What is the recent historiography of the Civil War?
The question specifies “recent” historiography of the Civil War, which presumably means those schools of thought regarding the origins, conduct and aftermath of that conflict that have emerged within the last decade, give or take. Such an exercise can certainly be done, but a more useful response would involve discussion of earlier schools and perspectives. The more recent historiography would focus primarily on the Marxist, Revisionist, New Political, Post-Revisionist, Cultural and Comparative schools, and would, ideally, retain the African American school of thought as well, as African American scholarship has been overwhelmingly a post-Civil Rights Movement phenomenon.
The African American perspective, unsurprisingly, views the Civil War through a racial prism, in which prejudicial views among whites regarding dark-skinned peoples laid the foundation for the justification of slavery and the later conflict regarding abolition. The principal progenitor from which the African American school, a very close of the Revisionist school, arose was the late historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009). Franklin, an African American and author of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947), noted the vital role personal biography plays in the recitation of history. In a 1979n speech before the American Historical Society, Franklin made the following observation about the role of individual historians in recording and analyzing the past:
“If every generation rewrites its history, as various observers have often claimed, then it may be said that every generation since 1870 has written the history of the Reconstruction era. And what historians have written tells as much about their own generation as about the Reconstruction period itself. Even before the era was over, would-be historians, taking advantage of their own observations or those of their contemporaries, began to speak with authority about the period.” [http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/john-hope-franklin]
The place of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) in discussions of the African American perspective has to be acknowledge, as Du Bois remains a revered figure in American history and political discourse. Du Bois advanced the argument, especially in his Black Reconstruction in America (1935) of an America hopelessly divided along racial lines, with race assuming a more important role than socioeconomic class in determining one’s political affiliation. As such, white Democrats were no more amendable to the advancement of civil rights than any other category of white politician.
As the African American perspective could be viewed as a subset of the broader Revisionist school, that will be the next category of Civil War historiography discussed. Revisionism can occur on both sides of any debate, and the Civil War is certainly no exception. By definition, it refers to alternative views of history that may contradict or delegitimize established schools of thought. The Revisionist school, represented by the likes of Kenneth Stamp and La Wanda Cox, and has as its figurative leader the late Howard K. Beale, who viewed Reconstruction in the most pernicious way imaginable, with Northern carpetbaggers serving as advance agents of an unscrupulous North intent on exploiting the South. Slavery, according this perspective – a perspective shared with the Marxist school – was but a byproduct of Northern political machinations and cannot be considered to have been a core reason for the Civil War. Kenneth Stamp (1912-2009), on the other hand, argued persuasively that Reconstruction, far from constituting the unmitigated disaster to which most historians had condemned that period, was actually successful in transforming the South and setting the conditions for future advances in the area of civil rights. Stampp’s most recognized contribution to the study of that period, however, was in his treatment of the institution of slavery and its inherent barbarism. He was considered among the first historians to seriously tackle the inhumanity of that practice.
Progressive and Marxist perspectives argue that the Civil War was only tangentially about slavery and that a Northern agenda predicated upon the economic sublimation of the American South was the true cause of the conflict. Charles Beard and Eric Foner represented these perspectives respectively, with the latter a major proponent that the Civil War was fought overwhelmingly for economic purposes. Similarly, Beard saw slavery as peripheral to the conflict and Northern exploitation of the South the most important cause of the war.
Whereas many revisionist historians viewed the war as economic in nature, La Wanda Cox (1909-2005) argued that the issues of slavery and civil rights were, indeed, the motivating factors in propelling the nation into conflict, and Reconstruction was an important component of the largely-benevolent Northern strategy of transforming the South away from its racist, pro-slavery culture. Another representative of the Revisionist school (there are many precisely because this is such a broad category) was James Randall, whose The Civil War and Reconstruction (1937; substantially revised in 1961) emerged as one of the more widely-used studies of the history of the second half of the 19th century. Randall sought to dispel myths surrounding the war, such as then notion – routinely debunked today – of war as a noble enterprise. To Randall, the Civil War was the result of incompetent statesmanship and innumerable examples of bumbling by leaders on both sides of the North-South divide. Not one to wax poetic regarding the realities of the war, he once noted that “(t)hat there was heroism in the war is not doubted, but to thousands the war was as romantic as prison rats and as gallant as typhoid or syphilis.” Randall, as with others of this school, dismissed the notion of a war gallantly fought over the freedom of enslaved blacks.”
