My Road to the Civil War

By McPherson, James M. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

My Road to the Civil War

McPherson, James M., The Wilson Quarterly

AS WE BEGIN MOVING THROUGH THE SESQUICENTENNIAL commemoration of the American Civil War, my mind returns to the time more than a half-century ago when I decided to become a historian of the Civil War era. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I did not have a youthful fascination with the war. When I arrived at Baltimore in 1958 for graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, I had not read anything specifically on the subject, apart from a couple of books by Bruce Catton. I had not taken a college course on the Civil War because my college did not offer such a course.

I had a vague and rather naive interest in the history of the South, in part because, having been born in North Dakota and brought up in Minnesota, I found the South exotic and mysterious. My senior year in high school, nine black students integrated Little Rock Central High School under the protection of the U.S. Army. I was well enough acquainted with history and current events to know that the constitutional basis for the black students' presence at Central High was the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the most important products of the Civil War. In retrospect, it seems apparent that this awareness planted the seed of my professional interest.

That seed germinated within days of my arrival at Johns Hopkins when, like other incoming graduate students, I met with a prospective adviser. Mine was C. Vann Woodward, the foremost historian of the American South, whose book The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) became almost the bible of the civil rights movement. My appointment was postponed for a day because Vann had been called to Washington to testify before a congressional committee about potential problems in Little Rock as a second year of school desegregation got under way. Here was a revelation: a historian offering counsel on the most important domestic issue of the day. If I had not seen the connection between the Civil War and my own times before, I certainly discovered it then.


That consciousness grew during my four years in Baltimore. The last two of those years were also the opening phase of the commemoration of the Civil War centennial. But that made little impression on me except for the initial events in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1961 when a black delegate from New Jersey's centennial commission was denied a room at the Francis Marion Hotel. In protest, several Northern delegations walked out of the events, boycotting them until President John F. Kennedy offered the integrated facilities at the Charleston Naval Base. This offer provoked the Southern delegations to secede from the national commission and hold their own events at the hotel. It all seemed like deja vu.

Apart from this incident, the civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations. These were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of massive resistance to national laws and court decisions by Southern political leaders, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and launched his "I have a dream" speech with the words, "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice."

It was these parallels between the 1960s and the 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, that propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I wrote my doctoral dissertation--which in 1964 became my first book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction--on the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists who followed through after the demise of slavery by working for civil and political rights and education for freed slaves. …

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