Category: Blog

John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

John Sherman’s Struggle to Preserve Democracy: How 1860 Connects to 2020

This is not the first time in American history when democratic governance appeared to be under assault. In the years before the Civil War, just as today, minority rule was the norm. White Southerners dominated the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party dominated the federal government. In this way, what Republicans derisively dubbed the “Slave Power”—a small minority of aristocratic slaveholders—managed to maintain its grip in a country that increasingly viewed slavery as an obstacle to national progress. But in 1860, a juncture point was reached. Republicans appeared ready to break the Democratic stranglehold. And that is what brought John Sherman to Philadelphia.

Photograph of John Sherman, c. 1855-1865, from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A high-profile member of the U.S. House from Ohio, Sherman arrived at Philadelphia’s National Hall on Wednesday evening, September 12, 1860. He was escorted to the stage by uniformed “Republican Invincibles” who marched in “military order” and held aloft “four silken banners” as the band played “Hail Columbia.” A huge throng “rapturously” greeted the visitor and responded to his speech with “almost deafening” shouts and applause. It was “a reception we have seldom seen accorded to any politician,” reported the Philadelphia Press.[1]

Sherman’s rock-star status resulted in part from an epic two-month brawl the previous winter when Republicans attempted to make him Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.[2] That contest, he recalled, unfolded amid “wild confusion” as desperate Southerners tried to block him. He finally gave way to a different Republican, who eked out just enough support to prevail. But it had been a close call. “You know very well,” Sherman reminded the crowd, “that nothing but the extreme moderation, prudent forbearance, and good temper of the Republican party, saved the country from scenes that not only would have been disgraceful, but would have endangered the existence of the Government itself.” If potential disunionists could obstruct the selection of “an officer infinitely inferior in dignity and importance to the President,” it was imperative that a decisive popular vote determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.[3]

American voters faced three actual choices, Sherman insisted. Only the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, could win an electoral college majority “by the direct vote of the people.” None of Lincoln’s three rivals—Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, or Constitutional Unionist John Bell—had any comparable hope. If Lincoln failed to secure an electoral college majority, the next president either would be selected by the U.S. House, through “trade and barter” to cobble together “an unnatural combination of hostile elements,” or, more likely, by the Democratic-dominated U.S. Senate, which would perpetuate the disgraced Buchanan administration and keep the South in power. Rule-or-ruin Southerners who had threatened to “break up the Union” if they did not get their own way, Sherman warned, would dictate the Senate outcome.[4]

It was widely assumed that Pennsylvania held the key to the election. Two years before, Republicans there had adopted the “People’s Party” label and rode the protective tariff issue to victory.[5] If they could duplicate this success, their electoral college majority would be within reach. But were they to fall short, a paralyzing deadlock would result, removed from the will of the people. A ballot for Lincoln offered the “one line of safety,” Sherman insisted, for voters who cared about democratic governance.

This humorous cartoon of Lincoln the Railsplitter appeared in Vanity Fair, September 1, 1860. The author thanks Jack Furniss for providing a copy.

Was there any danger that Southerners might follow through on their disunion threats if Lincoln were elected? Sherman thought not. He surmised that Southern malcontents were bluffing. Four years of a Republican administration would convince them that “all we wish is to preserve our own rights,” not to disturb theirs. Republicans, like the Founding Fathers, would exclude slavery from the free states and the territories, but they would not interfere with it in states where it already existed. A Republican president’s fair dealing would expose as baseless the scare-mongering that had been “disseminated through the Southern States.” Sherman’s older brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, remained an obscure schoolmaster as of 1860.[6]

Our situation today offers parallels to 1860. Then as now, an entrenched but shrinking minority exercises vast power. Today’s Republican party, writes Ezra Klein, founder of the Vox website, “has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters,” many of whom harbor “apocalyptic” fears about losing the next election. Like John Sherman, Klein thinks more democracy is the antidote to our current impasse. He finds the fears of today’s Republicans as farfetched as the fears of Southern Democrats in 1860. But he knows that today’s two parties have become so unlike that they tend to see the worst in each other. Democrats have become “more diverse, urban, young and secular.” They and Republicans no longer share the same sources of information and their ideological outlooks have become starkly juxtaposed.[7]

As matters now stand, Klein concludes, the Republican Party “sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future.” It likely will “use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.” It may continue to win the presidency “despite rarely winning the popular vote” and may continue to control the Senate and sometimes the House “despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats.” Brass-knuckled Republican dominance of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court will “buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter identification requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.” What looms, according to Klein, is “a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system.”[8]

Something similar came to a head in 1860. Voters in the free states pushed back against the South’s disproportionate power. Republican gains terrified white Southern Democrats, whose closed system of information depicted the “Black Republican” Lincoln as John Brown in disguise and saw his victory as a deadly menace. But Republicans scoffed at the panic in the South. They wanted to win an election and drive the Democrats from office, not trigger a war. They hoped white Southerners eventually would decide that free labor was more productive than slave labor, but they had no abolition blueprint and no inclination to seek revolutionary change. They refused to take seriously Southern threats “to break up the Union rather than accept a Republican president.”[9]

We must hope that today’s American political system isn’t comparably brittle. Nobody wants the violent sequel that followed the 1860 election. Today’s Democrats, Klein suggests, should keep following the blueprint that served them well in 2018. By appealing to voters who remain in the middle, Democrats will increase their chances of winning and may also deflate the sky-is-falling hysteria that afflicts so many of our fellow citizens. The struggles to preserve democracy—and to restore “dignity and decency” to the White House, in Amy Klobuchar’s words—appear certain to make the now unfolding presidential contest one of the most hard-fought and fateful in our history.


[1] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[2] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1846-1861, completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 385-91; Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 271-76.

[3] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860.

[4] The one-state, one-vote system specified by the Constitution portended a House stalemate. The Senate then would probably have made Oregon Senator Joseph Lane the acting president. Lane, a Buchanan administration stalwart, was the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket fielded by Southern Democrats. See Potter, Impending Crisis, 436-38.

[5] U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the mid-1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania’s iron and anthracite coal. But a sharp economic reversal started in late 1857 and fell with particular severity on Pennsylvania, leaving many workingmen destitute. House Republicans voted as a solid bloc in 1860 to raise tariff rates on imported iron, but their bill was stifled by free-trade Senate Democrats. “Honest Abe,” promised one of Sherman’s House colleagues, would “relight the fires of your furnaces and revive the music of your forges.” Philadelphia Press, September 10, 1860. The speaker was Ohio’s Thomas Corwin.

[6] Philadelphia Press, September 13, 1860; John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 123-39.

[7] Ezra Klein, “Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t,” New York Times Sunday Review, January 26, 2020,

[8] Klein’s influential essay, quoted here, summarizes his book: Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020).

[9] The definitive study of the Republican Party’s beginnings is William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). The interpretation here of Republican intentions reflects Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), 216-17, and Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 162.

Daniel W. Crofts

Dan Crofts has long studied the North-South sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. His 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. His recent essay, “Ending Slavery and Limiting Democracy: Sidney George Fisher and the American Civil War” in the January 2020 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, previews his work-in-progress on Pennsylvania politics during the Civil War era.

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the philosopher Avishai Margalit argues that “we should be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”[1] The essence of popular government rests on the idea that compromise is not only necessary, but that it is a positive function in promoting the interests of the public good. Margalit warns, however, that political compromises can easily lead to immoral and violent outcomes. He defines a “rotten political compromise” as one that helps “establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation . . . that does not treat humans as humans.”[2] This provocative definition might compel students of nineteenth-century U.S. history to consider numerous instances of political compromise when slaveholders’ interests were perpetuated in the interest of national harmony.

One such moment that I have been studying more lately is the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As we approach the 200th anniversary of this crucial legislation, I have taken an interest in studying figures who refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s existence in the new state of Missouri. In particular, I have been fascinated by the responses of a small number of Missourians who unsuccessfully fought to ban slavery in the state.

