Q & A

McPherson: civil War battle provides lessons for today

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- His 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Battle Cry of Freedom," has become the classic text on the Civil War, and now James McPherson has a new book out that focuses on a single battle of that war. "Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam" tells the story of the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, in which more than 6,000 soldiers were killed. The war was at a crossroads as the soldiers met in the fields between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River on Sept. 17, 1862. When the Union emerged victorious, the course of the rest of the war was determined.


McPherson, the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History, "does a superb job of re-creating a moment when the war, and all of American history that followed, might have gone altogether differently," said a review in USA Today.

In between appearances to promote the new book, McPherson is working on a new edition of "Battle Cry of Freedom" with 700 new illustrations, set to be published in December 2003. And he is putting the finishing touches on "Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg," a short book in a series about places that are meaningful to the author. In addition, McPherson recently was named the 2003 president of the American Historical Association. This semester he is teaching his popular "The American Civil War and Reconstruction" course.

The Civil War scholar talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about what would have happened if the South had prevailed at Antietam, what lessons from that battle are instructive today and how he has tried to humanize the image of Abraham Lincoln.

You've written about so many aspects of the Civil War. Why the battle of Antietam?

I've long been convinced, ever since I started trying to put together the multiple layers of Civil War history -- the military, the political, the social, the diplomatic -- that Antietam was a turning point on all those levels. No other single battle in the war had such multiple consequences.

And yet Antietam is less well-known than, say, Gettysburg, or the combination of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg, which happened at virtually the same time, as a crucial battle of the war. I thought it would be a good idea to enlighten readers on the importance of this battle.


The book is part of a series, of which you're co-editor, called "Pivotal Moments in American History?"

Yes. An old friend of mine, David Hackett Fischer, who is a Princeton alumnus, class of '57, cooked up this idea of a series of short books, aimed at a general audience, on key events or processes in American history that actually changed the course of history.

Both of us operate on a philosophy of history we call contingency -- it says that people make crucial choices, and their choices have consequences that lead to actions that would have been different if they had made different choices. In other words, there's nothing inevitable or foreordained about historical development -- any one thing is contingent on other things. And certain crucial events that are the consequence of these choices will have an impact that changes the course of history. The battle of Antietam is one of those things.

What choices made at Antietam caused it to change the course of history?

(Gen. Robert E.) Lee could have decided to retreat to Virginia without offering battle. He almost did so, but then changed his mind and decided to stay and fight. (Gen. George) McClellan could have attacked on Sept. 16 (a day before Antietam started), with a good chance of destroying the part of Lee's army that was then at Sharpsburg before the rest of the army could get there. On the 17th, McClellan could have sent in his reserves to exploit a temporary breakthrough at Bloody Lane in early afternoon and another potential breakthrough in late afternoon near where the National Cemetery is today. McClellan could have renewed the attack on Sept. 18, with a good chance of inflicting considerably more damage on the enemy. If McClellan had done any of these things, Union arms could well have won an even more decisive victory than they did, perhaps shortening the war.

Because Antietam was a limited Union victory, Lincoln could have decided that it did not measure up to the victory he had been waiting for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Any one of these contingencies would have altered the outcome of the battle, and perhaps the campaign, and might even have changed the course of history.

One of the unique things about Antietam was that photographers captured images of the bodies on the battlefields.

Yes. The photographs of Antietam were the first, on any significant scale, of that sort of thing. So being first, they had a real impact. For the first time in history, people could participate vicariously in what a battlefield looked like.

One of the reasons some of those bodies were still unburied when photographers Alexander Gardner and James Gibson got there, which was I think on either Sept. 19th or the 20th, was that on the 18th, the day after the battle, both armies held their position. All day long, fighting could have started again, so neither side was able to go out and retrieve the dead bodies. On the 19th and 20th, the Union burial detail buried all the Union soldiers, so what was left when Gardner got there were Confederate soldiers. The army that controlled the battlefield buried its own dead first.

The technology didn't exist to publish photos in newspapers in those days. But some of those photographs became the basis for woodcut drawings that were printed in newspapers with national circulations, like Harper's Weekly, so people saw them. And there was an exhibit of photographs of Antietam in Mathew Brady's studio in New York City a month later.

You discovered in researching the book that public opinion underwent lots of dramatic shifts during the war.

What surprised me the most was the volatility of public morale in both the North and the South, the mood swings in response to the fortunes or misfortunes of their armies. During the early months of 1862, when Union armies won a string of victories, euphoria set in in the North: "The war's going to be over by May 1st. We're going to win this war by the Fourth of July." And there was real despair and depression in the Confederacy. And then it turns around 180 degrees after a few Confederate victories.

So by the eve of the battle of Antietam, when Lee invades the North, despair is widespread in the North: "The war is lost. The United States is going down the tubes." And even more than euphoria, a kind of arrogance creeps into Southern public opinion: "These Yankees, we always knew we could whip 'em, and we got 'em on the run now!" And then it all turns around again in Antietam. This fever chart of public opinion, which was expressed by newspapers, letters and diaries kept by ordinary people, is really quite remarkable, and it shows the extent to which support for a war effort really depends on how well the war is going.

You've said understanding history helps understand the present and the future. Are there any lessons from Antietam that are relevant today, as we think about going to war with Iraq?

I think so. I think if -- and it is still a big if -- we engage in some kind of military activity in Iraq, as long as it goes well, the public will support it. But if it looks like it's not going well, or it's costing more in lives and resources than the objective might be worth, as in Vietnam, public opinion can turn against it pretty quickly. Nothing succeeds like success in military events, and nothing fails like failure. It's probably more extreme than any other sphere of life.

You've written a great deal about the Civil War -- more than 10 books. Are there elements of your thinking about the war that changed or evolved while you were doing this book?

Well, I was already aware that the foreign policy consequences of Antietam were really important, but I became even more convinced that if Antietam had gone the other way, the Europeans would have recognized the Confederacy. The Confederacy would have been admitted to the family of nations, and that would have made Lincoln's task and the North's task even greater.

Could that have changed the war's outcome? Would the Europeans have sent money or troops?

Diplomatic recognition and the exchange of ambassadors is a first step toward negotiating treaties of friendship. And then perhaps there would have been loans from the financial markets in London and Paris, which were foremost in the world, and maybe building more ships in their shipyards, and so on. That's what happened in the American Revolution -- the French recognized the Americans after the battle of Saratoga, and that was the first step toward French intervention, which was absolutely essential to the American victory in that war. That's the scenario the Confederacy looked forward to, but it never happened.

You write about Abraham Lincoln being under a lot of pressure from many different directions -- the threat that European countries would recognize the Confederacy was just one of them. You've talked about how hard it is for people to see Lincoln as a man rather than as an icon. How did you go about conveying that in your book?

Through quoting him and quoting other people's diary entries about him. For instance, when Lincoln tells McClellan (about two weeks after Antietam) to "cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy" and McClellan replies that his horses couldn't move because they were broken down, Lincoln loses his temper and sends an angry telegram to McClellan that says, "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?"

When you read that, he sounds so human. And yet he can seem so remote to people.

Yes. A lot of people have trouble getting beyond the Daniel Chester French statue at the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln's sense of humor was famous, and there are lots of photographs of him, but not a single one shows him smiling.

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