History Department
History Department

Symposium to discuss the 1860-61 Secession Crisis for Americans

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The Civil War Symposium to be held on Oct. 15, hosted by the Department of History's Institute for Historical Studies and The University of Texas Libraries' Littlefield Fund for Southern History, will review the recent book by Dr. Shearer Davis Bowman (1949-2009), At The Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, October 2010).

A panel discussion will take place from 1-4 p.m. on the 4th floor of Garrison Hall, which is located on the Main Mall of The University of Texas (UT) campus. The reception will start at 4 p.m. in the foyer and portico of Garrison.

Prof. Shearer Davis Bowman's book, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

Monograph: At the Precipice

This event is free and open to the public, but registration prior to the event is requested so that adequate preparations can be made. Further information about parking and other logistical materials will be provided upon receipt of your registration.

The monograph, At the Precipice, is part of the Littlefield History of the Civil War Series, a 16-volume history being published by the University of North Carolina Press and sponsored by the Littlefield Fund as part of the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The series is co-edited by two alumni of UT's Department of History: Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia and T. Michael Parrish of Baylor University.

Its volumes will cover the antebellum period through the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as well as the lasting public memory of the Civil War. It will span a very wide range of topics, including military, social, political, racial, religious, diplomatic, constitutional, and comparative.

Each of the 16 volumes of the series is intended to provide the reader with:

  1. A basic understanding and interpretation of their individual topics
  2. A sense of the principal questions that historians have debated over those topics, and
  3. A bibliography of suggested additional reading.

Dave Bowman was an ideal candidate to write the volume on the constitutional crisis that was occasioned in 1860 by the election of Abraham Lincoln, a purely sectional candidate, to be President of the United States.

He was trained as a comparative historian at the University of California. His first book, Lords & Masters: Mid-19th Century U.S. Planters and Prussian Junkers, displayed a remarkable ability to identify telling similarities and differences in the two groups he studied.

In At the Precipice, Bowman focuses on two parts of a single central question:

  • How did the North and South come to interpret so very differently their shared heritage of the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution?
  • And, in the Secession Crisis of 1860-61, how did they utilize those differing interpretations to justify either leaving or defending the Union?

In addressing those questions, Bowman discusses all of the concerns that one would expect in an analysis of his topic: race, class, gender, economics, and politics. He does an especially good job of analyzing economic matters clearly and effectively. But he also discusses religion.

Late in his scholarly career, Bowman began to develop something of a specialty in the history of Christianity in America. He also taught graduate courses in that subject at the University of Kentucky.

Prof. Dave Bowman

Prof. Dave Bowman (1949-2009)

In several crucial observations, as in his chapter on Jefferson Davis, he makes compelling points about the role that religion played in shaping the political and social attitudes of both the future Confederate president and his wife, Varina. When Bowman discusses the antebellum debate over slavery and the Bible, he spends more time on the ideas of the little known Francis Wayland, the President of Brown University, than on those of the much more familiar Lyman Beecher and Charles G. Finney.

Bowman is especially talented at teasing out the complexities of the South's defense of secession. He carefully analyzes the constant interplay between the two possible uses of the Revolutionary legacy that the South shared with the North.

A "constitutional" defense of secession asserted that, since the states had created the federal Union by ratifying the Constitution individually, they had an obvious right to leave that Union, individually. Or southern defenders could reach back to that other founding document of the American republic, Mr. Jefferson's "Great Declaration," and lay claim to the "natural right" to rebel against tyranny.

One of the unusual features of the Littlefield Series is its effort to use little-known diaries, sets of letters, and memoirs to enlarge the focus of the series beyond the elites of each section to the experience of the American people, both North and South. Bowman's study of the secession crisis does just that.

At the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond he discovered a diary of one Robert Granniss, a young man from Connecticut who, in the 1850s, decided to migrate to Richmond. He found employment as a clerk in a store run by a wealthy merchant, Horace L. Kent.

Bowman uses the young man's diary to illustrate the variety of the Southern response to the moral dilemmas presented; first, by human bondage and, then, by the question of secession. He then contrasts the experiences of the Richmond merchant and his employee to those of the much better known Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, both products of the Deep South.

In like fashion, Bowman discovered at the Huntington Library the papers of one Henry Waller, who, like Lincoln, was born in Kentucky. And both men became disciples of "The Great Compromiser" — Kentucky's Henry Clay. Each finally made his way to Illinois, where their political careers took very different paths.

Bowman uses Waller's papers to trace the process whereby this Kentucky born disciple of Clay became a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party and Stephen A. Douglas, and then he contrasts that to the very different path whereby Lincoln embraced the new Republican Party.

These are but a few examples from Bowman's book that illustrate how he approached the researching and writing about the secession crisis that led to the Civil War.

Littlefield Fund for Southern History

Littlefield Fund for Southern History

The Littlefield Fund for Southern History was created in 1914 by a generous bequest by George Washington Littlefield, a Mississippi-born former Civil War cavalry officer, Texas cattleman, banker, and University of Texas Regent. Over the decades the Littlefield Fund has enabled the University of Texas Libraries to become a major repository for materials on the history of the American South.

In the 1930s the Littlefield Fund supported the efforts of UT Professor Charles Ramsdell to microfilm extensive collections on Southern history outside the state of Texas. The current North Carolina series is in fact the second multi-volume history supported by the Littlefield Fund. In 1937 the Littlefield Fund instigated a 10-volume History of the South that was published by the Louisiana State University Press.

The Department of History and the Institute for Historical Studies gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Littlefield Fund for Southern History in helping to make possible this celebration of the work of Professor Shearer Davis Bowman.

On hand to discuss At the Precipice and the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era will be:

  • George B. Forgie, Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin
  • George C. Herring, Professor Emeritus and formerly Alumni Professor of History, University of Kentucky
  • Jacqueline Jones, Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History, University of Texas at Austin
  • Sean Kelley, Associate Professor of History, Hartwick College
  • Howard Miller, Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin
  • James Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • T. Michael Parrish, Linden G. Bowers Professor of American History, Baylor University

Professor Bowman completed the monograph shortly before his death. On March 3 of this year the UT history community held a memorial service for our former colleague, associate chair, and dear friend, Dave Bowman, who died on Dec. 4, 2009 in Lexington, Ky. Since then we have established the Shearer Davis Bowman Excellence Fund for Graduate Students in his honor.

Story by: Professor Howard Miller
Feature graphic adapted from book illustration by: Suloni Robertson, art director for College of Liberal Arts; Camri Hinkie, student technology assistant

At the Precipice book design by: University of North Carolina Press
Jacket illustrations: The official seal of the Confederate States of America, courtesy of the Museum of the Confederacy; background image is of white Savannah celebrating Georgia's secession from the Union, a drawing by Henry Cleenewerck and the Great Seal of the United States, courtesy of the Library of Congress