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The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

The Reconstruction Politics of the Allotment Era in Indian Territory

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here and the first installment here

In the post-Civil War period, Republicans in Congress and the White House were as equally interested in bringing the American West into the nation as they were in the former Confederate South. Even during the war, Republicans had turned their focus westward to write and pass popular legislation. In the 1870s, as White Southerners aggressively worked and ultimately beat back the Federal Reconstruction project, Republicans once again looked to the West to recapture public support and build the free labor, multiracial democracy that had been undermined in the South.

Home of Creek Freedmen, ca. 1900. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

Indian Territory—modern-day Oklahoma—was one of these critical western sites of Reconstruction. In 1866, the United States forced the Five Tribes—the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations—to sign new treaty agreements known as the Reconstruction Treaties. The U.S. government’s Reconstruction requirements for Indian Territory included allotment, the dividing up of communally held tribal lands into individually owned private properties. While the allotment era is well known and studied, it remains siloed in Native rather than U.S. history. Examining its political inspiration and implementation, however, reveals that allotment after 1865 was not just Indian policy. It was also Reconstruction policy through which Republicans sought to unite the nation under a homogenous American sovereignty, culture, and citizenry that recognized the rights of freedpeople.

Allotment reflected a core political priority of Reconstruction— private property ownership—and was advanced by Henry L. Dawes and other Republican politicians who explicitly saw allotment as the key to what they called “Indian Emancipation.”[1] Allotment also helped achieve the overarching goal of Reconstruction in Indian Country: the dissolution of tribal governments and the integration of Native people into the American body politic. As Frederick Douglass put it in 1884, “The tendency of the age is unification, not isolation.” Federal officials in Indian Affairs shared that impulse for uniformity.[2] However, many Native nations had proved resilient to assimilation. Thus, in 1885, the Board of Indian Commissioners codified the following recommendations: “No more of the ‘imperium in imperio.’ Treat Indians as families and individuals. Extend the law over them as individuals. Give them land as individuals. Punish them as individuals.”[3] While emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments brought Black Americans into the American body politic as citizens, allotment promised to do the same for Native Americans by disempowering tribal governments in favor of U.S. control and eventual citizenship.

In 1886, the Supreme Court gave Congress the clearance to make these changes to Indian policy. As the Court determined in United States v. Kagama, Native American land and people fell under the political rule of the U.S. federal government.[4] This was a significant departure from the historical relationship between U.S. and Native sovereignties, and the decision gave birth to the age of Congress’ plenary power in Indian affairs. Passing a year later, the Dawes Act used those new wide-ranging powers to transform Native Americans into private property-holding individual citizens once and for all.

In most histories of Indian Territory, the Allotment era follows the Reconstruction era, and this demarcation has limited historians’ ability to identify linkages between the two sets of reform.[5] The life and work of Senator Henry L. Dawes, the namesake of the 1887 Act, offers one window into the connections between Reconstruction and allotment. A stalwart Republican who served in Congress from 1857 until 1893, Dawes realized the political priorities of Reconstruction in his vision for allotment policy.[6]

Dawes’ interest in allotment was based on his mission to promote the Republican party, through which he also promoted Republican political goals born in the Reconstruction era.[7] He hoped to restore Republican idealism, and Indian reform offered “a comfortable revival of the party’s egalitarian principles… and a living example of the proper role of government in assimilating new groups.”[8] Believing in individualism, national institutions, the principles of racial equality, and the supremacy of federal power, Dawes found a natural fit between his political philosophy and the project of allotment.

Dawes was not the first to try to pass an allotment bill in Congress, but unlike previous versions, Dawes’ act included U.S. citizenship for Native Americans who took up allotments. His version of the policy reflected Republican values and employed the legal and cultural tools of Reconstruction: citizenship, federal law, and single-family homes.Like many late 19th century reformers, Dawes had no doubt Native peoples would “pass away.” But rather than disappear into extinction, allotment offered a better path: political absorption and disappearance into the American population and citizenry.[9] Dawes’ version of allotment “drew heavily on the ideals of civil equality that had informed Reconstruction-era legislation establishing black people’s freedom and citizenship.”[10] Through citizenship, Native Americans, just like southern freedpeople, would join the collective American nation-state. Meanwhile, allotment would destroy tribal citizenship and sovereignty to realize the Reconstruction Republican ideal of a homogenous citizenry.

Despite the federal government’s numerous attempts to enact allotment, the Five Tribes had vigorously and successfully contested the policy in favor of their own governments’ sovereignty.[11]  They escaped the terms of the Dawes Act of 1887 because they did not live on reservations; they owned their land fee simple as a result of their Removal era treaties.[12] Allotment only came with the establishment of the Dawes Commission, initially led by Henry Dawes himself, which operated between 1893 and 1914. And even then, each of the Five Tribes mounted a significant resistance to the Dawes Commission’s attempt to negotiate allotment. Only when Congress passed the Curtis Act of 1898, which set an expiration date for the Five Tribes governments, did the Dawes Commission have the power to allot the Five Tribes without their governments’ consent.

Allotment was not only a Reconstruction policy in its conception but also in its implementation. In Indian Territory, allotment empowered federal officials to continue the Reconstruction effort to provide greater political equality to formerly enslaved people. The Dawes Commission not only set out to allot Native American members of the Five Tribes but their former slaves and descendants as well. Observing freedpeople’s exclusion from land and citizenship within the Five Tribes, the Commission argued that the tribes did not truly hold lands in common.[13]Linking their project to the goals of the 1866 Treaties, the Commissioners wrote, “the United States is bound by solemn treaty to place… freedmen securely in the enjoyment of their rights [and] cannot ignore the obligation.”[14]

The Commission’s attention to political rights and race created new possibilities for freedpeople and their descendants. While some freedpeople in the Seminole and Creek nations had successfully gained access to common tribal lands after 1866, allotment gave many more freedpeople access to land for the first time. However, the Commission’s use of racial categories to enroll tribal members made race more of a defining feature of legal status than it had ever been before. While instituted to achieve homogenous citizenship, allotment ended up reproducing the strict racial divisions present in the post-war South.

As academic and indigenous writing has been well documented, the Commission’s race-based allotment system caused incalculable harm. Still, the scholarly focus on its effects has also obscured the fuller history of the Commission’s relationship with freedpeople in Indian Territory.[15] Allotment had been a requirement of several of the Five Tribes’ Reconstruction Treaties of 1866, but so had recognizing their freedpeople as full citizen members. The Five Tribes’ failure to achieve progress on these issues allowed the Dawes Commission to take up those tasks, initiating a new phase of reconstruction—one that gravitated out of Native control—to realize both policies in the 1890s.

From the beginning, the Commission opposed the tribes’ efforts to limit freedpeople’s access to tribal land. They sought not only to enroll freedpeople but also to give them allotments of equal size. When the Creek Nation tried to negotiate a 40-acre limit for freedpeople, Commissioner Archibald McKennon commented, “This proposition… will not be considered by us for a moment.”[16] The Choctaw and Chickasaw refused to include their freedmen at all. This was a non-starter for the Commission, despite its desire to come to an agreement and begin allotment. As Senator James K. Jones wrote to Dawes in 1897, “I agree with you fully in what you say about the absurdity of making an agreement without taking the Chickasaws Freedmen into account.”[17] As Alaina E. Roberts has argued, the Dawes Commission helped make Indian Territory “a rare place…in which people of African descent formerly enslaved by the Five Tribes—Indian freedpeople—were…legitimized by the U.S. government.”[18]

In Indian Territory, allotment accomplished what the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties could not. It gave political recognition to freedpeople in Indian Territory in the hopes of creating a homogenous American citizenry. At the same time, it made some of the fastest progress toward the destruction of the alternative American sovereignties tribal governments represented and the political absorption of Indian Territory into the United States. Allotment marked the culmination of the Reconstruction era goal to turn Native Americans—like freedpeople in the South—into individual private property-owning citizens. Thus, from its formulation to its implementation among the Five Tribes, the allotment era was closely linked to Reconstruction politics and priorities.


[1] Like the Free Soil Party before it, which believed in “freedom in the West, freedom grounded in land ownership,” the Republican Party promoted individual property ownership and homes in the post-war South & West. Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom (New York: NYU Press, 2006)

[2] Frederick Douglass, The Future of the Negro, July 1884,

[3] “Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners, 1885” in H.R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 49th Cong., 1st Sess. (1885), pg. 785

[4] United States v. Kagama, 118 U. S. 375 (1886), pg. 379,

[5] This distinction is primarily made based on periodization (1866-1877) and (1889 – 1914). Kent Carter’s The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, Utah:, 1999) is the most detailed single volume on allotment in Indian Territory. See also David A. Chang The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). For the experience of allotment in Indian Territory see Rose Stremlau, Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Alaina E. Roberts, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

[6] The secondary literature on Dawes, however, is surprisingly thin and he lacks any kind of sustained biography. Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 is the best and in-depth assessment of Dawes’ Republican politics in relation to Reconstruction and allotment. Richard White also gives Dawes’ motivations several paragraphs in The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pg. 605-605.

[7] See Hoxie, A Final Promise, Ch. 1 “The Appeal of Assimilation”

[8] Frederick Hoxie, Beyond Savagery: The Campaign to Assimilate the American Indians, 1880-1920 (doctoral dissertation, Brandeis University, 1977), pg. 104

[9] Proceedings Mohonk Lake Conference, 1886, pg. 84

[10] Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), pg. 150.

