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Guest Editors’ JCWE December 2023 Note: Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History

Guest Editors’ JCWE December 2023 Note: Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History

In 1985, The Historic New Orleans Collection purchased one of the few known nineteenth-century paintings of a free woman of color in the United States. François Fleischbein’s Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, completed in 1837, is mounted in an elaborate and expensive goldleaf frame. The woman wears a delicately painted lace collar and bow at her throat, expensive jewelry, and a fashionable tignon, or hair covering. The name of the sitter is unknown. Prior to the museum’s purchase, people speculated that she was a servant in the Fleischbein household named Betsy, or perhaps “the voodoo queen” Marie Laveau. John Mahé, the art curator of The Historic New Orleans Collection, contracted with a local conservator, Phyllis Hudson, to clean and repair the painting. Hudson took an unusually long time to complete the work. When she returned the painting to Mahé, he and his staff were appalled.

Hudson had painted over the intricate lace collar and bow. When questioned by Mahé, she told him that she thought them unfit for a Black woman in the antebellum era and claimed that they had been added later, although she had no evidence of that. After debating whether to report Hudson to her professional organization, the board of The Historic New Orleans Collection, “fearing a lawsuit, decided not to publicly [censure] her.” However, they agreed never to hire Hudson again. For thirty years, the museum displayed the image without acknowledging the grievous damage, thereby reinforcing Hudson’s error of historical interpretation. In 2017, however, a different conservator, Craig Crawford, was able to restore the original images. When The Historic New Orleans Collection reopened following a pandemic lockdown, the painting was reinstalled with an explanation of its troubled history. The new installation is part of the museum’s commitment to greater transparency about and greater access to its collections concerning people of African descent.[1]

Left: François Fleischbein’s painting Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, as acquired by The Historic New Orleans Collection in 1985. Right: the painting after Phyllis Hudson’s work in 1988. Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1985.212

The story of this painting reflects the evolving history of African Americans in archives and historical interpretation. The field has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1960s, when universities began institutionalizing the study of Black people in the diaspora. Yet, setbacks have also occurred as the field has developed. Advances in the field have been rooted in large part in the expansion of access to primary source material: archives, publications, oral histories, and material objects. The increase in access to primary sources has occurred in two ways. First, historians have begun asking different questions of materials that were underutilized for African American history, including plantation and legal records, government documents, personal papers, and published sources. Second, new sets of materials have been recovered, preserved, and made available. These include the Federal Writers’ Project oral history interviews with the formerly enslaved, private family papers donated to archives, visual materials such as paintings and other illustrations, the papers of organizations and institutions that worked on behalf of African Americans, and more. Paralleling this expansion of primary sources is the revolution in digital access, which has made many materials more available without travel. We caution that only a small percentage of primary sources have been digitized, and many of these sources exist behind paywalls or are only available to those at wealthier research universities. But for those who have access, digitization has provided a glimpse of the possibilities available in physical archives, preparing researchers for trips to manuscript collections. Indeed, not only professional historians but many family genealogists have made use of the ever-expanding materials available via Ancestry.com (for a fee) and Family First (open access).

In stark contrast to this vision of an expanding world of sources for studying Black history, however, many recent scholars have lamented the flaws of “the archives” or “the archive,” noting violence, erasure, and omission from collections. The troubled history of the Fleischbein painting is the kind of nightmare that haunts historians who are interested in developing a full account of the African American past. There, a conservator erased important clues to a history that might challenge our limited views of African American life in the era of slavery; and an institution regretted the action but colluded in perpetuating the error. Less dramatically, as many scholars have noted, those seeking to create histories of the oppressed that challenge national ideologies and bring radical rethinking about identities of race, sexuality, and gender are more likely to be subject to a range of challenges in archives. Those challenges lead some scholars to claim that there is little archival evidence for Black lives and to mark invisibility as one of the most significant obstacles to writing a full history of nineteenth-century Black life.

Even scholars who have created rich histories of nineteenth-century African Americans have felt the need to begin their books with “archival laments” that apologize for the alleged thinness of their source bases—and this is true even in well-sourced studies. As well-meaning as such apologies are, they sow skepticism of the actual work and of future research possibilities. Certainly, the act of researching the past demands care- ful consideration. For that reason, we don’t wish to dismiss completely the need to discuss the complexity of archival work. Books, articles, and roundtables by scholars such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Martha Hodes, Stephanie Smallwood, Marisa Fuentes, Martha Jones, Tiya Miles, and many others have included important discussions of archival practices, sources, new narratives, and the particular research methods necessary to ask and answer questions about African American history.[2]

But we have also been frustrated by the almost rote claims of a limited archive at a time when historians have used an ever-expanding body of materials that is actively being recovered, preserved, and made increasingly accessible. We are attentive to startling stories of destruction of archival materials and obstruction of access to archives. But we are concerned that the talk of scant material will curb discovery and stunt research in a flourishing field. We wonder what is to be made of this para- dox of the “archival lament” amid the rich growth and expansion of the field of African American history. In this essay, we investigate this archival pessimism we hear so often today, offering a preliminary account of where it may be coming from and why it troubles us. The essay is a preface to four research-based articles that help demonstrate how much more there is to learn about the nineteenth-century Black past from research in archives and other kinds of collections.

For most of the twentieth century—beginning with the founding of the history profession—professionalization meant that archival and scholarly gatekeepers defined which topics were important.. [3] Archivists limited access to certain kinds of records, and both archivists and scholars even denied the existence of some kinds of records. Such practices, whether overt, clandestine, or simply due to a lack of knowledge about the potential range of sources, helped produce today’s climate of skepticism about archives. Sometimes scholars believe archives hold few materials on African American history because archivists have historically limited access to relevant sources. In some instances, archivists constrained access to sources because their primary focus was on preservation of materials rather than access to them. Archivists sometimes sought to limit who had access to sources, according to segregationist patterns, or because of their views of the qualifications of scholars—views sometimes rooted in raced, gendered, or classist assumptions. In other cases, archivists and scholars sought to limit which stories could be told and, as with the example of the Fleischbein portrait, held back documents or even altered or destroyed materials. Such practices may occur when archivists or scholars fear damaging the reputations of historical figures, or of the archival institution itself. In African American history, such patterns were particularly problematic when researchers asked questions that challenged white supremacist views of African American history. The most well-known example of this kind of limitation occurred early in the twentieth century, when W. E. B. Du Bois attempted to write a history of Reconstruction that went against that promulgated by the Dunning school of historians. Although DuBois had achieved a PhD in history from Harvard, Jim Crow segregation prevented him from consulting the range of southern archives that white scholars had used, and he relied on government reports and secondary sources for his path-breaking reformulation of the era.[4]

As Black women studying histories of slavery and racism in the United States, North and South, who began our engagement in the archives in the late 1980s, we have more rarely experienced active hostility but often received laissez-faire or dismissive attitudes about our research topics. When Leslie began her research on free Blacks in pre–Civil War New York City, her experiences at several New York City and State archives reflected a range of limitations. The New-York Historical Society allowed her access to all that she requested from what seemed available according to online and card catalogs. These included published court cases, the manuscript records of the Colored Orphan Asylum, and virtually unreadable rolls of microfilm of the New York Manumission Society records. But only after the exhibition Slavery in New York was mounted in 2005 (two years after she published her first book, In the Shadow of Slavery) did Leslie learn that the New-York Historical Society held a rich range of material produced by the students of the African Free Schools. Although she made many trips to the New-York Historical Society over the years, no one had ever asked her about her research interests or offered additional sources that she might find interesting. Similarly, when she visited the New York State Ar- chives in 1995, the year she completed her doctoral degree, she wrote the archivists ahead of time about her visit, explaining that she was interested in the records of early-nineteenth-century New York governors, to see whether they might hold any mention of slavery or gradual emancipation, and requested several sets of documents described in books published in the 1960s on slavery in New York State. Riding an elevator with her several days after her arrival, one of the archivists said to her, “Well, if you’re really interested in this topic, you might look at . . .” She had written before she arrived and introduced herself when she approached the desk. It’s unclear how much more “seriously” she could have presented herself or why the archivist’s suggestion wasn’t given to her earlier. In 1998, at the suggestion of a mentor, she visited the John Jay Papers Project in the Columbia University library and asked whether scholars there had uncovered any information on Jay’s ownership of enslaved people or his relationship with New York’s African Americans. The person at the front desk neither con- firmed nor denied that such documents existed but handed her a printed reproduction of a document written by South Carolinian Henry Laurens to his son John Laurens that lamented the South’s involvement with slavery and ushered her out of the office.[5]

At the time, Leslie ascribed some of these early career experiences to her own youth and inexperience. But Daina’s more recent experiences caused us both to question that narrative. In 2017, while an associate professor at the University of Texas, Daina was overseeing a major project on the his- tory of the domestic slave trade in Texas and saw that The Historic New Orleans Collection held some documents relevant for her and her three students. She had become quite familiar with the collection because she had given a workshop for teachers on the museum’s traveling exhibit Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865.[6] Therefore when she and her students, along with archivist Rachel Winston, planned a trip to New Orleans, she wrote to the staff ahead of time, explaining that she would be visiting with students and that they were all working together on this project. In her correspondence, she enclosed the list of documents that she thought were relevant to their project and received a courteous acknowledgement in reply. When Daina arrived with her students, however, the archivist in charge of the reading room that day placed her and her students at distant tables from each other so that they could not collaborate in looking at the documents together as Daina had hoped. This archivist also questioned why Daina wanted to see the sources she requested and repeatedly suggested that she be in touch with Walter Johnson and Joshua Rothman, white male colleagues and peers of Daina’s who had used the collections for their own books on slavery and the slave trade. The archivist seemed unable to imagine that Daina was intimately familiar with these scholars’ research or that she had any idea about what kinds of documents might make sense for her own project, but she also did not suggest additional documents that might have been helpful. This was shocking and disappointing especially since Daina had just published The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.[7] The archivist’s condescension and dismissiveness was obvious even to Daina’s students, who gained an unfortunate but necessary lesson in staying cool in the face of being underestimated.

We know we’re not alone in having had experiences like these and that such experiences are not necessarily limited to women, African Americans, or to the topic of African American history. And much of our work in archives has been exactly the opposite of these experiences. We are aware of and have benefited from the recent transformation in archival practices, in which archivists and museum professionals have actively engaged visiting scholars not only as researchers but also as consultants, to strengthen institutional knowledge of African American history and their own collections.[8] For historians, some of the richest research relationships can occur when we collaborate with archivists and librarians to explore a topic; when an archivist shares her knowledge on a topic with an historian; or when an historian is able to survey an archive anew, and share new knowledge with archivists about the collections they preserve. Daina has experienced this working with Rachel for almost a decade. But when a researcher has only limited time and money to engage in research, dismissive experiences also matter. Scholars may not have the time or financial resources to return for a second visit or even know that they should prioritize an archive if their first visit is unhelpful.

In addition to the practices of archivists, we believe a long history of questioning the reliability of Black sources has helped produce today’s climate of archival lament. For much of the twentieth century, when the majority of whites were at best skeptical of the project of racial equality and at worst completely hostile to it, the slave narratives produced by self- liberated Blacks and supported by white radical abolitionists in the nineteenth century, and the oral histories of the formerly enslaved recorded in the first half of the twentieth century, were considered less reliable than the records of enslavers (from personal papers to government documents). Many twentieth-century academic historians assumed that the politics of the antislavery movement tainted the sources or testimony produced by those who were subject to enslavement more than the politics of white supremacy tainted the sources produced by enslavers.

The events in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl were all critically researched in the post–World War II era through meticulous work in contemporary materials.[9]  While we are grateful for that effort, the need to exhaustively verify these narratives was not only in the pure pursuit of information but also part of the struggle to prove that those who endured slavery had a unique knowledge of enslavement that should inform our interpretation of the system itself and of the meaning of freedom in the United States. It has taken time to turn back the common assumption stemming from the slavery era that Black people could not adequately express the reality of slavery, racism, or US history. White- dominated institutions have long judged people of African descent as lacking the intellectual ability to be historically accurate, but also lacking moral honesty, being too emotional, and prone to exaggeration. And the perceived need for extraordinary verification, or extraordinary questioning of the veracity of sources can lead to the dismissal of these sources.

Assumptions about scant or unreliable evidence impacts scholars’ approach to archival research—particularly younger scholars. For too long, some faculty, librarians, and archivists have falsely claimed that there were not enough sources on slavery, in particular, and African American his- tory, in general. We have heard colleagues say to young scholars some version of “Maybe the reason no one has written about that is that there are no sources on that,” even when the scholar making the judgment has not been to the archives in question. Others have said, “We’ve unearthed every- thing there is to know about slavery” or “Those sources about slavery have no content about sexuality,” the latter even when the scholar has done no research or teaching in the field of sexuality. Even when said with the best of intentions, such moments can have a chilling effect on individual scholars, or on whole fields of study.

