- Teaching the Civil War Era in Global ContextA Discussion
The drive to understand U.S. history in global context, on the march since the 1990s, is having a growing impact on scholarship on the Civil War era, as is evidenced by the pages of this journal and others, conference panels, and recent dissertations and books. We also now have surveys of America’s place in world history—including those by Thomas Bender, Carl Guarneri, and Ian Tyrrell—and Atlantic history textbooks that address the Civil War era. What has received less attention, however, is whether and how to teach the Civil War era in global context.1 Here, six scholars discuss this topic based on their diverse experiences designing courses, mentoring students, and pursuing research.
David Prior, the moderator, began organizing this discussion in February 2013. The conversation itself took place from June 10 to June 26 through a webpage that allowed the moderator and the participants to post comments and questions in sequence. The moderator and the journal’s editors edited it for length, in consultation with the participants. This final version has been condensed slightly for the readers’ benefit while maintaining the open-ended and free-flowing nature of the original conversation.
To begin, I wanted to ask each of you to describe, broadly, how you approach teaching the Civil War and its era in transnational context. For example, do you emphasize a specific framework—such as Atlantic, borderlands, comparative, or world history—in your courses? Are there particular themes, events, or regions that are especially prominent in your readings, discussions, and lectures? How do you view your courses on this topic relative to narratives of the war and the longer arc of scholarship on this period?
My broad goal while teaching the Civil War era in a transnational context is for students to understand how international currents shaped and were shaped by events in the United States. Therefore, I use whatever framework is most useful to address the day’s theme—more of an Atlantic framework focusing on Haiti and West Indian emancipation to help examine the development of pro-slavery ideology and Civil War causation, while I go global with Reconstruction and new forms of racialized unfree labor. By necessity, all of these frameworks are comparative, as one of the challenges of teaching the Civil War era in a transnational context is simultaneously teaching the basics of other regions’ histories. But I highlight that such comparisons are not solely a product of modern scholarship by emphasizing the comparisons historical actors made and how those comparisons shaped their actions. [End Page 127]
The focus of discussions changes based on the students’ interests. At the University of New Mexico, Native American nations’ experiences and relations with Mexico under the Juárez government and the French-Austrian invasion loom large. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, although my approach and readings are similar, discussions linger more on Irish veterans of the Civil War who later pursued Irish independence.
Regardless of location or whether the course is for undergraduates or graduates, I emphasize that a transnational approach to the Civil War era disrupts the traditional domestic frame but that it does not simply open up new avenues of inquiry. Transnational studies also contribute to older questions—like the war’s causes and what new economic and social relations followed racial slavery.
I initially intended my Civil War course to present the usual Civil War narrative, with a heavy emphasis on related North Atlantic events. While I was preparing, I started to work on an article on Atlantic connections post-1825 that quickly pushed the course in a new direction.
I believed that five themes stood out for the Civil War era: revolution/rebellion, secessionism/separatism/nationalism, unification/nationalism, frontier struggles, and religious conflicts. I constructed the course around these and took a Hobsbawmian and Osterhammelian approach and presented a global narrative. As a result, the class spent a few days on the events of...