[11] The Tribes’ resistance to allotment contributed significantly to its extended implementation over more than two decades.

[12] The Osage, Miami and Peoria, and Sac and Fox in Indian Territory were also exempt from the 1887 Dawes Act.

[13] “Report of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, 1894” in U.S. Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes: Annual Reports of 1894,1895, and 1896 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), pg. 20

[14] Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, Annual Report (1894), pg. 19

[15] Historians sometimes miss the fact that the Dawes Commission was required by the Curtis Act to enroll freedpeople separately and did not make that classification on their own.

[16] Tams Bixby and A. S. McKennon to the Secretary of the Interior, November 15, 1898, Box 52 (1898, Oct. – Dec.), Folder 7, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[17] Senator James K. Jones to Henry Dawes, May 3, 1897, Box 52 (1897, May – July) Folder 2, Henry L. Dawes Papers, Library of Congress

[18] Roberts, pg. 43


The Case of the Abstracted Indian Bonds

The Case of the Abstracted Indian Bonds

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to a Unholy Union roundtable here.

“The investment was made in these particular bonds without consultation with the Indians and without their assent, and the bonds have been stolen.” – Rep. Thomas M. Edwards (R-New Hampshire), July 7, 1862[1]

White building with columns in the front. Walkers are in front of the structure in the historic photograph.
U.S. Department of Interior, 1859 in Benjamin Brown French “Photographs,” p. 146.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

One night early in the secession winter, for a third and final time, a clerk named Godard Bailey entered his own empty office in the Interior Department building, removed thousands of dollars of negotiable bonds belonging to the Indian trust fund from his safe, and delivered them to War Department contractor William Hepburn Russell. As Russell told Bailey when they first met that July, Secretary of War John Buchanan Floyd had been propping up Russell’s firm with “acceptances”—legally dubious memoranda approving future payments—which Russell used as security on loans. The acceptances now encompassed a sum greater than Russell’s contracts, had no legal justification, and were increasingly likely to “embarrass” both Russell and Floyd. Russell had learned that Bailey was Floyd’s relative by marriage, and Russell played on Bailey’s loyalty to convince the clerk to “loan” him a portion of the bonds in his office for use as security on still more loans to cover his outstanding debts. Bailey carried out the first “abstraction” just hours after Russell proposed it. He made two more trips in September and December, but by now Russell had failed to redeem the first bonds he had “hypothecated” with Wall Street banks. His creditors claimed them and they were lost to the government for good. His discovery now inevitable, Bailey wrote a confession of sorts to outgoing Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson: “[I]n justice to yourself, I ought not to permit you to quit office without informing you of the fact that a portion of the bonds constituting the Indian trust fund are no longer in my custody. Those bonds I entrusted, in July last, to third parties, for purposes which it is not necessary to discuss here.”[2]

Bailey’s effort to avoid the discussion were in vain, and when it came to light, the case of the “abstracted Indian bonds” was notorious even in the last days of the Buchanan administration.[3] All parties escaped criminal conviction as the war pushed the affair from the public’s mind, but not before it provoked a congressional investigation and a novel intervention by the federal government in how it invested and managed the funds generated by Indian dispossession—the Indian Trust Fund—as a part of the national debt.[4] During and after the war, in discussions of the bonds, Republican policy makers rhetorically joined tribes and northern taxpayers as common victims of a robbery by disloyal Democrats and, in doing so, bound tribes to their vision of national political economy.

The House of Representatives’ investigation concluded in February 1861 that although the extent of the government’s liability could not yet be determined, the Indian bondholders were entitled to compensation for the violation of “so sacred a trust.” The fund Bailey plundered in 1860 held three million dollars in twenty-four accounts for seventeen tribes, amounting to their compensation for their coerced abandonment of land in several states. Most of the bonds in the fund, like most of the cabinet officials who procured them, from slave states. Although federal law since 1841 commanded Secretaries of the Interior to buy federal bonds with revenue from Indian land sales, Democratic Secretaries of the Interior continued to buy southern municipal bonds. Eighty-two percent of the value of the bonds in the fund was in bonds from eight slave states. All the stolen bonds were from Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee.[5] With Bailey’s theft and southern secession, most tribes now had no hope of repayment. One of the smaller funds, for example, the confederated Wea, Kaskaskia, Piankeshaw, and Peorias’ trust fund (created from the forced sale of the tribe’s Kansas reservation), contained Tennessee bonds bearing six percent interest (“Tennessee 6s”), Florida 7s, Louisiana 6s, Missouri 6s, North Carolina 6s, South Carolina 6s, and Pennsylvania 5s. At some point, Bailey, as clerk, sold the tribe’s New York and Illinois bonds and bought South Carolina state bonds on which, like the other southern bonds, the tribe would never see interest payments.[6] In his first annual report, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole concluded that “the weight of this abstraction or defalcation” must fall on the United States, and it was duty-bound to pay tribes the income they would have derived from the interest.[7]

Congress was also prodded to action by the owners of the accounts themselves. In early June 1862, Delawares petitioned Congress to receive United States bonds in lieu of the municipal bonds they had in Bailey’s safe. The Delawares held two funds generated by their forced abandonment of land in Missouri and Kansas, a school fund and a general “permanent fund” which, their treaty required, “shall from time to time be invested by the President of the United States, in safe and profitable stocks.”[8] At a valuation of nearly one million dollars, the resulting Delaware General Fund was the largest single account in the Indian trust fund in 1860. They had received none of their treaty-promised interest payments since the secession crisis began, and now the bonds were gone.[9]

The Delawares’ memorial prompted Congress not only to correct the Delawares’ account, but to re-fund the trust fund generally. In July, the Republican Congress passed legislation to liquidate the bonds from northern states (mainly Pennsylvania) and distribute the proceeds to the tribes. It also paid the outstanding interest on the secessionist states’ bonds and appropriated money to refund the trust accounts to par with the original principal. Congress required the full value of the bonds to be entered on the Treasury’s books to the credit of the tribes, with interest payments paid at five percent semiannually. In effect, the Federal government federalized debt that was primarily owed from the seceded states. House Committee on Indian Affairs chair Thomas Edwards of New Hampshire insisted that “there can be no question, upon any fair interpretation of the existing treaties, as to the responsibility of the Government for the bonds abstracted while in custody.” New York Republican Roscoe Conkling agreed. “The cestui que trust, who has been robbed by his trustee, ought to be reimbursed.” Evading one thorny issue, Edwards focused on the bonds belonging to the Delawares, Iowas, Weas, Peorias, Piankeshaws, and Kaskaskias. The Cherokees and Choctaws held the accounts next largest to the Delawares’, but as to the “now disloyal” slaveholding tribes, “we have made no provision for them in this bill.”[10]

After the war, Republican office holders and the partisan press revived memories of the theft and moved to federalize more of the debt due to tribes. The Republican press framed the pre-war purchases of southern bonds and Bailey’s theft of them as typical of the sordid doings of Democratic “robbers” before the war and even as a part of the larger secession plot. The government was still paying $97,140 annually in lieu of interest on bonds stolen during the Buchanan presidency, the National Republican of Washington told its readers; it was “one of the many legacies left us by that corrupt Democratic administration.”[11] Republican office holders, then, insisted it was the federal government’s obligation to refund the principal and the lost interest of “non-paying” bonds—and not only those stolen from the Interior Department in 1860.[12] In 1871, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano drafted a bill (it would pass in 1876) that directed future Secretaries of the Interior to place funds for any tribe in the Treasury, in lieu of reinvesting it, from which they would be paid a minimum interest rate of five percent. This ended a progression of the trust fund from its composition of mostly state securities to US bonds, now the federal Treasury itself holding the debt on its books and issuing the interest payments as proof of its obligation as trustee—although, per the legislation, the Secretary could still invest Indians’ money in federal bonds at his discretion.[13] While Congress deliberately denied the slaveholding tribes of Indian Territory restitution during the war, the Federal government now tied the future of the Indian Territory to the financial future of the United States at the war’s end. The March 3, 1871 Indian Appropriation Act, best known for its rider to the Yankton’s appropriation that ended treaty-making with all tribes, also included a line item to allocate funding for “certain abstracted and non-paying State stocks belonging to various Indian tribes (and held in trust by the Secretary of the Interior).” This appropriation re-funded the Cherokee national and school funds, Chickasaw national and “incompetents” funds, the Choctaw general fund, and the Creek orphans’ fund for a total of seventy-thousand dollars (in addition to continuing funding interest payments to other tribes required by the 1862 legislation.)[14]

The Indian Trust Fund had grown in the antebellum period as an expedient to dispossession that also funded, mainly, the slave state economies that benefitted most dramatically from Indian removal.[15] In light of the bond abstraction, Republicans reconsidered Indians as sellers of land entitled to compensation, victims of fraud, and beneficiaries of a trust relationship with the United States. None of these descriptions were novel, and set beside the violent dispossession that continued in the Gilded Age, they appear as cynical rationalizations of federal power over Indians. But Republicans also used them to advance a new kind of financial management of Indian policy. Trust, a keyword of modern tribal politics, began to take the modern aspects of both a permanent tribal resource and the medium of ongoing negotiations between tribes and the federal government, albeit within a framework built, as Congressman Thomas Edwards described the fund in 1862, “without consultation with the Indians and without their assent.”[16]

[1] “Indian Bonds,” Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd Session (1862), 3156.

[2] “Abstracted Indian Trust Bonds,” House Report 78, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, February 12, 1861, pp. 1-20, 28.

