The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984 Page: 332
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
ship on the broad period between the 184os and 188os, one might be-
lieve it presumptuous, if not absurd, for a solitary historian to claim
the ability to refine the monstrous mass into a one-volume synthesis.
Yet during the past decade or so at least a dozen writers have met the
challenge, forging works of varying scope and depth. The most promi-
nent one of late, Englishman Peter J. Parish's The American Civil War
(1975), offers a sophisticated analysis of virtually all crucial issues. Now
James McPherson, preeminent expert on abolitionism and the evolu-
tion of black citizenship in the nineteenth century, has produced an
impressive rival to Parish. Clearly, however, Ordeal by Fire will not
supplant this particular predecessor. Rather, it serves as a valuable
complement that possesses several outstanding features of its own.
Most important of all, it is more readable. Thirty-three compact
chapters in an impeccable format-a Knopf trademark-boast scores
of striking photographs and large, detailed military maps. McPherson
displays a polished sense of the dramatic in his development of charac-
ters and events. Using a liberal dose of incisive quotes from individuals
ranging from frantic politicians and generals to common soldiers and
embittered blacks, he not only weaves human emotion into the narra-
tive, but he also clarifies some complicated and decisive matters at a
single stroke. Several of his best passages depict the intense anxiety and
massive suffering that most of us either take for granted or trivialize
with a few statistics. Both Parish and McPherson reflect revisionist his-
toriography by placing the destiny of black Americans at the heart of
the ongoing sectional struggle. But McPherson achieves better the-
matic unity by emphasizing the North's ascending free-labor ideology
as a capitalistic modernizing force that branded slavery economically
backward and degrading to white labor. Thus did slavery become an
all-consuming issue, with the Free Soil party, and then the Republi-
cans, demanding its exclusion from the territories, and vociferous abo-
litionists proclaiming its immorality. For the South, Lincoln's election
signified a humiliation and a severe political and racial threat. At this
point, however, McPherson overlooks the crux of the dilemma: the
Constitution and political institutions had failed to foster a national
consensus on slavery. Now, for the first time, the northern majority
refused to acknowledge the minority rights of the South, embracing
instead a purely sectional party devoted to satisfying popular anti-
slavery demands. Congressional leaders, powerless to reverse or modify
the effects of a presidential election, suddenly lost the authority to
enact temporary compromises. The contest had evolved from one be-
tween popular representatives into one between the people themselves.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984, periodical, 1983/1984; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117150/m1/384/: accessed August 17, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.