• RSS

James M. McPherson. Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. xiv + 253 pp., index.

Perhaps the best way to approach James M. McPherson's Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War is to start at the end rather than the beginning. In his final section, entitled "Historians and Their Audiences," McPherson poses the question "What's the matter with history?" This chapter examines a central dilemma that historians face. If they write scholarly books for each other, they run the grave risk of history becoming irrelevant and boring for the general public. If they write popular history to appeal to a mass audience, there is an equal danger that what they produce may not measure up to the standards of the profession.

McPherson argues that there are three basic audiences for Civil War history. The first consists of professional, academic historians who examine broad themes such as the causes and results of the Civil War or the socioeconomic basis of slavery. Ironically, many of these historians ignore the military aspects of the Civil War altogether. While these broad topics are important and deserve investigation, there are numerous college courses that make little reference to the 600,000-plus Americans who perished during the Civil War. Such an oversight is hardly a faithful representation of the lives of Americans who endured this traumatic conflict.

The second audience includes Civil War buffs. They are mostly interested in the battles. Many of the authors who write for this group tend to be nonacademics who are skilled in storytelling but usually avoid a broad synthesis.

The third group consists of "general readers" or the "lay public," the group professional historians lament that they have not been able to reach. However, talented amateurs such as Douglas Freeman or Bruce Catton have made inroads with this audience, as Ken Burns and Shelby Foote did most recently with the PBS series on the Civil War. In fact, Burns, whose series was seen by millions of viewers, consciously attempted to use film and television Page  [End Page 47] to create a new narrative, which not only revived an interest in the battles but also incorporated recent scholarship on women, minorities, labor, and the social transformations that the war produced.

This struggle between professional and amateur historians is hardly a new one. Allen Nevins, a prominent historian of an earlier generation, who did not hold a Ph.D., nonetheless wrote numerous books and trained hundreds of doctoral candidates at Columbia University. Nevins, whose own work was sometimes attacked for being too popular, on occasion derided the academic who wrote unreadable manuscripts:

His touch is death. He destroys the public for historical work by convincing it that history is synonymous with heavy, stolid prosing. Indeed, he is responsible for the fact that today a host of intelligent and highly literate Americans will open a book of history only with reluctant dread.... It is against this entrenched pedantry that the war of true history will have to be most determined and implacable.

In an effort to remedy the problem, Nevins suggested to the American Historical Association that it begin a more popular magazine, in addition to its scholarly journal the American Historical Review, but his idea was rejected. This led to the founding of the Society of American Historians, which established prizes to reward books and dissertations for literary excellence. Nevins and his associates also launched their own popular magazine, American Heritage, which within a short time had a circulation of 300,000, far greater than all the professional journals combined. But many academic historians refused to submit articles for publication.

Obviously, McPherson believes that history can be both scholarly and appealing to a broader audience, and he has consciously shaped his writing with this in mind. In Drawn with the Sword, he has assembled a collection of fourteen of his previously published essays ("What's the Matter with History?" was delivered as a lecture), in an attempt to explore several themes. These include the evolution of the conflict from limited to total war, the role of blacks in the war, why the North won, the political and military leadership of the period, and the impact of the war at home and abroad. He succeeds admirably in his purpose. Unlike many similar anthologies, whose articles are assembled with little attention to the connections among them, the reader comes away with a clear sense that this volume was crafted in a coherent fashion.

Even in an extended review essay, it is not possible to analyze each of the articles in depth, but by focusing on selected essays, Page  [End Page 48] one can gain an appreciation for McPherson's insights about the Civil War as well as for his approach to the historian's trade.

One of the things that makes history so fascinating—and yet so frustrating—is that historians, unlike mathematicians or scientists, can use the same material to reach radically different conclusions. One such paradox is explored in a chapter entitled "Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism." McPherson uses a clever juxtaposition of quotes from C. Vann Woodward and Grady McWhiney, in which they contradict themselves about whether the South really was exceptional, to demonstrate how difficult it has been for historians to determine whether the South was so different from the rest of the United States.

With this as a starting point, McPherson challenges the work of Allen Pessen, who believes that the North and South had a great deal in common. While Pessen claims that the distribution of wealth and socioeconomic status of officeholders in the two regions demonstrate this similarity, McPherson argues that the same criteria could be used to prove that France and Germany were equally alike in 1914 and 1932. He concludes that, in reality, there were many differences between the two sections although it was the South, not the North, that was the more typical society in the context of the mid-nineteenth century.

Similarly, in a chapter called "From Limited to Total War," McPherson challenges Mark E. Neely Jr.'s assertion that the Civil War was not a total war. While admitting that there was sometimes a difference between strong rhetoric and strong actions, McPherson believes that the brand of warfare practiced by generals such as William Tecumseh Sherman blurred the lines between soldiers and civilians. To McPherson, this fits the definition of total war.

