History Doyens: David Herbert Donald


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

David Herbert Donald, 1920-2009, 2-20-06

On Sunday, May 17, 2009 renowned Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald died at 88.

What They’re Famous For

David Herbert Donald is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University. A student of the famed Lincoln and Civil War scholar James Garfield Randall, Donald has trained many of today’s leading historians, and ranks as one of America’s leading authorities on the Civil War era. He is the author of David Herbert  Donald JPGLincoln (1995), which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. Lincoln is considered the definitive one volume biography for our time. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), and for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987). Donald has been invited to the White House by almost every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, giving lectures or attending receptions.

Professor Donald is considered the leading authority on Abraham Lincoln and has advised on numerous projects relating to the 16th President. He was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series “Lincoln” and for the 2000 television series “A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” Additionally he served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Donald has moved on from studying Lincoln, and is embarking on writing a biography of John Quincy Adams. As he recently stated in an interview for the Boston Globe: “I’ve said farewell to Lincoln so many times, but this time I think it will really happen. I’ll miss writing about Lincoln, but on the other hand, I’ve sort of been there, done that. Perhaps I was getting repetitious anyway.”

Personal Anecdote

In 1947 I received my first teaching appointment. It was at Columbia University in the School of General Studies, where most of the students were veterans whose education had been interrupted by World War II. Many were much older than I, and all knew much more of the world than I, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi. I felt lucky if I could keep one day ahead of my students, and I lived in constant fear that I would be exposed as an ignoramus. I tried to compensate by working very hard on my lectures, ransacking the Columbia libraries and staying up night after night till long past midnight.

Toward the end of the first semester our syllabus called for a lecture on the celebrated Scopes trial (1925), where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fiercely argued opposing sides in their debate over evolution. I had read biographies of both men, as well as several accounts of the trial itself, and I tried to present, as fairly as I could, their arguments as well as the rulings of the judge. I thought I was doing a pretty good job when a middle-aged man in the back row raised his hand and said in a gruff voice, “Well, Dr. Donald, that’s all well and good, but it isn’t really the way things happened.” David Herbert Donald  JPGHis name was McEvoy, and he had been a reporter for one of the New York papers at the trial. Speaking without interruption for about ten minutes, he proceeded to give us a first-hand account of what went on in that court room.

Initially taken aback, I looked around the classroom and saw that the other students were following Mr. McEvoy avidly, and when he had finished his account, they began peppering him with questions about the trial. Presently they turned to me to learn what I thought its significance was. The discussion continued long after the class bell rang, as the students and I walked across the campus, arguing about the meaning of Darwinism. For the first time I began to realize that this was what education is supposed to be–a reciprocal process in which one both teaches and learns.

That is a lesson I have kept with me ever since. On whatever level I have taught, whether a freshman seminar or a graduate course, I have found that I can best teach students if I also am willing to learn from them. Whether my courses were offered at Columbia, Princeton, Smith, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, or Harvard, my students and I have worked together in this joint enterprise of learning. That is why I loved teaching. And that is why, I think, so many of my former students have gone on to achieve great distinction in their chosen fields.


By David Herbert Donald

  • The Lincolns’ celebration were short-lived. Shortly before the party their son Willie had fallen ill with “bilious fever” – probably typhoid fever, caused by pollution in the White House water system. Deeply anxious, his parents considered canceling the grand reception, but the family doctor assured them that the boy was in no immediate danger. Even so, both the President and his wife quietly slipped upstairs during the party to be at their son’s bedside. During the next two weeks Tad came down with the same illness while Willie grew worse and worse.Sitting up with his sick children night after night, Lincoln was unable to transact business, and he seemed to stumble through his duties. There were fluctuations in Willie’s illness, but during the two weeks after the grand party he grew weaker and weaker, and Lincoln began to despair of his recovery. On February 20 the end came. Stepping into his office, Lincoln said in a voice chocked with emotion: “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone-he is actually gone!” Then he burst into tears and left to give what comfort he could to Tad.Lincoln JPGBoth parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, “He was too good for this earth…but then we loved him so.” It seemed appropriate that Willie’s funeral, which was held in the White House, was accompanied by one of the heaviest wind and rain storms ever to visit Washington. Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone. At nights he had happy dreams of being with Willie, only to wake to the sad recognition of death. On a trip to Fort Monroe, long after Willie was buried, Lincoln read passages from Macbeth and King Lear to an aide, and then from King John he recited Constances lament for her son:And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
    That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
    If that be true, I shall see my boy again.

