Skip to main content

cohen-bookThe Civil War changed a lot in America. Hundreds of thousands died. Millions of slaves were freed. And the country’s higher education system was transformed. A book by a UT history professor—which explores how the war reshaped colleges—is being honored with a prestigious book award.

Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War, by Michael David Cohen, research assistant professor of history and assistant editor of The Correspondence of James K. Polk, has won the 2014 Critics Choice Book Award of the American Educational Studies Association.

The book was deemed to make “an outstanding contribution to scholarship in the social foundations of education field.” Cohen will receive the award at the association’s annual conference in November in Toronto.

“Not only does Dr. Cohen’s book offer fresh insights into the meaning and consequences of the Civil War, but it also teaches us a good deal about a crucial turning point in the development of higher education. And it’s beautifully written, so I am pleased but not surprised that the AESA has recognized his fine work with this important award,” said Ernest Freeberg, head of the history department.

Cohen’s book is the first to examine the Civil War’s immediate and long-term impact on higher education. It traces the responses of six college communities to the secession crisis, the outbreak of war, and the political upheavals of the 1860s and 1870s.

The book features case studies of what are today the University of South Carolina, Wesleyan College in Georgia, Harvard University, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Cornell College in Iowa, University of Missouri, and the University of California, Berkeley.

“Students made supplies for the armies or left campus to fight. Professors joined the war effort or struggled to keep colleges open. The Union and Confederacy even took over some campuses for military use,” said Cohen, noting that both Union and Confederate troops occupied parts of the University of Tennessee campus, then known as East Tennessee University.

Cohen’s book explores the war’s long-term effects on colleges, which included a new federal role in education. In fact, soon after the Civil War, Congress created the Department of Education to collect and publish data on education. Meanwhile, the army started sending officers to teach military skills at many colleges, including the University of Tennessee—the precursor to today’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

According to Cohen, the war posed special challenges to Southern colleges, which lost students as they left to fight and sustained physical damage from battles and military occupations. This, surprisingly, presented an opportunity for the schools to redesign themselves as the first Southern universities. They also admitted new types of students, including the poor, women, and, sometimes, formerly enslaved blacks.

“While the Civil War did great harm, it also stimulated growth, helping, especially in the South, to create our modern system of higher education,” he said.

To learn more about Reconstructing the Campus, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2012, visit the book’s website.

The American Educational Studies Association seeks to provide a cross-disciplinary forum where scholars gather to exchange and debate ideas generated from liberal arts disciplines. To learn more about the association, visit

C O N T A C T: 

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460,