Interview with Elizabeth Varon

Interview with Elizabeth Varon

Today we share an interview with Elizabeth Varon, who published an article in the March 2023 JCWE, titled “The “Bull-Dog” in Istanbul: James Longstreet’s Revealing Tour as US Minister to Turkey, 1880–81.” Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. As a historian of the Civil War era, she is finalizing a critical biography of James Longstreet.


I appreciate how you examine how you explore James Longstreet’s post-Civil War career and his role as a U.S. Minister to Turkey.  What interested you in the topic? 

This is the question I am most excited about answering, as it allows me to share something most of the readers of my work don’t know about me.  My father Bension Varon, who passed away a few years ago, was Turkish, a Sephardic Jew from Istanbul (whose family fled Spain in the 15th century and settled in the Ottoman empire; Varon is a Spanish name). He was an avid amateur historian who, after concluding his career as an economist at the World Bank, published extensively on his own heritage and on Ottoman history.  The fact that Longstreet’s already unlikely postwar career had an Ottoman chapter is part of what attracted me to his story, as it allowed me to delve a little into Turkish history, to get a new perspective on places in that country that I had visited many times, and to connect my academic pursuits to my father’s.

I was also drawn to this story by an interest in the global turn in Civil War studies, and a desire to get up-to-speed on that literature, and by curiosity about diplomatic history.  My husband and UVA colleague Will Hitchcock is a historian of foreign relations and I’ve heard a lot over the years about how fascinating diplomatic dispatches and the like are, so it was exciting to use some of those sources myself.

As you conducted your research, readers will appreciate how you deepen our understanding of Longstreet’s enduring efforts to sustain Republicanism during Reconstruction. Was there an interesting source and/or development that shaped your conclusions?

My forthcoming book argues that Longstreet’s extensive postwar oeuvre—his memoir, articles, speeches, dispatches, congressional testimony, militia reports, published letters, and many, many extensive interviews with the press–constitute a sustained intervention in American public life.  In these and other sources, Longstreet ruminated at length on the issues of loyalty and treason, victory and defeat, progress, and reaction—and his distinct voice can help us understand both the transformative changes and the entrenched inequities of the postwar period.

So it was less a particular document or moment that shaped my conclusions than a desire to analyze the full spectrum of his public commentary and trace the shifts therein.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain for either their own teaching or future research? 

First of all, that it can be productive to take a new look, using new analytical and technological tools (like digital databases), at a familiar figure or topic.  Longstreet has been studied extensively but there are essential parts of his story that have not been told.  His tour as minister to Turkey is one, but the major focus and contribution of my book will be to use his life as a window in race relations, and to explore the broad range of his interactions with African Americans.

A second takeaway is that biography as a genre is an effective way to reach a broad readership, and that biographies can make arguments and intervene in debates.  My Longstreet book will make a series of arguments, about the achievements of but also the fault lines within the Republican coalition in the South during Reconstruction, and about the extent and limits of reconciliation not only between the North and South, but also among Southerners.

After this interesting article, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project? 

My Longstreet biography will be published by Simon & Schuster this coming November. I find that it is salutary to start tinkering with a new project as one is wrapping up the current one—it helps you let go and move on!  So I am starting to tinker with the idea of writing a biography of the amazing Clara Barton.  Her life, and the records she left behind, are monumental—frankly, I am a little intimidated by the prospect of taking this on.  But a Barton biography would allow me to return to women’s and gender history as research focus, and to delve more deeply into the topic of Civil War medicine.

I am also interested in returning to the subject of the secession crisis and am contemplating writing an article that historicizes the “slavery vs. states’ rights” framing of the debate over Civil War causality; that very dichotomous framing, I think, has not only distorted our view of the past but also had political purposes and consequences.

Thank for these responses! We are eagerly awaiting your forthcoming biography on Longstreet!

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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