Historical Periodization and the Long Civil War

Periodization is both the most useful and most obfuscatory tool in the historian’s toolbox. In Western historical writing (and because of the West’s culturally-imperialist tendencies, in many other historiographies as well), we reckon time largely according to the conventions of the Gregorian Calendar: days, months, years on a cycle that mostly matches the Earth’s perambulation around the Sun. Conversely, “Big,” or “Deep” History challenges us to move beyond Puny Human Time and think in terms of (at minimum) geologic time. It’s enough of a struggle to finish our survey courses anywhere near where we’re “supposed” to; the very thought of beginning our studies with, say, the Pleistocene Era is enough to give an instructor palpitations. Within the generally-accepted chronology, then, we’ve carved out our scholarly spaces within a framework so well-established as to be internalized. I’m a nineteenth-century US historian. I do the Cold War. I’m a medievalist. We often interrogate these divisions—when does “modern” begin?—but when it comes to our scholarly autobiographies, we default to the divisions we once criticized. Undergirding this hegemony of the Established Historical Era is the way in which we teach our field. Chronological markers of varying specificity define our courses: Early Modern Europe; US History to 1877; The Vietnam War, 1954-1975. And, as these examples suggest, chronological boundaries are often accompanied by geographic designators. Thus, largely without meaning to, we enclose History into digestible packages. And that’s how we and our audiences—students, readers, each other—tend to consume it.

In doing so, however, we undersell the contingency, the possibility of differing interpretations, the sheer messiness of history. When students ask “is this on the test,” or are history-phobic because “it’s hard to memorize all those names and dates,” they’re speaking to this habit of consumption. Of course, we tell ourselves, history is more than that—it’s understanding things like contingency, difference, and messiness are at the root of historical processes rather than outside them. But I don’t think we connect these understandings—shaped in our deep and meaningful research and engagement with history—with our presentation nearly enough. As historians, we know that World War II didn’t start in 1941, but when we teach the US survey, or write the textbooks for that course, don’t we throw 1941-1945 out there as the most common chronological window? Maybe we use 1939, but doesn’t that center Europe over Asia? This might seem like pedantic quibbling, but I think our periodization says quite a bit about our perspective—and isn’t it our perspective through which historical research is filtered on its way to being consumed by a larger audience? So students who encounter World War II only through a US history course might think that conflict only lasted four years because the only significant part of the war is when the US was involved. Or they might see it as a primarily Western event, losing the essential global dimensions of the conflict, if they think it “began” in 1939. And if one wanted to open up a whole new can of worms, what about the wars of national liberation we associate with decolonization? Could they be interpreted as part of the “World War?” We know the “Cold War” became hot on occasion; why not see events like Korea as parts of the global conflict that didn’t end in 1945 so much as mutate into a more dispersed insurgency? Pinning 1945 as the “end” of World War II implicitly states that the war was over when the Western Great Powers—via nuclear weapons—said that it was. Is that true? Maybe. In any case, it’s certainly worth asking.

If we want students to learn in a deep and meaningful way, we need to problematize the material. Students should be asked to confront what they thought was familiar in unfamiliar and problematic ways. In this creative dissonance, learning and critical understanding flourish. So even if we don’t want to adjust the end date of World War II, it’s an exercise that can pay significant dividends by challenging our students’ notions of the “historical fact.”

via GIPHY

I’ve been thinking about periodization a lot lately, because I think we’re doing it wrong with what we typically call the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the typical survey course, textbook, or scholarly treatment of the conflict, we encounter the war from 1861 to 1865, and then Reconstruction from 1865 (unless it’s 1863) to 1877 (unless it’s 1871 or 1886 or 1890 or ongoing). As the ambiguity surrounding “when Reconstruction happened” suggests, perhaps it’s worth reconceptualizing how we define the “Civil War” as a process in historical time. I think it’s instructive to look at how we view wars in other historical eras—to put it simply, why do wars get shorter in the 20th century? World War I? 1914-1918. World War II? 1939(ish)-1945. The Gulf War? 1991. Modern technology has brought us shorter wars! Hooray!

I’m (sort of) joking here, but it’s interesting, isn’t it, that we put a narrower and narrower boundary around more recent conflicts? I think there’s a great case for looking at the “Gulf War” as beginning with the 1991 US invasion of Iraq and continuing through the present; the reality on the ground doesn’t lend itself to an argument that the war ever stopped, does it? Yet, look at earlier epochs: they knew how to have a long war! The Barbarian Invasions of Rome. The Hundred Years’ War. Hell, the Thirty Years’ War was a model of brevity compared to its forebears. Facetiousness aside, the periodization we use for those conflicts gets at the long-term nature of both their causes and consequences. Arguing for a conception of the French Revolution lasting from 1789-1815 speaks to this longer view, as does a more expansive consideration of the global conflict of which the American Revolution was a part. And some of the more innovative scholarship on recent conflicts takes a similar approach-studies that place the Vietnam War into the larger anticolonial struggle, for example, or sees the American Revolution as a longer-term struggle that was continental in scope.

