OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

William D. Carrigan

Portrait of William D. Carrigan

William D. Carrigan is a professor of history and the chair of the history department at Rowan University where, since 1999, he has taught over one hundred courses and thousands of students on such topics as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American West, and the history of New Jersey. A native Texan, he is the author or editor of four books, including The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916 (2004). In collaboration with Clive Webb over the past decade, he has been studying the lynching of Mexicans in the United States. With the support of grants and fellowships from numerous institutions, including the Huntington Library, the National Science Foundation, and the Clements Center, they have published four essays on the subject as well as Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (2013). Carrigan's research has been cited widely in the news media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, and the Houston Chronicle.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This is an overview of my current research project with Clive Webb. It explores the reasons that some attempted lynchings ended in failure while others ended in the murder of the victim, focusing on those individuals who stood up to the assembled mob, often at risk of injury.
The brutal actions of lynch mobs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be explained by a focus upon a small set of depraved individuals. Cheering crowds and silent observers from all walks of life allowed mob leaders to do their work. This lecture explores a question very similar to that investigated by historians of World War II -- why did ordinary Germans participate or stand by during the Holocaust? The complex answer focuses on the role of culture and historical memory while also considering the role of individual leaders in shaping events.
Mob violence in the United States is usually associated with the southern lynch mobs who terrorized African Americans during the Jim Crow era. This lecture, based on the co-authored book of the same name with Clive Webb, uncovers a comparatively neglected chapter in the story of American racial violence, the lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent. Over eight decades lynch mobs murdered hundreds of Mexicans, mostly in the American Southwest. Racial prejudice, a lack of respect for local courts, and economic competition all fueled the actions of the mob. Sometimes ordinary citizens committed these acts because of the alleged failure of the criminal justice system; other times the culprits were law enforcement officers themselves. Violence also occurred against the backdrop of continuing tensions along the border between the United States and Mexico aggravated by criminal raids, military escalation, and political revolution. Through detailed case studies, the talk covers the characteristics and causes of mob violence against Mexicans across time and place and also relates the numerous acts of resistance by Mexicans, including armed self-defense, crusading journalism, and lobbying by diplomats who pressured the United States to honor its rhetorical commitment to democracy.
Despite a rich and rewarding academic literature on Reconstruction in the past half century, popular knowledge of the period following the Civil War remains very limited or flawed. This is in part because media and popular literature since the 1960s have focused on the Civil War and largely left the troubling story of Reconstruction untouched. Ken Burns' The Civil War may be the most famous example of this phenomenon, but one could say the same thing about films such as Glory, Cold Mountain, and Lincoln. By comparison, Reconstruction was central in the early twentieth century films such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Capitalizing on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of this period, this lecture discusses the reasons for this popular retreat from engagement with the Reconstruction era, focusing on three "myths" held by many entering college students, namely that Reconstruction is a regional story only about the South, that Reconstruction's failure was inevitable, and that Reconstruction was less radical and revolutionary than the Civil War.
This accessible lecture designed for non-specialists explores what makes the discipline of history distinct from the other humanities and social sciences and argues for the importance of individuals and chance in shaping events. Using case studies that cover almost the entire breadth of the past but with a focus on American history, this lecture emphasizes the critical role of contingency in the course of the past while acknowledging the influence of factors such as geography, culture, and economics.
This lecture, designed for New Jersey audiences, explores the history of New Jersey in the sectional conflict and the Civil War. The only free state that gave a majority of its popular vote to Lincoln's opponents in both 1860 and 1864, New Jersey was regarded cooly by many in the Union during and after the Civil War. Yet, the state delivered food, forged weapons, and provided thousands and thousands of troops for the Union armies. This lecture explores the Janus-face of New Jersey during the Civil War and concludes by considering whether New Jersey should be considered more similar to the loyal border states such as Delaware and Maryland or more similar to the free states such as Pennsylvania and New York.