- Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott
Any survey of Civil War scholarship is an easy target for criticism, given that no single volume can possibly account for a historiography that is so vast and dynamic. Cynics suggest that the outpouring of new publications makes any historiographical treatment of the Civil War dated and not particularly useful as soon as it is released. Paul Escott's Rethinking the Civil War Era will be of limited value to those readers who always go to the index to see if their book has been cited. Those more concerned about the broad interpretive contours of the field, however, will find Escott's thin volume helpful. In seven tightly written chapters, he touches on a range of topics that include the coming of the war, war and society, African Americans, military history, Reconstruction, environmental history, and digital history.
A persistent problem in Rethinking the Civil War Era is Escott's failure to adequately account for the historiographical development of a particular subject. The randomness with which Escott drops books into his discussion keeps the reader from fully understanding how the field has reached a particular point, which is crucial to understanding where we go from here. I am not quibbling with his book selections, but noting his failure to show [End Page 336] how the chosen books engage each other and the field at large. In the chapter on military history, for instance, he selects works by Gary Gallagher and Barton Myers, which reflect a belief in the importance of "erasing any mental barrier that separates military events from the political and social developments in society" (69). Although Escott acknowledges that other historians have put forth similar conclusions, there is no sense as to how this line of inquiry developed. He needed to outline the contours of the debate so that the reader might better understand the flow of a historiographical conversation over time. The result for the reader is the feel of being parachuted into the thickets of a debate. Even in Escott's summary of nationalism, an area in which he has left his own mark, there is no feel for how this topic has moved away from high politics and army morale to the cultural expression of nationalism within a global setting. If Escott had just slowed down the pace, he could have succinctly explained why the field has reached a particular interpretive juncture at this moment. For instance, positioning recent scholarship, such as the outstanding work of Anne Sarah Rubin and Paul Quigley, in his reference to nationalism would have anchored Escott's own thoughts about where the field should go from here. More context—not different books—would have been of immense help to the reader.
The chapter entitled "Consequences and Continuities" is one of the strongest because Escott, in concise fashion, explains how new questions and methodologies have shaken the foundational belief that Reconstruction remade the nation-state into a far-reaching power entity overnight. In showcasing the work of Gregory P. Downs, Escott demonstrates how national authority was more contained, unevenly expressed, and best understood outside of the standard periodization of 1865 to 1876. This reconceptualization of Reconstruction, a trend reflected in Downs's work and carefully summarized by Escott, offers a platform that the author uses to point to new inquiries that might connect the prewar years to the postwar period.
The chapter on African Americans, though provocative in places, loses some historical perspective when Escott writes in the opening sentence that "African Americans were central to every aspect of the Civil War—its origins, its course, its politics, and its results" (44). No serious historian would deny the significant role that African Americans played in the Civil War era, but to suggest that enslaved and free blacks were central to every aspect of the war is an unfortunate distortion. Escott presses the point in urging historians to focus more on how African Americans showed initiative during the war. His suggestion has...