James McPherson’s “Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the Civil War”

James McPherson is my favorite Civil War historian.  Those familiar with McPherson might assume the cause of my affinity lies in McPherson’s fondness for the Union cause.  But to say McPherson is pro-Union is like saying St. Thomas Aquinas was pro-Catholic.  Both canvass a wide field of inquiry, both speak with conviction, but conviction accompanied with a sober and careful mind.  Admittedly, an ardent pro-Confederate might not be amused.  But like any good scholastic, McPherson respects his opponent.

Drawn with the Sword is not one continuous book, but a collection of essays on a few different topics.  The most interesting section for me dealt with the broad picture issues of whether the North won the war, or the South lost it.

McPherson points out that how we frame the question will tell a lot about our perceptions of the conflict.  I have never been a fan of the view that the South lost due to the overwhelming resources of the North.  In general I fear explanations that allow you to transfer blame, and I also feel we should have antennae up when people attempt to avoid reality via romantic escapism.  Truly sometimes I feel that a minority of Confederate sympathizers are subconsciously glad they lost, for it allows them to dream of the “lost cause.”  This romance can be preserved in part because of their defeat, because their society never really had to face reality in full.

McPherson makes it clear that the South could have won the war, and in his opinion almost did in late 1862 and again as late as the summer of 1864.  Any look at a map of northern and southern territory shows that the Confederacy had certain key advantages, namely, a huge amount of territory for the North to conquer.

I have always thought that a Russian style tight-knit defense-in-depth would have served the Confederacy much better than what they actually attempted.  But the whole concept of state sovereignty forced them to spread their forces out which robbed them of a key advantage.  One might say the inherent logic of their system worked against them without “dooming” them.

McPherson gives at least a partial counter to this.  First, he notes that, however much the South may have been forced by their cultural values to a strong border defense , this would not in itself hurt them.  If the North penetrated their lines they could always let them pass through and then fall upon their rear.  One might think of Marius in the battle of Aquae Sextae, or Patton’s comment about the Nazi offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, where he said that we could let the Nazi’s advance, leading them by the nose so to speak, and then turn and kick them in the rear (it was Patton, so you might guess the quote’s not exact!).  So a strong border defense in his view was not foolish per se.  Reasons for their defeat lie elsewhere.

Second, he argues that the South came close to winning.  He defends Lee against critics that argue that his “Virginia-centrism” and his two main offensives into Northern territory cost the South the war.  Virginia was an important theater, and one where the success they had almost gave them recognition from England.  Furthermore, the relatively narrow confines between the two capitals minimized the territory the Confederacy had to defend, and thus minimized the North’s physical advantages.  Lee, he argues, did not pursue a strategy doomed to fail.  He chose a strategy that could have, and almost did work.  Again, we must look elsewhere for reasons for the North’s victory, or if you prefer, the South’s defeat.  McPherson quotes General Pickett, who when asked why the Confederacy lost, remarked, “Well, I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

McPherson throws out his own opinions here and there, but mostly he forces his readers to follow an ever-widening game of ping-pong, where the ball bounces back and forth between different ideas and perspectives.  McPherson is that rare Civil War writer that can make studying the period enjoyable, as opposed to merely emotionally draining.