James M. McPherson
Stanford Humanities Center



Selected from James M. McPherson's works

On the writing of history
On fighting the Civil War || On changes wrought by the Civil War
On Abraham Lincoln

On the writing of history

Finding a dissertation topic

Like most other graduate students, the selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958-1962. In my second year there, I did a research paper on an aspect of Reconstruction in Alabama, using sources from the University Library and the nearby Library of Congress. My adviser, C. Vann Woodward, encouraged me to write my dissertation on Alabama Reconstruction, with the hope that it might prove an important revision of Walter L. Fleming’s dissertation (and first book) on the same subject that was one of the foremost examples of the “Dunning School.” Although I had reservations about idea, I went ahead and wrote a prospectus for such a dissertation. Woodward approved it with considerably more enthusiasm about the project than I had. 

It was the spring of 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I knew that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect of spending months in dusty courthouses and local historical societies in that state left me considerably less than ecstatic.

Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists, about whom I had done another research paper. My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than the idea of those Alabama courthouses. Besides, the question of what happened to the organized antislavery movement after slavery was abolished was unanswered in the existing literature. An assumption existed, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that they considered their mission accomplished and faded into the woodwork. I did some reading about several prominent abolitionists and decided that this assumption might be wrong. I did some preliminary research, became convinced that most abolitionists did not consider their mission accomplished in 1863 or 1865, and wrote another prospectus. Woodward was less than exuberant about this dissertation topic, but being a laissez faire adviser, he let me go ahead.

I wrote to several prominent historians in the field of antislavery history and asked their advice about a dissertation on the post-1863 (or post-1860) history of the antislavery movement. Most of them advised me to forget it — there wouldn’t be enough information to sustain a dissertation — again the implicit assumption that the movement packed up and disappeared. But I forged ahead anyhow, discovered an enormous amount of evidence that most abolitionists remained active in the cause of civil and political rights for freed slaves, or freedmen’s education, or both. My dissertation became my first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War. A spinoff from this research became my second book, The Negro’s Civil War, and a sequel became my third: The Abolitionist Legacy: from Reconstruction to the NAACP. From this experience, I learned that all assumptions should be examined and challenged.

“History Doyens: James McPherson,” History News Network.
Retrieved from:

The compelling history volume

William Ferris, interviewer:

What do you think makes for a compelling history volume?


First and foremost, it has to be readable. If the writing is awkward, jargon ridden, narrow, if the prose is dull or dead, then people aren’t going to read it. 

Second, it has to be accurate. It has to be based on thorough research and on an honest effort to present the story as objectively as possible. Nobody can be one hundred percent objective, but it has to be fair-minded.

Third, I think it does have to be a story. It has to have dramatic tension. It can’t merely by about large economic or social or cultural forces without real people in there with whom the reader can identify. These are some of the important things that will engage the reader and keep him from saying, “This is dull, this is uninteresting. I’m not going to waste my time on this book.”

Interview with William R. Ferris, Humanities Magazine, March-April, 2000.
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Narrative and contingency

I have chosen a narrative framework to tell my story and point its moral. This choice proceeds not only from the overall design of the Oxford History but also from my own convictions about how best to write the history of these years of successive crises, rapid changes, dramatic events, and dynamic transformations. A topical or thematic relationship could not do justice to this dynamism, this complex relationship of cause and effect, this intensity of experience, especially during the four years of war when developments in several spheres occurred almost simultaneously and impinged on each other so powerfully and immediately as to give participants the sense of living a lifetime in a year.

The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era; book cover

As an example: the simultaneous Confederate invasions of Maryland and Kentucky in the late summer of 1862 occurred in the context of intense diplomatic activity leading toward possible European intervention in the war, of Lincoln’s decision to issue an emancipation proclamation, of anti-black and anti-draft riots and martial law in the North, and of hopes by Peace Democrats to capture control of the Union Congress in the fall elections. Each of these events directly affected the others; none can be understood apart from the whole.  A topical or thematic approach that treated military events, diplomacy, slavery and emancipation, anti-war dissent and civil liberties, and northern politics in separate chapters, instead of weaving them together as I have attempted to do here, would leave the reader uninformed about how and why the Battle of Antietam was so crucial to the outcome of all these other developments.

Preface to Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. ix-x.

