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Utilizing Film in Our Courses on Slavery and the Enslaved

Utilizing Film in Our Courses on Slavery and the Enslaved

Teaching the history of slavery in the United States well, like teaching any complex topic mired in historical mythologies and mixed public interests, is a daunting task. Pedagogical approaches to slavery have to face off against centuries of public misconceptions and avoidance. I constantly try to engage and inform students who have longstanding perceptions about the institution and those who were a part of it. Their typical ideas about slavery are expressed in declarations and queries made in class such as: “My middle school teacher told us that the Civil War was not about slavery.” “Are you saying that Africans actually sold other Africans?!” “Why didn’t slaves resist their enslavement?”

Other young scholars file into my classes who generally (not necessarily genuinely) want to know more about U.S., African American, southern or Civil War history, but not so much about that “difficult” aspect of our national past that included two and half centuries of racialized human bondage. They want to learn more about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, but not Sally Hemings, Ona Judge, or Dunmore’s Proclamation. They prefer analyzing Civil War battle strategies and statistics, not locating the primary documents that speak to the hard fight for and against black freedom. Many are inspired by the heroic work of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and others, but recoil at descriptions of the horror of their lives under the lash. Of course, this is what we sign up for—enhancing our students’ knowledge and pushing their intellectual boundaries beyond the comfort zone of what they “know,” or hope, to be truth.

Certainly great research monographs, comprehensive survey texts, and primary sources—increasingly published and online— along with historical novels and shorter works of fiction with black bondage as subject, intellectually engage and capture the attention and imaginations of those who study slavery in our lecture halls and seminar rooms. So too do documentaries, feature length “Hollywood” movies, independent film and TV mini- and full-length series. In the most recent issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, I contributed a review essay of recent films, miniseries, and television shows that can help guide educators in navigating these complex issues.[1] I encourage scholars to take full advantage in our classrooms (with proper trigger warnings administered) of this growing, and diverse, filmography of slavery.

The institution of slavery has, since the premiere of the film industry, contributed to Hollywood’s evolution as an essential outlet of U.S. popular culture. Indeed, the nation’s fascination with black bondage, plantation life and the Lost Cause were some of the first historicized subjects screen writers and producers drew on to attract, and amuse, broad audiences. Indeed, the institution of black bondage had been such a part of the nation’s history from the period of European colonization forward, that many early films about the nation’s history necessarily included slavery and enslaved people, even if only in background faces, locations and cultural references. This pattern continued through Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and beyond. Indeed, much of what made “gold” for pre-Civil Rights era Hollywood were the blockbuster films with superstar actors and slavery as a storyline or backdrop. These films were aimed to attract mostly white adult and juvenile audiences, although certainly black moviegoers patronized them too. White actresses Shirley Temple, Vivian Leigh, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Hara and many others starred in these films. Equal numbers of popular white thespians, if not more, did so as well.

Black entertainers benefitted too from the being a part of these film projects, including Oscar recipient Hattie McDaniel, George Reed, Kenny Washington, wildly popular Bill Bojangles Robinson, James Baskett, Rex Ingram and first black contract actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan. Likewise, one of these “big” films, Foxes of Harrow (1947) starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara, was the first movie adapted from a novel penned by an African American writer, Frank Yerby.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, featuring Irving Cummings. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As one rightfully imagines, films on the big and small screens, capture the political and social sentiments of their era. These changing perceptions of African Americans and African American history provide an excellent opportunity for us to demonstrate to our students changes in popular ideas about race and “races,” to help them trace the evolution of racialization, and to demonstrate how these popular biases find themselves in popular culture, but also in scholarship. Early films about slavery, with rare exception, express the racism of the “nadir.” Edwin Porter’s and Thomas Edison’s 1904 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, employed the same tropes found in blackface and black minstrelsy, coon shouters, tom shows, and other forms of popular entertainment of the time. The slavery historiography of the period, stamped by the most lauded southern historian of the era, Ulrich B. Phillips, likewise proclaimed the happy go lucky, lazy, promiscuous, superstitious, submissive and loyal slave found in most of these early film productions, whether romantic comedies, epic dramas, or animation.

What our students will be able to really see in classroom screenings is that as the public began to embrace different images of black Americans culturally, politically and economically, filmed portrayals of African American slavery also changed. The 1950s, therefore, not only swept in the national civil rights era and global decolonization efforts, but also an evolving slavery filmography that included many more films about African American self-determination manifest in bondspersons’ direct and indirect resistance efforts.

This trend deepened in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1977 airing of the mini-series Roots: The Saga of An American Family, for example, brought a more realistic depiction of slave life across multiple generations into the living rooms of more than the nation’s population. Roots was possible because two decades of black political activism and progress, along with a new social history of slavery largely researched, written and edited from the perspective of the slave, made the trials and triumphs of these bondspeople palatable to a U.S. audience who seemed to really want to know what black slaves, and their slavery, was like.

Roots, neither the early version nor its 2016 remake, gave us a perfect filmed discourse on its subject. The problems with the miniseries, like all the other films about slavery, however, provide wonderful opportunities for students to explore the diversity of the slave experience across generations, regions, and genders, as well as in relationship to the kinds of masters and mistresses they encountered, the types of labor they performed, and the kinds of resistance strategies they devised both individually and collectively. It also allows them to turn a critical eye to the methodological practice and interpretations of historians.

Promotional photo for the television series “Underground.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.

No film, or even movie series, on this immensely complicated and important subject is flawless or comprehensive. There are some works, however, that provide the kind of visual content to our students’ learning process that can “bring to life” the slave’s experiences and humanity, while also inspiring meaningful, critical discourse on historiography, methodology, national mythology and popular culture practices. Examples of this filmography are listed below that I have found can be employed in some manner to help illustrate and spark discussion and analysis of these relevant topics. Each one either engages the mythology, or realities, of the experience of slavery in a manner that can assist in our difficult task of relating this complex subject to the diverse young scholars in our classrooms.


Slave Family Life

Huckleberry Finn (1939)

Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Slaves (1969)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1987)

Sankofa (1993)

Beloved (1998)

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Birth of a Nation (2016)

Underground (2016-2017)


Sexual Violence and Miscegenation

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Band of Angels (1957)

Tamango (1958)

Slaves (1969)

Mandingo (1975)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Queen (1992)

Sankofa (1993)

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Beloved (1998)

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)

Belle (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Birth of a Nation (2016)

Underground (2016-2017)



Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Band of Angels (1957)

Tamango (1958)

Slaves (1969

Burn! (1969)

Mandingo (1975)

A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion (1982)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1987)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Quilombo (1984)

Sankofa (1993)

Amistad (1997)

Beloved (1998)

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)

12 Years a Slave

Birth of a Nation (2016)

Underground (2016-2017)


African Cultural Remembrance and Retention

Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Tamango (1958)

Burn! (1969)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Sankofa (1993)

Amistad (1997)

Quilombo (1984)


Relationships between Plantation Mistresses and their Bondspersons

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Mandingo (1975)

Quilombo (1984)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1987)

Queen (1992)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Underground (2016-2017)


Relationships between Plantation Masters and their Bondspersons

Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Band of Angels (1957)

Tamango (1958)

Slaves (1969)

Mandingo (1975)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1987)

Sankofa 91993)

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Beloved (1998)

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Underground (2016-2017)


Enslaved Women’s Lives

Foxes of Harrow (1947)

Tamango (1958)

Slaves (1969)

Mandingo (1975)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Queen (1992)

Sankofa (1993)

Beloved (1998)

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Birth of a Nation (2016)

Underground (2016-2017)


Slave Labor and the Economy

Burn! (1969)

Roots (1977; 2016)

Quilombo (1984)

Sankofa (1993)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Birth of a Nation (2016)

Underground (2016-2017)


[1] Brenda E. Stevenson, “Filming Black Voices and Stories: Slavery on America’s Screens,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 3 (September 2018): 488-520. The article is available through subscription and on Project Muse.

Brenda Stevenson

Brenda Stevenson is the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at UCLA. The author of four books, her intellectual interests center on the comparative, historical experiences of women, family, and community across racial and ethnic lines.

“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

In early October 1864, Gen. U. S. Grant planned a trip to Washington. He believed that 30,000 to 40,000 troops were gathered in “depots all over the North” and wanted to “see if I cannot devise means of getting [them] promptly into the field.” Although he canceled the trip, his concern was well placed.[1]

The Army of the Potomac had begun the summer of 1864 with more than 100,000 men, but the massive casualties incurred during the Overland Campaign, along with the redeployment of some units, had left it with about 50,000 effectives at the end of the summer. Replacements did appear throughout the fall, but the Army of the Potomac was a very different organization than it had been three months earlier, and Union generals were almost as worried about the preparedness of their men as they were about the Confederates they faced across the wrecked Virginia landscape.