    His voice trembled, and he wept. — David Herbert Donald in “Lincoln”

  • I hesitated for a long time before deciding to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln. There were already thousands of books on the subject, and many of them were excellent… I wanted to write a narrative account of Lincoln’s life, one almost novelistic in form, though every statement would be buttressed by fact. My intention was to tell the story of Lincoln’s life as he saw it, making use only of the information and ideas that were available to him at the time. My purpose was to explain rather than to judge.In telling the story from Lincoln’s perspective, I became increasingly impressed by Lincoln’s fatalism. Lincoln believed, along with Shakespeare, that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them as we will.” Again and again, he felt that his major decisions were forced upon him. Late in the Civil War, he explained to a Kentucky friend: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” This does not mean, of course, that Abraham Lincoln was inactive or inert, nor does it imply that he was incapable of taking decisive action. But this view — which is something that began to emerge from his own words, and not a thesis that I originally started out with — emphasizes the importance of Lincoln’s deeply held religious beliefs and his reliance on a Higher Power. — David Herbert Donald reflecting on “Lincoln” (Simon & Schuster, Author essay)
  • Even in the mechanics of writing I find myself influenced by this distinctively American — perhaps Southern American — way of telling a story. I compose at the keyboard of my computer, pausing as I complete each sentence to read it aloud, making sure that both the sound and the sense convey the meaning that I want. If I have failed, I delete the offending sentence and start again. Sometimes I may sound out a dozen versions of a phrase or sentence before I get it just right. Occasionally this practice has led to amusing results. Once, when I was in my study writing my biography of Thomas Wolfe, two friendly carpenters were making repairs in an adjacent room. Presently they took a coffee-break in the back yard, just out of my sight but not quite out of my hearing.
    Asked the older carpenter in a worried tone: “Do you think he’s all right?”
    “I guess so,” replied the younger, “but he does sit at that machine for hours and hours talking to himself.”
    I may not be “all right” — but I like to think that my story-telling carries on a great tradition. And it is a distinctively American tradition. — David Herbert Donald “On Being an American Historian”

