Richards Center trains next generation of Civil War scholars

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At 4:30 a.m. on a Friday in April 1861, a shell from a 10-inch rebel mortar burst 100 feet over Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., beginning a bombardment that lasted nearly 34 hours. The Union commander of the fort, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered at 4:30 p.m. the next day. No one on either side died during the battle.

That could not be said of what came next.

Between 1861 and 1865, at least 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War. These casualties exceed the nation's loss in all its other wars combined, from the Revolution through Vietnam. As a percentage of today's population, the death toll equates to 6.2 million.

Yet these gory statistics don't reveal the scope and depth of the real story.

"You cannot understand who we are today without knowing the journey we have made through the decades before, and after, the War," said William A. Blair, professor of American history and director of Penn State's George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

"Many of the discussions we have today concerning race relations and the size of government have their origins in the Civil War Era," Blair said.

"The Civil War ended slavery and expanded black rights in a 'new burst of freedom.' The 14th Amendment established citizenship as a right of birth of all people in the United States.

"Additionally," Blair said, "the war put into place the ingredients for the industrial expansion that helped turn the United States into a world power. And for Penn Staters, it created the Land-Grant Act upon which Penn State was founded."

Read a remembrance of Ann Richards, a friend and philanthropist whose leadership played a major role in the Center's success.

A Center Apart

Penn State's Richards Center, housed in Pond Laboratory on the University Park campus, was founded in 1998. Its mission, Blair said, is to answer questions about events over much of the 19th century that were receiving scant persistent attention by scholars.

"There were centers of study of the colonial era, and others focused on the Gilded Age and the early years of the 20th century," he said. "And while much good scholarship was being done on the Civil War, there were few places that could gather scholars in an integrated program, train graduate students and publish findings."

From its original mission of interpreting and reflecting on the transformative experience of the Civil War itself, the Center's scholarship now encompasses themes spanning Atlantic World slavery, emancipation, constitutionalism, the expansion of democracy, religion and social movements, women's rights, immigration, western expansionism, war and society, and the struggles of labor. "So much of what we find," Blair said, "overturns what was thought to be true."

One new measure of the Center's success is the launching of a major academic journal, the Journal of the Civil War Era, in 2011. (Learn more about the Journal.) In addition to fostering this forum, the Center is training scholars who are making significant contributions in the field. Former students have published 15 books with leading academic presses since 1998, Blair said, "with a couple more on the way."

"The heart of our mission is jumpstarting new scholarship about the entire era," Blair explained. That process includes encouraging and facilitating research at the graduate level. Herewith a sampling of work from a few promising young scholars.

One new measure of the Center's success is the launching of a major academic journal, the Journal of the Civil War Era, in 2011. Learn more about the Journal.

Arming Slaves

Antwain Hunter, originally from Leominster, Mass., is investigating the balancing act required of both slaves and their masters when it came to the use of firearms.

Hunter, advised by associate professor of history Anthony Kaye, has focused on the extent to which white owners in North Carolina allowed their slaves to carry and use firearms, and how that tracked against increasingly fearful sentiments among whites following attempts to overthrow the slaveholding order.

Hunter uses traditional sources such as newspapers, legal records of indictments and other public records, to tease out the voices of free and enslaved black people, most of whom left little record on their own.

"There were far more free black people and slaves who had access to firearms both legally and illegally than we oftentimes acknowledge," he said. The South was an agricultural society, and arming slaves was seen as a necessary risk. Hunting allowed slaves to supplement their diets, which owners favored because it meant they did not have to augment slaves' rations themselves.  In addition, slaves were given guns (under strict supervision, usually) to protect their masters' lands and livestock during property disputes between landowners.

Hunter has found that firearm possession and use by slaves was outlawed in most, if not all slave states before the war. However, slaves, free blacks, and — often — slave masters, promoted the use of firearms anyway. "This is in large part because blacks sought out what was best for themselves and their families despite the laws," he said, "and further because armed black people could be useful to white people as well."

When Anthony Kaye began looking into the Nat Turner slave rebellion, he said, "I started out thinking this would be a quick, small book." Read more about Kaye's latest project.

