Book review: ‘The War That Forged a Nation’

In 1873 Mark Twain recalled that the Civil War “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”

No historian has done more to dissect the Civil War’s influence than Princeton University’s James McPherson. His “Battle Cry of Freedom” won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and his “Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief” (2014) provides the best available account of the Rebel leader as a “product of his time and circumstances.”

McPherson’s slender “The War that Forged a Nation” consists of 12 essays. Five of 11 published over the past eight years originated as review essays in The New York Review of Books. Readers will, nevertheless, welcome the range and graceful prose of even reworked articles by the historian dubbed “Mr. Civil War.”

McPherson’s essays span from the role of Mexico, California and the coming of the war, to the complexities of Reconstruction in the war-torn South. He examines the degree to which the Civil War constituted a “just war,” the broad meaning of its 750,000 deaths and destruction, how the Union and Confederate navies influenced British neutrality, and the U.S. Navy’s underappreciated role in crushing the rebellion.

McPherson also examines the role of Abraham Lincoln and the slaves in crafting emancipation, Lincoln’s attributes as commander in chief and his broad legacy. In “The Commander Who Would Not Fight,” McPherson unravels Lincoln’s conflicted relationship with Gen. George B. McClellan.

In “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” the only essay not previously published, McPherson identifies several key questions of the era “that are neither dead nor past.” These include regional rivalries, race and citizenship and the competing powers of the federal and state governments.

He underscores how Confederate defeat diminished Southern influence in American life. “The institutions and ideology of a plantation society and a slave system went down with a great crash in 1865 and were replaced by the institutions and ideology of free-labor entrepreneurial capitalism. For better or for worse, the flames of Civil War forged the framework of modern America.”

McPherson also emphasizes how the war left a broad imprint on constitutional questions. Although the 13th Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, its legacy haunts contemporary society in the form of racism and racial violence. The 14th Amendment (1868), which granted citizenship to persons born in the U.S., including former slaves, contributes to ongoing debates over illegal immigration.

And the war transformed the U.S. from a decentralized republic into a centralized political unit. Most antebellum Americans had little contact with the federal government aside from the postal service. As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln’s administration assumed authority over taxing, adjudicating legal cases, regulating currency and drafting men into the army. It even established the first national social welfare agency – the Freedmen’s Bureau.

While prewar constitutional amendments largely restricted the powers of the federal government in the name of liberty, the so-called “Reconstruction amendments” of the postwar years expanded its powers and redirected the meaning of liberty. The 13th and 14th Amendments freed the slaves and guaranteed them civil rights. The 15th Amendment (1870) endowed the freed people with political rights.

“These multiple and varying meanings of liberty,” McPherson concludes, “and how they dissolved and re-formed in kaleidoscopic patterns during the war, provide the central meaning of the war for the American experience.”

John David Smith, a professor of American History at UNC Charlotte, recently published “Soldiering For Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops” (with Bob Luke).


The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

James McPherson

Oxford University Press, 219 pages