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Historic Obligations
Among historians, the "stigma of popularization" remains strong. That hasn't stopped Civil War scholar James McPherson (PhD '63) from striving to reach readers of all stripes.
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Doug Barber

In 1990, the historian James McPherson received a letter from a reader, a veteran of the Second World War. The man had just read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, McPherson's single-volume history of the United States from 1848 to 1865, and he praised the book in this way: "[Battle Cry] pleases the learned and the ignorant simultaneously and that's no mean writing accomplishment. You blend narrative and scholarship and often those two elements get in each other's way and the book becomes a mish-mash. Not in this case."

That correspondent didn't know it, but he had provided a near-perfect summary of McPherson's work. From the inception of his career after he obtained a Hopkins PhD in 1963, McPherson has written narrative historiography that merits respect from professional historians, yet attracts a wide readership among the general public. Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, has sold more than 600,000 copies, extraordinary for a 900-page book that does not scrimp on scholarship and is far more than just another battlefield chronicle (the first shot is not fired until pg. 273). Nearly four decades of McPherson's work remains in print, all the way back to his first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton, 1967), which was based on his Hopkins dissertation.

McPherson is simultaneously a scholar, a storyteller, a macrohistorian, a microhistorian, an essayist, and a purveyor of testaments. The dead of 140 years ago speak through him. By creating a vivid and richly detailed narrative context for their individual stories, he quietly persuades that though in many respects they were much different from us, they merit our fascination and respect. He dignifies them, and dignifies the reading public as well, presenting scholarship crafted to engage the general reader as well as the professional historian.

McPherson acknowledges the accurate characterization of his work by the vet who sent him that letter 11 years ago. "Yes, I do try to write for both the learned and the un-learned," he says. "I've been pleased to know that I have sometimes succeeded."

Edward L. Ayers, professor of history at the University of Virginia who also studies the Civil War, says, "I have only admiration for the kind of narrative Professor McPherson has written. No one has reached a larger, or more admiring, audience or written more enduring books of scholarship. He is the acknowledged leader of American Civil War historians."

The leader of Civil War historians is 64 years old now, teaching at Princeton for the 39th year, working on a new book, and active in efforts to preserve Civil War battlefields. He bicycles to work every day, weather permitting. On the inside of the door to his jumbled faculty office, there's a poster with a central image of Abraham Lincoln and all the words in Polish, a souvenir of an academic conference he attended. Taped to the outside of the door are several yellowing cartoons. One shows a man seated before a typewriter, with pages of manuscript stacked everywhere. The caption reads, "Finish? Why would I want to finish?"

James McPherson is simultaneously a scholar, a storyteller, a macrohistorian, a microhistorian, an essayist, and a purveyor of testaments. The dead of 140 years ago speak through him. In person, McPherson is amiable, attentive, and modest. After noting that he and his interlocutor use the same model backpack, he settles into a plastic chair next to a stack of books and file folders topped by his bicycle helmet and devotes several hours to discussing his work, the war, and the modern conduct of academic history.

He was born in Valley City, North Dakota, and graduated from small Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, in 1958. The one subject in high school that had diverted his interest from sports was history, and the first course that captured his imagination at Adolphus was a freshman Western Civ survey. Bachelor's degree in hand, he decided to become a historian. He also decided to head south. He says, "The South seemed like a perplexing, exotic, baffling place. I decided I needed to learn more about it." Baltimore was not all that southern, unless you're from North Dakota, perhaps, but it was below the Mason-Dixon Line, it was close to Washington, which appealed to McPherson, and at Hopkins was the historian C. Vann Woodward.

Woodward, who died in 1999 at the age of 91, was best known to the public as the author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford, 1989), a book that debunked the idea that segregation was an inevitable product of Southern culture. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called Jim Crow "the bible of the civil rights movement." Woodward, who did much to establish the modern paradigmatic historical viewpoint of the American South, had been at Hopkins for 12 years when McPherson arrived in 1958 to begin his PhD. McPherson recalls him as too soft-spoken to be a good lecturer, yet influential in two ways. First was Woodward's conveyance of "history as a dialogue between past and present. That was a theme of my graduate years at Hopkins." Second was Woodward's writing. Says McPherson, "I was influenced more by his writing than what he told me to do, because he rarely told me what to do. He allowed a lot of individualism and initiative. As a writer, his influence was more by example than precept. In his major work is a strong narrative line that embodies his meaning. The meaning comes out in the way the story is told."

It was Woodward who prompted the writing of Battle Cry. He was one of the founding editors of The Oxford History of the United States, a series projected to be 10 to 12 volumes, each by a different author. He initially asked McPherson to write the book covering 1865 to 1900. But when the historian who was supposed to do the Civil War volume suffered a stroke in 1978, McPherson agreed to switch periods and write the book that a few years later secured his reputation.

