Drawn with the Sword

by James M. McPherson
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990

The American Civil War remains a source of enduring fascination and endless debates, and not merely for those in the academic discipline of history. Hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to read and argue about the war, its causes, conduct, and outcome, while thousands of others annually reenact its bloody course in carefully rehearsed battles fought in uniforms meticulously correct down to the last divisional patch, the precise brigade button. Clearly, as James McPherson notes in his splendid collection of essays, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, the American Civil War is truly “the war that never goes away.”

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Why this fascination? What caused it? Why has it endured? How did the war change both its own scope during its career and the nature of America? And ultimately, why is there the inability of Americans to come to final closure with this war and agree upon its causes and meanings? Those are the fundamental questions McPherson turns to in his selection of essays, and his answers move beyond the practice of history to a broad and sometimes moving reflection not merely on the Civil War itself, but of ourselves as Americans.

Few authors could be more fitted to that task. Long a distinguished professor of history, with his specialty in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his one-volume narrative of the conflict, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. In that volume, he accomplished what for modern historians had seemed an all but lost cause itself: the restoration of narrative history to an honored place where the sweep of events did not displace a thoughtful discussion of causes, and where the military account reinforced, and did not overwhelm, the social, economic, and even personal stories of the men and women involved.

Still, a narrative history to be manageable must be selective, and Battle Cry of Freedom could only touch upon some matters of essential importance. With Drawn with the Sword, McPherson turns to the essay form to give these points the more leisurely review they deserve. The reader is richly rewarded as a result.

Of the first question, why the fascination with the Civil War? McPherson suggests that the answer is an innate, almost instinctive realization that the American Civil War was somehow fundamentally different from all other conflicts. This realization came to Americans as a people early, if hazily: “More than 50,000 books and pamphlets have been published about the Civil War since the guns ceased firing,” McPherson informs readers, and indicates that the stream gives no indication of slowing, let alone drying up.

There are several obvious reasons for the fascination, McPherson notes. There were dramatic changes wrought by the Civil War, most notably the end of slavery, and McPherson has thought-provoking insights into a relatively new question here, the intriguing one of exactly who was responsible for the freeing of the slaves—Lincoln, the Union army, or the slaves themselves? His provisional answer: It took all three to effect such a monumental change, but slavery was ended.

Americans also remain fascinated by the Civil War because of the immense toll it exacted, a toll which continues to be felt, especially in the South. McPherson notes that, “Two percent of the American population of 1860 were killed in the Civil War; the same proportion in the 1990’s would exceed 5 million.” The effects of such massive human misery remain potent, despite the waves of immigration during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the greater mobility of modern Americans. Much of American soil remains uniquely hallowed ground.

Finally, Americans are drawn to the Civil War for the simple reason that human beings have always been attracted to such tales: From the siege and fall of Troy to the stubborn, unyielding defense of Stalingrad, people have ever responded to stories of courage and endurance under combat. The Civil War is the American epic, the great national parable which is central to Americans’ sense of self and identity, but about which they can never fully agree.

Their disagreements begin with its cause. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address as president stated the conflict as one to restore the Union; by 1862, he had expanded it to become, at least in a strictly limited sense, a crusade against slavery, something many others in the North had wanted all along. Such a crusade was precisely what the South had feared, and terming a potential assault on “states’ rights” used it as justification for seceding from the Union. The circular arguments reveal not a confusion of logic or terms but a conflict between systems and cultures.

“The War of Southern Aggression,” one of McPherson’s finest essays in the volume, picks through this particularly volatile minefield with precision and skill. By the 1850’s, he notes, the language spoken by North and South was, in many ways, not a common language at all. It had become “an instrument of division, not unity.” The epithets which the two societies hurled at each other can be, to some extent, disregarded. More serious, however, were the differing meanings which indicate a serious, perhaps unbridgeable division between what the two sides thought about serious political issues.

States’ rights, for example, was the ultimate argument of the South in its long quarrel with the rest of the nation. From John C. Calhoun to Robert E. Lee to modern apologists for the Confederacy, the strictly limited relationship between the states and the federal government has been cited as justification of the South and its actions. Yet, McPherson notes, “When Yankee citizens harbored fugitive slaves, Southerners in Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Law that gave the national government greater powers than it had ever before possessed to reach into Northern states and capture the fugitives (so much for Southern commitment to states’ rights).” When political language becomes so arbitrary, the response to arms grows increasingly likely.

