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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Penguin history)
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100 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2002
I read this book around 8 years ago, and my opinion hasn't changed: if you're only going to read one book on the American civil war make it this one!
Mr McPherson's achievement is nothing short of miraculous, he encapsulates every aspect of the civil war from the political and social factors to the personalities involved, and some tremendous military details, the descriptions of the battles are so engrossing you can almost smell the gunpowder wafting off the pages. It's remarkable that he can cram so much detail into 900 or so pages and make it all so absorbing and readable.
But what really sets this great work apart in my opinion are two things:
1. The wealth of first hand accounts, from contemporaneous letters of all the soldiers private to the most famous generals, politicians and ordinary members of the public. These all contribute to make the war seem far more alive and real, it may have happened 140 years ago but when reading this book you'll sometimes feel like it happened yesterday.
2. The wealth of fascinating little details that puts the history into context, I quote a typical example "The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944", I just plucked that one at random from my well thumbed copy here.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on 28 August 2006
This is one of the finest historical volumes I have ever read on any subject. McPherson's strengths are are threefold: firstly his research is astonishing in its detail and expertly referenced, secondly he writes with wonderful clarity and linguistic dexterity, and thirdly he remains passionately impartial about his subject. The only weakness I can think of in this superb work is the extremely poor quality of the maps and diagrams some of which are nearly illegible, responsibility for which rests with the publisher (Penguin). Those seeking an easy read focusing primarily on the famous battles of the Civil War might be better off looking elsewhere (such as the Osprey volume "The American Civil War"), because while McPherson does cover military matters extensively, he is at least if not more concerned with an analysis of the political and social climate surrounding them and in this respect his book must surely stand out as an astonishingly well researched and scholarly work. Which is not to say that this book is anything other than a compelling read - despite the wealth and density of detail, Macpherson writes with elan and lucidity for over 850 brilliant pages. Thoroughly recommended, even if you will need at least a week of solid reading to get through it!
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 31 May 1999
James McPherson has done an outstanding job of condensing the story of American Civil War into 900 just pages. The book details not just the war itself, but the crucial events that led the South to cesession. As the author uses a narrative style throughout, the book is easy to read and is in no way dry, as many historical accounts can be. I knew virtually nothing about the American Civil War before I read this book but now I can tell my Butternuts from my Copperheads with no problem. If you are looking for an introductory work on the American Civil War look no further. This is it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 March 2012
Overall, an excellent book. The prose is crisp and really manages to synthesise so many aspects of the conflict into a rolling narrative. It's likely you will find yourself reading in 100 page plus chunks, which is pretty good going for subject material which could have been on the dry, academic side (I wish David Glantz would take note!). This book works even better (in my humble opinion) if you read as a companion to Ken Burns' "The Civil War" film documentary.

A few criticisms, however - the battle / campaign maps are UTTERLY useless - I don't think I have seen worse - minute, font size must be about 0.5, black, dark grey and slightly less grey symbols on a (you guessed it) grey background is not going to help anyone. Some of the tiny maps compound this by having even smaller map inserts. I know there's not a lot you can do with A5 sized books, but currently reading Manstein by Mungo Melvin, who manages to have clear, legible colour campaign maps in a book the same size.

It may be a complaint which a lot of US readers wouldn't have, but a larger scale map showing how the cities, rivers, states and valleys actually sit with each other in terms of overall geography would have been really useful, but I suppose you could just say "buy an atlas!".

Might be a bit on the niggly side, but the paper quality is really poor, too.

The text alone easily merits 5 stars. The presentation (which I am guessing isn't really down to the author) is pretty ropey.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2004
As a visitor to the USA, I was surprised at how much Civil War literature there is. However, it should be remembered that more Americans died in that war than in all other wars in which Americans have ever fought put together, and its effects on the USA linger to this day. Moreover, it was the first modern war and the shape of the First World War could be discerned for anyone willing to look. For an introduction to the Civil War, I find it hard to believe that this volume could be bettered. Not just a battle by battle account, it sets the scene of the preceding years, with the issue of slavery like the viper in the bosom of the USA right from its inception and the rise of the Republican Party and its first president Abraham Lincoln with its mildly abolitioinist platform (the Republican Party has fallen a long way since then!). The language is crisp and clear and the whole thing flows easily and comprehensibly in a style of which many novelists would be envious. If you want a good one-volume overview of this critical episode in the history of the world, look no further.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I came to this book as a Brit who knew little or nothing about the American Civil War and it certainly did its job for me. The wealth of detail is facinating, the analysis of the reasons for the war illuminating and the conclusions explaining the victory of the North are coherent and convincing.

I came to a realistion of how important the American Civil War was. How different the world would be today had the South prevailed.

It also depressing how little we seem to progress, for example in terms of atrocities committed, how different was the American Civil war to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

Two complaints were 1) I found the temporal progress of the war a little difficult to follow at times, i.e. which events were occurring simultaneously and 2) in my paperback edition the maps are basically unreadable.

One piece of advice for non-US readers, make sure you have a detailed map of the US to hand while reading.

Definitely recommended
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" is a remarkable synthesis of the most important event in American history into a single volume. True with the copious bibliography, list of sources and a long index it stretches to nearly a thousand pages but not one leaf is wasted. Whether it is the ideal starting point for anyone just approaching the history of the Civil War is debatable but the book is so well written it is in any case a pleasure to read and particularly after watching Ken Burns brilliant PBS series "The American Civil War" it manages to provide a huge amount of greater detail and analysis.

