Taboos and the American Civil War

By Adam Arenson

This guest post is published in advance of the Organization of American Historians conference in St. Louis. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference theme, Taboos. Come back for new posts every weekday until April 17.

Adam ArensonWas the American Civil War about more than slavery? Did it begin before the firing on Fort Sumter, and end long after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox? And was the ultimate outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction shaped more by events in the American West than on the battlefields of the South?

As the Civil War sesquicentennial concludes, we can see how certain explanations of the Civil War Era might remain taboo: the argument that the Confederacy cared more for its American Indian allies than the Union did; that, as late as 1865, President Lincoln and other Republicans still hoped to send African Americans away from the United States; that the nature of U.S. citizenship would be determined more by challenges from Spanish-speaking men in California and white women in Wyoming than by actions in the former Confederacy. And counterfactual history has its own taboos: Can we truly evaluate what would have happened if the Confederacy took New Mexico, and reached San Diego? Civil War WestsOr if Confederate sympathizers had invaded Washington Territory from British Columbia?

These controversial ideas appear when we consider the histories of the Civil War Era and the American West in one frame, as part of an era of larger tests of U.S. sovereignty, and as fights over the nature of incorporation of a vast, diverse continent under one government. Rejected, affirmed, and mulled upon, these taboos find their place in the exciting new volume Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States.


Adam Arenson is Associate Professor of History and Director of Urban Studies at Manhattan College, author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (2011), and coeditor of Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (2013).