(SPRING 1998)

Instructor: Lloyd Benson
213-A Furman Hall (294-3492)
E-mail: lbenson@furman.edu


Five generations have passed since the end of the Civil War. For historians, however, the battle rages on. Traditionalists still contend with Revisionists who fend off attacks from Modernizationists, who debate with Marxists, who challenge Agrarians, and so on. Ironically, there seems to be less consensus now about the Civil War than in the first few generations after Appomattox. Indeed, the debate over secession's meanings can be as dramatic and compelling as the events themselves. New technology and new interdisciplinary approaches to the period promise to make the debate even more lively. The goal of this seminar will be to use these competing viewpoints to re-introduce participants to the major events of the secession crisis of the 1850s.

A unique feature of the course will be the use of a computerized anthology and almanac of primary documents. This database will allow participants to evaluate interpretive theories of Civil War causation using the words and following the boundaries of the participants themselves. We will address as a matter of course the standard questions about secession such as what role slavery played, what impact did political leaders have in stirring up conflict, and to what degree was secession rooted in fundamental economic, social, and cultural differences between the sections. Because the course is explicitly interdisciplinary, though, we will devote much of our time considering questions such as how the vocabulary and language patterns of antebellum Americans affected their perception of events, and how constructs of family and community motivated the behavior of the secessionists and their opponents. Participants are expected to use the issues raised in course readings and discussions to formulate their own interpretive questions to be explored in a research project.


This seminar will meet once a week for approximately two hours. Attendance at all meetings is mandatory, and all assignments will be due at meeting time. Because the format will be discussion and document-exploration, oral participation will be especially important. A two page research proposal and preliminary bibliography will be due in week four, and a research paper of 1700-2000 words based on your own selection and transcription of original sources will be due at the end of the semester. Participants will be expected to make use of the computerized 1850s document database or an appropriate substitute in some aspect of their own research. Instruction in the use of the database will be provided and no prior computer experience beyond familiarity with Netscape, minimal typing ability and an e-mail account is required. During the second half of the course participants will be asked to distribute one or two of their own primary sources to the class for discussion during each meeting. Participants will be required to contribute substantively at least once a week before our class meeting to the electronic discussion groups that have been established for each topic. Students will also be expected to subscribe to one of the relevant professional discussion groups such as H-CIVWAR or H-POL, sponsored by H-NET.


Topic and Assignments:

Week One: (Mar. 5)

Introduction to the 1850s Document Collection.
Overview of Civil War Causation Theories.

Post-seminar Reading Assignment:

On-line discussion topics: (Due by Monday.) Compare and contrast the two South Carolina secession documents. Which of the causation theories discussed in the seminar meeting seems to best explain these texts? What explains the differences that exist between the two documents, as well as the resolutions discussed in class?

Week Two: (Mar. 11)

How Different Were Northern and Southern Communities?

Reading Assignment:

On-line discussion topics: How effectively (if at all) did the local leaders in each of these communities set the tone of public discussion? How distinctive was the midwestern community described by Don Doyle from the middle class world of Utica as described by Ryan? Were the northern communities more or less fractious and contentious than the Southern community described by Harris? In what ways did the slaves in the Augusta region contribute to the structure of society, either through their own actions or through the actions their presence in the community generated in whites? Were the strictness of color and ethnic divisions or the fragility of these boundaries in each community the most important fact? Use data from the Valley of the Shadow project to confirm or refute the hypotheses advanced during the discussion.

3-5 page essay due in class.
Session Log

Week Three: (Mar. 18)

The Unity of the South.

Reading Assignment:
  • William Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay.

On-line discussion topics: Assess Freehling's claim that there were many Souths, each suspicious of the others. Based on the readings from the last two weeks and your general knowledge of the period, how accurate is he to describe the region as a "democratic despotism?" Is he correct to claim that actions by the slaves themselves were the most important cause of the secession crisis? To what extent did the Secessionists "manufacture" Southern identity to advance their own ambitions? Do you agree with his selection of several lesser-known events and personalities as being the most pivotal things about the period?

Week Four: (Mar. 25)

Southern Households and the Gendered Language of Secession.

Reading Assignment:
  • Stephanie McCurry, "The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in antebellum South Carolina" (On Reserve)
  • Gendered language and political debate in the On-line editorial collection.

On-line discussion topics: Look through the editorial collection for examples where the writers express their political positions using family or gender as expository devices. How important were differing conceptions of household, women's place in society, and the domestic order to the political conflict between Northerners and Southerners? You may also want to re-examine the South Carolina declarations in this light. What exactly do the authors mean when they talk about domestic institutions? How would you compare McCurry's depiction of South Carolina with Olmsted's, Harris's and Freehling's South, and with Ryan's and Doyle's North?

Session Log

Presentation of participant's preliminary research proposals.

Week Five: (Apr. 1)

Religious Dimensions of Sectionalism.

Reading Assignment:

On-line discussion topics: Assess the role of religion in party and sectional politics, according to Silbey. How critical were non-sectional religious issues such as temperance and anti-Catholicism in the formation of a sectional party? To what extent were criticisms of each region by the other perceived to be moral and spiritual failings rather than economic or political conflicts? What does the religious geography of the nation in the 1850s tell us about sectional differences?

3-5 page essay due in class.

Session Log

Week Six: (Apr. 8)

Kansas, Sumner, and the Emergence of Sectional Parties.