About David Herbert Donald

  • “Lincoln immediately takes its place among the best of the genre, and it is unlikely that it will be surpassed in elegance, incisiveness and originality in this century. . . . A book of investigative tenacity, interpretive boldness and almost acrobatic balance.” — Harold Holzer reviewing “Lincoln”
  • This is a masterwork. It stands alone among 135 years of Lincoln biographies… The popular magazine “Civil War Times” has devoted its December issue to the war president. It indulged in a difficult game by asking its own contributors to select and rank the 10 best books among the 7,000 or so written. Donald’s biography came in second – after Lincoln’s own writings. There has been no major biography quite like this: It is chiefly written from Lincoln’s perspective. Information and ideas available to him, rather than to later historians, form its principal source – together with Lincoln’s own words, and those of his contemporaries…Lincoln remains a touchstone for Americans, their best face to the world. What the finest of historians tells us about him influences the country’s future. None should take the responsibility lightly. David Herbert Donald does not. Literate Americans, and people around the world who would understand what Lincoln called this “almost chosen people,” owe it to themselves to read this remarkable, provocative book. Gabor Boritt, Gettysburg College reviewing “Lincoln”
  • Donald has steered clear of legends and delivered a one-volume study of Lincoln’s life that will augment and replace the previous modern standards by Benjamin Thomas (1953) and Stephen Oates (1977). Donald’s biography is foremost the product of painstaking research and a lifetime of reading in the Lincoln archives and literature. It is a definitive version of Lincoln’s personal story. Donald has effectively used Lincoln’s own language–the famous speeches and state papers, public letters and the inexhaustible trove of the President’s own jokes and tales–to develop the story. Donald’s Lincoln is a humanized, demystified figure: cautious, brilliant and lucky, the pilot who kept trying to steer the ship to the middle of the river while imagining the gradual, if inevitable, abolition of slavery.” David W. Blight, Yale University reviewing “Lincoln”
  • “Readers interested in American history know that David Donald’s books and essays are an extraordinary literary achievement. Those of us fortunate enough to have been his students can attest that he was an equally extraordinary teacher. He was a captivating lecturer, a stimulating discussion leader, and a meticulous director of research and writing projects. Most important, he was a generous and sensitive mentor, and his contributions to the personal development of his students have extended far beyond the many scholarly careers he helped to launch.” — Thomas J. Brown, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina and former student.
  • From the way that he conducts himself in a classroom to the extraordinary elegance of his own prose or his mode of delivering trenchant criticism, in either his precise handwriting or his distinctive accent, David Donald is a truly exceptional teacher, scholar, and writer. I witnessed him give the most remarkable performance I have ever seen in a classroom, one that elicited spontaneous applause mid-lecture from a rapt audience of jaded undergraduates. Likewise, the concluding pages of his Sumner and Lincoln biographies rank among the most eloquent and poignant historical writing I have ever read. And I expect that to this day his students from his earliest days at Smith and Columbia to his final students at Harvard still emulate Donald in ways that many may not even fully recognize. — Fitzhugh Brundage, Professor of History, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and former student
  • “Professor Donald held lecture halls full of undergraduates spellbound; he writes books that humble other scholars. He tried to pass his skills on to his graduate students, insisting that we learn both to think and to work. He gave us the room to develop our own ideas then demanded meticulous research and careful writing. Overwhelmingly generous and remarkably patient, he read drafts, engaged material, and suggested improvements. And he had only the highest hopes for us. After a student raved about one of his books, he was embarrassed, but polite. ‘Why, thank you,’ he said. ‘Now go out and write a better one.'” — Heather Cox Richardson, Associate Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst and former student
  • “David Donald is simply a virtuoso. He is the ideal scholar-teacher and a walking advertisement for academia’s traditional mentoring system. His rigorous research, insightful analysis, and graceful writing set standards we, his students, could only dream of achieving — but did our best to reach — while his eloquent lectures, stimulating seminars, and thorough line-by-line analyses taught us well — while teaching us how to teach. Professor Donald turned me into a thief. I regularly find myself stealing his lines, echoing his analysis, appearing smart based on his smarts. This is most apparent to me when I hear my students “stealing” from me what I “stole” from him — this echo chamber, with each successive generation adding its own accent or twist, is education at its best.” — Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University and former student

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Charles Warren Professor of American History, 1973-91, chair of graduate program in American civilization, 1979-85, professor emeritus, 1991–.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, professor of history, 1962-73, Harry C. Black Professor of American History, 1963-73, director of the Institute of Southern History, 1966-72.
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, professor of history, 1959-62.
Smith College, Northampton, MA, associate professor of history, 1949-51.
Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor, 1947-49, assistant professor, 1951-52, associate professor, 1952-57, professor of history, 1957-59.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, research assistant, 1943-46; research associate, 1946-47.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, teaching fellow, 1942. David  Herbert Donald JPG

Visiting associate professor of history, Amherst College, 1950; Fulbright lecturer in American history, University College of North Wales, 1953-54; member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, 1957-58; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, 1959-60; John P. Young lecturer, Memphis State University, 1963; Walter Lynwood Fleming lecturer, Louisiana State University, 1965; visiting professor, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1969-70; Benjamin Rush Lecturer, American Psychiatric Association, 1972; Commonwealth Lecturer, University College, University of London, 1975; Samuel Paley lecturer, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, 1991.

Area of Research: 19th Century US History, Civil War Era, Abraham Lincoln.

Education: Holmes Junior College, Millsaps College, 1941; M.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1942, 1946.

Major Publications:

  • Lincoln’s Herndon, introduction by Carl Sandburg, (Knopf, 1948), reprinted with a new introduction by Donald, (Da Capo Press, 1988).
  • (Author of text) Divided We Fought: A Pictorial History of the War, 1861-1865, (Macmillan, 1952).
  • Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War, (Knopf, 1956), (2nd enlarged edition, Random House, 1961), (reprinted, Vintage Books, 1989).
  • An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil War and the Social Process, (Clarendon Press, 1960).
  • Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, (Knopf, 1960), (collector’s edition, Easton Press, 1987).
  • (With James G. Randall) The Divided Union, (Little, Brown, 1961).
  • (With James G. Randall) The Civil War and Reconstruction, (2nd edition, Heath, 1961), (revised and enlarged edition, 1969), (revised edition with Jean H. Baker and Michael F. Holt, Norton, 2001).
  • The Politics of Reconstruction, 1863-1867, (Louisiana State University Press, 1965), (reprinted, Harvard University Press, 1984).
  • The Nation in Crisis, 1861-1877, (Appleton, 1969).
  • Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, (Knopf, 1970), (unabridged edition, published with Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, published as Charles Sumner, with new introduction by Donald, (Da Capo Press, 1996).
  • Gone for a Soldier, (Little, Brown, 1975).
  • Liberty and Union, (Little, Brown, 1978).
  • Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, (Little, Brown, 1987).
  • Lincoln, (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  • Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Domestic Life, (White House Historical Association, 1999).
  • “We Are Lincoln Men”: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
  • Contributor to historical journals. General editor, “The Making of America” series and “Documentary History of American Life” series.

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor, with wife, Aida Donald) Diary of Charles Francis Adams, two volumes, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1964.
  • (With others) Grant, Lee, Lincoln, and the Radicals, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1964.
  • (Editor) Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, Longmans, Green (New York, NY), 1954.
  • (Author of introduction) George Cary Eggleston, A Rebel’s Recollections, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1959.
  • (Editor) Why the North Won the Civil War, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1960, revised and expanded edition, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
  • (With others) The Great Republic: A History of the American People, Heath (Boston, MA), 1977, 4th edition, 1992.
  • (With others) With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, edited by Robert Cowley, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
  • (With Harold Holzer) Lincoln in the Times : The Life of Abraham Lincoln, as Originally Reported in The New York Times, (St. Martin’s Press, 2005)


David Herbert Donald Prize for “Excellence in Lincoln Studies,” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, 2005.
Pulitzer Prize in biography, 1961, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, and 1988, for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe; Guggenheim fellowship, 1964-65, and 1985-86.
Lincoln was winner of the 1996 Lincoln Prize, the Lincoln/Barondess Award from the Civil War Round Table of New York, the Christopher Award, a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for nonfiction, the American Library Association for distinguished nonfiction, the New England Booksellers award for the best nonfiction book of the year, and the Jefferson Davis Award of the Museum of the Confederacy. (all in 1996)
Honorary M.A. degrees from Oxford University and Harvard University, a L.H.D. degree from Millsaps College (1976), the degree of Litt.D. from the College of Charleston, South Carolina (1985), the Doctor of History degree from Lincoln University, L.H.D. degree from the University of Calgary (2001), and the L.H.D. degree from Illinois College (2002) . In 1989 he was the recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 1992 he received the L.H.D. degree from that university. In May 2003 received the L.H.D. degree from Middlebury College.
Mr. Donald has held two fellowships from the John Si Nevins/Freeman Award, Chicago Civil War Roundtable, 1999.
Benjamin L. C. Wailes Award, Mississippi Historical Society, 1994.
C. Hugh Holman Prize, Modern Language Association, 1988.
National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, 1971-72.
American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1969-70.
George A. and Eliza G. Howard Fellowship, 1957-58.
Social Science Research Council fellowship, 1945-46.

Additional Info:

Donald served the American Historical Association on the Committee on the Harmsworth Professorship, the Committee on Research Needs of the Profession, the Nominating Committee, the Committee on the Albert J. Beveridge and Dunning Prizes, and the Board of Editors of The American Historical Review. He was in 1962-1964 an elected member of the Executive Committee of the Organization of American Historians, and in 1964 served on the Committee on the Future of the Association.
In the Southern Historical Association he has served on the Committee on Membership, the Committee on the Program, the Committee on Nominations, the Committee on the Ramsdell Award, and the Executive Council. In 1969 he was elected Vice President of the Southern Historical Association, and in 1970 he became the President of that group.
In 2001-2002 he was a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of the National Museum of American History.
In January 1990 President George Bush invited him to deliver the first lecture, on Abraham Lincoln, in the “Presidential Lectures on the Presidency” at the White House.
Donald was the principal historical adviser and commentator for the 1992 documentary series “Lincoln” and for the 2000 television series “A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” He has made numerous television appearances, including; PBS’ “Newshour with Jim Lehrer” and C-Span’s “Booknotes,” and has written articles for the popular media including the New York Times and Washington Post. Donald also served as a historical consultant for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

Posted on Sunday, February 19, 2006

History Doyens: James M. McPherson


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

James M. McPherson, 2-6-06

What They’re Famous For

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History at Princeton University, the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer in Humanities, and was 2003 president of the American Historical Association.

