An Interview with Dr. William Blair, Founding Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era

An Interview with Dr. William Blair, Founding Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era

Dr. William Blair, History Professor at Penn State University, is the founding editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. Muster asked Dr. Blair about the journal, Civil War memory, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Thanks to Michael Johnson, a PhD student at George Washington University, for conducting this interview.

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You were the editor of Civil War History for ten years before founding and editing The Journal of the Civil War Era. Did you have a vision for JCWE that differed from CWH?

Actually, the vision did not vary that much. I was very proud of what we accomplished during my ten years with Kent State University Press. The editorial team and publisher stayed faithful to the idea that the journal embraced what used to be called “The Middle Period,” of nineteenth-century U.S. history. We eventually dropped the subtitle that contained that term from the journal’s cover and masthead because it had passed out of the lexicon of the profession. But the journal under John T. Hubbell always focused on more than four years of warfare.

Several things came together, however, at the ten-year mark of my tenure. I began to have a sense that I had done all that I could do and I feared I was getting stale. Second was the notion that I still wasn’t pulling everyone into the journal whom I believed belonged there. I can’t tell you how many times I heard authors tell me that they didn’t see their work as a Civil War study when, in fact, I did. Or at least as I have conceived of the Era. Third, I learned that the University of North Carolina Press was interested in starting a journal for this period of history. Coupled with the resources we had accumulated through the Richards Civil War Era Center, events had come together to create the possibility of a new journal. We put “Era” in the title and came out of the gate with the strong message that we desired to reach out to colleagues who did not realize they were doing the kind of work that we thought should be within our pages.

To me, the most important sentence in our vision statement was this: “The journal offers a unique space where scholars across the many subfields that animate nineteenth-century history can enter into conversation with each other.” My colleague, Tony Kaye who served as an Associate Editor, helped me craft that sentence and it became my mantra. I owe Tony a lot for assisting me in finding the journal’s voice.

During your five years as editor of JCWE, did you notice any trends in Civil War era scholarship that you found particularly surprising or intriguing?

Actually there were a number of things. I had put energy into founding the JCWE because I had this sense that an area that had once been a leader for new questions and methodologies was no longer viewed as a center of what was captivating the profession. When I was in graduate school, studies of slavery and abolition, for instance, offered some of the most provocative debates for scholarship, as did issues of national identity in the Civil War. The study of collective memory arguably gained some of its greatest traction in the Civil War era, especially through work on the Lost Cause. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed as if the bottom dropped out and the Civil War era had lost its luster as a place where excitement was happening.

Fortunately, I found out that I wasn’t totally right in my perception. For instance, one of the areas that I had thought had passed by Civil War era studies by was transnationalism. When we launched the journal, we were fortunate to have Douglas R. Egerton publish a review essay on the Civil War in a global perspective. This seemed to be an area that needed encouragement so we hoped to open up a dialogue here. My biggest surprise came in the number of articles that subsequently came into us that dealt with either the global dimensions of the conflict or trans-national issues. Scholars obviously either had been thinking about this or working on various aspects of this methodology and the journal provided a welcome home at just the right time to capture this new work. We even ran an entire special issue on “New Approaches to Internationalizing the History of the Civil War Era” in June 2012 and had an extended forum in March 2015 on teaching international aspects of the war. And there were many, many more pieces that demonstrated the efficacy of placing the war and the era within a broader context.
There were also surprises in the reverse. It has been difficult to consistently publish good work in both military and political/constitutional history. We have had some great pieces, including a special issue on military history in December 2014 that created interest. But both areas have shown the impact of a decline in training in these areas within the academy. As I say this, I don’t mean to disparage the fine work that’s being done and I realize that some of this assessment may lie in what the beholder determines to be military or political history. I’ve only become aware that by publishing what some call “war and society” may not be satisfying to scholars hoping for operational or other forms of military history. On another subject, we’ve had a more difficult time recruiting work in the area of antebellum history. Again, we’ve published some fine pieces, but we do not see a consistent pattern of submissions here. I hope that will change.

