THIS MIGHTY SCOURGE:
PERSPECTIVES ON THE CIVIL WAR
By James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, $28, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL RICCARDS
No period of American history has been blessed with such able scholars as the Civil War, and at the top of that list is James M. McPherson of Princeton University. He is the author of the much acclaimed “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “For Cause and Comrades,” and has also been committed to the preservation of battlefields and historic structures.
This volume, though, is a readily available collection of his essays, with many of the 16 chapters having been previously published in the New York Review of Books. Though they seem to be modest essays in length, Mr. McPherson deals with the most difficult and controversial questions: What was the cause of the war? Why did the North win? How did Abraham Lincoln envision the war powers of the presidency?
What was the cause of the war? After the conflict was done, apologists of the Lost Cause, including President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens, insisted that the cause was not slavery, but the need to protect state sovereignty and personal rights.
The fallacy of that argument is that Davis and Stephens and a host of Confederate leaders in fact were very clear that the need to go to war in 1861 was the fervent racist desire to keep blacks in bondage. Even the majority of Southerners, who did not personally hold slaves, agreed that their unique way of life rested on that peculiar institution. Later after defeat and general emancipation, they could no longer defend slavery so they and their descendents turned to a nobler explanation.
Why did the North win, despite its repeated defeats and Lincoln’s endless frustrations with his commanders? Was the outcome simply the expected effect of an industrialized region against an agrarian economy? Considering the assets the North controlled, including the railroads, one must still deal with the near defeat of the Federals. As we learned in Vietnam and are learning in Iraq, technological domination is often matched by guerilla perseverance and morale.
In the end, Mr. McPherson seems about to rediscover that the Civil War was indeed a military crusade with fighting men deeply imbued by Victorian views of honor, duty, and courage, and led in battle by officers who fought with their men. But those virtues were present in both armies on both sides.
In the Unionist triumph, overwhelming resources were a necessary but not a sufficient condition for their final triumph. Mr. McPherson, however, does not for some reason repeat the frequently suggested explanation—the determination, wily skill, and articulateness of the commander in chief.
He gives some general reflections on willpower and leadership, and then writes some short digressions on John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and even Jesse James, but they become only interesting footnotes to the story of the carnage and courage of the warriors.
He outlines the unique partnership of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. William Sherman, and the unfailing support given by Lincoln to Grant even during the most terrible of times. He informs us that Sherman had one of the lowest causality rates in the war, and that Robert E. Lee had the highest.
Indeed, this volume is filled with asides that are informative and often startling to our stereotypes. It was of course Mr. McPherson who brilliantly showed us how the Northern soldiers fought for the integrity of the Union, and the Southerners fought to protect their homelands. But the issue is very complicated, and he used elsewhere their letters to illustrate his points.
Finally Mr. McPherson again meets Lincoln. He reviews some of the new judgments historians have made about Lincoln’s life especially the veracity of William Herndon’s stories about his early period. We understand again that Lincoln’s first 50 years impacted extensively on his last four. Mr. McPherson insists that Lincoln was not a corporate or a railroad lawyer, but still represented individuals in small time disputes out on the circuit.
Lincoln’s is most controversial early decision was the immediate suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, first in the Philadelphia-Washington corridor and then throughout the whole of the nation, North and South.
The Union military courts dispensed justice quickly and with little recourse to excuses or mercy, even operating when civilian courts were open. It was and remains one of the most disputed of Lincoln’s policies, remarkably contemporary for the debates on the Bush administration’s actions since September 11.
Lastly, the author must deal with Lincoln’s view of being commander in chief, and his development of the concept of the war powers. Basically he came to insist that the war powers of the executive involved doing what is necessary to win.
Lincoln viewed the president not just as the head of the military, but as possessing a reservoir of powers which he had initially denied he possessed but accepted a year later —especially the power to emancipate the slaves in rebellious territories and to reconstruct the Union. He memorialized the war, transformed it by his rhetoric, but never romanticized it. Lincoln probably would have agreed with his general, William T. Sherman, “you come down to the practical realities, boys, war is all hell.”
Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”