The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom

By James M. McPherson

The Civil War is the American epic – a big subject that has always encouraged deluxe treatment. I remember the movie Gettysburg clocking in at over four hours. Ken Burns was told that an 11-hour documentary series on the Civil War would never fly (even on public broadcasting!), but he stuck to his guns and covered himself in glory (the subsequent Ken Burnsification of every PBS documentary has been a less happy result of his success).

And then there are the books! James McPherson refers to a few of his many heavyweight predecessors in his Preface: Allan Nevins’s dual tetralogies, Bruce Catton’s three volumes on the Army of the Potomac and three-volume general history, Douglas Freeman’s four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, and of course Shelby Foote’s classic three-volume, three-thousand-page narrative.

So the qualified praise for the original Battle Cry of Freedom as the best “single-volume” history of the war (from the dustjacket of this edition: “the best one-volume treatment of its subject,” “the finest single volume,” “the best one-volume history,” “the finest compression of that national paroxysm ever fitted between two covers”) has a certain context. Battle Cry of Freedom is a great book they all acknowledge – but how can any one book ever hope to . . .

And this is not only a history of the Civil War, but the Civil War Era. It is easy to forget that it was commissioned as just one part of the 10-volume Oxford History of the United States. McPherson takes off from the Halls of Montezuma. The War was the historical event of his designated period, but the whole tapestry of American political and economic life leading up to the conflict is managed very well. The shooting doesn’t even start for a couple of hundred pages, and when it does the familiar battles and campaigns are presented within a narrative framework that cross-cuts the military highlight reel with analyses of important social themes.

This handsome new illustrated edition is both more and less than the original. What’s less is the complete disposal of any critical apparatus. There are no footnotes or even bibliography available. The text has also been pruned to about 80 percent of its original length. From a rough comparison it would appear that a lot of what has been taken out are quotations from primary sources. Nothing is missed, but that sense of immediacy with the past provided by those contemporary voices has been replaced with over 700 illustrations (150 in colour): an entire library of photographs, lithographs, paintings, cartoons and sketches.

It’s a fair trade. The pictures make an excellent accompaniment to the text and provide more than just illustration. The contemporary photographs of the battlefields (the Civil War would be the first photographed war, just as Vietnam would be the first televised) are particularly valuable. The lengthy captions also provide further information that adds a great deal to the text. Commodore Porter’s technique of lashing water-soaked cotton bales to the sides of his gunboats while running the guns of Vicksburg is only mentioned in a caption, as is the famous description of General Meade as an “old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.” There are times, however, when the captions also seem speculative and overdone (on Farragut: “the thin lips and piercing eyes . . give evidence of his grim determination”; on Breckinridge: “in the photograph we can almost see Breckinridge’s handlebar mustache twitching in anger”; on Grant: “even this formal pose could not disguise the calm, unceremonious, determined quality of his leadership”).

The maps are the one disappointment. As any dedicated reader of military history will tell you, maps are an essential part of the text. But the maps here are less clear than the original black-and-white schematic diagrams. The illustration style seems primitive and cartoonish, and the addition of colour is not always a benefit. A single shade of blue is used to indicate water and territory on one map. The different shades of red used for Confederate advances and retreats are too similar to distinguish (there is a lack of consistency in this as well, since sometimes a broken arrow is used instead of a different colour). Maps that try to show complex troop movements over time take a while to figure out. As in Foote’s books, the best solution is to offer more, smaller maps illustrating specific movements.

“Hundreds of books about the conflict pour off the presses every year, adding to the more than fifty thousand titles on the subject that make the Civil War by a large margin the most written-about event in American history.” And that’s from the Preface to the first edition, 15 years ago. Still, McPherson’s work is likely to keep its place as the standard one-volume history for some time yet. And though it’s pricey, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom does provide a powerful new combination of text and illustration.

And of course it’s very, very big.

Review first published online October 21, 2003.

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