The Battle Cry of Freedom

On Monday we noted that the ongoing sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War has reached the battle of Gettysburg, the three-day clash that ended 150 years ago today — with Pickett’s ill-fated charge up Cemetery Ridge. Then tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Confederate forces finally surrendering the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi after a forty-day siege; eight months later, the victorious commander at Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant, would be named commander of all Union armies.

McPherson, Battle Cry of FreedomAs Americans remember what, in many ways, is the pivotal week of the entire Civil War, it’s worth celebrating a related anniversary: 2013 marks twenty-five years since the publication of historian James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, perhaps the most popular academic history of the Civil War ever published. Credited with launching a revival of interest in the Civil War (it preceded Ken Burns’ documentary by two and a half years), the 900-page tome has sold 700,000 copies so far, with another 15,000 annually added to that total. For context… most academic books never reach 1000 in sales, even with library purchases. Battle Cry was the second volume in the Oxford History of the United States series to be published, arriving on shelves six years after Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789: on Amazon, Middlekauf’s book barely cracks the top 30,000 in all books sold; McPherson’s is in the top 2,000. (The most recent volume in the series — Gordon Wood’s widely acclaimed Empire of Liberty — is #35,601 as of this morning.)

For the 25th anniversary, McPherson has been interviewed by journalist Marc Wortman (also the author of a history of Sherman’s siege of Atlanta) for The Daily Beast. Among other questions, Wortman asks if McPherson if he would have done anything differently had he written the book today (maybe more social history; otherwise, no), and why freedom was a battle cry — with different meanings — for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War:

The battle cry of “Freedom” was in fact something you ascribed to both Northern and Southern soldiers. Can you explain that?

Both sides in the Civil War professed to be fighting for the same “freedoms” established by the American Revolution and the Constitution their forefathers fought for in the Revolution—individual freedom, democracy, a republican form of government, majority rule, free elections, etc. For Southerners, the Revolution was a war of secession from the tyranny of the British Empire, just as their war was a war of secession from Yankee tyranny. For Northerners, their fight was to sustain the government established by the Constitution with its guaranties of rights and liberties. Neither side at first fought for the freedom of the slaves, and, of course, the Confederacy never did, but eventually that additional freedom also became a Northern war aim.

(Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum underscored this theme as well when he revisited Battle Cry of Freedom for the same website earlier this year. Frum concluded, “Whether American civilization was to treat some men as property – whether in fact the right to treat men as property was indispensable to American freedom – that was the question for which Americans fought and died a century and a half ago. James McPherson’s still definitive history never allows that question to be evaded or denied.”)

Read the full interview with McPherson here.

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