Drawn With The Sword

Katherine Whittemore reviews "Drawn With The Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War" by James M. McPherson.

By Katharine Whittemore

Published May 9, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

As anyone who reads James McPherson knows, the broadest topics deliver the gold. This Princeton historian is an expert silversmith with detail, but a true artist when he solders the big questions in his newest collection of essays, "Drawn With the Sword." Other writers on the Civil War may be better at emotive drama (Shelby Foote) or crackling narrative (Bruce Catton), but if you want the most astute synthesis possible, McPherson's the man.

The collection contains pieces published from 1983 to 1995, which cover everything from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (at the height of its fame, three mills ran full tilt to print only that book), to the movie "Glory" (in which we learn that a brother of Henry and William James was also in the Massachusetts 54th). There's a particularly fine look at Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, written when the old general was dying of throat cancer; McPherson actually pinpoints which prose flights reflect the effects of painkilling cocaine. Even more insightfully, McPherson expertly compares Grant's muscular, almost adjective-free writing style to his legendary fighting style: "As agents to translate thought into action, verbs offer a clue to the secret of Grant's military success, which also consisted of translating thought into action."

The author of the great "Battle Cry of Freedom" also takes a crack at understanding why Civil War studies are now so fevered ("The War That Never Goes Away"). For one thing, he says, there's so much good source material. "It was a war fought by the most literate soldiers in history to that time, and in a society with a free and vigorous press," writes McPherson, and the participants left behind the giddy loot of their accounts -- which Ken Burns plundered for the rest of us.

Each page pick-axes a gem, and buffs it bright. We learn that Lincoln joked that the absurdly cautious McClellan had a case of "the slows." Or that Harriet Beecher Stowe -- the daughter, sister and wife of prominent preachers -- had a vision of Uncle Tom's death scene while at the communion rail one Sunday, went home and penned it down whole. "God wrote it, and she served merely as His amanuensis," the historian writes. Considering the sheer wisdom of his prose, one might say the same of McPherson.

Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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