BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James M. McPherson, your book, "What They Fought For: 1861-1865," is about what?
JAMES McPHERSON, AUTHOR, "WHAT THEY FOUGHT FOR: 1861-1865": It's about what motivated volunteer soldiers in the Civil War to risk their lives, both Union and Confederate. Eighty to 90 percent of the fighting soldiers in the Civil War were volunteers. Most of them volunteered in the first year of the war. This was a non-coercive, democratic society. The mobilization to fight the Civil War was a kind of do-it-yourself mobilization from the bottom up -- from localities, counties, communities, states. During the Civil War soldiers wrote an enormous amount of letters home. Many of them kept diaries. The letters were not subject to censorship during the Civil War, and so I think the best place to go to find out what these men really thought they were fighting for -- the purposes of their volunteering to fight and risk their lives -- is to go to their personal letters to parents, to wives, to sweethearts, brothers and sisters who were eager to hear about their experience as soldiers, and to go to their letters, which are amazingly frank, and find out what they thought they were fighting for. So that's what I've done, and I've tried to put it together in a book.
LAMB: As you know -- we talked briefly before we started this -- this goes down in history as our shortest book ever, 69 pages, and not to be confused with another big success of yours which is -- what? -- 900 pages.
McPHERSON: Close to 900 pages.
LAMB: How do you go from one to the other? What's the purpose of this small book?
McPHERSON: This small book is based on a series of lectures that I gave at Louisiana State University last year called "The Walter L. Fleming Lectures in Southern History." It's an annual series of three lectures given each year by a different scholar, and Louisiana State University Press then publishes most of these lectures. So this consists of the three lectures that I gave on that occasion. That's why it's such a small book. It's a part of a larger book that I'm writing about Civil War soldiers' combat motivation. This one focuses on their perception of what the war was about, what were the political and ideological purposes of the war. That larger book, which is a few years away, will focus on questions like, how they dealt with fear and stress, the function of religion, the relationship between communities and soldiers, the relationships among the soldiers themselves -- the kind of male bonding that went on -- and a whole variety of issues. But this one focuses in specifically on ideology and the purposes of the war for both Union and Confederate soldiers.
LAMB: Where do you live?
McPHERSON: I live in Princeton, New Jersey, where I teach at Princeton University.
LAMB: What do you teach?
McPHERSON: I teach the Civil War period, and 19th century American history in general. Right now I'm teaching a course on the history of the American West, which is a bit of a new departure for me. I usually focus on the Civil War period and on the South as well as the national picture.
LAMB: How long have you been at Princeton?
McPHERSON: This is my 32nd year there. I've actually been there my whole career. I went directly out of graduate school. I did my graduate work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I went to Princeton as a lowly instructor and just stayed on.
LAMB: You won the Pulitzer Prize what year for what?
McPHERSON: I won it in 1989 for "Battle Cry of Freedom" which had appeared the previous year, and that, of course, is the monster book -- the 900-page book -- which tries to synthesize the whole shooting match of the Civil War and its background and causes. And so while I'm focusing on one particular issue in the small book, I tried to cover everything in the large book.
LAMB: How many weeks was that book on the best seller list?
McPHERSON: That was on the New York Times national best-seller list as a hardcover for, I think, 16 weeks and for 12 weeks a year or so later as a paperback. In the Washington area, I gather it was on the Washington Post best-seller list for longer than that, some 29 or 30 weeks.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many copies sold?
McPHERSON: Altogether it's somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 copies -- paperback, hardcover, French translation, German translation, British Penguin edition, book clubs. It's a little hard to keep track of it all.
LAMB: Is this your biggest success?
McPHERSON: Oh, by far, yes. Before that, if I was lucky one or two of my books may have sold in five figures. I mostly aimed at an academic or student audience. This was a book that reached a larger public, which was the purpose of the series, but I think I hit the jackpot much more than I expected, and certainly more than the publisher expected with that book.
LAMB: Go back to the small book we have here. You gave these lectures where?
McPHERSON: In Baton Rouge, Louisiana., to an audience of students, faculty, townspeople, just a year ago. It was on March 31, 1993, and April 1 and 2 when I delivered these three lectures.
LAMB: You tell us in the book how many different places you have gone for your research and how many different letters and diaries you've read.
McPHERSON: Well, I've done research in at least a dozen different state historical societies, all of which have collections of soldiers' letters, usually letters from soldiers in that state but sometimes from other states, as well. The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, surprisingly, has a lot of Civil War soldiers' letters, mostly descendants of soldiers from the Midwest who had gone to California and at some point gave those letters to the Huntington Library. Several major university research libraries have large collections. Two of the best are at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and probably one of the largest repositories for Union soldiers' collections is at the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvannia, which is also one of the best places to go for World War II soldiers' accounts and memorabilia -- other wars as well. It's a major research repository for understanding the history of America's wars.
LAMB: Did you really read 25,000 letters and diaries?
