Here is the write-up I did for his talk, featured on both the MOCH blog and the history department's website:
On April 17th, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, spoke at the final Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities lecture of the year, delivering a lecture titled, “Radical Life on the Mississippi: A Global History of the American Civil War.” Dr. Zimmerman, an historian of German intellectual history, examined the Civil War with a transnational perspective, focusing on the impact German émigrés had on social radicalism, particularly in the Union army. Taking several unique approaches, Dr. Zimmerman reimagined the history of the Civil War through Marxism, socialism, radicalism, and transnational events. For example, rather than examining the Civil War as an east to west war, or a war focused in the east, Dr. Zimmerman’s work focuses on the Mississippi River Valley and the gradual move south of ideas and Union forces, particularly in the “Little Dixie” area of Missouri, Helena, Arkansas, and the Davis Bend Plantation in Mississippi.
Tying together the ideology of the Civil War and the arrival of German émigrés after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, both in Germany and France, is an innovative approach. As Dr. Zimmerman noted, the “story is more complicated” than previously understood. German émigrés brought a unique viewpoint and intellectual culture that manifested in German language newspapers, large numbers of German soldiers fighting in the Civil War, German generals, and the spread of very diverse and radical social and economic ideas. For example, when discussing “Socialism and Slavery on Davis Bend,” Dr. Zimmerman discussed the case of the Davis Bend Plantation, where slaves conducted a socialist experiment after the plantation owners and overseers fled. This exploration of the impact Marxism, the 1848 revolutions, and German language press had on the Civil War is very important new scholarship, as it revisits and reimagines the history of the Civil War, the Union stance on slavery, the global impact of revolution and rebellion, and the history of German-Americans and German intellectual history. Dr. Zimmerman also examined the use of the words “transnational,” “global,” “revolution,” and “rebellion,” challenging historians and other scholars to think more carefully about the ways in which we discuss the Civil War and historical categories.
After his talk, Dr. Zimmerman took a series of questions, expanding and elaborating on his work. He noted that part of the Confederate plan was also transnational, involving France and a Confederate alliance with Mexico. This new geography of space and power is directly related to French sympathies for the Confederate cause, making it a global issue. Dr. Catherine Phipps, of the history department, asked Dr. Zimmerman about his methodology and choice of sites of focus. Dr. Zimmerman noted that it is important in global history to focus on places that stand out in some way, in this case, as points of conflict among Union leadership between radicalism and conservatism. Dr. Zimmerman was also asked about the origins of the German soldiers and officers. He stated that their origins and places of birth in Germany were diverse, and that while the number of Germans in the Union armies may seem high, it was not disproportionate; there had been a large number of German immigrants in the United States, particularly around the Mississippi River Valley. The German language press was very large, and quite radical, and, for Dr. Zimmerman, serves as an important source in bridging the gap between the military and social history of war. German newspapers, gymnastic societies, and social groups all made comment on and participated, in a variety of ways, in the Civil War and the spreading of German intellectual thought.
On Friday, Dr. Zimmerman met with graduate students and faculty to discuss his article, A German Alabama in Africa: The Tuskegee Expedition to German Togo and the Transnational Origins of West African Cotton Growers (American Historical Review 110:5 (2005), over pizza. The discussion ranged from methodology questions to using theory in publications and research, to teaching methods and writing processes, and served as an introduction to the theoretical questions behind Dr. Zimmerman’s work and his book, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, 2010).
Dr. Zimmerman was brought to the university by the Department of History, the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities, the Department of Foreign Languages, and the student group Transcending Boundaries.
Thank you to Dr. Zimmerman, and I hope to see some of my local Memphis readers at future events! The Marcus Orr Center puts on great programs, and they're open to the entire Memphis community.