Reading Assignment:
  • William Geinapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, or
  • Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, or
  • David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War., or
  • David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, or
  • Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce, or
  • Kenneth Greenberg, Masters and Statesmen
  • Document Collection: Nebraska and Sumner editorials.

On-line discussion topics: Was the ultimate success of the Republican party inevitable? Why did the Republicans fail to build a successful party in the South? How important was the lens of party in focusing perceptions of events such as the Nebraska bill, bleeding Kansas, and the caning of Sumner? Discuss how at least two of the editorials combined region and party in an interesting way. Do the editorials tend to sustain or contradict the basic theses of these books?

Discussion of participant's sources.
2-3 page essay due in class.
Session Log

Week Seven: (Apr. 15)

Race Relations and Race Control.

Reading Assignment:

On-line discussion topics: What are the implications of Frederickson's thesis that a) racism was pervasive in both regions of the nation, and b) that racial thinking was shaped by the era's most advanced scientific thought? Was Harriet Beecher Stowe prejudiced? Why was Uncle Tom's Cabin so offensive to Southern political and cultural leaders? What was her political agenda, and why did she pursue it by addressing the book predominantly to women? In what ways do the Dred Scott editorials shed light on each book?

2-3 page essay on Frederickson, or Stowe due in class.

Week Eight: (Apr. 22)

Causation Theories Debated.

Reading Assignment:
  • Edwin A. Pollard, The Lost Cause, chapters I-VIII, XXI, XLIV, or
  • James F. Rhodes, History of the United States, (volume 2) or
  • A. C. Cole, The Irrepressible Conflict, or
  • Roy Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy, or
  • Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free

In-Class Debate.
Teams will be assigned to defend the views of each author listed above. A 1-2 paragraph summary of the author's position and a bibliography of sources consulted must be posted by each team on the on-line discussion group at least two days before class.

Week Nine: (Apr. 29)

The Election of 1860 (month by month)

Reading Assignment:
  • One month of an 1860 newspaper and any relevant secondary sources you can find.

Each individual will be responsible for researching the election related events from one of the ten months leading up to Lincoln's election and secession. Presentation of research results will be made in class.

Week Ten: (May 6)

The Secessionist Moment.

Reading Assignment:
  • William Barney, The Secessionist Impulse or
  • Steven A. Channing, Crisis of Fear or
  • Daniel Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, or
  • Kenneth Stampp, And the War Came., or
  • Richard Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, or
  • George Frederickson, The Inner Civil War, or
  • James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, or
  • Ervin L. Jordan, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, or
  • Michael Holt, Political Crisis of the 1850s

On-line discussion topics: Analyze the relationships among local economic and demographic conditions, party competition (or lack thereof), and the defense of slavery and racial subordination as forces in how the secession crisis unfolded. Why was South Carolina first, and why did the upper South hesitate? Was a Northern military response to secession inevitable, or could the North have just "let the South go?" What were the most important reasons advanced by Northern anti-secessionists for maintaining the Union by force?

Week Eleven: (May 13) Presentation of Participant's Final Research Results

1700-2000 word primary source essay with transcriptions of associated documents, in web format, due in class.

Week Twelve: (May 20) Presentation of Participant's Final Research Results

1700-2000 word primary source essay with transcriptions of associated documents, in web format, due in class.

Participant's Documents:



During class discussion we will be using the On-line Discussion Assistant. A web version of the session log produced each week will be posted afterwards for your comments and review.

Every scholar new to the web should look at the Ohio State Library On-line Research Tutorial, which explains how to judge the quality and accuracy of on-line information. When you begin on-line research a good starting point for historical links is the History Scholar's Guide to the World Wide Web, produced by the H-NET consortium. H-NET also produces a Brief Guide to Citation of Internet Sources. For some of the books and exercises you may find Statistics Every Writer Should Know to be helpful. Finally, all participants in this course are expected to be familiar with William Strunk's Elements of Style, which is the classic handbook of clear writing.


These on-line textbooks are a good source of contextual information for events leading up to the secession crisis. Brinton's Abridged History of the United States is the most visually appealing. The on-line edition From Revolution to Reconstruction: An Outline of U.S. History has a clear narrative and excellent links to primary source documents, including one text contributed by a previous participant in this seminar. The Causes of the Civil War: A North Georgia View provides a Neo-Confederate take on events.


The American Civil War Home Page at South Dakota State University and the U.S. Civil War Center at Louisiana State University are two of the best link collections maintained by academic scholars. There are some useful connections on the Origins of the Civil War link collection, which is targeted predominantly for home-schoolers of high school age.


Douglass Archive of American Public Address (Northwestern U.)
Making of America (Michigan)
Letters and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln
Text of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Yale)
Franklin Pierce's Inaugural Address (1853)
James Buchanan's Inaugural Address (1857)
Abraham Lincoln's Inaugural Address (1861)
Slave Narratives (UNC)
U.S. Census Data, 1790-1860 (Harvard University)
Secession Ordinances from 13 Confederate States (Sunsite)
Causes of the Civil War: Document Collection (Independent)


Grolier's Presidential Biographies on-line
Millard Fillmore biography
Biography of John Brown (From the PBS series The West)
Reformers: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Gerrit Smith, etc.
Dred Scott Home Page
Biography of William H. Seward


Grolier's: The Know-Nothing Movement
Encyclopedia Britannica Feature: Lincoln-Douglas Debates
"John Brown at Harpers Ferry: A Contemporary Analysis," Journal of West Virginia History

Last updated: 3/5/98