Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

In fits and starts over the past several months, I have slogged my way through James McPherson’s tome Battle Cry of Freedom, a single-volume history of the Civil War.  McPherson begins with several chapters of background context before launching into the meat of the military conflict.  Since the Civil War was a complex historical event and “by a large margin the most written-about event in American history,” (ix) McPherson has a lot of ground to cover and many historical debates (sometimes populated by truly loopy Confederate apologists) to address.  He does, however, handle the task ably, elucidating the important points in a manner which is quite accessible to a Civil War history newbie.  I will run through the main takeaways I got from the book here.

The outbreak of the Civil War took place in an America -- especially a North -- experiencing the rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution: widening inequality, rapid expansion in territory and population and economic growth, a shift to production for market rather than the home, German and Irish Catholic immigration (and resultant nativist backlash), the Second Great Awakening and its resultant strands (abolitionism, temperance), intense urbanization, the transportation revolution, the invention of the telegraph and consequent increase in newspaper circulation, rising educational standards, the emergence of “childhood,” the increasing role of romance in life and literature, etc.  

McPherson spends an interesting section of the first chapter describing the resistance to industrialization.  A significant portion of laborers felt that “capitalism was incompatible with republicanism” and promoted “wage slavery.” (24)  Other opposition came through populists in the Jacksonian Democratic party, who were wary of being drawn into the financial/commercial apparatus of the emerging industrial society.  The ideology of upward economic mobility, preached by Lincoln and others, however, came to dissipate much of this potential class conflict.

The acquisition of new territory via the Mexican-American War precipitated a debate over slavery that snowballed into the Civil War.  A dispute over which newly incorporated states should be “free” and which “slave” caused a political realignment along geographic North-South lines.  The Compromise of 1850 -- including the controversial Fugitive Slave Act -- addressed this issue but only postponed the war by a decade.  Violence sparked by the issue of slavery in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry polarized the country.  Abraham Lincoln’s election on the Republican Party -- founded on opposition to the expansion of slavery -- ticket in 1860 over the fractured Democratic opposition caused southern states to secede and form the Confederacy the next year.  Hostilities commenced with the southern attack on Fort Sumter.

The Civil War saw dramatic changes in military tactics and technology.  The wide use of rifles (instead of smoothbores) increased the accuracy and range of the infantry’s bullets.  These weapons rendered old fashioned tactics of infantry columns, cavalry charges, and offensive artillery obsolete; they also “multiplied casualties and strengthened the tactical defensive.” (475)  Defensive tactics such as trenches and barricades made military offensives difficult and costly.  Indeed, McPherson remarks, “The tactical predominance of the defense helps explain why the Civil War was so long and bloody.” (477)

On the medical front, “The Civil War marked a milestone in the transformation of nursing from a menial service to a genuine profession,” (484) notably incorporating many women.  The North organized a special ambulance corps to assist treating the wounded.  Regardless, a Civil War soldier was eight times more likely to die of a wound than an American soldier in World War I and twice as many soldiers died of disease than combat. (485)  This owed in large part to the fact that the Civil War was fought “at the end of the medical Middle Ages” (486) just before a number of important medical breakthroughs.

Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery, racism and leadership were complicated.  His commonly-remembered image as a liberator contrasts to some of his words: “‘the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate [slavery’s] evils;’” (55) “‘I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races;’” (186) “‘I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.’” (186)  (All of these quotes were uttered before his presidency.)  He also attempted to address the issue of freed slaves during the war by shipping them to a black island colony near Haiti!  On the other hand, this is also the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and oversaw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  So while Lincoln certainly didn’t have as identifiable and strong anti-racist convictions as, say, William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass, he ended up as a de facto abolitionist by the end of his life.  Who, exactly, deserves credit for Lincoln’s transformation is a matter for historical debate.  McPherson, for one, holds Lincoln in high esteem, complimenting his tactful leadership and pithy prose and oratory throughout the book.

In the epilogue, McPherson is reluctant to endorse a master narrative of why the North won the war.  The superior numbers and resources of the North can’t be determinative, as the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory, primarily, and military history is replete with examples of David beating Goliath.  Internal divisions or “lack of morale” explanations are not very convincing either, seeing as how fractious and demoralized both sides were at times.  The explanation of superior leadership fails as well, since both sides had varying degrees of competence in senior positions; even some of the war’s most revered heroes bumbled occasionally.  Instead, McPherson points out that the war’s outcome was far from determined since there were multiple turning points when fortune could have swayed either way.

The outcomes of the war are clearer, and constitute a second American revolution.  The Civil War strengthened the federal government (creation of the Internal Revenue Service, birth of a central banking system, enactment of conscription, elimination of state currencies, expansion of federal judicial powers, spawning of the Freedman’s Bureau -- the first national social welfare agency) and many henceforth conceived of the United States as a nation, not a union of disparate states.  There was a “sharp and permanent change in the direction of American [political and economic] development” (860) from the aristocratic, patriarchal, agricultural, quasi-feudal South (which had two thirds of its assessed wealth destroyed (818)) to the industrial, capitalist, urbanizing North.  And, of course, the Civil War eliminated the institution of slavery, closed the possibility of secession, and set the stage for the Reconstruction Era in the South.

McPherson spends very little time talking about the consequences and effects of the war, in contrast to the many chapters spent on the causes.  Spending a few chapters on the immediate aftermath of the war would have been welcome, as the book ends somewhat abruptly.  Otherwise, it’s a very well-written page turner that truly merits all the praise that has been heaped upon it.  

(There are other interesting historical facts, events and figures that I could highlight from the book, but the number of them is so high that I don’t think I could do all of them justice in a short blog post!  I encourage picking up some literature about this fascinating period in history instead!)

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