A Map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Missouri Compromise story is well-known to nineteenth-century historians. A bill on Missouri statehood was first brought up for debate in Congress on December 18, 1818. Fearing the rapid spread of slavery into new western territories, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed a plan to gradually end slavery in Missouri. Any black Missourians born after statehood would be free and the remaining enslaved population in the state would be gradually emancipated over time. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois proposed a further amendment to ban slavery north and west of Missouri in other territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase, a precursor to the final legislation that Congress would eventually pass.[3]

These proposals caused such a furor among proslavery politicians—not least Missouri’s own proslavery leaders—that the Missouri statehood bill failed to pass before Congress adjourned in March 1819. John Scott, Missouri’s non-voting representative in Congress, complained that his prospective state was entitled to the “rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed the other states.” Dismissing earlier Congressional legislation banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, Scott argued that as long as a republican form of government for white men was established in Missouri, Congress could not interfere any further. If Congress could ban slavery in Missouri, it could also establish “what religion the people should subscribe . . . and to provide for the excommunication of all those who [do] not subscribe.” Slavery had existed in Missouri territory for one hundred years at that point and should be allowed to exist moving forward, according to Scott.[4]

A minority of white Missourians opposed slavery and refused to compromise on the issue, however. Through the spring and summer of 1819, a vigorous debate about slavery in Missouri occurred in the pages of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, the first newspaper to be published west of the Mississippi River. Published by Joseph Charless, an anti-slavery Irish immigrant who Meriwether Lewis had urged to settle in St. Louis, the Missouri Gazette published a series of antislavery letters by an anonymous writer that went by the name “A Farmer of St. Charles County.”[5]

“A Farmer of St. Charles County” began his correspondence with the newspaper on April 7th. He complained that territorial laws often referred to the “inhabitants” being given the same rights as U.S. citizens, but that only white men truly enjoyed those rights. Taken literally, “the word ‘inhabitants’ would comprehend every individual of the human race, whatever might be his color” could claim the right of citizenship. The farmer then complained that the slave state simultaneously complained about their “species of property which they have found troublesome and dangerous to keep at home.” Why would Missouri choose to indulge in such a danger any further? Slaveholders, according to the St. Charles farmer, became greedy, lazy, and prone to vices like “gambling, drinking, and dueling.” Only the spirit of the Declaration of Independence could correct slavery’s wrongs.[6]

Joseph Charless, antislavery editor of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The farmer continued his letters by arguing that restricting slavery’s growth could eventually lead to its eventual demise. Restriction would “reduce the price of slaves in the slave states, and make their owners more willing to emancipate” and perhaps colonize them to Africa. Slavery was the “foulest blot on our national character” and created an unfair economic advantage for slaveholders. Finally, the farmer correctly predicted that “Virginia and Kentucky will grow an abundance of negroes. [The excess] must be sold or emancipated, for it would not do to let them remain in those states. Therefore they want a market for them in Missouri. They know that slavery is a curse, and they want us to have a share in that curse, and to pay them well for it besides.”[7] Another anonymous farmer, inspired by the St. Charles farmer’s letters, wrote to the Missouri Gazette wondering what proslavery thinkers would say if Congress passed a law requiring that “the people of Missouri should never make any laws prohibiting or restricting slavery,” even if it was against the interests of Missourians. Would such laws respect states’ rights and the spirit of popular government?[8]

Another significant moment occurred in St. Ferdinand, St. Louis County, in June. Antislavery residents there passed a series of resolutions arguing against slavery in Missouri. “Slavery is contrary to the term freedom, and is also contrary to the laws of nature” and “one of the greatest evils we have to regret at this present day in the United States,” they argued. Slavery’s continued growth would “eventually end in an entailed hereditary misery on our future prosperity, and bring upon us their just censure, as well as the judgment of a just, but angry God.”[9]

These antislavery appeals in the Missouri Gazette failed to greatly change public opinion. Several people wrote to Charless accusing the St. Charles farmer of not actually being a farmer or a St. Charles resident, since no one in that town could so oppose the right to own enslaved laborers. Leading territorial politicians such as Alexander McNair and Thomas Hart Benton held public meetings against any compromises with antislavery politicians. Both made the self-serving argument that expanding slavery to Missouri was preferred by enslaved blacks, because the future state’s lands were not suitable for cotton growth. Slaves would be treated better and welcome the chance to work on a small-scale farm rather than a giant plantation further south. When McNair and Benton were elected as delegates to a state constitutional convention in 1820, they helped author a clause that would have banned free black settlement in the state, although Speaker of the House Henry Clay later asked that Missouri not enforce this clause before Congress accepted the new constitution.[10]

Article II, Section 26 of the Missouri Constitution, which banned free black settlement in Missouri. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In the end, Clay engineered a compromise that gave a little to both sides of the divide. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while Maine would come in as a free state, setting the precedent of balancing free and slave territories when adding new states to the Union. Territory north of the 36˚30′ parallel would be free of slavery (excluding Missouri) while territory south would be allowed to establish it. While both sides at the time found room to criticize the Missouri Compromise, the legislation became sacrosanct in the minds of antislavery thinkers like Abraham Lincoln thirty years later. Criticizing the law’s repeal by Congress in 1854, Lincoln argued that the Compromise protected the “sacred right of self-government” and that its repeal guaranteed the “sacred right of taking slaves to Nebraska” and other western territories.[11] Replacing the Missouri Compromise with the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” soon ushered the creation of the Republican Party and eventually the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 worth it, or was it a “rotten compromise” that compromised the nation’s values? In the minds of antislavery Missourians, it was not the “Missouri Compromise,” but “Missouri Compromised.”


[1] Avishai Margalit, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Margalit, 2.

[3] See Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 1804-1821 (Jefferson City: The Hugh Stephens Printing Co., 1916).

[4] “Remarks of Mr. Scott, of Missouri,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 12, 1819.

[5] “Joseph Charless (1772-1834),” The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2020, accessed February 29, 2020,

[6] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 7, 1819.

[7] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819.

[8] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 21, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Louis County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 9, 1819.

[9] “For the Missouri Gazette,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 23, 1819.

[10] “Sydney,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 14, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819; Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 84-88; “The Second Missouri Compromise,” Last Best Hope of Earth, March 28, 2016, accessed March 1, 2020,; Junius P. Rodriguez, The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 229.

[11] “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, October 16, 1854,” Teaching American History, 2020, accessed March 1, 2020,

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at

A War for Settler Colonialism

A War for Settler Colonialism

Today on Muster we share the first post from our recent addition to the correspondent team, Paul Barba. Paul is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University who studies slaving violence in the Texas borderlands. He will be writing on the Civil War in the West. Welcome, Paul!

In a brief 2017 Civil War Times article on the West during the Civil War, esteemed Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher argued that “the Trans-Mississippi Theater, which included noteworthy military and political action primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, lagged far behind the Western and Eastern theaters in significance.” This insignificance, he noted, was most evident when it came to wartime decisions regarding resource allocation, as “neither the United States nor the Confederacy made it [the Trans-Mississippian Theater] a priority.” The net result, he claimed, was that “events on the margins of the theater, such as Henry Hopkins Sibley’s quixotic foray into New Mexico in 1862, scarcely rise to the level of inconsequential.” As Professor Gallagher would have you believe, for the Civil War enthusiast there’s nothing worth seeing “out west.”[1]

Professor Gallagher’s views of this period are, like those of so many other Civil War historians, Anglo-centric. Although Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis may not have fixated on the outcomes of “quixotic forays” into New Mexico the way they obsessed over military victories in the Chesapeake or even along the Mississippi, the violence that reverberated back and forth across the West during the 1860s (and after) was no less profound – or consequential – for the Indigenous peoples of North America. Interpretive scope matters. If we isolate the Civil War as strictly a moment of disjuncture, a completely unique and extraordinary event, we fail to appreciate how the North-South affair simply escalated forces already in motion. A focus on the West, where Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic people contended with White American visionaries’ plots for their nation’s future, requires scholars to think capaciously about the Civil War’s significance. From this perspective, events out west were not simply “noteworthy”; they were emblematic.

Indigenous studies scholars have argued that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, “whereby an imperial power seizes Native territory, eliminates the original people by force, and resettles the land with a foreign, invading population.” Settler colonialism, Nick Estes has argued, “calls for the annihilation of Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human kin”; it is a historical structure that demands Indigenous destruction, resource extraction, and settler colonial dominion.[2] The history of the Civil War does not exist outside of this longer history of U.S. colonialism. If we appreciate the Civil War as more than an “event” – but instead a pronounced moment of acute violence within a broader chain of structural violence – “the West” no longer appears marginal or “inconsequential.”[3] Rather, the West emerges as an equally important arena in the fight for settler colonialism’s future. We might, therefore, rethink the Civil War as the violent contest over visions of the implementation of conquest.