As for the future, I started to see new developments that showed considerable promise but have remained in formation. Probably the first of these concerns the Civil War and the West. A number of scholars have begun to explore connections between the Civil War East and the West beyond the Mississippi. I’m not sure that we have cemented these connections yet but I see potentially worthwhile pieces coming down the pike. We’ll be trying to help the cause with a special issue guest edited by Ari Kelman in December 2016. Additionally, I have become more aware of the possibilities of looking at the Civil War era from a hemispheric perspective. This would bring Canada into the picture with the U.S. and Mexico, showing stresses that were shared and not shared. A conference the Richards Center co-sponsored with the University of Calgary last summer began to explore these possibilities and we’re hopeful to show some of the pieces in a future issue of the journal. I do think there are some new historiographies emerging that will push us in new directions.

What do you think were the biggest takeaways from the Sesquicentennial? Why has the Civil War maintained such a popular place, not only in academic scholarship, but in public culture and memory?

The biggest takeway for me was the difference in the attitudes concerning slavery and the coming of the war. During the Centennial, few public commemorations admitted this and there was very little discussion about African American contributions to the war. The Centennial, in fact, opened with a controversy over segregation in Charleston, SC. Black people tried with little success to spark national commemoration of emancipation. But in 2011, national media made sure that the 150th anniversary acknowledged the role of slavery in the coming of the conflict. I had the ability to show my class on the Civil War Today a clip from Stephen Colbert, who ridiculed the people who tried to claim otherwise. And I know of re-enactments of events involving black soldiers. So in one sense, it was heartening to see the change in attitudes.

But I suppose I’m not as optimistic in response to the question about the Civil War maintaining a strong popular place for the public. That’s true to an extent, but it seems to me to be an increasingly graying population that continues to show the greatest interest. I do see young people on battlefields, and Civil War courses remain popular at Penn State, but something feels different now. Once the sesquicentennial of Gettysburg passed, it was harder to see concerted efforts to sustain discussion of the war and its consequences. Virginia was an exception, with the University of Virginia as a leader. And there probably were other pockets of commemorations that I’m not aware of. But there was no national commission, and attempts to highlight the 150th anniversary in Pennsylvania enjoyed mixed success, losing steam as budgetary support dwindled. Still, it could be my own personal perception; and it could be a wrong one. I truly hope so.

But I am confident in saying that I’m likely to be disappointed in the lack of interest in celebrating the anniversary of Reconstruction. There are people out there who are trying hard not to let this moment pass: National Park Service personnel especially in the Sea Islands and historians like Greg Downs and Kate Masur who are pulling together a future issue in the journal on the subject. And next year’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College looks like it will do a terrific service in educating the public on this important part of history. But I think it will be slow going to get public enthusiasm and the national media behind commemorations of Reconstruction. Once again, I hope I’m wrong. But if I’m right, that will be a shame, because while the Civil War saved the nation, Reconstruction made the nation.

You have written about the politics and divisiveness of Civil War memory, particularly in its immediate aftermath. Recently, debates have sprung up about the nature of that memory, particularly in the form of the continued use of the Confederate flag and Southern monuments to Confederate leaders. What is your take on these debates and efforts to reshape the Civil War memorial landscape?

First of all, I think much of this is healthy and indicative of a change in who can shape public interpretations of history. We would not have had these discussions twenty years ago—at least not effectively. The Confederate flag is an easy one for me. It should come down. It does not belong on a public building supported by tax dollars. And it went up in South Carolina during a period of resistance to desegregation. It was past time to take it down. Another easy decision for me is to take down public monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest. He has three strikes against him: important antebellum slave trader, massacre of black people at Fort Pillow, and one of the founders of the KKK. Praise for his military exploits, which actually were quite modest in the grand scheme of things, does not overcome these detriments.