A lot was being asked of these men. Soldiers were constantly adjusting their lines, improving old earthworks, and destroying or modifying captured enemy works. Moreover, the wood and dirt fortifications, hard-used by the men, subject to heat and rain, and fouled by decomposing bodies and human waste, constantly had to be rebuilt. Others dug mines and countermines, while still others created primitive minefields by planting “torpedoes.” These major construction projects occurred during nearly constant skirmishing, scouting, and artillery duels. By early fall, insects, rats, lice, dirt (and, when it rained, bottomless mud) further plagued the men who were digging, fighting, and dying in the Union trenches.[2]

Fort Sedgwick near Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout the fall campaign, Grant and his generals fretted about the readiness of new recruits, frequently reorganized units, and, on occasion, delayed operations until a time when more battle-ready men were available. Gen. Winfield Hancock worried that his men, particularly replacements, were being asked to work too hard; “there are a good many recruits in the command whom we are trying to drill, and I have not allowed them to be worked within the last few days on that account.”[3] In early October, Gen. G. K. Warren, a famous worrier, warned that “We need time to get our new levies in order, and no matter how great the pressure, we cannot succeed with them till they have at least acquired the . . .rudiments of their drill and discipline.”[4] Gen. Nelson Miles complained that some of his regiments “are mainly composed of substitutes who have recently joined, and the frequency of desertions among this class of men renders it necessary that they be placed in positions where they can easily be watched and guarded.” In fact, Nelson wanted his new soldiers to be moved out of the trenches so they could be better trained and disciplined.[5]

At the other end of the Union position, north of the James River, Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was also going through growing pains. Butler complained of a group of about 300 “unorganized recruits” intended as replacements for a New York regiment. They seemed to have been sent by the War Department without orders or leaders; “the captains that have been commissioned have deserted them and cannot be found.” The men had elected their own officers, but had become “a mob.” Butler wanted them sent to their intended regiment so they could be integrated into “good companies.” “Otherwise, they are worse than useless for months.” This was apparently not the only time a group of reinforcements had appeared without clear directions. “We have suffered so much from these new organizations rendering men useless that I trust that where there is no organization we shall not wait for a mob to make one.”[6]

These desperate messages remind us that, despite our hindsight-influenced sense that the Confederacy was on its last legs by October 1864, that was not necessarily how Union commanders saw it. They doubted the capacity of their men to withstand the rigors of this new—to them—form of warfare, and seemed to be worrying that the effectiveness of the army had hit a tipping point. They had to make Grant and the War Department aware, through more negative than usual rhetoric describing their men, that winning the war required further investment in men and training.

But a decidedly different rhetorical style reflected another of the war’s imperatives. Butler bragged that at Chaffin’s Farm his 2500 black soldiers had “carried intrenchments at the point of the bayonet” that had previously stymied twice the number of white troops. “Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.” The same day he declared that he could break the Bermuda line between the Appomattox and the James Rivers “with 3,000 negroes” and asked for more black regiments.[7]

This flag, “One Cause, Once Country,” was the regimental flag of the 45th USCT, several companies of which fought with Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Butler’s message to the “Soldiers of the Army of the James” on October 11 featured fulsome praise for the officers and men of every unit in his army, including the Third Divisions of the Eighteenth and Tenth Corps, both of which were comprised of black troops. “Better men were never better led, better officers never led better men,” Butler declared. In addition to congratulating dozens of white officers, he spent several paragraphs noting the heroics of black soldiers, from the private who bayonetted a Rebel officer trying to rally his men to the sergeant who led his company into the enemy’s works after their captain was killed. Several black soldiers were noted for their gallant action to take over for disabled color bearers, despite being wounded themselves. By the time Butler wrote his message, at least four of the companies in the Sixth U. S. Colored Troops were led by black sergeants after their officers had been killed or wounded, and several companies in other regiments also went into battle behind black sergeants. Butler ordered a “special medal” created in their honor.[8]

Butler was a famous self-promoter, and he drew glory from the excellent performance of black units that many commanders were reluctant to command. But he also knew that, even as the fighting qualities of white soldiers seemed to be on the decline, the black troops fighting for the freedom of their race needed to be seen as effective, showing high morale and leadership possibilities.

The war was, in fact, entering its final phase in the fall of 1864—but the generals could not be sure of that. As a result, they shaped their messages to illustrate the immediate needs of the army, arguing that the army’s poor condition required urgent measures and implying that victory could still slip away. But a few also highlighted the contributions of the black soldiers, hoping that the aftermath of the war for African Americans could be shaped by public recognition of their loyalty and courage.



[1] Grant to Gen. George G. Meade, October 3, 1864, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 51. Hereafter call the OR.

[2] Earl J. Hess details the growth of the entrenchments around Petersburg, and the lives of the men who built them, in In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), esp. 50-77.

[3] Hancock to Meade, October 15, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 238.

[4] Warren to Meade, October 1, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 20.

[5] Miles to Maj. H. H. Bingham, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Second Corps, October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 160.

[6] Butler to Grant, October 12, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 184.

[7] Butler to Stanton, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.; Butler to Grant, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.

[8] Gen. Benjamin Butler, “Soldiers of the Army of the James,” October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 161, 163, 167-170.


James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

Political polarization often magnifies the public significance of a tragedy. As Americans prepared for a bitterly contested presidential election in early 1860, a gruesome industrial accident in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reignited conflict between champions and critics of wage labor. Unlike the violent episodes of 1856 and 1863 in Lawrence, Kansas, the Pemberton Mill Disaster seemed distant from issues of sectionalism and slavery, but it quickly became a political Rorschach test: some viewed the calamity as evidence of the need for repentance or reform, while others regarded the smoking ruins as proof of the superiority of slavery.

Pemberton Mill, built in 1853 by John A. Lowell and J. Pickering Putnam, was one of Lawrence’s newest and largest textile mills. Lowell and Putnam sold out during the Panic of 1857, but prosperity returned under new owners George Howe and David Nevins, and New England textile output reached record levels in 1859. By 1860, the mill’s 650 looms devoured 30 tons of cotton each week and employed nearly 1000 people; most were women and girls, and many were Irish immigrants.[1]

“Ruins of the Pemberton Mills, at Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Morning after the Fall,” Harper’s Weekly 4, no. 160 (January 21, 1860), 33. Several images of the smoking ruins of the Pemberton Mills circulated widely in the American and European press, including this image which made the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Late in the afternoon of January 10, 1860 – a cold, snowy Tuesday – around 600 workers were toiling in the mill’s six-story main building when the south wall collapsed and pulled the entire structure down with it. Onlookers rushed to free hundreds of people entombed in a mountain of brick, iron, wood, and machinery, but progress was slow. Around 9:30pm, a lamp overturned and ignited an inferno fueled by raw cotton and leaking oil.[2] The “whole mass of ruins has become one sheet of flame!” reported a journalist. “The screams and moans of the poor, buried, burning, and suffocating creatures can be distinctly heard, but no power on earth can save them.”[3] Trapped, a foreman tried to slit his throat rather than be burned alive. A girl caught in a machine ripped off two fingers to make a desperate escape.[4] Between 90 and 150 people died and scores more were seriously injured; among the dead was fourteen-year-old Margaret Hamilton, who arrived that morning for her first day of work.[5]

Inevitably, observers drew conflicting lessons from the horror. Ministers deemed it an act of divine judgment and a reminder to repent.[6] Soon, however, an inquest blamed human negligence, not heavenly wrath, for the suffering. Its report attributed the collapse to faulty iron supports, shoddy masonry, and excessive loads of machinery (recently added to maximize output) and named four engineers and architects as being especially responsible for the ghastly blunder, although none received any punishment.[7] The report absolved the mill’s past and present owners of culpability, but other observers accused them of sacrificing workers on the altar of profit. The New York Herald blamed what it called the “Lawrence Massacre” on cost-cutting capitalists who had killed and maimed over five hundred “white slaves of the North” by skimping on construction.[8] Long after 1860, critics ranging from pioneering feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to the Knights of Labor cited Pemberton Mill to illustrate capital’s inhumanity to labor.[9]

“The Building of the Pemberton Mills,” Vanity Fair 1, no. 4 (January 21, 1860), 56. Northern periodicals, like the New York-based Vanity Fair, blamed the Pemberton Mills disaster on business owners and contractors who settled for substandard building construction.

Responses took a peculiar twist in the South, where analysis of the tragedy became entwined with proslavery ideology. In the 1840s and 1850s, a vocal squad of southern theorists began to defend slavery as the best possible relationship between employers and workers of any race. They carefully avoided alienating nonslaveholding southern whites, but the abstract defense of slavery did percolate into popular publications.[10] Outraged by John Brown’s recent raid on Harpers Ferry and steeling themselves for a Republican victory in the looming presidential election, proslavery journalists pounced on the Pemberton Mill catastrophe to make provocative comparisons between wage labor’s brutality and slavery’s benevolence.

