James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is an excellent introduction to the Civil War era in the United States. He has a wonderful style of writing, weaving together compelling narrative accounts with his own analysis and reflection. Indeed, the book is worthy of being read not simply as history, but as literature. Its quality is found not just in what the author says, but in the way in which he says it. In several places the book reaches poetic heights, making the entire volume a pleasure to read.
As the title indicates, McPherson works hard to present the perspectives of all the parties involved in the conflict. Both North and South used – in various ways – “Freedom” as their battle cry. There were manifold motives and desires on all sides, and McPherson presents that reality with respect and charity toward all involved. At the same time, he is unafraid to come to some of his own conclusions regarding the morality and wisdom of decisions and actions throughout the war.
McPherson is careful, however, not to lose the trees for the forest. As I began the book, I was looking primarily for a broad analysis of the social forces in play, the cultural motives of North and South, and the political consequences of the war. At times, I felt bogged down in the detailed accounts of various biographies and battles. But the inclusion of detail is deeply important and intentional. Sweeping overviews easily miss the complexities of motives and decisions on the part of the individuals involved. McPherson clearly has great affection and respect for the humanity of the Civil War generation, and he strives in his writing to bring the reader along in that sense of appreciation for the difficulty and complexity of every aspect of the era. McPherson’s focus on biography and detail isn’t just helpful; it is supremely wise, and is essential for an accurate assessment of the Civil War.
As much as I appreciated McPherson’s focus on biography and his detailed descriptions of battles, my desire for overview and analysis was satisfied as well. He includes many of his own assessments of all aspects of the war: the classic hypotheticals of various battles, the treatment of prisoners of war, the quality of leadership on all sides, the role of political machinations, the degree of importance of slavery and emancipation, and the lasting political implications of the increase in federal power that the war clearly brought about. I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but even when I disagreed, I found him to be even-handed and charitable in his arguments.
I highly recommend this book: as good literature, as compelling narrative history, as an example of careful and charitable assessment of historical figures and events, and as an essential contribution to understanding the present character and identity of the United States of America. In many ways, McPherson writes like a professor (a term I use here with affection), and I am grateful for the time I was able to spend under his tutelage via this volume.