The Long Civil War: A Historiography of the Consequences of the Civil War

By Sheehan-Dean, Aaron | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Long Civil War: A Historiography of the Consequences of the Civil War


Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The sheer volume of historical writing on the U.S. Civil War functions as both the field's chief asset and chief liability. It has allowed scholars to develop remarkably sophisticated and specific accounts of the past. The scale and scope of primary material unearthed and secondary analyses advanced enables Civil War scholars to interpret the war and debate one another with a precision available in few other fields of history. At the same time, the ever-increasing size and sophistication of the secondary literature creates its own feedback loop-the demands of engaging with and commenting on the existing scholarship encourages authors to write tightly focused studies rather than ones that analyze the war's broader consequences. The diversity of publishing in the field-especially the application of social and cultural history to the war years-should have alleviated the problem, but instead it has created new and mostly distinct subfields in the literature. Because of the profusion of historical writing on the Civil War, and despite the excellence of much of that work, we are in danger of learning more and more about less and less. The major challenge for Civil War scholars today is making sense of the war's larger meaning.1

Civil War scholars need to write broader histories in both temporal and spatial terms. For too long, Civil War historians have been justly criticized for writing within a deep but narrow and disconnected part of the larger community of scholars studying the United States. The challenge of articulating the long-term effects of the conflict goes to the heart of what Civil War history should accomplish. Writing histories that account for the war's full impact offers a way to reconnect scholars of the war with those in other fields. It will diminish the possibility of historians ignoring the war because their work concerns seemingly unrelated elements. Beyond the disciplinary advances that such an approach might facilitate, historians have a professional obligation to address the topic more clearly. When our nation weighs entering military conflicts, policymakers consider the costs and benefits of previous wars. Vietnam and World War II have dominated recent discussions of American war making, for good reason, but the Civil War provides an important model as well. It offers a window onto the most pressing questions we face: invasion, occupation, reconstruction, changing war plans, and tensions between military and political goals.2

To explain the consequences of the Civil War, scholars should draw inspiration from the current revisionism in the field of civil rights history and reconceptualize the period around the concept of the Long Civil War. Historians oí the Long Civil Rights Movement seek a fuller consideration of the origins and sources of resistance to white supremacy. Civil War scholars should press forward in time rather than back. In both cases, the effort proceeds from a recognition that isolating historical events or processes, no mattet how profound and seemingly self-contained, distorts the dynamism of history. The rise of social and cultural history, which operate on more evolutionary time scales than the political and military history common to the discipline fifty years ago, fuels this change as well. Reorienting the scholarship produces more human stories that restore a crucial sense of contingency to the past and connects the pivotal changes of the era-whether the destruction of slavery and preservation of the Union or the end of Jim Crow-to the broader flow of human thought and action surrounding it.3

The histotiographical lacunae surrounding the question of the war's influence appear clearly in comparison to historical treatments of other aspects of the conflict. Ask any graduate student preparing for their comprehensive exams about Civil War causation and they will offer a disquisition on fundamentalists and revisionists, with a narrative running through Charles and Mary Beard, James G. …

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