U.S. presidential election propaganda, 1856. The cartoon was an indictment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It also trafficked in anti-Indigenous stereotypes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As generations of scholars have noted, the future of the West was at the heart of the sectional crisis. Rightfully, scholars have spotlighted the political, cultural, moral, and economic salience of slavery in explaining the sectional wedge that formed within White America during the mid-nineteenth century. Anti-Blackness – whether it be of the xenophobic variety of “Free Labor” advocates, who worked tirelessly to forge an all-White western utopia, or of the exploitative variety of slaveholders and their proxies, who wanted to extend their regime of violence and terror against enslaved people westward – drove mid-century White visions of the West. The political controversies of Texas and Mexican cession, the founding of California, and the Kansas crisis all exposed how diverging White assumptions about the West’s future fomented sectionalism in the United States. Of course, any frank (White) assessment of the West presumed the eventual – if not inevitable – conquest or displacement of Native peoples, as westward settler expansion (by slaveholders, Free Soilers, and others) necessitated the “emptying” or “freeing” of Native lands. And this is to say nothing of the “stars” of the Civil War who, like Robert E. Lee, earned their stripes in the violent gauntlets of the West.

Recent scholarship on the West during the Civil War (i.e., when westerners supposedly were not “made a priority”) has brought into stark relief the stakes of the Civil War’s reverberating violence. In Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands (2017), Andrew Masich has detailed the convergence of western and eastern, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo, “martial credos” – a convergence that ultimately gave way to a distinctly Anglo penchant for “wars of extermination.” Megan Kate Nelson has situated the military concerns of Unionists and Confederates, who viewed the West as a thoroughfare for commerce, a key domain for resource extraction, and recruiting grounds for soldiers, within the broader context of Indigenous campaigns to defend their homelands. The political ramifications of the Civil War were especially important. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, “In the midst of war, Lincoln did not forget his free-soiler settler constituency that had raised him to the presidency.” (The Homestead Act of 1862 is perhaps the greatest example of how White easterners, at the expense of Indigenous people, grafted onto the West the fate of their nation during the war.) And then there were the obvious episodes of U.S.-led genocide, with Colonel John Chivington’s 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people being the most notorious.[4] Although few authors have sought to emphasize explicitly the Civil War’s role in escalating settler colonial development, their studies make it abundantly clear that the Civil War did not represent a pause in the ongoing process of Indigenous genocide and dispossession in North America. Instead, it was, like virtually every other U.S. war prior, a jolt of energy for the next phase of anti-Indigenous devastation.[5]

War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, Lean Bear, Yellow Wolf, and others, at the White House Conservatory, March 27, 1863. Yellow Wolfe would be among those massacred by Colonel Chivington and his followers at Sand Creek in November 1864. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Studies that carry the narrative into the post-Civil War period only further highlight the historical connections between the western sphere and the North-South, Atlantic seaboard heartland.[6] Black liberation fighters during the war forced the emancipationist hands of White Northern politicians, but even the momentous Thirteenth Amendment would not remain solely an eastern-facing mechanism for abolition and social transformation. In the West, where various forms of bondage had thrived, legally and extra-legally, under multiple regimes of power for centuries, the fight for emancipation would appear no less contested or uncertain than it was in the East.[7] As William S. Kiser has demonstrated in Borderlands of Slavery (2017), the persistence of slavery in places like New Mexico frustrated White American reformers, who in response “effectively expanded the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment.”[8] Thus even federal government policy was not unilateral; rather, it emerged in dialogue with events and conversations originating in western contexts. Just as important, however, was the reality that expanded federal powers – whether through emancipationist policies or a beefed-up military apparatus – also expanded the capacity and speed of U.S. colonialism.[9]

If anything, scholarship on the West will continue to usher in the next wave of groundbreaking scholarship on the Civil War. Because “the West” has been, since the earliest days of European colonialism, a nebulous construct (part natural, part geographical, part political, and part imaginary), those who study it tend to be methodologically flexible. We search for connections that transcend conventional periodizations and geographical parameters and look beyond Anglo-centric narratives that assume all “meaningful” histories originate from White population centers.[10] Clearly, the Civil War need not be understood solely as a contest among easterners; its sinews and legacies extended far and wide. Indigenous voices, above all, are testament to that fact.


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “Out West,” HistoryNet, August 2017, Megan Kate Nelson, Adam Arenson, and Andrew R. Graybill also have criticized Gallagher for his dismissive remarks about the West during the Civil War. See Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” Historista, June 29, 2017,; Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8-9.

[2] Nick Estes, Our History if the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 16, 89-90; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 20), 2; Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387-93. Also see the posts of my fellow Muster correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy,

[3] Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, eds., On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 14.

[4] Andrew Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 13-17; Megan Kate Nelson, The Three Cornered-War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner, 2020), xiii-xx; Dunbar-Ortiz, 140; Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[5] For settler colonialism during previous U.S. wars, see Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[6] Todd W. Wahlstrom’s The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) has illuminated the West’s importance as a gateway to Confederate visions of post-war survival and resurgence.

[7] Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

[8] William S. Kiser, Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 15-16, 155-69.

[9] On the devastating, if complicated, ramifications of the Five Nations’ mixed participation in the Civil War, see, for instance, Christopher B. Bean, “Who Defines a Nation?: Reconstruction in Indian Territory,” in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory, ed. Bradley R. Clampitt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 110-26; Fay A. Yarbrough, “‘Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master’s’: The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople,” in Civil War Wests, 224-36.

[10] Methodological flexibility, I believe, is the hallmark of Borderlands literature. For a conceptual overview, see especially Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (September 2011): 338-61. For a discussion of the methodological flexibility of Western scholars more broadly, see Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-91.

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

Sonya Clark’s exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of Jonathan VanDyke.

From late March to August 2019, the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia showcased the innovative work of Sonya Y. Clark. Known for “Unraveling,” an art piece consisting of a deconstructed Confederate battle flag, the Amherst College professor’s recent works have explored race, symbols and Confederacy, and the nation’s struggle with its legacy of slavery. In the “The Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know” exhibit, Clark reintroduced contemporary museum attendees to another symbol of the Confederacy. The massive truce flag constructed from a humble, waffle-weaved tea cloth measuring 15 feet by 30 feet, and dyed with tea and other natural dyes, forced viewers to contend with one poignant question on the concluding panel: “What if this was the symbol that endured?”[1]

This is a great question that can reframe our understanding of the war’s legacy and illustrate the intersection between academic scholarship and public art. Scholars of Civil War memory have challenged us to reconsider many aspects of the Civil War and its legacy.  For instance, David Silkenat’s Raising the White Flag adds to the conversation.[2] He explores the role of surrender in the Civil War and how its legacy has contributed to the contentious ways Americans have to come to understand this flag and the act of surrender. As a defining feature of the Civil War, he reminds readers how the “American Civil War began with a surrender and ended with a series of surrenders.”[3] By the war’s conclusion, he contends that popular understandings had evolved and challenged “southerners and northerners alike” in how to “best remember and commemorate surrenders.”[4] This struggle has subsequently “demonstrated the difficulties Americans have had in making sense of surrender.”[5]

As “the prototype of the honorable surrender,” Robert Anderson and his surrender at Fort Sumter revealed a shared understanding of acceptable terms of surrender and the marks of cowardice and excessive violence as unacceptable behavior by Federal and Confederate forces.[6] The surrenders of Forts Henry and Donelson, however, shifted attitudes among the common soldiers, military leadership, and civilians in their respective homefronts, according to Silkenat. For the Confederacy, surrender became increasingly viewed as a referendum on the national project. For the United States, it became viewed as the only true pathway toward peace. As argued by Silkenat and others, these nuanced understandings have been lost in the contemporary public debates over the Confederate monuments, in a post-Charleston Massacre and Charlottesville 2017 climate.[7]

How does one engage in these conversations where the works of historians does not always reach general audiences? Or, when public historical projects such as the 1619 Project try to, how do non-academics, especially persons of color, attempt to participate when scholars openly challenge the creators’ authority for intervening in public debates?[8] [Image 2] Here, Clark’s public art offers another pathway for reconciling the lingering Civil War era legacy in the present. At the end of the Monumental Cloth exhibit, a table displayed works by James Baldwin, David Brion Davis, Andrew Delbanco, Carol Anderson and others and encouraged further contemplation, perusal, and conversation. In other words, engagement meant to continue after the viewing in the attendee’s respective homes and communities.

New audiences became aware of this rich scholarship as well as the role of race in shaping contemporary understandings. During the Civil War, race contributed to the uneven application and utter disregard of military understandings of surrender for African American soldiers. By comparing Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Silkenat reveals the shifting understandings and its limits with racial violence.  For Forrest, his brutal use of surrender and refusal to accept black soldiers as legitimate combatants resulted in not only the Fort Pillow massacre but also African American soldiers’ preference of fighting until death instead of surrendering at Brice’s Crossroads and other later engagements. By 1864, such racial animosity contributed to a “nadir of surrender’s acceptability” by both warring sides.[9] The legacy of this nadir has not diminished.

Smaller flag of surrender, also from the Sonya Clark exhibit. Courtesy of Carlos Avendaño.

In a war filled with surrenders, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House has eclipsed all other surrenders. Silkenat and other scholars have shown that generous terms of surrender neither appease all participants nor served as an ultimate truce. Early Confederate soldiers who rejected the Appomattox Court House surrender were amongst the first to engage in terrorism and a perilous peace during Reconstruction.[10] Appomattox Court House initiated a series of surrenders concluding with the final domestic surrender of Stand Watie in Oklahoma and James Iredell Waddell’s international surrender of the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England.[11] Yet, the power of the April 9, 1865, surrender contributed to the erasure of post-Appomattox Court House surrenders, the whitewashing of the diverse participants’ racial backgrounds, and even captured Clark’s imagination.

Since the Civil War’s end, Americans have struggled to remember and commemorate Civil War surrender sites.  While African Americans celebrated “Surrender Day” as early as 1866, African American commemorative traditions have remained outside of the national popular consciousness.[12] Lost Cause and Reconciliationist traditions encouraged selective remembrance, from Julian Carr’s dedication speech for the Silent Sam unveiling at UNC-Chapel Hill, to the transformation of Bennett Place and Appomattox Court House into tourist attractions. As a result, the Civil War memory wars and understanding of surrender continues into the present.

Ultimately, scholars like Silkenat reach a similar conclusion as Clark on the role of Confederate flag of surrender and its complicated legacy for present generations. “Yet if we are able to learn anything from the Civil War generation,” he concludes that “we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity.”[13] It is fitting that museum administrators agreed. On July 13, 2019, the internationally renowned artist and the historian shared a Philadelphia stage and connected museum goers, academics, and non-academics in a productive conversation about the role of surrender, the Confederate flag of truce, the Civil War and memory.[14] Maybe this will be a model for future collaborations between artists and historians as the questions from the Civil War and its legacy remain pertinent in the current political moment. Artistic expression, scholarly insights and engaged diverse publics might be the only pathway forward.



[1] Sarah Cascone, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag That Ended the Civil War,” Artnet News, April 1, 2019,

[2] David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Silkenat, 2.

[4] Silkenat, 3-4.

[5] Silkenat, 4.

[6] Silkenat, 41; See Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[7] See Catherine Clinton, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Karen L. Cox, Gary W. Gallagher, and Nell Irvin Painter, Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).

[8] Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, Updated January 4, 2020,

[9] Silkenat, 168.

[10] See Caroline E. Janney, “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox,” Journal of Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 4-28, and Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] Silkenat, 267.

[12] Silkenat, 278; See Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018).

[13] Silkenat, 297.

[14] Olivia Errico, “Raising the White Flag: Sonya Clark and Dr. David Silkenat in Conversation,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University-Camden, June 6, 2019,

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today’s Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 1860

How to Build a Winning Coalition: What Today’s Democrats Can Learn from Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 1860

American politics during the late antebellum era was divisive and deeply polarized, just like the present. A few key battleground states, most prominently Pennsylvania, decided the outcome of national elections. To win the Keystone State in 1860, Republican Party managers employed keen coalition-building skills. They adapted readily to changing circumstances. Hard experience taught them that a campaign aimed only at the party’s base would fall short. Republicans also passed over their most visible leaders and instead chose a lesser-known presidential candidate. Democrats in 2020 would do well to heed the techniques Republicans employed in 1860.

Photograph of Morton McMichael. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nobody understood these imperatives better than Morton McMichael, editor of the Philadelphia North American, the largest Republican newspaper in the nation’s second largest city. He labored mightily to break the Democratic hold on Pennsylvania. The immense bound volumes of his North American, which remain available for scrutiny at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, offer a how-to window for achieving partisan success.[1]

Pennsylvania Republicans ran a campaign in 1856 that was memorable, passionate—and disappointing. Supporters of its presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, lambasted the Democratic Party’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the ham-handed efforts of the Pierce administration to open Kansas Territory to slaveholders. They focused on the “single issue”—that Democrats had become accomplices of the Slave Power. But opponents of the Democrats were divided, especially in Philadelphia, a booming manufacturing city where many native stock residents disdained immigrants and where antagonistic groups of immigrants—notably, its Catholic and Protestant Irish—clashed with each other. Republicans tried to ally with the many nativist Know Nothings who had created the American Party, but a full coalition proved elusive. Thumping margins in the city carried Democrats to statewide victory in 1856 and Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan to the presidency.[2]

A severe economic downturn that began in September 1857 triggered major political repercussions in the Keystone State. U.S. railroad construction had boomed during the 1850s, creating heavy demand for Pennsylvania-manufactured rails, locomotives, and rolling stock. But when demand suddenly slumped, many Pennsylvania workmen lost their jobs. With a heavier commitment to manufacturing and mining than any other state, Pennsylvania already favored a protective tariff. That sentiment intensified amid the economic misery. Protectionists argued that a tariff on cheap British iron was the key to restoring prosperity; it would revive moribund iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining.

Enthusiasm for tariff protection reframed Pennsylvania politics. Nativists proved receptive to complaints that free trade depressed American wages and enabled “foreign labor” to compete unfairly with “American labor.” Protectionists, pushing an economic nationalist agenda, insisted the home market would provide prosperity for all if not undercut by imports. So likewise, protectionists blamed Southern Democrats for blocking new tariff legislation in Congress and clinging selfishly to free trade ideologies. Even more galling, the Slave Power appeared to celebrate the misery of free Northern workers and crow that slave labor was superior to free labor. As historian James Huston explained, the tariff issue “subsumed much of the nativist argument” and provided a more tangible focus for anti-Southern resentments.[3]

The North American pushed the protectionist message and rebranded Republicans as the “People’s Party.” An overflow audience of 5,000 launched the new endeavor at Philadelphia’s National Hall on June 14, 1858. Speakers led by editor McMichael blasted the just-adjourned Congress for failing to alleviate the distressed iron industry and its many unemployed workmen. People’s Party founders proposed to “expel mere sectionalism” and to focus instead on “the happiness and prosperity of the people.” They downplayed overt nativist appeals. In October the new party triumphantly carried Philadelphia by over 6,000 votes, posted large gains in coal-mining counties, and rolled up a decisive statewide margin of over 25,000. In so doing, it all but obliterated the state’s Democratic representation in Congress.[4]

New York Senator William H. Seward, the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, spoke out for the tariff. He returned from a trip to Europe dazzled by the sprawling manufacturing cities in England and Scotland, where he saw “railroads crossing each other in all directions, bringing in coal and iron ore to the forges, whose fires, blazing from hundreds of chimneys, makes the night as brilliant as the day.” The United States should encourage its own manufactures, Seward contended, rather than remain dependent on foreign suppliers.[5]

But Seward would not lead his party in 1860. McMichael and his political allies, worried by Seward’s somewhat undeserved reputation as an antislavery radical, helped Abraham Lincoln wrest the Republican nomination away from the New York senator. Seward also was hurt by the suspicion that his welcoming stance toward immigrants and Roman Catholics made him unacceptable to former Know Nothings. People’s Party managers judged that he could not maximize their potential vote; today’s Democrats may need to make similarly hardheaded calculations in the weeks and months to come.[6]

Prominent Pennsylvanians advised Lincoln that his campaign in the state needed to focus on tariff protection. Alexander McClure, who chaired the People’s State Central Committee, explained that outside speakers coming to Pennsylvania should be “thoroughly familiar” with the tariff, which had “not been nearly so prominent in your struggles in Illinois as it has been here.” It would be the vital “overshadowing question” in parts of the state where “the Conservative element predominates.”[7]

Early twentieth century promotional sign for the Philadelphia North American. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

James E. Harvey, Washington correspondent for the North American and McMichael’s right-hand man, frequently wrote to Lincoln. Harvey rejoiced that Republicans would not be “burthened by Mr. Seward” and predicted that victory was within reach so long as the campaign was “conducted judiciously.” Eastern Pennsylvania had a significant “American [Party] element,” but with Lincoln as the candidate “the decent Americans are with us” and the North American would help keep them there. The “People’s” label, Harvey noted, was a device to attract Americans and disaffected Democrats; he cautioned Lincoln against creating a separate Republican organization that would duplicate the People’s campaign.[8]

From June through early November, People’s promoters created a continual spectacle in Philadelphia. A “Grand Mass Meeting” on June 25 filled Penn Square at Broad and Market Streets, where City Hall now stands. Speaker after speaker insisted that only the Lincoln ticket would secure tariff protection. As evening skies darkened, torch-bearing “Wide Awakes” paraded in shiny black oilcloth regalia and the crowd enjoyed a display of colorful fireworks. Comparable events continued during the summer and fall. On October 1, the “Grandest Political Torchlight Procession Ever Witnessed” coursed through the city’s streets. As Election Day neared, the North American castigated a flurry of “monstrous falsehoods”—that Lincoln would ignite slave insurrections and that Republican Wide Awakes were mobilizing to invade the South. It reassured its readers that Lincoln was “A CONSERVATIVE.”[9]

