Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

American History

Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson is probably the most successful symbol of historiography’s advancement. There are two concepts that are reflected in the book: that the main cause of war was the slavery of black people and it was not a pleasant experience. Looking at the title, it is evident that McPherson understands that black people’s status was the core of the war in regard to cause and effect. Regardless of the ineptness and faultiness of the trial, freedom was in jeopardy. The author therefore rejects the tacitly racist explanations that try to make the issue seem less significant in favour of explanations that were economically and culturally favourable. He places black people as the main characters, emphasizing their military role and how they contributed towards the Union’s abolition and survival (Nolan, 1989).

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A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn — published for the first time in 1980 as a radical alternative to textbooks that were already established — is currently used by Americans as the standard source from which they learn their history. It is hard to overemphasize how significant A People’s History is to the American population. Although it holds an unapologetic perspective from the far left, it has reached and influenced beyond the borders of that quarter with over 2 million printed copies, some of which are prominently displayed in superstores in the suburbs (Plotnikoff, 2012).

Theme Associated

A People’s History of the United States is a book that carries a lot of controversy. This is partly because of the bias, since Zinn’s stand is far from the popular centrist-right perspective in US politics, but in my opinion it is mostly because Zinn refuses to support the long standing customs and beliefs of US history. This book serves as a reminder that the Revolutionary War was widely unpopular; that almost all the enthusiastically praised Founding Fathers were wealthy, white property owners who created a government that served their benefits; that Lincoln’s campaign speeches supported slavery and his public stance was more equivocal than most people would want to believe. That the left was placing a lot of pressure on FDR and most of his actions can be interpreted as compromises in order to have some political advantage and prevent more overwhelming reforms; and that the Second World War was extensively profitable to corporations and saw a huge and abnormal number of workers’ strikes. These sides of the stories are not usually brought to light. You will rarely hear about the early US politicians before the revolution pitting poor whites against Indians and blacks as a calculated political move, or about freed slaves being re-imposed into economic slavery as soon a s the Civil War ended (including work contracts whose details were only slightly different from slavery). This makes the book very important. Although everyone will not place as much weight on the information as Zinn did, this book should be known by every US history student (Allbery, 2005).

According to James M. McPherson, the author of Battle Cry of Freedom and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Lincoln and the Indians is a book that has managed to stay relevant through the years. It gives the readers an opportunity to understand the Indian policies that the US government had, or even lacked, in the era of the Civil War. Nichols shows an important perspective on the role that Lincoln played, providing a keen and intelligent analysis on how the 1962 Dakota War participants were tried in Minnesota. The role that Lincoln played in saving the lives of the convicted is clearly shown. Sheldon Wolfchild, an independent artist, actor and filmmaker states that the onset of the Indian System, for the people of Dakota, was marked by the discovery doctrine. It continued through and beyond the era of Abraham Lincoln. The United States had the responsibility to protect Indian parties’ rights. However, eventually there was disgrace for the law of humanity as those who were guilty received glory. That story is told in this book and should therefore be read in every educational institution. The American Historical Review praises the book as one of the best that covers the issues of the Indians during the Lincoln era (Nichols, 2012).

Book Structure

According to the author, the main theme of the book is “the multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed in the crucible of war”. Similar to other historians in the same generation, McPherson refuses to follow the topical and thematic event analysis that his predecessors used. By a large extent, he supports his theme to the end of the book through the use of a concept known to him as contingency. He criticizes the lack of this notion in previous works. McPherson usually borders on history that is conditional in his arguments on contingencies that could have possibly resulted to other unless desirable results in his opinion. Although his thesis is flawed, McPherson supports his theme with 862 pages that are properly written and sourced. Ignoring the knowledge of previous and abler scholars, one can note that his argument lacks enough knowledge to make it endure (Clark, 2016).

