The Past in the Present: Why I Became a Civil War Historian
James M. McPherson, December 1998
Editor's Note: With thanks to the Lincoln and Soldiers' Institute at Gettysburg College, we continue our tradition of bringing the thoughts of eminent practitioners of history to our readers. The following speech was delivered on April 16, 1998, by James M. McPherson of Princeton University, on receiving the Lincoln Prize for his recent work For Cause and Comrades (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
I am not often at a loss for words before an audience. But this is an unusually distinguished audience and a very special occasion. It is thus hard to find the right words to express my gratitude for the Lincoln Prize and my appreciation for the honor bestowed on the recipient of what has become the foremost award in the field of 19th-century American history. To the founders of the Lincoln Prize, Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman; to the board of trustees and its chairman Gabor Boritt of the Lincoln and Soldiers' Institute at Gettysburg College; and to the Lincoln Prize jury, I extend my heartfelt thanks.
Many others too numerous to name have also helped me along the way to this climactic moment in my career as a historian. But I must recognize the great contribution made by three special people: C. Vann Woodward, my graduate school mentor, who provided a superb model and guide as teacher, scholar, and writer; Sheldon Meyer, who shepherded several of my books, including For Cause and Comrades, to publication by Oxford University Press; and Patricia McPherson, a research assistant for this book whose help was essential to its completion. I wrote in the acknowledgments of the book that she deserved to be listed as coauthor, and indeed she is coeditor with me of another book published in 1997, Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy. That book was also submitted for the Lincoln Prize, and I like to think that it was the icing on the cake that helped sweeten For Cause and Comrades for the jury, and that Pat therefore deserves to stand up here with me to receive the Lincoln Prize.
Two of the questions that I have been asked most often in the past 10 years are: why is the Civil War the most popular subject in American history and how did I get interested in the Civil War? In some ways, of course, these are related questions—I became interested in the Civil War for some of the same reasons that millions of other people did. That war was the most profound and traumatic event experienced by any generation of Americans. Two percent of the American population in the 1860s lost their lives in the Civil War. If the same percentage of the population were to die in a war fought at the end of the 20th century, the number of American deaths would exceed five million. Such a massive loss of life has echoed down the generations since 1865 and still affects us today.
Of even greater significance, perhaps, the Civil War did more to shape and reshape American institutions than anything else in our history, even more than the revolution of 1776 that gave birth to the nation. That revolution left unresolved two questions that festered deep in the body politic for more than half a century: could this radical experiment of republican government survive as one nation, indivisible and could the United States, founded on a charter of freedom, continue to endure half slave and half free? Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln answered both questions, one in the affirmative, the other in the negative: the United States must have a new birth of freedom to ensure that the nation would not perish from the earth. A decade later Mark Twain, who was to American literature as Lincoln was to American statesmanship, measured the impact of the Civil War with these words: it "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." Five generations later we are still trying to measure that influence.
These are some of the reasons why so many people, including pretty much all of us in this room, find the Civil War such an important and challenging historical subject. But my own path to becoming a historian of the Civil War, especially of Civil War armies and navies, soldiers and sailors, has been different from that of many of my friends and colleagues. Unlike some of you in this room, I did not have a youthful fascination with the war. When I arrived in Baltimore for graduate work in history, I did not know that the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction would become my field. Apart from a couple of books by Bruce Catton, I had not read anything specially on the subject. I had not taken a college course on the Civil War era because my college did not offer such a course. I had a vague and rather naive interest in the history of the South, in part because, having been born in North Dakota and brought up in Minnesota, the South seemed exotic and mysterious. My senior year in college was also the year that nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock under the protection of the United States Army. I was well enough acquainted with history and current events to know that the constitutional basis for their presence at Central High School was the 14th Amendment, one of the most important results of the Civil War. In retrospect, it seems clear that this awareness planted the seed of my professional interest in the Civil War.
That seed germinated within days of my arrival at Johns Hopkins when, like other incoming graduate students, I met with my potential adviser, Vann Woodward. My appointment had to be postponed for a day because Vann had been called to Washington to testify before a congressional committee about potential problems in Little Rock as a second year of school desegregation got under way. Here was a revelation: an academic historian offering counsel on the most important domestic issue of the time. And here also was a dramatic example of what our students ask for in history courses: relevance. If I had not seen the connection between the Civil War and my own times before this experience, I certainly discovered it then.
