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Awards & Honors: 2000 Jefferson Lecturer

James McPherson Interview

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Humanities Magazine March/April 2000 cover

March/April 2000

NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talked with McPherson about the historical figures and foot soldiers of the Civil War.

Ferris: You are known primarily as a Civil War historian, but unlike many Civil War historians reared in the old North and South, you come from Minnesota. How does a Minnesota boy get interested in the Civil War?

McPherson: Growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s, I became fascinated by the South, which I had never visited, just because it seemed different and exotic and a little bit puzzling. In college my interest was kind of generic, primarily American history, because that's what was offered. Then, as a graduate student, I chose Johns Hopkins, which had C. Vann Woodward on the faculty, probably the preeminent Southern historian. I moved to Baltimore in the fall of 1958.

While I was in Baltimore, all kinds of interesting things were going on there as well as nationally. These were the years of Little Rock, New Orleans desegregation, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, really the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I became increasingly fascinated by the parallels and similarities between the time in which I was living in a border-state city, which was in the process of trying to change its race relations, and the events that had happened a hundred years earlier-confrontation between the national government and Southern political leaders who vowed massive resistance to federal-law; violence in the South over the race issue; Martin Luther King, Jr. urging President Kennedy to take action against discrimination in the same way that black leaders and abolitionists had urged Lincoln to take action against slavery-King even calling on Kennedy, in this case unsuccessfully, to issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on the one hundredth anniversary of the original. One of the motives, I think, for the March on Washington later in 1963 was Kennedy's reluctance to do so. And, of course, in the March on Washington, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. I was just struck by all of these parallels between what was a freedom crusade of the 1860s and a freedom crusade of the 1960s. My first entree into Civil War scholarship focused on that very theme. I did my Ph.D. dissertation on people that I called-perhaps with a little bit of exaggeration-the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists, both black and white.

Ferris: Your best-known book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is Battle Cry of Freedom, a study of the origins of the Civil War and its aftermath. Can you talk about how you came to write that book?

McPherson: Back in the 1950s, Van Woodward and Richard Hofstetter conceived of the Oxford History of the United States, which was to be modeled on the Oxford History of England, a series of volumes each written by a different historian.

In the mid-1970s, Woodward asked me if I would do the post-Civil War volume covering 1865 to 1900. Then the person who was to write the Civil War and antebellum volume fell ill, and I asked to change assignments to the 1848 to 1865 period. I started working on it in the 1980s and it came out in 1988.

Ferris: To say the origins of the Civil War have been hotly debated would probably be an understatement. How do you explain the origins?

McPherson: I see a three-stage process in the origins of the Civil War. The first stage is a growing diversity between the economic and social systems of the North and the South. When the country was founded, all states had the institution of slavery and all were overwhelmingly rural and agricultural in character. But slavery was relatively marginal in the Northern states, and during and after the Revolution, they abolished it. Their economy began to develop in the direction of a more diversified, free-labor, commercial and industrial as well as agricultural economy, while the cotton boom in the South fastened slavery more firmly than ever on that section and kept the South overwhelmingly rural, overwhelmingly agricultural, and primarily dependent in its economy on slave-grown agricultural crops. The paths of development increasingly diverged over the first half of the nineteenth century and, in the process, generated increasingly polarized ideologies about what kind of society and what kind of nation the United States ought to be. And that focused on the institution of slavery, which by the 1830s was being increasingly attacked by the Northern abolitionists as contrary to the ideals of liberty that the country had been founded on, and as contrary to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; while the South grew increasingly defensive and turned aggressive in its defensiveness, defending slavery as a positive good and as the basis for a far superior society to what they increasingly portrayed as a chaotic, disorganized, unjust, exploitative, free-labor society in the North.

