Category: Blog

UVA Unionists: A Digital Project Studying University of Virginia Alumni Who Stayed Loyal to the Union

UVA Unionists: A Digital Project Studying University of Virginia Alumni Who Stayed Loyal to the Union

Note: “UVA Unionists” is one of two digital projects at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History that shed light on the area’s untold Unionist stories. The other project, “Black Virginians in Blue” [link to Will Kurtz’s Muster blog post], launched in April. See Will Kurtz’s recent Muster post on this project.


In October 1913, the Staunton Daily News called attention to a “grave oversight on the part of our Virginian schools and colleges.” The University of Virginia and other institutions had kept careful records of their Confederate alumni and celebrated them with reunions, banquets, and monuments. But they had “almost entirely overlooked their sons who were in the Federal forces.” The writer praised these “neglected alumni,” insisting that their wartime achievements—if properly recognized—would bring honor and fame to Virginia’s colleges. As Virginians “rejoice in a re-united land,” he observed, they could “surely remember with pride their sons who saw the path of duty differently.” Later that month, UVA’s Alumni News reprinted the article and confessed that “no complete list has been made of the University alumni who saw service in the Union army.”[1]

Now, more than a century later, the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History has answered that call. We transcribed antebellum student catalogues and systematically searched databases on,, and We examined pension and service records at the National Archives and manuscript collections across the country. After four years of research, we have identified 68 UVA students, alumni, and faculty members who served in the Union military. We have also found dozens more who supported the Union cause as civilians, including Congressman Henry Winter Davis and Maryland Governor Thomas Swann. Our “UVA Unionist” project, which officially launches on May 4, tells these men’s stories.

Portrait of Henry Winter Davis
Congressman Henry Winter Davis (National Archives and Records Administration)

In April 1861, these UVA Unionists ranged in age from 14 to 57, with a median age of 26.5. The Staunton Daily News editor assumed they “must have been northern boys…who stuck to their people and their native land.” In reality, two-thirds were born in the South: in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina. Nearly half came from slaveholding households, and several belonged to prominent political families. Stephen Kennedy and Charles Ewing were the sons of United States Senators, and army surgeon John Fox Hammond was the brother of South Carolina Governor James Henry Hammond.[2]

Before the war, most UVA Unionists were doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers, or students. Forty-eight (71 percent) served as officers during the war, and seven ultimately became generals. Only about thirty, however, served on the front lines. The others spent the war as prison guards, paymasters, recruiters, medical personnel, or home guards. Two UVA Unionists died during the war: James Gilliss, superintendent at the Naval Observatory, died of a stroke in February 1865, and his colleague Alexander Pendleton died of an unknown disease later that month. Many others, however, suffered from illness or injury, and at least six became prisoners of war. Most served the Union cause faithfully, and only one man deserted from the army.[3]

After the war, as UVA’s faculty and alumni embraced the Lost Cause, they largely erased these men from the university’s history. The Alumni Bulletin valorized UVA’s Confederate veterans, and an 1878 catalogue noted the Confederate service of more than 2,000 alumni. UVA hosted a Confederate reunion in 1912, and President Edwin Alderman asked alumni to donate their wartime relics—“anything Confederate”—to the university. These publications, however, mentioned only a small handful of UVA Unionists, and the university’s ceremonies and monuments excluded them entirely. One alumnus insisted “there was no Union feeling in the state,” and another agreed that secession brought “all, almost without exception, to the same mind.”[4]

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of UVA alumni supported secession and sided with the Confederacy. Our research suggests that half of all antebellum alumni served in the Confederate military, including 89 percent of the men who attended UVA in 1860-61. Only about 1 percent of UVA’s students, alumni, and faculty served in the Union military. Our project does not attempt to equate these figures. It does, however, shed light on the deep divisions within the nineteenth-century South. Roughly 300,000 White southerners and 150,000 former slaves served in the Union military, and UVA’s Unionists are part of this larger story.[5]

Most were political moderates who fought not to abolish slavery but rather to preserve the Union. Eight men were already serving in the United States military when the war began, and ten more enlisted by May 1861. As James Winslow, a Unionist who attended UVA in 1861, explained, loyal Americans would “maintain the integrity of the Union…if it cost every drop of blood & every dollar in the country.” New York merchant Robert Shannon agreed, recruiting men to “sustain the government” and fight the “holiest war in which patriots ever engaged.” Arkansas editor William Fishback declared the Union the “best government on earth”—a beacon of hope in a world ruled by despotism and heresy.[6]

Image of newspaper page
The Unconditional Union, which William Fishback began publishing in 1864 to champion the Union cause in Arkansas (Microfilm, University of Arkansas)

Despite their moderation, many UVA Unionists ultimately accepted emancipation as a military necessity. Missouri lawyer James Overton Broadhead, for example, began the war as a proslavery Unionist. He served in Missouri’s 1861 constitutional convention, where he forcefully defended both slavery and Union. During the war, however, his convictions slowly evolved. In 1862, as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, he upheld the First Confiscation Act and instructed army officials to liberate Confederate owners’ slaves. The following year, he urged Missourians to adopt gradual emancipation. Although the plan would keep many African Americans in apprenticeships for decades, Broadhead explained, it would establish the “great leading distinction between slavery and freedom…the negro would no longer be a thing, but a person.”[7]

Missouri lawyer James Overton Broadhead (Library of Congress)

After the war, most UVA Unionists hoped to quickly reunite the country, and they largely opposed the “radicalism” of Reconstruction. Broadhead, for instance, severed ties with Republicans and became a leader in Missouri’s Conservative Party. He argued that Congressional Reconstruction “deprived our people of both religious and civil liberty” and denied them a “republican form of government.” He denounced Republicans’ experiment in biracial democracy and championed reconciliation with former Confederates. The country, he claimed, “needs repose and order,” and he could “never justify the acts of reconstruction, or the plunder of the Southern people.”[8]

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Dowell
Oregon editor Benjamin Franklin Dowell (Oregon Historical Society).

A handful of UVA Unionists, however, became champions of freedom. Robert Shannon served as a federal commissioner in Louisiana, where he vigorously enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He imprisoned White Louisianians for terrorizing former slaves, arrested election officials for keeping freedmen from voting, and arraigned state judges for failing to defend African Americans’ rights. Oregon editor Benjamin Franklin Dowell defended African-American suffrage and civil rights, insisting the right to vote made former slaves “not only free in name but in fact.”  Most famously, Maryland Congressman Henry Winter Davis became an architect of Congressional Reconstruction. He co-authored the Wade-Davis Bill, helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and fought for legal and political equality for all men.[9]

Despite their small numbers, these UVA Unionists remind us of the ideological power of the Union, which enshrined political liberty and economic opportunity for all White men. Benjamin Dowell, for instance, championed the “republican principles” of self-government and vowed to live under “the stars and stripes, as long as life shall last.” These men’s stories remind us of the conservatism of most loyal Americans and help explain the failures of Reconstruction. But they also speak to the Civil War’s contested and transformative potential and reveal the ways that southern intransigence both hardened northern resolve and embedded the ideals of biracial democracy in the Constitution. Their devotion to the Union belies the Lost Cause myth of southern unity and reveals the deep and enduring divisions in the nineteenth-century South.[10]


[1] The Staunton Daily News, 14 October 1913; University of Virginia Alumni News 2, no. 4 (29 October 1913), 37.

[2] The Staunton Daily News, 14 October 1913.

[3] See Brian Neumann, “UVA Unionists: The University of Virginia’s ‘Neglected Alumni,’” Magazine of Albemarle Charlottesville History 78 (2020), 73-108.

[4] Albert T. Bledsoe, Is Davis a Traitor, or Was Secession a Constitutional Right (Baltimore: Innes & Company, 1866), v; James M. Garnett, “Personal Recollections of the University of Virginia at the Outbreak of the War of 1861-65,” Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia, 3rd ser., vol. 5, no. 3 (July 1912), 338; William W. Old, “The Student Volunteers of 1861,” Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia, n.s., vol. 5, no. 5 (March 1906), 292-295; Students of the University of Virginia: A Semi-Centennial Catalogue with Brief Biographical Sketches (Baltimore: Charles Harvey, 1878).

[5] William W. Freehling, The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), xiii.

[6] James A. Winslow to John B. Minor, 21 May 1861, Papers of John B. Minor, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia; New York Daily Herald, 21 May 1861; Unconditional Union (Little Rock, AR), 23 January 1864.

[7] Fremont (OH) Weekly Journal, 19 October 1860; Journal of the Missouri State Convention Held at Jefferson City and St. Louis, March 1861 (St. Louis, MO: George Knapp, 1861), 114-233; James O. Broadhead to Bernard G. Farrar, 2 February 1862, in Ira Berlin et al., eds., The Destruction of Slavery, 1st ser., vol. 1, Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 425-426; Journal of the Missouri State Convention Held in Jefferson City, June 1863 (St. Louis, MO: George Knapp, 1863), 297.

[8] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), 22 August 1866; Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), 24 September 1874; St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 26 September 1882.

[9] The Daily True Delta (New Orleans, LA), 11 February 1864; The New Orleans (LA) Republican, 5 January 1868, 3 May 1868, and 6 June 1868; The Natchez (MS) Democrat, 25 July 1868; The Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville, OR), 5 December 1868; Bernard C. Steiner, Life of Henry Winter Davis (Baltimore, MD: John Murphy, 1916); Gerald S. Henig, Henry Winter Davis: Antebellum and Civil War Congressman from Maryland (New York: Twayne, 1973).

[10] Weekly Oregon Statesman (Salem, OR), 28 April 1862; The Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville, OR), 26 November 1864.





Brian Neumann

Brian Neumann received his PhD from the University of Virginia and serves as editorial assistant for the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History. He is the author of Bloody Flag of Anarchy: Unionism in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis (forthcoming from LSU Press) and “UVA Unionists: The University of Virginia’s ‘Neglected Alumni,’” Magazine of Albemarle Charlottesville History 78 (Albemarle County Historical Society, 2020).