Lincoln won absolute majorities both in Philadelphia and statewide; he thereby assured his national plurality. The results were a mirror image of the outcome four years before. Then, a united Democratic Party had bested its fractured opposition in the city, state, and nation. In 1860, Pennsylvania Republicans managed to duplicate that same feat, aided by a poisonous Democratic split. But Lincoln’s victory in the Keystone State promised no crusade against slavery. As historian Russell Weigley concluded, the results in Pennsylvania showed that the South had “nothing to fear.” The People’s campaign deprived “southern fire eaters” of any “justification for secession.”[10]

The Republican Party’s rise to power between 1854 and 1860 contains lessons that remain pertinent. As I write, Democrats face an incumbent whom they regard as corrupt and dangerous. He clings to power even though his supporters constitute a minority of the national electorate. The level of partisan acrimony is intense. The People’s Party in Pennsylvania demonstrated the advantages of building a big tent. It assembled a heterogeneous hodgepodge—former Whigs, disaffected Democrats, iron manufacturing and anthracite coal mining interests that clamored for tariff protection, those tired of being bullied by the South and the Slave Power, those worried about immigration, and those repelled by the Buchanan administration’s corruption. At stake ultimately, the North American insisted, was “the great principle of self-government”—“the right of the majority to govern.”[11]

In 1860 Republicans also decided fatefully to look beyond the cluster of familiar names and find a less celebrated candidate with potentially wider appeal. This winnowing process offers Democrats today a worthy model. They must find a candidate who can do two things: win an electoral college majority, and persuade the losers of the 2020 election to accept the outcome. The latter, we must remember, eluded their illustrious predecessor in 1860.


[1] For background and context, see Robert L. Bloom, “Morton McMichael’s North American,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 77 (1953), 164-80; Arthur M. Lee, “Henry C. Carey and the Republican Tariff,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 81 (1957), 280-302.

[2] James E. Harvey to Henry C. Carey, December 7, 1856, Edward Carey Gardiner Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 394-448 passim.

[3] Philadelphia North American, October 7, 1858; James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 137, 146-47, 155-56, 231.

[4] Philadelphia North American, June 16, 1858 (special supplement); “Independent,” June 17, 1858, in Philadelphia North American, June 18, 1858.

[5] Cong. Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860), 3020-21; William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 27, 32; Anne Kelly Knowles, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 151-82.

[6] Michael F. Holt, The Election of 1860: “A Campaign Fraught with Consequences” (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017); 88-89, 113-14; Jack Furniss, “Devolved Democracy: Federalism and the Party Politics of the Late Antebellum North,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 4 (December 2019), 546-68, esp. 553, 559.

[7] Alexander McClure to Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1860, Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

[8] James E. Harvey to Abraham Lincoln, May 21, June 5, June 13, and June 25, 1860, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress. See Daniel W. Crofts, “James E. Harvey and the Secession Crisis,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103 (April 1979): 177-95.

[9] Philadelphia North American, May 28, 30, June 5, 22, 27, September 13, October 4, 6, 27, 30, and November 1 and 2, 1860.

[10] Russell F. Weigley, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865,” in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, ed. Russel F. Weigley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 392, 414.

[11] Philadelphia North American, May 28, June 8, and June 28, 1860.

Daniel W. Crofts

Dan Crofts has long studied the North-South sectional crisis that led to the Civil War. His 2016 book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (UNC), was awarded the University of Virginia’s Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History. His recent essay, “Ending Slavery and Limiting Democracy: Sidney George Fisher and the American Civil War” in the January 2020 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, previews his work-in-progress on Pennsylvania politics during the Civil War era.

Editors’ Note: March 2020 Issue

Editors’ Note: March 2020 Issue

Cracks in the Foundation: The Fourteenth Amendment and Its Limits

In March 2018, we convened a conference titled “The Many Fourteenth Amendments” at the University of Miami. The timing was propitious. Not only did 2018 mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of the amendment’s ratification but also the issues that would come to define the amendment—birthright citizenship, corporate personhood, equal protection, civil rights, disenfranchisement—were front and center in our daily political lives and the immediate relevance of the gathering was apparent to all. The title and the organization of the conference were designed to emphasize the multiplicity of origins, meanings, and legacies of this revolutionary amendment. Four key themes guided the program: the amendment’s genesis and its implications for corporate personhood, citizenship and immigration, and civil rights.

The quality of the papers presented was universally high, but in selecting contributions for this special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, we chose essays that both were well grounded in the nineteenth century and would challenge readers to think expansively by casting new light (or throwing new shade) on the amendment’s multiple origins and even more numerous legacies. The Fourteenth Amendment played a critical role in a “Second Founding” of the nation that promised freedom for formerly enslaved people, but that founding was alloyed with more conservative visions of the remade nation. To embrace the new potential the amendment offered, formerly enslaved people together with allies had to confront the deeply racist conceptions of the nation that predated, and long survived, Reconstruction. While born out of the Civil War era, the Fourteenth Amendment would go on to lead a life, indeed multiple lives, of its own, and it is vital for scholars who work in the nineteenth century to understand and grapple with those larger and longer reverberations.

We begin with an ending. The Fourteenth Amendment often is celebrated as a triumph, the keystone of the “Second Founding” that attempted to bring the Constitution and the country in line with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address by introducing a more egalitarian vision of citizenship, which promised social equality, civil rights, and equal protection under the law. Lisset Marie Pino and John Fabian Witt throw cold water on this view by challenging us to think of the Fourteenth Amendment not as a beginning that opened new possibilities but as an ending that foreclosed them. With the Fourteenth Amendment, they argue, Reconstruction switched tracks from one relying on war powers to protect freed people’s rights and status to a far less immediate and reliable one that rested on the courts and malleable interpretations of the law, thus ushering in an era of “paper rights that the federal government failed to vindicate.” When viewed in this way, the Fourteenth Amendment was not the triumph of Radical Reconstruction but rather its “betrayal” and “ending.” The essay forces us to grapple with many of our assumptions about the amendment and to question whether it deserves its celebrated place as a high-water mark of interracial democracy. The authors invite us to speculate, at least briefly, on what might have been accomplished without relying on the amendment to deliver on the promise of emancipation and to entertain a conflicted and perhaps darker view of a revolutionary amendment that, in this telling, may have forestalled revolution.

Stephen Kantrowitz urges us to consider the Fourteenth Amendment and US citizenship from another unfamiliar perspective, as part of the United States’ continued imperial expansion onto sovereign Indian lands. Tracing their twin genealogies, he reveals how African American and Native American citizenships ran in parallel courses, intersecting through legislation and the Fourteenth Amendment but possessing profoundly different origins, intents, and implications. For African Americans and their white allies, nonracial national citizenship was a long-sought and hard-fought milestone in the struggle for racial equality. However, lawmakers who advocated for Native American citizenship during this period had something different in mind: namely, land and how to take it. Whereas for African Americans, citizenship stood in opposition to slavery and white racism, for Native Americans, it was the antithesis of sovereignty. By “reducing” Native Americans to citizens, land-hungry white Americans could more readily strip them of their autonomy and with it their recognized, legal claims to valuable lands. Thus, the expansion of national citizenship to Native Americans was “a tool of the conqueror.” By expanding the story of national citizenship to include Native Americans during the Civil War era, Kantrowitz confronts us with a very different and disturbing vision of citizenship: “as instrumental, as compulsory, and as war by other means.”

Evelyn Atkinson’s article explores the amendment’s legal and political aftershocks in another unexpected direction. Set in Reconstruction California, her work shows how debates surrounding Chinese exclusion and “coolie” labor were inextricably and deliberately linked to the claiming of constitutional rights for corporations under the Fourteenth Amendment. By following the history and logic of In re Tiburico Parrott (1880), she explains how in subsequent rulings the Supreme Court would come to assert the existence of corporate personhood. The constitutional rights of corporations and Chinese labor were bound together from the very beginning, argued by the same lawyers, in the same courtrooms, and often in the same breath. That the claims of these two seemingly divergent interests could evolve in tandem reveals the “striking power of corporations in shaping the federal courts’ interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Building on this insight, Atkinson prompts historians to grapple directly with the central role that corporations played in crafting Reconstruction-era arguments about free labor and equal treatment. Indeed, while many of the protections won by racial minorities under the Fourteenth Amendment would be chipped away by subsequent court decisions, corporations continued to employ the amendment “as a shield.” Very much part of the burgeoning literature on “Greater Reconstruction,” Atkinson’s work casts a bright light on the darkly ironic process by which political and legal fights over the status of some of the nation’s most powerless people resulted in new guarantees of rights for its most powerful.

