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Editor's Note, March/April 2000

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

James M. McPherson

His great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. One died while serving; the other survived to a ripe old age and died in California in 1922.

This year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, James M. McPherson, has been immersed in the Civil War for his entire academic career. He caught up with his ancestors along the way.

Since 1962 McPherson has been teaching history at Princeton University, rising from instructor to George Henry David '86 Professor of American History. He has written a dozen books on the Civil War, among them Battle Cry of Freedom, a 1988 bestseller and winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.

McPherson calls the war "the central event in the American historical consciousness." While the American Revolution created the United States, the Civil War preserved it, he writes: Not only did it determine sovereignty, it raised the fundamental question of "whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men are created with an equal right to liberty, was to continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world."

The battle was fratricidal, bloody-620,000 Union and Confederate dead--"nearly equal to the 680,000 American soldiers who died in all the other wars this country has fought combined." He shifts focus a little to put the devastation in modern terms: "Two percent of the American population of 1860 were killed in the Civil War. If the United States suffered the same proportion of deaths in a war fought in the 1990s, the number of American war dead would exceed five million."

Why would men risk their lives in such a war? He looked for answers in the twenty-five thousand letters and two hundred and fifty diaries written by those who fought on each side, and with the assistance of his wife, Patricia, winnowed them into a book titled For Cause and Comrades. The two later co-edited a book of the Civil War letters of a U.S. Navy lieutenant, Roswell H. Lamson, who saw action off the Atlantic coast.

For Cause and Comrades is dedicated to McPherson's forebears:

Jesse Beecher
Private, Co. E, 112th New York, Volunteer Infantry, 1862-65

Luther Osborn
Private, Corporal, and Sergeant, Co. B, 93rd New York Volunteer Infantry, 1862-65 and Lieutenant, Co. G, Captain, Co. H, 22nd U.S. Colored Infantry, 1863-65

Jesse Beecher was a wheelwright who came from England in 1857 and settled in Sherman, New York. In 1862, Jesse was thirty-seven years old, with eight children. He joined as a private in the 112th New York Infantry and saw action in Virginia and at the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina, where he died of typhoid, age forty.

Luther Osborn joined up with the 93rd New York when he was nineteen and eventually became an officer in a black regiment, the 22d US Colored Infantry. He saw fighting in the summer of 1864 and the spring of 1865 in the Petersburg campaign. After the war, he went west to Minnesota, then North Dakota, and later to Los Angeles, where a daughter lived.

A year and a half ago, James McPherson visited Sherman, New York, to pay his respects at the Beecher burial plot. There is a marker there for Jesse Beecher. He lies buried in North Carolina in the national military cemetery at Wilmington.