Category: Blog

Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden, with the stroke of a pen, cemented Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the United States. The momentous occasion was long overdue. Modern advocates, including Ralph Abernathy Lula Briggs Galloway, publicly reignited attention to the importance of Juneteenth to honor the lives of Blacks in the United States—enslaved and freed—by nationally commemorating the day. Still, it is a welcome acknowledgment of the atrocities committed by white supremacists in Galveston, Texas, who successfully maintained slavery months after the Civil War officially ended. Black Galvestonians who remained enslaved finally learned of their freedom from the U.S. Army after U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order, Number 3, on June 15, 1865. He stated, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”[1] Upon hearing the news, there was genuine shock amongst African Americans in the area who learned that their freedom, civil rights, and the denial of their humanity came over three months after the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. Since the inaugural commemorative event on June 19, 1866, Juneteenth evolved from a localized tradition to a national day of remembrance and celebration that allows people to honor the perseverance of Black people, even in the face of hardships.[2]

Group of African American in outdoor setting
Officers and Directors of Emancipation Park Association, 1909, photograph, 1909. Courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,

For numerous United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, post-Juneteenth military service in Texas provided a different understanding of freedom. Northern USCT veterans, even those who protected freed Texans, were more likely in the Reconstruction Era to celebrate Emancipation Day or Independence Day whereas Juneteenth received more attention from Texans. To be clear, this piece is in no way attempting to devalue or detract from the horrors that Black Galvestonians’ experienced. Instead, this piece seeks to complicate current discourse about how racial discrimination kept USCT soldiers stationed in Texas from reclaiming their lives as civilians, possibly returning to kin desperate for their return. Thus, it is vital that conversations about the calculated efforts of white Texans to deny the freedom to enslaved people directly coincided with the U.S. Army’s decision to keep USCT regiments in service, to enforce federal policies, which kept them returning to civilian life to numerous soldiers and their kin hoped would occur.

In the months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, returning home was a predominantly white male privilege in both armies. The U.S. War Department rapidly demobilized and mustered out numerous white U.S. Army regiments based on the notion that they earned the right to return home because they served lengthy terms. While this point is true, it also ignores the fact that Black men repeatedly, and sometimes forcefully, had their attempts to enlist denied at the local, state, and national level. Even Confederates Army prisoners of war earned their releases before USCT regiments could muster out of service.[3] Yes, the Civil War was officially over; however, the U.S War Department reasoned that USCT regiments should remain in service. That decision illustrates that the U.S. willingly imposed racially discriminatory policies that prioritized the nation over the men who saved nation. At the same time, federal policy simultaneously allowed many traitors to rejoin, with varying caveats, the nation. While never explicitly stated, Federal officials and War Department needed USCT regiments to accomplish national objectives throughout the immediate postwar.

Throughout Texas, USCT regiments, including the Eighth United States Colored Infantry (USCI), the Twenty-Sixth USCI, and the Forty-Third USCI, had multiple responsibilities to achieve. Their duties included enforcing various U.S. policies that punished ex-Confederates, protect freedpeople as they navigated life outside of bondage, and stayed near the Mexican-U.S. border to deter any potential French invasion led by Napoleon III’s military forces.[4] All of those tasks were extremely important, for differing reasons, to the U.S. For freedpeople in Texas, having many of their liberators and protectors be USCT soldiers was without question a surreal and inspirational site. Military officials felt that various USCT regiments needed to continue serving. Additionally, by the autumn of 1866, Texas saw the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the hopes to provide resources and support for freedpeople.[5] Though, freedpeople still needed the protections of USCT veterans to assert many of the rights awarded by the Freedman’s Bureau.

For numerous USCT soldiers, however, their prolonged time in the military caused many problems for the men on the frontlines and their kin on the home front. Due to inadequate supply lines, some USCT officers hoarded resources, including uncontaminated food and water. The enlisted men continued performing physically demanding work. As a result, many soldiers became severely ill or developed physical disabilities that were life-altering and could sometimes be fatal. Soldiers’ ailments and deaths had horrific consequences for their relatives who were desperate for the men to return home. Conversely, the ailments of kin at home had the potential to cause great concern amongst USCT soldiers. For instance, Etta Watson (the wife of an unnamed New York USCT soldier) expressed her sadness with her husband’s absence, especially once their child became ill. She wrote, “I have sad news for you…little Fay is [sick]….Oh how I wish you could be hear….”[6]

Throughout their military service, many USCT soldiers experienced unexpected financial issues that caused immensely, and in some cases dramatic, problems for the men and their families. Sadly, many USCT soldiers did not receive their monthly payments, usually due to the inefficiency of military paymasters. Some USCT soldiers did not receive their payments for nearly nine months, dating back to their enlistment. Nation-wide Black families suffered as they desperately beseeched the soldiers for their back pay and any federal enlistment bounties. Anne Elizabeth Valentine, for instance, wrote to her spouse, Tillman Valentine, that she eagerly awaited money that he earned while serving in the Third USCI.[7]  Meanwhile, Forty-Third USCI soldier, Henry Carpenter Hoyle, wrote to the Christian Recorder noting that he and his fellow enlisted men struggled on two fronts as they worried about their families on the home front. “There are many down here worrying themselves about home and money. I am well aware what it is to be without money and away from home,” he wrote.[8] Thus, the persistent inability to transfer money home had the potential to exacerbate dire economic living situations for the kin of USCT soldiers.

Some Black soldiers felt that they accomplished the mission of vanquishing the Confederate States of America, which many USCT advocates repeatedly noted during their various enlistment campaigns. Now USCT soldiers pondered why they did not end their service. Northern USCT soldiers had had enough of the soldier’s life and openly requested to have their service ended. At least one soldier, Elijah Reeves, in the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry inquired with Zachariah Chandler, a Republican Michigan senator, why his regiment did not have the chance to return to their kin. “…Peace has again brightened our sky, the pecuniary circumstances of an aged grand mother and several orphan sisters whose sole dependence is on my earning, prompts me to solicit with your influence, my honorable discharge.”[9] Enlisted men, such as Reeves, stationed in various former Confederate states wanted to be home. In short, it was time to return to their civilian life with their kin.

Ultimately, Juneteenth is a complex historical moment that is finally getting the national recognition that it rightly deserves. Though, we must understand that Black people—soldiers and civilians, free and enslaved—experienced the moment(s) very differently. Contextualizing them together not only complicates, but deepens the magnitude of the immediate post-Civil War era for thousands of Black people in the U.S. Both cases reveal that June 1865 took on differing meanings for Black people in and outside of Texas. Thus, by commemorating Juneteenth we not only honor Black Galvestonians, but also the hardships that USCT soldiers and their kin across the United States experienced.

[1] Henry Louis-Gates, “What Is Juneteenth,” Public Broadcast System,, accessed on 7/7/2021.

[2] Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth (New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2021), 11-13.

[3] Jeffrey W. McClurken, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of VirginiaPress, 2009), 41.

[4] William Seraile, New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2001), 83-84.

[5] Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Freedwomen and The Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, & Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 18, 40, 47, 50-51.

[6] Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861—1867, Series 2, The Black Military Experience, eds. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 668.

[7] Jonathan W. White, Katie Fisher, and Elizabeth Wall, “The Civil War Letters of Tillman Valentine, Third US Colored Troops,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 139, no. 2 (April 2015): 183-184.

[8] Henry Carpenter Hoyle, “Letter from Brownsville, Texas. Benefit of Colored Soldiers,” Christian Recorder, September 23, 1865.

[9] Elijah Reeves was from Michigan. Freedom, 774-775.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

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

Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Julia Dent Grant holds the unique distinction of being the first in a line of distinguished First Ladies to have written a memoir. Following the death of her husband Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, Julia Grant began contemplating the idea of telling her own life story and sharing insights into her long, loving relationship with the nation’s most famous American at that time. Completed before her death in 1902 but not published until 1975, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant have proven to be a crucial resource for historians looking to understanding her early life experiences in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Grant family’s personal dynamics.[1]

Studio portrait of Julia Dent Grant seated.
Julia Dent Grant during the American Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While providing unique insights into Julia Grant’s life as a Civil War general’s wife and First Lady, the Memoirs also capture a complex, deep relationship with the institution of slavery during her childhood. Growing up at White Haven, a plantation owned by her father Frederick F. Dent, left an indelible impression on Julia Grant’s mind. She carried this impression with her to old age and used her memoir to reconstruct life at a place where “our people were happy” and “the comforts of slavery” made life enjoyable.[2] Seen in this light, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant serve as a plantation narrative.

