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This Is Why Historian Ari Kelman Decided to Write a Graphic History of the Civil War (Interview)

And what hope could there be for a country

so deeply divided against itself, a country so

thoroughly drenched in the blood of its own people?

Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman, Battle Lines

It’s still difficult to comprehend the savagery of the American Civil War and the cruel brutality of slavery, the institution it imperfectly ended. The war left as many as 850,000 dead and 1.5 million wounded and even more broken families.

But these grim statistics tell only a part of the story of the war. In their new graphic history Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War (Hill and Wang) renowned historian Ari Kelman with his co-author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm humanize this complex history by telling the story of the war through 15 objects and incidents that illustrate the plight of common people from freed blacks and soldiers to women on the home front and the imprisoned, the wounded, the dying.

The powerful words and art of Battle Lines capture the chaos and carnage of the war, the vicious slaughter, as well as and the emotional toll on survivors and love ones. The authors do not shrink from portraying the horror of gruesome gunshot wounds, amputations, disease, psychological trauma, and starvation, but they also share moments of triumph and pride, particularly as the peculiar institution of slavery crumbled.

Professor Kelman and Mr. Fetter-Vorm worked together on the vignettes included in the book, and Professor Kelman provided the historical background of the incidents and summary histories based on the best recent scholarship on the war with reliance on the work of iconic historians such as James McPherson, Eric Foner, David Blight, Drew Faust, Gary Gallagher, Chandra Manning, and many others.

Battle Lines has been praised widely for its vivid writing, innovative approach, and solidly researched perspective on the war, as well as for the haunting and evocative art of Mr. Fetter-Vorm. Author Tony Horwitz commented: “Battle Lines brings us the Civil War as we've never seen it before. An inspired blend of images and words, this fresh, vivid history is the perfect primer for students and devotees of America's greatest conflict.” From a “starred review” in Kirkus: “In this gripping graphic narrative, the complexities of history achieve clarity, and the depth of the tragedy has a visceral impact.” And historian Stephen Kantrowitz wrote: “Battle Lines is the best film about the Civil War that has never been made. It is a penetrating account of the war's deepest dramas, told in the fewest words imaginable. It is history as poetry.”

Ari Kelman, the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State University, teaches a wide range of courses, including on the Civil War and Reconstruction, the politics of memory, and Native American history. His other books include A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, recipient of the Antoinette Forrester Downing Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Award, the Bancroft Prize, the Tom Watson Brown Book Award, and the Robert M. Utley Prize; and A River and Its City:  The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, which won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize. His essays and articles have appeared in SlateThe NationThe Times Literary Supplement, and many others, and he also has contributed to a variety of public history projects, including documentary films for the History Channel and PBS’s American Experience series. 

Professor Kelman’s co-author, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, is an acclaimed illustrator and writer whose book Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb was selected by the American Library Association as the Best Graphic Novel for Teens in 2013.

Professor Kelman generously discussed his work as a historian and his role in creating a graphic history of the Civil War by telephone from his office at Penn State.

Robin Lindley: Before discussing Battle Lines, I wanted to ask about your evolution as an historian. You’ve been an environmental historian, a historian of memory, and now a specialist on the Civil War and the American West.

Professor Ari Kelman: In terms of my evolution as a historian, I went to grad school at Brown University to study with Bill McLoughlin. Early in his career, he’d been a historian of nineteenth century religion, and he came to the Cherokees by way of the missionaries he studied. With Bill’s help, I planned to write a dissertation on the Cherokees’ decision to fight with the Confederacy during the Civil War. I wanted to figure out a way to write about Native people in what I saw as the hinge moment of the nation’s history.

In my first semester of graduate school, I took a seminar with Bill. It was terrific. But he died of cancer suddenly at the end of that semester, and there wasn’t someone else at Brown to direct the dissertation I had hoped to write.

Eventually, after dabbling with a few other ideas, I happened to drive from Providence to New Orleans. When I arrived in the city, I was struck that it was a small island in the middle of a vast delta. I wondered if somebody had written about what this fascinating urban area was doing in such a precarious location. When I learned that nobody had published an environmental history of New Orleans, I decided to write that book.