National political debates focused on the question of whether slavery ought to continue to expand, as it had expanded from the admission of Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1790s right on through the annexation of Texas in 1845. With the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War in 1848, the debate about whether slavery should be allowed in any more territories sharpened to a mortal conflict. You had Northern and Southern congressmen drawing weapons on each other or threatening to do so on the floor of Congress, and South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beating unconscious Senator Charles Sumner in 1856; and the rise of a new major party, the Republican Party, out of the earlier Free Soil Party, whose platform stated that there should be no more slave territories.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860 on that platform, without the vote of a single slave state, Southern leaders saw the handwriting on the wall. They saw that they had lost control of the national government--which they had enjoyed most of the time before 1860s owing to their leverage in the Democratic Party--and probably would never be able to regain it. And they decided that the fate of their society, their institution, their economy, their way of life-to use the phrase that was often used at the time-was in jeopardy under a United States government completely in the hands of people who opposed the expansion of slavery and whose leaders branded slavery a moral wrong that must eventually disappear from American society. So they seceded. These are the first two stages: the increasingly divergent Northern and Southern societies, and the institution of slavery as the focal point of that divergence.

The third and final stage is the nationalism of the Northern people, or a majority of them. They held the conviction that if any one or any group of states could secede from the United States in response to the election of somebody they didn't like as President of the United States, the United States would in fact cease to exist, that a constitutional republic based on majority rule and on free elections could not survive under a system where a state could secede when it didn't like the outcome of that constitutional process. Lincoln expressed his determination and was supported by the majority of the Northern people not to recognize the legitimacy of secession.

The trigger point was Fort Sumter, where Confederate leaders claimed they could not tolerate a foreign fort in the harbor of one of their principal ports, Charleston, South Carolina. The Lincoln Administration was determined to hang on to Fort Sumter as a symbol of what it considered to be federal sovereignty. When the Confederates decided to attack the fort and seize it before the ships sent to resupply the garrison could get there, that was the spark that set off the war.

Ferris: The title, Battle Cry of Freedom, refers to the fact that both the North and the South believed that they were fighting for freedom. How did their definitions of freedom differ?

McPherson: The South professed to be fighting for self-government. The thirteen colonies had seceded from the British Empire based on a philosophy of the freedom of people to choose their own form of government The Southern leaders in 1861 said they were fighting for the same rights. That was their definition of liberty.

There was a corollary to that definition. An essential component of liberty is the protection of private property. Slaves, of course, were property. To deny Southerners the right to take their slaves into new territories acquired by the United States would be a violation of their rights of property, therefore of their liberty. So they could, with perfect sincerity, claim that they were fighting for liberty even though part of that liberty was their right to hold slaves and to take them into any part of the territories acquired by the United States in the same way they could take personal property or livestock or anything else.

The Northern definition of liberty was the preservation of the Union, the nation, based on that revolution of 1776. They feared that recognizing the right of secession would undermine the whole concept of a government based on majority rule, constitutional procedures, and democratic elections. So they were fighting for their concept of liberty.

A great tragedy, in many ways, is that both sides look back to the same revolution of 1776 as the inspiration for the liberty that they were fighting for from 1861 to 1865. An irony is that both sides, at the beginning of the Civil War, did not include freedom for the slaves. Halfway through the war that became a Northern war aim as well, not only for an ideological reason, but probably even more for the practical reason that slavery was one of the most important institutions supporting the South and the Confederate war effort. A strike against slavery was a way of undermining the economic strength of the Confederacy and winning the war.

Ferris: How prevalent and influential was antiwar sentiment in the North and the South?

McPherson: Opposition to the government's war policies was a significant factor in both North and South. In the South, most of the people who opposed the war effort were those people who lived in regions where slavery was not an important part of their society and the economy: Western Virginia, which actually detached itself from the rest of Virginia and became the new state of West Virginia in the middle of the war; eastern Tennessee, which was mostly small farmers without slaves; western North Carolina, the Ozark plateau in Arkansas, and other parts of the South. These areas, if not Unionist, were for the most part reluctant supporters of the Confederacy. There was opposition to the draft and to other measures in these regions, and a lot of Unionism that manifested itself in overt antiwar acts-sabotage, resistance, and so on.

