The Civil War Connections Blog

The Cause of the Civil War in Academia

Hello readers, and welcome back to the Connections blog! Today I’m going to talk about how the American academic world interprets the causes of the Civil War in the 21st century. This topic will be the first in a series of posts covering how different groups of people remember the conflict, and I could think of no better starting point than with those who study the war for a living: namely, academic Civil War historians. In the September 2012 issue of The Journal of American History, Michael E. Woods presents an insightful article that attempts to present the debate about the role of slavery in the decision to shatter the union. Woods argues that the debate is not over whether or not slavery was the root cause of the war – most scholars agree it was – but over HOW the issue of slavery caused the war.

Oxford University’s seal is of an open book. Students from Cambridge, the traditional rival of Oxford, joke that Oxford students are “always stuck on the same page” since their book is open in the seal!


The article samples various academic fields of opinion, like geography, sectionalism and class, and concludes that academic research is diversifying when it comes to the Civil War. Scholars are more and more moving away from trying to harness the entire conflict in a single analysis, preferring instead to focus on one of many different subsets of the war. If one had to sum up the article in a single thought (which would be, ironically, the opposite what scholars are doing with the Civil War), one would say that academia thinks the cause of the Civil War is far too complex for simplification into a single thesis.

Cambridge University’s coat of arms is of a closed book surrounded by Lions. Oxford students joke that Cambridge students can’t even read, since the book is closed in the coat of arms. Cambridge students like to retort that, actually, they have already finished their book. Well played, Cambridge!


Woods’ article is intriguing, and I agree with his assessment on the complexity of defining the subject. There always exists the urge to simplify a complex issue into easily digestible pieces that have a beginning, middle and end, especially in the modern world where information is conveyed in ever smaller and faster bits throughout society. We text, tweet and yes, even blog our way through our lives, demanding instant gratification and succinct summarization. As academia knows, some things are too complex to be summarized. The Civil War is an incredibly important part of our nation’s history, and needs to be approached with all the care and complexity with which it deserves.

For a link to Michael E. Woods’ profile, click HERE.