When he commenced work on what became Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson looked at the vast, complex story he had to tell and, recalling the example of Woodward, decided that he wanted to write a narrative. "My main idea was to organize the war years not by topic but to weave it all together in a chronological framework. I was trying to tell the military story, the political story, the economic story, and the social story all at once."

In the book McPherson moves smoothly back and forth from the big picture to the small. He demonstrates how westward expansion and the Mexican War exacerbated growing tensions over slavery, leading to the Fugitive Slave Act. Then he zooms in on the absurd spectacle of 300 armed deputies and 250 federal soldiers deployed to return a single runaway slave apprehended in Boston. His overview demonstrates how when Richmond was threatened in 1862, the South shrewdly tied the Yankees up in knots with a series of diversionary marches and attacks. His close focus reveals that in the Union army, rural troops from the West scorned the "city boys" from the East, but it was the former who fell to the contagious diseases against which the urbanized Easterners had developed immunity. He tracks changes in the country's vocabulary as a result of the war. From his vast reading, he notes that before 1861, the public tended to treat "United States" as a plural: "The United States are moving toward war." After the conflict, U.S. became singular: "The United States is looking forward to peace and reconciliation." McPherson traces changes in Abraham Lincoln's vocabulary as well, with the word "nation" gradually replacing "union" in his speeches as the war progressed.

Whether his point of view was macro or micro, McPherson avoided jargon, and told a story that eschewed theoretical abstractions and focused on the people whose lives were forever altered by the war. By doing so, he was implicitly stating his position in a long-running debate about how academic historians should conduct their profession.

"There has been, at least since the 1930s, a debate about what our mission is as historians," he says. "Are we scholars at the cutting edge of new directions, writing for each other and only incidentally and reluctantly teaching students? Or do we have an obligation to reach a wider audience? Within academia, the reward system tends to go to those practicing cutting-edge methodology. I tend to find myself in the camp of those who believe we do have an obligation to a wider audience."

In 1995, McPherson delivered a paper titled "What's the Matter With History?" which later was collected in the anthology Drawn With the Sword (Oxford, 1996). In that paper he noted that 20th-century historians had cultivated newer areas of study such as women's history, working-class history, black history, the history of the family, and the history of mass cultures. New methodologies had appeared, such as cliometrics, a form of quantitative economic history. Cutting-edge professional historians--and those looking to make tenure--had become more concerned with analysis and theory than historical narrative. The result was an outpouring of challenging, provocative scholarship, McPherson said, but also the writing of dense, plodding books laden with abstruse jargon. Books that no one outside the academy wanted to read.

McPherson ended his paper by noting that a colleague once had warned him that he would be forced to choose between being "a popular historian or a historian's historian." McPherson's response was, "Why couldn't I be both?"

He accomplished both with Battle Cry. The book quickly joined the short list of the most widely read histories of the war, with Bruce Catton's The Army of the Potomac and Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list both as a hardcover and paperback. The critic Herbert Mitgang, writing in the Times in February 1988, said, "It is the best one-volume treatment of its subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away."

McPherson says none of his colleagues at Princeton seemed concerned "that I had let down the side by becoming a popularizer." Others were not so accepting. Six months after the book appeared, a professional historians association canceled a planned discussion of Battle Cry at its annual meeting. McPherson had been invited to that discussion, and he says that it's clear from the correspondence that a majority of the meeting's program committee had decided that any book so popular could not be weighty enough to merit a session at the annual meeting.

"The stigma of popularization remains strong," he says. "Even if you have tenure, concern for professional reputation in the field remains powerful."

William J. Cooper, professor of history at Louisiana State University, says, "I absolutely agree with McPherson that professional historians should strive to engage a larger reading public while still retaining the respect of fellow professionals. I see no reason why those goals should be antagonistic. Many professionals disagree, however. They look with disdain upon anyone who finds a popular audience. There are probably many reasons, but I would not underestimate old-fashioned jealousy."

McPherson says, "Cutting-edge history often emphasizes theory at the expense of flesh-and-blood people, turning them into abstractions. I have tried to give voice to real people."

The most striking example of McPherson giving voice to real people has been his work with the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers. He likes to take his Princeton students on tours of Civil War battlefields. One such tour in 1976 was of Gettysburg. The class stood looking over the expanse of open ground covered on the third day of battle by Pickett's Charge, when 11,000 Confederate troops marched stoically in rank across nearly a mile of unprotected field, into the teeth of withering Union cannon and rifle fire. In less than two hours, 60 percent were killed, wounded, or captured. The students looked at the battlefield, looked at McPherson, and posed a pertinent question: What in God's name would possess a man to walk a mile straight into a deadly barrage of murderous iron?

