Yours Truly, Coming to an Academic Conference Near You (Possibly)

The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.
The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.

On Saturday, 2 March, I will be presenting a paper at the Indiana Association of Historians 33rd Annual Meeting at the University of Indianapolis. You can look at the conference program here. Readers will notice that I am on the very last panel for the entire day, which should be interesting.

The particular paper I’m presenting at this conference is entitled “An Army of Liberation: The U.S. Military as an Agent of Social Reform in American History.I began writing it this past summer, right before I began my endeavor into graduate studies. Some studying of the papers of Ulysses S. Grant and several secondary source readings into the relationship between the U.S. military and the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War got me interested in seeing how this relationship developed and, by extension, now has me on this intellectual kick to learn more about the history of civil-military relations in the United States (hence my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana).

Without ever being a member of the U.S. military myself, I am going to state that I believe many soldiers have experiences in the military that challenge them to think about social topics such as race, gender, and (today) sexuality. I think there is a dearth of scholarship that exists on these interesting relationships, and this paper reflects a personal effort on my part to find a connection between military service and the changing views on race from many soldiers throughout American history. I argue that nationalist sentiments (love of country, in sum) challenged soldiers to face this topic head-on whenever personal views (i.e. an indifference to slavery during the Civil War) bumped up against the realities of a national crisis (i.e. the Union Army’s need to arm black soldiers in 1863 after struggling to defeat the Confederates in the Eastern Theater of war in 1862).

Here is my paper abstract:

Since its victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military has represented itself as a strong and efficient patriotic force dedicated to law and order, duty, and sacrifice. Countless historical monographs have dedicated thousands of pages towards analyzing these character traits and how they relate to battle strategy and the nature of America’s foreign policy initiatives. Likewise, studies on the consequences of war for citizens who remained on the “home front” are frequently published. However, there remains a deficiency of works attempting to understand the U.S. military and its impact on social policy within its own borders. This study analyzes three episodes in U.S. history–the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the desegregation of the military in 1948, and the attempt to desegregate Little Rock High School in 1957–to demonstrate the unique and somewhat controversial role the U.S. military has played in shaping the constructs of domestic social policy. It argues that U.S. soldiers frequently disagreed over the proper role of the military in social affairs and that some rejected “radical” measures that could change the status quo, such as ending slavery during the Civil War or segregation throughout the twentieth century. In each episode, however, the military unintentionally helped change the very nature of civil rights in America. Looming threats to the military’s strength and efficiency, the preservation of law and order, and the perpetuity of the nation itself required that the military protect and aid African-Americans, who were eventually seen by many soldiers as allies in creating a stronger military, maintaining law and order, and promoting American nationalism. The subsequent results of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement demonstrate that the obtaining of freedom in America frequently involves some of the most unlikely figures and institutions within its society. This paper is a compilation of original research and scholarly synthesis, and was largely influenced by Gary Gallagher’s recent publication, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

I look forward to meeting many talented graduate students and professional historians throughout the State of Indiana and will attempt to live tweet the event once again. We’ll see how that goes!



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