The End of the Civil War College Course?

Temp Editor Peter Knupfer's picture

A recent survey by one of my colleagues revealed that the American Civil War course is an endangered species on college campuses -- he found that many major universities no longer offer it as a standalone subject.  If this really is a trend (and he admitted that the survey he conducted was an informal and unsystematic one), what does this mean for teaching this subject?  Is it being absorbed into or left to other courses, say, on the growth of the state, the history of warfare, military history, slavery and emancipation, the US survey, etc.?

Peter Knupfer



The institution I am currently attending - Providence College - offers the subject as a standalone course; at least at the graduate level.


Marshall University, where I am getting my Masters, offers "Civil War and Reconstruction" as a 400/500 level course. There will also be a graduate-level seminar in the fall on Reconstruction. These are indeed stand-alones...


Two of the institutions I attended, Penn State and Shippensburg University (both in Pennsylvania), currently offer an undergraduate survey and graduate seminar on the American Civil War as standalone courses. I also attended Harrisburg Area Community College (in Pennsylvania), which currently has an American Civil War survey course. Furthermore, the United States History survey courses I took at Harrisburg Area Community College included considerable coverage on the Civil War. (I should point out, however, that was during the 1998-1999 school year, so I cannot say for sure whether those courses still include the same content on the Civil War. Though I should also note that I attended the college's satellite campus in Gettysburg, so I would suspect the Civil War is still a popular topic there.) At any rate, I would like to know more about the survey that Peter Knupfer's colleague conducted. I was not aware that there was a decline in courses on the American Civil War. So far, the responses seem to indicate that the subject is alive and well. I will be interested to read any further discussion on this topic.

Derrick D. Little

I am curious as to how the original question defines a stand alone Civil War course. If the strict years of the conflict are the criteria, then I'd have to agree that yes, these courses may be falling out of favor. But I think there is a high demand for classes addressing the Civil War Era, which popularly encompasses 1846-1877. Some scholars push the time period even longer. One of the most rewarding Civil War classes I took analyzed the conflict in a long nineteenth century context, and it gave me new questions and problems to consider. Herbert Gutman once pondered the efficacy of breaking the nineteenth century at the Civil War, suggesting that there are narratives that bridge the conflict. There might be a push to teaching the war in this manner. Again, this comes from totally anecdotal and not at all scientific analysis of these trends.

At my university (Southeastern Louisiana University, a relatively small--15,000--regional state school), I teach both an undergraduate Civil War course and graduate seminar, both of which typically have at or near maximum enrollment. About a third of each course is spent on growing sectionalism, Nullification through secession, and two-thirds on the war, ending with the war's conclusion. We certainly don't plan on phasing out either course.

A quick scan of current online catalog course listings from some representative universities and colleges in the various states ought to give a pretty good idea. Community college offerings, in most cases, tend to be limited in American history to the typical survey.

I am enjoying this discussion and am blogging about it, but was curious to know from the responders thus far how many students usually enrolled in the Civil War classes at your institutions? Were they usually popular, as I am of the impression from reading your replies that the courses are still quite popular among students.

[Ed. note: Enrollments in several iterations of the Civil War Era course at Michigan State, my home institution, have plummeted recently; it's not clear whether that is collateral damage from across-the-board declines in history majors and elective enrollments, or is related to the course content itself.  I suspect that the course will remain in the catalog alongside many courses listed but rarely offered, and that its frequency will be cut back considerably; I wonder if that is the trend elsewhere.]