Archives have the potential to be reinterpreted or remade when scholars ask new questions of them. For example, one of Daina’s former students asked questions about enslaved people with disabilities when reviewing the plantation and census records that scholars have used for decades.[10]Questions open new avenues of research and provide original perspectives. Stemming these questions, explorations and rereadings of archival materials and primary sources lead to truncated investigations and ultimately the occlusion of whole groups of people and topics from our written histories.

Recent currents in interdisciplinary scholarship have also contributed to the archival laments we hear today. Scholars have productively asked whether some sources were written or materials collected with the explicit intention of obscuring or silencing African Americans and whether those factors mean that legitimate histories are impossible to retrieve. Saidiya Hartman’s influential 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts” is a compelling discussion of this issue in the context of African women’s presence in and experiences of the Middle Passage. Hartman states that we don’t currently know of first-person accounts from women of their experiences in the transatlantic slave trade, and historians have largely overlooked the significance of gendered experiences of the slave trade until recently. Following Michel de Certeau, Hartman argues that historians and historically minded scholars must be willing to attend to and recruit “the past for the sake of the living.”[11] To overcome the white-supremacist limits of the sources that do exist, Hartman emphasizes the need for “critical fabulation”: the creation of narratives that expose histories deliberately hidden or deleted from sources and from archives. Hartman, trained as a literary scholar, uses Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred as her example of this work. And we too would point to many other novels that perform a similar kind of work, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench and beyond. Tiya Miles’s award-winning, paradigm-shifting first book The Ties That Bind explicitly uses Morrison’s Beloved as an historical source.[12]

Indeed, much in Hartman’s work feels familiar to us as historians. Historians of all kinds have recovered the past in service to the present; many historians see that as central to historical practice. The conversation between past and present, mediated through individual and generations of historians, is what renews our knowledge of the past. In addition, historians have long used historical imagination and “reading against the grain” for the same reasons that Hartman supports critical fabulation: to create spaces for people who may not appear in the archives to the degree we might hope, so that we can imagine their lives, rather than simply leave them invisible. Many historians believe such practices are in fact necessary to creating greater honesty and better interpretations in historical practice. We also believe that imagining such possibilities may alert scholars and archivists to ways to read their archives or to collect materials to answer these questions.

Unfortunately, however, we find that many have implicitly or explicitly focused on Hartman’s idea of the lack of the archive, specifically in relationship to the histories of nonelites (including but not limited to the histories of nonwhites, enslaved, non-cis-gendered, and queer people) to dismiss the possibility of archival research. Similarly, we are concerned that some of the limits of particular seventeenth- and eighteenth-century archives and sources may be interpreted as true of all archives and sources, even though the nineteenth-century archival and source base is quite different from that of earlier centuries. For example, in her Petition to the Massachusetts General Court, February 14, 1783, Belinda Sutton, a woman enslaved by the Royall family of Massachusetts, described her childhood in Africa, her kidnapping, and what she chose to reveal of her experience in the Middle Passage.[13]13 Deep reading in the existing historical literature and in available primary sources are crucial in creating the intellectual context for “critical fabulation,” “reading against the grain,” or historical imagination. In addition, historians must continue the archival work itself, which includes collaborating with archival institutions, reading extensively in primary sources, and continuing to think expansively about where African Americans might appear in the historical record.

Finding relevant sources for African Americans takes time. Historians seeking to understand a community whose histories must be disentangled from an often dissembling or dishonest bureaucracy, from newspapers that interpret Black culture in white-supremacist ways, or from mentions of individuals in passing must immerse themselves in documents as a whole, to understand the fuller context in which depictions of historical actors, honest and dishonest, are created. In other words, archival research demands time and patience to read through and understand how one’s questions might be answered in a time, place, and language that is often initially foreign to us or may even be distasteful and distressing. Many historians have discussed the experience of delving into white suprema- cist sources that document racism, physical violence, and other negative acts against people of African descent. But we believe historians take on a responsibility to witness, recover, and communicate the full range of these histories, to the best of our abilities.

We would argue that absences in the archives encourage creativity and imagination—the “critical fabulation” Hartman argues for, and the “historical imagination” Leslie sees as evident in the very best histories, regardless of the state of the archive. As Durba Mitra and Anjali Arondekar, historians of gender and sexuality in South Asia, have asked, “what would it mean to write histories ‘unmoored’ from our attachment to ideas of loss and absence in the archives of marginalized pasts?” Similarly, Jennifer L. Morgan states that “there is an imperative to return, to understand the past through the very records created to do the very opposite of what we ask of them.”[14] In her stunning work Wicked Flesh, Jessica Marie Johnson acknowledges that “searching slavery’s archives for enslaved and free Black lives and knowledge requires additional labor from historians.” Following Marisa Fuentes’s theory that historians must “read along the bias grain” to “’create more elasticity,’” Johnson, as did Fuentes before her, and many others, create works that challenge us all to expand our ideas of what it’s possible to know, to interpret and to imagine.[15]

Some discussions of archives, sources, and interpretation are also appropriate at a particular historiographical moment, serving as signposts to a new way of thinking. For example, discussion of Walter Johnson’s introduction to his 1999 book, Soul by Soul was for years a signal moment in Leslie’s graduate class. Johnson detailed the multiple truths contained in fugitive slave narratives and the multiple methods of analyzing them. In so doing, he aligned himself with a tradition of Black and white historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Herbert Aptheker, John Hope Franklin, John Blassingame, and others who turned away from the “master narrative of American history” to listen to the testimony of the enslaved and formerly enslaved. Johnson’s other main group of sources are two hundred court cases of disputed slave sales that had only been discovered as sources for history in the 1980s. Johnson states that he “generally read the docket record as if they contain only lies.” This statement provided an important way to rethink and reverse the assumptions of who held the truths of slavery. It was even more powerful because a white male historian said it, when many white male historians had previously upheld ancestral lies claiming that only whites held the truths of slavery, and Blacks were unable to tell truths about the institution. Such prior claims had reinforced the idea of whites as able to be objective—without political motives—and Blacks as always subjective: both emotional (an old trope about people of African descent) and politically dishonest. Johnson’s claims were an important refutation of these oft-repeated implications and assertions in the historical literature.[16] But what do they mean for other scholars?

Johnson’s statement has recently begun to seem too simple to our stu- dents. The field and our students had advanced to a degree that the interpretive move necessary in 1999 was seen as overly blunt by 2015. Scholars had repurposed the sources of which Johnson was critical to reveal new methods of enslavement and new accounts of the responses of the enslaved. Two standout examples are the works on women enslavers by Thavolia Glymph and Stephanie Jones-Rogers. Their rereading of the sources produced by enslavers demonstrate new truths that historians had overlooked: Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage reveals the ways women enslavers used violence to control the enslaved and how relationships between Black and white women changed from slavery through emancipation, with Black women rejecting the terms of labor to which white women had become accustomed during slavery. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property exposes the ways white women, with the cooperation of the white patriarchs in their lives, owned slave property and were present in markets where Johnson claimed they were not. Where historians had previously believed the letter of laws that called for coverture—for husbands to take control of the property of their wives—Jones-Rogers shows the ways such laws were subverted by fathers who wished their daughters to maintain incomes independent from their husbands. Further, both Glymph and Jones-Rogers reveal the ways women were trained to “mastery”: to control over enslaved men and women.

The paradigm-shifting work of Johnson, Glymph, and Jones-Rogers is only partly due to finding “new” archives. Rather, it is also about reading many of the same sources that previous historians examined but asking different questions of them. Daina Ramey Berry’s questions about enslaved people’s responses to commodification changed the way slavery and capitalism scholars discussed economics. By questioning the logic of the records of the slave trade—which have been pored over by hundreds if not thousands of scholars—Jennifer L. Morgan shattered decades of scholarship that insisted that men always outnumbered women on slave ships and as enslaved laborers in the Americas.[17] At the same time, archi- vists have become more open to the questions historians are asking. We are advancing beyond the days when the young John Hope Franklin did his research in separate reading rooms or only when white scholars were not present; or when the mention of the word slavery in relationship to the Founding Fathers result in a polite dismissal. We hope that this is not because the archives have been cleaned up in a way that supports erasure— and indeed, the works of Annette Gordon-Reed and others indicates the near impossibility of doing so.[18]

Even the history of the Fleischbein painting with which we began this introduction demonstrates how difficult it is to completely erase the histories of marginalized people. To a great degree, Phyllis Hudson’s belief that the woman in the portrait could not possibly have worn or owned the lace collar and bow was rooted in misrepresentations of the history of women of African descent. In erasing the fancy lace collar and bow, Hudson was making plain the belief that only whites could achieve such wealth and that Blacks, particularly Black women, were only servile.

In its current interpretation of François Fleischbein’s Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, The Historic New Orleans Collection is transparent about its previous errors, stating: “Our display and interpretation of the work made us complicit in the erasure of the sitter’s identity and dignity.” The label expresses the institution’s recommitment to historical preservation: “Caring for objects that document an already marginalized community is a special responsibility, and we acknowledge and share this painting’s history to begin repairing any harm we have done to the sitter’s memory. We hope to someday identify this unknown woman and tell her story more completely.” Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection

In exposing this painting’s troubled history and the ongoing discussions and debates about its meaning, The Historic New Orleans Collection reveals that the present is never a perfect guide to the past. When we act solely on judgments rather than deeply and critically investigating the archival and the scholarly record, we distort the history and tarnish the historical record. Histories are never solely a matter of sources but how historians judge them useful and interpret them. Nor are histories perfect simulacra of the past or literal reports from the archives. Rather, the art of writing history occupies a position between the sources that remain and are available to us, and our interpretation of what they can tell us about the past. It is also about how willing we are to think broadly about multiple interpretations and how we question parts of the record when we don’t always have answers. This is true not only for African American history but for all histories. As Leslie has argued in an earlier piece, there is no perfect archive.[19]

However, we can improve archival practices and are doing so. Both The Historic New Orleans Collection and the New-York Historical Society, to name only two, have greatly improved access to their collections. The recovery of the Fleischbein painting is only one example of the many ways The Historic New Orleans Collection is recommitted to reexamining and reinterpreting the past and the institution’s place in it. The museum has diversified the staff in its reading room, and its archivists are collaborating with archivists and scholars locally, nationally, and internationally to engage in discussions about interpretations of other holdings in its collections. The New-York Historical Society followed its pathbreaking 2005 Slavery in New York exhibition with a commitment to digitizing and making avail- able on its website some of its early African American history holdings. It has also created an array of resources for teachers that begins to reflect the diversity of its own archives and of New York’s and the nation’s history. Both institutions have had and are planning additional exhibitions and events that highlight African American history more fully. The actions of The Historic New Orleans Collection and the New-York Historical Society demonstrate the possibility of recovery, repair, and new collaborations as more voices and interpretations continue to be incorporated into archival practices, and they are far from alone in these efforts.[20]

The four articles that follow demonstrate some of the richness of avail- able sources. Historians must continue to read and reread the known sources, and to demand access to those that may have been kept from them or ignored in different times. Archivists too must continue to expand their understanding of what questions can and should be asked and answered, for every scholarly professional provides potential new pathways to sources that will lead us to new answers to old and new questions.

Our four essayists demonstrate a variety of possibilities for rethinking the archives available for the study of Civil War–era African American his- tory. Each has already written important works that challenge the limits of current interpretations and encourage new uses for sources. As one archivist has noted, many, if not most, of those sources are not hiding but are in plain sight, waiting for historians to use them.[21]

Thomas A. Foster’s essay “‘No Perfect Archive’: Recovering Histories of Enslaved People at Abingdon Plantation” asks us to reexamine our assumptions about when we use historical imagination and when we don’t. His 2014 book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Search for a Relatable Past, explores why and how historians and the general public have created personal lives for the traditional founders even when sources are missing. In his essay on Abingdon Plantation, today the site of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Foster points out that the white owners of Abingdon and those who were enslaved there have similarly limited sets of personal sources. Yet the interpretative panels at the airport create knowledge about the lives of the enslavers as they make excuses for the lack of knowledge about the enslaved. Foster demonstrates what might be possible interpretively by using existing documents, archaeology, and secondary sources.

