Guest Host: Frank Sesno

This 1868 drawing shows a man representing the Freedman's Bureau stands between armed groups of Euro-Americans and Afro-American. James McPherson explores the role of the Freedman Bureau  in his new book.

This 1868 drawing shows a man representing the Freedman's Bureau stands between armed groups of Euro-Americans and Afro-American. James McPherson explores the role of the Freedman Bureau in his new book.

One hundred and fifty years have now passed since the end of the civil war. Pulitzer-prize winning historian James McPherson argues that most of today’s pressing issues – from racial inequality and voting rights to state sovereignty – can be traced back to this war. In a new book, McPherson says it is impossible to understand most contemporary issues without understanding their roots in the civil war era. We look at the enduring legacy of the conflict that nearly destroyed the country.


  • James McPherson Author of "The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom," which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, and "Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief." He is professor emeritus of U.S. history at Princeton University.

Read A Featured Excerpt

Excerpted from “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” by James M. McPherson. Copyright 2015.Oxford University Press. All Rights Reserved.


  • 11:06:54

    MR. FRANK SESNOThanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno, creator of Planet Forward and director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She'll be next week. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson has been studying the civil war for 50 years. In his new book, he says he had no interest in the topic until one of his history professors was asked to testify before Congress on school desegregation.

  • 11:07:20

    MR. FRANK SESNOIt was revelation to him that an expert on southern history and the Civil War could counsel on such an important contemporary issue. The title of McPherson's new book is "The War That Forged A Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters." And James McPherson joins me now in the studio. Good to see you.

  • 11:07:37

    MR. JAMES MCPHERSONWell, thank you for having me.

  • 11:07:38

    SESNOIt is a great privilege to have you here. And let me just remind our audience at the outset that we'll be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. Certainly there are millions of people who are fascinated by the Civil War. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at Join us on Facebook or on Twitter. James McPherson, why does the Civil War still matter?

  • 11:08:05

    MCPHERSONWell, it shaped the nation that we are today in many important respects. Before 1861, there was really a contest in the United States about whether we were a federation of states with a weak national government that managed foreign policy and interstate commerce, but that primarily sovereignty resided in states. The Civil War changed all that. It made clear that succession from the United States was unacceptable. Its strength in the national government, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which grew out of the Civil War not only freed the slaves and granted them civil and political equality before the law, but also gave the federal government the powers to enforce these changes and by implication, the powers to enforce other aspects of national life.

  • 11:09:08

    MCPHERSONSo what turned out to be a rather loose federation of states, not a nation, but a union, was turned into a nation by the civil war and that nation was really defined not only by those constitutional amendments and by the strengthening of the federal government, but also because of the kind of society that we have become, a democratic, entrepreneurial, capitalist society triumphed in the Civil War over a plantation, agricultural society based on forced labor. It launched the United States into the modern era of democratic capitalism and assured, really assured, that the United States would become, eventually, the most powerful nation in the world.

  • 11:10:01

    SESNOAnd as you observe in the book, it took us -- we went from plural to singular.

  • 11:10:05

    MCPHERSONWell, that's right. The United States, before 1861, were -- the United States were a plural society. Now, the United States is a nation. And that was transformed. That was accomplished by the Civil War.

  • 11:10:22

    SESNOI want to talk to you about so much, including how the graduate student and you got -- became fascinated by this. But first and most immediately, just recently we saw these terrible riots and this dissent in Baltimore and we heard, again, about the unfinished business of race. This, too, is why the Civil War still matters 150 years later.

  • 11:10:49

    MCPHERSONYes. Well, race, of course, has been a constant factor in American history since the first slaves were brought here in 1619. Slavery was the issue that divided the country as early as the constitutional convention. Even before that, slavery was the issue that brought on the Civil War and at the core of slavery is the issue of race. The 13th, 14th and the 15th Amendments on paper, at least, assured equal citizenship, as well as freedom for the slaves, for the former slaves.

  • 11:11:25

    MCPHERSONBut it's one thing to put that on paper and it's another thing to accomplish it in real life and that has been one of the central themes of American history every since 1865 is the effort to put flesh and blood into those paper promises.

  • 11:11:43

    SESNODid you watch TV when Baltimore was burning?

  • 11:11:46

    MCPHERSONSome, yes. And (word?) I went back -- go back to the riots in the 1960s.

  • 11:11:52

    SESNOWhat was going through historian McPherson's mind as you were seeing that in 2015?

  • 11:11:56

    MCPHERSONWell, what was going through my mind in 2015 was that this is unfinished business. This is still the legacy of slavery, the legacy of racism in this country, the legacy of issues that grew out of the Civil War and we're still grappling with them and that's why, in so many ways, understanding the Civil War still matters.

