Editor’s Note: June 2019 Issue

Editor’s Note: June 2019 Issue

Today we share a preview of our June 2019 issue, reprinting here the editor’s note by Judy Giesberg. To access these articles, you can purchase a copy of the issue or subscribe to the journal. It will also be available (in June) on Project Muse.

Readers of this issue will find essays that align over questions about border diplomacy and Civil War-era American expansionism, with an opening essay weighing in on when and why the war ended as it did and a review essay that reflects on the future of military history. In between there are spies, rogue diplomats, and double agents.

We begin with Andrew Lang’s Thomas Watson Brown Book Prize talk, “Union Demobilization and the Boundaries of War and Peace,” which joins the work of scholars like Gary Gallagher and Mark Wahlgren Summers in arguing that Civil War Americans did not bemoan the war’s civil rights shortfalls as much as recent scholars do. In the essay, as in his book In the Wake of War, Lang argues that because regular army men “viewed the momentous collapse of the Confederate state as the signal feat of national purpose,” they had little patience or stomach for serving as the agents of federal Reconstruction policy, the boots on the ground charged with administering the postwar era’s civil rights legislation and protecting freedmen from white insurgents. Their mission accomplished, these men in blue were concerned that a prolonged occupation would threaten democracy, or worse, destroy it. So, the postwar army quickly shrank, before regular army men’s fears for the nation’s democratic institutions could be realized and just as the democratic aspirations of black volunteers had been.

William S. Kiser’s essay, “‘We Must Have Chihuahua and Sonora’: Civil War Diplomacy in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands,” explores the tangled diplomacy of agents representing the United States; the Confederacy; and two northwestern Mexican states bordering New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. At issue were Confederate interest in opening up a supply line from Mexico that could sustain their invasion of New Mexico and, later, U.S. aspirations for a naval station in Mexico, but in the background, too, Apaches and an invading French army moving northward toward the border posed continued threats. This is a story of how “powerful nineteenth-century nations attempted to manipulate and reshape tenuous systems of political power in their weaker neighbors.” Expecting to easily lure local authorities into deals that violated official Mexican neutrality, Confederate and U.S. military men and self-appointed diplomats discovered, instead, that they came to the diplomatic table from a point of weakness as Mexican authorities played Americans off of each other and remained resolutely out of the war along Mexico’s northern border. It was a diplomatic miscalculation to think that local Mexican officials, facing a threat to their south, would abandon their national loyalties and seek to cut a deal with their neighbors to the north.

Patrick Kelly’s essay picks up this story where Kiser’s leaves off. Whereas U.S. diplomatic efforts in Mexico came to naught early in 1863, by June, French emperor Napoleon III’s army was in Mexico City, the Mexican national government was in exile, and the Confederacy anticipated reaping the rewards of a forthcoming alliance with France. The survival of the republics of Mexico and the United States hung in the balance as monarchy seemed posed to make a comeback in the Americas. These concerns weighed heavily on Lincoln as he sent troops to south Texas in October and were evident in the words he chose in the speech he delivered that November at Gettysburg. Lincoln opened that speech with words hearkening back to when the founders “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Kelly reads these words as evidence of Lincoln’s continentalism. It was no accident, Kelly says, that “continent” appeared in the first line, for it reflected a “a powerful, if short-lived, moment of solidarity between the United States and the hemisphere’s Spanish-speaking republics articulated on both sides of the Rio Grande within the discourse of a politically united American continent.” In “The Lost Continent of Abraham Lincoln,” Kelly locates the Gettysburg Address in that moment, when liberal nationalists imagined a future in which new world nations stood in solidarity against the old and in defense of new world ideals of democracy, constitutionalism, and, importantly, antislavery. Having issued the Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year, Lincoln helped usher the United States into that league of nations. That this solidarity did not outlast the immediate threat that made it seem possible takes nothing away from the moment in which these sentiments were first expressed—it adds something.

Courtney Buchkoski’s essay, “‘Luke-Warm Abolitionists’: Eli Thayer and the Contest for Civil War Memory, 1853–1899,” explores the career of a lesser-known figure in the history of American abolition, a man who during the Kansas crisis briefly made something of a name for himself as founder of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, before he was eclipsed by the likes of Garrison and others. Espousing reform through colonization, Eli Thayer’s New England Emigrant Aid Company sought to effect emancipation gradually, by colonizing Kansas with right-thinking people. Convinced of the model first tried in Kansas, Thayer promoted it as a way to end slavery in Virginia and Texas and to prevent its spread to Central America; colonization could also solve the problem of polygamy in Utah and resistance to federal authority in the Reconstruction South. When he wasn’t endorsing American expansion as policy, he was cultivating it in archives, historical societies, and historic publications. For the rest of his life, Thayer remained an enthusiastic proponent of American expansion, “connecting the moral imperative of emancipation with the rise of American imperialism”; as such his is an important case study in considering the links between the Civil War era and the era of American expansion that followed. Whereas Thayer’s name did not survive into the twentieth century, his influence did.

Rounding out this issue, Andrew Bledsoe’s review essay gets to a question central to the field of Civil War studies, that is, the place of military history in it. In our pages and elsewhere, a number of historians have called out to scholars to recommit themselves to studying and writing about traditional military subjects and defended military history’s relevancy against detractors, real and often more imagined, in the field. This can be a tough sell as long as the field is associated with an obsession with “minutiae, military pageantry, (and) tragic-heroic-triumphalism.” In his review essay, “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History,” Bledsoe offers a two-pronged solution, focused on bringing back the “men on horseback,” the military commanders. To be sure, this is not a call for a new round of finding blame with or giving credit to the right generals; instead Bledsoe calls for a fresh round of empathy for men who, under extraordinary pressure, “could not always overcome the difficulties and obstacles they faced.” And by focusing on contingency, scholars can underscore that these men on horseback were just as often responsible for “command decisions [that] create[d] cascades of contingency” as they were responding to contingencies created by the decisions and actions of myriad others. In this way, Bledsoe imagines a military history that is fully and holistically integrated into our thinking and writing about the period.

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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