Jonathan Yardley

Union soldiers and band marching through a city street on their way to join the Civil War
Union soldiers and band marching through a city street on their way to join the Civil War (Library Of Congress)
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 11, 2007


Perspectives on the Civil War

By James M. McPherson

Oxford Univ. 260 pp. $28

One of the many reasons why James M. McPherson is the pre-eminent contemporary historian of the Civil War -- perhaps the pre-eminent historian of that war, period-- is that he knows historical truth is slippery and arguments over it are eternal. The "scholarly pendulum has a way of swinging from one side to the other," he writes. "The field of Civil War history," he adds, "has produced more interpretive disputes than most other historical subjects. Next to debates about the causes of the war, arguments about how or why the North won, or the Confederacy lost (the difference in phraseology is significant), have generated some of the most heated but also most enlightening scholarship since the centennial commemorations of the war."

That phrase -- "most heated but also most enlightening" -- suggests another reason why McPherson, a professor emeritus at Princeton, stands above all others: Not only does he read everything, but he is always open to judgments that differ from his own and facts that demand new interpretations. This is a rarer quality than the casual reader might think. Historians, like others who labor in intellectual vineyards, are given to firm opinions that in time can calcify into rigid ones. Once a historian has staked out a position, he or she often clings to it long after new or neglected evidence commands a revised reading. McPherson, to the best of my knowledge, has never been guilty of this.

Thus one of the virtues of This Mighty Scourge, a collection of fugitive pieces -- some of them previously published, some of them not, all of them revised for book publication -- is that it gives us McPherson as a reader and critic of other historians' work. Many of the pieces here were originally written for the New York Review of Books, for which McPherson serves as de facto Civil War gatekeeper, and they touch -- lightly but confidently -- upon much recent Civil War scholarship. This has been an uncommonly fruitful period for such work, not least because it has moved from Great Man to Common Man (and Woman) history, and McPherson presides over it like a benign deity, issuing occasional thunderbolts of disagreement but generally cheering on his fellow historians as they pursue ever elusive Truth.

It's a tricky business. These people all know each other. Some are mentors, others protégés. Some are friends, others rivals. Reviewing books about the Civil War is a bit like reviewing books about China or the Middle East: With the rarest of exceptions, the only people to pass competent judgment are all in the same boat, and the possibility that judgment may be compromised by extraneous considerations can never be ruled out. McPherson wades into this quagmire with what seems to me a reasonable, judicious approach. Whether he agrees or disagrees with a fellow historian, he is always generous -- he is quick to acknowledge excellent scholarship even when it seems to him to lead the writer into misinterpretations -- and he is quick to admit it when someone else causes him to revise his own opinions. He is candid, but he is fair.

At times, I am inclined to think, he bends too far backward. His evaluation of David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (1995) is far more positive than my own, which is neither here nor there, but it seems to me that he cops out by (a) calling it "majestic," (b) taking Donald to task for insisting on (the words are Donald's) "a basic trait of character evident throughout Lincoln's life: the essential passivity of his nature," and then (c) lamely retreating from this criticism by claiming, "Recognizing that the facts mostly do not fit the passivity thesis, Donald wisely allows it to fade away as the book proceeds." McPherson himself insists correctly that Lincoln's public life was one of "mastery rather than passivity," so he does no service to the reader when he pats Donald on the back after calling him to account. Book reviews are (or should be) written for readers, not fellow authors, and in his appealing inclination to be kind to his colleagues, McPherson sometimes loses sight of this.

That, though, is a relatively small complaint about what is on the whole an excellent book. For readers unfamiliar with McPherson's work, it provides a useful introduction -- one that, it is to be hoped, will lead them to his masterwork, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) -- and for those who know that work, it provides numerous interesting footnotes. He begins by quoting Lincoln, who said in 1865, "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came." McPherson writes: "Why did the war come? What were the war aims of each side? What strategies did they employ to achieve these aims? How do we evaluate the leadership of both sides? Did the war's outcome justify the immense sacrifice of lives? What impact did the experience of war have on the people who lived through it? How did later generations remember and commemorate that experience?"

These are the questions that McPherson addresses in the 16 essays collected herein. He offers suggestions about how most of them can be resolved, in some cases firm suggestions, but he doesn't pretend to have final answers. He is impatient, though, with people who approach the Civil War clad in blinders, who interpret it to fit their convenience rather than the evidence. This means most particularly that he comes down hard on devotees of the Lost Cause, whose Margaret Mitchell-ized view of Ol' Dixie long ago was thoroughly discredited yet who continue to thrive in precincts of the South and in Northern outposts as well. He takes -- and convincingly argues for -- a revisionist view of William Tecumseh Sherman ("Despite Sherman's reputation in the South as a ferocious ogre of vengeance and spoliation, he was actually sparing of the lives of his own soldiers, of the enemy's soldiers, and of civilians"), and he takes an admiringly but decidedly unsentimental view of Robert E. Lee: "For the war as a whole, Lee's army had a higher casualty rate than the armies commanded by Grant. The romantic glorification of the Army of Northern Virginia by generations of Lost Cause writers has obscured this truth."

Another judgment cherished by Lost Cause fanatics is that states' rights, not slavery, caused the Civil War. McPherson meticulously demolishes this, yet without rewriting history in order to suit present-day sensibilities. "It was not the existence of slavery that polarized the nation to the breaking point," he writes, "but rather the issue of the expansion of slave territory." Not until well into the war did Lincoln identify extirpating slavery as well as preserving the union as a central war aim, but as a cause it was there from the beginning. Slavery "was so deeply rooted in American society that it required the huge violence of the Civil War to root it out." To pretend otherwise, as sentimentalists of the Confederacy have done for nearly a century and a half, is simply to deny historical truth.

Over and over again, McPherson seeks to separate myth and fantasy from fact -- to the extent, obviously, that fact can be known with certainty in an area so unclear as this one. His brief review of a biography of Jesse James decisively dismisses "what both contemporaries and later commentators have chosen to see in Jesse James -- Robin Hood, social bandit, scourge of capitalism" -- and reveals him for the murderous ex-Confederate that he was. He meticulously analyzes William Herndon's research into the early life of his close friend and colleague Lincoln and makes a strong case for its essential reliability. He shows how the "Brahmin elite" of Boston provided invaluable leadership for the Union forces, acting with "an ethic of sacrifice, the noblesse-oblige conviction that the privileged classes had a greater obligation to defend the country precisely because of the privileged status they enjoyed." Tell that to today's privileged ones who evade military service and then, in high office, send the less privileged to die in a foolish, unnecessary, mismanaged war.

Indeed, much in these pages can be read as a rebuke and a corrective to contemporary American leadership -- regardless of political party. Unlike some of his colleagues, McPherson doesn't use history to preach political sermons, but what he has to say about Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and others leaves no doubt as to how impoverished the country's leadership has become. ·

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