Legal Historian Cynthia Nicoletti to Join UVA Law Faculty

Cynthia Nicoletti studies the Civil War and revisits commonly held legal assumptions in her work.

April 29, 2014

Cynthia Nicoletti, an expert in legal history who specializes in the Civil War and Reconstruction, will join the University of Virginia School of Law in the fall as an associate professor of law.

Nicoletti is already a familiar face at the University. This year she taught four courses at the Law School, including Civil War and the Constitution, as a visiting law professor from Mississippi College. In addition, she earned her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at UVA. (She earned her J.D. at Harvard Law School.)

"The law has always been at the center of my interest in the Civil War, and my interest in the Civil War is why I came to the University of Virginia," she said. "I loved going to school here, and it's really like a homecoming to be back."

Nicoletti's scholarship and teaching take a fresh look at some commonly held historical assumptions.

"If you know anything about the legal history of the Civil War, you tend to know two things: The war determined that secession was illegal, and that it ended slavery," she said. "I'm interested in questioning both of those conclusions."

Nicoletti is currently at work on a book based on her doctoral dissertation, which won the American Society for Legal History's William Nelson Cromwell Prize in 2011. The paper examines the issue of whether secession could have been legally valid.

"Confederate President Jefferson Davis' treason trial was supposed to test the legality of secession," Nicoletti said. "But the trial never happened, in part because there was a great deal of worry the case would turn out the wrong way. What happens if you get a legal adjudication that doesn't match the results of the war? That's sort of a big existential crisis for many Americans, and so the project is dealing with that."

After the book is finished, her next venture will examine the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, she said.

"Civil War legal history is a great thing to study because of the small time span and the fact that everything is so chaotic," Nicoletti said. "You really get events rushing ahead of the law's ability to catch up."

Ted White, a legal historian who has taught at UVA Law for more than four decades and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, said Nicoletti will be a "first-class addition" to the faculty.

"Cynthia Nicoletti is already one of the leading legal historians in her age cohort," White said. "Her work on the legal history of the Civil War goes far toward displacing the conventional wisdom in that field. She combines a good sense of topics with superb research instincts and considerable writing skills."

Risa Goluboff,  a faculty member who studies 20th-century American legal and constitutional history, agreed that Nicoletti will make a "wonderful addition."

"It is hard to overestimate the number of books that have been written about the Civil War," Goluboff said. "One might have been forgiven for thinking there is nothing new left to say. And yet Cynthia has new things to say about the most central aspects of the war. Bringing her astute legal historian’s eye to this central topic in American history has already brought important new revelations and promises to bring even more."

Nicoletti is a native New Yorker who said she fell in love with Civil War legal history when she first wrote a paper on the topic in high school.

"There aren't a ton of New Yorkers interested in the Civil War," she said. "Virginia is the perfect place for me."


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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