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Awards & Honors: 2000 Jefferson Lecturer

James McPherson Excerpts

Battle Cry of Freedom

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Humanities Magazine March/April 2000 cover

March/April 2000

The surrender completed, the two generals saluted somberly and parted. "This will live in history," said one of Grant's aides. But the Union commander seemed distracted. Having given birth to a reunited nation, he experienced a post-partum melancholy. "I felt . . . sad and depressed," Grant wrote, "at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, thought that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought." As news of the surrender spread through Union camps, batteries began firing joyful salutes until Grant ordered them stopped. "The war is over," he said; "the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations." To help bring those former rebels back in the Union, Grant sent three days' rations for 25,000 men across the lines. This perhaps did something to ease the psychological as well as physical pain of Lee's soldiers.

So did an important symbolic gesture at a formal ceremony three days later when Confederate troops marched up to stack arms and surrender their flags. As they came, many among them shared the sentiments of one officer: "Was this to be the end of all our marching and fighting for the past four years? I could not keep back the tears." The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honor for Little Round Top, had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain's brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee's hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson's old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men 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 the shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier's "mutual salutation and farewell."

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA. Copyright ©1988, Oxford University Press, New York, NY. Reproduced by permission.

For Cause and Comrades

"This contest is not the North against South," wrote a young Philadelphia printer six days before he enlisted. "It is government against anarchy, law against disorder." An Indiana lawyer who rose to brigadier general during the war and secretary of state after it told his pacifist wife in April 1861 that "it is better to have war for one year than anarchy & revolution for fifty years-If the government should suffer rebels to go on with their work with impunity there would be no end to it & in a short time we would be without any law or order." An immigrant working in a Philadelphia textile mill explained to his father back in England why he had enlisted in the 3 New Jersey. "If the Unionists let the South secede," he wrote, "the West might want to seperate next Presidential Election . . . others might want to follow and this country would be as bad as the German states. . . . There would have to be another form of a constitution wrote after it was written who would obey it?"

Union volunteers invoked the legacy of the Founding Fathers. They had inherited a nation sanctified by the blood and sacrifice of that heroic generation of 1776. If disunion destroyed this nation, the generation of 1861 would prove unworthy of the heritage of republican liberty. "Our fathers made this country, we their children are to save it," wrote a young lawyer to his wife who had opposed his enlistment in the 12th Ohio, leaving her and two small children behind. "If our institutions prove a failure and our Country be numbered among the things that were but are not . . . of what value will be house, family, and friends?" Civil war "is a calamity to any country," wrote a recruit in the 10th Wisconsin, but "this second war I consider equally as holy as the first…by which we gained those liberties and privileges" now threatened by "this monstrous rebellion."

Relatively few Union volunteers mentioned the slavery issue when they enlisted. But those who did were outspoken in their determination to destroy the "slave power" and to cleanse the restored Union of an evil they considered a mockery of American ideals of liberty. The main purpose of "this wicked rebellion," wrote an Iowa volunteer, was "to secure the extension of that blighting curse-slavery-o'er our fair land." An Ohio artillery officer believed in June 1861 that the war "will not be ended until the subject of slavery is finally and forever settled. It has been a great curse to this country." A Massachusetts infantry captain, a Harvard graduate, wrote to his mother in November 1861 that "Slavery has brought death into our own households already in its wicked rebellion. . . . There is but one way [to win the war] and that is emancipation…I want to sing 'John Brown' in the streets of Charleston, and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of the bayonet."

Some Confederate volunteers did indeed avow the defense of slavery as a motive for enlisting. A young Virginia schoolteacher who joined the cavalry could not understand why his father, a substantial farmer and slaveowner, held out so long for preservation of the Union when reports in Southern newspapers made it clear that the Lincoln administration would "use its utmost endeavors for the abolishment of slavery." After all, Lincoln himself "has declared that one of the peculiar institutions of the South, which involves the value of four billions . . . is a 'a moral evil.'" No true Southerner could hesitate. "Better, far better! endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar." A slave-owning farmer enlisted in the 13th Georgia because "our homes our firesides our land and negroes and even the virtue of our fair ones is at stake," while a young Kentucky physician told his slaveholding relatives that he would join the Confederate forces "who are battling for their rights and for an institution in which Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee are [as] interested" as the lower South. "The vandals of the North . . . are determined to destroy slavery . . . We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty."

FOR CAUSE AND COMRADES: WHY MEN FOUGHT IN THE CIVIL WAR. Copyright © 1997 Oxford University Press, New York, NY. Reproduced by permission.

