By: Michael T. Griffith

James McPherson’s book The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988) has been hailed as one of the best books ever written on the War Between the States. When the book was published in 1988, a Newsweek review declared the work would be "the standard for the next three decades." Newsday declared, "this book may not be superseded in our time." In 1989 the book won McPherson the Pulitzer Prize. Many colleges and universities continue to use the book as a textbook, and it is still sold in nearly all bookstores. In my opinion, The Battle Cry of Freedom is a superb book in many respects. I would include it on any student’s "required reading list." However, McPherson omits many important facts about the issues and events that led to the Civil War and about the war itself. What follows is a list of some of those facts.

1. One of the first acts of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was to send a peace delegation to Washington, D.C., in an effort to establish peaceful relations with the North. Abraham Lincoln would not even meet with the delegation.

2. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln threatened to invade the seceded states if they didn’t pay federal tariffs or if they didn’t allow the federal government to occupy federal installations within their borders. Said Lincoln,

The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion. . . .

"Beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion." So there would be an invasion if it were necessary "for these objects," i.e., for the occupation of federal installations, which everyone knew was a reference to federal facilities in the seceded states, and for the collection of duties and imposts.

3. The state of South Carolina offered to pay compensation for Fort Sumter, and the Confederacy was prepared to do the same.

4. The Confederacy was prepared to pay compensation for all federal installations in the South.

5. The Confederacy announced in its provisional constitution that it was willing to enter into negotiations with the North in order to arrange for payment of the South’s fair share of the national debt.

6. The Confederacy guaranteed the Northern states access to the Mississippi River. Jefferson Davis explained,

The legislation of the Confederate Congress furnishes the best evidence of the temper and spirit which prevailed in the organization of the Confederate government. . . .

By an act approved on February 26

[1861], all laws which forbade the employment in the coasting trade of vessels not enrolled or licensed, and all laws imposing discriminating duties on foreign vessels or goods imported in them, were repealed. These acts and all other indications manifest the well-known wish of the people of the Confederacy to preserve the peace and encourage the most unrestricted commerce with all nations, surely not least with their late associates, the Northern states. (Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, New York: De Capo Press, 1990, reprint of 1881 edition, pp. 210-211)

7. Three of the original thirteen states that ratified the Constitution specified in their ratification ordinances that the people of those states reserved the right to resume the powers of government, and they were admitted into the Union on the basis of those documents. The three states were New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia:

New York:

That the powers of government may be resumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness: that every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not, by said Constitution, clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several States, or to their respective State Governments.

Rhode Island:

That the powers of government may be resumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.


That the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury and oppression.

There can be little doubt about the intent of these provisions. They were clearly meant to serve notice that the people of each of those states reserved the right for their state to resume the powers of government on their behalf. If the people of those states had this right, it stands to reason that the people of all the states had this right. Notice that New York’s ordinance implied this right belonged to the people "of the several states, or to their respective state governments."

Logically, if "every power, jurisdiction, and right" not expressly delegated to the federal government was to remain with "the people of the several states," or with "their respective state governments," then naturally the people’s expressed right to resume the powers of government would be exercised by the people through "their respective state governments."

The people of the Southern states chose to exercise this right. They voted for secession in overwhelming numbers, either in elections for representatives to state conventions or in referendums, and as a result their respective states seceded. McPherson himself acknowledges that the secession process was democratic, and in fact that it closely resembled the process by which the original thirteen states ratified the Constitution (pp. 234-239, 276-283).

Virginia cited the right to resume the powers of government in its ordinance of secession:

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight . . . declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression. . . .

8. The thirteen states that ratified the Constitution existed as sovereign entities before the Union came into existence, and even before the Declaration of Independence was written. McPherson uncritically quotes Lincoln’s dubious arguments against secession, which included the assertions that the Union was older than the states and that no state (except Texas) had ever existed as a state outside the Union::

"The Union is older than any of the States," Lincoln asserted, "and, in fact, created them as states." The Declaration of Independence transformed the "United Colonies" into the United States; without this union then, there would never have been any "free and independent States." "Having never been States, either in substance, or in name, outside the Union," asked Lincoln, "whence this magical omnipotence of ‘State rights,’ asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself?" (p. 247, original emphasis)

Historians John Garraty and Robert McCaughey point out that the thirteen colonies broke from England and created their own constitutions even before the Declaration of Independence was written:

However crucial the role of Congress, in an important sense the real revolution occurred when the individual colonies broke the official ties with Great Britain. Using their colonial charters as a basis, the states began new constitutions even before the Declaration of Independence. (Garraty and McCaughey, The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, p. 135)

Historians Alan Brinkley, Richard Current, Frank Freidel, and T. Harry Williams:

The formation of state governments began early in 1776, even before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. . .

Two of the original thirteen states saw no need to produce new constitutions. Connecticut and Rhode Island already had corporate charters which provided them with governments that were republican in all but name; they simply deleted references to England and the king from their charters and adopted them as constitutions. (Brinkley et al, American History: A Survey, Eighth Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1991, p. 150)

Concerning Lincoln’s legal arguments against secession, attorney James Ostrowski says,

Lincoln challenges the claim of reserved state powers by asserting that no state, except Texas, had ever "been a State out of the Union." Lincoln argues that the states "passed into the Union" even before 1776; united to declare their independence in 1776; declared a "perpetual" union in the Articles of Confederation two years later; and finally created the present Union by ratifying the Constitution in 1788. There are many problems with his argument.

Lincoln confuses no fewer than four different concepts of "union." Prior to July 4, 1776, the colonies were united by their increasing concern over the violation of their rights by the British government. Their representatives met in a Continental Congress which ultimately issued the Declaration of Independence and organized the Revolutionary War effort. Prior to 1776, no issue of secession from a union could have arisen because the colonies still considered themselves part of Great Britain. Neither was there any legal document agreed to by the Continental Congress which directly or indirectly addressed the issue of secession. Thus, the "union" that existed prior to 1776 is of no importance at all to the issue of secession.

Next comes the union created by the Declaration of Independence. The most notable fact in this context is that the Declaration announces a lawful secession by the colonies from Great Britain based on the right of the people to alter or abolish their form of government. It is thus apparent that the Declaration of Independence establishes that the right of secession is among the inalienable rights of men. The Declaration is therefore literally the last place on earth one would hope to find legal justification for a war against secession. It was adopted by representatives of the thirteen colonies and declared that those colonies had become "Free and Independent States." The Declaration was not, however, a constitution, establishing a particular type of union among the states, or specifying any duties binding on them other than a moral commitment to mutually defend their newly declared independence. (Ostrowski, "An Analysis of President Lincoln’s Legal Arguments Against Secession," paper delivered at the "Secession, State, and Economy" conference sponsored by the Mises Institute and held at the College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, April 7-9, 1995)

Michael Lind, a Whitehead Senior Fellow, also takes issue with Lincoln’s arguments:

On July 4, 1861, President Lincoln said in a message to Congress, "The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact it created them as States." Political scientist Samuel H. Beer restated this nationalist argument in To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (1993), when he wrote that "the reallocation of power by the Constitution from state to federal government was simply a further exercise of the constituent sovereignty which the American people had exercised in the past, as when they brought the states themselves into existence."

The argument is flimsy. For one thing, it implies that without permission from the Continental Congress, the colonial populations would not have abolished their colonial governments and created new republican governments. To make matters worse for the nationalist theory, the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence supports the compact theory by referring to the formation of new state governments by the authority of the people of the colonies when it means the people of Massachusetts, the people of Virginia, and so on. And these colonial peoples, which became the peoples of the first states, had come into existence generations earlier–when each colony had been established by royal charter, if not before.

