James J. Broomall: Reflections on “Civil War America”

We welcome to the blog a guest post from James J. Broomall, Civil War historian and director of the George Taylor Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University. 

In today’s post, Broomall writes about how the Civil War America series has guided his studies over the years.


Like any good historian, I surround myself with books. The organizational system defies the conventions of traditional cataloging, instead falling into idiosyncratic categories that I am too embarrassed to reveal in print. Nevertheless, I am willing to relate that a good number of titles from the Civil War America series hold dear places in my holdings. Ultimately, they were—and indeed are—works that resonated with me over time. They became titles that were repeatedly pulled down and placed into piles over the years while writing essays, gathering thoughts, preparing for lectures or presentations, or simply because I wanted questions answered. Although I have counted more of the authors as friends over the years, I always felt personally connected to the titles because the topics under discussion were shared passions and the writing of history a common pursuit.

Cover of Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: the Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, by Steven E. Nash

All that being said, why does Civil War America matter? Certainly the diversity of subject matter, which has grown considerably over the past two decades, deserves merit and comment. The series has introduced regional and class diversity in studies of the American South as exhibited especially in Steven E. Nash’s Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge, Mark Wetherington’s Plain Folk’s Fight, and Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door. Some of the most important works on wartime Confederate nationalism and its limitations or strengths—including those by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Peter S. Carmichael, Kenneth W. Noe, and Jaime Amanda Martinez—have come out of Civil War America. And a good number of titles engaging memory studies—Caroline E. Janney’s work on the Virginia Ladies’ Memorial Associations and Joan Waugh’s on U.S. Grant being among my favorites—demonstrate that the series has kept pace with, indeed shaped, the evolving historiography.

All of these things matter greatly. For me, though, Civil War America’s primary importance is rooted in my graduate experience. I am still quite youthful, at least in scholarly years, and read many titles while writing historiographical assignments, book reviews and, eventually, my dissertation. It was exciting, of course, to have studied under historians who contributed to the series—which hopefully does not make the following comments sycophantic—but the books would have been significant regardless. Of the books I have read, each is explicitly linked by tangible qualities that render it historiographically important, even groundbreaking. Often times in graduate school, while floundering to find my own voice, I was struck by the authors’ clarity of argumentation and the depth and reading of evidence. Further, having had a brief obsession with Michel Foucault, the streamlined yet graceful prose featured throughout Civil War America marked many of the titles as highly readable and enjoyable even during the longest, darkest days when preparing for comprehensive exams. Now the seasoned historian might think the above statements banal, but for a burgeoning scholar the works in Civil War America quickly transcended the specific subject, becoming instead examples of how an introduction should function, why clear communication matters, and what is the best way to engage the existing scholarship in productive ways.

Cover of Retreat from Gettysburg, by Kent Masterson Brown

Beyond these yeoman qualities, though, Civil War America resonates and endures because it innovatively addresses often familiar subjects, resulting in productive studies that meaningfully advance the scholarly discussion. The Civil War soldier, my area of interest, has been the subject of study since the war itself, resulting in thousands of volumes. At first I shied away from any dissertation topic on the subject, fearing that my work would become old hat before I typed the first page. But the subject continued to compel me, and my old friend Civil War America offered sage guidance, demonstrating not a moribund subject but instead a rich area for further inquiry. A survey of titles revealed the evolving boundaries of the field as scholars such as Stuart McConnell, Barbara A. Gannon, and James Marten took seriously veterans’ struggles in postwar life, while case studies by Earl J. Hess, Gerald J. Prokopowicz, Larry J. Daniel, J. Tracy Power, and Kathryn Shively Meier powerfully revealed the contrasting experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers based upon time and place. Further, Civil War America has continued to successfully locate these soldiers in innovative studies of military campaigns that revealingly balance regimental movements or tactical decisions with considerations of logistics, politics, and people—I am thinking especially about Glenn David Brasher’s The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation, Kent Masterson Brown’s Retreat from Gettysburg, and George C. Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!

Civil War America, then, has served as an important reference point throughout my career because it is composed of good books that matter. The sound writing, smart thinking, and meaningful discussions found throughout the series mark its titles as the standard against which we measure other works. Civil War America was, and remains, my guiding compass.

James J. Broomall is assistant professor of history and director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University. His work has been published in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of the Civil War Era, and Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South, an edited volume.