Coming Late to McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”

The historian James McPherson released his survey of the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, in 1988. Despite its 900 pages of girth, the book was an overnight success and shared the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in History with Taylor Branch’s equally mammoth Parting the Waters.

Named for the Civil War-era song that they used to sing I guess

I came to it early in the pandemic when, faced with dwindling in-home activities, I nearly engineered a Kurswechsel into full Civil War buff. There’s yet time for that, but more recently I turned again to the book and found some delightful tidbits.

The book opens, as it says, “at midcentury,” and McPherson takes you on an albatross’ tour of the country’s development. The famous Jacksonian market economy is detailed, as is the pace of western expansion. The narrative voice alights right around the time of the Mexican War, when a Pennsylvania Congressman named David Wilmot hurls a lit match into the political tinderbox that was arguments over statehood in the time of slavery.

Wilmot’s Proviso was a BFD

From there, it’s all downhill – Lincoln’s election is for McPherson the “Revolution of 1860,” secession and Fort Sumter the “Counterrevolution of 1861”. Much emphasis is given to the reception of military outcomes in the home territories; dispatches from Birmingham or Atlanta or New York or Philadelphia newspapers give color to the political goings-on behind the front lines.

1862, as McPherson details, was a banner year for the Union, especially in the Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns. From Cairo, the town memorialized in Huck Finn as the riparian entrance to the Old South, Army forces stabbed into the belly of the Confederacy.

There’s not a lot of illustrations from Huck Finn, which strikes me as odd

U.S. Grant made his name at Forts Henry and Donelson, redoubts along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, where he along with Andrew Foote mounted a coordinated land-water invasion. A commander named John Floyd, who had previously brought scandal to his name by going out of his way to restock Southern armories as Buchanan’s Secretary of War in full view of the coming crisis, was meant to be the Union’s prize, but he escaped overnight. So too did a profiteering battalion commander named Nathan Bedford Forrest, who decided mere hours before Fort Donelson’s surrender to slip out with his force across the icy Cumberland.

Characters abound in McPherson’s telling, and they’re all sketched in hokey, memorable ways. Charles Ellet, who built an impressive ramming squadron in the fresh-water Union navy through 1861 and 1862, was “doughty” and “frail-looking,” but died a glorious death in the Battle of Memphis. The “most intrepid of all” Union sailors, David Farragut, is “angry as a hornet” mid-battle. A Confederate war council at Fort Donelson was filled with “the self-important Tennessee politician Gideon Pillow, and the darkly handsome, saturnine West Pointer Simon Bolivar Buckner”. Incredibly, Buckner’s son, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was the highest-ranking officer killed in World War II.

The battles ebb and flow across the long years, and some of the keenest observation McPherson brings is in charting the evolution of military strategy and tactics. The situation at Vicksburg was basically frozen by the summer of 1862 – the last stand of the Confederacy on the Mississippi, it would take the Union army over a year before Grant’s daring campaign of maneuvers successfully took the city. Generals like Henry Halleck and George McClellan retarded the successful persecution of the war with old-timey beliefs – McPherson calls him “Jominian,” a reference to the noted war theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose book on war crystallized the lessons of the Napoleonic Era. Part of Lincoln’s great strategic wisdom was to know that these beliefs were outdated, and part of Grant’s success was the way he threw the Jominian playbook out.

Carnage from Vicksburg

Of course, perhaps the most notable change on the battlefield in the Civil War was the invention of ironclads, naval warships as we know them today which did not in fact exist before 1861. The CSS Virginia absolutely shredded the Union’s old ships of the line in its debut engagement at Hampton Roads. Remarkably, the Union was able to launch its first ironclad, the USS Monitor, the next day, and the two fought to an historic standstill. When the Union army was able to capture the city of Hampton Roads not too much later, the greyshirts blew the Virginia up so as to avoid its capture; the Monitor was sunk in a storm not too much later.

More to come as I dip in and out of its old thing. A Civil War guy I may yet become.

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