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An Interview with History Professor Maria Angela Diaz

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Dr. Maria Angela Diaz is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. history at Utah State University. She graduated from the University of Florida with her Ph.D in 2013. Dr. Diaz’s main areas of research include the American South, the Civil War era, borderlands studies, transnational nineteenth century history, slavery, race, American imperialism, and territorial expansion. Her current book project is entitled A Continuous State of War: Empire-Building and Race-Making in the Civil War Era Gulf South. It is based on her dissertation and addresses the process of U.S. territorial expansion into the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. South’s interest in obtaining Latin American territory during the Civil War Era. She teaches classes in U.S. History, the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the History of Black America, and Latinx History.

1. What inspired you to become a history professor?

Gosh! Well I have always been fascinated by the past. My family spent a lot of time in the Southwest at national parks (shout out National Park Service!) and that is where I was first exposed to the Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. I was always interested in ancient civilizations. I must confess though, my first exposure to Civil War history was Ken Burns’ Civil War. I watched the entire thing as a child. When I got to college at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, I took a Civil War class with Peter Carmichael and a class on African Americans in the 1970s with Watson Jennison and their passion and commitment to their work converted me! I wanted to study history and go to graduate school. So I did!

2. What’s your favorite part of being a history professor?

My favorite part of being a professor is being in the classroom and researching. I love engaging with students about the nation’s past! I love watching them get interested in the subject we are studying and wrestle with the big questions about what all these things they are leaning mean. I often times think of myself as guide helping them to understand all of this complicated history. They are always surprised. I love researching because I get to read through people’s personal papers and handle old things. Whenever you go into the archives and begin investigating archival material you never know what you will find. I’ve found everything from locks of hair, to drawings on the insides of diaries and letters, to pressed flowers. It is also fascinating just to learn about people’s experiences and how they talked about them to themselves and others.

3. Why do you think the Western Theater of the Civil War is important?

The Western Theater of the Civil War is important for a variety of different reasons. For starters, it’s where the majority of the war actually took place! If you look at a map of the Western theater it encompasses the border states like Kentucky, AND the states of the Lower South. What is considered the Eastern Theater is actually a very small part of the physical makeup of the border states, the Confederacy, and the Union. So in a way, the real story of how the Civil War unfolded, and why it is that the Confederacy lost and the Union won has a lot to do with the goings on in the Western Theater. This also means that a large part of population of white and black southerners experience the war in the Western theater. It is a dynamic space through which Emancipation happens, the push toward the total war strategy of the Union, the guerrilla war tactics used in the border states, and also parts of the naval war. The Union relied heavily on both the army and the navy to drive deep into the heart of the Confederacy. The Navy is not only actively blockading in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, but also patrolling through the river systems. Many historians view the Western Theater as the real proving ground for famous figures like Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, but also as the place where the Confederacy’s vulnerabilities were revealed. A lot of people are sometimes familiar with the guerrilla tactics used in the border states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Kansas. This is where we get famous figures like Jesse James active during the war. However, these tactics were also used in the Lower South states like Louisiana. They show a different side of the War. We usually view the Civil War as a war between massive armies on pristine battlefields, but that isn’t always the experience. At times it is small highly mobile units attacking both Union and Confederate troops, towns, and transportation routes. The Western Theater is also the gateway to the Far West which is important for understanding the totality of the Civil War. For both the Confederacy and the Union the Civil War was a massive undertaking which you only really understand when you look beyond the Eastern Theater at the rest of it. We also begin to understand the war as something affected the entire nation and not just a discrete part of it.

4. Is there any information about the Western Theater of the Civil War that you believe is often understudied/forgotten?

As I mentioned in the previous question, the bloody Border War in the Border States gets a lot of attention because the figures are very flashy and spectacular. However, they aren’t the only ones using guerilla tactics. Those are used in lots of parts of the South. I also think that one thing that is forgotten about the border states like Missouri and Kentucky is that their political situations in terms of secession were quite complicated. Kentucky officially declared neutrality, but was largely under Union control by 1862 and Missouri’s government officials who favored secession operated in exile. The experience of people in places like these states reminds us that the war isn’t a solid South against a solid North. Loyalties in the South were quite divided and complicated and changed over the course of the War. I would say we still need to remember that most people experienced the Civil War in West and the East as civilians and their experiences are often times lost in the stories of the battlefield. Women are very much studied by historians, but I think a lot of people don’t often think about them as vital participants in the War. The experience of the war in the Trans-Mississippi still needs much attention as does the war in the Far West.

5. If you could travel back in time, what year would you want to visit, and why?

I think I’d like to visit 1865 to see the end of the war and to watch the various surrenders of Confederate armies in the field. Many Americans think that when Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox that that is the end of the war, but it isn’t. There were other armies still active in the field, and the surrenders continue for months afterward in the Western theater. So like much about the Civil War, the Western theater, and the Trans-Mississippi play important parts in the full story of this period in American history. I’d also like very much to be present in-home state of Texas when Gordon Granger announces Emancipation in Galveston on June 19, 1865. This is where the Emancipation holiday, Juneteenth gets its name. There were actually many Emancipation Days celebrated on different dates throughout Reconstruction and into the late 19th century.

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