Category: Blog

Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Our author interview for the June 2019 issue is with William S. Kiser, author of “‘We Must Have Chihuahua and Sonora’: Civil War Diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.” He is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where he teaches courses in U.S. history and the American West. Born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Arizona State University.  He is the author of four books: Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (Oklahoma, 2018); Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Pennsylvania, 2017); Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861 (Oklahoma, 2013), and Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865 (Texas A&M, 2011).

Thank you for joining us in conversation, Billy! Your article expands the geographic scope of Civil War diplomatic history to incorporate the story of our southern neighbors. What inspired you to undertake this research project?

This research project evolved from a topic that I briefly addressed in my latest book, Coast-to-Coast Empire. In that book, I devoted only about two-three pages to the subject of Civil War diplomacy in northwestern Mexico, but it occurred to me at one point that it would be a suitable topic for an article-length study. Much of my previous work involved the Civil War era in the Southwest, but I had yet to pursue a transnational study that looked at the effects of the Civil War on the Mexican side of the border. In fact, this JCWE article has developed into a full-length book project that will cover Civil War diplomacy along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, from Tamaulipas to Baja California.

Some of our readers may have read your article, but for those who have not, can you please summarize your topic? And what is the main point you want to drive home?

This article focuses on Union and Confederate diplomacy in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora between 1861 and 1863. It highlights several unsanctioned diplomatic expeditions during that short time frame, in which U.S. military officers traveled into Mexico to meet with the governors of those two states in an attempt to broker special wartime alliances. This occurred within the context of the Civil War and the French Intervention, two simultaneous conflicts that prevented national authorities from effectively managing affairs on their isolated frontiers. One of the main points is that Unionists and Rebels used acts of irregular diplomacy and intrigue in an attempt to buttress their war efforts by enlisting the support of foreign governors along the international border.

This idea of “irregular diplomacy” strikes me as an important contribution to the field, and that leads nicely into my next question! Early in the article you state that these diplomatic relationships were messy, with the United States, Confederate States, Mexico, and also Indigenous nations, all as major players. How did you, as a historian, tackle these complications?

The most difficult aspect of these messy diplomatic interactions is the role of Apaches and Yaquis. This is partially due to the fact that we have no firsthand accounts of these incidents from their perspectives, and thus it is more difficult to ascertain their motivations and goals. Furthermore, Indians took no active part in the actual diplomatic discussions between Mexicans and Americans that I discuss in this article. I had to tease out their indirect role (primarily as unknowing pawns during negotiations for trans-national military alliances to fight a common enemy) using documentary evidence from governors and army officers.

There were some rather fun examples of spy craft, such as when two U.S. agents snuck into Manuel Escalante’s office to transcribe some documents pertaining to Confederate diplomatic discussions. What are some of the other interesting anecdotes you came across, that didn’t make it into the article?

One of my favorite stories on this topic occurred in northeastern Mexico and South Texas, beyond the scope of the article. In 1862, Governor Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo León took advantage of Confederate dependency on Mexico as a corridor for exporting cotton around the Union naval blockade of the Southern coastline. Vidaurri slyly raised his tariff rate (itself an act of irregular borderlands diplomacy, because tariffs are supposed to be handled at the national, rather than the state, level) on cotton exports from one cent per pound to two cents per pound in retaliation for Texas Confederates aiding the banditry of his political enemy, José María de Jesus Carvajal. To assuage the governor, Rebel officers fought and defeated Vidaurri’s enemy for him, whereupon Vidaurri lowered the cotton tariff back to one cent per pound.

It sounds like the Confederates and Governor Vidaurri eventually fashioned a mutually beneficial relationship, which speaks to your greater point about the importance of these informal, unsanctioned alliances. So, moving back to the article itself, what conclusions can we draw from this story? In other words, what is the biggest takeaway from your research?

There are two big takeaways from my research on this topic. First, Civil War diplomacy was not limited to the conventional state-level actors in London, Paris, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. but instead took on some very unusual dimensions in regions where national leaders exercised minimal control. The diplomatic conniving that occurred along the border demonstrates that Confederate and Union officials believed Mexico could become an important actor in the American Civil War, and they behaved accordingly in their attempts to formulate regional alliances with state governors. Second, these unconventional diplomatic techniques tell us a lot about the ways in which contested borders and borderlands give rise to complicated and confusing political relationships that undermine national authority. We need look no further than the nightly news to see the ways in which the ongoing porosity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to confound national leaders in both countries.

Thank you again for participating! Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Keep an eye out for my book-length project on Civil War diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press sometime in 2021 or 2022.

To learn more about Confederate attempts to gain support from Mexico, be sure to check out Billy’s article, available through subscription and via ProjectMuse.

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria announced Great Britain’s neutrality in the Civil War, which raised Southern hopes of recognition and Northern fears of the same. The Queen’s proclamation and public reaction to the outbreak of hostilities were the result of long-standing assumptions about the sectional division in the United States.[1] Aware of British attitudes about the political system, slavery and abolition, and the geographic differences in the United States, private individuals determined to explain to British readers the causes of the rebellion, attract British sympathy and support, and hopefully alter the course of the war in their section’s favor.

One week after the announcement of British neutrality, in London’s newspaper The Times, northern and southern writers debated the reasons for secession and war and laid out arguments for why Great Britain should support their section. On Monday, May 20, 1861, The Times published a letter by the anti-slavery Kentuckian and new U.S. Minister to the Russian court, Cassius M. Clay, and on Saturday, May 25, 1861, Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt, provided a southern counterargument. Clay and DeLeon eloquently defended their respective sections with arguments designed for a British audience and to solicit British support. They utilized arguments to fit their audience’s expectations and perceptions. These two installments of the debate in The Times (a future post will deal with the third one by John L. Motley) illustrate how public diplomacy played out in the British newspapers as individuals from the two belligerents tried to win European support.

Cassius Clay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the first letter, Clay addressed the causes of secession, explaining that the Union fought for its national integrity and the principle of liberty. He wrote that “the so-called ‘Confederate States of America’ rebel against us—against our nationality and against all the principles of its structure.”[2] According to Clay, secession violently split the nation into separate independent entities and was treason. Based on the Constitution, Clay dismissed the Southern claim to state sovereignty. He reminded his readers that the Constitution had taken independence away from the states and bestowed sovereignty in the people. He directly tackled states’ rights in order to undermine secessionist arguments and address British assumptions about the United States.

Aware of British perceptions of the sectional tensions in the United States, Clay contended that the Southern states could “no more ‘secede’ from the Union than Scotland or Ireland can secede from England.” Despite potential shortfalls, Clay’s analogy was a well-intended device to illustrate the conflict’s dilemma to the British public. Even more, Clay felt the need to remind the British public about the southern slaveholding aristocracy.

Shifting to slavery as an issue, Clay accused slaveholder of a “despotic rule” aimed at subjugating the “white races of all nations.” Slaveholders favored restricting the freedom of speech and press to protect their own interests and used the “terrorism of ‘Lynch law’” to accomplish their goals. In addition, Clay argued that slaveholders saw only one solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and that was for capital to own labor, an implicit appeal to the British working classes.

However, Clay was not only interested in explaining causation; he wanted to obtain British support and asked “Where should British honour place her in this contest?” He reminded his readers that the North was Great Britain’s honest friend as the two protected democracy, Great Britain in Europe and the Union in North America. Furthermore, he wondered whether Confederate independence would indicate that Great Britain was wrong about abolishing slavery, getting to the very heart of Britain’s moral foreign policy. Finally, Clay reminded readers that the United States was Great Britain best customer, downplaying the impact of the highly controversial, recently passed Morrill Tariff.

In his effort to gain British support, Clay not only appealed to public sentiment, but he also unnecessarily threatened the possibility of a future war if Great Britain did not support the Union. Clay explained that the Union would easily subdue but not subjugate the revolting states. With 20 million “homogeneous people” against the South’s 8,907,894 whites and about 4 million slaves, Clay assumed the war would be over after one year. He warned at the end of his letter, pointing to the rapid growth in population, correctly estimating that it would reach 100 million in the next fifty years, “Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge in all our future!” He concluded that Great Britain would be wise to join forces with its natural ally, the North. Clay presented an argument based on his personal experiences and commonly held opinions; however, he geared his arguments toward a British audience to appeal to their understanding of the United States in order to gain support.