As Grace Elizabeth Hale, David Blight, and other historians have demonstrated, this popular literary genre at the turn of the century aimed to recollect, celebrate, and educate readers—particularly young White Southerners—about the positive aspects of slavery and life in the South before the Civil War. Julia Grant’s recollections contain a subtle but important difference from most of this literature in that she did not express support for a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Her husband, of course, was on the other side of that battle literally and figuratively. It is nevertheless clear that Julia viewed slavery as a positive good that brought order, stability, hierarchy, and happiness to all. In her view, the enslaved laborers at White Haven were satisfied with trading their freedom for food, clothing, and a comfortable place to stay. “My beloved and honored father . . . [was] the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him . . . [he] was most kind and indulgent to his people, too much so perhaps,” she argued.[3]

Viewed on its merits as an accurate representation of slavery, the Memoirs are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Julia’s recollections provide a small glimpse into the lives of White Haven’s many enslaved people, thirty of whom were owned by the Dent family in 1850. Readers learn of Mary Robinson’s “loaves of beautiful snowy cake, such plates full of delicious Maryland biscuit, such exquisite custards and puddings, such omelets, gumbo soup, and fritters,” all of which “were mammy’s specialty.” They learn of Old Bob, who would “get religion” and “go away down in the meadow by the big walnut trees nearly half a mile off and pray and sing so we could hear him distinctly on our piazza.” And they learn of annual Christmas and Easter festivals and occasional corn shuckings where White Haven’s enslaved population “would invite all of the colored people from far and near, and, after greetings had passed and they had something to drink, they would gather around sometimes two or three hundred strong, and word, song, and chorus would begin.” In the absence of enslaved perspectives of life at White Haven, Julia Grant’s recollections become a primary source for establishing some sort of understanding on this subject.[4]

Photograph of home with fence
The White Haven estate in 1860. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

On the other hand, the Personal Memoirs are clearly a romanticized apologia for slavery that must be taken with a grain of salt by scholars and public historians interpreting her life at many Grant family homes across the country. Julia’s “personal truth”—what she perceived and believed about slavery—must be placed in conversation with the “forensic truth” of slavery documented in a wide range of historical scholarship. While Julia Grant may have been sincere in her expression of overly positive views about slavery at White Haven, one cannot simply take her word at face value because other voices are silent.

One example of relevant scholarship that can be paired with Julia Grant’s recollections is Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. Jones-Rogers brilliantly deconstructs the process by which White women were groomed from an early age to possess authority over enslaved Blacks within their environment. As Jones-Rogers describes it, these White women were “mistresses in the making.”[5] One could argue that a fundamental aspect of The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant lies in how the book serves as an account of Julia’s own evolution into a mistress at White Haven.

Some of Julia Grant’s earliest recollections were rooted in demonstrating authority over White Haven’s enslaved people. She described how she and her sisters “always had a dusky train of from eight to ten little girls of all hues” who, “if they were very neat,” were allowed to play with the Dent daughters in the woods. “Dear old black Kitty” served as Julia’s nurse, available at all times to attend to her needs. When Charles, Bob, Willis, William, and Jim wanted “a little tobacco, whiskey, money,” or a chance to see their wives on other properties, they went to Julia for help in bribing her father for permission. Julia seemed to relish this authority, remarking that “these dear old black uncles always brought to me pet rabbits, squirrels, and all the prettiest birds’ eggs they found. The first ripe strawberries, the reddest apples, and their first melons were [always] brought to ‘Miss Julia.’” And while Julia and her siblings enjoyed the benefits of education, family time, and refined living at White Haven, the enslaved domestic workers “attained the dignity of white aprons with gay bandanas around their heads making picturesque and becoming turbans,” a sign of their rising to their natural station within White Haven’s hierarchy.[6]

Julia Grant’s connections to slavery continued into adulthood and even into the Civil War. Although she never legally owned any enslaved African Americans, at one point she was “gifted” four enslaved laborers from her father for her own family’s benefit. From 1854 to 1859, Ulysses and Julia Grant and their children lived at White Haven and benefitted from the labors of Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia (sometimes referred to as Jule). Although the Grant family was living in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the Civil War, Julia reclaimed possession of Jule in late 1861 during a visit back to St. Louis. Jule accompanied Julia Grant and her children for most of the Civil War during their many travels.[7]

Despite Julia Grant’s best efforts to follow her father’s “kind and indulgent” ways with the enslaved people in her midst, the American Civil War soon intervened to change this power dynamic. Perhaps sensing that change was in the winds, Julia sadly recalled that “the young ones [at White Haven] became somewhat demoralized about the beginning of the rebellion.” By early 1864, the remaining enslaved people at White Haven took matters into their own hands and ran away for good. Jule pursed a similar course of action by running away from Julia Grant during a trip through Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1864. “I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine,” she lamented.[8]

Julia Grant tried to accept the realities of emancipation after the war. An 1880 letter from General Grant suggests that she came to believe that slavery was wrong. Upon taking the role of First Lady, she recalled in her memoirs that she gladly welcomed people of all colors to visit the White House during reception days, perhaps the first time such a state of affairs existed at the Executive Mansion. “No colored people called,” however, suggesting to Julia that they showed “themselves modest and not aggressive.” Her statement was revelatory. As journalist Ray Stannard Baker would later suggest, “Many [White] Southerners look back wistfully to the faithful, simple, ignorant, cheerful, old plantation Negro . . . they want the New South, but the Old Negro.”[9] The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant embody Baker’s observation and serve as a nostalgic celebration of “the Old Negro.”



[1] Julia Dent Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 17-26.

[2] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34.

[3] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34, 42; Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 43-120; David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 211-254.

[4] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 39-42. Mary Robinson and Mary Henry, two formerly enslaved women at White Haven were interviewed by St. Louis papers after Ulysses S. Grant’s death in 1885. However, the white editors of these interviews were most interested in publishing accounts of Grant’s experiences in St. Louis. Unfortunately, readers gain very few insights into enslaved experiences at White Haven from these interviews. For Robinson’s interview, see untitled article, St. Louis Republican, July 24, 1885, republished online at “An Interview with Mary Robinson, Formerly Enslaved at White Haven,” National Park Service, March 11, 2020, accessed June 20, 2021.; for Henry’s interview, see “She was Mrs. Grant’s Mammy,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 22, 1900. See also Robert E. May, Yutide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[5] Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 1-25.

[6] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34-42, 73-74.

[7] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 80-83; for Julia Dent Grant’s travels during the Civil War see, “Julia Dent Grant Chronology,” National Park Service, January 21, 2021, accessed June 21, 2021.

[8] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34, 83, 126, 131.

[9] Ulysses S. Grant letter to Garibaldi Ross, September 11, 1880, in “Ulysses S. Grant States that the Grants Consider the Institution of Slavery Unjustifiable, In a Letter to a Young Boy,” Raab Collection, 2021, accessed June 21, 2021.; Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 175; Baker quoted on in Hale, Making Whiteness, 85.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

Juneteenth, Public Memory, and Teaching Reconstruction Through an International Perspective

Juneteenth, Public Memory, and Teaching Reconstruction Through an International Perspective

A few weeks ago, the United States celebrated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time. The bill recognizing the emancipation celebration passed the Senate and House and was signed into law by President Joe Biden in a matter of days, just in time for Americans to celebrate this commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Americans. This rapid transformation of Juneteenth from an African-American celebration to a federal holiday sparked widespread interest in the history of Juneteenth, and therefore in the history of emancipation. Juneteenth, of course, celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Texans in June of 1865, a full two and half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and half a year before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. As such, it inherently reveals the complicated, piece-meal process of emancipation throughout the US, and, in doing so, points to the equally complex nature of the larger Reconstruction period.

Mural of Gordon Granger signing the Special orders with African American soldiers looking on
Reginald C. Adams’s “Absolute Equality” mural in Galveston, Texas, 2021.

Public interest in Reconstruction has grown recently due to the ongoing sesquicentennial celebrations. The declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday fits this new interest in historical legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction and coincides with other major debates over Confederate memorialization and statues. Discussions of reparations, as well as commemoration of events such as the centennial of the Tulsa Race Riot, are forcing national recognition that Reconstruction, while succeeding in emancipating enslaved Americans, did not secure full and lasting equality for freedpeople. Even the impeachments of Donald Trump drew comparisons to and interest in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction, a pivotal event facilitating the gains of freedpeople.

Such broader interest in Reconstruction presents historians with opportunities to highlight the period in our classrooms, and to teach the period in a way that will help our students make sense out the challenges, opportunities, successes, and failures of Reconstruction. Despite this opportunity, however, educators face varied challenges in teaching Reconstruction, including the recent efforts to limit discussion of race in the classroom through bans on critical race theory, as well as the ongoing popularity of the Lost Cause narrative of Reconstruction. Especially for educators in the South, many students arrive in history classrooms having been taught or having absorbed the idea that Reconstruction was a harmful era of punitive destruction of the South. Implicit in this Lost Cause vision of Reconstruction is the idea that Reconstruction was designed to punish white southerners for secession and the Civil War, and that that punishment was unwarranted, unreasonable, and even cruel. Of course, when Reconstruction is wrongly cast as a harmful, punitive period, the positive and necessary gains of emancipation get lost, further complicating understanding.

As a scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction through a transnational lens, I have found that positioning Reconstruction within a larger world historical context helps students reconsider any preconceived notions they have about Reconstruction, and facilitates comprehension of this complex period. Internationalizing Reconstruction in the classroom also helps reclaim the positive, emancipatory legacy of Reconstruction that Juneteenth now celebrates. To assist students in re-contextualizing Reconstruction, I use an exercise that I loosely call “spectrums of possibility” (for lack of a better title) that asks students to place the key issues of Reconstruction in international and historical context. The exercise can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of students of various levels, and I have found it effective in encouraging critical thinking at all levels, as well as in advancing content knowledge.

In this exercise, I ask students to brainstorm ranges of possibilities for how the two key issues of Reconstruction, namely dealing with the Confederacy and emancipating the enslaved, could have played out, using international and historical examples to build our “spectrums of possibility.” I start the exercise by asking students to temporarily forget everything they know about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Instead, I encourage them to think broadly about what they know about the history of other times and places, as well as to consider hypothetical possibilities. My goal is to help them envision all possibilities that could have theoretically been used after the defeat of the Confederacy, regardless of whether they were ever realistic options for this specific case.

We generally begin with the spectrum for possibilities for how the US could have dealt with the Confederacy after its defeat. For this spectrum, I encourage students to consider how victors in other wars dealt with the defeated in other historical cases. Generally, the end-points we establish for this spectrum are variants of “punishment” and “forgiveness.”