The opening chapters are particularly strong on the wars origins from the aftermath of the Mexican War, the hotbed of "Bleeding Kansas", the Lincoln Douglas debates and of course John Brown's famous raid on Harpers Ferry where ironically the US army officers putting down his "rebellion" were the later stalwarts of the confederacy the dashing cavalry commandeer J.E.B. Stuart and the mercurial military genius of the South Robert E Lee. Once the war breaks out the main characters are expertly portrayed by McPherson. Despite his best effort to present General George. B. McCellan who was Lincoln's infuriating commander of the Army of the Potomac in an objective light the exasperation points are reached quickly not least on the capture of Lee's battle plans prior to Antietam and McCellan's failure to act on the intelligence. Certainly the General was good at preparing his army for battle but waging it was another matter entirely. McPherson also presents a nice counter balance to the Burns series which could on occasions be rather Virginia Theater centric. Grant and Sherman's campaigns in the Western Theater are given much more prominence with the fall of Vicksburg ranking alongside Gettysburg in military importance. Indeed because of this focus McPherson is able to highlight a much rounder picture of both sides. For example when it comes to Cavalry commanders, the Ken Burns series is one sided and almost hero worships the likes of JEB Stuart, Wade Simpson and the "Wizard of the Saddle" Nathan Bedford Forest. McPherson shows however how the admittedly less skilled horsemen of the Union quickly caught up not least with Benjamin Grierson's dramatic raid through Mississippi providing a massive underpinning to Ulysses S. Grant's successful Vicksburg Campaign and later the integral role of James H. Wilson in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign and in his 1865 Alabama raid where he "outmanned and outgunned Forest's horsemen".

Ultimately you are predictably struck throughout McPherson's narrative about the immense role of Abraham Lincoln who as a human being and politician was clearly one of the finest Americans to draw breath. Despite some of the hagiography of Lincoln he was also a politician with guile and ruthlessness plus a pragmatic genius surrounding the art of the possible. Looking back on the great tribulations he faced as a wartime leader you are constantly struck that it would almost be impossible today for any politician to maintain Lincoln's stoicism and leadership in adversity particularly the pressure he faced during the disasters of 1862. Nevertheless in the dying months of the war and with victory in sight Lincoln delivers his defining second inaugural address on March 4, 1865 which amounts to the greatest ever given and touches pure poetry. Away from high politics the book is also peppered with nice anecdotes and stories. What a joy it would have been to be present to witness a former black slave recognise his former "master" amongst a group of Confederate prisoners and proudly announce "Hello Massa, bottom rail on the top dis time". Please check out the "Battle Cry of Freedom" it is history on a grand scale written by a master in the genre. It will also prepare you for the wonders of the late Shelby Foote's huge Civil War trilogy particularly if you desire to overdose on this fascinating historical period.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a scrupulously fair examination not only of the conduct of the war, but also the political, social, financial, industrial, ethnic (etc etc) background to the conflict. He praises the bravery of rebel soldiers, the genius of Confederate commanders such as Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee; he describes how the South was at an enormous disadvantage, with its comparative lack of factories, railroads, arsenals and other industry necessary to waging war. Also, tellingly, he NEVER ONCE moralises about the 'Peculiar Institution' of slavery, merely presenting the opinions of almost every political/geographical group, from Southern Democrats to Northern No-Nothings.

As for his absurd and naive charge that this is a cobbling-together of others' research - words fail me. As the author explains in his bibliographical note, there is a slew of literature on the American Civil War; indeed, after Jesus and Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about person in the English language. The author has obviously pored over thousands of primary sources AS WELL as other people's work. The reviewer below has obviously been influenced by the extensive footnotes, which often explain to the reader where that research has come from and gives advice for further reading on the issue being discussed. The achievement of Mr McPherson to simplify and synthesise this enormous range of works is quite phenomenal. There are histories of the Civil War that run to ten or more volumes - this is a mere 880 pages.

And what a read! McPherson the narrator writes with such a lightness of touch that you barely know he's there. His language and style are deceptively simple, never grating. The story flows seemlessly; even quite complicated issues of 19th Century American politics are handled with a clarity that makes things clear even to someone (like me) with little knowledge of the subject.

This is, quite simply, a magnificent achievement. If you are interested in the USA, the Civil War, military history, warfare in general, or just interested in a rattling good read, I wholeheartedly recommend 'Battle Cry of Freedom'. (As, indeed, does almost everybody else on this page, save one).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2013
Very good book, very readable.
Only after about 250 pages does the Civil War actually start. Until then you get a good insight of th US before the cicil war and understand why it all started.
What I really like is the way the autor seems to understand the readers way of thinking. Just when I think: "How come that decision was made?", the next chapter answers my question.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I bought Battle Cry of Freedom a few weeks ago to feed a rekindled interest in the American civil war. It is without doubt a detailed and thorough piece of research and well written. However for my purposes and level of interest it is far more detailed particularly in the political sense leading up to the war itself, indeed as one reviewer points out, it does not lead into the start of the war for almost 300 pages. Again my casual interest is not so great as to want to know all the events and figures leading up to the war so this book became slightly weary and not the book for me.....But I am persevering. I should have picked a simpler publication. My fault, no criticism of the author, the writing style or the other reviewers who are far more academic that me! If you are looking for an easy read without too much of the whys and wherefores then this is probably not for you either!
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