Edwin DeLeon in Thomas Cooper DeLeon, Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the 60’s (New York G. W. Dillingham Company, 1909), 411.

Countering the Kentuckian’s argument, DeLeon laid out his own case using his understanding of British opinions. First, DeLeon accused Clay of drawing “upon his imagination for his facts and figures,”[3] claiming that another three states (the border states) would soon join the eleven seceded states. In contrast to Clay, De Leon claimed that the seceded states contain a homogeneous population without a large Unionist element. Even more, the firing on Fort Sumter had increased southern resilience. He played directly into British assumptions that ethnic cohesion existed in the southern section of the country.

Aware of Clay’s England-Scotland analogy, DeLeon dismissively called it “absurd.” In contrast to the hypothetical departure of Scotland, sovereign states had seceded from a federal union. DeLeon corrected that the people in the Southern states “through States’ Conventions specially called for the purpose, have initiated and adopted the ordinances of secession” just like states had ratified the constitution originally. DeLeon’s legal defense of secession illustrated a nuanced understanding of U.S. history and appeal to British audiences.

Angry with Clay turning against his native home, DeLeon wrote, “Mr. Clay should know that we regard as ‘doubly traitors’ those who, born and bred on Southern soil, not only desert but defame their Southern brethren, in arms against a worse than Austrian despotism.” With that, the Southern internal debate had crossed the Atlantic and was verbally continued in The Times.

DeLeon probably knew that such accusations would not help him convince his European audience; therefore, he needed to remind the British about their hatred for U.S. expansionism. Using Clay’s language, DeLeon argued that such words would fit “the taste of North-western stump speakers.” However, it would not do with people in Great Britain as it would cause them “to smile at such a specimen of ‘Spread Eagle-ism,’” which was a direct reference to expansionism. By stressing both Clay’s vulgarity and expansionism, DeLeon raised concerns about the future of British imperial and commercial interests.

After dismissing slavery as a cause of secession and denying the North’s right to subdue the South, DeLeon arose long-standing British fears of popular revolution, especially the French Revolution. Reminding the British of the French Revolution and the upheaval and despotism it caused, DeLeon drew a parallel to the events in the United States:

The old watchword of the Jacobins in France’s darkest day of blood and tears, ‘Fraternité, ou la mort’ (‘Be my brother, or I will kill you!’), is now the rallying cry of the ‘free North,’ not of the South, who stands with drawn sword beside her own altars, is that a watchword to enlist the sympathies or stir the pulses of free-born Englishmen when a new reign of terror is sought to be inaugurated, once more under the desecrated name of liberty, over the smiling and happy homes of the sunny South?

Playing on the fear of a reign of terror may have helped DeLeon scare British readers who preferred stability over chaos. Having dismissed all of Clay’s arguments, DeLeon contended that the British government should extend recognition to the Confederate States.

The discussion between Clay and DeLeon in The Times in May 1861 provided British readers an insight into the emerging conflict in the United States. However, the two authors geared their arguments to address British assumptions about the United States, including sectional division, slavery, and politics. Besides explaining the reasons for the conflict in a way understandable to their British audience, Clay and DeLeon used their letters to also ask for support. Both authors engaged in public diplomacy, but made an effort to understand British assumptions and shroud their appeal in understandable language. They failed to recognize Britain’s uncertainty about the causes of the conflict based on the official statements coming from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The two letters offer a glimpse into the importance of understanding both the unofficial diplomatic efforts by private individuals and the need to understand British public opinions about the United States, to understand why Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict.


[1] Peter Connor, American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[2] Cassius M. Clay, “To the Editor of the Times,” Times (London), May 20, 1861.

[3] Edwin De Leon, “The Civil War in America,” Times (London), May 25, 1861.

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.

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

The cry echoed throughout the crisis which followed Abraham Lincoln’s election: “Oh, for an hour of Jackson!” It crossed party and even sectional lines, linking dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans, and indignant northerners to anxious southern dissenters. As they scorned lame-duck James Buchanan and awaited his untested successor, many Unionists recalled Andrew Jackson’s unbending defense of federal authority during the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833) and pined for his return.[1]

Appeals to Jackson came from all quarters, as diverse Americans claimed Old Hickory as their own.[2] Buchanan cited Jackson’s example in his December 3, 1860, message to Congress, in which he denied that states could secede and then insisted that the federal government could not stop them.[3] Frustrated by Buchanan’s timidity, northern Democrats swore that Jackson would have nipped secession in the bud. “O! that we had such a man as Jackson at the helm of state,” one lamented to Stephen A. Douglas. “Then the dangerous rock of secession would have been foreseen afar off–and completely avoided.”[4] Republicans also lauded Jackson, notwithstanding his partisan affiliation, and urged Lincoln to take a Jacksonian stand against secession.[5] Lincoln heeded their advice, studying Jackson’s anti-Nullification proclamation of December 1832, and promising an anxious visitor that he would not “yield an inch” in the coming showdown.[6]

These sentiments required little prompting. Jackson loomed in living memory long after his passing in 1845, not least because Democrats celebrated his victory at the Battle of New Orleans every January. The parallels between Nullification and secession, moreover, were obvious to critics who blamed both problems on South Carolina planters’ determination to rule the country or ruin it. A closer look at invocations of Jackson, however, suggests that contemporary scholarship primed Americans to find Jacksonian precedents for their own tumultuous times. The first professional biography of Jackson serendipitously appeared in print amid the escalating crisis of 1860, providing readers and pundits with a historical lens through which to view current events. Historians, take note: a well-written and well-timed piece of scholarship can influence popular opinion.

Frontispiece to James Parton, Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1872). Born in England and raised primarily in the United States, James Parton was among the leading biographers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Life of Andrew Jackson, published in three volumes by Mason Brothers of New York City in 1859 and 1860, was written by James Parton. Born in England in 1822, Parton moved to the United States in 1827, a year before Jackson’s election to the presidency. Parton’s endeavors ranged widely, from teaching to editing, but he made his mark as a pioneering biographer. His lives of Horace Greeley and Aaron Burr appeared in the mid-1850s to widespread acclaim, and he would later publish books on Benjamin Butler, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. He is best known, however, for his three hefty tomes on Andrew Jackson. Parton commenced the project in 1857, scouring bookstores and libraries for several years before embarking on a long tour of Washington, D.C., and the South in 1859, during which he interviewed Francis P. Blair, Roger Taney, and others who had been close to the seventh president. Working at a remarkable pace, Parton finished the first volume in late 1859 and churned out the second and third the following year.[7]

The sprawling study was widely hailed as a masterpiece. “Seldom has a biography been able to excite a furore,” remarked a Tennessee editor, who appreciated the first volume’s appeal to learned and popular audiences alike. Marveling at Parton’s meticulous research and vivid style, many reviewers quoted the New York Home Journal’s appraisal: “It is as romantic as a mediaeval romance, and yet has the advantage of being true.”[8] Initially, these endorsements came from all corners of the divided country. Readers from Mississippi to New York lauded the first two volumes with equal enthusiasm, and editors nationwide eagerly reprinted extracts recounting colorful episodes of Jackson’s life, including his duel with Charles Dickinson and his triumph at New Orleans.[9]

When the third volume appeared in fall 1860, however, Unionists embraced it as a political weapon. Escalating tension over the presidential contest and secession shaped their reception of the final installment, which covered Jackson’s presidency and included three chapters on Nullification. Parton invited such a reading when he reflected on Jackson’s acceptance of the compromise tariff bill which ended the standoff with South Carolina: “The time may come,” he mused, “when the people of the United States will wish he had vetoed it, and thus brought to an issue, and settled finally, a question which, at some future day, may assume more awkward dimensions, and the country have no Jackson to meet it.”[10] For Unionists, the lesson was clear: another national hero must finish what Old Hickory had started.

