Touring the Battlefields

Article excerpt

On a splendid late October day in 1996, Jim McPherson and I rode our bicycles through the battlefield at Cedar Creek. The battle of Cedar Creek, the last major encounter of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, had taken place in an October one-hundred-and-thirty-two years earlier, just weeks before the presidential election. Union General Philip H. Sheridan won a smashing triumph over Jubal A. Earle's Confederate army. Sheridan's victory, coming as it did just before Northern voters cast their ballots, buoyed Union morale and helped guarantee Abraham Lincoln's reelection.

On the battlefield that long-ago day, there had been a striking change in momentum. Early's soldiers had driven much of the Union army from the field in morning assaults, only to collapse in the face of Northern counterattacks late in the afternoon. Over the years, a variety of writers had accused Early of losing his nerve, haling his men, and trying to hold onto initial gains rather than pressing his advantage. Jim and I had discussed whether that had been the case, and we hoped a close examination of the ground would illuminate this and other questions relating to the battle.

This was our third such bicycling excursion in Virginia. We previously had gone to Brandy Station, scene of a cavalry action during the initial stage of the Gettysburg campaign, and to Petersburg, where we logged about fifty-five miles to examine the siege lines held by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864-65. We found the rides to be useful in assessing military leadership and working out tactical details impossible to coax out of written accounts or maps. We also discovered that the rides inspired fruitful exchanges about connections between military campaigns and other dimensions of the war.

We spent our first hour at Cedar Creek traversing some gently rolling ground before reaching a part of the field where the road rose sharply. Jim pulled well ahead as I labored to match his pace. I reached the crest of one ridge to find him surveying a spectacular view. The green bulk of Massanutten Mountain loomed immediately to our south, the north fork of the Shenandoah River wound its way across our front, and the landscape appeared much as it had to Union and Confederate soldiers. Out of breath as I pedaled up to Jim, I announced that I found climbing the hills very taxing. "It's good for you," he said, and set off to examine more ground.

That moment captures much about Jim McPherson. He possesses an unshakable dedication to improving his understanding of the past as well as a muscular work ethic. He was determined to explore as much terrain and consider as many questions as possible at Cedar Creek. By the time I collapsed in my motel room that evening, we had ridden more than thirty miles and discovered a good deal about the battle's tactical ebb and flow. The immense scale of the battlefield stood out sharply (it encompasses more than a dozen square miles), as did the obstacles Early's soldiers faced. The Confederates had marched all night to get into position for assaults at dawn and fought for several hours before Early halted the action. We decided that exhaustion among the Confederates, at least as much as any timidity in Early's leadership, helped explain why the Southern force lost its edge.

There were few indications in Jim's early career that suggested that he would become a serious student of Civil War military history. The Civil Rights Movement and the influence of C. Vann Woodward, his mentor in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, shaped his early work. Jim's first four books, published between 1964 and 1975, explored abolitionism, emancipation, race, and civil rights and anticipated the work of other scholars in the I 980s and I 990s who focused on the centrality of black Americans to the national upheaval of the mid-nineteenth century.

Jim eventually moved to a broader Civil War canvas and in 1988 published Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which became the most widely read modem history of the conflict. …