Richards Civil War Era Center names Rachel Shelden as new director

Susan Burlingame
May 02, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rachel Shelden, associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma, has been named director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center in the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts. Shelden will assume the helm from William Blair, Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of American History, who is retiring on June 30 after 21 years as the center’s director.

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Historian Rachel Shelden will join the Penn State history faculty and become the new director of the Richards Civil War Era Center.

IMAGE: Rachel Shelden

Shelden earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University and her master’s degree and doctorate in history from the University of Virginia. Before joining the University of Oklahoma in 2014, where she also serves as an affiliate faculty member of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage, Shelden was assistant professor of history at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Shelden grew up in Chicago and developed an interest in history at a young age.

“Illinois is the land of Lincoln, and there is an obsession with him there that you don’t really find elsewhere,” she said, remarking that she was not immune to that interest. “I remember watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary with my dad when I was a child. It quickly became clear that history was, and is, what I really love.”

Shelden is an award-winning teacher — she received the 2017 University of Oklahoma Regents Award for Superior Teaching University-Wide and other accolades — and prolific scholar. She is the author of “Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War” and is working on a second book, titled “The Politics of Judging: The U.S. Supreme Court in the Long Civil War Era.” She is co-editor of “A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History” and author of many articles, book chapters, and reviews.

Shelden also is serving as guest editor for a special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, the journal founded by Blair. Forthcoming in December 2019, the special issue is titled “Federalism, Law, and Politics Before the Civil War” and will include an article by Blair.

“Bill Blair published my first article, so we’re coming full circle,” said Shelden, adding she has great respect for the program he created.

“The Richards Center is one of the most important centers in the academic Civil War era world,” she said. “It’s known throughout our field as a place where ideas about the war are taken seriously and creative approaches to scholarship are encouraged. I’m excited to continue its legacy of thinking expansively about the field and welcoming new and different ideas while also honoring the important classic approaches to military history, political history and diplomatic history.

“There’s probably not a moment in our historical consciousness that has had a greater impact on our modern society than the Civil War,” added Shelden when asked about her passion for the study of the war and its time period. “The Civil War is when our modern conception of citizenship and nationhood and the role of the state really starts to consolidate.”

“We are delighted Dr. Shelden has agreed to be the new Richards Center director. We are fortunate to have secured such a well-known and talented mid-career scholar,” said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History. “Dr. Shelden will enhance the intellectual atmosphere of the center by attracting post-docs and creating new programs and research projects.”

“The history department at Penn State is a fantastic group of scholars, and the department has grown even stronger in the past five years,” said Shelden, citing recent hires in African American studies, Native American studies, and 19th-century American history. “It was logical for me to want to work with people who are going to have a significant impact on the study of American history and beyond. I am looking forward to involving people on campus who may not have had a role in the Richards Center before, and I’m really excited to be part of both the history community and the community of the Richards Center.”  

Scott Bennett, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of the Liberal Arts, remarked about the impact Shelden’s appointment will have on graduate students and scholarly research.

“We are very excited about the ideas and energy Rachel Shelden will bring to the Richards Center,” he said. “The Richards Center has established a national reputation among scholars of the Civil War era and generated enthusiasm in the public and in our alumni. Rachel is a world-class scholar who has the talent and the reputation to continue the exciting growth of the center, expanding its reach to the discipline, to students, and to alumni, and invigorating the study of 19th-century history at Penn State.” 

“The whole idea behind the Richards Civil War Era Center was to promote a broad definition of what the Civil War was and not only focus on the war years,” concluded William Blair. “We encourage research on the things that led to the war, the war itself, the freedom struggle, and the impact of the war leading right up to the Civil Rights movement. Rachel Shelden is one of the best political historians in the country and a rising star, and I’m sure she’ll be a great leader and scholar as she continues and expands the work of the center.”

Last Updated May 02, 2019