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Teaching Military History with the Official Records

Teaching Military History with the Official Records


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Michael E. Woods

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

Teaching the Reconstruction Era Through Political Cartoons

Teaching the Reconstruction Era Through Political Cartoons

During this past fall semester I received an email from a curriculum coordinator at a local school district. She stated that a high school history teacher was running short on time, but wanted to spend one day with his students discussing the Reconstruction era before the end of the semester. The teacher wanted to bring in someone who had knowledge of the period and would be willing to lead a discussion on the larger themes of the era. As a Park Ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, I’ve worked hard over the past few years to study Grant’s presidency and to better understand the Reconstruction Era. I also served as the first Social Media Manager for Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, on an interim basis in 2017 and 2018. Needless to say I anxiously jumped at the opportunity to speak with students about Reconstruction.

As I have previously discussed on this website, one of the biggest reasons the Reconstruction era is so misunderstood is that it is rarely taught in the classroom. When it is taught, the narrative will often focus on stories of scandal, corruption, and mistreatment of former Confederates. The broader focus of current historical scholarship—which emphasizes the legal, political, and economic changes that brought about a new spirit of equality and civil rights in American life—is often left out. And the reality for many teachers is that having one day to teach Reconstruction is a luxury. So what could I do to help this teacher have a productive experience for his students?

The most relatable content for middle and high school students when it comes to Reconstruction are the many hundreds of political cartoons that were created at the time. When looking at good examples for classroom use, the best online resource I have come across is Princeton University’s digital collection of Thomas Nast cartoons. Featuring more than 500 cartoons that cover a range of topics—emancipation, civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, and party politics, among others—I picked out six of my favorite works and brought them with me for the classroom presentation. Each one focused on a different topic.

When I arrived for the presentation (along with a colleague of mine), we spread the cartoons throughout the room and began with a short introduction to the students. We explored some of the larger themes of Reconstruction and briefly discussed the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. From there we had the students get out of their seats and participate in a “gallery walk.” We asked the students to walk around the room the same way they’d visit a museum and to then stand by the political cartoon that they thought was the most interesting. We then gave the students about five minutes to closely analyze each political cartoon and to make a decision.

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 1869. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

At this point we had each group explain their political cartoon to the rest of the class. What did they see in the cartoon? What was the message being conveyed? Who was the intended audience for this cartoon? How might someone disagree with the message of this cartoon? Was the cartoon persuasive? I went through this checklist of questions and had the students lead the conversation with occasional input from the park rangers. One example I used for this exercise was “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” designed by Nast in 1869. Students observed the messages of the cartoon (“Universal suffrage,” “Come One Come All,” “Self Government”) and took note of the various people sitting at the table and pictures of the wall. They quickly picked up the larger themes of the cartoon: democracy, liberty, equality, and the idea that the United States should be a beacon of freedom for people of all nations. In addition to the questions I posed during the discussion, this cartoon could in turn lead to further discussions about whether or not Nast’s vision of America has been fulfilled. Through this short exercise we were able to introduce Reconstruction to the students, several of whom expressed their appreciation for our visit.

Another tool I have developed for classroom use is a visualization of the broader themes of Reconstruction and how they connect with one another. This document represents my best attempt to highlight four crucial ideas:

1. The central questions of Reconstruction
2. Changes to the U.S. Constitution through three Amendments
3. The experiences of various groups who lived through Reconstruction
4. Resistance to Reconstruction and its eventual replacement by Jim Crow legislation

A Visualization of the Reconstruction Era. Courtesy of the author.

I have used this visualization for a few classroom visits in the past, and I think students like the way it summarizes a complex time period on one sheet of paper. Nevertheless this document is very much a work in progress and I invite feedback from readers of this blog to improve it.

If you work with students in a middle, high school, or college setting, how do you go about teaching Reconstruction, particularly if you’re running on limited time? Let us know in the comments.

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

New JCWE Editors Selected, Will Assume Position January 15

New JCWE Editors Selected, Will Assume Position January 15

The Journal of the Civil War Era and the Richards Center at Penn State are thrilled to announce our new JCWE co-editors, Greg Downs and Kate Masur, who will assume the position effective January 15, 2020.

Gregory P. Downs is Professor of History at University of California-Davis. He studies the political and cultural history of the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Particularly, he investigates the transformative impact of the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the role of military force in establishing new meanings of freedom. He is the author of three monographs on the Civil War era and Mapping Occupation, an interactive digital history of the U.S. Army’s occupation of the South (

Kate Masur is Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University. She specializes 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 in both the North and South. Masur, a faculty affiliate of the Department of African American Studies, is author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (2010) and numerous articles on emancipation and black politics during and after the Civil War.

In 2015, Downs and Masur co-edited The World the Civil War Made, a collection of essays that charts new directions in the study of the post-Civil War era. The two also co-authored The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900, a National Historic Landmark Theme Study published in July 2017. Downs and Masur wrote about their NPS work in The Atlantic Online and The New York Times, and they co-edited a Reconstruction special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era that includes a forum on the future of Reconstruction studies and a roundtable conversation on Reconstruction in public history and memory.

We are truly excited to have them join our team, and we extend thanks to everyone involved in the search process—including the Richards Center Academic Advisory Board, which reviewed applications, interviewed candidates, and made their recommendation—as well as the other excellent applicants for their dedication to the field of Civil War studies.


Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Little Women, 2019. L-R: Eliza Scanlen (Beth), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), and Florence Pugh (Amy). Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Impatient for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women to come out, I watched the 1994 movie again to bide my time. Susan Sarandon (Marmee) and Winona Ryder (Jo) steal the show, delivering the movie’s most memorable lines critiquing Victorian gender expectations, such as when Marmee dismisses a neighbor’s concerns about her daughters’ rough-housing with the boys with the comment, “feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.” Or when Jo joins a conversation between Friedrich and other self-important professor-types with: “I find it poor logic to say that women should vote because they are good. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are men, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” Drop. The. Mic. Jo! Beyond Marmee and Jo, though, the other performances are less memorable.

Little Women, 1994. L-R: Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes. Credit: Columbia Pictures.

I have loved the 1994 movie since it came out, use it alongside of the novel in my teaching, and shared it with my own children. But in Gerwig’s hands, the lives of the March sisters and their mother come to life in a way that will make it hard to look back. The new film is textured, moving, and devastating in its exploration of what it feels like to grow up in a society that tells girls they can be or do anything and then fails to support women who do.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for nineteenth-century girls who stood at the edge of adulthood. The first part captures the independence enjoyed by middle-class, northern white girls before marriage, a time when they could dream about the future and about what sort of women they wanted to be.[1] In their dreams they grow up to be actors (Meg), pianists (Beth), authors (Jo), and artists (Amy)—”castles in the air” is what Alcott called them. “I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream,” exclaims Jo.[2] But in Victorian America women had only two paths to adulthood: happy wives or spinsters.

