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An eye-opening march through the Civil War

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
By James M. McPherson
Oxford University, 260 pp., $28

It is a relief to encounter a Civil War book that fails as a doorstop on a windy day. The tomes that anchor the canon -- all 3,000 magnificent pages of Shelby Foote , most notably -- are essential, but smart, tight writing is also a delight for many of us whose eyes glaze over at 400 pages.

It's hard to write short. This is why Joseph Ellis's "Founding Brothers" is so excellent. He elucidates a great theme of the founding of this country in a mere chapter, and tells what matters about the Revolution in about 250 pages.

So let us now praise James McPherson, our premier living Civil War historian, for a bracing collection of essays titled "This Mighty Scourge, Perspectives on the Civil War," that covers a lot of military and political ground in 221 pages. It will seduce anyone, Civil War neophyte or fanatic, for its authority and judgments.

In 16 essays, McPherson tackles issues like "The Lost Cause" hagiography among Southerners about the war's roots . He exposes the cultural and historical censorship applied to public - school history textbooks in the South that continued well into the 20th century. His deconstruction of Southern myths invites challenge, so it will be interesting to see what kind of broadsides he receives to his well-wrapped conclusions.

McPherson explores the close consumption of newspapers by soldiers on both sides of the war, Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan that made him a national figure. He explains why Lincoln fought for total surrender. This was the first war in American history that could not end in negotiated settlement, as had the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, because such an outcome would have meant recognition of the Confederacy.

He demolishes the bald rewriting of history by Confederates after the war to frame the Southern cause as a struggle over states ' rights rather than slavery. Southerners had fought first and foremost over slavery, he argues, and he quotes Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, before the war to great effect.

Stephens argued that the country was founded on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

McPherson also delivers shots to the Progressive School, the powerful group of Southern historians led by Charles Beard, and the Nashville Fugitives, historians and novelists like Robert Penn Warren , who , he argues, essentially perpetuated the myths of the post-Civil War apologists.

He devotes a chapter to the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, "the Harvard Regiment," named for all the Brahmins who served and died in it, and plumbs the leadership that helped it fight so well for so long. He also enlightens us to Charles Russell Lowell, who led the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry before he fell with the 13th horse shot from under him, at Winchester, Va., in 1864 .

There is not a bad chapter in this book. "This Mighty Scourge" is a marvelous read from a master historian. Like all good history, what it makes you want to do is know more.