An Interview with James M. McPherson
By the summer of 1862, George McClellan had come within six miles of Richmond and Union forces had obtained 50,000 square miles of key territory in the West. The Confederacy, a fledgling country then only a little over a year old, was an inch away from ceasing to exist. If it had surrendered then, the North would have allowed slavery to persist in the South, at least for a time. But the South was cursed by a hero named Robert E. Lee who took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. “[L]ee’s counteroffensive in the Seven Days battles and other major victories during the next year ensured a prolongation of the war,” James M. McPherson writes in his new book, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, “opening the way to the emergence of Grant and Sherman to top Union commands, the abolition of slavery, the ‘directed severity’ of Union policy in 1864-65, and the Gotterdammerung of the Old South. Here was the irony of Robert E. Lee: His success produced the destruction of everything he fought for.”
It’s with this firm, philosophical and unromantic sense of the period with which McPherson, a professor at Princeton, has become the nation’s leading historian of the Civil War. He is the author of over a dozen books. Battle Cry of Freedom, his best known, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. As the president of the American Historical Association in 2003, he courted some controversy for commenting on the Bush administrations adventures abroad. In light of that, he answered some questions by e-mail. How much can we read the Civil War into our own era? And, Hollywood depictions aside, were there any true heroes of the bloodiest conflict in the history of the Western Hemisphere?
You write that most Civil War historians, like yourself, have no military experience. It’s a disadvantage, making it a little more difficult to understand the machinations of generals or even the feelings of privates. But there’s another disadvantage that seems even more difficult to surmount. At 70, you’ve seen your country fight five wars, but you haven’t had the brutal experience of living through an actual civil war.
Having had no military experience is indeed a disadvantage in writing about Civil War military history, since some aspects of the soldier's experience as well as the officer's command decisions will be constant across time. Most of the best military historians of the Civil War whom I know, however, likewise have had no military experience, so it is clearly not a fatal handicap. And no American alive who has lived his whole life in the United States has had the experience of living through an actual civil war. Incidentally, while I have written quite a bit about military aspects of the Civil War, I don't consider myself a military historian as such. I learned about the military course of the war because it vitally affected the questions that originally occupied my attention about the war: slavery and its abolition, wartime reconstruction plans, and the political history of the war.
How useful, if at all, is it to compare the American Civil War to the great internal conflicts of the 20th century, such as those in Spain, Vietnam or the Balkans?
Comparisons of the American Civil War with civil wars in other societies can yield some valuable insights, so long as the comparisons are done with full recognition of the sometimes radically different contexts of time, space, and social orders. Ethnic civil wars such as those in the Balkans or in Iraq today are so different from the issues in the American Civil War that comparisons are not very useful. But ideological civil wars (like those in Spain and Vietnam) are similar enough to the ideological conflicts between the social order of the slave-plantation South and the free-labor capitalist North, that the comparisons can be quite helpful.
Abraham Lincoln, by our standards, was a white supremacist, as were the vast majority of his contemporaries. One exception is John Brown, whose vision of racial equality was startlingly ahead of its time. He fits so many of the qualities of a terrorist: he killed unarmed civilians in the name of a cause that many once considered truly insane. Five and a half years after 9/11, his cause looks just, but his means seem unforgivable.
John Brown can indeed be described as a terrorist, though the scale of his attacks on unarmed civilians (mainly the five murders in the Pottowatomie Massacre) was so much smaller than terrorist attacks in our time that we are almost talking about different universes. I don't fully agree with David Reynolds, who defends Brown as a terrorist for freedom while today's terrorists are nihilists, but there is something in that comparison.
If John Brown doesn’t rise to the level of heroism because his tactics seem questionable, it seems there may be no real heroes, at least in today’s terms, from the Civil War era. Most of the Union Army, including Ulysses Grant, had little love for black people.
