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Sheriff, Carol 1966–

Sheriff, Carol 1966–


Born 1966. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 1985; Yale University, M.A., 1988, Ph.D., 1993.


Office—Department of History, College of William and Mary, P.O. Box 8795, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795. E-mail—[email protected]


College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, associate professor of history.


Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.


Dixon Ryan Fox prize, New York State History Association, 1996, for The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradoxes of Progress, 1817-1862; award for excellence in residence using holdings of the New York state archives, 1996.


The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1996.

(With Scott Reynolds Nelson) A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor of four chapters to A People and a Nation, edited by Mary Beth Norton, and others, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 2008.


Historian Carol Sheriff, an associate professor at the College of William and Mary, specializes in the social and cultural history of nineteenth-century America. Her The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 examines the ways in which the Erie Canal, built between 1817 and 1825, contributed to social change. The canal linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie, thereby providing a convenient shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The Erie Canal played a huge role in opening the American interior to development, and served as a symbol of American progress and success.

At the same time, though, the canal helped to destroy the world from which it had emerged. The increased trade that the canal made possible in turn prompted the demand for ever faster and more efficient transportation, and canal routes could not compete with the speed of railroads. The Artificial River, Sheriff notes, "uses the Erie Canal region as a microcosm in which to explore the relationships between some of the antebellum era's important transformations: widespread geographic mobility; rapid environmental change; government intervention in economic development; market expansion; the reorganization of work; and moral reform."

As Sheriff explains, progressive idealism linked the canal to the idea that the common good of the young nation depended on economic prosperity, individual opportunity, and equal opportunities for rural and urban areas alike. As an engineering project, the Erie Canal was a triumph, spanning an immense distance and involving complex planning and ingenuity. The opening of the canal encouraged not only commercial activity, but increased travel by westward-heading settlers and by tourists—many of whom found canal transportation so difficult and uncomfortable that they were happy to buy railroad tickets instead once they became available. Sheriff also shows how the Erie Canal brought up conflicts around land use, property rights, and use of water resources. In her final chapter of the book, Sheriff discusses broad social issues such as labor, class, and religion. The workforce that built the canal, she points out, toiled under poor conditions for low wages; many were children. The expansion of commerce that the canal made possible contributed to anxieties that prompted a revivalist religious fervor among much of the middle class, which sought to neutralize the perceived threat from vagrant workers by converting them into sober and respectable Christians.

Jerome K. Laurent, writing in, praised The Artificial River as a "‘thick’ description and analysis of the culture in a regional setting which has contributed much to transportation history." The book won the New York State History Association's Dixon Ryan Fox prize.

In A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877, Sheriff and coauthor Scott Reynolds Nelson state that they attempt to show "how civilians and soldiers understood the war and the changes it wrought," according to Virginia Quarterly Review contributor Peter Luebke. The authors examine materials relating to recruitment; military camps, hospitals, and prisons; and civilian life to explore how the war affected soldiers and their families. They discuss the trauma of battle and the loneliness of men far away from home for the first time, conditions that prompted some soldiers to desert. They also write about the stresses on the home front, where families suffered raids at the hands of armies and partisans. In a Library Journal review, Randall M. Miller commented that Sheriff's and Nelson's "vivid descriptions of disease and destruction will remind readers that war was hell even as it was also an instrument of social change."

Sheriff and Nelson explain how the conflict dramatically affected the lives of combatants and civilians alike, showing that clear distinctions between military and civilian spheres were sometimes blurred during the war. They also stress the central importance of slavery as a factor in the buildup to war and in its conduct. Indeed, they question the traditional view that the Civil War entailed a sharp delineation between North and South, arguing that disagreements about slavery divided not just the nation but individual communities and families as well. James Schwartz, writing in the Journal of American History, deemed A People at War a "a superb overview of what has become one of the most exciting fields in U.S. history." The critic particularly praised the chapter discussing the role of northern civilians and escaped slaves in moving the war toward its conclusion. The book, Schwartz concluded, "is likely to become the definitive social history of the Civil War."

Virginia Quarterly Review contributor Luebke considered A People at War to be "a readable springboard for further inquiry into the Civil War and the world of social history," though the critic went on to note that Sheriff and Nelson's downplaying of political actions and military campaigning shows more about current historical understanding of the war than about contemporary individuals' actual experience of the conflict. Praising the book as an impressive "compendium of wartime life," however, Jennifer R. Green observed in the Journal of Military History that A People at War "whets our appetite for the lived experience and multiple existences of civilians during the conflict." Green noted that the book covers topics that have often received scant attention in Civil War scholarship, including the experiences of Indians, the role of the Homestead Act in filling Union recruitment needs, the need to preserve food, and even baseball. Sheriff and Nelson, wrote Green, "describe a period of rich social change and adaptation."



Sheriff, Carol, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1996.

Sheriff, Carol and Scott Reynolds Nelson, A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.


American Historical Review, June 1, 1997, Donald C. Jackson, review of The Artificial River, p. 885.

Historian, January 1, 1999, Kim M. Gruenwald, review of The Artificial River, p. 433.

Isis, March 1, 1998, Michael J. Chiarappa, review of The Artificial River, p. 146.

Journal of American History, March 1, 1997, Paul E. Johnson, review of The Artificial River, p. 1394; March, 2008, James Schwartz, review of A People at War, p. 1261.

Journal of Economic History, March 1, 1998, John Majewski, review of The Artificial River, p. 268.

Journal of Historical Geography, January 1, 1998, Keith Cushing, review of The Artificial River, p. 116.

Journal of Military History, January, 2008, Jennifer R. Green, review of A People at War, p. 249.

Journal of Social History, December 22, 1998, Christopher Clark, review of The Artificial River, p. 413.

Journal of the Early Republic, March 22, 1998, Laurence J. Malone, review of The Artificial River, p. 157.

Library Journal, July 1, 1996, Boyd Childress, review of The Artificial River, p. 134; April 1, 2007, Randall M. Miller, review of A People at War, p. 102.

Publishers Weekly, May 13, 1996, review of The Artificial River, p. 61.

Reviews in American History, March 1, 1997, Jonathan A. Glickstein, review of The Artificial River, p. 54.

Tribune Books, July 20, 1997, review of The Artificial River, p. 8.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1997, review of The Artificial River, p. 9; summer, 2007, Peter Luebke, review of A People at War, p. 260.


College of William and Mary History Department Web site, (April 20. 2008), faculty profile.

EH.Net, (April 20, 2008), Jerome K. Laurent, review of The Artificial River.

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