History Doyens: James M. McPherson

HISTORY DOYENS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

James M. McPherson, 2-6-06

What They’re Famous For

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University, the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer in Humanities, and was 2003 president of the American Historical Association.

James M. McPherson JPG America’s leading historian of the Civil War, he won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was a New York Times best seller, and has since sold more than six hundred thousand copies. His book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002) was also a New York Times bestseller, and he won the 1998 Lincoln Prize for For Cause and Comrades. His sucess with Battle Cry of Freedom and other Civil War publications are considered to have paved the way for the success of the films Glory and Gettysburg and the television documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns. McPherson has authored more than a dozen books, and 100 major articles about the Civil War and the Civil War era.

Although his greatest achievement and impact in the historical field has been as AHA president, Shirley M. Tilghman said in her introduction to James McPherson at Princeton’s 2004 Baccalaureate service: “[Professor McPherson] has bridged the gap between academic and public history, he has shown us that history has a universal message.”

Personal Anecdote

Like most other graduate students, the selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958 to 1962. In my second year there, I did a research paper on an aspect of Reconstruction in Alabama, using sources from the University Library and the nearby Library of Congress. My adviser, C. Vann Woodward, encouraged me to write my dissertation on Alabama Reconstruction, with the hope that it might prove an important revision of Walter L. Fleming’s dissertation (and first book) on the same subject that was one of the foremost examples of the “Dunning School.” Although I had reservaions about the idea, I went ahead an wrote a prospectus for such a dissertation. Woodward approved it with considerably more enthusiasm about the project than I had.

It was the spring of 1960, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and I knew that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect of spending months in dusty courthouses and local historical societies in that state left me considerably less than ecstatic.

Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists, about whom I had done another research paper. James M. McPherson JPG My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than the idea of those Alabama courthouses. Besides, the question of what happened to the organized antislavery movement after slavery was abolished was unanswered in the existing literature. An assumption existed, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that they considered their mission accomplished and faded into the woodwork. I did some reading about several prominent abolitionists and decided that this assumption might be wrong. I did some preliminary research, became convinced that most abolitionists did not consider their mission accomplished in 1863 or 1865, and wrote another prospectus. Woodward was less than exuberant about this dissertation topic, but being a laissez faire adviser, he let me go ahead.

I wrote to several prominent historians in the field of antislavery history and asked their advice about a dissertation on the post-1863 (or post-1860) history of the antislavery movement. Most of them advised me to forget it–there wouldn’t be enough information to sustain a dissertation– again the implicit assumption that the movement packed up and disappeared. But I forged ahead anyhow, discovered an enormous amount of evidence that most abolitionists remained active in the cause of civil and political rights for freed slaves, or freedmen’s education, or both. My dissertation became my first book, THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY; ABOLITIONISTS AND THE NEGRO IN THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION. A spinoff from this research became my second book, THE NEGRO’S CIVIL WAR, and a sequel became my third: THE ABOLITIONIST LEGACY; FROM RECONSTRUCTION TO THE NAACP. From this experience I learned that all assumptions should be examined and challenged.