It is true that most Northerners had little love for black people, but during the four years of war many of them, including Grant and a majority of soldiers in the Union army, came to support the abolition of slavery as a crucial war aim and by the end of the war or the early years of Reconstruction, most of them -- again including Grant -- believed in equal civil and political rights for freed slaves as a cornerstone of Reconstruction. It would be wrong to overlook the tremendous change in attitude on this question between 1861 and 1866.
How much should a historian resist the temptation to heroize any particular figure?
The historian should indeed resist that temptation, because it might blind him to potential negative aspects of the figure in question, the wrong decisions that figure might make, the possible defects of character, and so on. No man is a hero to his valet, nor should he be to his historian.
Your essay on Sherman’s March suggests that only conservative Southerners remember the event as a bloody, brutal orgy that left nothing but scorched earth and violated women behind. But certain liberal novelists have made the same point. William Styron gave a speech once about his own grandmother’s terrible experience when Sherman’s men came through her town. More recently, we have E.L. Doctorow’s The March, which won a Pen/Faulkner Award.
It is true that the demonization of Sherman is not confined exclusively to conservative Southerners, but they are much more likely to be Sherman-bashers than are liberals, Northerners, or African-Americans. Doctorow's The March is not preoccupied with the destructiveness of Sherman's army; it struck me as a fairly balanced account.
Historians often gripe about misrepresentations in popular movies. I’m curious if you could name any one film that you felt gave an accurate portrayal of at least one aspect of the Civil War. And, while we’re on the subject, are there any that you particularly loathe?
I like two Civil War films: The Red Badge of Courage and Glory. Red Badge, of course, does not deal with any of the war's issues or actual events except the battle of Chancellorsville, but it is a faithful reflection of Stephen Crane's novel and captures beautifully the fears and the psychology of common soldiers like Henry Fleming. Glory has a number of inaccuracies, but it is after all a dramatic movie and not a documentary, and I think it did a good job of portraying the story of the 54th Massachusetts -- though Robert Gould Shaw was a stronger and more mature individual than he is portrayed by Matthew Broderick. One of the worst Civil War movies, in my opinion, was Gods and Generals.
What, as a historian, did you dislike most about Gods and Generals?
I disliked most the sappy-sentimental portrait of Jackson and Confederates as true friends of the slave and supporters of ultimate emancipation.
In your essay “‘As Commander-in-Chief I Have a Right to Take Any Measure Which May Best Subdue the Enemy’” you write about how Lincoln expanded his executive powers. We forgive him for suspending habeas corpus because, in the end, he also ended slavery and saved the union. At the moment, we have another president who has suspended habeas corpus. Is it possible that we’ll end up forgiving George W. Bush as well?
Whether history ends up justifying, or at least excusing, George W. Bush's suspension of habeas corpus and other violations of civil liberties, as it has largely done for Lincoln, remains to be seen. The scale of such violations, to be justified, must be in proportion to the clear and present danger posed by those whose liberties are violated. That scale was pretty large and clear in the Civil War; it is less clear, and probably less large, in the war on terror, so if I have to predict, I predict that history will treat Bush more harshly than Lincoln.
At one time, Robert E. Lee enjoyed a cult status among historians, similar to Lincoln’s. Perhaps his appeal rested on the fact that he personally opposed slavery and secession and fought for the South only because he was a loyal Virginian. When did he lose his hero status?
Lee always had his critics and skeptics, but the real decline in his reputation began with books by Thomas Connelly (The Marble Man) in 1977 and especially Alan Nolan in Lee Considered (1990). Nolan called into question Lee's antislavery and anti-secession convictions, and pointed out that whatever his personal beliefs, he fought for slavery and disunion -- unlike his fellow Virginian George Thomas. Other historians, for example Russell Weigley and Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson, have pointed out that Lee's aggressive strategy and tactics bled his army white; of all Civil War army commanders, Lee's troops suffered the highest percentage of combat casualties. His victories came at great cost. Nevertheless, although his reputation has eroded some in the last couple of decades, he still stands pretty high among many intelligent historians for his military skills and retains his hero status among almost all neo-Confederates.
