Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)James M. McPherson
Awards: Pulitzer Prize
Rating: ☆☆☆☆ –

I first heard about this single-volume history of the Civil War, part of the Oxford History of the United States series, from Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog. I was primed to plunge in because I had just finished Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, which was given to me years ago by loyal commenter Alex and which I only recently got around to reading.

Some things I learned from Battle Cry of Freedom:
  • The idea that some high-minded defense of "States' Rights" was the cause of the Civil War is laughable. The issue was slavery: the right to expand slavery to the territories so as to preserve the power of slave states in the Congress and Electoral College. For instance, in the case of the Fugitive Slave Law, the South all of a sudden didn't care so much about states' rights: it wanted the federal government to overrule state laws and enforce property rights on slaves who had made it to the North.
  • Prior to the Civil War, women were not seen as fit to serve as battlefield nurses. Clara Barton and others made believers out of the generals.
  • There were several abortive efforts by southerners to invade Mexico,  Central America, and Cuba in order to add more Slave States to the union.
  • Diplomacy. Lincoln absolutely had to keep Britain and France out of the war. His Secretary of State, Charles Francis Adams, played a key role here, along with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victory at Antietam.
The best part of the book is the first 300 pages, which feature an extensive discussion of the domestic politics of the 1850s, and the role of westward expansion in fueling the sectional conflict. Once the war started, I found the discussion of military tactics deadly boring. I understand that this is a moral failing on my part.

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