Historian James M. McPherson on the Continuing Impact of the Civil War Today


Recently, noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988), visited Binghamton University to deliver the ninth annual Shriber Lecture. Professor McPherson sat down with WSKG History to discuss his career, Civil War history, and his involvement as a historical consultant on PBS’s Civil War medical drama MERCY STREET. In this clip from our interview, Professor McPherson shares his thoughts on some of the lasting impacts of the Civil War.

(The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.)

Highlights from the Interview

Well, we would not have a black man as president of United States had it not been for the changes accomplish by the Civil War – the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of course framing those changes. We might not even be one country had it not been for the outcome of the Civil War. One of the main clauses in the 14th Amendment defined American citizenship… Which has all kinds of implications for immigration and the meaning of citizenship in this country.

So in many different levels, if we’re to understand the political and social issues and problems in America today, we can trace much of that story back to the Civil War and to the causes of the Civil War, as well as its consequences.

Carver General Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Carver General Hospital in Washington, D.C. The National Parks Service.

civilsociety_Shane_LAs an historian, my philosophy is that history is necessary for us to understand the world we live in today. I sometimes use the analogy of an individual who wakes up one morning with total amnesia. This person does not know who he is, or who she is, has no idea of his or her own past, doesn’t know what to do that day. I mean no understanding of “who” or “what”. And if a society has that kind of amnesia it cannot function as a successful society. To do so, it needs to have some understanding and appreciation for how it got to be that way and that means history. So I see historians as fulfilling a crucial function in American civic society.

Dr. James McPherson is the George Henry Davis ‘86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988). He taught American history at Princeton University for 42 years and served as president of the American Historical Association. McPherson’s work mainly focuses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction and he is the recipient of two separate Lincoln Prizes. His latest book is titled “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” (2015).


Want more from our interview with Professor McPherson? Read a partial transcript of highlights from our entire interview.