The American Story is the website of Stephen Berry, Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at the University of Georgia. It was created to serve as a convenience to its creator, his students, and his few readers. Stephen Berry feels compelled to study "old, unhappy, far-off things." His research explores the intersections of race, class, gender, family, depression, disappointment, and death in the nineteenth-century South. He is the author or editor of four books on America in the mid-19th century, including House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War, the Book of the Month Club main selection for March 2008, and Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War's Ragged Edges. He oversees the web project "CSI Dixie," devoted to the coroner's office in the nineteenth century South. Berry is Secretary-Treasurer of the Southern Historical Association; co-director, with Claudio Saunt, of the Center for Virtual History; and co-editor, with Amy Murrell Taylor, of the UnCivil Wars series at the University of Georgia Press. A Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Berry helps head the Digital Humanities Initiative at the University of Georgia. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, among others.

Digital Projects


Coroners' inquests are some of the richest records we have of life and death in the nineteenth-century South, providing a window on abortion, child abuse, spousal abuse, master-slave murder, and slave on slave violence. Collecting the extant coroners' inquests for the state of South Carolina between 1800 and 1900, "CSI Dixie" provides a glimpse into the sad intimacies inherent in the varied ways people go out of the world.

The Corpus of American Civil War Letters Project is a collection of thousands of letters written by Civil War soldiers who wrote "by ear." Painstakingly discovered and transcribed by Professor Michael Ellis of Missouri State University, the corpus is a linguistic and historical bonanza, a body of evidence that captures the dialect and lives of the under-educated classes of the Civil War generation.

Major Publications




A House Dividing

A House Dividing: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 updates the Lincoln-Douglas debates for the sound-bite era. Instead of 100,000 words, this volume in the Dialogues in History series gives students 20,000 words from the debates. Rather than long, uncontested ramblings, it offers rapid-fire accusations and responses. Despite their reputations as intellectual heavyweights, Lincoln and Douglas were not above mudslinging; their arguments prove surprisingly studded with ad hominem attacks, political grandstanding, and gross appeals to the candidates' respective bases.

Historians generally agree on Civil War causality: a disagreement over the right of slaveholding in the territories caused secession; a disagreement over the right of secession caused the Civil War. A House Dividing places these political disagreements at the center of the narrative. Watching the cut-and-thrust of past political theater draws students into discussions of the continued importance of the political process as the place where the national agenda is set and executed.




Weirding the War

"It is well that war is so terrible," Robert E. Lee reportedly said, "or we would grow too fond of it." The essays collected here make the case that we have grown too fond of it, and therefore we must make the war terrible again. Taking a 'freakonomics' approach to Civil War studies, each contributor uses a seemingly unusual story, incident, or phenomenon to cast new light on the nature of the war itself. Collectively the essays remind us that war is always about damage, even at its most heroic and even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged.

Here then is not only the grandness of the Civil War but its more than occasional littleness. Here are those who profited by the war and those who lost by it -- and not just those who lost all save their honor, but those who lost their honor too. Here are the cowards, the coxcombs, the belles, the deserters, and the scavengers who hung back and so survived, even thrived. Here are dark topics like torture, hunger, and amputation. Here, in short, is war.




House of Abraham

Mary Todd Lincoln was one of fourteen siblings. Like many Kentucky families, they were bitterly divided by the Civil War. Like no other family, their division played out in the public eye and in the heart of a president. House of Abraham tells the story of the most prominent of these Todd siblings, their fates and movements during the Civil War, and their impact on Lincoln's experience and interpretation of the war. (Click here to read some notices of House of Abraham.)

Some of the more colorful of the Todds include: 1) Elodie Todd, who attended Jefferson Davis's inaugural, where she met the Confederate captain she became rashly engaged to; 2) David Todd, who (disastrously) ran Richmond's prison system for two months in 1861; and 3) Emilie Todd, whose husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, joined the Confederacy and rose to brigadier general before he was killed at Chickamauga. Despite this, Emilie stayed in the White House as the Lincolns' guest for a week in late 1863.




Princes of Cotton

A rogue, a megalomaniac, a plodder, and a depressive: the men whose previously unpublished diaries are collected in this volume were four very different characters. But they had much in common too. All were from the Deep South. All were young, between seventeen and twenty-five. All had a connection to cotton and slaves. Most obviously, all were diarists, enduring night upon night of cramped hands and candle bugs to write out their lives.

Down the furrows of their fathers' farms, through the thickets of their local woods, past the familiar haunts of their youth, Harry Dixon, Henry Hughes, John Coleman, and Henry Craft arrive at manhood via journeys they narrate themselves. All would be swept into the Confederate Army, and one would die in its service. But if their manhood was tested in the war, it was formed in the years before, when they emerged from their swimming holes, sopping with boyhood, determined to become princes among men.




All That Makes a Man

A reworking of my dissertation, All That Makes a Man addressses a central question in Civil War historiography: why did the soldiers fight? Agreeing with historian James McPherson that nineteenth-century soldiers were unusually ideological, I make the case that they anchored such motives in more visceral drives -- the love of self and the love of women. Women were the moral mirrors in which men admired themselves. Writing home to their sweethearts, they were apt to say, and even to believe, 'I am doing this all for you, honey.'

All my subsequent books have followed up on the research and themes explored in All That. Here I first wrote about the Todd family, the subject of House of Abraham. Here I first grappled with two of the diaries later published in Princes of Cotton. And here I first delved into Edgar Allan Poe, the subject I am working on now.

Courses




Death: A Human History

Without death, we wouldn't have anything. There would be no need for a "next generation," so we wouldn't have children. Not needing children, nature would not have come up with sex, so we wouldn't have that either. Immortal, there would be no need to eat or to do anything today we could put off until tomorrow. Without death, life would lose all its savor, and all its color. Death is foundational. All that we are, we are because we die; our mortality, which can seem like a curse, is in fact our greatest gift. Instead of denying or fearing it, then, we should face and explore it. A comparative survey of the history of death and dying in America from colonial times to the present, HIST 4090 is cross-listed as a DIGI course (Digital Humanities Research and Innovation). DIGI courses are designed to introduce students to the tools and methods of building collaborative projects online.




U.S. Civil War

The Civil War began as a limited conflict over sectional differences but became a battle over the meaning of freedom in America. HIST 4072 considers how and why Americans embraced violence as a solution to sectional problems, how the war evolved from 1861 to 1865, why Reconstruction ultimately failed, and how we should remember the war and its many dead.




Poe's America

In this senior seminar (HIST 4990), Poe is the wild-eyed barker who ushers you into the haunted funhouse that is the antebellum imagination. Once strapped in, you are in for a sensational ride, a lurid tour not of the world Poe created but of the world that created Poe -- a world of mechanical chess players, mummies, mermaids, mesmerism, murder, madness, revenant ladies and impotent men, Antarctic exploration, secret societies and encrypted writing, detectives and confidence men, hoaxes, phrenology, perversity, seances, and all that simultaneously titillated and terrified antebellum America.




U.S. History to 1865

In this U.S. history survey we spend considerable time examining America's evolution from a huddled series of seaboard settlements to a mighty empire that, striding to the Pacific, turned suddenly on itself. We examine major events -- like the Revolution and the Civil War. We examine major trends -- like Romanticism and commercialization. But we never forget that individual men and women lived in and through these events and trends, shaping them -- shaped by them in turn -- and teaching us one of history's most enduring lessons: The past may shape and constrain us -- and we must therefore respect and understand it -- but it cannot tell us who we are, much less who we will be. There is much that remains for us to decide.

I also teach an honor's version of this course.