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
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