Home » History » James M. McPherson: Historian of the American Civil War

An interview with historian James M. McPherson

The Civil War, impeachment then and now and Lincoln's legacy—Part 3

By David Walsh
21 May 1999

This is the third part of an interview conducted by WSWS editorial board member David Walsh with James M. McPherson. Walsh spoke to McPherson, the distinguished historian of the Civil War era, in his office at Princeton University. Professor McPherson's works include Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution ; Battle Cry of Freedom [a Pulitzer Prize winner]; For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War and The Struggle for Equality . Explanatory notes to assist the reader follow the article.

David Walsh: Viewing the Civil War in the light of contemporary events, its extraordinary violence certainly stands out. It appears to be a nineteenth century anticipation of total war. Was the violence remarked upon by contemporaries as something remarkable? How was it seen by Europeans?

James McPherson: The British were the ones who paid the most attention to the American Civil War, and a lot of British leaders were appalled by the escalating level of violence and I think that was one of the motives that prompted British political leaders like Palmerston and Gladstone and Russell to try to intervene to end this increasing violence in North America.

Because the level of violence escalated step by step in the American Civil War, it was something that people got used to; got used to is not the right phrase, but found that they were able to tolerate because it escalated step by step. By 1864 there was a powerful sentiment for peace in both North and South, so powerful that both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had to take it seriously, and to at least allow two peace initiatives, one undertaken by Horace Greeley, and one undertaken by a couple of other Northerners who actually went to see Jefferson Davis in Richmond under flag of truce. This got a lot of publicity, but both sides and both presidents were using this as a way of showing their respective peoples that the only way they could have peace through negotiations was to yield everything that the other side wanted.

Lincoln said: my terms for peace are reunion and the end of slavery. Jefferson Davis said: my only terms of peace are recognition of our independence. There was no common ground there. So these peace initiatives collapsed, but in a way the Confederates won the propaganda war because Northern Democrats said, look, we could have had peace negotiations if the president hadn't insisted on emancipation. Even though Jefferson Davis said, independence is my condition for peace negotiations, and Lincoln said, reunion and emancipation, the Democrats fastened on emancipation and said: it's only Lincoln's insistence on emancipation that blocks peace. They convinced a lot of people of that.

It was only Northern military victories in the late summer of 1864 that prevented what probably otherwise would have been Lincoln's defeat for re-election. So there was powerful peace sentiment because casualties by 1864 had become so high that people were looking for some way out short of total victory. But in the end Lincoln was reelected on a platform of total victory. Extraordinarily, a substantial part of his victory margin came from Northern soldiers, who voted nearly 80 percent for his election, as opposed to slightly over 50 percent of the civilian population.

DW: Were there incidents that were singled out by the hostile British press as evidence of Northern brutality?

JM: They focused on symbolic issues early in the war. For example, Benjamin Butler's famous “woman order” in New Orleans, in which he said that occupying Union soldiers who were being insulted and harassed by Southern women should treat them as ordinary women of the street plying their avocation. And the British thought this was an outrage. Butler also hanged a man who had run up and torn down the American flag over the courthouse in New Orleans, and the British thought that was barbarous. These were the two issues that aroused a lot of very strong anti-American and pro-Southern sentiment in Britain in 1862. More symbolic than real.

By 1864 when [General William T.] Sherman and [General Philip H.] Sheridan were carrying out kind of scorched earth policies in the South, while I think the British press paid a lot of attention to it, there was no danger by that time that the British were going to intervene. That moment had passed in late 1862, or the latest, the summer of 1863. So while they paid some attention to this, and saw it as an escalation in the war, and as a kind of unjustified brutality against citizens, they didn't do anything about it.

DW: Was it not possible to characterize the Northern effort as an attempt to put down a legitimate rebellion? After all, the Union was voluntary. How would Southern historians have written the history if the Union had lost?

JM: They would have written it precisely that way. That this was an illegitimate and unconstitutional effort to put down an independence movement that was not illegal or unconstitutional. The Southern states had the right to secede from their own government, and that the Union was a voluntary association of states.