The second part explores the girls’ transition to adulthood. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on “the singular address and happy boldness with which young women in America” thought and spoke; once married, though, they gave up their independence for the “bonds of matrimony.”[3] There were few contemporary examples of marriages that made room for women’s ambitions, their “happy boldness.” Alcott’s parents were iconoclasts, but in the end, Bronson Alcott’s transcendentalism and the family’s abolitionism were sustained by Abigail May Alcott—Louisa’s mother—and her willingness to support her husband’s ambitions, even when they drove the family to poverty.

Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother and the inspiration for Marmee. Courtesy of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Because it starts at the end, when the March sisters are grown up, the new film focuses on all of the compromises, big and small, that the girls made as they prepared to leave behind their castles in the air. For Meg, this means forgetting her dream of marrying well, and Amy gives up on her art. But whereas Alcott’s big compromise at the end of the novel was to marry off Jo, her avatar who famously intended to remain a “literary spinster,” Gerwig’s brilliant ending leaves open the possibility that Jo found a way to realize her ambition. Gerwig’s decision to structure the film as a flashback allows each sister to defend the compromises she made to find her way forward. The March sisters do this when they repeat a maxim of nineteenth-century feminism, that marriage is a financial transaction, which sounds as unromantic, unsparing, and accurate today as it did in the 1860s.

Jo’s marriage transaction is in the trailer: Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan, reluctantly agrees to marry off the book’s protagonist for more money and in return for retaining copyright of the book. “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money,” she says, “I might as well get some of it.” The line is not in the novel, but Alcott surely would have approved. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, delivers the film’s longest and most damning critique of coverture. When Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet, questions Amy’s determination to marry for money, she responds with:

I’m just a woman, and as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

It’s appropriate that Amy delivers these lines, as next to Jo, she is the character that audiences have the strongest feelings about. Shirley Li in The Atlantic applauds Pugh for rescuing the youngest sister from her reputation as the “brat running around in an outfit made up of hand-me-downs, or the young woman flirting her way into the heart of Jo’s best friend.”[4] Gerwig’s Amy makes the fully rational decision to marry Laurie on her own terms.

Gerwig’s greatest feat may be in giving Meg more depth. It is easy for readers who identify with Jo to dismiss Alcott’s marriage-obsessed Meg, but not so for Emma Watson’s Meg who, on the day of her wedding, looks Jo in the face and says, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t make them unimportant.” What woman today enjoying the fruits of second-wave feminism would deny any woman a future of her own choosing, whether it is becoming a “literary spinster” or marrying a poor teacher? Yet Meg reminds viewers of the transactional nature of marriage when she sells the $50 worth of silk she bought to make a dress in order to buy her husband a coat. Kudos to Gerwig for retaining that bit from the novel, as it follows the thread of marriage-as-transaction. The result is a more fully formed Meg, one that maybe we can stop pretending we don’t see a little of ourselves in.

Given Gerwig’s considerable talent, it is unfortunate that Beth is still so insipid, lifeless. It may be Alcott’s fault. Beth’s greatest ambition, her castle in the air, was “to stay home safe with Father and Mother.”[5] In the movie, Beth’s final illness and her death drive the action. As Jo makes her way home to care for Beth, she relives scenes from her childhood, allowing viewers to meet the sisters as girls with big dreams. And, as in the novel, Jo’s grief over Beth’s death reignites her authorial ambitions. But Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, is disappointing. She exists only to redeem the other characters—that was her very Victorian purpose in the original and it remains so today. Surely, we are ready for a better—or actually, a worse—Beth, one with some flaws.

Laura Dern (Marmee) and Saoirse Ronan (Jo). Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

I was surprised how readily Laura Dern replaced Sarandon in my heart as Marmee. We get to see Abigail Alcott in her, something of her ambition, the compromises she made. Like when Mr. March—recently returned from serving as a chaplain in the Civil War—floats the ludicrous idea of following Friedrich out to California for some new adventure. Marmee, a flash of anger in her eyes, nips the idea in the bud, reminding Mr. March (played by Bob Odenkirk) that he has a family to support. And, as anyone who has not been living under a rock already knows, Dern gets her own drop-the-mic line about controlling her anger when she tells Jo, “‘I’ve been angry every day of my life.’” Giving Marmee back her anger reflects what Greta Gerwig read in Abigail’s letters and locates the film in a moment when the principles of equality that Alcott’s generation wanted for their daughters–and that generations of feminists fought for—cannot be taken for granted.[6]

The Civil War that provides a backdrop to the novel makes a few appearances in the movie, with more time spent on women’s war work than on men’s military service. We see Marmee at the offices of the soldiers’ aid society, one of several scenes intended as a commentary on Alcott family values and to mark the Alcotts as abolitionists and racial egalitarians. (Another one was when Jo sits in the segregated section of the New York theater and then joins in a raucous, integrated, post-show dance.) Muster readers familiar with Alcott’s 1863 Hospital Sketches will recall that Tribulation Periwinkle complained about the hospital work of women of color and accused them of stealing. Marmee’s close working relationship with the woman of color at the aid society appears to have been marred by no such tension. There seems to be less talk of slavery in this film; for instance, Laurie does not chastise Meg for dressing in silk, despite her family’s boycott of slave-produced products—instead he scolds her for drinking champagne. Amy is not forced to defend her family’s abolitionism to her classmates in the new film. In place of these moments that might have reminded viewers about the Civil War and what was at stake in it, Gerwig places the March women in integrated spaces. This is a missed opportunity.

Fortunately, Mrs. Hummel’s wartime service is not overlooked in the film. She does not go to the aid society for blankets or supplies, although her husband is serving in the army—or maybe she did and was turned away by someone suspicious of her claims or dismissive of her lack of respectability. The Hummels’ Civil War was marked by quiet destitution, and Gerwig brings this point home clearly.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a superb film exploring the emotional worlds of Victorian girls and women for a new generation of viewers. Hopefully, it moves people to rediscover the novel or turn to it for the first time.


[1] A good place to start exploring Victorian girlhood is Steven Mintz’s summary and footnotes in Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 84-87.

[2] Louisa May Alcott, “Chapter 13: Castles in the Air,” in Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868-1869; New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 2018), 130-8.

[3] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. II, ed. Francis Bowen, trans. Henry Reeve, Esq. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1840; Cambridge, UK: Sever and Francis, 1862), 242, 245.

[4] Shirley Li, “Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Gives Amy March Her Due,” The Atlantic, December 23, 2019, accessed January 4, 2020,

[5] Alcott, Little Women, 135.

[6] For more on Marmee, see Sarah Blackwood, “’Little Women’ and the Marmee Problem,” The New Yorker, December 24, 2019, accessed January 4, 2020,


Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg is professor of history at Villanova University and author, most recently, of Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality (UNC, 2017).

