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Studying the Civil War through the American National Biography

By Mark C. Carnes

General Editor, ANB

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War will be commemorated in the usual ways. But a truly unique approach is provided by the online—and thus searchable—version of the American National Biography, a 27-million word collection of biographical essays on some 18,731 deceased Americans who played a significant role in the nation’s past.

Readers can of course acquire an understanding of the major figures, perhaps beginning with James M. McPherson’s long essays on Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant and Russell F. Weigley’s on Robert E. Lee. But there are many hundreds of essays on figures associated with all aspects of the war.

Those interested in a particular battle, for instance, can use the ANB online. A full-text search of articles for “Gettysburg” yields 253 separate biographical essays, the great majority on soldiers who fought there.

But this search also unearths many new gems of information, such as the fact that William Corby, a Roman Catholic priest assigned to New York’s Irish Brigade, stood upon a boulder, raised his right hand, and offered a general absolution for the combatants just before the armies converged.

Women, too, surface in this search. Eliza Farnham, the author of Life in Prairie Land (1846) and a crusader for prison reform and women’s causes, tended the wounded at Gettysburg, where she contracted tuberculosis; she died the next year at age 49. Eliza Turner, an early feminist, abolitionist, and poet, also cared for the wounded at Gettysburg. She later wrote an important woman suffrage tract. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became the dressmaker, dresser, and confidante of Mary Lincoln, attended the Gettysburg commemoration with the first lady.

Scholars—and history buffs—can look at the Civil War from another fresh perspective through ANB searches by geographical location. For example a full-text search for “Frankfort, Kentucky,” limited to subjects between 1800 and 1840, generates nearly three dozen responses. Among the many interesting essays are those on the following:

Leonidas Polk, a graduate of West Point who became an Episcopal bishop and the owner of a Louisiana sugar plantation. At the outset of the Civil War he volunteered to command Confederate forces and Jefferson Davis named him major general for the upper Mississippi region. In September 1862, during an offensive to seize Kentucky, Polk disobeyed an order to attack, forcing Braxton Bragg to abandon Frankfort.

John Marshall Harlan, who raised and commanded the Tenth Kentucky Volunteers. His efforts helped keep Kentucky in the Union, winning for him the support of national Republicans; in 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Harlan to the Supreme Court.

Luke Pryor Blackburn, a physician who became governor of Kentucky. He had served as the public health officer for Natchez, Mississippi, during the yellow fever epidemics of 1848 and 1854. During the Civil War the Confederacy sent Blackburn to Canada to collect arms and hospital supplies to be shipped through the Union blockade. In Canada Blackburn devised a scheme to spread yellow fever through Northern cities. To that end he traveled to Bermuda during the epidemic of 1864, collected the bedding of dying fever victims, and shipped it in trunks to cities in the North. (The plan failed: Blackburn did not understand that mosquitoes were the agent of transmission of yellow fever.) Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, Blackburn was acquitted by a Canadian court. He returned to the United States, settled in Kentucky, won a measure of fame for aiding yellow fever victims during outbreaks in the 1870s, and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1878.

This is just a sampling of the innumerable ways in which the American National Biography can provide rich new insights into a war that continues to command our attention.

Start your search

– You can also jump start your research into the civil war by looking at our Civil War research topic. This small, highly selective set of articles is recommended by Oxford editors to help students get started doing research in this massive, 19,000-biography collection and The Oxford Companion to United States History encyclopedia content that supports it. Browse the list or start with an overview article and follow the links.

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