Battle cry of freedom : the Civil War era

by James M. McPherson

Hardcover, 1988




New York : Oxford University Press, 1988.


Filled with fresh interpretations and information, puncturing old myths and challenging new ones, this fast-paced narrative fully integrates the political, social, and military events that crowded the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at Appomattox. Packed with drama and analytical insight, the book vividly recounts the momentous episodes that preceded the Civil War: the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. It then moves into a chronicle of the war itself, the battles, the strategic maneuvering on both sides, the politics, and the personalities. Particularly notable are new views on such matters as the slavery expansion issue in the 1850s, the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession, internal dissent and anti-war opposition in the North and the South, and the reasons for the Union's victory. The book's title refers to the sentiments that informed both the Northern and Southern views of the conflict: the South seceded in the name of that freedom of self-determination and self-government for which their fathers had fought in 1776, while the North stood fast in defense of the Union founded by those fathers as the bulwark of American liberty. Eventually, the North had to grapple with the underlying cause of the war, slavery, and adopt a policy of emancipation as a second war aim. This "new birth of freedom," as Lincoln called it, constitutes the proudest legacy of America's bloodiest conflict. This volume makes sense of that vast and confusing "second American Revolution" we call the Civil War, a war that transformed a nation and expanded our heritage of liberty.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
There are certainly more detailed histories of the Civil War out there—looking at the 2946 pages of Shelby Foote's work I have sitting on my shelf makes that clear. However, it's hard to imagine something approximating this scope that does a better job of explaining the Civil War than McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Starting in 1847 with the Mexican War, and ending with 1865, the book cycles between political, social, economic and military aspects of these years. Setting the war against the socio-economic backdrop explains not only the war, itself, but gives the reader insight into many of the aspects of what our country has become. This book allows the reader to see quite clearly the premise that the United States of today owes more to the Civil War than it does to the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. In fact, in his Epilogue, McPherson argues that the South (despite being a slave-owning society) was a better representation of the social order of our European roots, and that the Civil War changed America's future to the less mainstream, Northern vision of society.

McPherson brings the major players of the time to life for the reader. Of course, the result of this was often a feeling of incredulity at how much insubordination, incompetence, timidity and plain old-fashioned back-biting went on in both armies and governments. There were many times in the book where the reader cannot help but wonder if a more decisive general couldn't have ended the war sooner. Though, this may or may not have been a positive thing: had the South not been so completely beaten, then the Northern determination to alter the Southern way of life, by force if necessary, may not have had time to become so fixed in the minds of Lincoln, Republicans and the population who gave them a mandate, and the conflict might have erupted anew later on.

McPherson's easy writing style, seldom dry or pedantic, occasionally humorous, makes this book extremely readable. Though it is long and chock full of content, it never felt slow or dense.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member rainpebble
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson; (5*)

This volume is one of the most comprehensive studies of the Civil War period that addresses every aspect of the war. McPherson does an excellent job of setting the context. He describes the changing demographics, economics, politics and policies of the United States in the 19th century. He covers the institution of slavery; how it developed and how southerners sought its expansion. He discusses the impact of westward growth and the war with Mexico; the series of compromises as new states became part of the union along with the increasing divisions as those compromises failed to appease both sides. And lastly the secession of the southern states after Lincoln was elected president is covered. I especially appreciated the details of the months when secession spread which includes the stated rationales of the seceding states and the maneuvers that led to the firing on Fort Sumter.
The discussion of the war covers virtually all of the major military campaigns and battles and is accompanied by maps showing Union and Confederate movements. We get to know all the important generals and follow them through their checkered or glorious careers. McPherson is stellar at using anecdotes and/or quotes to convey the character of each general. The strengths and weaknesses of the Union and Confederate armies at certain times or battles are clearly delineated. He also assesses the structures of leadership and the quality of leaders in the Federal Government and in the Confederate states. Lincoln had to contend with political rivals and war opponents, worry over whether foreign nations might recognize the Confederacy, defend his Emancipation Proclamation from critics, and agonize over whether he would ever find an effective general to break the southern army and restore the union. Jefferson Davis had the challenge of winning the cooperation of the wildly independent Confederate states to raise sufficient armies, produce enough food, clothes and armaments, and agree on strategy and tactics.
Battle Cry of Freedom is very readable for a nearly 900 page book on nonfiction. It took me nearly 10 days to read it and it is a fascinating read. It held my interest throughout. I found James McPherson to be a masterful author in this field.
I very highly recommend this work.
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LibraryThing member sergerca
I never cease to be amazed by authors, such as James McPherson, who are able to synthesize an era of such magnitude and consequence into a single volume. And actually pull it off.

