Tag Archives: historiography

Author Interview: Kevin Waite

Here at Muster, we are fostering more opportunities for readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era to engage with our talented authors. Thus, in 2017 we will begin providing short author interviews to jump-start some stimulating discussions. Our first interview is with Kevin Waite, whose article “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West” appeared in the December 2016 special issue on the Civil War West. Kevin earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2016 and currently teaches at Durham University in the U.K. His research focuses on Southern visions of empire in the Pacific world and the extension of a proslavery political order across the Far Southwest during the Civil War era. He has also published on violence and masculinity in Napoleonic-era English public schools. His short-form writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the History News NetworkWe’re HistorySlateRaw Story, and TIME.

Thanks for participating in this, Kevin. How did you get interested in the history of the Civil War West?

I was born in what you could call the far western outpost of the slave South: Pasadena, California. As a kid, I knew nothing about the slaveholding southerners who owned the land that would become my hometown. And I had no clue that they had transformed Los Angeles County into a bastion of proslavery politics before and during the Civil War. But when I began my PhD at Penn in 2011, under the mentorship of Steve Hahn, I gradually began to connect the dots. After learning more about California’s (largely overlooked) proslavery past, I started searching for the slave South in other, unexpected places. In the end, I came to argue that we should understand the antebellum South in more capacious terms. In fact, there’s a compelling reason to view the entire Far Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and to a certain extent Utah – as an appendage of the slave South.

Much of this article comes from research I did as a first-year in graduate school, when I was trying to trace the scope of this proslavery sphere of influence in the antebellum West.

Can you give us a brief description of what your recent JCWE article discusses, and why you think this story matters?

It’s about how slaveholders – and Jefferson Davis in particular – used their influence at the federal level to dictate the course of development in the antebellum Far Southwest. We know, of course, that the controversy over slavery in the West was a driving – perhaps the driving – force in the road to disunion. But somewhat surprisingly, antebellum political historians tend to lose interest in the Far West after 1850. I suppose the assumption is that slaveholders surrendered their claims on the region once California became a free state. My article is, in part, an attempt to show otherwise – that southerners retained a keen interest in the fate of the Far West, and they were largely successful in imposing their policies on the region.

Central to this whole southern campaign were plans for a transcontinental railroad through slave country and into California. Of course, no Pacific railroad was constructed during the antebellum period. But through their efforts, southerners scored some important corollary victories – the Gadsden Purchase and the construction of an overland mail road across the southern corridor of the continent – that helped transform the Southwest into a political satellite of the plantation South.

Why do you think that proslavery expansionism has been such an understudied topic?

I actually think there’s quite a bit of excellent work on the subject. And I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering scholarship of Robert May, who really kicked off this growing interest in slaveholding imperialism. But much of the scholarly focus has been on the dramatic (and often bloody) attempts to carve out additional slave territory for the South. These were undoubtedly important episodes in the grand scheme of antebellum politics. But I think they may distract from the more enduring, if subtler, victories that slaveholders achieved across the Far West. Unlike rogue filibusters in the Caribbean, commercial expansionists like Jefferson Davis controlled the levers of power in Washington, and his vision for slavery’s future was grander and ultimately more attainable than those of would-be conquistadors like William Walker.

So the argument here is, in part, that slaveholding expansion took several forms. And the seizure of more territory for plantation agriculture may not have been the primary aim of all southern expansionists. Slaveholders like Davis sought to extend the commercial and political reach of the slave South through infrastructural development. And to a large extent, he achieved this expansion of proslavery interests.

Whether or not this sort of expansion should be understood as properly imperial, I’m still trying to work out. Matt Karp’s excellent new book, This Vast Southern Empire, has been particularly helpful as my thoughts on the subject develop.

What do you see as the next iteration of regional history? In other words, where do we go from here?

In short, we go bigger. The transnational turn in history is helping us reframe familiar narratives by expanding our geographic optic. I see the forthcoming work on the Civil War in the West as part of a larger historiographic development that seeks to understand how transregional and globally integrated forces gave shape to key historical moments. Of course, the war itself was ultimately won and lost in the major military theaters of the East. But the political transformations of the Civil War era reached far beyond the free North and slave South.

Can you recommend for readers some useful texts on the Civil War in the West?

 There’s so much good stuff coming out these days, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I suppose I should begin with where I, myself, really began: the amazing work of Stacey Smith. Her book, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction is, in my opinion, one of the most important works on the Civil War-era West. And of course, everything Elliott West writes helps reframe the way we think about the West during this period. Another good place to start would be the articles by Megan Kate Nelson and Pekka Hamalainen that appear in this issue. And everyone should read the work of this issue’s guest editor, Ari Kelman, especially A Misplaced Massacre. Far more than a sense of personal loyalty leads me to recommend Steve Hahn’s recent A Nation Without Borders. Then, for new books that challenge our understanding of slaveholding expansion more generally, I’d point to Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire and, again, Matt Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, to be sure, but there’s still plenty of room for new perspectives.

Many thanks to Kevin Waite for participating in this interview. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and we can continue the conversation!

