You are here

Reconstructing the Campus

Higher Education and the American Civil War
Michael David Cohen

BUY Cloth · 288 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813933177 · $49.50 · Sep 2012
BUY Ebook · 288 pp. · ISBN 9780813933184 · $49.50 · Sep 2012

Linda Eisenmann Prize, History of Education Society (2014); Critics Choice Book Award, American Educational Studies Association (2012)

The Civil War transformed American life. Not only did thousands of men die on battlefields and millions of slaves become free; cultural institutions reshaped themselves in the context of the war and its aftermath. The first book to examine the Civil War’s immediate and long-term impact on higher education, Reconstructing the Campus begins by tracing college communities’ responses to the secession crisis and the outbreak of war. 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.

Then moving beyond 1865, the book explores the war’s long-term effects on colleges. Michael David Cohen argues that the Civil War and the political and social conditions the war created prompted major reforms, including the establishment of a new federal role in education. Reminded by the war of the importance of a well-trained military, Congress began providing resources to colleges that offered military courses and other practical curricula. Congress also, as part of a general expansion of the federal bureaucracy that accompanied the war, created the Department of Education to collect and publish data on education. For the first time, the U.S. government both influenced curricula and monitored institutions.

The war posed special challenges to Southern colleges. Often bereft of students and sometimes physically damaged, they needed to rebuild. Some took the opportunity to redesign themselves into the first Southern universities. They also admitted new types of students, including the poor, women, and, sometimes, formerly enslaved blacks. Thus, while the Civil War did great harm, it also stimulated growth, helping, especially in the South, to create our modern system of higher education.


This book fills a void and corrects a tendency to simplify or overlook the multiple consequences of the Civil War on higher education for the entire United States. Cohen’s choice of case studies for detailed focus is imaginative and original. His overall narrative links the case studies into a compelling portrait of the diverse range of institutions that were a part of American higher education in the mid-nineteenth century.

John R. Thelin, University of Kentucky

Reconstructing the Campus examines college campuses during and after the Civil War, an understudied time in the history of higher education. Cohen's important contribution to the field adds to the ongoing debate about the extent to which the Civil War was a watershed event in the history of higher education. The book is a lively and engaging read from start to finish.

Margaret A. Nash, University of California, Riverside

In the vast scholarship on the Civil War, Michael David Cohen reports, no one has explored its impact on higher education. Cohen's Reconstructing the Campus is thus a reconnaissance of new territory. Accordingly, it combines a broad overview with limited, deeper exploration via seven case studies, a regionally balanced set of colleges (that also includes Northern and Southern "female academies").


Cohen's lively and engaging study of higher education brings into high relief the transformative nature of the Civil War and its aftermath. He aptly demonstrates how the conflict reconstructed campuses in a way that accommodated a changing culture and people who sought new opportunities for learning.

Civil War Book Review

Cohen wonderfully describes the difficulties that were experienced throughout the country during the Civil War.... His conclusion brilliantly highlights the modernising influence of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.... [H]is very thorough and well-researched book.... is entertaining reading, for history experts and novices alike.

History of Education

Specialists in the history of US higher education will welcome this thoroughly researched, well-crafted book, which treats a subject previously undiscussed at length.... Recommended.


Cohen presents a fine study that asks its readers to reevaluate a period that has been largely neglected, and one that is largely responsible for today’s modern institutions.

Civil War History

Cohen provides a rich and nuanced account of the character of higher education in the United States during a critical period."

Nancy Beadie, University of Washington · American Historical Review

Michael David Cohen’s Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War fills a void in the historiography of American, and southern, higher education and makes a persuasive argument…a generally tightly argued, well-researched, and much needed study.

Rod Andrew Jr., Clemson University · The Journal of Southern History

By detailing the social, political, economic, geographic, and educational changed fostered by the Civil War, Cohen’s account is a vital contribution to the historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Elizabeth Talbot, University of Southern Mississippi · H-Net

Cohen’s engaging and well-researched book successfully argues that the challenges colleges faced in the Civil War and Reconstruction laid the foundation for the modern system of American higher education. Reconstructing the Campus merits close consideration by scholars of both the history of education and the Civil War era.

Jennifer Oast · Journal of the Civil War Era

"Higher education adminstrators today would benefit from a close reading of this would be hard to discern whether Cohen was talking about 1866 or 2014 when he writes"

Julie A. Mujic, Sacred Heart University · Civil War Monitor

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books