Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book review: Battle Cry of Freedom

Ratings:
**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother


Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson ****

Battle Cry of Freedom is probably the best one-volume history of the Civil War available. Sweeping and well-written, it covers the period from 1850 to the end of the war in 1865.

I was generally familiar with the war itself, but what I found most valuable was McPherson's coverage of the period leading up to the war, where my knowledge was more sketchy. He admirably shows the cleavages in American society during the mid-19th century, differences of class and origin as well as region, along with changes in economic, social, and family life.

McPherson also delves into areas that are probably not as well known today as they should be, things like fugitive slave laws, the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Southern efforts not just to retain but to expand American slavery (not only into US territories but also into the Caribbean and Central America), Bleeding Kansas, and so on. I found the pre-war chapters on those subjects enlightening.

But the core issue, of course, was slavery. Contrary to the somewhat successful efforts of revisionists and Confederate apologists to turn the popular narrative in a different direction, McPherson makes it quite clear that the Civil War was indeed "about" slavery. Yes, there were issues of states rights and regional rivalry involved, and once the war began the rhetoric on both sides changed, but in the run-up to secession and war, it was clear what the real issue was: slavery.

That's the greatest service the book provides. It makes it clear that the revisionists and apologists don't have a leg to stand on. They may claim bias on McPherson's part, and I'd have to agree with them. He clearly thinks that slavery was bad and the South was wrong. Those who think otherwise probably won't like the book.

I've said the writing is good. Here's a sample, the passage I found most moving. Lincoln tours the newly captured Confederate capital:
Lincoln's visit to Richmond produced the most unforgettable scenes of this unforgettable war. With an escort of only ten sailors, the president walked the streets while [Admiral David D.] Porter peered nervously at every window for would-be assassins. But the Emancipator was soon surrounded by an impenetrable cordon of black people shouting "Glory to God! Glory! Glory! Glory!" "Bless the Lord! The great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seen him. He's been in my heart four long years. Come to free his children from bondage. Glory, Hallelujah!" Several freed slaves touched Lincoln to make sure he was real. "I know I am free," shouted an old woman, "for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him." Overwhelmed by rare emotions, Lincoln said to one black man who fell on his knees in front of him: "Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter."

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