I talked to Jim Patterson and Jack Thomas about directing the project. They agreed, and I lived in New Orleans for almost three years while I did the research for and then wrote my dissertation. After I graduated, I moved with my wife to Oklahoma for my first job. I transformed the New Orleans project into a book while we lived in Norman. Then, two years later, we moved to Denver, Colorado, and I decided I wanted to double back to the question of Native people during the era of the Civil War.

I remembered a letter written by an Indiana farm boy that I had found at the Wisconsin Historical Society when I was an undergraduate working on my senior thesis. This young man was writing about what he called “Chivington’s Massacre.” He didn’t describe it as the “Sand Creek Massacre.” Regardless, you could tell he was embarrassed by what had happened there and considered it a stain on the honor of otherwise valiant Union soldiers. I remembered that letter and that someone had said to me, while I was still an undergraduate, “Yeah, that’s the Sand Creek Massacre, and it’s not part of the Civil War. It was part of the Indian Wars.”

I never thought that was true. It always seemed to me that Sand Creek was part of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. So, when my wife and I moved to Denver, I decided to write a history of Sand Creek because it was local and what seemed like a relatively contained topic—little did I know at the time.

Then I discovered that someone had already written exactly the book I wanted to write. Gary Leland Roberts, an outstanding historian, had written a magnificent dissertation about the massacre, but his thesis was never published as a book.

I had a dilemma. I could re-do his work, or I could do something else. Around that time, a colleague at the University of Denver, Ingrid Tague, showed me a magazine article about the effort to memorialize Sand Creek. I decided that there was a story there about the intersection of history and memory, particularly the way in which people in the United States have typically remembered the Civil War and the Indian Wars as separate, when in fact these two conflicts were inextricably intertwined. That’s how I began my book on Sand Creek.

Robin Lindley: In the Sand Creek book you deal not only with the conflicting stories about the massacre but also the disagreements about even where the massacre took place.

Professor Ari Kelman: I wanted to tell the story of a diverse group of constituents: employees of the National Park Service; the descendants of people who were at Sand Creek; state government officials in Colorado; and local residents of Kiowa County in the eastern part of the state. I hoped to explain how these people tried to work together to memorialize this tragic event and how this process of memorialization was in some ways haunted by stories of Sand Creek that often conflicted or were incommensurable.

That’s where I started, and I quickly learned that there was a great deal of controversy about where this event took place. The Sand Creek descendants, whose relatives who had at the massacre, were quite sure of where the violence happened. The National Park Service, by contrast, because of the way it approaches the creation of historic sites, needed to be sure of the precise location.

The Park Service, over about 18 months, conducted a site location study, using an interdisciplinary toolkit to figure out where this tragedy took place. Historians visited archives. Archeologists went into the field. Ethnographers spoke with the Sand Creek descendants. The Park Service also used soil conservation photographs from the 1930s and many other sources. The site searchers collected an immense amount of material.

By the end of the process, the Park Service decided that the massacre had taken place about three-fifths of a mile upstream from where the descendants believed it had taken place. Relying on archeology and historical methods, as well as a map generated by a soldier who visited the Sand Creek site after the Civil War with General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Park Service believed that its employees had found the precise location of Chief Black Kettle’s village. And then archeological findings seemed to prove this hypothesis correct. At that point, the Park Service thought the descendants would be thrilled, because the search indicated clearly that Sand Creek had been a massacre.

But the descendants were unhappy because their cultural authority and tribal traditions were being challenged by employees of the federal government. They were particularly frustrated because the Park Service was saying that its employees were using history and science and that the descendants were not, that they were relying exclusively on traditional methods. The descendants replied that yes, they were using traditional methods, but they were also looking at the documentary record, including maps produced by a Cheyenne warrior named George Bent. The descendants asked, “Why isn’t our evidence as good as your evidence?”

There was stalemate that only broken when the Park Service agreed to create a national historic site whose boundaries are expansive enough to [include] a variety of different interpretations.

Robin Lindley: And after your history of memory with the Sand Creek book, how did you come to write the graphic history of the Civil War with artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm?

Professor Ari Kelman: That story sheds a lot of light on what an idiot I am. About five years ago, on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial, an editor at a university press approached me about writing an extremely brief and accessible history of the Civil War. At that point, I had no reputation as a Civil War historian. People thought of me as an environmental historian, but I saw myself as a historian of the Civil War era with an interest in the American West.