In the North, a large portion of the Democratic Party, which had been allied politically with the South before the Civil War, became increasingly alienated from the Lincoln Administration's concept of total victory as a way to restore the Union. These became known as the Peace Democrats or, more pejoratively, the Copperheads. Northern Republicans likened them to the poisonous copperhead snake that struck in the dark to undermine the Northern effort to win this war and preserve the nation. These Copperheads or Peace Democrats were not necessarily disloyal in the sense that they supported Confederate victory in the war. Rather, they opposed the effort to restore the Union by military victory and called for some armistice and peace negotiations. But, any kind of armistice or peace negotiations would be tantamount to a de facto recognition of the Confederate states of America as a legitimate government and contrary to what the North was fighting for.

The Peace Democrats were probably a more powerful factor in weakening the Northern war effort than were the antiwar faction in the South. I happen to think that the people in the eleven states that formed the Confederacy were probably more united and more determined in support of their government's war efforts than were the people in the North in support of the Lincoln Administration's efforts.

Ferris: You begin your book with the Mexican-American War. What influence did that conflict have on why and how the Civil War was fought?

McPherson: It had two major kinds of influence. It reopened the question of the expansion of slavery that had already been opened by the annexation of Texas in 1845. The situation led to the divisive debates that underlay the eventual Compromise of 1850, and then also played a part in reopening those debates in the middle 1850s over whether or not slavery should be expanded into the territories. This issue increasingly drove the free states and the slave states farther and farther apart and helped to bring on the war.

The Mexican War also influenced the manner in which the Civil War was fought. Most of the men who became generals on both sides in the Civil War had been junior officers in the Mexican War. The Americans had won every battle in the Mexican War. They had won it by daring offensive tactics, by assaults that overran defensive positions, by tactical aggressiveness, and, indeed, by strategic aggressiveness. Invasions deep into enemy territory influenced commanders on both sides even long into the Civil War at a time when the technology had changed between 1847 and 1861 to favor the defensive. The development of the rifle musket, which gave defenders an advantage against attacking troops, the expanded use of railroads and telegraphs and steam-powered warships and other benefits of modern technology meant that the tactics and even some of the strategic lessons carried into the Civil War by those men who had fought in the Mexican War would have to be changed. But generals are always fighting the last war. It takes a long time for them to realize that conditions have changed. I think some of the heavy casualties from frontal assaults, even flank attacks such as those at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg or Chickamauga in the Civil War were in part the consequence of the wrong lessons learned by the commanders in the Mexican War.

Ferris: Why did the Union ultimately win?

McPherson: I have argued that the North's overwhelming superiority in industrial resources and manpower and logistical capacity was a necessary condition for Northern victory. But that is not a sufficient explanation. Victory doesn't always go to the side that is stronger in numbers and resources, as we well know from the Vietnam War, and, indeed, as Americans knew in 1861 when they looked at the history of their conflict with Britain.

While the North could not have won the war without that kind of superiority, I think in the end that was not the total explanation. I think that it had more to do with the gradual development in the North of a coherent strategy for victory Richmond in ruins and the gradual rise of military commanders under Lincoln's leadership-leaders like Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and George Thomas, who were willing to put in place the kind of hard-war strategy, a strategy of all-out military conflict to destroy Confederate armies, but also an all-out effort to destroy the economic and social infrastructure that supported the Confederate war effort, to destroy the railroads, the factories, the farms, the economic infrastructure of the Confederacy, including the institution of slavery. It wasn't until the Northern leadership was willing to grasp the necessity of fighting this kind of a war against a determined and skillful foe that they were able to achieve ultimate victory.

The reason why industrial and population superiority was a necessary condition is that, to win the war, the North had to invade, conquer, occupy the South and destroy its capacity to wage war. That is a far harder task than what was necessary for the Confederacy to win the war, which was merely to defend what they already had in 1861; that is, military and political control of an existing government and a population willing to support that government. But it was the emergence of the right strategy and the leadership to carry it out that was in the end the sufficient condition for Northern victory.

Ferris: How would you describe the Civil War's legacy?