Kimberly Welch’s first book, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South, demonstrates that despite laws and beliefs that Black people had no individual standing before the law, both enslaved and free Blacks brought cases to local courts that asserted their property rights in the antebellum South and won against white and Black defendants.[22] Her essay for this issue, “The Stability of Fortunes: A Free Black Woman, Her Legacy, and the Legal Archive in Antebellum New Orleans,” examines what the 350- page court case Macarty et al. v. Mandeville might tell us of the financial acumen of Eulalie Mandeville Macarty, a free Black woman who was the common-law wife of Eugene Macarty, a white man, and who was prob- ably the wealthiest Black woman in the antebellum United States. Is the Fleischbein portrait an image of her or of someone she knew? It’s hard not to imagine that possibility.

Jasmine Cobb’s “Partial Portraits: African Americans in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” critically examines images of slavery and enslaved Black people that white artists created for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in the decade before the Civil War. She notes that the magazine did not engage Black artists whose work was in circulation at the time and who offered different forms of representation than that created by white art- ists. In showing that these images are interpretations rather than illustrations of reality, Cobb asks historians to examine these images as critically as they examine written texts. This essay builds on her first book, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century, which describes the ways that a range of visual imagery charted a path to understanding African American freedom and citizenship.[23]

Brandi Brimmer’s essay, “Tracing the Intimate Histories of Poor Black Women in the Late-Nineteenth-Century US South,” uses testimony in Civil War pension records to demonstrate how working-class Black women understood their relationships with their husbands and friends. Her first book, Claiming Union Widowhood, demonstrates how Black women presented themselves as respectable citizens in order to claim widow’s pensions.[24] In this essay, Brimmer works to understand how we can use these records to understand Black women’s lives, even given the limits of the context.

These historians expand our understanding of the archives and what we can learn from them. Indeed, we hope this discussion is a beginning of conversations about the myriad possibilities of archival research.

Authors’s Note: Many people contributed to this special issue. We’d like to thank Kate Masur and Greg O’Malley for their enthusiastic support of our ideas for it, and their intellectual guidance. The peer reviewers provided excellent suggestions that deepened our engagement with the questions we explore here. Each of our essayists provided rich and thoughtful essays—and kept to our deadlines!! Rachel Shelden, director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, and her staff provided a meaningful virtual space for us to meet amid the challenges of the pandemic. We’d also like to thank Daniel Hammer, President and CEO of The Historic New Orleans Collection, for honest conversations about the history and changes at his institution and in the museum world, and his staff.

[1] Leslie’s mother, Merle Ann Triche Harris, a longtime member of The Historic New Orleans Collection, alerted her to this story. See Molly Reid Cleaver, “Identity Theft,” Historic New Orleans Collection Quarterly 39 (Summer 2022): 2–7. The article also refers to the work of Lucia Momoh, “The Art of Erasure,” Iron Lattice, April 5, 2020, https://www.theironlattice.com/features/index.php/2020/04/06/the-art-of- erasure. Momoh was completing her master’s degree in Art History at Tulane University when her thesis advisor, associate professor of art history Mia Bagneris, directed her to the painting. Momoh completed her master’s thesis on the painting and its twentieth-century history: “The Art of Erasure: The Story of a Portrait of a Free Woman of Color From Antebellum New Orleans” (2019). In 2005, as a Harvard graduate student, Bagneris began investigating the painting for a course paper. According to Momoh’s thesis, the “head curator, Judith Bonner, would not grant her permission to use their image or access to their files on the painting.” Without that material, Bagneris was unable to continue her research on the piece and its fate at the hands of Phyllis Hudson. Bagneris encouraged Momoh to return to this question in 2016 (11).

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of His- tory (Boston: Beacon, 1995); Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 211–12; Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1–8; Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Martha Jones’s November 23, 2021, New York Times piece, “Enslaved to a Founding Father, She Sought Freedom in France,” recounts the author’s ten-year journey to recover the life of Abigail, a woman enslaved by John Jay in late- eighteenth-century New York, Martinique, and Paris. Tiya Miles, All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (New York: Random House, 2021). See also two important roundtables: Laura Helton et al., eds., “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archives,” special issue, Social Text 33 (December 2015): 1–61; and Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes, eds., “From Archives of Slavery to Liberated Futures?” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 6 (Fall 2016): 105–215.

[3] These limitations are probably best described in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[4] David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 361. Lewis notes as well that Du Bois’s busy schedule was a factor in his research strategy.

[5] In 2022, Leslie was not surprised to learn of the recovery in the New York State Archives of the 1828 court case concerning the efforts of Isabella Van Wagenen—later Sojourner Truth—to save her son from kidnapping and enslavement in the South. Van Wagenen would win his freedom, and go on to describe the trial in her narrative, which she published in 1843 as Sojourner Truth, the name under which she became one of the most well-known Black women of the nineteenth century. See Kenneth C. Crowe II, “State Archives Find Sojourner Truth’s Historic Court Case,” Times-Union (Albany, NY), February 1, 2022.

[6] In addition to giving an opening workshop, Daina took UT Austin classes to visit the exhibition. See “Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865,” professional development workshop for teachers, Bullock Museum website, https:// www.thestoryoftexas.com/visit/calendar/purchased-lives-professional-development- workshop-20170211.

[7] Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon, 2017).

[8] In preparing this introduction, Leslie had a long conversation with Daniel Hammer, president and CEO of The Historic New Orleans Collection, during which they discussed the changing world of museum and archival practices. Our comments here about the changing goals of archives, from preservation to greater access, are in part rooted in that conversation. In addition, Leslie’s experiences with the staff of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Books Library at Emory University early in her career reset her understanding of what was possible in terms of collaborative research relationships with archivists and librarians. Leslie and Daina have both consulted with a number of museums over the course of their careers, including The New-York Historical Society; The Owens-Thomas House of Telfair Museums; Historic Hudson Valley; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Neill-Cochran House Museum; The African American Museum in Philadelphia; The Georgia Museum of Art; The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; The Calaboose African American History Museum; the Witte Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[9] Dickson J. Preston’s preface to his book The Young Frederick Douglass: The Mary- land Years (1980; repr., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), describes both antebellum skeptics and those of the late twentieth century (15–16). The recovery and editing of the Northup narrative is recounted in Mary Niall Mitchell, “All Things Were Working Together for My Deliverance,Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life 14 (Winter 2014) http://commonplace.online/article/all-things-were- working-together-for-my-deliverance/. Until Jean Fagan Yellin’s research validated Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, most believed it was a fictional work written by white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. See Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, 1861, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Karen Woods Weierman, “‘This Narrative Is No Fiction’: Harriet Jacobs in the Archives,” Reviews in American History 38, no. 1 (2010): 61–66. Stephanie Shaw’s “Using the WPA Ex- Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 69 (August 2003): 623–58, gives a wonderful overview of historians’ critiques of the narratives, including the concern that interviewees are likely to be more concerned with their conditions in the Jim Crow South than with telling the truth about slavery. As Shaw demonstrates, a careful parsing of the language in the interviews can provide a way of distinguishing twentieth-century concerns from nineteenth- century memories. In addition, of course, some interviewees discussed their experiences of enslavement with seemingly little inclination to self-censor. For a close read of the early editions of WPA narratives versus the published ones, see Daina Ramey Berry, “Let the Enslaved Testify,” Not Even Past (blog), Department of History, University of Texas Austin, February 25, 2011, https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/ handle/2152/81284/Let%20the%20Enslaved%20Testify%20-%20Not%20Even%20 Past.pdf ?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.

[10] Jenifer L. Barclay, The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021).

[11] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1–2, 12.

[12] Octavia Butler, Kindred (New York: Doubleday, 1979); Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987); Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench: A Novel (New York: Amistad/ HarperCollins, 2010); Tiya Miles, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[13] See David Kazanjian, “Freedom’s Surprise: Two Paths Through Slavery’s Archives,” In Connolly and Fuentes, “From Archives of Slavery,” 135–39, for a critique of Hartman as focusing on a particular kind of source—autobiography—as best to develop an understanding of enslaved women’s experiences in the Middle Passage. Kazanjian points to a range of other sources that were more accessible to production by enslaved people that might yield interpretive possibilities. His critique reminded us of the Sutton petition. See Belinda Sutton, Petition to the Massachusetts General Court, February 14, 1783, original manuscript, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, and transcription available at Royall House & Slave Quarters website, https://royallhouse. org/belinda-suttons-1783-petition-full-text/. Although the Royall House claims that the 1783 petition “had long been known to scholars,” we find that it is rarely mentioned, perhaps because it does not refer to southern slavery. See “Belinda Sutton and Her Petitions,” Royall House & Slave Quarters website, https://royallhouse.org/slavery/ belinda-sutton-and-her-petitions/. See also Sophie White and Trevor Burnard, eds., Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700–1848 (London: Routledge, 2021), a collection that interrogates the possibilities of testimony inclusive of and beyond autobiography.

[14] Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 9, citing Anjali Arondekar, “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts: Sexuality, Historiography, South Asia,” Differences 25 (December 2014): 99. Jennifer L. Morgan, “Archives and Racial Capitalism: An Afterword,” in “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom and the Archive,” special issue of Social Text 33 (December 2015): 157.

[15] Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 5. Johnson cites the “bias grain” phrase from Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 78.

[16] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cam- bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); 9, 12. Johnson also describes in detail how the testimony of fugitives from slavery has been discounted. See also John Blass- ingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobi- ographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977); Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, The Slave’s Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[17] Berry, Price for Their Pound of Flesh; and Jennifer L. Morgan, Reckoning With Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

[18] John Hope Franklin describes his archival experiences in the 1940s in Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). See also Lorna Peterson, “Mirror on Our Libraries: A Southern Historian’s Life Reflects American Racism through Its Segregated Institutions,” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 78 (January 2008): 123–27. Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997) critiques the range of archival and interpretive stances that sought to protect Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. Her magisterial The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008) was possible not least because of her persistence and the changes in attitudes at Monticello about the history and interpretation of slavery there, including the crediting of the oral history held by descendants of Hemings and Jefferson.

[19] Leslie M. Harris, “Imperfect Archives and the Historical Imagination,” Public Historian 36 (February 2014): 77–80.

[20] As one example of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s collaborations, see Jason Wiese, “Acquisition Spotlight: Double Portrait of Two Men, Possibly Father and Son,” Historic New Orleans Collection Quarterly 39 (Summer 2022): 25–26. The New-York Historical Society digital collections include “Examination Days: The New York African Free Schools,” New York Historical Society website, accessed July 6, 2022, https://www.nyhistory.org/web/africanfreeschool/history/index.html; and its “Curriculum Library,” accessed July 6, 2022, https://www.nyhistory.org/education/ curriculum-library, as well as a wealth of online programming. In 2011, the New-York Historical Society also mounted “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn,” which by linking the US, French, and Haitian Revolutions, raised critical questions about how people of African descent were central to the questions of freedom and citizenship that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See Thomas Bender, Laurent DuBois, and Richard Rabinowitz, Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn (London: D. Giles, 2011).

[21] B. M. Watson, “Please Stop Calling Things Archives: An Archivist’s Plea,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, January 22, 2021, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on- history/january-2021/please-stop-calling-things-archives-an-archivists-plea.

[22] Welch expands on the Natchez sources Ariela Gross uses in Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). At the time that Gross accessed the Natchez cases, she was the first person to have untied them since the nineteenth century. Welch uses those cases and cases in rural Louisiana as well; she notes in her introduction that they are currently not well-preserved. Welch, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 6–8.

[23] Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[24] Brandi C. Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

Walking with Enslaved and Enslavers at Pickett’s Charge (and Retreat)

Walking with Enslaved and Enslavers at Pickett’s Charge (and Retreat)

Trampling down Black people and Black property in order to remake history, memory and geography was a quotidian activity in the post-Civil War United States. In the states that Robert E. Lee’s soldiers hailed from, this was often done with ugly, tortuous violence against Black southerners. In 1938, in the northern state where Lee’s soldiers experienced one of their greatest defeats, Confederate and Union veterans, along with their descendants, politicians, the Boy Scouts, and tourists, virtually all white, with the exception of a few Black veterans and the less than welcome Black Civilian Conservation Corp workers, assembled at Gettysburg and, this time, peacefully reenacted the trampling of Blackness at what still gets called a “reunion.”

Reunion seems an odd term for a coming together of men who tried very hard to kill each other. It implies that there was once union. In a sense, that’s accurate—before the Civil War, these men were all part of the same country. But twentieth-century “reunions” were not reenacting or commemorating that prior union, but rather the murderously brutal conflict that took place only because of the presence of Black people in that country.

