Reinterpreting the Civil War, South by Southwest

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

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