Nationalists also emphasize the description of the United States as "one people" in the Declaration of Independence: "When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands, which have connected them with another." But elsewhere the Declaration refers to the colonies in the plural, and concludes that "these United Colonies are, and or Right ought to be, Free and Independent States." The author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a fervent champion of the compact theory. Indeed, the Declaration claims that for generations the individual colonies had been separate states in a federal empire held together only by personal allegiance to the British monarch. During the Constitutional Convention, Maryland’s Luther Martin summarized the view that was implicit in the Declaration: "At the separation from the British Empire, the people of America preferred the establishment of themselves into thirteen separate sovereignties instead of incorporating themselves into one." (Lind, "Do the People Rule?," The Wilson Quarterly, February 1, 2002, from online reprint of article found at http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=719)

Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, initially declined to ratify the Constitution. They remained free, independent states, and Congress treated them as such until they ratified the Constitution a short time later.

The federal government wouldn’t have been created had it not been for the states, because each state had to agree to call a ratifying convention. Garraty and McCaughey note that the state legislatures "could have blocked ratification by refusing to call conventions" (The American Nation, p. 158).

For that matter, it was the states that sent delegates to the Constitutional convention in the first place, and that convention was held as a result of an action taken by a state legislature. The Virginia legislature issued an invitation to the other states to send delegates to a convention in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786. Only five states showed up. The delegates who went to Annapolis drafted a report that recommended that Congress call a convention in Philadelphia the following year. Congress did so, but Congress could not compel the states to send delegates to the Philadelphia convention. However, only Rhode Island declined to send delegates.

9. Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to William Crawford in 1816 that he would allow a state to leave the Union, even if he didn’t approve of the state’s reason for seceding. Said Jefferson,

The alternatives between which we are to choose [are fairly stated]: 1, licentious commerce and gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many; or, 2, restricted commerce, peace and steady occupations for all. If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying "let us separate." I would rather the States should withdraw which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture.

10. The Hartford Convention, consisting of delegates from the New England states, declared in 1814 that a state had the right to assert its own authority over the federal government’s authority, and that a state could secede from the Union, even in time of war, in cases of "absolute necessity" (Brinkley et al, American History, p. 230).

11. President John Quincy Adams said that if sectional differences between the states became too severe it would be better for the states to go their own way in peace than to be constrained to remain together:

The indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other, the bonds of political association will not long hold together parties no longer attached by the magnetism of consolidated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint. (Speech given at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, April 30, 1839, as quoted in the Hon. Joseph Wheeler, "Slavery and States Rights," reprinted in Richmond Dispatch, July 31, 1894, emphasis added)

12. Renowned legal scholar William Rawle, in his highly regarded book Views of the Constitution, said a state had the right to secede from the Union. Rawle’s book was used for a time in the early 1800s at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The North American Review described the book as "a safe and intelligent guide." Rawle served as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Assembly of 1789 and later accepted President George Washington’s request to become the first U. S. Attorney for Pennsylvania. Rawle was also the chancellor of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Here is a sample of what Rawle taught about the right of secession:

If a faction should attempt to subvert the government of a state for the purpose of destroying its republican form, the paternal power of the Union could thus be called forth to subdue it.

Yet it is not to be understood, that its interposition would be justifiable, if the people of a state should determine to retire from the Union, whether they adopted another or retained the same form of government, or if they should, with the, express intention of seceding, expunge the representative system from their code, and thereby incapacitate themselves from concurring according to the mode now prescribed, in the choice of certain public officers of the United States. . . .

It depends on the state itself to retain or abolish the principle of representation, because it depends on itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is, that the people have in all cases, a right to determine how they will be governed.

This right must be considered as an ingredient in the original composition of the general government, which, though not expressed, was mutually understood. . . .

