book review

‘The War that Forged a Nation’ by James M. McPherson

Bodies await burial in front of Dunker Church at Antietam, Maryland, in 1862 during the American Civil War.
Alexander Gardner/Getty Images
Bodies await burial in front of Dunker Church at Antietam, Maryland, in 1862 during the American Civil War.

It was a conflict of immense scale. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all of our other wars combined. There were four times as many casualties in a single day at Antietam than in D-Day. However the Civil War is not significant merely for its carnage, but also for the cause it promoted.

The Civil War, a century and a half in the past, remains a matter of great contemporary interest — and importance. It shapes our culture, our society, our politics, our issues. In many ways it is more immediate than World War I, which is a half-century more recent, and more consequential than Vietnam, the wounds of which still ache.

Here is the perspective of James McPherson, Princeton professor emeritus and perhaps the leading expert on the Civil War: “[W]e have an African American president of the United States, which would not have been possible without the civil rights movement of a half century ago, which in turn would not have been possible without the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought still resonate today: matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments.’’


Those two sentences alone answer the issue posed by the title of McPherson’s latest book, “The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.’’ And in those pages he argues that the Civil War made the union permanent, dedicated it to broad freedoms, and transformed it into a nation, even as it produced a strong central government, forged an industrial economy, created a world power, and resolved the dispute over the meaning of American liberty.

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“The tragic irony of the Civil War,’’ he writes, “is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.’’

And that “new birth of freedom’’ promised by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg? It was an expanded version, changing its emphasis, no longer merely a freedom from tyranny but now a broader freedom for a broader portion of the population. It also changed the focus of freedom, moving it away from the freedom of Southern plutocrats and plantation owners to continue the slave economy to the bright uplands of the freedom of African Americans to live outside of bondage.

Inevitably the Civil War has come to be paired with World War II, perhaps for the justness of the (winning) cause. McPherson reminds us that a larger percentage of population was mustered between 1861 and 1865 than was mobilized between 1941 and 1945. But these two conflicts were similar in that the toll, human and financial, was suffered by civilians as well. Even so, he concedes that few histories regard the Civil War as “total war,’’ and in fact between the second and third editions of his Civil War and Reconstruction textbook he changed references from “total war’’ to “hard war.’’

In this volume McPherson examines why, unlike so many civil wars elsewhere, the American conflict did not provoke international intervention; he looks at the role of the Union blockade in the war; and he evaluates the skills of admirals in the war’s seaborne conflict. This is by no means a textbook on the Civil War, nor even a rudimentary introduction to it, but a series of provocative thoughts about it.


Among those McPherson repeatedly returns to is the question of freedom, and inevitably whether Lincoln freed the slaves or whether the slaves — traveling north, joining the Union lines — freed themselves.

He argues that the process of abolishing slavery could not have occurred “if there had been no Union lines to which [slaves] could escape’’ and credits Lincoln with making what he describes as “the crucial decisions to convert a strategy of liberating slaves to weaken the Confederacy into a policy of abolishing slavery as a war aim.’’

At the center of any inquiry into the Civil War is Lincoln himself. McPherson asserts that the 16th president was “far less prepared for the task of commander in chief than his Southern adversary,’’ Jefferson Davis, a West Point alumnus with seven years in uniform, a command role in the Mexican War, and service as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce. Self-taught as a lawyer, Lincoln also was self-taught as a military strategist, and, according to McPherson, he “applied his large quotient of common sense to slice through the obfuscations and excuses of military subordinates.’’

McPherson redeems the title of his book by explaining why the Civil War still matters. But his greatest contribution may be in setting forth a rubric for a new series of small books Oxford University Press might contemplate, examining, for example, why the revolutionary period still matters (it set forth debates about self-government not fully resolved even now), why World War I still matters (it set forth debates about self-determination not fully resolved even now) and, to extend this prospective genre even further, why Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan still matter. They do matter, all of them, and they need their James McPherson.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at