ew other questions in American history have generated more controversy than “What Caused the Civil War?” That conflict preserved the United States as one nation, indivisible and abolished the institution of slavery that for more than four score years had made a mockery of American claims to stand as a republic of liberty, a beacon of freedom for oppressed peoples in the Old Word. But these achievements came at the great cost of more than 629,000 lives and vast destruction of property that left large parts of the South a wasteland. Could this terrible war have been avoided? Who was responsible for the events that led to war? Could the positive results of the war (Union and Freedom) have been achieved without war? How have participants in the war and historians answered these questions over the five generations since the war ended?
James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University and 2003 president of the American Historical Association. Widely acclaimed as the leading historian of the Civil War, he is the author of Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (a New York Times bestseller), For Cause and Comrades (winner of the Lincoln Prize), and many other books on Lincoln and the Civil War era.
McPherson, a pre-eminent Civil War scholar, is widely known for his ability to take American history out of the confines of the academy and make it accessible to the general reading public. His best-selling book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1989. He also has written and edited many other books about abolition, the war and Lincoln, and he has written essays and reviews for several national publications.
McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Gustavus Adolphus College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.
Focus: Nearly four months elapsed from the secession of South Carolina to the firing on Fort Sumter that started the war. During this period there were many efforts to fashion a compromise to forestall the secession of Southern states, or to bring them back into the Union, or in the last resort to avoid an incident that would spark a shooting war. All failed, and the war came. Why? Why didn’t the Lincoln refuse to surrender the fort? Why did Jefferson Davis decide to fire on the fort? Why did both sides prefer war to compromise?
- McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 202-275
- Charles B. Dew, “Apostles of Secession,” North and South, IV (April 2001), 24-38
- Hans L. Trefousse, ed., The Causes of the Civil War, 91-125 (excerpts from Ramsdell, Potter, and Current)
- Perman, ed., Coming of the American Civil War, 300-314 (excerpt from Paludan)
- “Official Explanations of the Causes of the Civil War,” from the Causes of the Civil War, 28-47 (Messages of Davis and Lincoln)