Symposium Spotlight: What If — Exploring the Powerful Counterfactual

Welcome back to our annual spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium. We’ll also be sharing suggested titles that you may want to read in preparation for these programs. This week we feature Brian Matthew Jordan…

Most professional historians disdain counterfactual questions. But when posed with care, counterfactual questions can be among the most powerful implements in the historian’s toolkit. Counterfactual questions can illuminate the past anew by foregrounding the animating power of contingency. Nothing in the past had to turn out the way that it did. Historical actors lived in the moment, confronted with a range of choices and always uncertain about the future. Indeed, Civil War Americans themselves not infrequently asked, “what if?”

Building out several wartime examples–including the omnipresent fear of a race war–this talk will illustrate how historians can use counterfactual questions to probe the war anew. The fog of battle does not always obscure; very often, it merits study itself.

This talk will argue that counterfactual questions can help us to retrieve the war as a lived, human experience. Sometimes, the most significant historical events are those that could have–but did not–take place.

Find more information on our 2022 Symposium, and purchase tickets, by clicking here.

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