Review: The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

The Battle Cry of Freedom is a fundamental study concentrating on the American Civil War as the subject matter. Live presentation style combined with the thorough procedure of the scientific research referring to the vast array of documents and historical literature made the book interesting as well as informative for the reader. The Battle Cry of Freedom by Professor McPherson in detail examines the socio-political, economic and cultural contradictions that made the Civil War inevitable. The historian incorporates a broad panorama of military operations, industrial mobilization and diplomatic maneuvers of the main figures of the era into the historical content of the book. Moreover, McPherson develops a contrast between the South and the North before the Civil War. The professor explains the reasons why the weak South was winning while economically developed North was losing the major period of the war.

Talking about the author’s background, James McPherson is an American Civil War historian famous for the book Battle Cry of Freedom for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. McPherson is known for fighting against so-called modern neo-Confederates and for his active position in the issues of the preservation of the places of battles during the Civil War.

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When writing a book, the writer decided to use the narrative method that allows to display the complexity of the cause-and-effect relationships and dynamism of events the best. Thus, the Battle Cry of Freedom is a non-fiction piece of literature that in 850 pages provides a reasonable point of view on the historic event of crucial importance for the American history. In other words, the book reminds a documentary rather than a historiography.

Regarding the profound analysis of the book subject matter and historical content, it is worth mentioning that the title of the book comes from a Civil War song "The Battle Cry of Freedom" written in 1862. The book starts with a short introduction discussing the preconditions of the war, social, political, and economic causes. The first part of the book describes the situation in the United States before the war. On these pages the readers see a surreal picture of the two parallel worlds with opposing economic structures, traditions, and moral principles. Markedly, the readers find the detailed passage devoted to slavery and the election of 1860. McPherson concentrates on the differences in the economies between the North and South as well as political, social, cultural, and other individual peculiarities. He reminds about the Mexican War and bleeding Kansas calling it “the crime against Kansas”. The differences between the northern and southern states were so strong that the Northerners tried to prevent the annexation of the American territories by the end of the war with Mexico in order to avoid the expansion of the slave-owning households. In turn, the Southerners conducted an aggressive propaganda of slavery. Significantly, all this information is scrupulously described in James McPherson’s work complemented by good maps and illustrations.

The main theme of the book is actually the Civil War, the author explains what it was and which causes it had. McPherson emphasizes that slavery was the predominant source of the war. Therefore, much of historian’s attention is focused on the slavery subject in particular. Furthermore, McPherson studies the striking distinction between the northern and southern ways of lives and its impact on the outcome of the war. Thus, this discrepancy becomes another major theme of the book.

As far as the interpretation of the central themes of the book is concerned, all the researchers conducted by the author are aimed at finding the answer to the question why the North could not celebrate the victory in this war while the South remained successful for a long time, disproportionally to its resources. McPherson claims that the main reason was the case of the providence which is unable to override any conditions and laws. According to the author, slavery determined the South's economy, its social structure, and political vectors. Generally, it is the behavior of the Southerners, with their constant attacks and threats to leave the alliance, which McPherson sees as the main reasons for the outbreak of the war. The Professor is sure that the Northerners just had high ambitions which were envied by many immigrants. The rapid development of capitalism, the presence of rich natural resources, vast unpopulated areas, migration from Europe and the influx of foreign capital caused the formation of strong states in the North. 

On the contrary, the southern states of the country developed a plantation economy based on labor of black slaves. Consequently, the most important feature of the U.S. political life of that period was the folding mechanism of the two-party system and a policy of encouraging commercial and industrial development of the country. For this purpose, the introduction of tariffs could have protected the young domestic industry from foreign competition. Notably, in the first half of the 19th century America was actively engaged in territorial expansion. The book describes how the U.S. acquired French Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, for 15 million American dollars. As a result, the U.S. territories reached the Pacific coast in the middle of century. 

The American expansionist ideas found expression in the doctrine of President Monroe in 1823. It was justified by the idea of prohibiting the colonization of the Americas by the European countries. Hence, the author considers that such behavior of the Southerners had a certain foundation as they had a traditional society close to the most of the countries of that time. On the other hand, the North was rapidly changing and, finally, entered the industrial society which frightened the Southerners who were always seeking to preserve their vision of an ideal state structure and freedom. Such vision required not only the possibility to act independently but to conduct an independent policy as well. 

The Battle Cry of Freedom is extremely accurate and consistent. McPherson clearly mentions the most influential details and battles of the Civil War. The book provides a multitude of relevant historical details. However, it does not describe the movements of the troops too much, as a lot of chronicles of the Civil War period do. The New York Times in its publication “The Bloodiest of Wars” commented that “the book is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical”. I agree that the book is easy to understand even for those who are not familiar with the topic but wish to know more about the Civil War. 

It goes without saying that the book is historically important. It presents strong arguments linking the events with the political figures as, for example, Abolitionists and Lincoln’s presidency, expansion of new territories, and the Monroe doctrine. Describing the course of military operations, diplomatic twists and turns as well as the situation on the home front, MacPherson actively uses memoirs, letters and diaries of participants of events beginning with Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and ending with ordinary soldiers and civilians. Such effective technique, in combination with good language and presentation style, makes the book a simple and intuitive reading.

More than that, McPherson's writing style seems like a novel. It helps to understand the logic of the writer. Narrating the events of the Civil War, James McPherson not only summarizes the results of the available studies but reviews a number of well-established stereotypes in historiography. For instance, the situation with Willis Grant and Robert E. Lee when the federal army corporal found a copy of the order of Confederate’s General Robert E. Lee in an abandoned camp. It contained the plan of maneuvers of the Northern army wrapped around a package of cigars. Of course, the narrative approach does not imply that McPherson is limited exclusively by retelling a huge amount of researches and sources. The book is quite analytical. It also has observations, reflections, and author’s conclusions. The author wrote, “I have tried to integrate the political and military events of this era with important social and economic developments”. The Battle Cry of Freedom related the battles to a social life in the country, found reflection between economic issues and the political figures. 

I have been always interested in the theme of the American South and the Civil War. I read several works on this subject, but McPherson describes the events in much greater depth than others. I really enjoyed reading the book. Surely, the author conducted a titanic work analyzing the North and the South of the United States before the war, all the causes and socio-economic conditions as well as the political situation on both sides of the frontier. In my opinion, McPherson is a wonderful storyteller who creates an extremely interesting text to read. He skillfully introduces a large number of memoirs, diaries, correspondence, telegrams, communiques, speeches, and newspapers. It allows the author to constitute a breathing, pulsating image of the era and its characters. For people interested in history in general and in the American history in particular, it is highly recommended to read this fundamental book which James McPherson managed to write.

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