First-year professor Zander set to publish debut book

The cover of The Army under Fire

The Army under Fire examines politics of antimilitarism

Cecily Zander
Cecily Zander

Nov. 8, 2023 – DENTON – What is it about history that so captivates some people? What is the fascination with reading historical fiction and nonfiction, watching historical narrative films and documentaries, and visiting historic sites and museums?

Is it learning from the mistakes and successes of the past? Being inspired by legendary people and their accomplishments? Understanding other cultures?

Or maybe we just love a great story.

Cecily Zander has a great story to tell, and she's going to share it when her debut book is published on Feb. 14, 2024.

The first-year assistant professor of history at Texas Woman's University has written The Army under Fire: The Politics of Antimilitarism in the Civil War Era. It's described by publisher LSU Press as "a pathbreaking study focusing on the fierce political debates over the size and use of military forces in the United States during the Civil War era. It examines how prominent political figures interacted with the professional army and how those same leaders misunderstood the value of regular soldiers fighting to reunify the fractured nation."

The book is available for preorder on Amazon and through LSU Press.

"It's so funny, writing a book," Zander said. "I don't think writing is a craft you ever master. It's something you work on, and sometimes you're stronger or weaker. You send in your draft and you get comments back, and then you sort of go at it again. Now this is actually where it's like a real book. I think the cover is really the point where it's like, oh, it's happening. People are invested, it's going to be marketed, all that kind of stuff. It feels like you finished the book five or six times before it's actually finished. It's really only finished when it's at your doorstep. But this feels pretty close."

The cover features a provocative Thomas Nast cartoon from a 1870s Harper's Weekly of a skeletal soldier surrendering his sword to a woman.

"Obviously the comment is, the army is sacrificing itself to other programs across the country," Zander said. "As these soldiers are fighting at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, politicians were willing to get up and say, 'I don't think they have what it takes.' It's so crazy to me because I grew up during the global war on terror. The rhetoric was always, we support our troops, and a lot of Americans felt that way. So it surprised me how vocal and how comfortable these leaders felt saying, 'I don't trust U.S. Grant, or I don't think William Tecumseh Sherman has what it takes.'"

The book evolved out of Zander's PhD dissertation. But in transforming formal academic writing into something for a non- academic audience, something surprising happened.

"I actually felt like I could write like myself instead of writing for a graduate committee," she said. "That was really cool to think I could be more of a writer than you're allowed to be as a graduate student, because you have to just hit certain check marks for your committee in terms of what it needs to look like and sound like it did. I felt like I was a little freer to flex some of my ideas.

"It's funny, because I wanted to talk about people instead of just a bunch of information about history and politics," Zander said. "Telling real stories. I wanted them between each chapter. Some people loved them. My fellow historians said, 'It's great, I love what you're doing.' And then other people were like, 'You're just wasting our time, just get to the history.' Everybody has an opinion about what a good history book is. I don't know if I would try to write more popular stuff aimed at a wider audience instead a pretty limited historian audience. I'll let actual non-historians be the judge."

Zander's writing path has been building to this moment. She contributed a chapter, “One Widow’s Wars: The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the West in Elizabeth Bacon Custer’s Memoirs," to Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works, published in 2021, and “Sour Grapes: Braxton Bragg and the Lessons of the War with Mexico” for The Mexican American War: A Civil War Training Ground, scheduled for release in 2024.

She also penned numerous articles, essays, op-eds and book reviews for publications such as Reviews in American History, Civil War History, Civil War Monitor, The Washington Post, Civil War Times, The Denver Post and Emerging Civil War.

A lifelong love of history

Cecily Zander and her dog at the Alamo
Cecily Zander and her dog Moe at the Alamo

Zander's love of history runs deep. She was born and grew up in Colorado, her childhood was filled with family trips to forts, monuments and locations, and college summers spent working in the North Dakota badlands.

"We would visit North Dakota," she said. "We would go up to Fort Mandan, to the Lewis and Clark stuff. I think I could have told you who George Custer or Lewis and Clark were when I was 3 years old. My undergraduate advisor did ask my mom, 'Did you think Cecily was going to be a historian?' My mom sort of thought for a second, and then she said, 'well, she did ask us to videotape the Antiques Roadshow on PBS when she was eight, so yes.' I was pretty hardcore."

That background in history also fueled an inquisitive nature.

"When I got to school, I was reading history books that had a different narrative than the places I'd gone to see," Zander said. "I was trying to reconcile why historians think one thing versus the lived experience that I learned and seemed so different to me."

When it came time for college, Zander headed east, to Virginia and Pennsylvania. There, the historical focus is on the Civil War, battlefields of which dot the countryside.

"I kind of backed into the Civil War because I went to the University of Virginia," she said. "They didn't have a class in the West, but they had a class on the Civil War. It was an 8 a.m. class because the professor really wanted people who were serious to take the class. He starts naming all these names, and I knew them because they were in Montana or Colorado. I can actually understand where they came from.

"But it convinced me that if we treat the Civil War as the defining moment in their lives, we actually don't really understand the story. Because what their lives were before the war, they had these wars of expansion and the Indian wars and the Mexican war, and then after the war, they had these efforts to reconstruct the country and then the west. So if you actually want to understand the broader trends, you kind of have to look at the Civil War as a moment of discontinuity rather than the defining event. We have all this idea that Sherman and Sheridan learned scorched-earth tactics in the Civil War. They learned them in Florida fighting the Seminoles in the 1830s."