Some southern editors echoed northern criticisms of the wage-labor system they blamed for the catastrophe. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, for instance, applauded the New York Herald’s denunciation of Boston elites who excoriated slavery while sending northern millhands to be slaughtered on the factory floor. Tellingly, however, the Dispatch added its own overtly proslavery gloss to a passage attributed to the Herald but actually written by the Richmond editor, who savored the bitter irony that “the white slaves of Lawrence were massacred” while toiling to enrich “fine old Boston gentlemen” who had armed antislavery activists in Kansas and supported John Brown. Even as the “white slaves at Lawrence are mourning over their kith and kin slain by their philanthropic masters,” gloated the Dispatch, “the black chattels of the South are making merry with their holiday festivities.” The Virginian closed with a loaded question: whose lot – “that of the cotton picker in Georgia, or the cotton weaver in Massachusetts” – was “the preferable one?”[11] A New Orleans editor the same Herald article and opined that in the “strife between labor and capital in Massachusetts, labor has to endure what a Southern slave is never made acquainted with.”[12] The southern press transmuted the Herald’s bitter rebuke into an explicitly proslavery comparison between the northern and southern labor systems.

Even without northern inspiration, southern journalists wove proslavery arguments into coverage of the calamity. Three days after the disaster, a New Orleans editor carped that if it had occurred in the South, New England writers would have blamed it on slavery. In fact, he insisted, no “Southern master” was capable of the “fiendish cruelty” of northern capitalists who exposed operatives “of their own color and race” to dangerous working conditions.[13] From North Carolina came a similar argument couched in ostensibly innocuous terms. “Far be it from us to contrast slave labor with white labor in any offensive sense,” wrote a Raleigh editor. “But we must say that, as a general rule, there is more care manifested for the comfort and safety of black laborers in the South than is shown for white laborers in the North.” The latter had no masters to “bind up the broken limbs,” “provide for the poor cripples,” or care for them in old age.[14]

To be sure, none of these southern journalists openly endorsed the enslavement of white laborers. Their tone and timing anticipated the “whataboutism” rampant in modern American politics. But by weaving proslavery doctrines into their critiques of the society which produced the Pemberton Mill tragedy, southern editors escalated sectional strife as American voters anticipated a uniquely momentous election. Among those who visited Lawrence after the disaster was Abraham Lincoln, who passed through the somber town just days after giving the speech at New York’s Cooper Union which catapulted him toward the Republican nomination.[15] The Pemberton Mill disaster cast a long shadow over the climactic moments of antebellum politics.


[1] Alvin F. Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008), chapter 1.

[2] Ibid., chapters 2-3.

[3] Quoted in An Authentic History of the Lawrence Calamity (Boston: John J. Dyer & Co., 1860), 9.

[4] Authentic History, 15, 20.

[5] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 38.

[6] Authentic History, 38-46.

[7] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 91-109.

[8] “The Lawrence Massacre Again,” New York Herald, January 16, 1860.

[9] Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “The Tenth of January,” Atlantic Monthly 21, no. 125 (March 1868): 346-362; George E. McNeill, ed., The Labor Movement (Boston: A.M. Bridgman & Co., 1887), 122-123

[10] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[11] ”The Lawrence Calamity,” (Richmond) Daily Dispatch, January 18, 1860.

[12] “Wholesale Slaughter of Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 23, 1860.

[13] “Southern Slaves – Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 13, 1860.

[14] “The Calamity at Lawrence,” (Raleigh, NC) Semi-Weekly Standard, January 18, 1860.

[15] Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 185-186, 190.

Michael E. Woods

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

Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution dramatically transformed American society during the Reconstruction era. The amendments abolished slavery, established the concepts of birthright citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and granted all men the right to vote, regardless of color. For most members of the Republican Party, enforcing legal and political equality extended the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all races. These Reconstruction Amendments provided a tangible answer to the question of freedpeople’s status in American society following emancipation. Many moderates and conservatives in both parties, however, made a distinction between legal and political equality—which enabled men of all backgrounds the chance to participate in republican governance on an equal basis—and “social equality,” a shorthand term to describe the debate over racial integration in everyday life. These political leaders earnestly warned against any legislation covering the latter. They warned that such legislation would promote government overreach and the forced integration of black and white Americans in social situations.[1]

Not all Republicans felt this way about “social equality,” especially its black membership. The debate first emerged after Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner introduced a bill on May 13, 1870, that would have outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation, facilities, schools, cemeteries, and in jury selection. The bill created a firestorm. As one Democratic newspaper in McConnelsville, Ohio, complained, Sumner’s legislation meant that “every man, woman and child, of the Anglo-Saxon or Caucasian race, going forth into public, must expect to encounter at every turn the man of African descent.” Anyone who understood “the superiority of the white over the black race” had a duty to fight “social equality with an inferior race.”[2] Sumner and his radical counterparts unsuccessfully lobbied another four years to get enough votes to pass a Civil Rights bill. During these debates, however, one unlikely ally emerged when Congressman Charles Hays of Alabama passionately spoke in favor of Sumner’s legislation. Hays’s eloquent speech to the House of Representatives on January 31, 1874, outraged the white South and troubled conservatives throughout the country, but his powerful challenge to bigotry and white supremacy in American society continues to resonate today.

Alabama Congressman Charles Hays. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hays was born in 1834 to a prosperous family in the black belt region of Greene County, Alabama. After his father died at a young age, Hays built upon his inheritance and expanded his investments in both land and slaves. By 1860—still at the tender age of 26—Hays owned more than two thousand acres of prime cotton-growing land, almost one hundred enslaved African Americans, and an estate valued at more than $112,000. He was a reluctant secessionist when Alabama first declared itself out of the Union, but after the firing at Fort Sumter he joined the Confederacy and eventually attained the rank of major.[3]

After the war Hays successfully sought a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and took a pragmatic approach to politics. More interested in a quick end to federal oversight of Reconstruction than rehashing the results of the Civil War, he joined the Republican Party. According to biographer William Warren Rogers, Jr., he soon became a prominent member of the Union League in Greene County. Hays was then elected to Congress in 1869 with strong support from black and white party members in Alabama’s 4th Congressional district.[4]

While Hays initially favored a speedy return to civilian rule in Alabama, the acts of political terrorism being committed by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War horrified him. He gradually moved towards the radical wing of the party. Hays supported enforcement legislation to punish the KKK and came to believe that Sumner’s push for racial integration in social situations was justified.[5] Although a terrible economic depression raged through the country in 1874 and dominated both newspaper headlines and Congressional debate, Hays nevertheless believed that the time was right to push the civil rights issue forward.

As Hays began his remarks to the House, he lamented that “passion and prejudice have ruled the hour” in the South. “I shall receive the censure of those who sit and worship in the temples of a dead past,” but it was his sacred duty to promote “liberty and freedom” for his black constituents in Alabama and elsewhere. Citing his former experience as a slaveholder, Hays stated that he knew African Americans were hard workers who were oppressed not because of their natural inferiority—which was a lie—but because of the “storms of hate” heaped upon them by white racists. “Newspapers, politicians, demagogues, and inciters of sectional hate” were promoting a false portrait of what a civil rights bill would bring to American society, according to Hays. In his view the purpose of such a bill “[did] not force anything” on white society other than “the right of the colored man to be the equal of the white man.”[6]

Hays then attacked the notion that black and white Americans could not associate together or enjoy the same rights and privileges. He noted that “thousands of the most intelligent men of the South” who now opposed the civil rights bill “were born and raised upon the old plantations. Childhood’s earlier days were passed listening to the lullaby song of the negro nurse, and budding manhood found them surrounded by slave association.” In other words, blacks and whites had intermingled and even lived together in the days of slavery without any fearful talk of “social equality.” What had changed? “Now that they are free and receiving the enlightenment of education,” the freedpeople were seen as a threat to the social order of white supremacy and “not entitled to the protection of society,” according to critics of the bill.[7]

“These Few Precepts in Thy Memory,” a political cartoon about the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by artist Thomas Nast, 1875. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

Unlike many of his white contemporaries, Hays acknowledged that the South—indeed, even his own remarkable fortune—had been built on the backs of the enslaved. They had “molded our fortunes, built our railroads, erected our palatial mansions, and toiled for our bread” without compensation. Similar to other Lost Cause proponents at the time, Hays celebrated the “faithful slaves” (including his own) who stayed on plantations and refused to run away during the Civil War. But he again differed from prevailing notions by expressing his sincere “debt of gratitude to them” and stressing the importance of righting a historic wrong. In supporting civil rights, Hays pledged to do his part to “pay the debt” that had been incurred through generations of unrequited toil for the benefit of himself and his ancestors. He concluded his speech by pointing out that the white south’s continued resistance to federal authority was largely responsible for the creation of more civil rights legislation. They “would not listen to reason . . . [had] rushed blindly on in the wonted paths of prejudice and hate,” and failed to understand that “the past is gone, and the present is upon us.” Meeting the needs of the present ultimately meant granting “to our colored fellow-citizens every right that belongs to a freeman, and every privilege that is guaranteed them by the Constitution.”[8]

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed by Congress and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant following the death of Charles Sumner. It would be the last civil rights law passed by Congress until 1957. The law was poorly enforced and widely criticized, however, and in 1883 the Supreme Court declared in the Civil Rights Cases that the law was unconstitutional. The court held that the federal government only had the authority to ban acts of discrimination by state and local governments, not private individuals and business owners.[9] Nevertheless, the legacy of Charles Hays’s words would endure and his arguments were utilized in future fights for civil rights in America.


