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Battle Cries From a War That Never Seems to End
April 21, 2016 -- This week marks the 155th anniversary of Virginia's secession from the Union and Robert E. Lee's decision to remain loyal to his home state. If those Civil War tidbits excite your literary fancy, allow me to recommend Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson's 1988 non-fiction masterpiece.
This Pulitzer Prize winner provides more than 900 pages of brilliantly researched and written material. In other words, you won't knock it off on a layover between flights. But the investment of time is certainly worth it. Battle Cry has come to be regarded as the definitive single-volume tome about the war, echoes of which resonate even in our polarizing 2016 election campaign.
McPherson, a retired Princeton professor and historian, offers absorbing summaries of the complex and irreconcilable factors that ignited a conflict where countrymen--and families--fought one another. He emphasizes the brutal and savage nature of the war by seamlessly inserting quotes from actual combatants. McPherson includes snippets of letters and journals from all sides and all players: soldiers without rank, senior officers and the war's most renowned generals. He provides similar commentary from President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, his confederate counterpart.
As McPherson reminds us, Lincoln initially waged the war primarily to thwart the secession of the Southern states. He probably would have countenanced slavery for a while because he thought it would die a natural death when its expansion was barred in new territories. But it was the conflicting positions on slavery that brought about the intense fervor that motivated warriors on both sides.
Lincoln's personal journey toward emancipation was a tortured one and did not crystallize until he realized that freemen and former slaves would be a significant asset to Union forces. His assessment was ultimately correct. By war's end, about 180,000 blacks had joined the Union Army.
Confederate forces badly mistreated captured black members of the Union military. Many of the wounded were left to die where they had fallen. Others were executed. Of course, captured combatants of any race were treated abominably on both sides. By any measure, the Civil War could hardly be called civil. This oxymoronically named war produced a staggering number of casualties and remains the bloodiest, ugliest conflict in the nation's history. McPherson expertly details the clashes that led to more than 700,000 combined deaths and incredible numbers of wounded and missing in action.
Many of us are familiar with the anecdotal material about family members who fought on opposite sides, but McPherson gives us chapter and verse of the schisms. He frequently comments on the fighting spirit of the Rebels, noting that Southerners were highly motivated and determined to fight to preserve their "honor," a word used repeatedly by Southern apologists explaining their justification for war. Although outnumbered almost two-to-one by Union forces, Southern soldiers fought fiercely to the bitter, bloody end.
Northern soldiers, mainly short-term volunteers and, later, draftees, were less motivated. They did not want to die to end slavery or foil secession. In the North, the antipathy to conscription was typified by New York City's anti-draft riots in July, 1863. The four-day demonstrations are still the largest civilian uprising in American history.
McPherson describes battle scenes, and what leads up to them, in a way that allows you to follow the action with insight and clarity. (The presence of maps in the hard copy is also helpful.) Particularly impressive is his depiction of the pivotal confrontation at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. Lee, the former Superintendant of West Point who'd become the South's most famous officer, allowed egomania and obstinacy to drive his tactical decisions. He ignored the sound advice of his colleagues, particularly his Number 2, General James Longstreet.
Lee's mistakes led to a stunning victory for the North and marked the beginning of the end for the Confederates. In fact, Gettysburg, in what was then rural Pennsylvania, was the last time that the Rebels were able to invade the North. But as so often happened in the first three years of the war, Union generals failed to follow up victories with offensive strategies that would have dealt the South a fatal blow. So the war dragged on two more ferocious years.
Rare Union victories in the first three years such as Gettysburg and Antietam (at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in 1862) enabled Lincoln to rally an often indifferent and uncommitted North. He chose those decisive moments to make public critical decisions such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the imposition of a civilian draft. Lincoln was, after all, an incomparable politician sensitive to the tenor of rapidly changing times and tensions.
His deft political touch didn't extend to his generals, however. His most notable military opponent? George McClellan, who, having failed to aggressively pursue and destroy Lee after the battle of Antietam, was removed from command. McClellan was a reluctant warrior whose wounded pride and anger spurred him to run unsuccessfully against Lincoln in the 1864 election.
It was only in the later stages of the war that Lincoln struck it lucky with his generals. After McClellan and others failed, he named Ulysses S. Grant as his top commander in February, 1864. Lincoln also prospered from the dedication of William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. It was Sherman's late-war heroics in his Georgia and South Carolina campaigns that helped destroy the Confederate military and the breakaway states' flailing economy. And it was Sheridan who finally cleared the strategic Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia in 1864 and crippled the Confederate units that had plagued Union troops.
The anecdotal insights and numerous facts that McPherson provides alone make Battle Cry worth reading. For example, as much as I've read over the years about the war between the states, I didn't know that Jefferson Davis was a Union officer during the Mexican-American War or that he was Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce between 1853 and 1857. He also served as both a U.S. Senator and member of the House of Representatives from Mississippi before the war.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson is available from Amazon.com in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions.
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