Kate Masur, Gregory P. Downs, eds. The World the Civil War Made. The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 392 pp. $32.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2418-1.
Reviewed by Tracy Barnett (University of Georgia)
Published on H-War (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Three decades after the publication of Eric Foner’s transformative work, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988), a new generation of leading scholars tackle the meaning of the Civil War for society, policy, governance, political discourse, and everyday Americans and the world. Originally developed at a June 2013 conference hosted by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University, these fifteen contributions grapple with Foner’s lasting legacy and the challenges posed by conventional narratives of Reconstruction. Transformed into a published collection of essays under the able leadership of Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, The World the Civil War Made adopts new theoretical frameworks, considers previously overlooked topics, and expands the field’s boundaries.
Downs and Masur reject Reconstruction as a viable historical framework or useful periodization. Expanded beyond its original temporal and special scope, Reconstruction, they argue, “alludes to everything and nothing” (p. 4). Likewise, the conventional Reconstruction narrative “tend[s] to foreground certain phenomena while eclipsing others” (p. 5). Instead, Downs and Masur advocate for a critical examination of the postwar period that extends beyond the social, economic, and political transformations of the American South.
Offering an alternative framework, Andrew Zimmerman’s essay places the American Civil War in a global perspective. To Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other European revolutionaries, the American Civil War offered a hope for lasting social, political, and economic change. Expanding on this notion of revolutionary change, Steven Hahn’s particularly astute afterword employs counterfactuals to demonstrate the meaningful changes wrought by the war for local, state, and national governments, as well as the nation’s political economy. Reconfiguring the social structure of the United States and spurring new paths of capitalist developments, the war extended the era of dynamic change first initiated by the revolutions of 1848.
Several authors, in addition to Hahn, assess the legacy of the Civil War. Focusing on the physical landscape of the South, K. Stephen Prince examines the ruins and rubble of the immediate postwar period. Seeking to transform the vacant landscape and defeated nation into a republican utopia, Northerners expected to encounter a guilty and malleable South. Representing both continuity and change, these ruins demonstrate Northern optimism and entrenched Southern resistance. The war also altered Americans’ perceptions of the government, according to Amanda Claybaugh. Grappling with the rapid growth of the federal government, well-known novelists, borrowing language from the government’s critics, portrayed Washington society as insular and corrupt. Unlike the rapidly evolving federal government, Southern religion resisted change. Luke E. Harlow contends that, from the antebellum decades until the late nineteenth century, Southern Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations preached pro-slavery ideology and remained distinct from Northern churches. Devoting ample research to antebellum and wartime theology, Harlow’s analysis would have been enriched with a section comparing white churches to predominantly African American congregations in the postwar period.
Yet these authors are careful not to fully dismiss the transformative power of the federal government. Rather than emphasize “freedom” as an analytical category, they consider the development and limitations of a liberal state. Distinguishing governance from the state, Laura F. Edwards demonstrates how local conditions and grassroots movements shaped federal policy for African Americans. Unable to develop a fully rationalized system of governance, extralegal violence remained central in the postwar period. Kidada E. Williams considers the psychological effects of night riding and violence on African American families. Offering a traditional gendered analysis of rape, Crystal N. Feimster claims that African American women’s resistance to sexual violence influenced postwar liberalism and the development of “a new sexual citizenship” (p. 249). Human rights, enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, are central to Amy Dru Stanley’s essay. Moving away from traditional conceptions of rights, which were rooted in Enlightenment ideas of property and wealth, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 granted African Americans the right to enjoy public accommodations and amusements regardless of race.
The meaning of the Civil War on the western frontier also features prominently in this collection. Placing the Thirteenth Amendment in a western context, Stacey L. Smith’s original essay considers the meaning of slavery, freedom, and coercive labor for indigenous servants and Chinese contract laborers. Beyond the reach of the federal government in New Mexico Territory, elite Hispanos held indigenous people as household servants until Congress passed the Anti-Peonage Act of 1867. Rather than abolishing slave-like labor conditions for Chinese contract laborers, Congress instead barred “coolies” from immigrating to the United States. Similarly reconsidering the timetable of emancipation, Barbara Krauthamer chronicles the demise of slavery in Oklahoma Territory, which did not occur until 1866. Stephen Kantrowitz argues that Native Americans used the ambiguous meaning of “civilization” and “citizenship” to seek due process under the Fourteenth Amendment as a means of obtaining tribal and individual rights. C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa chronicles Ely S. Parker’s vision for Native Americans in the postwar period. Rather than connecting the armed forces to oppression, Parker and other Native Americans, in light of the Fourteenth Amendment, connected the military to positive social change.
To consider the effects of war, Downs and Masur introduce new theoretical approaches to the study of the Civil War era. Analyzing the size, scope, and power of the federal government, these essays reveal the South and West as a “stockade state, a collection of outposts—both military and civilian—powerful within narrow geographical boundaries but limited in their reach, sometimes overpowered, and almost always beset by both competing power centers and individuals who sought to live beyond the reach of most authority” (pp. 6-7). The scholars in this collection mainly employ the stockade theory to explore the postwar West, but this insightful conceptual framework could successfully be applied to the wartime South. Integrated around unifying themes—continuity versus change, the stockade state, liberalism—the essays in this collection demonstrate a remarkable degree of cohesion. Collectively, this volume speaks to the multifaceted world that emerged following the Civil War. Downs and Masur have produced a masterful volume that opens new avenues of inquiry and poses new questions for historians.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Tracy Barnett. Review of Masur, Kate; Downs, Gregory P., eds., The World the Civil War Made.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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