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.”
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...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)