A quintessential American family at a defining moment in U.S. history is the material for Dr. Stephen Berry’s newest book in progress.
“The Todds: First Family of the Civil War,” is the historian’s second book on the Civil War. It focuses on Mary Todd Lincoln and her 13 brothers and sisters. Of the 14 children, nine sided with the Confederacy, five sided with the Union and five died in the fighting or had husbands who did, if we count President Abraham Lincoln in that number.
“The Todds” has been a work in progress virtually his entire professional career, said Dr. Berry, a history professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Nathaniel Dawson, the husband of one of the Todd sisters, Elodie, is one of six central figures in Dr. Berry’s first book, “All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South” (2003, Oxford University Press).
“ Doing research for my first book, I became familiar with the Todds’ saga,” he said in a recent interview. “And I included a footnote in an early draft saying that someone should write a history of the family.”
Dr. Berry’s editor advised him to remove the note out and write the book himself.
The Todds are an important and revealing American family, Dr. Berry said. “They were a divided family, and they were President Lincoln’s family. To an important degree, the president believed if he could save the Todds, he could symbolically save the nation.”
The Todds were a contentious lot, Dr. Berry said. “The truth is most of them were not at all likeable,” he said. “They drank too much; they were violent, litigious and only occasionally heroic.”
“But this is not a likeable time in our history,” Dr. Berry said. “The Todds were not bad people. They were just typical.”
Dr. Berry may not be typical of historians of the Civil War era. With early influences, ranging from California, to New Jersey and Florida, he did not drink from the cup of the “Lost Cause.”
“When I arrived in Chapel Hill, I discovered the fascination with the South and the Lost Cause,” he said. “I consider myself a dispassionate, outside observer who, as a historian, is on the side of the story.”
The Civil War story that Dr. Berry is in search of is located deep inside UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection, which he said is “bar none the best collection of Civil War and antebellum Southern papers anywhere.”
“The UNC collection still holds great secrets,” Dr. Berry said. “The Wilson Library, where it is archived, is like my church.”
Dr. Berry’s first book explored the motivations of men who fought in the war as revealed in diaries and letters to wives, fiancées and lovers. He is interested in the deeper, more personal side of the war.
“We have never talked about men’s inner experience because we are not trained to think deeply and write deeply about our own feelings,” Dr. Berry said. “I am constantly surprised by the people of the past who, without the advantage of advanced education, wrote extraordinary and emotionally-penetrating letters.”
But many of the letter writers of the day were educated in the classics.
“They were a very literate group, cogent and reflective about their innermost feelings,” Dr. Berry said. Even the small farmers were surprisingly literate. “If they owned two books, it was a Bible and an almanac,” Dr. Berry said, “but if they owned a third it was Shakespeare.”
“All That Makes a Man,” was well received and hinted at things to come. A reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly described it as “informative and sometimes provocative” and “elegant and poetic.”
Dr. Berry promises that “The Todds” will be for general audiences.
“All That Makes a Man” began as a dissertation written for my peers,” he said. “I am writing this in a different way for a different audience with a new publisher that is not solely academic.”
“The Todds” is about a year away from publication by Houghton-Mifflin, and Dr. Berry will take a year off to finish it thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
“The grant will allow me to concentrate on the book during the 2006-07 academic year,” he said. The Todds has been designated by the NEH as a ‘We the People’ project. According to its Web site, the initiative seeks “to explore significant events and themes in our nation's history, and to share these lessons with all Americans.”
Scholarly research and publishing are important to Dr. Berry, but teaching is the other side of the academic equation.
“I see myself in the mould of the teacher-scholar,” he said. “The idea is to use your research and take it to a bigger audience and back again. Students will test your ideas and hone your ability to explain them.”