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The Tradition of Violence in the United States: A Multidisciplinary Survey (November 2014): Specific Episodes

By Scott Gac

Specific Episodes

A spate of recent events beginning with the 1999 Columbine shooting, the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the 2002 Washington, DC, sniper actions has directed scholars to search U.S. history for the origins of the nation’s violence.  Some works, such as Dave Cullen’s Columbine, center on newer tragedies, while others, such as Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, mine the recent past and link American violence to a tradition of slavery, racism, and poverty.  Overall, works on Native Americans, the Civil War, and terrorism represent a significant percentage of the new studies mentioned below.

As scholars continue to chip away at the cowboys-and-Indians notion of violence between U.S. citizens and indigenous populations, the scope, scale, and complexity of violence and Native America is only just beginning to be understood.  In War of a Thousand Deserts, Brian DeLay draws attention to the Mexican borderlands in the United States, where violence and the absence of state authority led to a significant influence of indigenous populations in world affairs in the 1800s.  Two other recent award-winning books, Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History by Karl Jacoby and A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek by Ari Kelman, reveal the struggle over the legacy and stories of Native American tragedy.

Significant attention has focused on the U.S. landscape in the Civil War.  In War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War, Lisa Brady notes how war violence disrupted the U.S. ideal of progress as built through agriculture.  Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War tackles the war’s destruction of the built environments and the stories their ruins tell.

Kim Murphy’s I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War is one of the first studies in the growing field of rape studies and war.  The economics of Civil War violence is on display in Mark Geiger’s Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861-1865, which unearths the money trail behind insurgent violence in Missouri.  Andrew Ward in River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War documents race and violence, while Mark Neely Jr. documents racial identity as a key determinant in how far the violence extended in The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction.  To the next two authors, the immediate impact of the violence of war is clear.  Douglas Egerton in The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era and Michael Bellesiles in 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently suggest that the very soul of modern U.S. life was crafted atop the violent years that followed the Civil War.

Stephen Budiansky frames the postbellum era as a time of terror in The Bloody Shirt: Terror after the Civil War.  His work, along with T. H. Breen’s American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People before Independence and Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror marks a push by historians to explain how terrorism is not simply a recent phenomenon in the United States.


Violence as an analytical category is a burgeoning field in the study of the United States, even though few factors, from the very definition of violence to methodological approaches, are settled.  Many of the excellent works listed in this essay will likely be deemed definitive, and worthy of libraries of all levels.  Of course, an entire essay can be made of the materials that have been left out—popular and documentary films on violence in the United States, for instance.  Given the propensity of Americans for violence, and how deeply U.S. violence has resonated across various disciplines, it is likely that the field will continue its fantastic growth.

Works Cited