[3] New York Times, Feb. 13, 1861; William P. MacKinnon, “Prelude to Armageddon: James Buchanan, Brigham Young, and a President’s Initiation to Bloodshed,” in James Quist and Michael J. Birkner, es., James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War (Gainseville: University of Florida Press, 2013); Summers, The Plundering Generation, 239-260.

[4] “Abstracted…Bonds,” 2.

[5] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (ARCIA) 1860, pp. 236-242; Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the Indians, (2 vols,, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 416-417.

[6] “Treaty with the Kaskaskia, Peoria, etc.,” May 30, 1854, 10 Stat 1082.

[7] ARCIA 1861, pp. 26-27.

[8] Treaties with the Delawares, September 24, 1829, 7 Stat. 327 & May 6, 1854, 10 Stat., 1048.

[9] “Petition of the Chiefs of the Delaware Indians in Kansas,” Senate Miscellaneous Doc. 100, 37th Congress, Second Session (1862).

[10] “An Act relating to Trust Funds of several Indian Tribes invested by the Government in certain State Bonds abstracted from the Custody of the late Secretary of the Interior,” 37th Congress; Session 2, July 12, 1862; “Indian Bonds,” Globe, 3156-3158.

[11] National Republican (Washington, D.C.), March 9, 1876; New York Times, Oct. 30, 1876.

[12] “Letter from the Attorney General, transmitting papers and report upon the condition of the Indian trust funds,” House Executive Doc. 59, 40:2 (1867), 4.

[13] “Act of June 10, 1876,” 19 Stat. 58.

[14] Prucha, The Great Father, 531; “An Act making Appropriations for the current and continent Expenses of the Indian Department, and for fulfilling Treaty Stipulations with various Indian Tribes, for the Year ending June thirty, eighteen hundred and seventy-two, and for other Purposes,” U.S. Statutes at Large, v. 16 (1869-1871), 41st Congress, 544-571.

[15] Claudio Saunt, “Financing Dispossession: Stocks, Bonds, and the Deportation of Native peoples in the Antebellum United States,” The Journal of American History, 106:2 (2019), 315-316, 317.

[16] “Indian Bonds.” 

Khal Schneider

Khal Schneider teaches at CSU, Sacramento.

Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

The roundtable ahead features three posts that gather Southern and Western history in a continental conversation, from Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams, respectively. I write to offer background and context for those pieces, all of which build toward October 2024, when the Western History Association and Southern Historical Association will hold concurrent conferences in Kansas City, Missouri, the first such for two of the largest historical organizations focused on regional history in North America.

Group of soldiers standing in a row.
15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, c. 1861-1865, tintype.

I came to know of these plans in the autumn of 2017, when, as the William S. Vaughn fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt, I learned of the initiative from Anne Hyde, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. I shared the irony that the manuscript upon which I was working at the Center, an exploration of the unruly cultural stratigraphy of several counties in the southern Colorado borderlands, had unexpectedly developed a strong “Southern” strain—a post-Civil War (1869-70) migration of white “refugees” from Congressional Reconstruction from north Georgia to Huerfano County.  Their descendants, even today, identify as “the Georgia colony.”  Anne explained that discussions were underway between the WHQ and The Journal of the Civil War Era toward joint or special issues of that would preview the conference, and invited me to serve as convener of topic sessions at WHA meetings and to guest-edit the special issues.  Thus, in this Call for Proposals, was born The Unholy Union.

“The editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era and the Western Historical Quarterly seek contributions toward joint programing at the WHA in the years ahead, and two special joint issues of the journals in 2020/21. James F. Brooks of the University of California, Santa Barbara will serve as guest editor on this shared project. We hope to inspire comparative insights and unearth hidden connections between history in the “South” and the “West”, however far flung those might prove.”

2021 saw two special issues appear that  confirmed our sense that a serious new scholarly school of thought was emerging.  In March, The Journal of the Civil War Era featured four articles:

Andrew Shaler’s exploration of the Cherokee and Wyandot Companies offered a new cut on distinctions between “settled” Indians and “unsettled” overland emigrants inspired by the California gold finds.  Departing from their recently assigned “homelands” in Indian Territory and Kansas, respectively, these overlanders offered non-Indians who joined their caravan expertise in gold prospecting as well as skill in westering through Indian Country.  Shaler argues that “Cherokee and Wyandot emigrant companies effectively navigated a liminal space between the ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler,’ ‘Indian’ and ‘emigrant,” and actively maintained complex relations with both communities.”  Their dispossession and forced removal from homelands east of the Mississippi came strangely coupled with heightened perception of Cherokee and Wyandot progress toward civilization in many white eyes. Their Companies drew praise from new members, who also benefited from the gold prospecting and panning experience Cherokees could offer once they arrived in California. While some emigrant Indians remained in California, (most prominent, John Rollin Ridge, grandson of Treaty Party leader Major Ridge), most returned after their sojourn. Among those were a contingent who camped on the banks of Cherry Creek in Colorado, and noticed some flakes of float gold, and which news would travel back to the east via those who traveled the Cherokee Trail.

Max Flomen drew us into a world of movement as well, as the “renegades” produced by Indian dispossession and expanding slavery sought shelter and the faint promise of independence and freedom in the borderlands of Mexican Tejas, and later the Republic. Maroons, runaways, emigrant dispossessed Indians, renegades, and weapons smugglers all sought, for their particular ends, emancipation from the bonds of American imperialism, while aspiring planters looked to be in the vanguard of an expanding cotton kingdom. The weakness of Mexican control in the borderlands held promise for contending groups who, ironically, tended to reinforce each other’s strengths. The renegade factions flourished in the frailty of Mexican authority, while emigrant planters from the Old South found themselves welcomed by the same weak state for the role they played in frontier defense. As experiments in “alternative emancipations” mounted, Mexicans and Texicans maintained tactical alliances to quash those campaigns. Yet by 1836, of course, Texicans had become Anglo-Texans, and “committed to ‘whitening’ the Greater Southwest” (the failed annexation of New Mexico in 1841 aside). Rebellions and outbreaks of the enslaved held by Creek, Cherokee, and Texan planters in 1842 and 1845 illustrated the potential for Mexico to destabilize even after surrendering territory, which would stimulate Texas’ annexation.

In “War Waits,” Lance Blythe entered debates around the relevancy of the Civil War to other, contemporaneous, conflicts in the West.  Treating the complex array of violent exchanges among Native peoples, between Natives and New Mexicans, and between US Army forces and both Natives and New Mexicans, he offers a powerful argument that fore-fronting the causative role of the Civil War “tends to efface, if not erase, local, deep, and long histories in favor of the relatively recent US history, a phenomenon that can be seen in recent historiography of the Civil War in the West.”  Emphasizing the local over the national, he employed two cases, the Battle of Apache Pass in July 1862, and the Massacre at Fort Fauntleroy at Ojo de Oso in 1861, to make a granular, spirited case that we attend to causal conditions in the canyons, mesas, sheep husbandry, and protagonists’ personal histories for our meanings, well below the vantage of “the nation state.”  We come away convinced that “the United States was not a full participant in the local borderland wars…and US officials and soldiers in the Civil War era ultimately played a marginal role in the true wars of the Southwest.”  Kit Carson, the local, laid pillage to Canyon de Chelly for reasons his commander, James Carlton, little understood.

Angela Pulley Hudson chased a glancing reference to a deployment of western Indian Scouts in support the Freedmen’s Bureau in the post-War South to an unexpectedly fruitful exploration of “western” Indians in the Old Southwest–including the 1887-1894 incarceration of Geronimo’s Chiricahua Apaches at Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama. Her work not only reverses the predominant “westering” directionality of our narratives, by bringing Apaches eastward to Alabama, but also provides for discovery of a resident Indian people, the MOWA Choctaws, who became neighbors and informal kinsfolk to the Apaches.  Hudson plays provocatively with the notion that Indian “removals” might have trended eastward, and that the “removals” of the 1830s in the Old Southwest were less complete than popularly imagined.  Two “Native Souths” entail here, and neither fully what we might expect. As if anticipating my own Georgia Colony story, Hudson suggests “rather than tending to follow the westward path of U.S. expansion, what if we follow people and stories where they lead, even if that lands us in unfamiliar historiographical waters?”  Venturing that Apaches and Choctaws employed each other’s presence to enhance their own sense of indigeneity, she asks us to wonder if the imprisoned Apaches rescued their Muskogee cousins from becoming “vanishing Indians.”  She later expanded on this essay with a Muster post.

The special issue of the Western Historical Quarterly appeared in the summer of 2021 and featured another four articles under the Unholy Union rubric.

 In “Reimagining ‘Defeat’ in the Transnational West” Matthew Hulbert brought South and the (South)west into conversation in a wry examination of how some former Confederates, rather than surrender their futures to the victorious Union, sought a new location where the “social and cultures features of the Confederate experiment” might be kept alive, under the protection of Mexican Emperor Maximillian.  Crossing the Rio Grande at Las Piedras, some imagined a return of the halcyon days of the Old South, while others, particularly those whom Hulbert details, imagined a new white supremacist landscape that would contain many of the socioracial features of what we come to be known at the New South.  Placing Confederado thinkers John Newman Edwards, Henry W. Allen and Alexander W. Terrell as representatives of specific imagined futures for the post-Civil War South.  Although they may never have seen realization, understanding their visions, and the strategies by which they sought to bring them to realization, “is paramount to our broadest understanding of how Confederates conceived of defeat and coped with it culturally, both at home and abroad.” One comes away from the essay wondering at Confederado naivete, yet recognizing that the “Old South” did, indeed, survive in deed and word:  several emigrant colonies in Brazil, for instance, and more robustly in the many echoes of Edward Pollard’s The Lost Cause today.

