New Approaches to Internationalizing the History of the Civil War Era: An Introduction
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New Approaches to Internationalizing the History of the Civil War Era:
An Introduction

Two decades after a series of important historiographical essays on transnational history and ten years after the publication of the influential anthology Rethinking American History in a Global Age, it can still seem that there are more manifestoes for a "new transnational history" than clear examples of it. Addressing that persistent imbalance is one aim of this special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, which originated at a February 2009 symposium on "The South" and "the World" in the Civil War Era" held at Rice University. One of our collective aims there was to highlight some of the best recent examples of scholarship placing the American Civil War era in a global or transnational context. Our goal was less to reiterate the need for such scholarship than to spotlight various attempts to meet it.1

Our focus on methodologies and outcomes rather than diagnosis stems partly from the recognition that the transnational turn in American historiography is not entirely new. One of our contributors has recently noted that placing the American South, in particular, "in broader national and international contexts" is a practice with a long history predating "the recent explosion of interest in comparative and transnational history." Indeed, the many precedents and preexisting inspirations for examining "the South and the World" together were fully evident at our symposium, as presenters referred to the Atlantic history of Paul Gilroy's 1993 book The Black Atlantic, audience members asked questions informed by Benedict Anderson's 1983 book Imagined Communities, and attendees discussed D. W. Meinig's multivolume historical geography The Shaping of America.2

Still, attendees and presenters also left the 2009 symposium excited by much that was new about the research under discussion. Though the methods of comparative history are well established in the history of slavery, presenters pointed to a wide horizon of possible comparisons still beckoning historians of emancipation, Reconstruction, and race relations. Framing concepts like "the Atlantic World" have long structured [End Page 145] histories of exploration, capital formation, labor exploitation, and transoceanic migration before the nineteenth century, but more historians than ever are now showing that "Atlantic history" need not be bounded by the late-eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions. Likewise, while concepts like "diaspora" and "empire" have been taken up by historians of Africans in America and of antebellum white American westward expansionists, several presenters showed that these concepts can offer important insights to historians of proslavery southerners as well.3

Most of all, although the symposium convened with a specific focus on one geographical region, many presenters implicitly or explicitly drew more attention to the symposium title's chronological focus on the Civil War era. It was evident at the time and has become increasingly so since 2009 that the nineteenth century in general and the American Civil War era in particular are especially ripe for reconsideration from global, comparative, and transnational perspectives. In the first issue of this journal, Douglas R. Egerton reached a similar conclusion in a historiographical essay on the relevance of the Civil War in global history and the history of the Atlantic World. While noting an earlier admonition from David M. Potter to "internationalize the Civil War era," Egerton observed that "there is much yet to do."4

Internationalizing the history of the American Civil War remains challenging nonetheless. After all, extremely strong historiographical currents tend to direct students of the era through a deeply grooved trench of domestic events that James Huston has dubbed "the sequence"—Texas annexation, the Mexican American War, the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, the Harpers Ferry raid, the secession crisis, war, emancipation, and Reconstruction. In reality, contemporaries of these events often connected them quite naturally with events outside the nation's borders; for Abraham Lincoln at Peoria, for example, the principle underlying the Kansas-Nebraska Act portended the prospective expansion of southern slavery outside the United States and was connected, in his mind, with the activities of the proslavery European diplomats of the Franklin Pierce administration. Nonetheless, the landmarks and trenches provided by the sequence have...