Author Interview--Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Reckoning with Rebellion)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

today we feature a repeat visitor, Aaron Sheehan-Dean to talk about his book Reckoning with Rebellion: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century, which came out in May 2020 with the University of Florida 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 The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, 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, you have published a number of books on military history, why the change to a transnational focus in your newest book?

ASD: I don’t really think of my previous books as military history, though they concern the military as an institution.  I’m interested in how wars happen, especially in democracies.  My most recent book, Calculus of Violence, was my attempt to understand how people set limits on or encourage the violence of war.  I thought of the project more in terms of intellectual and cultural history.  One of the things I noticed was that Americans, both North and South, referred to historical and contemporary examples to frame their perception of what was ethical behavior in war.  I have a little comparative material in that book – mostly about the use of Sepoy imagery – but there was a lot more that didn’t fit.  So, for Reckoning with Rebellion I decided to focus on that comparative dimension.  I was surprised to find so many people paid careful attention to the contemporaneous events in India, Poland, and China.  In this case, it really was about following the evidence and seeing where it led.

Comparative history has much to offer, how did you address similarity as well as difference in your comparisons of the U.S. with India, Poland, and China? Also, a few historians have used transnational history recently to explore the Civil War, why did you decide to use comparative or do you see your book as a transnational-comparative work?

ASD: My book was intended to illuminate the richness of comparative approaches to the Civil War.  The greatest weakness is my lack of engagement with primary sources in the original languages.  We need people with those skills and who are familiar with the foreign-language historiographies of the respective topics to really dig into these topics, sort of like what Peter Kolchin did years ago with his comparative study of American slavery and Russian serfdom.  The differences between India, Poland, China, and the US were quite profound at the time.  I emphasized some of the commonalities of outcomes – with regard to the failure of insurgents who adopted irregular warfare, for instance – but this observation doesn’t the previous historical interpretations that account for those outcomes with reference to their unique contexts.  I don’t think the Qing successfully suppressed the Taiping Rebellion because of US support (though British and French forces played a key role late in the war, as both Chinese and Western scholars note), but I do find it fascinating that Qing curried American favor in the ways they did, and vice versa.  In this sense, the book adopts a little of the comparative approach and a little of the transnational approach.  Whatever the particular dynamics at play in these rebellions/civil wars, at the level of global conversations about empire and sovereignty people grouped them together.  People at the time did that and I think it’s useful for us to see that perspective as well.

You already mentioned that Poland, India, and China are your comparative focal points, could you run us through the reasoning for why you selected these three states?

ASD: The numerous references to India and what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny at the time are what drew my attention initially.  When I started looking at primary sources – newspapers and private writings – for evidence of how participants spoke about the strictly contemporaneous events (the Indian Rebellion was in 1857), I discovered they had a lot to say about Poland, where the Russians suppressed a national rebellion in 1863, and in the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864).  It seemed to me that analyzing these four events (including the USCW) together might produce some insights.  Americans at the time followed these events just as foreigners followed the course of the US conflict, and they all drew on a common stock of ideas and concepts as they sought to justify their cause and isolate their opponents.

Those are three rather pivotal moments and certainly, we have to be selective when making comparisons since covering everything is difficult. You have with Poland and India two independence movements and with the Taiping an effort to modernization a state, how do these compare with the southern rebellion in the United States?

ASD: You’re right that there are profound differences and similarities among all the events.  Poland’s move, though a quasi-nationalist desire to break free of the Russian empire, was also driven by the desire of conservative landholders to retain authority over the serfs.  Elites initially opposed the Tsar’s emancipation of 1861 but (surprise!) found it hard to attract support for the rebellion if they didn’t support at least modest land reform.  The Taiping sought to take advantage of some Western strategies – Christianity and free trade, most importantly – but they also framed the movement partly around displacing the Manchu (from northern China) who they regarded as foreign interlopers.  The historian Stephen Platt goes so far as to call this a nationalist movement, though not all China scholars agree with that characterization.  What struck me most was the similarities among the dominant powers – British, Russian, Qing, and the US – faced with suppressing proto-nationalist assertions of territorial sovereignty within their borders.  They sought to marginalize insurgents using overwhelming military force, diplomacy, and a selective use of history to cast these groups out of the mainstream of political thought in the mid-nineteenth century.  And they were all successful in doing so.