The Post-Revisionist school, embodied in the persons of Leon Witwack (1929- )and Michael Perman, whose Emancipation and Reconstruction (2003) argues eloquently for the marginal success of Reconstruction despite the best intentions of the North. Perman is convinced, however, that only through Reconstruction could the South be involuntarily transformed, no matter how inept the execution. Witwack’s North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States 1790-1860 (1961) dispels the myths – or exaggerated claims, to be fair – that the North represented a bastion of liberty for blacks in contrast to the slavery of the antebellum South. If slavery was abolished in the North, racial prejudices were not eliminated with it, and Northern blacks continued to suffer serious discrimination. A major theme of the Post-Revisionists is one of continuity, in which the enduring legacy of racism precluded the development of a truly free society in which blacks were equal to whites, and that Reconstruction constituted a half-measure never realized. In their criticism of President Lincoln’s cautious pre-war approach to slavery and the South, they share a place in historiography with Avery O. Craven, who condemned Lincoln’s innate conservatism and ambivalent attitude towards slavery (fair or not, that’s the argument).
These are the major schools represented in contemporary historiography regarding the Civil War and Reconstruction. Time precludes in-depth discussions of each school, or of a full airing of the New Political and Comparative schools, the former arguing that slavery was a minor issue subordinate to religious and cultural differences, the latter advancing the notion that a broader global perspective is needed to understand the role slavery played in the Civil War.
It is somewhat difficult to talk about the “recent” historiography of the Civil War because it is hard to know what “recent” means. If we are talking about historiography that has arisen in the last 10 or 15 years, I am not aware of any such very new historical thinking about the Civil War. However, it is certainly correct to say that the historiography of the Civil War (and of Reconstruction) changed significantly after the Civil Rights Movement and then again in the 1980s and early 1990s. In examining these changes, we will have to make reference to even older views of the Civil War because the more recent historiographies emerged as responses to those older views.
The original historiography of the Civil War tended to emphasize race. They saw race and slavery as a major cause of the war and they saw it as the cause of the ills of Reconstruction. This view took a negative view of African Americans and blamed them for many of the problems of Reconstruction and, in some ways, for the war itself. After that came Progressive historians in the early 20th century. These were people like Charles Beard who argued that economics were the main cause of the war. They tended to argue from an almost-Marxist point of view, saying that the war was caused by Northern capitalists who wanted to dominate the South economically.
With the Civil Rights Movement came a renewed emphasis on race. Now, in contrast to the original historiography, African Americans were seen as the group who had been treated poorly. It was now the white supremacists, and not the African Americans, who were blamed for the problems of the Reconstruction Era. The war was now seen as more of a good thing because of its positive effects on African Americans.
The most recent Civil War historiography comes from people like Thomas Holt, who is an African American scholar. This school of thought emphasizes issues of class more than those of race. They argue that the Reconstruction era was defined by the fact that elites both in the white and black community acted in ways that failed to help the poorer members of both races. They no longer see the war and Reconstruction as an example of racial domination. Instead, they see it as an example of people in power failing to create systems that treated the powerless in just ways.
Finally, recent historiography in general has tended to focus less on powerful people, politics, and economics. It has tended instead to look at culture and at the micro-level. It has tended to look at how the war impacted individuals and communities and how individuals and communities experienced the war. The war is no longer an affair of “great men” but a historical event that had impacts on the lives of real people.