If corporate protections won in this period have persisted, civil rights protections have witnessed a transformation, as Christopher Schmidt’s essay reveals. This work takes a long view of civil rights, from the antebellum era through the twenty-first century, and it traces “two genealogies of civil rights, one of a concept, the other a term.” The authors of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment crafted the category of civil rights to include specific protections: the right to make contracts, to own property, to bring a lawsuit, to testify in court, and to legal protection of persons and property. In light of this, Schmidt shows, civil rights became “a language of limitation” that could close off access to broader conceptual rights, among them access to public accommodations including lodging, streetcars, trains, restaurants, or theaters. Nevertheless, during and immediately after Reconstruction, the concept and category of civil rights operated together in complementary, if complicated, ways. But by the time the Supreme Court issued its infamous decision in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) the concept and the category had diverged. This shift has enduring consequences, as Schmidt shows, and when twentieth- and twenty-first-century activists, from the NAACP to Freedom to Marry, sought to protect civil rights, the legal pathways and language available to judges and activists to access the many facets of civil rights “had been lost.”

Readers of this special issue might well conclude that these historians of the Fourteenth Amendment share a somewhat gloomy outlook. They would not be entirely wrong, but, in this, these essays have lots of recent company. Certainly, the historiographic trend has been to view the triumphant narrative of the Civil War and its consequences—within which the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment represents a culmination—with growing skepticism. Instead, historians of the Civil War era have been inclined to highlight unintended and secretly intended consequences, to expose missed or squandered opportunities, to question motives, and, most of all, to calculate the fearsome costs. Scholars of race and civil rights have begun to rewrite, and in some cases unwrite, a freedom narrative that has emphasized the emancipatory forces of the earliest days of Reconstruction in effect downplaying the tragedies and failures of the postemancipation United States. Yet the Fourteenth Amendment has not found its place in this emerging trend, and it has yet to be fully incorporated into the scholarship that stresses the limits of Reconstruction. By shifting our focus away from the optimistic view of the amendment, these essays allow us to see how the “Second Founding” also rested on the cornerstones of capitalism and racial exclusion, undermining the most lofty aspirations of the era of emancipation. By showing another side of the amendment, one much less hopeful, the essays in this special issue not only break important new ground in the scholarly exploration of the continually unfolding history of this vital living amendment but also speak directly to the historical and historiographical moment in which we find ourselves one hundred and fifty years later.

Michael T. Bernath and M. Scott Heerman

Michael Bernath is the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History at the University of Miami. He specializes in nineteenth-century American history with particular emphases on the Civil War Era, the South, and cultural and intellectual history. His first book was Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South (UNC Press, 2010). Scott Heerman is a scholar of eighteenth and nineteenth-century U.S. history, teaching at the University of Miami as an assistant professor. His research focuses on slavery and emancipation in the U.S. and Atlantic World, and his first book is The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country (UPenn, 2018). 

When John Brooke Came Marching Home Again, Hurrah?

When John Brooke Came Marching Home Again, Hurrah?

“When John got out his books that night, Meg’s heart sank, and for the first time in her married life, she was afraid of her husband.”[1]

Judy Giesberg recently reminded Muster readers how much the Civil War shrouds Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in print and on screen. The March sisters miss their Christmas presents just after Fredericksburg. Their chaplain-father serves in Virginia. Marmee volunteers at the Soldiers Aid Society until she leaves to care for Father. The Hummels starve with their breadwinner in uniform, and Amy attends a fair to raise money for freedpeople. In reality it was the author, however, not her father, who went to war. She served as a nurse in Washington, just after Fredericksburg, until typhoid fever nearly killed her. The experience led to her Hospital Sketches, but medicinal mercury shortened her life. She struggled with depression and alienation thereafter, which biographers link to the war. A veterans’ marker adorns her grave today.[2]

Eric Stoltz (bizarrely uniformed as both a sergeant and an officer) and Trini Alvarado as John Brooke and Meg in Little Women (1994). Brooke never appears in uniform in the 2019 film. Courtesy of Richly Rooted.

Re-reading Little Women after watching Greta Gerwig’s new film version–and looking at it through the lens of new literature on the difficult post-war readjustment of some Civil War veterans–I’m suddenly struck by the possibility that a veteran in the book serves as a stand-in for this side of Alcott. John Brooke is Laurie’s tutor, a soldier, and eventually Meg’s husband. Alcott based him on her brother-in-law John Pratt. She eventually embraced Pratt, but most readers dismiss Brooke as decent and boring. Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle are exceptions, countering that “there is no more loathsome character anywhere” in American literature. They highlight the infamous episode where new housewife Meg fails to make jelly that gels. Brooke comes home to a mess, a distraught wife, and no dinner. The authors are appalled at how he “laughs at her in front of his friend!”[3]

On the surface, such tensions in the Brooke family seem to reflect no more than trite comedy about newlyweds and new parents, complete with breezy prose and a happy ending. But with the recent literature on veterans in mind, we should return to Brooke. Smitten with Meg in 1863, he complains of his poverty and status before describing plans to enlist when Laurie goes to college. Brooke accompanies Marmee to Father’s bedside and endears himself to the family. Returning home, he woos Meg, who almost refuses his proposal until she relents to spite Aunt March. Her parents mandate delay; she is too young. We next see Brooke three years later. Alcott’s description is worth unpacking:

“She came suddenly upon Mr. Brooke.” From the 1896 edition of Little Women. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

John Brooke did his duty manfully for a year, got wounded, was sent home, and not allowed to return. He received no stars or bars, but he deserved them, for he cheerfully risked all he had, and life and love are very precious when both are in full bloom. Perfectly resigned to his discharge, he devoted himself to getting well, preparing for business, and earning a home for Meg.[4]

In 1864, John Pratt dodged military service and moved his family into the Alcott’s home, but his avatar “manfully” joined the army in another bit of Alcott revisionist history. He saw combat and was wounded badly enough to earn a discharge. Two years passed before Brooke recovered and could earn a living. Alcott never hints at chronic physical pain, but Brooke has changed. Reconsider the jelly incident. Meg apologizes, reflecting Marmee’s advice on subservience, but difficulties continue. Meg overspends on silk for a dress and blurts out that she hates poverty. Her under-employed and embarrassed husband sulks until Meg broaches a reconciliation that results in twins. Her nervous devotion to her children, however, again drives John away. Here Meg remembers Marmee’s admonitions:

John is a good man, but he has his faults, and you must learn to see and bear with them, remembering your own….He has a temper, not like ours—one flash and then all over—but the white, still anger that is seldom stirred, but once kindled is hard to quench. Be careful, be very careful, not to wake his anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. [5]

“Both felt desperately uncomfortable.” From the 1896 edition of Little Women. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

In another book, that would be a mother’s warning about a potentially abusive husband. The effect is jarring; Marmee only praised Brooke before he enlisted. No stranger to suppressed anger, she has seen his inner demons. Meg too is “afraid” as John reads her expense accounts. Brooke pouted, but Meg and Marmee imagined worse. Indeed, Meg is later frantic that Brooke will be “harsh” with their tantrum-throwing son when he decides to stay alone in the child’s nursery. Despite John’s orders, Meg slips inside when sudden silence leaves her “imagining all sorts of impossible accidents.” What did she think John had done? [6]

Alcott to be sure stresses Brooke’s goodness. He is not her villain. Yet his wife and mother-in-law fear him, and years pass before the couple finds peace. One need not enter the current debate over post-traumatic stress disorder in the Civil War to acknowledge Brooke’s touchy disquiet and its effects on others. That was not a storybook ending, and it never appears on screen, but many veterans’ struggles to re-enter society were a real part of the war’s legacy. That included the nurse who wrote Little Women. One wonders how many of her original readers recognized someone even closer to home in John Brooke.


[1] Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868-69; reprint ed. with afterword by Nina Auerbach, New York: Bantam, 1983), 265. My thanks to readers Melissa Blair, Judy Giesberg, Nancy Noe, and Anne Sarah Rubin.

[2] Judy Giesberg, “Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women,” Muster, January 7, 2020, accessed January 15, 2020,; John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 234, 239-41, 250-56, 260-85, 290-94, 315, 368-69; Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (New York: Noonday Press, 1995), 9, 101-3, 191, 196-98, 217-19, 221, 229-30, 230-40, 251-68, 309-11.

[3] Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle, “No One Likes Meg,” Avidly: A Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, July 18, 2016, accessed January 15, 2019,

[4] Alcott, Little Women, 112-29, 148-63, 211-220, 224 (quotation, 224).

