Yesterday we posted a Q&A with James McPherson about his new book. This Mighty Scourge. Today McPherson takes a look at the Civil War as the “central defining experience shaping…the United States.” Be sure to check back tomorrow for McPherson’s essay about President Lincoln.
This Mighty Scourge begins with a quotation from Viscount
John Morley, a British pacifist writing in 1917 during the bloodiest war ever experienced by his country. England’s horrendous casualties in World War I turned a whole generation of Britons into disillusioned pacifists, especially in the 1930s when the precarious “victory” won by Britain and its allies seemed to have turned to ashes with the rise of Hitler in Germany. Students at Oxford and other English universities signed the notorious “Oxford Pledge” to refuse to fight for king and country in any future war. Given this mood, Viscount Morley’s reference to the American Civil War is especially startling. He described it as “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.”
The essays in This Mighty Scourge explore the themes suggested and implied by Viscount Morley: what caused the war, and why could it not have been avoided; were the preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery worth the cost; how were these results achieved; how have Americans and people elsewhere understood and evaluated the issues and consequences of the war? In the 1930s a number of American historians–the “revisionists” whose interpretation is discussed in the first essay–argued that the war should have been avoided and that its results were not worth the cost in lives and resources. In a sense, they were American counterparts to the British students who took the Oxford Pledge. But just as those students forgot their pledge and went to war against the Nazis in 1939, so most American historians now see the Civil War as the central defining experience shaping the institutions and values of the United States–for better and for worse, but mostly better. This Mighty Scourge tries to explain why this is so.