KINGSTON — A Pulitzer Prize-winning author on Monday described to a local audience how the outcomes of battles in a war affected politics and how politics affected the outcome of a war.
The war at issue was far from recent, as American Civil War historian James M. McPherson spoke on President Abraham Lincoln, various battles fought by his generals and how politics played a part in the outcome of the bloodiest war in American history.
McPherson opened his lecture at Wyoming Seminary’s Buckingham Performing Arts Center by noting that this year is the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest year of that war, as well as the year Lincoln was running for re-election, “which, for a time, it appeared, he would lose.”
Lincoln refused to give in to political pressure and abandon his re-election platform of the abolition of slavery and unconditional surrender of the Confederacy, McPherson said.
By July 1864, union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia “had achieved no more than a frustrating stalemate,” McPherson noted. And, influenced by Democratic newspapers blaming Lincoln for a “national humiliation,” opinion of war-weary northern citizens was turning against the president.
“The hopes of many for a quick victory had been drowned in the sorrows of more than 100,000 northern soldiers killed, wounded and missing in all theaters,” McPherson said.
It wasn’t until Gen. William Sherman had taken Atlanta, Ga., in early September 1864 that morale turned around and boosted Lincoln’s prospect for re-election.
On Nov. 8, Lincoln was re-elected with 55 percent of the popular vote and 90 percent of the electoral vote. “It was the final and most decisive turning point on the war. For both sides, it was the point of no return,” McPherson said.
McPherson spoke for about 40 minutes to an audience of about 100 people in a lecture that Wyoming Seminary opened to the public at no charge. He spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, many of whom were Civil War buffs and fans of his books.
Jim Shovlin, of Mountain Top, described himself as “a big admirer” of McPherson’s, having read several of his books, including his Pulitzer-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom.” He was impressed with McPherson’s “encyclopedic knowledge” of the war “and how it all ties together,” as were several of his friends who meet monthly to talk about Civil War topics.
Bernie Slusarz, another member of the group, found it interesting that McPherson “did not falter” in addressing any question posed by the audience.
Steve Ris, chairman of Wyoming Seminary’s History and Social Sciences Department, said when he opted to invite a guest lecturer for his classes rather than take them on a field trip, “I didn’t dream we’d be able to get someone of McPherson’s caliber.”
Ris said the election of 1864 was the most important election in American history, and he was impressed with how McPherson made it clear that had Lincoln lost the election, the union would have lost the war.
“Everything hinged on it. … Not only is Lincoln understood with the future of the United States hinging on the election, but really of the world, and the free democratic government in the world. (McPherson) made that connection tonight,” Ris said. “That, for me, was such an important realization.”
Editors Note: The story was changed to reflect that James M. McPherson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The original story stated that he won a Nobel prize.