[5] Alcott, Little Women, 257-69 (quotation, 263).

[6] Alcott, Little Women, 367-73 (quotation, 371).




Kenneth Noe

Kenneth W. Noe is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. He is the author of three books and a forthcoming volume from LSU Press on the effect of weather on the Civil War.

An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

When we think of a filibuster today, we likely think of the increasingly disappearing action by a Senator to hold up a piece of legislation by continued speech; however, in the mid-nineteenth century, filibusters were military strong men who desired to project and expand U.S. power into the Caribbean. The war with Mexico in 1846 set the United States on a trajectory toward expansion and created an assumption in Latin America that the United States had turned from a beacon of republicanism into an imperial, autocratic oppressor similar to Russia. This is an image the country still struggles with in Latin America.

During the 1850s, Central America and Cuba became repeated targets of private filibuster armies. Historians have done much to explain the role of these southward expansion projects in the causation of the Civil War.[1] However, these studies do not take into consideration Latin America and the reactions of the states in the region. Considering the tension-laden relationship between the United States and Latin American states, it is worth looking back in time to see the origin of Latin America’s mistrust as well as early coping mechanisms against U.S. expansionism.

Setting off the turbulent decade of the 1850s was Narciso López, who in 1850 and 1851 tried unsuccessfully to free Cuba from Spanish rule. However, nobody could rival the illustrious William Walker and his adventures to capture Sonora and Baja California in 1853, or his odd career in Nicaragua. Even if the filibusters were limited in scope and even more in success, they put fear into the minds of the people in Central America, worrying that what had happened to Mexico could happen to them, or that a filibuster would take over their government.[2] Therefore, some of the Latin American states assumed it best to form an alliance against U.S. aggression.

Engraving of John Randolph Clay, 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In November 1856, the U.S. Minister to Peru, John Randolph Clay, reported to Washington the content of what he termed the “Continental Treaty” between Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. He had tried for a while to figure out its details. In his letter, Clay explained that the treaty was a reaction to U.S. activities in the Caribbean basin. He pointed to the recent protest by the Peruvian Minister Resident in Washington regarding U.S. recognition of the new William Walker regime in Nicaragua. Considering the controversy surrounding the Walker government, the Peruvian protest and creation of an anti-filibuster treaty should not have come as a surprise.[3]

However, Clay blamed outside forces for the new treaty between the three Latin American states. In his letter to William L. Marcy, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of State, Clay wondered if Brazil was behind the decision to form a continental alliance against the United States, indicating that Clay viewed the Brazilian Empire as a rival in Latin America. Despite lacking evidence, he called on Washington to “not permit Brazil, to continue to act secretly against our interests in South America.” Trying to give reasons, Clay wrote, “They think to attain this object, by exciting the prejudices of the inhabitants throughout South America by representing us as foreign to them ‘in blood and religion.’”[4] Despite Great Britain often appearing as the rival for U.S. interests in Latin America, Brazil was just as significant a rival to worry about.

Even a year later, Clay continued to worry about Latin American countries forming defensive alliances against the United States. Ignoring the war against Mexico and recent filibusters, Clay in sanctimonious fashion wrote, “I should regret if the Government of Peru participated in the idea, that there was anything in the foreign policy of the United States subversive of the rights of any of the HispanoAmerican Republics, as the suspicion, besides being unjust, might induce Peru to act in a manner to weaken the friendly relations existing between the two Nations.”[5] Despite his country being frequently the aggressor in the last decade, Clay failed to understand Latin American fears regarding U.S. threats to their sovereignty.

As the United States disintegrated into rebellion and war, its attention to Latin American affairs declined. However, the European intervention to collect debt in Mexico and eventual French invasion caused renewed concerns about Latin American security.[6]

Withdrawal of the French forces from San Juan Bautista, capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco, on February 27, 1864. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By early 1862, as word spread about the allied landing in Vera Cruz, the Peruvian President worried about the intentions of the three European governments: was this more than just debt collection? He was certain that the American states would resist any attempt by European powers to reconquer lands in the Americas.[7]

The events in Mexico continued to concern the Peruvian government, and the new U.S. minister in Peru, Christopher Robinson, reported that the people of Peru not only sympathized with the Mexicans but felt a heightened sense of patriotism as well. Clubs had formed with the goal to create a union among the Spanish-American countries, allowing them to jointly deal with foreign threats. Even more, the clubs called for the creation of national guard units to prepare for Peru’s defense. Robinson claimed that the club looked to the United States as a bulwark against reconquest and expressed their sadness at the rebellion in the country, which had made the Mexican situation possible. This represented a dramatic change in attitude, according to Robinson. Initially, Peruvians had looked favorably to the secession crisis and a possible victory of the southern states, as it precluded renewed filibuster expeditions against Latin America.[8]

The Latin American side is a story lacking in most accounts of the 1850s filibusters. While we know much about how the government’s decision to prevent filibusters from using U.S. soil to prepare for invasions impacted northern and southern political attitudes, leading eventually to the rebellion of some southern states, the reactions of Latin American governments remain absent. In light of the unjustified war of aggression against Mexico and the incorporation of vast amounts of Mexican land, the United States lost much of its role-model image for Latin American states, and the filibusters only confirmed that. It is therefore not surprising that Latin American states sought to defend themselves against such acts of aggression with defensive alliances.

At the same time, a closer examination of Latin American relations during the Civil War may yield a far more complex picture than U.S.-Latin American scholarship has so far provided, with rivalries that not only involved France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, but also the Brazilian Empire. This is a story that moves well beyond the power center in Washington or filibuster ground zeros, and into the hall of presidential palaces in Lima, Bogota, or Caracas.


[1] See Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] See Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Tom Chaffin, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[3] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA).

[4] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, NARA.

[5] John Randolph Clay to Lewis Cass, July 11, 1857, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 13, January 1, 1857-December 27, 1857, NARA.

[6] See Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph Over Monarchy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971).

[7] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, February 25, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

[8] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, June 10, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

Author Interview: Jack Furniss

Author Interview: Jack Furniss

Today we are sitting down with Jack Furniss, author of “Devolved Democracy: Federalism and the Party Politics of the Late Antebellum North,” which appeared in our December 2019 special issue. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2018, he served as a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute (RAI) at Oxford University. He is currently teaching History and Politics at Old Palace School, a high school in south London.

Thank you for taking time over the holiday break to speak with us about your work. What inspired you to write on this subject?

The more I’ve studied nineteenth-century politics, the more I have wanted to try and write something like a guidebook or handbook to antebellum party politics. Specifically, I wanted to show how the rules and structures of political competition – dictated by federalism – played an active role in shaping how parties operated and competed. Superficially, the two-party system of the mid-nineteenth century can appear to resemble our own – especially as the party labels remain the same today. Yet the nineteenth century was a very different time and place, and I wanted to show how the balance of federalism has changed and how, as scholars, we have to recognize the significance and consequences of nineteenth-century politics being far more local than its modern counterpart.

As the issue editor, Rachel Shelden, stated in her editor’s note, this entire special issue focuses on federalism and how “most nineteenth-century Americans understood their relationship to the government, both in theory and in practice” (499). Can you start us off by explaining what the term federalism refers to, and how it has shaped the American political system?

Federalism refers to the particular system of government enshrined in the constitution, which divides power and sovereignty in the United States between one central, national government and a series of state governments. The immediate question becomes what the relationship should be between these different levels of government and which tier has responsibility for acting on any given issue. The constitution holds some answers but also leaves plenty of ambiguities. While the balance of power has shifted over time, the federal system has always resulted in federal and state governments contesting and sharing power and responsibility. As a result, federalism has shaped public policy in the United States since the founding. It lay at the heart of arguments over slavery and citizenship in the early republic and continues to structure debates over everything from universal healthcare to marijuana. Within the realm of electoral politics, it helps explain why parties choose their presidential nominees after a series of state primaries and why the president is then chosen by the electoral college rather than a pure national vote.

Thanks for providing that overview! You lay it out very clearly. In your article, what is your specific argument—the main “take away” for your readers?

My article argues that placing federalism at the heart of our analysis of late antebellum northern politics forces us to reconsider the factors that explain the triumph of the Republican Party by 1860. Anti-slavery, of course, remains central to understanding the formation, appeal, and success of the Republican movement. But what I show is how Republicans’ widespread electoral success owed much to their ability to remain fluid and flexible, adapting their party structure and ideology to suit varied local circumstances across the Union. In the first half of my article, I document the many ways that federalism dictated a devolved political system that ensured electoral politics played out on many independent, state-level theatres, rather than one national stage. As a fledgling organization – only formed in 1854 – the Republican movement proved more adept than their Democratic opponents at remaining a coherent national organization despite being comprised of a disparate collection of state-level parties. Operating as a federal system in this way, Republicans matched horses for courses, building a series of electoral coalitions tailor-made to the different temperaments of individual northern states.