The book the editor proposed was so short, I didn’t see how I could pull it off. I looked at my notes for the undergraduate Civil War classes I had taught, and I couldn’t figure out how I could write a book with a word count she wanted: well under 75,000 words. So I passed on the project.

Immediately after saying no, I started kicking myself. I asked myself, “What’s wrong with you, Ari?” I had no reputation as a Civil War scholar, and here someone was giving me the opportunity to tell the profession that this was something I was interested in. It was an opportunity for to reinvent my reputation, but I had said no. I felt like a fool.

In the weeks afterward, I became obsessed with the question of how it would be possible to tell the story of the war using the absolute minimum number of words. I turned this question over and over again.

I woke up one morning and thought to myself, “I’ve got it. A graphic history.” I contacted an editor named Thomas LeBien, who I knew was doing some terrific graphic books at Hill and Wang. He’d done The 9/11 Report, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and several others. I asked Thomas about a graphic history of the Civil War. He said it was a “great idea” and asked me to put together a proposal.

I sent along a proposal and he replied very nicely that it was “absolute garbage.” He said that it was a good proposal for a scholarly Civil War history but that I had no understanding of what a graphic history should be. But he still thought it was a good idea.

Thomas then arranged for me to meet my eventual co-author and illustrator, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, who was then finishing Trinity, a graphic history of the first atomic bomb. I met with Jonathan, and we decided that we wanted to work together.

Jonathan had read my original proposal. The only thing that he liked about it was the idea of telling the Civil War story through objects. Each chapter would focus on an object as a way of presenting a fresh perspective on a particular episode from the war. Jonathan thought that there was potential for a graphic history based on that idea, but he worked with me on re-writing the proposal. After we signed a contract with Hill and Wang, we were off to the races. Or so we thought.

The problem was that I still didn’t know the first thing about writing a graphic history. I scripted a chapter and sent it to Jonathan. He said that it was “worse than useless.” He talked about how scripting a chapter means literally writing and describing each panel. It looks more like writing a movie script than writing a scholarly monograph.

Robin Lindley: Like a storyboard?

Professor Ari Kelman: Exactly. Then, for about a year and a half, Jonathan and I developed an extraordinarily cumbersome, monumentally inefficient method for doing this book. We’d talk on the phone late at night for three or four or even five hours at a time, and we’d rough out a chapter that way. Eventually, Jonathan would draw it in pencil and send it along to me. We went back and forth this way for more than eighteen months.

At that point, we decided that we finally had a draft of the book to show to Thomas. We sent it to him, and about a month later he called to say he was leaving Hill and Wang. We had done all this work and didn’t know if the book would ever appear in print.

Then we got very lucky. Hill and Wang assigned us a new editor, Amanda Moon. She said that the press was excited about the book, so excited that instead of doing it in black and white—as originally planned—they wanted it in full color and also, instead of using a portrait format, they wanted a landscape format.

Jonathan and I were delighted. But we didn’t realize that we would have to re-do the entire book. It took us an additional year and a half or so to do that.

At that point, nearly four years into the project, we sent a draft of the complete manuscript out for an informal peer review. I circulated the book to about 30 different Civil War historians, and Jonathan sent it to a similar number of his colleagues. After we got comments back, we did a final draft. We were finally done! It had taken more than four years for a project that was supposed to be done in 18 months from start to finish.

Illustration: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Robin Lindley: How was working with Jonathan, your co-author and illustrator?

Professor Ari Kelman: Jonathan and I had an excellent partnership. We shared sensibilities about the aesthetics, the narrative, and the construction of arguments. We were respectful of each other’s expertise. Jonathan deferred to me when it came to issues of interpretation, and I deferred to him on questions of producing images and often on questions of visual narrative as well.

We did, though, at the front of the process, have to compromise on the relationship between history and fiction. Jonathan wanted to write a graphic novel about the Civil War. He wanted the freedom to take the book exactly where he wanted without being fettered by the constraints of history. We compromised by creating scenes informed by the documentary record. And we never put fictional dialog in the mouths of nonfiction characters.

Robin Lindley: Did you need to make many changes once you received peer review comments from historians and others?

Professor Ari Kelman: Yes, we made a bunch of changes.