McPHERSON: Well, I've read an estimated 25,000 letters. I've actually read the letters or diaries -- sometimes soldiers' collections contained both -- of about 1,000 soldiers, 600 Union and 400 Confederate. That's about 800 collections of letters, I'd say, and the average collection of letters is, I suppose, 30 to 40 letters. Some are only a dozen or 15 because many of the letters haven't survived. I've read some collections that have as many as 300 letters. A soldier was writing three or four letters a week, either to his wife or his mother or a family member. But the average is somewhere around 30 to 40 letters for the portion of the war for which I have soldiers' letters, so you multiply that 800 times 30 to 40 letters, and you get up into that 20,000- to 30,000-letter range.
LAMB: Do you get to touch their actual letter?
McPHERSON: Oh, yes, in most cases. Now, some letters have been published in modern editions, and when that is the case and when I don't have access to the originals, I've used the published versions. But in most cases I've gone to these repositories and read the actual letters, many of them written in ink and some in pencil. Surprisingly enough, sometimes the pencil letters have survived better over the years without smudging than the ink, which has sometimes faded.
LAMB: Can the average person walk off the street and do the same thing you've done?
McPHERSON: In many of these cases, yes. At many of these, like the Library of Congress, where I've done some research -- in that case of using the Library of Congress collection, they've been put on microfilm so I didn't get to touch the actual letters, but I read the microfilm of them -- it's a public facility open to any person who wants to come and use it. The same is true of the United States Army Military History Institute. In the case of state historical societies, they serve the public, as well; the university research libraries, the same thing. Yes, anybody. They will ask you who you are, what you're doing and what your credentials are. I suppose that I as a university professor may have a little bit of an advantage over just anybody who walks in off the street, but basically they're open for research by any person who's genuinely doing historical research.
LAMB: Did you have some help with this, or did you do it all yourself?
McPHERSON: I had my wife help me. She's my research assistant. She is very good. She knows what I'm looking for and has become almost an alter ego, especially two years ago when I was on leave from teaching, a sabbatical leave. I traveled around to many of these research libraries, and she went with me. We spent weeks or months here or there, everywhere, doing research. We'd sit together and she'd read one collection and I'd read another, and she would save out the letters that she knew I would be interested in in the collection she was reading. We work together as a team quite well.
LAMB: How long have you been married?
McPHERSON: We've been married -- let me see, 1957 -- 36 years.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
McPHERSON: In high school, in Minnesota. I grew up in Minnesota and we went to the same high school in a small town there in southern Minnesota, St. Peter, a farming community.
LAMB: Did she go to college?
McPHERSON: She went to nurses training in college at Northwestern Hospital at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I went to a similar kind of college in the same town that I went to high school in, St. Peter, called Gustavus Adolphus College, one of those ubiquitous, Midwestern, small liberal arts colleges with a denominational background in its historical founding.
LAMB: Do you have children?
McPHERSON: Yes, I have a daughter, who's 23 years old. She is also in education. She's teaching elementary school.
LAMB: Give us a thumbnail sketch of the Civil War. I know that you could talk about that forever, but give us some idea when it started, when it finished, how many people were killed and wounded and all that?
McPHERSON: The Civil War lasted for four years. It started in April 1861 and ended in April 1865. Six hundred twenty-five thousand soldiers died in the American Civil War. That was 365,000 Union soldiers and 260,000 Confederate soldiers. To give you some idea of what kind of impact the war had on American society, with that number of dead, that amounted to 2 percent of the American population of 1861. If 2 percent of the American population were to be killed in a war fought by this country today, the number of American war dead would be 5 million, and one can readily imagine the kind of impact that that number of deaths would have on American society today.
The Civil War started primarily because in the generation before 1861, an antislavery movement had grown up in the North that attacked the South's peculiar institution as immoral, inhumane and inconsistent with American ideals of liberty and the Declaration of Independence. Southerners, slave owners and the society which they ruled felt increasingly defensive about this attack on the institution that underlay their economy and society. The Republican Party was founded in the mid-1850s on a platform of restricting the further expansion of slavery, "In order," as one of its leading founders, Abraham Lincoln put it, "to put slavery in the course of ultimate extinction." He was a gradual emancipationist. When that party and that candidate won the presidency in 1860, the Southerners saw the handwriting on the wall. They had lost political control of the national government, and they feared that that loss of political control portended an eventual loss of the control of the institution of slavery.
And so they seceded to form an independent nation of 11 Confederate states, all of them slave states. The Lincoln administration refused to recognize secession as constitutional or legitimate and argued that if any state or group of states could secede at will then the United States had no national government; in fact, there was no such entity as the United States if anybody could get out of it at any time whenever they didn't like how a presidential election came out. So the two sections were polarized over the issue of slavery and over the issue of secession.
All it needed was a trigger, an incident, to start a war, and that trigger was the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, the United States installation in the harbor at Charleston, one of the last such United States installations still under national control in the Confederate States. That functioned very much on Northern public opinion like the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor did in 1941 on American public opinion, and caused a rise of war fever in the South and a counterpart rise of war fever in the North and a counterpart rise of war fever in the South. And as Lincoln said in his second inaugural four years later, "The war came and lasted four years, resulted in the destruction of slavery, the destruction of the planter class in the South and the social basis for its rule of the South." It also resolved for all time, I think, the question of whether a state or any group of states can secede from the United States. No state has tried it since then.
