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

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.

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