November 12, 2003,
For more than 15 years, there's been a single book that every Civil War buff must own: Battle Cry of Freedom, by James M. McPherson. Yes, I like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote quite a bit, in fact. I also have a complete four-volume set of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. My bookshelves creak beneath the weight of these volumes and others by William C. Davis, David Herbert Donald, Douglas Southall Freeman, Margaret Leech, Stephen B. Oates, Stephen W. Sears, and Jay Winik to pick just a few.
But the most important of all is McPherson's 1987 classic. It's simply the best book on the general history of the Civil War.
Don't take it from me. Listen to what the reviewers said when Battle Cry of Freedom first came out. New York Times: "The best one-volume treatment of [the Civil War] ... It may actually be the best ever published." Washington Post: "The finest single volume on the war and its background." Philadelphia Inquirer: "Immediately takes its place as the best one-volume history of the coming of the American Civil War and the war itself."
So how do you make it better? Add pictures!
This month, Oxford University Press releases The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom. Whereas the original book included some photos on a few glossy pages, the new one contains about 700 cartoons, woodcuts, and paintings. To make room for all this, writes McPherson, "we have abridged the text to about 80 percent of its original length." The footnotes are also gone, as is a helpful bibliographic essay that can point readers in the direction of authoritative books on specific topics. Despite this trimming, the new book is physically heavy. Unless you want to strain your arms while you read, you're probably better off relaxing with the paperback.
But then The Illustrated Battle of Cry of Freedom isn't really the same book as the first edition. It's a distinct creation full of features not found in its predecessor. All those graphics are worth the separate price of admission. Here are a few highlights:
First of all, it's not just that the pictures are well chosen; they're also well captioned. Here's nifty piece of descriptive writing that accompanies an image of Abraham Lincoln: "This photograph was taken in Macomb, Illinois, a day before Lincoln's second debate with Douglas in Freeport. Lincoln could scarcely be considered handsome; he joked that he was the ugliest man he had ever known. The beard that he decided two years later to grow filled out his face but could not conceal his large ears."
A stereoscopic photograph of John Breckinridge doctored by a contemporary to make the pro-slavery politician look like Mephistopheles, much as a kid today might deface a picture to make its subject look like he's got devil horns, bug eyes, and missing teeth.
McPherson's marvelously concise putdown of Union general Benjamin Butler, in a caption: "as a military leader he proved to be a good politician."
Side-by-side pictures that reveal an important Civil War subplot simply because they're placed next to each other: "The tired, lugubrious countenance of Simon Cameron and the determined, confident mien of Edwin M. Stanton speak volumes about their respective performances as secretary of war. Lincoln replaced Cameron with Stanton in January 1862 because in ten months on the job Cameron had made a mess of things; in cleaning up the mess Stanton did not make himself popular with war contractors, but he got the job done."
A photograph of a Confederate "Quaker gun" i.e., a phony cannon meant to trick Union generals. I'd heard of these before but hadn't seen a picture of one until turning to page 297 of this book.
An excellent Winslow Homer painting of a northern sharpshooter, sitting in a tree and gazing down the barrel of his gun.
A photo of dead Union soldiers at Gettysburg by Alexander Gardner (a Mathew Brady protégé): "Note that all of the feet have been stripped of their shoes by needy Confederates."
A woodcut of sickly Union POWs released from Confederate prisons. With toothpick arms and washboard chests, they look like they've survived Nazi concentration camps. Writes McPherson: "They fed the growing northern outrage over conditions in southern prisons. As in all times and places, the press tended to portray the extreme as typical."
I could go on, but by now you get the point: The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom presents an outstanding set of images that will enrich anybody's understanding of the Civil War.
ON CIVIL WAR MAPSA final word on maps: The ones in the illustrated edition are similar to those from the first edition, though they're in color and a bit more artistic. In terms of the information they convey, however, they're basically the same and entirely serviceable. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time looking at Civil War maps, including those in another McPherson book, The Atlas of the Civil War, and I still haven't seen any to match the wonderful battle scenes in the American Heritage picture history of the Civil War, first authored by Bruce Catton and updated in a new edition several years ago by the ubiquitous McPherson. Granted, these are perhaps best described as pictures rather than maps think of a fascinatingly detailed Where's Waldo page, but without the goofiness though their purpose is the same: to show readers how battles ebbed and flowed across distances and over time. Looking back on the American Heritage pictures, I see now that they aren't the most accurate things going, because the scales are impossible to render with real precision in a small space. But I also remember staring at them for hours as a kid. More than anything else, they sparked my interest in the Civil War.
Which means that if you don't already own a copy of the American Heritage book, perhaps you should get one and put it right next to The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom. After all, if you're going to have a Civil War library, you're going to need more than one book.