This interplay between state power and federal power is truly fascinating. To elaborate on the previous question, why do you think it is so vital for historians of this period to consider federalism in their analysis?

Fundamentally, I think it gets us closer to the history that nineteenth-century Americans lived. Federalism forces historians to look beyond national actors in Washington. By doing so, it makes the stories we want to tell more complicated – involving more locations and more people – but it better reflects the realities of the mid-nineteenth century. The national government was a fraction of the size it is today. Despite the burgeoning transportation and communication revolutions, Americans still lived predominantly local lives and understood nationalism through state and local allegiance. In an era of growing sectional crisis over slavery, national issues of course existed. But we gain new insights by exploring them from the bottom up.

In my own work, understanding national politics from the viewpoint of the states has yielded numerous benefits. As my article here argues, antebellum politics is revealed to be less stable and less ideological when examined state by state. Along with many other scholars like Stephen Engle, Judy Giesberg, A. James Fuller, and William Harris, I’m trying to restore state governors – largely forgotten by historians of the last fifty years – to the status they enjoyed among their contemporaries. Governors sat at the intersection of local and national government and help us understand how the federal system functioned as a whole. The papers of state executives contain neglected sources, like petitions for pardon, that provide a compelling snapshot of how citizens and non-citizens understood and interacted with government at different levels on an almost daily basis. For a fuller exposition on this, the articles in this issue by Laura Edwards and Kate Masur offer brilliant accounts of how federalism framed nineteenth-century Americans’ everyday encounters with law and government.

Your article focuses especially on the Republican Party, as you mentioned earlier. Can you provide a specific example of where you see federalism at play?

As I talk about in the article, the electoral calendar provides a particularly powerful illustration of how federalism shaped party politics. Americans today complain about an endless election cycle. They’d be less jaded if they knew how things used to be. Our modern mid-terms are at least usually over in one night. Mid-term elections in the antebellum era were spread over eighteen months! State elections were scattered sporadically across different years and different months within those years. The fact that states felt no need to align reflected the limitations of national political identity in this era. And what I try and show in the article is that these details are not simply ephemera, an arsenal for the most niche of trivia nights. This calendar had consequences. It meant that parties, rarely having to run simultaneously across a large number of states, could continually adapt their form and messaging to changing circumstances. It gave local and state elections heightened importance as they served as opinion polls for subsequent contests.

The results in particularly important states did even more than predict future contests, they were sometimes seen as deciding them. When Pennsylvania went to the polls in October 1860, the newspapers judged that their gubernatorial contest would decide Lincoln’s fate the following month. Backing up their claim, the turnout in Pennsylvania’s governor election exceeded that in the presidential election – a phenomenon hard to imagine today.

Now that this is in print, what is the focus of your next project?

I have two projects on the go at the moment. First, I’m revising my book manuscript – States of the Union: The Rise and Fall of the Political Center in the Civil War North. States of the Union rediscovers and maps the centrist politics that allowed northern politicians to persuade a fundamentally conservative people to provide electoral backing for the revolutionary measures needed to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery. Second, I am in the early stages of a new project, Reconstruction in an Age of Empires. This will place Reconstruction in international context, exploring how the challenge of realizing greater racial equality in the United States was beset by international headwinds driven by European nations in the process of growing and justifying their global Empires.

Many thanks, Jack, for participating in this interview. Readers, be sure to check out his full article, available through subscription and on Project Muse.

Teaching Military History with the Official Records

Teaching Military History with the Official Records


Title page, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. 1, Vol. XI, Part II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884). Published in 128 volumes between 1881 and 1901, the Official Records, as they are commonly known, remain an indispensable source for Civil War historians and can be invaluable for classroom use as well.

Every time I teach my Civil War and Reconstruction course, I meet students who probably would not have taken any other history class. The enormous popular interest in military history, as most academic historians know, can draw students into the discipline. At a time when boosting course enrollments and attracting new majors is imperative, the Civil War’s battles, campaigns, and leaders can provide very powerful marketing opportunities. Yet military history presents fascinating pedagogical opportunities as well. Civil War battles generated mountains of paper—official orders and reports, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and some notoriously self-serving memoirs, among others—and within this abundant archive there are materials for countless projects that can introduce students to the joys, vexations, and rewards of writing history.

Most students enter college having consumed history from books, movies, or historic sites, but without having produced history themselves. For this reason, every history course must address historical methods: how to ask good questions, evaluate primary sources, handle deficient or conflicting evidence, and reach judicious conclusions. Military history, including study of battles and campaigns, offers an invaluable starting point for wrestling with these problems, because the sources reflect the confusion of battle, the fog of war, and the impulse to shift blame or claim credit. “Battle history looks deceptively simple from the outside,” wrote historian Kenneth W. Noe, but “even for a seasoned scholar it can prove the hardest, most mentally taxing work of one’s career. Never again will one use so frequently the skills we teach young scholars in methodology and historiography courses, especially the selecting and weighing of conflicting evidence.”[1]

Portrait of General Robert E. Lee, February 18, 1865. This photograph was taken nearly three years after Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862. His first major test in this role would come a few weeks later, between June 25 and July 1, during the Seven Days Battles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Eager to guide undergraduates through some of these methodological mazes, I created an assignment that capitalizes on the wealth of material available in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, usually referred to as the Official Records or the OR. A staple of historical research since it was published by the U.S. War Department between 1881 and 1901, the Official Records comprise 128 volumes (plus 31 naval volumes) packed with orders, reports, letters, casualty returns, and other pieces of the vast paper trails left by Civil War armies and navies.[2] The OR’s pedagogical possibilities are boundless, but I decided to focus the assignment on two high-level accounts of the same event: General George B. McClellan and General Robert E. Lee’s reports of the Seven Days Battles, fought just east of Richmond, Virginia, from June 25 to July 1, 1862.[3]

Not only were the reports penned by opposing commanders in a massive series of battles that are sometimes overshadowed by Antietam and Gettysburg, they also invite students to think about how, and for what purposes, historical documents were created. McClellan wrote his four-and-a-half-page report two weeks after the Seven Days Battles ended, while his army was still perched on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James Rivers. This meant that the clashes remained vivid in his mind, though he had not yet received reports from all of his subordinate officers. Lee’s report, in contrast, runs to nine pages and was written eight months later in March 1863. Thus, although the events were less fresh, Lee  had the benefit of reading what lower-echelon officers had written about the Confederate side of the battle.

With this background in mind, the documents open a range of questions for students to explore in their roughly five- to seven-page papers. Whose account, if any, seems more reliable, and why? What do the reports tell us about their authors, both as generals and as people? What do they reveal about the nature of Civil War combat, as viewed from army headquarters, and what do they obscure? Can they be combined to create a single coherent narrative? Or are the accounts too contradictory? I encourage students to pursue the questions that interest them most, so long as they develop and defend a clearly-stated thesis, and the assignment does not require research beyond the class notes that put the Seven Days Battles into broader context. The point is to introduce students to the richness of the OR, the complexity of reconstructing what happened in a Civil War battle, and the difficulties of weighing discrepant accounts of the same events.

George B. McClellan. Major General Commanding U.S. Army, c. 1862. This lithograph was published by J.H. Bufford in 1862, while McClellan commanded the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s first major campaign as army commander culminated in the Seven Days Battles, during which his army was driven away from the outskirts of Richmond. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Of course, the OR could be used in assignments for students of all levels, from high school through doctoral study, and can empower them to ask and answer questions of all sorts. They might compare how an army commander and a junior officer experienced the same battle, for example, or analyze two documents written by the same person at different stages of the war. The OR also contains valuable material on non-battlefield events and issues, including the treatment of prisoners of war, military-civilian relations, the process of emancipation, and much else. Plus, the OR is available, free of charge, to anyone with an Internet connection, making it ideal for instructors teaching online courses, those who work at institutions with less-than-stellar libraries, and anyone who is concerned about the rising cost of textbooks. Most importantly, the OR enables students to do the same kind of work done by professional historians—and to explore the same trove of documents that has sustained generations of groundbreaking research on the Civil War.


[1] Kenneth W. Noe, “Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives,” Civil War History 53, no. 3 (September 2007), 237.

[2] On the OR, see Alan C. Aimone, “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, accessed January 17, 2020, The complete OR can be found online at

[3] On the Seven Days Battles, see Brian K. Burton, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); and Brian K. Burton, The Peninsula and Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.