The Battle Cry of Freedom has been on my shelf for a few years, but it took a backseat to Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative which I read two years ago. I had always heard that McPherson’s work was the standard one volume treatment of the Civil War, and I now know why. Unlike Foote, McPherson covers much more than the battles. He ably tells the story of post-Mexican War America and all the political battles that were waged before the shooting battles began. Even after the shots on Fort Sumpter, he doesn’t neglect that politics continued to affect the decisions made in Washing, Richmond, and the field.

In 800+ pages, one cannot cover every event of a war that was fought in “ten thousand places”, as Ken Burns’ documentary begins. However, McPherson adeptly weaves in most of the major campaigns of the war, and most of the significant battles less famous than Gettysburg and Antietam. One glaring omission was the absence of any overage of the campaigns west of the Mississippi (Valverde, NM, for example).

Due to the need to fit into one volume, much of the “character development” is missing. This didn’t bother me too much because Shelby Foote does this masterfully. However, if you haven’t read Foote, you miss much of the human element of the War.

This book is worth reading by anyone with an interest in the Civil War, regardless of how much other reading one has done.

Closing notes:
The argument that the South was not fighting for slavery has always been ridiculous to me. Chapters 3-5 should put that argument to rest definitively, but I know that will never be the case.

A great quote from Frederick Olmsted on Surgeon General Clement Finley: “He knows nothing, and does nothing, and is capable of knowing nothing and doing nothing but quibble about matters of form and precedent.” (482)

And, from Lincoln, in response to being told that Charles I had entered into negotiations with English rebels during the English Civil War: “I do not profess to be posted in history. All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I, is, that he lost his head.” (823)
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LibraryThing member Oberon
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Battle Cry of Freedom was lauded as the best single volume history of the American Civil War available. Having now completed it, I think this an accurate summary. While I lack the depth of knowledge vis-a-vis my father (A Civil War aficionado), the amount I picked up about the war via osmosis is decent. Battle Cry of Freedom does an excellent job of synthesizing the political and military aspects of the war. As a result, it leads to a much better understanding of how some battles, like the first Bull Run, were not terribly important militarily but hugely important politically to the war. This timing piece, as it related to the political mood is important. I had not fully grasped how Lincoln had expected to be denied reelection in 1864 and how much military success made a difference to his reelection chances. Similarly, while the battle of Gettysburg is easy to understand as a military success, the combination of that battle with the simultaneous fall of Vicksburg, both on July 4, marked a major turning point in the war especially in terms of morale. Battle Cry of Freedom presents the war as one long narrative of a struggle over slavery and puts all of the aspects of the conflict into context with one another.

I have a few complaints but they are minor particularly in terms of the scope and purpose of the book. 1) It is a long book - 850 pages of fairly dense prose and 2) the heroics of the First Minnesota get little more than a paragraph. See? Contradictory complaints that parts of the book weren't detailed enough while complaining about length. It is a comprehensive history of a critical time and thus some things are necessarily truncated to cover other issues. No author can meet both prongs as one necessarily excludes the other.

Bottom line, this is a very good history that, surprisingly, is very current to many of our political discussions. But, even if it wasn't timely, Battle Cry of Freedom deserves to be read as a masterful history of a transformative period in American history. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member RobertP
It would not do to argue with the Pulitzer Prize committee. This is a superb work. I am a Canadian, and do not have an internalized sense of the Civil War. This book with remarkable brevity and clarity gave me a good sense of what the war was about, how it was waged, and why it went the way it did. McPherson can write, he seems pretty fair - not with too north or south a bias - and he left me with the best bibliography I'll ever get of the Civil War. A must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ogmin
This was my introduction to the Civil War. Twenty years ago, I was in the midst of moving to Tennessee from New England, when I noticed an unread copy which had arrived unbidden from a book club kicking around my parents house. I grabbed it and have not been the same since... Perhaps the best one-volume treatment of the Civil War to date.… (more)
LibraryThing member MusicMom41
This book was so comprehensive it's hard to know where to begin. This book covers quite comprehensively the American Civil War from the events of the “pending crisis” –especially during the presidency of James Buchanan—through the war itself to the ending of the war and a discussion of how the war changed the way our government functioned, changed the economy of our country and the economic balance of the North and South. The ramifications of this conflict are still felt in our society today.

