Interview notes with Dr. James McPherson (Author, Pulitzer Prize recipient, Ph.D. in History)

Interviewee: LtCol H. R. Rawlings

DTG: 191000OCT18

REF: Civil War History


On November 19th, 2018 I was honored to interview one of the most eminent historians of the Civil War, Dr. James M. McPherson. What follows is a written interview engaging Dr. McPherson on several topics concerning Civil War study with the intent to spur on amateur students of the Civil War and to inform the various Military colleges and academies that use the Civil War to instruct their officers.

            Dr. McPherson is the George Henry Davis Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University. He received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. McPherson was the president of the American Historical Association in 2003, and is a member of the editorial board of Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr. McPherson received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1963, where he studied under the famous historian Dr. Comer Vann Woodward. Dr. McPherson is the author of twenty-two books and over thirty scholarly works on the Civil War and the eras that preceded and followed the Civil War.


Question #1: What lessons should combat leaders draw from the Civil War?

LtCol Rawlings:

            Dr. McPherson, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed on the Civil War. I have a long love affair with the Civil War and have read your books over a period of many years in college and during my service in the Marine Corps. I hope you will enjoy the exchange as much as I know I will! The questions I offer, but especially your answers, are intended to engage new students of the Civil War or those Civil War buffs looking for some new angles. I am certainly not a Civil War scholar, so I’ll just ask you to treat me kindly if my questions are not up to par.

            One of your most acclaimed works, Battle Cry of Freedom, is known for its excellent writing style and deeply engaging view of the civil war. It also won the Pulitzer Prize! However, in my mind it has a special place because it has occupied ‘Hallowed Ground’ on the Commandant’s Reading list, and therefore was read by many a Marine while studying the profession of arms, or before bearing arms “in many climes and places.” So your words shaped many Marines’ thoughts on leadership in combat and the history of our nation. If you were to speak directly to some of these Marines today, what lesson(s) on leadership or conflict from the Civil War must they know before they themselves go to war?  What items do we forget the Civil War can teach us that are relatively timeless or perhaps an adjunct to war and people at war?

Dr. McPherson: 

“Combat leaders should strive to avoid two defects illustrated by McClellan, Lee, and to some extent Grant: A)  Don’t overestimate the enemy and thus take counsel of your fears instead of your opportunities.  McClellan did this repeatedly, notably in the Peninsula campaign and at Antietam, where he estimated the number of enemy troops he faced at double and even triple their actual numbers, and therefore missed key opportunities to take the offensive.  He took counsel of his fears rather than his opportunities. He was afraid to take a calculated risk. B)  Lee, on the other hand, was too willing to take risks and did not accurately calculate the odds he faced.  He underestimated the enemy.  He got away with this at Chancellorsville and elsewhere, but came a cropper at Gettysburg.  Grant also sometimes underestimated the enemy and took risks he probably should not have–at Cold Harbor, for example.  Grant also focused too exclusively on what he intended to do to the enemy and neglected to consider what the enemy might do to him–most notably at Shiloh.”

Question #2: What battles or campaigns should we study from the Civil War?

LtCol Rawlings:

In giving his review of the book, Hugh Broun of the New York Times said Dr. McPherson “knows how to use precise details to bring the past, even the over familiar past, to vivid life again.” For some of your readers who are attending the many service schools or academies, are there any particular battles/campaigns/operations you recommend they study closely? Either because of their impact on history or a particular aspect of tactics or strategy that is compelling?

Dr. McPherson: 

“I would suggest Shiloh and Gettysburg as two campaigns that would reward close study, Shiloh because most of the soldiers on both sides had not fought a major battle before, and thus provide a study of what green troops could or could not be expected to do.  At Gettysburg, by contrast, most soldiers on both sides were veterans who had experienced at least a year of operations and combat, and the tactics of offense (Confederates) and defense (Union) were complex, involving both frontal and flanking assaults and the shifting of troops from one sector to another to fill potential gaps.”

Question #3: How does will or morale directly affect battle?

LtCol Rawlings:

So my next question is from your “Blues” chapters, Chapters 15 and 22 in Battle Cry of Freedom. Here you show the clear juxtaposition of the changing ‘wills’ or ‘morale’ in battle. At first, Rebel morale at Chickahominy, then with the change in the tides of war, Federal morale at Chattanooga. What do you believe were the impacts of willpower, morale or motivation on the battlefield in these two periods? (or others?) How were they relevant to the fighting?  Or to the battles that followed in the war?

Dr. McPherson: 

“Clearly the high morale of the Confederates in the Seven Days and of the Yankees, especially the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga (where they believed they had something to prove after Chickamauga) were major factors in helping each overcome what appeared to be strong odds.  I believe it was Napoleon who said that morale was the most important factor in battle, and these two battles certainly illustrated that truth.”

Question #4: What battles were instrumental to the war in a larger context besides Gettysburg?

LtCol Rawlings:

You are known for your talks at Gettysburg, and for many, this “High Water Mark” remains the seminal battle, for many and varied reasons. The Army and the Marine Corps still take students to the Gettysburg battlefield to study and reflect. If you had your druthers, what battlefields, perhaps those that are lesser known, might the student study instead or in addition?

Dr. McPherson: 

“I have already mentioned Shiloh, especially since the battlefield today has such a high degree of “integrity”–i.e., the terrain and vegetation is almost unchanged from 1862.  Chickamauga is another battle that repays study because of its complexity and the role of miscalculations, misunderstood orders, disobeyed orders, brilliantly exploited opportunities, and heroic stands by the likes of Rosecrans, Polk, Longstreet, and Thomas.”

Question #5: What aspects of Gettysburg demand deeper study?

LtCol Rawlings:

Gettysburg remains one of my favorite battles to study. Are there pieces/parts/components of that battle that every history buff should really know to better understand that battle? Are there any locations at Gettysburg that we shouldn’t miss when visiting? And or any tidbits lost to history?

Dr. McPherson: 

“When I give tours of Gettysburg, I take the groups to all of the usual places and talk about the usual suspects–Lee, Meade, Ewell, Howard, Reynolds, Longstreet, Chamberlain, Pickett, etc. etc.  But I also go to Culp’s Hill (which many tourists miss) and talk about the vital performance of George Greene’s brigade and especially of David Ireland and the l37th New York in preventing a Confederate breakthrough on the evening of July 2, a neglected part of the battle well worth studying.”

Question #6: Why did Lee lose at Gettysburg?

LtCol Rawlings:

There is sometimes a lot of focus on General Lee at Gettysburg, the fact that he decided to attack at that specific location, time and with the army he had at hand. That he attacked on that day with less than full supply and even though he was generally more of a (Clauswitzian style?) defender, and that he did so without his cavalry. Why do you believe he broke many of his own tried and true battlefield paradigms to fight those days in July?

Dr. McPherson: 

“I think that Lee was overconfident and committed the error of underestimating the enemy.  I have called this the “Chancellorsville syndrome”–i.e., he had won against what he thought were even greater odds at Chancellorsville, and he was confident he could do it again.  At Chancellorsville Jackson had rolled up the Union flank on May 2 and Stuart and Lee had broken their center on May 3; at Gettysburg Longstreet had at least pushed back the Union left (and Lee overestimated the degree of his success) on July 2 and Lee thought he could repeat the Chancellorsville success on the Union center on July 3.”

Question #7: What about the era of the Civil War is worthy of further study?

LtCol Rawlings:

I’ll end with an open-ended question since you are respected not just for your knowledge of the Civil War and its battles, but more importantly for the era as a whole. What are some of the most important items before, during, or after the war that we laypeople should know about the time that deserve further mention or study if we want to gain a better appreciation of the era?

Dr. McPherson: 

“I suggest that a study of the effort during Reconstruction to bind up the nation’s wounds and achieve a peace that restored a united nation with justice to both whites and blacks in the South should be part of a study of the war. Clausewitz taught us that war was the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means; Reconstruction was a continuation of the Civil War by other means, by an attempt to insure the results of the war by policy.”

Excellent! Thank you very much, Dr. McPherson, for your time and your insight. I am not alone in declaring that your perspectives on the Civil War continue to keep us  engaged in issues that echo loudly today.

Semper fi,

LtCol Rip Rawlings

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