Monday, May 13, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Looming Civil War

Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth Century Americans Imagined the Future by Jason Phillips is unlike any other history book I've read. In this unique study Phillips shows us that a host of factors influenced how people anticipated the coming of the Civil War. By examining diverse personalities, emerging technologies, ideas, religious beliefs, and even material culture items, we get a better understanding of the ways that race, gender, section, and age affected how people of this era viewed the future.

While "memory studies" have proliferated since about 2000, Phillips may have just opened a new whole new branch of Civil War scholarship to explore. At the very least Phillips has given us a new way of thinking about the coming of the conflict.

Through the lens of "anticipation" or "expectation" people of the nineteenth century came to grips with their rapidly changing world. Phillips explains that those who "anticipated" the future were those who believed in active agency. Those that "expected" the future saw that events ahead were determined by Providence, and in His due time.

To explain these viewpoints Phillips uses several historical figures, many of whom were either active or peripheral participants in the John Brown Harpers Ferry Raid drama. One person that gets a significant spotlight is Henry Clay Pate. Virginian Pate battled John Brown in Kansas, lost his bowie knife to the militant abolitionist and Brown turned the symbolism of Pate's knife into his own tool for change as he had it serve as the model for his famous pikes. Somewhat similarly, arch-secessionist Edmund Ruffin sought to use John Brown's pikes as a propaganda tool to encourage slave state governors to at least consider a break from the Union for a better future. Before the war Ruffin also produced a novel, "Anticipations of the Future," which foretold of a civil war, in several aspects eerily similar to that which eventually came about.

In addition, by examining how many nineteenth-century Americans viewed how the Civil War would unfold, Phillips challenges the traditionally popular "short war myth." Much of the evidence that Phillips presents shows that numerous Americans, both North and South, saw a future internal conflict as a long, dark, determined, devastating, cataclysmic event; much opposed to the brief 90-day, military lark we have all read about.

Looming Civil War is an important new work to the field. Its approaches, especially those of using the symbolism of period material culture items, and viewing the past through a forward-looking lens is sure to have an impact on Civil War scholarship, and one us museum professionals will certainly appreciate. I highly recommend it.

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