Civil War, civil rights

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, McPherson, to speak at Idaho Humanities Council event

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COEUR d'ALENE - James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian and Princeton University professor, thinks most Americans are surprised when they consider the human cost of the war in today's terms.

The American Civil War began 150 years ago, and by the time it ended, the death toll included 620,000 soldiers, in a country of 32 million people.

"If that same percentage of Americans were killed in war fought by the United States today, the number of American war dead would be more than six million. I think many people find this shocking," wrote McPherson, in an email interview with The Press.

McPherson will visit Coeur d'Alene next week to speak at the eighth annual Idaho Humanities Council's Distinguished Humanities Lecture and Dinner.

The event takes place Thursday at 7 p.m. at The Coeur d'Alene Resort.

McPherson has written several bestselling books. "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era," published in 1988, won the Pulitzer Prize. Although historians had been writing about the Civil War for decades, McPherson's book broke ground in exploring the complexities of the war while maintaining an appealing narrative. Battle Cry has since sold more than 600,000 copies.

His most recent book, "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," was published in 2008 and explores how Lincoln had almost no military experience when he was elected in 1860 but went on to define the role of the American commander-in-chief as he led the country through the Civil War.

McPherson was first attracted to the Civil War as a field for professional study when he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University from 1958 to 1962.

"I became struck by the historical parallels between the times in which I was living and the events of a century earlier," McPherson wrote. "These were the early years of the civil rights movement, with its confrontations between the national government and Southern political leaders who were vowing massive resistance to national laws on desegregation."

It was the time of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, McPherson said. It was also a time of violence, when federal marshals and troops were sent into the South to protect blacks and enforce the law.

McPherson attended the march on Washington in the summer of 1963. Martin Luther King helped organize the march which led him to the front of the Lincoln Memorial where he gave his iconic "I have a dream" speech.

These events were followed by the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

McPherson decided to write his Ph.D. dissertation on the efforts of the civil rights activists of the 1860s and the efforts of abolitionists working for equal civil and political rights, and education, for the freed slaves. The work became McPherson's first book: "The Struggle for Equality; Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1964."

"From there my interests in the Civil War era expanded into the political and military history of the war, which formed the context for the activism of the abolitionists who were the initial subjects of my research," McPherson wrote.

Although the Civil War abolished slavery, and the U.S. Constitution was subsequently amended to grant civil and political equality to blacks, McPherson said it has taken a long time to implement those equal rights.

"In many respects it is still a work in progress, which makes that change in race relations begun by the Civil War, the element of the war most relevant to us today," McPherson wrote.

An active preservationist, McPherson has served on the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission since 1991. In 2000, he was honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities as one of the nation's top historians.

Tickets for the Coeur d'Alene dinner and lecture are $45 and can be purchased online at the Idaho Humanities Council's website,, or by phone, (888) 345-5346.

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