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This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

by James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 2007, 272 pages, $28.

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James M. McPherson combines a profound understanding of the Civil War with a narrative style that is elegant, erudite and accessible. In This Mighty Scourge, McPherson offers a delightful collection of 16 essays, including three that have never before been published, on topics such as the international importance of the Battle of Antietam; Robert E. Lee’s strategic goals for the Gettysburg campaign (excerpted in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times); the war-winning relationship between Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln; Jefferson Davis and his generals; the Confederate legacy of Jesse James; and Lincoln’s justifications for curtailing civil liberties.

McPherson provides plenty of highlights. The Antietam essay “The Saratoga That Wasn’t,” for example, shows him at his scholarly, provocative best. It discusses how Britain and France were prepared to recognize the Confederacy in the weeks before the fateful September 1862 battle in Maryland, and how the stalemate at Antietam not only cost the Confederacy a critical opportunity to impress potential European allies, but also prompted President Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. By doing that, Lincoln inextricably linked the war with slavery, further discouraging prospects for foreign recognition of the slaveholding Southern nation. McPherson concludes his insightful essay by noting that “Antietam was unquestionably the most important battle of the Civil War in its impact on foreign relations. Never again did Britain and France come so close to intervention.”

Another brilliant essay, “No Peace Without Victory,” explores the pressures on Lincoln, especially during the 1864 election season, to seek a negotiated peace settlement with the Confederacy that would jettison the issue of emancipation. McPherson explores how both Davis and Lincoln used peace proposals as a tactical means to embarrass and politically undermine the other side. It turns out, McPherson notes, that neither side wanted a return to the status quo of the antebellum nation, despite what Northern Peace Democrats (aka Copperheads) might have desired. The Davis government demanded independence, but Lincoln would not budge on emancipation as a precondition for a peaceful settlement. This essay is strategic political analysis at its finest.

Perhaps McPherson’s most provocative essay is “Long-Legged Yankee Lies,” which closely examines how history textbooks, most of them published in the North and written by Northern authors, were attacked by “Lost Cause” defenders in the South in the decades after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. McPherson analyzes how and why Northern publishers eventually caved in to pressure from such groups as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) by eliminating references to “the evils of slavery” and the illegality of Southern secession.

McPherson shows us the criteria developed by the UDC’s historian general, Mildred Rutherford, for excluding history textbooks from Southern classrooms, including any “book that says the South fought to hold her slaves,” any book “that speaks of the Constitution other than as a compact between Sovereign States,” and any “book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis.” McPherson explores the effectiveness of these UDC tactics to exclude what it considered to be historic misrepresentations about the Confederacy during the Civil War, and concludes that “The Lost Cause triumphed in the curriculum, if not on the battlefield.”

“Unvexed to the Sea,” an essay about Ulysses S. Grant’s drawn-out Vicksburg campaign, is also an insightful analysis of the crucial relationship between the two men who did more for the Union cause than anyone else: Grant and Lincoln. McPherson notes that despite the protests of newspaper editors and Grant’s Union military rivals, who spread rumors about the general’s drinking problems and helped create his reputation as a “butcher” who eagerly fed troops into the meat grinder of battle, the president stood by his man during “one of the riskiest campaigns of the war.” After Lincoln had differed with Grant on military tactics during the campaign, and Grant’s ideas proved successful, Lincoln humbly wrote his general, “you were right and I was wrong.” Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and the general vindicated it.

Not all of McPherson’s essays are of equal historic depth and weight. His essays on Jesse James or the heroism of Massachusetts Brahmins are absorbing pieces, but perhaps not as relevant as his essays on the strategic importance of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. That quibble aside, This Mighty Scourge is a delightful cornucopia of wide-ranging Civil War scholarship stylishly written by a master historian at the very top of his game.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.