McPherson: The Civil War resolved two big issues left over from the Revolution and the Constitution. The first issue was whether a republic like the United States could survive in a world where most republics had eventually collapsed from within or had been overthrown from without. Americans were acutely aware of the uncertain fate of republics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In fact, Americans alive in the 1850s had seen two French republics rise and fall and be replaced by empires or kings. They had seen republican governments in Latin America come and go. The United States was the one outstanding example, but it was vulnerable to the same kind of fate that had overtaken other republics through history, going all the way back to Rome. Americans lived with the uncertainty of whether their nation, as one nation indivisible, based on a constitution and a republican form of government, would survive. The Civil War ensured that it would, and, indeed, since 1865, no state, no region, has seriously threatened to secede from the United States.

The other festering unresolved issue left from the Revolution was the institution of slavery. This was a government based on a charter that said that all men are created equal, with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but a society which by the nineteenth century was the largest slave-holding country in the world. Was that inconsistency, that mockery of the ideals of liberty on which the country had been founded, was that going to endure? Lincoln said the country couldn't endure permanently half slave and half free in his famous "House Divided" address of 1858. In some ways, that was the fundamental underlying issue of the Civil War, and the outcome of the Civil War resolved that issue, too. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.

I think there was a third legacy of the war. It is a little bit less obvious, but up until 1860 there had been two competing visions of the "good" society or of the future form of American society: the Southern vision of an agricultural society based on rural institutions, rural values, values of noblesse oblige, a caste system ruled by an elite on the one hand, and the Northern vision of a more messy democratic, urbanizing and industrializing society. When we look back, it seems inevitable that the Northern model of a free-labor democratic, competitive, capitalist society would prevail, but up until 1861, it was not clear to Americans which of these two visions of the good society would prevail. Northern victory in the Civil War assured that it would be the Northern vision, the Northern model.

Ferris: In writing your book, you wrestled with some of the war's great figures like Lincoln, Grant, Lee and Douglas. Are there some of those that you admired and others you were a little suspicious of or perhaps disliked?

McPherson: Well, I have never been able to conceive much affection for Stephen Douglas. I think that his misjudgments in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, his efforts to placate Southerners in the Democratic Party, had a lot to do with bringing on the increasing divisiveness of North and South. And as Lincoln charged him with in the 1858 debates, Douglas had no moral opposition to slavery.

I think Douglas's lack of moral concern about slavery and his deference to the South till too late, when he finally made a stand against Southern domination of the Democratic Party, was a factor that helped to bring on the war. Douglas died early in the war, so he didn't play a major role there.

In some ways--and perhaps this is what you were referring to--the other man named Douglass, Frederick Douglass with two s's rather than one, Frederick Douglass, is somebody I do admire. He was a leading black spokesman in the North, and he was one who relentlessly pushed the Lincoln Administration to move in the direction of making it a war for freedom. He also played a major role in helping to persuade the Administration that blacks ought to be allowed to fight for the Union and for freedom, and he helped to recruit some of the earliest black regiments. His two sons of military age joined one of the first regiments that was formed, the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. So I do have a lot of admiration for that Douglass.

I do also for Lincoln. I think that comparing Grant and Lee is an interesting exercise. I think Grant had a better grasp of the overall strategic dimensions of this war, and when he was put in place as general-in-chief in 1864, he worked out a coordinated strategy for all of the Union armies to operate in such a way as to bring maximum pressure on the Confederacy at all points. Lee, until the very end of the war, never had that kind of authority over all of the Confederate armies, but, rather, was commander of the foremost army, the Army of Northern Virginia. He was probably the best tactical and perhaps theater strategic commander in the war. In some ways, Lee's superiority in that respect may have hurt the overall Confederate military effort because he was so good in his theater that many of the Confederate resources were poured into that theater in Virginia at the expense of other theaters of the war. So there is a kind of ironic dimension to Lee's superiority in that it may have come at the expense of other Confederate armies whose success was necessary if the Confederacy was to succeed.

Ferris: Your more recent book, For Cause and Comrades, takes a close look at the average soldier and why he fought the war. Where did the idea for that book come from?

