Review of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters, by James M. McPherson

11 Apr

There seems to be no end to writing about the Civil War. Although thousands of volumes have been published over more than a century and a half and seemingly every major event thoroughly investigated, we continue to want to learn more about the conflict and historians continue to debate the many ways it influenced American history. It seems surprising, then, that on occasion we as Americans seem to be inclined to collectively lose sight of the centrality of that landmark event to our past, present, and future. Judging from what often passes for history instruction in public schools, it sometimes appears the next generation is barely getting exposed to the fact there was a Civil War, much less learning about its cause, course, and consequence. It would appear, then, that scholarship explaining why the Civil War is a seminal event in American history will continue to need to be produced each generation.

For over five decades one of the best writers helping us make sense of the conflict and how it impacted American history has been James M. McPherson. The George Henry Davis Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, McPherson has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the Lincoln Prize. In 2016 he published The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters. In the pages of the book this master historian presents a series of his best essays chronicling the many ways the war transformed the nation which are of note today and promise to be important resources for those wanting to understand the war’s place in America’s past far into the future. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the title.

I will admit I am not usually a big fan of books of essays, as collections of them written at different times for varying reasons inherently prevent a narrative flow and are usually overly academic by nature. Those contained in The War that Forged a Nation, however, are less traditional essays but more elaborations of McPherson’s understanding of key concepts in the study of the Civil War. In other words, they speak to much broader themes than typical monographs, and their arrangement is roughly chronological as it concerns secession, military and political developments, and the evolution of the ending of slavery as a war aim for the Union. It is truly a catalogue of some of McPherson’s best work over a period of about two decades. It takes the form of twelve essays which, written as book reviews, commentary on trends in historiography, and summaries of his previous publications, collectively address major issues in the study of the Civil War as a landmark event in American history.

McPherson makes powerful and persuasive arguments for the continuing relevance of the war to all of American history, citing as paramount considerations its preservation of the Union, establishment of the authority of the national government in relation to the states, and ending of slavery and redefinition of freedom. He alludes to the failures of Reconstruction as having perhaps almost as much significance as the war which brought it about, mentioning that that era of conflict might actually qualify as America’s longest war when viewed as a contest for autonomy within several Southern states. While this is all rather familiar territory for most Civil War historians, McPherson writes from a position of more than a half-century of scholarship and experience. His words ring as authoritative.

Above all, though, McPherson provides a clear and compelling statement within the book on why we simply cannot understand the problems of our own time in America unless we better grasp the events of the war, what brought it about, and what course we took after peace. Ironically, he admits in his introduction, it was that very realization that spurred his interest in the Civil War back in the 1960s as a college student witnessing social turmoil in the South which was rooted deep in its troubled antebellum past. The War that Forged a Nation is well worth your time if you have an interest in the Civil War and its impact on national history, even if it covers some well-covered and often-written about topics.



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