What I’m Reading: An Interview With Civil War Historian Anne Sarah Rubin

tags: Civil War, interviews

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.



Anne Sarah Rubin is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she teaches courses on the Civil War, American South, and the Nineteenth Century United States. She is also the Associate Director of the Imaging Research Center. Find her at her website.


What books are you reading now? 

I'm working on a project about starvation in the Civil War and Reconstruction South, so I just finished Amy Murrell Taylor's book Embattled freedom: journeys through the Civil War's slave refugee camps. I'm also working on a digital project about African Americans in early republic Baltimore so I am digging into Martha Jones' Birthright citizens: a history of race and rights in antebellum America; I can see using this in my Civil War course next fall. Finally, I always read something for fun before bed, often true crime or fiction. I'm in the middle of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson and next up is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.


What is your favorite history book?

It's hard to choose just one! Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom was mind-blowing when I first read it as an undergrad, thought-provoking as a graduate student, and a pleasure to teach with. I think Seth Rockman's Scraping By is so impressive in illuminating the lives of people who we thought we couldn't find. Finally, I think Thavolia Glymph's Out of the House of Bondage is such a powerful work, and one that I use every year in my Civil War class.


Why did you choose history as your career?

I always loved history and thinking about the past – my parents took us to all different historical sites like Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village when my brother and I were kids. Then I took AP US History as a high school junior, taught by Eric Rothschild and Ted Morse (more on them below) and I realized that you could make a career out of figuring out the past – why did people do things? What was it like? So I am the rare person who chose a career at 16 and stuck to the plan!


What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Curiosity is number one—you need to want to know what the past was like and to find all sorts of aspects of the past interesting. Beyond that you need to love to read, and be willing to write, and rewrite, even if you don't love the process. I think that historians also need to be tenacious. It takes a long time to do good research, which is often tedious. And good writing also takes a lot of time. You just need to keep plugging away at a project.


Who was your favorite history teacher?

Eric Rothschild at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, NY. He taught my AP US history class (along with Ted Morse) and showed us how much fun history could be. He used lots of primary sources, sang to us, showed political cartoons and popular art. He also took our class to the AHA and OAH annual meetings, so we could see the wide variety of work that historians did. Eric loved teaching, and his joy was infectious.


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

In 2015 I taught a class called Replaying the Past, about using video games to teach history. My students (a mix of advanced undergrads and MA students) were the clients for students in UMBC's video game design major, and together we built an educational game about the Pratt Street Riots in Baltimore in April, 1861. The premise is that you are a fox running around the city collecting documents about the riot. Then you read the documents to put them in chronological order. Besides working with game designers, my students also built their own board games and interactive digital fiction. It was interesting to see them think through using the same corpus of research in different ways and for different audiences, and I learned a lot about gaming and digital history myself.


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

Honestly, I just hope that it survives as a distinct scholarly practice. Historians learn to think logically and systematically, to analyze arguments, and to organize reams of evidence into their own arguments. It’s a habit of mind. I'm all for working across the disciplines—I am the associate director of a digital media lab at UMBC and work every day with programmers, artists, geographers, etc.—but the value that I bring to the table is my historical thinking. I worry sometimes that there are too many majors being offered at universities, and that History is falling out of fashion.


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

I have some 19th century editions of books like Albion Tourgée's A Fool's Errand, but I wouldn't call myself a collector. I collect kitschy Civil War items: Playmobile Civil War soldiers and funny magnets for example. My favorite one is an antique handmade cookie-cutter shaped like Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes I make Lincoln cookies for my students.


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

Teaching is rewarding, especially at a place like UMBC where I can have a student in multiple classes over the years and watch her or him grow intellectually. Working on books is both incredibly frustrating, because it’s time-consuming and difficult, but also tremendously rewarding. To hold your own book is to have achieved something permanent in an ephemeral world.


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

The profession, and therefore the work that people produce, has become much more diverse. As a Civil War historian, it’s been a pleasure to see more and more women and people of color come into the field and make it their own.


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

I don't have a favorite one for history. But I often tell students and colleagues that the best paper/dissertation/book is a finished one! I also always tell students that the people in the past were not better or worse than we are today—sort of an antidote to the idea of a "greatest generation." 


What are you doing next?

I'm working on a project about starvation in the Civil War South, from the start of the war through the famine of 1867. I'm trying to use culinary history to get at what people were really eating, from the perspectives of elite whites, poor whites, and African Americans, particularly those who ran away during the war. I also want to explore the different groups and agencies providing relief to blacks and whites after the war. Right now, I am still in the research phase, and it hasn't yet come together for me. But it will. Because the best book is a finished book.

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