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Touring the Battlefields

By Gary W. Gallagher | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

On a splendid late October day in 1996, Jim McPherson and I rode our bicycles through the battlefield at Cedar Creek. The battle of Cedar Creek, the last major encounter of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, had taken place in an October one-hundred-and-thirty-two years earlier, just weeks before the presidential election. Union General Philip H. Sheridan won a smashing triumph over Jubal A. Early's Confederate army. Sheridan's victory, coming as it did just before Northern voters cast their ballots, buoyed Union morale and helped guarantee Abraham Lincoln's re-election.

On the battlefield that long ago day, there had been a striking change in momentum. Early's soldiers had driven much of the Union Army from the field in morning assaults, only to collapse in the face of Northern counterattacks late in the afternoon. Over the years, a variety of writers had accused Early of losing his nerve, halting his victorious men, and trying to hold onto initial gains rather than pressing his advantage. Jim and I had discussed whether that had been the case, and we hoped a close examination of the ground would illuminate this and other questions relating to the battle.

This was our third such bicycling excursion in Virginia. We previously had gone to Brandy Station, scene of a cavalry action during the initial stage of the Gettysburg campaign, and to Petersburg, where we logged about fifty-five miles to examine the siege lines held by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864-65. We found the rides to be useful in assessing military leadership and working out tactical details impossible to coax out of written accounts or maps. We also discovered that cycling around battlefields inspired fruitful exchanges about connections between military campaigns and other dimensions of the war.

We spent our first hour at Cedar Creek traversing some gently rolling ground before reaching a part of the field where the road rose sharply. Jim pulled well ahead as I labored to match his pace. I reached the crest of one ridge to find him surveying a spectacular view. The green bulk of Massanutten Mountain loomed immediately to our south, the north fork of the Shenandoah River wound its way across our front, and the landscape appeared much as it had to Union and Confederate soldiers. Out of breath as I peddled up to Jim, I announced that I found climbing the hills very taxing. "It's good for you," he said, and set off to examine more ground.

That moment captures much about Jim McPherson. He possesses an unshakable dedication to improving his understanding of the past-as well as a muscular work ethic. He was determined to explore as much terrain and consider as many questions as possible at Cedar Creek. By the time I collapsed in my motel room that evening, we had ridden more than thirty miles and discovered a good deal about the battle's tactical ebb and flow. The immense scale of the battlefield stood out sharply (it encompasses more than a dozen square miles), as did the obstacles Early's soldiers faced. The Confederates had marched all night to get into position for assaults at dawn and fought for several hours before Early halted the action. We decided that exhaustion among the Confederates, at least as much as any timidity in Early's leadership, helped explain why the Southern force lost its edge.

There were few indications in Jim's early career that suggested that he would become a serious student of Civil War military history. The Civil Rights Movement and the influence of C. Vann Woodward, his mentor in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, shaped his early work. Jim's first four books, published between 1964 and 1975, explore abolitionism, emancipation, race, and civil rights. Subsequent scholarship focuses more and more on the centrality of black Americans to the national upheaval of the mid-nineteenth century.

Jim eventually moved to a broader Civil War canvas and in 1988 published Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which became the most widely read modern history of the conflict. It captures the vast complexity of the Civil War and underscores the myriad ways in which battlefront and home front influenced each other. "I have tried to integrate the political and military events of this era with important social and economic developments to form a seamless web . . . ," he explains in the preface. Referring to "these years of successive crises, rapid changes, dramatic events, and dynamic transformations," he adds, "A topical or thematic approach could not do justice to this dynamism, this complex relationship of cause and effect, this intensity of experience, especially during the four years of war when developments in several spheres occurred almost simultaneously and impinged on each other so powerfully and immediately as to give participants the sense of living a lifetime in a year."

Jim has placed people at the center of his work, seeking to illuminate their actions and attitudes within the context of their own experience. Mindful that the outcome of the war was not preordained, he stresses that military events and political decisions could have unfolded in different ways. "There was nothing inevitable about Northern victory in the Civil War," he observes in one of his essays. "Nor was Sherman's capture of Atlanta any more inevitable than, say, McClellan's capture of Richmond in June 1862 had been. There were several major turning points, points of contingency when events moved in one direction but could well have moved in another." Because historians and readers alike too often embrace Southern surrender as the only logical ending, the importance of Jim's point about the role of contingency cannot be overstated.

Rigorous discipline has been the key to Jim's productivity over a period of more than thirty-five years. He works efficiently and steadily, juggling an array of teaching, writing, and speaking commitments. In a world where scholarly history is too often written in jargon, the solid research, analytical rigor, and grace of Jim's books stand out. His writings also convey a passionate interest in the great questions of the Civil War era. Would slavery live or die? What did the concept of freedom mean to different Americans? How would relations between central and local authorities be defined?

His abiding interest in the war's participants, whether they be Abraham Lincoln and other leaders or the men and women who filled the ranks of the armies and endured varying hardships behind the lines, adds a human dimension that resonates with a large popular audience.

Few historians take more seriously the need to spread the findings of scholarship beyond the academy. At public forums, he goes beyond the often-raised speculation about what would have happened if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg or if Stonewall Jackson had lived after the battle of Chancellorsville. Jim invites listeners to consider different perspectives, while challenging them to question much of what they think they know about the conflict.

Jim's commitment to battlefield preservation stems from a conviction that such sites offer outdoor classrooms in which to explore the many facets of the war. His battlefield tours do far more than explain which regiments fought where. He seamlessly weaves into his walking tours a great deal of information about why the men were fighting, how soldiers on different sides chose to remember the war, and how military operations influenced events behind the lines.

In the most publicized preservation struggle of the 1990s, he joined C. Vann Woodward and other historians and writers in an effort to stop a proposed Disney theme park near the national battlefield at Manassas, Virginia. He and the others conceded Disney's right to build such a park but insisted that it should not be placed so close to priceless historic land. They argued that the additional development that would accompany a theme park would overwhelm the surrounding countryside and diminish the quality of the battlefield's potential as an educational tool.

In his work as a board member of two major Civil War preservation organizations, he has again and again taken a mediating role in talks where preservationists decided how confrontational they should be in trying to save historic lands. His influence more than once helped break an impasse and was crucial in shaping a consensus relating to strategies for sites near Richmond, at Brandy Station near Culpeper, Virginia, and elsewhere.

Few fields of inquiry match the Civil War in terms of their potential to embrace a national audience. No one in our generation has explored that potential as well as James M. McPherson. He is a splendid national resource whose example of engaged scholarship sets a very high standard for others to emulate.

About the Author

Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He is the author of several books, including The Confederate War and Lee and His Generals in War and Memory. From 1987 to 1994, Gallagher was president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites.