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.
on 5 January 2010
As a non-American reader, who knew precious little about the Civil War, I wasn't especially keen to read this book. But it was a truly enlightening experience, bringing a personal dimension to the key players at Gettysburg so effectively that I will never forget any of them. Riveting stuff. How well and absorbingly this is written. If you haven't read it, you are in for a real experience.
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.
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!
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.
on 21 July 2006
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).
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.
on 6 January 2015
Whilst being an excellent history book, the Kindle edition is appalling!
The maps/photos present a low resolution, blurred image of what is an essential resource towards understanding the written context. The book layout also suffers badly from being "Kindelised".
Do not buy!
on 29 February 2016
At first sight, this can be a daunting book; at nearly a thousand pages, it is a weighty tome. I knew very little about the American Civil War, and thought it about time to remedy that; after a bit of research, this volume seemed to fit the bill. Firstly, it's important to state that this book is NOT simply a military history of the conflict, although it naturally covers all the campaigns, battles and leading military figures. This is much more; it spends as much time explaining the lead up to the war, as it does the war itself. For me, not knowing a lot about American history in the nineteenth century, this proved fascinating, and necessary. I learnt a huge amount about the origin and mindset of various traditions and factions in America and some elements came as a complete surprise. Without this background, the war itself would have seemed a bit of a mystery.
The writing is always engaging, with enough detail to satisfy, without getting bogged down. The main personalities are well handled, with plenty of first- and second-hand testimony. My only real criticism is that the maps really should have been re-done for the Kindle version, as they are virtually useless (unfortunately this is a common complaint in many history books).
The American Civil War is the most written about event in American history, and many elements are still widely disputed and debated in the States today. As a non-American, I think this book makes an excellent, apparently objective, introduction to the subject.
This book - probably the best one-volume Civil War history - is more than a simple survey: it is a very strong literary work as well, beautifully written and balanced. For all 900 or so pages, I was completely absorbed. Never once did I glumly look at the last page and calculate the percentage of the book that remained. It is the ideal starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the most disturbing episode of American history, a stepping off point that is also a pleasure to read. Afterall, what other survey histories won the Pulitzer prize?
However, as a broad-brush history, I found myself quibbling with the author's choice of detail in the areas that I knew well. For example, I would have liked to see more coverage of the brutal race riots that occured in the Northern states, incidents that revealed extremely disturbing fault lines in race relations that persist to this day. By choosing to neglect this and other details, I felt that the author refrained from contemplating the deeper meaning of the war, even or providing the building blocks to do so. While interpretation is certainly not his primary task in a survey, it does get short shrift here.
Nonetheless, every American should read this book.