James M. McPherson JPG America’s leading historian of the Civil War, he won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was a New York Times best seller, and has since sold more than six hundred thousand copies. His book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002) was also a New York Times bestseller, and he won the 1998 Lincoln Prize for For Cause and Comrades. His sucess with Battle Cry of Freedom and other Civil War publications are considered to have paved the way for the success of the films Glory and Gettysburg and the television documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns. McPherson has authored more than a dozen books, and 100 major articles about the Civil War and the Civil War era.

Although his greatest achievement and impact in the historical field has been as AHA president, Shirley M. Tilghman said in her introduction to James McPherson at Princeton’s 2004 Baccalaureate service: “[Professor McPherson] has bridged the gap between academic and public history, he has shown us that history has a universal message.”

Personal Anecdote

Like most other graduate students, the selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958 to 1962. In my second year there, I did a research paper on an aspect of Reconstruction in Alabama, using sources from the University Library and the nearby Library of Congress. My adviser, C. Vann Woodward, encouraged me to write my dissertation on Alabama Reconstruction, with the hope that it might prove an important revision of Walter L. Fleming’s dissertation (and first book) on the same subject that was one of the foremost examples of the “Dunning School.” Although I had reservaions about the idea, I went ahead an wrote a prospectus for such a dissertation. Woodward approved it with considerably more enthusiasm about the project than I had.

It was the spring of 1960, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and I knew that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect of spending months in dusty courthouses and local historical societies in that state left me considerably less than ecstatic.

Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists, about whom I had done another research paper. James M. McPherson JPG My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than the idea of those Alabama courthouses. Besides, the question of what happened to the organized antislavery movement after slavery was abolished was unanswered in the existing literature. An assumption existed, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that they considered their mission accomplished and faded into the woodwork. I did some reading about several prominent abolitionists and decided that this assumption might be wrong. I did some preliminary research, became convinced that most abolitionists did not consider their mission accomplished in 1863 or 1865, and wrote another prospectus. Woodward was less than exuberant about this dissertation topic, but being a laissez faire adviser, he let me go ahead.

I wrote to several prominent historians in the field of antislavery history and asked their advice about a dissertation on the post-1863 (or post-1860) history of the antislavery movement. Most of them advised me to forget it–there wouldn’t be enough information to sustain a dissertation– again the implicit assumption that the movement packed up and disappeared. But I forged ahead anyhow, discovered an enormous amount of evidence that most abolitionists remained active in the cause of civil and political rights for freed slaves, or freedmen’s education, or both. My dissertation became my first book, THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY; ABOLITIONISTS AND THE NEGRO IN THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION. A spinoff from this research became my second book, THE NEGRO’S CIVIL WAR, and a sequel became my third: THE ABOLITIONIST LEGACY; FROM RECONSTRUCTION TO THE NAACP. From this experience I learned that all assumptions should be examined and challenged.


