Reinterpreting the Civil War, South by Southwest by Christopher Phillips

Today we begin a brief blog series where, in light of recent public discussions regarding the Civil War, historians reflect on scholarship published in The Journal of the Civil War Era, highlighting some of the excellent research being done today. Our first entry, from Christopher Phillips, is below. If there is an article in the JCWE that you have found particularly meaningful, please let us know!


Donald J. Trump’s latest public statements about U.S. history have him suggesting that Americans have never contemplated the causes of the Civil War. More than a century of scholarship – and scholars – attest to his ignorance, but recent trends have many historians feeling somewhat ignorant about the subject they long believed they knew well.

Most histories of the Civil War era portray the war as a conflict exclusively over slavery, fought between North against South as a struggle over free labor against slave labor and local sovereignty against federal power. I believe Stacey L. Smith’s thoughtful JCWE essay in the December 2016 issue, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction” is among the most needed assessments of the new wave of Civil War revisionism. “Written out of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” she notes, “the West stands as an isolated, even exceptional, region with a history largely disconnected from the crisis over slavery, freedom, and federal authority that tore apart the North and the South.”[1]

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.