So You Want To Be a Civil War Historian

Presentation of M.E. Rachal Award at the Virginia Historical Society (2005) w/Paul Levengood and Nelson Lankford

The other day I received an email from a reader looking for advice on writing and publishing in the field of Civil War history.  I thought it might be a good idea to respond on the blog so as to allow the rest of you to add your own perspective.  First the email:

I’m emailing to seek advice on writing and publishing.  I’ve always been what I guess one would call a Civil War “buff” and am now trying to take my understanding of the period to a higher, more serious level.  I think the sesquicentennial is an opportune time to do so. Last month I joined the Society of Civil War Historians.  In the past 1 1/2 years I’ve published a book chapter on library instruction, spoken at a few on-campus events here at my college, and presented at a few conferences as well.  Later this year I have four articles being published in a woman’s history encyclopedia published by Facts-on-File.

I’m emailing because I have what I feel are some strong ideas for both academic journal articles and the general interest ACW magazines.  My focus is more on the immediate postbellum period than the war itself.  My position is somewhat unique because though I don’t hold the PhD, I have faculty status.  (I have two masters degrees.)  In a way the pressure is off because this past semester I was given tenure.  (I’m thinking about starting my own blog this coming fall when my tenure becomes official with the new academic year.)  Anyways, I’m emailing to see if you might be able to give me some advice on breaking in.  A few questions I have are:

Again, please feel free to add your own thoughts based on your own experiences.  I don’t have any hard and fast answers.  That said, I do see my own story reflected in this email.  I do not have a PhD in history, but I did manage to work my way to a point where I can maneuver between a number of different communities. 

  • Question: How SPECIFICALLY does one pitch an idea to the magazines (Civil War Times, America’s Civil War, etc.) and to academic journals? Too what degree does the process differ between the two formats?

Answer: The magazines are an ideal place to shop Civil War essays, but you must keep their audience in mind.  The magazines that you name, including North and South are looking for reader friendly essays.  They can include non-traditional subjects that take the reader beyond the battlefield, but they ought to be free of scholarly jargon.  North and South as well as Civil War Times magazine have had a great deal of success in this regard.  The review process is much less rigorous when dealing with popular magazines, though you are expected to demonstrate expertise on the subject of the essay.  It is likely that your essay will be handled by someone on the editorial staff rather than having it sent for some form of peer review.  Be prepared to have your essay edited to some degree.  Remember, editors work hard to publish an entertaining and informative magazine that is going to make money.  I highly recommend that you become as detached as possible from your work early on.  There is more room to negotiate once you establish a relationship with a particular editor.  Another way to build a relationship with an editor before submitting an essay is to offer to review books.  I started out by writing essays for newspaper and magazines before taking the step to submitting feature articles.

It goes without saying that journals are much more difficult.  As you probably know anything you submit is going to go through a number of rounds of review beginning with a decision by a member of the editorial staff as to whether your essay is worth sending out for peer review.  If it does make it to that point you can expect to wait around 6 months and even longer for a response.  Your blind reviewers may decide that it is not ready for publication or they can accept the essay on the condition that you make certain revisions.  Acceptance is usually dependent on this.  Not too long ago I shared my experience working with an academic journal, which you can read here.  You need to think about the kind of audience you hope to reach.  It goes without saying that magazines are going to reach a much wider audience while the scholarly journal route will allow you to explore your ideas more analytically, but for a much smaller audience.  Of course, we now have two academic journals in the field: Civil War History and The Journal of the Civil War Era.

  • Should an article be complete when one submits an idea?  Or, does one suggest a topic and then get approval?

Answer: Others may disagree, but if you are new to publishing in this field I highly recommend that you submit a completed essay.  More than likely an inquiry is going to be met with a response that welcomes the submission so why not just cut to the chase and send it along.  You have nothing to lose.  Again, I’ve found that, in the case of magazines, once you’ve established yourself there is more room to maneuver.  But early on you want to make it as easy for the editor as possible to accept your work.

  • Roughly what percentage of articles accepted are actually published?

Answer: That’s a difficult question to answer.  With two academic journals focused on the Civil War there is a slightly better chance of breaking through, but keep in mind that these journals tend to work within the scholarly community.  The percentage of essays that make it through is, no doubt, low.  It’s also not easy to break into the magazine world, but once you do it and have established yourself it is easier to maintain that position.  I have had one essay rejected by Civil War History, but I have had some success with the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography; in fact, my 2005 essay on William Mahone won the William M.E. Rachal Prize.  You may want to look into the journals of various historical societies.  What I like about them is that tend to welcome a broader range of writers and you can write an analytical essay for a fairly wide audience.  Again, it really depends what kind of audience you are looking to reach.