Of course, the Northern point of view on that was precisely the opposite. They said, if you have a voluntary association of states you have no Union, if any state can pull out you have no country, you have no nation. As Lincoln said, this is the essence of anarchy. And so that was the political theory under which the North fought. It was the outcome of the war that decided the legitimacy or illegitimacy of these points of view.

If the Confederates had won the war, we would now probably say that, yes, secession is justified and the nation is a voluntary association of states. My own feeling is that there would be no such entity as the United States today if the Confederacy had won the war, because that would have constituted a precedent that would have been invoked by disaffected minorities in the future, let's say, in the Populist movement of the 1890s, when a lot of states in the West and the South were just as hostile to what they described as Wall Street running the country.

DW: There have been waves of interest in the Civil War ( Glory, Gettysburg, the Ken Burns television documentary). But to what extent have the lessons of the Civil War been absorbed? There seems to be a tendency to leave it on the level of the re-creation of battles, the vicarious thrill from reliving war, but the bigger intellectual issues are left on the side.

JM: I think that's true. If you're talking about popular interest in the Civil War, I'd say at least 80 percent of it focuses on the military events of the war. There are half a dozen popular history magazines about the Civil War, which come out bi-monthly. They mostly focus on the military events of the war, some on politics and the political issues of the war. The more serious of them try to get into larger issues about the war, but I think there is more interest in the latest tactical insights.

DW: This has its value, but it seems somewhat limited.

JM: That's my feeling about it. Academic scholars are more likely to be interested in the broader questions and I see part of my mission as keeping a foot in both camps and trying to show the interconnection between these things and show each side that there is something important to be learned from the other side.

DW: What has been your own experience with the media? Has it been a happy one?

JM: For the most part. I get calls, people write to me all the time to ask my opinion. I just got a call from [right-wing commentator] George Will yesterday, I should have asked him why he wanted to know this, I suspect he's writing something about Kosovo, but he wanted to know where in my book I told the story of the Confederate soldier captured in the war whose captors asked him, why are you fighting? His response was, I'm fighting because you're down here. He wanted to use this obviously in one of his columns. I should have asked him whether it was a column about Kosovo or ethnic nationalism in eastern Europe.

DW: Speaking of the media and Kosovo, and their tendency to demonize enemies of the United States, was Lincoln demonized in the South?

JM: Oh, yes, absolutely, really demonized. As was Jefferson Davis in the North. In cartoons and caricature, they would have horns, whatever contemporary pejorative visual symbols. Lincoln was often portrayed as swarthy and black, as part-Negro in his ancestry. Jefferson Davis was sort of a Mephistopheles. Both sides imposed a kind of satanic image on the leader of the other side. That happens in virtually any war.

DW: Did the European press do any of that?

JM: Punch, the British humor magazine with a very satirical twist to it, was very anti-Lincoln through much of the war. Their cartoons of Lincoln portrayed him as a kind of malevolent, backwards buffoon. Toward the end of the war, they began changing their tune.

DW: What would have happened, or did happen, if the North had received an ultimatum from Britain during the Civil War? For example, the Trent affair.

JM: There was a lot of chauvinism stirred up by the British. The British did come pretty close to an ultimatum during the Trent affair.

DW: For our readers, could you perhaps recall those events?

JM: The Trent was a British mail packet that was carrying James Mason and John Slidell as Confederate envoys to London and Paris in November 1861. And a Union navy captain stopped that ship on the high seas and took them off. The British government regarded this as an outrageous violation of their neutrality and demanded that the Lincoln administration release the two.

Meanwhile Northern public opinion had made Captain [Charles] Wilkes, who had done this, a hero. In fact, Congress passed a resolution giving him the thanks of Congress, which is the highest accolade that a military officer at that time could get. And the British press and the Northern press stirred up a lot of war sentiment, and there was a good deal of fear and anticipation that Britain and the United States would go to war over this issue. When the Lincoln administration thought seriously about that, they said ... well, Lincoln's words were, “One war at a time.”

