So after finishing up James L. Stokesbury’s “A Short History of the Civil War,” on a whim I picked up the much less short “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a more comprehensive study of the American Civil War by James M. Mcpherson. Reading it, I was struck by two things:
1: Just going from this book, I got the impression that Dr. Mcpherson is, or at least was (in 2003) a fairly devout Christian. Now, that’s not incredibly surprising in and of itself. Historians may not be the most religious people on Earth but they (we, I suppose, at least for now) count among their number more than a few true believers, like Mark Noll, for instance. Still, I wasn’t entirely expecting to encounter passages like this in Mcpherson’s text, where he explains how Stowe intended Uncle Tom to be a Christ-like figure:
“Like Jesus he [Tom] died for the sins of humankind in order to save the oppressors as well as his own people. Stowe’s readers lived in an age that understood this message better than ours. They were part of a generation that experienced not embarrassment but inspiration when they sang the words penned not a decade later by another Yankee woman after she watched the soldiers march off to war: ‘As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.’”
(page 74 of The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era)
The aside about the Civil War generation “understanding this message better than ours” makes me wonder if he wasn’t subtly chiding his readers for being less faithful than their great-great grandfathers. Of course, I may be reading much too far into it, but on the off chance I’m not, I’m hardly saying that’s a bad thing either. I might not be super-religious m’self (as the numerous cheesecakey pictures of hot girls on hmy Tumblr attests, lust is a sin I am perpetually guilty of), but there are worse things for a historian to have than one of those nice, moderate brands of Christianity. At least Mcpherson certainly didn’t believe God ordained slavery like many of the Southern Confederates he described.
2: I find myself with a new respect for Zachary Taylor, despite not having known or thought about him much previously. Despite being a slaveholder, he was apparently a very principled man, opposing the machinations of the slave power and standing strong for the Union. I wonder if he might have been considered one of our better presidents if he hadn’t died so early…and in such a pathetic manner. Getting offed by cherries and milk? For real? I mean, come on.