A People’s History of the United States is a book whose content has been described as revisionist history. Its purpose is to record the history of the US as it was viewed by “the people” — blacks, the poor, Indians living in the US, and women; basically people who were previously unrepresented in the US government. The book attacks the basic perspective of the US history as one that is filled with heroes in pursuit of freedom and goes ahead to portray it in a dismal picture full of control and oppression. In this book we are reminded that Christopher Columbus was directly involved in genocide, Abraham Lincoln was not concerned about the freedom of slaves while the Founding Fathers established a government that favoured wealthy white slave masters. The book creates the impression that the country is ran by the wealthy minority, that the main aim of both the domestic and foreign policies is to protect the interest of the corporate sector (“national interest”), that the media, judiciary and government work together in to maintain that state of affairs, and that the status quo has been in existence since the Revolution. Although this is not new to the majority of the population, it is shocking to see it written down and summarised articulately (Book Review: A People’s History Of The United States, 2010).


Battle Cry of Freedom, with its unbiased information and interpretations, attacking old beliefs and questioning the new ones, is definitely going to be an all-inclusive standard Civil War history. In rapid succession, the book incorporates the social, military and political events that filled the last twenty years, including how war began in Mexico to how it ended in Appomattox. Filled with dramatizations and an analytical perspective, McPherson vividly takes the readers through the events that happened before the Civil War, the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, as well as the raid on Harper’s ferry by John Brown. It then shifts to the explicit narration of the war- covering the battles, strategic battle moves from both camps, the personalities as well as politics. McPherson’s new stand on issues such as the 1850s-slavery expansion, the Republican Party origin, secession causes, resistance from within and the South and North’s anti-war resistances well as reasons why the Union emerged victorious are especially notable. The title of the book reflects the attitude with which both the North and the South viewed the war: The South owing its success to the self-government and determination for which their ancestors had fought for in 1776. The North, on the other hand, was defending the Union that their ancestors had created as the fort of liberty in America (Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era – Review, 1988).

A People’s History of the United States attempts to even the playing ground by documenting the aspects of US history that have not been thoroughly discussed. Its main focus is how government policy affected blacks and Indians, women and the poor throughout the history of the US. It also takes on equality and labour movements more explicitly than we are used to seeing while revealing the how disappointing and mixed the records of the cultural heroes of the US were. Put in another way, it is an attack on the assumed and widely accepted perspective about significant historical events and heroes. It is an attack on what society likes to tell itself (Allbery, 2005). The narrative also includes open bias, which Zinn directly addresses at the beginning of the last chapter:

“This makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements — that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”

It is very evident that historical inquiry was transformed by the 1960s’ radical historians — and generally, the introduction of the intense questioning spirit that characterized the decade into the intellectual field. It is almost five decades since the interpretations of both the Civil and Cold war subjects were drastically turned by the new wave of work which also decriminalized full research especially on the history of black people and that of women. In other words, these fields and structures were placed at the core of the discipline. The deep currents of academic conceptions are probably more responsible for driving radical history in the mainstream than Howard Zinn is. However, Zinn should still be given some credit. As noted in the flawed but interesting biography by Martin Duberman, with the sale of over two million copies in more than thirty years and with its trespassing effect still amusing the minds of young people, A People’s History of the United States is already a publishing success (Greenberg, 2013).

Writing Technique

For instance, in his description of the incident involving SS Mayaguez, Zinn used a “revolutionary regime” that took control of Cambodia in the recent past as a reference. The regime he was talking about is the Khmer Rouge which can be considered one of the worst and most evil governments in the 20th century. Maybe there as propaganda behind the Mayaguez — Zinn addresses that in a compelling way — but why was he careful not to mention the Khmer Rouge? Could it be because he is aware of what a knowledgeable reader would conclude? Is it because it reveals that freeing the crew who had been held captive is the right thing to do despite the motive? Zinn goes ahead to give a detailed explanation of how the captors treated the captured crew well, as if that justified it, despite his previous discussion that the American slaves who led considerably happy lives did not lessen the cruelty of slavery. Throughout the book, there are many other similar incidents in which I do not approve of the technique employed by Zinn. As much as Michael Moore is not as refined and elegant as Zinn, he is the only figure of comparison that comes to mind: a writer who presents a biased argument that could even be described as propaganda. In regard to what is just and right, it should be shown no tolerance for the simple reason that it is propaganda (Book Review: A People’s History Of The United States, 2010).