LAMB: Check my dates: it was April 14 that he was shot in 1865?
McPHERSON: That's correct.
LAMB: What was the date of the actual end of the Civil War, then?
McPHERSON: The Civil War ended gradually. The principal Confederate Army was the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee. The Army of the Potomac, which had fought that army for four years, finally brought it to bay at Appomattox, and Lee made the decision to surrender on April 9, 1865, just five days before Lincoln was assassinated. That's often taken as the date that the Civil War ended, that the Confederate's principal army surrenders, but there were still several other Confederate armies in the field, and they surrendered one by one over the next couple of months.
LAMB: How many total states in the Union then?
McPHERSON: There were 34 states altogether, of which 11 seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Two other Southern states, Kentucky and Missouri, had a minority of secessionists who formed their own Confederate government and applied for admission into the Confederate congress and were admitted. So when you see the Confederate flag it will have 13 states, and the number of states that remained loyal to the Union was really 23 because Kentucky and Missouri were split.
LAMB: At the -- not the high point of the war but where the most people were under arms, when was that, and how many in the Union Army and how many in the Confederate Army?
McPHERSON: At all times in the war, the Union Army had at least twice as many men under arms as the Confederate Army. The high point of the war for both of them in terms of number of men would be in 1863 and 1864. By 1864, however, the Confederates had no more manpower on which to call. They had mobilized everybody -- every white male between 17 or 18 and 40 or 43, or 45 in some cases, who was not lame or blind, by 1864 and had no more to draw on. So their numbers began gradually to shrink so that by the end of the war the Union forces outnumbered the Confederate forces about four or five to one.
LAMB: How many blacks in the United States then?
McPHERSON: There were 4 million slaves and a half a million free blacks, so out of a population of nearly 32 million there were 4.5 million blacks.
LAMB: What was a free black?
McPHERSON: A free black was a person living in either the free states where all blacks who lived there were free, or a black person in the South who was not a slave. He was either descended from someone who had been freed a generation or more earlier or himself had been freed voluntarily by his master. But of the 4.5 million blacks in 1861 -- or in 1860 at the time of the census -- 4 million, or 90 percent, were slaves.
LAMB: How many blacks fought either for -- and did blacks fight for the Confederacy and the Union?
McPHERSON: About 180,000 black soldiers and an estimated 10,000 black sailors fought in the Union Army and Navy, all of them in late 1862 or later, except for some blacks who enrolled in the Navy earlier.
LAMB: Why 1862?
McPHERSON: Well, at first the Lincoln administration's war aims were to restore the Union and not to abolish slavery. One of the reasons for that was that Lincoln was trying to keep the border slave states like Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland loyal to the Union and was also trying to reassure Southerners in the Confederacy that their fears that he was going to precipitately attack slavery were wrong. So he was trying to make it a war only for union and not for the abolition of slavery. As a consequence, since to enlist black soldiers, especially if they'd been former slaves, would be a sign that it was an antislavery war, the Union Army and the Lincoln administration refused to accept black soldiers.
But once the Lincoln administration had completely transformed Northern war aims from that of restoring the old union to that of destroying the old union and rebuilding a new one on this basis -- a new union of freedom -- "Give the union a new birth of freedom," as Lincoln said at Gettysburg a year later. Once that commitment had been made, which was the major, transforming commitment in the Civil War, the administration also decided to enlist black soldiers. So in late 1862 they authorized the first enlistment on occupied territory in South Carolina where the war had started, on the so-called Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. They recruited two black regiments down there, and it went from there.
The most famous of the black regiments was the 54th Massachusetts about which the movie "Glory" was made. That one consisted mostly of free blacks from the North, but altogether probably 190,000 blacks who fought in the Union Army. The total number of men who fought in the Union Army and Navy was about 2.1 million, so the black soldiers constituted somewhere about 9 percent of the total of the Union armed forces. They fought in the last half of the war for the most part because they weren't recruited until the war was almost halfway over.
LAMB: What about the South?
McPHERSON: No black soldiers fought in the Confederate Army unless they were passing as white. Some light-skinned blacks probably did. Some Confederate soldiers, especially officers, did bring their body servants, who in many cases had grown up with them and had been very close to them, along into the Army, and on occasion some of those body servants were known to have picked up a rifle and fought. But there was no official recruitment of black soldiers in the Confederate Army until the very end of the war when out of their desperate shortage of manpower the Confederate Congress finally passed by a single vote in the Senate in March 1865, the so-called negro soldier bill which provided for the enlistment of slaves to fight for the Confederacy. But Appomattox came only a few weeks later, and none of these men were ever put in uniform to fight. So we don't know how that would have worked.
LAMB: This is the cover of your book. What is this painting?
