Why the Civil War?

Linda Wheeler writes in the Washington Post about the origin of her interest in the Civil War. She recalls reading Landscape Turned Red by Stephen Sears and making her first trip to the battlefield:

“My trip that day was the beginning of an almost mystical relationship with Civil War history that has intensified with the years. I am particularly drawn to the fate of civilians who lived in small towns that were occupied by one side and then the other or who were caught up in battles on their streets. I can identify with them, as well as the soldiers, and their war experiences have become a part of my own memory.”

I can relate to this story. Back in 1994 I was a graduate student in philosophy finishing up an M.A. thesis at the University of Maryland. I had little knowledge of the Civil War. In fact, I don’t even remember studying it in high school. Than again, I don’t remember studying much of anything in high school. My advisor lived in Boonesboro, MD and I regularly spent the weekends dog sitting and listening to his comments on a tape recorder on my latest draft while he was off on golf trips. My first visit was quite an experience as I had little to occupy my time. I was left with a list of places to visit and at the top of the list was the Antietam battlefield which was a few miles away. Of course, I eventually made my way over and figured I would spend a few hours to kill some time. As I walked out of the Visitors Center to begin my self-guided tour, I noticed a guided tour just about to leave. I decided to tag along since I had no sense of the land and really no idea of what to do or see. The guide took us to the Dunker Church and the Cornfield and described the action that took place. It’s difficult to describe what happened, but I found myself more and more engrossed in the descriptions of the battle and his account of the civilian situation. The tour lasted about an hour; I walked around a bit more, but ended up leaving. I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I had seen and heard.

I ended up going back the next day. While in the Visitors Center I noticed the guide, introduced myself, and thanked him for the tour. Turns out it was Ted Alexander who is one of the historians at the battlefield. We talked a bit and I asked him if he could recommend a book on the battle. He recommended Landscape Turned Red, which I bought and began reading. I spent a few hours reading the book while I walked the battlefield all the while trying to connect Sears’s narrative to what I was seeing. The following 3 weekends were spent on the battlefield reading through the book at the specific locations described by the author. I was hooked. Little did I know that my newfound interest would turn into an obsession and ultimately a change of career. Whenever I see Ted I like to remind him that he is largely responsible for my passion, though sometimes it feels more like a disease.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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