Reviewers and advertisers promoted Parton’s work by explicitly connecting it to current events. Writing one week before South Carolina seceded, a Washington editor commended Parton’s coverage of “President Jackson’s war upon the nullifiers,” opining that it provided “much good reading for the present day.”[11] A month later, an English reviewer predicted that recent developments would boost Parton’s readership, since “Andrew Jackson is the only President who has ever had to deal with a crisis” comparable to “that which is now straining the powers of President Buchanan.”[12]

Advertisement from (Washington, D.C.) National Republican, January 25, 1861. With war on the horizon, readers eagerly snapped up tactical manuals and other volumes on military science. Tellingly, booksellers regarded Parton’s Life of Jackson as another likely top seller during the escalating crisis. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Parton’s account of Jackson’s unbending defense of national unity and federal authority, coupled with his commentary on the issues left unsettled in 1833, armed opinion-makers with potent arguments. Unionists who were tired of Buchanan’s vacillations and hoped that Lincoln would stand firm cited Parton’s analysis of the Nullification crisis. A widely reprinted article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, quoted Parton at length to show that secession was “incompatible with the fundamental idea and main object of the Constitution.”[13] Scenes from Jackson’s final weeks thrilled Unionists, who readily quoted Jackson’s deathbed declaration that he would have hanged the Nullifiers as “high as Haman” if they had not given way.[14]

It was an advertisement, however, which most pointedly exhibited the value of Parton’s work for Unionists in 1861. That January, booksellers French & Richstein in Washington, D.C. announced that their store at 278 Pennsylvania Avenue carried a number of important “Books for the Times.” Aware that Unionists were girding for war, they had stocked up on Hardee’s Tactics, Jomini’s Art of War, the Military Laws of the United States, and other martial tomes. Listed at the head of this militaristic catalogue was Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, a must-read for Unionists steeling themselves for a showdown with Carolina hotspurs.

The Civil War soon swelled to such cataclysmic proportions that the Nullification Crisis now appears as a mere prelude. But in the uncertain and anxious days of late 1860 and early 1861, as Americans scrambled to find historical precedents for their turbulent times, James Parton’s study of Andrew Jackson fortified Unionists for the great task that lay before them.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 249 (quotation); Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 126-129.

[2] Aaron Scott Crawford, “Patriot Slaveholder: Andrew Jackson and the Winter of Secession,” Journal of East Tennessee History 82 (2010): 10-32.

[3] James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” American Presidency Project, accessed April 18, 2019,

[4] Mills S. Reeves to Stephen A. Douglas, February 18, 1861, Box 39, Folder 3, in Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[5] Robert J. Cook, “The Shadow of the Past: Collective Memory and the Coming of the American Civil War,” in Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 82-84.

[6] Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 256.

[7] Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1951).

[8] “Life of Andrew Jackson,” Clarksville (TN) Chronicle, January 6, 1860.

[9] “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” Ripley (MS) Advertiser, February 22, 1860; “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” New York Daily Tribune, January 25, 1860; “General Jackson’s Duel with Dickinson,” Shasta (CA) Courier, April 14, 1860; “Gen. Jackson at New Orleans,” Emporia (KS) News, May 19, 1860.

[10] James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859-1860), III, 481-482.

[11] (Washington, DC) Evening Star, December 13, 1860.

[12] “Literature,” The Athenaeum, no. 1734 (January 19, 1861), 75.

[13] Reprinted as “Secession in 1832,” Sunbury (PA) American, December 1, 1860.

[14] “Jackson and the Nullifiers,” (Marysville, CA) Daily National Democrat, January 4, 1861.

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.

The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The removal of a Confederate monument from its original dedication spot in Forest Park almost two years ago aroused a great deal of controversy among St. Louis residents. Like the debates taking place in other cities that have Confederate iconography, supporters praised the removal of a monument they considered to be offensive and historically inaccurate. Meanwhile, protestors claimed that the removal constituted an erasure of history. If anything, they saw this action as a precursor to the erasure of other historic figures honored in the city, such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Lindbergh.[1] What many commentators missed in the discussion, however, was that the “Memorial to the Confederate Dead” was not the first public monument in St. Louis to be removed from its original dedication spot. That distinction belongs to a monument honoring Union General Nathaniel Lyon that was relocated in 1960. Analyzing why this monument aroused so much controversy can lead to important insights not just about Civil War memory in St. Louis, but also the fungible nature of public commemoration.

The Nathaniel Lyon statue is currently located at Lyon Park. Notice that the monument’s text has been removed. Courtesy of the author.

In February 1861, the U.S. Army sent Nathaniel Lyon to St. Louis amid a growing session crisis in the city. Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was sympathetic to the Confederacy and tried to find a covert way to take the state out of the Union. Claiming his authority as Governor, Jackson sent a force of Missouri State Militia under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Frost to the federal arsenal at St. Louis. They established an encampment named “Camp Jackson.” Fearing that the State Militia would confiscate the arsenal and take Missouri into the Confederacy, Lyon led a force of U.S. troops to Camp Jackson to arrest Frost and his soldiers. As Frost’s men were led through the streets of St. Louis on their way to be paroled, shots fired out between protestors and Lyon’s troops. Amid the chaos, more than two dozen people died in what has since been called the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” A little over a month later, Lyon and Congressman Frank Blair met with Governor Jackson and former Governor Sterling Price at the popular Planter’s House Hotel to discuss Missouri’s future. Lyon reportedly said during the meeting that “rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State, dead and buried. This means war.” When Lyon became the first U.S. General to be killed while leading troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, he became a martyr for the Unionist cause and was seen by supporters as the savior of St. Louis.[2]

Union Civil War veterans in the city who were active in the Grand Army of the Republic began calling for a monument honoring General Lyon in 1927. Over the next two years they raised 15,000 dollars and hired the Swiss-born sculptor Erhardt Siebert to design the monument, which would be located at the original Camp Jackson site at Grand and Pine streets. Siebert, however, faced criticism even before the official unveiling on December 22, 1929. Numerous artists who saw the monument criticized several aspects of the overall design. Lyon’s horse looked small, weak, and sick; Lyon himself appeared to be falling off the monument, and perhaps worst of all, Lyon’s first name was incorrectly spelled as “Nathanial.” Edmund H. Wuerpel, Director of Fine Arts at Washington University—St. Louis, declared that “it would be a kindness to the city and its inhabitants if this latest creation should be withdrawn permanently from the public gaze.” Mayor Victor Miller asserted defensively that nobody was forcing residents to look at the monument. The criticism was so strong, however, that Miller agreed to establish a city art commission to review future proposals for public monuments.[3]

For the next twenty-five years, St. Louis residents debated the merits of keeping what was by all accounts an ugly monument. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pleaded for a wealthy philanthropist to purchase and remove the monument as an act of kindness to the city. They also sarcastically argued that the space would be better suited to function as a parking lot. When President Franklin Roosevelt suggested in 1942 that some historical monuments should be turned into scrap metal to support the U.S. military effort in World War II, the paper eagerly volunteered the Lyon statue for destruction. The monument remained untouched, but Parks Commissioner Palmer Baumes offered a lukewarm defense of the monument and said he would have allowed for its removal if city leaders had wanted it.[4]

Students at Saint Louis University made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when they raised a Confederate flag near the Nathaniel Lyon statue in 1952. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

While many of these critiques centered around the monument’s poor aesthetics, Lyon’s presence as a figure within the St. Louis commemorative landscape was always contested. Residents who were sympathetic to the actions of Jackson and Frost considered Lyon an overzealous fanatic. He was, as one biographer describes it, a “Damn Yankee” who represented the worst dictatorial impulses of the Lincoln administration. Perhaps most notably, a group of students at nearby Saint Louis University (SLU) briefly hung a Confederate flag near the Lyon statue in 1952.[5] And as historian Joan Stack argues, Lyon’s presence in the commemorative landscape of the entire state was already under siege. A painting of Lyon by George Caleb Bingham that hung at the Missouri State Capitol was destroyed by fire in 1911. When a new painting by N.C. Wyeth was unveiled in 1920, it portrayed a distinctly Southern celebration of Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, leaving Lyon entirely out of the painting. Stack also points out that Lyon’s “this means war” proclamation has been uncritically accepted by both Missourians and historians as a factual statement, even though the claim was made by Confederate aide Thomas Snead in 1886 and no contemporary documents verifying the statement exist. “The widespread public acceptance of Snead’s quote reflects the extraordinary effectiveness of Southern apologists in recasting Lyon as a war-mongering zealot rather than an assertive patriot,” argues Stack.[6]