McPHERSON: This is a painting by Winslow Homer called "Prisoners from the Front." Winslow Homer was an illustrator for Harper's Weekly during the Civil War and wrote a lot of pen-and-pencil sketches which were published in that weekly illustrated magazine, but he also got his start as a painter during the war and his earliest paintings were of Civil War scenes. This painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I think it's one of his best Civil War paintings.
LAMB: When you think back to the 25,000 letters that you perused -- and this is not fair -- but is there a letter or two that really got you?
McPHERSON: Well, probably a lot of them that really got me.
LAMB: I know you quote a lot of them.
McPHERSON: I quote a lot of them in here. I guess two of the letters that really got me more than any others that I can remember -- or it's actually more than two letters, but it's from two brothers. They were Quaker farmers from New York state, and of course, the Quakers are pacifists. They do not believe in violence, but in the Civil War some Quakers, and that included these two brothers, believed so powerfully in the goal of freeing the slaves that they actually enlisted to fight in the Union Army. There were some hundreds of Quakers who did, and these two were among them. Both of them were killed during the war, and the letters that I quote in here and that I found most moving were those that they had written to their mother in the months before they were killed -- one was killed at Gettysburg -- in which they explained why they were fighting.
The older brother says that a man risking his life for freedom is risking something more precious than life itself, and we all have to die sometime and how can we die better than by fighting for freedom. And his brother agreed. After he was killed and the other brother was writing to his mother to console her, a widowed mother, he also wrote that, "Oh, God, thy price for freedom is a dear one, but nevertheless we must pay that price." I found that powerfully moving, and there are a lot of other letters in there that are almost as moving.
LAMB: Why did you get into this business?
McPHERSON: Into the business of this particular book or the Civil War as a whole?
LAMB: No, just teaching and professoring and history.
McPHERSON: Well, teaching may be in my family. I mentioned a few moments ago that my daughter is an elementary school teacher. My father was a high school mathematics teacher, and my mother was an elementary school teacher. When I went to college I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but at least one possibility that was in my mind was to become a high school teacher myself. I didn't know in what subject. I didn't have any particular interest at the time I went to college, and in history just a kind of vague, generalized interest. But I was turned on to history by a freshman Western civilization course that I took. It challenged my mind for the first time. I don't think my mind was challenged very much in high school. And so I became committed to try to understand the human condition by way of studying its past. I decided that American history was what I was most interested in, but I didn't have a clear notion that I was interested in the Civil War until I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins.
I was there during the early years of the civil rights movement, in the early 1960s, when it suddenly dawned on me that the time through which I was living had an uncanny parallel with what had happened exactly a hundred years earlier. The freedom rides and the sit-ins in 1961 resulted in confrontations between white and black, between North and South, between the federal government and Southern state governments who vowed massive resistance, government interposition, standing in the schoolhouse door, federal troops being sent in to the South to enforce national law and Martin Luther King Jr. asking President Kennedy to issue a new emancipation proclamation on the hundredth anniversary of the original. And it struck me that I needed to find out something about what had happened a hundred years earlier that was so relevant to the time and place in Baltimore in the early 1960s in which I was living.
So my first entry into the Civil War was to study that whole question of slavery abolition by the war and the role of the Northern abolitionists in this process. That was my doctoral dissertation and became my first book, and I branched out from there. As I studied that issue more, I became increasingly aware that political leadership -- Lincoln's political leadership, in particular -- was important in affecting what happened in the area of emancipation, and that ultimately all of this change came out of the barrel of a gun; that is, what happened in the Civil War in the areas of political success or the abolition of slavery ultimately resulted on what happened in the battlefield. And so I branched out and turned myself into something that I never was at the beginning, a military historian, although I like to think of myself as a kind of broad, general, generic historian of the Civil War period.
LAMB: How has your life changed after winning the Pulitzer and the sale of the "Battle Cry of Freedom"?
McPHERSON: Well, I appear on television shows more often than I ever thought I would before, radio talk shows, phone-in shows. I get a lot of speaking invitations and probably accept more of them than I should. I have learned a little bit about what it's like to be in the media and to be a public figure, something that I hadn't really known very much about before the best-seller status of that and the Pulitzer Prize.
LAMB: Did anything surprise you about that experience?
McPHERSON: I suppose what surprises me about the experience is my sort of love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, I enjoy talking with groups or with individuals about history, answering their questions, trying to help them understand this most important of our historical experiences, the Civil War. On the other hand, the time commitment, the travel, the fatigue that's associated with traveling around and doing a lot of it sometimes gets to me.
LAMB: In this book, "What They Fought For: 1861-1865," you break it into three parts. Let's start with the first part. What were the Confederate soldiers fighting for?
McPHERSON: The Confederate soldiers were basically fighting for the independence of what they called their country, the Confederate States of America, and they really harked back to the model of the American Revolution in 1776. In 1776 Americans had declared their independence of the British Empire -- had seceded, if you will, from the British Empire in the name of liberty, establishing independent, free, government. The Confederate soldiers said they were doing the same thing in 1861 -- they were fighting for liberty, for self-government. They were defending their country against invasion by what they now considered to be an alien power that no longer represented their interests. They compared Abraham Lincoln to King George III. They compared the Congress at Washington to the British Parliament of 1776.