In “’No Country Will Rise Above its Home, and No Home Above its Mother:’ Gender, Memory and Colonial Violence in Nineteenth Century Central Texas,” Patrick Troester tackled another enduring myth of westering–the victimization of innocent women and children as justification for white men’s violence–while situating its origins in the Old Southwest.  By bringing a gender focus to literary representations, especially memoirs, of colonization (seldom used term) in the “settling” of Texas, he argued that “Anglo women served as active colonial agents through their work making homes, raising children, and building social ties—labor which bound them firmly to more overt forms of colonial violence by men and the emerging state.” Mary Maverick, daughter of Northport, Alabama attorney William Adams, misremembered her father as appointed by Andrew Jackson as Indian Agent for Choctaws and Cherokees.  Her husband to be, Samuel Maverick, disliked the hands-on daily work of managing enslaved workers on his father’s Tennessee plantation, and sought more bountiful returns in side-ranging land speculation.  Although the family prospered, “Mary faced the same bitter frustrations as other slaveholding women in the American South coupled with a quintessentially western sense of frontier isolation, “a slave of slaves.”

In “Between Civilization and Savagery: How Reconstruction Era Federal Indian Policy Lead to the Indians Wars,”  Boyd Cothran brought us farther west (and east) than any in our series across the two journals. His essay arced from the lava-beds stronghold of the Modocs to Washington, DC, and Ulysses S. Grant’s halting formulation of a “Peace Policy” that would seek, finally, to end the Indian Wars and bring Indians into the new body politic of the reunited states. That the Peace Policy would fail is attributable to an inability to grasp the “entrenched realities of life on the ground throughout the American West.”  Focusing on a single year, 1873, the messy realities of the West could unravel high-minded political reforms and kneecap Gilded Age avarice.  Francis Amasa Walker, the leading architect of the Peace Policy, a gifted intellectual and theorist, failed to craft a nationwide response to the knotty social realities of Indian-Settler relations in the West, and the Modoc War served as the “precipitating event” that would lead to a resumption of the Indian Wars as a final solution.

Steve Kantrowitz closed out our special issue with “Jurisdiction, Civilization, and the Ends of Native American Citizenship: the view from 1866” asked to place the imagined futures of Freedmen and Indians in conversation with one another to clarify the hidden contradictions that the 1866 Civil Rights Bill held for American Indians. Birthright citizenship, which seemed so straightforward in the case of newly freed women and men, became vexingly complicated once Senators contemplated embracing the “wild and savage” as fellow members of the body politic. The fact that Indians “bore a very different relationship” to the newly freed became obvious during debate.  Where “rights and equality” lay at the core of freedmen’s citizenship debates, Senators were undecided on issues of Native “jurisdiction.” Were Indians bound first by their tribal affiliation and therefore “foreign,” or were (some, at least) cloven from tribal passions and in the continuum of dependent subjects of the United States, hence “domestic”? If the latter, how might individual Indians be place on the spectrum of savagery to civilization?  How could “birthright” citizenship also allow for “enculturation” citizenship? Kantrowitz uses these questions to argue that in our “settler’s empire, republican constitutional principles could not be allowed to hamstring the fundamental sovereignty of settlers and their governments.”


In the Fall of 2021, I had the pleasure of serving as discussant for another WHA session, one continuing the themes that yielded the special issues, “South Meets West: Examining Federal Power and Policies After the Civil War.”  I found those papers exciting in their own right, and so strongly aligned with our ongoing work that I suggested to Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams they submit them to Muster, so that their insights might be included in our conversations before Kansas City. The various pieces will appear in a special roundtable over the next two weeks.

James Brooks

James F. Brooks is the Gable Chair in early American history at the University of Georgia and is research professor in history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Introducing “Detailed: A Semi-Occasional Series within the Muster Blog”

Introducing “Detailed: A Semi-Occasional Series within the Muster Blog”

On August 26, 1861, soldiers of the Seventh Iowa Volunteers announced that Lauman’s Own would be “published Semi-occasionally” for “the benefit of the Regiment.” Similarly, the men of Morgan’s Brigade launched The Vidette to be “published semi-occasionally” in Springfield, Tennessee in late 1862, a member of the Twenty-First Mississippi promised that The Grape Shot would be  printed semi-occasionally in Virginia in 1864, and the Campaign Hornet introduced itself in March 1862 as “a Semi-Occasional Journal” by Arkansas soldiers that would be “devoted to the war, agricultures, commerce and the development of the resources of  the Southern Confederacy.” In each of these “semi-occasional” publications, voices from the trenches brought unique perspectives to the Civil War, offering a slightly different view from the one offered by an individual’s letters or a single person’s diary. These quirky newspapers do not tell us everything about the Civil War, but they sometimes shift the framing and reveal familiar aspects of the war in fresh, new ways.[i]

Alfred Waud, “Soldiers Wells,” 1862, Library of Congress ppmsca-21300-21319

In like fashion, we introduce this new semi-occasional series within the Muster blog, in which new perspectives from scholars in disciplines outside of history cast new light on the Civil War era. In response to growing political attention to the security and legitimacy of elections, voting rights, racial inequality, police brutality, and health disparities, scholars in the social and biological sciences have turned their attention to this pivotal time in U.S. history. We envision political scientists, sociologists, biologists, economists, and others using this space to share and discuss their research on the Civil War era with interested historians.

Readers of the Muster blog will benefit from this proposed series by gaining familiarity with both new evidence and new perspectives.

In terms of evidence, social and natural scientists create and analyze data about the Civil War era using tools and techniques that are uncommon in history. Thus, some of the conclusions these scholars reach may be opaque and inaccessible to historians unfamiliar with methodological debates or practices in those fields. Conversely, social and natural scientists often work with a thin or narrow grasp of the history of the Civil War era. We see these blog posts as an opportunity to overcome this divide and foster greater interdisciplinary dialogue to mutual benefit.

Lauman’s Own images from personal collection of Chandra Manning

Introducing and explaining novel evidence, much of it statistical, to historians of the long Civil War era may bring new traction in long-standing debates, generate new questions for historical research, or lead to reinterpretation and reappraisal of historical evidence. At the same time, historians may use their deep knowledge of the political, economic, and social contexts of the Civil War era to interrogate, sharpen, or sometimes even challenge the assumptions and conclusions that social and natural scientists make in their analyses.

African American Laborers, Northern Virginia 1862 or 1863, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10400.

Engaging with the work of scholars in other disciplines provides an opportunity to see “our” era from new perspectives. This intervention may prove very helpful in breaking up some of the field’s stubborn impasses because the broader questions that motivate scholars in other disciplines to investigate the United States during this era differ from those that have preoccupied the historiography of war and emancipation.

For example, in political science, much of the research on the Civil War and Reconstruction examines the United States from a comparative perspective in order to illuminate processes of democratization, the political economy of land reform, state formation, and the dynamics of civil conflict. Dendrochronologists, botanists, and climatologists are more invested in fluctuations in water levels and air temperature than in arguments about territorial expansion or popular sovereignty. The questions that practitioners of other disciplines ask, therefore, have the potential to break historians’ scholarly conversations free from some of the well-worn grooves in our debates. At the same time, historians are well situated to inject humans—with all their messy and contradictory motivations—and contingency back into the theories of social scientists.

Not all scholarly work looks the same, and neither will all entries in this series. We can envision at least two broad formats that posts in the series might take. Some pieces might be single-authored pieces in which scholars explain their research and how their findings might interest historians of the Civil War era.

Political scientist Michael Weaver’s piece, for example, documents the evidence he has collected on enlistment and Reconstruction voting patterns that shows that wartime service turned Union veteran voters into a critical part of the coalition that enacted civil rights legislation and passed the 14th and 15th Amendments.

In other instances, posts may take the form of a dialogue between a scholar and a historian who work on a related topic, in which they discuss their own approaches to the material, as well as what they see anew thanks to the interdisciplinary conversation.

We hope that readers of the Muster blog will share this new semi-occasional series with their colleagues in other disciplines and encourage them to submit work for consideration, or will suggest scholars who might be invited to post. Potential authors can pitch a post idea to either Chandra Manning or directly to Hilary Green, the current JCWE Digital Media Editor.

Camp of 31st Pennsylvania Infantry near Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, cph 3g07983 //

The Campaign Hornet pledged itself to “endeavoring to speak the truth” unburdened by the compulsion to “court popularity from any clique or faction” and promised that its tone would remain “courteous though firm and decided, independent in all things, neutral in nothing.”[ii] We share those aspirations and hope that this new, semi-occasional series will become a dynamic forum that stretches our minds, enlivens our work, and benefits all who are soldiering away in the study of the long Civil War era.

[i] Lauman’s Own, 7th Iowa Volunteers, Aug. 21, 1861, Ironton, MO, Chicago Historical Society; The Vidette, Morgan’s Confederate Brigade, Nov. 2, 1862, Springfield, TN, Tennessee State Library and Archives; The Grape Shot, 21st Mississippi Volunteers, May 1864, VA, Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library Museum of the Confederacy; Campaign Hornet, 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, March 1862, Jonathan Callaway Civil War Letters and papers, University of Arkansas.