Disney and Battlefields: A Tale of Two Continents

Disney and Battlefields: A Tale of Two Continents

In the United States, significant portions of land have been set aside for battlefield parks to commemorate the actions of past generations and interpreted these spaces with regard to how they have shaped the present. In turn, as Edward Linenthal has argued, they became sacred ground.[1] As a result, some historians and members of the public have viewed infringements on those battlefields as a violation of that sacred ground.

In the 1990s, the Disney Corporation twice invaded such sacred places, first in France’s Marne-la-Vallee and second in Northern Virginia. The results could not have been more different. In France attention focused on the damage done to French culture by a U.S. conglomerate and in Virginia the outcry was over Disney doing “to American history what they have already done to the animal kingdom—sentimentalize it out of recognition,” to use Shelby Foote’s words.[2] By studying the two episodes, the different cultures of battlefield preservation and war remembrance in Europe and the United States illustrate that not preserving a battlefield does not mean forgetting nor does it mean ignoring the sacrifices of soldiers in the past.

On December 19, 1985, Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Disney Corporation stepped in front of the camera to announce that Disney had decided to build a new theme park and resort area just to the east of Paris. Eisner stated: “We are hopeful that our current negotiations will result in a definitive agreement to bring Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney to France and the European Community . . . Walt Disney would certainly feel at home here because European literature inspired so many of his fantasies and characters.” The article indicates that the selected location near Marne-la-Vallee, was located on the western edge of a World War I battlefield.[3] This was one of the very few mentions of the proposed park’s proximity to a battlefield.

Seven years after Eisner’s Paris press conference, on April 12, 1992, Euro Disney Resort opened its gates. Only two years later, on September 28, 1994, the Disney Corporation announced the abandoning of a very different theme park project in the vicinity of another battlefield of a different war, Disney’s America in northern Virginia near Manassas/Bull Run. While it was the uncontrollably spiraling costs of, what had by then become, Disneyland Paris that brought down Disney’s America, some in the historical community assumed they had tamed the mouse with their protests.

The locations of these planned theme park projects near battlefields of great national importance are surprisingly similar. In the course of the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, the 9th German Cavalry Division advanced as far as the village of Crecy along the Grand Morin.[4] This placed the troops just north of the British Army and within 10km (a little over 6 miles) of modern day Disneyland Paris. In contrast, the distance between Disney’s America and the Manassas National Battlefield Park was about 8 miles. Therefore, both parks were located in similar close vicinity to the opening engagements of their respective wars. Paris and Washington, D.C. also have an extensive cultural scene of museums and on their own accord attract a vast number of tourists. Disney even had plans to offer packages that would include day-trips into Washington.

The close proximity of the new theme park in France to the early battlefields of the Great War was a topic of discussion, but never a prominent one. The New York Times reported that “Mickey and Pluto will frolic near the edge of history” when the talks between Disney and the French government came to a successful conclusion.[5] References to World War I or the Great War, dissipated quickly, but so did Eisner’s smile.

When Eisner visited the Paris Bourse for the stock launch in 1989 eggs literally flew in his face. Chants of “Mickey, Go Home!” were not even the worst word choice as French movie director Ariane Mnouchkine suggested that the arrival of Disney in France represented “a cultural Chernobyl.”[6] The notion of a cultural conflict was widespread as even Le Figaro noted decades later, “Deux cultures, deux imaginaires s’affrontent.”[7] France has historically jealously guarded against any form of anglicization of its language and made efforts to promote French culture. At the same time, the battlefield near the new park did not hold the same gruesome reminders as those farther afield at Verdun or along the Somme. It was the arrival of a cultural icon from the United States and its possible impact on French culture that drew attention not the proximity to Great War battlefields.

Hoping for a better reception, on November 11, 1993, Eisner made another trip in front of the press to announce yet another theme park. Located in Virginia, the proposed park centered on history, telling aspects of the history of the United States until 1945, but also near history with its close proximity to the Bull Run/Manassas Battlefield. The 1,200-acre park would in the words of Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Co., “make this [history] real but also make it fun. An intelligent story, properly told, shouldn’t offend anybody. . . . But we won’t worry about being politically correct.” The Los Angeles Times wondered if making historical events such as slavery, the Depression, and the Civil War “fun and exciting for the whole family” was an invitation for problems.[8] As expected the eggs, this time figuratively, quickly started flying in Disney’s direction as the Disney Corporation had miscalculated the public opposition.

Haymarket, Virginia, where the park was supposed to rise, was “in an uproar. Neighbors are lining up against neighbors. Families are split. For the history-soaked region 40 miles from the nation’s capital, the fight is shaping up as a second Civil War: for or against Disney.”[9] The proximity to Manassas National Battlefield Park brought opposition from individuals who had already successfully derailed plans for a shopping center near the park in the late 1980s and did not want commercialization near these sacred grounds. With regard to the Civil War, concerns centered on how a Fort Sumter-like replica and a naval engagement between Monitor and Virginia would tell the complicated story of the rebellion. In the words of Democratic Representative Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), “Americans should learn about the Civil War from historians, . . . ‘not Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.’”[10] David McCullough was far more outspoke when he called the plans, “This is the creation of a new city, a new edge city, sprawl at its worst. And this is the panzer division of developers moving in.”[11] Ironically, even the French did not seem to have used such harsh language to oppose their park.

Two years after his enthusiastic statements and promises of resilience in the face of “political correctness,” Rummell beat retreat. He explained the cancelation of the park: “We recognize that there are those who have been concerned about the possible impact of our park on historic sites in this unique area, and we have always tried to be sensitive to the issue.”[12]While money was a significant factor in the cancelation, historians and community leaders celebrate what they perceived as their success.[13]

Beyond the failure and success of building theme parks near battlefields, these Disney projects illustrate the very different attitudes taken towards these areas of death and destruction. Both the Great War, in which France lost around 1.7 million soldiers and civilians, and the American Civil War, were defining as well as traumatic moments in each country’s past. In the United States, national cemeteries and battlefield parks dot the landscape. In France, massive cemeteries and battlefield monuments are a reminder of the carnage. There are still trenches and bunkers all around the northern parts of the country; yet, there is no massive battlefield park. Arguably it would be impractical to create a park that stretches from Channel to Switzerland, eliminating millions of acres of farm land. However, the French have created small parks, like at Verdun.[14] A vastly different memorial landscape from that which exist in the United States, where it is increasingly popular to preserve entire battlefield park, at least try to, and to treat these field as sacred beyond development.

In the end, France and the United States remember their pasts in very different ways. The United States is somewhat unique in that it created massive battlefield parks, something impracticable in most of Europe. With the parks anchored so deeply in the public memory of the American Civil War, a theme park infringing on such a sacred space was unthinkable as was the cultural impact Disney would have on the telling of history. The French worried about the impact of Disney and U.S. culture on France; however, the proximity of the park to the early battlefields of the Great War was not a major topic of disagreement. Maybe, there is something the United States can learn from France’s attitude that not all battlefields need to be preserved to remember those who fought and died in major wars of the past.

[1] Edward T. Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

[2] Charles Krauthammer, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Mouse?” Time, June 6, 1994. Available at

[3] New York Times, December 19, 1985.

[4] “Battle of the Marne, and Advance to the Aisne,

[5] Frank J. Prial, “The Talk of Paris,“ New York Times, August 13, 1985.

[6] Jeff Chu, “Happily Ever After?” Time Europe Magazine, March 18, 2002.

[7] Camille Lestienne, “Disneyland Paris: L’Inquiétude des Riverains en 1989 face à la ‘Bétonisation,’” Le Figaro (Paris), February, 24, 2017. Special thanks to Andrew Houck for helping me with some French newspaper research.

[8] Jube Shiver, Jr, “With Liberty and Justice for Mickey,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1993.

[9] Deborah Sharp, “Disney Plans worry Locals / Rural Virginia again is a Battlefield,” USA Today, December 7, 1993.

[10] Stephen C. Fehr and Michael D. Shear, “For Disney, Fight Takes New Twist,” Washington Post, June 17, 1994.

[11] “Historians Oppose Disney America in Virginia,” CNN NEWS 8:10 pm ET, May 11, 1994.

[12] “Disney Cancels N. Va. History Park,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 1994.

[13] Michael Wiebner, “The Battle of Bull Run: How Insurgent Grassroots Lobbying Defeated Disney’s Proposed Virginia, Theme Park,” Campaigns and Elections (December 1994 / January 1995).

[14] Thank you to Chip Fulcher, Craig Bruce Smith, Jen Murray, Brooks Simpson, Caitlin G. DeAngelis for their helpful comments on Twitter and Sabrina Mittermeier (Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks Middle Class Kingdoms (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020)) who kindly visited one of my classes to talk about her book.






Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

Texas Secession: Whose Tradition?

Texas Secession: Whose Tradition?

The Texan secessionists are at it again.  In a bill submitted to the Texas State Legislature on January 26, 2021, state representatives have sparked, in legal form, the question of Texas secession once more.  According to the author, Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, TX, House Bill 1359 offers Texans “of all political persuasions” the opportunity, through referendum, to prime the engines of Texas independence. “Texas is seen as the bastion of freedom and a leader of free enterprise,” Rep. Biedermann has argued.  “A robust economy, financial solvency, and capacity for massive energy production worthy of the world state… are all indications that the Republic of Texas would not just survive, but thrive as an independent nation.  Now is the time for Texas to lead.”[1]

Advocates are claiming Texas’s right to secede is based on Article 1, Section 2 of the state constitution, which states: “All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit.”  Rep. Biedermann, moreover, contends that “the federal government is out of control and does not represent the values of Texans,” nor those of “our Founding Fathers [who] established [liberty] with their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”  It is, thus, “un-American and unpatriotic to not make our voices heard.”[2]

Within this rhetoric of secession there is an obvious appeal to Texas’s “inherent” roots and entitlements. Tradition, we are led to believe, empowers modern-day Texans to reject the oppressions of a centralized state apparatus, to throw the yoke of burdensome taxes, regulations, and restrictions.  It is their imperative, proponents say, to embrace Texas’s “sacred” past of political independence.

A review of Texas’s history of secession, however, reminds today’s observers that Texas secession was hardly just about preserving a righteous or freedom-fostering form of government.  Texas secession, in both the 1830s and 1860s, was about power and prosperity.  During the first two movements, secessionists sought to recalibrate Texas’s future by delineating the haves and the have-nots, the winners and losers of (an imagined) Texas society.  Power, nineteenth-century secessionists believed, certainly resided in “the people,” but the contest over who could claim the mantel of “the people” – and whose interests the government would serve – was often the very source of the secession movements themselves.

