The Civil War that ravaged the United States between 1861 and 1865, challenging the nation’s very survival and consuming over 600,000 lives, raises large questions about the origins and unfolding of America’s extreme moral, political and constitutional crisis. This subject asks a number of questions: Why did the pre-war Union prove unable to tolerate the plural visions and diverse institutions of its people? Was the descent into war more a measure of institutional weakness than of the intensity of moral conflict? What were the constituent elements of the competing wartime ‘nationalisms’ that evolved north and south? How and why did a war over the Union become a war about slavery and emancipation? Why did the war not become an international conflict? How far was it the forerunner of modern, ‘total’ warfare? What realistic chance had the Confederacy’s bid for freedom? Did the governmental, socio-economic and racial changes wrought by war constitute a ‘second American revolution’?
The prescribed texts address these problems from the political watershed of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, introduced in January 1854, to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln, in April 1865. The sources are chosen with an eye to posing a variety of problems of interpretation. They also provide multiple angles of vision: public and private, from above and below, male and female, black and white, slave and free. They include government documents, political speeches, polemical pamphlets, newspaper commentaries, private correspondence, sermons, cartoons and lithographs, songs, and selections from a number of diaries and journals.
Supplementary sources (which are not subject to a gobbets examination), include the journals of Charlotte Forten (a young black educator), Mary Chesnut (the wife of a southern planter), and Elisha Hunt Rhodes (Rhode Island soldier). We will also consider fiction of the era, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Augusta Jane Evans’s Macaria; or Altars of Sacrifice.
The documents are to be read in the context of an extensive and ever-growing secondary literature. Of late, the years of war itself have become one of the most fertile areas of American historical scholarship. Social and cultural historians have opened up new areas for study: the Confederate and Union ‘home front’; communities and localities in wartime; gender, women and children; philanthropic activity and religious experience. At the same time the war has been ‘rediscovered’ by political historians attending to popular mobilization and to leadership. Meanwhile a more traditional military history has been superseded by a new approach – one concerned to explore the motivation and experience of soldiers, both white and black, and designed to achieve a better understanding of the broader political and social impact of campaigns and battlefield events. The course can be taken without prior knowledge of the history of the United States: it forms an introduction to enduring themes in that history, many which remain relevant today.
The course is taught by tutorials, lectures and classes. An associated course of films and documentaries will provide further opportunity to see images of the period, as well as to consider how television and cinema have depicted the history of slavery and the Civil War era, and contributed to establishing the Civil War in American memory.