I think the irony of the Civil War is that there was rarely a time when people either North or South were very happy with their government. The Confederacy tried to unite states who were seceding from the Union because they did not want to be united, a paradox that haunted them while in the North Lincoln had to walk a tightrope between the radical abolitionists who wanted to crush the South and its tradition of slavery and the Democrats who had no real interest in freeing slaves, but only wanted to bring the South back to the Union.
And in the midst of all the political wrangling on both sides, soldiers–mostly farm workers and shop clerks–slaughtered each other. Americans all, yet so entrenched in their regional loyalties that they could imagine killing another person to protect those positions. Did they ever wonder at the futility of killing another man much more like him than any politician or military strategist?
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is a one-volume powerhouse that manages to cover major battles, political events and home life in enough detail to bring the mid-19th century alive. Famous people like John Brown, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are presented with sincere respect and empathy so we see beyond the stereotypes they have become.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read nearly 900 pages that wasn’t related to a boy wizard and his friends. I’m sure there are details that have escaped me particularly related to particular battle movements, but I feel like I have a better overall understanding of the Civil War as well as larger political problems related to a failure to compromise. Indeed, both sides rejected compromise on key issues, leading inexorably to war despite protests otherwise. And, the final outcome was not predestined, the way hindsight might suggest. McPherson suggests that all the explanations for why the North prevailed fail to take into account contingency, “the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently” (p. 858). Understanding the Civil War, according to McPherson, requires the narrative approach that he adopted, and I agree. In the midst of all his details and examinations of various arguments, he tells a great story complete with engaging characters and cliffhangers.
This volume is not for everyone…and a long winter might be a better time if you choose to tackle. I struggled to find time to read in the midst of summer activities. But now it lays beside me, complete, and I face the age old question: what should I read next? But that question is for another blog post.