Serving the Society of Civil War Historians in the Coronavirus Era

Serving the Society of Civil War Historians in the Coronavirus Era

This essay is offered as an effort in presenting my thoughts about navigating the current pandemic and what it means for me as a historian and as SCWH President. Although these are largely personal reflections, I hope that they find some resonance with other scholars and students of Civil War history.

Like so many of you, I am doing my best to work through the uncertainties and the anxieties of this moment. I have been on sabbatical this spring so I have not had to face the challenges of Zoom teaching. My heart goes out to all of you who have. Instead, I have been facing the trials of focusing on a research project at a time when my mind often feels clogged by the layers of crises surrounding us. It is definitely hard to take yourself out of our current, tumultuous, moment and get yourself settled into the past. I am sorry, too, that I have had to postpone trips to the archives. Lately, I have been feeling like I am trying to forge ahead with a project that is filled with blind spots, far more than the usual blind spots we historians usually encounter. I have renewed appreciation for the archivists out there and cannot wait to see you again! I feel fortunate, of course, to have a job, with tenure, but I am very aware of the toll this crisis has taken on many colleagues and many graduate students and former graduate students, including some of my own, who are facing lost jobs, diminished funding opportunities, and a damaged job market.

As a historian, I have been thinking a lot, too, about the historical perspective on all of this. I have been reading books and articles about past public health crises (shout out here to my old grad school buddy, Nancy Bristow, and her book American Pandemic about the so-called “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918-1919). I have been fascinated by the many social, political, and emotional similarities between that moment and ours. It is also hard not to be struck by the way crises like this–and the Civil War surely counts as another one–compound and exacerbate the social and economic inequalities of our society, making basic survival for some an overwhelming ordeal. It has made me think about the many stories we probably still do not know about how various vulnerable populations in the mid-nineteenth century faced added trauma during the Civil War.

In my attempt to practice history in the era of the coronavirus, I also, perhaps like some of you, started keeping a journal. I try to write in it regularly, not with particularly deep insights, but mostly as a way to observe the many ways our world has shifted: the different ways we relate to people; the new patterns that emerge; the way our thinking starts to change about everything from wearing face masks to what we expect from our political leaders. I am particularly interested in the way we manage, often seamlessly, to shift into new patterns of behavior and new ways of thinking. As I do all this, I cannot help but think about the many diaries and journals I’ve read for my own research. I try to pay attention to details, thinking about what a future historian might want to know. I also try to keep my penmanship neat.

From my SCWH perspective, I am, of course, deeply saddened about our cancelled conference. I just took another look at the program we had planned, and it made me sad all over. One of our goals for this conference had been to convey the wide and extremely rich variety of topics scholars are pursuing about the Civil War era. This included, for example, the new directions being taken in environmental history; the material culture of the Civil War; the international dimensions of the Civil War; and the Civil War West. Additionally, our program featured a number of panels focused on topics that have always been fundamental to Civil War scholarship–like military units and regimental histories, the archival records so many scholars have relied on, and medical practices–but how we’re approaching those topics with new questions in mind.

I was also particularly excited about the two special plenaries we had planned. The Friday plenary, on women and gender in the Civil War era, was planned as a gathering of several scholars who have been taking this field in new and exciting directions: Judy Giesberg, Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Stephanie McCurry, and Fay Yarbrough. The panel presented a great opportunity for taking stock of a field–one that has shaped my own career for the last thirty years–and to see the remarkable ways it has developed, perhaps most notably from a field that often, by default, thought of Civil War women as white to a field that more fully acknowledges how much women’s antebellum and Civil War experience was shaped by race. I was also very much looking forward to the opening plenary on “The Civil War in Poetry and History” with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Having recently taught Trethewey’s extremely moving Civil War poems in my own class, I saw how poetry could both acknowledge and illuminate certain silences we encounter in the history books, especially regarding our inability to know the inner lives of so many enslaved and freed people during this period. Trethewey, I thought, seemed to be taking up something Ta-Nehisi Coates had written about so effectively in his essay, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War.” She was using her poems to write the black experience into Civil War history and even, like Coates, reclaiming the idea of what it might mean to become a “Civil War buff.” Her poems also made me feel anew the indignities associated with Confederate memorialization. In her attention to Civil War memory, she spotlights the insidious nature of the “Lost Cause,” the way it has seeped into so much of our culture and how it has built up something holy and glorious while covering over silences about those without the resources to get their stories into the history books. I urge you to look at some of her poems, especially those in her Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, Native Guard, a book that combines Trethewey’s personal reflections about growing up in a biracial family in Mississippi with historical reflections on the black soldiers from Mississippi who served the Union. You can read one of the poems from that collection here.

Finally, in planning for this conference, our program committee was particularly attentive to highlighting the work of graduate students in our field. Several panels showcased their research. We also had plans for a first-ever “lightning round” comprised of ten short presentations of several projects: it seemed like a valuable way to get grad students to hone their “elevator pitch” and to generate good discussion between faculty and PhD students. I know this current crisis has been particularly taxing on our students so I hope all of us can find ways, going forward, to support their work.

All of this makes me hopeful that we will, indeed, be able to recreate this conference, or at least a significant portion of it, in June 2021. The program committee did an amazing job and I hope we will be able to honor their efforts a year from now. Keep your eye out, too, for future posts on Muster: the editors will be working with scholars scheduled to present at the conference to provide an outlet where they can share their work.

I look forward to seeing you in June 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Nina Silber

President, Society of Civil War Historians

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is Professor of History at Boston University where she teaches classes on the Civil War, women and gender, and the American South. Previous publications include: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (UNC Press, 1993), Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard, 2005) and This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (UNC Press, 2018).

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