In that spirit, I’d argue for looking at the mid- to late-nineteenth century in North America (primarily, but not exclusively, the United States) as the “Long Civil War” (I’m definitely open to suggestions on this one). If the Civil War was a contest over slavery and freedom as competing visions of an expanded American state, why not look at the US invasion of Mexico in 1846 as the first chapter of that struggle? It’s not like violence—nay, warfare—didn’t occur between then and 1861. Ask the Californios or indigenous peoples of the Pacific coast. Ask the Kansans and “Border Ruffians.” Hell, ask Charles Sumner and John Brown and the proto-army that took shape in the South after Brown’s raid. Seen in this light, the secession crisis of 1860-61 intensified warfare that was diffuse and regional into a truly continental affair by consolidating and expanding the political-military coalitions involved.

Moreover, there’s a compelling argument to ditching the notion that the Civil War ended in 1865. Gregory Downs, for example, argues precisely that in his masterful study of the Union’s military occupation of the erstwhile Confederate states from 1865-1871. Downs characterizes this period as an “insurgent phase” of the war, where each side used violent force to shape the outcome of the conflict. This interpretation has the singular advantage of allowing us to see clearly the scope and scale of violence in the South after 1865. You don’t need generals and armies to lay waste to populations and civil order. I’d take this even further, however, and look at the so-called “Indian Wars” of the 1870s and 1880s not as a separate conflict, but another chapter in this Long Civil War. The Civil War was a struggle for the shape of the American state to come. Would the expanded continental empire be organized and administered as a Free Labor society? Or would it be a slaveholder’s empire, pursuing the aims of a master class and the crucial chattel foundation of its wealth and herrenvolk identity? Even though the Union victory “ended” chattel slavery (terms and conditions apply), the profoundly racialized nature of free labor ideology meant that white supremacy would, in the main, steer the ship of state after Appomattox. “Reunion” in the 1870s was made possible not only because northern politicians and their public were willing to “forget about the Negro” (in the words on one northern editor), but because the remaking of the trans-Mississippi West united northern and southern whites in a free-labor, privatization crusade against the region’s Indian peoples. What we’ve traditionally seen as the entire Civil War, 1861-1865, might be more accurately conceived as a chapter within the larger war (hitherto analyzed as separate conflicts) that reshaped the North American continent from 1846 to 1886. The invasion of Mexico and the Dawes Severalty Act were the bookends of a settler colonial revolution, the result of which was contested in various turns by Mexicans, self-styled Confederate whites, and Native peoples.

Training our analytical lens on the Long Civil War of 1846-1886 offers a number of interpretive advantages. It allows us to see the larger ways in which racial and racist ideologies shaped not only the pitched warfare of 1861-1865, but the violent struggle for mastery of much of North America in the surrounding decades. It prevents us from seeing “reconstruction” as a period where peace returned and the issues that divided the United States were magically resolved; instead, we see the ways in which continuing violence defined the reality of many groups of North Americans, even after representatives of the white elite signed a document at Appomattox Court House. And above all, we can take a more integrated approach to the ways in which white Americans expanded a specific form of racialized hegemony over much of the continent, a prelude of sorts to overseas imperialism at the end of the century. Conceiving of a Long Civil War prevents the myopia of overly-narrow periodization from placing analytical blinders upon us, and challenges us to make the type of connections that truly illuminate the larger historical processes at work. And that alone commends it to our historical imaginations.


Bibliographic note: On the post-Appomattox insurgency, see Gregory Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War. For links between post-1865 efforts at reconstruction and the trans-Mississippi West, see Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War. On settler colonialism and its analytical utility for this era, my thinking has been influenced by Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview and James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld.

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3 thoughts on “Historical Periodization and the Long Civil War”

  1. I think there needs to be some balance here to “the west’s culturally-imperialist tendencies.” The Japanese, Chinese and Indians (as in India) all see their culture’s as vastly superior to the west’s. As do many in the Middle East. Many of these nations and cultures have been as imperialist as the west. The Russians have been described as the most ethno-centric country in the world. And Russia is as imperialist if not more so than any other country. I think the concept of talking about the Long Civil War is a good one, you could take it back to the 1830s and the intensification of sectional differences. I also have trouble with concepts such as “settler colonialism” which use very generalized and broad arguments to explain events. I think history is much more about individual decisions and unexpected events that no theory can explain. I see the historian’s task as trying to understand and interpret the past without applying our moral standards to the past.

  2. The same could and has been argued for non-military events, as I’m sure you’re well aware. The beginning of the Great Depression could easily be dated to the start of the 1920s when farmers and rural small towns began to suffer through what the rest of the country wouldn’t see until nearly a decade late. You could even roll it back a couple of years later to the end of World War I and the economic/monetary legislation that created this rural havoc.

  3. This is all excellent “long view” analysis. I’m surprised not to see mention of Reginald Horsman’s excellent treatment of the Mexican-American War and the concepts embodied further in a more general (racialized) Manifest Destiny attitude in your observations of the reconceptualizing the Civil War period into a longer frame War of Settler Colonial Revolution (or Enslavement/Conquest).

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