By Karen Trimbath
A newspaper editor in Bellefonte is arrested and carted off to military prison for printing criticisms of the president. Men in Clearfield County turn a lumber camp into a fort to shelter deserters from the army. Throughout the northern United States, thousands of men flee to Canada rather than face a draft. Headlines from the Vietnam War?
No. These are stories of opposition to the Civil War, right here in Pennsylvania. Not much is known about this dissent, but research performed through Penn State's Civil War Era Center is shedding new light on its causes, as well as other unexplored topics expected to modify established views of the war.
The center which began as a fund-raising initiative in 1996 but only took shape last year with the addition of center director William Blair and Mark E. Neely Jr., McCabe Greer professor of the Civil War era. Neely's recruitment represented a particular coup for Penn State -- he is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.
In the first academic year, organizers of the center began a Civil War workshop that brings in scholars for critiquing new research; provided research funds and release time for five graduate students working on dissertations; arranged two battlefield tours with heavy alumni attendance; and planned more programs designed to reach out to the public. The center will soon assume editorial control of the journal Civil War History.
"With all these pieces in place, Penn State is now one of the leading institutions in the nation for studying the Civil War," Blair said.
The center is broadening current understanding of the war by examining the causes and consequences of the struggle in addition to the war itself. Faculty and students are taking a closer view of 19th-century America -- its society, economy and politics -- and constructing new ways of explaining the war. Besides focusing on dissent, they are exploring topics such as African American women during the war, Confederate nationalism, African American veterans and various political issues. Their tools? Social science models, original documents, like women's letters to their soldier husbands, and plenty of lively debate.
This sweeping analysis is necessary, said Neely, senior historian in residence, whose eyes widen and speech quickens when he begins talking about the war. Neely believes a closer look is needed because of the past misinterpretations of the war that were based on limited knowledge.
For instance, during the 1960s historians tended to view the Civil War as a total war, or one that left no distinction between military and civilian targets, a term used in World War II. But the Civil War wasn't fought in this way, said Neely. The erroneous interpretation came from the historians' own memories of WWII.
Historians also have believed that the two-party political system thrived during those divisive times and even helped the North. Neely, who is writing a book on the subject, is surprised that the two-party system survived the war since political partisanship between 18611865 was the most rancorous in U.S. history and may have hurt the North's military efforts.
He adds that the Civil War's immense public popularity shouldn't overshadow the need for serious scholarly research. According to Neely, most popular books on the Civil War fall far short of explaining the era's social, economic and political issues in the United States -- and he believes this work can only be accomplished at a university.
This work also encompasses training graduate students to create their own critical interpretations. Neely teaches his graduate students to wring original documents dry and to keep in mind that every historical question has two answers -- what really happened and why the truth was not uncovered until now.
One student discovering his own answers is Robert Sandow, a doctoral student who received a grant from the center to continue his research on Civil War dissent in Pennsylvania.
"Most people think that patriotism for the Northern cause was universal, but there was a lot of opposition to the draft in Pennsylvania," said Sandow. "The state's mountains and dense woods allowed dissenters to hide from government officials."
Penn State's Civil War Era Center is unique because of its emphasis on doctoral students. Through the generosity of donors, the center provides grants and fellowships that help underwrite research on dissertations. Sandow said graduate students of the Civil War are drawn to Penn State because of its strong concentration of faculty who are experts in 19th-century America and the University Libraries' extensive collection of American and Pennsylvanian history books.
The center also provides considerable public outreach, including:
n A summer institute for public school teachers to generate new ideas and resources about the Civil War for use in the classroom;
n The Steven and Janice Brose Distinguished Lecture Series in the Era of the Civil War;
n Public lectures and appearances by the center's faculty around the country;
n Instructive tours of battlefields for the public; and
n Field trips, lectures and career development programs for undergraduate students.
For more information about the center, send queries to the history department in 108 Weaver Building, University Park, Pa. 16802 or phone (814) 863-0151.
Back to news index
Back to Intercom home page