Monday, March 9, 2015

Mr. Lincoln's Very Long Shadow

James M. McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

Visit any American bookstore, and head for the History section. Though world history in all its flavors enjoys generous shelf space, two periods occupy the greatest share. World War II and, especially, the American Civil War retain unmatched holds on American imaginations, in ways that bespeak our identity as a nation. If the Revolution created the American state, the Civil War created the American People. Its legacy remains very present, 150 years later.

Princeton historian James McPherson, whose half-century career has helped shape current attitudes about the Civil War, purposes here not to create a new history of the American Civil War, but to ruminate upon its import. This proves valuable because, reading along, it’s impossible to miss the resonances between the history McPherson describes, and today’s live issues. In McPherson’s telling, the past is present, and something we must wrestle with to this day.

Why did General Grant and Admiral Farragut succeed, while General McClellan and Admiral DuPont failed? The traits which defined our winning commanders still describe what characteristics we seek in politicians, business professionals, and other leaders. Or, how about this question: who freed the slaves? Most Americans reflexively say “Abraham Lincoln” or “the Thirteenth Amendment,” but McPherson musters diverse evidence proving this question defies any single simple answer.

McPherson traffics, not in knowledge, but in debates. Many essays respond to, or argue with, other historians, whose opinions and interpretations reveal how hotly contested the Civil War’s heritage remains. These responses sometimes seem inconsistent. In one essay, he disputes Yale theologian Harry Stout’s assertion that the Union cannot claim Just War status under conventional Christian mores. McPherson systematically dismantles Stout’s facts, and presents a persuasive counter-argument.

James M. McPherson
His very next essay, however, rejects Mark Neely’s account that the Civil War was characterized by “remarkable restraint.” Though McPherson says General Sherman “did not even commit the ‘wanton pillage’ of Southern legend,” he nevertheless cannot countenance the claim that a war which killed two percent of the American population showed “restraint.” Thus McPherson demonstrates his greatest point, that the Civil War resists pat answers and simple nationalistic bromides.

One essay, “Lincoln, Slavery, and Freedom,” describes how, throughout the war, the Union’s core motivating issue evolved, and with it, the American principle of freedom. North and South were divided by competing definitions of freedom: Southern slaveholders believed Northern regulation impeded economic freedom, the freedom of wealthy individuals to own and exploit other human beings. McPherson quotes Southern documents that precisely echo contemporary Tea Party definitions of freedom.

Elsewhere, an essay about General George McClellan, America’s youngest General-in-Chief ever, presents a stark split. McClellan succeeded Winfield Scott in command because his will to execute swift, unambiguous action apparently provided the moral backbone Lincoln demanded. Except, once he assumed command, this gentleman soldier became paranoid, indecisive, and timid. The change in McClellan highlights the gulf between American peacetime and wartime cultures.

And McPherson’s final essay stretches beyond the war itself. Radical Republicans attempted to force justice into Southern law, but declared victory around 1877, and went home. Southern Democrats then wrote bigotry, exploitation, and injustice into their laws—laws which remained enforced a full century after fighting ended. Some economic firebrands have attempted, recently, to roll back history to those post-Reconstruction times, forcing McPherson, and us, to ask: who really won the war?

This slim book, under 170 pages plus back matter, doesn’t pretend to resolve every question the Civil War raises. Not really a single book, but a collection of twelve essays, McPherson assumes readers’ prior familiarity with Civil War history. His broad view stretches from the war’s roots, in the racialized propaganda of the Mexican-American war, to Reconstruction’s long shadow, when the Confederates who lost the war arguably won the peace.

For James McPherson, history isn’t dead accumulations of facts. History encompasses debates about motivations, ways living societies define concepts like “justice” and “freedom,” and what bedrock principles make America truly American. To McPherson, the American state may have begun in 1776 (or 1789), but the American nation, the people who define themselves according to consistent principles and just laws, achieved adulthood between 1861 and 1865.

Now, McPherson never explicitly highlights the similarities between Civil War history and the present. He never comments directly upon current events; his historical ruminations only unfold through the Civil Rights Movement, and then only briefly. But he needn’t actually say any more. Attentive readers will observe that, on multiple issues—gun control, economic restraint, leadership, and more—the past is, in McPherson’s telling, visibly present.

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