The first secessionist movement emerged at the cross-section of competing visions of conquest and colonization.  In the 1820s and 30s, “Texas” existed as both the far northeastern reaches of Mexico and the de facto western frontier of Anglo-America.  Anglo-Texas’s raison d’être, in the eyes of Mexican officials, was to create a buffer zone between the rest of Mexico and the Indigenous nations of the North, who for generations had rendered much of the Hispanic colonial apparatus impotent and vulnerable.  “Rarely a day passes that this capital [of San Antonio] is not attacked by the Indians,” declared Governor Antonio Martínez in April 1819.  “I predict with sadness that this province will be destroyed unwittingly by lack of inhabitants, and I myself by lack of the resources which are necessary for subsistence.”  Thus, when Moses Austin and his son Stephen reached out to the Spanish and then Mexican officials with their schemes to bring “civilization” to Texas, their Hispanic allies were optimistic that they had solved their so-called Indian problem.[3]

Anglo-American colonists generally understood the bargain they had struck with the Mexican government, and during the first decade-plus of colonization, Anglo settlers enthusiastically aided Mexican locals and officials in their quest to conquer or “pacify” their Indigenous adversaries.[4]  But Anglo-American colonization in Texas also drew energy from another violent impulse: a commitment to the exploitation of enslaved Black people.  Although a number of their Mexican counterparts wholly understood – and accepted – anti-Black slavery’s role in “civilizing” Texas, Anglo-Texans faced an increasingly hostile government response to their violent, cotton-generating institution, particularly as controversies surrounding its legality brought into relief the growing disconnect of Anglo-Texas from the Mexican heartland.[5]

By the 1830s, Mexican officials – desperately trying to assert state authority – were actively working to end the enslavement of Black people in Texas.[6]  Anglo-American colonists, who were still committed to destroying or displacing the Indigenous people of Mexico’s northern frontier, felt betrayed.  Had they not, per their original agreement, brought “civilization” to the region?  Why, then, as Stephen F. Austin explained, was “a war of extermination… raging in Texas – a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race”?  Secession, they reasoned, was their only recourse.  A tyrannical government that solicited help from “the merciless savage” and instigated Black rebellion, that supposedly catered to the most inferior of people at the expense of Anglo-American “life, liberty, and property,” was deserving of overthrow.[7]  In short, Anglo colonists rebelled against Mexico in 1835-36 because Mexico had lost sight of “the people” – who in this historical moment were generally anti-Black supporters of Native annihilation.[8]

“The Eagle of Liberty: The Free Eagle of Mexico Grappling the Cold Blooded Viper, Tyranny or Texas,” in The Anti-Texass Legion, Protest of Some Free Men, States and Presses Against the Texas Rebellion (1844).  Abolitionists were among the first to interpret Texas secession as a movement to advance anti-Black slavery.  Library of Congress.

Anglo-Texas would not join the United States until the mid-1840s, mostly because the question of Texas cession had become too politically volatile, at home and abroad.[9]  In the interim, the Republic of Texas – a nation that restricted citizenship to “all free white persons” – would represent a debtor refuge, a place where White slaveholders from the East could relocate, with enslaved Black people in tow, to escape their self-inflicted financial troubles and start their slave-based enterprises anew.[10]  The enslaved population in Texas swelled from at least 2,000 people in the mid-1830s to some 28,000 by 1845.  When Texas elected to join the Union that year, admission promised “the most abundant prosperity… the dawning of a new era indeed for Texas.”[11]

Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party won the U.S. presidential election.  Although U.S. federal failures to stimy Native resistance in Texas had for years bred anti-general government sentiment among many Anglo-Texans, the threat of “Black Republicanism” in the United States, along with recent evidence of internal Black rebellion (known to contemporaries as “Texas Troubles”), provided the primary impetus for Texas secession 2.0.  “We believe it is the intention of the Black Republican party to use the force of the Government to extinguish the system of slavery, and we do not intend to wait till we are so weak we cannot resist,” declared the Dallas Herald.[12]  Convinced that the Lone Star Republic’s constitution provided secessionists with the legal rationalization for abandoning the Union, Anglo-Texans organized a secession convention in late-January 1861 and a state-wide referendum the following month.  Official tallies reported a smashing victory for secession, with 46,129 votes in favor and 14,697 against.  Apparently secessionists were left with no other choice: “the non-slave-holding States… have formed themselves into a great sectional party… based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”  It also didn’t hurt that “the Federal Government… has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border.”[13]

“An Heir to the Throne, on the Next Republican Candidate,” 1860. Racist fears of “Black Republican” rule galvanized White Southerners, especially in Texas, against Abraham Lincoln, his administration, and ultimately the Union. Library of Congress.

Texas secession, both in the 1830s and 1860s, was thus as much about clarifying the relationship between the government and “the people” as it was about delineating relations – power and entitlements in particular – among the various inhabitants of the region.  The question was not simply How should the government serve the people? but also Whom should the government serve and at whose expense?  These concerns cut to the heart of the 1861 secession argument: Texas had to leave the Union and join the Confederacy for the sake of “holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”[14]

One necessarily wonders, then, what “values” are driving the current secessionist movement in Texas, especially if it is, by its own admission, drawing its energy from the secessionist traditions of the past.[15]  Perhaps modern-day secessionists speak only of a return to just government in the abstract, of government as the will of the people operationalized.  Or perhaps they aren’t well versed in Texas secessionist history and think secession was simply about ending generalized state-sponsored oppression in Texas.  Or perhaps they intend to refashion the body politic of Texas yet again, to restore the original secessionist visions of “the people” of Texas – White supremacy and all.  I suppose time will tell.


[1] For the text of the bill, see  Rep. Biedermann’s website lays out a rationale for the bill: “Representative Biedermann Files the Texas Independence Referendum Act,” Jan. 26, 2021,

[2] Kyle Bidermann, “The federal government is out of control.” Dec. 8, 2020, Facebook,; “Texit FAQ: Texas Independence Referendum Act,” Jan. 26, 2021,  It is unclear who counts as the “Founding Fathers” to Rep. Biedermann.  Notably, the authors of the 1875-76 state constitution were part of a “counterrevolutionary” movement of so-called Redeemers who sought to roll back the “Radical Republican” programs designed to assimilate the freedpeople (through state protections and schools) into a post-slavery society.  Carl H. Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle for Reconstruction (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), 138-54, 188-205. For the 1876 state constitution, see H.P.N. Gammel, ed., The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897, Vol. 8 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898), 781.

[3] Antonio Martínez to Commandant General, Apr. 1, 1819, in Virginia Taylor, ed., The Letters of Antonio Martínez: Last Spanish Governor of Texas, 1817-1822 (Austin: Texas State Library, 1957), 217–18; Mattie Austin Hatcher, ed., The Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement, 1801-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1912), 354-55; Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 143-52, 182-201.

[4] See, for instance, Francisco Ruíz to Antonio Elosúa, June 11, 1831; Francisco Ruíz to Antonio Elosúa, Aug. 1831; Ramón Músquiz to Green C. DeWitt and the Gonzales Commissar of Police, Oct. 15, 1831; Antonio Elosúa to Manuel Lafuente, Oct. 15, 1831; Diary of Capt. Manuel Lafuente, Oct. 18 to Nov. 26, 1831, all in Malcolm D. McLean, ed, Papers of Robertson’s Colony in Texas, Vol. 6 (Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington Press, 1979), 268, 335, 468, 470, 557–65.

[5] Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán was one of the more prominent voices in sounding the alarm of Anglo colonists’ “strong and indissoluble connections with [their] neighboring government.”  Manuel de Mier y Terán to Guadalupe Victoria, Mar. 28, 1828, in Jack Jackson, ed., Texas by Terán (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 33, 36–37.  For examples of Mexican complicity in anti-Black slavery, see Eugene C. Barker, “Native Latin American Contribution to the Colonization and Independence of Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 46 (Jan. 1943): 320; Census Report of Nacogdoches, 1828, in University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, Residents of Texas, 1782-1836, Vol. 2, 214, 216, 218, 242;

[6] Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 97-157.  Max Flomen’s recent contributions to The Journal of the Civil War astutely highlight the “unintended consequences” of Euro-American imperial warfare in Texas, especially how state-on-state warfare created fissures where “alternative emancipations” could thrive.  Max Flomen, “The Long War for Texas: Maroons, Renegades, Warriors, and Alternative Emancipations in the Southwest Borderlands, 1835-1845,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar. 2021): 36-61; and “Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & the Empire for Slaver in the Southwest,” Mar. 30, 2021, Muster,

[7] Stephen F. Austin to Senator L. F. Linn, May 4, 1836, Eugene C. Barker, ed. Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1919: The Austin Papers, Vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), 344–48; The Declaration of Independence Made by the Delegates of the People of Texas, Washington, Mar. 2, 1836, in Gammel, ed., The Laws of Texas, Vol. 1, 1063–66; Paul D. Lack, “Slavery and the Texas Revolution,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Oct. 185): 181-202.

[8] Notably, Rep. Biedermann also has filed House Bill 3013, termed “The Alamo Heroes Act,” which seeks to advance a Texas exceptionalist interpretation of the first secession movement, one that does not “dishonor the moral character of our brave Alamo Defenders.” “Biedermann Files the Alamo Heroes Act,” Mar. 5, 2021,

[9] William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 355-71.

[10] Sec. 6 of the Republic constitution stipulated citizenship for White immigrants, while Sec. 10 explicitly excluded “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians.”  Constitution of the Republic of Texas, 1836, in Randolph B. Campbell, ed., The Laws of Slavery in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 52-53; Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 284-88.

[11] Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, Secret Report on the Present Situation in Texas, 1834, in Jack Jackson, ed., Almonte’s Texas: Juan N. Almonte’s 1834 Inspection, Secret Report and Role in the 1836 Campaign (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003), 253; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1989), 55; Llerena Friend, ed., “Contemporary Newspaper Accounts of the Annexation of Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Oct. 1945): 274.

