James McPherson ’58, Civil War historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Gustavus alumnus, has published his latest book, War on the Waters, through the University of North Carolina Press.
Although previously undervalued for their strategic impact because they represented only a small percentage of total forces, the Union and Confederate navies were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. In War on the Waters, McPherson has crafted an enlightening, at times harrowing, and ultimately thrilling account of the war’s naval campaigns and their military leaders.
McPherson recounts how the Union navy’s blockade of the Confederate coast, leaky as a sieve in the war’s early months, became increasingly effective as it choked off vital imports and exports. Meanwhile, the Confederate navy, dwarfed by its giant adversary, demonstrated daring and military innovation. Commerce raiders sank Union ships and drove the American merchant marine from the high seas. Southern ironclads sent several Union warships to the bottom, naval mines sank many more, and the Confederates deployed the world’s first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. But in the end, it was the Union navy that won some of the war’s most important strategic victories – as en essential partner to the army on the ground at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Mobile Bay, and Fort Fisher, and all by itself at Port Royal, Fort Henry, New Orleans, and Memphis.
After graduating magna cum laude from Gustavus in 1958, McPherson went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1963 from Johns Hopkins University. He eventually earned the title of George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, where he taught for 42 years. Upon his retirement, he was granted professor emeritus status.
While he wrote and published seven books from 1964 to 1985 on topics including the abolition of slavery and Abraham Lincoln, he is best known for his 1988 book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The book broke ground in combining the complexities of the war while maintaining the narrative that made it appealing to the American public. It helped launch an unprecedented national renaissance of interest in the Civil War and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
Several of McPherson’s other works have received special recognition as well. His book The Struggle for Equality won the Anisfield-Wolf Award in 1965. He has received the Lincoln Prize twice in his career – in 1998 with For Cause and Comrades and in 2009 for Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. In 2007, he received the first-ever $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military history.
McPherson returned to Gustavus last April as the College’s Sesquicentennial Scholar. He spoke in Christ Chapel on Monday, April 16, 2012, and spoke to alumni and friends of the College at Interlachen Country Club in Edina on April 17, 2012 about “Why the Civil War Still Matters.” During his visit at Gustavus, McPherson and his wife Patricia made a donation to the College to sponsor the office of Professor of History Greg Kaster, who teaches courses on U.S. History including the Civil War.
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