What I’m Reading: An Interview with Civil War Historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean

tags: Civil War, Confederacy, interview, Aaron Sheehan Dean

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Fred C. Frey Chair in Southern Studies at Louisiana State University. He is the author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (2007) and the Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War (2008). He is also the editor of the two-volume A Companion to the U.S. Civil War (2014), The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It (2014), The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers (2007), and Struggle for a Vast Future: The American Civil War (2006), and a coeditor of The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (2011). He has conducted workshops on a variety of topics in U.S. history with elementary, middle, and high school teachers around the country. His current research contextualizes and compares the practices of violence in the American Civil War with other civil and national conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century.

What books are you reading now?

Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. For the last couple of year I have tried to read more poetry and fiction as a way to think about writing and the past from other angles. I am also teaching a new class on nations and war in the nineteenth century and so I’m reading a lot of new material for that, mostly on places whose histories are (embarrassingly) pretty new to me.

What is your favorite history book?

I have too many favorite books that I have read – books that challenge me, inspire me, and sometimes infuriate me. My favorite to teach, especially in a graduate seminar, is William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis because it explains so much our modern world. For students who are trying to figure out how to do history, it offers a creative model and it demonstrates how history matters.

Why did you choose history as your career?

In the early 1990s, I worked on Capitol Hill for a US Senator. I enjoyed working on policy and meeting with people but over time I came to realize how little impact I was having. At the same time, I was reading a lot of US history (not my emphasis as an undergraduate) and taking advantage of the Senate Historian’s Office and the Office of the Capitol Historian, which offered tours to staff members. I started to give constituents and friends tours of the capitol, which is an amazingly under-used historical resource. The architecture and art of the building allow visitors to stand in places where some of the most important moments in US history occurred. When it reached the point where I couldn’t give the tour in less than two hours, I realized that it was time to switch careers.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Aside from the usual suspects – strong analytical skills, perseverance, etc. – I think the most under-appreciated quality is imagination. For many historians (especially our nineteenth-century forbearers) this would be anathema. But I think it’s a crucial part of every historian’s toolkit. We don’t have all the evidence from the past and if we did we wouldn’t have time to assess it all. Instead, we identify some of what has been selectively preserved and use it to tell a story. Creating a narrative requires that we responsibly figure out how these pieces connect to one another. I’m not suggesting that we invent the past but we do need imagination to see patterns and relationships, especially those that participants might have not been able to see at the time.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I’m still fascinated by the nineteenth century. I studied African history as an undergraduate and took very little US history. Living in DC, a city built on the Civil War, suggested to me how pivotal the middle of the century was to nature of modern America. Since then, I have become only more interested in trying to understand the era.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I have been lucky to study with remarkable and inspiring faculty. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I took an introductory course on African history and then discovered a whole group of remarkable scholars who taught me a great deal. I was fortunate again, in graduate school, to arrive at the University of Virginia at a moment when it held a group of talented and dedicated faculty, many of them studying the Civil War. Mike Holt, Ed Ayers, and above all, Gary Gallagher, helped shape how I approach the past, along with other scholars at UVA, like Joe Miller, Chuck McCurdy, and Peter Onuf.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

I was not trained as a world historian, but over the last decade, I have spent more time thinking about how the global context mattered for what I’m most interested in – the US Civil War. It turns out that participants in the war did the same thing, comparing their experience to historical and contemporary examples. As a result, I don’t think world history should be regarded as a new field but more like restoring the view that people held at the time. Like all forms of history, I hope that the work provides our students and our readers with a model for empathy and a framework for understanding human behavior and its consequences.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I am not a collector but I own a few rare books given to me by friends. I do have several nineteenth-century objects, mostly Civil War-related, because my father kept a lot of family heirlooms. One of his ancestors was an early Republican state senator and Lincoln booster. We have his commission as US marshal for the Western District of Michigan in 1863, signed by Lincoln. I looked at the document hanging on our wall when I was younger without much awareness, but I can now picture him as one of those persistent supporters pressing Lincoln for an appointment.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Like most people, my most satisfying moments have happened while working with students, both undergraduates and graduate students. I still consider it a privilege to watch real learning happen, when students challenge each other and themselves. The decline in reading that has been much commented upon in the media has been most frustrating. I know that total book sales continue to rise, but most faculty seem to share a sense that students today aren’t as interested in reading long-form writing as people were ten or twenty years ago. I may be fooling myself that students were ever interested in reading assigned books but it worries me given the centrality of books to how historians explain the past.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Like all of us who matured in the transition between the analog and digital eras, I find myself doing more online searching in databases than I imagined when I started out, still looking things up in the National Union catalog. I am a fan of digital history and am

happy to take advantage of digitized sources, especially nineteenth-century newspapers, but I think historians are still recognizing how this shift changes the questions we ask, the ways we research, and the conclusions we draw.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I don’t have a pithy saying, but I do tell my students that I think the past should be both familiar and strange. We need to make sense of it in ways that resonate with us today, it must be useful. But we should also keep alive a sense of our distance from the past, of its fundamental strangeness. There’s no formulaic balance that we can strike between these poles. Instead, I find myself shifting in one direction or another depending on how students react to the material we are exploring.

What are you doing next?

In April 2018, I will give the Milbauer Lectures at the University of Florida. My goal in those talks (and in the book I hope will result from them) is to position the Civil War more fully in the context of other civil and national conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century. The Confederacy was not the only would-be nation and the US was not the only central power that fended off secessionist or rebellious efforts to create new national boundaries. Civil War historians can learn a lot by thinking about the similarities and differences (and the active connections) between the event we study and all these other events around the world.

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