[1] Allen Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 88-89.

[2] “The Negro in Congress,” The Conservative, June 3, 1870; U.S. House of Representatives, “Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood – Legislative Interests,” U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, accessed August 2, 2018,

[3] William Warren Rogers, Jr., Black Belt Scalawag: Charles Hays and the Southern Republicans in the Era of Reconstruction (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993), 1-13.

[4] Rogers, 14-44.

[5] Rogers, 62-64.

[6] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[7] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[8] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096-1097 (1874).

[9] The provision banning racial discrimination in public education was removed from the final version of the bill. For the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, see Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). The full text of the decision can be seen at Harvard University, “Civil Rights Cases (1883),” 2018, accessed August 3, 2018.

Nick Sacco

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

What the Name “Civil War” Tells Us–and Why It Matters

What the Name “Civil War” Tells Us–and Why It Matters

What do Americans call the conflict that tore their nation apart from 1861 to 1865? And what difference does it make what name they use? Today most call it the Civil War, but as I discuss in my recent article in the September issue of the journal, Americans have not always agreed on that name.[1] It became the common usage in the early twentieth century as part of sectional reunion and reconciliation. But by obscuring the meaning of the war, the choice of Civil War played a role in perpetuating a division over the war’s meaning and thereby contributed to today’s debates over Confederate symbols.

A few avid defenders of those symbols talk of the War of Northern Aggression, and at least some people assume it is the South’s name for that war. And if not that, they think, white southerners surely call it the War between the States. Yet in a 1994 Southern Focus Poll, still the most extensive poll on attitudes toward the Civil War, when asked the war’s name only 6.5 percent of southerners answered War Between the States, and fewer than 1 percent offered War of Northern Aggression.

That name came into use only in the second half of the twentieth century. Before the 1950s, almost no southerners used War of Northern Aggression. It emerged out of white southern resentment of federal intervention in race relations during the civil rights era, and its use grew after that, encouraged by the neo-Confederate movement. As the Southern Focus Poll showed, however, even then relatively few southerners adopted it.[2]

War between the States has had a wider acceptance and a much longer history; the Focus Poll’s results reflected a decline in its usage. Surveys in the South Atlantic and Gulf South states, conducted by the Linguistic Atlas of the United States in the mid-twentieth century, found more southerners called it the War between the States, although still fewer than 25 percent. The polls also showed the upper-class and well-educated were the most likely to use it, which probably reflected the strength of the Lost Cause among the white South’s elite at that time.[3]

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the major champion of the Lost Cause, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, campaigned for War between the States to be the name of the war.   They believed it testified to the legality of secession and therefore the existence of a Confederate nation. Indeed, the UDC argued that the “States” in the name referred not to the individual states but to the “United States” and the “Confederate States”—two independent nations. The Daughters’ crusade contributed to its increasing use in the twentieth century, but as shown in the South Atlantic survey, War between the States really took hold between 1940 and 1965 when whites mobilized to fight all challenges to white racial control. As with the use of the War of Northern Aggression and the flying of the Confederate flag, white southerners’ contemporary embrace of Confederate memory owes as much to the confrontations of the 1960s as to that of the 1860s.[4]

The survey in the South Atlantic States also showed a surprising result; in those states the name Confederate War was slightly more common than War Between the States. Its use declined as that of War Between the States rose, and it had all but disappeared in the later Gulf South survey and the 1994 Southern Focus Poll. Nevertheless, its persistence in the years before 1940 points to the fact that despite efforts by the leaders of the Lost Cause, white southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had used a variety of names for the war. The Confederate War sometimes included the additional phrase “for Independence,” and both it and War for Secession, another name that had adherents, highlighted the white South’s view of the war’s cause.

Usage of Civil War/Rebellion in U.S. Newspapers, 1860-1920. This graph includes only references to Civil War and Rebellion/War of the Rebellion. Courtesy of America’s Historic Newspapers. For more information, see the “Note on Statistical Methods” below.

As the surveys suggest, and other measures including usage in newspapers and book titles also demonstrate, the most common name for the war in the South was always Civil War. Even in the Southern Historical Society Papers, which began publication shortly after the war and which scholars consider the voice of the most intractable former Confederates, Civil War appeared twice as often as War Between the States.[5]

In the twentieth century, northerners, too, most often used Civil War, as surveys in New England and the upper Midwest showed. They had not always favored that name, however. President Abraham Lincoln most often used Rebellion. During and immediately after the war, most northerners also referred to the Rebellion rather than to the Civil War. That usage persisted into the late nineteenth century, illustrated in the title on the volumes of the government’s official history, The War of the Rebellion. Beginning in the late 1880s, many northerners abandoned Rebellion for Civil War. After 1900 in newspapers, book titles, and government documents Civil War became the war’s most common and all but official name; on three occasions between 1905 and 1911, Congress ratified the use of Civil War.[6]

Usage of Civil War/Rebellion in Sample of Book Titles, 1861-1920. This data comes from an online search of the Library of Congress catalog, using the keyword terms “War of the Rebellion” and “Civil War.” As with newspapers, the graph here includes only the two dominant names for the war. For more information, see the “Note on Statistical Methods” below.

Northerners supported the use of Civil War in part to accommodate their former foes, who maintained secession was legal and therefore they had not been rebels. White southerners considered Rebellion not just inaccurate, but insulting, particularly after the term became associated with labor and anarchist violence in the 1880s. The northern shift in usage, therefore, reflected a commitment to reunion and to at least a degree of sectional reconciliation. During the Spanish American War, many thought, the South had proved its loyalty and nationalism. Intensifying racism, North as well as South, no doubt also played an important role. The North’s concessions to the white South’s feelings, however, had limits. Overwhelmingly, northerners refused to accept War Between the States, which they rightly viewed as acknowledging the justness of secession.[7]

Some white southerners still insisted on War between the States. And some African Americans still chose names that emphasized the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war, as Frederick Douglass and other African Americans had during the Civil War, when they promoted names such as Abolition War or The Slaveholder’s Rebellion. For most people in the North and South, though, Civil War was the war’s name.[8]

The choice reflected and facilitated reunion and reconciliation, but at the cost of obscuring the causes and consequences of the war. Civil War also made it all too easy for both sides to continue to believe their actions has been noble and justified, their behavior honorable. Neither side wrestled, as Lincoln’s second inaugural address had urged Americans to do, with their own and the nation’s failings.   Reconciliation proved a positive development for the country but came at that high price. It rested on a sense of mutual innocence and contributed to the nation’s failure to understand the meaning and implications of the war.

The choice of the name Civil War, therefore, certainly reflected and may have contributed to the failure to construct a memory of the Civil War that encouraged Americans to address the centrality of slavery to the war and in American history and to ask whether the country had lived up to the war’s achievement of emancipation by promoting racial equality.

Today’s battles over the Confederate flag and monuments emerge, in part, out of that failure.   These disputes over Confederate symbols owe more to today’s divisions over the role and treatment of African Americans than they do to sectional divisions of the past or the memory of the Civil War. That the nation never agreed on or came to terms with what the war meant, facilitated by a sanitized memory of the war symbolized by the choice of the generic name Civil War, makes it easy for both sides to claim that history vindicates their position.


[1] Gaines M. Foster, “What’s Not in a Name: The Naming of the American Civil War,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 3 (September 2018): 416-454. The article is available both through print subscription and on Project Muse.

[2] “Frequencies,” Q#44; “Crosstabs—Southern Sample,” #44; and “Open Answers,” from “Southern Focus Poll, Fall 1994,” Center for the Study of the American South, 1994, Odum Institute [Distributor] V1 [Version]. On use of War of Northern Aggression, see also Andy Hall, “‘The War of Northern Aggression’ as Modern, Segregationist Revisionism,” Dead Confederates, June 21, 2011,

[3] The journal has collected additional data into an online appendix on their website. See Appendix 3,

[4] 63 Cong. Rec. 138 (December 12, 1914).