Prince Albert, who was on his deathbed from typhoid fever, intervened with the ultimatum, the protest note that the British government was sending to the United States government, and softened it with a phrase suggesting that perhaps Captain Wilkes had acted without instructions. The Lincoln administration seized on that to save face, because in fact, it was true, he had acted on his own. He regarded himself as something of an expert on international law. Wilkes was an egotist, a little bit of a loose cannon, so there was some truth to that. Anyhow, the Lincoln administration backed off. The British had demanded an apology, as well as the release of Mason and Slidell. The Americans released Mason and Slidell and said Captain Wilkes had acted without instruction, and the British accepted that in lieu of an apology. So passions cooled.

But in the meantime, the British navy had sent a fleet to the North Atlantic, to expedite the transport of something like eight thousand troops to Canada. [Secretary of State William] Seward was very cagey about this. This was in December 1861. The St. Lawrence was frozen. And the only way these troops could get to Canada was to march cross-country. Seward said, how about if we ship them across Maine by rail? This was a way of saying, we really don't want war with you.

The Confederates of course hoped that this would lead to war between the United States and Britain, because they could only gain from such a war. They were hoping that the British would offer diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy, which would have conferred an enormous amount of international prestige on the Confederacy, in the same way as when the United States recognized the Baltic countries back in 1990 against Soviet wishes. If the British had done this, the US would have broken off diplomatic relations with them. The Confederates hoped that the British navy would intervene to break the blockade of Southern ports. When the Union government backed off, and the British accepted their action, it was a great disappointment to the Confederacy.

DW: You mention the chauvinism that was stirred up. Presumably as well there was some kind of democratic content to Northern arguments, i.e., that these were the Old World aristocracies threatening the republic.

JM: Yes, yes, that issue was played to the hilt. Here's the world's one republic again being threatened by these Old World monarchies and class-ridden, exploitative societies. Of course, the Northern press made quite a lot of the resolutions of sympathy that were passed by some working class representatives and the support to the Union cause by John Bright and Richard Cobden who were the great spokesmen for middle class democracy in England. Of course most workingmen couldn't vote at that time, but they could pass resolutions and they did. They also raised questions, why haven't you freed the slaves? There was a lot of pressure from British liberals and British working class and middle class constituencies in favor of emancipation as a Northern war aim. And when Lincoln did finally take that step, it made the task of the pro-Union British faction much easier than it had been up until that time.

DW: Aside from the military factor, were there moral and political elements in Lincoln's final decision to free the slaves?

JM: Definitely. He knew that making this a war for emancipation would strengthen the Union cause. He knew that it would strengthen ... Actually, when Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, I think he believed it would be as much a political liability at home as it would be an asset. That while it would satisfy the radical wing of the Republican party, it would alienate a lot of Northern Democrats and border-state Unionists, and that its positive benefits would be neutralized by its negative effects. But he still thought it was the right thing to do, and I think, you know, Lincoln said over and over again before the war and during the war, that slavery is wrong, it's a monstrous injustice, it's a social, moral and political evil for the white man, to the Negro. He said, if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong, and so on. This was something that Lincoln believed was right, and when he issued the final proclamation on January 1, 1863, he said he did so because it was a military necessity, but also as an act of justice. And I think those two things, plus the foreign policy dimension, were all factors that he took into consideration.

He was also under a lot of pressure from his own party to do something along those lines. Even though Lincoln knew that while it would satisfy his own party, it was going to make his problem of keeping the war Democrats and border-state Unionists in line behind the war effort more difficult, and indeed that was true for another six to nine months. I don't think it was until after Gettysburg and Vicksburg that that question, whether or not public opinion in the North would support emancipation, was really resolved.

In the two major Northern state off-year elections that were held in 1863, both in October, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio, for governor, in both cases the Democratic candidates were anti-war, basically copperheads. In Ohio, there was [Clement] Vallandigham, who was actually running his campaign from Canada, because he had been convicted by military court and Lincoln had commuted his imprisonment to banishment, so he had gone to Canada to run his campaign for governor of Ohio. There was a lot of worry that he might win. And a man named [George W.]Woodward was running for governor of Pennsylvania, he was almost as copper as Vallandigham, even though his son was a captain in the 83rd Pennsylvania, which was in the same brigade as the 20th Maine and fought at Little Rock Top [at Gettysburg] right next to the 20th Maine. Anyhow, the Republicans won both of those elections overwhelmingly, and that was a major turning point. It was partly a referendum on emancipation, because the Democrats ran against emancipation almost more than anything else. And when they won both of these elections it was a big deal.

