James M. McPherson wrote the book on the Civil War – his Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom is widely considered the definitive one-volume work on the nation’s greatest conflict.
Sara Gabbard, executive director of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection in Indiana and editor of Lincoln Lore, a scholarly newsletter devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln, was instrumental in arranging McPherson’s appearance. In advance of his lecture this week, Gabbard asked McPherson about his work by email.
Q. Your book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era continues to be the go-to book for everyone from academics to those just developing an interest in that era. How long did it take you to conduct the research and then write the book? Did you continue to teach full time during the process? If so, did daily classroom experiences help or hinder your writing?
A. The actual writing phase for Battle Cry of Freedom was about four years, during three of which I was teaching full time – I had one year’s sabbatical leave during those four years. But some of the research on which it was based went back many years before the writing phase, for I had written previous books covering parts of the subject and had been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Civil War era for a good many years before writing the book. Although the teaching, of course, took time away from writing, there was a symbiotic relationship between teaching and writing that was beneficial to the latter.
Q. Given the sesquicentennial recognition of Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, has your speaking schedule been more rigorous than usual? What kind of commemorative events are takin g place?
A. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has produced a large increase in the number of invitations I receive to participate in conferences, give lectures and the like. Particular anniversaries cause clusters of events: for example, in January this year I participated in panel discussions of the Emancipation Proclamation; in July, there were several events and lectures as part of the commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg; in November I will participate in a conference and give a couple of talks in connection with the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Q. What’s the topic of your lect ure?
A. My McMurtry Lecture is titled Lincoln and the West. Lincoln was a product of the American West. He was born in western Kentucky, almost as far west as you could go at the time and still be within one of the states of the United States.
Social mobility and geographical mobility were closely associated in the America of that era; many people moved west in order to move up. Lincoln’s concern about reserving the West for free labor grew out of this American dream and undergirded his commitment to prevent the further expansion of slavery.
During the Civil War, he recognized the vital importance of what was called the Western theater of the war – the vast area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, and his strategic efforts in that theater as commander in chief helped the Union win the war. He also became absorbed in Indian affairs in the West during the war, especially after the Dakota uprising in Minnesota in 1862. His stay of execution for 265 of the 303 Indians scheduled to be hanged for war crimes was one of the most controversial acts of his presidency.
Q. Your book The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union was first published in 1965. If updating the book today, are there new research materials which might affect your premises? A. If I were to update The Negro’s Civil War today, almost a half century after it was published in 1965, I would have much more material from slaves than was available when I did the initial research. Most of my material came from Northern free blacks, but the publication of documents from the Union army and the Freedmen’s Bureau based on their contact with slaves and former slaves in the South during and immediately after the war has made available a vast treasure trove of such material, which would enrich my book if I were to re-do it.
Q. Gen. John Wickham, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the 1970s, is said to have remarked as he gazed at Antietam’s Bloody Lane, You couldn’t get American soldiers today to make an attack like that. If his statement is true, I think that the answer can be found in several of your books, especially For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Did soldiers from both North and South have similar motivations? You used so many letters home as background for this book. What did they tell you? Did Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation have an effect on soldiers from both North and South?
A. Some motivations for volunteer soldiers in the Civil War were similar for Union and Confederate soldiers. Both saw the survival of their respective nations at stake in the war – the Confederates most obviously, for if they lost the war the Confederacy would cease to exist.
But many Northern soldiers also believed that the United States would cease to exist if they lost the war. Confederate soldiers believed that slavery was essential to the Southern way of life; the question of emancipation divided Northern soldiers at first, with many opposing it, but as time went on a large majority of Northern soldiers became convinced that slavery must go if they were to win the war and preserve freedom.
Confederate soldiers had the motive of defending their land against invasion, which was not the case with Northern soldiers (except perhaps in the Gettysburg campaign). Soldiers on both sides were molded into bands of brothers in which their personal honor and survival was bound up with the honor and survival of the group, so they could go into action together as a unified body.
Q. Your recently published book, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, has brought new attention to a subject frequently given only a cursory glance. What prompted you to explore this subject? What were your conclusions?
A. The more I have studied the Civil War, the more convinced I have become that the role of the Union navy in eventual Northern victory was absolutely crucial. The Confederate navy, small as it was, also played an important part in Confederate strategy. Yet the actions of both navies are little known to the broader audience for Civil War history. I wrote War on the Waters to tell this story and to make the argument for the importance of the naval war in understanding the larger story of the war.
Q. Did the effectiveness of the Northern blockade change during the years of war?
A. One of the principal strategic tasks of the Union navy was the blockade of the Southern coast. At first the blockade was as leaky as a sieve, but it tightened and increased in effectiveness as the war went on and more and faster vessels came on line for the Navy. Faster and sleeker blockade runners also came on line and many of them continued to make it through the blockade, but they sacrificed carrying capacity to speed and invisibility, which meant that the cargoes which did continue to get through the blockade were smaller and smaller. In the end, the blockade was a major factor in crippling the Confederate economy, which in turn made it more and more difficult for the South to continue fighting.
Q. In a chapter on Robert E. Lee in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, I was so impressed when you talked about the irony of Lee. Please share your thoughts.
A. What I meant about the irony of Robert E. Lee’s success as a commander is that when Lee took over the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, the Confederacy was on the ropes after the loss of several battles and much territory in the first half of 1862, and what appeared to be the imminent possibility of the loss of Richmond.
If the war had come to an end with Union victory in mid-1862 – which seemed quite probable when Lee took command – slavery, the plantation system, and most of the Southern infrastructure would have survived. But Lee’s success in his counteroffensives in 1862 and 1863 prolonged the war to the point that the Lincoln administration moved to hard war as the means of victory, bringing an end to slavery and destroying much of the Southern infrastructure by 1865. Thus the irony: Lee’s success ensured the destruction of everything he was fighting for.
Q. What are your future projects for writing/editing/ lecturing?
A. I am just completing a book about Jefferson Davis as commander in chief, which will be a sort of counterpart to my 2008 book about Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief (Tried by War). The working title of my new book is Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. After that, I think I will pull together several of my recent articles and essays in a book with the working title of Why the Civil War Still Matters.