There were some mistakes. I think we had cotton growing in the Chesapeake in the 1830s, for example. And some military historians helped with a number of other details.

Nobody had major interpretive problems with the book until I workshopped it at the University of Virginia, where a number of people commented on the bleakness of the tone.

There’s been a recent historiographical turn in which historians have reexamined the war’s dark side: studies such as David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Drew Faust’s book on death in the Civil War, This Republic of Suffering, and many others.

The people at UVA, including historians Gary Gallagher and Liz Varon, looked at our book, said it was “unrelentingly dark,” and suggested that we rethink our tone. Jonathan and I found that feedback very useful. We were okay writing a grim book, but we still made some tweaks here and there. We changed a few passages. The war, after all, was horrible, but there were moments of triumph, and many people felt good about their service.

Illustration: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Robin Lindley: I appreciate the way that you both captured the reality, the trauma, the human face of the war as well as slavery from several perspectives. And it seems you present a people’s history of the war with little focus on Lincoln or Davis or the great generals and politicians of the time.

Professor Ari Kelman: We decided early on that we didn’t want to focus on the great men and women of the war. In the original proposal, I noted that these great men and women would be background characters if they appeared at all.

And so, President Lincoln shows up only once in the book – when he’s in his coffin. General Lee appears just once, and then only as a shadowy figure. We were more interested in the Lee of American memory than the Lee of history. There are some characters one might expect. For example, Frederick Douglass and [photographer] Alexander Gardner.

There are also some famous politicians and renowned abolitionists. But for the most part we chose to tell the story of the war by using objects and the experiences of common people. That created some problems for the narrative, because we were dealing with vignettes. We tried to solve that problem by opening each chapter with a newspaper mock-up that provides a brief survey of the war, so that readers are situated in time and space.

In terms of the events we chose for the chapters, it was a question of what objects would be the most interesting, most illustrative, and then figuring out if we could pull it off. We abandoned some because they weren’t good ideas or were impractical. For example, we tell the story of the siege at Vicksburg by using a mosquito carrying malaria. We try to give readers a sense of the ecological as well as the social and military history of the war.

But my original idea was to tell the story of Vicksburg—this sounds so absurd now—from the perspective of the gut of someone suffering malaria. I talked to Jonathan about this, and he said, “Are you an idiot?” He pointed out that it’s really dark inside peoples’ guts and also that such a story would be totally static—that we couldn’t ask readers to spend so much time in a person’s stomach. We wrote off that idea.

In another instance, I hoped to deal with a common trope of Civil War memorials: an enslaved person kneeling in supplication next to a standing Union soldier. I wanted to tell the story of emancipation by having that kind of statue come to life, by having the slave interrogate the soldier about the details of emancipation, by having the soldier express grave misgivings about freed African Americans and what it would mean for the United States—to set up the idea that in many important ways enslaved people freed themselves. Jonathan eventually put his foot down. He explained that the idea of a talking statue was “incredibly cheesy” and not a visually compelling way of telling that story.

We ended up recounting the emancipation story from a different perspective.


Illustration: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Robin Lindley: I was struck your idea of using objects to convey the history. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig said he was teaching a writing class in Montana and he asked his students to write about their city, and he got back a lot of papers back with vague generalizations. Then he suggested that the students look for details of the city, like a particular building, or even better, find one brick in the building and write the story of that. You and Jonathan literally use one brick to tell the story of the economic uprising of southern women, which I didn’t know about. And the chapter on the new minie ball bullets was vivid in conveying the terrible wounds those missiles caused that led to amputation and often death.

It seems this book would appeal to high school students as well as college students and adults—because it’s so revealing and moving.

Professor Ari Kelman: The original conception of the book was that it would be pitched to advanced placement high school history classes, to college students, and to some especially keen younger students. But that approach evolved over time, as Jonathan and I wrote a much more complicated book than the press originally intended. Now Battle Lines is being marketed for classroom use but also for adult, general readers.

My older son, a middle-schooler, has read it and thinks it’s not entirely terrible. I suspect that’s the highest praise he’ll ever give me. I know historians who are teaching it in college surveys and several who have given it to their parents or friends.