Nowhere was this linguistic division more evident than when Northerner and Southerner used the term “freedom.” For the North, by the 1850’s that word had come increasingly to mean its literal definition, a state where no human being was subject to ownership by another. The South had a different, and more abstract reasoning. “Freedom,” men such as South Carolina’s Senator James H. Hammond explained, meant that there had to be a class of people (the “mud-sill of society” was Hammond’s metaphor) condemned “to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” so others could be truly free. The North hired its “mud- sill,” Hammond sneered; the South had adopted the more natural and sensible use of black slavery, thus lifting the entire white race to freedom.

“If slaves are freed, whites will become menials,” another South Carolina politician warned. “We will lose every right and every liberty which belongs to the name of freemen.” In other words, as McPherson accurately notes, the South went to war, at least in part, because it believed that “Freedom is not possible without slavery.” That this proposition could be seriously adopted then—and now—as justified under the doctrine of states’ rights is yet another—and sobering—source of fascination for the American Civil War.

As the war wore on, it changed its character and, eventually and inevitably, it changed the United States and American society. Part of McPherson’s purpose in Drawn with the Sword, and one which he accomplishes with brief, suggestive remarks in several essays, is to link the military, the racial, the economic, and the social aspects of the war, to show how interconnected and intertwined they are—and how they all changed as a result of the conflict.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln noted the efforts of many men, North and South, to avoid the conflict, all to no avail: “And the war came.” Lincoln’s hammer-stroke words give an air of inevitability to the Civil War, and Americans are inclined to accept the inevitability of its outcome as well. Yet, as McPherson clearly demonstrates in several of his more impressive essays, the South nearly won and the North came close to losing the struggle.

The outcome was as it was because the nature of the war and the nature of American society changed. From a war limited in purpose and scope, it transformed itself into a total war, and while Northern armies were more extensive and successful in bringing the war and its devastating effects to the civilian population, the South lacked mainly the opportunity, rather than the inclination, to do so. Robert E. Lee, as much as Ulysses S. Grant or William T. Sherman, understood that civilian morale was key to the war effort; thus the Confederate army’s desperate attempts in 1864 in defensive battle after defensive battle whose purposes were fundamentally not military but political: to inflict enough Union casualties to defeat Lincoln at the polls.

The greatest shift from limited to total war was in respect to the slaves. Frederick Douglass, among other black leaders, had long urged that the Union army make use of the manpower of freed slaves. When the war was not resolved quickly, slavery was doomed, for Lincoln was determined to use any weapon to restore and maintain the Union. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and authorizing the recruiting, training, and eventual use of black troops, Lincoln (admittedly, in large part, forced by events) transformed the conflict.

The destruction of chattel slavery, however it came about, was an obvious result of the war, but there were others, so various and pervasive that, in a sense, the true national “reconstruction” came during the war, not after it. The old Union, a compact between individual states, was dissolved in a way the South never anticipated. In its place was a new nation, consisting of a compact between individual human beings. Even more than the revolution, McPherson maintains, the Civil War remade America. Those who lived during the time agreed. One of them was George Ticknor, a Harvard professor, who said the Civil War represented “a great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since. . . . It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.” Ticknor was right.

Ultimately, McPherson touches on the question of why Americans seem unable to come to final closure with this war and agree upon its causes and meanings. He posits first that great issues were at stake, issues which fundamentally reworked the American Republic through an ordeal by fire into its modern form; second, these issues, while resolved on one level (no, secession is not an acceptable answer to internal political disputes) remain unresolved on others (slavery being ended and overt discrimination outlawed, yet how do Americans resolve the racial differences in their society?). In short, the Civil War reformed Americans from the early American Republic to the modern United States. What, exactly, does that mean? Americans still are not certain and that is why that question remains the most fought-over battlefield of the Civil War.

McPherson’s central thesis, woven throughout the book like a scarlet thread that binds all the essays together, is an essentially simple one: Although the end of the Civil War is never in doubt, its meaning is constantly debated and discussed. For that reason, if nothing else, this is indeed “the war that never goes away.” It remains, and it remains to be discussed, studied, and examined. Drawn with the Sword sets a high standard for any further discussion, study, or examination.

Sources for Further Study

America’s Civil War. IX, January, 1997, p. 87.

American Heritage. XLVII, May, 1996, p. 113.

Booklist. XCII, March 1, 1996, p. 1119.

Forbes. CLVII, May 6, 1996, p. 24.

History: Reviews of New Books. XXV, Fall, 1996, p. 7.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 15, 1996, p. 82.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 21, 1996, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly. CXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 92.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. Autumn, 1996, p. 116.

The Washington Post. April 17, 1996, p. C2.

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