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  • This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
  • Brian Holden Reid
This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. By James M. McPherson . New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-19-531366-6. Notes. Index. Pp. xii, 260. $28.00.

In April 2007 James McPherson received the Samuel Eliot Morison Award of the Society for Military History for his distinguished works on Civil War history. In his acceptance address, he confided that he had never considered himself a military historian. The contents of his latest volume of essays belie such modesty. The book also highlights one of the most encouraging developments of the last twenty years, namely, the readiness of major historians, trained in other fields, to write outstanding military history.

McPherson's collection combines previously published essays and reviews (the latter revised to give a more general focus) with three that are published for the first time. It addresses related questions concerning the causes, course, direction, outcome, and commemoration of the Civil War. On all these subjects, McPherson welcomes "disagreement and dialogue, for that is how scholarship and understanding advance" (p. ix). The book offers elegant and incisive statements of McPherson's views on a wide range of issues that inform Civil War scholarship.

Several chapters concentrate on Southern themes: dissension within the Confederacy; the merits or otherwise of a defensive strategy for the South, and the ambiguities that arise when an attempt is made to define it; and the persistent efforts made by the United Confederate Veterans to gain a "fair and impartial" (p. 99) account of the Civil War in school textbooks. McPherson argues that a concentration on Southern explanations of or justifications for the Confederate experience is misleading, as it did not exist in a vacuum. What happened to the South can only be properly explained when Northern developments are taken into account.

McPherson presents lucid and well argued discussions of various aspects of the Northern war effort. He covers the Grant-Sherman friendship, the Vicksburg Campaign, the evolution of "hard" war by 1863, and Lincoln's conception of his war powers as Commander in Chief. He also offers a judicious survey of "No Peace Without Victory, 1861–1865," that is, the Lincoln administration's reluctance to seek a compromise peace. Most of these essays tend to stand on the side of conventional explanations of issues. But the chapter on the Press and Morale opens up a neglected subject for further research, and at one point, McPherson accepts the need for revision in his own approach to the experience of soldiers in the ranks, as "I may have underestimated the significance of leadership in the molding of an effective fighting unit" (p. 146).

The value of McPherson's book transcends these specific issues. He is an unrivalled commentator on the Civil War's general character and symbolic appeal. He neither indulges the mawkish self-indulgence of those who see the war as dark and futile, the American equivalent of the Western Front 1914–18 in British antiwar sentiment, nor approves of the sentimental fancies and empty outrage of neo-Confederates. He presents a hard-headed and persuasive discussion of the war's achievements and significance. This is a [End Page 1249] book that can be picked up, put down, returned to, and thought about, and the pages turn with remarkable rapidity.

Brian Holden Reid
King’s College London
London, United Kingdom


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pp. 1249-1250
Launched on MUSE
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Archive Status
Archived 2010
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