Tag Archives: historiography

Andrew Jackson Was Dead, But the Democrats Still Mattered to Civil War Causation

We hope this short blog series reflecting on past issues of the journal has been a useful reminder of the excellent scholarship being produced on the causes and background of the Civil War. Today we end the series with a post by Nicole Etcheson, but the conversation over these questions can (and will) continue on social media. To access past issues, please visit Project Muse. And, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter (@JCWE1) and like our Facebook page.


In remarks to the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump compared his campaign to Andrew Jackson’s and concluded by wondering, “the Civil War, you think about it, why?”[1] The President thus linked Jackson’s Democratic party, and the Second Party System, to the Civil War.

Trump’s connection is not a new one. Nineteenth-century Northerners remembered that President Jackson had stood up to the South Carolina nullifiers and, well aware that Jackson was dead, they longed for their politicians to show similar resolution. Abraham Lincoln hung a portrait of Jackson in his White House office. Until recently, however, historians had emphasized the emergence of the Republican party rather than the collapse of the Democratic one. James L. Huston, in “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” (in the December 2011 issue) challenges received wisdom about the realignment that destroyed the Second Party System and created President Trump’s party, the Republicans, by returning historians’ attention to the Democrats.[2]

Huston focuses on Illinois, one of the politically crucial Midwestern states of the antebellum era (the Midwest was also important to Trump’s 2016 election). He reminds historians of the need for quantitative analysis. He assesses the reigning interpretations of the realignment that produced the third party system: the slavery extension issue, the importance of ethnocultural issues such as religion and temperance to party choice, and the nativity of voters—the hypothesis that Illinoians of New England ancestry voted Whig/Republican and those of Southern ancestry voted Democratic.[3]

Huston argues that ethnocultural ties and birthplace prove poor predictors of Democrats’ votes. Instead Illinois Democrats moved to the Republicans or chose not to vote based on their fear that the territories would be closed to non-slaveowning settlers. Moreover, Huston argues that historians need to widen their chronological scope, focusing not solely on the 1850s but on voting patterns from the 1840s to the Civil War’s outbreak to capture realignment’s ebb and flow.[4]

Modern commentators on the 2016 election have weighed some of these same factors, including religion and ethnicity or race. Huston reminds us that issues are crucial to political change. Realignments occur over a long period, not just one or two election cycles.

To paraphrase President Trump’s comments on health care, “Now, I have to tell you, Civil War causation is an unbelievably complex subject.”[5] But while no one evidently knew how complicated health care is, Jim Huston knows about the complications that brought on the Civil War. Revisiting his essay renews our attention to the difficulties of understanding causation and the necessity of paying attention to all the actors involved in an historic event.

[1] “Trump Quotes about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War,” New York Times, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/05/01/us/politics/ap-us-trump-andrew-jackson-quotes.html?_r=0.

[2] James L. Huston, “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 4 (December 2011): 506-535.

[3] Huston, 507. For some of the major works on Civil War causation, see David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper, 1976); Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978); William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[4] Huston, 512, 519-27.

[5] Kevin Liptak, “Trump: ‘Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated,” Accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/trump-health-care-complicated/.

Nicole Etcheson

Nicole Etcheson is the Alexander M. Bracken Professor of History at Ball State University, where she teaches courses on the sectional crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Her most recent book, A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community (2011), won the 2012 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians. She can be reached at netcheson@bsu.edu.

Civil War Causation and Antiwar Sentimentalism: Why I Read, and Re-Read, Yael A. Sternhell on the New Revisionism

Earlier this week, the President of the United States made an appalling blunder: Andrew Jackson, declared President Trump, “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.”[1] Pundits fumed. Historians took to the Twittersphere to “fact check” the POTUS. Others denounced the President’s intellect. The venerable biographer Jon Meacham, in an interview with MSNBC, likened the President’s brain and its erratic intellectual activity to a pinball machine.[2]

Central to the excitement surrounding President Trump’s miscue is an enduring sentiment that surfaces with some frequency in conversations of Civil War causation. Why? Why nearly 800,000 killed? The short answer, of course, is slavery. Only a historically illiterate person, or the most unrepentant Lost Cause adherent, fails to recognize this. As Gary Gallagher has noted, the decades since 1960 have produced a vibrant literature that has placed African Americans and emancipation squarely at the center of Civil War scholarship. Yet despite a near consensus on the centrality of slavery to Civil War causation, some historians have lamented, and recently, that a divided America needed to fight that war. The sentiment is more established than many realize. In his meta-narrative revision to the Neoabolitionist school, David Goldfield, an Avery Craven associate in his days at the University of Maryland, declared that the Civil War remains America’s “greatest failure.” The conflict deemed irrepressible, writes Goldfield, was not inevitable after all. Other means might have ended the heinous institution.[3] William J. Cooper, a dean of Southern history, revitalizes a similar interpretation in We Have the War Upon Us.[4] How can historians make sense of these divergent historiographical traditions – orthodox Neoabolitionism and throwback Revisionism – and view them as a coherent whole?

Enter the New Revisionism, which Yael A. Sternhell traces skillfully in her historiographical essay “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship” (in the June 2013 issue), which uniquely balances these historiographies.[5] In her assessment of the literature, Sternhell suggests that American military misadventures in Vietnam and the Middle East have effected a greater cynicism among academics who assess the character of the Civil War. New Revisionists, she notes, inspired by the late Michael Fellman and led by such scholars as Stephen Berry, Brian Craig Miller, and Megan Kate Nelson, fixate on the less savory dimensions of war. Practitioners dwell on dark tales of terrorism, torture, and ruin. Heroes emerge as villains. [6] But in an important contradistinction, the New Revisionism has channeled earlier Revisionists’ aversions to violence even as it has dismantled the needless war myth. Sternhell characterizes the essence of Dark Turn literature as an “emphasis on process.” New Revisionists do not question the good of emancipation. Instead, she writes, their works stress how belligerents participated in the war. In a fitting conclusion, she counsels historians to “approach the Civil War with all the uncertainty, skepticism, and realism with which we treat other wars and historical events.”[7] This is helpful advice.