[ii] Campaign Hornet, March 1862, p. 1.

“Let our ballots secure what our bullets have won”: Union Veterans and the Making of Radical Reconstruction?

“Let our ballots secure what our bullets have won”: Union Veterans and the Making of Radical Reconstruction?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Detailed: A Semi-Occasional series within Muster. Read the introductory post here. 

The passage and enforcement of the Reconstruction amendments is one of the most remarkable expansions of political rights in world history. Political scientists studying the expansion and contraction of political rights treat Reconstruction as a classic example that illustrates how these changes are driven by the strategic interests of political elites. They argue that electoral competition between rival elites or political parties drives them to expand suffrage when they expect new voters will give them decisive support.[1] From this perspective, recognizing that restored representation to white Southerners would empower the Democrats, the Republican party strategically extended suffrage rights and other protections to African Americans to win elections in the South and retain control of the federal government.[2] Thus, Republican commitments to equal civil and political rights were only as deep as the electoral value of African American ballots.

While true in part, this isn’t the whole story. Rather than rush to give and protect rights for African Americans, Republicans pursued expansions of civil and political rights fitfully, and were deeply concerned that “Radical” Reconstruction policies would alienate Northern voters.[3] Where did popular support for this revolutionary agenda come from? In newly published research, I show that the war turned Union veterans into a pivotal constituency that voted and mobilized for Republicans and their Radical reforms in the critical elections that shaped Reconstruction.

Scholars have underappreciated the important role of veterans in shaping post-war politics .[4] Returning Union veterans comprised at least 20% of the post-war Northern electorate. Veterans’ organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic, were active participants in political conventions and campaigning—particularly for Republicans—in 1866 and 1868 elections. And the intense experiences of military service may have primed soldiers for political change. Through their sacrifices to defeat the Confederacy and their experiences with slavery and African Americans, Union soldiers may have developed commitments about the meaning of the war, what had been achieved, and how victory should be preserved: what Barbara Gannon calls “The Won Cause.”

Yet, figuring out whether Union soldiers’ views on slavery and racial equality were changed by the war and what the political consequences of that were is bedeviled by two thorny problems:

  1. Measurement: What counts as evidence of soldiers’ political views, as a whole? The diaries and letters of individual soldiers, the commonly used sources, have had differing interpretations. And, since we can’t collect these for all soldiers, it is reasonable to ask: whose diaries and letters are we reading? How representative are they of the Union Army?
  2. Causality: How did Union veterans acquire their political commitments? Even if we accept evidence that soldiers disproportionately supported Republicans (such as, the soldiers’ votes in the 1864 Presidential Election), one might reasonably ask: did veterans already possess these views when they enlisted, or were they transformed in the crucible of war?

I bring some quantitative tools of social science to bear against both of these problems. First, I work to clearly and systematically measure the post-war political support veterans gave to Republicans and Reconstruction policies in elections. Second, I employ rigorous statistical analyses that, with transparent and plausible assumptions, enable us to evaluate whether military service caused a change in soldiers’ political commitments.

Union Veterans Increase Post-War Republican Votes

Casting the widest net, I examine whether higher levels of Union enlistment caused counties to experience greater support for Republicans in elections after the war. I calculate the fraction of votes cast for Republicans using county election returns for federal elections collected by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. I link data compiled by the American Civil War Research Database on the military records of virtually all Union Soldiers with the 1860 US Census to calculate the enlistment rate among military-aged males for counties in eight states where soldiers’ residence was recorded.[5]

A skeptical reader might raise the objection that counties with higher enlistment may have had more votes for Republicans even before the war, and that enlistment did not cause any changes. To address this concern and provide evidence of the causal impact of wartime enlistment, I employ a method called differences-in-differences. In essence, this method compares changes in Republican voting from before to after the war in counties within the same states with higher versus lower enlistment.

After the war, counties with greater enlistment saw much larger increases: compared to 1860, counties in the top 25% of enlistment saw Republicans gain 10 percentage points in 1866, while counties in the bottom 25% gained only 2.

By looking at changes within counties, it cannot be that unchanging attributes of counties (e.g., a history of abolitionist mobilization or pre-war support for Republicans) explain this pattern. To interpret these results as the causal effect of enlistment rates on Republican voting, we need only assume that counties with different levels of enlistment would have had similar trends in Republican votes, had the war not happened. While this is impossible to know, we can see in the provided figure that, prior to the war, counties with different enlistment rates had the same trends in Republican voting. Thus, we can plausibly say that wartime enlistment caused substantial gains for Republicans in key post-war elections.

Yet, we cannot say for sure that these aggregate effects are the result of soldiers themselves changing their votes; it could be that non-veterans in places with greater enlistment became more supportive of Republicans, through, say, the canvassing efforts of veterans.

Union Veterans’ Combat Experiences Affected their Partisanship

To find out whether the war changed veterans, I restrict my focus to soldiers and examine whether different wartime experiences affected their political views after the war: did increased exposure to combat casualties make men more Republican? A simple comparison might lead us astray: Republican and Democratic soldiers may have chosen to join different units and at different times, and Army commanders may have taken unit partisanship into account when issuing battle orders.

To isolate the effect of combat casualties on partisanship, I take advantage of a “natural experiment”: men joining the same regiment enlisted, moved, and fought together during the war. Yet, in battle, different companies were arrayed at different points along a short line, and as a result of the contingencies of battle, some arbitrarily experienced more casualties than others. If we believe these differences were effectively random, like the assignment to treatment and control in a clinical trial, we can attribute differences in partisanship to the causal impact of company casualties.

Biographical directories compiled in nine Indiana counties in 1874 record the partisanship for nearly thirty thousand people. Digitizing and linking this data to the military records of soldiers from those counties, I find that within the same regiments, soldiers serving in companies with more combat deaths become more likely to label themselves as Republican versus Democrat. And consistent with the effectively “random” exposure to casualties, there were no such differences in pre-war demographic traits. This is compelling evidence that one key feature of military service, combat, turned individual soldiers into Republicans.

Union Veterans Backed Radical Policies

Did veterans merely support Republicans without actually backing Radical policies? To answer this, I combine data on enlistment with town-level returns in referenda over Black suffrage in Iowa and Wisconsin.[6] Importantly, these states held referenda beforeand after the war.  Looking at changes in support for suffrage after the war, towns with higher enlistment saw greater increases in support for Black suffrage.

These are aggregate patterns but mathematically it must be that, after the war, support for suffrage increased more among veterans than among those who stayed home. This is another difference-in-differences analysis: if we believe that, absent the war, soldiers and non-soldiers would have had similar trends in support for Black suffrage, this is compelling evidence that military service caused substantial increases in support for suffrage.

Critically, the Wisconsin referendum took place in November 1865. It occurred well before national Republican leaders publicly embraced any of the key policies of Radical Reconstruction. Thus, these results suggest that returning soldiers may have pushed the party toward these positions from below.  This would turn the electoral competition argument on its head: it was veterans and their Radical allies who, as pivotal voters for the Republican party, pushed party leaders to embrace a stronger Reconstruction agenda.


In Congressional elections of 1866, Republicans won a supermajority that empowered them to legislate Radical Reconstruction. They benefited from increased support in places with more enlistment: a ten point increase in enlistment was enough to secure the seats needed to override Johnson’s veto. I show that these effects were the result of war experiences changing both soldiers’ partisanship and their direct support for Black suffrage.

My conclusions about the role of veterans in the Republican party during Reconstruction parallels recent work in political science showing that it was the local-level incorporation of African American voters and mobilization by labor unions that pushed Northern Democrats to embrace civil rights in the 20th century.[7]  More work remains to be done to understand the nature of veterans’ support for Reconstruction and its consequences.  Nevertheless, we can draw important lessons from these cases. Rather than exemplify the strategic logic of elite-led rights expansions, Reconstruction shows that expanding and protecting political rights depends on buy-in from broad grassroots coalitions among those already enfranchised.

[1] Ben Ansell and David Samuels, Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach. (New York: Cambridge University Press 2015); Humberto Llavador and Robert Oxoby, 2005. “Partisan Competition, Growth, and the Franchise.’’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 120(3):1155–1189;  Dawn Teele, 2018. “How the West Was Won: Competition, Mobilization, and Women’s Enfranchisement in the United States.’’ Journal of Politics 80(2):442–461; Giovanni Capoccia and Daniel Ziblatt, 2010. “The Historical Turn in Democratization Studies: A New Research Agenda for Europe and Beyond.’’ Comparative Political Studies 43(8–9):931–968.

[2] Richard Valelly, The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[3] Xi Wang, Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).

[4] Though, Cf. Mary Dearing, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the G.A.R. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952); Brian Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014)

[5] Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

[6] Data from Iowa referenda are available from Data from the Wisconsin referenda were provided by Michael McManus.

[7] Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Michael Weaver

Michael Weaver is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at The University of British Columbia. He studies race and American political development, the politics of discursive struggles over the legitimacy of violence, and causes and consequences of ethnic and racial violence, more broadly.

