The State of Civil War Historiography & Where It Might Be Heading

Civil War Historians

When it came to choosing someone to write the Afterword for Common-place’s issue on the Civil War sesquicentennial, Megan Kate Nelson and I both agreed that it had to be Stephen Berry. Stephen is a first-rate scholar and a wonderful writer. He was a great sport given that we weren’t able to send the essays to him until the tail end of the editing process, but somehow he managed to say something meaningful about the major themes covered.

I think this excerpt on the current state of Civil War historiography is particularly interesting and worth considering.

Closing this special issue on the Civil War at 150, I find myself curious about how the war will be remembered fifty years from now, at its bicentennial. I do not mean to speculate on whether we will be touring Gettysburg in flying cars. (Electric cars would be marvelous enough.) Rather, I wonder about the place of the Civil War in a future generation’s cultural memory. Here it may be instructive to examine the academy itself, not because the academy drives the culture—it rides the same wave—but because the academy is the tip of that wave, leaning out, breaking first. There are two broad (and largely reconcilable) forces at work in Civil War historiography today. The first is completing the important work of putting slavery and emancipation at the center of the war’s causes, conduct, and legacy—and it is trickier work than you might imagine. No serious scholar now denies that slavery caused the war. (Charles Dew iced this case with Apostles of Disunion in 2001.) But proving that the South seceded to defend slavery is not the same as proving that the North went to war to destroy it. This case has been made with greater urgency and effectiveness only in the last ten years. Chandra Manning demonstrated how the Union Army became abolitionized from the bottom up; James Oakes has shown that virtually every Northerner, including Lincoln, who pledged “not to interfere with slavery where it already existed” was essentially lying because they, like Southerners, believed that to contain slavery was to kill it; and Caroline Janney has suggested that none of this was ever wholly forgotten in the “romance of reunion.” All of these scholars, and a host of others, are heirs to the neoabolitionist tradition, stretching back to W.E.B. Dubois, and holding increasing sway since the Civil Rights Movement.

Toiling beside them has been another group of scholars, the heirs to what has been called the “new revisionist” tradition, who, while emphatically agreeing that the destruction of slavery was a good and a great thing, find little to celebrate in a country that enslaved people for centuries and then had to kill 750,000 in the process of (finally) doing the right thing, which frankly was done rather haphazardly and without sufficient safeguards. This emphasis on the greed, imperialism, and destruction that grew into and out of the war has been called (in informal circles) the historiography’s “dark turn.” But in truth, the difference between the two schools is simply one of emphasis. The neoabolitionists see a conflict that can be redeemed by its results: the freedom of four million people. The neorevisionists welcome the results but remain skeptical of the process. Though they tussle occasionally, the two traditions need each other. The neorevisionists keep the historiography from veering into self-righteousness or triumphalism. The neoabolitionists keep the historiography from veering into despondency or nihilism.

You can read the rest of it here.

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