Jonathan White is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (Louisiana State University Press, June 2014).
JF: What led you to write Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln?
JW: During the Fall 2000 semester, when I was a senior at Penn State, I audited Mark Neely’s course on the Civil War and Reconstruction (I’d already taken it for credit with another professor). After many of the classes Mark and I would walk back to his office to chat—about the Civil War, Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, and any number of other things. (I remember learning with jealous amazement that Mark actually saw Bob Dylan perform at a bar near Boston in 1962!) I asked him if he would supervise an independent study for me in the spring and he agreed, but he told me that we had to find a viable topic. Mark suggested the Union soldier vote in the presidential election of 1864. The last—and only—book published on the subject had been privately printed in 1915. In light of the recent Bush v. Gore election fiasco in Florida, I thought an election-related topic sounded intriguing. Little did I know what was in store for me.
That spring I wrote a paper about Pennsylvania soldiers voting during the Civil War. As a masters student at the University of Maryland I revised that paper and published it in American Nineteenth Century History. I later expanded the topic into my master’s thesis and published an article on New York soldiers in Civil War History.
My dissertation research took me away from the soldier vote for a couple of years, but after publishing Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman with LSU Press in 2011, I decided to return to the topic I’d begun as an undergraduate. So this book has been a long time in the making.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln?
JW: The book really has two main arguments. The first is a critique of the self-emancipation thesis, which argues that emancipation was a bottom-up process inaugurated by the slaves themselves. My book argues that Lincoln and his fellow Republicans took a strong top-down approach in their effort to achieve emancipation, essentially teaching reluctant Union soldiers that they needed to fight to free the slaves. The second is a critique of scholars like James McPherson and Jennifer Weber who argue that the Union soldiers overwhelmingly supported Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. I maintain that the soldiers were not nearly as supportive of their commander-in-chief as most scholars believe, and that fraud, intimidation and coercion kept many Democratic soldiers from voting.
JF: Why do we need to read Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln?
JW: I think the book sheds new light on the political culture of the Civil War and helps us understand some of the more unseemly aspects of nineteenth-century American politics—the electoral fraud and intimidation of voters, for example. But on a more positive side, the book also shows how civil liberties expanded in very important ways during the Civil War. Nineteen northern states permitted soldiers to vote in the presidential election of 1864. This was the first time in American history that absentee balloting took place on such a grand scale. So that alone is a story worth telling. But even more than that, I believe that the expansion of suffrage to white soldiers during the war helped usher in the right to vote for black men who had served in the Union army, ultimately leading to the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JW: I think this is a combination of a few things. When I was very young, my grandfather used to tell me stories about famous people in our family—Irvin McDowell of the Civil War and Ethan Allen of the Revolution. I’ve never confirmed whether I am actually related to either of them, but I know there are McDowells and Allens in my family tree. Those stories certainly helped get me interested in history.
I also grew up in a 1720s farmhouse just outside of Philadelphia. Sadly, that house has been vacant for 20 years and has fallen into disrepair. But as a kid, I found the old trash pit behind the house and dug up all sorts of old things. That childhood foray into archeology gave me an appreciation for historical material culture.
Finally, I have vivid memories of sitting in my high school history classes thinking, “I would love to teach history, if only it paid well.” So I started my freshman year at Penn State as a Business major. But my first semester I took a U.S. survey course with John Frantz, and I was hooked. I immediately switched my major to history and never looked back.
JF: What is your next project?
JW: I actually have three book projects going right now. The first, Lincoln’s Advice to Lawyers, is a gift-type book that will be published by Sourcebooks under the Cumberland House imprint in April 2015. I had the idea when I became Pre-Law Advisor at CNU to gather together quotes by Lincoln and anecdotes about his practice as a lawyer. His approach to being an attorney is still quite relevant today, and I hope it will make a nice birthday present or stocking stuffer for lawyers, judges, or students who want to go to law school.
The second, The Monitor Is No More, is a combination of essays and primary sources about the sinking of the USS Monitor on December 31, 1862. It is under contract with Kent State University Press.
The third is my “big” project. Right now I’m calling it “Midnight in America: A History of Sleep and Dreams during the Civil War.” As a Civil War historian, I’ve found that I have to think creatively when picking subjects to write about since there are so many books published in my field. About six or seven years ago I had an idea to write a history of the war through the dreams of those who lived through it. I’ve written chapters about the sleep and dreams of Union and Confederate soldiers, Confederate civilians, POWs, slaves, dying soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln. The only chapter I have left to write is about how dreams were portrayed in popular culture at the time—things like prints, cartoons, poems, and songs.
JF: Thanks, Jonathan