She earned a BA in history from the University of Virginia in 2015 and an MA (2018) and PhD (2021) in history from Pennsylvania State University, and remains a fan of Virginia basketball, Penn State football, and Colorado Rockies baseball, as well as Arsenal soccer.

After college, she landed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Presidential History at SMU.

"They bring in two to three fellows every year," Zander said. "I came in with a couple of folks who did 1970s, 1980s history, and then there was me. They tend to be much more modern, but they took a chance on me. I don't know why. I guess they were having a nice day and they thought, 'try a Civil War historian at SMU.' It's two years, no obligations, just be present, be part of the community. Their goal is that you come out with a book about ready to go."

It was there that dissertation was transformed into The Army under Fire.

"Everyone there just constantly was telling me how much they loved it and how important it was," Zander said. "I felt like I had a great community to write in, which really helped, getting that positive kind of reinforcement. In grad school, you're around the same handful of people so you're hearing the same things day in and day out. Here there were other people actually interested in this, and that was nice. I think often when you're writing a book, there's a voice in your head. 'Is this just my weird hobby? Does anyone else care?' I got fortunate. Talked to LSU Press and they said we want to publish it."

Of course, Zander encountered the dilemma every author faces when writing history, be it fiction or nonfiction: when have you done enough research? The investigation is compulsive, leading down one rabbit hole after another and delaying the actual writing process.

"At a certain point you feel you have a critical mass, though I think you're always hoping you'll find that perfect quote or that line," she said. "My graduate advisor was a newspaper editor, so he has this incredible ability to pull a quote, like he knows exactly what the right thing for the story is. And I would put three or four quotes in a paragraph, and he'd be like, Cecily, just pick one."

The postdoc also drew Zander to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, leading to being hired at TWU.

"I kind of fell in love with this part of the world," she said.

It also opened her eyes to the peculiar relationship between Texas and her home state Colorado.

"I grew up with my parents muttering about Texans, Texans in the mountains," she said. "Then I was here this summer. I would call them, 'It's 107 degrees here, I think we're going to come up next week.' Yeah, that makes sense."

The Army under Fire is, in part, a product of Zander's history upbringing and summers in the badlands.

"Go out to Mandan in North Dakota and go to Fort Abraham Lincoln," she explained. "It's this army fort that would have been home to maybe a regiment, 600 to 800 troops. They lived a life of isolation, cut off from mainstream U.S. society. It was a pretty lonely existence. They didn't feel like the American people or the federal government had any interest in what they were doing, even though they were U.S. soldiers. All these books say that, after the Civil War, the U.S. Army was stronger than ever, and it went out to the plains and conquered the west. Well, I've been to those places and it sure didn't seem to me that they felt like that's what they were doing. I wanted to understand what were the reasons for the way that soldiers actually felt and responded to the world that they occupied? What I found is that Civil War historians don't always do a very good job of thinking about the west. They're pretty preoccupied by Virginia and Pennsylvania, Tennessee if they're really adventurous. And also that no one had really written about antimilitarism in the 19th century, even though it's a huge strain in American political life.

"What the book is about is the Republican Party, which comes about in the 1850s as an antislavery party in opposition to the expansion of slavery into the west. The West is a big part of the story. They see the army as an ally to slavery because what it's doing in places like Texas in the 1850s is helping pave the way for a slaveholding society to push out the indigenous people and establish plantations. So the Republicans say, hey, these two things really seem to be working together. We don't like slavery, therefore we don't like the army. Then all of a sudden they're in charge of a Civil War and the military reconstruction of the country in its aftermath, but they can't shake that fundamental dislike or mistrust of the army. They loved the Union volunteers because they are citizen soldiers. Within a year, 1.2 million men who were in uniform in 1865 are out of uniform, and it's just this professional army they hate."

There were also budget problems and increasing concerns about saving money.

"They focus on the one institution that they can cut, and it's the army," Zander said.

Spending dried up and troop numbers decreased, despite the need to protect newly freed slaves in the South.

"So the party that claimed that what it cared about most was the end of slavery and giving equal rights to black folks takes away the best tool for doing that, because their political blindness leads them to underestimate how much the army could have helped do that," Zander said.

Zander hopes the book will also encourage increased study of military life, which in some academic history corners is overlooked and relegated to amateurs, though not at TWU.

"TWU isn't like that," she said. "Obviously. They hired me.

"But it's super important," Zander said. "You'd run into people who ask why they would ever need to know where the size of a regiment or what a platoon is. I remember when the Ukraine war broke out, history departments were looking around saying, 'Do we have anyone who can speak to this?' No, because you haven't hired a military historian in 15 years. Because it's seen as it doesn't add value, even though those are the most popular classes and so on.

"My thought is, if it gets people into things, if it gets people into the classroom, then we have a chance to get them to take classes about the history of race and the history of gender and all those things which are also part of military history. I'm hopeful the book can show people there's a real utility to taking the military seriously when we study history."

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Page last updated 9:31 AM, November 7, 2023