Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War / Ken Burns's the Civil War: Historians Respond / Lee the Soldier

Infantry, January/February 1997 | Go to article overview

Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War / Ken Burns's the Civil War: Historians Respond / Lee the Soldier


Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. By James M. McPherson. Oxford University Press, 1996. 253 Pages. $25.00.

Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond Edited by Robert Brent Toplin. Oxford University Press, 1996. 204 Pages. $24.00.

Lee the Soldier. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher. University of Nebraska Press, 1996. 620 Pages. $45.00. Reviewed by Dr. Charles E.

White, Infantry School Historian.

These books illustrate three reasons why popular interest in the American Civil War endures. Each is a collection of essays, lectures, speeches, and special studies in short form that have not become books. Most works like this never reach more than a limited audience. Fortunately, James McPherson, Brent Toplin, and Gary Gallagher have provided Civil War enthusiasts with three examples of fine historical research and writing.

After reading the collection of 15 essays in Drawn With the Sword, one can easily see why McPherson is widely recognized as one of America's most distinguished students of the Civil War era. These essays attest to the originality, sweeping range, and compelling views of their author. All but the final essay have been published before. Nevertheless, McPherson has revised and updated these, adding the 15th lo give his book "thematic coherence."

McPherson begins by dismantling several old arguments: that the South was truly a distinctive region; that Harriet Beecher Stowe's controversial novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had a real impact; and that the North was the aggressor by forcing the South to fire the first shot. The author then addresses the effects of the Civil War on American society and discusses why interest in this truly first "total" war continues even today.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of this book is in the section titled "Why the North Won," in which McPherson examines the reasons for Northern victory. Among the most thoughtprovoking essays is "Lee Dissected," in which the author presents the most objective evaluation of Robert E. Lee to date. While not denying Lee's splendid battlefield success, McPherson maintains that "Lee's victories prolonged the war until it destroyed slavery, the plantation economy, the wealth and infrastructure of the region, and virtually everything else the Confederacy stood for. That was the profound irony of Lee's military genius." In short, Lee more than any other Confederate leader was responsible for the ruination of the South.

This book is James McPherson at his best. For those seeking a book that combines a summary of recent scholarship on the Civil War with the brilliant insights of a master historian, this is clearly the one to read.

Another superb work is Toplin's edition of Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond. In 1992, Burns's documentary The Civil War captivated American audiences and made television history, breaking all viewing records for a Public Broadcasting Service series. Indeed, more than 40 million people saw the series, more than the populations of the Union and the Confederacy combined.

Because this documentary mav have represented the best modern American example of film's potential lo to teach history on a mass scale. historians wanted to hold Burns's production lo high scholarly standards. Thus. before tile haunting "Ashokan Farewell" ceased to echo in the cars of those who watched. …

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