[5] Appendix 2,

[6] Appendices 3 and 1, 58 Cong. Rec. 3,733 (March 1, 1905); 59 Cong. Rec. 929-930 (January 11, 1907); 61 Cong. Rec. 1,787-88 (February 1, 1911).

[7] For differing views on reunion and reconciliation see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 351-53; Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); and Nina Silber, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered,” Journal of American History 103, no. 1 (June 2016): 59-83.

[8] Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation, Racism, and the Work Before Us: An Address Delivered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 4 December 1863,” in Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches Debates and Interviews, vol. 3, 1855-1863, ed. John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 3: 598-609, and Douglass, “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion,” 3: 521-43.

Note on Statistical Methods

The first graph, on usage in newspapers, comes from data collected using the online database, America’s Historic Newspapers. When I completed my searches in 2008, the website included over 300 newspapers from all states. I searched for the following names of the war: Civil War, the Rebellion, War of the Rebellion, Slaveholders’ Rebellion, War Between the States, Confederate War, War for Secession, the Late Unpleasantness, and the Lost Cause. I recorded the total number of “hits” for each name by year from 1860 to 1920. Since “hits” on War of the Rebellion also turned up in a search for Rebellion, only the total for Rebellion was included in subsequent computations. With the help of Katie Eskridge, a random 5 percent sample of stories that included either Civil War or Rebellion were read to determine if they actually referred to the American Civil War. For each year, the percentage of stories that did concern the American Civil War was then applied to the overall total, with the resulting number used in the computations. In order to measure comparative usage (rather than the number of stories about the war in any given year), the total number of mentions of each name were then converted to a percentage of usage for that year. That year’s percentages were then graphed. For clarity, the graph provided in the post includes only references to Civil War and Rebellion/War of the Rebellion. The other terms rarely exceed 3-5 percent of the total.

For the second graph, I compiled a database on books published on the Civil War between 1861 and 1920 that are in the Library of Congress through an online search of its catalog, using the key word terms “War of the Rebellion” and “Civil War”—which included most books on the war no matter the title. (For example, both Pollard’s Lost Cause and Alexander Stephens’ Constitutional View of the Late War were included). I then compiled a database of titles, by year published, author, name, general name, and where the book was published. Here, too, the raw numbers were converted into percentages of names used in each year. I then created a cross tab and graphs. As with newspapers, the graph here includes only the two dominant names for the war.

William Pencak, “The American Civil War Did Not Take Place,” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 217-21, uses a different sample, of memoirs and general histories catalogued in Civil War Books, and he finds an emergence of Civil War as the common name in 1910, slightly later than the graph here.

Gaines M. Foster

Gaines M. Foster teaches history at Louisiana State University and is the author of Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South.

Bringing Peace after Destruction: Civil War Era Monuments and the Memory of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Bringing Peace after Destruction: Civil War Era Monuments and the Memory of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

As the fall semester loomed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters ignited a movement to remove “Silent Sam,” an infamous memorial dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. The monument honored students who served in the Confederate armed forces during the Civil War. After the anguish of Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesville in 2017, some community members urged the university to remove “Sam,” which had become a rallying point for local activists. By 2018, the perception of the bronze shrine transformed into an eyesore, sparking local debates around the campus that fit into a much larger movement around the United States to remove Lost Cause memorials.[1] On August 20, 2018, protestors toppled the monument, which altered the way students interacted with Civil War memory on their campus.

While Confederate shrines have kindled public debates in the last few years, monuments are not new points of contention. As many argued against Jim Crow segregation and for civil rights in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, Native peoples began addressing monuments glorifying white gallantry and Native suffering in a war that coincided with the Civil War. Hundreds of miles away from the combat at Second Bull Run or Antietam, Minnesotans rallied to fend off displaced and starved Mdewankaton Dakota. After the U.S. government broke treaties and failed to issue annuity payments to the Dakota on time, havoc and death flooded the Minnesota River Valley. Hundreds of whites and Dakotans perished in both battles and imprisonment, and by the end of September 1862, the federal army quelled remaining Dakota attacks.[2]

An 1883 lithograph depicting the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the time of their surrender, the Dakota people faced further displacement and even execution. After the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862, this region experienced political and cultural unrest, leading to a series of expeditions to hunt down and kill all those who did not abide by federal policy and fled imprisonment. By 1863, the Dakota had lost all possession of their traditional homeland; no longer could they honor their ancestors or commemorate those executed in 1862.

At the fiftieth anniversary of the mass hanging, Mankato welcomed a new addition to their historical landscape. Community members gathered around a new granite monument which read “Here Were Hanged 38 Sioux Indians,” a public display continuing the notion of Native defeat in the region.[3] The monument held historical value to the white population, as many believed that it offered the public a clear understanding of a valued event in American history: thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged for their brutal actions against peaceful Minnesotans, which for the longest time was the master narrative in remembering the conflict.[4] In fact, the monument displayed the chronicle of brutality, suffering, and death on the spot where the Dakota men hanged, which they wanted contemporary Natives to remember.

A photo of the Mankato Hanging Monument in 1918. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

As Minnesotans defended this monument, Native people sought change to the landscape to offer not only reconciliation between the Native and non-Native communities, but also a space to honor their fallen ancestors.[5] By the 1950s, Native people insisted on a revision of the public displays that dotted the map around Mankato. While other monuments glorified the white victor, opponents of the “Hanging Monument” headed the movement to alter the historical consciousness. Activists led protests, yet Mankato officials did not budge—besides moving the monument to a more publicly visible location near the interstate in 1965. Not only did this monument provide a biased history of the Dakota War, but visitors to Mankato now saw the shrine as they entered town. Fed up with the bureaucracy, activists painted and poured red paint on the Hanging Monument, symbolizing the brutality the Dakota endured during the nineteenth century.

Official opinions did not change as red paint flowed down the sides of the monument; however, national movements ushered change into the region. The American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) and Vietnam War protests of the 1970s sparked a new interpretation on remembering the past.[6] For example, as civil rights and identity debates flourished around the United States, Minnesota State University students began to debate the school’s mascot, the Indians, as a way to offer ideas of inclusion and diversity. Coinciding with these protest movements, university drama guild students staged a play that provided a discourse on “white man’s mistreatment of the Indians.” After the dramatic rendition of Indian suffering, a display which “plagued audience members’ consciousness,” the actors brought out a replica Hanging Monument to prove how Mankato played a role in America’s colonization and forced assimilation of Native people. An observer of the play mentioned, “We are all sick and tired and sad… and I felt along with the rest of the audience that we also should fight no more forever.”[7] Mankato residents felt the need to not only move forward, but also display their past accurately and impartially. After these events the city relocated the monument, not from community pressure, but because of impending construction work. Since removal, no one knows what happened to the monument—it was buried, destroyed, or hidden out of shame—and many Dakota are okay with that. Verna Wabasha, a retired State Indian Affairs Commission Worker, added that it’s a “derogatory rock, and it should stay buried.”[8]

“Forgive Everything Anyone” is written on a bench at Reconciliation Park, with ceremonial objects attached to the Scroll Monument. Photo courtesy of the author.

On the ground that once provided space for the Hanging Monument, a new park sits to bring reconciliation and peace to all those living in Mankato. Reconciliation Park hosts three monuments: a large bison stands tall, representing an accurate rendition of Dakota culture and the prime animal they hunted; the Winter Warrior monument stands in remembrance of the 125th anniversary of the mass hanging; and a large scroll lists the names of the thirty-eight men executed.[9] Every year during the “38 plus 2 Memorial Ride” the monuments transform from physical reminders to objects of honor, remembrance, and commemoration. Men and women from the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota journey hundreds of miles to commemorate their fallen ancestors. The trek ends at Reconciliation Park, where the participants tie, lay, and secure mementos on the monuments which stay safely fastened until the next year’s remembrance ride. In the town that brought death and displacement to the Dakota people, the visual interpretations and anti-Indian displays bring peace to the community and honor those who survived and endured white colonization.[10]

Removing Confederate monuments is a fraught process; one side wants to honor their historical past, while the other side argues against the violence and racism associated with that memory. While there is a difference between Lost Cause shrines and monuments that embodied a notion of white victory over Native peoples, the way in which they extol hatred troubles our movement towards a comprehensive understanding of history. Monuments always shape public memory of the past, but instead of relying on public displays of commemoration, we should work to find healing by telling inclusive stories. Communities like Mankato have reconciled and pushed for peace to understand America’s troubled past—a process that communities with Lost Cause monuments should not ignore.


[1] “Confederate Monument,” UNC Graduate School, accessed August 20, 2018,

[2] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., A Companion to the U.S. Civil War: Volume 1 (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2014), 380-381.

[3] “A Gruesome Monument,” Willmar Tribune, Willmar, Minnesota, November 13, 1912, 2; Melodie Andrews, “The U.S.-Dakota War in Public Memory and Public Space: Mankato’s Journey Towards Reconciliation,” in The State We’re In: Reflections on Minnesota History, eds. Annette Atkins and Deborah L. Miller (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010), 52.

