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Alumni Excellence Awards: Terp Research Award Winner Jonathan White M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’08

Alumni Excellence Awards: Terp Research Award Winner Jonathan White M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’08

Jonathan White M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’08

By Andrew Faught

Jonathan W. White’s passion for history started as a kid at the 1720s farmhouse his family rented outside Philadelphia. There, he dug up centuries-old belt buckles and bottles from a trash pit in the yard.

Later, family and school visits to Gettysburg National Military Park, where stone walls identify Civil War battle positions and breastworks, further fueled his imagination. Family lore has it that White is related to Union General Irvin McDowell.

“I’ve never been able to confirm it, so I don’t know one way or the other,” he says. “We do have an ancestor who fought with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and we’ve still got a few of his records in the family.”

White’s name is well known to Civil War scholars and history buffs. He’s the author or editor of 17 books, including “A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022), co-winner (with the biographer Jon Meacham) of the prestigious 2023 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. “White … brings impressive credentials to this pathbreaking book,” the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote.

“Lincoln’s ideas and ideals are still relevant for us today in our very divided political world,” says White, a professor of American studies at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University. “We need to learn how to reach across aisles and talk with people we disagree with.”

There are compelling reasons the Civil War remains the focus of scholarship 159 years after the end of hostilities.

“The issues at stake are still with us, including race, which is a central topic in America today,” White says. “And we continue to think about the citizen’s role in a democratic government.”

The Civil War also was the first conflict that was photographed on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of surviving letters and diaries provide vivid accounts of the time.

In his writings, White says he tries to find aspects of Civil War history that are obscure or misunderstood.

In “Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep and Dreams during the Civil War” (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), he considered sleep habits—notably, dreams—of soldiers, civilians and enslaved people.

White says it’s his goal to reach the broader public with his scholarship. He has written for major newspapers and periodicals, and he also conducts public talks and leads workshops around the country for high school teachers.

“Teachers are hungry for good content that they can take into their classrooms, and they’re also concerned about teaching in this fraught political moment,” he says. “I try to help them have strategies for how to teach difficult or controversial topics in a moment where they’re worried about what students or parents are going to object to.”

White’s latest work is one of his most personal. With input from his two daughters, ages 10 and 7, he wrote “My Day With Abe Lincoln” (Reedy Press, 2024), a children’s book that will be released on Feb. 1. The story focuses on a modern-day third grader who travels back in time to meet the president as a boy.

“My hope is that it’ll be a fun, adventurous way for kids to be able to learn the Lincoln story in a way that’s not like a dry textbook,” White says.


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