Two recent collections of articles designed to be used in Civil War courses, Michael Perman's Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction (1991) and Eugene Berwanger's The Civil War Era (1994), contain chapters contrasting the McPherson-Pessen articles and McPherson-Neely articles, respectively. The idea behind such anthologies is that students will become more interested in history and be excited enough to investigate further the questions raised by reading different interpretations from leading historians.

Those who teach history, however, are painfully aware that many undergraduates do not automatically respond with the enthusiasm envisioned by authors and publishers of textbooks. We live in an age when social critics bemoan the fact that major issues are viewed in terms of black and white. Americans are no longer satisfied with subtle complexities and shades of gray. While master's and doc- Page  [End Page 49] toral candidates may be immersed in the joys of scholarship, academics complain that even junior and senior history majors do not always exhibit the enthusiasm for historical studies that one might expect.

Many history majors also mirror the general public in their search for the clear and easy answer. Their plea is: "Tell us which historian is correct, McPherson or Pessen, and at the same time make your presentation interesting." The classroom historian is faced with the same dilemma that McPherson outlines in trying to write for a mass audience: Shall I reduce my teaching to a series of anecdotes, in effect becoming simply an entertainer, or will I deliver dry, scholarly lectures, even when numbers of students fail to respond to them? Or is there a way to combine the two?

This problem is addressed by McPherson, at least indirectly, in the chapter entitled "The Glory Story." As he notes, to many people books are hopelessly irrelevant, because far more Americans today get their history from watching movies than from reading. However, if they receive their notions about African American soldiers and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment from the movie Glory, then he believes that they are receiving their information from a very credible source. In fact, he calls the combat footage in Glory the most realistic of any film dealing with the Civil War.

He also admits that there are errors in the movie and, of course, the major characters played by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are not real but fictional. This is true, despite the fact that one member of the 54th, William Carney, was wounded several times during the assault on Fort Wagner and yet carried the flag back down the beach, gasping out that the colors never touched the ground. Carney survived and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the filmmakers, rather than telling his story, which seems dramatic enough, preferred fictional characters.

In what some purists might consider to be heresy, McPherson maintains that if Glory, despite its errors, can supplant the moonlight-and-magnolias version in Gone with the Wind as the public's perception of the Civil War, then great progress will have been made toward the truth. Many historians would probably harbor doubts, arguing that movies are inherently filled with error and that there are problems even with the most realistic of historical movies. But, in an era when more people see movies than read books, can historians afford to ignore the nonprint media?

Nor is McPherson hesitant to be a revisionist, even in areas where his conclusions might not be seen as politically correct. It has re- Page  [End Page 50] cently been fashionable to downplay the role of Abraham Lincoln in emancipation and to claim that the slaves freed themselves by fleeing to Union lines. One of the leading proponents of this thesis has been Barbara Fields of Columbia University, who also became well known to American television audiences through her appearance on Ken Burns's series. While McPherson admits that there is a degree of truth in her contention, he tackles Fields's argument head on. He believes that many other presidential candidates in 1860, including William Seward, would have been willing to compromise with the South. If that had happened and war had been avoided, it is difficult to see just when slavery might have ended.

It was also Lincoln who decided that the slaves had to be emancipated, albeit as a war measure, and who saw the war through to its conclusion and pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment. Had Lincoln been defeated by George McClellan in 1864, there would have been no amendment ending slavery at the war's conclusion. Lincoln also persisted in his policies even when it appeared he might lose his reelection bid in 1864. While he sometimes waffled, or at least appeared to do so in other policy areas, McPherson says that his steadfastness regarding emancipation made this his finest hour. While Lincoln did not strike the shackles from helpless blacks, as the old stereotype would have us believe, McPherson argues convincingly that the president was indeed the key figure in all these events.

Another strength of McPherson's writing is his ability to ask provocative questions and to view previously studied materials in a new light. In the chapter "Why Did the Confederacy Lose?" he examines both the internal and external causes that have been said to contribute to Confederate defeat. However, as he dissects each one, whether it is the South's alleged loss of will, internal conflicts within the Confederacy, or simply the North's greater numbers or supposedly better leadership, no explanation seems to be entirely satisfactory. As he notes, the North also had many internal conflicts, and if the South had won, Jefferson Davis, despite his faults, would have been hailed as the Confederate George Washington.

In this case, McPherson concludes that a better way to answer the question of why the Confederacy lost is to avoid broad generalizations that imply some sort of inevitability and to study the specific contingencies that hung over each military campaign, each election, and each decision made during the war. He demonstrates once again why, when historians have continued to agonize about whether there Page  [End Page 51] is anything left to be said about the Civil War, the answer has always been yes. This is not necessarily because there are a great many primary materials left undiscovered, although there have always been neglected and underutilized sources, such as information on the role of women from 1861–65, but rather that, in the hands of skilled historians, new questions yield new perspectives.