And that brings me to a final point about your brief reference to blogging.  I started at an opportune moment in my own career.  I had just finished my masters thesis at the University of Richmond and had managed to nail a few publications, including the VMHB piece. In short, I was able to use this format to begin to build my audience and continue to open new publishing and speaking opportunities.   You mentioned an interest in starting a blog on the postbellum period.  Well, that’s a great idea.  First, I am not aware of anything with this focus and, as you mentioned, the sesquicentennial is going to generate renewed interest in Reconstruction and beyond.  Depending on your grasp of the scholarly literature you could easily introduce it to a popular audience and establish yourself as the go-to guy on the subject.  The most important thing is to choose the right blog title.  The best decision I ever made early on was going with my title.  While it was coined by scholars I would like to think that I’ve done a pretty good job of appropriating it for my purposes.  At least Google thinks so.

Best of luck.  I hope this helps as well as the comments below.

12 thoughts on “So You Want To Be a Civil War Historian

  1. Richard

    I read some stuff from Peter King, writing about the NFL and whenever he gets questions about how to be a sportswriter, his advice is “Write. Then write some more. And more.” I’d expect that would apply here too and the idea of starting your own blog would be a good way to do that. (And it’s not just a way to practice the actual writing, but the critical thinking and analytical skills you can use in blog entries can help sharpen those skills for the more traditional media outlets.)

    Of course, all I say is merely theory. Kevin and others actually have achieved at least some of your goals, but that advice sure makes sense to me.

    Reply
  2. Keith Harris

    I think that Kevin is right on target by suggesting you establish a blog and situate yourself as the go-to person on your particular subject. These days, it seems that more and more historians/buffs are turning to this format to get their points – and their original research out to the public. Likewise, the public is turning to well-written blogs to engage in thoughtful historical discussion…much like a virtual Civil War round table. I can attest to this from my personal experience. If you supply valuable content, as does Kevin and numerous other historian/bloggers, it does not take long at all to establish yourself in the community. Once established – don’t be surprised if folks come looking for you…just sayin’ :)
    Good luck on your blog – you may even want to get it going sooner rather than later. Just to get you feet wet a little.

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  3. Mike Gorman

    I could only recommend burrowing into your own area of interest and becoming the undisputed expert. I am always suspicious of historians who have none, and/or spend their time reading what other historians write other than primary sources. Expertise and hard work count a lot more than anything else in this field.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan Webb Deiss

    If you want to be Civil War historian you must get your boots on the ground at the National Archives. All the rest is generally historiagraphy and not history. You gotta get at the primary source documents which can only be found in bulk at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. I don’t think anyone would dispute the necessity of familiarizing oneself with important archival repositories. The question had more to do with how to go about finding a home for your research.

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    2. John Maass

      There are many other places to get at the primary sources besides NARA, incl. AHEC at Carlisle Barracks, various state historical societies, university libraries….

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  5. Dan

    Since you don’t need the academic credentials of publishing in a scholarly journal, I would very much think twice about going that route. I am also an “amateur” historian and I’ve published a couple of articles in smaller academic journals and have a book coming out from a university press. My own experience, confirmed by some professor friends, shows that you can’t expect that more than a handful of people will actually read your journal article. And if someone does skim or even cite your work, it is very unlikely you will hear from them. For example, one of my articles made the OAH’s shortlist (not the final 10) of best American history essays for one particular year and I only found out by accident when googling my article two years later. If you are looking for collegial affirmation or acknowledgement, you may be very disillusioned that all your hard work may go unrecognized. An unspoken truth about many academic journals is that they really only exist to serve as an outlet for resume building by junior faculty. I eventually found it more personally rewarding and enjoyable to build and participate in blogs than continue making the academic journal effort.

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  6. B.J. Welborn

    This is a great site. I am a published author (history/travel) now wading into the Civil War. I look forward to sharing as the 150th unfolds. My Civil War website is a very personal one; I’m a Southerner who I think epitomizes the transition Americans – especially Southerners – are going through when we reflect on the Civil War. My website is under construction, but I’d love to hear from you and others at http://civilwarodyssey.blogspot.com. Thanks for this site!

    Reply
  7. Michael Bowen

    Hello my name is Michael Bowen and I am looking to become a Civil War Historian. My Great Great Great Grandfather faught in the Civil War for South he was a Major Gen,his name was John Stevens Bowen he the reason for me wanting to do this.I love this history how can I get into this? and how much does it cost.I can tell you alot about my grandfather and his part in the war.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Michael,

      I’m not really sure what you are asking. Do you want to tell your ancestor’s story through the blog format?

      Reply
    2. Ray O'Hara

      It cost the price of a college education and if you are decended from Bowen ciool. he was an aggressive and hard hitting commander until he died from disease just after the fall of Vicksburg.
      He was the only CSAer to cover himself with glory in that campaign.

      Reply

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