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  • Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship
  • Yael A. Sternhell (bio)

In a 1998 essay titled “Worrying about the Civil War,” Edward L. Ayers issued a call for a new Civil War revisionism, which would challenge the master narrative in both the scholarship and the public discourse on the sectional conflict. Ayers criticized contemporary historians for telling a story that was too clear, too linear, and too lacking in self-doubt, moral reflection, and a sense of historical contingency. Theirs was a liberal interpretation of the war that dramatized “the ways that antislavery opinion, progress, war, and national identity intertwined at the time of the Civil War so that each element became inseparable from the others. Slavery stands as the antithesis of progress, shattering nation and creating war; war is the means by which antislavery feeling spreads and deepens; the turn against slavery during the war re-creates national identity; the new nation is freed for a more fully shared kind of progress.” Ayers advocated instead a history that “might resist the very notion of the war as a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end, with turning points and near misses.” The new revisionism he sought “might also set aside the Olympian perspective and voice of our dominant books and films to provide a different sense of the war’s depth and scale. It might give up older reassurances to provide new kinds of clarity.”1 For several years, this call went unheeded. Yet, a decade and a half later, a new revisionist trend in Civil War scholarship is in full bloom. What happened? One explanation has to do with the coming of age of a new generation of historians who are rethinking old questions and searching for new answers. Perhaps more importantly, events since 1998 have precipitated a drastic reconsideration of war and its place in American culture. When Ayers published his piece, America was at the tail end of its happy days as the world’s only superpower. The Cold War was over, the dot-com industry was booming, unemployment was low, and the future seemed bright. Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. War, in all its ugliness, burst into the center of American life, and with it came [End Page 239] a torrent of disillusionment, skepticism, and anger. Nowadays, despite the election of Barack Obama and the gradual winding down of the two Middle Eastern wars, there are enough new problems to fuel a sense of despondency and declension: a prolonged recession, a poisonous political climate, and dire predictions about America’s prospects as an international power.

This mindset is manifest in the scholarship about America’s bloodiest conflict and is starting to upend the master narrative. Stephen Berry, who proudly self-identifies as a “new revisionist,” recently wrote in this journal that his generation has “yet to fight a war that makes sense to a majority of us in our lifetime. The wars we’ve witnessed aren’t even tragic; they just reek of farce and failed policy . . . to us, Clausewitz seems simply wrong; war is (with rare exceptions) politics not by other but by less effective means.”2

Employing the term “new revisionism” implies a clear connection to the “old” revisionism, which dominated the field in the 1930s.3 Revisionists set out to dismantle the nationalist narrative that had emerged in the era of sectional reconciliation. According to that story, in vogue from the late nineteenth century and into the 1920s, the war was the inevitable outcome of growing differences between North and South stemming from slavery. Secession was a mistake, but it eventually served the South by ridding it of slavery and putting it on the road to modernization. Yet Reconstruction was also a mistake, granting as it did equal rights to freed slaves unprepared for citizenship and imposing on the South a misbegotten social order that should never have been attempted in the first place. Thus northerners might have been right about slavery, but southerners were right about racial equality and white supremacy. This was a history of the war that offered something for everyone and placed blame on no one, an easy, accessible explanation for white Americans...


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pp. 239-256
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