“Heywood Shepherd Monument at Harpers Ferry.” Image courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

But should we take down all monuments to the Confederacy? In general, I suppose I’m in favor of adding rather than subtracting. Monument Avenue in Richmond, for instance, saw the addition of a statue to Arthur Ashe—an action that made quite a beneficial commentary. Richmond in general has done a good job by creating a Slave Trail commemoration and erecting a Reconciliation Statue that linked the city with Liverpool and West Africa, which were important cornerstones of the African slave trade. It was unveiled in 2007 with a commitment to honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Richmond residents also are restoring a jail that held slaves for sale. At Harpers Ferry, a monument put up in the 1930s celebrates faithful slaves in a rather bizarre way. The Park Service has added a wayside sign explaining the context and I’ve used that monument as a teaching moment for students about the creation of amnesia about the past. In other words, I think it’s better to make an honest confession about the past and what the Confederacy stood for as we find ways to remember the stories that few white people had wanted to tell for so long. And we need to keep finding ways to embody these stories in new public statuary and commemorations.

In your years of archival research, what is the most interesting document or story/anecdote you have uncovered?

Cover of Blair's book.
William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

This is easy for me. I have a document that I found in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society while researching Cities of the Dead. It is the closest thing to a smoking gun that I’ve personally seen. It’s a letter written by Charles Blackford to a political crony that talks about the strategy for the 1889 state elections. Virginia had recently beaten back the Readjuster Movement, which was a white-black coalition that had effected progressive changes. Blackford declared: “I am glad that the issue is square upon the color line. It is the only one by which we can win.” He added: “The negroes must understand that we will give them perfect equality before the law, and treat them with justness and fairness and liberality, but that they are not fit to rule us, and that we will die before they shall do so. The election must be carried peaceable if we can, but by force if necessary.” Then he showed Democratic elites calculating how to break the white-black coalition that had fueled the Readjuster Movement. “You cannot keep the lower class of white men in line unless they distinctly understand that they are to make their selection between the negro on the oneside [sic] and the white race on the other. Once get that clearly before the people as an issue and we are safe, otherwise the tariff and other matters which are perfectly immaterial in comparison, will beat us.”

I have rarely seen such naked plotting and clear-eyed strategy that exposes the means that fueled the maintenance of white supremacy. Sometimes students wonder: are we as scholars pushing it too hard to mention the calculation behind eventual segregation, rather than portraying racism as a visceral response rather than an intellectual one? It was both. The letter is a chilling reminder that political struggles continued beyond the so-called ending of Reconstruction in 1877, and black people remained active and effective in certain pockets of the South. They were a concern for the white power structure. Blackford and his cronies didn’t need to use the race card if they thought they had the election won. Codified segregation came because Democrats thought they needed it and they crafted the strategy to make it happen. And if we don’t remember this, we demean the struggles of African Americans who did not go quietly into that horrible night.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Productions, 2012.

Who was the best Abraham Lincoln: Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), or Will Ferrell (Drunk History)?

I don’t have much of a basis for comparison. I haven’t seen the vampire hunter film. I have seen snippets of Drunk History and while I enjoyed the comedy a lot I don’t see Will Ferrell as much of a Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis wins my vote. I thought the movie was very good and especially liked the hard-edged politics that were featured. I also appreciated the scenes between Lincoln and Mary Todd, which had the feel of a real married couple. The parts to me that were over the top were the opening scene in which Lincoln talks with the black soldiers and the cabinet meeting in which he proclaims himself a president clothed in immense power. The first scene was obviously a convention for storytelling and bringing the public up to speed. The second just didn’t sound like Lincoln. But for the most part I thought the portrayal was believable. Like many of my colleagues I wished the director would have ended the film with Lincoln walking down the corridor of the White House on his way to Ford’s Theater. We know what happened at the play.

William A. Blair is the Acting Head for the Department of History, Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Middle American History, and Director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. He is the author of Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), and most recently, With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).


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