The National Catholic Review
Tom OBrien

As James M. McPherson notes at the opening of his new book, Sept. 17, not Sept. 11, was the worst day in American history—Sept. 17, 1862. Over 6,000 Americans died that day at Antietam (four times as many as on D-Day, and more than those who died in all the pre-1900 wars combined). Many of the 17,000 wounded and missing would die or be discovered dead in the ensuing days and weeks. When asked where his division was, Confederate General John Gordon responded tersely, “Dead, sir, on the field.”

The field was literal, one cornfield that still sits at the north end of the battle area, surrounded by pristine Maryland farmland in its Civil War state, the jewel in the crown of the National Park Service. Here the Confederate and the United States armies knocked each other into bloody smithereens (see the opening of the film “Glory”). The South had to retreat and end its first invasion of northern territory. (The Battle of Gettysburg, which took three days, occurred in 1863.)

General readers, be assured: this book is short on what Edmund Wilson called “patriotic gore.” McPherson devotes only 10 pages to the actual battle. His story, in line with the series of which this is a part, concerns how “pivotal” it was: his is a study in context and implications, mostly in international and race relations. Military history is balanced—an art not often on display in Civil War writing, new or old—with diplomatic and social history. The result is a deft and readable synthesis, par for the course from our greatest public historian, more incisive than the war buff’s favorite, Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red.

Antietam, McPherson concedes, was a qualified Union victory. Yet it was enough for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Emancipation is often mistaken for a war aim; but the North did not initially fight to end slavery. True, much of the South fought to preserve it; states rights was the euphemism proslavery radicals used to recruit moderates. For the North and even for Lincoln, however, emancipation was first a means, not an end. It did not apply in border states, which Lincoln was anxious to keep from seceding, but only in “states in rebellion.” It encouraged blacks to flee their masters—and the southern economy—and seek protection from Union troops, who now had to shield them. Only gradually—though “truly, sadly, deeply”—did Lincoln embrace emancipation for moral reasons. (When he promised full citizenship for black veterans on April 11, 1865, John Wilkes Booth remarked, “That’s the last damn speech he’ll ever make,” a threat made good four days later.)

Still, however limited, McPherson says, issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was pivotal to stopping European recognition of the Confederacy, which nearly happened. Ruling classes in England and France were not friendly to the Union, rightly regarding its democracy as a bad influence on their own masses (the end of the United States, opined The London Times, would be splendid “riddance to a nightmare,” McPherson notes). Our only real European friend, ironically, was Russia, then in early “glasnost” under “Czar Liberator” Alexander II, who emancipated the serfs and exchanged friendly letters with Lincoln.

“Pivotal” or not, McPherson concedes, after this terrible battle there was still a long way to go. Assuming the morality of fighting to save the world’s only functioning—albeit limited—mass democracy, Antietam proves the wisdom of oft-derided moral theorists like Machiavelli: once at war, fight to win. Union commander George B. McClellan, McPherson shows, fought not to lose. He was called Young Napoleon, but lacked his namesake’s drive to coordinate attacks at crucial points. He had, by luck, a copy of Lee’s plans, dropped in a field a few days before as a wrapper for a set of cigars. But he still could not press Lee forcefully and launched three separate attacks, rather than three attacks at once. Even then, his troops burst through and would have destroyed Lee’s army—and shortened the war considerably—if McClellan had used any of his 30,000 reserves, as McPherson shows, at any single point. Lee held on by the skin of his teeth. In late September, McClellan let him escape south. Lincoln, fed up, replaced his general (who ran against the president as a “Peace” Democrat in 1864; some folks have always smelled a rat).

Although McPherson is a popular historian, he has not turned himself into a big business, like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and has avoided some of the quality control problems that entails. He stays in his sphere, the Civil War. But he also seeks to enlarge the audience for his niche with lively and accessible writing, none better than in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and the less noted but more spectacular What They Fought For 1861-1865, which details how 19th-century soldiers clearly understood the theoretical arguments involved in secession. Less educated than we are, they were 10 times more civically literate. (Are there today more than fourscore and seven Americans who can explain why the Union was worth preserving?) In this book again McPherson relies on the memoirs, letters and diaries he knows so well.

If Ambrose and Goodwin are to one side of McPherson, at the other are the industrial workers in the dark satanic “publish or perish” mills producing tomes often unreadable and mostly unread—except for their indexes read by rivals or their covers by provosts anxious to make their schools just like everybody else’s. As these insiders have said, although he is a professor at Princeton, McPherson embarrasses them—-perhaps not in ways they imagine. As the old rock song proudly begins, “Don’t know much about history.” I tremble at my own temerity in suggesting this may have something to do with the very inward focus of the discipline.

McPherson’s work is patriotic in the fullest sense: civic, concerned with our citizenry, concerned—like any good 19th-century intellectual—with making the best of it, instead of turning one’s back, like a true postmodern or a convinced believer that “all research aids teaching.” He is an original by being behind his times. His is patriotic history not only in content, but style—and style not just as salute to a flag but also the public and res publica for which it stands. McPherson’s whole corpus displays patriotism not as the last refuge of a scoundrel, but as the civic-mindedness of a first-class mind and first-class person. Would American history suffer if there were more of him?

 

Tom O’Brien, formerly with National Endowment for the Humanities, writes for the Civil War page of The Washington Times.