Ari Kelman is the Chancellor’s Leadership Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches a wide range of courses on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Native American history. He is now working on a book tentatively titled, For Liberty and Empire: How the Civil War Bled into the Indian Wars. Dr. Kelman’s talk will explore connections between the United States Civil War and military campaigns against Native American peoples, focusing on the case of the Dakota War. We asked him a few questions ahead of that November 16 Foundry Series lecture.
ACWM- How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
AK- While doing research for an undergraduate honors thesis about gender and courage during the era of the Civil War, I stumbled upon a letter written by a soldier from Indiana. With the conflict just over, this young man, who had survived the carnage at Antietam and Gettysburg, recounted his exploits to his mother. An evangelical Christian, a proud abolitionist, and a loyal Republican, he climbed the moral high ground, exulting in the role that the Union army had played in midwifing a new birth of freedom for the United States. But as he reached the conclusion of his note, he shifted tone, expressing shame about an atrocity, “Chivington’s Massacre,” that had recently taken place in the western theater of the war. It seemed that a volunteer regiment had slaughtered scores of Native Americans in Colorado Territory during a bloodletting that we now know as the Sand Creek massacre. Although my thesis advisors suggested that the violence at Sand Creek was better understood as part of the Indian Wars rather than as a chapter in the Civil War, the soldier’s embarrassment stuck with me. He seemed to believe that that the murder of distant Cheyennes and Arapahos had diminished the stature of his own service, and that the Civil War had been fought for empire as well as liberty. I remain fascinated by the work of placing the experiences of Native peoples at the center rather than on the periphery of the central pivot in the national narrative: the Civil War.
ACWM- How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
AK- Questions of federal authority, racial formation, the prerogatives of citizenship, competing claims to sovereignty—all of which were central during the Era of the Civil War—remain pivotal today.
ACWM- Are there any social media accounts or blogs that you follow, especially that relate to your work (its topic and/or your role as a historian)?
AK- About a decade ago, a colleague named Eric Rauchway and I began a blog called "Edge of the American West." Although we closed it down after four or five years, the experience offered me a great deal of insight into the power of social media. I am far less engaged with blogs than I used to be, but I still check in occasionally with friends on twitter.