The Civil War is probably the widest covered topic in American history and remains a bestselling field, even more than 150 years after the end of the bloody conflict. Therefore, any publication on the subject warrants the question: what’s new under the sun? What will we learn from this book that we have not read in one form or another? Jason Phillips’s monograph has a clear answer to that relevant question, as instead of focusing on battlefields and big politics, he puts the prelude to the Civil War center stage. To be more precise, his research focuses on the Civil War as a dream, as a rumor, as an imagination, as a “future past,” a concept that he borrows from Reinhart Koselleck.1 In that anatomy of an imaginary conflict ahead, Phillips fathoms the chances and risks people (mainly Southerners) assumed in yearning for or fearing a “looming Civil War,” even before the first shots were fired. In this narrative arch, he connects founding myths like the frontier and the unquenchable thirst for progress to the history of the Civil War.
In order to write this history of excitement and anticipation, of fear and hope Phillips looks into competing visions of the future and different arenas in which they played out. As he moves through time (mainly the 1850s) he engages different levels of imaginations: from the cruising altitude of general stereotypes and cultural assumptions, against which Southerners viewed their world, down to the more everyday-life or rumor and speculation. Thus, the chapters are named for different modes of envisioning: e.g. horizons, prophecies or anticipations. Yet, this study is not an abstract reflection of theoretical concepts. The first part of the book focuses on John Brown, his biographical background, his role as a political leader and a prophet as well as the reception of his failed revolt at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Phillips finds different visions of change and progress, optimism and hope as they manifested in the action of frontiersmen and -women who, with their radical go-ahead thought, believed in a progress narrative of America that was based on the military and ideological conquest of the continent. These imaginative future times reflected the expectation that America would always turn its view to the days to come, to modernity, discarding the remnants of the past and highlighting the nation as an ongoing revolution. Here he locates John Brown’s story of being a free-state militia man out in the west that would later allow him to become the radical anti-slavery activists. Yet, at the same, possible change was also seen as a threat: White Northerners and Southerners alike looked back to the past and developed an apocalyptic vision of the future that stands in stark contrast to this narrative of futurity and progress. When thinking about the possibility of slave resistance in the South, especially White Southerners looked back at or remembered the Haitian revolution (1791) or the revolt of Nathaniel Turner in Virginia (1831) as warnings of a darker future ahead that had to be avoided.
The second part of the book turns the spotlight from the ideological backgrounds to the concrete imaginations of the Civil War. In the eyes of contemporaries a violent conflict over the issue of slavery was ultimately inevitable. However, Phillips is able to dissect the interplay of dystopian and utopian vision of the future and cut through underlying mechanisms of collective story-telling and knowledge production. In a section on speculations, he focuses on conspiracy theories and how they shaped the worldviews of contemporaries. Another focus on rumors explicates how false alarms and panics fueled fears of dark agents infiltrating the South while, at times, appearing in the genre of ghost stories. The uncertainty of the future became a driving force for taking action within local Southern communities, but also for fighting the specter of abolition on the level of national politics. It is one of the strengths of Phillips’s book that through the focus on narrative structures he is able to connect local events with the general debates happening in parliaments and executive offices all over the United States.
Phillips, finally, turns to more active modes of dealing with uncertainty, namely prophecies, anticipations and expectations. Here he draws a picture of an excited South that envisioned a short and victorious Civil War. As a nation on offense, they relied on the power of modern planning and military strategy as modes of anticipation that paled more pessimistic expectations of disaster and possible annihilation. At the same time, people experienced the limitations of modern technologies (e.g. telegraphy) and had to learn how to use and interpret these technologies. This “interplay of remembrance and anticipation” (p. 133) and this tension between expectations and progress, on the one hand, and skepticism of modernity, fear and anxieties of in-action, on the other, make for a compelling argument. The episodic structure of the book combined with a thematic chapter outline support this polarity and keep the book vivid and us readers hooked.
In his monograph, Phillips draws a broad picture of contradictory visions and imaginations of the Civil War that allows him to write both a history of ideas of the Civil War and a history of Everyday Life. Overall, the book is elegantly written and I would like to highlight one rhetorical device that makes it simply fun to read. Phillips has two main protagonists, whom he refers back throughout his book. One is Edmund Ruffin, a wealthy Virginia planter and slaveholder, the other one John Brown’s knife, which he uses as a material anchor to tell a story of the frontier and of memory. Furthermore, what is remarkable about the book is the use of optical metaphors (looming, light, darkness) that are able to capture both the fractured character of future imaginations and their appeal.
The missing reflection of more theoretical literature on the topic of uncertainty as a historical phenomenon is apparent in this book but not necessarily a problem. Phillips’s writing is at its strongest, when it tackles the “big questions” of gender and racial analysis. Such as when he highlights that women played only a minor role in heroic narratives of the South. Or when he uses the concept of material history to show that weapons served as a sign of Black masculinity, self-imaginations, identity claims, and ultimately were connected to questions of citizenship. Yet, the lack of these – for lack of a better word – subaltern voices is noteworthy. Except for a section about “anticipating freedom” (p. 157–164), especially the scarcity of African American voices, in general, is a bit surprising. Although Phillips touches upon the contradictions in slaveholders’ mindset and the potential dilemma they faced, namely how to reconcile an enthusiastic yearning for individual freedom with the fact that they owned and exploited Black people (p. 129), generally speaking, slavery retains a ghostly presence in his book. This might be an actual reflection of the Southern refusal to engage that particular topic out in the open and their will to frame the Civil War as a cultural antagonism instead, but these silences would be interesting to explore to even further deepen our understanding of the imaginary Civil War of the 1850s.
1 Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time, New York 2004.