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Uncovering a Hidden Treasure: Q&A with Bottimore Lecturer Dr. Yael Sternhell


Yael Sternhell is associate professor of History and American Studies at Tel Aviv University. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in History at Princeton University, studying under James M. McPherson. Dr. Sternhell’s topic at the 22nd Annual Elizabeth Roller Bottimore Lecture derives from her next book (under contract with Yale University Press): War on Record: The Archive and the Making of Civil War History, 1861-1901. Her answers to our three questions below give a preview of what the lecture will cover.  


Q- How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?

A- I became interested in the documentary record left in the wake of the Civil War when I was working on my first book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South. One of the topics I wrote about was the flight of Confederate governments – the national government as well as state governments – from Southern capitals during the war. The best-known example is of course the flight of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet on April 2, 1865. The train they left on was loaded up with the government’s most essential possessions: its gold and its archive. When I noticed the recurrence of this scene – clerks loading up runaway trains with boxes full of papers, I started thinking about those papers as an object of study in and of themselves. I went into the National Archives in Washington hoping to find documents pertaining to the history of Confederate archives after their capture. A casual remark by an archivist led me to two huge and largely unused collections documenting the handling of Civil War paperwork. I then expanded my focus from Confederate papers and incorporated Union papers as well for an overall study of how the war was transformed into a written record. Over the past six years, I have excavated these collections, document by document, often opening boxes that have remained sealed since the late nineteenth century. Civil War history is an incredibly saturated field, and archival finds are hard to come by. So, I am relishing the experience of uncovering a hidden treasure. 

Q- How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today? 

A- The United States is a second home to me, but Israel is where I have lived most of my life. It is obviously a complicated place, where violent conflict is never far from view and where past wars and catastrophes still loom very large. Studying American history in general, and Southern history in particular, has provided me with a remarkably useful comparative perspective. I draw immense satisfaction from teaching these subjects to mixed groups of Arab and Jewish students and frequently use the history of abolition or the long Civil Rights movement in my public speaking as examples of extended and seemingly futile struggles for freedom and equality that nevertheless ended in resounding success. These are lessons very well worth learning in contemporary Israel. 

Q- What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?

A- I was truly surprised to learn that ex-Confederates played such a prominent part in the work of compiling the Federal government’s official history of the War. Despite the prevalence of national reconciliation as a cultural force in the late nineteenth century, the fact that Jubal Early was moonlighting as a document hunter, proofreader, and fact checker for the War Department did not square well with his image as the quintessential Lost Cause warrior. It turns out that even our most reliable diehards were more complicated people than they may have seemed.

Don’t miss Dr. Sternhell’s lecture as she delves into the fascinating backstory of the wartime documents that became the Official Records.