Book Review: Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research


by Paul D. Escott

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. Pp. xii, 192. Notes, biblio., index. $50.00. ISBN: 0813175356

New Perspective in Understanding the Civil War

Prof. Escott (Wake Forest) is the author a number of works on the history of the Civil War era, from the origins of the conflict through secession and civil war to Reconstruction. This is, however, not a history of some aspect of that period, but rather an essay on matters not yet examined, or studied only partially, and on new ideas and techniques in the study of the period and its importance in American history.

Following a Preface explaining his purpose, he gives us seven essays, “Understanding the Roots of War”, “Understanding Societies in War”, “African Americans in the Civil War Years”, “Military History”, “New Techniques, New Opportunities”, “Environmental Approaches to the Civil War”, and “Consequences and Continuities”.

While it would be impossible to summarize Escott’s many suggestions and observations on possible new lines of inquiry, some simplified examples will illustrate the many matters in need of more, or innovative, research:

  • How strong was Unionism in the seceded states, and how was it suppressed?
  • What actions were taken by enslaved African-Americans further own interests, independent of white – whether Union or Confederate – government and society?
  • How did the war affect gender roles in American society?
  • To what extent did the Confederacy’s failure to control partisan and guerrilla forces work against its war effort?
  • How did personal friendships and animosities affect strategy, command, and operations, on both sides?
  • What was the impact of swine cholera on the Confederate food supply?
  • How can the increasing digitization of period documents be leveraged to develop a better understanding of the men and women of the times?
  • What problems confronted veterans – and their families – in the postwar era?
  • In what ways does the war continue to affect American society?

One could go on, but these few samples will suffice to suggest the scope of Escott’s premise. While several recent works have reached into such forgotten corners in the story of the Civil War era, notably Civil War Washington, edited by Susan G. Lawrence, which uses digitized data to develop a unique profile of the capital at war, and Brian Steel Wills, Inglorious Passages, on non-combat deaths in the war, there’s a lot of work still to be done, even in military history, which seemingly has been done to death.

A volume in the UP Kentucky series “New Directions In Southern History,” Rethinking the Civil War is an important read for every Civil War scholar, particularly valuable for anyone interested in pursuing a higher degree, while also likely to be of interest to the serious amateur student of the war.


Note: Rethinking the Civil War Era is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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