OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Stephen Berry

Portrait of Stephen Berry

Stephen Berry is Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at the University of Georgia where his teaching and research focus on life and death in the nineteenth-century South. Berry is Secretary-Treasurer of the Southern Historical Association; co-director, with Claudio Saunt, of the Center for Virtual History; and co-editor, with Amy Murrell Taylor, of the UnCivil Wars series at the University of Georgia Press. He is the author or editor of eight books on the Civil War Era South.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Prince Rivers may be the most consequential American about whom Americans know nothing. During the American Civil War, Rivers was the tip of the black spear—the first of the first—Color Sergeant, Company A, First South Carolina Volunteers—the highest-tranking black member of the first black regiment mustered into Union service. The 54th Massachusetts, made famous by Matthew Broderick and the movie Glory, came later and was fundamentally different, composed primarily of Northern-born free blacks. With the exception of its white officers, Rivers’s First South Carolina was composed entirely of former slaves. Their families were often still in bondage. They fought not for an abstraction but for wives, sisters, children, and parents. They did not fight in the Civil War’s most storied battles—Antietam or Gettysburg—because they were not allowed to. They fought a different kind of war instead—a war of resistance behind enemy lines in the Deep South— a war of liberation in which they took the fight directly to slavery and even to the plantations of their former owners. They were, in a sense, a government-sponsored slave insurrection, and it was their actions, abilities, successes, and restraint that convinced Abraham Lincoln to actively recruit “colored” troops. Like their forebears—the escaped slaves who took over the abolition movement in the 1840s to precipitate a conflict with the Slave Power—Rivers and his men fought the war for what the war would mean.
At the age of fourteen, Abraham Lincoln wrote in one of his copybooks: "'Tis Abraham Lincoln holds the pen / He will be good but God knows when." We routinely ask our children what they want to be when they grow up. We don't ask them how they want to be. Lincoln dedicated an important part of his life to political greatness; he dedicated the more important part to ethical goodness. The first time Lincoln met with his cabinet, each cabinet member thought himself a better man than Lincoln. A few months later, Secretary of State William Seward admitted to his wife with the flatness of fact: “The President is the best of us.” And indeed he was. In this lecture, Berry focuses on the moral biography of the sixteenth president of the United States and how his ethical life changed the nation forever.
"I cannot see why all you artists want a likeness of me," Lincoln told one photographer in 1858, “unless it is because I am the homeliest man in the State of Illinois." Despite his unusual looks (or perhaps because of them), Lincoln’s face is now one of the most recognizable in the world. Come learn what Lincoln and his contemporaries thought of his face, along with other fascinating facts, as historian Stephen Berry takes you behind the scenes of some of the Civil War's most iconic portraits to explain how photography changed the face of both politics and war in the United States.