Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Celebrating Revisionist History

“[T]he enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.” — Ed Ayers.

Thanks to everyone for the emails and comments about my most recent op-ed in the New York Times Disunion column.  Yesterday I took some time to catch up on some old posts.  What I value most about the Disunion site is its continued emphasis on introducing top-notch scholarship to a broad general audience.  Anyone who follows this column from its beginning through to 2015 will surely walk away with a firm grounding in Civil War history.  A few readers have suggested that the best articles ought to be collected in book form or in some other format and I couldn’t agree more.  They make for ideal high school level readings.

One of the best reasons as to why this site is so important can be found in William Thomas’s recent essay on how Southern railroads utilized slave labor.  I’ve mentioned Will’s book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, a number of times and even included it in my “best of 2011″ list.  Thomas’s research expands our understanding of how slave labor was utilized beyond the fields, its profitability, and its place within Americans’ understanding of their own exceptional place on the world stage.  In short, it reminds us of why revisionist history is so important to our understanding of the past.  Consider the following responses from a few readers:

In addition to the ownership by corporations, which I knew but had no idea it was apparently so extensive, it is astonishing (and appalling) that slaves could be used as collateral for loans. Thanks for another interesting and informative article in this series.

Wow, mention of corporation-owned slaves is just not in our school textbooks. How was their existance different than the agricultural/farm slaves? The Ballton’s experience would make for a fascinating film. truth can be stranger than fiction.

Wait a minute, does this mean that a substantial percentage of slaves were owned by corporations? All my life I have never heard of slaves owned by anyone but individuals. By families. What was it like to be owned by a corporation? Were the enslaved on average treated the same, better, or worse? Are there any corporate equivalents to the stories of slaves who chose to take care of their owners possessions when Union troops appeared?

I love the sense of surprise that comes through in their responses.  For most people history is made up of a set of stories, some of which are more closely guarded than others or are more popular within a certain community.   Depending on when and how these stories are learned can determine the response to the introduction of new information.  In the case of the Civil War era many people want nothing more than to hear the same stories told well.  In this case the reaction to new interpretations is often accompanied by a defensive or dismissive posture.

If we can manage to step back, however, from our own personal investment in certain stories we can appreciate and even celebrate the introduction of new information and how it effects our understanding of the past.  It has the potential to challenge some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about what happened and why and new questions arise that beg for further research.  In this case this brief column forces readers to step away from their popular images of slavery from “Gone With the Wind” or their high school textbooks and further assumptions about the master – slave relationship as well as the future of slavery in 1861.  This is revisionist history at its best.

The Society of Civil War Historians and the Sesquicentennial

This morning I voted online for the next president of The Society of Civil War Historians.  I’ve been a member for a few years now and even had the opportunity to address the organization back in 2008.  The SCWH recently established a new book prize, a new journal, as well as a biennial conference.  I think these are all positive steps, but nothing here reaches beyond the traditional activities of an academic organization.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it is worth remembering that we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial.  I remember hearing rumblings from various folks in the SCWH at the first biennial meeting in Philadelphia that the organization would be active throughout the commemoration of the 150th.  So far, I’ve heard nothing.  It’s disappointing especially given the fact that so many members are engaged in a wide range of activities that involve the education of the general public.  I have no doubt that given the talent in the SCWH that it can take the lead on any number of projects.  Perhaps a partnership/collaboration with another organization is the way to go.

I wish the online ballots included vision statements from the candidates rather than the standard brief resumes that pretty much blend into one another.  They are all top notch scholars.  I am much more interested in the direction they want to steer the organization and whether they believe that this direction includes anything to mark the sesquicentennial and public education.

I will continue to look forward to each issue of the journal as well as the next conference, but it seems to me that this organization is capable of doing more, especially NOW.

Did Democracy Cause the American Civil War?

Description: A hundred and fifty years ago the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. It was a war that was to result in the deaths of perhaps three quarters of a million people. Yet the United States in 1861 was the world’s first modern democratic nation — a place in which virtually all white men could vote and in which mass political parties vied for votes in noisy and hotly contested elections. What was the relationship between the coming of the war and this kind of democratic politics? Contrary to the assumptions of International Relations specialists who have posited that democracies do not go to war with one another, was this a war made more likely, and, once it started, more bloody, by the principles and practice of popular sovereignty?

Talk was presented by Dr. Adam Smith of University College, London.

Acquisitions, 02/02

A number of you have emailed me about the possibility of purchasing signed copies of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.  I just agreed to do a book signing at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago on July 28.  You should be able to secure a signed copy through their Virtual Book Signing program.  I am also hoping to coordinate with the Pritzker Military Library while I am in town.

Andrew Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Brian Jordan, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 (Savas-Beatie, 2012).

Wesley Moody, Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Sydney Nathans, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

New Editorial Team at UNC Press’s Civil War America

No other academic press series has taught me more about the Civil War era over the past twelve years than Gary Gallagher’s Civil War America, which is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  He managed to bring together some of the most talented historians, many of who studied under Gallagher at either Penn State or University of Virginia.  While it’s been a great run it looks like Gallagher is transitioning out of the position of editor of the series and handing the reins over to a new generation of Civil War scholars.  I’ve known about this for quite some time, but was asked to hold off on announcing it until the change was made public.

The books that are now coming out include Peter Carmichael, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Caroline Janney as series editors.  All three studied under Gallagher at UVA and all three have published their dissertations in the series (see here, here, and here).  It’s fair to say that their scholarship, as well as many other books in the series, reflect Gallagher’s interest in the war in the East (Virginia) and the limits of Confederate nationalism and challenge to the “Lack of Will Thesis”.  Taken together the three books referenced above explore Confederate nationalism on the home front, in the Army of Northern Virginia, and among women both during and after the war.  I am looking forward to seeing how this new team moves forward.  Will they continue to build on the themes that Gallagher has emphasized or will they move in a different direction?

Whatever they decide to do I have every reason to believe that the quality of the work published will remain consistent.  I’ve worked with Aaron on two projects and Peter is the editor for the series that I will be published in at the University Press of Kentucky.  Both have been a pleasure to work with.  I wish all three the best with what I believe is the top academic Civil War series.