Putting Women Back Where They Belong: In Federalism and the U.S. History Survey

Putting Women Back Where They Belong: In Federalism and the U.S. History Survey

To say that women do not figure prominently in the historiography of federalism is an understatement, to say the least. What could debates about the relationship between states and the federal government possibly have to do with women, particularly before the Civil War, when they lacked the rights necessary to access these levels of government? Everything, as I argue in “The Legal World of Elizabeth Bagby’s Commonplace Book: Federalism, Women, and Governance,” which appeared in the December 2019 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. More than that, attention to federalism makes it possible to integrate women into parts of U.S. history survey courses where they are usually relegated to sidebars.

“A Visit from the Old Mistress,” by Winslow Homer, 1876. Courtesy of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Why is federalism about women? Conventional approaches define federalism in terms of those areas of law and governance—states and the federal government—that lay beyond the reach of most women before the Civil War. But new scholarship has extended federalism to include all of the governing order’s layers, including those to which women of all races and ethnicities had some access: those linked to the state, such as county, municipal courts, and other local governing venues, as well as those that were not linked to the state, such as churches, voluntary organizations, and families. In fact, new work suggests that states and the federal government were more accessible to women and men without the full range of rights than previously thought. Of course, access did not translate into leverage. Race, ethnicity, and class shaped women’s influence within these venues. Still, this new vision of federalism moves all women from the margins to the center, showing them to be more involved in the business of governance than previously assumed.[1]

How does this vision of federalism work in the context of the U.S. history survey? The new republic’s founding provides a good example. Surveys generally include some treatment of Revolutionary-era state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. But the discussion usually ends there, as if states and the federal government constituted the entirety of the governing order and, moreover, that it excluded women. That was hardly the case. Petitioning, as recent work shows, allowed access even to these arenas. Local courts and other bodies at the county and municipal level, moreover, continued to operate much as they had in the colonial era. Not only did these local jurisdictions still serve as the primary governing arena for most people, but they also exercised considerable discretion over the issues that directly affected the lives of most people, including most women. It was not just the location of these venues, although that helped; it was also the body of law in operation there that made them accessible to women. Local areas had wide latitude in the area of public law, a specific, open-ended body of law, which oversaw matters relating to the general welfare–everything from interpersonal violence and property disputes to poor relief and pretty much anything else that touched on the public order.[2]

Why does public law in local jurisdictions make women more visible? It shifts the narrative from exclusion to inclusion. In one sense, the founding fathers did not remember the ladies, as Abigail Adams suggested they do: women did not acquire the rights necessary for full participation in the new institutions of government set up at the state and federal levels. But that is only part of the story. Public law as practiced in local jurisdictions remained accessible not just to all women, but also to men whose race, ethnicity, or class left them without the rights necessary for full participation at the state and federal levels. Access did not imply equality, as I’ll explain below. But the key point here is that women were accustomed to being part of the public order—not in all its layers, but in some. That matters.

“Justices Court in Back Woods,” painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1850. Courtesy of ARTstor.

How did women access public law when most did not have the full range of rights? Historians have tended to focus on other bodies of law, namely those that focused on the rights of individuals at the state and federal levels. But, in fact, a number of different bodies of law circulated in the new republic: not just civil or private law (which primarily protected individual rights) and public law (including criminal and the regulation of matters relating to the social order generally), but also equity, the laws followed by merchants, various military codes, and the legal rules associated with religious denominations. They all worked differently. In particular, rights were not necessary to access public law, the body of law over which local jurisdictions had considerable discretion. Cases went forward as an offense against the public order, not a rights-bearing individual, which meant that married women, minor daughters, and sometimes even enslaved women could make claims within it.

What kinds of claims did women make? All kinds. Married and enslaved women claimed property for themselves. Free black women claimed ties of belonging—citizenship—to the places where they lived, as historian Martha Jones has shown. All women challenged violence committed against them by their husbands, fathers, employers, and masters as well as physical violence, sexual assault, rape, and other injustices committed by third parties. But their complaints were not just about themselves. They also acted on behalf of friends, family members, and neighbors. Collectively, these cases suggest the issues that concerned women as well as the extent to which they involved themselves in the governance of their communities.[3] The frame of public law accentuated the communal implications of their individual actions, by turning an offense against a single woman into a public matter: it was not just one woman who was hurt by a husband’s excessive force; the entire community was. See a selection of online sources provided here.[4]

What effect did their claims have? These cases could have transformative effects for individuals, when they were successful. Collectively, they formed potent legal principles that placed outer limits on expressions of patriarchal authority—but only in particular places. Local cases addressed particular problems in specific communities. They did not become a general body of law, applicable over wide spaces. Women’s claims, moreover, did not necessarily challenge the structural hierarchies of the social order, even in local areas. The system accommodated them. It could, because change was not really the point of this area of law in which women worked. To the contrary: public law upheld the existing social order, including the rigid hierarchies that defined it in this period. All those who stepped out of their place fared badly. To the extent that anyone of subordinate status had credibility, it was because of the social ties that defined their subordination. The system favored the wives and daughters of respectable, white men and those who maintained their own reputations within their communities. Poor white, free black, and enslaved women had more difficulty. They could maneuver in this area of law, although they needed stellar reputations and connections to powerful people to do so—which meant that they were most successful when they conformed to the rigid hierarchies of the time. The outcomes also affirmed those hierarchies. Husbands or masters convicted of abusing their wives or slaves were disciplined because they had abused their authority, not because patriarchal authority itself was problematic. Women were allowed to keep property, without acquiring property rights that would have made such cases unnecessary.

How do women’s legal actions fit within narratives of U.S. history? Bottom line: all of the cases brought by women in local courts are a central part of the history of the founding. The political landscape of the time not only included complaints about such things as women’s property ownership and sexual assault, as well as debates in the Federalist Papers, but also managed to diffuse those issues, to the point where the memory of them has almost disappeared altogether. All of that is part of federalism—and the politics of the new republic. Incorporating public law in municipal and local contexts recovers the history of the majority of students sitting in the survey class. It was not that women never owned property, until married women’s property acts. It was not that women remained silent about their own problems and those of their communities, until they had the right to vote. Incorporating public law illuminates the effects of federalism in real people’s lives, making abstract concepts more concrete and more meaningful.


[1] For an overview of this work, see Laura F. Edwards, “Sarah Allingham’s Sheet and Other Lessons from Legal History,” Journal of the Early Republic 38 (Spring 2018): 121-47. As recent scholarship has shown, the right of petitioning provided formalized access to states and the federal government to those without rights and played a significant role in directing public policy. See Maggie Blackhawk, “Petitioning and the Making of the Administrative State,” Yale Law Journal 127 (2018): 1448, and “Lobbying and the Petition Clause,” Stanford Law Review 68 (2016): 1131.

[2] Hendrik Hartog’s pathbreaking article, “Pigs and Positivism,” Wisconsin Law Review 4 (July 1985): 899-935, opened up the legal world beyond state and federal law. Also influential in this regard is Ariela J. Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). For the operation of public law at the local level, see Laura F. Edwards, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[3] For a particularly revealing study, see Meggan Farish, “Rethinking Violence, Legal Culture, and Community in New York City, 1785-1826” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2018).

[4] For other examples of cases, see Edwards, The People and Their Peace, particularly pp. 55-202. The points here are based not just in my own research, but also in the work of others. For examples of African American women claiming freedom, rights, and belonging, see Martha Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017); Anne Twitty, Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in America’s Confluence, 1787-1857 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). For African American women’s property claims, see Dylan Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Wives also advocated for themselves through divorce cases; see Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Michael Grossberg, A Judgment for Solomon: The d’Hauteville Case and Legal Experience in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Laura F. Edwards

Laura F. Edwards is the Peabody Family Distinguished Professor of History at Duke University. Her research focuses on women, gender, and the law in the nineteenth century, particularly the U.S. South. In addition to articles on these topics, she has published four books: A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (2015); The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009); Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (2000); and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (1997).

The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The sectional conflict in North America coincided with vast upheavals around the world, including the wars of unification in Central Europe (Italy from 1859 to 1871, and Germany from 1864 to 1871), whose impact Civil War historians have done some work to illustrate. In Asia, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), with its twenty million dead (one of the deadliest wars in human history), also coincided with the Civil War. However Civil War historians, both transnational and diplomatic, have paid very little attention to events in Asia. Yet for U.S. diplomatic and economic representatives, the war’s impact on trade, and even more, the threat posed by Confederate privateers, was an ever-present issue requiring them to protect the commercial and maritime interests of the United States, even in far away places like Singapore.

So far, the only work on Civil War relations with Asia highlights the offer of war elephants by the Siamese king to President Abraham Lincoln.[1] If this sounds somewhat reminiscent of some early Roman history with Hannibal crossing the Alps, there are some possible similarities. A blogger at The National Interest hypothesized what the 1st Ohio Pachyderm Battalion would have done at the Battle of Gettysburg, suggesting the use of the animals in the opening engagement with the Iron Brigade and the destruction of the advancing Confederates of A. P. Hill’s Corps.[2] While certainly humorous as a counterfactual exercise, to U.S. consuls in Singapore, the Civil War was all too real.

Singapore, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, sprang into existence in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established the city and port for the British East India Company. As a stopping point en route to China, the port gained importance with the opening of China as a result of the Opium War (1839-1842). The city was, and remains, an essential trade center in Southeast Asia.

View of the Harbor of Singapore, c. 1860, Leiden University Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the United States, trade in Singapore was initially of only limited importance. In January 1852, U.S. consul W. W. Shaw reported that demand for U.S.-made cotton products was “moderate.” Nevertheless, he assumed that, “the consumption of American Cotton Goods is likely to increase in this market judging from the more frequent enquiries for them of late.” Furthermore, in 1852, ships tended to leave for the U.S. Pacific Coast, especially San Francisco, if their destination was the United States. With the aftereffects of the California Gold Rush, captains had to recruit new crew members in Singapore since recruiting sailors in San Francisco was extremely expensive, which had a detrimental impact on shipping costs.[3]

By the end of the 1850s, commercial activities in Singapore boomed again. Singapore’s location “as a commercial sea-port” was the result of “being situated on the great highway to India, China, Japan, and South Eastern Asia.” Over a hundred U.S. merchant vessels visited the port annually. Consul J. P. Sullivan used the commercial importance to point out that his salary was woefully inadequate to handle the trade, pay for a building to run the consulate in, and hire staff, a common complaint among U.S. consular agents at the time.[4]

The Civil War soon had an impact on the trade in Singapore. Whereas U.S. merchants represented the second largest group of ships in port prior to the war, the conflict allowed German merchants to assume second place. The change was in part the result of Confederate activities in Asian waters.[5]

One particular incident speaks to how Confederate naval operations complicated the U.S. presence in Asia. On December 8, 1863, U.S. consul Francis W. Cobb reported the departure of the U.S.S. Wyoming in search of the raider C.S.S. Alabama, an infamous Confederate ship that roamed the oceans for nearly two years.[6] Only two weeks later the Alabama arrived in Singapore. Captain Raphael Semmes had made his way across the Indian Ocean from the Cape Colony. The Alabama overnighted in port, and as Consul Cobb wrote in his report, took on coal for its continued voyage.[7]

The CSS Alabama. Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Cobb’s attempts to communicate with the crew of the Alabama failed, as port authorities did not allow anyone near the ship. Like all U.S. representatives overseas, Cobb wanted the ship brought to justice and he frantically tried to locate the Wyoming’s exact whereabouts. He knew the U.S. vessel was on its way to Batavia to repair its boiler.[8] Unfortunately, the Wyoming did not receive the honor of bringing down Semmes. In accordance with British neutrality laws, which required belligerent vessels to depart port again within twenty-four hours, the Alabama put to sea on December 24. Despite Cobb’s failure to reach the vessel, others were luckier. Cobb explained that many Singaporeans visited the ship out of curiosity, which, he thought, should not be confused with sympathy.[9] Sadly, on the day of the Alabama’s departure from Singapore, the raider destroyed a British and U.S. merchant vessel, the latter probably the Texas Star.[10] Thankfully, after only three destroyed ships, Semmes departed the region for refits in France, where its career eventually ended outside of Cherbourg.

Ever so briefly the Civil War reared its ugly maritime face in Singapore, but merely the threat of Confederate privateering had an impact on U.S. trade in the region. While elephants at Gettysburg is a hair-brained counterfactual, much less crazy is the possibility of the Wyoming bringing the Alabama to battle in the Straits of Malacca. British colonial authorities around the empire faced difficult decisions when Confederate vessels put into port—a topic that is finally getting attention within the Atlantic context, but still needs more attention in Asia.[11] Similarly, the threat of these vessels had an impact on U.S. trade in Singapore, which was still on the margins of the U.S. trade network during the 1850s and 1860s. However, only once Civil War diplomatic and transnational historians start to integrate the far flung places of empire will we get a full understanding of the impact of the war around the world, and not be stuck with the decision makers in London and Paris.


[1] William F. Strobridge and Anita Hibler, Elephants for Mr. Lincoln: American Civil War-Era Diplomacy in Southeast Asia (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006).

[2] Angry Staff Officer, “What Would Have Happened If Lincoln Had Used Combat Elephants in the Civil War?” The National Interest, September 29, 2019,

[3] W. W. Shaw to Daniel E. Webster, January 30, 1852, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 3, January 21, 1852-August 20, 1855, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as NARA).

[4] J. P. O’Sullivan to Lewis Cass, January 23, 1859, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 5, February 1, 1858-November 16, 1859, NARA.

[5] Percy E. Schramm, Deutschland und Übersee: Der Deutsche Handel mit den Anderen Kontinenten, insbesondere Afrika, von Karl V. bis zu Bismmarck (Braunschweig, Germany: Georg Westermann Verlag, 1950), 88-90.

[6] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 8, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[7] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[8] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[9] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[10] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[11] Beau Cleland, “Between King Cotton and Queen Victoria: Confederate Informal Diplomacy and Privatized Violence in British America During the American Civil War,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Calgary, 2019).

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.

Paul Barba Joins Us as Field Correspondent

Paul Barba Joins Us as Field Correspondent

As longtime readers know, at Muster we publish pieces that are commissioned or submitted to us for consideration, but we also have a slate of field correspondents who write regular “dispatches”–posts that explore the varied facets of life in the Civil War era and help readers broaden their understanding of the period. We are pleased to announce that we have a new correspondent joining us in 2020, writing on the Civil War in the West and borderlands history. Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the journal Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. Welcome to the team!

We would also like to thank Maria Angela Diaz, who was our first correspondent covering Western topics. She stepped down to focus on writing her manuscript, currently titled Saving the Southern Empire: The Gulf South, Latin America, and the Civil War. Thank you, Angela, for your contributions to Muster!

Poetry Not Yet Written: Revisiting Glory Thirty Years Later

Poetry Not Yet Written: Revisiting Glory Thirty Years Later

Promotional poster for Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures.

Glory begins as so many Civil War films do: the sun rises on a vast battlefield, brave Union men march into war, and a ferocious battle ensues, American and Confederate flags billowing in the background. Despite its adherence to well-worn tropes, however, Glory tells a tale that is often obscured – even obliterated – in Civil War narratives. Edward Zwick’s 1989 classic follows the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments to fight for the Union cause. Viewed within the larger canon of Civil War films, Glory is a triumph. Most of these narratives sidestep the issue of slavery in order to appeal to the widest possible audience; Glory, in contrast, never lets the viewer forget that this truly was a war of emancipation. This laudable achievement aside, though, Glory has many significant shortcomings. And, as the film celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this December, it is well worth asking the question: who gets to tell this story?

Given Glory’s subject matter, the viewer could reasonably expect the men of the 54th Massachusetts to take center stage. Yet, mere moments into the film, it becomes clear that Glory is, in many ways, the story of the regiment’s white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The powerful narration of the film is drawn from Shaw’s real-life letters home, affording the viewer intimate access to the colonel’s thoughts, fears, and hopes. Never mind that the men of the 54th also wrote letters home – this fact is never imagined, much less acknowledged, and the viewer remains wholly unaware of the inner lives of the black men at the heart of the story. This negligence has significant consequences in Glory, and no small amount of unintended irony. At the beginning of the film, Shaw declares with evident self-satisfaction: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.” In fact, there was a well-established tradition of African American poetry by this time in American history, a literary movement that included the voices of both free and enslaved black people.[1] The poetry of these men and women was indeed being written – Colonel Robert Gould Shaw simply wasn’t reading it.[2]

The men of the 54th are immensely compelling characters in their own right, yet Glory’s depiction of the regiment’s black soldiers never quite reaches the depth and nuance it reserves for its white protagonist. This lapse is most painfully evident in the case of Trip (Denzel Washington), a composite character based on several real-life soldiers who came to the unit as former slaves. Trip is a quick-tempered and confrontational man, who refuses to back down in the face of authority. In one of the film’s most significant moments, he turns down the honor of carrying the American flag into battle, defiantly telling Colonel Shaw: “I ain’t fighting this war for you, sir.” As powerful as Trip’s character is (Washington would win an Academy Award for his portrayal), the viewer’s insight into his lived experience remains quite limited. The few conversations touching on his enslavement are filled with tense silences, and the true contours of his suffering are never fully explored. This superficial portrayal of Trip’s life – whether a matter of intention or oversight by Glory’s producers – was a missed opportunity; even in the 1980s, there was no dearth of literature on slavery the filmmakers and screenwriters could have used for research.

Denzel Washington in Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures.

Furthermore, Trip’s fury is often tempered – even invalidated – by his colleagues in the 54th. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) takes issue with Trip’s aggrieved demeanor throughout the film, chastising him for being “full of hate” merely because he’s “been whipped and chased by hounds.” In case Trip misses the point, Rawlins declares: “that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now, dying by the thousands, dying for you, fool.” This statement is distressing for two reasons: first, Rawlins denies Trip the right to be angry, asserting that the horrors he experienced as a slave do not justify his bitter outlook and, moreover, do not match the ultimate sacrifice made by “these white boys.” Furthermore, the assertion that white men had been dying for African Americans throughout the Civil War is deeply flawed, given that many Union soldiers joined the war effort purely to fight secession and did not, in fact, support the cause of emancipation; some even deserted when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.[3]

Over the past thirty years, historians have generally praised Glory for its historical accuracy, its skillful depiction of the war’s oft-forgotten heroes, and its refusal to adhere to Lost Cause ideologies. Shortly after the film’s cinematic release, Pulitzer-Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson wrote a review of Glory in The New Republic, citing it as “the most powerful and historically accurate movie about that war ever made.”[4] McPherson wrote that Glory  would “throw a cold dash of realism over the moonlight-and-magnolias portrayal of the Confederacy,” and might even restore the heroic image of black soldiers which prevailed in the North for a brief time during and after the war, before the Lost Cause became entrenched.[5]

Nearly two decades later, the historian Gary Gallagher made similar observations about Glory in his book, Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. Gallagher’s analysis focuses primarily on Glory’s depiction of the Civil War as a battle of emancipation, noting that Hollywood films since the late 1980s have largely dismissed preservation of the Union as a central motivator for Northern soldiers. This artistic license, Gallagher writes, often comes at the cost of historical accuracy, effectively promoting a “flawed conception of the North’s Civil War,” given that many white soldiers were ambivalent toward the cause of emancipation.[6] This negligence notwithstanding, Gallagher maintains that Glory had a positive and tangible impact. He notes that even its star, Denzel Washington, had been unaware that black people fought in the Civil War. Washington was hardly alone; Gallagher writes that “moviegoers across the United States left screenings with a similar realization that the military struggle between 1861 and 1865 had not been a lily-white affair. In that respect, Glory worked a sea change in popular perceptions about the conflict.”[7]

McPherson and Gallagher have certainly made valuable contributions to the conversation about Glory. However, their respective analyses overlook a vital aspect of the film’s legacy: the framing of the 54th’s story though Colonel Shaw’s perspective. For decades, sociologists and black theorists have explored the implications of black stories being told by white storytellers, often referred to as “racial ventriloquism.”[8] Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel examine this topic in their book, From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life. These scholars note that white-authored narratives are frequently “used to structure perceptions of American race relations, particularly black racial experiences,” while the work of black writers rarely achieves such dominance.[9] The authors assert that this cultural hegemony persists despite the continuing efforts of black storytellers. Although black writers, filmmakers, television producers, and scriptwriters have depicted both black and white stories through mainstream media, their works seldom achieve the level of financial success granted to white-authored narratives, “and thus do not figure greatly in Americans’ understanding of race in general and black experiences in particular.”[10] These white writers – no matter how well-intentioned – are thus culpable in a “long history of constructing ‘blackness’ to serve hegemonic concerns,” a tradition which effectively denies black people the agency to tell their own stories.[11]

Matthew Broderick, who portrayed Robert Gould Shaw in Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures.

In cinema, such narratives are often referred to as “white savior films.” Sociologist Matthew Hughey investigates this phenomenon in his book, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. He writes that these stories are “often guided by a logic that racializes and separates people into those who are redeemers (whites) and those who are redeemed or in need of redemption (nonwhites).”[12] White savior films can have profound societal consequences. Hughey cites studies on the lack of interracial communication in many predominantly white areas in the United States, noting that 86 percent of suburban whites live in communities where black people make up fewer than 1 percent of the population.[13] In this context, he asserts, popular films become a kind of proxy for real-life interracial interactions. [14] This framework is certainly at work in Glory. Although the film depicts the 54th Massachusetts as a regiment of former slaves, the majority of the soldiers were, in fact, born free in the North.[15] Such a depiction paves the way for a falsified journey from slavery to freedom, a journey not possible without the fearless leadership of their white colonel (and white savior), Robert Gould Shaw.

The makers of Glory were certainly telling a story that needs to be told – but it is not their story to tell. Indeed, as Glory celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this December, it is worth taking a closer look at whose voices are being heard, both onscreen and behind the scenes (Glory having been written, directed, and produced by white men). In accepting the premise that the poetry of black Americans had “not yet been written,” Glory ensures that whatever poetry it does present is that of its white hero and savior. Viewers must question why, in a film specifically about black soldiers, the perspectives of African Americans are so conspicuously absent. In recent years, many historians have begun to call for a new Civil War documentary, one in which Shelby Foote’s romanticized view of the Old South is not the dominant voice. Perhaps it is also time for a new Glory, a version devoid of “racial ventriloquism,” in which the men of the Massachusetts 54th are not only free from slavery, but free to tell their own stories.


[1] Erika DeSimone and Fidel Louis, Voices beyond Bondage: an Anthology of Verse by African Americans of the 19th Century (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2014).

[2] Katie O’Halloran Brown, “Letters of Black Soldiers from Ohio Who Served in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries during the Civil War,” Ohio Valley History 16, no. 3 (2016): 72-79.

[3] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 123.

[4] James M. McPherson, “TNR Film Classic: ‘Glory’ (1990),” The New Republic, January 15, 1990,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 92.

[7] Ibid., 95.

[8] Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel, From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 1.

[9] Ibid., 1-2.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Matthew W. Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 2.

[13] Ibid., 15.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “‘Glory,’ the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and Black Soldiers in the Civil War,” The History Teacher 24, no. 4 (1991): 475-85, 478.

Ella Starkman-Hynes

Ella Starkman-Hynes is an independent author and graduate of McGill University. She is currently applying to graduate school for U.S. history and intends to specialize in Civil War memory. Her research focuses primarily on the depiction of the Civil War in popular culture, and she is currently working on a project examining northern memory of the war through twentieth-century literature.

Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

For better or for worse, public opinion polls are deeply embedded in American politics. Proponents argue that polls keep elected officials connected to their constituents, make the government more responsive to popular demands, and dispel “myths and stereotypes that might otherwise mislead public discourse.”[1] Critics argue that strict obedience to even the most accurate polls enables politicians to shirk the responsibilities of leadership, while misleading ones can damage the policymaking process and skew elections. Ever since George Gallup correctly projected Franklin Roosevelt’s victory over Alf Landon in 1936, however, serious politicians have relied on polls to help them manage campaigns and make crucial decisions.

But what about the generations of politicians who won, lost, and governed without the benefit of scientific polling? How, for instance, did Civil War-era politicians keep a pulse on public opinion? And how can historians recover their efforts to do so?

Nineteenth-century politicians had several tools for measuring the public mood. Like their constituents, politicians were voracious newspaper readers. While most Civil War-era papers were openly partisan, their news columns and editorials provided valuable information about what journalists were thinking and what voters were reading. Determining what any given politician read can be tricky, but traces turn up in a variety of sources, including congressional records, which reveal which newspapers were purchased for individual senators and representatives. The contingent expense report for the 35th Congress (1857-1859), for example, shows that eight members of the House of Representatives subscribed to the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, including both Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, later an infamous “Copperhead” Democrat, and Francis Preston Blair, Jr., a Missouri Republican and future Union general.

“Contingent Expenses – House of Representatives,” Letter from the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Communicating His Annual Report of the Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives, House Documents, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., Misc. Doc. No. 25 (n.p.: n.p. [1860]), 117.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives kept careful track of the newspapers that were purchased for and delivered to their members. Although somewhat obscure, these records reveal much about how Civil War-era politicians kept up with national and local opinion.

Mingling directly with constituents was another option, of course, and some officeholders reserved time for regular face-to-face contact. Abraham Lincoln famously held biweekly receptions to allow any and all visitors to speak with him in the White House. Although taxing—and potentially dangerous—these “public-opinion baths,” as Lincoln called them, yielded vital political intelligence. “I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way,” Lincoln explained, and the receptions gave him “a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage” to which he was responsible.[2] These were far from scientific polls, of course, and they were necessarily limited to those able to visit Washington, D.C., but the ritual reflected both the humanity and the shrewdness of a man who believed that “public sentiment is everything” in American politics.[3]

Private correspondence was another valuable source of information, particularly for occupants of state or national offices who had to relocate to state capitals or Washington for extended periods of time. Thus, archival collections of politicians’ papers can illuminate crucial intelligence-sharing networks. Some statesmen relied on family members for the latest news on public sentiment. Lucy Lambert Hale, for instance, maintained a politically candid correspondence with her husband, New Hampshire senator John Parker Hale, while he was away at Washington. In December 1848, she reported on a sermon delivered by a local minister who warned against making any degrading compromises on slavery, and in other letters detailed the extent of antislavery sentiment in their hometown of Dover.[4] For all their insight, however, Hale’s letters are limited in scope because it would have been considered unseemly for her to mingle in many of the spaces, like courthouses or taverns, where so much of nineteenth-century politicking took place.

Most politicians also received piles of constituent correspondence, which typically consisted of fulsome praise, angry recrimination, and, above all, urgent requests for patronage, ranging from pensions to postmasterships. Careful readers could glean nuggets of political intelligence from these letters, but the authors were prone to irrational exuberance or despondency, particularly right after elections. Many were also laden with self-serving flattery; a constituent seeking a plum government job, after all, would hardly be inclined to downplay the recipient’s popularity at home.

