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  • Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future by Jason Phillips
  • Yael A. Sternhell (bio)
Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future. By Jason Phillips. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 336. Cloth, $34.95.)

Looming Civil War takes on a highly protean and elusive question: how did mid-nineteenth-century Americans conceive of the future, and how did their conceptions shape their experience during the Civil War era? Ideas about the future are always worth investigating, but as Jason Phillips notes, the decades leading to the Civil War were a particularly pertinent moment, since Americans were living “during an era of changing temporalities. Instead of expecting cyclical decline and regeneration, many Americans anticipated inevitable advancement” (126). And yet the new centrality of linear progression did not necessarily generate optimism. Indeed, as Phillips shows, Americans predicted and prophesized a range of catastrophes, including a race war in the South, a sectional conflict in the West, and a bloody struggle between labor and capital in the North. Ideas of Armageddon, religious and secular, suffused the imaginations of Americans and informed their understanding of the vast and fast technological, demographic, and political changes taking place in the United States during those years. Phillips delves into the writings of a range of thinkers, North and South, who had imagined various scenarios of war and [End Page 276] revolution in America. Some of the better-known names include Edmund Ruffin, John B. Jones, Beverley Tucker, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison, but Looming Civil War also includes a plethora of little-known white women and African Americans who have left traces of contemporary thinking.

A close reading of these writers leads Phillips to overturn a fundamental maxim of Civil War history, that Americans at the outset of the conflict assumed the war would be short and painless. Phillips marshals considerable evidence proving that “Civil War Americans did not descend into a war that was unexpected in length and bloodshed. Instead, they realized a horrible conflict that many of them had anticipated from the start. . . . Both sides expected the worst from the other” (190). Phillips argues persuasively that the prevalence of the short-war myth derives from our own desire to see Americans in 1861 as realistic, pragmatic, secular, or, in short, modern. That desire, he adds, has misled some of the war’s best-known chroniclers and implanted the myth at the heart of both scholarly and popular histories of the war.

One of the main analytical devices Phillips employs is a distinction between those who expected the future and those who anticipated it. Expecting, Phillips explains, is a passive position, rooted in the idea that the future would simply arrive. To anticipate is to be active, move toward the future and try to influence it. Americans—black and white, male and female, individually and collectively—related to the future through one of these two modes and acted accordingly. This is a useful way of understanding a wide range of behaviors, but it can also obscure the fact that human beings are rarely as consistent as we would like them to be. For example, Phillips claims that the war turned women into expectants, forcing them to wait at home for news from their loved ones in the field. But staying on the home front hardly meant passivity; we know that women employed a wide variety of tactics to gather information about wartime events. Some went to train stations and telegraph offices to seek the latest; others questioned soldiers passing by their homes; many simply devoured newspapers and exchanged every morsel of news or rumor with members of their social networks. Conversely, African Americans fleeing their enslavement in the South were not always anticipators bringing the future to themselves by actively striving for freedom, as Phillips describes it. Sometimes, they were simply fleeing worsening living conditions or vengeful masters, in desperate acts of survival rather than liberation.

Methodologically, Looming Civil War makes two important contributions. First, Phillips is interested not merely in texts but also in material objects that express ideas of the future. He uncovers the history of the [End Page 277] pikes John Brown planned...