A milestone and new scholarship on the war

I thought I would take the opportunity of the blog’s 300th post to share with you the interesting contents in the latest issue of the journal Civil War History (not related to this site). The field of environmental history has been an emerging one over the forty years and the Civil War is not outside this field. The fine staff at the journal have put together a review essay and two articles dealing with environmental history of the war, specifically considering an overview of the literature on the field and the war, the nature of the war in the Trans-Mississippi, and preservation at Gettysburg.

I received the issue of the journal in the mail today and I look forward to reading it in detail in the coming weeks, but my brief examination of the article “The Nature of Preservation: The Rise of Authenticity at Gettysburg” by Brian Black shows it to be good both from an environmental history perspective, but also public history, as it touches on the changing landscape of the battlefield in the years after the battle, including the controversy over the battlefield tower that was demolished several years ago. Now with the new interpretive center and further reconstruction of the natural landscape in recent years, this article is quite timely.

I encourage interested readers to consider subscribing to this journal as well as the Journal of the Civil War Era. Civil War History has a long history and track record, being in its fifty-eighth volume, while The Journal of the Civil War Era is the new flagship publication of the Society of Civil War Historians, and has proven to be good in its first few years. Journals are worthwhile, as they contain articles on a variety of topics, which can be more accessible to some than large monographs. Plus, they are great resources for learning about new books in the field through their book reviews.

How many died?: New thoughts on the cost of the war

For much of the last several decades, the accepted figure for the number of dead was 620,000, making the Civil War the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. Now, that figure is being questioned. Initially reported in September, the December 2011 issue of the journal Civil War History (not affiliated with this blog) has an article dedicated to this subject. If you have access to a library, I urge you to check it out.

Using census data, some historians now believe that the war actually cost more in dead than we have thought, by almost twenty percent. According to these new studies, the number of dead ranges anywhere from 750,000 to as much as 850,000, which is much more staggering than the 620,000 we have accepted for so long.

This poses the biggest historical question, why is this important? First, it is important because it illustrates the problems of how we accounted for our war dead as a nation. Particularly, the case of African-American dead, as around 180,000 served in the war (I am not getting into a debate about black Confederates on this). Second, it brings a whole new significance to the war in American history in terms of its effect on population. That twenty percent or more died than previously believed means that a higher percentage of the population was killed and otherwise affected by the fighting. It also means that if we place such a figure against our contemporary population figures, the death toll becomes even more stark, as the new figures are almost three percent of the wartime population, which translates to roughly nine million dead in today’s figures. Finally, it raises questions as to whether all the dead from the war have been accounted, as while it may not seem important 150 years later, it is important to understanding how the military has handled the dead, both good and bad, from America’s conflicts.

Our understanding of death and the war was greatly aided by the publication of Drew Gilpin Faust’s marvelous book This Republic of Suffering (2008). Faust examined how death and the carnage of war influenced society and is one of the more groundbreaking studies within recent Civil War historiography. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for such findings to become accepted and how long before textbooks change the figures, but if the methods hold up, this will shape how this war is remembered for years to come.

Thoughts on the new Civil War journal adopted by SCWH

As many members of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH) know, the Society will be adopting a new journal being created at the University of North Carolina Press, to be called Journal of the Civil War Era. While I welcome a new journal, which will only add to the rich historiography on the war, I am saddened by the loss of an established and reputable publication as an adopted publication of a historical society. I have waited a while to weigh in on this (both because of being busy with studies and wanting to have a greater chance to reflect on this), but want to share a couple of thoughts about this.

First, let me state that I plan to subscribe to both publications. This is so that I can support a new journal, as well as stay abreast of scholarship within the established periodical. A new journal offers wonderful opportunities for young scholars to get that all-important publication line on their vita. However, my one concern is how will the end of the SCWH using Civil War History as their journal effect that journal’s success.

Second, will this issue eventually cause a new historical organization for Civil War scholars to form? I am torn on this, as such possible dissension could hurt organized Civil War scholarship by creating several small groups that lack cohesive power to assert the value of their research to the larger profession. However, the possibility of another group raises thought of a situation akin to The Historical Society, which began as an off-shoot of the American Historical Association, but now has a solid reputation. Whatever eventually happens in the next year, Civil War scholars will let their voices be heard on this. Hopefully, they will continue to support Civil War History and embrace the new journal at the same time. I hope that the two publications do not hurt each other by competing for material.

Overall, I believe this transition will be relatively painless. There will be some upset, but the research and scholarship will continue. I urge readers to join the Society and to subscribe to Civil War History.