  • 11:12:20

    SESNOSo how did graduate student McPherson become so fascinated by the Civil War? Did you grow up as a -- fixated on this?

  • 11:12:28

    MCPHERSONNo, not at all. I grew up in Minnesota. My high school years were, like many other young males, focused mainly on sports and on girls. Didn't really have any intellectual interests, seriously, but I was converted, I guess, to become interested in intellectual challenges in history in college by a couple of courses. One in the History of Western Civilization, one in American Civilization in the American studies program and I became convinced that I couldn't understand the world that I lived in unless I understood how it came to be that way and that was -- pushed me in the direction of studying history because the way in which we understand what we are today is to look at the processes by which we got to be that way.

  • 11:13:24

    SESNOAnd that famous professor of yours?

  • 11:13:27

    MCPHERSONWell, Steven Woodward was my graduate school advisor at Johns Hopkins University. He was the foremost historian of the American south. And I guess the reason that I went to Hopkins and studied with Woodward was that growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s, I was fascinated, but also mystified and horrified in many respects by the American south where I'd never been, never traveled there at that time.

  • 11:13:56

    MCPHERSONBut these were the years of the Montgomery bus boycott, the controversy over the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, federal troops being sent into the South. When I was in graduate school in Baltimore, which is a border city and was partly a segregated city when I was there, the civil rights movement was going on. And clearly, the origins of the racial situation in Baltimore and the United States in the late 1950s and the early 1960s had its roots in American history and especially in the civil war era and I became fascinated by the parallels or the similarities between the 1860s and the 1960s.

  • 11:14:40

    MCPHERSONConfrontation between the national government and southern political leaders who, in the 1960s, were still vowing what they called massive resistance to American Law. Federal marshals, federal troops being sent into the South to try to enforce national law in the 1960s. It was all kind of like deja vu. These things had happened earlier in a much more violent level, of course, in the 1860s, but it seemed like, you know, we were reliving the past and so I become fascinated by that aspect of the past that seemed to be so relevant to the present in which I was living.

  • 11:15:16

    SESNOAnd when you were in that present as a student, what was going on around you as the civil rights movement was beginning to churn and really boil?

  • 11:15:25

    MCPHERSONIn Baltimore, there were sit-ins in segregated restaurants, movie theaters. I remember joining black students from a local black college in Baltimore in picketing theaters that were segregated. Segregated in the sense that the blacks were forced to sit in the balcony. Sit-ins in restaurants and, of course, violent contribution -- confrontations, not in Baltimore. There was very little violence about it there, but on the eastern shore of Maryland, for example, and, of course, in Alabama and Mississippi and so on.

  • 11:16:03

    MCPHERSONSo I was growing up or coming to intellectual maturity, I should say, in the years I was in Baltimore from the time I was 21 to 25. And then, I think...

  • 11:16:16

    SESNOYou were growing up, as Rosa Parks was saying, wait a minute, I can sit anywhere on this bus I want.

  • 11:16:19

    MCPHERSONYes. Oh, absolutely. That was when I was in high school and...

  • 11:16:23

    SESNOYou remember that?

  • 11:16:23

    MCPHERSONOh, yeah. And college, I should say. Yeah, I remember it well, absolutely.

  • 11:16:28

    SESNOAnd that stuff resonates. I mean, the civil war and these times pop up repeatedly in our daily lives. Just last month, the Supreme Court heard a case about the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Tell us about that.

  • 11:16:40

    MCPHERSONWell, I think this is the Texas case where the Sons of Confederate Veterans protested the state of Texas prohibiting the use of the Confederate flag on state license plates. The Sons of Confederate Veterans talk about heritage, not hate, that the Confederate flag symbolizes an important part of their heritage and the heritage of the United States. But the symbol of the Confederate flag has often, I think, been used to inspire if not hate, at least clearly a kind of racist repression of black people.

  • 11:17:20

    MCPHERSONIt was prominently featured by the Dixiecrats in 1948 when they protested -- they left the Democratic Party because of the civil rights platform and the presidential campaign of 1948, because they believed in segregation. So the Confederate flag has carried many kinds of messages over time and that's another way of looking at the relevance of the civil war.

  • 11:17:48

    SESNOWe are talking with James McPherson. He is author of "The War That Forged A Nation: Why The Civil War Still Matters." We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about how the civil war and Abraham Lincoln helped to redefine what we mean in a simple word. Liberty. After this.

  • 11:20:00

    SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today. Our guest this hour, James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom. " His new book, "The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters." And James McPherson, thanks again for being with us. We will take your calls and questions for James McPherson and the Civil War or anything you'd like to ask him about at 800-433-8850. I don't know if he'll answer anything anybody wants to ask.

