This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

By James M. McPherson | Go to book overview

Preface

IN 1917 THE BRITISH PACIFIST Viscount John Morley made an astonishing avowal. Writing in the midst of a war that would create many new pacifists, Viscount Morley declared that the American Civil War had been “the only war in modern times as to which we can be sure, first, that no skill or patience of diplomacy would have avoided it; and second, that preservation of the American Union and abolition of negro slavery were two vast triumphs of good by which even the inferno of war was justified.”1

I don't know whether Viscount Morley ever read Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, but his words provide an uncanny echo of Lincoln's message. “Both parties deprecated war,” said the American president in 1865, but nevertheless “the war came.” After four years of it both sides prayed that “this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” But if God willed that it continue until the scourge of war wiped out the scourge of slavery,“the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”2

The essays in this book address the questions raised by Morley and Lincoln. Why did the war come? What were the war aims of each side? What strategies did they employ to achieve these aims? How do we evaluate the leadership of both sides? Did the war's outcome justify the immense sacrifice of lives? What impact did the experience of war have on the people who lived through it? How did later generations remember and commemorate that experience?

During more than forty years of research and writing about the Civil War, I have tried to come to grips with these questions. The chapters that follow reaffirm some of my old interpretations but also offer several new ones. Old or new, my conclusions suggest additional questions that I hope readers will ponder, perhaps arriving at judgments different from mine. I welcome disagreement and dialogue, for that is how scholarship and understanding advance.

-ix-

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