Their professor thought that was a damned good question. Why did these men fight? Not just the astonishingly brave Confederates under General George Pickett's command that afternoon in 1863, but any of them, bluecoats and rebels alike. Why did hundreds of thousands of men with wives and children and farms and businesses, men in the prime of life, voluntarily take up arms and fight in what remains the bloodiest conflict in American history? The professor decided to seek an answer.

He turned to sources that could not be more primary: the words of the soldiers themselves, in their letters and diaries. No American war before or since has left such a trove of testimony about life in the army and the experience of battle. Letters from Yankee and Confederate soldiers were not censored, as mail in later wars would be, nor were soldiers officially discouraged from keeping diaries. Both sides were literate. Eighty percent of Confederate soldiers and 90 percent of white Union soldiers could read and write. Their spelling and syntax weren't always so good, but they could express themselves and did so freely, leaving an unparalleled testament to their experiences, much of which was preserved by their families and loved ones.

McPherson and his wife, Patricia, who served as his research assistant, began reading this testimony, visiting archives around the country: a dozen state historical societies, the Huntington Library in California, collections at the University of North Carolina and Duke, and the repository of Union soldiers' documents at the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Before they were finished, the McPhersons had read more than 25,000 letters and 325 diaries. These were the words of 1,076 soldiers--647 who wore blue, 429 who wore gray. And when he was finished reading, McPherson found himself in disagreement with the accepted wisdom as to what made the Civil War soldier fight.

Before publication of McPherson's research, in two books-- What They Fought For, 1861-1865 (Louisiana State University, 1994), and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997)--the conventional view did not ascribe lofty motive to the troops who fought the war. In 1943 and 1952, historian Bell Irvin Wiley published classic studies of the common soldier titled The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. In these volumes, Wiley contended that men on both sides enlisted mostly out of economic need, and because their communities expected them to join up and do their part. Wiley believed that once in the ranks, the troops fought not out of any ideological conviction but simply for survival and the sake of their fellow soldiers, their buddies.

Gerald F. Linderman, writing in 1987 in Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, argued that once troops had experienced combat, they lost any purpose but getting the war over with so they could go home and resume their lives. Conventional wisdom maintained that the grand political, social, and ideological issues of the war mattered little to the common soldier in the field, who probably had a limited grasp of those issues anyway.

McPherson begs to differ. His reading of correspondence and diaries has convinced him that the typical soldier on both sides was politically well informed, aware of the major issues and their implications, and sufficiently motivated by those issues to place himself in mortal peril. "These people were not embarrassed by words like cause and duty and honor," he says. "They had relatively little detachment or cynicism. You don't find the same kind of bitter cynicism and ironic literature that grew out of the First World War."

The soldiers in McPherson's study were almost all volunteers. Their median age was 24. "This was the generation that grew up in the 1850s," he notes. "I believe this was one of the most politicized generations in American history." They had come of age during the rise of the Abolitionists, the savage fighting in Kansas from 1854 to 1858 between Free Staters and pro-slavery advocates, and actual fistfights in Congress over the issue of slavery. Most had voted in the crucial election of 1860 that led to South Carolina's secession. Many families at this time subscribed to two or three newspapers, and the soldiers were avid readers of the papers that circulated widely in camp. They formed debating societies to argue the major issues of the day; such debates were a form of entertainment.

Common soldiers on both sides, McPherson says, knew the fundamental issues and believed them worth fighting for. Both armies saw themselves as the heirs and defenders of what had begun in 1776. A Union lieutenant wrote that if he was killed, it would be while "fighting gloriously for the undying principles of Constitutional liberty and self-government." Two years later, he died in action near Atlanta. A rebel soldier, three months before he was slain at Chancellorsville, wrote to his father, a wealthy Baltimore merchant, that he considered the war "a struggle between Liberty on one side, and Tyranny on the other."

McPherson found that Southern troops very much considered the Confederacy their nation, a country that had to be defended from the Yankee invaders. An officer in the 47th Alabama wrote to his wife in 1862: "I confess that I gave you up with reluctance. Yet I love my country dearly. I intend to discharge my duty to my country and to my God." He never returned to his wife and two children.

"Are we scholars at the cutting edge of new directions, writing for each other and only incidentally and reluctantly teaching students? Or do we have an obligation to reach a wider audience?" Union soldiers saw themselves as preserving the very concept of a democratic republic. "I do believe that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend," wrote a private from Massachusetts, "and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom." McPherson notes that even foreign-born soldiers expressed such views, especially the Irish. A 33-year-old Irish-born private in the 28th Massachusetts wrote, "This is my country as much as the man who was born on the soil...America is Irlands refuge Irlands last hope destroy this republic and her hopes are blasted."

