Prelude to a Battle


James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” is considered by experts to be the best one-volume history of the Civil War.

The book covers the war, defined broadly. It describes the economic, political and social forces that made war more or less inevitable. McPherson examines the desperate struggle of the south to be recognized by the European powers — and the equally desperate efforts of the north to prevent that from happening. He examines the role of women and free (and freed) blacks during the war and the evolution of armaments, military medicine and military strategy during the conflict.

It’s a magisterial work. A particularly great passage deals with the music that was played on the eve of a battle in Tennessee. In the north, the battle he describes was called the Battle of Stones River. In the south, it was the Battle of Murfreesboro.

As the two armies bedded down a few hundred yards from each other, their bands commenced a musical battle as prelude to the real thing next day. Northern musicians blared out “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia” and were answered across the way by “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” One band finally swung into the sentimental strains of “Home Sweet Home,” others picked it up, and soon thousands of Yanks and Rebs who tomorrow would kill each other were singing the familiar words together.

The writing is great as well. More on the book. Above, Bobby Horton — who is billed as a Civil War Musician — plays “Home Sweet Home.”

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