- Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott
Given the plethora of work published about the American Civil War, what more can be said? Paul D. Escott's Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for [End Page 171] Research offers some suggestions. Escott also surveys the historiography and concisely sketches out some of the big questions historians have wrestled with in writing about the war. The volume consists of seven chapters. Each offers an evaluation of some aspect of Civil War historiography: the origins of the war; the war and society; the effect of the war on African Americans; military history; new methodological approaches to writing about the war, particularly the use of digital tools; environmental history; and a reimagining of how historians could talk about the consequences of the war.
Analyzing the causes of the Civil War is a perennial activity for historians. Rather than think of the sectional divide as turning solely on a north/south axis, Escott urges readers to consider the "middle third," consisting of the border states, as another player in the sectional crisis (p. 13). He also stakes a claim on the question of "who deserves the credit for freeing the slaves," northern white leaders or the enslaved themselves: the actions of both groups were "equally" necessary in Escott's view (p. 15).
The growth of social history has produced numerous works on social relations and cultural changes during the Civil War, particularly with regard to gender. Escott asserts in his second chapter, however, that there are topics yet to be plumbed, including patterns of "internal violence" in the Confederacy, the growth and meaning of ideas of nationalism in the North, and northern racism's connection to white identity (p. 22). Escott's research suggestions for the topic of African Americans during the war years relate closely to social history. For instance, he argues for more work on black women, both elite and working-class, in the North. Other lacunae in the field include identifying the characteristics of those African Americans who favored and opposed emigration, understanding black northerners' "commitment … to the United States, despite its history of enslavement and discrimination," and tracing the growth of black ideology (p. 57).
Escott acknowledges in chapter 4 his own bias toward political and social history rather than military history and turns to historians such as Gary W. Gallagher and Richard M. McMurray to identify some of the gaps in this literature. Escott explores "what constituted victory in battle"—a very basic question that lacks consensus among Civil War military historians (p. 70). Territory claimed? Fewer casualties? He also urges further study of relationships between generals and presidents and a more critical look at generals in particular. Escott asks other important questions: Did southern society, specifically Charles Roland's idea of "'localism,'" constrain Jefferson Davis's military strategy (p. 73)? How important was the West in the war? Escott encourages scholars to follow the example of Lisa Tendrich Frank and examine the role gender played in motivating particular military strategies (humiliating white southern women by entering homes and destroying property, for instance) and reactions.
In his fifth chapter, Escott examines the potential benefits of digital humanities, both in terms of the sources that digitization makes available to scholars and new methodologies such as GIS mapping and data mining. He also offers some principles to guide digital humanities research that focus on cooperation and sharing of materials. Next, Escott suggests new avenues of research if scholars consider the interactions of people and the environment. [End Page 172]
Yes, military historians factor geography and topography in studies of battles, but what about weather and climate? Moreover, discussions of disease do not relate just to soldiers in camp or in battle; civilians were also victims. Masses of moving troops took livestock, as well as diseases that affected livestock, with them, as did refugees. What effect did this movement have on the environment?
Finally, Escott leans on the...