Editor’s Note: September 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: September 2018 Issue

The September issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era will soon be arriving in your mailboxes. For a preview of the excellent work within its pages, see our editor’s note reprinted below.

This volume combines exciting new work in the military history of the Civil War with essays exploring postwar culture and memory. Written by leading scholars in the field, the essays that follow push scholars to expand the definition of southern Unionism, remember that the natural environment is a powerful determinant in military engagements, consider what names Americans gave the war—and when and where those names were used—and look again at how the postwar Klan was organized. A review essay puts the recent flurry of films and series depicting slavery in context by taking a long look at slavery on screen.

In an essay derived from her Fortenbaugh lecture, Thavolia Glymph writes enslaved women into the history of southern Unionism. Acting on their antislavery politics, southern black women expressed their Unionism through words and actions, playing key roles in supporting the Union war effort and driving the army to embrace emancipation. For their trouble, these women were neglected, mistreated, and then forgotten; historians who continue to portray southern Unionism as an all-white affair add insult to injury. No more, thanks to Glymph’s new essay.

Readers looking for a new explanation for the U.S. Army’s failed 1862 Peninsula Campaign will find much to consider in Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver’s essay detailing how Confederates used nature to their advantage. George McClellan brought his massive army into the ecologically complex peninsula at the worst possible time, a period of intense rains in midst of drought. There, his men discovered swamps where they expected streams and rivers where they should not have been. Nature was a formidable opponent, and in it McClellan’s opponents found a useful ally. Worn down, undernourished, and defeated, McClellan’s despondent men trudged through a hostile environment. Worst of all, nature aggravated McClellan’s natural tendencies; his “reactionary style and lack of aggressiveness” were no match for the peninsula’s “incredibly gooey mud.”

Gaines Foster’s essay is a striking reminder that what we call wars matters, for, “the name is important in defining the purpose of a war and shaping support for it.” To explore the names Americans used for the war fought from 1861 to 1865, Foster discovered new source collections and made imaginative use of digital tools. By 1911, Congress had debated what to call the war three times before settling on “Civil War,” a term that did not make all white southerners happy but did satisfy most of them. A number of Americans proved willing to weigh in on which name was the right one, recording their preferences in surveys that began in 1907 and continued until the 1990s; these public usage polls record the persistence of labels such as “Rebellion” and the near absence of “War of Northern Aggression.” As the title of the essay indicates, what’s not in a name is as important as what is, for as Foster shows, “Civil War” implied no blame on either side and effectively sidestepped slavery as a cause of the war.

Once in a while, historians make surprising archival discoveries that open up new questions or help us to answer nagging ones. In his essay, “The K. K. Alphabet,” Bradley Proctor describes two discoveries—an encrypted letter and the cipher necessary to read it—that, although perhaps not new, until now have not been put together. With the cipher, Proctor was able to read an 1868 letter from one Klansman to another; his article describes what the letter reveals about the KKK’s inner workings. But that is only half of the story. That the letter was found in a family collection in South Carolina and the cipher in Tennessee reopens questions about Klan organization, which we generally think was local in nature but may have been the work of a network of elite southern families who intentionally sought to extend the reach of the Klan in the postwar South.

Brenda Stevenson rounds out this issue with a review essay exploring a century of films and television series about slavery. Readers who still mourn the cancelation of the series Underground (2016–17) will find little to console them in this essay that traces Hollywood’s love affair with racist stereotypes, but a few will be inspired to search YouTube for clips of some of the more obscure films Stevenson describes, such as Band of Angels (1957) and Tamango (1958), two early efforts to portray enslaved people as heroic. From its earliest appearance in Thomas Edison and Edwin Porter’s fourteen-minute 1903 film Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave, producers and directors have been fascinated by the story of slavery and have tried to portray it on screen. Some efforts have succeeded more than others, but even success has not completely cured Hollywood’s corporate financiers of their squeamishness about portraying enslaved characters as fully human and at times heroic. What progress has been made is compellingly laid out for us in Stevenson’s fine review essay.

Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg holds the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and is Professor of History at Villanova University. Giesberg directs a digital project, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, that is collecting, digitizing, and transcribing information wanted ads taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for family members lost to the domestic slave trade.

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