With fifty thousand books already published on the Civil War, the task of the writer who attempts a synthesis of the period would seem to be overwhelming, but James M. McPherson has managed it with a scholar’s skill and a good writer’s gift for telling an absorbing story. Winner of the Putlitzer Prize for history, this volume in The Oxford History of the United States begins with a sketch of the country at midcentury, 25 percent larger as a result of the southwestern territory acquired at the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848 and confronting long-simmering tensions over the westward expansion of slavery that were now rising toward the boiling point. Integrating social, political, and military history into one almost seamless fabric, McPherson covers the sectional conflict of the 1850’s, the “crisis of the Union” that culminated in the secession of the southern states, and the war itself, from Bull Run to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
A work of such vast scope necessarily emphasizes synthesis at the expense of theme. If there is a unifying idea in the book, it is McPherson’s acknowledged emphasis on “the multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed into new patterns in the crucible of war.” In spite of the existence of a growing class of urban workers and a burgeoning immigrant population, McPherson finds that “the greatest danger to American survival midcentury . . . was neither class tension nor ethnic division. Rather it was sectional conflict between North and South over the future of slavery.” He thus implicitly dismisses the idea advanced by some historians that conflicts over tariff policy and states’ rights were more central to the political tensions of the 1850’s than the South’s “peculiar institution.” McPherson emphasizes that “by the 1850s Americans on both sides of the line separating freedom from slavery came to emphasize more their differences than similarities.”
Under such circumstances, the Compromise of 1850 was an attempt to brace a government ready to split apart with a few political two-by-fours: It gave the South a deferred decision on the question of slavery in New Mexico and Utah in return for a stronger fugitive slave law and the admission of California to the union as a free state. A mere four years later, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act shattered this uneasy peace by repealing the Missouri Compromise line of 1820, which had banned slavery in the northern territories, and substituting the deliberately ambiguous doctrine of popular sovereignty, which left room for violent disagreement among the territorial settlers. The Kansas-Nebraska Act completed the destruction of the divided Whig Party and gave rise to the new, entirely Northern, Republican Party, whose stated objective was to prevent the spread of slavery. Although not all Republicans were motivated by sympathy for the Negro—indeed many were deeply antipathetic toward blacks and opposed slavery only in the economic interest of working-class whites—and although the party was pledged not to disturb slavery where it already existed, Southerners regarded it as a threat. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in the “revolution of 1860” precipitated the “counterrevolution of 1861,” the secession of the lower South and, after the firing of shots at Fort Sumter, of the upper South as well.
In stressing the formation of the Confederacy as a “preemptive counterrevolution,” McPherson follows the model of historian Arno Meyer, who applied it to twentieth century Europe. Such a counterrevolution does not attempt to restore the old order, it strikes first—preempts revolution—in order to protect the status quo before revolution can erupt. The secessionists magnified the potential threat posed by Lincoln’s election, arguing that waiting for an “overt act” against Southern rights was comparable to waiting for a coiled rattlesnake to strike. The time to act was before the North decided to move against slavery, as the Southern radicals believed the “Black Republicans” ultimately would.
McPherson’s other important theme is that the Civil War was a political war, fought by citizens rather than by professional armies; as a consequence, political leadership and public opinion directly affected military strategy, and events on the battlefield reverberated on the home front and especially in Washington, D.C. For this reason he chose a narrative rather than a thematic format, integrating political and military events to emphasize complex patterns of cause and effect. Thus, he emphasizes that the failure of the Army of the Potomac to reach Richmond during the Seven Days’ Battle in the...
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