Pulitzer winning historian Hahn reveals rebellion in American Civil War

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

2004 Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Hahn called for a rewrite of the history of the modern era in his Thursday evening talk, entitled “The Greatest Slave Rebellion in History.” The lecture, spearheaded by Professor Allison Dorsey and sponsored by the History Department and the President’s Office, took a new look at the American Civil War by attributing rebellious agency to the slaves of the South, recasting them as important players in the social and political world of their time.

After a brief reminiscence of college days with Dorsey and fellow Pulitzer winner John Dower, Hahn launched into his quarrel with contemporary historians for not seeing what Southern slaveholders had seen – the behavior of slaves during the Civil War was, in actuality, a rebellion. Current historical thought usually places slaves of that time period as soldiers, while Hahn believes that they instead were revolutionary actors that changed the course of history by using techniques typical to more widely-accepted definitions of “slave rebellions.”

Offering detailed evidence for his claims, Hahn described the characteristics typical of slave rebellions that also held true in the case of the Civil War: the slaves possessed complex communication networks and made use of rumors of freedom and allies; individuals and groups participated in acts of escape; and Southern blacks, once accepted into the Union Army, committed violence against their former owners. Taking advantage of the bitter atmosphere, the slaves had merely “waited until their imagined allies struck the first blow” to initiate the largest, longest, greatest slave rebellion in history.

In particular, Hahn compared the events of the Civil War to the famous successful slave rebellion of Haiti in the eighteenth century. While many similarities exist, the American instance, in contrast, saw the slaves outnumbered, owned by powerful masters, and isolated on comparably small plantations. The results, however, were much farther reaching — the rebellion in the South destroyed slavery in the United States and allowed the slaves to “[remake] a nation as they remade themselves,” the course of which “shifted the social and political course of the Atlantic.”

After concluding his presentation, he accepted questions from the engaged audience about hypothetical situations, his particular evidence, and other topics.

Hahn is currently a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and has written numerous articles and books, as well as winning teaching awards and promoting history teaching in diverse communities.

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