Could you define the term “neo-Confederate?” Do you use this as a synonym for “Southerner?”
By “neo-Confederate” I do not mean to include all Southern whites, but rather those who openly embrace and glorify their Confederate heritage and who continue to insist that, to cite the title of one pamphlet, “The South Was Right.”
Two years ago, C.A. Tripp’s book caused a minor stir by arguing that Lincoln was gay. Every generation reinvents Lincoln. It doesn’t seem that surprising that this one would give us a sexually repressed intellectual.
It is not only every generation that reinvents Lincoln, it is every particular interest group that tries to invent him in their own image -- which is clearly the case with the Tripp thesis about the gay Lincoln, for which there is no genuinely reliable evidence.
I had a professor in college, who I won’t name in the interest of academic freedom, who mocked the Confederacy’s commitment. The Vietnamese spent 30 years fighting a series of brutal wars to win their independence, he said. The South barely lasted four. Is this a fair comparison?
I am familiar the thesis that the Confederacy could have fought longer and harder if they had possessed the same level of determination and commitment as, say, the Vietnamese communists. I don't buy it. Confederates didn't simply quit; they were crushed and quite literally incapable of carrying on the war. They might have continued the fight as guerrillas in the backwoods and the mountains, but the result would have been the same in another year or two. Consider this: 4 percent of the white population of the Confederacy lost their lives in the Civil War. A comparable number of deaths of Americans in a war fought by the United States today would be 12 million. One third of all Confederate soldiers and one fourth of its white males of military age were killed in the war, and an equal number maimed. The South's economy was utterly destroyed. It had no hope of foreign assistance.
It’s hard to read “Brahmins at War,” your essay about Harvard students who fought and died in the war, without thinking of our current debate on why so few Ivy Leaguers are in Iraq. It seems to demonstrate that there was something noble in 1860’s high society that seems terribly foreign today.
If the United States were to fight a war today in which the great majority of people saw the nation's survival or its institutions and values at stake in the way that Americans (including Ivy Leaguers) did in 1861, I think the Ivy League would make the same commitment as Harvard alumni did in the Civil War. World War II is the closest comparison, and I can walk every day beside a marker indicating that about 80 percent of Princetonians in the relevant classes here served in the armed forces during World War II.
A couple of years ago you discussed the lessons that the failures during Reconstruction may teach us about our current problems in Iraq. Maybe you could summarize your thoughts here.
Some of the same reasons for the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction help explain the failure of Iraq Reconstruction: not enough soldiers to provide security; a determined resistance; divisions within the Southern Republican party/Iraq government; and a loss of commitment to one of the goals of Reconstruction by a majority of the people in the victorious society. But we should remember that two of the three major goals of Reconstruction in the 1860s were achieved: the reincorporation of the ex-Confederate states into a united nation; and the abolition of slavery. The third goal, genuine equal rights for the freed slaves, was a partial failure. So far as I can see, few of the goals of Reconstruction in Iraq have been achieved, or are likely to be.
I’ve asked you to comment here and there on current events, something for which you’ve been heavily criticized for in the last few years. Is there a chance that constantly using history as a metaphor for news headlines robs our ability to make sound, unbiased judgments?
One of the purposes of learning history is to have a basis for a more intelligent understanding of current events. Policy-makers who don't know their history, or have a distorted view of it, are much more likely to make bad decisions because they don't have the historical knowledge or perspective or insight to understand the possible consequences of those decisions. Thus historians have a responsibility to use their expertise to comment on current events.
You’ve pointed out, in previous work, that the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union ended up costing 620,000 lives. Do we accept this trade a little too easily?
There is no way to weigh the moral equivalencies here. The victims of slavery might have thought that its abolition was worth the cost in lives and resources, just as the victims of Naziism and Japanese militarism might have thought that the outcome of World War II was worth the 40 million lives it cost.