Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447
James McPherson’s book is about the Civil War broadly construed, not just the military aspects. It includes portraits of many individuals who made important contributions during the war and the years before it. Since the book is nonfiction, those people cannot strictly be termed "characters," but there is a compelling...
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James McPherson’s book is about the Civil War broadly construed, not just the military aspects. It includes portraits of many individuals who made important contributions during the war and the years before it. Since the book is nonfiction, those people cannot strictly be termed "characters," but there is a compelling narrative, and many individuals are presented as playing key roles that shaped the course of the war and thus of US history.
As might be expected, political and military leaders are prominently featured: President Lincoln and Confederacy President Davis; Generals Grant and Lee; and Senators Calhoun, Clay, and Webster. Abolitionist activists including John Brown and Frederick Douglass are also featured.
One example of the many that effectively show individual’s roles, sometimes in contrasting positions, relates to a famous court case. In the beginning of chapter 6 (pp 170–176), Dred Scott is profiled with a personal biography. An enslaved man from Missouri and Illinois, he is the man whose suit for freedom led to the landmark US Supreme Court case that became known as the “Dred Scott decision." This decision affirmed states' rights and further codified the idea that black people were not citizens and that former slaves living in free states were not free. In addition, the human dimensions of people on the Court are also presented in this book. McPherson explains the motivations of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, an elderly man from Maryland who was dedicated to defending “southern life and values . . . [connected to] the peculiar institution.”
Overall, one of the book’s strengths is that many ordinary people are briefly profiled—the people who contributed, both individually and collectively, to both sides of history. Chapter 10 emphasizes this approach with its title, “Amateurs Go to War”: the words of volunteer as well as professional soldiers, from their diaries or letters, explain their reasons for joining up and later, sometimes, for deserting armies. Black soldiers, including entire regiments, also speak from these pages, but far less often than white soldiers.
A drawback of the focus on the war is that the book overwhelmingly presents male actors. While women occasionally appear, we get little sense of their contributions to US society in this era. The pioneering women's rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton each appear on one page, and only two pages are devoted to women in abolitionist movements. Women speak louder in reference to their contributions to nursing. In chapter 15, we hear about or from nurses on both sides: the Confederate Kate Cumming, volunteering to help Southern soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh, and the Union “Mother” Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who tended the wounded at numerous camps as she followed the action southward.