The key turning point in the Lyon monument’s future was not popular protest or a terrible world war. Instead, it was the actions of Harriet Frost Fordyce, a wealthy St. Louis philanthropist who also happened to be the youngest child of Confederate General Daniel Frost. An honorary president of the Missouri United Daughters of the Confederacy and a devout Catholic, Fordyce agreed to donate more than one million dollars to help renovate and expand SLU’s campus on the condition that Lyon’s statue be removed from its original dedication spot. SLU, in partnership with the city government, promptly worked to secure legislation authorizing the monument’s relocation to Lyon Park, a small ten-acre site near the Anheuser-Busch headquarters that had been established by Congress in 1869 (the land had been part of the city’s federal arsenal). Four months before dying at the age of 85, Fordyce and the city of St. Louis watched as the Lyon monument was relocated in June 1960. As an added bonus, SLU renamed its main campus the “Frost Campus” in honor of General Frost.[7]

The Nathaniel Lyon statue was removed from its original dedication spot and relocated to Lyon Park in 1960. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

This episode reminds us that while the current debate over Confederate monuments has captured the nation’s attention with an intensity not previously seen, public monuments have always been contested spaces of protest and controversy. With the Lyon monument, almost no one complained that removing the monument was an act of “erasing history.” Instead, protests centered around the need to develop a better system for assessing public art and to think anew about the impermanent nature of public iconography. For example, art critic George McCue argued that city residents took their public monuments for granted, making them essentially “invisible.” He suggested that a process of “periodic critical evaluation” of the relevance and usefulness of public monuments would place them back into the public eye and lead to larger discussions about the city’s values. “We remove old houses that have become eyesores, but we cherish old statues no matter how dubious they are as art, nor how inappropriate as memorials,” he complained.[8]

Post-Dispatch journalist Bill McClellan suggested in 1998 that Lyon’s victory at Camp Jackson was ultimately “transitory.” His monument had become an impediment to urban renewal in the city. SLU needed funds for a new campus and the city government sought to revitalize the surrounding area with new urban housing and amenities. Fordyce’s role as a privileged, wealthy philanthropist allowed SLU to become “the salvation of the midtown area.”[9] In the end, Lyon’s legacy as Civil War General was overwhelmed by dreams of civic “progress” that required a subtle celebration of the city’s Confederate heritage in order to be achieved. General Lyon’s heavily criticized monument ultimately lasted barely thirty years in its original dedication spot, but remains today at Lyon Park in a quiet space rarely seen by most city residents.


[1] Yaseem Serhan, “St. Louis to Remove its Confederate Monument,” The Atlantic, June 26, 2017, accessed May 7, 2019,

[2] Louis Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001), 78-125; Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 19-35.

[3] “$50,000 Memorial to Gen. Lyon Projected,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1927; “Gen. Lyon Statue Unveiled, Sponsor Raps its Critics,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 23, 1929; “Urges Removal of Lyon Statue as ‘Unesthetic’,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1929; “‘If People Don’t Like Lyon Statue, They Needn’t Look at It’, Mayor Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1929; “Art Commission Revived, But Mustn’t Meddle with Lyon Statue,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 18, 1929.

[4] [Untitled Editorial], St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 1930; “That Red Alabaster Adam and Old Gen. Lyon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 7, 1939; “City Demurs at Scrapping Statue Unless Metal is Vital to Victory,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 1942; “More Sources of Scrap Metal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1942.

[5] Christopher Phillips, Damn Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); “Confederate Flag Flies Briefly Atop Main Pole at St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1952.

[6] Joan Stack, “The Rise and Fall of General Nathaniel Lyon in the Missouri State Capitol,” Gateway (2013), 60-67. See also Kristen Pawlak, “Major Horace A. Conant and the Planter’s House Hotel Meeting,” Missouri’s Civil War Blog, January 10, 2019, accessed May 7, 2019,

[7] “Missouri Division of UDC Elects Officers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 1957; “Lyon Park Home for Lyon Statue Provided in Bill,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Statue Spared, Will Be Moved to Lyon Park,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1959; “Mrs. Fordyce Gives Million to St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Rides Again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 7, 1960.

[8] George McCue, “Our Invisible Public Monuments,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 1959.

[9] Bill McClellan, “Statue of Civil War General Loses Battle to SLU’s Growth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1998.

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

Editor’s Note: June 2019 Issue

Editor’s Note: June 2019 Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

On April 26, 2019, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (UMC) upheld the core components of a plan reaffirming and strengthening the church’s formal ban on the ordination of LGBTQ ministers and on the recognition of same-sex marriage.[1] This “Traditional Plan” was adopted at a special session of the General Conference the previous month, held in response to a decades-long internal dispute over acceptable expressions of human sexuality within the Methodist Church. Many delegates had hoped the church would remove the prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, allowing individual jurisdictions and churches to determine their stance on these issues. Now the denomination has entered a showdown phase: will conservatives remain within the UMC, as liberals exit en masse? Or will the liberal contingent of the church resist and drive the traditionalists away? Whichever scenario prevails, few disagree that some sort of denominational division looms on the horizon. Observers wonder what this denominational dispute foretells for a divided nation.

Commenters on the current controversy frequently draw parallels to events that took place 175 years ago in the Methodist Episcopal Church: a denominational schism over slavery. As in the present case, social changes outside the church (then a hardening of proslavery politics in the South and the rise of antislavery in the North, now a decades-long movement for gay rights) led to a fracture over the denomination’s formal stance on a controversial question. In both instances, factions within the denomination came to prefer schism to compromise over a moral and political issue. And then, as now, outsiders seek to find within the schism clues about the future of a divided nation.

The conflict over slavery had been brewing for decades. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, America’s evangelical denominations rapidly expanded, becoming the “principle subculture in American society,” but also facing growing pains as members from across the nation sparred over slavery.[2] Methodist abolitionists pushed their national General Conference to denounce slavery as a sin—to purify the church and “cleanse the skirts of her garment from ‘blood guiltiness!’”[3] At the same time, pro-slavery Methodists sought a definitive statement that slavery was not a sin, and specifically, that slaveholding clergy could continue to serve the church. Denominational moderates adopted what they hoped would prove a conciliatory strategy, condemning abolitionism, but also declining to directly assert that slavery was not a sin. This middle road did nothing to appease abolitionists and slaveholders within the church.

James Osgood Andrew, slaveowner and Methodist bishop. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Moderates anxiously condemned abolitionists for “intermeddling” with slavery, hoping they would back down to avoid schism.[4] But by the early 1840s, abolitionist Methodists—thwarted in their attempts at reform from within—chose the purity of their theological convictions over the unity of the church and withdrew from the General Conference. Their departure did not restore hoped-for harmony.[5] The proslavery contingent wanted assurance that the Methodist Episcopal Church was not “tainted with the bloodied principles of Abolition” and did not view slave ownership as a sin.[6] They found an ideal test in the appointment of a slaveholding bishop.

Bishop James Andrew of Georgia owned at least fourteen slaves.[7] As delegates gathered for the 1844 General Conference, they prepared for a showdown over his controversial appointment. Northerners encouraged Andrew to resign, citing the interests of peace and unity. But southerners urged him to remain firm. They argued that his resignation would set a dangerous anti-slavery precedent. Ultimately, the General Conference voted that Bishop Andrew should resign from his office. The decision severed the increasingly tenuous bonds of the Methodist Church. Southern Methodist leaders, rejecting any threat to slavery, met in Louisville, Kentucky, in May of 1845 to organize a separate, pro-slavery, Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The First Secession? Title page of a Northern Methodist history of the 1845 schism over slavery. Courtesy of Google Books.

