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

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,

[2] “Andrew Jackson biographer fact checks Trump’s Civil War remarks,” MSNBC, accessed May 1, 2017,

[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.

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

  1. If it is assumed, for purposes of argument, that all the eleven states that seceded did so chiefly because of slavery, it does not necessarily follow that the reasons for the war were the same as the reasons for secession.

    If Northerners wanted to rid the Union of slavery they could merely have let the Southern states depart peaceably. Northerners, therefore, must have had another reason for choosing to coerce the Southern states back into the Union with military force.

    As the url below proves, one of today’s leading historians of the era, Dr. Eric Foner, admits that he cannot explain why the North chose to fight a war. Moreover, he erroneously asserts that no historian has ever done so.

    Yet his own uncle Philip’s *Business & Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict* explains that Northerners were at least partially motivated to fight in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

    First, Southern cotton alone accounted for about 60% of all United States exports. A truncated federal union composed solely of Northern states could not hope to maintain a favorable international balance of payments. The situation would be worse if the Northern states tried to match the anticipated low tariffs in the new Confederacy. Ten days before South Carolina led the cotton states into secession on December 20, 1860, the Chicago Daily Times editorialized on the calamities of disunion:

    “In one single blow our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One-half of our shipping would be idle…We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits. Our manufactories would be in utter ruins…If [our protective tariff] be wholly withdrawn from our labor…it could not compete with the labor of Europe. We should be driven from the market and millions of our people would be compelled to go out of employment.”

    Second, if the Confederacy were to survive as a separate country its import tariffs would certainly have been much lower than those of the federal union if the Northern states retained protective tariffs. President Jefferson Davis announced in his inaugural address, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is…[in] our interest, [and those of our trading partners] that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.”

    Low Confederate tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since the federal tax base relied chiefly upon the tariff the government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, a low Confederate tariff would make Southerners more likely to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

    Thus, after the opening shots at Fort Sumter the Northern states chose to fight to “preserve the Union” because they wanted to avoid the anticipated economic consequences of disunion—not because they had a mystical love for a Union with a people they hated. In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of the state [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Author Charles Adams elaborates:

    If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

  2. You are probably right that economic factors played a role, but I don’t believe that it was the only factor

    Lincoln gave a bunch of philosophical, legal, constitutional reasons why secession could not be tolerated.

    Further it was a known fact that several “Fire-Eaters” – in proposing secession, publicly advocated anexing parts of Mexico and the Caribbean islands to extend slavery beyond it’s existing borders. Pres. Davis had been an advocate of annexing the Yucatan at one time as well.

    Individuals are complex; nations composed of individuals are even more so.

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