  • 11:20:27

    MCPHERSONI'll try.

  • 11:20:30

    SESNOOr you can send us an email at Join us on Facebook or Twitter. James McPherson, one of the most fascinating elements in your book to me is your discussion of how the Civil War redefined or defined what we mean by liberty in this country. Explain that.

  • 11:20:51

    MCPHERSONWell, I borrowed the concept from Isaiah Berlin of two kinds or two forms of liberty, negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty tended to predominate in early American history. To try to define the differences between negative and positive liberty, negative liberty means freedom from, freedom from interference by government with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to do what you want within certain limits.

  • 11:21:25

    SESNOAnd this would've been very important coming out of colonial times, when the king...

  • 11:21:29

    MCPHERSONYes, I mean, the American Revolution was fought in the name of, like, negative liberty, freedom from colonial control by Great Britain. We wanted self-government, freedom from an oppressive government. And that really dominated American history. Andrew Jackson, of course, vetoed the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States because he felt that it was restraining American liberty, it was imposing economic controls on America and so on.

  • 11:21:58

    MCPHERSONThe Southern states were strong believers in negative liberty because part of the liberty that they championed was the freedom to own slaves without the interference of the federal government.

  • 11:22:09

    SESNOSo they wanted freedom from the federal government.

  • 11:22:12

    MCPHERSONFreedom from the federal government interfering with their property rights to own slaves. And so they strongly believed in a weak national government, and they also believed in the sovereignty of the states, the ability of the states to control their social institutions from the threat of interference by the national government. And when Abraham Lincoln was elected president on an anti-slavery platform, that is a platform saying that the federal government could prevent slavery in the territories, from expanding into the territories, they saw this as a violation of their liberties and seceded from the United States and of course brought on the Civil War.

  • 11:22:56

    MCPHERSONThat process inspired a lot of people in the North to question this concept of negative liberty. If it's going to destroy the United States by enabling several states to leave the United States, if it's going to break up the country, maybe it was another time to take a look at liberty. And Abraham Lincoln became a champion of positive liberty.

  • 11:23:21

    SESNOAnd you have a quote from him the book that I would like to read.

  • 11:23:21


  • 11:23:23

    SESNOAnd this is, you quoted Lincoln as saying we all declare for liberty, but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing. With some, the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor, while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men's labor.

  • 11:23:43

    SESNOHere are two, Lincoln said, not only different but incompatible things called by the same name, liberty.

  • 11:23:49

    MCPHERSONYes, and Lincoln went on to illustrate his point with a parable, a story, which of course he frequently did. This was a story about the shepherd and the sheep and the wolf. The shepherd protected the sheep, especially if it was a black one, Lincoln said, from the wolf. The wolf saw this as a violation of his liberty to attack and eat the sheep. Lincoln as the shepherd was protecting the liberty of the sheep and violating the liberty of the wolf. This is what we define as positive liberty, the power exercised in this parable by this shepherd, in real life by Lincoln as commander in chief of a powerful army, which liberated the slaves, to protect the liberty of the slaves.

  • 11:24:44

    MCPHERSONThat's using power to protect liberty, whereas negative liberty saw power as the enemy of liberty, and of course in this case, the shepherd is violating the wolf's liberty but protecting the sheep's liberty, and that I think became one of the major results of the Civil War, the strengthening of national government to promote all kinds of liberty.

  • 11:25:14

    MCPHERSONOne of the illustrations that I use in the book is the question of freedom of the press. Usually this is regarded as a negative liberty, freedom from interference with whatever you want to read or write, but a nation of illiterate people doesn't have freedom of the press because they can't read or write anything.

  • 11:25:33


  • 11:25:35

    MCPHERSONTherefore the solution is to promote literacy, which takes education, which takes government, which takes social engineering, if you will. That's a form of positive liberty.

  • 11:25:46

    SESNOWhat's fascinating to me is that the core of this definition or debate over liberty was, in many ways, what drove that terrible conflict.

  • 11:25:53


  • 11:25:55

    SESNOAnd it resonates that distinction, that debate over liberty today. Witness the Tea Party and the conversation we were having the previous hour over whether the government should spend money on the rail system or not.

  • 11:26:05

    MCPHERSONAbsolutely. That contest between negative liberty is a major tension in American history, and it continues to be in our debates over what is the role of the federal government in promoting rail safety, if you will, or promoting social welfare, promoting civil rights. Does this interfere with the liberty of private enterprise?

  • 11:26:24

    SESNODid Abraham Lincoln make that connection beyond the question of liberty for human beings and the role of government in his day? Was he...

