Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson published by Oxford University Press (1988)

My favorite history of the Civil War is Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, an epic masterpiece even if it is a bit dated. Unfortunately, at eight volumes in length this not likely to be the first choice of many modern readers. When I started writing my web series The Immigrants’ Civil War, I wanted to re-read one of the classic overviews of the war. I did not have the three months it would take to re-read Nevins, and I’ve never been that fond of Shelby Foote’s three volumes which I read soon after he starred in Ken Burns’ Civil War. I decided on James McPherson’s one-volume history and settled in to the pleasures of a book of challenging analysis set within a flawlessly flowing narrative.

The two decades since this Pulitzer Prize-winning history were written have only confirmed McPherson’s sagacity. The book blends a thorough understanding of the economic and political underpinnings of the war with insightful descriptions of military campaigns.

And it is a great read!

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For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson

For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James McPherson pub. by Oxford University Press (1997)

James McPherson’s exploration of the Civil War soldiers’ minds is based on the close reading of letters and diaries of more than 1,000 men. He looks at why they enlisted, what sustained them through years of hardship, and how they prepared for and reacted to battle.

The letters come from Union and Confederate soldiers alike, but they under represent  blacks and immigrants who combines to make up a third of Northern soldiers. I’ve written elsewhere about the problem of immigrant letters, but as more become available they provide a research avenue for a young historian.

Men enlisted in the two armies because of the intoxicating war fever in 1861, because of a sense of duty to their country or their state, to preserve their honor , to demonstrate their masculine virtue, and because they thought it would be the great adventure of their lifetime. What drove them into the army sometimes nourished them throughout their service, but many men had to find new reasons to stick as the reality of war shoved romantic preconceptions aside.

McPherson is one of our best historian-writers and For Cause & Comrades is one of his best books. Economically written but filled with information and insights, this classic takes you deeper into the mind of the white native-born soldier than any other short work.

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Three Months in the Southern States by Lt. Col. Arthur Freemantle

Three Months in the Southern States by Lt. Col. Arthur Freemantle (1863)

We think that visiting a place will give us a true idea of what is really going on there. All too often, we just see what our hosts, and our prejudices, allow us to see.

Arthur Freemantle was an upper class English military officer. He arrived in America in May, 1863, to watch the Civil War. A Confederate sympathizer, he came in through Texas at a time when that rebel state was itself suffering a rebellion. Freemantle found that Texas troops were “employed in quelling a counter-revolution of Unionists in Texas…who were principally Germans.” The British officer dismissed the German Unionists as “renegados”, without trying to understand why families that immigrated to the United States might resent Texas’ decision to immigrate out of the U.S.  Instead he saw the Germans as malcontents disrupting the lives of the romantic cavaliers who owned the state and its slaves.

While the Englishman says he deplored slavery, he was amused by the Southern slave trader who sailed to New England, recruited a black “crew” for his ship, and then sold the crew as slaves when he reached the South.

Readers of Michael Sharra’s Pulitzer Prize Winning novel The Killer Angels know that Freemantle made it to Lee’s army just in time to join the invasion of Pennsylvania and to observe the Battle of Gettysburg. What you may not know is that right after the Confederate defeat, he went to New York to sail back to England-just in time for the start of the Draft Riots.

Freemantle’s “diary” was a small contribution to the Confederate cause. His distorted view of the slavocracy as freedom fighters allowed some English aristocrats to continue their support of the Southern cause, but today his book is just one more exhibit of the human capacity for self-deception.

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Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It

Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It by William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III published by University of North Carolina Press (2000)

After German immigrants essentially overthrew the pro-Confederate government in Missouri in 1861, they tried to expel all Confederate forces from the state. Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It tells the story of these radicalized immigrants and the Federal officials who supported them.

This is not a simple battle history, but a complex investigation of communities at war. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek lasted six hours, but the forces that drove 15,000 men there to slaughter one another had been gathering for years. William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher do an excellent job of dissecting the causes of the Civil War in Missouri, as well as the motives of soldiers from Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas who fought as allies of the contending armies from Missouri.

The writing is fine, the anecdotes are telling, and the analysis is first rate. All Civil War history should aspire to be this good.

Read more about the battle.

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The Rise of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis

The Rise of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis spent years in New Orleans after the Civil War writing his two volume memoir of the “Rise and Fall” of the Confederacy. He would have done better learning Creole cooking. His “Rise” is one of the worst works of non-fiction in history.

The first volume ostensibly traces the creation of the Confederate nation. In fact, Davis offers hundreds of pages as a sort of legal brief on the Constitutional right to disband the Union. This might have had some relevance had Davis sought to sever the South from the United States through a lawsuit, but he choose instead to order the attack on Federal troops in Fort Sumter.

While today’s Neo-Confederates like to argue that the shelling of Sumter was motivated by a concern for abstract principles of “states rights”, Davis makes it clear that the right that needed to be defended was the power of one man to own another. He explains that Southerners’ rights were violated when Northern states barred slaveholders from bringing their slaves North. Hardly an argument for state’s right, but a strong one for slave owners’ powers.

When Davis isn’t defending slavery, he’s attacking his generals. With the exception of Robert E. Lee, he essentially sees his subordinates as self-aggrandizing incompetents. Davis claims all the successes for himself and lays off the blame on underlings.This might fit him well as a modern corporate CEO, but it hardly enhances his historical standing.