The punishment end of this spectrum tends to be easiest for students to brainstorm, and therefore makes a good starting point. Drawing on students’ knowledge of events such as the world wars, the European Revolutions of 1848, and the American Revolution, we highlight punitive possibilities such as monetary reparations, demilitarization, confiscation of property, arrest and imprisonment, and exile. In order to eventually help my students contextualize citizenship and rights during Reconstruction, I also encourage them to think about examples of conquest and colonization that stripped the defeated people of equality and rights.

The forgiveness end of the spectrum tends to build less from actual historical examples and more from hypotheticals. Students readily suggest that forgiveness might take the form of helping the defeated party rebuild, for example. Legal amnesty, of course, is another key element of the forgiveness end of the spectrum. Often, students best understand forgiveness as the absence of the items we identified for punishment; so, instead of conquering and restricting rights, for example, the victor might treat the defeated party as an equal, with full rights granted to its citizens.

Once students have built the spectrum of possibilities ranging from punishment to forgiveness, I refer back to our spectrum throughout the following lesson on Reconstruction. After presenting Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction, and then the Republican Congress’s plan for Reconstruction, for example, I ask students where that plan falls on our spectrum. This exercise is particularly effective in combatting the Lost Cause idea that Reconstruction was designed to punish former Confederates, as students readily see the absence of many of the punishments we identified, as well as the centrality of elements of forgiveness such as amnesty. Placing various plans for Reconstruction on the spectrum is also useful in helping students compare and contrast the various plans and better understand the differences and nuances.

While the range of possibilities for how a victorious party can deal with a defeated party is helpful in assisting students in re-think political Reconstruction, the spectrum of emancipation helps students center emancipation as a key part of this period. Here, the two ends of our spectrum are helping the freedpeople or helping the enslaver, or, “pro-freedpeople” and “pro-enslaver.” Because students tend to be less familiar with historical examples of emancipation, I generally encourage students to think hypothetically about what a pro-freedpeople emancipation and pro-enslaver emancipation might involve, and then provide examples myself.

For the pro-freedpeople emancipation, we discuss the necessity of rights, economic opportunity, education, and meaningful control of daily life. We also discuss what each of these elements required in order to become reality, identifying, for example, the necessity of protection for civil rights, and of land ownership for economic opportunity in an agricultural society. I also urge students to consider the idea of reparations, particularly in the form of back wages, or of ownership of the land that the enslaved had rendered profitable. Examples can include Reconstruction measures such as Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, the Freedman’s Bureau, the churches and schools that freedpeople established, and African-Americans’ robust participation in political life during Reconstruction.

The pro-enslaver end of the spectrum tends to initially be more abstract for students. I start by asking students what they think the main desire of former enslavers would be; here, students generally identify former enslavers’ desire for continued control of freedpeople’s labor. From here, we discuss how former enslavers would want full control of the political system, with no rights for freedpeople, as this would enable them to assert control of the labor. We also discuss the possibility of reparations paid to enslavers for their loss of property. Emancipation in other Atlantic slave societies provides the examples of reparations to enslavers and of control of labor through apprenticeship systems.

As with the spectrum for managing defeat, we refer back to the spectrum for emancipation throughout the subsequent lesson, with students once again placing each plan for Reconstruction in the appropriate place on the spectrum. Continuing to discuss the reality of emancipation, contrasted with the range of possibilities for emancipation, aids students in understanding the critical importance of emancipation to Reconstruction, as well as the ultimate failures to sustain a broad, robust freedom for freedpeople as Reconstruction collapsed. Reclaiming the emancipationist legacy of Reconstruction also counters the Lost Cause narrative of the period and recasts it in a more positive light.

Americans tend to think of the Civil War, and therefore Reconstruction, as fundamentally domestic issues – the war of brother versus brother. The Civil War is far from the only war in world history, however, and world history abounds with examples of how the victorious party in a war can shape the post-war status through its treatment of the defeated party. Likewise, the US was not alone in ending Atlantic World slavery, providing examples of other possibilities for how emancipation could have played out. Asking students to consider the other possibilities for the key issues of Reconstruction helps them better contextualize and understand this period. When placed in a world historical perspective, Reconstruction looks very different, meaning that leading students in building spectrums of possibility for Reconstruction is an effective method of helping students understand the complex nature and legacy of this period. With growing interest in Reconstruction, as illustrated by the new Juneteenth holiday, such complex understanding of Reconstruction will prepare our students well to participate in our national discourse.

Ann Tucker

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

Removing the White Supremacy Marker at Colfax, Louisiana: A 2021 Success Story

Removing the White Supremacy Marker at Colfax, Louisiana: A 2021 Success Story

On May 15, 2021, state officers, parish officials, and private citizens gathered in Colfax, Louisiana to watch local contractors remove an historical marker in front of Grant Parish Courthouse. Erected on June 14, 1951, the sign’s bold white letters announced that a civil disturbance claimed the lives of “three white men and 150 negroes.” The sign’s second, and final sentence, assured readers that the deaths ended “carpetbag misrule” and restored order to the South. The sign’s brevity belied the event’s importance. The lopsided slaughter of Black men and their families on Easter Sunday of April 13, 1873, emboldened a generation of white supremacists who viewed Black political power as a threat.[1]

The small marker’s removal represented years of effort from activists and students. In 1989, Black convict-journalists of The Angolite first challenged the “Riot” sign’s white supremacist roots. They first gave voice to the Black victims of what they titled the “Tragedy at Colfax.” Local activists continued the fight for the sign’s removal. As Louisiana State University graduate students Jeff Crawford and I participated in the latest, and what would be, final attempt to have the marker removed. 

Our involvement with the marker in late 2016 came after reading LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre (2008). In that book she described two signs: the 1951 Riot sign and a marble obelisk in the town’s cemetery dedicated in 1921 to three men who died “fighting for white supremacy” in the 1873 massacre. We visited both. Each sign’s brazen omissions and admissions shocked us. On the drive back to Baton Rouge, we discussed how and why these signs remained standing and came to no good conclusions.[2]

The menace conveyed by both markers lingered in our heads after the visit. Though less outwardly offensive, the Riot marker seemed more egregious than the one dedicated to white supremacy. Its continued presence on public property perpetuated the myth that Black political power represented disorder. To us, the marker’s existence also condoned violence as a valid avenue for those dissatisfied with the democratic process.

Even with this realization, what could we do? A whites-only government had authorized the message. Would the State of Louisiana today be willing to send a new message by removing or revising the sign?

In early 2017, before the well-publicized monument removals in New Orleans and Charlottesville, Jeff and I lacked the experience required to answer these questions. Hindsight now offers some clarity. Willingness to remove depended entirely on individual officials and legal authority. New Orleans white Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration arranged for its prominent statues of Confederate elites to be removed. Whereas North Carolina’s legislature prohibited any such actions by state officials and pushed citizens to take more drastic steps.[3]

Pragmatists by nature, Jeff and I planned for resistance. Our road trips in central and northern Louisiana confirmed the region’s small “c” conservatism that was reluctant to change of any sort, especially regarding race and memory. Rather than simply asking for removal or maintaining “empty pedestals,” we planned to offer Colfax authorities two options: removal and preservation of the marker in a museum or permission to erect a new and more accurate marker beside the “Riot” marker.[4]

The point here was not capitulation. By early 2017, nearly seventy years after the “Riot” marker’s placement, the plaque was an historical artifact. It symbolized white southerners’ commitment to the Lost Cause ideology that imagined Black Americans as second-class citizens just a few years before the Supreme Court deemed segregation unconstitutional. As such, removal without museum placement or leaving an empty marker post never crossed our minds.

Our choices were also deliberately tactical. We guessed that if local authorities publicly rejected a well-researched compromise position, then their biases would become public record. If successful, we hoped that a second historical marker set in opposition would encourage onlookers to seek out the truth about the tragedy and draw their own conclusions.

To that end, we started with who owned the sign and the state’s procedure for historical markers. No longer in existence, legal counsel from the Department of Commerce and Industry’s present incarnation, the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) initiative, informed me that the sign’s fate was now in the hands of the Department of Culture and Tourism. Over email, the department’s research director assured us that anyone could request a state historical marker so long as they secured the property owner’s permission, covered the costs, completed a form, and had their language approved by LSU’s Department of History. We hoped to install a replacement plaque that would accurately explain the Colfax Massacre and its long-term significance.

The Grant Parish Police Jury (GPPJ) proved to be the toughest barrier to any change of the Riot marker. The police jury exercises authority over the land where the marker sat. At the time, those of us close to the project assumed land ownership gave the GPPJ power over the sign itself.

After speaking with the GPPJ’s public liaison, I learned that before any action could be taken, the issue would have to be brought before the Jury at their monthly public meeting. In preparation for the meeting, I sent Jury members provisional language for a new sign, a short list of sources regarding the massacre, and the contact information of LSU professors who offered to answer any of their questions.

In early May I was slated to speak with Jury members. My hope was that by having the solutions at hand, the Jury would have no decision except to act. I was completely wrong.

While we hoped to initiate a discussion of a difficult topic, the meeting’s tone changed once they understood that our provisional language condemned the incident as a massacre for the sake of white supremacy. One member asked if Jeff and I had any affiliation with the Black Lives Matter movement. Another member worried that making any kind of change would attract negative attention to the city and cause violent protests. Others in the body claimed that no public interest existed to change the marker. I offered the truth: we appeared before them as concerned private citizens and students of history who believed that the public deserved an accurate sign.

