The Civil War: Past and Present
96 Berry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” Abraham Lincoln delivered these words in his Second Inaugural Address, which he gave only a month before the war’s end—and his tragic death—in April 1865. Weary from the war’s burdens yet hopeful for a future in which the cancer of slavery had been cauterized from the nation’s body, Lincoln sought to bring the “two halves” of the United States back together, “with malice towards none; with charity for all.” And yet, with Lincoln’s assassination, the collapse of Reconstruction, and the reconstitution of formal white supremacy, the project of reunification in a significant sense died stillborn—a fact made apparent today by persisting racism, inequality, and de facto segregation. What are the origins of the Civil War, how was it understood at the time, and in what ways are the Civil War and its legacy contested still?
In this course, we will seek to understand the events of the Civil War within a broader social and political context, analyzing the two societies that broke apart under the weight of “the peculiar and powerful interest” of slavery, and the failed reconstruction of this schism in the postwar world. We will also consider the ideological legacy of the war in the Civil Rights Movement, modern conservatism, and popular culture. How do the ways we have chosen to remember the war, in both commemoration and repression, mobilize contemporary political beliefs? In what way is the Civil War constitutive of American political culture? Using numerous primary sources and a selection of secondary readings, students will consider major themes including: the causes of the war in the 1850s; the economic transformation of North and South due to the war, in particular the rise of capital in the North; implications for the global capitalist system; the role of slaves and women in undermining the Confederacy; and the momentous moral and political questions involved in Emancipation and Reconstruction. Special attention will be given to lived experience of the war as represented in memoir, fiction, and poetry (Whitman, Dickinson, Bierce, Mary Chesnut) as well as narratives collected from freedmen after Emancipation. Secondary readings will be drawn from Richard Hofstadter, Eric Foner, James McPherson, Drew Gilpin Faust, Barbara Fields, and Ira Berlin among others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm
November 11 — December 02, 2019