BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA
by James M. McPherson, New York: Oxford University Press, 904
$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
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. …