By James M. McPherson

  • The surrender completed, the two generals saluted somberly and parted. “This will live in history,” said one of Grant’s aides. But the Union commander seemed distracted. Having given birth to a reunited nation, he experienced a post-partum melancholy. “I felt . . . sad and depressed,” Grant wrote, “at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, thought that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” As news of the surrender spread through Union camps, batteries began firing joyful salutes until Grant ordered them stopped. “The war is over,” he said; “the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations.” To help bring those former rebels back in the Union, Grant sent three days’ rations for 25,000 men across the lines. This perhaps did something to ease the psychological as well as physical pain of Lee’s soldiers.Battle Cry of Freedom JPG So did an important symbolic gesture at a formal ceremony three days later when Confederate troops marched up to stack arms and surrender their flags. As they came, many among them shared the sentiments of one officer: “Was this to be the end of all our marching and fighting for the past four years? I could not keep back the tears.” The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honor for Little Round Top, had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain’s brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with the shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier’s “mutual salutation and farewell. — James McPherson in “Battle Cry for Freedom”
  • One reason is the continuing salience of many of the issues over which the war was fought. Even though the War resolved the issues of Union and slavery, it didn’t entirely resolve the issues that underlay those two questions. The relationships between the national government and regions, race relations, the role of government in trying to bring about change in race relations–these issues are still important in American society today. . . . The continuing relevance of these issues, I think, is one reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War…. Look at the large membership in the history book club, the interest in the History Channel on television, and the interest in documentaries by Ken Burns and by other historical filmmakers. There is a real hunger out there which is not always reached by academic historians. I think they ought to reach out more than they do, and that is what I try to do… I think it’s possible to break new ground or offer new interpretations or to write a narrative work of history in such a way as it can appeal to a general audience, but also have something for a more academic and specialized audience. It has something to do with being convinced that history is a story of change over time, with a beginning, a development, a climax of consequences, and writing that story in such a way as it will retain the interest of a broad audience, but also have something new and interesting in the way of insight or interpretation for the specialist as well. It is not easy to explain. I just try to do it, and sometimes I think I’ve succeeded. — James McPherson in an interview with William R. Ferris of “Humanities”
  • So, my message to you today is: Take heart. These are perhaps not the best of times to graduate. But neither are they the worst of times. Most of your student days have been lived in the shadow of 9/11. But from that experience you have gained the perspective to endure both the good and the bad times that will come in the future. Twenty years after the American Civil War Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was wounded three times in that conflict and went on to become one of our greatest Supreme Court justices, said in a Memorial Day address: “The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” I would certainly not go so far as to describe 9/11 as your “great good fortune.” But it did touch your hearts with fire and teach you that life is a profound and passionate thing. Generations that have gone before have been similarly touched. They responded to the challenges with courage and creativity. I am confident that you will do the same. — James McPherson, 2004 Baccalaureate Address, May 30, 2004

About James M. McPherson

  • “This is the best one-volume treatment of a subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive and succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away, feeling as if I had never heard the saga before. It is most welcome. . . . A deeply satisfying book.” — Hugh Brogan, New York Times Book Review on “Battle Cry of Freedom”
  • “Deftly coordinated, gracefully composed, charitably argued, and suspensefully laid out, McPherson’s book is just the compass of the tumultuous middle years of the 18th century it was intended to be, and as narrative history, it is surpassing. Bright with details and fresh quotations, sold with carefully-arrived-at conclusions, it must surely be, of the 50,000 books written on the Civil War, the finest compression of that national paroxysm ever fitted between two covers.” — Huston Horn, Los Angeles Times Book Review on “Battle Cry of Freedom”
  • “Professor McPherson is not, in the commonly understood sense of the word, a political man. Those who are looking for left-wing pronouncements will be disappointed, legitimately or otherwise. His banner, if one can avoid sounding too pompous saying it, is intellectual integrity. He seems quite determined to remove himself from the immediacy of day-to-day political life, immersing himself in the study of complex, riveting events, but not living in the past or mesmerized by it. He is neither a preserver of trite ‘Americana’ nor a ‘Civil War buff.’ When one speaks with him about the events of the Civil War era they are astonishingly contemporary and alive.
    One might wish he were more forthcoming about certain political issues, but one must respect his reticence. One is evaluating him as an historian. Society has a strong need for such people, particularly those who strive to be both authoritative and accessible to a wide audience, as McPherson does, those who ‘aspire to a general democratic public,’ in the words of Allan Nevins, a phrase he cites approvingly. — David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site
  • “History professor James McPherson will deliver the Baccalaureate address for the Class of 2004, the University announced yesterday.
    The honor comes in recognition of McPherson’s retirement after 42 years of teaching and his stature as one of the most beloved professors on campus.
    McPherson, perhaps the most renowned scholar of Civil War history, said he will be as honored to give the Baccalaureate address as he was to give the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 2000 Jefferson Lecture, that organization’s highest recognition.
    ‘This is equal because it’s a major recognition by the senior class and the president of Princeton University,’ he said.
    Tilghman chose McPherson after consulting with leaders in the senior class. Eli Goldsmith, president of the Class of ’04, said he was thrilled with the choice.
    ‘As far as people with a great knowledge of history go, there probably isn’t anyone better than James McPherson,’ he said. — Brian Henn in “Daily Princetonian” on “McPherson picked for Baccalaureate”
  • “Professor McPherson was a great teacher who clearly cared about his students. He was one of the best teachers at Princeton – based on his ability, research and reputation… A group of my friends led the charge in initiating a 21-gun salute with super soakers as Professor McPherson left the podium. I think they only got seven off.” — Shaun Callaghan ’06, Princeton University on McPherson’s retirement and final lecture.
  • “McPherson was a marvelous historian who brought culture, religion and politics to life to tell an epic story. We were lucky [to have him]… There’s not going to be anyone quite like McPherson, so people shouldn’t be looking for his clone.” — Jeremy Adelman, chair of the history department, Princeton University

