February 12, 2003: Features

Professor James M. McPherson writes on the pivotal battle of the Civil War

By Caroline Moseley

Right, James McPherson with a James Hope painting showing Union reinforcements preparing for the final advance at Antietam. (Photo illustration: Ricardo Barros; James Hope painting: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)


James McPherson leads a tour of Gettysburg, a regular class activity. Here, he is pictured at the 20th Maine Monument at Little Round Top.

Ten years ago, Princeton history professor James M. McPherson got stuck on a muddy road near the former site of Fort Henry in Tennessee – and a book series was born.

McPherson and David Hackett Fischer ’57, a history professor at Brandeis University, were scouting the landscape for an Alumni College on General Ulysses S. Grant’s western campaigns. When their car refused to budge, the two started walking down the road to the nearest town.

“Walking along, we got to talking,” says McPherson. “David was finishing his book Paul Revere’s Ride, I had done Battle Cry a few years earlier, and in both we made a point for contingency as a central theme in history – the idea that particular events can make a difference. A lot of history is written based on an implicit assumption that the outcome was inevitable. We both wanted to write as if historical events – in his case, the Revolution, in mine, the Civil War – could have gone differently.”

Six miles later, the two found a “nice guy with four-wheel drive who pulled the car out of the mud, and only charged us $20.” And the book series — on pivotal moments in American history — took off.

For McPherson, the pivotal battle in the Civil War took place at Antietam, in what was known as the Battle of Sharpsburg to the South. His 2002 bestseller, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, has built further on McPherson’s reputation as the nation’s leading historian of the Civil War, and as an academic historian accessible to a general audience – a reputation created with Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), which won a Pulitzer Prize. Last month, McPherson, the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History, became president of the American Historical Association, the premier scholarly organization in the field. And last year, he wrote a history book, Fields of Fury: The American Civil War, for middle-school students.

“I have long considered Antietam to be the most important single battle in the Civil War, the one that determined the outcome of the war, and the direction the country would take,” McPherson says. In Crossroads of Freedom, he tells of how, after “the pendulum of war” alternately favored the Union and the Confederacy, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862, hoping to win that border state.

On September 17, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia engaged General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac by Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the ensuing struggle, more than 6,000 men were killed or mortally wounded, making September 17, 1862, “the bloodiest single day in American history,” McPherson says. (He notes that the total death toll in the Civil War amounted to 2 percent of the population, which would be equivalent to about 5.5 million people today.)

The battle was a tactical draw, he says, but a strategic defeat for the Confederates, causing Lee, despite McClellan’s overcautious generalship, to retreat back across the Potomac. Though the war continued for another two and a half years, McPherson says, “Antietam reversed a disastrous decline in Northern morale, making it possible for the Republicans to retain control of Congress in the elections that followed a month after the battle. Antietam reversed momentum toward Confederate victory. It forestalled the imminent diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. And it gave Lincoln the battlefield success he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had held ready for several months.”

The most momentous consequence of the battle – the true crossroads – was the ultimate issuance of the Proclamation, “which changed the war aims of the Lincoln administration. From then on, the North was fighting for a ‘new birth of freedom,’” McPherson says, quoting from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

While there are numerous studies of Antietam, McPherson’s book, reviewers say, is unique in synthesizing developments on the battlefield with those on the home front. His extensive research in primary documents allows participants to tell their own tales. Generals speak, but civilians do, too: A niece of Confederate President Jefferson Davis writes in 1862, apropos of Confederate reverses, “Oh, mother, Uncle Jeff. is miserable,” while a Northern judge’s wife passes on gossip from a general’s wife: “There may be truth in what Mrs. McClellan told us yesterday, that the war would be over by the Fourth of July.”

McPherson did much of the research for the book in Firestone Library, which he says has an outstanding Civil War collection. He already had read soldiers’ writings for his For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997), which drew on more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 diaries from men on both sides. McPherson also spent “quite a bit of time” at the libraries of two national parks: Antietam National Battlefield and Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park.

But his research for Crossroads of Freedom brought some surprises. “Reading newspapers of the time, as well as letters and diaries, I was struck by the volatility of public opinion, the way it responded immediately to victory or defeat, success or failure on the battlefield,” he says. “I was also struck by how much attention the American press paid to European opinion. Both North and South recognized that there was a great deal at stake in whether or not the French and British recognized the Confederacy.”

Civil War, civil rights

McPherson was born in Valley City, North Dakota, and attended Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he took a world history course that inspired him to major in history. He was drawn to graduate study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, partly because “it seemed very far away and very exotic,” and partly because it was then the home base of C. Vann Woodward, the prominent historian of the South. “I was interested in Southern history, because in the late ’50s and early ’60s the South was kind of the bad boy of American culture, on account of its resistance to desegregation,” McPherson says.

An incoming graduate student in the fall of 1958, McPherson had an appointment to meet with Woodward, but the professor’s secretary called to postpone the meeting. Professor Woodword, she said, had been called to Washington to testify about Little Rock, which was then in its second year of mandated school desegregation.