  • 11:26:34

    MCPHERSONYes, he did. He was -- before he became a Republican, he was Whig, and the program of the Whig Party in the 1840s, 1830s and 1840s, was to use the government to promote economic development, education. So even before the Civil War there was this sense, this concept that the government did have a role to play in American society, which was identified with the Whig Party, and the Whigs made up the core of the Republican Party when that party was formed in the 1850s.

  • 11:27:07

    MCPHERSONSo Lincoln did have a heritage of belief in the positive use of government to promote certain kinds of social and economic development and welfare.

  • 11:27:19

    SESNOWhat do you think Abraham Lincoln 150 years later, with an African-American, biracial man in the office that he occupied?

  • 11:27:29

    MCPHERSONWell, I think he would have seen this as...

  • 11:27:32

    SESNOWould he have said why did it take so long, or would he have said look how far this country has gone?

  • 11:27:36

    MCPHERSONI think he probably would have said mostly the latter because Lincoln was - he was a gradualist. He was not a revolutionary. He was kind of an evolutionary man.

  • 11:27:49

    SESNOHe sat on the Emancipation Proclamation for a while.

  • 11:27:51

    MCPHERSONWell, he did, although his - before the Emancipation Proclamation, which was an emergency war measure, he talked about gradually -- gradual abolition of slavery, which of course was the way that slavery had been abolished in the northern states in the generation after the American Revolution. That had not been for most of the states. A few of them abolished it immediately, but in most cases it was a gradual process.

  • 11:28:15

    MCPHERSONAnd Lincoln, before the Emancipation Proclamation, ideologically believed in gradual process of emancipation, whereas he once said blacks and whites in the South would live themselves out of their previous relationship, but it would take time. And so I don't think he would've been entirely surprised that it took so long, but I think he would've been grateful that it eventually happened.

  • 11:28:43

    SESNOWhile we're speaking and before I go to the phones, in all your study, in all the scholarship there is about this most remarkable American president, what strikes you or surprises you most to this day about Abraham Lincoln?

  • 11:28:58

    MCPHERSONI think what surprises me most or strikes me most about Lincoln is that while he had strong opinions and strong convictions, and he was a man of principle, at the same time he was a pragmatist in terms of how to get things done. He understood the art of the possible. He was strongly anti-slavery. He said is slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong, and I cannot remember when I did not so believe, going back to his childhood.

  • 11:29:33

    MCPHERSONBut at the same time, we are faced with a condition, not a theory, what are we going to do about the institution. We can't -- this is before the war, of course, and before the Emancipation Proclamation. We can't just, you know, snap our fingers and get rid of the institution. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, he realized that while legally slavery was now gone, its legacy would last for a long time.

  • 11:30:04

    MCPHERSONSo while he was a strong believer in principle as a leader, as a political leader, he was a master of the art of the possible, and the art of the possible is not going to happen overnight, and may never happen 100 percent. You may want 100 percent of some achievement, but the reality is that you're not going to get more than 50 or 60 percent, and I think Lincoln realized that, and that I think lies at the secret, at the basis of his political success and his success as a commander in chief in the war, too.

  • 11:30:44

    SESNOYou write about Reconstruction and the collapse of Reconstruction. You write about the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments as being products of the Civil War era, and we can continue on through the discussion about the Voting Rights Act that we're having even now today. This is a terrible question to ask you, but I'm fascinated by your potential response. If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated, how would those immediate days and years have cascaded forward, do you think?

  • 11:31:17

    MCPHERSONWell, we can't have a certain answer to that question, but one thing that I'm pretty certain of is that the events from 1865 to 1868 here in Washington in the federal government over the issue of Reconstruction, how are we going to bring these states back and how are we going to assure stability and civil rights, would not have happened, that led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and a bitter polarization between president and Congress that poisoned the whole atmosphere of Reconstruction.

  • 11:31:51

    MCPHERSONThat would not have happened if Lincoln had lived, and I think the course of Reconstruction would have been less fraught with violence, with conflict, with resistance in the South, with resistance -- with a poisonous atmosphere between president and Congress. The whole thing, I think, would've gone more smoothly. The ultimate outcome we can't know for sure, but I think it would've been a better process.

  • 11:32:16

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show," and we are speaking with James McPherson, author of this latest book, "The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters." If you'd like to give us a call, we'd invite you to do that at 1-800-433-8850. Send us your email question for James McPherson at Join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:32:38

    SESNOI'm going to go to the phones now, and we've got I believe Eric from Virginia on the line with us. Eric?

  • 11:32:45

    ERICHello, can you hear me?

  • 11:32:48

    SESNOWe can hear you, and thank you for being so patient and waiting.

