Interview: Susannah Ural, Editor, “Civil War Citizens”

23 02 2011

University of Southern Mississippi professor Susannah Ural has edited a new collection of essays from NYU Press, Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict. It consists of 7 pieces on Northern and Southern Germans, Northern and Southern Irish, Jewish Confederates, Native Americans, and Northern African-Americans. I first met Professor Ural on a Penn State Mont Alto seminar a few years back, and she’s been nice enough to take some time to answer a few questions about her new book.

BR: Prof. Ural, can you fill the readers in on your background and what you’re doing these days?

SU: In professional terms, I’m an associate professor of history and senior fellow in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for the Study of War and Society. I trained in history, especially military history, at Kansas State University, where I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. I’ve been teaching at the university level since 1996 and living in the South since 2000. In personal terms, I grew up all over Pennsylvania, with a little time in North Dakota and bit more in Vermont. I miss crisp New England falls, but I can’t imagine leaving the South now, especially my summers and holidays with my family on the North Carolina coast. 

BR:  What was the genesis of Civil War Citizens?

SU: As I was finishing my monograph, The Harp and the Eagle, which looked at the motivations and experiences of Irish Catholic volunteers in the Union Army, I was speaking with an editor about the fact that there were almost no broad ethnic studies of Civil War soldiers and communities. There’s Ella Lonn’s work on foreigners in the Union and Confederacy, and William Burton wrote a great book called Melting Pot Soldiers, but no one had examined this issue in almost two decades, which is unheard of in Civil War writing, especially when you consider how much our approach to ethnic/immigration history has evolved in the last 20 years. I thought a broad study by experts in their respective fields might offer a lot to the historical community, spark interest in the subject, and highlight areas for future study.

BR: Can you describe the essay and author selection process?

SU: I was already familiar with experts in German-American communities during the Civil War from my M.A. thesis on Peter Osterhaus, a German-born Union officer who rose to corps command. My broad interest in the ethnic/racial experience during the war was long-standing, so I was fairly well aware of those scholars as well. In terms of subject matter, I thought about the largest ethnic groups as well as under-studied communities, and other groups I might want to include to enhance the book’s examination of how American identity is formed. Then I contacted the best individuals working in those areas and, thankfully, they agreed to join the project. My only regret is that the chapter on the Hispanic experience in the war did not quite work out, and I am hoping that our book sparks interest in that area in particular, but in the entire field as well. 

BR: What is the relationship between your own essay and your previous book on Irish Union soldiers?

SU: My chapter is grounded in the theories that originated in my book The Harp and the Eagle, but in this essay I included some new material that did not appear in that book. This collection, though, allowed me to show readers how the northern Irish-American experience compared to the southern Irish-American response to the war, and then to compare these with the experiences of other racial, ethnic, and religious communities across the Union and the Confederacy. I could not take that broad approach with my first book, and relished in the opportunity to do this with Civil War Citizens. 

I love looking at individuals responding to war.  It could be soldiers and why they volunteer, their experiences in combat, the impact of the war on their families, or how conflict impacts their larger communities. When you study people or communities at war, you can gain fascinating insights into how they define themselves; how they prioritize their values. There is no vacillating in times of war. People, just like nations, are forced to reflect on their values and take a stand on certain issues or back down. Then, when you apply these questions to groups that were already struggling with their identity—immigrants or other minority groups; those who fell outside the dominant sections of society—these questions and their answers become even more fascinating.

BR: How has the book been received?

SU: So far so good. We have terrific endorsements from historians Peter Carmichael, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Chris Samito, and Catherine Clinton praised it as “pioneering” in her recent review in Civil War Times Illustrated.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

SU: It usually begins with a curious photo or comment or generally accepted truth. Then I start digging to learn more. In the case of Irish Catholic soldiers, it was the accepted fact that they fought to prove their loyalty to America and gain acceptance. That puzzled me when I reflected on their writings, which more often referenced a desire to gain military experience, a solid income, or preserve American Union for future Irishmen. In the case of the Texas Brigade, I wanted to know what made them an elite unit and why wealthy Southerners sometimes held them up as the beau ideal of Confederate soldiers and at other times seemed embarrassed of their rougher habits. I was curious to see if the Texans could offer us a lens into Confederate wartime identity, and they have.

So, my curiosity leads to more and more digging in archives and private collections, reading every published source I can get my hands on, and then a heck of a lot quiet time in a hard chair, writing away and then revising, then more fresh writing, followed by more revising, and a few more research trips. I’m a better writer in the early morning hours while my son’s still asleep, so I tend to get up at 4 am, write for about two hours, get both of us off to school, and then write more at work, especially on the days I don’t teach. The writing, though, is blended with heated debates with friends and colleagues as I try to make sense of the puzzles that always surface.  There are also a wealth of battlefield hikes to test what I’ve written, followed by more heated debates at places like O’Rorke’s in Gettysburg, where you’ll find us peering over maps spread across the table, held down by copies of the Official Records. That’s followed by more writing and rewriting, and then I send the manuscript out to a few friends for an early read, and then off to the editor who sends it out to even more folks to see if they think it’s ready for publication or if it requires additional work. 

BR: What’s next for you?

SU: I’m finishing my book on John Bell Hood’s famous Texas Brigade, called Hood’s Texans. It’s both a traditional unit history and a socio-military study of the men, their families, and the Confederacy at war. T. Harry Williams once said that a unit history, when done well, is a study of democracy at war.  That’s my goal with this book. As I mentioned earlier, I discuss why Southerners described Hood’s Texans, at times, as the beau ideal of their army and Southern manhood: rugged, independent, honor-driven, and brave soldiers. At other times, though, the Texans represented a side of the white South that elites preferred not to discuss: rough, uneducated, ill-disciplined, and brutal. These contradictions within the unit and the larger Confederacy flow throughout my book, highlighting how the men and their families changed, and in other ways remained unchanged, as a result of the war. The final two chapters examine the veterans and their communities in the postwar period as they struggled to adjust to a strange new world of emancipation, occupation, and defeat, and then worked to shape the way in which future generations would remember their service.

The next book is tentatively titled The Southern Way of War. I want to explore why Southerners continue to dominate the enlisted ranks of today’s American military, and come close to dominating the officer population. Is this simply due to the fact that people from rural areas are more likely to serve in the armed forces?  If so, why does Brooklyn rank so high among enlisted personnel? Is it a matter of economic need and the opportunity the military installations so clearly offer across the South? Maybe, but there seems to be something else, too, and I think it’s tied to the white South and their memory of the Civil War, which is then complicated as increasing numbers of African-Americans and women joined the armed forces in the twentieth century. So I’m tinkering with that now, but first I have to finish the Texas Brigade book.  Speaking of which….

Thanks to Prof. Ural for taking the time to update us on her upcoming works, and for providing detail for Civil War Citizens. It looks like we’ll be hearing plenty from her in the near future, and I’m sure plenty of you are looking forward to Hood’s Texans.








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