Thursday, July 13, 2006

I phoned James McPherson to ask what caused the war

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
—Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Ten years ago, the Civil War Forum inaugurated its online, author Q&A series with an hour-long chat with James McPherson, George Henry Davis Professor of American History at Princeton University. This was not long after the publication of his book of essays, Drawn With The Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1996). That’s a great book, a strong collection of finely-tuned essays that show McPherson at his reflective best. In the immaturity of youth, back when I took (more) pleasure in needling neo-Confederate types in various online venues, I adopted the title of one of McPherson’s essays, “The War of Southern Aggression,” to refer to that era. Couple that with some high praise for Sherman, and, well, my 300-baud modem could barely keep up with the digitally streaming profanity.

But back to McPherson (pronounced McFURson, if the old saying is true, “there’s no Fear in McPherson”). On May 9, 1996, while I was living in Santa Clara, California, I telephoned Dr. McPherson at a preselected time. If memory serves, he was on sabbatical at the Huntington Library in San Marino, about 400 miles south, down Pasadena way. I had him on one line, while I was logged on to the Civil War Forum with another. I relayed questions to him from members in the chat room, and typed in his responses under his name.

For me, the Q&A session after a Round Table or conference presentation is often the best part of the evening. It’s when the guest departs from prepared remarks, and really reveals their command of (hopefully), and fascination with history. These online Q&A sessions were much the same. I always started out with a few pointed questions of my own, and the rest came randomly from those in attendance. McPherson handled some fairly difficult questions with the ease and confidence of someone fluent in all aspects of the subject. I invoked the “s” word in the very first questionno sense in leaving the causes of the war till last.

Civil War Forum: While you acknowledge that the North and South had developed into distinctly different societieswith the most profound changes occurring in the Northyour writings (including many essays in this book) are unequivocal on the point that slavery was the fundamental cause of the war. How do you reconcile that with a statement in "Why the Confederacy Lost" that most Confederates did not feel they were fighting for slavery, and what do you say to those who regard slavery as just one more item on a long list of issues contributing to sectional strife?

James McPherson: Slavery was not only the most important single difference between North and South, but also the basis for most of the other differences in social structure, economy, and political ideology. By 1860, each section saw the expansion of the other's social and economic institutions as a threat to the survival of its own. Technically, slavery was not the cause of the war, but of the South's secession, because the slave states saw Lincoln's election as the handwriting on the wall that doomed slavery and every thing that was associated with it in the Union. There would have been no war, however, without some such trigger as the firing on Ft. Sumter. When Confederate soldiers said they were fighting for independence and not for slavery, what they meant was that they were fighting not explicitly for slavery, but for a society of which slavery was an essential part, but one taken for granted.

Civil War Forum: Are there any credible works that, in your opinion, argue successfully that slavery was not the major cause of the war?

James McPherson: No, I don't think so. There was a school of historians known as the "Revisionists" that flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, and tried to portray inept politicians and over-stimulated public emotions as the main reason for the breakdown of compromise and the coming of the war. What that overlooks is that the issues over which politicians failed to work out a rational compromise and that stimulated public passions were all related to slavery in one way or another. The issue went too deep for compromise, and the emotions that it provoked were real and not artificial, and that is what the Revisionists failed to understand.

Civil War Forum: In your essay, "Lee Dissected," you take Alan Nolan to task somewhat for being overzealous in his critique of Lee in Lee Considered, but you conclude that Nolan probably was closer to the truth than the Marble Man mythology on the other end of the spectrum. Have any modern historians found that middle ground? Does Emory Thomas new biography break new ground in that regard?

James McPherson: Emory Thomas's biography is as close to a balanced appraisal of Lee's strengths and weaknesses as we are likely to get. But it is not accurate to say that he broke new ground so much as that he has absorbed scholarship on Lee written in recent years, including Joe Glatthaar's study of command relationships, Gary Gallagher's essays on various battles in the Eastern Theater, and Steven Woodworth's new study of the relationship between Davis and Lee. With all of these studies, we now have a solid and incisive body of writing on Lee.

Civil War Forum: In "How the Confederacy Almost Won," you state your belief that, contrary to some traditional interpretations, a Northern victory in the war was not inevitable, and was based ultimately on how the fortunes of war played out on the battlefield. You speak of some critical turning points, but do you identify any specific period or campaign as the true "high water mark" of the Confederacy?

James McPherson: There were two potential high water marks, and neither was at Gettysburg. The first came in September 1862 when two Confederate armies invaded Union territory and seemed poised for victories which, if they had occurred, would have brought European diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy and would probably have given anti-war Democrats control of the House in the fall Congressional elections. The other high water mark came nearly two years later in August 1864 when it appeared that the Northern electorate would repudiate Lincoln and his war policies in the presidential election. If that had happened the consequence might well have been Confederate independence. The traditional "high water mark" at Gettysburg overlooks the simultaneous situation at Vicksburg, whose fall probably would have canceled the benefits of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg.

Civil War Forum: In "What's the Matter With History," you allude to the distinction made by many professional historians between popular history and professional scholarship. You pointed out that although Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer, it did not garner awards from professional associations of historians. Do you think the immense popularity of Battle Cry of Freedom, which sold over 600,000 copies, is eroding the idea that professional scholarship and widely accessible history are not compatible?