[12] Donald E. Reynolds, Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Dallas Herald, December 19, 1860.  Of course, Black resistance – fugitivity in particular – already had a long history in Anglo-Texas.  See, Alice L. Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2020), especially 165-83; James D. Nichols, The Limits of Liberty: Mobility and the Making of the Eastern U.S.-Mexico Border (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 57-79, 125-46; Sean M. Kelley, “‘Mexico in His Head’: Slavery and the Texas-Mexico Border, 1810-1860,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring 2004): 709-23.

[13] William Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 1861 (Austin: Austin Printing Company, 1912), 62-63, 87-90; Dale Baum, The Shattering of Texas Unionism: Politics in the Lone Star State during the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 42-81.

[14] Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 61-62

[15] As Rep. Biedermann has explained, one of his goals is to have “the whole country, the whole world” think: “Oh my goodness, those Texans are at it again.”  Andrea Zelinski, “What the Newest Lone Star Secessionists Want,” Texas Monthly, Feb. 11, 2021,  The Civil War, they argue, did not “settle” the question of secession.  “Can Texas Legally Secede from the Union?” Texas Nationalist Movement, Jan. 29, 2019, The modern-day ties between Texas secessionism and “defense” of the Alamo are also illustrative.  “The Alamo Needs Your Help,” Texas Nationalist Movement, accessed Mar. 25, 2021,










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.

Black Virginians in Blue: A Digital Project Studying Black Union Soldiers and Sailors from Albemarle County, Virginia

Black Virginians in Blue: A Digital Project Studying Black Union Soldiers and Sailors from Albemarle County, Virginia

For the last four years, the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia has been working to uncover the untold story of Albemarle County, Virginia’s Black men who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) or Union navy. Our project, which we call “Black Virginians in Blue,” tells the unknown stories of the 256 Black men who enlisted in the Union military in order to end slavery and save the Union.

Descriptive Book of the 64th USCT. “Albemarle” was often misspelled in military records, as is the case here with the entry for Fenton Hood (National Archives and Records Administration)

One of the reasons that this local story has never been told is because most USCT records reside in the National Archives at Washington, D.C. There are very few traces of our soldiers and sailors that remain in Charlottesville or Albemarle County. Thanks to digital databases such as the National Park’s Soldiers and Sailors database and African American military service records digitized on, we were actually able to accomplish a lot of our initial research online. In addition to these online resources, we also examined regimental descriptive books at the National Archives. Because so many soldier’s birthplaces as listed in their service records are given simply as “Virginia” or are spelled incorrectly, it is possible there are even more soldiers from Albemarle for us to find in the future.[1] Like Holly Pinheiro and other scholars, we have found that military pension records are one of the best sources for understanding the lives of Black veterans and their families before, during, and after the war.[2]

Pension Record of Jesse S. Cowles (National Archives and Records Administration).

By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 Black men served in what was known as the United States Colored Troops or USCT for short. About 5,700 Black soldiers enlisted in regiments raised in the state of Virginia. Our research, however, shows that many more men born in the state had moved elsewhere, joining up with USCT regiments raised across the North and occupied South. With only fourteen of the 250 soldiers from Albemarle County enlisting in Virginia’s borders, we believe that our finding suggests that the Old Dominion’s true contribution to the USCT has been vastly undercounted. The most prominent of our soldiers was Commissary Sergeant James T. S. Taylor of the 2nd USCT, who played a major role in local Black politics after the war.[3]

As historian Elizabeth R. Varon, one of the project codirectors, has previously noted, this research finding “challenge[s] us to rethink our concepts of ‘local history.’” Without acknowledging the Albemarle roots of the soldiers and sailors who enlisted outside of Virginia, “one might conclude that Albemarle County, Virginia had no USCT history: there was no USCT wartime presence there, no recruiting stations and battles involving Black troops. But if we take into account birthplaces, we see that Albemarle has scores of USCT stories.”[4]

Tintype of Willis Calhoun of the 67th USCT (National Archives and Records Administration).

By contrast to the army, the first Black men to be accepted into Union service entered the navy much earlier, starting in late 1861 as authorized by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Unlike the army, naval vessels were not segregated.  Black men had served onboard before the war. By war’s end, nearly 18,000 Black men had served in the Union navy, over 2,800 of whom were born in Virginia, the largest number from any state. Six of these men were born in Albemarle County or Charlottesville. Although tracing the lives of five of these men is difficult, the value of pension records was once again more than demonstrated by our detailed biography of Alexander Caine, the first man from Albemarle County to enlist in the Union military.[5]

So far we have located 256 African American men from Albemarle County who enlisted in more than eighty different regiments. Only about seven percent of the men deserted during the war, a desertion rate lower than that for white Union soldiers which was more than nine percent.[6]Albemarle County USCT soldiers served in both the western and eastern theaters from 1862 until 1867 when the last Black regiments were finally discharged. Although none of them fought at the Battle of Fort Wagner depicted in the movie Glory, our soldiers were present at others of the USCT’s most important battles and campaigns, including Port Hudson, the siege of Petersburg, New Market Heights, Nashville, Fort Fisher, Honey Hill, Natural Bridge, and the Appomattox Campaign. In addition, the six Black sailors from Albemarle served in a variety of naval vessels, cursing for Confederate commerce raiders on the Atlantic, performing blockade duty near South Carolina, and patrolling the Mississippi and other western rivers.

Seventy-two of these Albemarle men died in the service, a death rate of 28.1 percent, which is far higher than the overall death rate of 18.5 percent for all Black soldiers during the war. However, only five men died from combat wounds and one from an accident as the vast majority died from diseases such as small pox, pneumonia, and dysentery and diarrhea, with the latter two being the biggest killers.[7]

Reverend Jesse S. Cowles (published in Cleveland Gazette, July 30, 1887).

Jesse Sumner Cowles, who was born around 1845 to Sarah and Montgomery Cowles in Albemarle County, Virginia. Cowles was subsequently enslaved in eastern Virginia before the Civil War. When the Union army marched up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond in the summer of 1862, Cowles escaped slavery and fled to Union lines, becoming part of a mass wartime exodus of fugitive slaves to the Federal army.[8]

Cowles enlisted as a private at the age of 18 on November 30, 1863, in Hartford, Connecticut, and mustered in on March 8, 1864, in New Haven. Cowles served in the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment during the war, seeing action at the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond in 1864 and 1865 before shipping out to Texas after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. Cowles was wounded in his left forearm at the Battle of Second Fair Oaks, Virginia, on October 27, 1864. He mustered out with the rest of his regiment on October 24, 1865, in Brownsville, Texas.[9]

After the war, Cowles made his way north to Connecticut where he graduated from Wesleyan University and was ordained as a minister in 1872, playing a leadership role in the AME Zion churches in postings across the North. Cowles used his considerable talents as an organizer and orator to support charitable causes, to protest segregation and other forms of discrimination, and to keep the memory of the Union victory alive. In 1885, for example, Cowles helped lead an effort to raise money in New York’s Black churches in order to erect a monument to the Union general and former president Ulysses S. Grant, who had just passed away. Cowles died of consumption in York, Pennsylvania, on July 17, 1897. An obituary remembered him as “an earnest and faithful worker and an eloquent and pleasing pulpit orator.” He is buried in Lebanon Cemetery in York along with his wife Nancy.[10]

In telling the stories of Black Civil War soldiers and sailors such as Jesse S. Cowles and many more, the Nau Center hopes to tell a more comprehensive and inclusive story of our local history. We have found that the Civil War history of Albemarle County is more than just one of Confederates or the Lost Cause statues they left behind. In fact, many African Americans from our county eagerly donned the blue uniforms of the Union army and navy, and we hope our efforts will inspire similar studies of Black soldiers and sailors from other Virginian counties and other southern states. Our project will officially launch on April 13, the first day of our virtual signature conference.[11]

[1] Compiled Service Records, RG 94 National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA), accessed through Fold3 (; “Search for Sailors,” Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database, National Park Service (; “U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865,”; USCT Regimental Descriptive Books, RG 94, NARA.

[2] Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., “Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records,” Muster, February 16, 2021,

[3] Christopher T. Brooks, “James T. S. Taylor (1840–1918),” Encyclopedia Virginia,; Jonathan W. White, “A Black Soldier from Charlottesville Writes to Lincoln,” September 27, 2016, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website),

[4] Elizabeth R. Varon, “From Carter’s Mountain to Morganza Bend: A USCT Odyssey (Part 2),” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), January 18, 2017,

[5] Joseph P. Reidy, “Black Men in Navy Blue during the Civil War,” Prologue 33, no. 3 (Fall 2001),; William B. Kurtz, “Alexander Caine: From Philadelphia Barber to Union Sailor to World Traveler,” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), October 29, 2018,

[6] Dora L. Costa, Matthew E. Kahn, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 112.

[7] Margaret Humphreys, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 11.

[8] Compiled military service records for Jesse S. Cowles, RG 94, NARA; J. W. (James Walker) Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism (New York: A.M.E. Zion Book Concern, 1895), 613-15.

[9] Compiled military service records for Jesse S. Cowles, RG 94, NARA.

[10] Pension Records for Jesse Cowles, RG15, NARA; New York Freeman, August 8, 1885; The York Dispatch (Pennsylvania), July 19, 1897; Samantha Dorm, “Jesse Sumner Cowles,” Emails, December 2020-January 2021.

[11] “Black Virginians in Blue: 2021 Signature Conference (Day 1),” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website),


William B. Kurtz

Dr. William B. Kurtz is the Nau Center’s Managing Director and Digital Historian. He is the author of Excommunicated from the Union: How The Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America (Fordham University Press, 2016) and “Black Virginians in Blue: The Untold Stories of Albemarle County’s US Colored Troops,” Magazine of Albemarle Charlottesville History 78 (Albemarle County Historical Society, 2020).

Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & The Empire for Slavery in the Southwest

Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & The Empire for Slavery in the Southwest

The realities of Indigenous power, marronage, and Mexico’s emancipation policies haunted Anglo-American visions of a white supremacist imperial order in the trans-Mississippi West. On May 25, 1836 Congressman John Quincy Adams rose from his desk in the U.S. House of Representatives to excoriate Anglo-Texans’ “war of aggression, of conquest, and of slave-making” against Mexico. For this venerable Yankee imperialist, war and slavery did not mix. Dreading the “motley” elements empowered by continental upheaval, Adams described the racialized geopolitical nightmare of a Mexican revolutionary invading the United States “with the torch of liberty in his hand […] proclaiming emancipation to the slave and revenge to the native Indian.” Describing the “war of races” that might envelop North America, Adams turned to his Southern colleagues and asked “Where will be your negroes? Where will be that combined and concentrated mass of Indian tribes?” While he disagreed with Adam’s opposition to the expansion of chattel slavery in the American West — bluntly telling his cousin that “Texas must be a slave country,” — Stephen Austin acknowledged the threat of borderland warfare to the plantation system. In a shrill letter to a Missouri senator, he predicted that a “war of extermination” would pit “civilization and the Anglo-American race” against “a population of Mexicans, Indians, and renegades, all mixed together.”[1]

The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle, 1895

What these statesmen failed to recognize was that efforts at self-liberation had long been underway among Indigenous and Black peoples of the Southwest Borderlands. If the nineteenth century marked an Age of Emancipation (1807-1888), in the continental interior it was one characterized by efforts from below rather than the policies of the U.S. and the European slaving states. Belying Adams’ and Austin’s conspiratorial interpretations, inter-ethnic cohorts developed strategies of diplomacy & marronage (permanent escape from slavery and community-building outside colonial society) to confound plantation slavers during the protracted war for control of the Southwest. In the borderlands, liberation struggles belonged to the alternative histories of emancipation accomplished through marronage, foreign intervention, and guerilla warfare. These autonomous efforts unfolded in Brazil, Florida, Haiti, Jamaica, Surinam, and the Southwest, making them distinct from the imperial abolitionism that transformed much of the Atlantic World.[2]

The long, intersectional history of Indigenous warfare and marronage destabilizing slave regimes in the Americas can help us recast how we might teach the history of emancipation. Throughout the colonial period (1500-1900), Euro-American empires and their successor states fought wars to expand their control over markets, peoples, and territory. Rife with unintended consequences, these conflicts often brought the fighting into the heart of slave societies, themselves riven with the tensions of racialized exploitation.  As Euro-American armies converged, they plundered plantations, recruited enemy slaves, and made thousands of people refugees. The chaos of war also provided opportunities to escape and form new communities or join forces with allies who offered liberation. The presence of mobile and militarized Indigenous nations heightened the stakes of alliance politics and the possibility of multiple, overlapping conflicts. Thus, colonial warfare often destabilized the very institution these wars were often fought to preserve – chattel slavery.

Taking the long view, Indigenous and Black peoples developed similar survival and self-emancipation strategies at the vulnerable edges of slaving empires. From the Chichimeca War (1550-1590) in northern Mexico to the Natchez Uprising in Louisiana (1729-1731) to the revolutionary insurgencies in the Great Caribbean between the 1780s and 1810s, Native struggles for autonomy merged with the interests of the enslaved. Further amplified by the potential of foreign intervention, conflicts that meshed “Indian war” and “servile insurrections” remained the stuff of colonists’ nightmares well into the nineteenth century.[3]

Thirty years before Union armies conquered the Deep South, Mexican troops found a slave society at war with itself during the “Texas Revolution.” During the spring of 1836, President Santa Anna’s army sacked San Antonio and then marched on the exposed plantation zone of eastern Texas. Hundreds of enslaved people rose up and escaped from bondage along the Brazos and Trinity Rivers during the early months of the crisis. Some of these maroons ended up fighting alongside Mexican troops, Tejano loyalists, emigrant Natives, and even Comanche bands during a series of insurgencies that lasted another decade. Although Anglo rebels secured Texas’ de facto independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto, never had plantation slavery expanded so quickly or on such a large scale into the territory of a powerful Indigenous nation. The economies of violence animating the Comancheria and the Cotton Kingdom proved incompatible. To maintain their tenuous control of Texas, paramilitary slavers (mythologized as “rangers” or “Indian fighters”) and the U.S. Army would wage brutal wars to exterminate and confine the Comanches and other Southern Plains peoples that lasted until 1875.[4]

The threat of Mexican “free soil,” Native warriors, and the “renegades” (traders, adopted captives, spies, brigands) who supported them made plantation slavery vulnerable in the borderlands, and ultimately convinced white Texans to revolt and join the Confederates States in 1861. It was a movement attended by rabid fears of African-American and white abolitionists, as well as concerns unique to the plantation borderland. Along with the usual allusions to the North’s “unnatural and sectional” animosity, Texans’ declaration of secession cited the Union’s failure to protect their “property” from “the Indian savages on our border” and the “banditti from […] Mexico.”[5] As the Union and rebel armies lurched towards the first slaughter at Bull Run, the Civil War heralded epochal changes in national and global labor regimes. There would be further reckonings in the West.[6]

[1] John Quincy Adams, Speech of John Quincy Adams on the joint resolution for distributing rations to the distressed fugitives from Indian hostilities in the states of Alabama and Georgia; delivered in the House of Representatives, Wednesday, May 25, 1836 (Washington: National Intelligencer Office, 1836), 5-6; Stephen Austin to Mary Austin Holley, August 21, 1835, in The Austin Papers, ed. Eugene C. Barker, 3 vols. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1926), 3:101–2; Austin to L. F. Linn, May 4, 1836, Austin Papers, 3: 344-348.

[2] There is a substantial and growing literature on maroons, see for example, Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, 3rd edition (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996); Nathaniel Millett, The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013); Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3] See the U.S. Declaration of Independence for a clear statement of this dreaded scenario.

[4] Gary Clayton Anderson, The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[5] “A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union,” February 2, 1861, in Ernest W. Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas 1861 (Austin, 1912), 61-65; Donald E. Reynolds, Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Wendell G. Addington, “Slave Insurrections in Texas,” Journal of Negro History 35:4 (October 1950): 408-434.

[6] For the wars of incorporation that characterized Reconstruction in the West, see Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars (New York: Viking, 2016); Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Max Flomen

Max Flomen is assistant professor of history at West Virginia University.

Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

During its 180-odd years of operation, Mount Vernon Barracks in south Alabama was home to thousands of people, including white soldiers, Apache prisoners, and Black psychiatric patients. It was an arsenal, a Confederate base, a U.S. Army outpost, a detention site for yellow fever victims, and a psychiatric facility. Shuttered and hastily abandoned on Halloween in 2012, its buildings are now crumbling, its edifices succumbing to vegetation, and the voices of its inhabitants largely silenced and forgotten. Yet the stories of the men, women, and children who lived and died at this place shed light on some of the most important historical phenomena of the late 19th and early 20th-century United States—many of which we don’t usually consider together: federal Indian policy, public health crises, and Jim Crow segregation. It is a place layered with meanings and resonances. Peeling back those layers can illuminate how deeply enmeshed our histories—and subfields—truly are. And it could be a phenomenal site from which to teach and learn. As philosopher Edward Casey noted, “Just as there are no places without the bodies that sustain and vivify them, so there are no lived bodies without the places they inhabit and traverse.”[1]

View of the guard tower at Mount Vernon Barracks, 1892. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

In 1886, the U.S. Army imprisoned nearly 400 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache men, women, and children, following more than two decades of resistance to the invasion of their western homelands. Congress passed legislation preventing the Apaches’ relocation to any region west of the Mississippi River and logic dictated that they be interned at a military installation, preferably in an area devoid of other Indian people who might be corrupted by their influence.[2] An Army base in Alabama, a place presumably (but not actually) emptied of Native Americans since Indian removal, emerged as a reasonable location to imprison and reform the Apaches. The prisoners of war—as they were uniformly labelled—were sent by train to the U.S. South. More prisoners, including Geronimo, joined them the following year just north of Mobile at Mount Vernon Barracks, originally constructed in the 1830s. They would be prisoners of war for twenty-seven years.

While the incarcerated families struggled to acclimate to the humidity and mosquitos of lower Alabama, Army officials sent three dozen of the Apache children to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In the 1880s, federal Indian policies were shifting away from armed conflict and towards aggressive assimilationist reforms, including the institutionalization of Indian children. Although a school was later established on site at Mount Vernon, reformers strongly advocated detaching Indian children from their parents and sending them to residential boarding schools. Carlisle was a former military base turned boarding school run by Captain Richard H. Pratt, who had formerly overseen Native prisoners of war in Florida. Pratt believed that incarcerated Indians could and should be “rehabilitated” through education and military-like discipline and he brought those techniques to the project of detribalizing Native youth. As historian Margaret Jacobs notes, “indigenous child removal” became a central part of the settler colonial project and was seen as essential to finally severing Indian ties (and claims) to their lands.[3] These policies were emotionally eviscerating. Mount Vernon post surgeon Walter Reed (yes, that Walter Reed) observed of the Apache parents: “Their grief over this compulsory separation has been genuine and unabating.”[4]

View of the guard tower at Searcy Hospital today. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020

The deportation, incarceration, and forced separation the Apaches experienced was made worse by unhealthy conditions at Mount Vernon Barracks, which were in turn exacerbated by meager rations and malnutrition. Some of the prisoners, along with many of the white soldiers stationed at the base, sought relief from their suffering in the bootlegged liquor that flowed through the piney woods surrounding the barracks. Jim Crow policies that curtailed employment opportunities for African Americans ensured that at least some of the liquor purveyors supplying Mount Vernon were Black Alabamians. Others were descendants of local Indians who had escaped removal during the 1830s and lived in the vicinity.[5] The community known today as the MOWA Choctaws was largely invisible to local whites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part because of the intersection of federal Indian policy and Jim Crow segregation. Unrecognized by the federal government as Indians, ancestors of today’s MOWAs struggled to articulate their indigeneity to outsiders. The Black-white racial binary, presumptions that all the real Indians had been removed to or were from the West (like the Apache prisoners nearby), and abject poverty meant that the Choctaws of southwest Alabama lived on several margins at once.[6]

The cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

When the Apache prisoners of war were forced from Mount Vernon to their new prison at Fort Sill in 1894, the fate of the Alabama site was unclear. State politicians debated making it a full-fledged penitentiary, an orphanage, or a reform school, institutions that bore marked similarity to one another as part of what might be called a penal-pedagogic complex.[7] Ultimately, the site became the “Mount Vernon Insane Hospital” for Blacks; the walls, guard tower, and barred gates of the former barracks remained. Like other psychiatric facilities of the era, the hospital functioned much like a prison and often much worse. The twin plagues of disease and malnutrition that had deepened the Apache sorrow during their detention also afflicted Black patients at the newly established facility. In fact, the institution (renamed Searcy Hospital in 1919) played an important role in the identification of pellagra then rampant among African Americans and poor whites across the South.[8]

After Searcy was integrated in 1969, conditions improved but it remained a locus of controversy and a site of hardship and heartache for the people who lived there. Like other mental hospitals in Alabama, it was functionally a “warehouse” for patients who received little care and lots of medication.[9] Chronically underfunded and understaffed, Searcy Hospital was a place where many were involuntarily committed through “noncriminal proceedings,” often detained on dubious pretense, denied constitutional protections, and incarcerated indefinitely. Many, many people lived until they died at Searcy. Hidden away in one heavily wooded corner of the site is a sprawl of gravesites with small stone or metal markers, engraved only with numbers, no names. No records linking the numbers of the buried to their names or identities have yet been located.

