Home > History, Literature, Politics, Religion > James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”: Nuanced History with Moral Conviction

James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”: Nuanced History with Moral Conviction

There is perhaps no event more vital to the process of approaching an understanding 0f the history and nature of the United States of America than the Civil War. More than the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration, or any of the wars of the 20th Century, the War Between the States (re-)formed the fundamental social, political, and economic conditions of a nation that, though not even a century old as an independent state when the war ended, would not even a century later dominate the global stage.

In his mighty, comprehensive, and blazingly morally forthright history of the war and its little-appreciated prelude, historian James M. McPherson discusses the Civil War era as a practical second American Revolution. This rhetorical framing of the conflict was commonly employed contemporaneously by both sides: the Confederacy identified their perceived struggle against a tyrannical government imposing what it took to be unfair constrictions upon their fundamental rights with that of the Founding Fathers against the dictatorial powers that a distant British King exerted over his colonial possessions, while abolitionists and their pragmatic converts in the North came to see the Union’s quest to quell the rebellion of the Southern states as a completion of the formative revolution, a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s mantra of equal rights for all expanded to include the Founding Fathers’ notorious blind spot of black chattel slavery. But McPherson demonstrates in meticulously researched detail how drastically and irrevocably the Civil War erected the modern American state with its bureaucratic institutions, industrial commerce, and other particular domestic variables that define the nation to the present day. It was not solely the demolition of the Southern slave system (and much of the South itself along with it) that wrought these changes, but the Northern war effort in general.

This is not to say that Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era makes the argument that the Civil War was not fundamentally a conflict over the enslavement of African-Americans, as many Confederate-sympathizing Lost Cause narratives of the war have made it their intention to advance. Indeed, Battle Cry of Freedom is notable for its insistent, persuasive habit of considering other catalysts for the intractable conflict but ultimately, fatefully circling back to the grand disagreement over battlecrymcphersonslavery as the core principle that could not be reconciled. McPherson finds slavery dragging down the American project at every turn, animating every contentious public debate or socioeconomic division that presaged the war. The urbanization and rapid industrial growth of the Northern states set their interests at odds with those of the agrarian, aristocratic South, with its millions of unpaid labourers, export-reliant economy, and highly concentrated wealth. Westward expansion threatened to stall over the expansion of slavery; every new state admitted to the Union in the 1840s and 1850s went through a painful debate over whether slavery would be allowed under its aegis or not, erupting to violence in the case of some (like Kansas). Compromises by both of the main pre-war political parties, the Southern-leaning Democratic Party with its Jacksonian championing of states’ rights and distrust of centralized power and the more progressive and economically protectionist Whig Party, would always fail to defuse tensions. Divisions over the slavery question broke the Whigs and elevated the flegdling pro-commerce, anti-slavery Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to power, a political shift that was the final straw for pro-slavery Southerners. No lingering doubt is admitted, especially for the Southern Confederates whose descendants argue for alternate motivations for rebellion; when it comes to the war’s casus belli, it’s the slavery, stupid.

McPherson elucidates the vital pre-conditions of the war with admirable completeness, an approach which is extended to the account of the war itself that takes up most of its 800+ pages (military history abounds, if that’s your sort of thing, though it is always grounded in the larger political and social ramifications of the battles and troop movements). His book’s most useful accomplishment must surely be this focused but nuanced comprehensiveness. It must be one of the most altogether convincing historical studies ever produced, and what it sets out to convince the reader of, beyond any reasonable doubt, is the tremendous, cynical, self-centered wrongness of the South’s defense of slavery.

The aphorism that history is written by the victors has been proven thoroughly backward in the case of the Civil War. Apologia for the Confederacy’s position of fighting to defend their inalienable rights to buy and sell human beings like livestock simply because of the colour of their skin were being produced almost immediately after the Union won the war (some written by high-ranking Confederates like Jefferson Davis, who would surely have been drawn and quartered after defeat by, say, the British). The hijacking of Reconstruction and the re-assertion of white supremacy through the rise of the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation, and housing discrimination enacted in social, economic and political circles what Lost Cause mythologizing spread in the wider discourse: the systematic marginalization of African-American emancipation.

The South lost the war, and was probably always going to in the long run; McPherson delineates how, despite the early military successes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the best that the Confederate States could reasonable hope for was to fight the numerically and manufacturily superior North to a costly enough stalemate to compel political change to a more accommodating administration and perhaps convince European powers (like Britain, the most lucrative commodities market for the South’s slave-processed cotton) to recognize its independence. It also lost much of the peace (the economic deprivation that underscores Southern redneck stereotypes began with the devastation of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army’s scorched-earth march through the South), but the preservation of the arrogant core values of the antebellum South has carved out an unchallengeable fiefdom in the American cultural identity. It has also, 150 years later, rather ironically swallowed Lincoln’s Republican Party entirely, reducing a party whose economic opposition to slavery begrudgingly swelled to an inadvertent crusade of moral righteousness at a crucial moment in the nation’s history to a greedy, prejudiced pack of inward-gazing proto-authoritarians clinging to failed and disproven ideas while construing every expression of opposition to their ideological strictures as treasonous decadence.

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates praises McPherson’s seminal tome on the Civil War for refusing to “entertain Neo-Confederate dissembling”. Coates sees history books like Battle Cry of Freedom as instrumental in reclaiming the narrative of the Civil War in specific and of America in general, for African-Americans and for progressives but truly for all Americans. Placing the uncomfortable implications of the system of slavery firmly in the past has long been the preferred approach to dealing with such traumas in American public discourse. It’s a statement of the extent to which the depth and breadth of these crimes have been dissolved by the on-flowing stream of history that a tome that treats the white supremacist slave order of the antebellum South as the long-running system of moral repugnance that it was is worthy of laurels. But for its depth of scholarship, argumentative force, and moral clarity, Battle Cry of Freedom more than earns those laurels as the definitive single-volume history of the American Civil War.

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