Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

September 11, 2002:

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Professor McPherson adapts a Civil War picture book for children

By Ann Waldron

James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History, is unquestionably the premier historian of the Civil War. He has worked on it for almost 40 years, and in the course of turning out almost a score of books on the subject and lecturing and teaching it, he has won innumerable prizes, including the Pulitzer and the Lincoln Prizes.

This fall, he has two new books coming out. One is a scholarly book about Antietam, which McPherson regards as the turning point in the Civil War. Antietam, McPherson points out, was important because it was the first Union victory after a string of Confederate triumphs, thus setting the stage for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and preventing England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. The 200-page book is part of an Oxford University Press series on pivotal moments in U.S. history that McPherson is editing. (Two other pivotal moments are the stock market crash of 1929 and the U.S. civil rights decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education.

The second new book is more surprising — it's a children's book.

A children's book by a distinguished academic? Yes. It's called Fields of Fury: The American Civil War, and it tells succinctly and clearly the story of that agonizing conflict. Byron Preiss Visual Publications packaged it for Atheneum, the publishers.

"It was the packagers' idea," McPherson said. "They came to me." Preiss offered McPherson the text from the Pictorial History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton, originally published in 1960. McPherson revised it, wrote a new introduction, and reviewed the illustrations.

McPherson generously acknowledges the help of Dwight Jon Zimmerman, a children's book writer, also recruited by the packager. "He should be credited as coauthor," he said, "but he's not. I wouldn't have done it on my own."

McPherson provided an outline, the factual information, a vivid time line, a glossary, bibliography, and information for the many maps. He also checked the manuscript.

This was not his very first book for young people. Earlier he had done Marching Toward Freedom, an adaptation of his The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union nine years after the original was published in 1982. "My two younger brothers were then 13 and 15, and I had them read the adult version and circle words they didn't know and concepts they didn't understand," he said. He used their reactions to make the book accessible for teen-agers.

McPherson began his scholarly work on the Civil War when he was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where C. Vann Woodward was his adviser as he worked on his dissertation on the abolitionists. This later became his first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (1964). (He later returned to the abolitionists with The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP, which traces the abolitionists up to the founding of the NAACP in 1910. William Lloyd Garrison's grandson, Oswald Garrison Villard, was a founder of the NAACP.)

After working on issues of public opinion, activism, and politics in the North, he focused on the armies and the battles of the war, something most scholars don't do. "Eighty percent of the military history of the Civil War is not written by academics," he said. "Douglas Southall Freeman was a journalist and so was Shelby Foote. But I realized that everything that happened in the Civil War, including abolition, depended on the military." So McPherson set out to integrate the societal, military, political, diplomatic, and economic facets of the war, and did just that in Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The Lincoln prize-winner, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, examined motivations of individual soldiers.

In all this time, McPherson has not strayed from the Civil War, except for Is Blood Thicker Than Water?: Crises of Nationalism in the Modern World (1998) which was originally written for a series of lectures in Canada. In the lectures McPherson talked about the Union and Confederate nationalism in both the Quebec-Canadian struggle and the Civil War. "There are parallels," he said. "Historians cite two kinds of nationalism — civic and ethnic, and it's obvious that Quebec claims an ethnic nationalism. In the North, Lincoln was the spokesman for civic nationalism, and the South constructed an artificial ethnic nationalism, based partly on the Cavalier heritage of Virginia. Puritans, the southerners said, were Anglo Saxon, while the Cavaliers were descended from the Norman conquerors."

The Civil War colors a great deal of everything McPherson does. For instance, when he spoke at a memorial service on Cannon Green after September 11, 2001, he could not help but talk about the dark days of the Civil War. He often points out that the Civil War was the U.S.'s most deadly war, taking 2 percent of the nation's population. Today, if 2 percent of the population died in a war, there would be 5 million deaths.

Has he changed his views of the Civil War in the decades he's been writing about it?

Somewhat. He began his work, he says, saturated with the views of the Abolitionists, who disapproved of Lincoln because they thought he was too conservative and moved too slowly on emancipation. "I became more appreciative of Lincoln and his work in preserving the Union," he said.

Born in North Dakota with ancestors who fought on the Union side, he has come also to appreciate General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and his good opinion shines through even in his children's book. But on the other hand, Ulysses S. Grant was a fine general, too, he says.

McPherson is also an activist in preservation matters where Civil War sites are concerned, and has twice been prominent in successful efforts to save the battlefield at Manassas, 25 miles south of Washington, from developers. The first was in 1988 when a Virginia entrepreneur wanted to build a huge mall with office buildings and residences; the second was in 1994 when McPherson and his allies beat back plans by Disney to build a historic theme park on battlefield land that adjoined the National Park.

You can reach Ann at annwaldron@worldnet.att.net