An Intimate View of the Civil War

One hundred fifty years have passed since the Civil War began, but the nation's bloodiest conflict is never far from the mind of Nicole Etcheson, Ball State's Alexander M. Bracken professor of history.

In April 2012, Nicole Etcheson received the national Avery O. Craven Award for her book, A Generation at War: The Civil War in a Northern Community. The Craven Award is given annually for the most original book on the coming of the Civil War, the Civil War years, or the era of Reconstruction. "Ultimately, her book invites us to rethink our own assumptions about the history and meaning of the Civil War," judges said of A Generation at War, which examines war-time attitudes of inhabitants of Putnam County, located in western Indiana.
Etcheson spent six years researching her latest book on the Civil War and in September 2011 began providing commentary to The New York Times' Disunion, a website using images, maps, diaries, and contributions from scholars like Etcheson to illustrate the causes of the Civil War and how its battles unfolded. From the Union's first victory to disagreements over which tune would become the national anthem, Disunion puts readers right back into the 19th-century news cycle, one entry at a time.

Editors at the Times' approached Etcheson for a Midwestern perspective on the war. Her first entry details how sentiment in the Midwest was divided over the war. Future pieces will touch on draft resistance in the Midwest and the conspiracy to liberate Confederate prisoners held in Indianapolis. In total, she will contribute more than 20 pieces to the site over the next few years.

A focus of Etcheson's research is changes in race relations in the 1860s, a topic she'll cover in a forthcoming Disunion piece.

"What happens over the course of the war is a significant shift in attitude on race," she says. "While the Northerners may have gone into the war with the intent to preserve the Union, they realized the way to end the conflict—and in turn, punish the South—was to end slavery."

In 2004, Etcheson received a stipend from the National Endowment of the Humanities to work on her newest book, A Generation at War: The Civil War in a Northern Community. Released in October 2011, the book examines attitudes toward the war from the perspective of inhabitants of Putnam County, located in western Indiana. She also is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, in addition to numerous articles in professional journals.

Now, more than ever, Etcheson says, lessons from the Civil War remain relevant to Americans.

"You look at race, and it is still one of the most central issues in our nation's landscape," she says, noting the election of Barack Obama, the country's first African-American president, and the way in which he's modeled himself on Civil War era icon Abraham Lincoln. "There is also the fact we still deal with violence in our society. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American history. Even the attacks on September 11, 2001, did not surpass the number of Americans who died on September 17, 1862. We can look at these traumatic events and see that each has a legacy in the way it’s shaped society."

Etcheson says she has her own Midwestern roots to thank for her interest in the Civil War.

"Growing up in southern Indiana, I became fascinated with Abraham Lincoln," she explains. "To a child, Lincoln's story was so moving—he grew up in poverty, became a great man, freed the slaves, and then was tragically murdered. I particularly identified with the Hoosier childhood. My parents took me to all the Lincoln sites, and reading about Lincoln naturally drew me into the Civil War."

More in Making an Impact

“We can look at these traumatic events and see that each has a legacy in the way it’s shaped society.”

— Nicole Etcheson, Alexander M. Bracken Professor of History