The thesis. The dissertation. If you have enrolled in graduate school, just seeing the words in print or hearing them immediately conjures specific memories of long nights, constant doubt, imposter syndrome, and the endless cycles of research and writing. These documents are critical points in a scholar’s career, marking the transition from student to expert on a particular subject matter.
It is a common saying amongst grad students that only a handful of people ever read your thesis completely through: you, your dissertation advisor, the evaluation committee who determines whether you get your degree or not, and virtually no one else. However, I make a distinct effort to try to find these documents where I can. A closer read at more Civil War era dissertations provides a look at the latest scholarship from the newest scholars, often offering viewpoints that have often been overlooked or angles at a subject matter that often go unseen.
The advent of expanded high speed internet has provided a real benefit for finding Civil War era themed dissertations. A simple online search can provide many of these, as universities are often keen at making them available through their own websites. One simply needs to know how to search for them, and be willing to put in a little time, and an entire set of resources become freely available for use. Generally, these documents are available within a few months to a few years after they are successfully defended. Unfortunately, since there is no uniform tracking system or premier database of dissertations, this means some leg work and hunting by those seeking these documents out.
Every summer I take some time to do a series of online searches for the latest dissertations. The searches are quite simple. Being a naval historian, I typically search for terms such as “Union Navy + Thesis”, “Confederate Navy + Thesis”, “Union Blockade + Thesis”, “Marine Corps + Civil War + Thesis”. Occasionally, I will search for specific battles as well, especially if I am focusing on a specific area at the time.
There are many benefits in looking at these dissertations. For one, the scholars writing them are the book authors of the near future. Many scholars writing their first book on the Civil War era base it on their dissertation. Thus, the dissertation of today is often the book three to five years down the line. For another, being university documents, they are almost always free to the public to view and read. Finally, often I will find a different take on a topic tackling it in a new and refreshing way.
To give some examples, Adrian Brettle’s 2020 book Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World (University of Virginia Press) is largely based on his 2014 dissertation “The Fortunes of War: Confederate Expansionist Ambitions during the American Civil War.” For another, Andrew R. English’s 2021 book The Laird Rams: Britain’s Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 is based on his dissertation “The Laird Rams: Warships in Transition, 1862-1885.”
Often, these dissertations can be the only source of recent scholarship on a subject matter. Michael Krivdo wrote his master’s thesis on the Confederate Marine Corps, and his doctoral thesis on the US Marine Corps in the Civil War. These two groups have very little scholarship besides Krivdo’s writings in the last forty years, marking these two documents as significant contributions to the war’s literature.
Finally, dissertations have the flexibility sometimes to tackle issues in a different light. One case I thought worth highlighting was the work of Nicholas Marickovich. If you have not heard of him that is understandable. He is not a Civil War historian, and his thesis was for completing his master’s degree in Ocean Engineering. His thesis is titled “Naval Architecture Analysis of Civil War Ironclad CSS Virginia.” What Marickovich does in this study is take modern principles of naval architecture studies and apply them retroactively to the Confederate ironclad Virginia to determine its stability, seaworthiness, and potential, comparing his results with the historical record. In the process, he provides a look at Virginia that I have not really seen in any other historical study of the vessel.
Obviously, my examples are almost all related to the naval elements of the conflict, but similar documents can be found for a search online for dissertations on any other topic of the Civil War era. And you do not need to always find a doctoral thesis. Many dissertations for master’s degrees involve individual unit studies. So, if you want to see the latest research being done by the newest scholars, take some time and do your own online search. You never know what you will find!
Finally, a note to those Civil War era graduate students who are currently in that arduous process of researching, drafting, editing, and preparing to deliver their own dissertation. Keep it up! You can do it! Your research, no matter how focused and no matter how specific, is important to helping advance the literature of the most defining conflict of the United States. Fellow scholars are interested in what you have to say!