Missions of Change

Another Ph.D. candidate, Kelly Marie Knight, is focusing on the way abolitionists used foreign missions to try to undermine white American beliefs in racial inferiority, which they saw as the main reason why slavery was able to thrive. In their publications, Knight said, organizations like the American Missionary Association (AMA) highlighted the achievements of black societies around the world.

"For many people, the only way to learn about foreign cultures was through these publications," she added.  Thus the AMA, founded in 1846 in response to the Amistad incident, "had the freedom to paint whatever picture it wanted of the black communities it worked in." 

The missionary model also convinced some northerners that slavery wasn't just an oppressive labor system, but was something that endangered the eternal souls of slaves, Knight said. "Thus AMA publications emphasized how Christianity and slavery were diametrically opposed, and that true Christianity could only flourish in a community, black or white, when slavery was eliminated." 

"This was a fairly radical message," she noted, "because it went against what most of the churches, north and south, believed the Bible had to say on the subject of slavery." The AMA had some limited success in convincing northern whites to support their organization, she says, but it was still a fringe group until after the Civil War, when AMA leaders used their experience in setting up mission schools abroad to create an extensive educational system for newly freed slaves.

Debt, Imperial Ambitions and the War

Andrew Prymak's doctoral research focus is on imperialism and debt during and after the Civil War.

Growing up, Prymak, from Greenville, S.C., was steeped in the history of the South. Before coming to Penn State, he served a year's internship at Furman University, home of extensive Civil War archives. His research documents connections between economics and politics, especially as they relate to questions of race and privilege.

Specifically, Prymak is looking at publications and other archived private and government records showing how federal politicians linked debt and national expansion, and how that connection led to political and policy decisions.

"Politicians argued over whether mounting federal debt would undermine Reconstruction and weaken the country," he said, "or, conversely, could be used to fuel expansion and imperial ventures in the hemisphere that they believed would expand the country's power and augment its wealth." 

What's Behind the Beard

Sean Trainor, from Trenton, N.J, came to Penn State following undergraduate work at George Washington University and studied at Oxford University's Pembroke College in England.

One of Trainor's research interests is in male fashion during the Civil War Era, particularly the wearing of beards. Amy Greenberg, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History, is his adviser.

Beards were not in fashion before the mid-19th century, he said, and had not been common since at least the 1600s. Men went to barbers because razors weren't cheap, and most men couldn't afford to keep one at home.

Due to the Industrial Revolution, which made inexpensive shaving equipment available, and also to rising racial tensions — many barbers were black, and whites became more uncomfortable around black men with sharp razors — shaving became an at-home activity, Trainor said.

"But it was still a dangerous and bloody do-it-yourself activity, and gradually beards became more acceptable," he said. "They came to be part of 'what it meant to be a man.' It was part of a general societal embrace of 'more natural' behavior. Even the great Charles Darwin wrote treatises on the 'evolutionary aspects of beards.' "

Trainor has been awarded research fellowships at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Louisiana State University in support of his work.

Why study this era?

At the end of a conversation in his office, when asked why modern Americans should care about an era they know so little about, Blair pauses. It's a question he has heard many times.

"Look at any number of important issues and you can see why," he pointed out. "It is important in almost every area, including women's rights, the story and struggle of African Americans, political change and how it's achieved; rebellion, economics, fashion, liberty, the whole concept of freedom, and race relations.

"In the end, though, the war, much of what preceded it and significant social issues that continued to play out for nearly 100 years more, was about race. Nothing else.

"I know I repeat myself," he concluded, "but as long as we have an interest in freedom and liberty, we should care about the Civil War era. It made us who we are."

William Blair is the College of Liberal Arts Research Professor and Professor of American History. He directs the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

In 2002, George and Ann Richards gave $3 million to provide Penn State's Civil War Era Center with a permanent source of income that would help fund graduate and faculty research, as well as outreach programs that would influence students and educators around the country. In recognition of the impact of their gift, the University renamed the Center the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

Both of George Richards' great-grandfathers served in the Union Army during the Civil War, one in the California Volunteer Infantry and the other in the First Missouri Light Artillery.

Contacts: 

William Blair

Liberal Arts Professor of American History and Director, George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center

Last Updated April 30, 2013