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, instructor, 1962-65,James M. McPherson JPG assistant professor, 1965-68, associate professor, 1968-72, professor of history, 1972-82, Edwards Professor of American History, 1982-91, George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History, 1991–, Retired from teaching December, 2004.

Area of Research: United States history, 1830-1917; slavery and anti-slavery; the Civil War.

Education: Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963, Highest Distinction, B.A. Gustavus Adolphus College, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1958

Major Publications:

  • The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction, (Princeton University Press, 1964), 2nd edition with new preface by the author, 1995.
  • The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted in the War for the Union, (Pantheon, 1965), (University of Illinois Press, 1982), published as The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union, (Ballantine Books, 1991).
  • The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP, (Princeton University Press, 1975), 2nd edition, with a new preface by the author, 1995.
  • Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, (Knopf, 1982), (McGraw-Hill, 2001), published as The Civil War (reprint of the second part of Ordeal by Fire), (Knopf, 1982), (McGraw-Hill, 1982), published as two separate volumes; Ordeal by Fire: The Coming of War and Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War, (McGraw-Hill, 1993), 3rd edition, (McGraw-Hill, 2001).
  • Images of the Civil War, paintings by Mort Ku”nstler, (Gramercy Books, 1982).
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford University Press, 1988), published as collector’s edition, (Easton Press, 2002).
  • Gettysburg (companion volume to film of the same name), paintings by Mort Kunstler, (Turner Publishing, 1993), (Rutledge Hill Press, 1998).
  • What They Fought For, 1861-1865, (Louisiana State University Press, 1994).
  • Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, (Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • Fields of Fury: The American Civil War, (Atheneum, 2002). (for Young Adults)
  • Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, (Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Hallowed Ground: A Walk in Gettysburg, (Crown, 2003)
  • Into The West, (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006).
  • Also author of How Abolitionists Fought On after the Civil War, Princeton University (Princeton, NJ), a reprint in book form of an article from the quarterly magazine University, 1968-69;
    White Liberals and Black Power in Negro Education, 1865-l915, 1969; First Black Power Bid in U.S. Education, Princeton University, from University, 1970;
    Who Freed the Slaves?: Lincoln and Emancipation, (Lincoln Memorial Association, 1993).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (With others) Blacks in America: Bibliographical Essays, (Doubleday, 1971).
  • (With Corner Vann Woodward and J. Morgan Kousser) Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, (Oxford University Press, 1982).
  • Battle Chronicles of the Civil War, six volumes, (Grey Castle Press, Macmillan, 1989).
  • (Consulting editor) Steve O’Brien and others, editors, American Political Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present, (ABC-CLIO, 1991).
  • Marching toward Freedom: The Negro in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Knopf (New York, NY), 1968, published as Marching toward Freedom: Blacks in the Civil War, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1991.
  • The Atlas of the Civil War, (Macmillan, 1994).
  • “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope on Earth, (University of Illinois Press, 1995).
  • (With Bruce Catton) The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, (Viking, 1996), revised edition, with contributing editor Noah Andre Trudeau, (MetroBooks, 2001).
  • (With wife, Patricia R. McPherson) Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy, (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • (With William J. Cooper) Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1998.
  • (With Joyce Oldham Appleby and Alan Brinkley) The American Journey (textbook; student edition), National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1998, also published as The American Journey: Building a Nation, teacher’s wraparound edition, National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 2000.
  • To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, (Dorling Kindersley, 2000, revised edition, 2001).
  • Encyclopedia of Civil War Biographies, (Sharpe Reference, 2000).
  • (Editor and contributor, with Alan Brinkley and David Rubel) Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History: America’s Greatest Historians Examine Thirty-one Uncelebrated Days That Changed the Course of History, (DK Publishing, 2001).
  • The Civil War Reader, 1862, (Simon & Schuster, 2002).
