by James McPherson
Oxford University Press, 1988
James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is one volume of the massive Oxford History of the United States. It chronicles the Civil War era – not just the war itself, but the decades leading up to it. If someone started to read books about the American Civil War as soon as he learned to read, he could never come close to finishing them all in a lifetime. But if you read only one book about the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom would be an excellent choice.
The book is quite long – what I call a brick – but it covers and analyzes in depth the economic, cultural, political, and military aspects of the era. This is history at its finest. McPherson gives equal weight to both the Southern and Northern perspectives, along with their many nuances. At times the politics were almost as violent and destructive as the battles themselves. We come to understand the strengths and shortcomings of many of the government and military leaders, most notably Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, the often maligned Ulysses S. Grant, and the legendary Robert E. Lee.
Beyond presenting a mere account of the military campaigns and battles, McPherson discusses at length the treatment of military prisoners and freed slaves by both sides, the brutal guerilla warfare carried on by the South with the seemingly implicit endorsement of the Confederate government, and the participation in the conflict by the civilian populations of North and South. And at the book’s conclusion we understand the transformative effects of the Civil War and its outcome upon the northern and southern regions of the United States; these effects endure to the present day.
To read Battle Cry of Freedom requires commitment, but the reward is a richer understanding of one of the most significant moments in our history, of who we are today as a nation – and why.