Category: Blog

Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Who would guess that progressive, self-regarding New York City would fail to mark the scenes of the 1863 Draft Riot? The riot was the most destructive urban uprising in US History and featured a virulent days-long assault on the city’s Black community.  Yet not a single plaque or marker notes the sites of lynchings or heroic acts of rescue, the mob’s destruction of buildings and entire city blocks, or the reconquest of the city by police, firefighters, and U.S. Army units borrowed from the Civil War.[1] On September 26, 2020, a group including local historians, teachers, students, and representatives of public history organizations will seek to redress this long neglect, staging demonstrations as part of the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action.

There are many potential sites we could recognize. To present the origins of the unrest, we could select 280 Broadway, the still-standing Marble Palace where department-store magnate A. T. Stewart sold a shawl in wartime to Kate Chase, the daughter of a Lincoln administration official, for $3,000 — the price of ten draft deferments for men whose lives were at stake.  We could visit the disappeared Democratic Party headquarters from which Governor Horatio Seymour, days before the outbreak of the violence, denounced the draft as unconstitutional and emancipation as an outrage.[2]

Too many locations were home to dramatic murders, beatings, and battles with police between July 13 and July 16, 1863, though none was more central than the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police — a state-run agency imposed on the Democratic city by the Republican-dominated state government — formerly at 300 Mulberry Street.  On its doorstep crowds deposited the bloodied body of the Superintendent of Police, and during the worst of the crisis more than 3,000 victims and first responders crowded inside.[3]

Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Perhaps the best choice would be to stage our remembrances at 520 Fifth Avenue, just north of the Public Library, where a set of plaques once commemorated the site of the Colored Orphans Asylum.  The plight of the orphans and the heroism of John C. Decker, Chief Engineer of the New York City Fire Department, who personally saved hundreds of children but could not contain the fire that burned the building to the ground, inspired sympathetic New Yorkers to fund the rapid new construction of facilities to serve the city’s Black community. Some of the  benevolent societies that formed in those days are documented in a New-York Historical Society collection and persist as part of today’s Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services.[4]

The orphanage site is today one of the city’s most conspicuous vacant lots, the object of a $275 million sale in 2015. Despite midtown congestion, diminished now by the phenomenon of working at home, the sidewalk shed enclosing the lot is a logical place for a display of posters on Good History Day.

My own participation hinges on my ability to enlist my high school students in the process, September being no month for starting independent scholarly ventures.  I am fortunate to be teaching Civil War & Reconstruction history for the first time ever as a semester elective.  The remembrance project provides a great opportunity to show how history matters, while also directing my students’ attention to concrete examples of the historian’s craft.

Given time, the ideal lesson plan in support of the Call to Action would urge students to explore the best sites for understanding Civil War era in the city, selecting among options that include the Union League Club in East Midtown, where the first Black regiments recruited in New York City initiated their march to the front on March 5, 1864, or the Brooklyn shipyard from which the Monitor gunship made its debut. Taking into account the short run-up to September 29 after Labor Day — complicated by the need to make introductions and pitch the project to local historians and agencies for the first time — I chose the Draft Riots in advance of the beginning of classes.

I intend to steer students toward research into discrete elements of the 1863 crisis: the draft, the Metropolitan Police Department, Democratic Party politics, the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, the fire department and chief engineer, and the African American businesses and cultural institutions that came under assault.  My students are fortunate to have access to specialized databases, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s digital archive, Proquest, Newsbank, and, copyright-friendly images and film, and Google Books, that great democratizer of 19th-century historical studies.  Having formed teams and committed to collaboration, my twelve high school juniors and seniors will develop profiles and short texts suitable for use in our demonstrations.  They will agree on a format and prepare digital files for posters as part of a graded interim assignment.  The posters will be printed at school expense — wheat-paste thin ones if we obtain permission to display them on the sidewalk shed, and paper backed with cardboard if we have to improvise a more ephemeral display.

Students may or may not participate in person, depending on whether schedules and pandemic conditions allow. In the end, it may fall to the adult participants to engage in on-site dialogue on September 26.  But students will certainly participate digitally. They may amplify the event on social media, perhaps by the creation of class-specific circulars and accounts.  We will also explore the possibility of creating or contributing to a Clio historical tour using the Clio Foundation’s digital mapping app.  We will seek out partners in the great public history institutions that surround us, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the New-York Historical Society, the Tamiment Library, and the Museum of the City of New York, among others.  To anchor our effort in the spirit of 2020 activism, moreover, students in my class will make use of the City of New York’s public process for recommending the placement of historical markers that give Draft Riot sites their due.

I hope my students will come to  share my reverence for the New Yorkers of the Civil War past who embodied the spirit of resilience and determination so recently on display in the Covid emergency.  May they recognize their kindred spirits!  For myself I am galvanized to be in community with scholars and activists in this national initiative.  Next year, it will be even better.

[1] David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016.  See also “Lynchings During the New York Draft Riot,” Clio: A Guide to the History and Culture Around You, and “New York City Draft Riot, 1863,” Clio: A Guide to History and Culture Around You,

[2] Betty Boyles Ellison, The True Mary Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2014), 174; “Gov. Seymour’s Speech,” New York Times, July 6, 2020.

[3] David M. Barnes, The Metropolitan Police: Their Services During Riot Week (New York: Baker & Godwin, Printers & Publishers, 1863), 9, 12.

[4] Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 268; David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016; “Colored Orphan Asylum,” Mapping the African American Past,; Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records 1836-1972, MS 24, New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

LeeAnna Keith

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School. She is the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

On September 22, 1862, a week after the devastating Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Delivered by the lawyer-turned-politician, Lincoln emphasized the reunification of the country, but also set new precedents for the emancipation process. Wartime emancipation proclamations were not unusual. When the gaze moves beyond the U.S. borders, Peru offers a good comparison for showing how these declarations could embrace a high moral tone and simultaneously endorse compensated emancipation without reparations for the emancipated. Furthermore, the Peruvian example is a good reminder that slavery persisted after the Independence of Spanish-America and abolition resulted from domestic rebellion in many countries. However, as in the United States, these wartime emancipation proclamations rarely considered the plight and future of the formerly enslaved.

By the time of the American Civil War, emancipation was hardly a novel idea. The Age of Revolutions (c.1760-c.1825) witnessed the abolition of slavery in Vermont and the institution’s violent overthrow with the racial conflict in the French colony Saint-Domingue. The precedent of Saint-Domingue raised fears of race war, economic desolation, and political uncertainty. By the 1830s, the British Empire provided an alternate model by issuing a parliamentary decree to end slavery and helped to established additional precedents for other nations. In the aftermath of abolition, enslaved people gained their freedom, but without an economic redistribution and rearrangement of labor practices on the sugar islands, the freedmen lacked political power in a society that required property for voting. At the same time, planters received a significant direct and indirect compensation for their lost property.[1] Future abolitions in the Danish, French, and Dutch colonies continued with compensation for masters. In that regard, Lincoln dramatically broke with precedent by signaling an uncompensated emancipation.

Where readers are well-aware of the causation of the American Civil War and its evolution to emancipation, the conflict in Peru needs a brief introduction. Despite common assumptions, Peru had not abolished slavery immediately after independence. At the time of independence, Peru had an enslaved population of about 50,400, about 3.8% of the population. By the mid-1850, there were still 25,505 enslaved people, or less than 1% of the population.[2] A far cry from the almost 13% of the U.S. population that suffered enslavement. However, both countries ended the institution in very similar but also markedly different ways.

Ramon Castilla

Peru had suffered from significant political instability since independence. Only five of the first twenty-three presidents served two or more years in office. The 1850s and 1860s were a period of great volatility in Peruvian politics. Civil unrest was frequent. In April 1851, José Rufino Echenique succeeded Ramón Castilla y Marquesado as president, but there were domestic political rivals who accused the government of corruption and violations of the law. In August 1853, Domingo Elías unsuccessfully challenged the government, but a few months later the rebellious hotbed of Arequipa once again erupted in opposition to the government. At this point, Ramón Castilla entered the fray and accused Echenique of “tyranny, theft, and immorality.” With both leaders needing supporters, especially soldiers, they decreed measures to improve their popularity, including emancipation.[3] While the rebellion in the United States was initially about union and independence, the civil war in Peru was about political power and the presidency. As the respective civil wars dragged on, slavery became a tool to bring about a swifter end to the fighting.

President Lincoln made a far-reaching change in September 1862.[4] Lincoln opened his declaration with his well-known invocation of his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, an authority he continued to use in the official declaration three months later, and that “the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.” A statement many detractors of the decision pointed to, showing that it was still a war for union. Lincoln abandoned this specific statement in his official declaration in January where the reunification of the country was nowhere to be found.

In contrast, on December 3, 1854, Ramón Castilla, trying to win the presidency and oust his political opponent from office, immediately invoked a high moral cause. He claimed, “That is due to justice to restore to man his freedom: that one of the chief objects of the revolution of 1854 was to recognize and guarantee the rights of humanity, oppressed, denied, and scorned by the tribute of the Indian, and Slavery of the negro.” Therefore, Castilla promised the end of slavery and all Native tribute payments. Of course, for his proclamation to become the law of the land, he still had to win this civil war. However, this was a dramatic step to bring an end of suffering for enslaved and indigenous Peruvians, especially when one considers that Lincoln was just three months away from allowing the largest mass execution in U.S. History with the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota people at the same time that he considered emancipation.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s emancipation, at least as conceived in the preliminary proclamation and continued in the official proclamation, was extremely limited with the president only offering to free slaves in territories in rebellion on January 1, 1863, leaving critics to wonder if he even had the authority to do so. While Lincoln did not mention explicitly the idea of compensation for slaveholders, he did cautiously still suggest the colonization of freed people. A door he bolted shut in January with the official emancipation proclamation. While there was no reference to colonization, Lincoln suggested formerly enslaved individuals should seek labor contracts and if they so desired, don the uniform and fight in the war. He also broke dramatically with the precedent set by Great Britain in that there would be no compensation for slave owners.[5]

Castilla started his proclamation with some high moral assumptions. While the end of slavery was immediate, Castilla, just like Lincoln, still had to win the civil war for the proclamation to reach all corners of Peru. The Peruvian freed all individuals held in bondage immediately without consideration whether their owners were loyal or disloyal. He demanded, “The men and women held until the present time in Peru as slaves, or serving-freedmen, whether in that condition by sale or birth, and in whichever mode held in servitude, perpetual or temporary—all, without distinction of age, are from this day wholly and for ever free.” There was no geographical restriction in Peru. Castilla, however, was a man of his era. He was not ready to just take property away from people without providing adequate compensation. He decided, “that fair prices shall be paid the owners of slaves and patrons of serving-freedmen, on the following terms.” A decision that would dramatically increase the Peruvian government’s financial obligations and open the door for future political conflicts in the country.

Importantly, formerly enslaved people in neither the British Empire, the United States, nor Peru received reparations for overcoming the wrongs done to them for centuries. Racist attitudes remained prevalent. In September 1855, the U.S. Minister in Peru, John Randolph Clay, wrote with grave worry that the government had acted “without preparation and almost without notice.” Even worse, from Clay’s perspective, “The ‘Haciendados,’ or planters found themselves suddenly deprived of laborers to cultivate their Estates, as the negroes, in many instances, abandoned them; to come to Lima or move about the country in idleness.” The result was the ruin of landowners and a revolutionary environment.[6]

The two emancipation proclamations in Peru and the United States provide a reminder regarding the complexities of emancipation resulting from domestic conflicts. Reading Lincoln and Castilla’s emancipation proclamations in tandem is a study of contrast, similarities, and precedents. While Lincoln’s address reads like a legal document that sets a new precedent, Castilla’s sounds like a powerful humanist document that does not dare to go too far. Lincoln abandoned compensated emancipation, but dramatically limited the scope of his emancipation decree. At the same time, Castilla’s high moral tone favoring freedom to indigenous and enslaved Peruvians was curtailed by his desire to compensate masters. Both men were too conservative to embrace a massive social reorganization. At the same time, it was domestic wars that made these emancipation decrees possible. As a region ravished by domestic civil conflicts, Latin America has much to offer Civil War historians interested in comparative studies.


[1] Edward B. Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

[2] Peter Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Books, 1992).

[3] Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru, 190-192.

[4] All quotes from Peru’s declaration drawn from: “Emancipation Declared in Peru,” Anti-Slavery Reporter, July 2, 1855, 157. All quotes from Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from, accessed August 24, 2020. All quotes from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from, accessed September 10, 2020.

[5] Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 182-183.

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

Niels Eichhorn

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

Preview of the September 2020 JCWE Issue

Preview of the September 2020 JCWE Issue

This issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era is the first in which we appear as coeditors. We enter this job with deep respect for what the journal has accomplished and enormous excitement for what we might help it do over the next five years. Our goals remain those that our friend and mentor Bill Blair articulated in his editor’s note for the founding issue. The new journal would bring, he wrote, “fresh perspective to the sectional crisis, war, Reconstruction, and memory of the conflict, while tying the struggles that defined the period to the broader course of American his- tory and to a wider world. In this way, we hope to attract scholars across the many subfields that animate nineteenth-century history, providing a place where they can engage with each other.”[1]  This remains a powerful statement of the journal’s ambitions. It aims to be fresh, expansive, deeply engaged in historiography, and committed to advancing new perspectives, all at once. Indeed, the journal’s articles and essays vary in method, approach, and argument. The journal has been a site where scholars from many subfields engage to shape our understanding of the Civil War era through innovative research articles, widely read historiographical essays, probing book reviews, and eclectic posts on Muster.

As we build on these strengths, we intend to use our term to press farther. We aim to incorporate the history and historiography of slavery more fully into the journal. We want the journal’s offerings to reflect the diversity of scholars working on the mid-nineteenth century United States and the multiplicity of topics they are investigating. We recognize that broadening the journal’s scope requires outreach and openness, and we intend to reach out every way we know how. We hope the journal will stand as evidence of how much is gained when we approach the past from a wide angle, determined to consider the full range of social, economic, political, cultural, and global forces that shaped the period and its people.

We build on the extraordinary work of Bill Blair, the founding editor, and of the many others who have kept the journal vibrant and flourishing. While our names are on this issue’s masthead, the issue represents the extraordinary dedication of a group of interim editors who worked hard to sustain the journal in a period of transition, develop coherent systems for managing submissions and correspondence, and keep the journal thriving while the Richards Center conducted the search for permanent editors.

As this issue demonstrates, those interim editors—Rachel Shelden, Stacey Smith, and Luke Harlow—did far more than keep the journal afloat; they kept it a model of fresh, provocative, and deeply researched historical work, work of the very best kind and work that everyone associated with the journal and the field can be proud of. The journal and the field owe a great deal to the three of them and the journal staff, especially Managing Editor Matthew Isham and Editorial Assistant Megan Hildebrand. Careful readers will note other changes to the masthead, as well, and we look forward to celebrating those new additions in our editors’ note in the December issue.

This issue includes three fine research articles that in different ways speak to the field’s creativity across the antebellum, wartime, and Reconstruction periods. Bennett Parten’s “‘Blow Ye Trumpet, Blow’: The Idea of Jubilee in Slavery and Freedom” examines the evolution of the idea of Jubilee in antislavery thought, as abolitionists turned to Jubilee to explain why and how society might change. Angela Zombek’s “The Power of the Press: Defining Disloyalty at Old Capitol Prison” analyzes the role of the popular press in policing disloyalty and shaping national discourses of loyalty and treason during the war. Catherine Jones’s “The Trials of Mary Booth and the Post–Civil War Incarceration of African American Children” studies how the postbellum court system in Virginia constructed African Ameri- can children, especially girls, as criminal subjects and denied them presumptions of immaturity that helped shield white children from the full force of the law.

As former review essay editors, we take particular pleasure in the continued success of these pieces. Chandra Manning’s essay, “Faith and Works: A Historiographical Review of Religion in the Civil War Era,” demonstrates the enduring need for thoughtful and creative assessments of where we are and where we may be heading in the many different subfields of the era. Manning analyzes differing scholarly portrayals of what religion did and of what religion was in this period, helping to capture the many ways scholars wrestle with religion as social structure, as theological ideas, as personal beliefs, and as part of identity formation in a period in which religious beliefs and identities helped shape conflicts over slavery, secession, and Reconstruction. This issue also includes the journal’s typically fine range of book reviews.

The late Tony Kaye recruited both of us into the journal. With Bill Blair and Aaron Sheehan-Dean and Judith Giesberg and others, Tony helped create a journal as bold and energetic as he was. It is our pleasure to take up the mantle, and we intend to continue his legacy.


We regret if our original editors’ note conveyed a lack of appreciation for Judith Giesberg’s leadership, and we heartily endorse the public statement of the transitional editors, published in the journal in September 2019: “The September 2019 issue is Judy Giesberg’s last as editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. She has been integral to the journal since its first issue in 2011, and the editorial team would like to thank her for her pathbreaking service. We have been privileged to work with her during her four-year tenure as editor and greatly appreciate the groundwork she and founding editor Bill Blair have laid for the future of the field, through this publication. It has been a true pleasure, Judy. Thank you.” 

[1]“Editor’s Note, “Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (March 2011): 1–2.

William M. Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg

William M. Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg

See more here for the upcoming September 26th event: Civil War History: A Call to Action.

In late July 2020, the United States House of Representatives passed an Appropriations Bill, HR 7608, which required the National Park Service to “remove from display all physical Confederate commemorative works, such as statues, monuments, sculptures, memorials, and plaques.”[1] Though the bill would not pass the United States Senate, many in the Civil War preservation community were shocked that the House would require the removal of monuments, memorials, and plaques from national park sites. They argue rangers and guides offer interpretation of the causes of the war, the individual battles, and the aftermath on the local communities. The plaques and tablets on battlefields differ from the Lost Cause monuments erected on courthouse lawns, as they provide contextual information of historic sites. Historian Karen L. Cox notes that southerners erected Lost Cause monuments in public spaces (efforts often spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy) in an effort to establish a “Confederate Culture”: that is, the racist white supremacist belief in the rightness of the Confederate cause. However, historian Gary W. Gallagher argues that the presence of Confederate monuments on battlefields, while upsetting, was “a price worth paying to protect a valuable and instructive memorial landscape.” Though steeped in Lost Cause language and imagery, Gallagher contends that historians should create a “memory tour [that] would illuminate controversies relating to secession, slavery, and reconciliation” utilizing the 200 Confederate monuments, memorials, tablets, and plaques at Gettysburg.[2]

Yet, the memorialization of Gettysburg, from the earliest days of federal government control, isolated the Confederate cause from that of the overall story of the Union war effort, the Union cause, and the interpretation of the battlefield. Confederate veterans complained of bias by the commission and argued that their regiments deserved more prominent memorial positions than the outskirts of the battlefield. By limiting Confederate memorial access to the battlefield, the commission attempted to take the narrative of the battle and the war away from the Lost Cause.

Preservation of Civil War battlefields began before the war had ended.  Soldiers often memorialized their comrades and their achievements before leaving the battlefield.  After the war, memorialization represented an act of reconciliation, one that sought to bring the nation together in order to create a stronger Union. Beginning in 1890, Congress established the first national military parks and, in doing so, the War Department created three-man commissions (two Union veterans and one Confederate veteran in a nod towards reconciliation) charged with maintaining and preserving the battlefields. Historian Timothy B. Smith labels the 1890s as the “golden age of battlefield preservation,” a time when veterans groups and the federal government allied to preserve the memory of the Civil War and to insure that the citizens of the United States would not forget the enormity of the struggle. In the middle of this movement, Confederate veterans unhappy with the preservation of Gettysburg focused their ire on one of their own: Confederate commissioner and southern Redeemer William M. Robbins [3]

Historic portrait of William M. Robbins
William M. Robbins, former member U.S. House of Representatives and member of Gettysburg Battlefield Commission. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Robbins was a former officer of the Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment, and a veteran of Gettysburg. In 1894, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont asked Robbins, the former member of Congress from North Carolina, to serve on the Gettysburg commission, a position he reluctantly accepted.[4] Though commission chairman John P. Nicholson maintained control over all decisions regarding the battlefield, he left Robbins to conduct much of the day to day business, fielding complaints from veterans.[5]

Many Confederate veterans took issue with the commission’s insistence of placing brigade markers at the original lines of battle for both armies. The commission established a Confederate Avenue on the battlefield and placed all Rebel brigade markers along this line. As the Confederate troops began miles away from the actual fighting and the Union troops were mostly entrenched along a continuous line on the second and third days of the battle, Confederate veterans felt that they were being unfairly pushed off of the battlefield. They also had an issue with the commission’s ban on monuments to individual soldiers. Confederate veterans pointed to the numerous monuments and markers to dead Union soldiers that populated the battlefield as evidence of an obvious bias on the part of the commission. Robbins countered that previous associations placed those monuments and markers on the battlefield prior to the commission and that neither army would place a marker to an individual moving forward. Besides, he noted, the commission did not want veterans’ groups placing markers and monuments “hither and tither” around the battlefield. There was a design in place.[6]

No case encompasses the weight of this issue than the commission’s fight with William C. Oates of the Fifteenth Alabama. Oates fought at the battle of Gettysburg on Little Round Top, alongside his brother John, attempting to push Joshua Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine Regiment off the hill.  Oates and his men were unsuccessful, and during the fighting his brother John died. In 1900, Oates, then Governor of Alabama, was an utterly unreconstructed Confederate. As historian Caroline Janney notes, no former Confederate was more vocally against reconciliation than Oates. He referred to “Yankees and their ‘aggressive fanaticism,’” as causing the Civil War, and he decided, regardless of the rules, to erect a monument to the Fifteenth Alabama, and notably, his brother John on Little Round Top. Though they were hesitant to do so, Robbins and Nicholson initially worked with Oates on the creation of a design for his memorial.[7]

Oates articulated the main disagreement of many Confederates toward the commission when he claimed that Robbins had misidentified the Fifteenth Alabama’s location on Little Round Top during the fighting. “[Oates] seems to think he was far off to himself in the fight there,” Robbins groused in his journal.[8] Oates took his complaints above the commission to the Secretary of War in June 1903, prompting Robbins to write to Oates “reminding him that he ought not to lay blame on [Robbins’] shoulders.” But Oates responded that he believed Robbins was the main obstacle to his proposal since Nicholson deferred all Confederate matters to him, an assertion that annoyed Robbins, who felt that Nicholson could easily relay to Oates that it was a decision made by the whole commission. Eventually, the commission bent the rules and allowed Oates to submit plans.[9] Oates agreed to an onsite visit where he walked the grounds with the Robbins, but erupted when he discovered Chamberlain disagreed with his proposed placement of the monument (that the Fifteenth Alabama had not made it so far up Little Round Top). This was exactly the type of personal aggrandizement that the commission was hoping to avoid.[10] Robbins’ death in 1905 essentially meant the end of Oates’ chance at ever getting a monument at Gettysburg. Robbins’ replacement, Lunsford L. Lomax of Virginia, provided no assistance for Oates and the matter faded away (there is no Fifteenth Alabama Monument at Gettysburg still today).

As the lone Confederate veteran on the commission, Robbins was straddling the line between supporting the park’s regulations while placating his fellow Confederate veterans’ hurt feelings over the perceived “Union bias” of the park. Robbins incorporated the reconciliation feeling into the golden age of battlefield preservation, choosing to support the federal government’s plan to keep Gettysburg from becoming a monument garden to dead Confederates.

Robbins chafed at the charge he had participated in the destruction of the Confederate memory at Gettysburg. Rather, he believed he was providing an accurate depiction of the battlefield and an educational experience. At the same time, Robbins worked to provide a park that would be a monument to reconciliation. Through this reconciliation, southerners would later erect monuments to the Lost Cause, especially the Mississippi and South Carolina state monuments. The 2020 House Appropriations bill fails to consider the historical context of the memorialization of the battlefields versus the Lost Cause memorialization of courthouse lawns across the South. Battlefield monuments and markers, like those at Gettysburg, are different, contextually, from the courthouse monuments erected by Lost Cause Southerners. As the episode between Robbins, Oates, and the commission illustrates, in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the War Department erected the contextual markers and regimental monuments to better explain the experiences of the battle rather than to placate the whims of the Lost Cause. A telling argument for the historical context of these early markers is this: of the eleven southern state memorials at Gettysburg, eight were erected decades after the battlefield commission folded, not surprisingly during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

[1] House Resolution 7608, Section 442, 116th Congress, 2nd Session, July 30, 2020.

[2] Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1-2; Gary W. Gallagher, “LEAVE THEM STANDING: Confederate monuments must remain at Gettysburg to help interpret the Civil War’s causes and consequences,” August 2020, accessed August 9, 2020,

[3] Timothy B. Smith, The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 1.

[4] William M. Robbins Journal, March 14, 1894, p. 3, William M. Robbins Papers, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

[5] See: Robbins Journal, March 14-1894 to June 30, 1898, UNC.

[6] William C. Oates Correspondence, October 1902, GETT 41139, Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP), Box 1.

[7] Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 197; Oates Correspondence, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1; Glenn W. LaFantasie, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 263-265.

[8] Oates Correspondence, February 19, 1903, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1

[9] Robbins Journal, February 23, 1903, June 20, 1903, pg. 51, 84; Oates Correspondence, June 20, 1903, July 4, 1903, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1.

[10] Robbins Journal, July 11-12, 1904; Oates Correspondence, April 14, 1905, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1.

Ryan Semmes

Ryan P. Semmes is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center at the Mississippi State University Libraries. He has been on the faculty at Mississippi State University since 2007 and has worked as an archivist with the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at MSU since 2009. Ryan completed his doctorate with the Department of History at Mississippi State University in 2020 where his dissertation examined the connections between foreign and domestic policy and the nature of citizenship during the Reconstruction era.

Civil War History: A Call to Action

Civil War History: A Call to Action

This spring and summer have seen renewed protests against monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders. We believe historians can play an important role in the ongoing, broad-based conversation about the history and memory of the Civil War Era. Historians bring a commitment to truth-telling and to teaching — to deepening historical knowledge about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the use of public propaganda in the late 19th and 20th centuries to hide and distort the past.

We are calling on historians to engage in a nationwide, group demonstration of good history at national parks, state parks, and other public sites from 12 to 2 p.m.  EDT on Saturday, September 26. Building on the work of Scott Hancock and others at Gettysburg on July 4 of this year, we ask historians to select a site where the history of slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction is being concealed or neglected. We ask you to investigate problems with representations of the Confederacy at that site and any absences of the history of slavery and African Americans there. And we encourage you to invite friends (including non-historians) with connections to the communities around that site and to prepare a signboard or other permitted material that uses historical arguments and evidence to counter that misinformation.

We urge historians and community members to visit these sites simultaneously on Sept. 26, the weekend after the anniversary of the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, to provide an accurate recounting of the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the postwar struggle for Black rights. Between now and Sept. 26, we will provide advice on to turn this goal into practice: how to develop and present evidence in a way that reaches a public audience that may be skeptical of historical argument; how to convey history while while staying within park rules; how to respond to potentially belligerent people in a way that deescalates or avoids conflict; and how to sustain social distancing and other precautions against Covid-19. In a webinar on September 9 and in follow-up posts, we will provide concrete guidance on these and other issues. The goal: to emancipate our battlefields and other public spaces from a biased history that has sanitized and glorified the Confederacy’s fight to keep four million African Americans enslaved.

To express interest and get more information, use this Google form.

To register for a September 9 webinar with Scott, Greg, and Kate about the day of action, please click here.

Relevant Muster posts:

Scott Hancock’s Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)

Gettysburg and July 4, 2020: Four Historians Respond

Ryan Semmes’s William Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg

LeeAnna Keith’s Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Event hashtag: #wewantmorehistory

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

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

Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)

Fear of a Black Planet (Part 2)

See more here: Civil War History: A Call to Action.

Thirty years ago, Public Enemy released what was arguably its best album, Fear of a Black Planet, which included the iconic track “Fight the Power.” I suspect many of you reading this have at least heard of the song (if you haven’t, watch the video.) And I’d venture that even though many of you may not identify with the Black and urban experience that PE was speaking out of and into, the title resonates with you. If it does—if you have been and want to keep fighting the power—you have yet another opportunity to do so September 26th.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, “Long before average citizens read the historians who set the standards of the day for colleague and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.”[1] We—myself, Hilary Green, Kate Masur, and Greg Downs–are calling on you, therefore, to join in a national, simultaneous, activist  demonstration of history on September 26th that can reach the “average citizen” who encounters history before they read anything we write. We are calling on you to connect with people in your communities, go to Confederate monuments at National Park battlefields, state park battlefields, state parks, or any public space in your communities where these monuments continue to hide the history of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction and the long reign of White supremacy, and to tell a more complete story. Sign up here.  To register for a September 9 webinar with Scott, Greg, and Kate about the day of action, please click here.

In most respects, this call is nothing new. Black artists, among many other African Americans, have been doing this for a long time. Public Enemy is just one of many examples of Black artists who engage histories specific to their communities and connect those stories to a larger national story of race and injustice. Black artists across the spectrum have understood on personal, community and national levels what Danez Smith says: “history is what it is. It knows what it did.”[2] Public Enemy reminded us of something similar in “Contract on the World Love Jam,” telling us that “The race that controls the past, controls the living present / And therefore, the future.”[3]

For over a century, far too many White Americans wrote slavery, race, blackness and Black people out of the history of the American Civil War. This segment of White Americans has controlled far too much of the past, with devasting effects on African Americans and the country as a whole. This erasure of our national past helped justify lethally violent racial terrorism for a century and the disenfranchisement of the race that the Civil War had freed and made citizens. Today we are seeing disenfranchisement aimed largely at Black and Brown voters once again underway, frequently supported by people who trot out the same tired, factually incorrect, revisionist erasures of history in their alleged ‘protection’ of Confederate monuments and symbols.

African Americans knew right away what the cost of erasing history would be. And they knew what Confederates would be up to. Black newspapers consistently called attention to the fact that Confederates would make every effort to resurrect themselves in some form, and reminded readers what the war was really all about. The New Orleans Tribune, just a few days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox, warned of a “New Rebel Scheme” by leaders who “were divided amongst themselves—not as to the aim to be attained, which was an independent slave-holding Confederacy.” The division was about how to best continue Black subjugation: by “open revolt” or by working for it from within the Union. Since the former was failing, they judged that “a keen policy may yet repair their disasters” and “would suffice to protect the ‘peculiar institution’…against the intrusion of the monster called Freedom.”[4]

Portrait of Francis CardozoTwo months later, The Tribune wrote, “The slave holding interest has received a fatal blow and will never forget and forgive it. History shows that a return to wiser and more sensible sentiments cannot be expected.” Later that summer the Tribune, taking Andrew Johnson to task for his endorsement of Confederates who threatened Black civil rights and opposed suffrage, declared that “the cause of the war was slavery and in that war the North conquered.” In 1868, Francis Cardozo – a Black legislator in South Carolina’s majority Black state convention who argued in favor of legislation to redistribute some of the wealthier slaveowners’ land to Black families – said “this system of large plantations, of no service to the owner or anybody else, should be abolished.” Otherwise “the stronghold of slavery” would be maintained. And that stronghold’s “common cause” was to “maintain a war waged for the purpose of perpetually enslaving a people.”[5] In 1875, The Weekly Louisianan’s column, “The Same Old Spirit,” gave a concise history of the country’s long complicity with slavery from its founding and stated that “the victors in this last contest” were once again sacrificing Black people, and “on their prostrate forms the Confederacy is building its hopes of a final triumph over the Union.”[6]

In sum, African Americans in positions to speak publicly in the years after the war understood what Public Enemy stated in 1990 about controlling the historical narrative. African Americans knew that Confederate efforts to reshape the war’s meaning had tangible, immediate consequences for Black freedom and opportunity. Black Southerners understood that, as Barbara Gannon has written, “civil war memory was crucial to Southerners’ battle to ensure Northern acquiescence to their answer to the race question—black oppression.” [7] And Black Southerners combined their warnings with a more accurate, fuller history of why the war was fought: to keep them as slaves. They knew that resisting new forms of Black subjugation to White Supremacy required a pointed and vigorous response, which included getting the history right.

One hundred and fifty years later, we know that those warnings were not heeded, and that White Northerners for the most part did indeed acquiesce to White Southerners’ control of history.

Historians: we have an obligation to respond. We want more history, not less. Whatever your political leanings, we are calling on you to respond to help correct a narrative, accepted and promulgated by far too many historians at every level of education for over a century, that has glorified the Confederacy through monuments that at a minimum ignore the Confederacy’s desire to maintain slavery, and that often insist the Confederacy was primarily about the honor and valor of soldiers who sacrificed for the ultimate good of national unity. We don’t know everything, but we do know that there’s much, much more to the story.

So let’s be proactive in telling the stories that have too often been erased from the narrative, and do what African Americans have done since before the war even ended: remind people what the war was about. Let’s emancipate battlefields and other public spaces from the control of Confederate monuments that silence, obscure, and twist the past. Let’s free those spaces not with violence, not with threats, not only with calls for removal, but with more history.

We are calling on you to respond to Public Enemy’s call: “History shouldn’t be a mystery / Our stories real history.”[8]

In the weeks ahead, Muster will publish written and video resources about to help you think about developing your historical evidence, designing your presentation of history, working within guidelines at the park or public site you select, ensuring your safety and the safety of others, and connecting with other historians interested in this call to action. The place you pick is up to you. But the time to act is now, by committing to the date and selecting the place where you will make your stand for better, more complete history in the nation’s public spaces.

To express interest and get more information, use this Google form. To register for a September 9 webinar with Scott, Greg, and Kate about the day of action, please click here.


[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 2015), 20.

[2] Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), “summer, somewhere.”

[3] Public Enemy, “Contract on the World Love Jam” by Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler and Carl Eidenhour, track 1 on Fear of a Black Planet, April 10, 1990.

[4] New Orleans Tribune April 6 1865.

[5] New Orleans Tribune, June 14 1865, July 26 1865; Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina (New York, 1968), 113-17.

[6] New Orleans Tribune, June 14 1865, July 26 1865; Weekly Louisianian, May 29, 1875.

[7] Barbara A. Gannon, “Sites of Memory, Sites of Glory: African American Grand Army of the Republic Posts in Pennsylvania” in Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (State College, PA, 2001), 166.

[8] Public Enemy, “Brothers gonna work it out” by Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler and Carl Eidenhour, track 2 on Fear of a Black Planet, April 10, 1990.

Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. He has more recently begun exploring how whiteness has been manifested on post-Civil War memorializations of battlefields. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @scotthancockOT.

The Politics of Faith: How Contests within Sacred Space Shaped Post-Emancipation Society

The Politics of Faith: How Contests within Sacred Space Shaped Post-Emancipation Society

In this roundtable, three historians present short excerpts from papers they would have presented at the 2020 meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians, which was cancelled due to Covid-19. The authors featured here explore how the wartime destruction of slavery shaped politics and power within Black churches, between Black and white church organizations, and in a progressive white-led congregation.

Group of African Americans in front of Church Building
First African Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Caitlin Verboon examines the challenges Black church organizations faced in separating from white organizations, and why it was so important for them to do so. Investigating an explosive controversy within Washington, DC’s First Congregational Church, Peter Porsche shows how Black Oberlin graduate John Hartwell Cook pushed Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner O. O. Howard to take a stand for racial equality within the church. Nicole Myers Turner previews many of the arguments in her 2020 book, Soul Liberty, by showing how, after emancipation, Black churches became venues for discussion of gender roles and foundations for political action. (Turner discussed her work with us in July.)

These three essays, all fragments of larger projects, reveal how much we may continue to learn from deep research into “the politics of faith” after the Civil War. Historians have shown that this was period of tremendous growth of independent Black denominations and that by establishing independent churches, African Americans created spaces in which they could not only worship as they chose but also nurture community ties and mobilize for politics on their own turf. These studies add nuance to our understanding, revealing new kinds of primary sources and new approaches that promise to yield exciting discoveries.

“‘Irregular Secession’: The Political Nature of Religious Space in the Reconstruction-era South

“‘Irregular Secession’: The Political Nature of Religious Space in the Reconstruction-era South

In the early summer of 1865, just a few months after Confederates in Raleigh, North Carolina, officially surrendered, Black Baptists found themselves faced with a choice: submit to white leadership and be permitted to use the roomy sanctuary of the city’s main Baptist church, or refuse and be relegated to the vestry room – a space so small it would require them to turn away would-be worshippers. According to the white trustees of the church, Black members “must not have so good a room” as the sanctuary if they insisted on retaining a Black minister.[1]

Portrait of Henry McNeal Turner
Portrait of Henry McNeal Turner

Raleigh’s African American Baptists, like many of their counterparts around the South, refused to acquiesce to white demands for control and opted for the inferior, inadequate space. An American Missionary Association (AMA) teacher supported them: “I saw that it would be as it always had been,” he observed. “The black man could say nothing and accomplish nothing as he wished to.”[2] That conflict eventually led to what AMA officials despaired of as an “irregular secession” of the African American congregants from the white Baptist church.[3] The schism was part of a wave of church separations across the South. Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, highlighted the importance of these new Black churches. By seceding from white congregations, African Americans threw off the “slave-yoke of Southern Methodism,” he declared, and stood “in the full vigor of their God-given rights.”[4] Establishing their own, independent churches was an important way that southern Black Christians made freedom meaningful in their everyday lives.

At the end of the Civil War, most Black churchgoers attended white churches. Sometimes they worshipped in the back of sanctuaries or in balconies, but often, as was the case in Raleigh, they worshipped in separate services where they might have exercised a large degree of day-to-day autonomy. Still, they lacked the true independence of a separate church. They were required to have white ministers, excluded from Sabbath schools, and denied any role in church governance. White church leaders thus retained control over the Black congregation’s leadership, which meant they also controlled the religious message Black churchgoers heard and the kinds of events they could host. Importantly, white churches also usually retained ownership of Black members’ building, even if it had been built or purchased with Black people’s labor and money.[5]

That trusteeship system meant that Black church members faced a constant threat of eviction. In 1865, for example, white Presbyterians in Augusta, Georgia, locked their Black counterparts out of the building they had been using. An AMA teacher had recently begun holding Sabbath School classes there, and white Presbyterians expelled the teacher, the minister, and the entire congregation. The white church-goers had tolerated Black religious services but refused to provide a venue for Black education. Teachers scrambled to find alternate locations to no avail. An AME church in town was not available either. “The other church belongs to the colored people (Methodists), but the chief difficulty was on account of the insurance, the policy taking exceptions to a store and making no provision for a school,” the AMA superintendent explained.[6] By requiring a different kind of insurance to use a building for a school than for a religious service, a white-owned insurance company could effectively control the ways Black people could use even the church buildings they owned.

In Raleigh, a month after their “irregular secession,” Black Baptists still struggled to disentangle themselves from whites’ control. It is not clear where the Black Baptists were now worshipping, but they may have been renting space in a white-owned building. A white newspaper warned them, “It is proper to suggest that the white people are extending to colored worshippers the most liberal privileges.”[7] The writer conveyed a number of ideas in this short sentence. First, he characterized African Americans’ occupation of church space as a tenuous privilege rather than a right. Black church-goers were in the building only with white permission. Second, in complimenting white residents on allowing their black neighbors any access at all, he revealed a belief that white people defined freedom and citizenship for everyone and could dole it out as they saw fit. And finally, he grammatically replicated Black and white relationships under slavery: white people were the subjects and actors, while Black people were merely the objects of white subjects’ actions. The editor went on to criticize worshippers’ behavior in the church, and the unspoken threat of legal retaliation was clear: “We remind freedmen, that even religious exercises, in their practice, may reach a point of illegality, and for their own benefit advise them to come down several octaves in their hours.”[8]

Even in the face of such opposition from their white neighbors, Black Christians continued to establish independent congregations during Reconstruction. In doing so, they claimed permanent spaces and worked to insulate themselves from white threats of eviction, control, and both legal and extralegal policing. “Their places of worship at present are but temporary,” Turner wrote about those new churches. “They are preparing, however, to erect themselves a permanent edifice to worship God in.”[9] Building and occupying independent churches was itself an implicit political act, but those Black churches also explicitly embraced electoral politics, providing institutional support and a space for local mobilization. State Republican Party organizations originated in their sanctuaries and used church buildings for political conventions, celebrations of Emancipation Day, and other public performances. Church buildings became a kind of alternative public sphere as Black people prepared for their future as free Americans.[10] As they fought for their independence, Black southerners imbued the buildings with political significance.


[1] George Greene, letter to W. E. Whiting, June 29, 1865, American Missionary (AMA) Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[2] George Greene, letter to W. E. Whiting, June 22, 1865, AMA Papers.

[3] Eliphalet Whittlesey, letter to the Secretary of the AMA, Aug. 2, 1865, AMA Papers.

[4] Henry McNeal Turner, letter published in The Christian Recorder, Jan. 20, 1866.

[5] Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), 120; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 2nd ed. (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), 88-89.

[6] Dewitt C. Jencks, letter to Samuel Hunt, Dec. 21, 1865, AMA Papers.

[7] “Hymnology,” Daily Progress [Raleigh, NC], Sept. 12, 1865.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Henry McNeal Turner, letter published in The Christian Recorder, Jan. 20, 1866.

[10] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” in The Black Public Sphere, ed. By The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 110-50.

Caitlin Verboon

Caitlin Verboon is an independent scholar.

Strategic Alliance: John Hartwell Cook, O. O. Howard, and the Postwar Fight for Equality at First Congregational Church

Strategic Alliance: John Hartwell Cook, O. O. Howard, and the Postwar Fight for Equality at First Congregational Church

In February 1867, John Hartwell Cook, a freedman from Virginia and graduate of Oberlin College, arrived in Washington, DC, with his wife, Isabel “Belle” Lewis, to take up a new position with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. Prior to his arrival, he had spent roughly two years teaching among freedpeople under the auspices of the Bureau in Louisville, Kentucky. At his new post in the capital, Cook quickly caught the attention of Bureau Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard,  who promoted him to the office of chief clerkship, a position that involved the management of Howard’s official correspondence and even his personal finances. Out of this working relationship, a close friendship developed, one that proved immensely important in late 1867 when Cook initiated a struggle for racial equality at Washington’s First Congregational Church.[1]

Portrait of O. O. Howard
Portrait of Oliver Otis Howard,

The establishment of First Congregational, on the corner of Tenth and G Streets, was part of a larger transformation of Washington during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election and the subsequent secession of the Confederate states, southern congressmen had fled the district. Their departure, along with an influx of Republican-aligned officials, marked a shift in the capital from a pro-slavery to pro-Union stance. During the war, the capital experienced further transformation due to the arrival of thousands of refugees and escaping slaves from neighboring Maryland and Virginia. In 1865, several men with ties to Congregational churches in New England decided the time was right for their staunchly anti-slavery denomination to plant a church in the nation’s principle city, a place they had previously never been welcome. The small assembly, which initially met in the hall of the House of Representatives, attracted the attention of Howard. Not only did Howard have personal ties to Congregationalism, but as Bureau commissioner, he wanted to attend a church that embraced progressive racial views. Ultimately, Howard and his wife, Elizabeth, along with their friends, John and Myrtilla Alvord, became members. Howard later wrote, “Being engaged in a struggle for what I have called the manhood of the black man . . . I naturally carried the same efforts with me into the church, with which I was connected.”[2]

Several months after the Howards joined, Baltimore’s Rev. Edwin Johnson delivered the keynote address at the church’s groundbreaking ceremony. He emphasized that this new church, founded on the premise of liberty, fraternity, and equality, intended to serve as an example to the nation. Yet neither Johnson nor Howard could have envisioned how quickly the church would find itself at the center of a historic battle for racial equality that reverberated across the country. The crisis that emerged exposed the hypocrisy of the majority of white congregants, including the church’s first minister, Charles B. Boynton, who despite professions of belief in racial equality, anticipated and preferred a primarily white congregation.[3]

In October 1867 when John Hartwell Cook presented himself for membership at First Congregational, he set off a chain of events that culminated in a church split and the resignation of Rev. Boynton. Shortly after interviewing Cook, Rev. Boynton preached a sermon targeting Cook and other educated African Americans by stating that they could best serve their race in “institutions of their own.” Boynton’s sermon went viral as newspapers across the country noted the obvious discrepancy between the church’s stated belief in equality and the minister’s call for racial separation. A dismayed Cook turned to Howard for support, imploring his friend on behalf of himself and other Black congregants: “Because of your long and tiring and consistent course as the practical Christian advocate of the rights of all humanity and especially the negro may we not still hope and expect much from you . . . ?” Cook observed that in this new era, there “is a grand opportunity to begin right . . . . Here shall we have a Church composed of members whose lives will be molded by their religion and not their religion by their lives.” He believed the church’s refusal to accept him and other Black people as equals would have repercussions across the country as “the public mind gladly seizes anything looking towards a sanction of the old state of things.”[4]

Howard, appalled and deeply grieved by the situation, agreed. In the face of increased public scrutiny and with disregard for any political ramifications, Howard initiated and led the minority resistance to Rev. Boynton over the next seventeen months. His efforts included drafting and disseminating a public protest against the pastor’s position signed by fifty other members, employing the voice of the Congregational Church, the Congregationalist and Boston Recorder, to publicize his views, and ultimately forcing both an ex parte council and general church council, in November 1868 and January 1869 respectively, to settle the matter. Howard’s actions drew the ire of Rev. Boynton’s son, Henry, a local correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette, who used the paper to support his father’s position, an effort that generated headlines as far away as Vermont, Louisiana, and California. A year and a half later, however, Rev. Boynton and his supporters admitted defeat and left the church while Cook and more than thirty other African Americans became members, integrating this traditionally white space as equals and victors over the church’s segregationist wing.[5]

The episode at First Congregational reveals how Black activists made strategic use of alliances to facilitate change during Reconstruction. Whites’ widespread fear of societal upheaval in a postslavery world guaranteed that such efforts would meet organized resistance that was both widely publicized and increasingly politicized. Despite facing perhaps the most incendiary accusations possible during the period—that of supporting amalgamation and social equality—Cook and Howard succeeded. Not only did Cook achieve membership in First Congregational, his fight resulted in the broader Congregational Church publicly affirming racial equality and denouncing racial separation. In addition, Cook provided Commissioner Howard with a platform to align himself with freedpeople in direct contrast to the virulent racist President Andrew Johnson who hamstrung the Bureau throughout its most critical years. The victory sheds light on an underappreciated aspect of Reconstruction, namely the tenacious and creative ways African Americans pushed influential white allies to directly challenge white supremacy in predominantly white institutions.

[1] Records of the field offices for the state of Kentucky, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), Monthly school reports, Apr.-June 1866, Sept. 1866-Nov. 1868, M1904 roll 119; “John H. Cook Esq.,” and “John H. Cook,” Alumni Records of Oberlin College for Quinquennial Reunion in 1875, Oberlin College Archives.

[2] Oliver Otis Howard, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, 2 vols. (New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1907), 1:119, 2:425-26; Walter L. Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” in Fiftieth Anniversary of the Founding of the First Congregational Church (Washington, 1915), 92-93.

[3] A. T. DeGroot and General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches of the United States, “Records: Year Book, 1854-1960,” Quarterly Newsletter, January 1867.

[4] Charles Brandon Boynton, “The duty which the colored people owe to themselves: a sermon delivered at Metzerott Hall, Washington, D.C.” [Washington, D.C.: Printed at the Office of the Great Republic, 1867], Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection, Library of Congress,; John H. Cook to Oliver Otis Howard, December 1, 1867, Oliver Otis Howard Papers, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine. John W. Alvord, also a friend of Cook’s, was a Sunday School teacher at First Congregational and fellow Oberlinite who served in the Freedmen’s Bureau as general superintendent of schools. Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” 93; Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War, 2 vols. (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1943) 2:913.

[5] Howard, Autobiography, 2:432-35; Everett O. Alldredge, Centennial History of First Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, D.C., 1865–1965 (Baltimore: Port City Press, 1965), 25-27; Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” 95-96; “Proceeding of an Ex Parte Council Held at the First Congregational Church November 1, 1868,” O. O. Howard Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington DC; “The Boynton and Howard Unpleasantness,” New Orleans Crescent Sun, November 29, 1868; “A Christian Quarrel,” BurlingtonTimes (Burlington, Vermont), December 5, 1868; “Try It,” San Francisco Examiner, February 8, 1869.

Peter Porsche

Peter Porsche is a Ph.D. Candidate at Texas Christian University.

Beyond Speeches and Leaders: The Role of Black Churches in the Reconstruction of the United States

Beyond Speeches and Leaders: The Role of Black Churches in the Reconstruction of the United States

Black churches were at the center of remaking the United States’ post-Civil War political system into one that incorporated formerly enslaved black men into the body politic and revised the legal code to provide civil rights to these new citizens.  Black Baptist and Episcopal Churches of Virginia provide insight into how black people began to access the levers of political change. These black Christians recrafted their communities in alignment with the extant practice around who could be included in the body politic (men), while determining on what terms (some form of racial and political or civic equality) and by what means (on the basis of networks and political representation). In this way the black Baptist and Episcopal Churches played an important role in advancing biracial democracy.

Upon emancipation, the civil and political rights and responsibilities of black men and women had yet to be defined.  And while participants in the freedmen conventions relatively easily identified voting rights as a goal, black churches immediately became sites in which church members worked out the terms of internal and external political participation in ways that reinforced the larger political transformation of emancipation.[1]  The exclusion of women from the decision-making, officeholding, and visible leadership posts in church meetings and conventions was an area where the overlap in the internal politics of churches and the external politics of the state became evident.  While some women, through their roles as teachers, were able to exercise authority “without visibly disrupting male leadership,” other women were simply excluded from positions of authority altogether.[2]  This happened in the Gilfield Baptist Church when women, who in 1868 were permitted to bring men to be disciplined in cases of unwed pregnancy, were in 1870 denied the right to do so on the basis that the practice was unscriptural and damaging to the community.[3]   In an effort to establish respectability and biblical fidelity, this church adopted practices that excluded women from leadership and decision-making roles.  The practice overlapped with and was reinforced by the federal government’s policies, other social organizations, and black communities’ own practices of protecting black women from violence by keeping them at home or in school.[4]  Above all, it coincided with the seemingly inexorable push to secure voting rights for Black men.

Portrait of George Freeman Bragg
George Freeman Bragg, 1883. Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University.

While church practices reinforced gendered political outcomes, churches also fostered a collaboration across racial lines that provided social and intellectual foundations that allowed biracial coalitions to emerge.  In some sense being members of predominantly white churches like the Episcopal Church allowed black men and women to develop a framework for working in hostile territory. Reverend George Freeman Bragg, a Black Episcopal priest, suggested as much when he noted how racial independence had made the AME Church the root of independent black political action, while black members of the Episcopal Church had argued the case for equality within the church by “bearing witness to the ‘Fatherland of God and the Brotherhood of All Men.’” [5]  After being dismissed from school on the basis of the racist claim that he “was not humble enough,” Bragg joined the Readjuster movement in which he witnessed the political recognition of black humanity and proof of black political possibility.[6]He learned about making coalitions across racial lines that did not call for a denial of blackness or black rights both from the Readjuster Movement and from being in the Episcopal Church. Bragg’s life suggests that we might envision the political foundation of biracial democracy in the intersections of churches, politics and race.

Regional and state associations of black churches were also central to the emergence of a racial consciousness. As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham wrote, “Race consciousness reached its apogee with the creation of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. in 1895.”[7]  In cultivating church associations, black Christians created networks that overlapped party politics.  The recordkeeping practices of Baptist regional and statewide associations stimulated in black voters a sense of their power as voting  blocs.  The associations kept record of their membership  as testimony to the growth of the faith.  In the 1880s, Rev. Henry Williams, statistician of a handful of Virginia’s regional associations and the Virginia Baptist State Convention, noted where the numbers of black Baptists were growing.  In 1886, he lamented, “it is sad to see so many blanks in the American Baptist yearbook” and that “a full and accurate statistic cannot be given of the colored Baptist.”[8]  Even when the records were not forthcoming, he could see that the faith was expanding on the local landscape.  The copious logs of local church names, locations, numbers of members, pastor’s names and post office addresses provided a much more complete view. Statewide conventions also helped to form broader geographies of belonging that transcended local lines and approached regional state and eventually national scope.  This larger conceptualization of community paralleled the political transformation of patronage politics in the Readjuster Party.

Black participation in biracial coalitions had deep underpinnings in black religious communities. Black Baptists and Episcopalians participated in coalitions, not out of ignorance, but out of a sense of the power of their networks.  In and through their church communities, they engaged in some of the fundamental political processes that transformed the nation after the emancipation.  Churches were political spaces where church members established power, belonging and accountability.  Black churches did more than create atoms of organizational influence or singular leaders; they intersected with and reinforced some of the political currents of the moment.  Black Baptist and Episcopal Churches fostered developments of gendered and racial political practices that pointed toward a reconstruction that not only was based on male suffrage, but also pointed toward a biracial democracy inclusive of black independence and political engagement.

[1] Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), chapter 3.

[2] Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 36.

[3] Nicole Myers Turner, Soul Liberty: The evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[4] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and transforming the public sphere: African American political life in the transition from slavery to freedom,” in The Black public sphere: a public culture book, ed. Jr. Baker, Houston, Black Literature and Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 127; Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: women and the politics of white supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Angela Davis, Reflection on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves, The Black Scholar 3 (December 1971).

[5] George F. Bragg, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones (Baltimore: Church Advocate Press, 1916).

[6] George F. Bragg, The Colored harvest in the Old Virginia Diocese (Baltomore: s.n., 1901), 18; George F. Bragg et al., “Additional Information and Correction in Reconstruction Records,” The Journal of Negro History 5, no. 2 (April 1920): 243, 242.

[7] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993), 6; James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986), 139.

[8] “Minutes of the sixth annual session of the Bethany Baptist Association (Colored) of Virginia held September 22-24, A.D. 1886,”  (1886) 7, 8.

Nicole Turner

Nicole Myers Turner is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (UNC Press, 2020).