The Author’s Corner with Virginia Scharff

Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History at The University of New Mexico. This interview is based on her new book, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (University of California Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Since 2003, I’ve held the position of Women of the West Chair at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles (though my day job is as Distinguished Prof. of History and Associate Provost for Faculty Development at the University of New Mexico). At the Autry, I’ve worked on programs, publications, and exhibitions, including Home Lands: How Women Made the West (2010). I’m co-curator of a new exhibition, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, due to open April 25, and this edited volume is one of two which will be companions to that exhibition. I asked ten wonderful historians of the U.S. to contribute essays inspired by objects in the exhibition, written for general, rather than scholarly readers. I think the contributors did a wonderful job, and I also wrote the introduction, edited their essays, and contributed a piece of my own.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: The history of American expansion westward and the history of the struggle over slavery have been told as two separate stories. But we believe they are intertwined strands of a single story.

JF: Why do we need to read Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Readers will find here a whole lot of “Aha!” moments that will make them see American history differently. Did you know, for example, that the last Confederate general to surrender was a Cherokee leader? Did you realize that what became the West was home to unfree labor of various types, both centuries before the Civil War, and long after emancipation? Did you know that the first law giving American women the vote was passed in Wyoming Territory in 1869? John, you probably did, but a lot of people will find a lot to ponder here.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VS: I have always been fascinated with our history, and have been particularly interested in women’s and environmental history, though I write all kinds of things. I am committed to the idea that we will be a better country if we know our history, warts and all.

JF: What is your next project?

VS: I’m working on a historical novel set in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks Virginia!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner