As the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War looms in April, popular historian James McPherson reminds us that the war is still with us. The conflict and its bitter aftermath defined the modern nation, helped create a world power — and left us haunted by the failure to resolve racial injustice.
McPherson, perhaps the preeminent historian of the war, makes the case in The War That Forged a Nation that our current debates over federal authority, voting rights, citizenship and racial progress are difficult to understand without coming to terms with the 19th century conflict that almost tore the country apart.
The war that freed 4 million slaves and led to constitutional amendments guaranteeing their rights as citizens, the author concludes, also led to an “unjust peace” in the South “marred by disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, poverty and lynching.”
For the casual reader of American history, this slim volume of 12 essays provides easy-to-digest narrative history and analysis that make these connections understandable. For example, McPherson points out that the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to all people born in the United States is now a key part of the immigration debate.
Arguments over federal versus states’ authority — such as the Supreme Court’s rollback of the Voting Rights Act — are shaped by the decisions made during and after the war. “The need to understand and manage that balance offers another example of why the Civil War matters,” McPherson writes.
This book is popular history at its most accessible, by an author whose Battle Cry of Freedom 26 years ago may be the best single volume on the war, blending military, political and social history. McPherson recognizes that public interest in that time persists, going far beyond the obsessions of battlefield reenactors and academic scholars.
One reason: The war’s toll still staggers the imagination. Recent historical analyses estimate that 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed, about 2.4 percent of the populations of North and South in 1860. The casualty total of 23,000 from both sides in the Battle of Antietam in 1862 was four times the U.S. casualties in the D-Day invasion in 1944.
The ripple effects of this carnage lasted decades. One benefit of McPherson’s book is to encourage curious readers to delve into other perspectives, such as Drew Gilpin Faust’s social history, This Republic of Suffering, on how the nation dealt with death on a massive scale, or Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, on the compelling pull of the Lost Cause on some Southerners.
At the center of the story is President Abraham Lincoln, and McPherson explains why he was the indispensable leader, “a practitioner of the art of the possible” and a master of timing. Lincoln knew not to push hard for abolishing slavery early in the war, lest he lose support in the border states, but then made it a central goal later, even recruiting 100,000 freed slaves to become soldiers.
Two essays focus on Lincoln — how he learned to be a commander in chief and how his views on ending slavery and the future of race relations evolved. Lincoln’s assassination, McPherson concludes, robbed the nation of the best chance to protect the rights of freed slaves.
Instead, those constitutional protections “slumbered in a near coma” for decades until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But it could have been worse. If the Confederacy had prevailed, slavery might have survived in North America into the 20th century, the author believes, and the nation — or two nations — would have become “even more of an apartheid society than it did.”
These are the sorts of conclusions that fuel debates about what one historian, Harry Stout, called “the fulcrum” of our history. “You can’t put the past behind you,” wrote the African American poet Claudia Rankine in her book Citizen. “It’s buried in you.”
McPherson has brought that past to the surface, raw and real and worth pondering anew.
Frank Davies is a writer and editor in northern Virginia.