Campus News

Reliving history: Franklin College prof examines philosophy of Civil War

Stephen Berry

An early autumn morning sifts through the windows of Stephen Berry’s office in LeConte Hall. Youthful and intense, he speaks of the American Civil War with excitement and a deep knowledge. And yet his words are at times unexpected, more involved with the philosophy of conflict than military tactics.

He speaks of history’s “pool of sadness,” the “tug of the past” and his “emotional interest in the weight of the past.” And yet Berry is anything but quietly thoughtful as he explains his passions for the Civil War. He is, by turns, self-deprecating, hilarious and professorial-a man whose passion is his profession.

Berry’s reputation as a scholar and teacher has grown steadily. His 2007 book, House of Abraham Lincoln & the Todds, A Family Divided by War, was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club and an alternate selection by the History Book Club and Military Book Club. His other volumes have received strong reviews, and he has under contract a book to come out in 2012 about Edgar Allan Poe.

“When I was a kid, I just loved the dead,” he said, laughing. “At first it was Egypt and the medieval days, but I began to realize we had a history here, too. And it seemed to me that the Civil War especially just had this moral sadness about it.”

After serving as an assistant professor at UNC-Pembroke from 2001-2007, Berry came to UGA. His wife, Frances, also works at UGA, as an assistant to the director of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music.

There is a growing attention to the war on the part of students, according to Berry.

“Students are just enormously interested in it,” he said. “Some are interested in military matters, especially given our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, others because they come from old Georgia families whose ancestors served in the war or were freed by the war, and others for all kinds of varied reasons. And of course the history of the war brings with it this immense pool of sadness and so many intellectual challenges.”

Berry said students remain deeply interested in how the war affected Americans’ sense of race, justice, freedom, fairness and tolerance.

Indeed, talk to Berry, and you hear him speak about the people involved in the Civil War years-how they came to the point of war, what they believed and how they saw their own capacities for intransigence and love of country. Lincoln remains a focus of his interests, and in many ways the subject of his next book-Poe-is a kind of anti-Lincoln.

“I’m interested in the history of the way people think and feel,” Berry said, “and what decisions they make for good or bad. Poe was, of course, a literary genius, but he was also a really reprehensible man. Lincoln harnessed his melancholy and became a great man and president. Poe, on the other hand, had rages he couldn’t control, and he finally lost himself to his demons and drank himself to death at age 40. What created the differences between Poe’s and Lincoln’s response to depression? It’s an interesting question.”

Berry has plans for several other books after his Poe book comes out in 2012. One of his goals in the coming years, however, is being part of the growing program in Civil War studies in the department of history.

“There is a lot to be gained by teaching at UGA courses in the two great events in history that played out on our state’s native soil, the civil rights movement and the Civil War,” Berry said. “One overriding question about all of this is simple: Are we going to be a just society? It’s part of our heritage that we are to ‘create a more perfect union,’ and it’s something that we continually struggle to accomplish-for our country to live up to its best self.”

Stephen Berry

Associate Professor
B.A., Rollins College, History, 1990
M.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, History, 1993
Ph.D.,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, History, 2000
At UGA: Three years