25 Years of McPherson’s "Battle Cry of Freedom"

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has been a staple of my American Civil War reading list ever since I taught it for the first time at Valparaiso University in 2002.  Over at Book Beast, Marc Wortman interviews McPherson on the 25th anniversary of the publication of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Here is a taste:

Whose idea was it to write a one-volume history of that war, a war that has led to more books—50,000-plus—than any other American event? That must have been a daunting prospect.

I was asked by C. Vann Woodward and Sheldon Meyer, editors of the Oxford History of the United States series, to do the volume on the Civil War era in 1979. It was indeed a daunting prospect, not so much because of the 50,000 books on the Civil War as because of the prestige of the series and the prominence of other authors in the series.

Did you anticipate the book’s success? Few if any 900-page books by history professors can compare in sales here and abroad. What made readers 25 years ago so receptive to your book?

No, I did not anticipate the success of the book. One reason readers were receptive to the book was the growing interest at that time in the Civil War, of which the also unanticipated success of Ken Burns’s video documentary two years later is additional evidence. My book got a tremendous send-off by very positive front-page reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World, so it hit the ground running.
Is there anything that you now feel you should have done differently inBattle Cry?
In retrospect, I don’t think I should have done anything differently.  If I were writing it today, I would include more social and cultural history and perhaps cut back on the military and political history, but the scholarship to sustain those differences didn’t yet exist in the 1980s.
You estimated in a 1994 interview that you had read by that time 25,000 letters written by some 1,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate. I imagine the number is all the greater now. Are there aspects of any of the individual letters that still stand out for you?
The aspects of those letters that still stand out, as they did two decades ago, are the patriotic and ideological convictions of so many soldiers, which kept them in the ranks and fighting for two, three, four years despite their homesickness and fears of the consequences of death or wounds for themselves and their families. I was also struck by the religiosity of many soldiers.

2 thoughts on “25 Years of McPherson’s "Battle Cry of Freedom"

  1. I was in graduate school when McPherson's book was assigned in the next to last week of the semester. I thought to myself that I would skim the book since assignments were piling up and 900+ pages looked very daunting. I ended up reading the whole book through as the book grabbed me from the very start. I am not a tremendous fan of Civil War history, but this is simply one of the best history books I have ever read (along with those by a certain John Fea of course!)


  2. Oooh. I'll have to get this. It was Bruce Catton's trilogy on the Army of the Potomac (Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, A Stillness at Appomattox) that first piqued my interest in the Civil War. Indeed, it was the genesis in my interest in history. I had never encountered narrative history before. His narrative also had an eloquence to it. Some of the finest writing I've ever read comes out of Catton's description of the Battle of Gettysburg.

    Because Catton was first and had such an influence, his work (for right or wrong) has become the standard by which I measure all historical works. Gordon W. Prange comes close for WWII. I must also include two recent authors, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully .


Comments are closed.