Luckily, by this point, my presentation piqued the audience’s interest. People at the meeting on other municipal business asked me for more elaboration as I stood in front of the Jury. Still the Jury members claimed that the broader community had no interest in the marker. The predominantly white jury (it had one Black member at the time) reached no definitive conclusions that evening. The board thanked me for my time and promised to contact their legal counsel about the options I presented.

In the months following the meeting Jeff and I learned that we had little reason to be hopeful. Communication with the Jury became intermittent, many of my texts, phone calls, and emails went unanswered. When we finally made contact, the member I spoke to said that there were not enough votes to make any changes to the marker and that no substantive public opinion existed on the issue. As such, rather than voting, the Jury decided to table the issue.

Believing that only a groundswell of local pressure could both bring the matter to a successful vote, Jeff and I scheduled a meeting with Colfax’s Mayor Ossie Clark. At that meeting, Mayor Clark convened some of the local activists responsible for both honoring the memory of the massacre’s Black participants and restoring the event to public memory. The meeting removed any doubt that we had regarding public support. As the activists disclosed their experiences, the Jury’s omission of residents’ previous efforts to remove, or contextualize the sign, confirmed the local officials’ quiet conspiracy to thwart any attempts to correct the sign’s inaccuracies.

Beneath the wealth of information shared between all parties, and commitments to continue to fight, rested inertia, the Jury’s most formidable weapon. For everyone at the meeting, the Riot marker agenda was something to be done in the extra hours of an already busy life. Mr. Clark and his guests were visibly exhausted by their long efforts to remove the sign in addition to their roles as public officials, educators, ministers, and community leaders.

Thanks to the agency of a white resident of Houston who traced his roots to one of the original “veterans,” the impasse broke in early 2021. Dean Woods had grown up in the vicinity, but he had come to deplore the harsh language of the historical marker. His citizen’s inquiry to the Office of Louisiana Economic Development, facilitated by the LSU History Department, inspired a legal workaround to the resistance of the Grant Parish Police Jury.

Through her own research, LED Assistant Secretary Mandi Mitchell determined that in fact, by way of legacy as the successor to the original Department of Commerce and Industry, LED owned the sign and possessed the authority to remove it. In hindsight, our effort created a template of action for Ms. Mitchell. Our interactions with Grant Parish officials laid bare how the Jury would react and ascertained which members were interested in action. Maybe most importantly, our failed effort made the need for legal leverage clear.

In the end, it was this legal technicality that enabled the removal of the Riot marker and ended this (asymmetrical) war of attrition between past and present. The Jury remained unphased by the historical evidence or the offers of inter-agency cooperation Ms. Mitchell offered at her presentation. With no other options left, aside from a costly legal battle, the Jury acquiesced to the marker’s removal.

The battle for Colfax’s memory remains half won. Only the Jury’s single Black member appeared at the removal to show his support. The effort to properly memorialize the lives lost on Easter Sunday April 1873 is not over. Though the Riot marker will be housed in a state museum, no memorial stands that recognizes those murdered or explains why such a tragedy took place. There is still cause for optimism. At minimum, the marker’s quiet removal at the behest of a public official suggests that other monuments and markers can be removed without the fanfare that first accompanied the flurry of removals in the wake of  the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and George Floyd’s murder. The removal also hints that a larger public will exists to reclaim a civic landscape marred by previous generations’ commitment to white supremacy.


[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877—1st Perennial Classic ed (New York: Harperperennial, 2014), 313; James K. Hogue, “The 1873 Battle of Colfax: Paramilitarism and Counterrevolution in Louisiana,” paper presented at the 1997 Southern Historical Association Conference, Atlanta, GA; LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xiv-xv; Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and The Betrayal of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 253-54.

[2] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre, vii.

[3] “See all 4 Confederate monument removals in New Orleans in photos and video,”, 07/22/2019, accessed: 06/23/2021,; Karen L. Cox, “Why Confederate Monuments Must Fall,”, 08/15/2017, accessed 06/23/2021,

[4] “Empty Pedestals: What should be done with civic monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders?”, October 2017, accessed: 06/23/2021,

Tom Barber Jeff Crawford

Tom Barber earned his PhD from LSU in 2019 and currently works as a Child Protective Investigator for Florida’s Department of Children and Families. Jeff Crawford is completing his doctorate at LSU.

Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” and the Many Visions of Frederick Douglass

Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” and the Many Visions of Frederick Douglass

Hired out to the brutal Edward Covey, a young Frederick Douglass worked to exhaustion during the week and spent Sundays “in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree,” alternating between flashes of “energetic freedom” and “mourning,” he wrote in his Narrative. Beyond the woods, on the broad Chesapeake Bay, sailed “beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen . . . to me so many shrouded ghosts.” With time, “My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.”[1]

Frederick Douglass did not know his birthday but believed it to be February 1818, a year and a few months before Walt Whitman’s May 1819 arrival along northern waters in Suffolk County, New York. Whitman elegized a nineteenth-century expansive creativity in “Song of Myself, 51.” “The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them./And proceed to fill my next fold of the future….Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”[2]

It is easy to divide the harborside writers into neat categories: the white poet, the Black activist. But even more than Whitman, Douglass contained multitudes, however much we might seek to fix him as a prophet, a politician, a guide. More consistently than Whitman, Douglass sought to unsettle our sense of what we know and how we know it.

So, too, the celebrated installation artist Isaac Julien aims to unsettle our senses in his mesmerizing multi-screen film exhibition “Lessons of the Hour,” commissioned by the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Past and present wilt in images of Douglass in repose, in action, and in mourning.

Already, a few weeks after my most-recent viewing, Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” seems a vivid but vague dream, unnervingly powerful and unnervingly difficult to describe. It resists the reviewer’s ultimate escape—the invitation to just go see for yourself—since it is only available selectively. Like a dream it feels private, something that should not be spoken of, yet like something that must be spoken of, with urgency.


Multi-screen images of actor portraying Frederick Douglass in a dark exhibition space.
Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour, 2019 (installation view, detail), ten-screen installation, 35mm film and 4k digital, color, 7.1 surround sound. 28’46”. Courtesy of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.

Writing about a filmmaker as gorgeous as Julien, and a writer as intricate as Douglass, is like eulogizing your favorite orator. You must describe the very standard you will not be able to meet. Still it is worth a try.

For the recent installation at McEvoy Foundation of the Arts in the Dogpatch/Portrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, a mile down the San Francisco Bay from the Chase Center, Julien and his collaborator Mark Nash selected an entrance gallery of photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, both the iconic and the more timely and soon to be iconic. The back wall sets the tone of the exhibition: Lorraine O’Grady’s performance work Art Is…, images from Harlem’s 1983 African-American Day parade in which 15 young actors and dancers “dressed in white framed viewers with empty gold picture frames to shouts of ‘Frame me, make me art!’ And ‘That’s right, that’s what art is. We’re the art!’”[3] That frame, that joy, and that confusion evoke the artfulness of daily life and the artifice of designating its limits.

In the room beyond O’Grady’s images, Julien’s lustrous still images line a long gallery. Attendees see Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass on a train. Photographer J. P. Ball poses subjects in his studio. Ottilie Assing reads a book. From this gallery’s shadowy far end, noise rumbles from a dark entrance that is marked with red tape arrows and a sign explaining the necessary protocols. Inside the dark installation, five or six backless, elliptical ottomans face ten screens hanging from the ceiling, four quite large, six of smaller size.

If your timing is right, and you sit just as  as the film begins, the dark room lightens and then lightens some more. Douglass, inhabited by Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon, walks a path through the woods. It is fall. He is wearing an extraordinary full-length coat, a luxurious red. The screens divide. On some, the path, on others the woods, on others the back of Douglass’ head, on others his face, on others images elliptically connected to the words he begins to say. You see Douglass.  You see what he sees as well as the thoughts in his mind.

There is no introduction. Douglass, examining a large, oddly shaped tree stump, begins to talk about a mistake he made, a mistake of perception. Once, walking the woods, he thought a tree was a wild beast, until he approached closer and realized his error. It is all a question of vantage. For a moment, we ourselves join Douglass in that confused vantage, and see the woods through the ten different screens.

Then, the sound of a whip. A tree becomes a lynching tree; feet dangle and fade.

The screens fade and lighten. A woman, Anna Murray Douglass, played by Sharlene Whyte, solitary as Penelope, sews brilliantly blue fabric. On other screens, art on the walls, paintings, and a print of Fort Wagner are displayed. Douglass’s taste is visible; he himself is not.

And then he is, but not inside the home. Douglass’ voice tells us that he has traveled thousands of miles. The rhythm of the passenger train meets the rhythm of the sewing machine. Anna Murray Douglass in a house back in the United States, Frederick Douglass on a train bound northward through Scotland en-route to a lecture hall that Douglass enters to applause.

Already at least four Douglasses. The incarnation of white America’s cruelty. The lauded public speaker. The absent husband. And also, the visual theorist, familiar to scholars through the work of Celeste-Marie Bernier (whose work Julien draws richly upon), Deborah Willis, Aston Gonzalez, and many others.[4]

What, precisely, do people who are not scholars make of this Douglass, not oracle but essayist? I visited the exhibit twice during COVID, when people were sparse, masked, and distanced. During the six times I sat through the 30-minute film, I never was able to ask anyone that question.

Douglass begins his lecture, drawn from his 1861 address “Pictures and Progress,” with a mordantly funny observation about the boredom of staring at other people’s photographs. As Douglass speaks about the political and aesthetic problems of representation, we see multiple images: on some screens a crowd listens, on others Black photographer J. P. Ball arranges Anna Murray Douglass.

