During the war and after the war

J.R. Pole

  • Oxford History of the United States. Vol. VI: Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era by James McPherson
    Oxford, 904 pp, $35.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 503863 0
  • Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
    Harper and Row, 690 pp, $21.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 06 015851 4

With the passing of generations, the Civil War will lose its chronological centrality in American history, and may well come to be regarded, not so much as the great crisis of the very principle and possibility of the Union, but rather as an early difficulty that had to be overcome – one of the Union’s teething troubles. James McPherson, who has spent most of his academic life in the study of abolitionism and the related struggles of the Civil War era, has written a narrative history that comes as close to being both comprehensive and definitive as seems possible in a single volume. He avoids the kind of thematic interpretation that has been popular in American historical writing and never loses sight of two essential requirements: an appreciation of what it was like at the time, and an appreciation of what it was like as a whole.

In a manner that recalls the once-famous introduction to H.A.L.Fisher’s History of Europe, with its emphasis on the play of the contingent and the unforeseen, McPherson insists on the element of contingency in the clash of forces that led ultimately – but only ultimately – to Northern victory. There were four crucial phases, but the first three left the military outcome in doubt. The first occurred as early as the summer of 1862, when a seemingly imminent Union victory was arrested both in the West and in Virginia. It may be remarked here, hardly parenthetically, that the prolongation of the war by these Southern successes ensured that the war would turn into a crusade against slavery. An early victory would have restored the Union without any immediate prospect of emancipation, still less of a 14th Amendment. The South would have done better to have lost quickly: the longer and bloodier the war, the greater the devastation of the South, as Georgia and South Carolina found in the autumn of 1864.

The second critical phase was the fall of 1862 with the battles of Perryville and Antietam. Total casualties at Antietam were more than four times as heavy as those suffered on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944. These Union successes forestalled European recognition of the Confederacy, with all that might have entailed. The third critical point was the summer of 1863, when Gettysburg and Vicksburg made Union victory seem almost inevitable. But Lee’s army was still intact, a fact whose significance Lincoln instantly recognised. Strategic victory had not been won, and the fearful battles of the spring of 1864 threw everything into new confusion and doubt. That was why Grant said he would ‘fight it out on this line all summer if necessary’. It is wrong, as McPherson shows, to think that Grant sought a war of attrition: he was presented with it, and knew that he could not afford to withdraw. Only with the fourth turning-point, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s destruction of Early’s army in the Shenandoah valley, did Union victory become inevitable. Only then could Lincoln, who had already prepared a memorandum for his successor in the probable event of his defeat in the Presidential election of November 1864, count on re-election. Still some four months were to pass before the President, with characteristic disregard for his own safety, could pass throught the streets of Richmond. Sailing back to Washington, the war-weary Lincoln, equally characteristically, seemed immersed in Shakespeare. With some of his staff around him on deck, he read from Macbeth the lines:

Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.

A few days later the implicit prophecy had come true.

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