Perhaps more than any other event in American history, the Civil War is subjected again and again to the historian's microscope and pen; yet for the mountains of words it has engendered, consensus, clarity, and conciseness are hard to find. The reasons are obvious: the war that divided the country in the mid nineteenth century still drives a wedge between some; the war, its causes, and effects were numerous and complex and affected nearly every aspect of American society; and it seems that the bloodier, more divisive, more complex the event, the more words we use to describe, justify, or mollify its events and effects. James McPherson tackles each of these problems in his one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.
Through a narrative telling of the Civil War, McPherson is able to focus on two major themes, which he carries throughout the book. These themes appear consistently, and act as a thesis, if one is to be defined. The first is to examine “the multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and re-formed into new patterns in the crucible of war” (viii). For all of his discussion of politics, economics, the military, and society, we cannot escape McPherson's constant reminders that slavery (and its opposite, freedom) is central to the story. By using a narrative style, McPherson traces the development of the role of slavery, emancipation, and freedom throughout the period.
A second theme is that of contingency. He is critical of previous literature that he says “lack the dimension of contingency—the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently” (858). His narrative style allows him to point out such critical moments that a thematic or topical organization would have glossed over. Without venturing into the dangers of counter-factual history, McPherson is careful to identify instances where another outcome was possible, or even probable. By allowing for contingency and not eschewing complexity, McPherson's treatment of both sides in the war is, for the most part, evenhanded.
This report prepared by Jackie Whitt