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Civil War Historian James McPherson Comes to Chico


When I visited Professor James McPherson’s office last May, his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were still full and his desk cluttered with papers. It seemed unlikely that McPherson was about to vacate his office after more than four decades of teaching Civil War and Reconstruction history at Princeton University. Yet, this past May, that was the case: The popular professor, who had been my Civil War professor, had taught his last class and was beginning retirement.

Retirement for McPherson, however, will not mean the end of his career as the nation’s foremost Civil War authority. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, often cited as the best single volume on America’s bloodiest war, will continue to speak and write about the war as well as lead trips to Civil War battlefields. On Thursday, Oct. 14, at 7:00 pm, McPherson—a President’s Visiting Scholar—will deliver the fourth annual Joanna Dunlap Cowden Memorial lecture (named for a former CSU, Chico history professor), titled “The Global Impact of the American Civil War.” The lecture in Laxson Auditorium is free and open to the public
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McPherson came to Civil War history in a roundabout way. While great historians of the Civil War era have traditionally hailed from areas directly affected by the war, McPherson was born in a state far removed from the site of Union-Confederate struggles—North Dakota. He grew up in Minnesota, where he attended Gustavus Adolphus College, graduating magna cum laude in 1958. Since his college did not offer a course in the Civil War, it was not until graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1958 to 1962 that McPherson began intensely studying the war.

The conflict over African American civil rights that McPherson witnessed during his graduate school days in Baltimore—a city straddling North and South, where racial segregation reigned in restaurants and theatres, but not in public schools—influenced his scholarly path. The work of his advisor, eminent Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, shaped him, too. Woodward’s investigations into the origins of segregation had made him into an important public intellectual who provided historical background to the Supreme Court for its pivotal Brown v. Board of Education decision. Moved to participate in civil rights sit-ins and picket lines, McPherson saw connections between his own times and those of a century earlier. His doctoral dissertation explored the “civil rights activists” of the 1860s and became his first book in 1964, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Over the years, McPherson has produced numerous articles and books covering a wide range of topics related to the Civil War period. His scholarship combines the rare ability to provide lucid explanations of battlefield events with a keen understanding of the social and political forces involved in the war and its aftermath. That scholarship is popular with a large reading public—for instance, more than 600,000 copies of Battle Cry of Freedom have been sold—as well as esteemed by McPherson’s academic colleagues. In 2000, the National Endowment for the Humanities named him the Jefferson Lecturer, the federal government’s highest honor for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities, and in 2003 he served as president of the American Historical Association, the top professional organization for historians in the nation. A public reception for McPherson immediately follows the lecture on Oct. 14 in Trinity 100. He will also hold a Brown Bag Symposium on Oct. 15, from noon to 1 pm in Trinity 100. This will be an opportunity for members of the CSU, Chico community to meet with Professor McPherson in a more informal session for questions and answers.

—Robert Tinkler, Department of History

 

 

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