There certainly is that aspect of studying largely failed rebellions to learn comparatively about similarities. For the next question, I want to throw a bit of a curveball question. You compare the level of incompetence among leaders of CS military units in the western theater: "This was not Taiping-level incapacity, perhaps, but it did not augur well for the permanence of a Southern nation." (103) The Taiping lasted fourteen years and the Confederacy lasted only four years--is it fair to claim one is more competent than the other? And in line with a conversation I had with Adam Domby once, is it not somewhat surprising considering how quickly some of the rebellion you look at failed that the South lasted four years?

ASD: Good question. I’m not sure I would say that one was more competent in military terms than the other. The difference in contexts – China’s population was 400 million in 1860; the US held 30 million- makes that a very hard question to analyze.  But it’s the sort of work that an enterprising students in military could take on.  David Armitage’s recent book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, compares civil conflicts through the lens of intellectual history but there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same through military or political history; I would expect interesting results from that sort of study.  The question of how the Confederacy held out against the US for four years has consumed a lot of historians’ time over the years.  In the wake of the Vietnam War, scholars wondered why it collapsed so quickly but this comparative perspective reveals that they persevered much longer than the Indian or Polish rebels, though not as long as the Taiping.

One of the big goals of transnational history is to undercut the assumption of U.S. exceptionalism, how do you see your book contribute to this goal?

ASD: Although that was not an explicit goal of my project, my reading of this history certainly turns up a number of commonalities between the American experience and those of other people around the globe.  The Confederates adopted military and diplomatic strategies similar to other proto-national insurgents and they failed, in part, for similar reasons.  The even more striking similarity I found was in the posture adopted by the United States (that is, the North), which reacted to Southern secession in ways very similar to the response of the British to the Sepoy, the Russians to the Poles, and the Qing to the Taiping.  The US shared with these empires a willingness to use violence and other tools to assert its territorial sovereignty.  This is perhaps not too surprising, but I think it complicates the easy distinction between European or Asian empires and the American republic at mid century that many historians still tend to make.  The behavior of these regimes isn’t uniform and the contexts remain quite different but the patterns suggest commonalities among centralized states that we (American historians) usually overlook.

To put these commonalities into practice, lets envision teaching a Civil War class that takes your work and the ideas in general into consideration, how should we teach the American Civil War differently? What should we change? How should our vantage adjust?

ASD: I have been adopting more global comparisons throughout my Civil War class.  The field of comparative slavery and emancipation is well established and full of great literature.  Per your last question, I think it helps students to see that our Civil War (so important it only rarely even needs the modifier “US”) was not the only such conflict in the mid-nineteenth century.  It was not the longest or the most violent or any of the other descriptors that we, for strange reasons, usually attach to it.  More importantly, I hope the book inspires people to rethink the nature of the postwar state.  One strand of interpretation sees the US Civil War spurring reform and liberal change around the globe.  There’s no doubt, as Don Doyle has shown, that British reformers used Northern victory to accelerate their agenda.  And emancipation in Cuba and Brazil came faster and more peacefully because of the North American experience.  But at the same time, it’s important for us to recognize the commonalities between the postwar US and other empires at the time.  Thomas Bender and other scholars distinguish between Lincoln’s liberal nationalism and Bismarck’s conservative nationalism.  I think those two visions share more than we previously thought.  A study that compared the postwar Republicans with French, German, and Russian regimes at the tine would be quite useful, I think.  Lots of exciting work still to do!

So you have published two books in the last three years, not to mention a major edited collection, and at least two other books previously. I am going to pencil you in for another interview in about two years, what will we be talking about?

ASD: I’ll be delivering the Brose Lectures at Penn State in 2022 and for that I am working on a project that compares and connects the English Civil Wars with the US Civil War.  The former was the major civil conflict for English-speaking people before the American one of the mid-nineteenth century.  It was the reference point when people in the 1860s talked about civil war.  The language of the English conflict appears throughout the USCW: Lincoln as Cromwell; the Northern army as the new New Model Army (a group even reprinted Cromwell’s bible for his troops and distributed it to Union soldiers); Sherman in Atlanta as Cromwell in Ireland.  Beyond metaphors, I’m interested in how the ways people of the 1860s used history to guide their actions.  We had a fun workshop at LSU before the pandemic shutdown that brought together a group of English Civil War and US Civil War scholars.  It was a great experience and showed me how much there is to learn by changing the chronological framework on our topic.