An Interview with J. Matthew Gallman (Part Two)

The State of the Field, Digital Tools, and Northern Democrats
J. Matthew Gallman

Today we present part two of our interview with J. Matthew Gallman, winner of the 2016 Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. In this segment, Gallman discusses his thoughts on the state of the field, digital methods and tools, and going beyond simple binaries in thinking about the wartime Democratic Party.

Varon: What is the state of Civil War studies right now? What about digital tools as a new way to study the war?

Gallman: There are ways you can ask questions differently because of what you can access [digitally]. And that’s challenging. In a world of word searches, I would never write a book about someone named “Grant.” But there are important things that people aren’t thinking about methodology and digital sources and what can be done badly because it is possible. When you search for something and you get it and it fills your screen if you don’t realize it’s on column 7 on page 8 at the very bottom, that’s a problem. But here’s a little example of a thing that I did that I got a kick out of that couldn’t have been done before. I found this story somewhere about draft evaders from Connecticut from one town where six guys had evaded the draft by cutting off their trigger fingers. Because I’m dealing with popular culture, it probably wasn’t true but it was a story people were reading and believing, and then I started searching for the story elsewhere and found it in 8 other newspapers as far away as West Coast. So I could make the argument that it was picked up and reprinted in different places over and over again. And that’s the kind of thing I couldn’t have done 20 years ago. And I could find deviations on the same story too. Certain kinds of popular writers I could find this person in fifteen different locations using digital sources. It’s evidence of breadth. That was trying to use old social history methodology assisted by new technology to think about significance. I think we need to maintain the same questions as historians about significance and methodology even though the sources are different and we can use those tools in different ways.


Jeffrey Zvengrowski: I was struck by your comment during the sesquicentennial that northern Democrats should not be seen just as War Democrats or Copperheads.

Gallman: I am in the early stages of trying to write a book about the Democrats. I think it is one crucial flaw in the current literature, complimentary to Defining Duty, in that I think we tend to think in binaries and we should think in spectrums. There are people who would reasonably described as Copperhead and then there are those who call themselves War Democrats. My feeling in immersing myself in the writings of Democrats is that they typically use the language of conservatives and radicals more so than Democrats and Republicans. So I was probably thinking [during the sesquicentennial] we don’t need to understand this as a simple binary. Democrats are all over the place and some portion of them are actively hostile to the Union and who might reasonably be called Copperheads. Clement Vallandigham is an important and famous figure, but he is widely overstated in certain senses in terms of his actual words. We need to understand the Democrats in a more nuanced way. Although it would be fine with me if we didn’t until I did this book.


Lawton: Is it more important what people believed to be true than what was true? Is there a point at which we need to say in writing history that what was true is more important than what people said was true?

Gallman: Absolutely. What people believe to be true is in a sense a truth. People believe a lot of things are true, even though much of what they believe is rock-hard stupid. Certainly if I’m looking at cultural studies one thing that I personally think, when I’m looking at cartoons, I’m trying to make an argument that was somehow related to consumption. So for instance postcards are a wonderful source for all sorts of things, including race relations.  But ideally we would ask how those cards were being used, and how many were really purchased and mailed. Also patriotic envelopes for example. Dr. Gallagher has made the best analysis of them.  A lot of them go from the printer to somebody’s collection. It raises a question which of these are circulating and how much? I think we ought to be asking that question.


Gismondi: Is tracing the spread and looking at various regions where things are published or read is that a way you think we can add in cultural history more quantitative evidence that backs up the importance of a cartoon, story, or something else?

Gallman: Yes, I come from a real hardcore new social history background. I was an economic historian. My graduate field was Robert Fogel, who was the Time of the Cross guy. I do think that to some extent certain kinds of cultural history are floating free of any kind of contemplation of where is this being read. At least in my book, I tried to think creatively about ways to ask that question. So for example a San Francisco paper. I did some analysis of where it is using publications from the East and also noticed when the its editors would write pissy editorials about how the latest mail comes from Philadelphia and it’s full of stuff they are stealing from us. So there are multiple tiny pieces of evidence suggesting a national discourse. So I tried to do that. I think that if we’re making an argument about war culture that by definition is suggesting it is something shared by more than three people. Even if I don’t really have the “full data,” I try to at least answer the question. I will be writing a thing about Little Women for Dr. Gallagher and so I found this great little piece of data. I found a newspaper story from 1869, Little Women came out in two parts, it is a story about a local library in Brooklyn, NY, listing what books are being checked out most often. And it actually lists the books so I actually know how many times Little Women was checked out from that local library. Which isn’t much but is kind of cool. I do think it’s worth asking the question and think about answering the question. But don’t abandon the project if you can’t answer it.