Out of the Shadows Redux: A Graduate Student’s Thoughts at the SHA

Since the firing on Fort Sumter, the Civil War has been the watershed moment of American history. If historians are responsible for explaining the evolution of contemporary American culture, we recognize that at least part of its origin was forged during the war. We repeatedly flock to the same four year period, refining our interpretation of the wars’ causes and consequences. Even now, on the far side of the sesquicentennial, interest seems as strong as ever. Yet, there is a unique vulnerability in being a graduate student, particularly a graduate student studying the Civil War. It is the pervasive fear that all of the important topics are exhausted, that there is nothing left to contribute. With over 150 years of historical scholarship, one cannot help but wonder, is there anything left to say about the Civil War?

Imagine my interest, then, to find a panel at this year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association titled “Coming Out of the Shadows: New Insight into Understudied Aspects of the American Civil War.” The topic sounded promising, as did the list of panelists: Judith Giesberg, Lesley J. Gordon, and Susannah J. Ural. Each of them was a successful scholar who undoubtedly had something to contribute to the conversation. I was eager for their presentations.

During the panel, each historian presented original research which, despite being loosely connected as “understudied” topics, varied widely. Judith Giesberg began the session with her discussion of soldiers’ consumption of pornography during the war. Explaining that new printing technology made erotic materials more readily available to soldiers, she argued that the consumption of pornography created a unique comradery through an insular sexual culture that regulated how soldiers viewed women and themselves. Such comradery, however, could be as exclusionary as it was inclusive. Using Anthony Comstock as a case study, Giesberg described how Comstock’s inability or unwillingness to participate in his regiments’ sexual culture ultimately led to his alienation.

Giesberg’s research, however, is not simply about the shared sexual culture of military life. It is also about the lasting consequences of that culture, and these consequences hold the exciting implications for her work. With the exception of studies on memory and race, historians often neglect how the Civil War contributed to the social issues of the latter half of the nineteenth century. While the army was never concerned with the sexual expectations shaped by military life, civilian society was. During the war, the government passed laws to restrict soldiers’ access to pornographic material. While rarely enforced, these laws set the precedent for future legislation such as the Comstock Law of 1873, which prohibited the circulation of “obscene” materials including erotica, contraceptives, and information regarding abortion. Thus, Giesberg roots the battle for women’s reproductive rights in the twentieth century within the sexual and legislative consequences of the Civil War.

Lesley Gordon’s research dealt with another factor contributing to soldiers’ potential alienation: cowardice. Focusing specifically on racialized understandings of bravery, Gordon examined how accusations of cowardice held different implications for black and white troops. While white soldiers were thought to have autonomy, choosing to be brave or not, African American soldiers were described as having a “passive” courage which was linked with their obedience to authority. As a result, a regiments’ expectation for success or failure became deeply attached to its racial makeup. While charges of cowardice were equally devastating regardless of race, African American troops carried the additional burden of proving their bravery on the field of battle.

While Gordon’s research contributes to a broader discussion concerning the relationship between African Americans and the military, it also reveals something else. Perhaps more than the other presenters, Gordon highlights the ways historians continue to construct and perpetuate traditional war narratives. Gordon falls in line with historians like John Keegan and Drew Gilpin Faust who assert that the fashioning and retelling of war stories inherently seeks to create order from chaos, telling of victory in the face of defeat. As a result the popular stories passed through the generations privilege narratives of heroism. As such, Gordon’s work is a call to look beyond the comforting narratives of order and into the chaos, where human behavior often fails to meet expectation.

Susannah Ural’s presentation was the result a public history project she is currently heading at the University of Southern Mississippi. There, she and her students are examining the records kept at the Beauvoir estate when it operated as a Confederate Soldiers Home during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Confederate Soldiers Homes are not an understudied topic within the field, the information provided in Ural’s dataset challenges traditional scholarship regarding how these institutions operated. Usually thought to minister to the poorest and neediest of southern society, Ural’s research suggests that residents at Beauvoir were largely middle class compared to the rest of Mississippi. Furthermore, the fluid nature of residency combined with opportunities of civil engagement suggests that residents of the home were not “invisible monuments” to the South’s defeat. Instead, they were integrated members of the surrounding community.

Ural’s work aptly demonstrates how new methods of research and data collection might change the ways historians understand institutions. Indeed, the significance of Ural’s findings is made possible by a database that can easily track statistical information: race, age, gender, economic status, etc. These statistics offer the greatest challenge to the historiography. Ural has clearly discovered that Beauvoir does not conform to historians’ understanding of Confederate Soldiers Homes. The question is why. Was Beauvoir an exceptional case? Or have historians heretofore been incorrect regarding how these homes operated in the South?

Each of these presentations highlights new avenues of research. Whether interested in making more overt connections between wartime culture and the social and political agenda of the Progressive Era, or in deconstructing wartime narratives of heroism and victory, these studies demonstrate the breadth of topics and methods that have yet to be explored. Nevertheless, while each presentation was unique, there was one recurrent theme: a renewed emphasis on the localized study. While general narratives of war and soldiers’ experiences have recently dominated the field, the localized approach shared by Giesberg, Gordon, and Ural reveal unexpected nuances. It is in understanding these nuances, that graduate students may find their voice.

Lindsay Rae Smith

Lindsay Rae Smith is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama. Her dissertation, “’Fighting Johnnies, Fevers, and Mosquitoes’: A Medical History of the Vicksburg Campaign,” examines the way campaigning armies were aided, or hindered, by the capabilities of the Army Medical Corps and the limitations of nineteenth-century medical care.