Finally, the writing style of Drawn with the Sword is lively. McPherson knows how to turn a phrase and keep the reader's interest. Writing of the Confederate failure at Gettysburg, with the finger pointing at the faults of southern generals, he reminds us that General George Pickett was once asked to explain why the South had lost this momentous battle. While his questioner apparently sought some great philosophical discourse about the vagaries of war, Pickett merely scratched his head and replied, "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it." Similarly, McPherson entitles his chapter on Uncle Tom's Cabin "Tom on the Cross," parodying the title of the controversial statistical study of slavery by Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel. Writing of a question he was asked after a speech in Delaware in 1984, about how Lincoln would have dealt with the budget deficit and abortion, McPherson says he was reminded of Senator George Norris's response in the 1930s to a question about how Lincoln would have handled the depression: "Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn't know what the hell to do."

There is much to admire in the work of this outstanding Civil War historian. These articles are well written and engaging, allowing the reader to view many aspects of the Civil War in a new light. To return to the original question posed—"What's the matter with history?"—one is tempted to answer, "Nothing," when it's in the hands of historians like James McPherson.

Yet McPherson recounts another tale that makes it clear that such an answer would be both naive and simplistic. To his and his publisher's great surprise, his nine-hundred-page volume Battle Cry of Freedom spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times's best-seller list in hard cover and another twelve weeks in paperback. Selling well over 600,000 copies worldwide, it was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Such success obviously pleased McPherson, that is until he received a letter from a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Michigan, asking the following question: "'Have you had occasion to feel that your public success has diminished your achievements in the eyes of fellow professionals?'" While his first inclina- Page  [End Page 52] tion was to answer no, it dawned on him that despite the book's acclaim it had not won any of the prizes awarded by professional associations. He was also asked to address a major conference to discuss his work and then saw the invitation withdrawn. Apparently the thinking was that a book that had reached such a wide audience did not merit a session at a professional meeting.

Furthermore, he was chided by a colleague who said he risked the danger of becoming a "popular historian" rather than a "historian's historian." When asked why he couldn't be both, the colleague smiled sadly at what he considered to be an exhibition of naïveté.

These episodes illustrate that there may be more wrong with the historical profession than we like to admit. In fact, when we are honest we would acknowledge that there has always been a tendency to look down on certain areas of historical investigation. McPherson is hardly unique in having experienced his colleague's reaction.

Historians who study Lincoln's assassination can readily empathize with McPherson's concerns. As academics have turned their attention to Lincoln's death, an area previously neglected by professional historians, there has generally been a positive response to their endeavors. Whatever the merits of specific books, critics seemed pleased to have this controversial area in the hands of those trained in historical scholarship.

However, if I might be permitted to share a personal experience, when I first attempted to introduce a course on assassinations at Bridgewater State College, I, too, received a mixed reaction from my department colleagues. While a majority voted to approve the course (which has proved to be quite popular with students), others made it clear they could see no reason for such an offering. Those who opposed this addition to our curriculum seemed to believe it was not dignified enough to join our more traditional courses, nor could it, in their view, be taught with the same scholarly rigor.

Like McPherson's experience, this incident caused me to reflect that if I spent all my time researching and writing about American diplomatic history or some traditional aspect of the Civil War (two other areas that I teach), no one would question whether these are worthy topics to spend your life investigating. However, the study of assassinations somehow had to be justified before it could be undertaken.

This notion that some areas are more worthy of study than others was recently reinforced when I attended a board meeting of a Page  [End Page 53] newly formed Lincoln organization. Another board member, who also works in the assassination field, addressed this issue directly during a breakfast meeting. She said that while she was pleased to have been invited to take the position, she was a bit surprised, at first, since she often felt that those studying the assassination were viewed as a bit peripheral to the Lincoln field by many other Lincoln scholars.

The dilemma we face is clear but the solution is not readily apparent. If historians abandon certain areas of study, we should hardly be surprised when the sensationalists and popularizers rush in, providing entertainment but also often perpetuating myth and legend. If we continue to write solely for each other, we should also not be amazed that the public increasingly finds history irrelevant.

Since a new generation of graduate students is apparently being trained in the same manner as the old and receiving the message that academic success and rewards will not be gained by appealing to a mass audience, the system does not appear ready for significant change. If all historians took a pledge tomorrow to abandon turf battles, to respect each other's work, and to abstain from petty jealousies, admittedly a fairy-tale scenario, it would still take decades to observe any concrete results. Unfortunately, the question "What's the matter with history?" rather than being answered seems destined to be repeated. Page  [End Page 54]