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  • Beyond North and SouthPutting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Stacey L. Smith (bio)

U.S. regional history owes its existence, in large part, to the study of the Civil War. Almost as soon as the Civil War ended, historians of the conflict identified regionalism as a central framework for understanding U.S. national history in the nineteenth century. The notion that the American North and the American South had developed such incompatible regional cultures that they could no longer coexist in the same nation continues to drive the narrative of the Civil War era. But oddly enough, in making regionalism a central analytical category for understanding the Civil War, historians of the nineteenth century have generally neglected the American West.

Despite being the nation’s largest region, with one of its most developed bodies of regional scholarship, the American West plays only fleeting or minor roles on the Civil War stage. It enters the story only when it is directly relevant to the concerns of northerners and southerners. In the antebellum era, the West serves as the (often imagined) landscape onto which these northerners and southerners projected their hopes and fears about slavery’s future in the wake of westward expansion.1 Even then, some scholars’ insistence that the West’s arid climate put “natural limits” on slavery’s expansion has cast doubt on the region’s relevance to the sectional crisis.2 And once the Civil War starts, the region usually falls out of sight completely. Studies of the conflict in “the West” rarely look past the Mississippi River or the near Trans-Mississippi theater (Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory, and Kansas).3 Apart from occasional references to the Sand Creek Massacre (1864) or Republican economic policies aimed at western development (such as the Homestead Act of 1862), the West does not make a major appearance on the national stage again until the completion of the first transcontinental railroad line in 1869.4 Written out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the West stands as an isolated, even exceptional, region with a history largely disconnected [End Page 566] from the crisis over slavery, freedom, and federal authority that tore apart the North and the South.

At the same time that Civil War historians neglected the West, western historians have long insisted on the region’s centrality to understanding critical questions of federal power and governance at the heart of the Civil War era. Stretching back to the 1890s, with the founding of frontier history, western scholars argued that the struggle between local sovereignty and federal power transcended the conflict over Confederate independence. Processes of conquest, empire-building, and colonial settlement in the West brought the federal state into confrontations with dozens of distant, far-flung polities. Miners, settler communities, Indian nations, former Mexican citizens, Mormons, and state and territorial legislatures fought for self-governance and freedom from centralized federal control. Violent conflict in the West anticipated, paralleled, and helped determine the course of federal state-building during the Civil War era.5

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, interest in the history of U.S. empire, state-building, and governance has prompted Civil War historians to take seriously a century of western scholarship that establishes the West, alongside the South, as a central testing ground of federal authority. Meanwhile, western historians, long attuned to the region’s critical role in nineteenth-century state-building, are lighting the way by making explicit the connections between southern and western resistance to federal control. Loosening the Civil War from its North-South moorings, a spate of new scholarship on the Civil War West takes a fully national, continental view of the nineteenth century.6 These studies reframe southern Confederates’ bid for independence from 1861 to 1865 as one of many rebellions against federal authority that wracked the U.S. nation-state in the last half of the century. Across this era, multiple far-flung sovereignties—competing nation-states, Indian nations, residents of colonized territories, and state governments—resisted the rapidly expanding power of the U.S. federal state and fought for home rule and local control. The story of the second half of the nineteenth century...


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pp. 566-591
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