Not surprisingly, many powerful statesmen relied on one type of correspondent: the local agent who may or may not have held office, but served as the politician’s eyes and ears within a particular community. Careful study of rich archival collections shows that many of these pen pals supplied politicians with vital local updates over extended periods of time. One example is the unheralded but politically astute Samuel Ashton, who for several turbulent years provided Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas with timely and candid appraisals of public opinion in Chicago. Douglas had called Chicago home since 1847 but spent much of the year in Washington while the Senate was in session. As a register at the local land office and, from 1854 to 1856, an alderman from Chicago’s eighth ward, Ashton was well-positioned to keep tabs on developments in a city that had once been a base of Douglas’s strength but, by the 1850s, was beginning to turn against him.[5]

“Chicago, As It Was.” Currier & Ives, ca. 1856-1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The bustling Lake Michigan port city of Chicago had been a core element of Stephen A. Douglas’s political strength since his first bid for a congressional seat in 1838. As his political support in Chicago waxed and waned in the 1850s, updates from local operatives like Samuel Ashton provided a vital link between Douglas and his home city.

Ashton wrote to Douglas less frequently than some of the senator’s other operatives, like Indianapolis postmaster William W. Wick or Springfield resident Isaac R. Diller, but he offered inside information at critical moments. As the backlash against Douglas’s pending Kansas-Nebraska bill intensified in early 1854, for instance, Ashton penned a detailed account of a protest meeting held at North Market Hall (now Court House Place).[6] Two years later, Ashton sent a much more buoyant report shortly after Chicago Democrats endorsed Douglas for the presidential nomination.[7] Ashton’s commentary was colored by his partisanship—he denounced the anti-Nebraska meeting as the work of “violent whigs and abolitionists, assisted by a number of broken down politicians and disappointed office seekers”—but he shared an informed perspective on local affairs when Douglas was away from home for months at a time.[8] And because Ashton was politically prominent without being a rival for Douglas’s power in the Illinois Democratic Party, he was an ideal source of news.

Douglas clearly appreciated Ashton’s insights because in 1855 he sought to repay the shrewd Chicagoan in the expected nineteenth-century style: by securing him a patronage appointment. In the spring of 1855, Douglas recommended Ashton for a captaincy in one of the U.S. Army’s new regiments. The nomination provoked a prickly exchange of letters with the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and ultimately Ashton—and Douglas—came away empty-handed when the commission went to another applicant.[9]

The Ashton episode seems trivial in comparison with the weighty decisions and quotable speeches that made Civil War-era politics so dramatic. But tracing the networks of family, friends, and allies which kept politicians apprised of developments back home, helps to reveal the inner workings of a nineteenth-century political world in which information was, as it always is, a vital source of power.


[1] Quoted in Matthew J. Streb and Michael A. Genovese, “Polling and the Dilemmas of Democracy,” in Polls and Politics: The Dilemmas of Democracy, eds. Michael A. Genovese and Matthew J. Streb (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004), 2.

[2] Charles G. Halpine recollection in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, comp. and ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 194.

[3] Quoted in Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 493.

[4] Lucy Lambert Hale to John P. Hale, December 3, 1848, Box 1A, Folder 5, John Parker Hale Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire.

[5] M.L. Ahern, The Political History of Chicago (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1886), 105-106; Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 166.

[6] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

[7] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 5, 1856, Box 4, Folder 21, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[8] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[9] Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, March 15, 1854, Box 42, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers; James Shields and Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 23, 1854, in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), II, 450; Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 30, 1855, in The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, ed. Robert W. Johannsen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 336; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, April 5, 1855, in Rowland, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, II, 448-450; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, February 10, 16, 1857, Box 42, Folder 6, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

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.

‘Disgrace, Ridicule, Hatred, Contempt and Reproach’: The Impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump

‘Disgrace, Ridicule, Hatred, Contempt and Reproach’: The Impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump

Standing portrait of Andrew Johnson. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.

“There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” complained President Donald Trump as the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry in September 2019.[1] Only three other Presidents have faced impeachment inquiries, and they certainly felt the weight of the world had fallen upon them too. But as commentators have turned to the Nixon and Clinton cases for guidance on how an impeachment process should unfold, it might make better sense to turn to the case of Andrew Johnson, especially as it was the first Presidential impeachment trial.

On March 2, 1868, the House of Representatives passed nine articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act when he removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and replaced him with Lorenzo Thomas, without the approval of the Senate. A day later the House passed two new impeachment articles. The tenth article addressed Johnson’s broader “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach the Congress of the United States” through “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues,” and the eleventh cited Johnson’s efforts to prevent passage of the Fourteenth Amendment by claiming that the Congress did not fully represent the United States.[2] On May 16 the Senate voted 35 to 19 on the eleventh charge, one vote short of the Constitutionally required two-thirds necessary for conviction and removal of Johnson from office. Ten days later the Senate trial adjourned.[3]

House impeachment managers needed to clear four thresholds to make the legal and political case for conviction. They needed to identify a “high crime or misdemeanor” justifying impeachment; prove that Andrew Johnson had, in fact, committed that high crime; demonstrate that Johnson committed this high crime with corrupt or malign intent; and show that Johnson was such an ongoing menace to the Constitution that the nation could not wait for November elections to remove him. The House’s attempt to clear these four thresholds in the Johnson case offers a helpful guide for understanding the impeachment of Donald Trump.

For the first threshold, House manager and Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Butler defined a high crime as an action “subversive of some fundamental or essential principle of government or highly prejudicial to the public interest.” It could either violate statutory law or, if not found in the legal code, reflect “the abuse of discretionary powers from improper motives or for an improper purpose.”[4] The House’s focus on Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act as the high crime proved difficult because of the dubious constitutionality and technical nature of the Act. The Act required the President to submit for Senate approval the removal of any Senate-confirmed executive officer. Passed at the end of the prior Congress in March 1867, the Act got to the heart of the larger dispute between Johnson and Congress over the course of Reconstruction.[5] The Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 eliminated Johnson’s preferred state governments and placed the former Confederate states–except Tennessee–under military rule as they passed new state constitutions that protected the civil and voting rights of African Americans. Johnson repeatedly interfered with the work of effective commanders like Generals Sheridan and Sickles, replacing them with more pliant conservative officers likely to stifle the prospects of interracial democracy and justice.[6] Congress designed the Tenure of Office Act to counter this kind of interference with its Reconstruction plan by protecting Senate-confirmed Cabinet officials like Secretary of War Stanton. When Johnson suspended Stanton in August 1867 and then replaced him with Lorenzo Thomas in February 1868–even after the Senate rejected Johnson’s removal of Stanton–Johnson had pushed Republicans past the breaking point.

The Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Courtesy of PBS.