  • (With Appleby, Brinkley, Albert S. Broussard, and Donald A. Ritchie) The American Vision (textbook), National Geographic Society/Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 2003.
  • (introduction and notes by James M. McPherson), The most fearful ordeal : original coverage of the Civil War by The New York Times, (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).
  • with an introduction by James M. McPherson, The Civil War by Bruce Catton, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005).
  • Contributor to books, including The Anti-Slavery Vanguard: New Essays on Abolitionism, edited by Martin M. Duberman, (Princeton University Press, 1965);
    Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, edited by Barton J. Bernstein, (Pantheon, 1968);
    How I Met Lincoln: Some Distinguished Enthusiasts Reveal Just How They Fell under His Spell, compiled by Harold Holzer, (American Heritage, 1999).
  • Contributor of forewords and afterwords to books, including:
    Brother against Brother, edited by Diane Stine Thomas, Silver Burdett Press (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1990;
    Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ulysses S. Grant, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1999;
    and The Birth of the Grand Old Republican Party: The Republicans’ First Generation, edited by Robert F. Engs and Randall M. Miller, University of Pennsylvania Press , 2002.
  • Contributor to periodicals, including American Historical Review, Caribbean Studies, Journal of American History, Journal of Negro History, Mid-America, Phylon, and others.Awards:Recipient of honorary degrees from Gustavus Adolphus College, Gettysburg College, Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, Bowdoin College, and Monmouth University.
    Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement, 2002;
    Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2000;
    Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History, 1998, with wife, Patricia McPherson, for Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy;
    R. Stanton Avery fellow, Huntington Library, 1995-96;
    Gustavus Adolphus College Alumni Award, Gustavus Alumni Association, 1990;
    Michael Award, New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame, 1989;
    Lincoln Prize, 1998, for For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought the Civil War;
    National Book Award nomination, 1988, National Book Critics Circle nomination, 1988, Pulitzer Prize in history, 1989, Distinguished Book Award, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, 1989, and citation, 100 Best English-Language Books of the 20th Century, Board of the Modern Library, 1999, all for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era;
    Huntington fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1977-78; Huntington Seaver fellow, 1987-88;
    Proctor & Gamble faculty fellowship; Anisfield Wolff Award in Race Relations, Cleveland Foundation, 1965, for The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction;
    Guggenheim fellow, 1967-58;
    Danforth fellow, 1958-62;
    Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, 1958.Additional Info:McPherson participated in working on many Civil War documentaries: He was the consultant on the film Gettysburg, (Turner Pictures, 1993); on the television documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns, (Public Broadcasting System, 1999); and on the television documentary Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, (Public Broadcasting System, 2001). McPherson provided the narration for the video Abraham Lincoln, (Atlas Video, 1990); was interviewed in the documentary Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War, Volume One, (Mastervision Studio, 1992), on the videos The Civil War Legends: Robert E. Lee and The Civil War Legends: Abraham Lincoln (both from Acorn Video), and on the audio cassette American Heritage’s Great Minds of History, (Simon & Schuster, 1999). He also provided the audio commentary on the DVD of the film Gettysburg, (Turner Home Entertainment, 2000).
    McPherson was also consultant for; Social Science program, Educational Research Council, Cleveland, OH. President, Protect Historic America, 1993-94; Society of American Historians, 2000-01; and American Historical Association, 2003–.
    McPherson is a member of board of directors of; Civil War Trust and Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Preservation Trust), 1991-93; member of Civil War Sites Advisory Committee, a committee created by the U.S. Congress, 1991-93.
    Also member of advisory board of; George Tyler Moore College of the Study of the Civil War, Shepherdstown, WV. Member of board of advisors, Lincoln Forum.
    Member of editorial board of magazine Civil War History.
    McPherson was appointed in 1991 by the United States Senate to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which determined the major battle sites, evaluated their conditions, and then recommended strategies for their preservation.Posted on Sunday, February 5, 2006
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