I wanted to learn about the Civil War. I wanted perspective on our current insanity, and I hoped to gather more knowledge about the conflict without mournful fiddles and honey smooth voice overs.
Something solid, but approachable. I found the perfect book.
Battlecry of Freedom puts the whole period into nearly 900 pages of graceful, fast moving prose. James McPherson manages to pack libraries of research into each paragraph so deftly that you come away informed and even entertained rather than overwhelmed.
One of the strengths of the book is McPherson’s portrayal of the forces that lead to the war. It truly seemed inevitable. And yes, it was about slavery. When you hear Confederate defenders grumble about “states rights”, the “right” in question was that of owning other human beings. It wasn’t even the preservation of slavery that drove the war, but rather the South’s demands to expand it beyond the borders of what would become the Confederacy.
That even lead to foolish expeditions to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Thank God we put that kind of nonsense aside.
Some parts surprised me. I didn’t realize the depth of disunion within both the North and the Confederacy. More than a few of the yeomen in Dixie figured out that the conflict was a war primarily to benefit the planters class. Up North, it wasn’t all virtuous abolitionists, either. An eye-opener was the massive race riot in New York City which killed dozens of African Americans — the worst race riot in U.S. history. Not to mention the so-called Copperheads.
The inevitable corruption and messy squabbles shouldn’t have shocked me, but the depths of chicanery and striving did.
He covers the military history, as you’d expect. But he also gives good background on the economics, the social issues and the messy politics of the period.
The other great lesson was just how contingent the outcome was. We like to think of it as an inevitable march to greater freedom and justice. Even with the overwhelming superiority in men and material, it was anything but a guaranteed victory.
And, sure, there’s plenty of valor and honor in those pages. Lots of horrors, too. McPherson is pretty light on the gruesome and the blood. But the numbers and the diary entries tell all you need to know.
This was a fine read, and McPherson completely earned the Pulitzer he won for it.