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What Did Americans Really Think About the Civil War?

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The Civil War is widely regarded as the most-written about event in American history. The bloody divide between the North and the South is well documented in scholarship, textbooks, fiction and film. 

When Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies Jason Phillips examined materials recounting the conflict, he noticed a trend. Most of these retellings of the war start with the same idea: When the war began, Americans thought it would be a short, adventurous affair. 

“I guess I read that sentence — or variations of it — one too many times,” Phillips said. “I asked myself, ‘Who has thoroughly studied what people thought when the war began?’ It seems unlikely that everyone thought the same thing at the same time.” 

In the years before the Civil War, advances in communication and transportation encouraged Americans to think about the future. Steam-powered printing presses and the telegraph enabled national media sources where people expected to find the future unfolding in their daily newspapers. With steam-powered printing presses and the telegraph enabling faster, broader media coverage and railroads and steamboats shortening travel times, people felt they were racing into the future. 

“These new technologies and habits allowed people to imagine themselves in the future more,” Phillips said. “Religious revivals and westward expansion also encouraged prophetic thinking. When statesmen voiced concerns about a looming civil war, people noticed the warnings and contributed their own forecasts.” 

People on both sides of the conflict predicted the war would be a short one, with both Union and Confederate sides foreseeing a swift victory while lashing their opponents with insults. But women across the country worried about a long, destructive war. Meanwhile African Americans, reformers and abolitionists hoped the war would be long enough to bring about genuine change and feared a swift return to the status quo. Citizens in both regions feared the kind the cataclysmic conflict that slaves and so-called radicals prayed for. 

Prophecies of war weren’t just limited to the interested parties. Novelists, newspaper editors, and politicians feared the worst was looming on the horizon, with almost apocalyptic predictions. 

One novel, “Anticipations of the Future: Lessons for The Present Time,” by Edmund Ruffin in 1860, predicted the war would begin at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Though prophetic, he also happened to fire one of the first shots that ignited the war. Others predicted massive armies and heavy casualties, right on the mark. 

Many forecasters were completely wrong. Other people were so uncertain about the future that they refused to predict it. 

Phillips soon realized what he was writing wasn’t a cut-and-dry account of the anticipations of the war, but instead about the endless possibilities of futures past – hopes and fears of what the war could have been. “It’s been challenging to study the future in the nineteenth century, because the future isn’t something that historians interpret.” 

“It’s also challenging to think about going up against that single sentence that shows up in all those textbooks, because that means everyone has agreed on something and I’m writing against that conventional wisdom,” Phillips said. 

With such a widely known history, maintaining narrative tension about the future can be difficult when everyone knows the ending. 

“I have to be careful about the way I organize and write the book, because I recognize I want to maintain the tension and anxiety that people felt at the time even though we know the outcome of their future,” Phillips said. “I rely on their words a lot to help set the scene and give them a voice, and let their feelings come through and their emotions be genuine.” 

Also in his research, Phillips has been documenting the history of “things” relating to the war. In the buildup, citizens began collecting keepsakes, mementos and everyday items that they expected would hold some significance in the future – again, thinking ahead. 

People collected weapons (bowie knives, rifles, John Brown’s pikes). Shards from the wooden cane that United States Congressman Preston Brooks used to beat Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856 were very popular, Phillips said. They also collected things that people associated with looming events and soon-to-be historical figures. 

Phillips is continuing to pour through historical documents. He plans to have his book published in 2017. 

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