I enjoyed the comprehensiveness of it, especially showing how the military aspects, including the battles, related to the political aspects of the war and how the "fortunes" of the war affected each side in turn. I think McPherson's narrative style made this book very accessible to those seriously interested in the Civil War without feeling like it was at all "dumbed down" to appeal to the casual reader. I read this book to get an overview of the Civil War to prepare me for my 999 category. I have a feeling as I read in depth about more limited aspects of the war I will be looking back to see what McPherson had to say about the event! This book will definitely help me in my further reading about the Civil War.

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

At the end of the war General John B. Gordon, at this time commander of Stonewall Jackson's old corps, surrenders to General Joshua L. Chamberlain:

"As Gordon approached …with 'his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,' Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier's 'mutual salutation and farewell.'"

After 800 pages of war, hatred, political shenanigans, inept commanders, bloodshed, and seeing often worse side of humanity with only a few redeeming episodes, what an inspiring and gracious way to handle victory and defeat when a "family" has been fighting.
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LibraryThing member thequestingvole
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1988, the Battlecry of Freedom is a remarkable synthesis of diverse fields by a remarkable historian. The book itself covers two decades of American history, beginning in the 1840s where McPherson examines the tensions created by the Mexican War to the Reconstruction of the 1860s.

This approach (the readers is two hundred pages into an eight hundred page book before Fort Sumter is shelled) is central to McPherson's thesis, that the Civil War was the result of the irreconcilable
differences inherent in a political system that operated under two radically different economic systems. McPherson comes from a background with the civil rights movement and has been criticized for over emphasizing the role of race in the Civil War, which I would argue is missing his point.

His point seems to me to be that the war began because of a perceived shift in the balance of power between the North and the South and it
was subsequently transformed by (and in turn transformed) the issue of race. McPherson's broad treatment of the subject is especially valuable for those who've done some reading on the war because it seats conventional battle books within a socio-political context.

Another admirable characteristic of the Battle Cry of Freedom is the deftness and humour of the writing. McPherson's prose is clear and
clean and he tells a story well, which made Battle Cry a very easy read despite having significantly fewer guns and trumpets than I'm used too.

