Jul 31, 2020

Analyzing the Battle of Bull Run with Professor McPherson

James M. "Jim" McPherson (born October 11, 1936) is an American Civil War historian and is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University.

He received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. McPherson was the president of the American Historical Association in 2003 and is a member of the editorial board of Encyclopædia Britannica.

I had the honor to speak with him and discuss the first battle of bull run in the American Civil War. Here's a transcript of our conversation.

Question) What, in your opinion, were the factors that led to the civil war?

The principal factor leading to the Civil War was the Institution of slavery in a nation founded on a charter of freedom. 

As opposition to slavery and especially to its expansion into new territories and states grew in the free states after 1800, slavery itself was becoming more and more entrenched in the slave states because of the profitability of cotton and other crops produced by slave labor, to the point that by the 1850s the antislavery forces embodied by the Republican party and the proslavery resistance centered in the Southern Democrats and their Northern compatriots came to see the struggle as a contest over the future of America, which (as Lincoln put it) could not endure permanently half slave and half free. 

To the slave states, especially, it was an existential question, and when Lincoln was elected they feared for the survival of their socioeconomic system if they remained in the Union, while Lincoln and the Northern people feared for the survival of democracy and of the United States itself if they accepted the secession of half the country in response to losing a presidential election. 

Question) What happened in the first battle of bull run? What made it significant?

At Bull Run in July 1861, a half-trained Union army crossed a small river (Bull Run) 25 miles southwest of Washington to attack a Confederate force defending the vital railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia.  The strategic goal of this attack was the eventual capture of the Confederate capital of Richmond another 75 miles to the south. 

In the early hours of the fighting on July 21, the Union attack drove back the Confederates and seemed to be on the verge of victory, but late-arriving Confederate reinforcements led a counterattack that pushed the Union forces back and turned into a rout that drove them back to Washington in a panicked retreat. 

Before the battle, both sides had anticipated an easy victory and a short war. The Confederate victory at Bull Run (which they called Manassas) seemed to confirm that expectation, and many in the South believed that the war was virtually over and they had won. 

In the North, most people realized that it was to be a longer and more difficult war than they had expected, so they rolled up their sleeves with a new determination to revenge their defeat and do whatever it took to win.

Question) What are some of the lessons that we can learn from the civil war?

One important lesson is to take nothing for granted, expect that no important task will be easy, and plan what you will do in case of failure to achieve your goal in the first attempt.

Question) Why do you like to read history? What is it about the field that interests you?

I like to read history for two important reasons:

A) the past is a gripping story, far more interesting as well as more important than fiction; and

B) we can't understand the world we live in today unless we understand how it got that way over the years and centuries through the past.

Question) Lastly, there are a lot of students interested in history who are reading this article, is there any message or advice that would you like to send across to them?

As you read a book or article about history, put yourself in the place of one or more of the persons in the story and ask yourself what you would have thought or done about the situation if you had faced it.  That will enable you to understand and appreciate better what you are reading.

PS. Here's a downloadable version of this to save this beautiful advice. It's definitely going to be my new wallpaper.

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