Why Study the American Civil War?

Recently, ECW Editor Chris Mackowski was chatting with Gettysburg College senior Bobby Novak, who’s getting ready to graduate later this month with an eye on grad school—“initially for my Masters but I want to go on and get my Ph.D.” Novak told him.

“Why study the war?” Chris asked. “What do you think it all means to the average Joe/Sally? Why do you want to wade into all that?”

These are important questions to ask anyone working in the field of Civil War history, but they’re especially important questions for a fresh young historian who’s getting ready to take the plunge.

Novak’s answers impressed us—enough so that we wanted to share them with you.

Having spent the last four years here at Gettysburg, it has reaffirmed the thoughts I had as a kid of wanting to be a college professor. I never really wanted to do elementary or secondary education and longed for the relative freedom that teaching at the college level allows (as compared to elementary or secondary school) but also for the advanced level of detail and thought that goes into a college-level course. All this said, I have no desire to work a “research school.” My passion is the Civil War, particularly the common soldier—no matter how flawed a term that is—and I want to share that passion with students. The larger paychecks, greater availability to grants/funding, and the possibility of a teaching assistant helping with class work and grading while I focus on research and getting my next book out all sounds great, but you miss the connection to a student—the connection I longed for through my college search process and eventually found here at Gettysburg. I want a class of 25 rather than 125. I want to see the light bulb turn on and the eyes get wide.

But to your philosophical question, which is a hard one for someone who has loved the war and has been studying it for as long as I can remember. But probably the most obvious answer to the first part of the question is that the Civil War has had both enormous and trivial impacts on our everyday lives as modern Americans. The way that Americans view the Federal government, for example, especially from my home state of Georgia, was entrenched from Jacksonian Era States Rights through the “Redeemers” and Jim Crow. While those particular political ideas have been thrown away (we hope), the political values of State Sovereignty and the desire to have the Federal government out of the average Joe/Sally’s everyday lives has lived on.

Presidential power and control over government policy, brought into its current power through FDR and the Great Depression, has its most obvious roots in the actions of President Lincoln. The military doctrines employed by Grant and Sherman formed the basis for the United States’ battle plans through WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam (arguably it still continues to this day in some circles)—overwhelming force with the entirety of American military might put to use against our enemies. Stereotypes that exist between factions of the United States have their roots before the Civil War but, like the views of government power and authority, were entrenched during and, especially, immediately after the conflict.

Along to the more “trivial” side of the spectrum, town and street names, roads carved through the Virginia and Georgia countryside, movement of families, and the list could go on—all of this is impacted by the Civil War.

Arguably more important than all of these is how Americans think about the Civil War, when they do, which was of course directly impacted by it, but also the politics and decisions made directly after the war. The legacy of the Lost Cause is still firmly entrenched in American thought around the country and has influenced so much of American memory of the war that it will take many more lifetimes to clear it up.

The average Joe/Sally, then, has the impacts all around them, and the study of the war brings these things to their mind. But their response would be along the lines of “Oh, that’s cool.” Ultimately to the average person, the Civil War means nothing. And for all of its impacts on modern America, any good historian would simply ask the dreaded “So what?” question.

I think that as historians, our greatest question is always “Why?” In fact, I would venture to say that the questions that keep people up the most at night are always the why’s. But it isn’t enough to answer the why as an historian; it is also to make everyone else ask why. This is what creates more historians.

My girlfriend’s mother, for example, was on a bicentennial bus trip from Illinois and came to Gettysburg. She rode past the Trostle Barn, saw the hole in its side, and said “Wow! How did that happen? Why did that happen?” A simple hole in the side of a barn sparked decades of reading and research, all of which was passed on to my girlfriend, who will now work for the Park Service and make others ask the same questions that made her mother go history-crazy all those years ago. People say that history is cyclical but, in my girlfriend’s case at least, the study of history is also cyclical.

So in order to make the Civil War mean something to the average person, we cannot be afraid of getting a quizzical look from our audiences—either from our writing or speaking. It is those quizzical looks that will spawn questions, leading to answers that will inevitably lead to more questions, which eventually brings opinions and thoughts, then arguments, then papers and books and lectures, and eventually you end up like us, tromping our way across grassy fields and dusty libraries searching more and more for one more answer to one more question.

I think this is also why people find history so daunting, but I think it’s just a different form of the same work: the lawyer searches for more evidence and the perfect argument, the doctor searches everywhere for the cause of the problem and the right cure, the teacher searches for the right way to teach a particular concept, and writer the perfect phrase, the musician for the note, the mechanic for the right part, etc., etc., etc.

And yet, people find history boring. Being a doctor is exciting! Being an historian boring and lonely. People tune in every week to The Walking Dead for drama, love, sacrifice, hardship, happiness, you name it. But you can find all of that in a story of a man, woman, or child from 10, 100, or even 1,000 years ago. Making people ask Why? I think, opens their eyes to this, and brings meaning to their lives through the complicated and complex narratives of history.

Why do I want to wade into all that? Because it’s fun. It’s weird to say that a war is/was fun. People, myself included, play war on the weekends—and I’m glad that no Civil War veteran has seen what Americans have made of their Civil War (although that is a topic for another day). I’ve found my identity through exploring the identity of those that experienced the Civil War. Whole lives viewed as a microcosm to the broader narrative of history and memory are incredibly interesting to me.

Stories of valor, courage, hardship, and sacrifice have fascinated me for years, and it is hard to put my finger on what it was exactly that brought me to love the Civil War so much. But I want to wade into the maelstrom that is history and academia because I have found meaning to my own life and my ambitions through it. More importantly, though, I want to share that passion with others—and if I can get just one other person to feel that same way during my life, I’ve accomplished everything I could ever want to.

8 Responses to Why Study the American Civil War?

  1. I like what Bobby had to say. Let me add a thought of someone who has lived another 50+ years. I believe it is more difficult to be a moral American without some in depth knowledge of the defining event of American history. I would not know how to direct my social behavior without understanding what led to that war and what happened as a result of it. How could I understand Ferguson and Baltimore and act appropriately?

  2. Best question ever–why? When you are a person who lives with this war pretty much 24/7, it seems obvious. Nevertheless, I am in the midst of trying to put together a thesis statement, and our professor keeps blasting us with WHO CARES???? One of the things ECW has pledged to do, or at least try to do, is make the Civil War relevant to the 21st century. This post is a nice start in that direction.

  3. After 40 years in full-time academia, I’d be cautious about assumptions regarding “the relative freedom that teaching at the college level allows.” This assumption will lock him into the lower echelon of academic advancement. Academia was a wonderful experience for me but 60+ hours/week were regular, albeit driven by my desire to have fun, as well as to advance. Those “relative freedom” role models are likely to be deceptive!!

  4. Bobby is not the only student at Gettysburg College that feels that way, many of us share his passion for that period in our history. The Civil War Era Studies program here is a great opportunity to learn about many facets of the war, and I highly recommend it to anyone of college age (or older!).

  5. Well spoken, Mr. Novak…although I find middle and high school students most challenging to engage, they can also be very satisfying and exciting when engaged. As you point out, understanding our nation today, gaining some insight into the most be-deviling of national controversies we need to study the Civil War and political and social revolution as well as military conflict. Personally, trying to reconcile myself to my morality as well as to my roots in Eastern Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, where my people fought on both sides draws me to this war, requires grasping at their mindsets and moralities. They did not write, but they may have read and they certainly acted. However tentative and specious their past can be in my grasp, the attempt to grasp is most compelling and engaging. Success in this your chosen career!

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