As the Methodists worked out the terms of their division, slavery debates generated similar acrimony in the Baptist Missionary Boards. Baptists in the South feared that abolitionists had swayed the Boards against slaveholders, and the Georgia Baptist Convention tested the Foreign Mission Board in 1844 by requesting the appointment of a slaveholding missionary. Alabama Baptists quickly followed up, demanding that the General Board affirm that slaveholders were moral equals who had the right to “receive any agency, mission, or other appointment.”[8] When the Board declared that it could not appoint a slaveholder, Baptists in the South swiftly organized their own meeting. The result was a schism among American Baptists and the formation of the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention.[9]

Americans watched with anxiety as both the Methodist and Baptist churches divided. The schism seemed fearful symbols of a deep and unsolvable problem in American culture. They brought up deep-rooted fears about the stability of American democracy and national institutions. They appeared to be an ominous warning of what unresolvable conflict would mean and also seemed to propel the nation toward the disaster of secession.

Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster feared That schism foretold secession. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a frequently re-printed exchange from Congressional debates over the Compromise of 1850, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun both drew on the recent schism to forecast the future. For each man, the divisions offered a lesson Americans ignored at their peril. South Carolina senator Calhoun explained that “the great religious denominations… originally embraced the whole Union” and that “the strong ties which hold each denomination together formed a strong cord to hold the whole Union together.” He saw the disintegration of the churches as both an alarming gauge of the state of the union and a powerful warning against attempts to end or limit slavery. Calhoun warned that political institutions would be the next to fracture. For his part, Webster, from Massachusetts, saw the division as a dire warning about the dangers of inflexibility and failure to tolerate the inevitable diversity that arose in a church that spanned the entire nation. He blamed the schism (and, by extension, the threat of secession) on men “with whom everything is absolute—absolutely wrong or absolutely right.” The exchange between Calhoun and Webster cemented the evangelical schisms in popular memory as at least partly responsible for the disintegration of sectional ties nationwide.[10] Certainly that was how both men viewed it. The Methodist and Baptist churches seemed to lead the nation toward a terrifying conclusion to the crisis over slavery: compromise abandoned and national institutions torn apart. The idea persisted through the Civil War. In 1864, one chronicler noted, “men in all classes of society freely lay the blame of this Rebellion at the door of the Church.”[11]

Implicit in the comparison of the current controversy in the Methodist church to the events of the 1840s is the suggestion that this potential schism is also hastening us along a path to a national cataclysm like the Civil War. Just as they did 175 years ago, Americans attempt to parse the controversy for clues to America’s future. But then, as now, the conflict in the church is a symptom of changes in the nation (and the world), not a cause. Divided churches did not divide the nation in 1861—both collapsed under the weight of the slavery controversy. Methodists fracture along different lines now—they are a global church with members around the world, many of whom oppose changes to the denomination’s stance on gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.[12] The conflict in the church today does not foretell another civil war, but it does suggest that, as in the 1840s, Methodist responses to moral and political disputes may be growing too divergent for one church to contain.


[1] Jeremy Steele, “United Methodist Court Keeps Core of New LGBT Legislation,” Christianity Today, accessed May 10, 2019,

[2] Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 1.

[3] Orange Scott, “Address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church by the Rev. O. Scott,” 1836, in Emory S. Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism (New York: Abington Press, 1974), 30.

[4] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[5] Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism, 39-47, 84. See also Ira Ford McLeister and Roy Stephenson Nicholson, History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (Marian, Ind.: Wesleyan Methodist Publishing Association, 1959).

[6] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[7] Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). Charles Elliott, History of the History of the Great Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church (Cincinnati: Swormstedt & Poe, 1855), 295.

[8] John Stevens, Brief Historical Sketch of the Western Baptist Theological Institute (Cincinnati: D. Anderson, 1850), 33.

[9] Benjamin Franklin Riley, A History of the Baptists in the Southern States East of the Mississippi (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1898), 207.

[10] Church Topics in Congress,” Louisville Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, July 10, 1850. Some historians have also argued that the disintegration of the churches hastened disunion. See C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985) and Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[11] Robert L. Stanton, The Church and the Rebellion: A Consideration of the Rebellion Against the Government of the United States; and the Agency of the Church, North and South in Relation Thereto (New York: Derby and Miller, 1864), vi.

[12] Emily McFarlan Miller, “Why United Methodists Are Watching the Results of a Denominational Court Meeting,” Religious News Service, accessed May 10, 2019,

April Holm

April Holm is an Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Her first book, A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era was published by Louisiana State University Press in the fall of 2017. Currently, she is researching a project on provost marshals and civilians in the occupied border region. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part II

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part II

Poster for “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” held at the University of Connecticut, April 19-20, 2019.

Day two of the 2019 Draper Conference brought four more panels, including a plenary session that concluded the proceedings. For my review of day one of the conference, see my previous post on Muster.

A panel on the topic of “Racial Terror and Violence” started off the morning block and questioned common assumptions about scholarly framings and documentary evidence from Reconstruction. Gregory Downs began with a provocative argument that challenged Eric Foner’s framing of Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution,” namely that historians ought to consider the revolution finished in constitutional and military terms. Crystal Feimster turned attention to the experience of freedpeople in Louisiana—where Lincoln invested the greatest hopes and suffered the worst disappointment—and traced the complicated intersections of mutiny by black soldiers (as a form of self-defense) and of rape of black women by white soldiers (as a weapon of revenge). LeeAnna Keith explored how “Alabama fever,” specifically the use of violence by Democrats toward Republicans in Barbour County, was a central part of the political “redemption” of the state in 1874. Kidada Williams deployed the lens of critical trauma studies to question how we attribute “agency” to freedpeople. She highlighted how African Americans’ testimony during the 1870s congressional hearings about the Ku Klux Klan could “transcend historical context.” This panel pushed both historiographical and methodological boundaries and represents some of the most interesting interdisciplinary work happening in the field of Reconstruction studies.

The second morning panel on “Political Economy” brought together transnational strands in the study of Reconstruction with those centered on material and agricultural concerns. Ana Lucia Araujo considered the case of emancipation in Brazil, noting how arguments over reparations centered on land redistribution, offering a comparison to the U.S. experience. Sven Beckert conceptualized “Global Reconstruction” as part of a century-long process of post-slave societies around the world, pitting rural cultivators against industrial capitalists from the United States to India to England to Brazil. Kathleen Hilliard presented the petition of freedman Frank Spruill to obtain a tax exemption as part of a radical reimagining of economic life in the Reconstruction South. Ariel Ron explored the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a broader federal engagement with rural farmers in the Reconstruction South, reminding us that Abraham Lincoln once used scientific agriculture to dispute the pernicious mudsill theory of enslaved labor.[1] This panel effectively widened Reconstruction beyond the United States and raised contemporary, namely that of reparations for African Americans (more on this below).

Following lunch, the conference resumed with a panel titled “Grassroots Reconstruction: Gender, Education, and Black Politics.” Justin Behrend examined how a continued discourse of re-enslavement reflected the great progress made in black political mobilization by the middle 1870s. Hilary Green took on Eric Foner’s “Twilight Zone” of Reconstruction (i.e., the 1880s) as a period during which African Americans’ gains in Richmond public schools, as reflected in the biracial Readjuster Party, promised social mobility, economic justice, and educational uplift. Christopher Hager asked how the illiterate understood texts and followed how particular phrases (e.g., “illiterate Negroes”) revealed widespread literacy among African Americans by 1900. Tera Hunter raised again the question of reparations and considered how the family unit, as constituted through marriage, could be a double-edged sword for African American women, since it insisted upon traditional nuclear families and reinscribed patriarchy. This penultimate panel, like those before it, moved the chronological reach of Reconstruction beyond 1877, insisted upon the continued relevance of discourses around education and especially literacy, and placed women at the center of major narratives of the era.[2]

The plenary session, titled simply “Reconstruction,” provided a chance for senior scholars in the field to reflect upon the meaning of the conference theme. Amy Dru Stanley noted the “strange legacies of Reconstruction” by investigating how the commerce clause of the Constitution empowered Congress to safeguard African Americans from violence. She traced how sex as a legal category disappeared from the Reconstruction Amendment, which presupposed an automatic willingness of wives to engage in sexual relations with their husbands: sex had become, in this rendering, a “commodity fiction.” Steven Hahn gave a paper on the transnational connections of Reconstruction, comparing the American experience to Britain, France, and Brazil. Following the argument in A Nation Without Borders, he found Reconstruction was central to American capitalist development well through the Progressive Era. Charles Postel figured Reconstruction as a dilemma of equality and noted how the process demanded a solidarity based on exclusion. His study of the Granger movement demonstrated a twin opposition to railroads and Reconstruction, which suggests how democratic impulses from below presaged a pullback from racial equality in the West. The plenary session thus concluded the “Greater Reconstruction” conference.[3]

Audience and participants at the Draper Conference. Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Araujo.