With a wide sweep historically, it looks into the increasing sectional hostility in the 1850s: the heightening antagonism of the South while passionately depending slavery; the rise of the Republican Party and its growing disproval of slavery; the struggle by each to expand their territory with the economic expansion and social tension that comes with it. The book captures the whole Civil War’s outlook, from the vividly described military campaign with its proximity, an understanding of logistics and strategy, as well as acute awareness of the soldiers and military leaders involved to the social and political aspects (Wat). In relation to a special interest of the residents of Indiana, the analysis by McPherson is questionable. This regards how he treats opposition in the North, particularly the Middle West’s Democrats, Indiana included. Despite paying the necessary attention to the complex political and economic sources of the attitude the Copperheads had, the sources chosen by McPherson result to the overstating of the nature and extent of the opposition. Depending on the source of information, among the Northern states, Indiana is either ranked first or second in its participation to enrolling its soldiers in the northern armies, almost all of which were volunteers (Nolan, 1989).

Facts Rendered

Ideally, Battle Cry is separated into three wide portions although the author did not indicate these separations. In the initial seven chapters, the author talks about mid-nineteenth century Americanism almost exclusively in regard to the growing capitalism and industrialism while the Southern agrarianism is ignored. The war itself is covered in twenty chapters. The third section, which is the last chapter, states the condition required for liberation and reconstruction. A large part of it debates the South enrolling blacks into the army. In this case too, McPherson covers one topic in several pages while ignoring facts that are well known and perhaps frequently dismissed. Once studied again by historians in the future through the comprehensiveness of thematic approach, one sustainable contribution to this subject can be found in the chapters titled The Revolution of 1860 and the Counter-revolution of 1861. In these two chapters McPherson argues a thematic concept that historians before him believed and supported while supporting his thesis that the war was primarily caused by slavery. This means that the war was the radical republican’s revolution while the South’s reaction was reaction to the revolution to support the existing constitutional principles. McPherson did not intend to bring out this concept. Placing constitutional, cultural and economic principles at the front is against the intuition of his thesis as well as his focus. There is a contradiction created by his arguments that gives credibility to the older theories he had attempted to wave aside (Clark, 2016).

It can also be argued that A People’s History has a depressing effect. This is partly because the history of oppressed people and the poor carries some depression, but Zinn is being more depressing than necessary, in my opinion. He adamantly refuses to become a bit hopeful or gain some pleasure from the successes of the popular movements and the gains achieved. One of the best chapters is the one which covers 1960s’ civil rights movements partly because Zinn shows a little sense of victory and enthusiasm. In my opinion, there were other sections in the book where he could have shown the same feeling. However, this could also be the shock caused by looking at history from a different point of view (Allbery, 2005).


It is evident that James McPherson is an extremely talented writer as well as a successful historical events narrator. Based on his political stand, his hidden intention to change how people view events that have been understood well, by the event’s contemporaries and historians over one and a half centuries later, to have a similar perspective like the one McPherson brings forward is the reason his work suffers. Unless you have a good foundation and understand what was has been said about the war by better historians, Battle Cry is not suitable for you (Clark, 2016). I could have wished that all Americans read A People’s History of the United States, but a significant number would dismiss it as “communist rubbish,” while another significant population would follow what Zinn says without giving it much thought and might even go as far as painting the local council chamber. Most people lack intellectual capability and probably deserve what they government decides to give them. Although it was not very captivating at times, the book is thought provoking (Book Review: A People’s History Of The United States, 2010).


(n.d.). Waterstones.

Allbery, R. (2005). A People’s History of the United States – Review.

Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era – Review. (1988). Retrieved from Buffalo and Erie County Public Library:

Book Review: A People’s History Of The United States. (2010, October 25). Retrieved from Grub Street:

Clark, B. (2016). Review of Battle Cry of Freedom. ResearchGate.

Greenberg, D. (2013). Howard Zinn’s influential mutilations of American history. New Republic.

Nichols, D. (2012). Lincoln and the Indians. Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Nolan, A. (1989). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Indiana Magazine of History.

Plotnikoff, D. (2012). Zinn’s influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert. Stanford Report.

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