[4] Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988), 1.

[5] Atkins and Miller, 57.

[6] Ibid., 54.

[7] Marion Struzyk, “Indians brings guilt home,” MSC Daily Reporter, Mankato, Minnesota, June 2, 1971.

[8] Dan Linehan, “Students search for missing monument as part of history class,” The Free Press, Mankato, Minnesota, May 14, 2006.

[9] Atkins and Miller, 56-57.

[10] Ibid.; Tim Krohn, “38 plus 2 memorial ride begins,” The Free Press, Mankato, Minnesota, December 22, 2011; Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “Introduction: Manipi Hena OWas’in Wicunkiksuyapi (We Remember All Those Who Walked),” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 1/2 Special Issues: Empowerment Through Literature (Winter-Spring 2004): 158; Atkins and Miller, 57.

John R. Legg

John R. Legg is a graduate student at Virginia Tech studying Native Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Alongside his studies, John also works as a graduate assistant with Paul Quigley in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. His current research focuses on the public memory and commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its connection to Civil War history.

Summering with Confederate Statues

Summering with Confederate Statues

Our family just returned to California after spending much of the summer driving around the South promoting our new book, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. We logged about 1,700 miles in the car, visiting thirteen towns and cities in six southern states. We dined on local delicacies—from BBQ in Lexington, North Carolina, to hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta—and toured more museums, plantations, and battlefields than our two young daughters, who accompanied us, care to remember.

And everywhere we went, our family saw memorials to the Confederacy. Most took the form of statues, but there were also busts of Confederate generals; streets, highways, counties, and parishes named for Confederate leaders; and an entire building dedicated to the Confederacy—Confederate Memorial Hall—in New Orleans. By our conservative count, during our five weeks on the road we encountered at least three dozen objects or places that honor the Confederacy or the individuals who inspired and fought for it.

That these memorials are inescapable in the modern South is, of course, hardly earth-shattering news. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals that while 113 Confederate symbols have been removed in the three years since a Confederate-flag flying white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, at least 1,740 remain.[1] Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Confederate memorials are located south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Yet the ubiquity of Confederate monuments in Dixie was a striking thing to witness, even for American historians who’ve lived in and studied the South for decades.

Equally striking are the wildly different responses to Confederate memorials in the southern communities we visited. In some places, the monuments are deeply divisive, so much so that they’ve become targets of vandalism or, in the case of New Orleans and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they’ve been removed from the pedestals upon which they stood for over a century. In other communities, they hardly register protest at all.

By the end of the trip, the two of us realized that our book tour, during which we were frequently asked what should be done with Confederate memorials, functioned as a documentary project of sorts. It captured where—in the late summer of 2018, on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right Rally to defend the town’s Robert E. Lee statue—the South stood on the monument question.

Our first stop was Charleston, South Carolina, where the enormous John C. Calhoun monument (1896) towers over Marion Square, a lovely park in the center of the city. The statue is just a block away from Emanuel AME Church, whose steeple is visible to the right and where white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black worshippers in 2015. State law prohibits the removal of this tribute to the South Carolina statesman who defended slavery as “a positive good.” Municipal efforts to add a contextualizing plaque to the monument that would explain and condemn Calhoun’s proslavery stance have stalled.[2]

While critics of the Calhoun monument are disappointed by the failure to take down or even contextualize the memorial, its supporters have in recent months left tokens of affection, including these flowers, at its base.

After Charleston, we visited Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the two of us did our doctoral work at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Over the past few years, students, faculty, and community members lobbied UNC to remove Silent Sam, its 1913 Confederate statue. University officials refused to comply, citing a 2015 state heritage law that makes removal difficult. History graduate student Maya Little, who is pictured here dumping red paint, mixed with her blood, on Silent Sam in a symbolic protest of the memorial in late May, faces disciplinary action from both the state and the university. There were significant developments in the Silent Sam story just a few weeks after we returned home to California.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Hosterman.

In Asheville, North Carolina, Blain inspected the recently defaced Robert E. Lee Dixie Highway memorial (1926). This monument, and an adjacent one honoring Confederate colonel and governor Zebulon Vance, have been vandalized on multiple occasions since 2015.

On our way into Atlanta, Georgia, we stopped at America’s largest Confederate monument, which is carved on the face of Stone Mountain, where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915. The future of this massive bas-relief sculpture, which depicts Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and was completed in 1972, has become a hot-button political issue in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams has denounced it as a proslavery “blight…that should be removed” or at least not supported with state money. Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp has pledged that as governor he would “protect Stone Mountain and historical monuments in Georgia from the radical left.”[3]

In Blain’s hometown of DeRidder, Louisiana, we visited the Beauregard Parish courthouse, which had long honored Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard with a bust that sat in the center of the lobby. Though the bust, and the parish’s name, has generated little public controversy among the local citizenry, the small tribute now sits in a hallway, having been moved after an extensive renovation of the historic building. Meanwhile, the police jury, the governing body of the parish, voted 9-1 in the summer of 2017 to ask the city of New Orleans for its equestrian statue of Beauregard. New Orleans officials had removed the Beauregard monument, along with several others, earlier that spring. An African American police juror cast the lone vote against the request, saying, “This is not what we want for our city.”[4] Nothing came of the police jury’s effort.

In the spring of 2017, New Orleans took down its four Confederate and white supremacist monuments, including the equestrian statue of Beauregard mentioned above and a statue of Robert E. Lee (1884) that sat in a roundabout in the heart of the city. The Lee monument’s empty pedestal is an arresting sight when viewed from the National WWII Museum (left), a place that, unlike Confederate statues, pays homage to soldiers who fought for the United States and against tyranny and oppression. The Lost Cause ideas embodied in these monuments remain alive in the nearby Confederate Memorial Hall Museum (brown building in photo on the right), which first opened in 1891. Its central exhibit on the coming of secession never even mentions slavery.

The Confederate monuments we saw in several towns in Mississippi, including Jackson, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, and Greenwood, have provoked little, if any, public outcry. Here Blain and our elder daughter Eloise take a close look at Greenwood’s Confederate statue (1913), which occupies a conspicuous place on the lawn of the Leflore County courthouse and which, like several other monuments we visited, stands in jarring juxtaposition next to an American flag. During the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, disenfranchised African Americans seeking to register to vote in the courthouse regularly clashed with city authorities and other opponents of integration in the shadow of this statue.

The final stop on our tour was Oxford, Mississippi, which has two prominent Confederate statues. The first (pictured here) was erected on the University of Mississippi campus in 1906 and was the place where white rioters opposed to the desegregation of the school rallied in 1962. The second statue was installed on the city’s historic downtown square in 1907 with the assistance of William Faulkner’s grandmother. Some residents have called for the latter statue to be removed, while in 2016 the university added a contextualizing plaque to the former. The contextualization effort was not entirely successful. Critics pointed out that the plaque failed to explain how the statue had promoted Lost Cause myths about the Civil War and slavery. The university later installed a revised plaque.[5]

On the night of August 20, several weeks after we got back to California from our trip through the South, protestors in Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam from his perch. The UNC Board of Governors, one of whom insisted a few days later that the statue should be returned, directed university officials to develop a plan for the removed statue by mid-November. University chancellor Carol Folt has since stated that they will look at all options, “including one that features a location on campus to display the monument in a place of prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access.” While her language does not suggest that re-installing the monument on its pedestal is a foregone conclusion, it does raise questions about whether the concerns of Silent Sam’s critics will be adequately addressed.[6]

In the meantime, like the Lee column in New Orleans, Silent Sam’s pedestal, surrounded by temporary fencing, stands empty—an apt reminder, for us at least, of the place of Confederate veneration in twenty-first-century America.

Photo courtesy of Hilary Edwards Lithgow.



