The Civil War Institute is pleased to announce two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles as a featured speaker at the June 2017 CWI summer conference. Mr. Stiles will deliver two talks based on his multiple-award-winning biographies of 19th-century American icons, George Armstrong Custer and Jesse James. In addition to his esteemed works on Custer and James, Mr. Stiles is also the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) for which he received both the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Stiles’s talk on Custer will discuss the complex and contradictory life of the renowned Civil War General and frontier fighter. As Stiles explains in Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize), Custer played a critical role in the shaping of modern America, yet embodied the larger contradictions of the era that inhibited both his own personal advancement and the nation’s social progress. For many Americans, Custer’s commitment to abolition, Union, manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism represented the exciting potential of national expansion, economic advancement, and intellectual progressivism. However, for more parochial Americans, he remained the celebrated icon of the romantic gallantry, martial manhood, idealism, and traditional Anglo-Saxon beliefs regarding race and socio-economic conservatism that the many Americans nostalgically clung to in the face of rapid growth and change. Heroic yet undisciplined, principled yet bigoted, a dedicated leader yet a passionate individualist, Custer was neither willing to accept the status quo of his time, nor was he able to fully embrace the mindset and changes necessary to maximize his own advancement and fulfill the nation’s promise. In turn, Custer was simultaneously respected and despised by 19th-century Americans who clashed over their beliefs about the nation’s future, as well as Custer’s role in helping America realize her full potential.
Stiles’s talk on notorious western outlaw, Jesse James will move beyond traditional interpretations of James as a folk hero and a romanticized western villain to explain how James’s criminal career grew out of well-articulated, sophisticated beliefs about post-Civil War society and Reconstruction politics. As Stiles argues in Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), James and his bandits were conscious political actors who targeted specific banks and railroad express companies for highly partisan, even “terroristic” reasons. Strongly influenced by long-standing internal divisions between secessionists and unionists in Missouri that repeatedly played out in the vicious guerrilla fighting in which James himself played an active role during the Civil War, James’s banditry was not a vengeful act of rebellion against invading, outside forces of northern unionists and capitalists and the postwar abuses they heaped upon small Missouri farmers, as many scholars heretofore have argued. Rather, Stiles contends, the Confederate veteran’s notorious post-war robberies were a direct and continuous outgrowth of those long-standing, divisive state politics of the antebellum and wartime eras and the unique nature of the fighting between neighbors that defined the Civil War in Missouri. Further, James’s outlaw career was hardly a generalized or clichéd product of the “Wild West frontier.” Instead, James’s banditry was a specific and reasoned political response within a surprisingly “modern” Missouri to those on-going internal disputes that continued to shape the politics and social structure of the state during the Reconstruction era. Thus, Stiles argues, James’s fascinating post-war life is perhaps most significant for what it reveals about a man who “chose to play a role in a conflict that went to the heart of what the Union victory really meant in the Civil War, what the American republic itself stood for.”
Please join us at the CWI summer conference, June 9-14, 2017, for these two exciting talks by Mr. Stiles, as well as numerous other lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, and battlefield tours with a diverse faculty of esteemed historians and battlefield guides.
Click here for more information on T.J. Stiles and his publications.
Click here for more information about the 2017 Civil War Institute summer conference!