Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. Continue reading “Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later”

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

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. Continue reading “The State of Civil War Historiography & Where It Might Be Heading”

How Would You Teach Secession?

Today my Civil War class will continue to discuss the background leading up to Lincoln’s election and the first wave of secession that took place between December 1860 and February 1861. My students are pouring through a collection of documents related to the secession conventions as well as speeches by Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis. For Monday they will read a selection from Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Continue reading “How Would You Teach Secession?”