Douglass begins to speak of the agonies of slavery, words drawn from his familiar memoirs, and the images fade to gray. A whip sounds, crackling and evil. Cotton on one screen, on four, on ten, and Black hands picking it. And now, at last, we have arrived at the Douglass that most people, presumably, came to see: the witness to and critic of slavery. The rural silence of crickets hums unseen behind the fields. Scotland’s lecture halls feel far away.

Douglass then relates the famous line from his 1845 Narrative of the Life about never seeing his mother except for a few hurried visits at night. Just as we settle into the familiarity of the lines, we see and hear other people. Anna Richardson and Ellen Richardson, British Quakers who helped raise funds to purchase Douglass’ legal freedom, walk the beaches, writing Send Back the Money in the sand, singing the Scottish Free Church’s antislavery song of the same name. On other screens, Douglass walks the fields and cliffs and beaches of Scotland, alone. Images pass: paintings and sketches on walls; people in trains, a lit match that quiets the noise; and then the familiar Douglass line that learning to read had been a curse.

As Douglass begins to narrate his childhood in Fells Point, Baltimore, we enter several Baltimores, past and present. Some screens show FBI surveillance file footage of protests against the 2015 police murder of Freddie Gray. On other screens, other Baltimores appear: 19th century ships in the harbor, a helicopter ride over the touristic Inner Harbor of today. Douglass speaks of the terrible reality of the slave trade.

At last, the 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” and a montage of the horrors of patriotism. On some screens, fireworks revert into their cores, on others terrifying white people march in slow-motion 1950s parades. During my final visit, the prosecution was midway through the presentation of the evidence of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Of course this was a coincidence, and of course it was no coincidence at all.

The exhibition was completed long before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, yet his killing and the trial of his murderer run through the films nonetheless. The footage of future murders of Black men by police run through the films as well. Such is the power of Douglass’ prophecy, and of Julien’s artistry.

And then the prophet concludes with still-timely words about the shocking crimes of America “in this very hour,” meaning Douglass’s hour and our own, to building applause from a Scottish audience that is now much more diverse and more modernly dressed than in the opening frames. Water swells through the screens, as Douglass’s tone settles into one more reproach against patriotism (and the presumptions of American democracy): Douglass left republican America a slave and returned from monarchical England a free man.

Instead of this hero, Julien closes instead with a stranger, beautiful vantage: Darkness broken first by a beast: a magnificent horse that Douglass is walking through the Scottish countryside. The horse’s uncanny eye dominates one screen, Douglass alongside the horse in others. In another he climbs an ancient volcano. The horse is beautiful. The volcano is beautiful. Douglass is beautiful. Anna Murray Douglass’ sewing returns in a magnificent blue coat Douglass wears as he walks the horse. But what does all this beauty have to do with the horrors we have seen?

Instead of an answer, silence. The room settles into dark. A few moments later, the woods of Maryland. We have begun again, at the monstrous tree, prepared for our return passage through cruelty and back to the engulfing waters.

Long as my description has been, it is still entirely inadequate. With the exception of J. P. Ball, a partial vision of one of Douglass’ sons, and anonymous men in the Scottish audience, the exhibit is a meditation on the women in (and also kept out of) Douglass’ life: Anna Murray Douglass, Helen Pitts Douglass, Ottilie Assing, the Richardsons.[5]

When Douglass published My Bondage and My Freedom, his follow-up to the Narrative, his subtitle pointedly distinguished his life “as a slave” from his life “as a freeman.” So, too, did he document the struggles to turn freedom into equality. The free Douglass never stopped looking backward to slavery but also never stopped being the aesthete, in awe of beauty of the present. So, too, in “Lessons of the Hour,” the body of the films belong to Douglass the prophet and Douglass the slave, but the opening and closing place us with the free Douglass moving silently through a nature he remains in awe of.


1870 portrait of Frederick Douglass
Photo by George Francis Schreiber, April 26, 1870. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The films are immersive and humbling. They are many films, running in different combinations depending on your seat. From the back-center, an overwhelming montage. Up close, the images flicker out of the corner of the eye, like warnings.

What a peculiar dream it is. By the lights of sequential, cautious history, the films are a jumble, or more kindly an evocation. Douglass’ speech combines his 1845 memoirs, his 1852 July 4th speech, his 1861 address, and others. Anachronisms intrude, like the Fort Wagner image on the wall during a scene that seems to take place at least a decade before the 54th Massachusetts fought on those sands. For a history of Douglass that analyzes Douglass’s complexity in sequence and context, David Blight’s massive biography is surely the best place to turn, along with older biographies by Nathan Huggins and William S. McFeely.[6]

Julien unravels a different truth. He creates a reservoir of associations, in which Douglass is at once the runaway slave, the celebrated orator, the aging art critic, and the dignified family man; where the women in his life are always his lovers and also always his abandoned ones; where Douglass is always 13 and 23 and 35 and 67.

At my final visit, in that closing darkness, a gallerist woke us from the swim of our thoughts to remind us of the time, of the need to admit others into a space that had felt, in the watery silence, like our own secret. Outside, we blinked at San Francisco’s piercing light, checked phones for Floyd trial updates.

Two weeks earlier, tugs and machinery nudged the container ship Ever Given free from the banks of the Suez Canal, where Ever Given had clogged the world’s shipping lanes and inspired countless memes. Now, in front of us, as we read about the prosecution’s witnesses, rows of container ships filled the San Francisco Bay, backlogged in the crush of traffic, waiting for their chance to unload. One of them, anchored directly off Dogpatch, seemed to be that very ship Ever Given, painted green. For a moment, it staggered me, the world brought home so rapidly, to such a beautiful spot. But the ship in front of me turned out to be not Ever Given but its smaller, but otherwise nearly identical sister ship Ever Front. My eyes had deceived me.


[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself. (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 63-64, available at

[2] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself, 51,” available at

[3]Art Is…performance 1983,” available at

[4] Celeste-Marie Bernier, African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Bernier and Andrew Taylor, If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018); Bernier and Bill E. Lawson, eds., Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass, 1818-2018 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Willis, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual Hisotry of Conflict and Citizenship (New York: NYU Press, 2021); Willis, Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (New York: New Press, 1994); Aston Gonzalez, Visualing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright, 2015).

[5] For more on this subject, see Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[6] David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2018); Nathan Irvin Huggins, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980); William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Poliitics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007); Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1948); John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (New York: Twelve, 2008).





Greg Downs

Greg Downs is a Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.

From Gray to Blue: An Odyssey of Deserting the Confederate Army and Joining the U.S. Army

From Gray to Blue: An Odyssey of Deserting the Confederate Army and Joining the U.S. Army

Though radical at first, the U.S. Army’s recruitment of Confederate prisoners of war and deserters was not unreasonable by the winter of 1863-1864. “Thousands of Union soldiers were nearing the end of their three-year voluntary enlistment and draft calls were causing riots in Northern cities.”[1]  Combined with prolonged indecision from Lincoln’s War Department, several Federal prison commanders became emboldened to tacitly enlist witting ex-Confederates into Federal regiments. Indeed, each of these southerners had their motivation(s) to serve their former enemy: desperation from imprisonment, disillusionment with the Confederacy’s cause, or a determination to survive by any means. Among these pioneering “Galvanized Yankees” were brothers Samuel Kael Groah and Andrew Jackson Groah.

Image of two men
L-R: Samuel Groah and Andrew Groah (

On April 18, 1861, one day after Virginia voted to secede from the United States, the two Shenandoah Valley natives answered the call to arms. Along with approximately 2,600 fellow militiamen, the brothers quickly assembled at the Harpers Ferry Armory to arm and prepare for the anticipated civil war. On May 19, 1861, the Groah brothers mustered into the Fifth Virginia Infantry Regiment of the First Brigade Virginia Volunteers, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Jackson. On July 2, 1861, the Groah brothers received their baptism by fire at the Battle of Hoke’s Run. During the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, the First Brigade and its commander earned their reputable sobriquet “Stonewall.”[2]

Over early 1862, fortunes changed as these rebels weathered the ill-fated Romney Expedition, retreated in defeat at the First Battle of Kernstown, and camped at Rude’s Hill nearby New Market, Virginia. As troops neared the end of their one-year service term, the Confederate Congress authorized bounties and furloughs to encourage reenlistments. For reasons unknown, Samuel and Andrew “deserted from the company at Camp Rude’s Hill, April 6, 1862. Refused to reenlist.”[3] Incidentally, just ten days later, the Confederacy mandated three years of service for new recruits and an additional two for those serving since 1861.[4]

Despite its grandeur, the Stonewall Brigade suffered a staggering desertion rate. The Fifth Virginia alone reported 315 desertions throughout 1862-1863.[5]  Unlike other Confederate troops serving far from their homes, Virginians could escape to their homesteads, but not without risks. “Patrols were actively searching every possible hiding place of those recreant.”[6] In August 1863, the Confederacy offered a pardon to known deserters and those accused of absence without leave, hoping clemency could entice their return within twenty-days.[7] The matter also proved challenging for Federal commanders. One Major General reported Confederate deserters concealed in wooded hills “who preferred to live as outlaws rather than risk the chance of being returned to the rebel army.”[8]