The American Civil War and the Case for a “Long” Age of Revolution

The American Civil War and the Case for a “Long” Age of Revolution

The term “age of Revolution,” since it was used by Eric Hobsbawm in his trilogy of books on the “long” nineteenth-century in the 1960s, is normally used to describe the period between the American Revolution in the 1770s and the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in the late 1840s. Yet, the interpretation of the American Civil War of 1861-65 as a Second American Revolution suggests that the “age of Revolution” did not die on the barricades in 1848-1849.Historians, consciously or unconsciously, but all too often, consider “revolution” through the lens of Marxist interpretation. Events that have the appearance of being driven by bourgeois or proletarian forces attempting to overthrow the power structures above them are called revolutions, even if they fail. But if we consider a revolution to be something that achieves profound and fundamental change, then the Civil War should be seen as a revolution that was far more successful than any other in its age.

Elder men in suits posed in a group shot with a Black man holding a flag.
Civil War veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic, Cazenovia, New York, circa 1900.

On the face of it, the American Civil War was a rebellion (arguably a failed revolution) of several southern states who seceded, joined the Confederate States of America and waged war against the United States. But it catalysed a more significant northern-driven revolution against the injustices enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. Like other revolutions, it picked up momentum, becoming more radical over time. By the end of the war, its goals had shifted from simply preserving the Union to abolishing slavery and granting the full rights of citizenship to Black Americans throughout the United States. The restored nation was fundamentally different from the one that existed before the war, even if the full ramifications of the change took decades to set in.

Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely revolutionary. Through war as a Commander in Chief, however, Lincoln drove a change that was more radical and profound than any other of the world revolutions that are remembered by that name between the death of Bolivar in 1830 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Civil War’s most revolutionary moment was the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, in which Lincoln announced that enslaved people in the states in rebellion would henceforward be free. Prior to this Lincoln had quashed his own generals’ attempts to emancipate slaves in confederate areas under Union control. The Proclamation did not abolish slavery in the border states that did not secede or in southern areas occupied by the Union army. Far more sweeping was Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1865, which ended slavery throughout the United States, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ratified soon after Lincoln’s assassination, in which Blacks gained equality before the law in all parts of the United States.[1]

People saw and understood the Civil War as a revolution at the time and in subsequent generations. The Massachusetts intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1863 that the nation was “in the midst of a great revolution” overthrowing the “old remainders of barbarism” for the advance of “Christianity and humanity.”[2] The historian Andre Fleche has argued that Americans at the time used the term “revolution” to describe what was happening in their country as often as the terms “civil war” or “rebellion.” Many of the “Forty-Eighter” immigrants from Germany to the North (hundreds of whom served in the Civil War) viewed the struggle against slavery as a revolution against aristocracy and tyranny in the United States, with strong parallels to what the European revolutionaries of 1848 had tried to achieve.[3]

In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, historians including Charles and Mary Beard, James McPherson, Eric Foner, Bruce Levine and others continued to advance the interpretation of the Civil War and the destruction of slavery as a “Second American Revolution.”[4] If we take revolution in its broader meaning as a major and fundamental change in the way a country is governed, the move from a system in which well over half of the population (in some states) were legally enslaved to one in which the same were given full and equal rights of citizenship, including voting rights, is arguably as revolutionary a change as was effected anywhere in the nineteenth century.

While those rights were systematically stripped away from Black citizens after the Reconstruction era ended, they still remained enshrined in federal law and in the constitution. They were invoked during the post-World War II Civil Rights era to dismantle the system of Jim Crow and official segregation in the South, and to challenge segregation which existed – less “officially” but just as certainly – in many parts of the North. America is still a long way from overcoming the legacy of slavery and racism, and that is a valid counterargument to the idea that what Lincoln and the Radical Republicans achieved was a fully completed “revolution.”  I would suggest, however, that the change to the nation’s constitution was more dramatic and more permanent than was the case in any of the other world revolutions between 1830 and 1917.

The Revolutions that rocked Europe in 1830 and 1848 were, for the most part, dismal failures. Where they did achieve change, it was (in most cases) illusory, temporary, or both. The July Revolution of 1830 in France did lead to a regime change, of sorts, but it simply replaced one King for another, albeit one who was more accountable to the people. The Revolutions of 1848 were much bigger, bloodier, and more widespread. But most of the revolutions were crushed immediately or reversed within a short space of time. The ones that succeeded – notably in France and in the Kingdom of Piedmont, Italy – managed to bring about new constitutions. In France’s case a Second Republic was declared in 1848. Enslaved people in France’s overseas colonies were freed. But by 1852, the Republic was dissolved, and Napoleon III subsequently reigned as Emperor. Piedmont’s reformed constitutional monarchy was perhaps the one lasting success, in that the constitution survived and later became the basis upon which the Kingdom of Italy was governed after unification.[5]

More consequential as “revolutions,” though they are not generally known by that name, were the events that coincided with, or took place in the five or six after the American Civil War. The Emancipation of Russia’s Serfs in 1861 was arguably a far larger-scale change than the emancipation of the slaves in the United States. It certainly “freed” a much larger number of people, roughly 23 million, compared to just under 4 million slaves in the United States. It was accompanied by the establishment of the first democratically elected bodies in Russia at a local level, the zemstva. It was perhaps less deserving of the distinction of a revolution that the Civil War though as it did not change the nature of Russian government at a national, or rather imperial, level. Russia was an autocracy before and after the emancipation. Furthermore, Russian serfs weren’t slaves, exactly, before 1861 and neither did they get the full range of rights that the slaves were granted in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.[6]

The Unifications of Italy in the 1860s and of Germany in 1871 were dramatic changes that resulted in millions of Europeans living – many for the first time – under constitutional monarchies, some with newly-gained voting rights. But both were far less democratic in structure than the United States. Later events that appear to fit the revolutionary model more readily, such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the violence – or failed revolutions – of 1905-7 in Russia were frighteningly radical but achieved relatively little. However, all these events are – like the American Civil War – inextricably linked to the same ideas that drove earlier revolutions dating back to 1776, most of all the desire for a new nation in which all people could live under the rule of law and free from arbitrary or tyrannical authority.

The revolutionary nature of the Civil War suggests that the “age of Revolution” extended well beyond 1848. When Hobsbawm applied the name to that era, he was already extending a shorter period that R.R. Palmer had labelled the “Age of Democratic Revolution” which linked the American and French Revolutions up to 1800. Perhaps the parameters should be widened again, to 1865, or 1871. Or maybe, the age of revolution hasn’t ended at all. Hobsbawm called the period after the “age of Revolution” the “age of capital,” and that has certainly not played itself out yet either. If a century can be “long” then an “age” can be even longer. And until the dream of the revolutionaries of a world free of the worst forms of tyranny has been realized, the idealist may hope that age will continue.

[1] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 352-8. W.E.B. DuBois made a similar argument in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), 55-83.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fortune of the Republic,” (1863) in Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, eds., Emerson’s Antislavery Writings(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 146.

[3] Andre Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 5; Bruce Levine, The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 8, 149-51, 168-70, 217-8, 260-3.

[4] Levine covers this branch of historiography in The Spirit of 1848, 8. Also see idem., “The Second American Revolution,” Jacobin, August 17, 2015; Kevin Gannon, “The Civil War as a Settler-Colonial Revolution,” Age of Revolutions, January 18, 2016.

[5] Derek Beales and Eugenio F. Biagini, The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson, 2002), 87-99; R.J.W. Evans and Harmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds., The Revolutions in Europe, 1848-1849: From Reform to Reaction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History, 1812-2001, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 72-6, 80-1; Amanda Bellow, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Daniel Koch

Daniel Koch is the author of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Europe: Class, Race and Revolution in the Making of an American Thinker (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012). His next book, Land of the Oneidas, is forthcoming with SUNY Press. He completed a D.Phil. in History at the University of Oxford and is the incoming Headmaster of Loughborough Grammar School.

Previewing the June 2022 JCWE Issue

Previewing the June 2022 JCWE Issue

This issue exhibits historians’ continuing efforts to grapple with the complexities of the Civil War Era, emphasizing how our collective understanding of the period has been produced, which topics have been neglected or marginalized, and why.

Ryan Hall’s article, “Chaos and Conquest: The Civil War and Indigenous Crisis on the Upper Missouri, 1861–1864,” extends the geography of the Civil War Era to the Upper Missouri River and expands the actors affected by it to include the Native groups who lived along the river’s banks. Drawing our attention to civilian rather than military matters—to federal agents, political patronage, and economic relationships—Hall makes a compelling case that the Civil War had a significant impact on Indigenous people in the northwestern United States because of the corruption and incompetence of the Republican appointees sent there. Seeing the Civil War Era not just from Indian Country but from a lesser-studied vantage helps capture the wide-ranging and significant implications of the war.

In “Rereading the High Private: Restoring Class and Race to Co. Aytch,” Patrick Lewis analyzes a Confederate memoir that was made famous in the twentieth century by historian Bell I. Wiley and filmmaker Ken Burns and that eventually became a staple in public history interpretations of the Civil War, particularly in Tennessee. Lewis shows the ways the memoir’s author, Samuel Rush Watkins, constructed a narrative in the early 1880s that obscured his own elite status (and that of many in his regiment), the significance of slavery and enslaved people, and the white supremacist violence that characterized Middle Tennessee after the war. This piece should change how historians use the famous Watkins quotations, both in teaching and public history settings.

Christina Adkins too explores the production of Civil War memory in the 1880s, taking a close look at Mary Chesnut’s changing descriptions of disease, as both metaphor and historical reality. Combining medical and literary history in “Mary Chesnut’s War Fever: Disease in the Civil War Narrative of a Lost Cause Dissenter,” Adkins examines Chesnut’s revisions of her own work based on changing ideas about illness and contagion, and the relationship between her 1880s vision of a diseased Confederacy and many white Southerners’ growing consolidation of the Lost Cause myth.

