Monday, July 08, 2013

Book Notes: This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on The [American] Civil war by James M. McPherson

"This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War" is a collection of sixteen stand-alone essays by James M. McPherson, many of which have appeared in various journals and publications previously - but have been edited, and collected into one volume by Oxford University Press. Of course, the "Civil War" in question is the American one- a fact which the American cover designer fails to mention in a little flurry of inexcusable ethno-centricity! Despite this, once inside the cover, the reader will discover a fascinating, insightful, well-researched and well-argued series of papers on various aspects of the American Civil War, which ravaged America in the 1860s. 

Many civil war histories focus on the minutiae of the various set-piece battles, and on the supposed genius (or otherwise) of the competition between great generals like Grant vs Lee. While the battlefield experience of individual soldiers in this ghastly conflict is stark reading, too much ink has been spilled in detailed military histories, at the expense of the wider social/political/economic landscape of The American Civil War. Thankfully McPherson's interests in these essays very much counterbalances that picture, and while the battlefield is not ignored at all; incidents such as Picketts' infamous charge at Gettysburg are placed within their more useful wider context of Lee's 'war aims' for the Gettysburg campaign.  The apparent suicidal nature of that manoeuvre, is explained as an all-out last-ditch attempt to deliver a knock-out blow to the Union Army of the Potomac, as Lee knew that the Confederate War Machine might not sustain the effort for another year - while Northern war-weariness meant that a major loss at that point might mean that Lincoln could fall in favour of a less hawkish commander-in-chief.

The topics covered in this volume are highly varied. Chapter One defends the view that the slavery issue was a central (not sole) cause of the war; against the view of the 'Progressive Historians' for whom economic causes dominate. Chapter Two examines the roles of Harriet Taubman, Harriet Jacobs, the "Underground Railroad" and radical abolitionism as a cause of war. It concludes with a great little summary of the flawed, messianic, violent abolitionism of John Brown. Chapter Three examines the oft-made assertion that the war was primarily "lost by the South" rather than "won" by the North. McPherson dismisses this thesis, by showing that the North was just as divided as the Confederacy ever was. Rather, the South was remarkably united in battle, hugely and remarkably committed to fighting a prolonged bloody war, while enduring great suffering. A question for further research he asks is, "why were so many non-Slave-owning-whites willing to fight and die for the Confederacy?". This is a good question, and it would be interesting to read some more detailed local studies, perhaps accessing the letters, diaries and papers of combatants and their families which analyse their various motivations. I wonder, for instance, if these varied across the Confederacy? Chapter Four looks at the overall military strategy of the South - asking if the Confederacy would have fared better in a more purely defensive war, rather than their invasions of Union States; and concluding against the suggestion.

In Chapter Five, McPherson produces a well-drawn comparison between the Battle of Saratoga in the American War of Independence, and the American Civil War battle of Antietam. In both of these battles west of The Atlantic, interested parties in Europe had decisions to make about which governments to recognise as legitimate, or indeed to militarily assist. Just as the Battle of Saratoga turned the independence battle in favour of the revolutionaries, and prompted foreign recognitions - so the rebels loss of the horrific battle at Antietam made would-be supporters back-off. The Confederacy fought on alone, without foreign recognition and military or financial aid; despite the fact that European mills, rulers and workers cried out for its rich supplies of cotton. Chapter Six examines Robert E. Lee's war aims in the Gettysburg campaign - arguing that his aims were much grander than those he left in his written records. His stated aims included such things as tying-up Grant's armies to prevent them intervening in other theatres, and gaining good sources of food for his hungry troops from Northern farmlands. However, McPherson argues that (as mentioned), Lee saw his Northern incursion as a final opportunity to win the war. McPherson has little time for those who have endowed some form of military sainthood on Robert E Lee. The caricature of Lee as the gentleman soldier, and Grant as the exponent of industrial-scale military butchery owes, in his account, little to fact and much to post-bellum Southern sentimentality. Lee's armies, he points out, suffered almost the highest casualty rates of any General in this war; which given it was one of the worst ever wars for combatant mortality, makes him an appalling General in many ways. Yet, what Lee did know, is that a decisive win at Gettysburg could have brought The Union to the negotiating table, and allowed them all to return home.