And so that is how they viewed what they were fighting for. As time went on, as the war went on, and as Northern armies did invade and occupy the South and destroy its resources, including, ultimately, slavery, many Confederate soldiers became increasingly motivated by notions of revenge, of defending their homeland from these hated "Goths and vandals," to use the terms they sometimes did. So basically the Confederates were fighting a defensive war to protect their homeland and the independence of their country.
LAMB: What was the Twenty Negro Law?
McPHERSON: The Confederacy passed the first conscription law -- draft act -- in April 1862, and with a few exempted categories that made everybody between 18 and 35 liable to conscription -- every white male liable to conscription in the Confederacy. That meant that many slave plantation owners or overseers were vulnerable to conscription, to the draft. Well, who was going to stay home and run the plantation? Who was going to manage the slaves? In some cases only women were left on the plantation. The planter's wife, maybe the overseer's wife, and the whole idea of leaving one or two or three white women on a large plantation or even a medium-sized plantation of slaves was repugnant to the whole concept of white supremacy and social relations in the South, and it also left the plantations inefficient without having somebody to direct them.
So the Confederate Congress in the fall of 1862 passed a law exempting one white man for every plantation of 20 or more slaves. It was the so-called Overseer Exemption, or the Twenty Negro Law. This was exceedingly unpopular among the non-slaveholders in the South who did constitute -- the non-slaveholding whites constituted two-thirds of the Southern families. Their breadwinner, let's say a small farmer who did not own slaves who was 35 years old was drafted. No exemption for him. He left his wife and several children behind to run the farm, but there was no exemption for him. And there was a lot of protest and alienation and disaffection within the South against this law.
LAMB: You say only one-third of the people who lived in the South had slaves?
McPHERSON: Only one-third of the Southern whites belonged to slaveholding families, that's right.
LAMB: What was the average number of slaves per slaveholding family?
McPHERSON: The average number of slaves per slaveholding family was only five.
LAMB: How much were they worth in the market?
McPHERSON: An adult male slave in 1860 would be worth, depending upon the part of the country and his age, between $1,000 and $2,000.
LAMB: Can you relate that to today?
McPHERSON: Well, somebody made a study of this. It was an old study, but back in 1948 only 2 percent of the American population owned stocks -- shares in corporations -- worth what one slave was worth in 1860, taking into account the change in the value of the dollar during that period. So slavery was fairly widespread form of property in the South. To own one slave was to own a fairly substantial amount of wealth. To own five slaves was to own quite a lot. To own 20 slaves and, therefore, to be in the planter class and to get this overseer exemption was to be a very wealthy person.
LAMB: What's the most number of slaves you've ever heard of any one family owning?
McPHERSON: Well, Wade Hampton, who was a South Carolina planter and a famous Confederate cavalry commander during the Civil War, owned several hundred slaves. I forget exactly how many -- 400 or 500 slaves on several different plantations in South Carolina and Mississippi, and he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the United States in 1860.
LAMB: Was there a difference between the Confederate soldier's attitude about why he was fighting and the Union soldier's?
McPHERSON: Yes. The Union soldier, in most cases, was not defending his homeland against invasion, and so that motive, which is a powerful motive for an army, did not really function for Union soldiers or did not function at anything like the strength and degree as it did for Confederate soldiers. It could function intermittently as, for example, when the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in the campaign that led to Gettysburg in 1863. But that was merely a raid.
The Confederate purpose was not to invade the North and conquer and occupy; it was merely to defend its territory against Union invasion and conquest. So the Union soldier did not have that motive, which was a powerful motive for the Confederacy, but the Union soldier did have the same motive but the opposite side of the coin than the Confederate soldier did; that is, as I mentioned a few moments ago, the Confederate soldier thought that he was fighting for the same goals that his grandfather had fought for in the War of the Revolution in 1776 to 1783. So did the Union soldier, except that he interpreted the example of the American Revolution in the opposite way.
The Confederates saw that as the first war of secession, the first war of independence. The Union soldier said that they were fighting to preserve the nation that was created in 1776 -- to preserve it from dismemberment and destruction. So they, too, appealed to that model of 1776, and it was a powerful motive for Union soldiers. Over and over again you find in their letters the argument that "if we lose this war, if the Confederacy succeeds, it will establish a fatal precedent that will destroy the United States. We will no longer have a united nation. By definition it will be a disunited nation, and the next time that a disaffected minority loses a presidential election they might secede and all of the labor of our ancestors to set up this brave experiment in democracy in 1776 will have been proven a failure."
It's important to remember in understanding the Northern soldiers' perspective, I think, that in the mid-19th century the United States was one of the very few republics and by far the largest and most successful republic in the world. Most European countries were monarchies or empires. Other republics, such as those in Latin America, had usually succumbed to dictatorship. When Lincoln said at Gettysburg that this was the great test whether a nation so conceived and so founded can survive, he struck an important chord among the Northern people. That's what they were fighting for.
LAMB: What did you think of Ken Burns’ Civil War series on public television?