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

As Lincoln phrased it in his famous public letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. . . . What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." By the time he wrote these words, Lincoln had made up his mind that to save the Union he must destroy slavery. The means always remained subordinated to the end, but the means did become as essential to the northern war effort as the end itself. In that sense perhaps we could describe Lincoln as a pragmatic revolutionary, for as a pragmatist he adapted the means to the end. Thus we can agree with the historian Norman Graebner who was quoted earlier as stating that Lincoln "accepted the need of dealing with things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be." But instead of concluding, as Graebner did, that this made Lincoln a conservative, we must conclude that it made him a revolutionary. Not an ideological revolutionary, to be sure-Lincoln was no Robespierre or Lenin with a blueprint for a new order-but he was a pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Copyright© 1991 by James McPherson. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, New York.

We Cannot Escape History

Lincoln's eloquence in December 1862 anticipated the Gettysburg Address. "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history," he told Congress-and the American people. "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." For America, Lincoln insisted, this was the crossroads of history; this was where "we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."

What did Lincoln mean? Why did he consider the Union to be the last best hope of earth? The last best hope for what?

Like other political leaders of his generation, Lincoln was painfully aware of the fate of most republics through history. Some Americans alive in 1861 had seen two French republics rise and fall. Republican governments in Latin America seemed to come and go with bewildering frequency. The hopes of 1848 for the triumph of popular governments in Europe had been crushed by the counterrevolutions that brought a conservative reaction in the Old World. The brave experiment launched in Philadelphia four score and seven years before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg seemed fragile indeed in this world bestrode by kings, emperors, czars, dictators, theories of aristocracy, and inequality. Would the American experiment also succumb to the fate of most republics and collapse into tyranny or fall to pieces?

Not if Lincoln could help it. The central vision that guided him was preservation of the United States as a republic governed by popular suffrage, majority rule, and the Constitution. If the Confederate rebellion succeeded in its effort to sever the United States, popular government would be swept into the dustbin of history. The next time a disaffected minority lost a presidential election, as Southern Rights Democrats had lost in 1860, that minority might invoke the Confederate precedent to proclaim its own secession. The dis-United States would fragment into a dozen petty, squabbling fiefdoms. "The central idea pervading this struggle," said Lincoln in 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves." Nor was this struggle "altogether for today," Lincoln told Congress in 1861. "It is for a vast future also." It "embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy . . . can, or cannot maintain its territorial integrity." If it could not, the forces of reaction in Europe would smile in smug satisfaction at his proof of their connection that the upstart republic launched in 1776 could never survive-that government of, by, and for the people had indeed perished from the earth.

WE CANNOT ESCAPE HISTORY: LINCOLN AND THE LAST BEST HOPE OF EARTH. Copyright © 1995. University of Illinois Press, Champaign. Reproduced by permission.

Drawn with the Sword

In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 the words United States were a plural noun: "The United States are a large country." Since 1865 United States has been a singular noun. The North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by creating a nation. . . .

The old decentralized republic, in which the post office was the only agency of national government that touched the average citizen, was transformed by the crucible of war into a centralized polity that taxed people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect the taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a federally chartered banking system, drafted men into the army, and created the Freedmen's Bureau as the first national agency for social welfare.

DRAWN WITH THE SWORD: REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR. Copyright © 1996 by James McPherson. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, New York.

The Struggle for Equality

A few abolitionists acquiesced in the northern abandonment of Reconstruction, but most of them protested strongly against it. Not many northerners, however, listened to their protests after 1875. Abolitionists were not slow to discern and deplore the North's return to apathy. It was startling "to realize how completely the antislavery struggle is forgotten by the people, and how even the terrible expenditure of blood and treasure, which followed it, is fast sinking into oblivion," wrote Lydia Maria Child in 1878. "The lamentable misfortune is that emancipation was not the result of a popular moral sentiment, but of a miserable "military necessity." It was not the 'fruit of righteousness,' and therefore it is not 'peace.'" Five years later Frederick Douglass declared that "as the war for the Union recedes into the misty shadows of the past, and the Negro is no longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is . . . of less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen."

Abolitionists had done their best to rally the conscience of the nation, but in the final analysis the nation refused to follow their leadership. Was this a "failure of the American abolitionists," as one historian has called it? Perhaps. Such abolitionist techniques as incisive criticism, harsh language, and moral absolutism may have been ill-suited to the conversion of conscience. But in a larger sense, their failure was the failure of the American people, and the United States has yet to measure up to the ideals of the abolitionist crusade. The civil rights movement of today has a greater chance of permanent success than did its counterpart in the 1860's. But whatever success the contemporary movement finally does achieve will be built partly on the foundations laid down more than a century ago by the abolitionists. They were the first "freedom riders," and their spirit still pervades the struggle for racial justice. The victories of Martin Luther King and his followers are in a very real sense, victories of the abolitionist crusade.

THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY: ABOLITIONIST AND THE NEGRO IN THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION. Copyright ©1964 Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Reproduced by permission.