Pulitzer Prize History of Civil War. BOOKS

Article excerpt

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA

by James M. McPherson, New York: Oxford University Press, 904 pp.,

$29.95 cloth, Ballantine paperback $14.95

TWO and a half months before the presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote in a brief memo to himself: "It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected." Then he went through a ritual of sorts: without showing what he had written, he asked his Cabinet members to sign the backside of the sheet. Next he sealed the document and "pasted it up in so singular style," to quote his secretary John Hay, "that it required some cutting to get it open." That cutting open in a Cabinet meeting did not take place until Lincoln had been reelected.

In another five months the war was over, the North victorious. Then the bullet of John Wilkes Booth sealed Lincoln's fate - and also his reputation as the greatest president in American history.

But Lincoln had been an astute politician, and his judgment in the late summer of 1864 about the great likelihood of his defeat was sound. Had the presidential elections taken place in August, the "Savior of the Union" and the "Great Emancipator" would be known to history as one of the worst American leaders, an eloquent but tragic fool. The United States - and the world - would be a very different place today.

What channeled history in the course we do know was a change in the fortunes of war. As Sherman battered at the gates of Atlanta, Jefferson Davis replaced his tenacious Gen. Joseph Johnston with the brash John Bell Hood. In short order thereafter, Atlanta fell. Simultaneously, Jubal Early's Confederates, who had reached the outskirts of Washington earlier that summer, were destroyed by Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, as was much of the valley itself.

The North was again willing to carry on with its terrible burden and reelect Lincoln. No wonder his Second Inaugural Address spoke of "the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends...."

History, James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" argues, often hangs by a thin thread. He calls this "contingency."

"At numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently," he writes. The crisis of 1864 is only one of several such critical moments McPherson depicts. Earlier, in the summer of 1862, the Northern Army of the Potomac reached within five miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond, and in the West, too, the Union seemed on the verge of triumph. Vigorous counter- offensives, however, helped the cause of Southern independence. …