ASU historian tells story of Civil War through those who lived it

ASU historian Brooks Simpson

In his co-edited anthology “The Civil War: Told By Those Who Lived It,” Arizona State University historian Brooks Simpson explores the bloody conflict in detail.

“What we see with hindsight as almost inevitable was seen by those at the time as almost inconceivable,” he said. “What happened was by no means inevitable but a combination of choice and fate.”

The four-volume collection of letters, diaries, speeches, poems, memoirs and other writings – selectively gathered to capture the thoughts, dreams and apprehensions of people as they were experiencing the war between 1861 and 1865 – “may be the most valuable scholarly work yet to appear during the sesquicentennial” of the U.S. Civil War, according to the New York Review of Books.

“To read through these pages is to experience something like walking through a museum without benefit of text panels or audio tour,” said reviewer Andrew Delbanco, in the March 19, 2015, issue. “Each volume opens with a short introduction summarizing the main events of the year, and concludes with chronologies, biographical, textual and brief explanatory notes – just enough to give some context but barely a hint of interpretation.”

Simpson was approached about the book project in 2009-2010 by the Library of America, the longtime publisher of American literature classics and, more recently, collector of documentary histories of significant events.

He served as supervising editor on the first and third volumes of the four-volume collection. All three editors shared information and insights with each other throughout their collaboration.

Drawing primarily upon documents that were already in printed sources, in order to meet the publisher’s ambitious goal of a new volume for the anthology printed during each year of the war’s sesquicentennial, the co-editors, says Simpson, diligently worked to present a balance of voices: Union and Confederate; male and female; African American, other people of color and white; leaders and others not quite so well known.

In these volumes, eloquent insights from political leaders and private citizens stand side-by-side.

As reviewer Delbanco noted, “The story of Lincoln’s cautious advance toward emancipation, for example, is illuminated in selections from his public writings, as well as in a private letter from Hannah Johnson, the mother of a black Union soldier, who urges the president to stand by the Emancipation Proclamation: ‘When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it.’”

Simpson said that he and co-editors Stephen Sears and Aaron Sheehan-Dean looked for pieces both representative and unusual.

“We wanted works that would convey a lot about what was going on at the time and might leave a vivid impression on the reader,” he said. “Given our space constraints, we also thought it important to identify pieces that had the ability to represent a particular moment in time.

“We tried to avoid things that were written after the war,” Simpson said. “We wanted people writing who did not know what would happen next, who were looking toward the future with a sense of immediacy and anguish.”

The anthology’s approach – to do history looking forward – also captures the false starts and forlorn hopes, he notes, of people who are anticipating something that doesn’t come to pass.

Based at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, Simpson is a Foundation Professor of History in the College of Letters and Sciences. He also serves on the faculty of Barrett, the Honors College.  

Simpson studies and teaches in the areas of American political and military history, as well as the American presidency, specializing in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and he is the author of “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.” Simpson shares his scholarship widely as a public intellectual, presenting community seminars, narrating battlefield tours and offering expert commentary to media outlets such as C-SPAN and the History Channel.