Mark Boonshoft’s review essay explores the history of schools and education from the antebellum period to the end of the nineteenth century, representing the Civil War as an “inflection point” in an important, but often overlooked field. Boonshoft demonstrates that the history of schooling and education is not only important in its own right but also offers a revealing window into debates about citizenship, democracy, and the state. The piece makes a strong case that the history of education should occupy a central place in our scholarship and teaching of the era.

Our book review section reflects some of the breadth and diversity of the field, as well as the commitment of our editors and reviewers to historical engagement in an extraordinarily challenging time. We are immensely grateful to the associate editors—Hilary Green, Luke Harlow, and Katy Shively—for their steadfast efforts on behalf of the journal, to the book reviewers and peer reviewers who also make the journal possible, and to you, our readers. 

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.



The known facts about Sarah’s life begin with one handwritten line in the 1860 U.S. Census. Even this brief individualization represented an anomaly. More than 99 percent of African Americans in Sumter County, Georgia, appeared without names in this simple government spreadsheet that apportioned power in the form of congressional representatives and electoral votes. Sarah was one of only 48 African Americans in the county named in this document by the local farmer and slaveowner who served as the census enumerator that year.[i]

Sarah’s name harkened back to the wife of Abraham in the Book of Genesis and the start of important genealogies for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Born in Georgia about 1835, Sarah may have worked in a house or a kitchen or the cotton fields. The census worker listed her as unmarried; however, this marital status reveals little about her personal life because Georgia did not recognize enslaved unions. Sarah was pregnant though at the beginning of 1860. While the exact circumstances of her pregnancy went unrecorded, it can be inferred that Sarah did not want to bring a child — or perhaps an additional child if she was already a mother — into this world.[ii]

1860 U.S. Census, Mortality Schedule, Sumter County, Georgia.

Sarah lived in southwest Georgia, a remote place with important links to broader histories. In 1864 and 1865, it became infamous for “Camp Sumter,” more commonly known as Andersonville, where 13,000 U.S. soldiers perished for want of shelter, wholesome food, and clean water. In the twentieth century, an interracial Christian commune launched a partnership housing program that became Habitat for Humanity. Jimmy Carter, born in Sumter County, became the first president born in a hospital and the first president from the deep South since before the Civil War. In 1860, though, Sumter County exemplified the “Black Belt” or what W.E.B. Du Bois later called “the shadow of a dream of slave empire” as he narrated his passage through the region. Slavery was more common than freedom here. The county’s enslaved population grew from 29 percent of the total population in 1840 to 52 percent in 1860. The 1840s and 1850s also saw an increase in large plantations. John B. Lamar, the brother-in-law of Howell Cobb who had large plantations across the state, kept 193 enslaved people in Sumter County alone on the eve of the Civil War.[iii]

The number in each county represents the proportion of people who were enslaved. Detail of Edwin Hergesheimer, “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860,” Library of Congress.

Sarah had few choices and these options reflected an important day-to-day fault line under slavery. Slaveowners wanted enslaved women to produce children. Historian Sharla Fett writes that “soundness,” from the perspective of slaveowners, meant “an enslaved person’s overall state of health and, by extension, his or her worth in the marketplace.”[iv] Soundness equated to strength, a clean medical history, a good outward disposition, and for women it included the likelihood of having children. In January 1850, an overseer on John B. Lamar’s plantation in eastern Sumter County, settled his account with Polly Taylor, a local midwife. He paid her $16.50 “for midwife services to Antoinette, Harriet, Marry Ann, Viniy, Nancy Florida, and Fanny.”[v]

Yet try as they might, slaveholders could never turn human beings into the extensions of their will. Contraception and abortion were methods of asserting control over one’s own body even if that body was legally owned by someone else. It could also mean resisting the dehumanization of slavery, including the threat of sexual violence posed by owners and overseers.[vi]

Contraception and abortion became more visible in nineteenth-century America until the Comstock Law of 1873 forbade “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material in the mail and more and more state legislatures criminalized abortion. Yet before the Comstock Law, physicians specializing in abortions and merchants specializing in abortifacient pills made the practice readily available for women with money. By one estimate, and the trustworthiness of these estimates are debatable, there was one abortion for every five or six live births by the 1840s and 1850s.[vii]

The patent medicines advertised in newspapers to produce abortions would have been difficult for Sarah to procure. She and other women relied on medicine practiced by enslaved midwives, root doctors, and herbalists. Enslaved women used cotton root on plantations before apothecaries began selling it as an abortifacient. In 1860, southern white physicians discussed herbal ways that enslaved women were believed to end pregnancies. The plants included tansy and rue as well as the “roots and seeds of the cotton plant, pennyroyal, cedar berries, and camphor.”[viii]

Patterns of miscarriages caught the attention of slaveowners. In 1855, rumors abounded in eastern Sumter County that the cruelty of overseer Stancil Barwick had resulted in enslaved women losing pregnancies in the field. When John B. Lamar asked his overseer for an explanation, Barwick described two recent miscarriages. A woman named Treaty lost a child, but Barwick said he knew nothing about it. He admitted that Louisine, about five-months pregnant, worked in the cotton fields that July, but he asserted “she was workt as she please[d].” In Barwick’s telling, Louisine came to him and told him she was sick. “I told her to go home,” he said. “She started an[d] on the way she miscarried.” Barwick believed enslaved men had spread these rumors to injure his reputation. He gave no outward indication the women intentionally ended their pregnancies, and the ambiguity of miscarriage provided cover for individual decision making.[ix]

1860 U.S. Census, Mortality Schedule, Sumter County, Georgia.

All methods of ending pregnancy — from physical operations to patent medicines and local plants — came with physical dangers that paralleled the risks of carrying a child to term in the nineteenth century. While we do not know how Sarah decided to end her pregnancy, we do know the outcome. According to information her enslaver gave to the U.S. census worker, Sarah died during an abortion in February 1860.


As a teacher of public history, I tell students every year about the power of individualizing and localizing “big” history while at the same time contextualizing the lives of everyday people in the past. Sarah was one of 74 deaths reported in Sumter County in the year ending on June 1, 1860. It was far from the only tragedy or the only death that raised more questions than answers. Moreover, like most of the people on the mortality schedule, Sarah has no known, preserved gravestone.

The greatest challenge in writing about Sarah is not how little is known about her. After all, even a name in the 1860 U.S. census set her apart from the vast majority of enslaved people. The challenge is reconstructing the necessary local, regional, and national context without losing—or worse, obscuring—Sarah’s individuality in the process. The risk, though, is worth it because the knowns and unknowns of Sarah’s life and death offer a portal into difficult pasts that resonate far beyond southwest Georgia today.

[i]. 1860 U.S. Census, Sumter County, Georgia, Mortality Schedules, Sarah, pg. 616; digital image, ( : accessed May 3, 2022); citing NARA microfilm publication T655, roll 224. In addition to the names of 46 enslaved people, Benjamin Tharp recorded the names of two free people of color, Lucy Wilkinson and Jepthah Sheets, 1860 U.S. Census, 17th and 26th Districts, Sumter County, Georgia, dwellings 49 and 63, families 50 and 64, Lucy Wilkinson and Jepthat Sheets, digital image, ( : accessed 16 July 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication 653, roll 136.

[ii]. 1860 U.S. Census, Sumter County, Georgia, Mortality Schedules, Sarah, pg. 616; digital image, ( : accessed May 3, 2022); citing NARA microfilm publication T655, roll 224. In marking the religious symbolism in her name, I am drawing from Marcus Rediker’s similar observation in The Slave Ship, A Human History (New York: Penguin, 2007), 19–20.

[iii]. Edwin Hergesheimer, “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860,” (Washington, D.C.: Henry S. Graham, 1861), Library of Congress; W. E. Burghardt Du Bois “The Negro as He Really Is: A Definite study of One Locality in Georgia Showing the Exact Conditions of Every Negro Family—Their Economic Status—Their Ownership of Land—Their Morals—Their Family Life—The Houses They Live in and the Results of the Mortgage System,” The World’s Work 2 (May-October 1901), 852; U.S. Federal Census, 1840, 1850, 1860, Social Explorer; U.S. Census Bureau; Michael R. Haines. Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790-2000; Susan Eva O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 22-25.

[iv]. Sharla Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations(Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 20.

[v]. Plantation Book, Box 1, John B. Lamar Papers, MS 131, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens.

[vi]. There is extensive literature on enslaved women and everyday resistance. See, for starters, the classics Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985) and Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[vii]. Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), 50. Estimates vary in number and in quality, in part, because of the way they became used as evidence of moral crisis needed greater government regulation in the nineteenth century.

[viii]. Dorothy Sterling, ed., We are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Norton and Norton, 1997), 40.

[ix]. Stancil Barwick to John B. Lamar, July 15, 1855, in Ulrich B. Phillips, ed. Plantation and Frontier Documents: 1649–1863, Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial & Ante-Bellum South (3 volumes; Cleveland, OH: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1909), Vol. 2: 312.

Evan Kutzler

Evan Kutzler is Associate Professor of U.S. and Public History at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia. He is the author of Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and co-author of In Plain Sight: African Americans at Andersonville National Historic Site, A Special History Study (National Park Service, 2020). As a public historian, he consults with cultural organizations and writes for the local paper.