Most attempts to explain southern defeat or northern victory lack the dimension of contingency—the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently…Northern victory and southern defeat in the war cannot be understood apart from the contingency that hung over every campaign, every battle, every election, every decision during the war. This phenomenon of contingency can best be presented in a narrative format—a format this book has tried to provide.

Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 857-858.

Revisionism and history

This summer [2003] the Bush administration thought it had discovered a surefire tactic to discredit critics of its Iraq adventure. President Bush followed the lead of his national security adviser Condoleeza Rice to accuse such critics of practicing “revisionist history.”  Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand “revisionist history” to be a consciously falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.

Whatever Bush and Rice meant by “revisionist historians,” it is safe to say that they did not mean it favorably. The 14,000 members of this [American Historical] Association, however, know that revisionism is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, “revisionism” — is what makes history vital and meaningful. Without revisionism, we might be stuck with the images of Reconstruction after the American Civil War that were conveyed by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era. Were the Gilded Age entrepreneurs “Captains of Industry” or “Robber Barons”? Without revisionist historians who have done research in new sources and asked new and nuanced questions, we would remain mired in one or another of these stereotypes. Supreme Court decisions often reflect a “revisionist” interpretation of history as well as of the Constitution. Would President Bush and Condoleeza Rice wish to associate themselves with Southern political leaders of the 1950s who condemned Chief Justice Earl Warren and his colleagues as revisionist historians because their decision (which, incidentally, was based in part on the research of historian John Hope Franklin and others) in Brown v. Board of Education struck down the accepted version of history and law laid down by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson?

”Revisionist Historians,” from The President’s Column, AHA Perspectives, September 2003.
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Political environment and the writing of history

Kim Nagy, interviewer:

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War; book cover

In your most recent book, This Mighty Scourge, you point out that Harriet Tubman would have been surprised to find herself at the center of a heated political controversy about school textbooks. You point to the dispute unleashed by the National History Standards released in 1994 when conservative critics, namely Lynne Cheney (then head of the National Endowment for the Humanities) attacked revisionist standards, which gave equal attention to George Washington and Harriet Tubman.

Can you talk about the strange, sometimes uneasy relationship, between the role of the historian and the pressures exerted by any given political environment?


As a historian, I find myself taking note of the pressures exerted by a particular political environment mainly as a way of pointing up the way in which the past and present interact. Our view of the past is influenced by the social, cultural, and political environment in which we live. The rising interest among historians in the story of previously neglected categories of people in the past — ordinary people, slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, women, etc. — was a response to such developments in the 1960s and after as the civil rights and women’s rights movements shaped the milieu in which the story of Harriet Tubman became so popular.

Lynne Cheney’s criticism of the National History Standards was, in turn, an example of the negative conservative reaction to those modern movements and also a belief that an emphasis on such previously neglected people somehow demeaned the reputations of traditional heroes like George Washington. In my judgment it did nothing of the kind. Knowing more about Harriet Tubman does not in any way diminish the greatness of Washington. In my own choices of subjects to study and in my perspectives on those subjects, I am also influenced by the general cultural context of my times. But I consciously and explicitly try to ignore the pressures of a particular short-term political environment and try to immerse myself in the perspectives of the people a century or more ago about whom I am writing.

Kim Nagy, “Keeping Time — An Interview with Historian James McPherson.”
River Review, Volume 1, Number 3.3, November, 2007.
Retrieved from:

On fighting the Civil War

On Antietam

[Editor's note: Union forces tended to refer to battle sites in terms of the nearest body of water, in this case Antietam Creek, while Confederates generally used the names of nearby communities to name battle sites, in this case, the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland.]

Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in American history. The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Another 15,000 men wounded in the battle of Antietam would recover, but many of them would never again walk on two legs or work with two arms.  The number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More American soldiers died at Sharpsburg (the Confederate name for the battle) than died in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian wars.

From London, where he followed the American Civil War with close attention, Karl Marx wrote in October, 1862 that Antietam “has decided the fate of the American Civil War.”  And looking back some years later, Colonel Walter H. Taylor of Robert E. Lee’s wartime staff described Sharpsburg as the decisive “event of the war.” 

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, book cover

Many soldiers who fought there would have agreed that Antietam was “the event” that decided “the fate of the American Civil War.” They believed that the destiny of their respective nations — the United States and the Confederate States — rested on the outcome of this battle. They fought as if there would be no tomorrow. That was why for so many of them there was no tomorrow. For the others, of course, there were many more tomorrows and much more bloodshed as the war continued for two and one half years after Antietam. 

