Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is a 1988 book on American history by professor and historian James M. McPherson. McPherson, one of the foremost experts on the Civil War that took place between 1861 and 1865, synthesizes the social, intellectual, and economic factors that catalyzed the violent national schism between the North and South. The book is the sixth installment in a series called the Oxford History of the United States. For its depth of analysis, the book earned a Pulitzer Prize.
Though the Civil War officially lasted for less than five years, Battle Cry of Freedom covers two decades of American history, spanning from the outset of the Mexican-American War to the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox. McPherson refers to this period as the “Civil War era,” contending that the causes of the war cannot be fully represented on a smaller timeframe. He seeks to contextualize the Civil War within the political, social, economic, and military developments of the mid-1800s. McPherson casts the pre-war years as a time of intense ideological division and violence. Nevertheless, he argues, few American citizens believed that a civil war was actually imminent. The likelihood of war, for many Americans, did not come in a single revelatory moment, but gradually increased through the 1850s and 1860s.
Aside from its historical analysis of the years leading up to the Civil War, Battle Cry for Freedom comprises a social analysis of the public’s sentiments about American principles, especially freedom, in the mid-1800s. McPherson argues that ironically, both the North and South claimed to care about the same basic freedoms; their different, fervent interpretations of these freedoms caused them to conflict. The freedoms Americans wanted included a transparent and open democracy, a republican model of government, rule by the majority, and free elections. The South perceived the American Revolution as a struggle that stemmed from colonists’ yearnings to sever themselves from British tyranny. Likewise, the South viewed the Civil War as an attempt to secede from tyrannical Northern rulership. Conversely, the North sought to reaffirm and evolve the principles of the rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution. These two different orientations towards American history informed the North and South’s distinct attitudes towards the state of the Union in the nineteenth century.
Battle Cry of Freedom is a compelling portrait of the American public’s divided sentiment in the decades leading up to the violent outbreak. While acknowledging that the Civil War was a blight on American history, McPherson remains sympathetic to both the North and South, which strove for the same democratic ideals which birthed the United States.