THE ILLUSTRATED BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM
By James M. McPherson
The Civil War is the American epic - a big subject that has always
encouraged deluxe treatment. I remember the movie Gettysburg clocking in
at over four hours. Ken Burns was told that an 11-hour documentary series on the
Civil War would never fly (even on public broadcasting!), but he stuck to his
guns and covered himself in glory (the subsequent Ken Burnsification of every
PBS documentary has been a less happy result of his success).
And then there are
the books! James McPherson refers to a few of his many heavyweight predecessors
in his Preface: Allan Nevinsís dual tetralogies, Bruce Cattonís three
volumes on the Army of the Potomac and three-volume general history, Douglas
Freemanís four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, and of course Shelby Footeís
classic three-volume, three-thousand-page narrative.
So the qualified praise for the original Battle Cry of Freedom as the
best "single-volume" history of the war (from the dustjacket of this
edition: "the best one-volume treatment of its subject," "the
finest single volume," "the best one-volume history," "the
finest compression of that national paroxysm ever fitted between two
covers") has a certain context. Battle Cry of Freedom is a great
book they all acknowledge - but how can any one book ever hope to . . .
And this is not only a history of the Civil War, but the Civil War Era. It is
easy to forget that it was commissioned as just one part of the 10-volume Oxford
History of the United States. McPherson takes off from the Halls of
Montezuma. The War was the historical event of his designated period, but
the whole tapestry of American political and economic life leading up to the
conflict is managed very well. The shooting doesnít even start for a couple of
hundred pages, and when it does the familiar battles and campaigns are presented
within a narrative framework that cross-cuts the military highlight reel with
analyses of important social themes.
This handsome new illustrated edition is both more and less than the
original. Whatís less is the complete disposal of any critical apparatus.
There are no footnotes or even bibliography available. The text has also been
pruned to about 80 percent of its original length. From a rough comparison it
would appear that a lot of what has been taken out are quotations from primary
sources. Nothing is missed, but that sense of immediacy with the past provided
by those contemporary voices has been replaced with over 700 illustrations (150
in colour): an entire library of photographs, lithographs, paintings, cartoons
Itís a fair trade. The pictures make an excellent accompaniment to the text
and provide more than just illustration. The contemporary photographs of the
battlefields (the Civil War would be the first photographed war, just as Vietnam
would be the first televised) are particularly valuable. The lengthy captions
also provide further information that adds a great deal to the text. Commodore Porterís technique of lashing water-soaked cotton bales
to the sides of his gunboats while running the guns of Vicksburg is only
mentioned in a caption, as is the famous
description of General Meade as an "old goggle-eyed snapping turtle."
There are times, however, when the captions also seem speculative and overdone
(on Farragut: "the thin lips and piercing eyes . . give evidence of his
grim determination"; on Breckinridge: "in the photograph we can almost
see Breckinridge's handlebar mustache twitching in anger"; on Grant:
"even this formal pose could not disguise the calm, unceremonious,
determined quality of his leadership").
The maps are the one disappointment. As any dedicated reader of military
history will tell you, maps are an essential part of the text. But the maps here
are less clear than the original black-and-white schematic diagrams. The
illustration style seems primitive and cartoonish, and the addition of colour is
not always a benefit. A single shade of blue is used to indicate water and
territory on one map. The different shades of red used for Confederate advances
and retreats are too similar to distinguish (there is a lack of consistency in
this as well, since sometimes a broken arrow is used instead of a different
colour). Maps that try to show complex troop movements over time take a while to
figure out. As in Footeís books, the best solution is to offer more, smaller
maps illustrating specific movements.
"Hundreds of books about the conflict pour off the presses every year,
adding to the more than fifty thousand titles on the subject that make the Civil
War by a large margin the most written-about event in American history."
And that's from the Preface to the first edition, 15 years ago. Still, McPhersonís work is likely to keep its place as the standard one-volume
history for some time yet. And though itís pricey, The Illustrated Battle
Cry of Freedom does provide a powerful new combination of text and
And of course itís very, very big.
Review first published online October 21, 2003.