McPherson: I grew increasingly impressed with the willingness of common soldiers on both sides to risk their lives as volunteers. Most soldiers on both sides, and certainly the most effective soldiers, were volunteers who had enlisted from civilian life early in the war before either side imposed conscription. It was a do-it-yourself mobilization on both sides by a democratic society that must have believed deeply in what it was fighting for to be willing to make the kinds of sacrifices and to deal with the enormous casualties that it did.

As a consequence, I formed a desire to find out what made these guys tick. What did they think they were fighting for? That kind of question was reinforced by the questions that people would ask me, especially my students here at Princeton, when I would take them on tours of Civil War battlefields. As we would walk over the terrain at Little Round Top or over the open fields where the Pickett-Pettigrew assault occurred at the climax of the battle on the third day, students would ask me, "Why were men willing to cross this territory when they knew that many of them would not come back? What enabled them to do it?" Well, I decided that I would try to answer these questions, and that the first and best place to look for answers was in their letters, in their diaries. There are thousands of letters from Civil War soldiers in research libraries and in private collections all around the country. They are a wonderful resource. There was no censorship of soldiers' letters in the Civil War. And while soldiers may not be 100 percent candid when they're writing to loved ones at home about what is happening to them and what is going on, nevertheless, they are the best way I know of to get at what they felt, what they thought.

So I went to these letters with a series of questions about what motivated them to enlist in the first place, what motivated them to persist in the army, what motivated them to face the music, as they themselves described it, in time of battle--to go forward under a hail of bullets and shells and risk their lives. That seems to me one of the most interesting and certainly one of the most important questions in studying the American Civil War. These were not like twentieth-century armies when the coercive power of the state to force men into the armed forces is powerful, or like eighteenth-century British redcoats or the soldiers of Prussia under Frederick the Great where the men were more afraid of their officers than they were of the enemy. These were volunteer civilian soldiers, citizen soldiers from a democratic society.

Ferris: Now, how did the soldiers who fought the Civil War compare to the citizen soldiers of World War II?

McPherson: They differed in that most of them were volunteers rather than draftees. I think Civil War soldiers differed from World War II soldiers also in that they had a firmer grasp on and were able to articulate more clearly what they were fighting for. And they were far more willing to write and talk about what they were fighting for. World War II soldiers in the United States had a general idea that they were fighting against fascist tyranny and they were fighting for democracy. But they didn't go very far beyond that, according to studies of World War II soldiers. They for the most part avoided much talk about the cause with a capital C for which they were fighting. Civil War soldiers tended to go much more deeply into why they were fighting, to define their understanding of liberty, nationalism, and constitutional rights.

American troops wade through water and Nazi gunfire as part of the D-Day invasion I think that is partly because this was a civil war, after all. It would determine the fate of two societies and two governments, Union and Confederate. It was fought right here in the United States and, by its very nature, that kind of war is much more ideological than a war fought thousands of miles away. The fate of European countries and of Asian countries was at stake in World War II, but probably not the fate of the United States, and that makes a big difference in the sharpness of concern and the sharpness of articulation on the part of soldiers as to what they are fighting for.

Ferris: Now, the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were very religious. What role did religion play in their daily lives and on the battlefield?

McPherson: Civil War soldiers were a product of what has been called the second Great Awakening in American religious history, that wave of evangelical Protestant revivalism in the early part of the nineteenth century.

I think most Civil War soldiers were quite literal in their Christian beliefs. Many of them would say in their letters that they had put their fate in God's hands. They were religious fatalists on the battlefield. They would write home and say, "I'm under God's protection whether I'm on the battlefield or at home in front of my fireside, and if it is His will to take me home to his bosom, He can do that as easily at home by my fireside as He can on the field of battle." I think this kind of fatalism and this sense that God's will would determine their fate, rather than their own will, made them better soldiers. They were willing to put their fate in the hands of God, willing to go forward in time of battle, whatever happened.

I found in looking at their letters that many of them held a literal belief in salvation, in a life after death, that this life here on earth is merely a preliminary to eternal life and to a much better life after the death of the physical corporeal body. Many of them said that they were unafraid of death because death was not the end of everything, and they looked forward, if they died on the battlefield, to being reunited with their loved ones in a future life. I think that made them much more willing to face the possibility of their physical death.

