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From the OAH Archives

For 150 years historians have analyzed the origins, progression, and impact of the American Civil War. During its sesquicentennial years we will present selected articles on the Civil War from the OAH Magazine of History, the Journal of American History, and its predecessor, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. These articles offer a window onto evolving perceptions of the war and highlight how the OAH has long provided a forum for some of the most important Civil War scholarship.


"'Dictator Lincoln': Surveying Lincoln and the Constitution"

Phillip Shaw Paludan
OAH Magazine of History, 21 (January 2007)

The Civil War was more than a political and military conflict. It was also a constitutional crisis that strained the framework of the system that held the nation together. Facing an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the federal government, Abraham Lincoln argued that the Constitution provided him with an expansive set of powers to prosecute the war.  Constitutional crises began almost immediately with the outbreak of war, with Lincoln clashing directly with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney over the suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland. From these early days, opponents of Lincoln in the North and South cited his actions as unconstitutional and proof of his "tyranny." In this essay, Phillip Shaw Paludan traces the ways historians wrestled with the question of Lincoln's violations of the Constitution and whether charges that he was a dictator had merit. Paludan argues that while Lincoln did approve closing newspapers, arresting political speakers, and opening mail, the charge of dictatorship is overblown. Instead, Lincoln's initial expansions of executive power were later ratified by Congress and the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps the most dramatic assertion of presidential powers during wartime, was carefully couched within the bounds of the Constitution. Download the article >


"New York's Civil War Bounty Brokers"

Eugene C. Murdock
Journal of American History, 52 (September 1966)

As the Civil War moved into its second year, escalating casualties intensified the need for a continual supply of new soldiers. In the North, this increasing demand led to the passage in 1863 of the Enrollment Act, the country's first draft law. Most politicians knew that the draft was very unpopular and they hoped that the new law would spur volunteer enlistments. Northern communities tried to prevent the imposition of the draft by meeting their enrollment quotas through a system of persuasion and cash inducements, called bounties. Focusing on New York, Eugene C. Murdock explores how this system quickly devolved into "fraud involving bounty jumpers, bounty brokers, corrupt provost marshals, and corrupt recruiting officers." Exploitative and deceptive brokers became an essential but controversial part of the war effort. Written amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, this article explains how efforts to sustain an ongoing military conflict sometimes tear communities apart. Download the article >


“Draft Evasion in the North during the Civil War, 1863–1865”

Peter Levine
Journal of American History, 67 (March 1981)

At the beginning of the Civil War, most Americans thought the conflict would end quickly. As the war stretched past its first year, however, the governments of the United States and the Confederacy had to expand their power to sustain the war effort, and both began to draft soldiers. Peter Levine examines Northern drafts in 1863 and 1864, arguing that they represented a “massive intrusion of the federal government into the personal lives of virtually all Northern families.” While the federal Enrollment Act was sweeping, many Northern draftees legally avoided service by paying a fee or providing someone else to take their place, giving rise to accusations that the war was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Levine, however, focuses on the more than 160,000 men—more than 20 percent of all who were called up—who illegally escaped military service by refusing to report to their draft boards. Using multiple regression analysis, he examines which Northern men refused to report and exposes the ethnic, regional, political, and class divisions in Northern society. This article was published in 1981, when historians were drawn to the issue of Civil War draft resistance to better understand the popular resistance to the draft during the war in Vietnam. Download the article >


“Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and the Civil War: For and against Lincoln”

James Harvey Young
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 31 (1944)

During the darkest days of the Civil War, an “oratorical prodigy” named Anna Elizabeth Dickinson crisscrossed the war-weary North giving speeches. Born in 1842 to a Quaker family in Pennsylvania, she first achieved notoriety in 1860 for her powerful endorsement of antislavery. Dickinson later traveled through New England speaking out in favor of Republican candidates, and many observers gave her “the lion’s share of the credit” for the Republican victory in the 1863 Connecticut gubernatorial campaign. In 1864, at the high point of her career, she was invited to speak in the House of Representatives and declared her support for Abraham Lincoln with the president in attendance. After this public endorsement, however, Dickinson often bitterly criticized the president and echoed the Radical Republican disgust with what they saw as Lincoln’s unacceptably moderate plans for national reconstruction. James Harvey Young’s article, written during World War II, examines the political divisions caused by military struggle in Dickinson’s time as well as reflecting those of his own. (Anna Elizabeth Dickinson photo courtesy of the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.) Download the article >


“‘A Woman’s War’: Gender and Civil War Studies”

Nina Silber
OAH Magazine of History, 8 (Fall 1993)