In his cause of settling scores with other Confederates, Davis often inserts whole letters intended to show his opponents up as liars. These letters run for pages and appear to be unedited in many cases. Accordingly, they include salutations, passages irrelevant to Davis’s argument, and valedictory remarks. Poor Davis appears to have been bereft of an editor himself!

I press on to read Volume 2, but only because I have to.

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Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz

Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865)

Never has the introduction to a book so misconstrued a work as President Andrew Johnson’s preface to Carl Schurz‘s Report on the Condition of the South. Writing months after the end of the Civil War, Johnson described the situation in the South as “promising” and said that the “people throughout the entire South evince a laudable desire to renew their allegiance to the government.” He said that white Southerners had embarked on a “cheerful return to peaceful pursuits.”

The “cheerful” South of President Johnson was not the South described in German immigrant leader Carl Schurz’s report. The former Major General would report on a post-war region whose people alternated between depressed prostration at the hands of a conqueror and a desire for vengeance against blacks and Southern Unionists. Schurz wrote that even the shooting of uniformed United States soldiers was not “unfrequently” reported.

Worse was the situation of freedmen and the Northerners working with them. Officials from the Freedman’s Bureau were often mobbed and their contractors assaulted and murdered.  Blacks were expected to behave as slaves by 95% of the white Southerners Schurz talked to. One former slaveholder even suggested they should submit willingly to whippings by whites. Those that did not “act like slaves” were sometimes tortured or killed. Blacks who left the plantations where they had been enslaved were “shot or otherwise severely punished”, Schurz wrote. A diligent investigator, Schurz met with former slaves and examined the “bullet and buckshot wounds in their bodies”.

Schurz reported that in rural areas beyond the reach of Union troops terrorist bands were operating against blacks trying to exert even the most basic of rights. Blacks who tried to negotiate better wages with former slave owners were the most common victims of these precursors of the Ku Klux Klan. The report also details the institutionalization of terror with the adoption of the first “Black Codes” which forbade blacks living in a town or rural district unless with the permission of a white man, forcing them into slave-like labor “contracts”.

Schurz’s report is one of our country’s first official human rights reports. It details race problems that would only be “rediscovered” by historians in the 1960s.

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Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, Trans. By Susan Carter Vogel published by University of North Carolina Press (2006)

Unlike soldiers of all prior wars, which we know primarily through the words of generals and princes, the common soldiers of the Civil War wrote libraries worth of letters home. Union soldiers were part of the most literate army in human history up to that time. Southerners had a lower literacy rate, but nearly 80% could read and write. But the letters we have don’t come from all parts of the army. The soldiers we don’t hear from enough are African Americans and immigrants.
To have Civil War letters available to collect, a historian needs five conditions to be met.
First, the soldiers must have been literate. Immigrants generally, and Irish immigrants in particular, had a lower literacy rate than the native born.
Second the soldier must have had someone to write to. The recipient of the letters had to have been literate herself, or have had access to a literate person to read the letter. New immigrants were often young men without family in America to write to. They would occasionally write to family in the Old World, but the high cost of sending a letter across the ocean made letters home much less common for immigrants than for native born soldiers. Natives could sometimes send letters for free via the U.S. postal service, or at worst pay for a low-cost stamp. Letters to Europe were expensive to send. They could take months to reach the recipient, and they` had a much higher chance of being lost in transit.

Third, the letters have to have survived into the modern period. Native born recipients of letters from soldiers realized that their relative in the army was engaged in an historic struggle that would be of interest to their descendants. They often carefully collected the letters to save for the returning soldier or to pass on to his children if he died in service. The European recipients of letters from immigrant soldiers were more likely to see their relatives as involved in an exotic war in a far off place involving names of people, cities, and states that they were not familiar with. They were less likely to collect these as historically significant. Also, since the soldier himself was unlikely to return to Europe, there was no point in saving the letters for him as a record of service.

Europe’s terrible conflicts of the first half of the Twentieth Century also insured that many letters that survived the 19th Century were destroyed just a few decades later.

The fourth factor is the modern owner of a surviving letter understanding what it is, knowing its historical worth, and making it available for historians. Civil War soldiers’ letters are often valued family heirlooms in the United States. Local history societies and Civil War Roundtables have done an admirable job of publishing them in print and on the internet. European families owning similar surviving letters from long forgotten immigrant relations may not understand the importance of the letters and may not even know they were written during the Civil War.

The fifth factor is that the historian must be able to read the letter in the language in which it was written. Young people who study American history are often mono-lingual, or speak a language unfamiliar to most immigrant soldiers. If the historian can’t read German or Hungarian, she can’t dig into the mine of immigrant letters in those countries.

The lack of immigrant voices on the Civil War was addressed for Germans by the publication several years ago of Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich collection of letters from more than 60 German soldiers and their family members. The five hundred page volume represents years of work by the two historians, one based in Texas and the other in Germany, culling through the archives.
The book includes a concise introduction to German participation in the Civil War, and all of the letter writers are well introduced to the modern reader. Excellent footnotes and a glossary for the Civil War-challenged, are included. The translations of the letters by Susan Carter Vogel are extremely readable. Over-all, this is a stellar work.

The selection of letter writers is incredibly representative. They range from political radicals who support full racial equality and who risk their lives to preserve the Union and end slavery, to wealthy draft dodgers and impoverished deserters. Most of the Germans are Union men, but there are a few convinced Confederates, as well as letters from the embattled German liberals in Texas who risked death for their refusal to join the rebel army.

Germans in the Civil War rescues the voices of forgotten men who struggled with their immigrant identity as our country struggled with the meaning of the United States.

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