Magazine On-line [summer 2011]
Email this link to a friend

civil War symposium titleDavid Blight, far right, discusses a point during the question-and-answer portion of the symposium as, from left, Jed Shugerman, John McCardell, and Annette Gordon-Reed look on. 

An academic highlight of Transylvania's presidential inauguration was a Civil War symposium featuring four prominent scholars of nineteenth-century American history and legal history. "The Civil War and Reconstruction in the Border States: History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial" included presentations by three panelists, a reflective summary by a moderator, and a question-and-answer session.

John McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor and president of the University of the South, led off the discussion by noting the difficulty of defining the "South" prior to the Civil War and how that leads to questions about which states can be considered "border" states, and at what point in time the call is being made.

By way of example, he pointed out that as late as April 1861, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas were thought of as border states and were, at the same time, slave states still in the Union. Those states very soon joined the Confederacy and ceased being border states.

Kentucky was a slave state at the beginning of the Civil War, but never joined the Confederacy and attempted to remain officially neutral. It thus became the classic battleground where brother fought against brother and competing factors in state government tried to pull the state toward the Union or the Confederacy.

McCardell said that for these reasons, Kentucky became a very special state in the playing out of the Civil War. "I hope to have God on my side," McCardell quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying, "but I must have Kentucky."

Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law and history at Harvard University, looked at themes involving the Reconstruction period, primarily through an analysis of the attitudes and policies of Andrew Johnson, who became President upon the assassination of Lincoln.

Gordon-Reed feels that Johnson's role as President during the early stages of Reconstruction represents a "lost opportunity" for African Americans because of Johnson's opposition to basic rights for blacks.

"Once Johnson realized that emancipation was something that had to be done, he went along with it," Gordon-Reed said, "but he also said, 'Emancipation of blacks, but that's it. No political rights, no civil rights for African Americans.'" Johnson vetoed the Freedman's Bureau, which would have given land to blacks and helped with their education, and the Civil Rights bills.

"Johnson held out the hope of a white man's government," Gordon-Reed said, "and he didn't think the South should be reformed. If blacks had been given land, think of the difference between economic development in the African American community, the difference between owning your own property and being a sharecropper. So when you think of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, I do think of it as a lost opportunity."

David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, spoke of the nature of Civil War memory in the border states by referencing moving passages in the works of Kentucky author and literary critic Robert Penn Warren, notably in Warren's book A Legacy of the Civil War.

"Robert Penn Warren was a great Kentuckian, a great southerner, a great American writer who I think has as much to say in some of the deepest and most lasting ways about the Civil War as any American writer," Blight said. "He gave us a genuine sense of the tragedy of that event."

Warren was born in 1905 in Guthrie, Ky., near the Tennessee border. His grandfather, a Confederate veteran, told him tales of the Civil War that stoked his imagination and formed many of his impressions of the great conflict.

"As a boy," said Blight, "Warren recollected the war with some mixture of 'wickedness of the Yankees, justice of the southern cause-whatever it was, I don't know-and the slave question with Lincoln somehow a great man but misguided.' Now if that's not a border state interpretation of the Civil War, I don't know what is."

Finally, Jed Shugerman, professor at Harvard Law School and moderator of the symposium, revisited each presentation and offered amplification and alternatives to the themes discussed.

He framed his response by referring to a theme common to all three of the presenters: the debate about the relative importance of fate versus free will, destiny versus choice, in relation to a sweeping, overpowering event like the Civil War.
Shugerman added a Warren quote, from his book Wilderness, to augment his analysis of Blight's presentation:

"Can we, in fact, learn only that we are victims of nature and history, or can we learn that we can make, or at least have hand in, the making of our future."

While agreeing with Gordon-Reed's overall point about the negative influence of Johnson on Reconstruction issues, he pointed out that congressional Republicans were able to override the President and protect some Reconstruction initiatives. "But how much more could have come from Lincoln's moral leadership and unifying presence?," Shugerman asked. "We can't know."

As for McCardell's look at the idea of border states, Shugerman added to the presentation by stating, "All these border states played a crucial role, and any swing one way or the other could have swung the Civil War. There might not have been a Civil War at all had Virginia not jumped into secession, but there might have been a Southern victory had some of these border states, whether it was Missouri, Kentucky, or Maryland, gone toward secession. That border line of geography was also a border line of politics and commitments."

For more information, including biographies of the speakers, visit the inauguration page on our website.

Produced by Office of Publications three times a year