Civil War Journal: An Interview with Author and Historian James M. McPherson

When it comes to historians, James M. McPherson has a résumé that the rest of us can only dream about. Having put more than fifty years into studying the American Civil War, Mr. McPherson has authored over twenty books on the subject, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume which served as a part of Oxford’s History of the United States, Battle Cry of Freedom. More familiar to me would happen to be a book he wrote in 1982, Ordeal by Fire, which was transformed into a textbook for the excellent Civil War class I took last semester (HIST 235 for those who may want to take/audit the class at Brookdale). To this day, it is the only book I have purchased at my college that was actually worth the money.

Aside from writing tremendous pieces such as the aforementioned books, and some of his other notable works, What they Fought For: 1861-1865, For Cause and Comrades, and Tried by War, he has also authored books aimed towards children, such as Fields of Fury, which I actually enjoyed myself, even a 19. Other than publications, he has also appeared on television numerous times, including slots on Biography and The American Experience. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and is the foremost Civil War historian in America, and it was an honor to be able to conduct this brief email interview with him. Below is our conversation:

GC: The thought of 600,000 Americans dying over the fact that cooler heads did not prevail in the years leading up to 1861 is appalling . Is there anything that Abraham Lincoln or any of the other politicians could have done differently to prevent the American Civil War?

JM: The Southern states could have accepted Lincoln’s election and remained in the United States.  Lincoln could have acquiesced in Southern secession and allowed the United States to be broken up.  The Confederate government could have refrained from firing on Fort Sumter.  Lincoln could have pulled the troops out of Fort Sumter before it was fired upon.  Any of these actions might have prevented the war.

GC: In your mind who was the best general in each army? And who is your personal favorite?

JM: Lee and Grant. Grant [is my favorite].

GC: Blame is always thrown in so many different directions for why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg. What do you think was the real reason?

JM: To explain why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg, I have always liked Pickett’s own response to that question several years after the war: “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

GC: I find George McClellan’s tendencies, personal letters, and actions to be almost comic. Do you feel the same way about the “Young Napoleon”, and what do you think was his biggest mistake?

JM: I think his letters were tragicomic.  His biggest mistake was to patronize Lincoln and not to pay attention to Lincoln’s repeated advice to him.

GC: Out of all the different movies made about the Civil War, which one is your favorite, and why?

JM: Glory. It gets at a key issue of the war better than any other movie.

GC: A new theory (if I can call it that) out there is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after he escaped, and that the soldiers shot the wrong man and lied so that the nation would be at ease about the Lincoln assassination. Do you give any credence to this notion?

JM: It is actually an old theory, and it is absolute rubbish.

GC: Lastly, because you have studied the Civil War for so long, where is the level of interest today compared to when you first started writing about it in the 1960’s? Is battlefield preservation where you would like it to be?

JM: The Civil War probably had a level of interest in the first half of the 1960s similar to today’s, but it declined thereafter until it began to rise again in the late 1980s until it is reaching another peak right now at the beginning of the sesquicentennial.  I have been gratified by the amount of success in battlefield preservation during recent years, but there is always room for even greater efforts and successes in this endeavor.

I would like to thank Mr. McPherson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. I probably don’t have to recommend his work to anyone, because even if you are a newbie to the Civil War, chances are you have read something by him, whether it was a book or an article. His most recent work was a biography of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 2009.

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