The secession of a state from the Union depends on the will of the people of such state. The people alone as we have already seen, bold the power to alter their constitution. (Rawle, Views of the Constitution, Second Edition, Philadelphia: Philip H. Nicklin, Law Bookseller, 1829, chapter 32)

13. At no time did the Confederacy attempt to overthrow or destroy the federal government. McPherson acknowledges in a few places that the South was only seeking its independence and wasn’t trying to conquer the North (pp. 310, 534, 646-647; cf. pp. 693, 721). However, he repeatedly refers to the Confederates as "rebels" and several times uses the words "rebellion" and "insurrection" in reference to the South’s attempt to obtain independence. If the South had sought to overthrow or destroy the federal government, that would have constituted rebellion and insurrection. But the South did not do so. The Southern states only sought to leave the government, not to destroy it. Every single institution of the federal government would have remained the same if the South had been allowed to go in peace. The only differences would have been that there would have been fewer members of the House and Senate and no revenue from tariffs on Southern goods. The form and nature of the federal government would not have changed at all–only its size and the amount of revenue it collected would have been different. Ostrowski makes a good point in this regard concerning Lincoln’s claim that secession would "destroy" the government:

We turn next to Lincoln’s discussion of the Constitution as he believes it relates to secession. He argues that while states have reserved powers under the Constitution–presumably referring to, but not mentioning, the Tenth Amendment–secession cannot be such a power since it is "a power to destroy the government itself." This is of course hyperbole and abuse of language. To depart from is to destroy, according to Lincoln. If the union government was "destroyed" by secession, what was the entity that put a million troops in the field to stop it?

Secession does not destroy the federal government; it merely ends its authority over a certain territory and sets up a new government to take its place in that territory. (Ostrowski, "An Analysis of President Lincoln’s Legal Arguments Against Secession")

14. Hinton Helper spoke approvingly of the possibility of a violent slave insurrection in his famous 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South. McPherson says a number of things about Helper’s book, including the fact that several Southern states attempted to ban its distribution (pp. 199-200). But for some reason McPherson doesn’t mention Helper’s endorsement of violent slave insurrection. McPherson also fails to mention that Helper was a shameless racist. Professor Francis Simkins said the following about Helper and his book:

Helper made invidious comparisons between the wealth of the sections [the North and the South]. . . . Although he hated the Negroes to the extent of wishing them expelled from the country, he attacked the slaveholders violently and suggested servile insurrection as a means of ridding the white masses of their [the slaveowners’] degradation. (Simkins, A History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963, p. 192)

Among other things, Helper told slaveowners that he and his fellow abolitionists would abolish slavery "peaceably or by violence . . . one way or another." He then asked slaveowners, "Do you aspire to become the victims of white non-slaveholders’ vengeance by day and of barbarous massacre by negroes by night? Would you be instrumental in bringing upon yourselves, your wives, and your children, a fate too terrible to contemplate?" Perhaps such statements shed more light on why some Southern states sought to ban distribution of the book and why many Southerners were upset over the fact that dozens of Republican leaders signed an endorsement of the book. It is hard for most of us to bear in mind that slavery was legal back then and that it had existed in the states for over two hundred years before the war began. To put this in a modern context, imagine how most Americans would react if dozens of leaders of a major political party endorsed a book that approved of killing abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics. Many people believe abortion is a serious sin and that it involves the taking of innocent human life. However, no responsible citizen would endorse a book that sanctioned violence against abortion doctors and their clinics.

15. Lincoln approved the Dahlgren Raid, which included a special order to kill Jefferson Davis and the entire Confederate cabinet. Historian William Tidwell provides some details:

This raid was under the command of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, but it was fated to be remembered in history as Dahlgren’s raid. . . .

He [Kilpatrick] appears to have gone over his supervisors’ heads and won Lincoln’s personal approval for the scheme.

As a condition in the plan approved by Lincoln, Kilpatrick was asked to take with him cavalry Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the son of Admiral John Dahlgren, whom Lincoln greatly admired. . . . Kilpatrick apparently left much of the detailed planning of the raid to Dahlgren, which, in view of the association of Lincoln to the elder Dahlgren, later reinforced the southern belief that the operation was personally sponsored by Lincoln. . . .

