Campus & Community

Civil War historian, beloved professor, William Gienapp, at 59

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Civil War authority Gienapp was a popular, engaging teacher. (Staff file photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

William E. Gienapp, Harvard College Professor, professor of history, and a prominent authority on the Civil War, died Oct. 29 at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., of complications related to cancer. He was 59. Passionate about baseball, Gienapp was known as a popular, engaging teacher whose lectures regularly packed halls with undergraduates.

“This is a very sad time for the Gienapp family, for the History Department, and for Harvard,” said William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a former colleague of Gienapp’s in the History Department. “A leading historian who studied America of the time of its greatest internal crisis, the Civil War, Bill Gienapp was also unparalleled as teacher, adviser, and mentor to countless undergraduates, graduate students, and Extension School students from all walks of life. He was one of the great teachers of this faculty. His courses, be they seminars or lectures, were always over-subscribed. (Indeed, I recall well, when I was chair of History, the unhappiness of students who couldn’t get into his baseball seminar; those who got in never complained!) He was simply an outstanding lecturer, in the best Harvard tradition, and his ability to fully engage students was widely admired. He was also a very tough grader, but here again there were no complaints from his students. In short, Bill Gienapp was a man of exacting standards, for himself, for his students, and for his profession. I will miss him terribly.”

Gienapp, who had been on leave, was an expert on 19th century American history and the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. His “Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography” (Oxford University Press) was published in 2002 alongside “This Fiery Trial: The Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln” (Oxford University Press, 2002), which he edited; he was at work on a history of the Civil War. He is also the author of “The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856” (Oxford University Press, 1987) and a contributor to “Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic” (McGraw-Hill/Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).

“I believe that the Civil War is the most important event in American history,” he told the Harvard University Gazette in 1995. “It marks the watershed between the simple agrarian society that America was in the early 19th century and the modern industrial society it has since become.”

In addition to his popular courses on 19th century America, including “Reconstruction: 1865-1877” and “Jacksonian America, 1815-1845,” Gienapp may be best remembered for a course that represented a parallel line of inquiry: “Baseball and American Society, 1840-Present.” The course, which began as a seminar but grew, by popular demand, to a lecture course, tapped Gienapp’s life-long fascination with the sport to examine its relationship to the development of American society and culture. (Each year, a few students were disappointed to learn the course would not focus on players and pennant races, Gienapp told Harvard Magazine.) Gienapp would often wear a cap from his collection of early baseball caps to class, coordinating the team represented on the cap with that day’s lecture.

“Bill’s death is a major loss to the Harvard History Department and to the historical profession in general,” said Civil War historian David Herbert Donald, the former Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization at Harvard who helped bring Gienapp to Harvard. “He was a wonderful man with a lively sense of humor, very self-deprecating and very modest. He did not claim to be a great historian, although he was one.”

Donald praised Gienapp’s “The Origins of the Republican Party” for its unique use of two distinct approaches to history, an econometric analysis of data such as voting returns or census data and a more traditional narrative approach.

A native of Texas, Gienapp received his B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his M.A. from Yale University. Prior to joining the Harvard Department of History in 1989, he was a professor of history at the University of Wyoming, where he began as an assistant professor in 1980. He was a visiting associate professor at Harvard in 1988 and launched his teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley, as an acting instructor in 1979. In 2000, Gienapp was named a Harvard College Professor for his commitment to undergraduate teaching.

Gienapp is survived by his wife, Erica, and his children, William and Jonathan. A funeral service was held Saturday (Nov. 1) at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. A memorial service at Harvard will be scheduled in the coming months.