Book review: ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ is the first book I have read on the Civil War. It is described as ‘the best single volume’ about the civil war, and despite my lack of reference material, I am inclined to agree. Reading this book has been an eye opener, since my knowledge of the Civil War was very limited prior to picking up this book. The book starts at the end of the Mexican war and concludes some time after Appomattox.

I used to think the Civil War was all about slavery, but came to understand that that was a gross over-simplification. James McPerson in his epilogue states: “Union victory in the war destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured that the northern vision would become the American vision. Until 1861, however, it was the north that was out of the mainstream, not the South.”

Both sides were fighting for their definition of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. The south held on to pre-1860 social conventions, the north was breaking through those conventions, albeit, grudgingly, as Lincoln felt he could not outright announce his ‘Emancipation Proclamation’, but felt he could only do it after a large Union victory (the battle of Antietam), when the people would be in high spirits.

Even if the North did not step into the war with the idea of liberating over four million slaves, this issue became the central one of this bloody war. What surprised me were the huge amounts of people, particularly in the North, that were very much opposed to granting the enslaved black population their freedom, for different kinds of reasons. Especially just before the 1864 elections (when Lincoln feared he would loose to Democratic candidate George McClellan, who would be pushing for peace negotiations with the South had he won), peoples attitudes were very much turning away from Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. The republican party even considered replacing Lincoln with another candidate. Of course, then Sherman captured Atlanta and Lincoln won with a landslide, but what became clear to me is that for many Northern people granting slaves their freedom (and later on equal rights with the white population) was still a touchy subject, over which people weren’t always quite sure. Of course it took another 100 years before the 14th and 15th amendment were finally taken more seriously.

James McPherson did an excellent job bringing the civil war to life, with and exciting narrative and many quotes from the people who lived the Civil War. It was a joy reading its almost 900 pages, and brought me a greater understanding of this important event in US history. An event that shaped the country into what it became, as many foundations were laid during this time, which would have been impossible had the Southern states not seceded from the Union. This gave the Republicans a majority in government, whereby they were able to pass many important bills and legislature that would have been impossible if many Southern representatives had still been there. Many of those acts enabled the United States federal government to become empowered for the first time since its independence from Britain in 1776.

I highly recommend this book to anyone slightly interested in learning more about the Civil War of America. It has wetted my appetite for more. That’s for sure!

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