Civil War Experts

January 09, 2013

The popularity of the current film Lincoln demonstrates how enthralled the American public can become in American history, the Civil War, and the related topics of leadership, politics, and storytelling.

At University Campus, there was never any doubt. Three highly experienced faculty members from the School of Arts & Sciences happen to be teaching three courses related directly to the Civil War era for the spring semester, which began January 8.

Students in Dr. Hudson Reynold’s senior seminar class for political science majors, called Crisis in Leadership, are focusing their attention on Abraham Lincoln and his presidential cabinet. They will also be studying other important figures from that era, including African-American thought leader and author Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, the white Northern editor who founded an abolitionist newspaper. Through readings and discussions, “students try to figure out the greatest influence each of those figures had during the Civil War,” Dr. Reynolds explains. Each student will make a presentation to the rest of the class on his or her research thesis, backed by historical evidence.

Meanwhile, in Dr. Anthony Esposito’s upper-level history class, the American Civil War, students will view the conflict from multiple perspectives. Dr. Esposito, who specializes in social history, organizes the course so that is it one-third military history, one-third political history, and one-third social history. That means, for instance, learning what the technological migration from muskets to rifles meant on the field of battle. And it means considering how Lincoln’s choice of words in describing American political virtues shaped public opinion. For instance, Dr. Esposito will talk about the way Lincoln effectively used the word “freedom” repeatedly, rather than “liberty”—which had been relied upon since the Declaration of Independence—in his arguments against slavery.

Dr. Esposito will also be a guest speaker for a session in the special 19th-century American literature course, War and Class, being taught Dr. Mary Spoto, who is also dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. Dr. Esposito’s observations on American society during the war will be relevant to the literature students, as Dr. Spoto plans to concentrate the first half of the course on the effect the Civil War had on publishing trends and reader demands. Literacy among the general populace had risen by that time in history, Dr. Spoto notes, and people wanted to read and understand more about the war. Publishers obliged, and even established authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne had to shift from topics such as family stories or transcendentalism to the gritty reality of combat and devastation. Journalism, literary realism, and new topics in poetry emerged. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman reflected experiences of the war in poetry, and Stephen Crane crafted the novel The Red Badge of Courage.

This was also the first war during which photography played a role in documenting the conflict, so Dr. Spoto and her students will be reviewing the photographic images from that era, as well.

The Civil War remains a topic of high interest and continues to generate new scholarship for the general public. For readers interested in the era, Dr. Reynolds recommends these works, which he has used in his teaching. This list includes his comments.

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “should have been subtitled Lincoln on Management.”
  • The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner, “tracing the evolution of Lincoln’s personal views and public statements on race relations.”
  • President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman by William Lee Miller, “documenting Lincoln’s political prudence, by far the best book on Lincoln as president.”
  • 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood, “who has an easy writing style.”

Additionally, Dr. Doris Van Kampen, one of the university’s librarians, has developed a guide that includes many free resources (although some are password-protected) on the Civil War. You can access that guide here.

For guests and visitors who enjoy films, Saint Leo will host a showing of the popular Civil War drama Cold Mountain, 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 19, in the media room of Apartment Building 6 at University Campus. An online discussion about the movie will open the following evening. The showing is part of a year of special programming to commemorate Saint Leo’s 40th anniversary of educating the military community. More information is available here.