A pre-eminent historian reflects on the Civil War’s lasting impact on the nation.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the struggle to preserve the Union “is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.” In these essays from the past eight years, McPherson (Emeritus, History/Princeton Univ.; Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, 2014, etc.) notes the public’s continuing fascination with the Civil War, with its 750,000 soldiers dead, its “larger-than-life, near mythical” figures like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, and its great “drama and romance and tragedy.” But at a deeper level, the conflict remains a lasting, seminal event in American history that transformed the average citizen’s relationship with government, sparked a historic shift in values toward positive liberty, and created the continuing “legacy of slavery in the form of racial discrimination and prejudice.” In many of the essays, McPherson reflects on the historiography of the war, including the ways in which academic historians’ enthusiasm for social as opposed to military history has affected scholarship on Lincoln. Several essays sharply criticize the work of specific historians, including Harry Stout for misrepresentations in Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006) and T. Harry Williams for his mistaken conclusion in Lincoln and His Generals (1952) that the president was a natural war strategist. Others explore topics from the expansion of slave states to wartime naval issues to the impact on American society of death and destruction on a massive scale. In a discussion of Lincoln and slavery, the author agrees with Eric Foner that the president was anti-slavery (deeming it a violation of natural rights) but not an abolitionist (he expected slavery would eventually die out).
These authoritative essays, most of which appeared previously in various formats, will appeal mainly to serious students and specialists.