Dahlgren led his force around Richmond to the north and tried to get around the Confederates chasing Kilpatrick. During the night of 2-3 March 1864 his group broke into two segments, and Dahlgren was ambushed in King and Queen County and killed leading the smaller segment.

On the morning of 3 March several papers were found on Dahlgren’s body and taken to Richmond, where they caused a tremendous uproar. The papers included the draft of an address that he apparently meant to read to his men: "We hope . . . . to destroy and burn the hateful city [Richmond], and . . . not allow rebel leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape." Also among the papers was a special order stating, "The men must keep together and well in hand, and, once in the city, it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and his Cabinet killed."

The ferocity of these statements sounded a new note in Union policy toward the war, but it was not unexpected to a growing body of opinion in the South. . . .

The Confederate editorial opinions about the Dahlgren papers cannot be dismissed as mere bombast. The Confederate leaders knew that these papers had been found on Dahlgren’s body and they had them in hand. More, their excellent intelligence apparatus in Washington would have been dense in the extreme if it had not picked up the various stories floating around that both Lincoln and Stanton [Lincoln’s Secretary of War] were involved in planning the raid. . . .

General Kilpatrick claimed to have read papers similar to those quoted by the Confederates but without the offensive language. There was a general outcry of "forgery" in the North, but the Confederates had photographic reproductions of the papers circulated to the Union and to foreign governments. In the surviving photographs the papers appear to be genuine, and a study of the timing involved indicates it would have been extremely difficult for the Confederates to have fabricated such convincing material in so short a time. (Tidwell, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, Barnes & Noble Edition, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997, pp. 242-243, 245-246. Note: In case some might be wondering about the subtitle of Tidwell’s book, Tidwell does not believe Jefferson Davis or the Confederate Secret Service were behind Lincoln’s assassination)

16. The South had a vigorous free press during the war. To his credit, Ken Burns included this fact in his well-known PBS documentary series The Civil War.

17. Jefferson Davis never shut down opposition newspapers, even though some of them bitterly attacked him and his policies. Dr. Emory Thomas notes that Davis had "ample opportunity" to suppress hostile newspapers but never did so:

Davis, unlike Lincoln, never closed down opposition newspapers. He had ample opportunity, however. In his own capital, two of five dailies were hostile. (Thomas, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, p. 75)

Lincoln, on the other hand, shut down many newspapers. Chief Justice William Rehnquist discusses some of these cases of suppression:

Newspaper publishers did not escape the government’s watchful eye either. The [Lincoln] Administration was especially concerned about the New York press, which had a disproportionate impact on the rest of the country. In that era before press wire services, newspapers in smaller cities frequently simply reprinted stories which had been run earlier in the metropolitan press. In New York, the Tribune, the Herald, and the Times generally supported the Northern war effort, but several other papers did not. In August 1861, a Grand Jury sitting in New York was outraged by an article in the New York Journal of Commerce–a paper which opposed the war–that listed over one hundred Northern newspapers opposed to "the present unholy war." The Journal of Commerce frequently editorialized in no uncertain words about the malfeasance of the Administration.

The grand jurors inquired of the presiding judge whether such vituperative criticism was subject to indictment. Because the Grand Jury was about to be discharged, the judge did not oblige. Nevertheless, the jurors simply requested that a list of several New York newspapers, including the Journal of Commerce, be called to the attention of the next Grand Jury. They had heard no evidence, and received no legal instructions from the judge; they simply made a "presentment"–a written notice taken by a Grand Jury of what it believes to be an indictable offense.

