Civil War Essays

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by James M. McPherson , Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $25.00. CODE: OUP-13

EACH YEAR, WRITES THE HISTORIAN James M. McPherson, about eight hundred books are published on the Civil War. In all “more than fifty thousand separate books or pamphlets” have appeared “since the guns ceased firing.” The fact that Americans will read insatiably about that awful, transforming conflict is well established. Why then do so many academic historians continue to write just for one another? McPherson does not. He teaches at Princeton; his books (including Battle Cry of Freedom and Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution ) have found wide popularity outside the academy. In this collection of first-rate essays, on such subjects as “The Enduring Lincoln,” “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism,” the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin versus Gone With the Wind , and “Who Freed the Slaves?,” McPherson takes the latest professional thinking on the war and gives it clear and popular shape, a deceptively hard accomplishment. He continues to walk a path between Civil War amateurs, who know their tactical history, and scholars of the “new history,” who focus on the period’s social and industrial forces. (McPherson is the first to point out, in his final essay, that the attempt to reach a wide, intelligent audience for history had earlier prompted the founding of the Society of American Historians and its popular-history magazine, American Heritage .)

“The war of 1861-1865,” McPherson writes in his preface, “resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the war of 1776-1783: whether the United States would endure as one nation, indivisible; and whether slavery would continue to mock the ideals of liberty on which the Republic was founded. Little wonder, then, that popular interest in the Civil War eclipses interest in any other aspect of American history.”