Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


"First Steps" in China

Fulbright Scholars Around the Globe

Finding a New Way

>Big Crises, Big Questions

Sustainable Sea Change

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Big Crises, Big Questions

A Conversation with James M. McPherson PhD '63


ast spring, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson PhD '63 was honored with a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Johns Hopkins. His 1988 book Battle Cry of Freedom helped launch a renaissance of interest in the Civil War. In 2007, he was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military history. Arts and Sciences Magazine caught up recently with McPherson, who is Princeton's George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History Emeritus, and asked him to do some reflecting.

You're known for making history accessible to the public. Why do you think you're good at that?
I think that actually goes back to my time at Hopkins. My mentor at Hopkins, C. Vann Woodward, was very much in the public eye, writing essays in the late 1950s and 1960s about the controversy over desegregation and civil rights. I was influenced by the way he could reach an audience beyond professional historians.

What sparked your interest in the Civil War?
During the beginning of the civil rights movement, in the late 1950s and 1960s, I was struck by the parallels to the events of a century earlier. Southern governors vowing resistance to federal law. Martin Luther King, Jr., demanding freedom now. So I got interested in what happened a century earlier. That became my dissertation and my first book: The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Your newest book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, is due out this month. What do you want readers to gain from it?
An understanding of the difficulties Lincoln faced as commander in chief, sometimes unsuccessfully, but in the end successfully: His side won the war. He exceeded the learning curve with no experience or training. It was a steep curve. And it turned out to be a huge war, and he came out on top. That's the story I'm trying to tell.

You've written 18 books on the Civil War. What's left that you haven't covered?
I have committed to writing a book on the naval war, which will be part of a series by a dozen historians. I've done some sailing myself and know a little about boats and ships, and I'm looking forward to learning more.

"One lesson [from the Civil War] is to try to deal with problems before they become so huge they cannot be solved."
—James M. McPherson

What lessons can we take away from the Civil War?
I've often been asked that and never quite known how to answer it. One lesson is to try to deal with problems before they become so huge they cannot be solved. In the case of the Civil War, there were clear signs in the 1850s that the country was on a collision course—actual fistfights and threatened shootings on the floor of Congress between Northern and Southern representatives—but there was no effective leadership to deal with it. Maybe some questions cannot be solved by compromise or peaceful negotiations, but war is a last resort.

It's been 20 years since Battle Cry of Freedom and Ken Burns' documentary renewed interest in the Civil War, yet thousands of Americans continue to visit Civil War battlegrounds and memorials. What has kept interest alive?
One thing is the Civil War's relevance to contemporary issues—states' rights vs. a powerful federal government, race relations, regionalism. The larger-than-life images of some of the war's leading figures—Lincoln, Sherman, Lee, Grant, "Stonewall" Jackson—also continue to fascinate.

If you hadn't focused on the Civil War, what would you have studied?
I think it would be the 1930s and 1940s and the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War II. I guess I'm attracted to big crises and big questions.