On this thin reed, the Administration proceeded to act. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair directed the Postmaster in New York to exclude from the mails the five newspapers named by the Grand Jury. This was significant because the newspapers of that day were almost entirely dependent upon the mails for their circulation. Gerald Hallock, the part owner and editor of the Journal of Commerce, was obliged to negotiate with the Post Office Department to see what the paper would have to do to regain its right to use of the mails. The Post Office Department told him that he must sell his ownership in the newspaper. Hallock reluctantly agreed, and retired, thereby depriving the paper of its principal editorialist opposing the war. The New York News, owned by Benjamin Wood, brother of New York Mayor Fernando Wood, decided to fight the ban against his paper. He sought to send its edition south and west by private express, and hired newsboys to deliver the paper locally. The government ordered U.S. Marshals to seize all copies of the paper. In fact one newsboy in Connecticut was arrested for having hawked it. Eventually Wood, too, gave up. (Rehnquist, "Civil Liberty and the Civil War," speech given at the University of Indiana School of Law, Bloomington, October 28, 1996)

Lincoln not only shut down newspapers he viewed as unpatriotic, he also ordered the arrest and imprisonment of some of their editors and publishers, without due process of law. Lincoln issued the following order to General John Dix:

You will take possession by military force, of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce . . . and prohibit any further publication thereof . . . You are therefore commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison . . . The editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforementioned newspapers. (Order of Abraham Lincoln to General John Dix, May 18, 1864)

Lincoln suppressed newspapers even in states that were far from the fighting and in which local courts were functioning. Historian James Rhodes, though an ardent Lincoln defender, found it necessary to condemn this suppression of the freedom of the press:

For my own part, after careful consideration, I do not hesitate to condemn the arbitrary arrests and the arbitrary interference with the freedom of the press in States which were not included in the theatre of the war and in which the courts remained open. (Rhodes, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865, New York: Bartleby.com, 2000, electronic reprint of 1917 edition, chapter 11, page 19)

18. Major Anderson, the commander of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, questioned the wisdom of trying to resupply the fort. Anderson also said that he had been led to believe by Colonel Lamon, one of Lincoln’s confidential agents, that Captain Fox’s plan to resupply the fort would not be carried out, and that the South had been led to believe the fort would not be resupplied. Anderson said these things in a letter that he wrote to "Colonel L. Thomas, Adjutant-General Unites States Army." Anderson wrote the letter on the same day South Carolina’s governor was informed about the coming of the resupply mission, the day after Anderson himself learned of the mission. Said Anderson,

I had the honor to receive, by yesterday’s mail, the letter of the Honorable Secretary of War, dated April 4th, and confess that what he there states surprises me greatly–following, as it does, and contradicting so positively, the assurance Mr. Crawford telegraphed he was "authorized" to make. I trust that this matter will be at once put in a correct light, as a movement made now, when the South has been erroneously informed that none such would be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout the country. . . .

I ought to have been informed that this expedition [to resupply the fort] was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea, merely hinted at to me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out.

We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in this war, which I see is to be thus commenced. (Letter from Major Anderson to Colonel Thomas, April 8, 1861, reproduced in Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1, pp. 243-244)

19. Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War during the Lincoln Administration, said "the evidence proves that it was not the Confederates who insisted on keeping our prisoners in distress, want and disease, but the commander of our armies" (as quoted in Lynn Tyler, A Confederate Catechism, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, 2000, reprint, p. 36, quoting "Treatment of Prisoners During the War Between the States," Southern Historical Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 112-327). Dana also said the following to the New York Sun:

We think after the testimony given that the Confederate authorities and especially Mr. [Jefferson] Davis ought not to be held responsible for the terrible privations, suffering, and injuries which our men had to endure while kept in Confederate Military Prisons, the fact is unquestionable that while Confederates desired to exchange prisoners, to send our men home, and to get back their own men, General Grant steadily and strenuously resisted such an exchange. (As quoted in Mildred Rutherford, Truths of History, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, reprint of original 1920 edition, p. 21)

McPherson blames the Confederacy for the prolonged failure to resume prisoner exchanges, which in turn led to the unintended deaths of thousands of Union prisoners of war (p. 792). Many Northern soldiers and civilians placed the majority of the blame on Lincoln and General Grant because they refused the Confederacy’s repeated offers to exchange nearly all prisoners and instead insisted on an all-or-nothing arrangement. McPherson accepts the official explanation for the delay in the resumption of prisoner exchanges, i.e., that Lincoln and Grant refused to resume exchanges because the Confederacy refused to release black Union prisoners as part of those exchanges. While there can be no defense of the Confederacy’s unfair policy on black prisoners, I have my doubts that this was the real reason for Lincoln and Grant’s opposition to a resumption of exchanges. I suspect their real reason was that they didn’t want to replenish the Confederate army’s manpower. They knew the Union could replace captured soldiers much more easily than could the Confederacy.