Johnson’s highly capable defense counsel argued that the Tenure of Office Act did not cover Stanton at all, because it only protected an officer for the term of the President plus one additional month of his successor’s term. Since Stanton had been appointed by President Lincoln in 1862, Stanton’s protection under the Act would run out in May 1865. House impeachment managers countered that Johnson had treated the matter all along as if Stanton were covered by the Act, right up until the final replacement with Thomas, and that Johnson’s term effectively continued Lincoln’s term. But that was not enough in the end, as William Groesbeck, Johnson’s lawyer, deployed this argument to convince seven “recusant” Republicans to join the Democrats and acquit.[7]

The second task in 1868 was to show that the President personally committed the high crime in question. For House managers, this was relatively easy since Johnson openly ordered Stanton’s removal himself. However, Johnson’s counsel argued that he never successfully consummated the removal of Stanton and should not be impeached and removed merely for attempting to violate the Tenure of Office Act.[8]

As for the third task–demonstrating corrupt and malign intent–House managers in the Johnson case showed how Johnson’s repeated refusal to accept Congressional authority indicated that his violation of the Tenure of Office Act was a deliberate threat to the Constitutional order. The House voted first on the eleventh impeachment article regarding the legitimacy of Congressional power, because it encapsulated the grave threat to the Constitutional order that Johnson posed. Defense counsel countered that Johnson showed good faith in notifying the Senate of Stanton’s removal per the Tenure of Office Act–mostly as a precautionary measure, as they saw it–and that his violation of the Act was simply a mistake and not a malign offense against the Constitution.

Regarding the fourth threshold–ongoing threat to the Constitution–Johnson made a rather remarkable promise to the House managers that he would no longer try to remove generals involved in Reconstruction. The trial’s timing actually helped matters, as several states ratified new constitutions before Johnson could possibly undermine them.[9] When Johnson committed to name an acceptable candidate, John Schofield as Secretary of War, some Republican Senators determined that Johnson had been chastened enough, especially with the November 1868 election in the near future.

Turning to the Trump case, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated impeachment hearings in September 2019 after a whistleblower reported questionable activity surrounding the President’s interactions with the government of Ukraine. Several witnesses have now testified that Trump withheld Congressionally authorized defense aid for Ukraine–and a highly coveted White House visit by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky–in return for a public announcement of an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. Hunter Biden, son of Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, sat on Burisma’s board between 2014 and 2019. If Ukraine’s President were to announce an investigation into the Bidens, it would undoubtedly cast a cloud over Joe Biden’s Presidential prospects in 2020. Trump only released the withheld funds when the whistleblower report reached Congress, just days before Ukrainian President Zelensky was prepared to announce the “investigation” on CNN.

Specific impeachment charges for Trump may include violations of campaign finance law making it “illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,”[10] or violation of the Impoundment Control Act governing distribution of Congressional funds.[11] Technically, soliciting foreign election help in the form of an “investigation announcement” would, in itself, be a crime. But it alone might not rise to the level of impeachable high crime. However, a quid pro quo between that announcement and withheld financial aid raises the matter to something akin to extortion or bribery, an obviously impeachable offense spelled out in the Constitution.

Trump’s defenders have argued that this is biased hearsay evidence, and since the Biden investigation was never announced, no quid pro quo occurred. They have claimed that trusted allies like Rudy Giuliani or Ambassador Gordon Sondland may have freelanced the operation. Trump’s defenders have also argued that he was legitimately trying to fight corruption in Ukraine by investigating a firm, Burisma, that has long come under scrutiny for corrupt behavior. As in the Johnson impeachment, the primary issue is malign intent. Just as Johnson’s counsel argued that his violation of the Tenure of Office Act was mostly accidental and procedural, Trump defenders will likely argue that his intent was to carry out his Constitutional responsibilities to manage foreign policy as he sees fit.

For all of these reasons, House investigators have sought evidence of Trump’s direct involvement and willingness to follow through until caught by the whistleblower and Congress. To show corrupt and malign intent, the House has argued that Trump’s use of back-channel communications, his refusal to discuss Ukrainian corruption in any other context, and, most importantly, his demand that President Zelensky announce an investigation into the Bidens on CNN, all demonstrate corrupt intent to turn foreign policy into a “domestic political errand.”[12] Further, the ongoing threat to continue soliciting foreign interference is precisely what convinced so many reluctant Democrats to support impeachment. Impeachment serves as a preventative measure against future foreign election interference, much the same as it did for Johnson, forestalling any continued interference with Reconstruction.

Like with the Johnson case, Trump’s impeachment involves both technical matters of law and broader political contexts. The President will need defense counsel of the quality that served Andrew Johnson, both to refute the impeachment articles in the Senate and to offer the general public talking points for the President’s defense.

As a final note, we should be careful about predicting an outcome in the Senate based on partisanship. The partisan makeup of the Senate in 1868 portended certain conviction for Andrew Johnson. Instead he was acquitted by a single vote. The partisan makeup of the Senate in 2019 suggests certain acquittal. But if the House managers’ case is powerful enough, and the defense case weak and disjointed, the Senate may surprise us all, as it did in 1868.


[1] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have. The Democrats are frozen with hatred and fear. They get nothing done. This should never be allowed to happen to another President. Witch Hunt!” Twitter post, September 25, 2019 (7:24AM EST),

[2] Supplement to the Congressional Globe Containing the Proceedings of the Senate Sitting for the Trial of Andrew Johnson, 40th Cong., 2nd Sess., 3–5.

[3] The best analyses of the impeachment and trial of President Johnson are Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (New York: Random House, 2019) and Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973). Readers can also consult an earlier Muster post, Patrick Rael, “By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would Be a No-Brainer,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, September 1, 2017,

[4] Trial of Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, before the Senate of the United States, on impeachment by the House of Representatives for high crimes and misdemeanors (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868), 88, 147. Hereafter cited as Trial.

[5] An Act Regulating the Tenure of Certain Civil Offices, 14 Stat. 430-432 (1867).

[6] Benedict, 58-59.

[7] Wineapple, 325.

[8] Trial, 364.

[9] Gregory Downs, “Impeachment is the right call even if the Senate keeps President Trump in office,” Washington Post, October 7, 2019,

[10] Contributions and Donations by Foreign Nationals (a), 52 U.S.C. § 30121 (2002).

[11] Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, 2 U.S.C. § 601-688 (1974).

[12] Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine’s Zelensky Bowed to Trump’s Demands, Until Luck Spared Him,” New York Times, November 7, 2019; Fiona Hill, National Security Counsel official, made the “domestic political errand” comment in her testimony on November 21, 2019. See

Aaron Astor

Aaron Astor is Associate Professor of History at Maryville College in Tennessee. He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (LSU Press, 2012) and The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau (History Press, 2015). He is currently at work on a book on the 1860 Presidential election as a grassroots phenomenon from the perspective of four American communities.