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JAMES M. McPHERSON


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James M. McPherson portrait

James M. McPherson portrait

“A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a ‘popular historian’ or a ‘historian’s historian.’ He strongly hinted that I was in danger of becoming the former,” wrote James M. McPherson in 1995.  “Why couldn’t I be both?” McPherson responded. “Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.”[1]

McPherson is indeed both.  In a career that has spanned four decades and garnered many of the historical profession’s top accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, two Lincoln Prizes, the NEH’s Jefferson Lectureship in the Humanities, and a term as the president of the American Historical Association, James M. McPherson is one of the nation’s foremost historians of the American Civil War era. In all of his writings, McPherson has consistently sought to bridge the dichotomy that has divided historians writing about the Civil War: on the one hand, those historians who have focused on the “causes and results of the war,” and on the other, what Walt Whitman called “the real war,” the experiences of soldiers in battle and civilians on the home front. Through skillful narrative in a broad-ranging oeuvre of essays and books, McPherson has succeeded in telling both stories, combining social, political, and military history to reach a broad scholarly and popular audience, emphasizing all the while that the Civil War constituted a “second American Revolution.” 

C. Vann Woodward, in his preface to McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, commented, “No period of American history makes greater demands on the historian than that of the Civil War.”[2]   In the preface to his own 2007 collection of essays, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War,  McPherson noted that in his forty years of research and writing about the Civil War, he has sought answers to many demanding questions:

Why did the war come? What were the war aims of each side? What strategies did they employ to achieve these aims? How do we evaluate the leadership of both sides? Did the war’s outcome justify the immense sacrifice of lives? What impact did the experience of war have on the people who lived through it?  How did later generations remember and commemorate that experience?[3] 

Providing compelling answers to these complex questions has defined McPherson’s career.

Born in North Dakota, raised in Minnesota and educated at Gustavus Adolphus College and Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Woodward, McPherson is George Henry Davis’86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University, whose faculty he joined in 1962. 

McPherson has attributed the awakening of his interest in the Civil War era to his study of abolitionists, when he was in graduate school. Studying in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins, during the early years of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, McPherson has noted that he was “struck by the parallels between the events of my own time and the events exactly one hundred years earlier: confrontation between the federal government and Southern political leaders vowing massive resistance; federal troops being sent into the South to enforce national law.”[4] After writing his doctoral dissertation “on what I called the civil rights activists of that era — the abolitionists,”  McPherson’s historical interests “broadened out from looking at these reformers, the issues of slavery and the abolishing of slavery — to the political leadership of the era, and then to the military dimensions because they were all interconnected.”[5]

Following graduate school, McPherson began teaching at Princeton University and revised his dissertation into his first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. McPherson continued to explore the worlds of African-American history and the history of abolitionism and civil rights, completing The Negro’s Civil War in 1965, and The Abolitionist Legacy: from Reconstruction to the NAACP in 1975.

Recounting his third visit to the Gettysburg Battlefield in 1976, McPherson has noted that “by that time I had become something resembling a genuine ‘Civil War historian.’ I was teaching the bread-and-butter Civil War/Reconstruction Course at Princeton.  I had signed a contract with Knopf to write a Civil War/Reconstruction textbook (which became Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, first published in 1982).”[6]  McPherson’s bicentennial visit to Gettysburg also impressed upon him the importance of walking battlefields themselves, in order to better understand the tactics and outcome of the battle, as well as the importance of restoring military history to the historical narrative.  

Commissioned by Oxford University Press to write a volume on the Civil War era in the Oxford History of the United States series, McPherson skillfully combined the fields of social and political history with the military dimension often neglected by professional historians to explain the causes and conduct of the war.  The product, a magisterial narrative synthesis and winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in history, Battle Cry of Freedom, was published in 1988 to both critical and popular acclaim.  

Since 1989, McPherson has continued to explore the questions that constituted the bedrock of Battle Cry of Freedom. Building on his 1993 Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University,  McPherson explicitly examined the motivations that made Civil War soldiers fight in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997). Examining thousands of letters and diaries written by soldiers, McPherson argued that deep political and ideological convictions about liberty, slavery, religion, and nation were the fundamental reasons that men on both sides enlisted and fought. McPherson’s exploration of historical contingency — in his words “the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently” — is present in two in-depth examinations of the pivotal battles of Antietam and Gettysburg: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002) and Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg (2003).[7]

In two collections of essays and reviews, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (1996) and This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (2007), McPherson has examined a myriad of topics touching on the Civil War era, from explorations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Tubman, to examinations of Southern textbooks in the post-Civil War era and conflicting historical interpretations of the outlaw (and former Confederate guerilla) Jesse James.  McPherson has been a steady contributor to the New York Review of Books, a consultant to many documentary films, including Ken Burns’s “The Civil War,” and a strong advocate for the preservation of Civil War battlefields. 

Fittingly, Abraham Lincoln served as the focus of a 1990 collection of essays titled Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, as well as McPherson’s two most recent works, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (co-winner of the 2009 Lincoln Prize), which examined Lincoln’s role as military commander, and a short biography published in 2009, Abraham Lincoln.  In his writings on Lincoln, McPherson has stressed that the sixteenth president was a “revolutionary statesman” whose Emancipation Proclamation brought about a “Second American Revolution” by abolishing slavery and the social structure of the Old South and strengthening the national polity.[8] 

The legacy of the Civil War and of this “Second American Revolution” will be the subject of McPherson’s Presidential Lecture at Stanford, titled “But There Was No Peace: The Aftermath of the Civil War,” which promises a probing examination of the Reconstruction era, through a look at the “pain of warfare and the possibility of peace.”

In all his writings, McPherson has consistently reached a broad audience, whom he has identified as “professional historians, Civil War ‘buffs,’ and general readers.”[9]  Explaining his philosophy of writing history, McPherson has noted,

It has something to do with being convinced that history is a story of change over time, with a beginning, a development, a climax of consequences, and writing that story in such a way as it will retain the interest of a broad audience, but also have something new and interesting in the way of insight or interpretation for the specialist as well.  It is not easy to explain.  I just try to do it, and sometimes I think I’ve succeeded.[10]

McPherson’s Presidential Lecture at Stanford promises to provide listeners with such a story. 



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FOOTNOTES

[1]McPherson, “What’s the Matter with History,” in his Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 253.

[2] Woodward,  preface to James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. xvii.

[3]McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. ix.

[4] McPherson, in Kim Nagy, “Keeping Time—An Interview with historian James McPherson,”  Wild River Review. Accessed online at: http://www.wildriverreview.com/spotlight_mcpherson.php

[5] Ibid.

[6] McPherson, “Gettysburg,”  in William E. Leuchtenberg, ed. American Places: Encounters with History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 263.

[7] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 857.

[8] McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, p. 42. 

[9] McPherson, Preface, Drawn with the Sword, p. viii.

[10] James McPherson, interview with William Ferris, Humanities Magazine, March-April, 2002. Accessed online at: http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/mcpherson/interview.html

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Text by Benjamin Stone, Curator for American and British History.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2009
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