Author Interview--Aaron Sheehan-Dean (The Calculus of Violence)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

today we feature Aaron Sheehan-Dean to talk about his book The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, which came out in 2019 with Harvard University Press.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor and Department of History Chair at Louisiana State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He has published Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia and edited Struggle for a Vast Future: The American Civil War, The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, and A Companion to the U.S. Civil War.

To start the interview, Aaron, could you give our readers a brief idea of how this book came about and what your argument is?

ASD: The book came from two sources: in my first book, on why nonslaveholders fought for the Confederacy, I was surprised to find men talking about how upsetting they found the war’s violence to be.  I’m wasn’t shocked that they felt it, but the frankness of the expression was unusual given the stereotype of southern white men as emotionally constrained.  So, I wanted to investigate more about the war’s violence from the human side.  And then I received an opportunity to write an essay on the patterns of violence in the war for what was going to be an edited collection on twentieth-century civil wars (with the USCW as a nineteenth-century point of comparison).  That essay wound up at 20,000 words and made me realize there was much more to do on this front.  The argument of the book my book is that the Civil War was both bloody and restrained and the war’s violence escalated and deescalated at different points in time in different places.  I try to parse how and why the cycles of violence ramp up and then diminish.  The book explores how people on both sides answered the question of who could be subjected to military violence and under what conditions.

That is an interesting question indeed. At the last SCWH meeting in Pittsburgh, there was much discussion about the "Dark Turn" of Civil War scholarship. How much did this debate influence your writing of the book?

ASD: I don’t use the phrase “dark turn” in my book.  I think the research into how men and women experienced the war and what psychological effects it produced is enormously important.  We have studies of veterans as political actors but are only just starting to see books on them as people.  I wrote the book partly because I think we need more specificity when we talk about violence in the Civil War.  It’s not enough to say that the war was bloody or destructive – I don’t think any of us are surprised by hearing that.  We need to understand how violence waxed and waned (it did both) in different places over time.  Race was central to this, so was gender, and so was loyalty.  Soldiers expressed much less concern about hardship imposed on enemy noncombatants than they did on loyal ones.  There is more work to be done on this front.  I think Crystal Feimster is researching  rape in the Civil War.  David Hacker is working on a project that might revise our number of casualties in the war once again.  I’m eager to see how the conversation around this topic evolves in the next few years.

The conflict's geography was indeed incredibly diverse. Which raises another point, tell us about your decision regarding chronology. Why did you stick with the 1861 to 1865 period? In part, I am thinking here about some Confederate guerilla turning into KKK and continuing the fighting or the conflict in Kansas territory.

ASD: I did try to capture a sense of how Americans thought about violence and the ethics of war in the pre-war period, but I didn’t address the sectional violence in Kansas in the 1850s.  There’s no question that the stories Americans read about Bleeding Kansas shaped their attitudes toward war, but I wanted to focus on the period of actual declared war and particularly on the dynamic between regular forces and irregular ones.  The ending date is more problematic, because you’re right that many Confederate guerrillas and even regular soldiers redeploy their military skills on behalf of the KKK and other paramilitary groups.  I didn’t pursue this link, partly because the book was already pretty long, and because regular military violence did come to an end in 1865.  The violence of the Klan in Reconstruction was terrorism, which is related to irregular warfare but also distinct analytically, at least as I see it.  I think there’s a lot of room for future scholars to reinterpret the 1870s in light of what we now know about counter-insurgencies and how to combat them.

The distinction between regular and irregular warfare seems important, indeed, which bring up the legality of warfare. You devote a lot of time to Francis Lieber, why was he such an essential figure during the war? Do you think he has been given his due attention by scholars?

ASD: I find Lieber fascinating.  He has received a lot of attention lately.  John Fabian Witt’s excellent book “Lincoln’s Code” looks at Lieber and how he shaped the laws of war around the world.  And DH Dilbeck’s “A More Civil War” unpacks Lieber’s approach to war-making with great precision.  And, as you note, I spend a fair amount of time on him as well.  Historians disagree about the impact of the Lieber Code on Union practice, but I think it was written and published sincerely.  The Union wasn’t making a pretense of making a just war.  Lieber lobbied hard for the assignment but he did so because he believed there was an opportunity to change how wars were fought.
And, because you asked this question, I have an opportunity to pass along this Lieber gem that I couldn’t use in the book.  In 1859, he clipped an ad for his new book “Lieber on Civil Liberty and Self-Government” which ran right above the following ad:

In Press:
The Bar-Tender’s Guide;
Complete Encyclopedia of fancy drinks.
Containing plain and reliable Directions for Making all the Fancy
Drinks used in the United States, together with the most popular
British, French, German, and Spanish Recipes.
                                                Dick & Fitzgerald, No. 18 Ann-st.

Below the clipping, Lieber wrote: “It was unfair to let this the far more popular and instructive Encyclopedia follow close on the heels of the heavily tramping self-government; but I was rejoiced to find that the words bar and tender can be conjoined without necessarily being unintelligible.” 

As a non-native English speaker, but a quick study, I love Lieber’s eagerness to learn this new word, “bar-tender.”

Sounds like he acted a little bit like a typical German, but joking aside, it is good to see individuals like him get more attention. To close, Aaron, how do you see your book impact Civil War history? Do you think this study will help move away from such extreme position as the Dark Turn arguments? Also, you have a few words on the international context in the book, is that a direction you wish to pursue more in the future?

ASD: I hope that my book helps encourage more discussion of the nature of violence in the war.  Some people will no doubt disagree with argument I make about the war’s violence not following a linear trajectory.  What I hope is that our analyses of the war and the post-war period continue with as much precision as we can muster.  That’s one of the amazing things about this field compared to other historical epochs.  The depth of the secondary literature and the accessibility of primary sources for the Civil War mean we can speak with a degree of specificity about how and why people behaved the way they did that few other historians can. 
With regard to your question about the international dimension, I intended this book to have more of that material in it.  But the book itself grew pretty large.  Instead, I have just finished a manuscript for the University Press of Florida that I hope will be out next year that contextualizes the USCW in relation to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Polish Rebellion of 1863, and the Taiping Rebellion in China.  All three were nearly contemporaneous with the American experience and were used by participants as framing devices to understand their own conflict.  It’s a short book, but I expect that it’s in what looks like a new wave of research into the global dimensions of the US Civil War.  I think that’s a promising direction and I know there are a number of scholars pursuing it at the moment.  I look forward to seeing the shape of the field in the next ten years!

Aaron, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.