  • 11:32:51

    ERICOh, okay, great. Hey, I also think, I mean, I agree with Mr. McPherson. I also want to say that I think Lincoln also had a sense of history, and I don't see that over the last 40 years with our presidents that I've lived through. They're doctors - I mean, they're lawyers, they're businessmen, but there are not historians. So I don't believe -- I believe they actually, one of the reasons we have the problems we do today, is because a lot of our leaders, they're lawyers and things that - but none of them are historians. They don't really understand our country.

  • 11:33:24

    SESNOSo are you saying you think that President McPherson here should run for president? Is that...

  • 11:33:28

    ERICActually, you're not going to - I was going to say that, actually. I was going to say, you know, if he ran, because I know who (unintelligible) is, that guy was brilliant. I read a couple of his books. And I'll take my answer off the air, but I do believe that a historian is much better prepared to be president than a lawyer or a businessman or anybody else, and I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:33:47

    SESNOThank you so much for your call.

  • 11:33:50

    MCPHERSONWell, of course Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. But I agree with the caller that he had a sense of history. It wasn't because he studied history in school. He hardly went to school at all. He one time -- he once said that he had a total of about a year of formal education, by littles, he said, a month here, a month there. But he was profoundly influenced by the experience of the American revolution and the founding of the country.

  • 11:34:20

    MCPHERSONLike many Americans of his time, he almost worshipped the founding fathers. And he -- that's why he started the Gettysburg Address with the words four score and seven years ago, our father brought forth on this continent a new nation. And for him what the Civil War was mainly about was preserving that heritage. But as he went on to say in the Gettysburg Address, giving that nation a new birth of freedom.

  • 11:34:50

    MCPHERSONSo clearly he had a sense of history. He had a sense that the Civil War was the great test, as he also said in the Gettysburg Address, whether a nation founded on that basis, all men are created equal, can long endure or will perish from the Earth. So even though Lincoln was a lawyer, as most American presidents have been, I think you're right that he did have a greater sense of history than many of our presidents have had.

  • 11:35:19

    SESNOMost politicians invoke history in one form or another. Do you think they understand it?

  • 11:35:23

    MCPHERSONI think that when many politicians invoke history, it's a kind of knee-jerk thing. It's a formal -- they know that invoking the founding fathers or invoking Lincoln or invoking or FDR or whoever it might be, Reagan, whoever it might be, whether it's deep history or recent history, it's a pro forma kind of thing, and I don't think they necessarily have thought through what they're talking about.

  • 11:35:49

    SESNOWho in your view in the presidency, just following on this question because it's quite interesting, was very historically aware?

  • 11:35:57

    MCPHERSONTheodore Roosevelt, for a starter, I think was. He was well aware of the historical legacy. I think his younger cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was, too, although not as profoundly as Theodore Roosevelt.

  • 11:36:15

    SESNOHarder for younger presidents, the Barack Obamas and JFKs, because that -- Theodore Roosevelt was a very young man, of course, when he was elected.

  • 11:36:22

    MCPHERSONThat's true, he was, but he was a gifted historian. I mean, he was president - Woodrow Wilson was, too. Both Roosevelt and Wilson were the only two presidents we've had who were also president of the American Historical Association. And Wilson, of course, was a trained historian and in political science. So he had a profound sense of history, as well. I would say the two Roosevelts and Wilson immediately come to mind as presidents who had a real historical awareness.

  • 11:36:52

    SESNOI think it would be helpful if the public had more of an historical awareness.

  • 11:36:55

    MCPHERSONOh absolutely. I mean, how can we understand the issues facing this country as citizens unless we have some kind of awareness of how those problems have evolved, how those issues have evolved over time?

  • 11:37:11

    SESNOWe are talking to James McPherson. He is the author of his latest book, "The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters." He traces it from the dark days of the 1860s through the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments and to so many of the issues that we see playing out today. When we come back, more of your calls, questions and comments for James McPherson, the renowned Civil War author, historian and scholar. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:40:01

    SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today, and my guest in this hour, James McPherson author of "The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters," his most recent book, of course. He's the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom," among so many others.

  • 11:40:16

    SESNOSo we've got emails and tweets and phone calls, and let's get the audience involved. Here's a tweet, interesting one, from Greg. Wasn't the Confederacy an enemy of the U.S.? So isn't the Confederate flag a flag against the United States?

  • 11:40:32

    MCPHERSONWell, that's quite true. In one sense, this was a war between two sovereignties, each with a national flag, and so the Confederate flag does represent the enemy of the United States. At the same time, Lincoln himself and most Northerners defined it not as a war between nations because they said that secession was illegal, that the Southern states had not left the Union, that it was a rebellion of individuals. And once this rebellion of individuals, even though they had organized an army, and they'd organized a political structure, then the states were still in the Union so that the flag was a false flag.