DW: Turning to the contemporary situation, and the state of public opinion in the United States. Whatever one's attitude is toward the NATO bombing, and we are opposed to it, surely the situation must be more complicated than it is presented by the American media. I would imagine you know people here at Princeton who know something about the history of the Balkans. Are such figures called upon? How do you see the treatment of some of these issues?

JM: I think you're right that they do tend to get oversimplified. I don't watch television news very much. I get most of what I know out of the New York Times, and the Times is generally more balanced and recognizes more of the complexities of the situation probably more than some of the other popular media. I think there's so much confusion and so much lack of knowledge in general about the Balkans and so much uncertainty about what they ought to be doing there.... If you look at polls, there's a pretty substantial support for NATO's policies, and even for majority support for sending in ground troops. But I think that's kind of tendency that always exists to rally behind the troops rather than a considered opinion on the substantive issues at stake. I think people are really confused about this, I'm confused myself.

DW: You mentioned the use of atrocities, or the other side's atrocities, for propaganda purposes.

JM: That's what both sides are doing in this conflict. As it happens in any war, it certainly happened in the Civil War.

DW: As you know, we draw fairly radical conclusions from your books, with or without your blessing, so to speak. It seems sometimes that there is a kind of self-censorship in this country, because of official anticommunism. Do you ever feel that there is a terrible caution in academic circles?

JM: I don't see much of that around here. I think in public universities and in some other parts of the country that's probably still true. I don't see it to be necessarily true here in New Jersey, either at Princeton or at Rutgers. I think people are pretty willing to say what they believe on a variety of issues without too much fear of self-censorship. The old Cold War issues seem pretty well to have disappeared from discourse. They haven't really been replaced by any new certainties. Many different opinions continue to blossom, not only on the Balkans war, but on Iraq and other foreign policy, domestic issues.

DW: What opinions do you hear about the war in the Balkans?

JM: I haven't really talked very much with my colleagues about that. So I'm not quite sure. I don't know if there's any particular pattern in opinions.

DW: I think there is a great deal of confusion. I don't sense any war fever in the general population.

JM: No. But nobody is organizing anti-war protest meetings around here. Of course it's only begun. Who knows what will happen if this goes on for months and escalates.

DW: Nothing progressive is going to come out of dropping US bombs on Yugoslavia.

JM: I wouldn't think so.

DW: Do you think there are aspects of American history, or world history, that if they were more deeply understood, could be helpful to people in relation to contemporary events?

JM: I'm a firm believer in the idea that you need to know history in order to understand the contemporary world, just as a general matter of principle. Certainly you need to know the history of the Balkans in order to understand what goes on there, whether you need to go back to 1389, or only to 1990, to 1945, or 1918, or 1914. Knowledge of the history is absolutely essential to understanding what goes on.

Explanatory notes

Henry John Temple Palmerston, 3rd Viscount (1784-1865), British statesman, served as foreign secretary and twice as prime minister.

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98), British statesman and dominant personality of the Liberal Party from 1868 to 1894. He was prime minister four times.

John Russell, 1st Earl (1792-1878), British statesman and twice prime minister. He was foreign secretary (1859-65) under Palmerston during the American Civil War.

Jefferson Davis (1808-89), US senator, secretary of war and president of the Confederacy (1861-65). Captured in 1865 by Union forces, he was imprisoned for two years, but was released without prosecution.

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91), Union general in the Civil War. In November 1864 his forces burned Atlanta, Georgia, and Sherman set off, with 60,000 men, on his famous march to the sea, devastating the country.

Philip H. Sheridan (1831-88), Union general and outstanding cavalry officer. In 1864, while leading the Army of the Shenandoah, he defeated the Confederates and laid waste the countryside.

“Copperhead”—a derogatory term for Southern sympathizers in the North. Led by Clement Vallandigham, they were especially strong in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.