James McPherson seems to have inherited the great Civil War historian mantle from Bruce Catton as writing the most knowledgable and entertaining Civil War books. He seems to be the mega author on the subject. I'll be contrarian and say he wrote one really good book and others that are just okay. I would throw out Stephen Sears, Jack Davis and others as producing more solid books than McPherson, that are just as entertaining and more prolific. What am I missing?
I think much of it comes from McPherson's reputation and that one good book (although I respectfully disagree that his other work is just okay). When people come to me in the bookstore and ask for a good single volume history of the war, McPherson is my first choice for two main reasons. First, his work set the standard in the early 1980s for readable history that went beyond simplistic explanations for great events and second, his work has stood the test of time. "Battle Cry of Freedom" is in desperate need of revision to bring it up to date, but I think it still should be given the honor it deserves. That isn't to say that Jack Davis, Stephen Sears or Gary Gallagher haven't produced exceptional work, but their studies have been subject specific, where McPherson by and large has remained a generalist.
I have to be honest here and admit that much of my respect for McPherson came about because of a letter I wrote him just after BCOF came out. I was trying to decide whether to go to graduate school and on a lark, I wrote him (and C. Vann Woodward) a letter asking for his advice. He sent me a very nice reply urging me to go to grad school (I didn't) and encouraging my study of history. Woodward also sent back a reply that he typed himself (it has all the errors he made on it). Both hang in places of honor in my office. But even if he had told me to leave him alone or simply ignored me, I would still give his work the respect it deserves.
James McPherson is a very nice man. He's a fairly regular attendee and speaker at the annual Civil War Institute in Gettysburg.
McPherson doesn't know me from Adam, but I've been on several of his tours and have had several of his books autographed by him. He's always been courteous and gracious with his time and answered any question I might have had. I'm always excited when I see his name on the program.
In McPherson's excellent book, 'Drawn with the Sword,' (which I'm sure you've read), the final chapter, 'What's the Matter with History?,' McPherson uses himself as an example in a treatise on popular and academic audiences of history. He notes that after BCOF came out, he received 521 letters from readers between 1988 and 1995. I can't help but think yours was one of them.
I've got five of McPherson's books, and the only one that disappointed me was 'Hallowed Ground,' written is 2003 and published by Crown Journeys, not Oxford (unless CJ is a subsidiary of Oxford, don't know). It's really just a travel piece, a review of the battle of Gettysburg with few insights. My hardback copy is about the size of a standard paperback and is only 140 pages. Not even sure why he wrote it except it's apparently a part of a travelogue series.
By the way, there were no endorsements on the back cover.
IMHO if an individual is interested in the causes of the ACW Battle Cry Of Freedom is THE book to read. I guess I need to add to my book wish list. The to be read stack continues to grow. One day this pesky job will be over and time will let me read more. 'Till then I have a habit of eating and paying bills.
Sears is still my favorite if one is looking at specific engagemens.