The scholarship of an older generation of historians loomed large in the final session and across the conference as a whole. For starters, the phrase, “the Greater Reconstruction” deserves its historiographic context. In The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s grand synthesis, the author notes that he “took the idea of the Greater Reconstruction” from Elliott West’s article “Reconstructing Race” (2003). West periodized the Reconstruction process as taking place over the years from 1846 to 1877 (incidentally, White framed the event only from the Civil War years until the middle 1870s). A question might be posed, then, whether this longer view of the Civil War Era disrupts other such historically significant moments (namely, those of the Gilded Age, the era of Jim Crow, or the New South). As the many papers of the conference have argued, placing African Americans at the center of the story of Reconstruction necessarily requires a reframing of the years that constituted the historical moment. Constructing narratives centered on the freedpeople themselves breaks new ground both in historical and historiographic terms. Yet, might these same reframings decenter African Americans from other historically significant moments in American history?[4]

Building upon past studies, historians should look to the most recent scholarship to understand the future of the study of Reconstruction. As noted in the previous post, the “Greater Reconstruction” framework can widen the story beyond the South, a project already well underway in the field. Scholarly works that could profitably contribute to this “Greater Reconstruction” approach, especially those about Native Americans, African Americans in the West, and African Americans in the North, would round out the story. In addition to those of several presenters at this conference, recent books by Heather Cox Richardson, Claudio Saunt, Lisa G. Materson, Kendra T. Field, and Millington Bergeson-Lockwood all point in this direction. As Eric Foner said in an afterword to another recently edited volume on Reconstruction, the “promise of reconceptualizing Reconstruction” beckons. If the “Greater Reconstruction” conference did not quite achieve the full extent of this promise, it made as good a start as any of which of I am aware.[5]

However, the happy truth of the historical profession is that no one conference can serve as the be all and end all of scholarship. History, Peter Geyl once quipped, is nothing if not “argument without end.” Indeed, the 2019 Draper Conference left me wondering: had the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Reconstruction years yielded other such gatherings of historians? The answer is a resounding yes. In 2017, the Advanced Research Collaborative of the CUNY Graduate Center and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies sponsored “Emancipations, Reconstructions, and Revolutions: African American Politics and U.S. History in the Long 19th Century,” which once more challenged chronology as an organizing principle for Reconstruction. In 2018, the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference, “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World,” honored the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitution by assembling a similar cadre of scholars to discuss the legacies of the Reconstruction. One month prior to the Draper Conference, the Duke Center on Law, Race, and Politics, and the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project at the University of Michigan organized a conference, titled simply “Reconstruction,” that took a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic.

The recent PBS documentaries, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War and Boss: The Black Experience in Business, likewise debuted concurrently with the 2019 Draper Conference. Several popular histories of Reconstruction have also appeared in the past few years.[6] Thus, in both academic and public forums, the topic of Reconstruction has not been ignored; if anything, the era is poised for a resurgence in scholarly publications and the popular imagination alike.

Like many others, I left the 2019 Draper Conference wondering what a history of a truly “Greater Reconstruction” would look like. If we yet lack this elusive volume of American history, several recent edited collections, forums, and roundtables have offered numerous possible routes to exploring the idea further. [7] In my own view, the proceedings of this conference cohered sufficiently to warrant publishing an edited volume around the most provocative, ground-breaking of the papers. Until then, we wait with anticipation to see the many scholars at the “Greater Reconstruction” conference bring their work to full fruition.



[1] For a definition of “mudsill,” see Michael E. Woods, “Mudsills v. Chivalry,“ Muster (blog), Journal of the Civil War Era,

[2] For Foner’s “Twilight Zone” comment, see Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 3, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] For more on these arguments, see Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in the Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016); and the forthcoming books by Amy Dru Stanley, The Antislavery Ethic and the Spirit of Commerce: An American History of Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming); and Charles Postel, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, forthcoming).

[4] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 873; Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 6-26.

[5] Eric Foner, “Afterword,” in After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, eds. Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014), 222. For the studies mentioned, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of the American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Kendra T. Field, Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); and Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[6] For just one example of a popular history that engages the period of Reconstruction, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017).

[7] For edited collections that have raised similar concerns, see Thomas J. Brown, ed., Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014); Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017); the Journal of the Civil War Era’s forum, “Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” 2017,; and “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9-14, 2018,

Thomas Balcerski

Thomas J. Balcerski is assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter at @tbalcerski.

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part I

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part I

On April 19 and 20, the University of Connecticut at Storrs hosted the 2019 Draper Conference on the topic of “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War.” The two-day event featured eight panels, consisting of thirty-one paper presentations and a keynote address.[1] All told, the conference revealed an incredible depth and breadth to the study of the era of Reconstruction and beyond. Given the recent debut of the PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War (2019), it was timely as well.[2]

I was fortunate to attend both days of the conference, and in this and a subsequent post, I will provide snapshots of the various panels, broken out by day. These notes are by no means complete. Readers are encouraged to check out the #DraperConference2019 hashtag on Twitter for some incredible live tweets by conference participants and to watch the archived recordings made of several of the panels, and where possible, assess for themselves the summations presented here.[3]

Opening remarks by Dr. Manisha Sinha, who was instrumental in bringing these scholars together. Photo courtesy of Megan Kate Nelson.

That being said, I would like to start my review of “The Greater Reconstruction” conference by providing a sense of the animating logic of the event. Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut, organized the program. Accordingly, she provided opening remarks around a series of questions that framed the various panels that followed. Fortunately, too, Sinha participated in the closing plenary session and offered some initial thoughts about the cumulative significance of what had taken place (more on that in the next post). Without her guiding vision, this important reconsideration of Reconstruction could not have taken place.

In keeping with the theme, each panel pushed the temporal and historiographic boundaries of Reconstruction. Day one opened with a panel on “The Legal History of Reconstruction” that featured an interdisciplinary gathering of historians and legal scholars. Pamela Brandwein brought attention to the state action doctrine as articulated in the Ex Parte Yarborough case (1884), and especially in the ruling of Associate Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley. Kate Masur connected the repeal of the black laws in the Old Northwest, prior to the Civil War, to the debates surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment in 1866. Christian Samito reminded us of another important truism, namely that the 1866 Civil Rights Act did not abandon an overarching commitment to federalism. John Fabian Witt challenged what he considered the last holdout of the Dunning School—the view of military authority as antithetical to civil rights themselves. Collectively, the opening panel effectively pushed back on the historiographic supremacy of the Cruikshank decision (1876) and the later Civil Rights cases (1883).

Panelists speaking on legal history. From left to right: John Fabian Witt (Yale Law School), Christian G. Samito (Boston University School of Law), Kate Masur (Northwestern), and Pamela Brandwein (University of Michigan). Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Araujo.