No single battle decided the outcome of the Civil War. Several turning points brought reversals of an apparently inexorable momentum toward victory by one side and then the other during the war. Two such pivotal moments occurred in the year that preceded Antietam. Union naval and military victories in the early months of 1862 blunted previous Southern triumphs and brought the Confederacy almost to its knees. But Southern counteroffensives in the summer turned the war around. When the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River into Maryland in September, 1862, the Confederacy appeared to be on the brink of victory. Antietam shattered that momentum. Never again did Southern armies come so close to conquering a peace for an independent Confederacy as they did in September 1862. Even though the war continued and the Confederacy again approached success on later occasions, Antietam was arguably, as Karl Marx and Walter Taylor believed, the event of the war.

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, pp. 3, 8-9.

Why men fought

The origins of this book go back many years. In the spring of 1976 I took several Princeton students to Gettysburg for the first of what became many tours of that memorable battlefield. On this occasion, as on subsequent visits, we finished the day by walking the ground over which ‘Pickett’s charge’ took place at the climax of the battle. As we strolled across the open fields in peaceful twilight, knowing that those 13,000 Confederate soldiers had come under artillery and then rifle fire almost every step of the way, students asked in awe: What made these men do it? What motivated them to advance into that wall of fire? What caused them to go forward despite the high odds against coming out safely? I found that I could not give my students a satisfactory answer. But the question planted the seed of a book.

Why did so many of them fight like bulldogs? That is the question this book seeks to answer. It does so by going to the writings of the men who did the fighting…Civil War armies were the most literate in history to that time. More than 90 percent of white Union soldiers and more than 80 percent of Confederate soldiers were literate, and most of them wrote frequent letters to families and friends.

“I am sick of war,” wrote a Confederate officer to his wife in 1863, and of the “separation from the dearest objects of life”—his family. But “were the contest again just commenced I would willingly undergo it again for the sake of … our country’s independence and [our children’s] liberty.” At about the same time a Pennsylvania officer wrote to his wife that he had to fight it out to the end because, “sick as I am of this war and bloodshed [and] as much oh how much I want to be home with my dear wife and children … every day I have a more religious feeling, that this war is a crusade for the good of mankind … I [cannot] bear to think of what my children would be if we were to permit this hell-begotten conspiracy to destroy this country.” These convictions had caused these two men, and thousands of others, to volunteer and fight against each other in 1861. They remained more powerful than coercion and discipline as the glue that held the armies together in 1864. 

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, p. 3, 10-11, 13.

On Gettysburg

No single event did more to change the Northern mood than the victory at Gettysburg. It was appropriate, therefore, that Lincoln should offer the most profound and eloquent statement there on the meaning of this new birth of freedom. 

Soon after the battle, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, proposed to Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania the establishment of a soldiers’ cemetery where the Union dead could be reburied with dignity and honor. Curtin contacted the governors of other Northern states whose soldiers had died at Gettysburg. They all thought it was a splendid idea. The project went forward, and it became the model for reinterment of Union war dead in two dozen national cemeteries during and after the war. (Many Confederate dead were reburied in Confederate cemeteries throughout the South.) The dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, adjacent to the local burial ground where some of the fighting had taken place, occurred on November 19, 1863. 

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, book cover

Let us conclude our walk by proceeding to this most hallowed of ground, where some 3,577 Union soldiers (half of them unknown) from eighteen states are buried. None of them was from Kentucky. But at the spot where Lincoln was long thought to have stood to deliver his “few appropriate remarks,” Kentucky erected a modest marker to her native son, enshrining in bronze the 272 words of the address Lincoln delivered that day. (The actual spot was probably thirty yards to the south, but it hardly matters.) Edward Everett, the main orator of the occasion, penned Lincoln a note the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

It is best to come here at dusk, as I do when I take students to Gettysburg, and listen to the call of the mourning doves as we look over the graves in this pastoral setting. It is then that we contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Gettysburg is important not primarily as the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but as the place where “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” 

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, pp. 137-138.