[1] “Whose Heritage? A Report on Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 4, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018,

[2] Abigail Darlington, “Proposed John C. Calhoun Plaque in Limbo after Charleston City Council Can’t See Eye to Eye on It,” Charleston Post and Courier, January 9, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018,

[3] Jill Nolin, “Abrams: State Should Not Fund ‘Monument to Domestic Terrorism,’” Valdosta Daily Times, August 3, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018,; Ross Terrell, “Ga.’s Republican Gubernatorial Candidates Condemn Stone Mountain Protest,” WABE, Atlanta NPR-affiliate, July 4, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018,

[4] Rachel Steffan, “Uncertain Destiny for PGT Beauregard Monument,” Beauregard Daily News, July 31, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018,; Pamela Sleezer, “Statue Outrage,” Lake Charles American Press, June 14, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018,

[5] John Neff, Jarod Roll, and Anne Twitty, “A Brief Historical Contextualization of the Confederate Monument at the University of Mississippi,” University of Mississippi Libraries, May 16, 2016, accessed August 30, 2018,; Stephanie Saul, “Ole Miss Out if Its Confederate Shadow, Gingerly,” New York Times, August 9, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018,

[6] Jane Stancill and Tammy Grubb, “UNC Leaders Told to Develop ‘Lawful and Lasting’ Plan for Silent Sam by Nov. 15,” Raleigh News and Observer, August 28, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018,


Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle are professors of history at California State University, Fresno. Their most recent book is Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which was published by The New Press in 2018. For additional information on the book, see

Editor’s Note: September 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: September 2018 Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Home rule, defined as the gaining of political autonomy, is usually associated with the struggle for autonomy in Ireland. Twice defeated, the Irish Republic claimed its independence before home rule took effect.[1] While the British debated home rule in 1886 and 1893, the U.S. South was working toward its own version of what may be seen as home rule. Removing the final vestiges of Reconstruction, former slave states had assumed internal control over social, political, and racial matters by 1900, with the Supreme Court’s affirmation of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the virtual elimination of African American voting in the South thanks to poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.

Where a comparison between Ireland and the U.S. South may seem fruitful, I want to instead suggest Hungary as an intriguing comparison of home rule’s implementation. In both countries, racial or ethnic groups assumed control by embracing racially or ethnically exclusionary policies. A comparison of these home rule experiences will help historians gain a better understanding of some of the racial and political problems associated with the failures of post civil war reconciliation.

Like the separatism of the southern states, Hungary had resented Austrian/Habsburg rule and had rebelled in 1848.[2] Their failure to gain their independence had placed Hungary at the mercy of the Austrians. However, Austria’s fortune declined as a result of diplomatic faux pas during the Crimean War and military setbacks against the Italian-French alliance in 1859, and again with the Prussian-Italian alliance of 1866. Nevertheless, like the former Confederate states during Congressional Reconstruction, Austria still ruled Hungary directly during the early 1860s, removing much political autonomy.[3]

Realizing the unsustainability of such direct governments, in 1864, the Austrian legislature (the Reichsrat) determined an accommodation with the Magyar (a Hungarian ethnic group) was in order, which would require major concession to the Hungarians.[4] This was a situation similar to the southern states, where the end of Reconstruction meant the slow abandonment of African Americans and the restoration of political power to white elites.

Ödön Tull’s Coronation of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth as King and Queen of Hungary on June 8, 1867. Courtesy of

Similar to the political compromise of 1877 in the United States, on July 18, 1866, Emperor Franz Josef invited the prominent Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák to Vienna to search for a compromise solution. The negotiations were successful and on February 17, 1867, the Hungarian parliament received permission to restore the historic Constitution of 1848, with some modifications. Hungary now had its own ministry, responsible to the Hungarian parliament.[5]

This compromise measure, called the Ausgleich, meant that henceforth Franz Josef ruled over Austria-Hungary: two states, two crowns, united in his person. Hungary contributed to the joint army and budget, but was independent in its domestic affairs. The Ausgleich was effectively an agreement between two “equal semi-sovereign states.”[6] The Austrian state had undergone dramatic constitutional revisions, similar to the United States as a result of the Reconstruction amendments and the reenvisioning of its constitutional relationship.[7]

In contrast to the U.S. South where home rule went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of African Americans and Jim Crow segregation, Hungarians first instituted home rule and then used that newfound power to implement ethnically exclusionary policies. Hungary embarked on a policy of Magyarization by preventing non-Magyar minorities from accessing politic power. Hungary’s voting population, divided into fifty different categories and electoral districts, were gerrymandered to benefit the ruling Magyar class, very similar to the modern electoral maps of the United States. Even though less than half of Hungary’s population was Magyar, they occupied 90 percent of the parliamentary seats.[8] Gerrymandering districts to benefit ethnic or racial groups, and creating ethnic or racial categories to disenfranchise people, are tactics that were employed (and still are employed) with similar effect in the states of the former Confederacy.

However, ethnic or racial oppression did not end with disenfranchisement. The United States embraced an extensive system of racial oppression, and by the time of the Great War, Hungary had gained the reputation of being the Völkerkerker (dungeon of people) of Europe. Just like white Southerners, Magyar were under the assumption they were a “master race” superior to the backward “Slavic” people, who were mostly peasants.[9] However, there was a difference. Hungary created an environment in which people could shed their ethnic identity and take on the Magyar identity to become a full part of society. In contrast, most African Americans could not change their racial status to white. However, the principle of exclusion based on superiority racial superiority was the same.

At the same time that Jim Crow laws took effect and Southern states worked on gaining home rule,[10] the Hungarian home rule government forcefully implemented Magyarization. By 1880, Magyar instruction was compulsory. Telegraph and postal service exclusively operated using the Magyar language. The Magyar elite suppressed “any political or social movement which challenged the hegemonic position of the Magyar ruling classes.”[11] The main difference to the U.S. South was that Magyarization followed the granting of home rule rather than being part of the assumption of power.

Another point of comparison is commemorative. By the 1890s, irreconcilable Kossuthists had emerged and demanded once more the independence of Hungary.[12] The Ausgleich had been an unacceptable outcome for the old revolutionary leaders. Lajos Kossuth remained committed to independence and had not acknowledged the legitimacy of this compromise government. Just as Confederate veterans and emblems offered a rallying point for segregationists in the 1960s, Kossuth offered a symbol for those opposed to the legitimate government of Hungary and Austria.[13] Kossuth had not accepted Franz Josef as emperor, just like some Southerners never accepted defeat in the Civil War.

Funeral procession for Lajos Kossuth in Budapest, April 1, 1894, reprinted in Zeffiro Ciuffoletti, Das Reich der Habsburger 1848-1918 – Photographien aus der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie (Vienna, Austria: Verlag Christian Brandstätter, 2001).

Somewhat comparable to the twenty-thousand residents who wished farewell to Jefferson Davis in New Orleans five years earlier, when Kossuth died hundreds of thousands participated in funeral parades around the country, among them veterans of the 1848 struggle with their ragged battle flags.[14] Politician Julius Justh gave a powerful eulogy for Kossuth, saying “In Louis Kossuth, we mourn one of the greatest, most honorable, and most selfless figures of history. He is not only our dead, but the dead of humanity . . . for the services of Kossuth were larger, worldwide in significance, immortal.”[15] Southerners could hardly have stated the importance of their cause and leaders any better. Just like Confederate veterans who accomplished more off the battlefield and in death, so too did Kossuth achieve more in death as a symbol of resistance than he every did alive.

When the United States disintegrated into separatist rebellion, the country faced a deadly struggle that did not end in 1865. As white southerners reasserted their political, social, and economic influence, they removed protections and benefits from the African American community to create a white supremacist environment, culminating with statues to Confederates, Jim Crow segregation, and the exclusion of African Americans from the polls. By 1900, the U.S. South had gained home rule. Like the U.S. South, Hungary experienced a separatist rebellion in 1848. By 1867, Hungary gained home rule in the Ausgleich. Just like the racism permeating the Southern states, so too did the Hungarians embrace a conviction of racial superiority that lead to a vigorous Magyarization campaign. While oppression and home rule in the United States lasted until the 1960s, and arguably are still ongoing, the Great War changed everything for Hungary, though it did not end its xenophobic, supremacist attitude. A comparison of these two home rule situations illustrates the failures of post-Civil War reconciliation within the transatlantic state system.


[1] Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998).

[2] See István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians 1848-1849 (London: Phoenix Press, 2001).

[3] For more, see Gregory P. Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[4] Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (London: Routledge, 1998), 338.

[5] Arthur J. May, The Habsburg Monarchy: 1867-1914 (1951; New York: Norton Library, 1968), 34-35.

[6] Edward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1963; New York: Penguin, 1983), 239-240, 294.

[7] See recent Muster posts on the Fourteenth Amendment by Christopher Bonner, Andrew Diemer, Hilary Green, Aaron Astor, and Martha S. Jones; all links appear in the introduction, Martha S. Jones, “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9, 2018,

[8] Bideleux and Jeffries, History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (New York: Routledge, 1998), 364-365; May, 42-43.

[9] Crankshaw, 298.

[10] See Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, eds., The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (Arlington: University of Texas, 2012).

[11] Bideleux and Jeffries, 363, 367; May, 261-262, 374.

[12] May, 267.

[13] John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).

[14] Donald E. Collins, The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).

[15] May, 346-347.