In what had by 1938 become a staged photo op, a Union and a Confederate veteran shook hands across the stone wall just up from the Angle, near the Highwater Mark. What often gets missed in this popularized symbolic act of reconciliation is what’s in the background in the photo:[1] Abraham and Elizabeth Brian’s farm, Black Gettysburgians who owned twelve acres upon which hundreds of soldiers fought, bled, and died as part of Pickett’s Charge and Retreat. Had the Brians stayed for the battle, they could have peeked out their front door and seen Confederate soldiers launching their charge from the farm of James and Eliza Warfield, another Black family. But the Brians, Warfields, and hundreds of other African Americans in Gettysburg and the surrounding area got out before the battle, because they knew that Confederate military goals for inflicting violence and mayhem on the soldiers and civilians of the United States of America included kidnapping free Black American citizens and taking them south into slavery.[2]

Seventy-five years later, the Confederate States of America performed reunion with the United States of America right on the edge of the Brian property. By 1938, in the war for memory, a war, unlike the battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, that the Confederacy won more than they lost, the Brians, the Warfields and African Americans weren’t simply casualties—because casualties get remembered, sanctified, and repurposed for nationalistic aims—but instead were run underfoot, receded into the background, and rendered irrelevant amid the more important endeavor of making America great.[3]

On September 24th of 2022, two days after the anniversary of Lincoln’s issuing of the Preliminary Emancipation, Chris Gwinn, Supervisory Park Ranger for Interpretation and Education at Gettysburg National Miliary Park (GNMP), and I sought to tell a different story through “Battlewalk: Pickett’s Charge and the War for Memory” as a part of #MoreHistory.

Our collaboration had its roots in September of 2020, when dozens of historians responded to JCWE’s call to participate in #wewantmorehistory. At Gettysburg, where JCWE editor Greg Downs came, a few dozen of us congregated at the Peace Light, the main gathering site for the 1938 reunion. We had some great signs: well-researched information and carefully noted sources, that invited visitors to learn about the undeniable centrality of African Americans in Civil War history. We wanted to tell visitors that there’s more to the story than what the landscape communicated.

And that happened—but not often. Most visitors walked up to us, glanced at our signs, and kept on walking. Chris Gwinn and other Park Rangers, who have deep and broad experience with visitors, politely pointed out that no matter how welcoming and informative our signs were, we were a group of people holding signs—and that looks like a protest. Visitors don’t come to National Park sites to talk to protestors.

We tried a friendlier approach in 2021. GNMP worked with JCWE editor Hilary Green and myself, setting up a table near the newly renovated James Warfield house, with information about the history of Confederate state memorials at Gettysburg. On a perfect summer day, GNMP opened up the Warfield house, as Rangers know that when any building normally closed gets opened, visitors stop and talk. Hilary hung out on the porch, talking with visitors about the Warfields. It was definitely a better experience, and prompted us to think about what other kinds of activities would better engage visitors.

The collaborative aspect has proved crucial. Along with their years of experience with visitors, Rangers have deep historical knowledge of their specific sites. Academic historians bring broad analytical context and depth of specialization. It’s a combination waiting to be exploited for maximum benefit in a public setting. Based on this year’s successful #MoreHistory day at Gettysburg, the Pickett’s Charge battlewalk may be a template worth imitating.

Chris Gwinn gets most of the credit (the walk was his idea, after all.) As a Ranger with over a decade of experience, he knows that guided walks pique people’s interests—and, here at Gettysburg, if you stick “Pickett’s Charge” in the promotion, it’s sure to attract a crowd.

I’ve taken advantage of a few of the free guided Pickett’s Charge walks during the July anniversaries of the battle, when visitor numbers peak. In July of 2021, there were well over 300 people stepping off from the Virginia state memorial as part of a one-mile walk over the dips and swells that undulate from Seminary Ridge to the highwater mark. This summer, there were easily over 100 visitors embarking from the North Carolina state memorial. Those walks, which understandably focus on the soldiers, tactics and fighting, were outstanding.

However, on the 2021 walk, the word slavery was never uttered. African Americans were never mentioned. On the 2022 walk, slavery was mentioned once, in the shadows of the trees around the North Carolina memorial, when it was noted that General Joe Davis, Jefferson Davis’s nephew, had increased his human property holdings as the war drew near. After that, though, despite finishing the walk over two hours later within ten feet from the Brian house’s north wall, Black people and Blackness vanished into the summer air.

When Chris, therefore, suggested a walk, I immediately said hell yes (or something like that.) Chris also brilliantly suggested doing the walk in reverse: instead of starting at the Virginia state memorial, topped by Robert E. Lee’s statue, or any of the other eight Confederate state memorials that sit along West Confederate Avenue, and walking uphill to the highwater mark as Pickett’s charge walks normally do, we’d start on the Union side, underneath General George Mead’s statue, and walk to the Virginia memorial. Metaphorically and physically, we’d be reenacting declension, going downhill from Union victory to Confederate commemoration.

On a pleasant September Saturday morning, Chris implanted in visitors’ minds that the battlefield was initially meant to be a sacred landscape commemorating a decisive Union victory. The questions, then, were what, how and why did that change, and what disappeared from view in those rolling hills. After that introduction, our group of about seventy or so marched to the Brian farm to tell their story, and then over to the Angle. Standing right about where the 1938 handshake photo was taken, Chris showed the group an enlarged photo, and I shared it via QR code (which most visitors took advantage of with their phones.) We asked visitors to examine what was in the background, consider the significance of the handshake taking place on the edge of the Brian farm, and keep that in mind as an example of how African Americans disappeared from the story the landscape told.

Next, we crossed Emmitsburg Road to the top of a ridge. Chris told stories of previous reunions that explicitly forbid Black veterans to attend—but allowed Black workers to attend to white veterans. I told stories of enslaved laborers and raised the question of loyalty of slaves who cared for wounded and dying Confederates—and complicated those Lost Cause narratives by telling the stories of unreliable laborers and escaping laborers like Charlie Wright, whose report first alerted the Union Army’s first intelligence wing that the Army of Northern Virginia was heading into Pennsylvania.[4] A man who was reportedly a descendant of Robert E. Lee decided to challenge Chris and I at that point, saying that 50,000 slaves fought for the Confederacy, and that we were ignoring how Union atrocities such as Sherman’s march through Georgia motivated soldiers to enlist. Most of the visitors, however, were unsympathetic to his mythology. The subsequent conversation was fascinating—and ultimately productive. We concluded at the Virginia memorial, discussing Lee’s enslavement, via his wife, of nearly two hundred African Americans, and connecting that to the early twentieth century controversies swirling around the Virginia memorial along with the 1913 reunion as a key point in the declension that we had reenacted.

White clapboard house with a field and fence in background.
Figure 1 VIew of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park, from the front step of the Brian House, one mile away. Photo by author.

 

We ended with a visual and visceral exercise. When we started, on the Union side near Meade’s memorial, near the Brian Farm, we asked visitors to look across to the Virginia memorial, with its whitish forty one-foot concrete plinth, topped by Lee and his horse, framed by a semi-circle of trees. It’s quite easy to see the loser of the battle from a mile away. Standing underneath Lee, looking back to where we began, if you don’t know just where to look and what to look for, you have to squint and guess, because to see the statue of the winner, if war ever really has winners, is far more difficult to see.

View of battlefield with two historic buildings in back ground with arrows indicating their location.
Figure 2 VIew of General Mead’s Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park, from the base of the Virginia Memorial, one mile away. Photo by author.

Today, it’s still nearly impossible to see the Black people whose presence, tramped down for a century and a half, is why this commemorative landscape exists. #MoreHistory and these kinds of collaborations can help us see them.

[1] I owe credit to Cameron Sauers, a Gettysburg College history major and 2021 graduate, who pointed briefly to the Brian farm in this photo in a video for the Gettysburg Compiler, one of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute’s virtual publications.

[2] See Hilary Green, “The persistence of memory: African Americans and transitional justice efforts in Franklin County, Pennsylvania” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, Paul Quigley and James Hawdon, eds., (Routledge: 2019): 131-149. See especially pp. 132-138; also see Edward L. Ayers, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (New York: 2017), 45-49.

[3] For an excellent survey and analysis of the historiographical discussion of memory and the American Civil War, see Nina Silber, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reconsidered,” Journal of American History 103 (June, 2016): 59-83. David Blight’s Race and Reunion pushed the debate into high gear, and others have provided invaluable responses that complicate his seminal work. See Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2001); Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Cvil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Gannon, Americans Remember Their Civil War (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2017.)

[4] P. K. Rose, “The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence” (1999) Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 76-77.

Scott Hancock

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

Conveying the 1876 Election to the Public in an Era of Diminishing Democratic Norms

Conveying the 1876 Election to the Public in an Era of Diminishing Democratic Norms

At the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, we work to stay on top of the historiographical treatment of the 19th president. As you might expect, the controversial election of 1876 takes up the lion’s share of our efforts. It is the best known aspect of Hayes’s legacy, and its historiographical treatment matches its popularity with the public. The most prevalent question regarding this election, as you might guess, is did Hayes trade away Reconstruction to become president? This well-beaten path has been exhausted by many historical interpretations; relaying this information to the public can be difficult. On one hand, we do not want to be apologists seeking to absolve Hayes from the Reconstruction fallout. On the other, we do not want to feed any misconceived notions the public may bring about voting in modern politics, a concern that has been heightened since January 6, 2021.

Since so many visitors arrive with a belief that Hayes exchanged military troops in the South for the presidency, it surprises many to learn that if Black men were given unintimidated access to the polls Hayes would likely have won the election and the popular vote. Why would Black southerners vote for the man who (benefitting from hindsight) would betray them? The answer is obviously answered by the chronology of the events; but it becomes confusing to the public to then discuss how Republicans attempted to “right” the wrong of bulldozing throughout the South simply to give the game up a few months later. In other words, visitors may find it hypocritical for Republicans to fight against the bulldozing of Southern states to win an election, simply to hand White Southerners the political future of those states.

“A National Game Played Out,” Harper’s Weekly, December 23, 1876.

Perhaps the most sensational event recounted during the investigation into the 1876 returns involved a Black woman named Eliza Pinkston in Louisiana. Pinkston retold the story of an attack on her family by white men attempting to prevent her husband from voting. Having also been injured during the attack, her appearance created a stir. According to newspaper reports, her muscles around her heel had been cut so that her foot hung “useless.” She still had a “gash across her face” and was “weak, and fainted.” This was the result of her husband being dragged out of his house in the middle of the night, the white men stating, “You will vote no more —– Radical tickets here.” After killing him, they returned to the home, attacked Eliza and took the baby beside her and “cut its throat from ear to ear,” dispatching it in a pond.[1]

Recent historians have largely ignored this sensational story embedded within the 1876 election crisis, but earlier works describe the incident in detail. This is partly explained by the partisan nature upon which these earlier retellings were constructed. A. M. Gibson’s 1885 work, A Political Crime: The History of the Great Fraud downplays Eliza’s story saying “she embellished greatly the one she had been coached to tell.” John Bigelow’s 1895 biography of Samuel Tilden berated Eliza as a “disreputable negress, notorious in three States for mendacity and beastliness.” A Democratic committee of House Representatives were sent down to Louisiana to investigate and proceeded to denigrate Pinkston as given to assaulting others, leaving her children to die, a “habitual abortionist,” and sexually promiscuous. Paul Leland Haworth, who was more sympathetic to the Republican cause, argued that despite attempts to negate Pinkston’s testimony through questioning her character, these politicians and historians “lose sight of the fact that the child was nevertheless killed … that [husband] Pinkston was shot seven times.”[2]

The questionable testimony provided is likely the reason for the lack of coverage in subsequent historical narratives. Adam Fairclough, however, revives it in his recent work, Bulldozed and Betrayed. His retelling goes a step further and even points out that Democrats attempted to bring Pinkston in to recant her story in the midst of the later Potter Commission designed to investigate the 1876 election. This part of the story, however, further complicates the narrative. Was Eliza now willing to recant her story because she was being further coerced by violent threats?[3]

Although all of the elements of her story cannot be verified or disproved today, it brings a lens for visitors at the Hayes Presidential to see a deeper understanding of how this election proceeded throughout the South. Here was a woman whose family was attacked by individuals, most likely connected with bulldozing efforts. Her story was brought before a committee seeking to throw out the results of an entire parish that statistically showed that bulldozing occurred. In that Ouachita Parish, 1,386 fewer votes were cast for Republicans than registered Republicans. In East Feliciana, despite 2,127 registered Republicans only one vote went to the Republican ticket. Having effectively overturned the necessary parishes to achieve a Republican victory, the Democratic side argued that the Republicans were resorting to extra-legal means to achieve their desired results.[4]

As far as the perceived bargain that emanated from the filibuster towards the end of the crisis, the Hayes Presidential points to other historians who can be independent evaluators of any last-minute, Wormley Hotel agreement. But the story of Eliza and the actions of both parties in the wake of the 1876 election opens a door to discuss issues in modern politics. Using Edward Foley’s Ballot Battles, we can talk about the dangers of falling into improper means for the proper outcome. Since Democratic supporters bulldozed the South, and Republican operatives threw out returns to achieve their desired outcome, the answer does not lie here (both means cannot be viably justified if we desire truly impartial outcomes). Foley states that Republicans had “to act immorally . . . in order to vindicate a fundamental moral principle.” Instead, Foley argues for “a well-designed impartial institution for the adjudication of the controversy [that] would have enabled the Republicans to prevail fair and square—rather than having their victory sullied by their need to dishonestly manipulate the count of valid ballots.”[5]

As we discuss this controversial 1876 election with the public, we find it important not to defend improper means even if we might feel it led to a proper conclusion. In the case of Hayes and Tilden, both men were willing to accept the outcome of the election, even if they did not agree with the result. The events on January 6, 2021 showed what can happen if one candidate refuses to concede. As Foley points out about 1876, the nation has not come to terms with developing a proper mechanism for when democracy is challenged. While we at the Hayes Presidential do not have answers to this question, we can at least use our historical emphasis to discuss the important topic of ensuring the means of our voting process are as justified as the ends.