McPHERSON: I liked it. I thought it was a great success at what it tried to do, which was to explain the meaning of that experience in American history to a very broad population of the American people. I think it did a superb job.
LAMB: As you know -- we held this up earlier -- did it do anything for the sales of your book?
McPHERSON: It helped them, yes, it did, I think, especially the paperback. There was a spike in sales in 1990 when that program came out.
LAMB: When do you see students brightening up as you begin to teach them about the Civil War? I'm sure on the first day. When do you see it start to connect?
McPHERSON: When they really understand that this war was about the identity of the United States, the identity and the future of the United States, that if that war had come out differently or if it had never happened, we would be a radically different nation today than we are. Then they begin to connect with it, that you can really understand that had things gone differently we might be two or more countries today, that my students at Princeton who come from the South, and a lot of them do, would be foreign students rather than American students if the Civil War had come out differently. Then it becomes relevant to them.
I think especially for -- well, for all students. I was going to say especially for black students, but I think it's true for all students. When they also realize that one of the major accomplishments of the Civil War was not only to abolish slavery but also in the 14th and 15th Amendments which were the amendments that defined the legal and constitutional status of the freed slaves, that has formed the basis for all civil rights legislation that has happened ever since 1865.
LAMB: Have you taught many descendants of slaves?
McPHERSON: Yes. I've had a lot of black students in my class, and some of them can trace their ancestry back to particular slaves, yes.
LAMB: Do you see them looking at all of this differently than the white students?
McPHERSON: Yes, they do. Clearly, they do. They're much more likely to see it from the perspective of the slaves during the war itself. They're more interested in the experience of black soldiers. I think the movie "Glory" accomplished a remarkable feat in sensitizing a lot of today's black students to the role that their ancestors played in the Civil War in winning their own freedom. Another thing, by the latter half of the war many Northern soldiers, but not all, found themselves fighting for the freeing of the slaves. And of course, those who were more inclined to be sympathetic toward that at the beginning were those who were most committed to that as one of the Northern war aims.
That forms the subject of the third lecture in this book, the whole question of slavery and the extent to which Confederate soldiers saw themselves fighting to preserve and defend that institution. But because most Confederate soldiers took slavery for granted as part of the society, part of the nation for which they were fighting, it was not a controversial issue for them. But for Union soldiers the question of whether they were fighting to abolish slavery, whether they were risking their lives to free the slaves was a controversial issue, and it did divide the Northern soldiers at first. But black soldiers, the ones who we recruited in the latter part of the war, saw themselves fighting from the first, primarily, not only to free themselves but to free all of their brothers and sisters who were still held in slavery, and that dimension of the Civil War, I think, can really resonate with black students as well as many white students today.
LAMB: When you do your research -- for instance, you went to, as you say, 17 different historical libraries or societies. Do you call them society libraries?
McPHERSON: Every state has a state historical society, and those are major research repositories in the case of many states. So much of my research was done in the library or archives of state historical societies, like the Ohio Historical Society and the Missouri Historical Society and so on and then the university research libraries like mine at Princeton or in North Carolina. So these are the different libraries that I've been to.
LAMB: Of all those places you went to, who does the best job?
McPHERSON: Well, I think that for Confederate soldiers the University of North Carolina and Duke University have the biggest collections and the best maintained collections. As far as Union collections are concerned, the United States Army Military History Institute at Carlisle, which I mentioned, has the largest collection. But the Ohio Historical Society is an important and major place -- a large number of collections and so on. Many of the Northern state historical societies are really very good, and so are the Southern state historical societies.
LAMB: Do you and your wife always travel together to these places, or do you split up sometimes?
McPHERSON: No, we travel together. Sometimes I go on my own when she can't go, but she has never gone on her own except at the Princeton University Library, which has a small number of very high quality collections of Civil War soldiers' letters. In fact, one of the best collections that I've ever read -- the single best collection -- of Navy letters, Union Navy letters in this case -- are at the Princeton University Library, and she and I are thinking of editing them and publishing them together.
LAMB: How do you do it? Do you two walk in and you have computers?
McPHERSON: I've very old-fashioned. I take my notes on a typewriter.
LAMB: What kind of a typewriter?
McPHERSON: When I go around to university libraries, just an old-fashioned manual typewriter. It's easier to carry and very portable. I type fast. I use four-by-six note cards, and a power surge never affects my typewriter.
LAMB: How does she do it?
McPHERSON: She reads the letters and in one way or another indicates which letters or which portions of letters have material of interest to me. Then I read then and take the notes.
LAMB: Are you allowed to photocopy them?
McPHERSON: Oh, sure. Libraries will, for a price, let you take it over to the Xerox machine at a nickel a shot and xerox them, and I occasionally do that. I've found, though, through experience that it's better to take the notes on the material that is of importance and interest to me than to xerox it and come back months later and have to do the same process over again, because I get into a kind of mode of -- one thing about doing this research, especially if it's a large collection, 40 or more letters -- you get to know that individual very well. I mean, you're reading his mail to his wife or sweetheart or mother or sister. At times one almost feels like you're prying into a personal life, but on the other hand, these people are long since gone and these letters are now public property and they're of great interest to understanding what that war experience was all about for these people.