That consciousness grew during my four years in Baltimore. The last two of these years were the opening years of the commemoration of the Civil War centennial. But that made little impression on me at the time and had nothing to do with my becoming a Civil War historian because these were also the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of massive resistance to federal law by Southern political leaders, of Martin Luther King trying to persuade President John F. Kennedy to issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on the centennial anniversary of the original. If these parallels between the early 1960s and the early 1860s were not enough to impress a young historian in search of a dissertation topic, my experience as one of many students and their spouses at Hopkins, who with students at Morgan State College, a black school in Baltimore, took part in sit-ins and picketing of segregated restaurants and theaters in Baltimore, reinforced my feeling of historical déja vu. I remember one incident with particular clarity. Several dozen students from Hopkins and Morgan State held a meeting in a church to plan strategy for our picketing and sit-ins. It was customary on such occasions to sing a few songs to buck up our resolve. I can still recall the goose pimples that broke out on my skin as we all joined hands and sang—what? Not "We Shall Overcome." We sang that, to be sure, but that's not what I remember so vividly. It was the singing of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that really brought the past and present together for me. It may have been at that moment I decided on my dissertation topic, a study of the abolitionists during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The abolitionists were the civil rights activists of their day. My effort to tell their story was my entrée into Civil War history. The dissertation became my first book; a spinoff from this research became my second book, on the role of blacks—especially Northern blacks—in the war. And a sequel, carrying the story of first-, second-, and even third-generation abolitionists down to the founding of the NAACP in 1910, became my third.
These projects had made me, by 1975, into a historian of emancipation, race relations, and black education, but not really a Civil War historian. Then came an invitation to write a college textbook on the Civil War and Reconstruction era. The timing was good, for I had developed a renewed interest in the war as the focal point, the turning point, for all of the themes that had engaged my teaching and research. I accepted the textbook invitation, and not long after that I accepted a further invitation from Vann Woodward and Sheldon Meyer to write one of the volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. These two projects, which took a dozen years to complete, reinforced my initial interest in the themes of slavery, emancipation, and the civil rights and black education dimensions of Reconstruction, and also widened my perspective to include the political and military aspects of the war.
A frequent follow-up to the question of how I got interested in the Civil War is the question of how I moved from the abolitionists to a focus on Lincoln, military operations, and soldiers—the principal subjects of my writing during the past several years. Some questioners consider this a change of direction in my interests. I don't see it that way. It is an expansion of perspective, not a change of direction. As Lincoln himself put it in his second inaugural address, after almost four years of war, "all else chiefly depends [on]Šthe progress of our arms." That "all else" included the abolition of slavery and the Reconstruction of the union on the basis of that new birth of freedom—the issues that engaged my interest in the Civil War in the first place. The very core of our being as a people, the historical roots of our society today, the issues at stake in the Civil War, including the definition of freedom, the very survival of the United States—all rested on the shoulders of those three million weary men in blue and gray who fought it out during four years of ferocity unmatched in the Western world between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. And the tread of those three million men over the battlefields of the Civil War echoed in the minds of those weary commanders-in-chief in Washington and Richmond.
That is why my interests expanded—not shifted—from William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to include Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, from the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to include Antietam and Appomattox, from Wendell Phillips to include Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. Most of those Rebs and Yanks were volunteers from civilian life. They came from the world's most democratic and politicized society. Most of them voted in the election of 1860 and in various state and national elections during the war—not to mention voting for their company officers. Most of them were literate and wrote uncensored letters home or kept diaries in which they tried to explain their experiences and their motives for fighting. It was those experiences and motives that I tried to recover in For Cause and Comrades.
After reading many thousands of their letters and more than 200 diaries, I came to the same conclusion as that expressed by a captain in the 85th New York Volunteer Infantry in a letter to his wife written in 1864, two months before he was killed in action: "Our soldiers are closer thinkers and reasoners than the people at home. It is the soldiers who have educated the people to a just perception of their duties in this contest. Every soldier knows he is fighting not only for his own liberty but even more for the liberty of the human race for all time to come."
This captain's consciousness of the relationship between his actions and the future brings me full circle back to the reason why I became interested in the Civil War: the relationship between that future, which is my present, and the past, which was his present.
That indissoluble bond between past and present is why we study history. Without a knowledge of where we have been, we cannot know who and what we are. Of few periods of our history is that more true than of the Civil War. And of no participants in the war is it more true than of the men who fought the war. That is why I became a Civil War historian and why I tried to understand what made those men tick. I accept the Lincoln Prize with pride, but also with the humility of knowing that my achievement does not even come close to matching theirs.