the featured panelists presented opinions and collaborated
in discussing their designated session's topic at the
on the Eve of the Civil War conference, these
prominent historians participated in a behind-the-scenes
interview conducted by University of Richmond students.
The historians were asked a variety of questions, both
personal and relating to the pre-Civil War era, providing
a subsequent background and in some case an interesting
juxtaposition to their intellectual writings, careers,
and personal affinities.
“What do we most need to know about America
on the Eve of the Civil War?”
From false assumptions of Northern and Southern economies
to the fact that people may have been unaware a great
war was on the horizon, the featured historians mainly
concentrate on the issue of slavery, the inability to
predict the future, and new trends in population, communication,
“What is the most misunderstood aspect of the eve of the Civil War?”
Ranging from specific events, locations, views of slavery, and groups of people, many notions of the Civil War have yet to be fully comprehended by students and the public alike. Slavery and its misconceptions were cited by a majority of the scholars as a misunderstood aspect of this era, along with other more precise examples like sectional and state divisions.
“What is the most revealing story or information you found about this era?”
Every scholar offers a different fact or story relatively unknown to us that reveals new insights into the eve of the Civil War. Personal accounts of people living during this era and some startling truths add a new twist to the more commonly known events leading up to the War.
“What other insights do you have on John Brown?”
Elaborating further upon the session about John Brown's raid, these historians offer more stories and little known details about the debated legacy of this famous abolitionist.
“What do we need to better understand about this time period?”
From the substantial roles of overlooked actors like self-liberating slaves and alienated abolitionists to the importance of balance between political and social history, many aspects of the eve of the Civil War still need to be further studied and understood in order for Americans to have stronger grasp of this era.
“How did you become interested in this period or in history in general?”
Family background, inspiring professors, and the time period these historians grew up in provide the foundation for most of their initial appeal to history. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Henry David Thoreau, and Gone with the Wind sparked interest for some, while others conveyed the significance of international familial roots in defining their inclination towards the Civil War.
“What advice do you have for young people interested in becoming a historian?”
The panelists consistently advised students and the American public to read, from primary sources such as letters and diaries to the published works of today's historians. Utilizing other resources, like the internet and museums, also remains a common recommendation.
“What is your favorite book from this era?”
Eric Foner's Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War is the highest recommended reading, a favorite of David Blight, Robert Kenzer, David Reynolds, and Manisha Sinha. The Impending Crisis by David Potter is also a popular suggestion, enumerated upon by multiple historians, along with authors William Freehling, James McPherson, and a variety of primary sources.
“Are there still lessons for us today from 1859?”
One hundred and fifty years later, the events leading up to the Civil War still have lingering effects and offer lessons to Americans today. Connections to the past reverberate through conversation as these scholars discuss what we need to take away from the eve of the Civil War.
by: Emily Silkaitis, University of Richmond
Research Assistant, Virginia Sesquicentennial of the
American Civil War Commission