On changes wrought by the Civil War

From Union to Nation

Both sides in the American Civil War professed to be fighting for freedom. The South, said Jefferson Davis in 1863, was “forced to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and State sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sites.” But if the Confederacy succeeded in this endeavor, insisted Abraham Lincoln, it would destroy the Union “conceived in Liberty,” by those revolutionary sires as “the last, best hope” for the preservation of republican freedoms in the world. “We must settle this question now,” said Lincoln in 1861, “whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”

Northern publicists ridiculed the Confederacy’s claim to fight for freedom. “Their motto,” declared poet and editor William Cullen Bryant, “is not liberty, but slavery.” But the North did not at first fight to free the slaves. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists,” said Lincoln early in the conflict.  The Union Congress overwhelmingly endorsed this position in July 1861. Within a year, however, both Lincoln and Congress decided to make the emancipation of slaves in Confederate states a Union war policy. By the time of the Gettysburg Address, in November, 1863, the North was fighting for a “new birth of freedom” to transform the Constitution written by the founding fathers, under which the United States had become the world’s largest slaveholding country, into a charter of emancipation for a republic where, as the northern version of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” put it, “Not a man shall be a slave.”

The multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and re-formed into new patterns in the crucible of war, constitute a central theme in this book. That same crucible fused the several states bound loosely in a federal Union under a weak central government into a new Nation forged by the fires of war in which more Americans lost their lives than in all of the country’s other wars combined.

Americans of the Civil War generation lived through an experience in which time and consciousness took on new dimensions. “These are fearfully critical, anxious days, in which the destinies of the continent for centuries will be decided,” wrote one contemporary in a sentence typical of countless others that occur in Civil War diaries and letters. “The excitement of the war, & interest in its incidents, have absorbed everything else. We think and talk of nothing else,” wrote Virginia’s fire-eater Edmund Ruffin in August 1861, a remark echoed three days later by the Yankee sage Ralph Waldo Emerson: The war … has assumed such huge proportions that it threatens to engulf us all—no preoccupation can exclude it, & no hermitage hide us.” The conflict “crowded into a few years the emotions of a lifetime,” wrote a northern civilian in 1865.  After Gettysburg, General George Meade told his wife that during the past ten days “I have lived as much as in the last thirty years.” From faraway London, where he served his father as a private secretary at the American legation, young Henry Adams wondered “whether any of us will ever be able to live contented in times of peace and laziness. Our generation has been stirred up from its lowest layers and there is that in its history which will stamp every member of it until we are all in our graves. We cannot be commonplace …One does every day and without a second thought, what at another time would be the event of a year, perhaps of a life.” In 1882, Samuel Clemens found that the Civil War remained at the center of southern consciousness: it was “what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.” This was scarcely surprising, wrote Twain, for the war had “uprooted institutions that were centuries old … transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”

Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. vii-viii.

The Union victory; views from abroad

The Confederacy did fail. The last best hope of earth for democracy did not perish from the earth, but experienced a new birth of freedom whose impact abroad was felt with telling effect. From Spanish republicans in 1865 came congratulations to a “people democratically governed” who have “carried to its close the greatest enterprise in history.” The Italian patriot and revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini blessed the Northern people who “have done more for us in four years than fifty years of teaching, preaching and writing from all your European brothers have been able to do.” None other than Karl Marx declared that “as in the eighteenth century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century, the American Civil War sounded it for the working class.”

The consequences of this triumph of democracy were more than symbolic. It encouraged liberals in Britain who wanted to expand voting rights there…A two-year debate in Parliament, in which the American example figured prominently, led to enactment of the Reform Bill of 1867, which nearly doubled the eligible electorate and enfranchised a large part of the British working class for the first time. With this act the world’s most powerful nation took a long stride toward democracy. It would be an oversimplification to attribute this achievement mainly to Union victory in the Civil War. But perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that had the North lost the war, thereby confirming Tory opinions of democracy and confounding the liberals, the Reform Bill would have been delayed for years.

Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, book cover

If the triumph of democracy in Britain was an indirect result of the American Civil War, the triumph of Benito Juárez and republicanism in Mexico was in part a direct result. The United States sent fifty thousand veteran troops to Texas after Appomattox, while Secretary of State Seward pressed the French to pull their troops out of Mexico. Napoleon did so in 1866, whereupon the republican forces under Juárez regained control of the country, captured Maximilian, and executed him in 1867. Three years after the fall of Maximilian, Napoleon himself lost the throne, an event attributed by the historian of his liberal opposition in part to the example of triumphant republicanism in the United States five years earlier.

