Aaron Sheehan-Dean is Professor of History at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?
ASD: Several years ago, I was invited to write an essay for edited collection on violence in different Civil Wars (Greek, Russian, Finnish, etc.). The US Civil War was supposed to provide a nineteenth-century example against which the classic civil wars of the twentieth century could be compared. I expected a challenging but manageable, essay-length project. Instead, I wrote 20,000 words and realized I had generated more questions than answers. How exactly did participants in the war balance violence and restraint? Under what conditions did violence escalate or diminish? How did the guerrilla war and the regular war intersect? What kind of violence was committed against non-combatants, women in particular? Most of the previous answers to these questions have considered only one side of the story – the Union’s – and it seemed to me that any complete answer would have to consider the perspectives and experiences of people on both sides.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?
ASD: The Civil War was both violent and restrained. This strange mixture of malice and charity derived from the fact that Northerners and Southerners crafted competing moral explanations for how they waged war.
JF: Why do we need to read The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?
ASD: One of the great appeals of teaching and writing on the Civil War is the huge audience interested in this part of the past. My hope is that that community of readers will join me in using the history of the US Civil War to think about how we wage war today. Given that I began this project in 2010, it was clearly influenced by reporting about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. History does not offer easy to follow guides to behavior, but by resuscitating the debates among Civil War Americans about what kind of conduct they accepted in war and what they rejected, it may help us to approach our own actions with greater awareness. In democracies, the army is an extension of the people and regular citizens as well as soldiers need to think seriously about the moral ramifications of military actions. Participants in the Civil War did this – Confederates argued with Federals, Republicans argued with Democrats, women argued with men, enslaved people and free people of color argued with slaveholders and army officers. All these arguments help us see the contours of the conflict in a way that illuminates questions we should continue to ask about our conduct today.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ASD: After college I worked on Capitol Hill for US Senator Carl Levin (I am originally from Levin’s home state of Michigan). During my time there, I began reading more history and also giving tours of the US capitol. These projects gradually merged until I could only give tours when I could take two hours and lead people through the nooks and crannies of the building (this was pre-9/11 when a staff pass would enable access to the Senate and House floors and almost every part of the capitol). I found that I enjoyed talking about the American past more than I enjoyed the policy work I was doing as a staff member and so applied to graduate school. I am still trying to find a classroom as remarkable and captivating as the capitol building but I continue to love the daily process of helping students understand the past and what it means to them.
JF: What is your next project?
ASD: Last Spring, I gave a series of lectures at the University of Florida which will become a short book, entitled Rebels at Home, Rebels Abroad: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century. The project contextualizes the US Civil War around the other ongoing civil and national conflicts of the mid-century: the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Polish Rebellion of 1863, and the Taiping Rebellion. Americans at the time were familiar with all these events and the ways they spoke about them shaped how they understood their own conflict (and vice versa). The US Civil War, as we are now learning, did not happen in a vacuum (no war ever does) and these concurrent conflicts structured how people around the world conceptualized what was happening in North America.
JF: Thanks, Aaron!