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Civil War Historian James McPherson

2/25/2015 • Military History Magazine

April 2015 marks the formal end of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with the commemoration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va. As the memorials, ceremonies, celebrations and activities draw to a close this year, it leaves many to wonder if the Civil War will continue to hold the interest of historians beyond 2015. Military History recently spoke with Pulitzer Prize winner and Civil War historian James M. McPherson about the course of the Civil War, its importance and why it still matters, the subject of his forthcoming book, The War That Forged a Nation (March 2015).

James McPherson explains the impact and ongoing relevance of the Civil War in his new book The War That Forged a Nation. (Illustration by Brett Affrunti)
James McPherson explains the impact and ongoing relevance of the Civil War in his new book The War That Forged a Nation. (Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

How did you become interested in the Civil War?
Growing up in Minnesota, I didn’t have any particular interest in the Civil War. It wasn’t until my freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus College that I became fascinated by the process of historical inquiry, the ways we come to know the past and how the past shapes the present. My school didn’t have a Civil War course. But it did have American political and social history courses, and I majored in history with a focus on the United States. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, the Montgomery bus boycott and the crisis over desegregation of Little Rock Central High School all coincided with my college years. I wanted to know more about the South and about the history of race relations, so I continued on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins.

While I was in Baltimore, the civil rights movement exploded, and I was starkly aware of the parallels between the 1860s and the 1960s. Wanting to understand the relationship between the past and present, I decided to do my Ph.D. dissertation on the civil rights activists of the 1860s—the abolitionists and how they worked for the same goals of equal rights and education as the civil rights activists of the 1960s. This dissertation became my first book, and from this initial foray into the Civil War era and Reconstruction, I expanded my interests into the political and eventually into the military context in which these events took place.

What was the war’s basic cause?
The cause of the Civil War must be divided into three parts: First, the issue of slavery and its expansion—which built up over decades and accelerated in the period between 1846 and 1860—came to a head in the presidential election of 1860, causing the deep South states to secede when Abraham Lincoln’s election convinced them they had lost control of the national government and, therefore, of slavery’s fate within the Union. Second, Lincoln’s determination not to compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion. Third, Lincoln’s dedication to resupply rather than abandon Fort Sumter, and the decision of Jefferson Davis’ administration to fire on federal troops at the South Carolina fort. The final catalyst, as opposed to the long-term cause, was the crisis over Fort Sumter.

‘Given the uncompromising stands of Lincoln and Northern Republicans favoring restriction of slavery’s expansion and opposing secession, and of Southern political leaders favoring slavery’s right to expand and the right of states to secede, some kind of showdown in 1860–61 was unavoidable’

Was the Civil War a “total war”?
It depends on how one defines “total war.” Mark Neely’s influential 1991 article argued that true total war, as measured by World War II, made no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Because Civil War armies did not deliberately target civilian lives, as did both Axis and Allied armies and air forces in World War II, the Civil War could not be called a total war. Sherman’s “bummers” [foragers] destroyed a great deal of Southern property but relatively few Southern lives.

But if one defines total war as the total mobilization of the adversarial polities and societies to achieve victory, amounting to unconditional surrender by one side or the other, then the Civil War does fit the definition.

When did Lincoln fully commit to emancipating the slaves?
The Army of Northern Virginia’s successful counteroffensive in the Seven Days Battles [June 25–July 1, 1862] convinced Lincoln that his strategy of limited war to defeat the Confederate armies and bring the South back into the Union without damaging the infrastructure of Southern society—including slavery—could not succeed. In July 1862 Lincoln said, “We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Only by destroying the South’s ability to sustain war could the North win. Slavery was key to the Southern infrastructure, so he decided to move against slavery.

Why did Lincoln and Grant allow such lenient surrender terms?
By 1865 both men were convinced that the war could be won only by destroying the Confederacy’s will and ability to continue fighting, but they also believed that reunion could best be achieved by lenient terms once the Confederates had surrendered. They believed that once the two sides were no longer enemies, they should be friends, if the nation was to be truly reunited. Generous surrender terms for the Confederate armies would be an important first step in that process.

Could the war have been avoided?
Given the uncompromising stands of Lincoln and Northern Republicans favoring restricting slavery’s expansion and opposing secession, and of Southern political leaders favoring slavery’s right to expand and the right of states to secede, some kind of showdown in 1860–61 was unavoidable. Only if one side or the other had been willing to give up its principles could the war have been avoided. And neither side was willing.

Did Reconstruction actually reunify the country?
Reconstruction succeeded in bringing the South back into the Union. And for a time it did so on the terms of equal civil and political rights for the freed slaves. But violent resistance by many Southern whites and a diminishing willingness by Northern voters and political leaders to use force to maintain those rights meant that reunification, by the 1870s, came at the cost of genuine acceptance of the principles embodied in the 14th and 15th Amendments.

What is the most significant result of the war with ongoing reverberations in our society?
The power of the federal government to enforce the rights granted by the 14th and 15th Amendments, which has been exercised since the 1960s, is the most significant reverberation. Without the accomplishments of the war, we surely would not have a black president today.

McPherson urges Americans to remember the lessons of the Civil War, the consequences of forgetfulness readily apparent in this Mathew Brady stereograph of soldiers' graves. (Library of Congress)
McPherson urges Americans to remember the lessons of the Civil War, the consequences of forgetfulness readily apparent in this Mathew Brady stereograph of soldiers' graves. (Library of Congress)

The war ended 150 years ago. Why save the battlefields?
There is no better way to understand events that happened in the past and to appreciate their importance than to go to the places where they happened. We can put ourselves into the environment of the past, whether it’s at the Confederate White House, Ford’s Theatre or Civil War battlefields. By walking the terrain we can better understand the tactics and appreciate the sacrifices of those who fought there. If we lose these places, we lose a vital part of the past—and, therefore, a part of our present.

Do you think interest in the Civil War will continue after sesquicentennial anniversaries end in 2015?
No doubt there will be some decline of interest once the sesquicentennial anniversaries are over, but there was a great deal of interest before those anniversaries—the success of the Ken Burns series in 1990 and the existence of hundreds of roundtables—and I think a high level of interest will continue.

In one sentence, why does the Civil War still matter?
The Civil War shaped the world we live in today, and we cannot fully appreciate and understand our world without knowing how the war shaped it.

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