In fact, in August 1864 Grant said it was better not to exchange prisoners and that "if we release or exchange prisoners captured it simply becomes a war of extermination." McPherson denies this was the real reason behind the suspension of exchanges, and he notes that Grant made these comments "more than a year after the exchange cartel had broken down over the Negro prisoner question" (p. 800). However, one could certainly make the argument that Grant was expressing his real reason for opposing the resumption of exchanges, regardless of when he made the statement. Some find this the more plausible view, given the rather uncaring attitude that Grant had already shown and expressed toward blacks, and given Lincoln’s own well-known views on blacks.

It is true that when the Confederacy finally offered to include black prisoners in exchanges, Lincoln and Sherman accepted the offer. But this occurred in January 1865, and by that time there was no doubt the Union was going to win the war and win it soon. It would have been interesting to see what the response would have been if the Confederacy had offered to exchange all prisoners several months earlier. In any case, Assistant Secretary of War Dana spoke for many of his fellow Northerners when he blamed General Grant for the long suspension of prisoner exchanges.

20. Lincoln refused to sell medicines to the Confederacy, even though Jefferson Davis offered to pay for them in gold and even though Davis explained that the medicines would be used to care for sick and wounded Union prisoners of war. The Confederacy had a very hard time obtaining medical supplies. Although McPherson mentions in passing (and without condemnation) that Lincoln resorted to the cruel step of blocking medicines from entering the Confederate states, he doesn’t mention that Lincoln refused Davis’s request to buy medicines for Union prisoners. Captain Samuel Ashe, the last officer commissioned in the Confederate army, complained about this refusal:

As Lincoln declared medicines contraband of war, Davis asked for permission to buy at the North medicines for the Northern prisoners, but his request was refused. (Ashe, A Southern View of the Invasion of the Southern States, Crawfordville, Georgia: The Ruffin Flag Company, reprint of 1938 edition, p. 57)

Some Northerners criticized Lincoln’s policy of preventing medical supplies from going to the South:

The United States government early declared . . . all medicines, surgical instruments and appliances contraband of war, and they were so regarded to the end of the struggle.

The ill temper and inhumanity of the time in the North extended even to the medical profession, as evidenced at the convention of the American Medical Association, held in Chicago, in 1863, when Dr. Gardner, of New York, introduced preamble and resolutions petitioning the Northern government to repeal the orders declaring medical and surgical supplies contraband of war; arguing that such cruelty rebounded on their own soldiers, many of whom, as prisoners in the hands of the Confederates, shared the suffering resulting from such a policy, while the act itself was worthy of the dark ages of the world’s history. It is lamentable to have record that this learned and powerful association of the medical men . . . in their senseless passion hissed their benevolent brother from the hall. (Rutherford, Truths of History, p. 22)

In spite of the omissions discussed above, I still believe The Battle Cry of Freedom should be read by every serious student of the Civil War. McPherson discusses many issues fairly and thoroughly, and he provides a significant amount of information that supports the Southern view of the war to varying degrees. I would especially recommend the book to Southern heritage defenders, partly because McPherson refutes myths that continue to appear in their books and articles.


Michael T. Griffith holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts, and of one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination. He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from The Catholic Distance University and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College in Wisconsin.

© 2003, Michael T. Griffith

Originally Published at: http://ourworld.cs.com/mikegriffith1/mcpherson.htm