On September 7, 1863, seventeen months since their desertion, Samuel and Andrew were arrested near Beverly, West Virginia by order of Union Brigadier General William Averell.[9] Presumably, the brothers fled the Shenandoah Valley, traversed the Allegheny Mountains, and took refuge in Unionist territory until Averell’s search-and-destroy raids prompted their discovery. Samuel and Andrew were next transported by rail to Wheeling, West Virginia and jailed in the Athenaeum, a warehouse/theater-turned transitory prison depot for captured Confederates, suspected spies, civilians who refused the oath of allegiance, dissenting local journalists, and court-martialed Union soldiers. Lacking ventilation, confined to small cells or shared spaces, and often with a ball and chain affixed to their legs, some inmates unsurprisingly dubbed the Athenaeum “Lincoln’s Bastille.”[10] Samuel and Andrew’s imprisonment was brief. On September 19, 1863, they were released by order of Union Brigadier General Benjamin Kelly, commander of the Department of West Virginia.[11] In October 1863, their cases underwent disposition in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Portrait of general, building, portrait of general
L-R: William Averell (Library of Congress); period etching of the Athenaeum (West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History); and Benjamin Kelley (National Archives and Records Administration)

Rather than be sent to a prisoner of war camp, the Groahs opted to serve the United States. Such desires were not uncommon among Confederates detained in the North. As one Federal prison commander noted, “many of them have been conscripted in the rebel service and are now anxious to be avenged for the wrongs done them…Others were induced to enter the rebel service through misrepresentations of wicked and designing men.”[12] Ex-Confederates willing to aid the Federal war effort, the Commissary-General of Prisoners instructed, “may be permitted to do so when the examining officer is satisfied of the applicant’s good faith and that the facts of his case are as he represents them.”[13] Perhaps, the Groahs shared their paternal lineage to Pennsylvania as well as recounted the allure of secession in 1861, best summarized by one Union officer: “they eagerly embraced a cause promising to disrupt the established commercial and social status of the country, having in any change hope of possible advantage and fear of nothing worse than their present position.”[14] Such plausible factors were sufficient to enroll the brothers into the U.S. Army.

Andrew enlisted November 30, 1863 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and mustered into the Third Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery Regiment.[15] Andrew’s service with the Third Pennsylvania, then a coastal defense battery, was limited to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. On March 17, 1865, he was reassigned to the Fourth U.S. Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of six units comprised of rebel prisoners-turned Federal soldiers.[16]  Uneasy of sending them to the frontlines, the U.S. Army’s high command dispatched these “Galvanized Yankees” to the Great Plains. Among other tasks, these soldiers manned frontier outposts, guarded supply wagons, and, on occasion, quelled Native American uprisings. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, in particular, epitomized this struggle for expansion on the American frontier.[17]  In June 1865, Andrew arrived at Fort Sully, located on the east bank of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota, for the monotonous assignment of garrison duty at a truly desolate location. “There was no grass or wood within two miles.”[18] Andrew remained at Fort Sully until his regiment moved to Sioux City, Iowa in September 1865. There, on November 27, 1865, Andrew was discharged.[19]

Military camp with Native Americans sitting on ground
Native Americans gathered with U.S. soldiers at Fort Sully, 1865 (American Antiquarian Society)

Samuel enlisted January 7, 1864 in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania and mustered into the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment.[20]  Unlike his younger brother, Samuel fought against his former Confederate brethren. Between May-August 1864, the 148th Pennsylvania saw action at the Wilderness, Po River, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, and Ream’s Station.[21] In September 1864, Samuel was detailed to his division’s headquarters where he served until the Confederacy’s surrender. Briefly assigned to the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment after the war, Samuel was discharged on June 30, 1865 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.[22]

Battle Scene with smoke and fighting
Thure de Thulstrup’s painting of the Battle of Spotsylvania (Library of Congress)

Perhaps, the most notable of Samuel’s service transpired during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. On May 10, 1864, he was wounded in action near the Po River.[23] There, a forested section near the Federal line became engulfed in a blazing inferno, presumably sparked from Confederate artillery. Samuel and his fellow soldiers, were, quite literally, forged in fire. Despite his injury, Samuel remained in the ranks. Two days later, the 148th Pennsylvania stormed the “Mule Shoe” salient, whose entrenched rebel defenders included the Fifth Virginia – Samuel’s prior Confederate unit. “Within thirty minutes, the Stonewall Division virtually ceased to exist as a command.”[24] How poetic that among the Federal soldiers who contributed to the demise of one of the Confederacy’s most revered units was a former Confederate from its very ranks. Truly, an emblematic scene of the Civil War.

Perhaps, the most enduring element of the Groah’s journey is rooted in their unshakeable brotherhood bond. Though Virginia was their home, and, by extension, the Confederacy their cause, these brothers also recognized the importance of family and survival. Indeed, some may shame them as Southern Unionists, turncoat opportunists, or scalawags. Yet, as the United States approaches the 160th anniversary since the commencement of the American Civil War, Samuel and Andrew also embody the torn loyalties and complexities of the nation’s most cataclysmic conflict.


[1] Dee Brown, The Galvanized Yankees (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 3.

[2] “Confederate Soldiers from the State of Virginia – Groah, Samuel K – Fifth Infantry,” Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Virginia, Record Group 109, Microfilm 324, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.,, Accessed April 14, 2021; “Confederate Soldiers from the State of Virginia – Groah, Andrew J – Fifth Infantry,” Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Virginia, Record Group 109, Microfilm 324, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.,, Accessed April 11, 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Martin, “Civil War Conscription Laws.” In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress, Washington, D.C., November 15, 2012,

[5] Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 5th Virginia Infantry, 1st Edition, (Lynchburg: H.E. Howard, Inc., 1988), 77.

[6] Sanford Cobb Kellogg, The Shenandoah Valley and Virginia, 1861 to 1865: A War Study, (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1903), 125.

[7] U.S. Department of War, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 30, Part 4, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890), 489.

[8] U.S. Department of War, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 2, Volume 6, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899), 207. Author’s Note: “Returned” is a reference to prisoner of war exchanges between the Union and Confederate armies throughout the early portion of the Civil War.

[9] “Confederate Soldiers from the State of Virginia,” National Archives.

[10] Edward L. Phillips, “Wheeling’s Athenaeum 1854-1868,” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly 17, no. 2 (April 2003),

[11] “Confederate Soldiers from the State of Virginia,” National Archives.

[12] The War of the Rebellion, Series 2, Volume 6, 820.

[13] Ibid., 186.

[14] Ibid., 197.

[15] “4th US Volunteers, Go-J,” Compiled Service Records of Former Confederate Soldiers who Served in the 1st Through 6th U.S. Volunteer Infantry Regiments, 1864-1866, Record Group 94, Microfilm 1017, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., accessed through Fold3,, Accessed April 11, 2021. Author’s Note: The Groah surname is interchangeably written as “Grovah” on Andrew’s Union Army paperwork.

[16] “4th US Volunteers,” National Archives.

[17] Stephen Kantrowitz, “Jurisdiction, Civilization, and the Ends of Native American Citizenship: The View from 1866,” Western Historical Quarterly 52 (Summer 2021): 194.

[18] “Old Fort Sully.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed April 21, 2021.

[19] “4th US Volunteers,” National Archives.

[20] “Compiled Military Service Record of Private Samuel K. Groh, Company I, 148th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.” Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, Record Group 94, Microfilm 398, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., Accessed April 11, 2021. Author’s Note: The Groah surname is interchangeably written as “Groh” on Samuel’s Union Army paperwork.

[21] Kate M. Scott, ed. History of Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1888), 180.

[22] “Compiled Military Service Record of Private Samuel K. Groh,” National Archives.

[23] Joseph Wendel Muffly, et al., The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers, (Des Moines: Kenyon Printing & Mfg Co., 1904), 1054.

[24] Jeffrey D. Wert, A Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade, C.S.A. and the Iron Brigade, U.S.A., (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 300.

Kyle Nappi

Kyle Nappi is a descendant of the brothers Samuel Kael Groah and Andrew Jackson Groah. An alumnus of The Ohio State University, Kyle serves as a national security policy specialist in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He is also an independent researcher and writer of military history (chiefly the World Wars), having interviewed ~4,500 elder military combatants across nearly two-dozen countries.

JCWE Editors’ Note, June 2021 issue

JCWE Editors’ Note, June 2021 issue

This issue, like many since the journal’s inception, reflects the chronological and thematic breadth of the field of the Civil War Era. It includes three original research articles, the Tom Watson Brown Award essay, a review essay, and the usual complement of incisive book reviews.

The Tom Watson Book Award honors the finest book on the “causes, conduct, and effects, broadly defined, of the Civil War” and is presented by the Watson-Brown Foundation and the Society of Civil War Historians. In 2020, the award went to Thomas J. Brown for his excellent study Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (2019). At a virtual gathering, to replace the in-person banquet at the Southern Historical Association annual meeting, Brown delivered an intriguing analysis, titled “Iconoclasm and the Monumental Presence of the Civil War.” Brown’s essay places the debates about memorialization (up to November 2020) within a longer trajectory of critique and iconoclasm. Brown adroitly analyzes works by artists and writers An-My Lê, Kehinde Wiley, Natasha Trethewey, and Krzysztof Wodiczko and concludes with a stirring examination of the community takeover of the Robert E. Lee Monument on Memorial Avenue in Richmond. The essay is a terrific example of how historians can help contextualize and clarify the terms of contemporary public debate.