This is pushing things too far; the birth of France’s Third Republic was a consequence of French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, not of Union victory in the American Civil War. But perhaps it was more than coincidence that within five years of that Union victory the forces of liberalism had expanded the suffrage in Britain and toppled emperors in Mexico and France. And it was also more than coincidence that after the abolition of slavery in the United States the abolitionist forces in the two remaining Western Hemisphere slave societies, Brazil and Cuba, stepped up their campaigns for emancipation, which culminated in success two decades later. If he had lived, Lincoln would have been gratified by the statement of a Brazilian intellectual in 1871, referring to his government’s commitment to emancipation, that he rejoiced to “see Brazil receive so quickly the moral of the Civil War in the United States.”

“‘The Whole Family of Man’: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope Abroad.”
In Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, pp. 224, 226-227.

The second American Revolution and Reconstruction

The existence of this Jim Crow system still waiting to be dismantled a century after the Civil War has undergirded the “post revisionist” thesis embraced my many historians in the 1970s that the war and Reconstruction accomplished little or nothing of genuine freedom for slaves. The long, tragic history of sharecropping, peonage, poverty, and lynching would seem to confirm the thesis. In the words of two of these post-revisionist historians, emancipation and Reconstruction brought “no specific changes either in the status of former slaves or in the conditions under which they labored.” The Civil War was therefore “a tragedy unjustified by its results.”  The “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln invoked at Gettysburg “never occurred.  Sadly, we must conclude that those dead did die in vain” because “real freedom for the Negro remained much more of a promise, or a hope, than a reality.”

Did power do nothing for liberty after all?  Was there no second American Revolution for slaves?  Recent studies, especially the work of Eric Foner, have swung Reconstruction historiography back toward a more positive “revisionist” position on these questions.  The assurance enjoyed by former slaves that their spouses or children could no longer be sold away from them appears after all to have been a rather “specific change” in their “status.” Foner and others also recognize that the vast expansion of political power wielded by the national government and by the freedmen themselves for a decade or so after the Civil War made a real difference in the nature of their liberty and even in “the conditions under which they labored.” Reconstruction legislatures established public schools for blacks, for the first time, and enacted  laws to enhance and protect their economic opportunities and rights. The United State was “unique” among post-emancipation societies, Foner points out, because “the former slaves during Reconstruction enjoyed universal manhood suffrage and a real measure of political power.”  Channeled through the Republican party  with its southern base of black voters, this political power depended on the backing of military force — state militias and the remnants of the Union army that remained in the South — to protect it against counterrevolutionary terror by the Ku Klux Klan and other armed auxiliaries of the Democratic party. So long as this power was employed with determination, as in the militia campaigns (led by former Union army officers) against the Klan in Tennessee and Arkansas, and by the army’s suppression of the Klan in 1871-72, black voters exercised their political rights in large numbers.  Behind this power of the sword, blacks held a larger proportion of public offices in the South than they do today.

It was the successful southern counterrevolution of the 1870s that wiped out many of the gains of the second American Revolution for the freedmen. A key feature of this counterrevolution was a revival of negative liberty in the form of a weakened national government…the positive liberty of centralized power gave way to the negative liberty of decentralized federalism.  The pendulum did not swing back until another Republican president [Dwight D. Eisenhower]—who also happened to be a famous general—launched the “second Reconstruction” three-quarters of a century later by sending units of the crack  101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to protect nine black students at Central High School.

“Liberty and Power in the Second American Revolution.”
In Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 144-145; 152.

On Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln and the nation

Four years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox, Harvard historian George Ticknor reflected on the meaning of the Civil War.  That national trauma had riven “a great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter.  It does not seem to me to as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”

Ticknor had been born in 1791, during the third year of George Washington’s presidency, in a country still basking in the glow of the Revolution that had given it birth.  He had lived through eighteen presidential administrations and a Second American Revolution that gave the United States “a new birth of freedom” during the administration of its sixteenth president.  This is a book about that president and the revolution he led, which so utterly transformed the nation that George Ticknor could scarcely recognize it. Nor could a Louisiana planter who returned home after four years as an officer in the Confederate army to discover that “society has been completely changed by the war.  The [French] revolution of ’89 did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Regime’ than has this in our social life.” 

Abraham Lincoln was not Maximilien de Robespierre. No Confederate leaders went to the guillotine. Yet the Civil War changed the United States as thoroughly as the French Revolution changed that country. The liberation of four million slaves, along with destruction of the South’s political domination of national affairs and of the social order on which that domination was founded, metamorphosed a region (the former slave states) more than three times as large as France. The future of America after 1865 belonged to a system of democratic free-labor capitalism, not one of slave labor plantation agriculture.  The House Divided of 1858 was no longer divided.  Liberty took on new meanings for Americans. The old decentralized federal republic became a new national polity that taxed the people, created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, established a national currency and a national banking structure. 

