Born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota, McPherson's first fascination with the Civil War began as a graduate student in 1958 under the mentorship of C. Vann Woodward at Johns Hopkins University. But it was not the war McPherson focused on then. His subject for study were the abolitionists whose passions and protests helped put Abraham Lincoln in office and shape the social reforms brought about by the war. While McPherson was in Baltimore, events similar to the abolition movement he was studying were taking place all around the country. "I was struck by all of these parallels between what was a freedom crusade of the 1860s and a freedom crusade of the 1960s. "My first entry in Civil War scholarship focused on that very theme," says McPherson. His dissertation about the abolition movement went on to be published in 1964 as The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction.