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Civil War Historian Embraces Contributions of Everyday Citizens









 

Civil War Historian Embraces Contributions of
Everyday Citizens

Paul Cimbala, Ph.D., is working on a volume that explores civilian life in the North during the Civil War.
Photo by Patrick Verel

By Patrick Verel

The life of Abraham Lincoln has been examined more than any other American, according to Paul Cimbala, Ph.D., professor of history.

As important as Lincoln was, however, he didn’t win the Civil War all by himself. The Union remained intact thanks to the efforts of ordinary citizens, who often gave their lives for the cause.

These are the people in whom Cimbala is interested.

“The Civil War is America’s great drama,” he said. “It is the ultimate constitutional crisis. Its resolution, while certainly not perfect, at least guaranteed that the Constitution would be seen as a permanent document, and consequently that the United States would be seen as a whole entity.”

Cimbala, author of American Soldiers’ Lives: The Civil War (Greenwood Press, 2008), traces his fascination with the conflict to his childhood. He can remember collecting Civil War-themed trading cards in the mid-1960s, which were printed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war’s conclusion.

Civil War expert Randall Miller, Ph.D., mentored Cimbala while he was an undergraduate at St. Joseph’s University. Later, he cultivated an interest in the role of common citizens thanks to the renowned historian Bell Wiley, Ph.D., who had just retired when Cimbala began working on advanced degrees in history at Emory University.

“As much as I think Lincoln is a great subject for further study, I like ordinary people,” he said. “Everybody was writing about the battles. Historians were writing biographies of all the famous people. Bell Wiley was really the first person to sit down and write about the common soldier.”

To that end, Cimbala is putting the finishing touches on a monograph titled Soldiering on the Home Front: The United States Army’s Veteran Reserve Corps during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The book is an extension, of sorts, of his previous books, The Freedmen’s Bureau: Reconstructing the American South after the Civil War (Krieger Publishing, 2005) and Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870 (University of Georgia Press, 1997).

The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help former slaves adjust to the new national environment called Reconstruction. While writing on the subject, Cimbala noticed a link between the bureau and the Veteran Reserve Corps (VRC), an organization that allowed disabled soldiers to continue serving by performing light duty.

“I noticed that many officers in the Freedman’s Bureau belonged to regiments with this VRC,” he said.

Cimbala discovered that the VRC, which was originally named the Invalid Corps, was not a dumping ground for soldiers who did not want to fight, as it was often considered. Instead, he found that many VRC members were far more dedicated to preserving the Union than the average northerner was.

“They were wounded. They were sick. They could have just resigned their commissions and gone home. But they didn’t,” Cimbala said. “This suggests a commitment on the part of some people who were heavily involved in the Reconstruction process that is a direct line from their commitment to the Union.

“I found that very striking, because we tend to think of Yankees as saying, ‘Well, we don’t really care about the blacks anymore. The war is over.’ A lot of people did say that. But there was this small group that held onto the higher ideals of what the war was all about. Letters from these individuals in the Veteran Reserve Corps often contain the same message, ‘I have to see this through.’”

Ultimately, Cimbala noted, Reconstruction was a failure because the rest of the country was not behind it. But at least for a year or two after the war ended, there were some noble attempts to rebuild the shattered American South.

“I’m really interested in understanding why these individuals were so committed to this Union cause, which ultimately also embraces emancipation,” he said.

Another volume, The Northern Home Front and America’s Civil War, which Cimbala is co-writing with Randall Miller, focuses on civilian life in the northern states during the war. In contrast to covering well-known national events, Cimbala said the book will explore episodes that were rooted in the local communities of the North.

Thus, instead of rehashing the constitutional debate over Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the book will explore community efforts to enforce patriotism, such as the actions of Protestant congregations that dismissed allegedly disloyal ministers. And instead of reviewing the growth of industrial and agricultural output in the North, the book will examine the lives of women who worked in the mills and who assumed the management of their family farms.

In many ways, the questions Cimbala wants to address in the book are relevant today. The debate about how much time should be devoted to leisure during a period of crisis surfaced right after Sept. 11, just as it did during the Civil War.

Having taught at the University of South Carolina atAiken, Cimbala is acutely aware of how history has a way of surviving.

“If there was not a unified, southern identity in 1860, there was in 1865,” he said. “You will never escape the fact that this region was defeated and suffered an occupation. Southerners will always have that. It’s never going to go away.”


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