WHY THE CIVIL WAR STILL MATTERS

When I accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington in 1988, I anticipated that my teaching responsibilities would lie primarily in the fields of American economic history and the history of the United States in the twentieth century.  After accepting the position, however, I was “invited” (a euphemism for “required”) to teach an upper-division course on the American Civil War.  The retiring faculty member whom I was replacing had long taught such a course to robust enrollments, and my department hoped to see the class continue.  I was genuinely happy for the opportunity, even though my knowledge of the Civil War was distressingly thin.  I had been trained as an economic historian in graduate school, and my study of the war had focused almost exclusively on the conflict’s economic causes and consequences.  I had read a lot of popular works on the Civil War as I was growing up (reflecting the fact that I was not simply an intellectual nerd but a southern intellectual nerd), but I had almost no exposure to the vast academic literature on the war’s political, military, social, and international dimensions.

McPhersonBattleCryThankfully, there was James McPherson.  The same year that I arrived in Seattle, the Princeton historian came out with what, in my opinion, is still the best one-volume history of the Civil War: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988).    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book combined gripping prose with scholarly insight, a sense of wonder, and responsible moral engagement.  It’s a tour de force.  Although my future students didn’t know it, James McPherson provided the framework and much of the substance of “my” course on the Civil War for years to come.

McPherson is now retired from Princeton after a long and distinguished career in which he authored or edited more than thirty books, served as president of the American Historical Association, and twice received the prestigious Gilder Lehrman Prize, which annually recognizes the best scholarly book on the Civil War era.  Though in his late 70s, McPherson shows no signs of slowing down, as evidence by last month’s release of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford University Press, 2015).  This anthology brings together a dozen of McPherson’s more recent essays on the war and exhibits the range of focus and depth of insight that are his hallmarks.

I was invited to review the collection for the print edition of Christianity Today, and as of yesterday my review is accessible online as well.  You can check it out here, if you are interested.

McPhersonWarthatForged

4 responses to “WHY THE CIVIL WAR STILL MATTERS

  1. Uh-oh, Dr. McKenzie…just read a bit about an upcoming PBS Civil War-era series “Mercy Street”, which is supposed to be based on actual letters from doctors and nurses at a hospital in Alexandra, with one nurse being – to borrow from your book title – a “Lincolnite” and one a “Rebel”. We’ll see how it goes – I wonder if any Southern character in any TV show or movie about that time period can come across as sympathetic if they actually reflect Southern thinking at the time. I hope for some historical complexity in the show as I usually expect more thoughtfulness and depth from a PBS series than many others.

    P.S. Being from the South, I mighta shoulda called it the “War of Northern Agresssion” or just “The War Between the States”. 🙂

    • Thanks for the heads up, Ed. It will be interesting to see how much complexity sneaks into the series. We can hope. Tracy

  2. Debbie McNally

    As I’m finding out now, the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. There are, alas, no shortcuts!

    Regarding the Civil War, I’ve also appreciated watching some of David Blight’s lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction, available online through Yale University. http://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-119.

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