Southern troops often expressed the belief that they were battling to avoid enslavement by the North. Wrote one, "We had better all go the same way [as those who have died] than suffer the wretches who are trying to enslave us, to accomplish their ends. I prefer death to Yankee rule." There was little evidence of irony in slaveholders espousing freedom from "subjugation" or "enslavement." Says McPherson, "They saw no irony because slavery was for black people--it was their natural state. Freedom is the natural state of white people. They thought, The North is trying to enslave us, and make us black people."

Contrary to common belief, McPherson says, slavery was on the minds of Civil War soldiers, whether they owned slaves or not. Some Confederate troops expressed dread at the prospect of free blacks. McPherson came across many letters espousing the belief that the war was an assertion of the supremacy of the white race.

Early in the war and at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern troops expressed plenty of racist sentiments of their own, protesting after the proclamation that they had signed up to preserve their country, not to fight a "nigger war." But McPherson found changed sentiments among these troops as they fought their way across the South and encountered slavery firsthand. Many Yankee regiments harbored runaway slaves, though this was against official Union army policy. This was by no means always idealistic; many Northerners simply enjoyed the idea of confiscating property from Southern "traitors," or saw the pragmatic use of freed slaves as camp workers and soldiers who would help win the war quicker. But McPherson found strong anti-slavery sentiment, too. A Michigan sergeant, a farmer in his 40s, wrote: "...The more I learn of the cursed institution of Slavery, the more I feel willing to endure, for its final destruction...After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better."

As he read the letters and diaries, McPherson was impressed by the religious sentiments of the soldiers. They had been born in the wake of the evangelical Protestant revivalism in the 1820s and 1830s that has become known as the Second Great Awakening. Says McPherson, "What struck me about many of them was their literal belief in life after death. In a way, that gave them courage. They were less afraid of death." There was also a strong sense of fatalism: "My fate is in God's hands. If it's his will that I die on the battlefield, so be it. That gave a lot of them the courage to face those bullets. It was God's will."

McPherson concedes that his sample was not the perfect statistical cross-section of the modern pollster. Several groups are underrepresented: the illiterate (obviously), deserters (families saved the letters of soldiers they were proud of), the poor dirt farmers (especially among the Confederates), conscripts from later in the war, the lower ranks (versus officers), and foreign-born troops (which comprised 24 percent of the Union army but only 9 percent of McPherson's sample). Especially missing are the soldiers' respondents. Far fewer letters from home survived the war, because soldiers who received three or four letters a week simply couldn't carry them all throughout the war, or did not want them falling into the hands of the enemy in the event of capture.

No American war before or since has left such a trove of testimony about life in the army. Reading through the correspondence that was preserved, however, had a lasting impact. "My wife and I became emotionally involved with some of the people whose letters we read, especially those who were killed," McPherson says. "Because these letters were written mostly to loved ones-- wives, siblings, parents--one could get to know these soldiers as their families knew them, and to grieve as the families grieved when suddenly the letters ended and we learned of the soldiers' death."

After 40 years, McPherson still finds the war a compelling subject. He's presently at work on a short book about Antietam, part of a new series he's co-editing for Oxford titled Pivotal Moments in American History. And he's become active in efforts to preserve Civil War battlefields, including a well-publicized and successful campaign against a Disney history theme park in Virginia near the Manassas battlefield. "Commercial pressures are intense in areas such as northern Virginia, the Fredericksburg area, Richmond, and elsewhere," he says. "But they are now countered everywhere by preservation groups which have forced developers to think twice about building on or near important Civil War sites. Many thousands of acres have been preserved in the last 10 years by outright preservation purchase, or by easements."

When Disney wanted to develop its history theme park, critics vociferously derided the "Disneyfication of history," which was never well defined but served as a rallying standard for opponents of the development. Says McPherson, "I have ambivalent feelings about what's termed the 'Disneyfication' of history. To the extent that this process means oversimplification, distortion, or romanticization, I'm opposed. To the extent that some of the Disney approach--such as in the Western History Museum in Los Angeles or the Pamplin Park Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Virginia--can get younger people, indeed people of all ages, interested in history, I think such techniques can be valuable."

Fitting remarks from someone who has made a career out of serious but readable scholarship. In April 1989, McPherson received a note from a third-year law student at Duke University who said, "One of my most memorable law school experiences [was] the time spent reading your book [Battle Cry]." Three years later, the same man wrote again, stating that a "voracious reading binge" prompted by McPherson had led him to question his choice of law as a career. Then, the final letter: He reported that he had left the law and was now a graduate student--studying history.

It's a story McPherson likes.

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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