A Message from the Author

Two concerns loomed large in the 1960s when I first began to study history—the persistence of racial inequality a hundred years after emancipation, and the paradox of using collective violence to pursue supposedly just ends.  My graduate school advisor, C. Vann Woodward, called attention to both matters in his memorable essay, “Equality: The Deferred Commitment.”  As the Civil War centennial approached, Woodward cautioned historians against celebrating “a holy war that ennobled its participants.”  He knew too that race was a national problem, by no means confined to the South, and he rejected the idea that the North had been “burning for equality since 1863 with a hard, gem-like flame.”

Looking back from half a century later, I see clearly that my work has grappled with both issues.  My dissertation, completed at Yale University in 1968, addressed the faltering commitment to equality in the postwar North and raised for me the question of how much commitment had ever existed in the first place.  As a young teacher several years later, I started down a trail that has engaged me ever since—the question of how the Civil War began and what the participants hoped to accomplish by resorting to arms.

During the 1970s and 1980s, I made myself a specialist on the history of the Old South and the North-South sectional conflict.  My first book, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), attempted to disentangle the story of what actually happened in three key Upper South states—Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—where most white people opposed secession but ended up fighting on the southern side.

I then turned to study a locality for which marvelous records survive, and two books resulted—Old Southampton: Politics and Society in a Virginia County, 1834-1869 (University Press of Virginia, 1992), and Cobb’s Ordeal: The Diaries of a Virginia Farmer, 1842-1872 (University of Georgia Press, 1997).

Two related books continue my quest to understand the political crisis that led to the Civil War—A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man(Louisiana State University Press, 2010), and the newest, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

I have published numerous articles and book chapters, written over fifty book reviews, and contributed to six biographical anthologies, including four entries in American National Biography.  My essays in two Blackwell volumes—A Companion to the American South, and A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction—summarize and assess scholarship in my fields of specialization.  I got a classic back into print—David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (Yale University Press, 1942, 1962).  I wrote fourteen entries between 2011 and 2014 for the New York Times blog, “Disunion.”

I was fortunate to teach for almost four decades at The College of New Jersey.  The History Department, which I chaired from 1996 to 2005, promotes a world-historical perspective.  This supportive setting emboldened me to write Upstream Odyssey: An American in China, 1895-1944 (EastBridge Books, 2008), a biography of my grandfather, a Protestant missionary.