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This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War.

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. By James McPherson. (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 260. $28.00.)

James McPherson brings his considerable expertise on all things Civil War to bear in this far-ranging collection of sixteen essays. The result is a compact but very useful introduction to the current state of several significant topics in Civil War historiography that will be useful to a variety of readers.

The book is organized into five sections: "Slavery and the Coming of the War," "The Lost Cause Revisited," "Architects of Victory," "Home Front and Battlefront," and "Lincoln." Each section contains between two and six essays, with "The Lost Cause Revisited" getting the greatest attention. Three of the essays are completely new, while the others are revised versions of articles and chapters that McPherson has published elsewhere. Portions of seven of the updated chapters first appeared as essays in the New York Review of Books, but those earlier efforts have been combined and substantially reworked with new material, with the end result being more valuable contributions in terms of understanding the current state of Civil War scholarship.

McPherson adeptly moves from military history, to social history, to political history in a way that few of his peers can match, summarizing arguments and raising important questions no matter what the subject. He does so throughout the volume in the context of recent scholarship, discussing significant books in some detail and linking them together as appropriate. His essays on Jesse James and the outlaw's place in history, the Lost Cause and its efforts to shape school curricula in the decades after the war, and the importance of military leadership provided by Boston Brahmins are particularly interesting, especially in the latter case where McPherson decides that his 1997 thesis in For Cause and Comrades might be in need of some revision.

There are three new essays in this collection. McPherson's discussion of Lee's motives for the Gettysburg campaign and Grant's rise in the West cover well-traveled ground, but his analysis of Abraham Lincoln's use of executive power in wartime stands out for its originality. The topic is certainly driven by events of our time, but McPherson manages to provide essential historical perspective without politicizing the subject. This is a nuanced essay, one that explores the boundaries of executive authority both in terms of how far past the norm Lincoln pushed it and the limitations that he simultaneously placed on himself. It provides useful food for thought and may be the essay most likely to provoke scholarly response.

Identifying a target audience for this collection is not as easy as one might think. This reviewer finally concluded that this was a book he wishes he had been able to read at the beginning of his graduate studies. It certainly helps to know something about the Civil War before starting it, but the real value is in the exposure it provides to a number of critical subjects in Civil War history. As such, nonspecialists and junior scholars will find it very useful, and one might profitably assign it to undergraduate courses.

Kurt Hackemer

University of South Dakota

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Author:Hackemer, Kurt
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:525
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