LAMB: As you told us earlier, this is a Louisiana State University Press, and it's a three-lecture series that you did. But you're going to do a full book.
LAMB: When is that book going to be out?
McPHERSON: I hope it will be out in 1997, and the title of that book will be "Why They Fought." I don't know what the subtitle may be. At one time I had the idea of Combat Motivation in the Civil War, but that sounds a little bit social-sciency, so I'm not sure what I'll call it.
LAMB: So you go out to the libraries, you take your typewriter with you, you type up the notes on the four-by-six cards and then what happens? How do you get to the point where you literally write?
McPHERSON: Well, these notes focus on two or three dozen themes in soldiers' perception of their experience in the war, and these are themes that have emerged from my research or from my reading of other kinds of sources. I will organize each note under one of these themes. I have a big box of note cards with each theme labeled, so when I sit down to write I will organize a given chapter either around a single theme or a group of themes or a chronological period in which several themes occur, and try to write it out in a form that combines narrative and interpretation so that it drives a story forward but also enlightens the reader on the thematic or interpretive points that I'm trying to make.
LAMB: Where do you write?
McPHERSON: I write in my study at home rather than in my office at the university. I'm less subject to interruption there. It's a place I'm used to, I guess. Maybe there is even a muse hovering around the ceiling of that room. I don't know.
LAMB: Do you have to be concerned at all when you're writing a book about what will sell?
McPHERSON: I have not really thought about that as an important criteria when I'm writing. As I suggested earlier, I think that before "Battle Cry of Freedom" I had not really written anything that had sold widely to a broad, nonprofessional or non-student audience. I had written a Civil War and Reconstruction textbook. So my concern is not so much with what will sell; I guess my main concern is to try to make things clear to a reader who is not as knowledgeable as I am about the subject.
That may sound like an obvious goal, but I'm not sure that every professional historian does that very successfully. Sometimes they seem to be writing only for other experts in the field. I try to penetrate through at some level to try to make things clear to somebody who may have only a minimal knowledge but does have an interest in the subject. But that's not to say that I write down to these people. I have in mind an intelligent and interested reader, but not an expert reader, not another professional, academic historian like me.
LAMB: There are lots of little things I want to ask you about. You mentioned at one point that the highest ranking Jewish soldier in the war was a fellow named Spiegel.
LAMB: How did you find that out?
McPHERSON: In his case, quite a bit is known about him. He would have been promoted to general if he had not been killed in action in the spring of 1864. There was another Jewish officer who did not die in the war who did eventually get a brigadier generalship after the war was over. Brevet rank is one rank higher than the real rank. This guy would have been a real brigadier general in 1864 if he hadn't been killed. His rank as colonel, the next rank below, antedated the other one. The other man's name was Salomon, and he came from Wisconsin. This man came from Ohio.
LAMB: You reference Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a couple of times; as a matter of fact, you basically close your last lecture with a quote from him. How come?
McPHERSON: Well, he is one of the most remarkable of Civil War soldiers, and one who is best known, that lived well into the 20th century and knew Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was still sitting on the Supreme Court at the age of 90, during FDR's presidency. He was a young officer during the Civil War and had just graduated from Harvard in 1861, enlisted and was a lieutenant then captain, wounded three times, ended up on the staff of the Sixth Corps Commanders in that Army of the Potomac in 1864, and then wrote eloquently about that experience after the war. He said, "It was given to us in our youth to be touched with fire. We really knew what passion was," and that's what I end up with in there. He spoke to future generations -- he lived so long after the war -- about the meaning of the experience that he and his generation went through.
LAMB: You also write about William Faulkner, and I think Ernest Hemingway is mentioned and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LAMB: Of what value were all of those to you?
McPHERSON: I quote Faulkner because in one of his novels he has a character, a Confederate veteran, say that he didn't really know what he was fighting for in the war. I quote that to set up a theme that there is a widespread misperception that Civil War soldiers were nonideological, that they didn't really have any idea what they were fighting for, and here is William Faulkner, of all people, reinforcing that idea. And then I go on to challenge that whole notion.
In the case of Hemingway, I quote him and his famous statement in, I think, "A Farewell to Arms" -- what I think is his greatest novel -- about his experience in World War II; that that was a disillusioning experience for his generation, and thereafter every time that such words as "glory" and "honor" and "the cause" and so on came up, they were cynical about it. I say that we are the heirs of that cynicism, especially we in the post-Vietnam generation, so that when we read Civil War soldiers saying that they're willing to die for their country or to die for freedom or that they're cheerfully risking their lives to preserve the existence of a democratic government in the United States, that we need to overcome the barrier of our kind of post-World War I, as Hemingway put it, or post-Vietnam cynicism about these idealistic motives, because I'm convinced after reading these 25,000, or whatever number it is, letters that these soldiers, when they used these expressions -- these Victorian phrases -- really believed in them. I have to believe that because so many of them gave their lives for this. These were volunteer soldiers. Most of the people I quote in here were not conscripts. They were not long-term, professional soldiers. They were citizen volunteers.
