I once wrote in a review of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom that,
James McPherson is a master of prose and storytelling as evidenced in Battle Cry of Freedom. He has mastered the art that Shelby Foote noted many historians lack, that of telling history in a way ordinary men will read. However, for all his skills at penmanship McPherson makes several critical errors in Battle Cry, errors common to his generation. It is likely that the influence and ascendance of this work and the myriad of others in the same vein will be short lived in the realm of serious scholarship on the causes of The War.
James McPherson’s central theme within Battle Cry, in his words, “the multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed in the crucible of war”. His work is typical of most historians of his generation in that it rejects the thematic and topical analysis of events utilized by previous scholars.(PDF) Review of Battle Cry of Freedom. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325986945_Review_of_Battle_Cry_of_Freedom
My opinion of his worth as a historian has not changed. He is an accomplished storyteller but he is a man of his generation, he shares flaws common across most historians trained the 1960s. There was a trend, beginning after WWII and the collapse of the academic and political old right, to tell the narrative of the United States from a more left and decidedly more centralist point of view. Much of the discussion and scholarship in the first half of the 20th century had dealt with the examination of sectionalism, original intent, and states’ rights. In the 1950s and going into the 1960s the standard narrative was less comprehensive, looked less deeply for the complexity of issues that divided America in the mid 19th century and came more and more to talk just of “rebellion and slavery”.
While I admire his ability to tell a story, I remain unconvinced of his view of American history in the 19th Century. It was, therefore, extremely curious to learn that McPherson and other historians publically called out the New York Times for errors in their 1619 Project. It seems the NYT journalist, that is folks that went to school to tell stories and master the written word as opposed to the study and analysis of history, went too far afield in the ever-evolving new American narrative. Painting American history essentially as one long list of events designed exclusively to dominate and manipulate black folks. That was too much, even for folks like McPherson. You can view their letter to the NYT here.
I applaud McPherson and his partners in this effort. It is dangerous, increasingly dangerous, to speak out against anything of the radical agenda. oftentimes those that are punished the worst, canceled the hardest and suffer the most, are left-leaning folks that fail to toe the line or speak up when things go too far astray.
It has caused a bit of a stir on Twitter, with half-baked defenses, incompetent lemmings and false historians and journalists coming out of the woodwork to defend the NYT.