Niels Eichhorn

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

Teaching the Intersection of Abolitionism and Indian Rights

Teaching the Intersection of Abolitionism and Indian Rights

Though abolitionists advocated for both the slave’s cause and the Indian’s cause before the Civil War, their concern for Native American rights is not well understood. This is partly due to the fact that while scholars recognize abolitionist opposition to Indian removal, abolitionist support for Indian rights is seen as primarily a postwar phenomenon. In fact, as I argue in my article in the June 2018 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, abolitionists were concerned about Indian rights throughout this period. It was their engagement with the Indian’s cause that led abolitionists to develop several important antislavery arguments.[1]

There are many ways to incorporate abolitionist concern for Indian rights into undergraduate classes. My article focuses on how Indian removal debates in the 1830s informed abolitionist arguments against black colonization and contributed to the emergence of the Slave Power idea in the late 1830s. One or both of these topics could easily be incorporated into a lesson on the antislavery movement. Below are a few ideas that use primary sources referenced in my article, all of which are easily located either in print or online.[2]

To explore abolitionist opposition to Indian removal, you might orient a classroom discussion around the second Liberator masthead, which appeared from April 23, 1831, until February 23, 1838. Students could consider what the artist is arguing by placing Indian treaties in the slave-market scene (see the left bottom of the image, after “the”). Is this image meant to specifically invoke the Indian Removal Act, which became law in May 1830? Or is it a more general critique of U.S. policy with respect to Native Americans? In announcing the new masthead, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “Down in the dust, our Indian Treaties are seen,” making the latter reading a strong possibility.

The Liberator masthead, as it appeared after April 23, 1831. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Historian Mary Hershberger has posited that the masthead’s appearance in April 1831 was in direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.[4] But nothing in the image specifically references the Cherokee Nation; they are “Indian” treaties, not “Cherokee” treaties. Perhaps the masthead is meant to invoke both the immediate issue of Cherokee removal and the longer history of Indian dispossession. If so, then the Liberator’s black and white readers would have recognized the image’s dual purpose, for abolitionists were broadly concerned with Indian rights in 1831.

That year, black abolitionists used northern opposition to Indian removal to garner support for their fight against African colonization. Black abolitionists referenced Indian removal at anticolonization meetings held in Brooklyn, New York City, and Providence in 1831, summaries of which were reprinted in the Liberator. In his report on a black anticolonization meeting in Baltimore in 1831, Garrison also referenced Cherokee removal.[5] A major source of frustration for abolitionists was that colonization had significant public support, including among many antiremovalists. Students might use these documents to consider the following questions: How did black and white abolitionists use the debate over Indian removal to challenge support for African colonization? Why might abolitionists have hoped that such arguments would be persuasive? How did abolitionists respond to evidence that these arguments did not appear to be successful in changing antiremovalists’ ideas about colonization?

There is also the question of who or what is responsible for Indian removal. In my article I read the placement of the treaties in the Liberator masthead as evidence of an emergent critique of slavery’s role in Indian dispossession. This idea grew more prominent in antislavery rhetoric as the decade progressed. As black abolitionist Maria Stewart said in 1833, “The unfriendly whites first drove the native American from his much loved home. Then they stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings, and brought them hither, and made bond-men and bond-women of them and their little ones.”[6]

Given abolitionists’ growing recognition of slavery’s relationship to Indian removal, it is worth considering why Garrison changed the masthead when he did, so it no longer referenced Native Americans after February 23, 1838. Removal was hardly a settled issue at this time. As my article demonstrates, antiremoval activism by the Cherokees and their supporters continued through the spring of 1838. Furthermore, although the Cherokees were unsuccessful in preventing forced removal in 1838 and 1839, they were not the only Native people fighting dispossession in this period, as John Bowes’ recent work on northern Indian removal reveals.[7] The ongoing Second Seminole War, which began in 1835, offered further evidence of Indian resistance to removal. Students may know something about Cherokee removal and the opposition campaign that the Cherokees and their allies waged against it, but this is an excellent opportunity to enlarge their understanding of antiremoval and its connection to antislavery. Garrison’s decision to change the Liberator’s masthead gives the incorrect impression that abolitionists had lost interest in the Indian’s cause by 1838.

In fact, when abolitionists convened in Philadelphia in mid-May 1838, to celebrate the opening of Pennsylvania Hall, both the Second Seminole War and Cherokee removal were very much on their minds. This is another moment worth exploring in the classroom because it is rich in primary sources from multiple perspectives. A number of relevant sources appear in the official record of the Hall’s opening, History of Pennsylvania Hall, Which Was Destroyed by a Mob, On the 17th of May, 1838, which was reprinted many years ago; more recently, it has been digitized by HathiTrust.[8] Among the documents it contains is John Ross’s letter to the Pennsylvania Hall Committee responding to their invitation to speak at the opening ceremonies. Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, declined to attend, but he hoped that the Cherokee cause might still be discussed. He even wrote a second letter expressly for that purpose and sent two Cherokee leaders to Philadelphia with it. For reasons that are not entirely clear, though worth considering with your students, this second letter was not read aloud at Pennsylvania Hall.

Students might compare Ross’s first letter with the second, given that he intended the latter one as his public statement on Cherokee affairs. Students might consider what Ross wanted attendees at Pennsylvania Hall to know about Cherokee removal, compared to what they actually heard.[9] Before Ross’s first letter was read aloud, white abolitionist Charles Burleigh spoke on “Indian wrongs.” This speech raises a number of interesting questions that intersect with those raised by the Liberator masthead. For Burleigh, Indians had been wronged in the past and in the present; he condemned the contemporary policy of Indian removal and the long history of white violence against Native people. Why did Burleigh believe that abolitionists should support Indian rights? What did he imagine they should do to prevent future wrongs and rectify past injustices? How do ideas about Indians inform his appeal? It is worth calling students’ attention to the fact that Burleigh’s speech was given extemporaneously; the transcript in the History of Pennsylvania Hall was reportedly assembled from “scanty notes.”[10]

The day after Burleigh’s speech, with near unanimity, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 attendees approved a short statement and two resolutions condemning Cherokee removal. What did they hope to accomplish by sending these resolutions? How might John Ross, who was sent a copy, have reacted to them? You might also ask students to consider Garrison’s response to Burleigh’s speech, especially in light of his decision to change the masthead just a few months earlier. It was Garrison, not Burleigh, who explicitly linked Cherokee removal to the expansion of black chattel slavery. In fact, Garrison chastised Burleigh for not identifying slavery’s insatiable need for land as the cause of Indian removal.[11] Burleigh’s speech notwithstanding, by 1838 abolitionists regularly insisted that the forcible relocation of Native people served slaveholding interests. Their engagement with the antiremoval cause led abolitionists to a recognition of what they would soon begin to call the Slave Power.

Finally, there is the question of why Pennsylvania abolitionists invited John Ross, a wealthy slaveholder, to speak at their event. As I show in my article, abolitionists knew that some Cherokees participated in the institution of slavery, including through their ownership of enslaved people. According to the Pennsylvania Hall Committee’s invitation, it was important for Ross and other Cherokees to attend so that they could counter popular ideas about Indians’ supposed inability to become “civilized.” How might abolitionists have reconciled the fact that some “civilized” Cherokees, including Ross, owned slaves?

The significance of Indian rights to the development of abolitionism is lost if we teach Indian removal separately from the antislavery movement. Important arguments about black colonization and the Slave Power emerged from abolitionists’ opposition to Indian removal. Equally important was the role that Native people like John Ross played in maintaining abolitionist interest in the antiremoval cause. That relationship was complicated by the fact of Indian slaveholding, but it was nonetheless crucial to abolitionist support for the Indian’s cause.


[1] Natalie Joy, “The Indian’s Cause: Abolitionists and Native American Rights,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018): 215-242. This is available to subscribers of the journal or on Project Muse.

[2] If you need more context to set up this discussion, the debates surrounding Indian removal are readily available, including antiremoval arguments made by the Cherokees and their white allies. For example, see Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, ed., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 2d ed. (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2005); Jeremiah Evarts, Cherokee Removal: The “William Penn” Essays and Other Writings, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).

[3] Liberator, April 23, 1831.

[4] Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 37.

[5] “Anti-Colonization Meeting,” Liberator, July 2, 1831; “A Voice from New-York!” Liberator, February 12, 1831; “A Voice from Providence!” Liberator, November 5, 1831; “A Voice from Baltimore!” Liberator, April 2, 1831.

[6] Maria W. Stewart, “An Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall, Boston, February 27, 1833,” reprinted in Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 63.

[7] John Bowes, Land Too Good For Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).

[8] History of Pennsylvania Hall, Which Was Destroyed by a Mob, On the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838; repr., New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969). Available on HathiTrust,

[9] For Ross’s first letter, see Ibid., 69. Both letters were reprinted in The Papers of Chief John Ross, 2 vols., ed. Gary E. Moulton (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), I: 635, 636-638.

[10] History of Pennsylvania Hall, 67-69.

[11] For the resolutions, see Ibid., 114. For Garrison’s response, see Ibid., 71.

Natalie Joy

Natalie Joy is an Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois University. Her current book project considers the relationship between Native Americans and the antislavery movement from the late 1820s to the early 1860s.