Quotes

By James M. McPherson

  • The surrender completed, the two generals saluted somberly and parted. “This will live in history,” said one of Grant’s aides. But the Union commander seemed distracted. Having given birth to a reunited nation, he experienced a post-partum melancholy. “I felt . . . sad and depressed,” Grant wrote, “at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, thought that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” As news of the surrender spread through Union camps, batteries began firing joyful salutes until Grant ordered them stopped. “The war is over,” he said; “the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations.” To help bring those former rebels back in the Union, Grant sent three days’ rations for 25,000 men across the lines. This perhaps did something to ease the psychological as well as physical pain of Lee’s soldiers.Battle Cry of Freedom JPG So did an important symbolic gesture at a formal ceremony three days later when Confederate troops marched up to stack arms and surrender their flags. As they came, many among them shared the sentiments of one officer: “Was this to be the end of all our marching and fighting for the past four years? I could not keep back the tears.” The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honor for Little Round Top, had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain’s brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with the shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier’s “mutual salutation and farewell. — James McPherson in “Battle Cry for Freedom”
  • One reason is the continuing salience of many of the issues over which the war was fought. Even though the War resolved the issues of Union and slavery, it didn’t entirely resolve the issues that underlay those two questions. The relationships between the national government and regions, race relations, the role of government in trying to bring about change in race relations–these issues are still important in American society today. . . . The continuing relevance of these issues, I think, is one reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War…. Look at the large membership in the history book club, the interest in the History Channel on television, and the interest in documentaries by Ken Burns and by other historical filmmakers. There is a real hunger out there which is not always reached by academic historians. I think they ought to reach out more than they do, and that is what I try to do… I think it’s possible to break new ground or offer new interpretations or to write a narrative work of history in such a way as it can appeal to a general audience, but also have something for a more academic and specialized audience. It has something to do with being convinced that history is a story of change over time, with a beginning, a development, a climax of consequences, and writing that story in such a way as it will retain the interest of a broad audience, but also have something new and interesting in the way of insight or interpretation for the specialist as well. It is not easy to explain. I just try to do it, and sometimes I think I’ve succeeded. — James McPherson in an interview with William R. Ferris of “Humanities”
  • So, my message to you today is: Take heart. These are perhaps not the best of times to graduate. But neither are they the worst of times. Most of your student days have been lived in the shadow of 9/11. But from that experience you have gained the perspective to endure both the good and the bad times that will come in the future. Twenty years after the American Civil War Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was wounded three times in that conflict and went on to become one of our greatest Supreme Court justices, said in a Memorial Day address: “The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” I would certainly not go so far as to describe 9/11 as your “great good fortune.” But it did touch your hearts with fire and teach you that life is a profound and passionate thing. Generations that have gone before have been similarly touched. They responded to the challenges with courage and creativity. I am confident that you will do the same. — James McPherson, 2004 Baccalaureate Address, May 30, 2004

About James M. McPherson

  • “This is the best one-volume treatment of a subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive and succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away, feeling as if I had never heard the saga before. It is most welcome. . . . A deeply satisfying book.” — Hugh Brogan, New York Times Book Review on “Battle Cry of Freedom”
  • “Deftly coordinated, gracefully composed, charitably argued, and suspensefully laid out, McPherson’s book is just the compass of the tumultuous middle years of the 18th century it was intended to be, and as narrative history, it is surpassing. Bright with details and fresh quotations, sold with carefully-arrived-at conclusions, it must surely be, of the 50,000 books written on the Civil War, the finest compression of that national paroxysm ever fitted between two covers.” — Huston Horn, Los Angeles Times Book Review on “Battle Cry of Freedom”
  • “Professor McPherson is not, in the commonly understood sense of the word, a political man. Those who are looking for left-wing pronouncements will be disappointed, legitimately or otherwise. His banner, if one can avoid sounding too pompous saying it, is intellectual integrity. He seems quite determined to remove himself from the immediacy of day-to-day political life, immersing himself in the study of complex, riveting events, but not living in the past or mesmerized by it. He is neither a preserver of trite ‘Americana’ nor a ‘Civil War buff.’ When one speaks with him about the events of the Civil War era they are astonishingly contemporary and alive.
    One might wish he were more forthcoming about certain political issues, but one must respect his reticence. One is evaluating him as an historian. Society has a strong need for such people, particularly those who strive to be both authoritative and accessible to a wide audience, as McPherson does, those who ‘aspire to a general democratic public,’ in the words of Allan Nevins, a phrase he cites approvingly. — David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site
  • “History professor James McPherson will deliver the Baccalaureate address for the Class of 2004, the University announced yesterday.
    The honor comes in recognition of McPherson’s retirement after 42 years of teaching and his stature as one of the most beloved professors on campus.
    McPherson, perhaps the most renowned scholar of Civil War history, said he will be as honored to give the Baccalaureate address as he was to give the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 2000 Jefferson Lecture, that organization’s highest recognition.
    ‘This is equal because it’s a major recognition by the senior class and the president of Princeton University,’ he said.
    Tilghman chose McPherson after consulting with leaders in the senior class. Eli Goldsmith, president of the Class of ’04, said he was thrilled with the choice.
    ‘As far as people with a great knowledge of history go, there probably isn’t anyone better than James McPherson,’ he said. — Brian Henn in “Daily Princetonian” on “McPherson picked for Baccalaureate”
  • “Professor McPherson was a great teacher who clearly cared about his students. He was one of the best teachers at Princeton – based on his ability, research and reputation… A group of my friends led the charge in initiating a 21-gun salute with super soakers as Professor McPherson left the podium. I think they only got seven off.” — Shaun Callaghan ’06, Princeton University on McPherson’s retirement and final lecture.
  • “McPherson was a marvelous historian who brought culture, religion and politics to life to tell an epic story. We were lucky [to have him]… There’s not going to be anyone quite like McPherson, so people shouldn’t be looking for his clone.” — Jeremy Adelman, chair of the history department, Princeton University