In short, the Battle Cry of Freedom is probably the best single volume history of the Civil War, so if you buy just one book on the subject, make it this one.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
This book is part of the Oxford History of the United States series. I have seen it called the best one volume history of the Civil War and it lives up to that reputation. James McPherson also lives up to his reputation as one of the finest contemporary authors on the Civil War.
What makes this book exceptional is that it is about the Civil War era, not just about the Civil War. The author displays a comprehensive knowledge of the material in an excellent narration of the events of the era that is thorough and skillfully written. While the book is touted as a book about the Civil War the war starts on page 273 of 862 pages of text.
The book begins with Winfield Scott's entry into Mexico City which marked the end of the fighting in the Mexican War in 1847. The results of the Mexican War accelerated the sectional conflict in America that culminated in the Civil War. The growth of the Southern economy that gave rise to slave power as a potent force in American politics was the prime factor in the growth of the sectional conflict. As much as the Southerners portrayed themselves as underdogs in the years of the 1850's they exercised political power in greater proportion than their numbers. It was the politicians from the South who consistently made the greatest demands during this period. Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, the presidents of the 1850's all favored the South.
Popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision and Bleeding Kansas were all examples of slave power. The United States postmasters under the democratic presidents refused to deliver abolitionists tracts mailed into the South because of Southern protests of attacks on their peculiar institution. As the Whig party was driven apart by the issue of slavery the Republicans were formed as the party that opposed the slave power.
Two events mobilized the popular feeling on each side. John Brown, who was first known as Osawatomie Brown for his cold blooded murder of Southern sympathizers in Kansas, led a raid that took over the armory at Harper's Ferry in 1859. His ill-conceived plan to start a slave rebellion backed by the conspiracy of rich northerners known as "The Secret Six" convinced Southerners that the North was bent on their destruction. In the North Brown was lionized as a hero. The book Uncle Tom's Cabin was a national bestseller that raised popular feeling in the North against slavery and struck a raw nerve in the South. It is said that when Lincoln was later introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe he said "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." The animosity between North and South became too great to be contained by the political institutions.
In 1860 the Democratic party split at the Charleston convention and the Republicans nominated Lincoln in the Wigwam at Chicago.
With the split of the democrats Lincoln was elected without carrying any Southern state and immediately South Carolina seceded from the Union. They had waited for cooperative action at the Nashville Convention in 1850 and would not wait this time. By February 1, 1861 six more states had seceded and Jefferson Davis was named Provisional President of the Confederacy in Mongomery, Alabama on February 16, 1861.
The lame duck congress in Washington was still trying to reach a compromise but the politicians of the North would not accede to the Southern demands. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 and Fort Sumter fired upon April 12. The Civil War had begun. When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers four more states seceded and the battle lines were drawn.
McPherson covers the military action in the war but also covers many other aspects of the conflict. Examples of the topics discussed include Confederate diplomacy, the development of the minie ball and the beginning of modern nursing in the efforts of each side to care for vast numbers of casualties. The author provides interesting details of the methods each side used to finance the war.
The military side of the war began with the battle of amateurs at First Manassas. In April of 1862 the Battle of Shiloh gave a glimpse of what the war would be like as two opposing armies of 40,000 men produced a total of 23,000 casualties.
In September of 1862 Lee invaded the North and was defeated at the Battle of Antietam. With this victory in hand Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, to go into effect January 1, 1863. The Confederate efforts for the intervention of France and Britain on their behalf were doomed by their defeat at Antietam and Lincoln's announcement.
In the middle of 1863 came the two military events that mark the beginning of the end for the South. The fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, split the South along the Mississippi, and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg June 1-3, 1863. From that point the South lost the military initiative and their only hope was the election of 1864.
In the summer of 1864 the North was tired of war and Lincoln felt certain he would be defeated in the presidential election. On the military front Grant had Lee engaged in Virginia and Sherman was marching on Atlanta. Sherman announced the capture of Atlanta on September 1, 1864 and this revived the North. The author mentions the furloughs given to Union soldiers so that they could vote for Lincoln in critical states where they were not allowed absentee ballots. It is these types of details help to give a complete picture of this era in one volume.
Lincoln won the election easily and Grant and Sherman continued to crush the South militarily. Sherman's army burned their way through South Carolina, hated as the cradle of the confederacy, wreaking much greater destruction than the fabled march to the sea. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 and the Civil War was over.
In a closing chapter McPherson argues that the defeat of the South was not inevitable. The author compares the Southern military effort to that of Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance. In that war Paraguay held off the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay from 1865-1871. Paraguay lost 56 percent of its total population and 80 percent of its men of military age. In comparison the South lost 5 percent of its total population and 25 percent of the men of military age were casualties. The importance of states rights in the Confederacy also hindered an efficient mobilization of resources for the war.
The author closes with some interesting thoughts on how the Northern victory changed the course of the country. The Civil War was a Second Revolution in the United States. The South had provided much of the leadership in the Revolution and for 32 years after the ratification of the Constitution the country was led by presidents from the South. After the Northern victory it was a century before a resident of the South was elected president. The United States changed from a federal republic to a national union whose government became increasingly centralized. No longer dominated by agriculture the United States became the largest industrial economy in the world by 1900.
I give the author high marks for this book. It is well written and an excellent narrative. There is a good balance of social and military history that provides a complete picture of what occurred during this time. After reading this book the reader is well equipped to follow any particular areas of interest in greater detail. If the reader wishes to stop here they have a solid understanding of what is arguably the most important era in the history of the United States.
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LibraryThing member koalamom
Great book - easy to read, but will take time. Good synopsis of the Civil War.
LibraryThing member AEP0031
I studied this period of American History when I was a student 6 years ago. I bought this book then, but never got around to reading it. I am currently only 60 pages in and am finding it easy to read and informative.
LibraryThing member Schneider
If I could only have one book on the Civil War this would be my choice. McPherson’s work has been called the "best one-volume treatment of [the Civil War era]" and it lives up to all of its billing...and then some. This is 952 pages of wonderfully written prose that you’ll finish far too quickly.
LibraryThing member billiecat
It takes almost 300 pages for McPhereson to get to Fort Sumter, but that long slow burn is needed to set the rest of the book into context. Not just the story of battles, this book is the story of why those battles were fought. As such, it does much to dispel the nostalgic mooning so many Civil War enthusiasts indulge in. McPhereson's work on the origins of the war should leave no serious person with any doubt what caused it and what the South was fighting for - slavery. Nor does he whitewash the Northern ambivalence toward race that resulted in such episodes as the New York draft riots. And as you read his accounts of the battles and strategic decisions of the war itself, a lot of the luster fades from the men of marble like Lee, while the weaknesses of the stream of Northern generals preceding Grant, and Grant himself, are not diminished. Everyone says this is the best single volume treatment of the Civil War, well, it appears for once everyone may be right.… (more)
LibraryThing member foof2you
A very comprehensive look at the causes, the battles and finish of the Civil War. This book is the ultimate place to start if you are interested in the Civil War and just don't know where to start.
LibraryThing member varrus
Very well written, even for non-history readers. It is not bias and makes logical deductions from the time period, as well as thourogh doctumentation from primary sources.
LibraryThing member lateinnings
An all-time classic.
LibraryThing member workingwriter
This book is widely recognized as the best one-volume summary of the Civil War to date. More than just a recounting of battles and strategies, McPherson covers both the politics of the era (both Union and Confederate) and the impact of the war on folks not on the battlefield. I learned much, and though it's a hefty book (862 pages of narrative!), it is an excellent starting point for anyone's celebration of the 150th anniversary of the war.… (more)
LibraryThing member blanchvegas
Besides Shelby Foote's three book masterpiece this is the leading cumulative account of the Civil War. From the years leading up to the war through the reunification process, McPherson captures all the emotions of the times. Though an historical account the book is written so seamlessly that you'll fly through it like your favorite novels! Truly worthy of all the praise it has received including the Pulitzer Prize!… (more)
LibraryThing member BookMarkMe
The best one volume edition on the American Civil War, a compelling read that has given me a thirst to read further on the subject that is little known to me
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
Definitive and big.