[1] New York Times, November 29, 1876, 1.

[2] A. M. Gibson, A Political Crime: The History of the Great Fraud (New York: William S. Gottsberger Publisher, 1885), 160-165; John Bigelow, The Life of Samuel J. Tilden (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1895), 46; Paul Leland Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1906), 108.

[3] Adam Fairclough, Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Elections of 1876 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021), 165; For European perceptions of the Potter Commission, see Niels Eichhorn, “Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions,” Muster, February 22, 2022, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2022/02/challenging-exceptionalism-the-1876-presidential-election-potter-committee-and-european-perceptions/.

[4] New York Times, November 29, 1876, 1.

[5] Edward B. Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 148-149.

Dustin McLochlin

Historian at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums.

California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

The nine members of California’s reparations task force have a monumental job before them. They have already conducted a detailed investigation into the history of anti-Black discrimination in the United States; they’re also expected to make a formal recommendation to the California legislature as to who will be eligible for reparations and how such a program should be enacted. Members of the task force have consulted experts in history, law, economics, urban studies, and more. They’ve made much of their work publicly accessible through livestreamed meetings and their “Interim Report,” released this June.[1]

Don’t be fooled by the title. The report is only “interim” in that it precedes the committee’s final policy recommendations, to be issued next summer. But there’s nothing provisional about it. The report is a sweeping, painstaking, 500-page history of state-sponsored discrimination against African Americans, in California and nationally. It details 170 years of government policies and individual actions that deprived African Americans of their liberty, labor, wealth, land, education, and often their lives. “White supremacy,” the report underlines, “is a persistent badge of slavery that continues to be embedded today in numerous American and Californian legal, economic, and social and political systems.” The document is a difficult but necessary lesson in history.[2]

Earlier this year, the task force made headlines with a closely contested vote over who would be eligible for reparations. By a 5-4 margin, the commission decided to limit eligibility to those who can trace their ancestry to an enslaved person or to a free Black person who arrived in the United States prior to the turn of the 20th century. Kamilah Moore, the chair of the task force, argued that a reparations program based on lineage rather than race would have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge. A specific plan for how reparations would be allocated – whether in the form of cash payments, baby bonds, land transfers, tuition assistance, or other methods – is yet to be determined.[3]

African American man standing over gold mining claim in California.
Unidentified Black man in Gold Rush California in 1852. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Although California’s task force is the first of its kind, the campaign for reparations has deep roots. From the moment they were emancipated, freedpeople demanded recognition for their service to the country. They argued that generations of unpaid labor coupled with their loyalty to the United States during the Civil War entitled them to some form of compensation – ideally land. Some freedpeople received small parcels, most famously the beneficiaries of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. By Sherman’s orders, thousands of formerly enslaved people received confiscated Confederate land along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, divided into parcels of not more than 40 acres.[4]

But the program was short-lived. When President Andrew Johnson began pardoning ex-Confederates en masse, most of that land was taken from freedpeople and returned to Southern rebels. The federal government gave far more land to Gilded Age railroad corporations than to freedpeople and their descendants.[5] Black people continued advocating, however. Callie House, a formerly enslaved woman, organized a national reparations movement and, in 1915, sued the U.S. Treasury Department for $68 million. House’s claim was struck down by the US Supreme Court.[6]

For the past century-and-a-half, a meaningful reparations program has remained, more or less, a pipe dream. But that could change, beginning with California.

That California is leading the nation in the campaign for slavery reparations may seem curious to some. California, after all, was a free state, far distant from the plantations of the Deep South, where the majority of America’s enslaved population labored. Furthermore, California remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. The Golden State has only a tenuous link to the history of American slavery – or so it would seem.

But, as a growing group of scholars have revealed, California was a free state in name only.

Beginning in 1849, white Southerners joined the international rush to the gold diggings around Sacramento. Hundreds of them brought enslaved Black laborers with them. Even after the ratification of California’s antislavery constitution in 1850, many African Americans remained in bondage within the state.[7]

California’s lawmakers enabled and empowered the slaveholders in their midst. A Mississippi planter-cum-California politician named William Gwin served as the state’s ranking U.S. Senator through most of the antebellum era. He stuffed California’s lucrative federal positions with his Southern-born friends, ensuring that a cabal of proslavery partisans would control the political fortunes of the Far West. The California Supreme Court, too, was a haven for white Southern transplants. Five of the seven justices who sat on the state supreme court between 1852 and 1857 hailed from the slave South, while even one of the Northerners was a supporter of the slaveholding extremist John C. Calhoun. In dozens of cases between 1852 and 1855, California’s courts rejected the freedom claims of Black Americans and remanded them to their purported owners.[8]

When the Civil War broke out, those proslavery powerbrokers threatened California’s loyalty to the Union. General Edwin Vose Sumner, the commander of the U.S. Department of the Pacific, estimated that there were thousands of would-be rebels in the state. While “there is a strong Union feeling with the majority of the people of this State,” Sumner reported, “the secessionists are much the most active and zealous party.”[9] Rebel activity was so strong in Southern California that the U.S. was compelled to construct a military complex, known as Drum Barracks, just outside Los Angeles. Thousands of U.S. troops passed through Drum Barracks over the course of the war.[10]

Southern sympathies persisted into the postwar period and threatened the hard-won rights of Black Californians. The California Democratic Party swept back to power in 1867 on an anti-Black, anti-Chinese, and anti-Reconstruction platform. Governor Henry Haight castigated Republican efforts to protect freedpeople in the South. He likened Reconstruction to military despotism, which devolved “political control to a mass of negroes just emancipated and almost as ignorant of political duties as the beasts of the field.”[11] California was the only free state that refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments during the Reconstruction era. The state legislature didn’t ratify those amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively.[12]

Whether California will pass a reparations package to address some of these injustices remains to be seen. If so, it would be a historic achievement in a nation that has long resisted such measures. The members of the task force have already made a powerful case with their interim report. And, as that report makes clear, any path to reparations must begin with a lesson in history.

[1] Lil Kalish, “California’s reparations task force explained,” Cal Matters, April 13, 2022 https://calmatters.org/california-divide/2022/04/californias-reparations-task-force/; Kevin Waite, “Why California’s slavery reparations task force has the power to transform us all,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2021. For a catalogue of the task force’s public meetings, see https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121/meetings.

[2] “Interim Report,” California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, June 2022: https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/media/ab3121-reparations-interim-report-2022.pdf

[3] “California reparations to be limited to descendants of enslaved people, taskforce decides,” The Guardian, March 30, 2022; “California’s reparations effort moves ahead: Here’s what’s next,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2022.

[4] William Tecumseh Sherman, Special Field Order No. 15, fulltext available via Blackpast at: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/special-field-orders-no-15/ For particularly poignant appeals for land, see the letters of the freedpeople of Edisto Island, in Ira Berlin, Steven Hahn, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, “The Terrain of Freedom: The Struggle Over the Meaning of Free Laboru in the U.S. South,” History Workshop Journal 22:1 (Autumn 1986), 127-129.

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); see also, James L. Roark, Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press (New York: Norton, 1977); White, Richard, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

[6] Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[7] Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[8] Waite, West of Slavery, 91-122; Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 47-79; and Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[9] Sumner to Colonel E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. L, Part 1, p. 472.

[10] Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Waite, West of Slavery, 181-208.

[11] Henry H. Haight, Inaugural Address of H.H. Haight, Governor of the State of California, at the Seventeenth Session of the Legislature, and Special Message of Governor H.H. Haight, of California Declining to Transmit Senate Resolutions Condemnatory of President Johnson (New York: Douglas Taylor’s Democratic Book and Job Printing Office, 1868), 9-10.

[12] Kevin Waite, “Reconstruction in the American West,” in Andrew L. Slap, ed., The Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Kevin A. Waite

Kevin Waite is a political historian of the 19th-century United States with a focus on slavery, imperialism, and the American West at Durham University (UK). His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021), won the 2022 Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

Previewing the September 2022 JCWE Issue

Previewing the September 2022 JCWE Issue

This issue includes one original article, two very interesting lectures, a review essay, and the usual slate of excellent book reviews that together continue to expand our understanding of the field, its key actors, and its central questions.

The first of the published lectures is Thavolia Glymph’s acceptance speech for her Tom Watson Brown Award–winning book, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation. She delivered the speech during the Southern Historical Association’s virtual annual meeting on November 5, 2021. Glymph’s lecture captures her book’s argument that Black women, despite assertions to the contrary in the literature, are highly visible in the archives historians already use. Glymph’s essay both crystallizes one of her book’s broadest arguments and offers examples of how historians can work with the existing archives of Black women’s lives.

The next essay is Louis P. Masur’s Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, “Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Reconstruction.” This was the Fifty-ninth Fortenbaugh Lecture, delivered at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute on November 19, 2021. Masur draws on his books, especially Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion, to reexamine the Civil War history of the issues that became central during Reconstruction and to advance ideas about Lincoln’s potential trajectory, had he lived.

Evan Turiano’s “‘Prophecies of Loss’: Slave Flight during Virginia’s Secession Crisis” explores how slave escapes became a political issue during Virginia’s struggle over secession. Through close readings of speeches, newspaper accounts, and other sources, Turiano captures how unionists, early in the debate, argued that secession would open the door to increased flight by enslaved people. Yet as the debate progressed, secessionists reconfigured the argument, drawing attention to Lincoln’s critiques of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and suggesting that he would likely be an unreliable enforcer of it. Throughout, Turiano embeds the stories of fugitive enslaved people to show how their actions, not just their invocation, mattered in the debate.

Richard Bell’s review essay, “Peepholes, Eels, and Pickett’s Charge: Doing Microhistory Then and Now,” examines the relationship between microhistory and the Civil War Era. Bell discusses the ongoing, now fifty-year-old debates about what microhistory is, beyond a tight focus on a small subject. Bell also asks which works in Civil War Era scholarship are microhistory, whether they acknowledge it or not, and what the field could gain by self-consciously adopting microhistorical approaches.

The book review section continues to be a source of pride for the journal, and we remain grateful for book review editor Kathryn Shively’s dedication in the face of pandemic-related challenges in publishing and academia. We also thank Northwestern University’s Department of History, which has provided financial support for the book review section over the past year, and Mikala Stokes, a PhD candidate at Northwestern, who has assisted Shively in producing the section. 

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

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

“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

[Editor’s Note: This article is adopted from Evan Turiano’s forthcoming  “‘Prophecies of Loss’: Debating Slave Flight During Virginia’s Secession Crisis,” which will appear in the September 2022 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era.

The Virginia secession convention was set into motion on November 15, 1860, barely a week after Lincoln’s election. On February 4, 1861, Virginians went to the polls to elect 152 convention delegates. At first, relatively few Virginians favored secession. Voters rebuked many of the most ardently pro-secession candidates in the February 4 election and only about one-sixth of the elected delegates entered the convention favoring disunion.[1]  Most of the remaining delegates, two out of every three, favored union upon certain conditions.[2] Both of these groups approached their position with a commitment to protecting slavery and, specifically, with an eye toward stopping enslaved people from fleeing toward freedom. Unionists argued that secession would unleash a wave of escapes that could threaten slavery’s future. Secessionists, on the other hand, insisted that freedom seekers already posed a grave threat to slavery, one that Lincoln would only exacerbate as president.