The issue’s three research articles are just as stimulating and wide ranging. In “‘Sustaining the Truth of the Bible’: Black Evangelical Abolitionism and the Transatlantic Politics of Orthodoxy,” Joel Iliff examines James W. C. Pennington’s effort to combine orthodox Bible scholarship and abolitionism, against abolitionists who advanced more heterodox biblical interpretation and against slaveowners and European theologians who insisted that the Bible sanctioned slavery. Grounding Pennington in a transatlantic world of biblical scholarship and debate, Iliff offers a fascinating intellectual and religious history and also significantly expands the conversation about the relationship between religion and black abolitionism.

Lesley J. Gordon likewise combines biography, intellectual discourse, and political practice in her “‘Novices in Warfare’: Elmer E. Ellsworth and Militia Reform on the Eve of Civil War.” Gordon shows that Elmer Ellsworth was more than just the dynamic leader of the Zouave movement and a prominent early casualty of the war. He was, in addition, an ambitious and serious participant in 1850s debates about militia reform and the future of the “citizen soldier.” The demands of war itself ultimately outmatched Ellsworth’s vision, but his ideas offer an intriguing window into longstanding debates on how best to make soldiers of citizens.

Marcy S. Sacks examines the roles of pets and other domesticated animals in “‘They Are Truly Marvelous Cats’: The Importance of Companion Animals to Union Soldiers during the Civil War.” Focusing on soldiers’ drawings and letters, Sacks explores how northern soldiers observed, nurtured, and described domesticated animals, and she analyzes the meanings of those relationships. Cats, dogs, mice, pigs, and other animals, she argues, helped soften the experience of wartime and, just as crucially, enabled soldiers to communicate through discourses of sympathy and sentimentalism, thus projecting their own humanity. Through their representations of animals, particularly in letters to women and children, soldiers showed that they remained capable of experiencing emotions and thus of returning safely home at war’s end.

In an expansive review essay, noted transnational scholar Enrico Dal Lago examines the role of the Civil War Era in the discipline’s global turn. In “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” Dal Lago analyzes works of scholarship that have attempted to embed Civil War Era history into world history and the relationship between a once-domestic-facing field and an increasingly globally focused discipline.

As always, this volume includes excellent, informative reviews of books that address the Civil War Era. Book Review Editor Kathryn Shively works assiduously to broaden the coverage and participants in these reviews. In the process, she and we depend on the professionalism of our writers, on view in this issue. We also depend on publishers to provide the books that we review, an increasing challenge during the pandemic. Shively and our book review authors continue to offer heroic and largely selfless service in sustaining this crucial aspect of our professional life.

“A Grand Thing”: The Rebirth of Milwaukee’s Soldiers’ Home

“A Grand Thing”: The Rebirth of Milwaukee’s Soldiers’ Home

When the U. S. government lived up to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural promise to “care for him who shall have borne the battle,” it chose Milwaukee as one of the sites for the three original branches of the National Asylum (later Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS). The first men moved into a few farm buildings on a hill west of the city in 1867; in 1869, an impressive, several-stories high structure was completed. Over the next two decades, massive wings were added to the main building and a couple of dozen other structures—including a theater, a chapel, and a library—were built.  By 1900, 2,000 Civil War veterans lived there. They were mostly white—although a few African American veterans were admitted—and mostly single. Many were immigrants.  And they came from all over the United States.

At about that time, Orlando Burnett, a writer for a western Wisconsin newspaper, visited Milwaukee to report on the Home. His article began with a section called “Memories Round a Bedside.” A proud staff member told him of the convenience of having a card containing the patient’s medical and personal information attached to the foot of his bed in the hospital ward.  “When he dies,” he noted, “we have here all his record.” Burnett noticed that “[t]he man in the bed stirred uneasily.”  The oblivious guide went on to talk about the man as though he wasn’t lying a few feet away. But Burnett could not shake the image of the old soldier. “The man on the bed must have been somebody once. . . . Women had once admired his fine-lined face and kissed it.”  Now, however, it had assumed “the pallor that the angel Death paints us with when nature reports that the machinery is worn out.” Years ago the man had been “young and full of fire. He had marched from home with cheers in his ears, and he had seen the foe.  He had thought great thoughts on picket duty under the stars, and he had done a man’s work in the world.” But now he was so weary that he could not close his mouth, and he cared little about what people thought when they looked at him. “He was rather a tired child—this big, old man, who once marched with Gibbon and Bragg [Generals John Gibbon and Edward Bragg, commanders of the famed Iron Brigade]. And as he lay on his pillow, the white bed clothes wrapped about the thin, gaunt frame, he brought no explanations or beseechings. He seemed to want nothing of God but a chance to sleep for ten million years.” Before going on to describe the home’s 1400-seat theater, the well-stocked library, the spotless kitchen, the anti-drinking Keeley club, and the ways in which the men who could work were occupied and the men who could not were disciplined, Burnett admitted, “It knocks a man’s theological systems into little pieces to see an old man who fought for a nation on his death bed.”[1]

The iconic main building of the Northwestern Branch of the NHDVS in Milwaukee, from a nineteenth-century postcard.

The melancholy tone continued as he broadened his gaze. A fifth of the men in the home were kept in the hospital, where they were treated for old wounds and new maladies, from cancer to injuries caused by accidents to cuts and bruises suffered in fights. Although many received pensions, most were quite poor, and could probably not support themselves outside the home. “Many of them are thus saved from the poor house.”   The men were largely “out of touch with home and women, who gladden life and smooth the pathway to the grave. Death and separation have done their work and the old fellows, stoical, serene, free from cares, await their end.” The administrators who showed Burnett around the Home were no doubt hoping for a cheery account of the good work being done on behalf of the old soldiers—and the article did provide a positive report.  But the tone of the piece was bittersweet, at best, and deeply ambiguous.[2]

Although exaggerated—Burnett was clearly working through some of his own anxieties about aging and mortality—the condition and status of the men living in the home, particularly the poor, speechless, slack-jawed veteran of the Iron Brigade, represented in many ways the odd position of Civil War veterans in late nineteenth century Wisconsin and the United States, where they were both honored and neglected.

A century later, and sixty years after the last Civil War veteran had died, the buildings in which those veterans lived had fallen into a similar kind of dignified neglect.  Like all NHDVS facilities, the Veterans Administration had taken over the Northwestern Branch in the 1930s. A few decades later, a new VA hospital was built down the hill from the old Home. The Veterans Administration repurposed some of the old buildings for offices, employee housing, storage, and other mundane purposes—the old library and bowling alley were still in use, for instance, and the regional veterans’ benefits office and the massive Wood National Cemetery were also administered from offices located in the historic complex.  But most of the roughly two dozen buildings that had survived from the first two or three decades of the Home’s existence fell into a state of elegant, even romantic disrepair. Treasured by those who admired their architecture and historical importance, the structures were twice been honored by preservationists: the state of Wisconsin created the National Soldiers’ Home Historic District in 1994 and the federal government created the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District in 2011.

And yet the Home’s main landmark, the old main building that could be seen for miles around, ending up laying empty for a number of years, as forgotten, it seemed, as the old soldiers who had lived there a century before. Indeed, as I wrote in my 2017 essay for Gary Gallagher’s and Matt Gallman’s Civil War Places, “In a way, the old buildings are now stand-ins for the old soldiers,” shunted aside and forgotten. “Some of the buildings are in appalling condition, with construction fences blocking entrances, roofs sagging raggedly, and paint faded and chipped.  The clumsily executed stained glass window of a mounted Gen. U. S. Grant, presented to the home by the [Grand Army of the Republic] in the 1880s, has been removed from the old Ward Theater because the building is untenable.” As someone who often drove or walked or rode my bike on the Hank Aaron Trail that runs through the grounds, I was intimately familiar with the tragic deterioration of many of the buildings, and in 2011 the historic district was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s List of Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. As I wrote, the Home “represents the best intentions of Americans seeking to honor and protect the heroes of the Union at the same time it reflects the inability of Americans to adequately understand those veterans.  My Soldiers’ Home reminds us of a time when the men who had fought and won the Civil War came to be seen as charity cases dependent on the public’s good will, rather than as heroes deserving of the country’s gratitude.”[3]

Even as the buildings continued their decline, the organization “Save the Soldiers’ Home,” leading a coalition of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, tried to raise money and ideas through public education.  I was actually involved for a time with one of its committees. But an initial effort to get bids for preserving and redeveloping the old buildings failed, and it seemed the buildings would continue their slow, inevitable decline.  

But the project gradually gained momentum behind a shrewd redevelopment plan, earning buy-in from local veterans organizations, the Veterans Administration, and the city government. After over two years of construction, in March 2021, the old main building and several other of the smaller nineteenth century buildings (the headquarters and a few duplexes built for officers of the NHDVS) opened as housing for homeless veterans! Altogether, the $44 million project created 101 housing units, with a mix of single bedrooms with shared living spaces to one to three and even four-bedroom apartments. Women veterans have their own wing, and all residents have access to fitness facilities and a business center. The VA will also provide on-site support services, including counseling, sobriety maintenance, and employment assistance.  The housing is meant to be permanent, not transitional or temporary; residents will pay no more than 30 per cent or their income in rent.[4]

Over 120 years ago that forgotten newspaper writer wrote this of the veterans he met in Milwaukee and the last home most would occupy: “It is a grand thing that these refuges are provided; and we honor the men who wrecked their futures in many cases to hold the republic together.” He meant it ironically, in a way, but it is a worthy ending to this Memorial Day story about new beginnings: both for a place that deserves to be remembered productively, and for the men and women who have borne our country’s more recent battles.[5]

[1] Lancaster (Wisconsin) Teller, August 11, 1898. The Iron Brigade was the only fully “western” brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Made up of the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin, Nineteenth Indiana, and the Twenty-fourth Michigan, it fought at Antietam and Gettysburg and lost more men than any other brigade in the Union army.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “My Soldiers’ Home,” Gary Gallagher and Matt Gallman, eds., Civil War Places: Seeing the Conflict through the Eyes of Its Leading Historians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 168, 169; “America’s Most Endangered Historic Places—Past Listings,”, accessed, August 13, 2017.

