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  • Nationalism
  • Michael T. Bernath

It is time, indeed past time, for Civil War historians to fully engage in wider debates surrounding the rise of nationalism in the modern world. Historians of early America have long employed a comparative approach, and those of the Civil War era must follow suit. For if the initial imagining of the American community has beneted from a larger perspective (call it comparative, transatlantic, or transnational), so too does the reimagining of the American community or, rather, communities in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, the commonalities and parallels between U.S. nationalism and nationalism elsewhere in the world are even clearer and perhaps more instructive in the nineteenth century than during that earlier period. Nationalism was not something that happened to nineteenth-century Americans, not some inexorable force in which they found themselves passively caught. Rather, it was consciously created, cultivated, and constructed by them. Civil War Americans spoke and understood the language of nationalism. This was something they shared with others around the globe, and these commonalities, these common understandings and methods of nation-making and legitimation, demand that Civil War historians broaden their horizons.

If the problem for historians of early American identity has been grappling with the famous "roof without walls," we who work in the mid-nineteenth century face a very different challenge, a very different edifice—one more structurally sound, perhaps, but far more ungainly. We have lots of walls, not all of them load-bearing, and two different roofs to deal with. My prediction, my hope, is that historians will not simply use nationalism as a tool for explaining the onset and outcome of the war but will ask what the Civil War experience can teach us about the workings of nationalism itself. [End Page 4]

Michael T. Bernath
University of Miami


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