James McPherson: I would hope so. That was one of my purposes in writing the book, and I think that it succeeded in bringing the findings of professional scholarship to a broader audience. At the same time, while academic historians give lip service to that purpose, the reward system within academia often is inconsistent with that lip service so that writing for a popular audience is still sometimes looked down on.

Civil War Forum: Recalling your statement, "two potential high water marks, neither at Gettysburg," J.F.C. Fuller has stated that "the Drums of Champion Hill sounded the Doom of Richmond," meaning that if Pemberton had defeated Grant thereand he had his chancesGrant would likely have been removed, and the history of the last years of the war would have been quite different.

James McPherson: Let me respond briefly. I think that is quite likely, and if Grant had not come east and become General in Chief there is a strong possibility that the Confederates could have held long enough to defeat Lincoln for reelection and thereby win the war.

Civil War Forum: Have your views on the War changed significantly over the years? And if so, what are some of those shifts?

James McPherson: When I first began studying the war, I shared the view of abolitionists and Radical Republicans that Lincoln was a conservative on the slavery issue and moved too slowly to make emancipation a war aim. But the more I study Lincoln, and the enormous pressures brought to bear on him from all sides, the more I appreciate his skillful leadership in keeping several factions working together in behalf of the principal war aim: preservation of the Union. Had he not done this so well, the North could never have won the war and slavery would obviously have survived. Therefore his leadership, focusing on the principal goal of Union, accomplished, eventually, the abolition of slavery more surely than a radical policy would have done.

Civil War Forum: As modern students, it's very easy for us to read all the debates leading up to secession. Did the average person in the South before the war have as clear a picture of the issues that were being debated?

James McPherson: No, probably not, because they lacked access to many of the Northern newspapers and other forms of expression that we can read today. But it should be remembered that Americans then were avid newspaper readers and the principal content of newspapers focused on politics. The political interest of the average citizen was much higher than it is today because it was one of the principal forms of popular entertainment, as well as of information. Thus voter participation was extremely high, and political meetings, speeches, rallies and the like attracted huge crowds and stirred up a great deal of popular interest. Therefore the level of political knowledge and commitment was high and people had a good grasp of the issues.

Civil War Forum: What is the major lesson to be learned from a study of the civil war?

James McPherson: Probably that deep-rooted and controversial social problems should be addressed before they become so huge and so divisive that they polarize the society. If some kind of gradual program to deal with economic and social problems associated with slavery had been undertaken in 1789, or even in 1820, the issue would not have become so huge and the positions so uncompromising as to cause a war. But saying that Americans should have done this is easy for us today. It may not have been possible for them to do it given the circumstances of their own time. That is why many historians have come to the conclusion that some kind of showdown between free and slave states was inevitableso perhaps another lesson we might draw from the war is that some problems are so great that they cannot be resolved short of a social cataclysm. I don't know which is the right answer.

Civil War Forum: Before and during the war, Southerners were quite open about slavery being the issue dividing the North and South. In post-war writings, however, the issues mentioned were nebulous states' rights (rather than the specific one of slavery), tariffs, and so on. When did this change occur? And why?

James McPherson: The change occurred immediately with the end of the war. Slavery was gone, and more to the point, it was discredited. What had seemed like a proud and rational stand in favor of the institution in 1861, when Alexander Stephens called slavery "the Cornerstone of the Confederacy," now seemed in 1865 like a discredited and even an evil institution. Therefore, Southerners who were proud of their Confederate heritage sought an alternative justification and settled quickly on the issue of states rights, which was the central theme of Stephens's book, published in 1868, The War Between the States (that's where that phrase comes from—nobody to my knowledge used that phrase during the war itself).

Civil War Forum: One can reasonably argue that proponents of the Lost Cause look at the antebellum South nostalgically. Without falling into the Lost Cause mindset, do you find anything "good" or "noble" about the pre-War South?

James McPherson: Yes, I think there are many admirable things about the antebellum South: the strong sense of family; the tradition of hospitality and generosity; the ideals of noblesse oblige that stood for a sense of responsibility toward those less fortunate or weaker than one's self. The problem was that many of these admirable qualities were extended only toward those who refrained from criticizing or disagreeing with the South's social institutions and ideas.

Civil War Forum: Your response, please, to the following from Richard A. McLemore's A History of Mississippi: "The traditional view has been that Mississippi was carried out of the Union by ambitious young men who were engaged in accumulating slaves and broad acres and that the chief opposition they encountered came not from poor whites, but from wealthy planters (Whigs in many cases) who had already 'arrived' and did not wish to risk the loss of their status in a war whose outcome would be doubtful."

James McPherson: There is some truth in this argument. The wealthiest planters not only in Mississippi but in other states were in many cases Whigs and Conservatives who initially opposed secession because they feared the disruptive impact of such a radical move. Once secession became a reality, however, most of them went along with the Confederacy and some became prominent leaders in it. Nevertheless, Lincoln, among others, looked to these old Whigs when he issued a proclamation of amnesty in December 1863 inviting them to take the oath of allegiance and return to the Union. In states like Louisiana and Mississippi some of them did just that.

Civil War Forum: Do you have a favorite Civil War site you like to visit, and why?

James McPherson: My two favorite battlefields are Shiloh and Antietam. Mainly because they are today very similar in terrain and vegetation to the way they were in 1862. One can walk these battlefields and transport himself back 134 years in a way that is scarcely possible in many other battlefields where the modern world intrudes in many ways, both obvious and subtle.

Thank you everyone. Good night.

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