[4] David Walter, “Renovated Soldiers Home Almost ready for homeless Vets,” VAntage Point: Official Blog of the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, February 13, 2021,, accessed April 4, 2021.

[5] Lancaster (Wisconsin) Teller, August 11, 1898.









James Marten

James Marten is professor of history at Marquette University and a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. The author, editor, or co-editor of over twenty books, including Buying and Selling Civil War Memory in Gilded Age America, Co-edited, with Caroline E. Janney (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021); America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Congratulations to the Winner of The Journal of the Civil War Era’s George and Ann Richards Prize!

Congratulations to the Winner of The Journal of the Civil War Era’s George and Ann Richards Prize!

Catherine A. Jones has won the $1,000 George and Ann Richards Prize for the best article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era in 2020. The article, “The Trials of Mary Booth and the Post-Civil War Incarceration of African American Children,” appeared in the September 2020 issue.

Drawn from a fragmentary archival record, Jones’s essay examines the wrongful 1882 murder conviction of Mary Booth, a fourteen-year-old African American girl in Virginia. It shows how African American children were transformed into carceral subjects following emancipation and how, in response, Black Virginians fought for greater access to the justice system and for juvenile justice reform.

In the words of the prize committee, “Professor Catherine A. Jones overcame the fragmentary documentary record to write a compelling narrative about a black girl caught in an unpredictable, often brutal, legal system. The author handled the complex legal maneuvers with skill, without ever losing sight of the human dimension of the story. The essay gives us new ways to think about freedom and unfreedom in the postwar South, and it illuminates new aspects of the history of childhood, African Americans, and women.”

Dr. Jones is associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia (2015). She is currently working on a book about the history of child incarceration in the post–Civil War era. The prize committee consisted of Sarah E. Gardner, Mercer University; Joan E. Cashin, The Ohio State University; and Brandon R. Byrd, Vanderbilt University.

Awarded annually, the Richards Prize celebrates the generosity of George and Ann Richards, who were instrumental in the growth of the Richards Civil War Era Center and in the founding of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

For more information, visit


We’ve Always Been Here: Rediscovering African American Families in the U.S. Census

We’ve Always Been Here: Rediscovering African American Families in the U.S. Census

When I initially began examining United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers, I primarily focused on Civil War pension records. As previously noted, these rich primary sources can illuminate the forgotten lives of African Americans in many ways but do not (nor does any single historical record) tell the whole story of the lives of USCT soldiers and their kin. Since hundreds of thousands of people (for various reasons) never applied for a pension, other records fill in the archival silences. As a result, I turned to the U.S. Census to explore the complex living situations of USCT soldiers.

The U.S. Census is an excellent primary source that one can use to investigate the families of USCT soldiers before and long after their military service ended. Since many African Americans did not apply for pensions, the U.S. allows one to examine many people, regardless of their pensioner status. Another benefit to the source is that, due to the quantitative data collection of domiciles, it is possible to uncover a more nuanced understanding of household dynamics for people every decade. Thus, it becomes possible to locate numerous people, even across multiple generations, that do not always make appearances in other historical records. For instance, using the U.S. is plausible to trace fluid familial construction for William Butler (a Philadelphian-born Sixth the United States Colored Infantry soldier) before and decades after the Civil War. Thus, studying African American families has always been an available and accessible primary source.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century, each iteration of the U.S. census asked for specific data on the nation’s inhabitants. Census enumerators asked for a multitude of information on each occupant that included (but was not limited to) an individual’s age, race, birthplace, marital status, full-time wage-earning occupational status, ownership of real or personal estate, literacy, the birthplace, and names of the individual’s parents, and some issues of mental illness. This quantitative information is exceedingly valuable in denoting how African American families fought against and continually adapted their living situations to protect and empower each other in their lifelong battle against racial discrimination.

Even with all the valuable data that the U.S. Census yields, it is important to recognize that there are significant issues in the historical record when attempting to study the families of USCT soldiers.[1] One of the most glaring problems with the source is how historically devalued the unpaid of women, regardless of their race. In many cases, census enumerators (sometimes conducting quick surveys) categorized women as either “keeping house” or holding no occupation at all. Such assessments ignored the important contributions that women made to their families, including but not limited to cooking, cleaning, gathering raw materials to create and sell goods in local markets, washing clothes, watching other people’s children, and bearing and raising their children. Additionally, some women successfully found seasonal and temporary wage-earning employment critical in keeping their families economically stable.[2] It is important to use critical analysis respectfully and accurately acknowledge how women contributed to their household in differing ways. Thus, a blank space in the U.S. Census often does not reflect how their families valued women. It is also critical to recognize that households sometimes included fictive kin—individuals that families treated as “kin” even if there were no adoptive, biological, or marital ties—for their household’s survival.[3] Even if the historical record or families explicitly state it, the continual opening of residences to non-blood-relative individuals says otherwise.  Collectively, these examples highlight that using the U.S. Census requires a careful eye to acknowledge the complexity of African American households beyond the limited interpretation of a federal government record.

A brief examination of William Butler reveals how invaluable the U.S. Census to studying USCT veterans and their families. As his pension records denote, Butler enlisted in the Sixth United States Colored Infantry on August 8, 1863.[4] Unfortunately, on September 29, 1864, he was severely injured in the right thigh during the Battle at Chapin’s Farm in Virginia. After the conflict, a surgeon decided to amputate Butler’s right thigh. After receiving a medical discharge on May 29, 1865, Butler applied for and received an invalid pension of eight dollars per month. By 1866, Butler’s monthly pension payout increased to fifteen dollars after the pension agent categorized Butler as “totally disable,” implying that he would be unable to resume physically demanding, wage-earning work as a civilian. The Bureau of Pensions’ higher pension grading, at least, in this case, highlights that it realized that visible wartime wounds could hinder, if not eradicate, a veteran’s postwar employability.[5]

The U.S. Census thankfully fills in some gaps in his life. In 1850, Butler (along with Henry Anderson and Henry Johnson) lived as fictive kin in the Gilbert household. Robert and Gracy Gilbert undoubtedly appreciated the three men’s additional wages (working as a laborer, porter, and farm laborer, respectively) since the couple had two adolescent children. Gracy’s unpaid work and Richard’s wage-earning employment as a laborer made their financial stability difficult for the young family.[6] The bonds that these seven African Americans created reveal that familial definitions transcended blood and marriage. All three fictive were critical to keeping their household together, for themselves and each other.

1870 Census of William Butler. Courtesy of

Twenty years later, Butler was fictive kin in an interracial household with Alexander and Jane Elligood and Maggie Reagan. Alexander worked as a laborer. Both James and William were domestic servants, while Maggie (categorized as “unemployed”) found various ways to contribute to their residence. William’s occupation provides a unique avenue to examine gender since he performed a job that some people considered “women’s work.” Maybe he cared more about earning a wage than the gendered perception that some people may have had about working as a domestic servant.[7] At the same time, his employment reveals that even though a pension agent labeled Butler “totally disabled,” he performed physically demanding work, which brought him two forms of income when many African Americans struggled to establish one. Finally, this household was unique as Maggie, a white woman, cohabitated with African Americans when Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had a well-established record of large and small-scale racial violence.[8]This household was aware, at some level, of the longstanding local racial tensions. Nevertheless, they instead focused on surviving and supporting each other.

While William Butler is not a representative case, but more an example of how to examine one’s life across multiple sources to uncover the pre-service and postwar life of a USCT soldier. The accessibility of the U.S. Census and the fact that many veterans and kin did not apply for a pension make it a valuable resource. Furthermore, in instances where there are pensions, it would behoove one to cross-reference with the U.S. Census to find more information about how African Americans constructed their lives in their unending battle against racial discrimination. In short, this federal government record offers another opportunity to understand and discuss who USCT soldiers were far beyond their time in the U.S. Army.


[1] Judith Giesberg, “ ‘A Muster-Roll of the American People”: The 1870 Census, Voting Rights, and the Postwar South,” Journal of Southern History 87, No. 1 (February, 2021), 38-41, 50-51; Margo Anderson, “The Missouri Debates, Slavery, and Statistics of Race: Demography in Service of Politics,” Annales de démographie historique, No. 1 (2003),  29-34.

[2] Nancy Folbre and Marjorie Abel, “Women’s Work and Women’s Households: Gender Bias in the U.S. Census,” Social Research 56 No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), 547-549.

[3] Edward Norbeck and Harumi Befu, “Informal Fictive Kinship in Japan,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 60, No. 1 (February, 1958), 102-117; Linda M. Chatters, Robert Joseph Taylor, and Rukmalie Jayakody, “Fictive Kinship Relations in black extended families,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 25, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), 297-312.

[4] Undated Pension Slip, in William Butler, Sixth USCI, pension file. National Archives Records and Administration, Washington, D.C.

[5] Kelly D. Mezurek, For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016), 226; James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 49.

[6] Seventh Census of the United States, 1850;(National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[7] U.S Census Bureau, Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, M593 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1870).

[8] Please refer to the following studies on nineteenth-century racial discrimination (including violence) against African Americans in Philadelphia, Kali N. Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880—1910 (Durham: Duke University, 2006); Leonard L. Richards, “Gentlemen of Property and Standing”: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970); Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

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