A gravesite in the cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

Mount Vernon Barracks is a place so densely laden with human experience that it fairly sags under its own historical weight. The spread of the federal military apparatus, Indian dispossession and assimilation, the growth of the carceral nation-state, disease and public health, Jim Crow segregation, race and mental illness, post-Civil Rights southern politics… all of these topics can be explored by inhabiting and traversing this site, even if only in our minds. It has inspired me to think of other such sites and how they might reanimate my teaching. Some of these, like Castillo San Marcos/Fort Marion and Alcatraz Island, share aspects of Mount Vernon’s history but are better preserved and protected. Others, like the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground once located in Washington, D.C. and now scattered along the Potomac riverside in Virginia and Maryland, are only now resurfacing in our historical consciousness.[10] As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday once wrote with characteristic grace, “The events of one’s life take place, take place.”[11] Where can those places take us?




[1] Edward S. Casey, “How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena,” in Senses of Place, ed. Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996), 24.

[2] John Anthony Turcheneske, Jr., The Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War: Fort Sill 1894-1914 (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 8-13.

[3] Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 4, 25-28. Jacobs calculates that Pratt alone “institutionalized” 4,903 Indian children at Carlisle. Nearly 500 more were taken to Hampton Institute in Virginia.

[4] Walter Reed, “Geronimo and His Warriors in Captivity,” The Illustrated American, Vol. III, No. 26, August 16, 1890 (New York: George Kirchner & Co, 1890), 235.

[5] [Letter] William Sinclair, Mount Vernon Barracks, Ala. August 8, 1887 [to] Assist. Adjutant General, Governors Island, N.Y., 69. NARA, RG 393, Pt. 3, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Records of Posts, Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama; Jacqueline Matte, They Say the Wind is Red, 77, 112; Jerry Davis notes that some prominent local whites were also involved in bootlegging and stemming the supply of liquor to the barracks (for prisoners and soldiers alike) was a major preoccupation of post commanders. Davis, “Apache Prisoners of War,” 256-257. See also Laurence, Daughter of the Regiment, 108, 172 n.1.

[6] Malinda Maynor Lowery’s study of the Lumbee experience in North Carolina during Jim Crow shows that in at least some instances, southern Indian groups strategically adopted their policies of segregation to maintain the integrity of their Native identity, adopting and adapting ideologies of white supremacy in so doing. See Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[7] Anne Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politices of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88:3 (December 2001): 850.

[8] Harry Marks, “Epidemiologists Explain Pellagra: Gender, Race, and Political Economy in the Work of Edgar Sydenstricker,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58:1 (JANUARY 2003): 38.

[9] Charles S. Prigmore and Paul R. Davis, “Wyatt v. Stickney: Rights of the Committed,” Social Work 18:4 (JULY 1973): 11.

[10] Gregory S. Schneider, “A Virginia state senator found headstones on his property. It brought to light a historic injustice in D.C.,” Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2020. Accessed online:

[11] N. Scott Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 142.

Angela Pulley Hudson

Angela Pulley Hudson is professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her most recent book is Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians (2015).

Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

On January 6, 2021 a mob stormed the American Capital in Washington, D.C. to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Rioters pushed their way inside the Capital, vandalized the building and threatened to harm government officials, including the Vice President. In total, five people died.

In the following days the public struggled to make sense of what had happened and why. Social Media evidence showed that Donald J. Trump, himself, had urged his followers to protest. Those supporters who had not been at the riot argued that the insurrectionists were not representative of Republican supporters or their values. Some spread a rumor that the left wing anti-fascist group Antifa had instigated the violence to discredit Trump. Critics of the President struggled to understand why the rioters were not immediately condemned by all Americans. Social activists argued the faction responsible for storming the Capitol had been treated differently by police because they were white; African American protesters had been jailed and beaten for less. To complicate things further many of the self-proclaimed insurrectionists were known white supremacists.[1]

I too was conflicted over the events of January 6. My emotions went from fear to anger.  I wondered how, as a historian and educator, I could approach this topic with my students without offending, agitating, or encouraging the presentism that I warn them to avoid?  In this moment the past and present appeared to have blurred.  And following an already historic year, how would I validate students’ feelings without turning class into a therapy session? How would I explain to these young adults that they were now observers of a major historical event, similar to those they read about in textbooks?  Would they realize that their emails, social media accounts, and personal journals might later be used by historians as primary sources?

Figure 1: Black & Batchelder, Black, James Wallace, and Martin M Lawrence, photographer. John Brown. , ca. 1859. December 12. Photograph.

Social media reiterated my concerns as my own family members bickered with one another over who was to blame for the recent insurrection.  The conversation seemed familiar, but from a different time.  And then I realized that was because I had read commentary like this before.  When I was researching my master’s thesis on the Civil War home front, I had included a section about the northern and southern reactions to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  How will I explain a deeply polarized and racially divided country to my students? I will look to historical sources and one of the most controversial events in American History, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.[2]

John Brown was a staunchly religious man who believed God had tasked him with ending slavery. On Oct. 16, 1859 he led a group of men to the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where they planned to seize enough weaponry to arm southern slaves and emancipate them, forcefully if necessary. Unfortunately for Brown, the raid was a failure, and he was tried for murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. John Brown was found guilty on all counts and hanged.

Brown has become one of the most contentious figures of the Civil War Era. Was he a madman or a prophet? The recent miniseries on Showtime, The Good Lord Bird (based on James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name), makes arguments for both, although the show’s creators acknowledge that this depiction of Brown is fictionalized.  Brown, himself, argued that he had not intended to revolt against the United States Government. He simply wanted to free the enslaved. He was also one of the few people of this era to believe in racial equality. In his final speech before being executed, Brown asserted that he “never did intend murder, or treason, of the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.”[3] Yet Brown was not against the idea that it would take violence to end slavery.  On his way to the gallows, he slipped his jailor a note that read “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood.”[4] His prediction would become true less than 2 years later when the Civil War began.

Brown’s prediction made him a legend. During the Civil War the song “John Brown’s Body” became a marching tune for the Union Army.[5]  In his 2005 cultural biography of Brown, David S. Reynolds notes that he was admired by twentieth-century black activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X.[6] Yet for those living in the United States in 1859, it was not that simple. Abolitionists viewed Brown as a martyr. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child condemned Brown’s actions, but nonetheless expressed her sympathy toward his cause.[7]  Less than a month after Brown’s execution, residents of Concord, Massachusetts held a meeting entitled “Martyrdom of John Brown.”[8] Even decades after his death, Brown was still revered by former abolitionists as a hero. In 1881 Frederick Douglass, who had distanced himself from Brown when he learned of the plans to attack the Federal Arsenal, described Brown’s arrest as the “victory of his life.”[9] These viewpoints were not, however, universal.[10]

Figure 2: Harper’s Ferry insurrection – the battle ground – Captain Alberts’ party attacking the insurgents – view of the railroad bridge, the engine-house, and the village / from a sketch by our special artist. Harpers Ferry West Virginia, 1859. Nov. 5. Photograph. http://www/loc/gov/item/95522021/.

Many people viewed Brown as dangerous and celebrated his arrest. A Kansas woman, whose husband and two sons were killed at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre – during which John Brown and a band of followers murdered pro-slavery men– wrote to Brown that her remaining son hoped to attend the execution and might “adjust the rope around your neck.”[11] For others, Brown was one part of a larger northern threat to slavery. A man named Robert Scott wrote that Harper’s Ferry was a betrayal of southerners at the hands of northerners. The Winchester Republican published in Winchester, Virginia called Brown’s Raid “the wickedest outrage against the sovereignty of Virginia.”[12] Similarly, an article published in the Democratic newspaper the Chicago Press Tribune argued that Brown’s raid demonstrated the threat of allowing Republicans to express their “fanatical” views.”[13] The Republican Party did not, however, claim Brown. In his 1860 Cooper Union Speech Abraham Lincoln condemned the spread of slavery to western territories but denied any connection between John Brown and Republicans. Lincoln challenged the audience to prove that politicians had supported the insurrection.  Today the public as well as certain U.S. Senators also fear that politicians were behind the January 6 riot.[14]

It is impossible to make a direct comparison between John Brown’s 1859 raid and the 2021 MAGA Riots.  First, the rationale behind each insurrection were completely different. Secondly, the modern Republican Party is not the same faction as the party of Lincoln. Yet a comparison reveals that in both eras the country was polarized over politics and race. For students struggling to grapple with these events and their meaning, a political analysis of the responses to Harper’s Ferry may provide context to the ways in which the media and the public respond to violence.  A comparison the two events also reveals important facts about the trajectory of race relations in this country. By focusing on the significance of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry as an expression of antebellum politics, students may be able contextualize current political debates.