The United States went to war in 1861 to preserve the Union; it emerged from war in 1865 having created a nation. Before 1861 the two words “United States” were generally used as a plural noun: “the United States are a republic.” After 1865 the United States became a singular noun. The loose union of states became a nation.  Lincoln’s wartime speeches marked this transition.  In his first inaugural address he mentioned the “Union” twenty times but the nation not once.  In his first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, Lincoln used the word “Union” thirty-two times and “nation” only three times. But in his Gettysburg Address two and one-half years later, the president did not mention the Union at all but spoke of the “nation” five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationhood. And in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln spoke of the South seeking to dissolve the Union in 1861 and the North accepting the challenge to preserve the nation.

Preface to Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. vii-viii.

Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war. On the day he took office the first document placed on his desk was a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter, informing him that the garrison there must be withdrawn or resupplied at the risk of war.  Lincoln chose to take that risk.  Four years later he was assassinated, five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox but while several Confederate armies were still in the field. 

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief; book cover

During those four years military matters required more of Lincoln’s time and energy than anything else…Not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duties as commander in chief. 

In the vast literature on our sixteenth president, however, the amount of attention devoted to his role as commander in chief is disproportionately far smaller than the actual percentage of time he spent on that task. 

Perhaps it is time to recognize the truth expressed by Lincoln himself in his second inaugural address, when the Civil War had been raging for almost four years: On “the progress of our arms…all else chiefly depends.”  “All else” included many of the questions and developments that historians consider important: the fate of slavery; the definition of freedom; the destruction of the Old South’s socio-economic system and the triumph of entrepreneurial free-labor capitalism as the national norm; a new definition of American nationalism; the origins of a new system of race relations; the very survival of the United States in a manner that laid the foundations for the nation’s emergence as a world power.

It was the commander in chief who was held mainly responsible for the “progress of our arms” — or the lack thereof.  This book offers a narrative and analysis of how — and how well — Lincoln met this challenge, which was unquestionably the chief challenge of his life and of the life of the nation.

Preface to Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, pp. xiii-xv.

Changing perspectives on Lincoln

During my first year in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a local radio station telephoned the Department of History to ask if it could recommend someone to answer questions about Abraham Lincoln from listeners to a call-in show scheduled for Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1959. I had recently completed a research paper on Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, so the department suggested me. Being young and foolish, I took on the task. It was a sobering learning experience. What I mainly learned was how much I did not know about Abraham Lincoln.

Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, book cover

In the half century since that day, I have learned a great deal about Abraham Lincoln, but I continue to encounter new information and new insights. My own perspective has also changed during that half century. I wrote my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, on the abolitionists during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Like many young historians, I tended to adopt the viewpoints and attitudes of the people about whom I was writing. Most abolitionists were sharply critical of Lincoln in the early years of the Civil War for what they perceived as his slowness to move against slavery and his apparent deference to the border states and Northern conservatives on questions of emancipation and race relations. Lincoln never fully caught up with the abolitionist and radical Republican positions on these questions, and my own attitudes reflected their continuing criticisms of him.

Only after years of studying the powerful crosscurrents of political and military pressures on Lincoln did I come to appreciate the skill with which he steered between the numerous shoals of conservatism and radicalism, free states and slave states, abolitionists, Republicans, Democrats, and border-state Unionists to maintain a steady course that brought the nation to victory — and the abolition of slavery — in the end. If he had moved decisively against slavery in the war’s first year, as radicals pressed him to do, he might well have fractured his war coalition, driven border-state Unionists over to the Confederacy, lost the war, and witnessed the survival of slavery for at least another generation.

I have written a lot about Abraham Lincoln in my career. Others have written more. During this bicentennial commemoration of his birth, a large number of excellent biographies and other books about Lincoln have appeared and continue to appear. Most of these are substantial works; one definitive multivolume biography runs well over a half million words. Amid this cascade of information, I believe there is room for a brief biography that captures the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization. This is what I have tried to do in the following pages.

Preface to Abraham Lincoln ( New York: Oxford, 2009), pp. ix-xi.


Selections by Benjamin Stone, Curator for American and British History.
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