Book Review: Battle Cry of Freedom – The Civil War Era, James McPherson (1988)

Cuts “Lost Cause” Apologists Off At Their Knees. 

Just Read What These People Actually Wrote!

Living in the south, the Civil War is such a ubiquitous feature that you forget it’s there. Drive in any direction and there will be plenty of vestigials harkening back to the past. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the name of a street or high school, and sometimes it’s bolder, like a 60 feet memorial statue commemorating Robert E. Lee.

These remnants dotting the landscape beg the question of why leaders of a lost rebellion are being lionized. The answer is another omnipresent feature of Southern living: a reinterpretation and reframing of Southern history and culture. What you are seeing as you drive down a Jefferson Davis Highway past a Lee-Davis High is a physical manifestation of a mental mindset.

Photo Credit: A now toppled statue commemorating Jefferson Davis in Richmond, VA.

This mindset takes a constellation of themes and memes to rewrite what the Civil War was “really” about and attenuate the emphasis on slavery. This way of thinking is called “The Lost Cause.” In its heyday, it was a movement explicitly designed to recreate the power structure of the old South by intimidating newly freed slaves while giving white society a new rallying point after such a devastating war.

While originally a stout dose of frank racism, “The Lost Cause”  has morphed into a more pernicious form present day. No one is outright supporting slavery or race superiority, but they are saying:

  • That the civil war was about states’ rights.
  • That slavery would have ended itself without war due to economic unviability.
  • That Northerners were also racist but the South gets all the focus.

I was raised in such an environment. Given the current climate (discussion on systemic racism, George Floyd Protests, removal of confederate symbols), I wanted to really understand our history, my history, so I could position these things more rationally.

Photo Credit: StyleWeekly.  On Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, kids play basketball in front of the defaced Lee statue.


Everyone is a fan of Battle Cry of Freedom. I found out about the book because disparate people of different viewpoints could all agree on one thing: McPherson’s a helluva good historian. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fervent supporter, and he can be quite…caustic.

After reading, I have to agree. This books is phenomenal.

It is able to take on all the tough questions while answering them gracefully and tactfully.  No judgements here: just quotes and context to better understand how we got here today.

Just like you expect from a generalist book, it covers all topics from the quotidian life of mid 1800s to important battles. What really drew me in was the culture around the institution of slavery. It’s wilder and more indefensible than you could imagine.

Expansion, Not Just Preservation, of Slavery. 

Take for instance this lost nugget: Knights of the Golden Circle.

Elites didn’t just want to defend the institution of slavery, they wanted to expand it into Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to create a “golden circle” completed by the Southern States.

Photo Credit: Proposed countries in the “Golden Circle.”

While seemingly just a phantasmagorical desire, it was actually quasi-attempted: the South supported multiple campaigns using citizens as mercenaries to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, one of which was SUCCESSFUL. William Walker, a Tennessee man, became president of Nicaragua for a year before being captured by the Honduran government and executed.

There seems to be a little bit more than just “States’ Rights” at play here. 

We’d Rather Lose.

Nothing is more telling about the true purpose of the War than when the South started to lose. Scrambling for soldiers at the end of the war, Robert E. Lee proposed a bold idea: arming slaves and granting them freedom for service. Even while on the verge of collapse, the South clung to the institution:

The idea of freeing slaves who performed faithfully was based on the false assumption “that the condition of freedom is so much better for the slave than servitude, that it may be bestowed upon him as a reward.” This was a repudiation of “the opinion held by the whole South…that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the salve.”

The South painted itself into an epistemological corner. Their society was constructed on this one, ossified institution, and there was no wiggle room to even try and save the society itself:

“Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with the slaves,” said a Mississippi congressmen.


“If Slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

This moment is so important for disproving “The Lost Cause” narrative. It shows how deeply ingrained the institution was in their culture and purpose for fighting the war:

Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas “wanted to live in no country in which the man who blacked his boots and curried his horse was his equal.”

These people openly admitted that they would rather lose the war than lose their way of life. That’s how important the institution of slavery was to them:

“If such a terrible calamity were to befall us, we infinitely prefer that Lincoln shall be the instrument of disaster and degradation, than that we ourselves should strike the cowardly and suicidal blow.” – Lynchburg Republican Newspaper.


No quote can better put to rest the “The Lost Cause” narrative than this one. In regards to the question of black soldiers earning freedom in the south, this North Carolina newspaper reported:

“It is abolition doctrine…the very doctrine the war was commenced to put down,”

It’s out in the open for all to see. All you have to do is read it, and I can’t think of a better book to understand it than this.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Other People’s Takes: 

  • Books and Boots: It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.”
  • What I’m Reading Now: “The two decades since this Pulitzer Prize-winning history were written have only confirmed McPherson’s sagacity. The book blends a thorough understanding of the economic and political underpinnings of the war with insightful descriptions of military campaigns.”
  • Faith and History: “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book combined gripping prose with scholarly insight, a sense of wonder, and responsible moral engagement.  It’s a tour de force.