As Virginians debated secession through February 1861, conditional unionists looked anxiously to the incoming administration for signs of concession and conciliation, particularly on the question of fugitive slave rendition. The pivotal moment came on March 4th, when Lincoln addressed a tense, packed crowd at the Capitol’s east portico. Lincoln began with an acknowledgement that the Constitution provided slaveholders with a right “for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves.”[3] For some historians, this has been the critical, sole takeaway from Lincoln’s words on fugitive slave rendition as he assumed the presidency.[4] Instead, proslavery Virginians on both sides of the secession debate heard Lincoln’s message on fugitive slave rendition as a hostile one. Proslavery unionists heard their warnings about the relationship between secession and the forfeiture of constitutional rights clearly echoed. Secessionists, on the other hand, perceived Lincoln’s commitment to maintaining the right to a jury trial for accused fugitives from slavery, one that undermined the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In the fallout of Lincoln’s speech, Virginia secessionists were able to use Lincoln’s evident hostility to win support for their cause, and to ultimately win disunion in the Old Dominion.

Capital Building in background with a large crowd in foreground of the sepia tone photograph.
“Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861,” from the Benjamin Brown French Photograph collection.

On March 4th, Lincoln addressed states on the fence like Virginia with a clear message: if they seceded, “fugitives, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all.”[5] He had made the same point on the campaign trail before a crowd in Cincinnati in 1859. Speaking through cheers and laughter, Lincoln challenged Southern whispers of secession. “Are you going to build up a wall some way between your country and ours, by which that movable property of yours can’t come over here any more, to the danger of your losing it?” If secessionism was an effort to promote further Northern participation in fugitive slave rendition, Lincoln asked, “When we cease to be under obligations to do anything for you, how much better off do you think you will be?”[6] As if to prove Lincoln’s point, alongside a transcript of the inaugural address, the March 5 edition of the Richmond Daily Whig ran a story about a fugitive from slavery named John Bell. Bell had been in the custody of a US Marshal and was set to sail from New York City to Richmond. He was, instead, forcibly freed by a “mob of negroes and whites.”[7]

While unionists saw their warnings of forfeited rights echoed and their calls for concessions largely ignored, Lincoln’s inaugural address provided secessionists with fuel for their arguments about the uselessness of the Constitution’s fugitive slave protections. Instead of offering a commitment to returning fugitive slaves within the Union, he called the overreach of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law into question and suggested that accused fugitive slaves might deserve equal protection under the Constitution.[8]

Lincoln delegitimized a key premise of the 1850 law by claiming that there remained “some difference of opinion” as to whether the federal government had any constitutional authority to participate in fugitive slave rendition. Furthermore, he asked, “Ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence . . . be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave?” Lincoln went on to suggest that the 1850 law be amended to guarantee that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”[9] In the eyes of secessionists, this, too, amounted to a rejection of fundamental features of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The Liberator, otherwise critical of Lincoln and his address, recognized that his call for a national protection of Black legal rights in the face of fugitive slave rendition represented something “no other President has yet done.”[10] Many proslavery Virginians were inclined to agree that Lincoln’s messaging was unprecedented. Over the course of March, they came to believe that their best hope for stopping slave flight might lie outside the United States.

Virginia’s proslavery unionists struggled to maintain their position in the face of the broadly negative reception of Lincoln’s address. Convention delegate William C. Wickham wrote to a fellow Virginia Whig, Winfield Scott, a week after the address to complain that it “has had a most unhappy influence upon some of the members of our Convention.”[11] In a letter to his wife, another unionist described the address as “an earthquake” that “embarrassed” the unionist faithful.[12] Those who stayed in the unionist camp tried with limited success to train focus away from the policies Lincoln suggested and toward his threats regarding the forfeiture of constitutional protections that would come with secession. Lincoln’s firm stance, they argued, indicated that slavery in the seceded states would receive no special protections and would in fact face aggression across a newly foreign border.

For secessionists, on the other hand, Lincoln’s firm message proved fortuitous. When slaveholding Virginians read transcripts of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, they understood his discussion of fugitive slave rendition as antagonistic to their property rights. Lincoln’s rejection of these property rights in favor of jury trial protections was, according to one historian, “of far greater significance to conservatives of the upper South” than was his denial of the legal right to secession.[13] The Richmond Daily Whig reflected this concern. “To offset the admission of the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave ‘delivering up,’” the editors explained to their readers, “the President apparently insists upon the guarantee, that Northern citizens (meaning Negro citizens, perhaps?) shall have legislative Protection, South.”[14] Editors at the Daily Whig tapped into a decades-old conflict between the legal rights claimed by African Americans accused of being fugitive slaves and the proslavery desire for an airtight property right. In Lincoln’s call for the privileges and immunities of African American citizens to be protected despite the Fugitive Slave Law, they heard reverberations of a movement at least as old as the Missouri Crisis that had since become a cornerstone of political abolitionism.

Over the course of March 1861, their appeal began to work. Secessionists, still a minority in the state when Lincoln issued his inaugural address, raked in former conditional unionists as that bloc came to believe that concessions—on fugitive slave rendition and otherwise—would not come. For example, Halifax County delegate James C. Bruce began the convention with concerns about the South’s independent economic prospects and a commitment to striking a compromise with the federal government. By late March—while still holding out hope for a compromise—Bruce lamented that since the Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision nearly two decades earlier, fugitive slave rendition had become so impossible that “when a slave escaped, his master looked upon him as much beyond his reach as if he were dead.” This “distinct and solemn violation of the Constitution” was, Bruce had come to realize, just one example of the “the hatred of our Southern institutions and our system of slavery” that was “irradicably ingrafted into the minds of the Northern people,” where, he feared, it “can never be eradicated.”[15] Bruce cast one final bid for unionism on April 4, and by the final vote he had joined the secessionist ranks.[16]

On the eve of secession, Virginia slaveholders were tremendously concerned about the security of their human property and the protection it received from the federal government. During the secession crisis, the question of whether they were more likely to be able to prevent escapes—and reclaim people who fled—inside or outside the Union animated fierce debates. Instead of the concessions proslavery unionists hoped for, Lincoln’s inaugural address struck Virginians as hostile to their peculiar institution. In the inauguration’s wake, secessionist arguments that hostile Northerners rendered constitutional protections worthless began to prevail. Throughout, virtually all proslavery Virginians knew that enslaved people would make political calculations to seize their own freedom.

[1] Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xvii; William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, ed., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), xi.

[2] Freehling and Simpson, eds., Showdown in Virginia, xviii–xix. On the centrality of anti-slaveholder politics in the secession and formation of West Virginia, see William A. Link, “‘This Bastard New Virginia’: Slavery, West Virginia Exceptionalism, and the Secession Crisis,” West Virginia History 3 (Spring 2009): 37–56.

[3] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy G. Basler, 8 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 4:263.

[4] See, for example: Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 236–37. For a more nuanced view that considers the limits Lincoln proposed, see Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 158.

[5] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:269.

[6] “Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 3:454.

[7] Richmond Daily Whig, March 5, 1861. For more on Bell, see Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 214–15.

[8] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:262-71.

[9]  “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:264; For an argument connecting this statement to fugitives from slavery, see James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021), 116–17.

[10]  Liberator (Boston), March 8, 1861.

[11] William C. Wickham to Winfield Scott, March 11, 1861, in The Lincoln Papers, ed. David C. Mearns (New York: Doubleday, 1948), 2:481.

[12] Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1934), 178.

[13] Dwight Lowell Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860–1861 (1931; repr., New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), 260.

[14] “Views of the Press on Mr. Lincoln’s Inaugural,” Richmond Daily Whig, March 7, 1861.

[15] James C. Bruce, March 23, 1861, in George H. Reese, ed., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13-May 1, 4 vols. (Richmond: Virginia State Library), 1:241-42.

[16] Donald Gunter, “Bruce, James Coles (1806–1865),” in Encyclopedia Virginia (Charlottesville: Virginia Humanities, 2021), https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/bruce-james-coles-1806-1865/.

Evan Turiano

Evan Turiano is the Macaulay Honors College Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

Haunted Former Safe Havens of Reconstruction

I had had enough of ghost stories as the author of a book about the Colfax Massacre.  I had discovered the awkwardness of being a white woman who became the expert on the suffering of Black people. And while no one had told me it was not right, I came to see my role as distasteful.  I had resolved to focus on happier material for my second book, finding in the Radical Republicans of the Civil War era a set of doughty champions and telling the story of their great victories over slavery and racism.

I was still seeking out less grim history when I initiated my research into New-Orleans area “safe havens” during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.  Surely there were instances to be rediscovered in the archives when the presence of the Union Army, sympathetic officials, and ultimately Black voters created bastions of physical security and political power for African Americans in the city.  The country town of Colfax – 225 miles to the north – had been one such safe haven. The town had been a center of law and order for Black residents and a reliably Republican polling place in 1870 and 1872 elections.  Already I knew the names of New Orleans sites with similar reputations: the federal Custom House, Economy Hall in Treme, the Mechanics Institute, home to the Reconstruction-era legislature, and Elephant Johnny’s, a bar and polling site depicted in a well-known lithograph.  I was following a hunch that Provost Marshal courts were sometimes dispensers of justice where Black people went for redress of post-Emancipation grievances.  And in case my research proved partial or fruitless, I knew I could rely on the one surviving relic in New Orleans that was already almost famous as a haven for refugees from slavery in the Civil War era, Camp Parapet.

Camp Parapet served as the setting of one of the most bombastic confrontations I discovered for When It Was Grand, my book about the Radical Republican movement.  In 1862, the pure-hearted Vermont abolitionist General John W. Phelps had told the wily and political Major General Benjamin Butler that he would not obey orders to put Black men to work building levees at Camp Parapet. Phelps resigned his commission rather than obey orders to stop raiding nearby plantations and forming Black army regiments at Parapet.[1]

Historic map with a river at top and historic fort identified.
“Approaches to New Orleans,” 1863, featuring Camp Parapet in red on the left. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

For my new project, a quick review of historical sources suggested I would find plenty of examples of the use of military power and the largess of the federal state to improve the prospects for Black people in the vicinity of Camp Parapet after Phelps’s resignation.  This safe haven remained at the center of Black life in that part of Jefferson Parish even after the departure of federal troops and Freedmen’s Bureau agents.  And unlike most of the other identified locations, the physical footprint of Camp Parapet remained partially intact and still designated today by a historical marker – one that made no mention of the site’s history as a bastion of Black power in New Orleans.

How had our memory of Camp Parapet as a civil rights site been forgotten?  To answer this question, I had to reckon with the ghostly post-Reconstruction history of the location.

Local newspapers hold onto stories that ultimately slip out of the historical narrative. With digitization, researchers, including my own students, are transformed into history detectives after a few keystrokes.  Early in my research into Camp Parapet, I was struck by the way my chronological list of matches confirmed my hunch that Black families benefited from federal intervention at Camp Parapet.  I read about the establishment of Black churches, a hospital, and medical offices in the vicinity.  A series of reports documented how wartime Provosts Marshal, a Freedmen’s Bureau court, and a justice of the peace office headed by a Black official addressed crimes against Black laborers and residents at Camp Parapet.[2]  I found evidence of community life such as a Black-owned nightclub, parades, and a mutual aid and parade society calling itself Sons and Daughters of Camparapet.[3]  I also found evidence that this prosperity did not escape the observation of conservative white Jefferson Parish residents.