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, instructor, 1962-65,James M. McPherson JPG assistant professor, 1965-68, associate professor, 1968-72, professor of history, 1972-82, Edwards Professor of American History, 1982-91, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History, 1991–, Retired from teaching December, 2004.

Area of Research: United States history, 1830-1917; slavery and anti-slavery; the Civil War.

Education: Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963, Highest Distinction, B.A. Gustavus Adolphus College, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1958

Major Publications:

  • The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction, (Princeton University Press, 1964), 2nd edition with new preface by the author, 1995.
  • The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted in the War for the Union, (Pantheon, 1965), (University of Illinois Press, 1982), published as The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union, (Ballantine Books, 1991).
  • The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP, (Princeton University Press, 1975), 2nd edition, with a new preface by the author, 1995.
  • Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, (Knopf, 1982), (McGraw-Hill, 2001), published as The Civil War (reprint of the second part of Ordeal by Fire), (Knopf, 1982), (McGraw-Hill, 1982), published as two separate volumes; Ordeal by Fire: The Coming of War and Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War, (McGraw-Hill, 1993), 3rd edition, (McGraw-Hill, 2001).
  • Images of the Civil War, paintings by Mort Ku”nstler, (Gramercy Books, 1982).
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford University Press, 1988), published as collector’s edition, (Easton Press, 2002).
  • Gettysburg (companion volume to film of the same name), paintings by Mort Kunstler, (Turner Publishing, 1993), (Rutledge Hill Press, 1998).
  • What They Fought For, 1861-1865, (Louisiana State University Press, 1994).
  • Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, (Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • Fields of Fury: The American Civil War, (Atheneum, 2002). (for Young Adults)
  • Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, (Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Hallowed Ground: A Walk in Gettysburg, (Crown, 2003)
  • Into The West, (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006).
  • Also author of How Abolitionists Fought On after the Civil War, Princeton University (Princeton, NJ), a reprint in book form of an article from the quarterly magazine University, 1968-69;
    White Liberals and Black Power in Negro Education, 1865-l915, 1969; First Black Power Bid in U.S. Education, Princeton University, from University, 1970;
    Who Freed the Slaves?: Lincoln and Emancipation, (Lincoln Memorial Association, 1993).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (With others) Blacks in America: Bibliographical Essays, (Doubleday, 1971).
  • (With Corner Vann Woodward and J. Morgan Kousser) Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, (Oxford University Press, 1982).
  • Battle Chronicles of the Civil War, six volumes, (Grey Castle Press, Macmillan, 1989).
  • (Consulting editor) Steve O’Brien and others, editors, American Political Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present, (ABC-CLIO, 1991).
  • Marching toward Freedom: The Negro in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Knopf (New York, NY), 1968, published as Marching toward Freedom: Blacks in the Civil War, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1991.
  • The Atlas of the Civil War, (Macmillan, 1994).
  • “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope on Earth, (University of Illinois Press, 1995).
  • (With Bruce Catton) The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, (Viking, 1996), revised edition, with contributing editor Noah Andre Trudeau, (MetroBooks, 2001).
  • (With wife, Patricia R. McPherson) Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy, (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • (With William J. Cooper) Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1998.
  • (With Joyce Oldham Appleby and Alan Brinkley) The American Journey (textbook; student edition), National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1998, also published as The American Journey: Building a Nation, teacher’s wraparound edition, National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 2000.
  • To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, (Dorling Kindersley, 2000, revised edition, 2001).
  • Encyclopedia of Civil War Biographies, (Sharpe Reference, 2000).
  • (Editor and contributor, with Alan Brinkley and David Rubel) Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History: America’s Greatest Historians Examine Thirty-one Uncelebrated Days That Changed the Course of History, (DK Publishing, 2001).
  • The Civil War Reader, 1862, (Simon & Schuster, 2002).