[1] Hilary N. Green, “Civil War Scholars Respond to January 6, 2021 Events and Aftermath,” Muster, January 12, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,

[2] Laura J. Ping, “Life in an Occupied City: Women in Winchester, Virginia During the Civil War, MA Thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, 21-23; The majority of primary sources consulted are from the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,

[3] John Brown, “John Brown’s Final Speech,” 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[4] John Brown, “Last Written Words of John Brown,” December 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[5] Historian Chandra Manning notes that the John Brown originally mentioned in the song was not the abolitionist, but a man by the same name.  Soldiers confused the two, however, and throughout the war “John Brown’s Body” was a homage to the abolitionist. See Chandra Manning, “‘John Brown’s Body’: Analyzing the Song,”:, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[6] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 12.

[7] Lydia Maria Child, Henry A. Wise, Maria Jefferson Carr Randolph Mason, American Anti-Slavery Society, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia . (Boston: Published by The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860, PDF, Accessed, January 26, 2021,

[8] “A Program for a Commemorative Town Hall Meeting Held in Concord, Massachusetts following John Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859,” Digital Public Library of America, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[9] David Blight, “Admiration and Ambivalence: Frederick Douglass and John Brown,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[10] For a more detailed discussion of the diverse memory of John Brown see R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality and Change (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[11] “Mahala Doyle to John Brown regarding his death penalty,” November 20, 1859, Gilder Lehrman Collection of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[12] Winchester Republican, Oct. 21, 1859, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives Room, Winchester-Frederick Historical Society, Winchester, VA.

[13] “The Cloud in the Distance No Bigger than a Man’s Hand – The First Battle of the ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’” Chicago Press and Tribune, October 20, 1859. American Experience, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[14] Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, et. al. to Senate Committee on Ethics, “Investigating Request for Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, January 21, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,; Dan Barry and Sheera Frenkel, “’Be There. Will Be Wild!’: Trump All But Circled the Date,” The New York Times, January 6, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,

Laura Ping

Laura J. Ping is an adjunct assistant professor with the Pace University-Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History MA Program in American History and at Queens College, City University of New York. Ping is the author of “‘He May Sneer at the Course We are Pursuing to Gain Justice': Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, The Sibyl and Corresponding about Women's Suffrage,” (New York History Journal 2017) as well as the coauthor of the forthcoming book Catharine Beecher: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Nineteenth Century. Ping is also completing a monograph on the cultural and political impact of the dress reform movement on the nineteenth-century woman’s movement in the United States.

Editors’ Note for March 2021 JCWE

Editors’ Note for March 2021 JCWE

It is fitting that James Brooks will introduce this special issue and its contents, since this and the parallel volume in the Western Historical Quarterly represent his hands-on editing and his wide-ranging view of intertwined histories. We thank him, WHQ editor Anne Hyde, former JCWE editor Judith Giesberg, and former JCWE associate editor Stacey Smith for bringing the two journals—and more importantly the two fields—together.

It is also fitting that we mark an important anniversary for this publication. Ten years ago, in March 2011, the Journal of the Civil War Era appeared for the first time. In the introductory note, founding editor William A. Blair noted the propitious timing for the journal’s launch as the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Civil War coincided with a resurgence in creative scholarship on the era. “It is a delight to consider how much we have to discover,” Blair wrote. “It is a good time to be a newborn.”

Ten years later, the Journal of the Civil War Era is no longer a newborn but is now a valued and respected and (we hope) eagerly awaited part of our scholarly landscape, with roughly 120 research articles, dozens of review essays, and many hundreds of book reviews behind it. In its decade of existence, the journal has fulfilled much of its original mandate to offer a “fresh perspective to the sectional crisis, war, Reconstruction, and memory of the conflict, while tying the struggles that defined the period to the broader course of American history and to a wider world” and to provide a place where scholars from many nineteenth-century subfields “can engage with each other.”

The journal’s survival through its infancy and its growth through its early years is attributable to a group of dedicated historians and staff. First, of course, Blair as founding editor provided guidance, direction, inspiration, and counsel for the journal’s first five years, aided by associate editors Judith Giesberg, Anthony Kaye, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean and later ourselves.

Starting in March 2016, Judith Giesberg succeeded Blair as the journal’s editor, and she expanded the journal’s reach with special issues on the West, Reconstruction, the continental history of the era, abolition, and veterans, while continuing to publish pathbreaking research articles, broad-ranging review essays, and fair-minded and thoughtful book reviews. During her tenure, Giesberg, along with her graduate students, launched the journal’s blog, Muster. She then recruited Kristen Epps to be the digital  editor, joining new review essays editors Stacey Smith and Luke Harlow, and book review editor Rachel Shelden.

Beginning with the September 2019 issue, Shelden, Smith, and Harlow shepherded the journal through a shared interim editorship while continuing in their respective associate editor positions and—in Smith’s case—playing a crucial role in bringing this special issue to fruition. With the September 2020 issue, we succeeded them as coeditors, and we have been delighted to welcome Hilary Green as the new digital editor and Kathryn Shively as the new book review editor.

Throughout the last decade, the journal has benefitted from institutional support from the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, now directed by Rachel Shelden, and from its affiliation with the Society of Civil War Historians. The journal has also depended on extraordinary work by professional staff, especially the indispensable managing editor Matthew Isham and a series of fine assistants: William Bryan, William Cossen, Tyler Sperrazza, Cecily Zander, and Megan Hildebrand. At the University of North Carolina Press, David Perry, editor, supported the journal from the beginning, and since his retirement, Mark Simpson-Vos has been a crucial sounding board and advocate. Among the many dedicated press employees who have ensured that the journal sees the light of day is Suzi Waters, the press’s journals manager, who retired last fall.

Since becoming editors, we’ve come to see with new clarity the tremendous work peer reviewers perform. Whatever may be said on social media about “Reviewer #2,” we observe in our reviewers an extraordinary commitment to their fields, to professionalism, and to the value of balancing support and encouragement with thoughtful critique as they evaluate articles. Individual peer reviewers are ephemeral parts of this enterprise, but as a collective, they make the journal possible, and we owe them—and many of them are also you, our readers—our deep gratitude.

We congratulate the Journal of the Civil War Era—and all who have helped to make it—on a successful first decade and feel fortunate that we are here to help launch it into its teen years. We believe the journal has a crucial role to play in a moment of deep public engagement with the nation’s history of slavery and emancipation and Civil War. We’re delighted by how much we have yet to discover, and we look forward to continuing its work in this productive and vital field.

The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

Citizens were divided. Violence threatened the stability of the nation. After the violence ended, calls rose for unity. This pattern played out recently with calls to move past and forgive insurrectionists in the name of national unity following the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Such a pattern is not unique to the Capitol riot, however, nor new in history. Similar patterns of division, violence, and calls for unity played out in the wake of the American Civil War. In particular, former Confederates, perhaps unexpectedly, demanded national unity in the months and years following their defeat. In making their case for national unity, former Confederates argued that they, too, were not the first to seek national unity in the wake of national violence. Drawing on the rich contemporary nineteenth century history of largely defeated nationalist movements in Europe, Confederates used comparisons between the defeated Confederacy and defeated nations in Europe to push for national unity – and, more specifically, for their own particular vision of national unity – in the aftermath of Confederate defeat.

Unity, of course, had been at the heart of the Civil War itself, as white southerners had rejected unity with the North and pursued independent nationhood instead, while the United States had fought to preserve national unity. Now, in the wake of four years of violence, bloodshed, and warfare, as former Confederates suddenly faced the consequences of their actions, even former Confederates found appeal in the idea of unity. They, however, held a very different vision of unity than did the Union during the war, or the Republicans during Reconstruction. For former Confederates, embracing unity was not an admission of culpability for the destruction of secession and the Civil War, nor an indication of true desire to unite with the North in reconstructing the postwar nation. Instead, for defeated Confederates, calling for unity was a means of forcing the Reconstruction to occur on their terms. They demanded that the nation could only be reconstructed through full forgiveness and restoration of power for former Confederates, with no punishment, accountability, or even alterations to the social, economic, and political system of white supremacy.

International comparisons proved particularly useful for former Confederates seeking to claim that unity could only come through forgiveness. In particular, defeated Confederates used international comparisons to argue that unity could only be achieved through pacification. These international examples taught that the only way to move forward was to forgo punishment or consequences, and instead restore full power to the same defeated Confederates who initiated the war in the first place.

Macon Telegraph published “A Lesson from Italy,” declaring that the king of the new nation of Italy provided an example of virtue and democracy in the wake of war that the world, especially the US, would be wise to follow, and contrasted this approach with the US’s supposed course of using the excuse of war to limit white southerners’ democratic rights.[1] Turning to the enemy of aspiring nations in Europe, the New Orleans Picayune asserted that “the Radical [Republican] policy, indeed, rejecting as it does the most approved lessons of history… would seem to… copy from Russia, nothing but the harsh outlines of a gigantic, unreasoning, unforgiving, pitiless despotism.”[2] The Richmond Whig concurred as it praised President Andrew Johnson, infamous for his leniency toward former Confederates, for enabling unity by “appeal[ing] to [former Confederates’] highest and noblest impulses.” Johnson’s policies, according to the Whig, allowed the nation to “bury the past and to look only to the future.” In contrast, the writer for the Whig declared, Radical Republicans sought “mistrust, military domination, and physical power,” and advanced policies that would “make of the South a province in which shall be smothered the condensed malignity and passionate hatred of Poland, Ireland, and Venetia.”[3] To former Confederates, any policy other than forgiveness would destroy hopes for national unity by recreating the oppression found in tyrannical European empires.

Hungary, which had risen up and demanded national independence from the Austrian Empire in 1848, only to be defeated, featured heavily in such international comparisons of the necessity of pacification for national unity. The Houston Telegraph, for example, wrote in July of 1865 that the model of Hungary and Austria instructed that national reconciliation could only be achieved by granting full political equality to defeated secessionists. To this journalist, former Confederates had already conceded “their cherished hope of a Southern Confederacy,” had “submitted to… emancipation,” and had “made up their minds to take the oath of allegiance.” To require more would constitute “private malice or revenge,” and would result in similar protracted difficulties as Austria faced by denying Hungarians not only independence, but legislative reform.[4] Similarly, the Richmond Whig declared that Radical Republican policy was “that subjugation and conquest had worked the forfeiture of the constitutional rights of the South,” a policy “more exacting and implacable” than Austrian treatment of Hungary.[5] In Hungary, former Confederates saw a fellow defeated nation. They did not hesitate to use the perception of continued oppression of Hungarians to call for their own appeasement and political power in the name of national unity.

As the emphasis on restoration of former Confederates’ political rights indicates, former Confederates found international comparisons particularly useful in seeking to avoid punishment or even consequences for their actions. Restriction of former Confederates’ rights, however temporary, was one such consequence that former Confederates used international comparisons to declare contrary to national unity, as had the writer in the Richmond Whig comparing Republican policies to those of Austria toward Hungary. Expansion of political rights to freedmen was another action that former Confederates interpreted as punishment, and therefore equated with tyrannical actions abroad. The Macon Telegraph declared, for example, that it had tried to demonstrate former Confederates’ willingness to unite with the North, but that Radicals rejected such peace offerings by insisting on racial equality. In the process, Republicans supposedly recreated Russia’s much-maligned oppression of Poland on American soil.[6] Explicit punishment was even more beyond the bounds of acceptable national reconciliation, according to former Confederates. John Mitchel, an exiled Irish nationalist and Confederate supporter, explained that the prosecution of Jefferson Davis “is not a new idea… it has been tried in Poland, in Ireland, in Venetia and elsewhere,” but he reasoned that it failed as a “method of reconciling the bleeding, disaffected communities with the dominant ones.”[7]

To former Confederates, defeat must be followed by appeasement, and any punishment or even consequences would destroy any possibility of national unity. International comparisons, drawing on examples of defeated and oppressed nations – and therefore of failure of national unity – abroad, aided former Confederates in making their case. Indeed, by developing international comparisons, former Confederates sought to draw boundaries of acceptable action on the part of the victorious North, beyond which defeated Confederates would refuse to accede to national unity and reunion. Former Confederates’ cries for unity, then, were not good faith calls for actual national unity. Rather, as their international comparisons show, former Confederates’ calls for unity were an attempt to escape accountability, and to retain full political power and dominance, despite their defeat.[8]

The nation’s subsequent decision to acquiesce to former Confederates’ vision of unity had tragic consequences. It allowed former Confederates to reclaim full and exclusive control of southern politics and to maintain white supremacy through violence and through restriction of political rights to freedmen. As Reconstruction fell, and, with it, rights and hopes for equality for freedpeople, former Confederates achieved their vision of national unity, at the cost of true equality for black southerners, and true democracy for the nation.

[1] “A Lesson from Italy,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 4, 1866.

[2] “Moral Difficulties of Restoration,” New Orleans Picayune, Oct 19, 1866.

[3] “How to Conquer,” Richmond Whig, Sep 29, 1865.

[4] Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Jul 21, 1865.

[5] “The People of Hungary – The People of the Southern States,” Richmond Whig, Mar 27, 1866.

[6] “Can’t Go It,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 14, 1867.

[7] “John Mitchel’s Opinion,” Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, Jun 21, 1866.

[8] For more analysis of former Confederates’ use of international comparisons to shape a pro-Confederate Reconstruction, please see my chapter “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’:  Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars:  Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon (Routledge Press, 2018).

Ann Tucker

Ann L. Tucker is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia. She earned her PhD at the University of South Carolina, and is the author of Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (UVa Press, 2020). She studies the US South and Civil War Era through a transnational perspective. You can find her at her website,, or on twitter @annltucker.

Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

When teaching the history of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), students often ask how we can find historical records from these historically marginalized people? Since many of the soldiers were working poor and formerly enslaved, they did not have (for various reasons) the time, resources, or (in some cases) literacy to document their lives. Additionally, it also depended on whether there was an audience that was willing to both listen and document the lives of USCT veterans and/or their kin. However, it does not mean that their lived experiences are non-existent. It also does not suggest that the families and communities connected to their soldiers are lost. Many of their stories exist within an often examined and cited primary source—Civil War pension records. From these documents, it is possible to rediscover the lives of Black Americans connected to the Civil War over extended periods of time. Using pension records allows us to analyze and discuss the lives of USCT veterans, their kin, familial dynamics, and battles with the federal government over issues of race, gender, and the public memory of the war. For instance, the pension records of Third United States Colored Infantry (USCI) George K. Buck and Patience Buck, his wife, provide a window to exploring how the war for equality and hopes of receiving social welfare from the Bureau of Pensions occurred years after the Civil War ended.

Many scholars recognize and argue that pension records are invaluable sources that extensively detail USCT soldiers’ lives at various points from the antebellum era to the early-twentieth-century. Military service affected the lives of over 178,000 USCT soldiers and their families during and long after the Civil War. Black families were critical to USCT soldiering. Historians Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland, for instance, state that the decision to enroll was a family decision “since it entailed profound consequences for those who remained at home as well as for those who marched off to war.”[1] A new wave of scholars have re-examined pension records with a critical eye for families’ stories, including veterans’ relatives and adopted individuals who cared for the men throughout their lives and not isolated moments. Collectively, these scholars demonstrate that we need to recognize the impact and prominent role that families played in the lives of Civil War soldiers. Therefore, when discussing the various aspects of military service—enlistment, training, combat, disabilities, pay, military disobedience, veteranhood, and other issues—their families are critical to understanding the Civil War and its lasting impact. Even after the war ended, the hardships (such as economic) for many USCT veterans and their kin chose to apply for a Civil War pension, which brought complications and oversight into their private lives.[2]

The highly bureaucratic system influenced USCT veterans’ decision to apply for a pension through the Bureau of Pensions. The lengthy and honestly daunting process involved numerous individuals listed on the application—invalid (veterans deemed, depending on the enacted pension law at a specific time, as disabled or elderly, and unable to resume working) and dependents (widow, mother, minor, sister, or father). Witnesses (including family members, employers, community members, and other veterans) were critical participants who could potentially substantiate vital information on the personal lives of an applicant. While not all applicants used lawyers, these hired individuals advocated on behalf of their client and facilitated conversations with pension agents. In the case of invalid (or veteran) cases, medical examinations could either prove or refute a veteran’s visible disability or disabilities that the veteran claimed, prior to the 1890 pension law, made him pension-eligible. All applications required extensive documentation. White male pension agents scrutinized the materials and intrusively probed into the claims of the applicants, listed dependents, and witnesses. Many applicants had to provide information on their employment history, relationship to the veteran, medical ailments, dates of births, financial standing, character assessment by community members and agents, and sometimes sexual history as part of the process, which could take years, if not decades.[3]

While many USCT veterans did not apply for pensions, some did. The number of USCT pensions explodes exponentially when investigating various dependent pensions—mothers, fathers, widows, and minors. As a result, it is possible to trace the familial dynamics of USCT soldiers and their multi-generational kin over an extended period. For instance, Patience Buck’s widow’s pension offers valuable insight into the role of Black familial persistence in their demands to have their wartime sacrifices and its lasting effects on their male-kin recognized by the federal government.

Patience Buck, the widow of USCT veteran George K. Buck, discovered that her hope of receiving a pension after George’s death would only occur after an invasive federal government investigation into her personal life and George’s passing. George, a native Philadelphian and Third USCI Infantry veteran, married Patience after relocating to Camden, Georgia in 1867. Together, they had two children. The family later moved to Florida, where George found work as a ferryman. A lingering Civil War wound, however, shaped the family. George suffered from mental health issues as a result of a cannon shell fragment permanently lodged inside his head after the siege at Fort Wagner in Morris Island, South Carolina. Joshua James, a fellow USCT veteran and childhood friend, testified that the injury left Buck “completely insane.”[4] George’s physical and mental disability eventually led to a work-related drowning in 1871. Eight years later, Patience submitted a widow’s pension application. Multiple USCT veterans confirmed George’s injury and resulting problems as a consequence inside and out of the military. The officiant who oversaw the couple’s marriage attested to the validity of their union. In 1883, the Bureau of Pensions rejected her application by stating that George’s death was not due to an injury he received while serving.

By not accepting the rejection, Patience remained resolute in her desire to get a pension. She again applied in 1890 when she received eight dollars monthly, primarily due to the 1890 Dependent and Disability pension law.[5] Patience’s eleven-year journey to receive a widow’s pension was challenging. The process also put her personal life under the microscope of the federal government. Where many Black families received rejections or abandoned their applications, Patience Buck persevered and forced the federal government to remember George’s service during the Jim Crow era when the Lost (False) Cause solidified across the nation.[6]

Patience’s widow application, similar to many other Black women, reveals additional scrutiny on the interior lives of widows of USCT veterans. Unfortunately, she spent her youth in bondage and had three different enslavers before acquiring her freedom in Florida during the Civil War. As a freedwoman, she found employment by washing and ironing clothes within her community. Some locals, possibly because male clients, entered and exited Patience’s residence, began claiming that she kept a “lewd house.” The rumors even led to her arrest on multiple occasions. These rumors only surfaced after George’s death. Numerous neighbors refuted the claims as baseless lies from people that, for undisclosed reasons, did not like Patience. Even though Patience successfully became a pensioner in 1890, the gossip of her intimate life caught the attention of the Bureau of Pensions, which resulted in a five-year-long examination into her personal life, sexual activity, and character. In the end, the pension agent eventually removed Patience from the pension role for violating an 1882 Act of Congress that stated widows known to be engaging in adultery automatically forfeited their pensions. The pension agent even noted that Patience was a “public prostitute.”[7]

In the end, pension records are valuable primary sources that provide depth on Black life—military and personal. The records undoubtedly have abundant information on the Civil War. But it can also yield a plethora of information on the familial dynamics, civilian occupations, government and public assessment on the private lives of Blacks, and the politics of race and gender that many of my students have found fascinating as it complicates their understanding of USCT soldiers and their kin.

[1] Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era, eds. Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland (New York: The New Press, 1997), 79.

[2] Please refer to the following studies for insight on USCT families and their connections to Civil War pensions: Elizabeth Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002); Brandi Clay Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[3] Donald Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004); Larry M. Logue and Peter Blanck, Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War American (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] On December 9, 1879, the Deposition of Joshua James in George H. Buck, Third USCI pension file. National Archives Records and Administration—Washington, D.C.

[5] Ibid., Undated Pension slip.

[6] Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[7] Ibid., 1895 Special Examiner’s Notes.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History, Anthropology, & Philosophy at Augusta University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is under contract with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.