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The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters, by James M. McPherson

New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 220. Notes, index. $14.95 paper. ISBN: 0190658533.

Essays on the Civil War and American Society

In his preface to this collection of some of his articles, James M. McPherson, one of the leading authorities on our country’s defining and most damaging episode, offers a welcome and much-needed challenge to the rigidity displayed by some accounts of that conflict: “I welcome disagreement and dialogue, for that is how scholarship and understanding advance.”

The book’s opening essay cogently details many of the effects of the Civil War and its aftermath in a discussion of the war’s meaning. McPherson notes how most slave states seceded “not only” because of the threat to slavery, but also because they were “looking forward to the expansion of a dynamic, independent slave-holding polity,” in parts of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. In the paper on the coming of the war, he quotes Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs on the great injustice of the Mexican War, but notes that in The Papers of U.S. Grant, we find that Grant exaggerated the intensity of his feelings, if he didn’t fabricate them long afterward. McPherson confirms that President James K. Polk insisted on the Rio Grande and not the Nueces as Texas’ southern border. This historically incorrect claim allowed Polk to instigate what was clearly an unjust war.

After a discourse on the concept of a just war, McPherson describes the extent of the death and destruction of the American Civil War, using the recently revised estimate of 750,000 military deaths for the two opponents. He notes how historian Mark Neely rightly challenged the notion of the conflict as “total war". concluding that it was not a war “without any scruples or limitations", and that the assertion that large portions of the South looked “like bombed-out cities of Europe and Japan” goes rather too far. But, considering the atrocities on both sides, McPherson is also on strong ground when he challenges Neely’s minimization of deaths.

In discussing the navies and British neutrality, McPherson gives a very good explanation of the legality and effectiveness of the Union blockade of southern ports, albeit it might have benefited from a discussion of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ recommendation for a simple closure of these ports. In comparing the Union admirals, McPherson gives Farragut his due, concluding that his operations “did indeed entitle him to virtually equal status with Grant and Sherman in winning the war". He goes on to say that “The Union navy deserves more credit for Northern victory than it has traditionally received.” McPherson quotes from Grant’s Memoirs, which stress that without the navy, the Vicksburg “campaign could not have been made.” Grant, though, frequently minimized the navy’s worth, in general, and the very effective naval blockade, in particular. Grant denigrated Secretary Welles, but it was Welles who plucked Farragut from far down the seniority list, betting on his loyalty and ability. McPherson concluded that “Rarely in the history of naval warfare has a gamble paid off so handsomely.”

In an essay on how freedom came to those in slavery, McPherson notes that Lincoln had “never understood or supported” abolition, but that as the enslaved liberated themselves, they forced his hand. He also accurately observes that “no one deserved more credit for the victory than Abraham Lincoln.” An essay titled “Lincoln, Slavery and Freedmen” describes how Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont’s proclamation of emancipation on August 30, 1861 in Missouri was rejected, and why, just three months later, Lincoln would, in his State of the Union address, indicate that confiscated slaves would become free. Also how a year later Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and, after Appomattox, called for limited Black suffrage.

In an essay on the president as commander-in-chief, McPherson quotes T. Harry Williams’ comment that Lincoln was “a great natural strategist, and a better one than any of his generals", demurring only on Lincoln being called a “natural". That's a reasonable objection, given the learning curve that confronted the president. Unfortunately, McPherson embraces Henry Halleck’s biased attack on volunteer officers, which unfairly demeaned generals Lew Wallace and John McClernand, both much better than alleged by many historians. In a different vein, McPherson states that the accusation of Lincoln’s “procrastination” in Grant’s Memoirs “does not ring entirely true.”

George McClellan, meanwhile, is disparaged for wanting only to preserve the Union early in the war, although this was the majority view as well as Lincoln’s stand at the time.

In summary, despite some quibbles, The War That Forged a Nation contains a wealth of oft-overlooked information and solid conclusions concerning many salient facets of the American Civil War. It is highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: Joseph A. Rose, holds digress in geography and Industrial and Labor Relations, and is the author of Grant Under Fire, a critical look at the career and memoirs of U.S. Grant.


Note: The War That Forged a Nation is also available in hardback, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-1993-7577-6, and several e- and audio editions.


Reviewer: Joseph A. Rose   

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