I read this book and then Moe's book on the 1st Minnesota in quick succession, and the macro-to-micro change was interesting and a little breath-taking.
LibraryThing member vguy
Excellent account. balanced yet thrilling narrative. Lincoln's great humanity emerges: a foxy political maneuverer, yet clear and inflexible about his goals, deep idealism and a sense of humour to boot (some of his jokes made me chuckle e.g., about Grant's favourite whisky and Charles I's head). Other key players (Grant, Sherman, Mclellan, Davis et al made vivid amid all the marching and pincering and slaughtering. Still a mystery why the war was fought at all and with such ferocity. In their last twitches the Confederacy even consider ditching slavery in order to keep their "liberty"; one of those ironies of human nature when cornered. But why was the North so keen to keep the Union? And willing to die by the hundreds of thousands to do so? Not for the "niggers" that's pretty clear, since much of the Northern opinion stood between indifference and.outright racism Good account of the economics and logistics of the war; the South could never have won, but could have gone on making trouble indefinitely.
Edition could do with more and clearer maps
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LibraryThing member PaolaF
Great book - very clear account of key events, causes and consequences. Also very 'human' in the telling. Only let down slightly by the poor quality of some of the maps.
LibraryThing member Peacock1
A well -written and carefully researched account of the events leading up to the Civil War and the War itself. An older volume taking onnew luster in nlight of the 150th anniversay of the conflict.
LibraryThing member Tracy_Tomkowiak
What an incredible read. Very clear and precise writing. And the illustrations ares an added bonus that gave me further perspective on matters. Best book I've ever read on the subject.
LibraryThing member buffalogr
Everyone else seems to believe that this is the book to read on the American Civil War. However, I found it difficult to wade through. Perhaps, if I wanted to study the war, intently....



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