The second panel took a biographical turn and patterned itself in the traditional mode of political history that has privileged male subjects. Yet like all good biography, the four presenters found broader meaning in their subjects’ respective lives. Stephen Berry presented the story of Prince Rivers, whom he playfully termed “the most important man you’ve never heard of,” a formerly enslaved African American from South Carolina whose career as a soldier, politician, and coachman paralleled the ebbs and flows of Reconstruction. Drawing from his forthcoming book on the Adams family, Douglas Egerton revealed how the life of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., descendant of two U.S. presidents, paralleled the rise and fall of a political dynasty and the Republican Party’s commitment to Reconstruction. Bruce Levine spoke about his forthcoming biography of Thaddeus Stevens and traced his “democratic radicalism” in his political course during the Reconstruction period. John Stauffer discussed his ongoing research into the life of Charles Sumner and stressed his famous phrase—“equality before the law”—finding that Sumner anticipated the later jurisprudence of Justice Louis Brandeis. By telling biographies, moreover, they reminded us that Reconstruction continued, at least in their subjects’ minds, for many years ahead.[4]

Following lunch, the third panel on the topic of “Western and Native American History” got underway. The topics shifted the terrain of Reconstruction west of the Mississippi and opened an important line of inquiry into how far the “Greater Reconstruction” concept might extend. Kendra Taira Field complicated narratives of Reconstruction as extending only to African Americans in the South by tracking her own family’s genealogy, one that included Native Americans and African Americans. Ari Kelman argued persuasively against the notion, popularized by Charles Francis Adams, Sr., that the advance of liberty and the consolidation of empire proceeded along parallel tracks and listed several episodes in the so-called Indian Wars of the West to underscore the point. Heather Cox Richardson connected the political history of the Republican Party to the expansion of western states; however, she finds that these states shared much in common with the former Confederacy in their handling of labor and race relations. Stacey Smith homed in on California, noting how African American suffrage in view of Chinese political exclusion reflected potentially important “political microclimates.” This panel, a welcomed change of direction, nevertheless came to stand as almost an outlier in the conference (more on this below).

The fourth panel, conglomerated under the title “New Directions in the History of Emancipation and Reconstruction,” advanced numerous areas of new research. Abigail Cooper drew attention to the continued valance of conjuring in the spiritual beliefs of African American cosmology and included recent anthropological finds from Camp Nelson in Kentucky. Jim Downs rendered a critical fabulation of how medical doctors during the Civil War utilized black bodies as incubators for smallpox inoculation. Carole Emberton reminded us of the emotional toll of encountering freedom among the “charter generation of freedom.” Amy Murrell Taylor emphasized the material lives of everyday people in the South and especially the fundamental need for shelter. Although covering disparate topics, all four papers plumbed new depths of African American interiority during the 1860s and 1870s. Theirs were social and cultural questions that incorporated localized viewpoints to reflect broader themes in the Reconstruction period.

Finally, Eric Foner delivered the keynote address, titled “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.” Following the publication of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 in 1988, Michael Perman famously asked, “What is to be done?” Thirty years later, the question has been fully answered, as even the preceding panelists and even Foner himself continues to find new avenues of research. His current project paints with broad, presentist brush strokes: he begins with the premise that today’s driving political questions are Reconstruction questions. Foner reviewed how the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments originated in a “constitutional revolution” and traced their effects in the decades ahead. Designed for general readers, his forthcoming The Second Founding will surely provoke popular attention to the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction and continue to open, rather than close down, future investigations of the subject.[5]

Poster for “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” held at the University of Connecticut, April 19-20, 2019.

The 2019 Draper Conference continued with another full day of panels and presentations. But at the close of day one, an electric spirit filled the air. The four panels and the keynote address touched upon major methodological, chronological, and geographical fault lines in the historiography of Reconstruction. Here I will highlight two such strands that, in retrospect, appear especially important.

The first concerns the question of just how “great” the “Greater Reconstruction” concept should extend. As noted earlier, the third panel on Western and Native American History first raised this question. However, little seems to have been resolved by either that panel or the larger conference. If anything, the absence of Native American voices, and moreover attention to Native American history, limited this necessary discussion. In fact, during the plenary on the following day, Sinha offered her view that the story of African American Reconstruction in the South seems to stand separate from the history of the Indian Wars in the West. Perhaps, as Charles Postel later pointed out, this is because, in its own day, the term Reconstruction applied narrowly and exclusively to the southern theater. If historians insist upon a wider application, this neat historical association will be lost with it. And given the casting of Reconstruction in the recent four-part PBS Reconstruction documentary—one that has been critiqued for missing wider connections westward and northward—it will be a framing to which the public mind has not been exposed.

Equally, day one of the conference might lead one to suspect that Reconstruction consisted entirely of legal and political events, often conducted by white politicians in Washington, D.C. The voices of African Americans in the South appeared in passing, notably in the papers of Berry, Cooper, Downs, Emberton, and Taylor. Day two of the conference would correct the imbalance, but the mismatch raises a second major question about the “Greater Reconstruction”: whose story is it to tell?

Certainly, part of the complicated legacy of Reconstruction has been its use by later generations for political purposes. As the paper by Witt and the address by Foner reminded us, the remnants of the Dunning School, and its flawed view of Reconstruction as an abject failure, stubbornly cling to life in the popular mind. The telling of Reconstruction along a wider framework would speak in an inclusive, poly-vocal way, but what can be done to stamp out the last of the Dunning School’s pernicious effects?

In my own view, an emphasis on black political activism and black political leaders would center the narrative around questions of power, from which so much of the lived experience of African Americans in the South and more widely in the United States can be traced. Local political engagements are certainly important, yet the Reconstruction chronology might be profitably told alongside the longer story of black political power at the national level (i.e., through election to the U.S. Congress and in appointments to federal offices). For this reason, the expiration of the term of Representative George Henry White of North Carolina in 1901 might make for a fitting end to such a narrative.[6]

In the next post, I will continue my observations about day two of the 2019 Draper Conference.


[1] For the full program of speakers, see the conference program at

[2] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019). See also the helpful reviews by Millington Bergeson-Lockwood, “Facing The ‘False Picture Of Facts’: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, April 23, 2019,; and Hilary N. Green, “A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After The Civil War,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, April 26, 2019,

[3] For the various tweets using the official hashtag of the conference, see

[4] Stephen Berry, The Black Prince: The Emancipated Life of Prince Rivers of South Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, forthcoming); Douglas R. Egerton, Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America (New York: Basic Books, forthcoming); Bruce Levine, Thaddeus Stevens, Revolutionary (New York: Simon & Schuster, forthcoming).

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Michael Perman, “Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution,” Reviews in American History 17, no. 1 (March 1989): 78; Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: W.W. Norton, forthcoming). See also the excellent historiographic overview by John M. Giggie, “Rethinking Reconstruction,” Reviews in American History 35, no. 2 (December 2007): 545-555; and the review essay by Edward Blum, “Still Bloody, Still Tragic: The History of Reconstruction,” H-CivWar, June 2008,

[6] On this subject, see Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008); Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014); Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego, The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post-Civil War South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016); and, for the later period, Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Thomas Balcerski

Thomas J. Balcerski is assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter at @tbalcerski.

Author Interview: Caroline Janney

Author Interview: Caroline Janney

Our special issue in March 2019 on Civil War veterans includes an article by Caroline Janney, titled “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox.” Janney is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2008) and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013), as well as co-editor with Gary W. Gallagher of Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (2015). She serves as a co-editor of the University of North Carolina Press’s Civil War America Series and is the past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Thank you for participating in this special issue, Carrie, and also for chatting with us briefly. Many of our readers have read your article in this March 2019 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

Most works on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia end their story with the surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox. An examination of the immediate post-surrender period, however, suggests that many of Lee’s men did not experience surrender as a definitive conclusion to their experience as Confederate soldiers. Because of Grant’s generous surrender terms, they dispersed from Appomattox more like soldiers than vanquished rebels. But their journeys also revealed the degree to which a substantial portion of Confederate civilians continued to support them even in defeat and highlighted the ways in which Confederates might continue to fight the results of emancipation. The disbanding of Lee’s army thus foreshadowed much of what would play out in the years to come as Confederate soldiers-turned-veterans continued to resist changes to the southern social and political order.

Your work is an excellent example of how, even with a topic as heavily researched as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, there is still room for historians to offer new insights. What inspired you to undertake this research?

I have long been interested in what happened to soldiers–both Union and Confederate–after the fighting stopped. That is what led me to spend so much of my career studying memory. But in recent years, I’ve continued to push back to the immediate postwar period, or in this case, perhaps even before the war was truly at an end. I initially thought I would write just an essay in a volume I was editing on how Lee’s soldiers made their way home after the surrender. But once I began the research, I realized the story was much more complicated and went in many more directions than I had anticipated.