  • (With Appleby, Brinkley, Albert S. Broussard, and Donald A. Ritchie) The American Vision (textbook), National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 2003.
  • (introduction and notes by James M. McPherson), The most fearful ordeal : original coverage of the Civil War by The New York Times, (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).
  • with an introduction by James M. McPherson, The Civil War by Bruce Catton, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005).
  • Contributor to books, including The Anti-Slavery Vanguard: New Essays on Abolitionism, edited by Martin M. Duberman, (Princeton University Press, 1965);
    Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, edited by Barton J. Bernstein, (Pantheon, 1968);
    How I Met Lincoln: Some Distinguished Enthusiasts Reveal Just How They Fell under His Spell, compiled by Harold Holzer, (American Heritage, 1999).
  • Contributor of forewords and afterwords to books, including:
    Brother against Brother, edited by Diane Stine Thomas, Silver Burdett Press (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1990;
    Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ulysses S. Grant, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1999;
    and The Birth of the Grand Old Republican Party: The Republicans’ First Generation, edited by Robert F. Engs and Randall M. Miller, University of Pennsylvania Press , 2002.
  • Contributor to periodicals, including American Historical Review, Caribbean Studies, Journal of American History, Journal of Negro History, Mid-America, Phylon, and others.Awards:Recipient of honorary degrees from Gustavus Adolphus College, Gettysburg College, Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, Bowdoin College, and Monmouth University.
    Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement, 2002;
    Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2000;
    Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History, 1998, with wife, Patricia McPherson, for Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy;
    R. Stanton Avery fellow, Huntington Library, 1995-96;
    Gustavus Adolphus College Alumni Award, Gustavus Alumni Association, 1990;
    Michael Award, New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame, 1989;
    Lincoln Prize, 1998, for For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought the Civil War;
    National Book Award nomination, 1988, National Book Critics Circle nomination, 1988, Pulitzer Prize in history, 1989, Distinguished Book Award, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, 1989, and citation, 100 Best English-Language Books of the 20th Century, Board of the Modern Library, 1999, all for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era;
    Huntington fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1977-78; Huntington Seaver fellow, 1987-88;
    Proctor & Gamble faculty fellowship; Anisfield Wolff Award in Race Relations, Cleveland Foundation, 1965, for The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction;
    Guggenheim fellow, 1967-58;
    Danforth fellow, 1958-62;
    Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, 1958.Additional Info:McPherson participated in working on many Civil War documentaries: He was the consultant on the film Gettysburg, (Turner Pictures, 1993); on the television documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns, (Public Broadcasting System, 1999); and on the television documentary Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, (Public Broadcasting System, 2001). McPherson provided the narration for the video Abraham Lincoln, (Atlas Video, 1990); was interviewed in the documentary Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War, Volume One, (Mastervision Studio, 1992), on the videos The Civil War Legends: Robert E. Lee and The Civil War Legends: Abraham Lincoln (both from Acorn Video), and on the audio cassette American Heritage’s Great Minds of History, (Simon & Schuster, 1999). He also provided the audio commentary on the DVD of the film Gettysburg, (Turner Home Entertainment, 2000).
    McPherson was also consultant for; Social Science program, Educational Research Council, Cleveland, OH. President, Protect Historic America, 1993-94; Society of American Historians, 2000-01; and American Historical Association, 2003–.
    McPherson is a member of board of directors of; Civil War Trust and Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Preservation Trust), 1991-93; member of Civil War Sites Advisory Committee, a committee created by the U.S. Congress, 1991-93.
    Also member of advisory board of; George Tyler Moore College of the Study of the Civil War, Shepherdstown, WV. Member of board of advisors, Lincoln Forum.
    Member of editorial board of magazine Civil War History.
    McPherson was appointed in 1991 by the United States Senate to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which determined the major battle sites, evaluated their conditions, and then recommended strategies for their preservation.Posted on Sunday, February 5, 2006 at 12:28 PM
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