In the Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Ideals
edited by William J. Cooper Jr. and JohnM.McCardellJr.,LouisianaState University Press,2009,$27.95
Many of us sitting in the Virginia State Historical Society auditorium in March 2007 sensed that the papers being presented as part of “In the Cause of Liberty”—a symposium sponsored by the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond—were something special. Now, thanks to the LSU Press, many more Civil War scholars and enthusiasts can access the challenging insights and collective wisdom offered by the eminent historians who gathered there.
James M. McPherson’s brief, trenchant essay on how the conflict transformed America shows why he’s the reigning dean of Civil War scholars. “The tragic irony of the [war],” he observes, “is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers, but the two sides interpreted this heritage in opposite ways, and at first neither side included the slaves in the vision of liberty for which they fought.”
In two other excellent essays, Sean Wilentz grapples with the seemingly straightforward yet profoundly complex issues that compelled 11 states to secede, while Peter Onuf and Crista Dierksheide look beyond the political causes of secession to try to understand why so many Southerners “viewed slavery as the institution that guaranteed the progress of nations.”
Two essays weigh in on why memory studies are so integral to understanding the conflict’s continued relevance. David Blight relates the war’s heartbreaking legacy for African Americans, and Nina Silber brilliantly demolishes the contention that only the Southern point of view dominated the war in the hearts and minds of Americans in the years after the guns fell silent.
Combining powerful argument with passionate presentation, Chandra Manning examines the relationship between race and nationalism held by the men fighting the war, including nearly 200,000 African Americans who wore Union blue. She concludes that the potential for a genuine new birth of freedom was within the nation’s grasp in 1865, only to go tragically unfulfilled in the decades that followed because the desire for national reconciliation trumped the moral responsibility owed to 4 million newly freed blacks.
Finally, John McCardell’s eloquent tome chooses not the martial voice of warriors but the lyrical cadence of poet Stephen Vincent Benet to remind us that “the years 1861-65 would not constitute the final test of a fragile proposition that all men are created equal.” McCardell reminds us that John Brown’s prophesy, made from the shadow of his gallows, that the sins of the land would only be purged away by blood has proved only partially true, and that the fragile proposition for which so many died “is being tested still.”
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.