By now most of you are no doubt aware of the fact that Drew G. Faust has been appointed to the top spot at Harvard. Today I spent some time talking about the significance of this decision with my women’s history course. While our discussion focused on this development within the much broader historical context of women’s entry into education I kept coming back in my own mind to the publicity that Civil War scholarship is getting in connection with this appointment. Everyone knows that the new president of Harvard is a prominent Civil War scholar and for some reason what I like about this is that she is a woman. She is a woman in what is all too often perceived as an area of history dominated by men who obsess over every detail of the battlefield. I think the fanfare about Faust’s appointment serves as positive publicity in connection to the way I suspect most people perceive our field. Anyone who has read her scholarship on slaveholding women, Confederate nationalism, and James H. Hammond appreciates Faust’s level of scholarship and sophistication. While I’ve read most of her books my favorite article by her was published a few years back in the Journal of Southern History titled “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying” [(February 2001): 3-39]. In the article Faust provides an analysis of how the battlefield challenged cultural assumptions concerning the ideal death in the nineteenth century. I’ve read this article through at least three during the course of my research on how Confederate soldiers understood the experience of watching comrades executed usually for desertion.
In short, Faust is a wonderful ambassador for Civil War scholarship. For a brief moment the face of Civil War scholarship is not an overweight reenactor or someone who can tell us where Grant sneezed on the battlefield or someone trying to hold tight to some strand of the Lost Cause. Not only is Faust a serious scholar, but she serves to remind the public that women have assumed a position of prominence in a field that has for too long been claimed as a man’s domain.