in large parts of the South as a result of the Civil War. It took a long time to recover.

HM: At a recent talk here on Princeton’s campus in celebration of Constitution Day, another Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Gordon Wood, commented on the broader modern historiography that academia now experiences. Dr. Wood characterized it as one focused on “woe and oppression” and that a large proportion of professional academic efforts are in a “Zeitgeist” to construct a “sordid tale” of early American history. He also mentioned that Americans are increasingly turning to nonacademic historians like Ron Chernow, David McCullough, and Jon Meacham for their history. Do you see this kind of movement in the study of Civil War history, and what do you make of this movement?

McPherson: It is true that a lot of the bestselling and most important historical works are being produced by nonacademic historians. But that is all right, they are historians. I think that has always been true. Allan Nevins, for example, started out in journalism and did not have a Ph.D. Bruce Catton is another good example of a journalist who wrote history. In fact, quite a few of the people producing valuable Civil War and other kinds of history during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s came out of a nonacademic background. I think that the more the better. Let a thousand flowers bloom. You do not need a license to practice history. Instead, all you need to do is work hard, do research, go to the sources, make the past meaningful, and write in a way that attracts readers.

Now, I think part of your question may have touched on what some of my colleagues have described as “a dark turn” in Civil War historiography. This turn has led to emphasizing the suffering, the death, the destruction, and the dark consequences of the Civil War. The movement has brought to light such topics as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, which we must look at seriously considering Vietnam and subsequent wars. A colleague and friend of mine, Diane Sommerville, just came out with a book, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War Era South, about suicide in the South among Civil War veterans. The work revealed that suicide affected not only veteran soldiers, but even many women as well, due to the disruption of their lives by the war and the bleak, hopeless outlook. Drew Faust, before she became president of Harvard, offered a similar account in her work The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Displacement would be another example. The war produced a lot of refugees among the white population in the South, and the consequences for them were serious. In addition, more recent research has estimated that the number of deaths in the Civil War may well be far greater than we have previously concluded. Some scholars now estimate that as many as 750,000 or 800,000 died because of the war, rather than the earlier figure of 620,000. So, there has been a development in the last eight or ten years with this so-called “dark turn.” It may seem counterintuitive, but I would view this focus as a healthy development in understanding the war.

HM: I guess another way to pose the question is do you see a gap between academic and popular historians in their approach? Is there a modern assault on the legacy of the Civil War?

McPherson: Academic historians may be more inclined to look at the cost of the conflict and place an emphasis on the sort of deleterious consequences of the war to balance some of the more positive works. I think that many of the nonacademic historians, especially those interested in military history, are more likely to highlight some of the positive and forward-looking aspects of the war. There was a cost, there is no question about that. But, I suppose I would be found among historians who emphasize some of the important positive consequences of the war, such as the preservation of the United States as a nation, the abolition of slavery, the passage of constitutional amendments and legislation, which at least moved the country, on paper, towards some degree of justice, equity and, equal rights.

HM: I want to turn to Abraham Lincoln. The view of the sixteenth president has shifted with different generations. The reverent and positive view of Lincoln grew in the last decade, especially since some of the renewed attention tied to the passing of recent anniversaries connected to his birth and the war. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals and the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln certainly contributed to this perspective. However, there are still some who continue to attack Lincoln’s legacy as “the Great Emancipator” and try to portray him as not being committed enough to the cause of ending slavery. Do you feel that the argument is settled, or will new efforts attempt to detract from this modern positive view of Lincoln?

McPherson: Coming out of the Civil Rights movement and the clashes of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a negative reevaluation of Lincoln because he did not measure up to modern ideas of racial equality. But you could say that about figures such as Thomas Jefferson and almost anybody else from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. But it is important to remember that Lincoln was a product of his time.

It is also useful to look at Lincoln’s words from the Illinois debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. Douglas was the one who said this was a white man’s country and slavery was something the country had tolerated and should continue to tolerate. Lincoln disagreed with that opinion and was ahead of Douglas, as well as the average white American, on these issues in the 1850s and 1860s. I think recent scholarship, such as Eric Foner’s 2011 book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, provides a balanced picture of Lincoln on the issue of slavery and race. That kind of interpretation is the standard now.

Abraham Lincoln continues to stand, not just in the eyes of the general population, but in the eyes of serious historians, as one of the giants in the American past for what he accomplished. Lincoln’s leadership, his rhetoric, and the ideals he expressed have survived some of the negative interpretations that burst forth a generation or two ago.

HM: A phrase that is frequently tossed about today is that “we have never been more divided than we are now.” As the one of the nation’s most prominent Civil War historians, do you feel that statement is overused? Or are there some parallels in today’s climate to the Civil War era that should give Americans cause for alarm?

McPherson: There may be some parallels, but clearly the country was more divided in the late 1850s and first half of the 1860s than it is now. I do not think we are heading toward a Civil War. The issues today are very divisive, and people are impassioned about them, but I do not think we are in as bad shape now as we were 160 years ago.

I would even say that the country was probably more divided, and the potential consequences or the potential dangers to the future of the United States may have been even greater in the 1890s and the 1930s than they are now. The labor violence, the divisive rhetoric, and the rise of the Populists of the 1890s are examples much greater than anything we are experiencing today. In the 1930s, people were really talking about the possibility of following Germany, Italy, and other countries toward fascism, while others advocated following the Soviet Union toward some form of communism. I would say there are several eras in the past that experienced far more divisiveness than we are going through right now, even as bad as things may appear. The use of the phrase bothers me some, so I lecture them about it. I say, “you know, if you really understood what happened in previous eras, you might not be so upset about what is going on right now. We survived those dangerous times, and I think we will survive these times too, because these times are maybe less dangerous than then.”

HM: I want to turn now to education. On university campuses, issues involving free speech concerns are common. State and national education policies are the subjects of intense debate with topics such as textbooks and curriculum. Younger students are increasingly charged with being a generation more prone to distractions and apathy. Across the country, numerous history departments at the secondary and collegiate levels are being cut in favor of focus on science, technology, engineering, math, (STEM) or utilitarian degrees. What do you make of the academic world that you observe, and what challenges pose the greatest threat to the subject of history?

McPherson: I am not as concerned about some of these things as some of my colleagues. We have gone through cycles like this before. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after the 1957 launching of Sputnik and the concern about the missile gap, fears that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and engineering drove the same kind of reaction and brought forth similar policies. It was not called STEM then, as it is now, but it was exactly the same kind of thing that we are currently experiencing.

As far as students not knowing history, not being interested in intellectual pursuits of one sort or another, every generation says that about the younger students. Back in the 1920s, people were complaining about the youth with claims that “they do not know any history, have no interest in literature,” and that they were all part of the flapper generation. Every generation thinks that the younger generation is up to no good and going to pieces. It is, however, true that there has been a decline in the number of humanities [majors] at universities and colleges, but again, that has happened before.

HM: If you had advice for a young history teacher or a professor, just beginning his or her career, what would that advice be? What makes a great teacher of history?

McPherson: I have written about the best way to get students or readers engaged and interested in history by using the root of the word history. It is a story, it is a story of the past. Teachers will find success in presenting it in a narrative format. But it is important to infuse that narrative format with a sense of what it all means. What were the consequences of this story? Not only what happened and why it happened, but what did it mean? So yeah, present it as a story that really engages people’s interest. But it must be more than a story, it must have—to use an old-fashioned phrase—a moral, a meaning. That is what I have tried to do.

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As the interview ended, Dr. McPherson spoke about the Ernest Hemingway titles that sat atop one of the numerous stacks of books surrounding his desk. He mentioned that he had just finished The Sun Also Rises and was currently rereading A Farewell to Arms. He warmly smiled and added, “I just thought I would get back some of the books that I really enjoyed fifty or sixty years ago. I did the same thing with Mark Twain a few months back. I think I will take up John Dos Passos next.”

The conversation led to an exchange on favorite authors from the era. After discussing history for nearly an hour, a new energy filled the room, and he told me about falling for some of these classic literary works while in college. His obvious admiration of classic literature reinforces Dr. McPherson’s appreciation for a good story. Perhaps it also reveals where he gets some of his skill to convey American history so successfully.

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