“Well, that was an eye-opener,” recalls McPherson. “There was a historian, called to give opinion on a contemporary issue. It was a dramatic example of the relevance of the past to an understanding of the present.”

McPherson was a graduate student during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, and Baltimore, he says, “was half southern and half not southern,” with desegregated schools but with restaurants and theaters enforcing separation between whites and blacks. McPherson and his wife, Pat – then a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, now his frequent research assistant – sometimes participated in sit-ins and manned picket lines.

“I was struck increasingly by the parallels between the 1860s and the 1960s,” recalls McPherson, “the confrontations between national and state governments, the violence, federal troops being sent in to enforce national law – there was something déjà vu about that, especially the role of the Abolitionists, who were the Civil Rights activists of their time.” He wrote his dissertation on the Abolitionists, and it became his first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (1964).

McPherson took his new Ph.D. to Princeton University in 1962 and has spent his entire professional life on the campus, studying, teaching, and writing about the Civil War and Reconstruction. He produced, among other books, the widely used textbook, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (1982). But after 25 years as a scholar, respected in his field but virtually unknown outside it, he suddenly became what the Washington Post called a “Civil War sensation” with the publication of Battle Cry of Freedom in 1988. The 900-page book was described as “breathtaking” and “magic” on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and it hit the bestseller list, leaving its author “dumbfounded.”

His visibility increased further when he won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and was named the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Why has McPherson’s work resounded so deeply beyond academe? “I think the war retains its fascination because the issues are still with us – race being the most outstanding, but also federal-state relations, questions of civil liberties, regionalism, the power of the presidency, the role of the military in domestic society,” he says. “These were all issues then, and are issues now.”

A public historian

Since the publication of Battle Cry, McPherson has been called into the public arena on occasion. He frequently is asked his opinion about use of the Confederate flag, including its inclusion in state flags – an issue at the time of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. His reply: “The Confederate flag is a historical artifact. It has legitimate use in historical context, such as reenactments, museums, visitor centers. I don’t think it has a place flying over a state capitol.”

In a 1988 dispute dubbed the “Third Battle of Manassas,” McPherson and others successfully fought developers who wanted to build housing and corporate offices on property adjacent to Virginia’s Manassas National Battlefield Park, on land where soldiers had fought. His testimony to Congress helped pass legislation to buy the land and add it to the park. And in 1994, the Walt Disney Company proposed a historic theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, about five miles west of the park, which would have required roads through the battlefield. McPherson and others lobbied legislators and wrote newspaper op-eds against the proposal. Today, a framed copy of a Washington Post article hangs on his office wall, its headline proclaiming: “Disney Gives Up on Haymarket Theme Park; Vows to Seek Less Controversial Virginia Site.”

Despite these forays, McPherson’s main focus is on his teaching. Though McPherson has taught numerous courses since joining the history department in 1962, his flagship course is The American Civil War and Reconstruction, which he has offered since 1976. The class traditionally has one of the highest enrollments of any on campus; last fall, it had 275 students.

There are no pyrotechnics in a McPherson lecture. His presentation is straightforward, with lots of information, balanced interpretation, and occasional mild humor, usually directed at his own ability as a blackboard draftsman. (It’s actually not bad; one day last fall, he arrived early to draw on the board an only slightly misshapen map of the United States, including its major mountain ranges and most of its rivers.) He lectures from typed notes – he works exclusively on a typewriter – crisscrossed with his own script, with a lecture outline on the board. He begins on time and ends on time – to the minute.

McPherson takes the class, in a convoy of cars, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he guides them in a tour of the Gettysburg National Military Park. By then, the students have read Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels (1974), which details the July, 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. “We go to the battle sites they know from the novel” – Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, the Devil’s Den – “and I say, ‘Look around. Use your imagination. I’ll tell you again what happened on this very ground,’” McPherson says. The tour usually ends with a walk across the mile-wide open field where Pickett’s Charge took place. The experience helps teach students that, as one said, “History is not just written, it’s lived.”

McPherson is gratified that his books have extended interest in the Civil War beyond university campuses; he has appeared live recently on C-SPAN, AOL, and at the Library of Congress National Book Festival. One question that has come up, especially last September, is whether he sees any connection between the experience at Antietam and that of the nation on September 11, 2001. He was writing the second draft of the book when the attacks took place, and changed the first sentence to read: “Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in American history.” McPherson also spoke at the university’s memorial service on Cannon Green, noting, “American institutions proved resilient in the face of that extreme trial, giving encouragement that they will do so again.”

Still, he says, “so much has happened since 9/11 – the evolution of the war on terror, and the prospect of war with Iraq – everything has become much more muddled. There was a certain clarity of vision immediately after 9/11. Now, I’m not certain of any lessons Antietam can offer us.

“I’m not sure history provides us with any answers.”

Caroline Moseley is a frequent PAW contributor.


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