I remember reading Sternhell’s essay for the first time in my favorite coffee shop near the Lake Michigan shore. It is an essay I return to frequently, for it is a model of clear and deep historical thinking. In a field that increasingly stresses specialization, “Revisionism Reinvented?” encourages readers to take long views. Historians must remember to assess the complementarity and divergence of historiographical interpretations, and to mark their fluidity and development over time. The New Revisionism shows no signs of disappearing. And in light of President Trump’s recent comments, Yael Sternhell’s thoughtful essay on the meaning and significance of the New Revisionism – which allows historians at once to count the horrific costs of the war and maintain its necessity – remains as relevant now as when it first appeared.

[1] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Trump on the Civil War: ‘Why Could That One Not Have Been Worked Out?’” New York Times, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/us/politics/trump-andrew-jackson-fact-check.html.

[2] “Andrew Jackson biographer fact checks Trump’s Civil War remarks,” MSNBC, accessed May 1, 2017, http://www.msnbc.com/brian-williams/watch/andrew-jackson-biographer-fact-checks-trump-s-civil-war-remarks-934252611806.

[3] See David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[4] See William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

[5] Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 2 (June 2013): 239-256.

[6] See Stephen Berry, ed., Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[7] Sternhell, 250, 252.

Mitchell G. Klingenberg

Mitchell G. Klingenberg is a doctoral candidate in history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and an instructor of history at Trinity Valley School. He is most recently the author of an article concerning Frederick Adolphus Porcher, religion, and intellectual culture in antebellum Charleston (which appeared in the South Carolina Historical Magazine), and he has published reviews in the Journal of the Civil War Era and the Catholic Historical Review. His dissertation examines nineteenth-century religion, politics, and generalship in the life of Union Major General John F. Reynolds. He can be found on Twitter @mgklingenberg.

Reinterpreting the Civil War, South by Southwest

Today we begin a brief blog series where, in light of recent public discussions regarding the Civil War, historians reflect on scholarship published in The Journal of the Civil War Era, highlighting some of the excellent research being done today. Our first entry, from Christopher Phillips, is below. If there is an article in the JCWE that you have found particularly meaningful, please let us know!


Donald J. Trump’s latest public statements about U.S. history have him suggesting that Americans have never contemplated the causes of the Civil War. More than a century of scholarship – and scholars – attest to his ignorance, but recent trends have many historians feeling somewhat ignorant about the subject they long believed they knew well.

Most histories of the Civil War era portray the war as a conflict exclusively over slavery, fought between North against South as a struggle over free labor against slave labor and local sovereignty against federal power. I believe Stacey L. Smith’s thoughtful JCWE essay in the December 2016 issue, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction” is among the most needed assessments of the new wave of Civil War revisionism. “Written out of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” she notes, “the West stands as an isolated, even exceptional, region with a history largely disconnected from the crisis over slavery, freedom, and federal authority that tore apart the North and the South.”[1]

More than simply accede this incongruity, Professor Smith argues trenchantly that we need to reframe the debate over the coming of the war from one exclusively over slavery into one intersecting with broader regional, national, and even continental conflicts associated with expansion. The West offers a perfect interpretive proving ground. “Violent conflict in the West anticipated, paralleled, and helped determine the course of federal state-building during the Civil War era,” she concludes. “[W]estern historians, long attuned to the region’s critical role in nineteenth-century state-building, are lighting the way by making explicit the connections between southern and western resistance to federal control…[l]oosening the Civil War from its North-South moorings.”[2]

Professor Smith’s essay anticipates Steven Hahn’s excellent new synthesis, Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, which integrates the exceptionalist narrative of slavery and freedom with the decidedly unexceptional narrative of American imperialism in the long nineteenth century. Like Hahn, Smith reminds us that the same ideal of the West that inspired Americans to undertake its greatest period of national expansion also drove them to commit its greatest national tragedy in the form of a fratricidal civil war.

[1] Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-67.

[2] Ibid.

Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips is professor of history and department head at the University of Cincinnati. The author of seven books, his most recent, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border, received the 2017 Tom Watson Brown Book Prize. He can be contacted at phillicr@ucmail.uc.edu.

On the Civil War’s Causes

In the seven years we’ve been in print, the Journal of the Civil War Era has published a number of essays focused on Civil War causation. I turn to a number of these when I teach the Civil War and I have actually advised others—people I’ve met on the sidelines of soccer fields, when walking the dog in my neighborhood, or chatting with a parent at back-to-school night—to take a look for themselves. Indeed, in our second issue published in June 2011, we published Frank Towers’ “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011.”

In the essay, Towers identifies the origins of the debate about what caused the Civil War in the war generation of partisans—people like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis, on the one side, and William Seward, among others, on the other side—men who, according to Towers, were motivated by their “obsession with the protagonists’ questions of who was to blame for dissolving the Union and why.”[1] These men were followed by generations of professionally trained historians who returned to the question of what caused the Civil War, each time with new sources and methods at their disposal and moved by a willingness to follow the evidence where it took them. Today is a great day to go back and read Towers’ essay—or to recommend it to someone else. And, perhaps you’d like to recommend something else, from the pages of JCWE or elsewhere? Our back issues are available through ProjectMuse and are part of the benefits of membership in the Society of Civil War Historians.

[1] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (June 2011): 240.

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.