Civil Strife

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Review of 'Crossroads of Freedom', James M McPherson, Penguin £7.99

The first years of the 21st century, just like the second half of the 20th, have been dominated by the world's only remaining superpower - the United States. James McPherson has become the great chronicler of the birth pangs of the US, the American Civil War.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom McPherson managed to lay out all the political, economic and military complexities of the civil war in an accessible single volume. This was quite an achievement. Many of the thousands of volumes written on the civil war have gloried in its military intricacies, leaving the war as the preserve of certain military 'experts'.

In Crossroads of Freedom McPherson looks at one of the turning points of the conflict, the battle of Antietam. The battle was the climax of the Southern Confederacy's first invasion of the North. Victory for the South would have meant recognition and military support from Britain and France - it would have meant the preservation of slavery.

The battle came as the Northern Federal government led by Abraham Lincoln was on the verge of defeat. The North had suffered a series of defeats. Many of its military leaders, such as McClellan, the North's military commander at Antietam, openly opposed Lincoln's government. Increasingly Lincoln moved towards the position of radicals like black leader Frederick Douglass, who believed that to win the war the North had to take off the 'kid gloves'.

The South's economy depended on slavery. Only by attacking this engine of Southern power could the North prevail. Lincoln had drafted an 'emancipation proclamation', but believed he needed a military victory to clear the political ground for such a radical move.

On 17 September 1862 the two armies met. It was to be the bloodiest day in American history. Six thousand soldiers died at Antietam, more than twice as many as died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Thousands more soldiers were wounded or maimed.

The South's defeat ended all talk of foreign intervention and gave Lincoln the political confidence to announce the 'emancipation proclamation'. The proclamation helped turn the conflict from a war to re-establish the union into a revolutionary struggle to smash the slave power. The process was so revolutionary that by 1865 some 200,000 blacks, most of them ex-slaves, were in Federal uniform. This would have been unimaginable when war began.

While McPherson paints the big picture of what Karl Marx described as a 'battle between two social systems', he also gives us a view of how the war was experienced by ordinary people. Beside the voices of military and political leaders like Lincoln, Douglass and Lee we hear ordinary soldiers and civilians. McPherson shows us how the outcome of huge struggles like the civil war depend on the political motivations and courage of flesh and blood human beings, not just blind social forces or the actions of great leaders.

For anyone who wants to understand the power of the US in the modern world and the struggles of race and class that have shaped its history, the civil war is a good place to start. And McPherson is a good author to start with.