“Battle Cry”

I’m almost done with “Battle Cry of Freedom”, which is the fourth installment of the Oxford History of the United States. The book focuses on the Civil War, and like its predecessors, seamlessly flips between macro/strategic and micro/personal insights. McPherson did his homework and dug up some incredible quotes. This northern soldier’s account of battle is the most poignant I’ve ever seen:

“We heard all through the war that the army ‘was eager to be led against the enemy’ “, he wrote with a nice sense of irony. “It must have been so, for truthful correspondents said so, and editors confirmed it. But when you came to hunt for this particular itch, it was always the next regiment that had it. The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree-trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg-shells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way. Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness.” But when the order came to go forward, his regiment did not falter. “In a second the air was full of the hiss of bullets and the hurtle of grape-shot. The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion—the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.”

Two pages later, McPherson describes the impact of Antietam on northern morale, diplomatic relations with Britain, and Lincoln’s strategy.

I’ve toyed with writing a review of one of these volumes, but commenting on flawless works seems to be a fool’s errand. Anyone with a remote interest in history should read this, “Empire of Liberty”, and “What Hath God Wrought”. (The Revolutionary War version was too dry for my taste but seems to have good ratings overall.)

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