Chapter seven changes tack completely as it is an essay about Jesse James, the flamboyant outlaw figure of American history, sometime popularly seen as an American Robin Hood. McPherson has no time for this, but rather interprets James' career as that of a Confederate Guerrilla, who turned his ire and pistols on carpetbaggers and Republicans after the official war had been lost. The post-war theme continues in the eighth chapter when the way in which the war was remembered (especially in the South) is analysed, with special reference to education. Confederate apologists sought to honour their dead, and promote a positive view of the rebellion as a noble crusade for States Rights against Federal Dictatorship, rather than as a squalid pro-slavery movement to perpetuate the immoral trade in human souls. The key battle was for educational textbooks, and the minds of the young. Just as whites were re-asserting their control of the South and establishing the crushing system of segregation; so they seized the curriculum and instilled the myth of "The Lost Cause" in succeeding generations. 

Chapter Nine is the only chapter which looks at the roles and skills of the main generals in the war. He attempts something of a rehabilitation of the reputation of Ulysses S Grant; and credits William T. Sherman  as being the father of modern high-speed, manoeuvrable warfare, slicing through the Confederacy and maiming its capacity to wage war. The question of whether the Union waged "Total-War" on the south is addressed in the tenth chapter. Total-War is defined as the all-out, no-holds-barred attempt to smash every aspect of the enemy; without respect to whether the victims are combatants or civilians. WWII's blitz, and allied bombing of cities like Dresden qualify as Total-War therefore. McPherson argues that while Lincoln and Grant escalated the American Civil War to what might be called "Hard-War", it fell short of "Total-War", even during Sherman's march to the sea. The destruction, even here, he argues was controlled with different levels of punishment meted out to different States in proportion to their alleged crimes against The Union. The eleventh chapter returns to the broad-picture of military strategy, highlighting the importance of the Union capture of Vicksburg, associated control of the Mississippi cut the Confederacy in two.

"Brahmins at War" (Chapter 12), is an essay about the elites of the North -whose sons led the military effort to defeat the Southern rebellion. In the 1860s, "The Posh Boys" really did lead from the front, when it came to sharing the burdens of a national crisis. The thirteenth paper in this collection looks at the role of the press in the war, which is complex and fascinating. McPherson highlights the love-hate relationship between the soldiers and the journalists and war-artists who reported on their lives. They at times despised one another, yet fed-off one another; the soldiers hating the inaccuracies they saw in the press and laughing derisorily at the foolishly optimistic propaganda they saw. However, soldiers were voracious consumers of newsprint, and papers remained in huge demand on both sides of the conflict.

It is hardly surprising that a war fought with ferocity, and with such high levels of casualties, and physical destruction of the land; generated various attempts to bring peace prior to outright military victory to one side or the other. This was certainly the case in the American Civil War, and the 14th essay in this book charts these. In McPherson's account, these all failed because of Lincoln's absolute refusal to compromise on the principle of emancipation of the slaves, which Jeff Davis saw as a minimum basis for negotiating. The ebbs and flows on the battlefield are rather well mapped onto the unfolding story of the hidden diplomacy; and McPherson argues that Northern war-weariness almost pushed the Union into a negotiated peace; but that the Sherman's conquest of Atlanta so boosted morale that all thoughts of capitulation were abandoned.

The last two essays in this volume concern the towering figure of the conflict, the still controversial President Abraham Lincoln. There may never be an American who so divides opinion as Lincoln, and McPherson's fifteenth chapter is a very useful historiography of Lincoln, which paints a compelling picture of the man, and the sources through which we can access him. The final chapter looks at the massive extension of executive power which Lincoln accumulated though his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It was, for instance, under these powers that slavery was abolished, and only subsequently endorsed by Congress. His rationale was that this was a military decision as slave-labour drove the Confederate economy, and African-Americans were fighting effectively for the Union in huge numbers in order to further the abolitionist cause. The end-result was a fundamental shift in the working of the American constitution.

Although varied in subject, and wide-ranging in scope, "This Mighty Scourge" is so consistently well written that it is a compelling read. McPherson's clear, direct but well-formed prose makes his research accessible and hugely engaging. It's a tremendous book, which doesn't suffer at all from not being a book-length treatment of any one of the many aspects of the war it investigates.

Once again the Oxford University Press summer sale has come up trumps with some great reading!

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