Harvard University Press


Historians walk two tight ropes when they write about the past: one rope divides generalization from particularization and the other divides continuity from change. If a scholar falls off the rope and lands on one side or the other, the result is a book that oversimplifies and distorts the portrait of the past. Historians must find a way to identify broad patterns without losing variations and local nuance; they must explain change over time without losing sight of all that remained the same. It is a difficult balancing act, but when done well, tight-rope walking produces an interpretation of the past that most effectively captures its complexity. Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s mastery of the skill has produced a must-read study of the American Civil War that explains better than any existing book in the field how Americans deployed violence during the conflict. Unlike scholars who proffer generalizations that the war was either a restrained or an atrocious conflict, or that it changed from a limited to total war in a linear trajectory across time, Sheehan Dean argues that the war was both restrained and violent, and that local patterns varied across time and space. In a study that considers both the regular and irregular aspects of the war, and places it in a comparative context with other global civil and national conflicts of the 19th Century, he identifies the factors that escalated and the factors that restrained violence during the war.