At Parapet (now part of Carrollton in metropolitan New Orleans but then a satellite community with open farmland), the earliest signs of trouble concerned elections.  An early victim was a white man well known for his whiskers who was attacked violently with scissors and shorn of his beard after voting against a local white coalition.  An attack on the poll station at Camp Parapet muddied 1876 election results with more than 500 false Democratic Party ballots, and the arrest there on trumped-up charges of William Smith Calhoun, Colfax, Louisiana’s white Republican eminence, is a clear indicator in retrospect of the onset of KKK-style agitation.[4]

By the time serious violence broke out in 1893, the management of Camp Parapet had passed from Civil War and Reconstruction-era Black-friendly authorities to a generation of white male officials elected mainly by white voters. The new political leaders desired demonstrating their commitment to white supremacy for their most virulent constituents.  These men found special meaning in an incidence of deplorable violence in the still-operating Camp Parapet justice of the peace precinct office. Now staffed entirely by white officials, the office still symbolized thirty years of law and order and even racial justice for East Bank Jefferson Parish residents.  The murder of a white official on the site and the disappearance of the perpetrator into adjacent swamps aroused suspicions of collaboration, a possible race war, and fears of local Black aggression.  Eight days of rioting ensued. Armed white residents interrogated Black residents. Consisting of every elected official in the parish, several mobs perpetrated murders, tortures, and other crimes in and around this early Reconstruction safe haven.[5]

After killing an uncounted number inside the ruins of the old fort, white officials circulated gleeful detailed accounts of their atrocities in the press before consolidating their symbolic victory. They purchased Camp Parapet and transformed the subterranean powder magazine and grounds into an unofficial parish jail and pauper’s graveyard. Without generating records, the watery, pitch-black detention facility and prior site of  hair-raising tortures operated until 1922.[6]  By the 1960s, white women wearing hoop skirts were commemorating “acts of Confederate valor” on the site in a ritual that persists into the present day.[7]

B/W photo of earthen mound with an entrance in foreground.
Camp Parapet Powder Magazine in 1976, Courtesy of the National Parks Service

The version of myself that wrote The Colfax Massacre in the early 2000s would have documented in detail the terrible things that I learned about Camp Parapet, acting on the principle that we all should bear witness to so much suffering and crime.  Now I can hardly bring myself to type the grisly titles of newspaper accounts into my citations.  Surely the alignment of state power with the violence of white supremacy in this instance is too important to ignore and the untold story of Camp Parapet is my obligation to promote.

I had imagined a new project in which I tracked sacred spaces in the advancement of Black citizenship in New Orleans or perhaps the region.  The Camp Parapet research made me pause to consider.  How many ghost stories have arisen from white terrorists’ mocking appropriation of sites that had born witness to Black celebrations?  Who benefits if I persist in my inquiry?

For seventy years until 2021, a taunting white supremacy summary of the events of the Colfax Massacre stood planted in the mass grave of sixty-nine men who died defending the right to vote for the Republican Party.  The Jim Crow marker is now gone. In keeping with the wishes of descendants of the victims, however, the marker has not been replaced. Most of them remain members of the extended Colfax community.  We must find a way to remember the tragedy of 1873 in Colfax and 1893 in Jefferson Parish in ways that promote wholeness in our own contested present.

What shall we commemorate at Camp Parapet?  The present colorblind acknowledgment of the powder magazine as a Civil War site will not suffice.  In its place, I propose to mark the date of a parade of June 11, 1864, launched with music and banners from the fort and destined for Congo Square at the top of the French Quarter.  Tens of thousands showed up, singing and cheering for the new Restoration Louisiana constitution, which had permanently abolished slavery in the state.[8]

Let the tally of the murdered appear elsewhere.

 

[1] LeeAnna Keith, When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2020), 160-165.  See also Elizabeth Leonard, Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 99, 102.

[2] “Trimonthly Report of Operations, Volume I,” Subordinate Field Offices, Records of the Field Offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1872, Smithsonian Museum of African American History, Washington, D.C., https://edan.si.edu/slideshow/viewer/?eadrefid=NMAAHC.FB.M1905_ref381; “Letter from Hon. John Hutchins: Further Vindication of Gen. Banks,” Liberator, March 17, 1865; General Court Martial Orders from the Headquarters of the Department of the Gulf, 1862, American Memory, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://memory.loc.gov/service/lawlib/law0001/2012/201200203998867/201200203998867.pdf; Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 275.

[3] “Zion’s Benevolent Association of Sons and Daughters of Camparapet, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Constitution, By-Laws, and Rules of Order, 1872,” New Orleans Black Benevolent Association Collection, Archives and Special Collections for Black Studies, Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[4] “Cut Off Colone’s Beard: Now They Go to Jail for Trying to Intimidate Louisiana Voters,” New York Times, May 10, 1910; “The Republican and the Returning Board,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 23, 1876; “Arrest of W. S. Calhoun, Indicted for Forgery,” New Orleans Times, April 19, 1875.

[5] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany: Outlook Verlag g.m.b.h, 2018), 31.

[6] [Jefferson Parish News], New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 17, 1894; “Jeff Restoring War Memorial,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 28, 1963.

[7] “Awards Given by UDC Group,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 18, 1963.

[8] William Lloyd Garrison, “Letter to Professor Newman, No. II,” The Liberator, July 22, 1864; Eric Sieferth, “Where Do Second LInes Come From? The Origins Go Back More Than 200 Years,” Historic New Orleans Collection, https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/symposium-2021/where-do-second-lines-come-origins-go-back-more-200-years.

LeeAnna Keith

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

Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Civil War era historians have made several comparisons between Russia’s suppression of the Polish rebellion in 1863 and the U.S. efforts to quash the enslavers’ rebellion in the United States. Most of these comparisons are either imbued by traces of U.S. exceptionalism, such as the many U.S. centric interpretations of the Russian fleet visit to New York and San Francisco, or illustrate a lack of understanding of the European as well as Polish situation. However, a consideration of the refugee situation offers fresh insights, something especially in light of the recent events in Ukraine, giving the topic contemporary meaning.

U.S. historians tend to overlook a crucial aspect that internationalized the suppression of a domestic rebellion in Poland by Russia—the Alvensleben Convention, which opened the door to Russian forces to pursue Polish refugees into neighboring Prussia. A similar desire, that was also never formally enacted, followed the conflict between Minnesota settlers, U.S. forces, and the Dakota nation in 1862, which some Civil War era historians have also dismissed as not part of the conflict.[1] While some Dakota fled westward into the Plains, others escaped across the border into Canada and U.S. authorities were keen to pursue them and bring these refugees to justice, which they illegally did in one instance. In both cases we see nationalities that lack states and have suffered decades of oppression (Poles and Dakota) strike back at imperial powers (Russia and the United States) bringing about imperial border issues with neighboring empires (Prussia and Great Britain-Canada). The comparative refugee crisis broadens our understanding of the Civil War era and, offers a much more insightful comparison then what diplomatic historians have so far shown or the flawed recent comparison of guerilla warfare with regard to the Polish rebellion. Furthermore, looking at Poles and Dakota expands the Civil War narrative westward, which is long overdue. Such an exercise might address a call by Enrico Dal Lago to consider imperial comparison as the next stage of the transnationalization of the Civil War era in his recent Journal of the Civil War Era essay.[2]

In late January 1863, the Poles once more rose up in rebellion against their Russia overlord. Only two years earlier, they had done so already (often not noticed or mentioned by Civil War era historians). The Poles had long complained about their state being absent from the European map despite them having a national identity that dated back centuries. The Polish people also took issue with the autocratic governing by Russia and military duties imposed on them. This could have been just another domestic disturbance of the era subdued by the imperial authorities without much international concern or attention, leaving aside public protests of course.[3]

The Polish Rebellion of 1863 escalated when the newly appointed Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck tried to score political points and ingratiate his country to Russia. Preparing for the process of German Unification, he orchestrated the so-called Alvensleben Convention. Signed on February 8, 1863, Prussia permitted Russian forces to cross into Prussian territory in pursuit of fleeing rebels and apprehend them. All Polish revolutionaries captured were to be turned over to a Russian military court upon extradition. International pressure soon came to bear on Prussia as Great Britain and France viewed the agreement as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Russia never insisted on the implementation of the convention. As a result, those Poles lucky enough to reach Prussia were able to escape Russian prosecution, death sentences, and Siberian exile.

B/W photo of group of armed 19th C. soldiers
Polish scythemen of the January Uprising. http://www.bn.org.pl/powstanie/zbiory/Fotografie/f039.jpg

Thousands fled across the border with Prussia and Austria to find safety. The Grazer Zeitung reported that over 800 refugees had crossed into Austria, where they were welcomed; but there was concern that the events in Poland could destabilize the Polish province of the Austrian Empire as well.[4] There was also the case of two Polish students arrested by the Prussian authorities on request from Russia for extradition back to Russian Poland. In this case, the French representative in Berlin had stepped in to protect the two students as French citizens.[5] Otherwise the authors have not located stories of Poles returned to Russia by the Prussian authorities during or after 1863.

Contemporaries and modern historians like to focus on the shared rebellion story between Poles and enslavers or the way U.S. and Russian authorities dealt with rebellious subjects; however, nobody has yet explored the refugee story and how this aspect of the Polish rebellion may have parallels in the United States. Polish nationals, who had a long and proud national identity, dating back to the days when Poland ruled over much of Eastern Europe, were caught in an imperial borderland with fluid borders making their escape impossible. Polish national identity and Russian imperial goals clashed, but this was hardly the only place where this happened.

The Alvensleben Convention speaks volumes to another incident that transpires along the U.S.-British Canada border between 1862 and 1865. Amid the U.S. Civil War, the Dakota nation, white settlers, and the U.S. Army waged a short-lived war that led to a Dakota military defeat. After the U.S.-Dakota War, between 1862 and 1865, a question arose about how to handle the Dakota nation living in Minnesota. The U.S. Army moved Dakota prisoners from Minnesota to various reservation and prison camps throughout the Midwest and Northern Plains.[6] In early 1863, Congress abolished all treaties with the Dakota. With the decision, the State of Minnesota wanted the Dakota gone, and the U.S. Army wanted the Dakota punished. The governments followed what Major General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Northwest, called for in 1862: “punishment beyond human power to inflict” where he believed it was his “purpose to utterly exterminate” the Dakota.[7] Two “punitive expeditions” chased the fleeing Dakota who did not surrender into Dakota Territory; however, some Dakota fled north into British Territory.[8] The border between Minnesota and the British-Canadian province of Rupert’s Land served as an important barrier between the Dakota nation and the pursuing U.S. forces. The Dakota recognized the political nature of the border and used it to their own advantage. They also understood themselves as people from a sovereign nation. Canada became an important borderland to uplift Dakota diplomacy while Americans attempted to squash their sovereignty and self-determination.

Several thousand Dakota moved north from Minnesota into British Canada. During the War of 1812, Dakota joined British attacks on Fort Mackinac in the Great Lakes, the British awarded these Dakota allies with “Indian Peace Medals” which celebrated their participation and promised the Dakota protection from the U.S. Army in the future.[9] After 1862, the Dakota used the medals to persuade the British to follow through on their promises. Initially, they did. Alexander Dallas, governor of Rupert’s Land, recognized the Dakota migrants as “refugees” and offered food, supplies, and even guns and ammunition to help them in their desolate condition. As time went on, the white settlers living in Rupert’s Land worried about the Dakota living free near them with weapons. They worried the Dakota might attack their settlements just as they did in Minnesota in August 1862. This frantic worry persuaded Dallas to begin conversations with the U.S. Army stationed seventy miles away at Fort Pembina, Dakota Territory.[10] Dallas wanted a contingent of soldiers to march into British territory, collect the Dakota refugees, and return them to the United States. Unlike the Alvensleben Convention that would have allowed Russians access into Prussia, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton denied Major Edwin Hatch’s request to move into British Canada with his independent cavalry battalion from Minnesota.[11]

Group of Indigenous men standing in a black and white historic photograph.
Israel Bennetto, “Indians who fled to Canada after the Dakota were defeated at Wood Lake,” Minnesota Historical Society.

Despite the agreements and the orders to not attempt an extraction of Dakota from Rupert’s Land, Hatch devised a sinister plan to kidnap two Dakota chiefs rather than collect thousands of Dakotas living in British Territory. Little Six and Medicine Bottle participated in the Dakota War, and court records show that the men allegedly engaged in the murder of white civilians during that conflict. Hatch believed that if they could kidnap the two leaders and bring them to justice, the remaining Dakota would return to the United States. In November 1864, Hatch worked with two local civilians, John McKenzie and a Frenchman named Giguere, to kidnap the Dakota chiefs. McKenzie and Giguere personally knew Little Six and Medicine Bottle, and invited them to McKenzie’s home to continue an ongoing discussion on the Dakota living in Rupert’s Land. That night, the white men offered the Dakota chiefs whiskey drinks that had been laced with laudanum. Once intoxicated and drugged, the men placed rags doused in chloroform over Little Six and Medicine Bottle’s mouths. They took their incapacitated bodies seventy miles back to Fort Pembina. The Dakota men eventually ended up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota where they faced an irregular military tribunal that sentenced them to death by hanging based on incomplete and shoddy evidence.[12]

The United States denied participation in the kidnapping, as it was performed by two British subjects. The British government also denied participation in the affair as Giguere was a Frenchman and McKenzie formerly lived in Minnesota several years before the incident. In fact, despite the irregular and illegal abduction, Hatch, McKenzie, or Giguere did not face any punishment. With 10,000 spectators watching at Fort Snelling on November 11, 1865, Little Six and Medicine Bottle were hanged and forever remembered as fugitive refugees brought to justice after the Dakota War.[13] Several thousand Dakota would remain in Rupert’s Land. As the space transitioned to the official province of Manitoba, the Dakota remained, and the provincial government aided in helping the Dakota build a home near the place Portage la Prairie.[14] Just like the Poles, members of the Dakota nation had crossed an imperial border to escape the punitive efforts of an imperial power only to discover that the border was not upheld as strongly as they had believed.