  • 11:41:22

    MCPHERSONAnd I mean, that's one of the paradoxes of the Civil War. It was both a war between sovereignties but also an internal rebellion. So it's -- and that, of course, that ambiguity affects the nature of the flag, as well.

  • 11:41:38

    SESNOTo the phones now, and we're joined by William in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hello, William.

  • 11:41:43

    WILLIAMGood afternoon, gentlemen, thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:41:45

    SESNOYou bet, go ahead.

  • 11:41:48

    WILLIAMThis is more of an observation than a question. I moved down here about 15 years ago from Ottawa, Canada, where I was born and raised, and I've always had a fascination with the Civil War. Until I moved down here and, you know, I saw my first Confederate flag hanging in someone's garage, and it really took me aback, that with the -- some sort of reverse culture shock, where it -- I was raised with every nationality and ethnicity imaginable, to come down here and see it pretty much black, white and Latino.

  • 11:42:14

    WILLIAMAnd this is Charlotte, which is a fairly progressive city for the South, but the tensions are still so prevalent here. You know, it takes me back sometimes.

  • 11:42:23

    SESNOJames McPherson?

  • 11:42:25

    MCPHERSONWell, clearly the legacy of the Civil War involves a sense of grievance, a sense of bitterness because of the loss of the war in the South. In many ways, some Southerners are still fighting it. They're fighting it vicariously because, of course, it's not a real war, but the fascination with Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and they're almost idols among many Southerners, I think has to do with the lost cause, a noble cause but one that was lost, but nevertheless it was -- they were right. Even though they lost, they were right.

  • 11:43:11

    MCPHERSONAnd that sense has persisted among many white Southerners whose ancestors were Confederates. I think that over time, that sense of the lost cause, that sense of grievance, that sense of idolizing the Confederate legacy, has diminished in the South. And even though the Confederate flag is still seen as a positive symbol by many, I think that's much less the case now than it was 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago, that a national -- a sense of national patriotism, a sense of national integration, has gradually grown over the last half-century or so in the South.

  • 11:43:58

    MCPHERSONAnd while the residue of this Confederate lost cause mentality still exists, I think it's a diminishing residue.

  • 11:44:05

    SESNOJoe joins us now from Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Joe, thanks for calling.

  • 11:44:09

    JOEHonor and a pleasure, Mr. McPherson. A couple of ideas, if I may. The Americans a lot of time like to define their freedoms and their liberties from the Revolution, but I think a big chunk of the population now define those things from the Civil War and still do. I live here in Louisville, on the Mason-Dixon Line, and there's a lot of still torn people here, as far - especially when you get into Kentucky, about those kinds of issues that started the Civil War to begin with.

  • 11:44:40

    JOEAnd you say that a lot of it is kind of subsiding. I have to disagree. All you have to do is look at Texas. They still, up until, well, today, talk about secession, and they have revisionist history down there. They're redefining the Civil War and what caused it and who was to blame for it. They scream and holler about the feds being on federal land - or excuse me, the Bundy guy that was down there, that was defending his property because the feds were trying to charge him for, you know, cattling, putting his cattle on their lands.

  • 11:45:11

    JOEAnd they had armed people, militias, coming out and confronting American people, I mean the troops and soldiers, people who are supposed to be keeping law and order. And then we have politicians here in the state of Kentucky. We have a senator here telling people not - that they do not have to abide by the environmental regulations that the federal governments are putting out, and that's kind of catching fire across the country. So I...

  • 11:45:36

    SESNOJoe, can you capture this in a question or so that...

  • 11:45:39

    JOEWell, I'm saying that Mr. McPherson may be wrong, that I think that the Civil War is still going on.

  • 11:45:47

    SESNOAll right, Mr. McPherson?

  • 11:45:49

    MCPHERSONI don't disagree that in many respects it's still going on over the very issues the caller has mentioned. All I would say about that is that this has been a constant. This is not just something that's grown up in recent years. It's happened before. The so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the Reagan years, for example, involved some of the same kinds of resistance not only in the South but also in the West to federal control of public lands. That goes back a long ways.

  • 11:46:17

    MCPHERSONThis has happened before, and I may be wrong that it's diminishing, but it's certainly new in our own time. As far as Texas and secessionist sentiment in Texas, what has always amused me about that is that former Governor Rick Perry was one of the advocates of the right of Texas to secede if it wants to at the same that, of course, he was running for president of the United States.

  • 11:46:46

    SESNOWell, history is rife with irony, as well, isn't it?