The idea behind these graphic histories is to reach people who aren’t necessarily going to read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Our book, we hope, will be a resource for people who want to learn something about the Civil War and about historiography but who want it packaged in a way that might be more palatable. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback and good reviews so far. We’ve been very lucky.

I have to say, I went into this project a graphic novel skeptic. I didn’t read many comics when I was growing up and I had read very few graphic novels or graphic histories before I started working on Battle Lines. I was interested in experimenting with a new way of storytelling and in doing something collaborative, but I was skeptical about the limits.

I remain cautious but I’m no longer as skeptical. I think there’s real value in this kind of project. I’ve had eighth and ninth graders, high school students, and adults with little experience reading scholarly history come up to me and say that the book was interesting and that they didn’t know these stories. They didn’t know about the evolution of President Lincoln’s position on emancipation, or about anti-war opposition in the Union or Confederacy, or about a variety of other issues we deal with in the book.

Illustration: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Robin Lindley: You are clear in the book that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and you put to rest other myths and the “Lost Cause” position of some neo-Confederate diehards. This story is still timely.

Professor Ari Kelman: Among scholars, this is a settled issue. The Civil War was caused by slavery, full stop. But for some members of the public more broadly, the question of the war’s cause is not yet settled. Many people are still fascinated by this question. Some of them say that slavery was just one cause of the war, that we also have to look at tariffs or the role of the federal government or many other factors as well.

We wanted to make it clear in the book that when people say the war was fought over the size and scope of the federal government, that issue was so important at the time because the federal government regulated slavery. When people say the Civil War was fought over tariffs or economic issues, that’s true as far as it goes. The war was fought over which economic system would become prevalent: a free labor economy or a slave labor economy. When people say that the Civil War was fought over competing conceptions of freedom, the issue was whether slaveholders would have the freedom to own human beings.

In short, we try to be nuanced but also to deal with calls for complexity by noting that the question of slavery lurked at the core of each of the above issues.

Illustration: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Robin Lindley: I appreciated your glimpses of the history of slavery and the legal decisions that preceded the Civil War. It seems that your book is an excellent springboard that can inspire further reading on a wide range of issues.

Professor Ari Kelman: What we’ve tried to do is look at the current scholarship and adapt that work so that it can be recounted in a graphic form. Drew Faust has written extensively about women on the Confederate home front and about the political power they wielded. Stephanie McCurry, in Confederate Reckoning, has also written at length about these issues. And so we borrowed from McCurry and Faust and many others when we wrote our chapter on emancipation and the Richmond bread riots. And we did the same thing – borrowing from historians we admire – for each of the chapters in the book.

This is a work of synthesis, and I think it’s important for people to understand that. There’s original work here because synthesizing material in a new way requires real effort. Some of our most important influences were Stephanie McCurry, Drew Faust, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Varon, James McPherson, Thavolia Glymph, Chandra Manning, and many others. For a complete bibliography, we’d be talking about hundreds of volumes.

Robin Lindley: Were you influenced at all by Ken Burns’ documentary TheCivil War?

Professor Ari Kelman: I watched it when it originally aired on PBS [in 1990]. I was in college at the time. I was engrossed by it. It’s a beautifully told story. Burns’ style now is so pervasive that it’s hard to transport oneself back to that moment and appreciate how revelatory it was. It doesn’t feel fresh now because Burns’ approach is pervasive.

I don’t think Jonathan had ever seen the series, but he spent an enormous amount of time in archives with Civil War-era photographs. Jonathan tried to remain as true as he could to the visual record that we have of that era.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate the extensive research that both you and Jonathan did. It seems your Sand Creek massacre story also would work as a graphic history.

Professor Ari Kelman: Jonathan and I may do a graphic history of the road to and from the Little Big Horn. If we do, we’ll include material about Sand Creek.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about the book or its resonance now?

Professor Ari Kelman: I think the book should come with a warning label. Friends say to me that they’d like to do one of these. And I think that’s great. Historians should do graphic books. From my perspective, it’s been a remarkable experience that has transformed my understanding of how to tell a story.

Having said that, it takes a very long time to write one of these books. I would only ever do it again with someone I trust as much as Jonathan. I had enormous faith that he would remain true to the past. Had I not been working with somebody like him, I really don’t know what kind of experience this would have been.

In the end, we’re just grateful that so many people are reading our work.