A Graduate Readings in the American Civil War Era

As I teach my second graduate readings course, I have realized just how little I prepared for similar courses in grad school. Yes, I “mastered” comps and arrived in daily seminar meetings equipped to discuss books. But it is another matter altogether to prepare and lead an organized, fluid three-hour weekly discussion on books and ideas, despite their intimate relevance to my own research. This has been one of the most rewarding challenges in my two years on the tenure-track. I have had the pleasure to re-read books in ways that hardly resemble the ol’ grad school skim, focusing instead on how authors build their sentences, construct their paragraphs, and assemble their chapters, all of which make-or-break how the book’s argument is delivered. And thus, I teach my graduate readings courses not only on the basis of historiographical thought, but also on the art of clear, succinct, and punchy writing.

To that end, I will be blogging this semester on the status of my latest course, The American Civil War Era. I intend, over the next few months, to write about the progress of the course, its successes/shortcomings, and lessons that I glean from teaching readings from my own field of study. Today’s post introduces the philosophy of the course, explaining how and why I built it in a particular way.

Scholars of the Civil War Era have, over the past year or so, debated the role of military history in professional study of the conflict. In an effort to introduce graduate students to the broader nature of this debate, the course engages literature from the last twenty-five years in which historians have penned an excellent body of scholarship that addresses nearly every conceivable topic related to social, cultural, political, economic, and military history. The course is thus framed around several important essays that the capture current state of the field (or which captured the field at the time of publication):

Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations,” Journal of American History 76 (June 1989): 34-58.

Drew Gilpin Faust, “‘We Should Grow Too Fond of It:” Why We Love the Civil War,” Civil War History 50 (December 2004): 368-83.

Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented?: The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3 no. 2, (June 2013): 239-56.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean “The Long Civil War: Recent Writing on the Outcomes of the U.S. Civil War,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 119 (June, 2011): 107-153.

Paul Christopher Anderson, Theory and Method in Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed. A Companion to the U. S. Civil War (2014)

Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shivley Meier, “Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (December 2014): 487-508.

The course’s final historiographical essay is framed, specifically, around the Vinovskis and Gallagher/Meier essay, requiring students to evaluate the balance between social, cultural, and military histories. From the syllabus: “In 1989, Maris Vinoviskis declared that social historians had lost the Civil War, offering numerous suggestions on how to broaden the field’s interpretative scope. How has the field, over the past twenty-five years, succeeded in realizing his vision? Based on the readings in this course, in addition to 7-10 supplementary books of your choice (as long as they have been published after 1995 by an academic/university press), has the field been successful? How have historians expanded the scope of Vinovskis’s suggestions? Where should we go from here? Are historians, as Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier suggested in their 2014 essay on the state of professional military history, now on the verge of losing the military version of the war in their quest to tell the social and cultural story? Have historians balanced their focus on military affairs with social and cultural concerns? How can we achieve such balance going forward? Overall, this essay must make an argument, evaluating the recent Civil War field’s methodologies and principal historiographical questions, themes, and debates.

The course is thus framed around the war itself, rather than the “Long Civil War Era,” delving into readings on most facets of the conflict. My future posts will address specific readings and topics from which I will explain how a particular class meeting responded to a book(s), how graduate students are conceptualizing the major problems in the field, and my own thoughts on how I might change the course in the future. I look forward to sharing this course and field of study with this broader audience.

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