The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

As a public historian working in St. Louis, Missouri, I am sometimes asked whether enslaved people living here before the Civil War ran away more frequently than enslaved people in the Deep South. Enslaved St. Louisians had the free state of Illinois across the Mississippi River, after all. While an exact response would be hard to quantify, I am fond of highlighting the story of Mattie J. Jackson as a part of my answer. Born and raised in St. Louis, Jackson wrote about her experiences with slavery in a short autobiography at the age of twenty in 1866. The Story of Mattie J. Jackson is unique in that it documents a traumatic, failed attempt by her family to seek freedom in Illinois. Jackson’s narrative highlights the intimate relationship between anti-slavery and anti-Black sentiment in the North and documents the very real dangers enslaved runaways experienced while traveling through free states (or what historian Dwight Pitcaithley more accurately describes as “non-slave states”).[1] For someone in Jackson’s position, the powerful symbolism of the North Star did not represent a path to freedom.

Title page of slave narrative
Figure 1: Front Cover of The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Photo Courtesy of Documenting the South

Slavery’s defenders in St. Louis faced unique challenges that undermined the security of its peculiar institution. The city was home to roughly 1,500 free Black residents leading up to the Civil War, a group that included a small financially elite network that styled themselves “the Colored Aristocracy.” An informal communications system between free and enslaved Blacks also existed to pass along information and promote education. For example, Mary and John Berry Meachum, leaders within St. Louis’s free Black community, operated schools for both free and enslaved people at First African Baptist Church. St. Louis was also a central destination for enslaved people looking to sue for their freedom. Early in Missouri’s statehood, state law established the concept of “once free, always free,” opening a door for African Americans to use the courts to pursue claims of unlawful enslavement. According to historian Kelly Kennington, 287 freedom suits were filed in the St. Louis County Courthouse (today the Old Courthouse at Gateway Arch National Park) between 1810 and 1860. 110 enslaved people (38 percent) earned their freedom through a successful lawsuit during this time. The city also experienced a major demographic change among its white population. By 1860, a surge of northern- and foreign-born residents in St. Louis led to increasing hostility to slavery’s presence within the city. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by the start of the Civil War.[2]

And yet, slavery remained an important component of St. Louis’s economic life and a form of social control enforced through harsh legislation. After pressure from St. Louis slaveholders, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law banning anyone from teaching an African American—whether free or slave—how to read and write in 1847. Enslaved people in Missouri were banned from getting married, riding public transit without permission, and smoking in public. Other “Black Codes” were enforced in St. Louis that prevented all blacks from making “seditions speeches” or meeting in church without a white observer present. Additionally, all African Americans needed to possess passes while moving in public as well.[3] It was with full sincerity that the famous abolitionist and formerly enslaved St. Louisian William Wells Brown recalled that “though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri . . . no part of our slave-holding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.”[4]

This was the harsh world that Mattie Jackson’s family hoped to escape. Jackson’s father, Westly Jackson, successfully ran away from St. Louis around 1850 and worked as a preacher in Chicago, but left his wife and two children in the city on a temporary basis. “Two years after my father’s departure, my mother . . . attempted to make her escape” from slavery alongside her children, Jackson recalled. While traveling through Illinois over several days, “we slept in the woods at night. I believe my mother had food to supply us fasted herself.”[5] Trouble loomed in the distance, however.

Jackson noted that the St. Louis newspapers were read by many residents in western Illinois. In publications like the Missouri Republican, advertisements with monetary rewards for capturing enslaved runaways were published on a daily basis. For white Illinoisans who had little regard for African Americans and a desire for cash, the opportunity to serve as a vigilante slave patrol for St. Louis slaveholders was appealing. “The advertisement had reached there before us,” Jackson recalled, “and loafers were already in search of us, and as soon as we were discovered on the brink of the river of the spies made enquiries respecting [our] suspicious appearance.” After their capture, “we were taken back to St. Louis and committed to prison . . . after which they put us in [Bernard] Lynch’s trader’s yard . . . we were then sold to William Lewis.”[6]

Sepia photo of slave pen with men standing outside.
Figure 2: After Jackson and her family were captured in Illinois, they were returned to St. Louis and sold at Bernard Lynch’s “trader’s yard,” which is pictured here during the American Civil War. Ironically, Lynch abandoned St. Louis at the start of the war and his building became a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates during the war. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The maintenance of slavery in eastern Missouri was highly dependent on not just a tolerance of slavery among Illinois residents, but active involvement through the capture of enslaved runaways. The state government, with strong support from political leaders in western and southern Illinois, went a step further by banning the settlement of free Blacks within the state’s boundaries in 1853. State legislator and future Civil War general John A. Logan was a leading force in getting this legislation passed. During debates he remarked that opponents of the bill were White “abolitionists” anxious to promote racial equality. “I [cannot] understand how it is that men can become so fanatical in their notions as to forget that they are white . . . it has almost become an offense to be a white man,” Logan remarked without a hint of irony.[7] Such attitudes among White Illinoisans were known among Missouri’s enslaved population and would have undoubtedly prevented many of them from taking the same path Jackson’s mother attempted to follow in running away from St. Louis.

Jackson remained in slavery through much of the Civil War, but went on to recall a remarkable irony following the Camp Jackson Affair within the city limits on May 10, 1861. Facing continued abuse from Lewis and recognizing that the she might be able to seek refuge from an increased presence of U.S. troops in the city, Jackson sought protection at the St. Louis Arsenal. She remained at a boarding house for three weeks, but when Lewis tried to sell Jackson and her mother at Lynch’s trader yard, he was promptly detained by the Army and given “one hundred lashes with the cow-hide, so that [the Army] might identify him by a scarred back, as well as his slaves.” While the beginning of the war were considered “days of sadness” for the Lewis family, Jackson fondly recalled them as “days of joy for us. We shouted and laughed to the top of our voices.” Several years later Jackson, with help from sympathetic Army officers, successfully made her way to Indianapolis to enjoy a new life in freedom.[8]

The publication of Jackson’s book in 1866 represents a final insight into her autobiography. In promoting her narrative after the Civil War’s conclusion and the beginning of the Reconstruction Era, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson served to remind readers of the horrors of slavery at a time when many Americans were anxious to move on from the past. In appealing to readers for donations to help fund her education, Jackson showed that while freedom had been achieved, the path to prosperity during Reconstruction—literacy, education, capital, land, and rights—still lay far in the future despite the recent ratification of the 13th Amendment. Jackson’s unique and courageous story demonstrates how freedom-seeking was a dangerous process that could break up families and ultimately lead to violent punishment and continued enslavement, even when freedom appeared to be staring across the Mississippi River.



[1] Mattie J. Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Her Parentage—Experience of Eighteen Years in Slavery—Incidents During the War—Her Escape from Slavery. A True Story (Lawrence: Sentinel Office, 1866), available online at; Dwight T. Pitcaithley, The U.S. Constitution and Secession: A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

[2] Julie Winch, The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antono F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 25-74; Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 198.

[3] “An Act Respecting Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes,” 1847, accessed February 8, 2022.,1847.pdf; Missouri State Archives, “Laws Concerning Slavery in Missouri, Territorial to 1850s,” Missouri State Archives, 2022, accessed February 7, 2022.

[4] William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847), 27.

[5] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] James Pickett Jones, Black Jack: John A. Logan and Southern Illinois in the Civil War Era, reprint edition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 14-19.

[8] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 8-11.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

Previewing March 2022 JCWE

Previewing March 2022 JCWE

This issue of the Journal of the Civil War contains three research articles and an historiographic review essay that reflect the field’s increasing geographic and topical breadth. Together they indicate that calls to envision an expansive Civil War Era are being answered in increasingly rich and complex ways, and they suggest that we might turn to analyzing the different ways the Civil War Era is being expanded and the varying implications of those expansions.

Peter Guardino’s “The Constant Recurrence of Such Atrocities: Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency during the Mexican-American War” analyzes US military responses to guerrilla warfare over the course of the US-Mexico War. Guardino traces how wars against Native Americans shaped early US military actions in northern Mexico and then examines how US commanders made it official policy to attack Mexican civilians as the war moved into central Mexico. This story, important in its own right, also provides a backstory and partial contrast to anti-guerilla campaigns in the US Civil War.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger looks east to expand our sense of how mid-nineteenth-century Americans understood and changed the laws of war. She argues that the Prussian immigrant Francis Lieber was influenced by Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, first published in the 1830s, but also that Lieber’s time in the United States shaped his thinking about modern war and democracy. What emerged from this mix of European theory and US reality, Bellinger claims, were new and distinctive theories that are best understood when placed in their own historical context.

Heading west, Jonathan Wells’s “Printed Communities: Race, Respectability, and Black Newspapers in the Civil War West,” examines Black editors and journalists in the US West between 1860s and 1880s as they attempted to create a distinct set of western identities for African Americans there, to engage with the complex racial politics of the West, and to construct new models of respectability to fit new spaces.

Cameron Blevins and Christy Hyman’s review essay, “Digital History and the Civil War Era,” assesses the ways that transformations in computational methods, tools, and platforms have reshaped representations and analysis of the Civil War Era. Blevins and Hyman show that scholars have made extraordinary use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping and of less-heralded digital systems, and they encourage us all to think more expansively and critically about digital technologies as they reshape historical practices.

This essay’s book reviews once again demonstrate book review editor Kathryn Shively’s extraordinary commitment under unusually challenging publishing circumstances, and also the professionalism and dedication of our colleagues, as scholars continued to produce sharp, informative reviews during the pandemic. 


Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.