  • 11:46:48

    MCPHERSONYes, it is.

  • 11:46:50

    SESNOHere's an email from Murray in Pennsylvania. Could Mr. McPherson speculate on when the South would have given up slavery had they won the war? I can't imagine Southern senators, he rights, allowing the elimination of the institution that their forefathers had fought and died for. And of course this has as a companion, a little bit, the theory that in some that is no longer a very widely held one that the peculiar institution would have run its course economically, anyway.

  • 11:47:16

    MCPHERSONYes, that was a widespread conviction among historians back in the 1920s, '30s, even into the 1940s, that the Civil War was a needless war as far as slavery was concerned because slavery was dying out and would have died out on its own and without a war in a few years or maybe as many as a few decades without the Civil War. But historians I think have challenged that notion successfully in more recent years.

  • 11:47:47

    SESNODo you think it would have died out of its own?

  • 11:47:50


  • 11:47:50

    SESNOYou do?

  • 11:47:50

    MCPHERSONI don't think it would exist today, 150 years later.

  • 11:47:54

    SESNOWell, would that have been because of economic factors or social factors?

  • 11:47:56

    MCPHERSONEconomic factors but also cultural and social and political factors. But I think it's pretty clear that slavery was economically viable. It was not fading out in 1860 or likely to anytime soon. But whether it would have remained economically and politically and socially viable after, let's say, 1900, who can say? We can't be sure of that. My guess is that if it had not been for the Civil War, slavery would have lasted several decades longer, but clearly at some time in the 20th century, and we can't know exactly what would've happened, it would have, for a variety of reasons, I think, faded away, as it did in Brazil and Cuba in the 1880s, for example, in South Africa a little bit later after that.

  • 11:48:45

    MCPHERSONBut slavery in some societies continues to exist today, and so it's not as if slavery is somehow incompatible with a modern society.

  • 11:48:57

    SESNOHere's a question posted by Paul on our Facebook page, and he asks a pretty simple question. Could Mr. McPherson recommend a book on Reconstruction? We touched on Reconstruction, a fascinating time in American history.

  • 11:49:06

    MCPHERSONYes, and because we're now entering the sesquicentennial years of Reconstruction, I think we're going to see a lot more scholarship on that. I think the best single book on Reconstruction is still Eric Foner's book "Reconstruction: An Unfinished Revolution," which was published back in 1988, which now seems like a fairly long time ago, but I think it's still the best book.

  • 11:49:28

    MCPHERSONHe did an abridged version of this called "A Short History of Reconstruction." It was published in the early 1990s. And I think that's still the best single book for somebody who wants to -- an introduction to the subject. Eric Foner F-O-N-E-R.

  • 11:49:44

    SESNOIn your book, you talk a little -- quite a bit about Reconstruction and the election of 1876, which really kind of closed the book on it. But you also have a fascinating quote from the then attorney general, Ames, who was -- took the request for -- through President Grant, essentially, for troops to be sent to Louisiana, to New Orleans, if I'm not mistaken.

  • 11:50:09

    MCPHERSONTo Mississippi.

  • 11:50:09

    SESNOTo Mississippi, I'm sorry.

  • 11:50:10

    MCPHERSONActually, Ames was the governor of Mississippi who had requested the troops.

  • 11:50:10


  • 11:50:12

    MCPHERSONAlbert Ames.

  • 11:50:14

    SESNOCorrect, correct, correct, I'm sorry. But you have -- here's the quote that you got. The hope -- but the attorney general was writing to Ames, is what I was, sorry, was getting at. And the attorney general wrote the following. The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South, outbreaks of violence. And the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government, preserve the peace by forces of your own state. Let the country see that the citizens of Mississippi, who are largely Republican, can have the courage to fight for their rights.

  • 11:50:43

    SESNOIn other words, we're tired of this. Just take it off our hands.

  • 11:50:46

    MCPHERSONYes, well, that is -- the history of the 1870s and the Reconstruction is fascinating. Federal troops were kept in the South after the Civil War to try to enforce Reconstruction against violent Southern resistance by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, the Red Shirts and so on. And from the late 1860s into the mid-1870s, there were constant outbreaks of violence in the South, federal troops, federal marshals being sent into the South.

  • 11:51:24

    MCPHERSONAnd this became -- I think Northerners became sick and tired, many Northerners, of the whole process. And in 1873, there was a financial panic that created the beginnings of a major depression, the worst depression in American history so far, that lasted from 1873 until about 1878. And many people in the North said look, we've got all these problems with the economy, industrial violence, strikes in the North. We've got to deal with these problems. Let the Southerners work out their own problems. We're sick and tired of this.