Ferris: After all this time, the Civil War still captures people's imaginations. You have called it the war that never goes away. How do you explain this enduring fascination with it?

McPherson: Well, one reason is the continuing salience of many of the issues over which the war was fought. Even though the war resolved the issues of Union and slavery, it didn't entirely resolve the issues that underlay those two questions. The relationships between the national government and regions, race relations, the role of government in trying to bring about change in race relations-these issues are still important in American society today: regionalism, resentment of centralized government, debates about how powerful the national government ought to be and what role it ought to play in people's lives. The continuing relevance of those issues, I think, is one reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War.

Ferris: Jim, you wrote a wonderful piece in a New York Times book review recently in which you encouraged academics to write more for the reading public. Why don't they write more popular history?

McPherson: There is a tendency to look down on popular history in academia. The word "popularization" is a word that can be almost a kiss of death for young faculty members trying to get ahead, trying to gain tenure. There is more emphasis placed on archival research, on innovative methodology, on new breakthrough interpretations, on methodology in academia, and increasing specialization. There is increasing focus on fields like environmental history and women's history and social history and cliometrics, which is a sort of quantitative economic history with a specialized language. All of this makes what a lot of academic historians write either unintelligible or uninteresting to a broad lay audience. But it is what earns promotions, what earns tenure, what earns grants.

Look at the large membership in the history book club, the interest in the History Channel on television, and the interest in documentaries by Ken Burns and by other historical filmmakers. There is a real hunger out there which is not always reached by academic historians. I think they ought to reach out more than they do, and that is what I try to do.

Ferris: I agree. I would like your thoughts on how you've been able to straddle that line and both please your colleagues in history and strike a note of interest with the reading public.

McPherson: That is not an easy question to answer. In part it has to do with the stage of my career. Early in my career, I wrote more specialized works and worked my way up the academic ladder. Once having achieved a certain amount of security and status within the academic community, it is possible for me to reach out without necessarily jeopardizing my career within the community. So that is part of the answer.

I don't think it is the whole answer. I think it's possible to break new ground or offer new interpretations or to write a narrative work of history in such a way as it can appeal to a general audience, but also have something for a more academic and specialized audience. It has something to do with being convinced that history is a story of change over time, with a beginning, a development, a climax of consequences, and writing that story in such a way as it will retain the interest of a broad audience, but also have something new and interesting in the way of insight or interpretation for the specialist as well. It is not easy to explain. I just try to do it, and sometimes I think I've succeeded.

Ferris: Vann Woodward, one of the deans of American history in the twentieth century, was your teacher and advisor. What did he teach you about writing history?

McPherson: He taught me mostly by example and then by being a very good critic of what I did write in dissertation draft chapters and other things over the years. Vann Woodward reached out to a broad audience with his biography of Tom Watson, the populist leader in Georgia; with his Origins of the New South; and especially his Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that in many ways had a major impact on the whole Civil Rights Movement. All of that was happening when I was studying at Hopkins with Vann Woodward. I was much impressed by his ability to reach a broad audience at the same time that he was offering the kind of interpretation that established new paradigms in Southern history, especially with his book, Origins of the New South.

Ferris: What do you think makes for a compelling history volume?

McPherson: First and foremost, it has to be readable. If the writing is awkward, jargon ridden, narrow, if the prose is dull or dead, then people aren't going to read it.

Second, it has to be accurate. It has to be based on thorough research and on an honest effort to present the story as objectively as possible. Nobody can be 100 percent objective, but it has to be fair-minded.

Third, I think it does have to be a story. It has to have dramatic tension. It can't merely be about large economic or social or cultural forces without real people in there with whom the reader can identify. These are some of the important things that will engage the reader and keep him from saying, "This is dull, this is uninteresting. I'm not going to waste my time on this book."

Ferris: That is a wonderful way to conclude this conversation. I really appreciate your taking this time to visit with me.

McPherson: I've enjoyed it myself a great deal. It has helped me think through some of these questions more fully than I have in the past.