LAMB: Where does Abraham Lincoln fit on your list?
McPHERSON: Well, he's number one in my mind.
LAMB: No doubt?
McPHERSON: No doubt. I've come to have a deeper appreciation of Lincoln the more I know about him. As I mentioned a little earlier, I first got into the field of Civil War history by studying the abolitionists during the war and after it -- that group of Northern radicals who had long advocated the abolition of slavery.
LAMB: Who is the number one, in your opinion?
McPHERSON: Of the abolitionists?
McPHERSON: William Lloyd Garrison, the best known, and Wendell Phillips -- those two, probably. They were at first very critical of Lincoln because he did not move immediately against slavery. They formed a pressure group on the left, of the counterpart of the civil rights activists of the 1960s, trying to press the president to move more quickly on civil rights, in Lincoln's case on emancipation. At first, I think because I did so much research in abolitionist sources, I absorbed their point of view about Lincoln. He was slow, he was gradual, he was too conservative, too much deferring to the border states etc. But the more I studied Lincoln, the more I came to realize that he was under enormous pressure from various sides -- from the left, the right, the border states, radicals, conservatives, white supremacists, black leaders -- and that he had to strike a balancing act among all of these factions and keep them together in behalf of the war effort and the larger goal, which was to preserve the Union, and that he couldn't just dash off and do what the abolitionists said. I think basically he was a superb leader, and the more I study him the more I appreciate his qualities of leadership.
LAMB: I don't know that this is easy to answer, but if we were putting on a seminar and someone said, "We'll invite James McPherson to take up one side on an issue of controversy," who would be on the other side? In other words, where are the controversies for you in your life as you argue your point of view versus some other historian's point of view on the Civil War?
McPHERSON: If I were to take a controversial issue today, I guess it would be on the relationship between slavery and the coming of the Civil War and I would argue that slavery was at the root of what the Civil War was all about. If there had been no slavery, there would have been no war, and that ultimately what the Confederacy was fighting for was to preserve a nation based on a social system that incorporated slavery. Had that not been the case, there would have been no war.
That's an issue that a lot of Southern whites today find hard to accept. I'm not quite sure who would be on the other side on this issue. I think that, publicly, at least, most Southern whites -- at least most Southern white academic historians whom I know -- would agree with that. Perhaps the one person, not by name but a category that I could cite -- when Ken Burns’ series came out three-and-a-half years ago its emphasis in the first episode, which was on the causes of the war and it continued through much of the rest of the series, was on the role of slavery.
That encountered something of a hostile reception in the South, and I remember Newsweek did a cover story on the impact of this public television program. One member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is a very active group of Southerners to preserve the Confederate heritage of the Civil War, was very critical of the Ken Burns series for its emphasis on slavery. I think that point of view still exists very much in the South. I have seen debates on that. One of my former students debated on South Carolina public television that very issue, and they gave him a very hard time. He was a native South Carolinian, but I guess he'd been North too long. He teaches at the University of Illinois. There is that point of view still existing in the South today.
LAMB: By the way, in all your research on the letters, in what period of time did you do this actual research?
McPHERSON: I have been doing it off and on since 1987, and I have pretty much completed the research now. The heaviest concentration was in the year I was on leave in 1991 to 1992.
LAMB: You mention that the average age of the soldiers was 24 during the Civil War.
LAMB: What is that compared to today?
McPHERSON: I think in today's Army, or to take Vietnam, the last time we had a really large-scale army fighting a war but under a draft at that time, the average soldier was about 19, I think, in Vietnam. The age of 24, it may be about the same as today's Army, which, of course, is a long-service, professional army. But in Korea and Vietnam the average age was younger. The Civil War soldiers' average age compares about the same with World War II soldiers. The reason for that is that in such large wars -- World War II, the Civil War -- which mobilized most of the male population, your average age is going to go up. It's not being fought just by 18, 19 and 20-year-olds but people up into their 30s, because you need that manpower. It mobilizes a huge proportion of the society, so that would bring the average age up.
LAMB: Eighty percent of the soldiers in the Union Army voted for Abraham Lincoln in what year?
McPHERSON: 1864, when he ran for reelection. Yes, that's an extraordinary fact because back in 1860 when he ran for the first time, the opposition party got about 45 percent of the vote, and one can assume that that would include at least 40 percent of the men who could vote and then enlisted in the Union Army. So for the opposition vote to go down from 40 or 45 percent to 20 percent during the war means that this war experience really transformed the soldiers into supporters of Lincoln and his war aims.
LAMB: We're about out of time, but who is your favorite Confederate leader?
McPHERSON: My favorite Confederate leader? Well, I suppose that probably would be Robert E. Lee. In that respect I'm very conventional. I respect his values and his tactical ability as a Civil War commander.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. "What They Fought For: 1861-1865" is the title. Our guest has been James M. McPherson, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "Battle Cry of Freedom." Thank you very much.
McPHERSON: Thank you for having me
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