  • 11:52:00

    MCPHERSONAnd I think that is an important reason for the eventual failure of Reconstruction to fulfill the promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

  • 11:52:09

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we are speaking with James McPherson, author of "The War that Forged a Nation." I want to go to the phones here, and Paul is calling in from Tallahassee, Florida, I believe it is. Hello, Paul.

  • 11:52:23

    PAULGood morning. Mr. McPherson, it's an honor to speak to you. I love your work.

  • 11:52:27

    MCPHERSONThank you.

  • 11:52:30

    PAULBeringer, Still, Jones and Hathaway. As a Southerner, my interpretation of their work is that it's an excellent recitation of the lost cause argument, and their contention that lack of willpower stemmed from a lack of a strong Southern nationalistic feeling, it's one, I think, that's backed up by Jefferson Davis' rash decision to fire on Fort Sumter. He recognized, I believe, that inertia alone was not going to be strong enough to hold the South together.

  • 11:53:00

    PAULYou do push the idea of contingency over the lack of willpower, and I understand why. Contingency holds a lot of valid points. I'm wondering primarily if you have reconsidered their work in the past couple of decades, or if you still hold that lack of willpower had very little in light of everything I said. I'll listen off the air. Thank you, sir.

  • 11:53:21

    SESNOThank you.

  • 11:53:22

    MCPHERSONI think I stick with my criticism of the Hathaway and Jones, et cetera, argument that lack of will explained Confederate defeat. The Confederacy suffered enormous casualties, enormous destruction in the course of four years of war but kept fighting. And Gary Gallagher's book "The Confederate War" I think sustains my argument that it was not lack of will, that the Confederates continued to fight on through hardships and reverses that would have forced many societies to give up.

  • 11:54:05

    MCPHERSONA part of the reason for that, I've done a book on Jefferson Davis as commander in chief several years ago, and Davis was a determined, he was a bitter-ender. He never wanted to give up. And I think that he actually managed to keep together a coalition to continue fighting this war, even after it was clear that the Confederacy was losing the war.

  • 11:54:30

    MCPHERSONAnd I think they did not give up until they were completely destroyed. It wasn't the will that was destroyed, it was the capacity to keep fighting. And I think I would stick with that thesis, pretty much.

  • 11:54:43

    SESNOWe have just a few minutes remaining, so I'm wondering if we can touch on a few things quickly. One is reparations. It's an issue that continues to come up. It's very controversial in many places. Many people feel very, very strongly about it. How do you view it?

  • 11:54:57

    MCPHERSONWell, as a practical matter I don't think reparations are ever going to happen.

  • 11:55:03


  • 11:55:03

    MCPHERSONPolitically, as a political, practical matter. I would also say that there already has been a form of reparations. We're talking about reparations for enslavement here. And somewhere around 400,000 Northern soldiers, 35,000 of them black, but most of them of course white, were killed in the Civil War. That was a steep price to pay. This is an awful lot of white people who paid, as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address, the last full measure of devotion to abolish slavery.

  • 11:55:43

    MCPHERSONThen, too, during Reconstruction, it was inadequate, it was far too small, but there were efforts to provide - the Freedman's Bureau, northern philanthropic societies that established schools for slaves, former slaves, in the South. Out of those schools grew some of the best institutions for higher education for blacks for many decades, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Howard University here in Washington and many others.

  • 11:56:17

    MCPHERSONSo there has been a payment, a cost, born by the United States and by white people for slavery that I think have been a form of reparations.

  • 11:56:30

    SESNOAnd of course many would say that's fine, but the job is so far undone, the sin was so deep, the scars so long-lasting that that still does not address the fundamental evil of slavery.

  • 11:56:44

    MCPHERSONWell, that's quite true, and I think that the government and the American people are therefore under a certain obligation to continue the effort to try to fulfill the promises of freedom and of equality.

  • 11:56:57

    SESNOLet me close this conversation in the next 30 seconds or so, which is all we've got left, unfortunately, to get your take on this moment. As we've said before, African-American in the White House, and yet the situation in Baltimore that reminds us how much work is left undone.

  • 11:57:11

    MCPHERSONWell, work is undone, and work will probably always continue to be undone. I think that any form of social issue in any society, American society or any other, is a work in progress. It's never going to be completely finished. And so we will face that work in progress indefinitely in the future.

  • 11:57:33

    SESNOSo 150 years from now, we'll still be having this conversation.

  • 11:57:36

    MCPHERSONWell, there'll still be social problems in this country 150 years from now, no question about that.

  • 11:57:40

    SESNOJames McPherson "The War that Forged a Nation." Thank you so much.

  • 11:57:42

    MCPHERSONThank you.

  • 11:57:44

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."

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