The Civil War is often described as a war of “brother against brother,” in which men clashed on battlefields across the country. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, historians began to widen our perspectives of the struggle by showing how those who were not in uniform experienced the war years. One of the pioneers of this work was Nina Silber, who argues that women were just as enmeshed as men in the sectional conflict. Many women had to assume greater responsibilities at home than they ever would have been allowed to in peacetime, while others were more active in the struggle, serving on the front as nurses or directly challenging the authority of enemy soldiers. Women in both the North and South experienced the pressure of trying to balance their reactions to wartime realities and their need to respect the codes of gender that defined proper Victorian womanhood. “The history of women’s involvement in the Civil War,” Silber writes, “is a history of tension and constant struggle to reconcile images with reality.” Download the article >


“Who Fought for the North in the Civil War? Concord, Massachusetts, Enlistments”

W. J. Rorabaugh
Journal of American History, 73 (December 1986)

For decades, historians believed that the Union army drew its soldiers from all levels of society and mirrored the population of the North, largely due to widespread popular support for the war. W. J. Rorabaugh challenges this belief through an examination of the military records of soldiers from Concord, Massachusetts, who served at any time during the war, looking particularly at data about occupation, ethnicity, and property holding. Rorabaugh discovered that property-owning Northerners under the age of thirty were much less likely to enlist than their propertyless peers. Among those above the age of thirty, occupation played a larger determining role than property ownership. Those in the mercantile and professional fields enlisted at much lower rates than clerks, farm laborers, and skilled workers. Rorabaugh argues that these Northerners flocked to the army because they were most likely to blame the South for the economic decline they had experienced throughout the 1850s. The Union cause was attractive to this group “because they saw the solution to their problems in the preservation of the Union under new, vigorous northern leadership—their own.” Download the article >


“Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations”

Maris A. Vinovskis
Journal of American History, 76 (June 1989)

Before the 1990s, Civil War scholarship focused primarily on political and military aspects of the struggle. In “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?,” published in the Journal of American History in June 1989, Maris Vinovskis laments that “surprisingly little has been written about the personal experiences of ordinary soldiers or civilians during that struggle” and that social historians “appear to have ignored the Civil War altogether.” By detailing the demographic impact of the struggle, his article urges social historians to see the Civil War as more than a political event. Using an in-depth study of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Vinovskis documents how the large number of Americans who enlisted, served, fought, were wounded, and died during the war affected cities and towns far from the battlefields. This article illustrates “why we must pay more attention to the social impact of the Civil War on the lives of nineteenth-century Americans.” Download the article >


“The Struggle for Black Freedom before Emancipation”

Wayne K. Durrill
OAH Magazine of History, 8 (Fall 1993)

The end of slavery is often seen as the culmination of campaigns by abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, politicians such as the “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, or the military success of the Union Army. In his article “The Struggle for Black Freedom before Emancipation,” published in the Fall 1993 issue of the OAH Magazine of History, Wayne K. Durrill challenged this narrative and focused on “the role of black people in securing their own emancipation.” During the Civil War, slaves did not wait passively until freedom reached them; they recognized that the war was straining power relations in the South and took advantage of changing conditions. As Durrill describes, the war years destabilized the usual operation of the slave system, and masters often leased their slaves to distant plantations to keep them away from advancing Northern forces. Finding themselves in new surroundings, enslaved people resisted the imposition of new authority and asserted their ability to control their working conditions. Part of a new wave of scholarship focused on the historical agency of the enslaved during the Civil War, Durrill’s article shows how slaves engaged in acts of “self-emancipation” long before the Civil War ended slavery as a legal institution. Download the article >


“Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise”

Gary J. Kornblith
Journal of American History, 90 (June 2003)

Gary J. Kornblith’s “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise” appeared in the June 2003 issue of the Journal of American History. In this article, Kornblith offers a fascinating reexamination of the origins of the Civil War. Earlier writers such as John M. Murrin had tried to understand the American Revolution by posing a counterfactual scenario: If the French had retained Canada after the Seven Years’ War, would the Americans have rebelled? In a similar way, Kornblith questions the inevitability of the Civil War. “My counterfactual hypothesis is a bit different,” he writes. “Rather than project a different military outcome, I posit the absence of the Mexican-American War.” The acquisition of the western territories from Mexico and the battles over the expansion of slavery that ensued have long been seen as a key set of factors that tore the nation apart. What if the United States had never gained those lands that set off the bitter debates over Nebraska and Kansas? Kornblith imagines this “other America”—in which Henry Clay defeated James Polk in the close election of 1844 and there was no war with Mexico—and examines whether this change would have diverted the nation from war. Download the article >


“Voters in Blue: The Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War”

T. Harry Williams
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 31 (September 1944)

T. Harry Williams’s “Voters in Blue: The Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War” appeared in the September 1944 issue of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. In this article, Williams addresses a question that has become a central theme in Civil War studies: What did the soldiers think they were fighting for? He explores the role of party politics in the conduct of the Civil War and shows how newspapers reflected and shaped the ways Northern soldiers thought about emancipation and the purpose of the war. Interestingly, this article appeared while American soldiers were engaged in another massive war and while millions debated its goals. Download the article >