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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Paperback – December 11, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Digital edition.
Top Customer Reviews
I read this book after having read two other books on the Battle of Gettysburg. I found that I wanted to know more about the circumstances surrounding that battle, the situation of the two armies, the generals, the politicians, and the state of the economies of the two sides engaged. But I was daunted by the plethora of information on the American Civil War. I had no desire to immerse myself in some three or four volume 2000-page work because, aside from believing myself unable to keep everything in perspective and not to get bogged down in minutiae, I reasoned that plain laziness and attention span problems would keep me from ever finishing anything like that. Plus I had to admit that it was the battles that interested me the most, and I despaired of having to read a separate book or two on each of the dozens of battles that are considered "major" during those four years.
Then I found this book: a single volume that encompasses the entire conflict from its military and political antecedents to the economic and sociological ingredients that forced the Union to enter into a war that would change forever the face of democracy. And this book did not give short shrift to the battles. To the contrary, the battles remain central and are accompanied by helpful maps.
I took a chance on this book and now that I have finished it I have to say that it is all that I could have hoped for.
Battle Cry of Freedom does what would appear to be the impossible: it includes virtually everything of consequence about the war and continues to hold the reader's interest. There are periods, especially when delving into some of the voting and politicking, the changes of party affiliations, voting data, etc., that get somewhat tedious. But if the reader is willing to work his way through these chapters he finds that he will come out the wiser, and that the next chapter, perhaps one on the next military campaign, will be better understood in itself because the larger context has been appreciated.
How James McPherson (no relation to the Union general of that name) was able to do this is nothing short of astonishing, a kind of scholarly and artistic legerdemain that allows so much to be packed into so short a space. If you want to know as much as your head can comfortably hold, and you do not want to read an entire shelf of your local library to do it, then this book is a must. My wife and I read large portions of this book out loud to one another (heartily recommended) and had our own discussions about it. We also read, concurrently, a shorter book, "Decisive Battles of the Civil War" as a companion piece to get another concise overview of the military engagements themselves.
McPherson has a definite Northern bias, but he is always fair about giving the other side its time in court. It is, after all, the North that won, and our country is what it is today because of that. The South's many disadvantages were built into its culture and ideology. Nonetheless, we intend to read Shelby Foote's three volumes to get a Southern perspective. I would not have had the gumption to go further if McPerson had not made the whole terrible period more understandable in the first place.
Do not be afraid to take the plunge.
The initial three hundred pages provide a sweeping overview of the social and political pressures that led to war. There is then a hundred or so pages that vividly paints the attitudes of a nation faced with war, and finally the military narrative kicks in.
McPherson writes with exceptional poise, balancing the chronological and thematic threads of his work to near perfection. Events in the west, east and political spheres of the war are detailed with the intricate interconnections intact due to excellent arrangement. This narrative is well scattered with analysis and presentation of different viewpoints, as well as sections of broad thematic interest eg. POW camps. There are more than enough quotations, both from primary and secondary sources.
As for bias, I happened to think the bravery of the Southern soldiers, and the pride of the Southern people, came across well. Some reviewer's comments lead me to believe they had read a different book to me!
"nothern soldiers...had no love for slavery. They fought for the Union and against treason...whilst some Yanks treated contrabrands with a degree of equity...the more typical response was indifference, contempt or cruelty."
The reader is constantly reminded of the vein of racism of Northern society, ranging from the poorest immigrant fearing for his job, to the Democrat politicians who persisted in playing the 'race' card until the very end. The leftward shift of Lincoln is also noted. As for Southern motives:
"slavery and independence were each a means as well as an end in symbiotic relationship with each other, each essential for the survival of both"
In no way does McPherson cite slavery as the lone cause, he (sensibly) notes that it was the clash (via all the issues eg. Kansas, California, Dred Scoott which he details in the early chapters) that was at the centre of the "perceived nothern threat" to "preserve (the South's) vision of the republic of the founding fathers - a government of limited powers that protected the rights of property."
The most I would concede that he could perhaps hammer home the state rights point a tiny bit more, but I cannot credit that he paints a polarised picture as suggested by some other reviews. In fact, some of the counter-arguments look to me as though they have been lifted straight from 'Battle-Cry of Freedom's text!
My only (minor) complaint was that the epilogue, an analytical overview, was so useful and interesting it should have been a lot longer!
This is one of the best historical works I have ever read and was supremely useful to me.
This would be the one single book I would recommend most strongly to anyone who wanted to learn about the events leading up to the war as well as the war itself. It is easily understandable by the novice, yet also quite worthy of reading even by one who is already an expert on the history of this period. If you could read only one book on American history, this should be it!