Battle Cry of Freedom , like the other books in the Oxford History of the United States series, is a synthesis. That is, it is an attempt to take all of the scholarship from previous decades about disunion and the Civil War and to put it into a coherent narrative....
Battle Cry of Freedom, like the other books in the Oxford History of the United States series, is a synthesis. That is, it is an attempt to take all of the scholarship from previous decades about disunion and the Civil War and to put it into a coherent narrative. Because McPherson draws from such a massive amount of scholarship, Battle Cry of Freedom is not explicitly thesis-driven in the way that a historical monograph would be. Because McPherson deals with so many types of history—military, social, political, and so on—that are often treated separately in other works, it is even more difficult to point to a central argument.
However, one major theme in the work is revealed in the introduction, and that is that both sides in the Civil War spoke about fighting for "freedom." Confederate leaders spoke of defending the "political rights, the freedom, equality, and State sovereignty" that they understood as essential to being American. Of course, McPherson makes it clear that they were also specifically and explicitly fighting to defend slavery, which they linked with each of these abstract concepts, and Union leaders could equally claim to be fighting for freedom. By 1863, they were claiming, through Abraham Lincoln, that a Northern victory would be a "new birth of freedom."
As McPherson observes, the war really was a clash between two visions of liberty, one—the Confederate—unchanged from the past. McPherson says that the "South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had." This was an agrarian vision, one which defined the whole point of government as protecting the property—including human property—of white men. The North, meanwhile, had changed, and its conceptions of freedom had changed with it. Southerners, according to McPherson, feared the "competitive, egalitarian, free-labor capitalism" that the Republican Party represented, and they left the Union to avert the threat this ideology allegedly posed to slavery. At the time, McPherson argues, the North was truly revolutionary, while the South was reactionary. But a central thesis of this book is that all the sacrifice, struggle, and bloodshed resulted in the vision of the North becoming that of the nation. In the future, that vision would continue to be rejected by the South.