The work that we do as historians is often like that, isn’t it? Research in archives can lead us in new directions. Which connects to another question I have for you. As I read your article, it struck me that it was probably challenging to locate a source base that could address these questions. Can you share what kind of methodological approach you used here?

When I began this project, I reached out to Patrick Schroeder at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. I can’t begin to thank him enough for all of the advice he gave me then–and continues to give me on a regular basis. He shared many of the park research files on “Going Home Accounts” of Confederate soldiers. That was my starting point. From there, I’ve continued to look for any diary, letter, or memoir that talked about the period after April 9, 1865–both in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Beyond the accounts of individuals, I have spent a great deal of time at the National Archives looking at a variety of records from Departmental ledger books to parole records. At NARA, Trevor Plante has been incredibly helpful in helping me to locate material.

You offer some fascinating stories of specific soldiers and regiments, including one that highlights how racial tensions between Confederate parolees and USCT soldiers escalated in the war’s immediate aftermath. What happened with Fenigan’s Florida brigade, and what makes that story significant?

After receiving their paroles at Appomattox, several members of Fenigan’s Brigade made their way to City Point where they hoped to take a steamer south to Florida. While waiting for a ship, they embarked on what would be the first of several murders of United States Colored Troops during their trip home. Each time, they managed to avoid getting caught. I argue that these murders underscored the degree to which wartime atrocities by Confederates against the USCT continued after April 9, 1865. The Confederate army had often disregarded and, in numerous instances, sanctioned the killing of African American soldiers. It should therefore come as no surprise that even after surrendering, these rebel soldiers continued to behave as they had prior to Appomattox.

Early in the article, you write that “the process by which Lee’s army would leave Appomattox served to embolden the sense that the Army of Northern Virginia had not been vanquished” (6). This connects, I think, to the popular myth that the Confederacy did not suffer a true military defeat—the United States merely had more resources and more soldiers. Do you think that these generous surrender terms in some way contributed to the development of this myth, which remains a part of Lost Cause ideology even today?

Although I do not fault Grant for his generous terms–he was doing precisely what Lincoln had asked of him in an effort to swiftly reunite the nation–the terms did allow Lee’s soldiers to quite literally walk away from the battlefield with a promise not to be disturbed by Union authorities. In other words, they would not be punished for their experiment in rebellion. They were not paraded through the streets of Washington as captives of war. They were not locked away in prison camps for years to come (as British soldiers surrendering at Yorktown had been). They were, as one of the men I write about observed, “free to go” where they liked. The terms, coupled with the firm belief that even if the armies had been defeated Confederate sentiment had not surrendered, absolutely informed the Lost Cause.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Just to remind them that there is often more to the story than we might initially think. Some of my favorite history books are those that tackle a topic that we thought needed little explanation. Sometimes asking what seem like the most obvious questions can lead to the most surprising stories.

Thank you, Carrie. That’s an important reminder, and we appreciate your participation in this conversation during this very busy point in the academic year. Readers, please feel free to ask her more questions on Twitter, @CarrieJanney.

A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

No matter how “bitter the chastening rod,” to borrow from the Black National Anthem, the second part of the Henry Louis Gates’s documentary on Reconstruction shows how African Americans kept fighting well after the Compromise of 1877. Part two of this engaging documentary tackles the long retreat from Reconstruction (to read a review of Part one, click here). In what Eric Foner calls a “Twilight Zone,” the remaining two hours reveal African Americans who refused to abandon the promise of Reconstruction, even as the nation gave up on them legally, politically, economically, and culturally.[1]

Focusing on the transitional period of 1877 to 1896, the first hour of Part two (episode 3) examines the active and often violent dismantling of Reconstruction. Convict leasing, lynching, and sharecropping eroded the gains achieved by African Americans. These processes contributed to the culling of African American leaders and entrepreneurs who posed threats to Henry Grady’s New South vision, and they also limited future success by entrapping African Americans in either debt or prison labor camps. Moreover, the combined and often reinforcing consequences of Supreme Court decisions, Congress’s inability to curb the unraveling of Reconstruction-era Constitutional gains, and redeemed southern governments’ policies and laws, all contributed to the rise of the Jim Crow era and disfranchisement.

As with the first two hours of the documentary, Gates truly reveals African Americans’ resilience and their refusal to accept the loss of rights. The Exoduster movement, as explained by Nell Irvin Painter, shows how some African Americans responded with their feet, migrating to the American West.[2] Others chose to create all-black settlements and towns in southern states, while others continued to fight against the increasing injustices by turning to African American newspapers. Ida B. Wells actively used her pen to combat dominant rape narratives and perceptions of African American criminality as justifications for lynchings. As historian Jelani Cobb stated, these newspapers provided the first draft of African American history. With the death of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington’s ascendancy to national prominence could not prevent the attacks on civil rights that would not be successfully challenged until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The second hour of Part two (episode 4) focuses on the story’s nadir and the role of southern propaganda in achieving victory with the cultural redemption of Reconstruction. Through the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s construction of monuments, textbook campaigns, and other activities, the growing Lost Cause ideology created political legitimacy for the work of later segregationists, White Citizens Council members, and monument defenders following the unrest in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. In addition to the legacy of UDC efforts, explained by Karen Cox and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, Rhae Lynn Barnes explores the history of blackface and its popularity as contributing to the long cultural retreat of Reconstruction. By “blackening up their skin,” white Americans claimed cultural authority over black life, ranging from performances held at churches, schools, and theaters, to political campaign rallies.

African American Public School Photograph, c. 1900, Petersburg, Virginia. Courtesy of the author’s personal collection.

Despite this purposeful rewriting of Reconstruction, African Americans embraced photography and reclaimed their dignity and humanity. As a collector of early African American photography, I appreciated this portion of the documentary. These diverse photographs showcased the men, women, and children who persisted through living and documenting meaningful lives created at the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, W. E. B. Du Bois employed black photography as ammunition in the cultural war being waged with his “Exhibit of American Negros” at the 1900 Paris Exposition. George Walker and Bert Williams also reclaimed blackface and their cultural authority with the “Two Real Coons” performances. Through the Niagara Movement, National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), and the New Negro Movement, African Americans kept fighting while finding restorative healing in segregated African American safe spaces. Yet, even these counter-resistance efforts could not stop white Americans from embracing D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation (1915) and a national reconciliationist impulse grounded in not only whiteness, but also in the failure of Reconstruction.

As the Reconstruction moment draws to its ultimate conclusion in the documentary, African Americans and their radical white allies continued to imagine a different type of world. Rather than accept second-class citizenship, they kept fighting. The tastes of Reconstruction-era freedoms drove their sacrifice, activism, and demands for justice. Gates concludes that Reconstruction never ended but remains an unfinished revolution, in which the nation is still grappling with what it means to be a “multiracial nation with equality for all.”[3]

Overall, the second part of this four-hour, engaging, teachable documentary captures the complexity of the long retreat of Reconstruction. It brings to popular audiences the recent scholarship in Reconstruction studies and African American history. Gates, moreover, showcases the rich diversity of stellar scholars on screen. For once, white male scholars appear as the minority.

While comprehensive in scope and content, the documentary is not perfect. Gates’s telling of this complex and misunderstood era still permits the silencing of black women’s activism within the National Association of Colored Women and even the rise of New Negro Womanhood, to favor a rather conventional narrative centered on the Niagara Movement and emergence of the NAACP. The Exodusters and all-black Western towns also allowed for the continued displacement of Native Americans. Yet, they are absent from Part two. The southern focus also ignores the complex experiences of the Reconstruction North, Midwest, and West. Despite these missed opportunities, Henry Louis Gates’s Reconstruction: America After the Civil War is a worthwhile update to previous documentaries. Regardless how stony the road, Gates demonstrates in this fine documentary the necessity of understanding Reconstruction and its legacy in the present.



[1] Each episode appears on, at

[2] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 3, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 4, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

Hilary N. Green

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