Category Archives: Historiography

The Northern Home Front

Earlier this week, I spent a profitable afternoon at the New Jersey Historical Society in downtown Newark.  The Marcus L. Ward Papers are incredibly rich, and I will be sharing some of my findings from that collection in forthcoming posts.  What struck me during my visit, however, is how under-appreciated and little utilized local and state historical societies really are.

New Jersey Historical Society, Newark

A private, not for profit organization, the New Jersey Historical Society operates with a shoestring budget, employing only one part time librarian who keeps the place running three afternoons each week.  Sadly, budget and staffing cuts are the norm at state historical societies across the country.  I have encountered similar situations at the Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine Historical Societies.  In several of these places, I was the lone researcher.

There is an unspoken assumption that local and state historical societies are more the province of antiquarians and genealogists than they are the dominion of academic historians.  Especially in Civil War studies, the utility of a research trip to Barre, Vermont, or Providence, Rhode Island is not readily apparent.  Hopefully, as we continue to apply the tools of social and cultural history to the Civil War era, this will no longer be the case. Some of the most important tasks I see on the horizon for emerging Civil War historians are northern community and town studies.

The social history revolution missed Civil War studies when it exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, but fortunately, historians are increasingly turning in that direction, filling a huge void in the literature.  Nicole Etcheson’s study of a single county in Indiana during the war is a fine example of what we have left to learn about the northern home front.  John Neff is also finishing up an autopsy of Civil War memory in the all-important city of Chicago, which promises to be a signal addition to the literature.  I look forward to serious books about Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and the all but neglected upper Midwest during the war and the peace.  The oft-repeated statement “there is nothing new to learn about the Civil War” has never been so erroneous.

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Bloody Shirt Politics

This past weekend, I presented a paper about the lives of Union veterans at Drew University.  My friend Justin Causey, a fellow Gettysburg College graduate who is working on his Ph.D. with historian C. Wyatt Evans, planned the event, which was organized around the theme of “The Future of Civil War History.” Joining me on a panel about reimagining the boundaries of the Civil War metanarrative were friends and colleagues Evan Rothera of the Richards Center at Penn State and Matthew Norman, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.  

After our panel, the audience posed great questions.  One audience member asked a question that has been troubling me for quite some time.  If Union veterans were routinely marginalized and dismissed by postwar society, what, then, explains the effectiveness of the “bloody shirt” politics of the late 1860s and 1870s?  I do not yet have a convincing answer for this question.  Perhaps northern civilians were simply all too capable of separating a lingering disdain for what they perceived as a treasonous rebellion from any sustained effort to grapple with the horrific consequences of the war.  Or perhaps “waving the bloody shirt” was simply crass political opportunism, intended to sway the votes of veterans themselves, the most significant voting bloc in postwar America.  There is, of course, no shortage of scholars ready to point out the superficiality of bloody shirt rhetoric after the Civil War.  Indeed, one distinction I hope to draw in my dissertation is the difference between “waving the bloody shirt” and living with a bloody shirt.  For the many who fell into the latter category, the charged political rhetoric of the postwar period was no doubt just that – rhetoric.

Again, I am not really satisfied with any of these answers.  What do you think?

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Counting Costs

Yesterday the New York Times’ Science page featured an article about J. David Hacker’s recent study that has revised upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000.  This is well-deserved publicity for Hacker and for Civil War History, the leading scholarly journal in our field.  Hacker’s study reminds us that numbers are politics.  The quest to determine precisely the social impact of the Civil War is nothing new, however — something Hacker readily admits.  Such estimates consumed blue-coated ex-soldiers in the late nineteenth century, and as such Hacker joins distinguished company, including Union veterans Thomas Leonard Livermore, Thomas Brown, and William Fox.

Gustavus Gessner

Ex-prisoners of war were particularly determined to right the record books.  Perhaps nobody was more committed to the project than Ohio Union Ex-Prisoner of War Association President Gustavus Gessner, who maintained meticulous records of the dead by corresponding with other rebel prison pen survivors. Gessner became particularly incensed when Frederick Phisterer published his Statistical Record in 1883, a supplement to Scribner’s “Campaigns of the Civil War” series.  Phisterer neglected to include death tolls for several rebel prison hells – including Cahaba, Alabama; Florence, South Carolina; and Millen, Georgia.  “As I have held before, it should be the chief duty of the Prisoner of War Association to insist that these figures shall be corrected, or that there shall be an official admission at least of their gross inaccuracy,” he wrote to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln. The National Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War echoed with a resolution condemning Phisterer the following year.

By disputing mortality rates, survivors responded to those who sought to reconcile Civil War prisons.  “The most convincing proof of the truth of the story of . . . sufferings endured by the Union prisoners of war is the appalling death rate which prevailed in the various prisons of the South,” Gessner explained.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the wake of a new generation of exciting scholarship that has reached beneath the sanitized narrative of Civil War to reveal new dimensions of human anguish, misery, and torment, we once again turn to numbers.  Somewhere,  Gustavus Gessner and his comrades are nodding approvingly.

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Neo-Revisionism is Alive and Well

This morning I picked up a copy of Andrew Delbanco’s provocative little book The Abolitionist Imagination, just out from Harvard University Press.  Delbanco opens the book with a probing essay that rethinks the abolitionists as an “adamant minority” of idealists who essentially rent the nation in the process of demanding slavery’s abolition.  There is much to digest (and much to disagree with) in Delbanco’s literary analytical essay, but near the conclusion, he writes:

Despite its vindicated righteousness, abolitionism still compels us to ask what is, alas, a perennial question: how much blood for how much good?  In retrospect, it is an easy question.  Most Americans today will not hesitate to say that the price of the Civil War, more than 600,000 dead and countless more maimed and mutilated, was well worth paying for the incipient freedom of four million.  But, a century and a half after the bloodbath, this kind of easy assent is also an easy form of self-commendation.  History is lived by people ignorant of the future, and surely it is a hubris of our own to dismiss all who, living in the darkness of the 1850s, made a different calculation.

Delbanco seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary scholarship in this respect.  It seems to me that in the politically polarized wake of 9-11, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we are now fully in the throes of a neo-revisionist turn in Civil War historiography.  Practioners of this “new” scholarship no longer share the racist presumptions of “needless war” scholars like J.G. Randall and Avery Craven; nonetheless, many recent works share revisionism’s fascination with the deadly and destructive character of the war.  The past decade has been devoted to making the “brother’s war” into a fratricidal one again.  Think of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering; Daniel Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict; Fanny Nudelman’s John Brown’s Body; Harry Stout’s moral history of the Civil War; Jeff McClurken’s Take Care of the Living; and Jim Marten’s Sing Not War.  And, of course, who can forget J. David Hacker’s recent Civil War History article, revising upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000?  Scholars of my generation no longer find convincing the centennial generation’s reverence for the Civil War.  Delbanco certainly makes this point when discussing the neo-abolitionist school of reform historiography in his essay.  Thomas Brown’s recent anthology, Remixing The Civil War, meditates on this very question of the Civil War’s meaning for a post-modern, post-Civil Rights era.

What does this neo-revisionist turn signal for the future of the Civil War metanarrative?  Is neo-revisionism here to stay? Tom Brown seems to think that the Civil War will become increasingly irrelevant in the twenty-first century, a thesis I am not yet willing to embrace.  These are questions that I will be reflecting on in future posts.  In the meantime, go out and re-read “The Blundering Generation.”

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