Enrico Dal Lago suggests that we should look at comparisons with nation-state formations, industrial development, and imperial expansion between the United States, Germany, and Japan; however, there are other comparisons that complicate the Civil War era narrative.[15] Both Dakota and Poles rose at about the same time against imperial oppressors and hoped that crossing an international border would offer them protection. While we are unaware of Prussia extraditing Poles back to Russia, Little Six and Medicine Bottle suffered an illegal and unjust fate.

As we study the Civil War era and make international comparison, we need to look beyond the old and obvious. Sure, comparing revolutionary Poland with the enslavers’ rebellion has validity. The much more meaningful and interesting comparisons, however, are on the edges of those events where nationalities and empires clashed. Nobody has yet set Dakota and Poles on a similar plane as refugees fleeing imperial oppression. By comparing Poland and Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota Homeland) we first of all broaden the Civil War Era narrative westward, which is long needed, we give voice to the Dakota people, we liberate the Poles from being placed on the same level as enslavers, we move beyond the military narratives, and importantly we can realize the complexities of imperial borders, local actors, and oppressed nationalities. It alters our narratives of the Civil War era and opens the door for other yet unseen but meaningful comparisons in the future.

[1] Public-facing scholarship by Megan Kate Nelson and Gary W. Gallagher shows debates over the role of the American West plays in the traditional Civil War narrative. See, for example, Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” HistoryNet, September 17, 2017, https://www.historynet.com/civil-war-west-mattered-still/; Gary W. Gallagher, “Fighting on Multiple Fronts: Should Campaigns Against Native Americans and Confederates Be Viewed as One War or Two?” Civil War Times (April 2019): 46-53; Gary W. Gallagher, “How the West Wasn’t Won: Henry H. Sibley’s 1862 Invasion of New Mexico signaled Confederate plans to create a western empire. Or did it?” (April 2019): 34-41, 75-76.

[2] Enrico Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 11 (June 2021), 255-271.

[3] For works on the Polish Uprising and international impact see: Niels Eichhorn, “The Rhine River: The Impact of the German States on Trans-Atlantic Diplomacy,” in Civil War-Global Conflict, edited by Simon K. Lewis and David Gleeson (Columbia, South Carolina Press, 2014), 146-171; Robert Frank Leslie, Reform and Insurrection in Russian Poland, 1856–1865 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969).

[4] Grazer Zeitung (January 26, 1863).

[5] https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/1863-03-24/debates/8a9ef264-266c-4c11-bcd1-79c826b1fac6/PolishRefugeesInPrussia

[6] Gontran Laviolette, The Dakota Sioux in Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba: DLM Publications, 1991), 140-141, 148-149

[7] John Pope to Henry Sibley, September 28, 1862, Record Group 393, Records of the United States Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Pt. 1, Entry 3436, Letters Sent, September 1862 – July 1865, Correspondence, Department of the Northwest, 1862-1865, Volume 3, National Archives, Washington D.C.

[8] For more detail on the punitive expeditions, see Paul N. Beck, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Other historians have explored the experiences of Dakota after 1862, such as Linda M. Clemmons, Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019).

[9] Pascal Breland 1873 Report, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan; James McKeagney, 1873 Correspondence, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

[10] Thomas Fraser to A. G. Dallas, March 16, 1864, Sioux Indians Colonial Office Report, 12-13; Laviolette, 150-151.

[11] “The Neutrality Proclamation,” London Gazette, May 14, 1861; The Queen’s Neutrality Proclamation, Downing Street, London, February 1, 1862, Broadside Portfolio 1, No. 13, The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress; Alan R. Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding: Intrigue in the Red River Country in 1864,” The Beaver (Spring 1969): 54-55; for more information on Hatch, see Patrick Hill, “Edwin Aaron Clarke Hatch,” Minnesota Heritage 7 (2013): 134-137.

[12] Edmund Head to Frederic Rogers, March 4, 1864, Sioux Indian Correspondence, British Colonial Office, University of Alberta Library, The Internet Archive, 6; Bureau of Military Justice Report, War Department, November 17, 1865, Little Six (Shakopee) and Medicine Bottle Trial Transcripts, Southern Minnesota Historical Center 0165, Folder 5, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota, 1-2; Major Edwin Hatch Diary, January 18, 1864, Edwin Hatch Family Papers, 1805-1939, P1437, Minnesota Historical Society; “Fuller Details of the Capture of Little Six and Medicine Bottle,” St. Paul Daily Press, February 3, 1864; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 57-59; Roy W. Meyer, “The Canadian Sioux: Refugees from Minnesota,” Minnesota History 41, No. 1 (Spring 1968): 15.

[13] “Little Six and Medicine Bottle Not to be Hunt,” Pioneer and Democrat (St. Paul, Minn.), October 23, 1865; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 59.

[14] “Sioux Indians of Manitoba – [Minister] of the Interior, 6 August, submits dispatch, 7 June from [Lieutenant] Governor and [recommends] that the Indians be furnished with certain articles,” August 6, 1873, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, Library Archives Canada, Ottawa; D.R. Cameron, Dufferin, to Alexander Morris, May 1874, P5281, Microfilm M135, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[15] Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” 256-257.

Niels Eichhorn John Legg

Niels Eichhorn holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His most recent book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019). His current book project is titled, Guerra: Revolutions and Civil Wars in the Americas, 1848-1877. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. John R. Legg is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at George Mason University. His dissertation investigates Dakota migration from Minnesota into British Canada during the nineteenth century. After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, this movement transformed into a strategic survival mechanism as Dakota circumvented U.S. genocidal practice and sought refuge and protection from the British government. John has a forthcoming chapter on Indigenous history and The Oregon Trail in Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Era Video Games (LSU Press).

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

Portrait photo of Cynthia Nicolleti.

Cynthia Nicoletti  has won the $1,000 George and Ann Richards Prize for the best article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era in 2021. The article, “William Henry Trescott: Pardon Broker,” appeared in the December 2021 issue.

Nicoletti’s essay details the efforts of William Henry Trescot, “executive agent” for South Carolina, who secured pardons in order to facilitate the restoration of land the federal government had seized from lowcountry planters during the war.  She demonstrates how Trescot’s maneuvering in the Johnson White House and with Freedmen’s Bureau officials throughout 1865 and 1866 was integral in explaining the failure of Reconstruction-era land redistribution in the United States.

In the words of the prize committee, “Nicoletti offers an important new perspective on a familiar subject: the pardoning of ex-Confederates by U.S. president Andrew Johnson. Taking a novel methodological approach to this topic, her well-written article shows the critical role that the South Carolinian William Henry Trescot played in not only encouraging Johnson’s issuance of pardons but also facilitating the restoration of land to former slaveowners in the U.S. South. In doing so, “William Henry Trescot, Pardon Broker” makes a substantial contribution to the scholarship on the Reconstruction era and strengthens our understanding of its legacies. The denial of freedpeople’s demands for land redistribution as an essential foundation of self-determination and restorative justice was far from inevitable, as Nicoletti concludes. “Instead, the nation that emerged from the struggles of the Civil War was one that was actively made by men like William Henry Trescott.”

Cynthia Nicoletti is a legal historian and professor of law at Virginia Law. Her book, Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis, won the 2018 Cromwell Book Prize, given by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation each year for excellence in scholarship to an early career scholar working in the field of American legal history.

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  https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/.

 

 

Hilary N. Green

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

Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here, the first installment here, and the third installment here.

In the aftermath of a fatal confrontation between elements of Washington Territory’s militia and an enraged anti-Chinese mob, elements of the U.S. Army’s Fourteenth Infantry Regiment occupied Seattle between February and August of 1886 in an attempt to preserve order amidst a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest and to protect the civil rights of Chinese residents. Even for an army accustomed to intervening in civil disputes, the Seattle deployment made a deep impression.  “The position was a novel one,” Brigadier General John Gibbon, the commander of federal forces in the region, later wrote; “I had seen nothing like it since directly after the close of the Civil War in the South.”[1]

With the appearance of a slew of important studies on Chinese immigration and the anti-Chinese movement in recent years, historians of the United States today are much more familiar with those topics than they would have been a generation ago.[2]  And, thanks  to Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America there is greater awareness of the powerful anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest, a region which is often terra incognita in our broad-gauge surveys of American history.[3]   Explaining how an immigration bureaucracy devoted to coercive forms of gate-keeping began to emerge from borderlands encounters between trans-national Chinese immigrants, a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement, and federal officials from both the US and Canada, The Chinese Must Go! possesses important implications for twentieth-century American history. Although a handful of historians had already written on the anti-Chinese movement in the Northwest since the 1940s and detailed many of the episodes and themes that populate The Chinese Must Go!, no other scholar approaches Lew-Williams’s ability to delineate the significance of this historical moment.[4]  At the same time, however, the forward-looking nature of Lew-Williams’s analysis rips events in the Puget Sound out of a central context through which contemporaries understood them.  That is to say, the federal response to the anti-Chinese movement reflected something more than a retrospective early step in the development of a punitive immigration regime. The aggressive federal response in Washington Territory in the mid-1880s initiated an unacknowledged crisis of Reconstruction, one that unfolded in the streets, in federal courts, and in diplomatic correspondence.

One does not need to squint very hard to bring this very different history of the anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest into focus.  Politically, the violent anti-Chinese movement in the West that began at Rock Springs, Wyoming in September of 1885 and culminated in the crisis at Seattle emerged during a delicate period when the first Democratic administration since the antebellum period sought to establish its legitimacy.  Not only did the regular army’s occupation of and rule over an American city on behalf of a scorned non-white minority group serve as powerful illustrations of still-evident Reconstruction divisions, but so too did Washington Territory’s peculiar politics, which featured a Republican governor appointed by the Arthur administration ruling a population mostly made up of white Democratic voters. Moreover, when Governor Watson Squire cabled for assistance, the federal response was swift and overwhelming.  By steamship and by rail nearly the whole of the Fourteenth Infantry Regiment—several hundred men—reached Seattle only a few hours after receiving their orders. They quickly swept into action by relieving state forces, patrolling the streets, and (under a declaration of martial law) imposing a curfew, arresting mob leaders,  protecting Chinese neighborhoods, and helping Chinese residents who had been driven into a steamer bound for San Francisco reach federal court so they could testify in habeas corpus hearings.  

President Cleveland’s proclamation to “insurgents” in Seattle that they must disperse.

Not surprisingly, the politics of the Federal response traced back to the Civil War and Reconstruction; they illustrate a tangible connection between the histories of those eras and the Trans-Mississippi West.  To start from the beginning, the Cleveland administration justified the military deployment by borrowing language from the 1861 Militia Act and §3 of the 3rd Enforcement Act in the order sent to John Gibbon, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia.[5]  Gibbon’s decision to arrest leading anti-Chinese agitators for possible trial in federal court, meanwhile, evoked the specter of military rule during Reconstruction, not simply because of the military’s forceful intervention into civil society (well-established practice in period labor disputes after all), but because federal forces were arrayed against a social movement committed to protecting white breadwinners and their dependents from the scourge of an ostensibly unassimilable and un-American minority.[6]  (Gibbon’s vociferous rejoinder to the charge that arresting civilians violated the posse comitatus restrictions imposed by Congress in 1878 provides an important clue to a revisionist reading of the history of posse comitatus during Reconstruction that I have written about elsewhere.)[7]  And, in the nation’s capital, those men overseeing the affair were living reminders of the rebellion and Reconstruction from Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president since James Buchanan, to the cabinet officials in charge of territorial affairs, secessionist and Confederate diplomat turned Secretary of the Interior L.Q.C. Lamar and Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, whose strident assaults on Congressional Reconstruction served as a regular feature of life in the US Senate in the late 1860s.  And, in yet another demonstration that history is stranger than fiction, the outbreak in Seattle fell smack in the middle of yet another battle between a Republican Senate and a Democratic president over the Tenure of Office Act and Executive Branch authority.[8]

In short, reverberations from the Civil War and Reconstruction could not only be felt in 1886, but they remained strong twenty years after Appomattox.  In fact, I would argue, that we can glean a host of specific insights about the Civil War and Reconstruction from what happened in Seattle in 1886, not all of them expected, but all rooted in the ironies, complexities, and ambiguities that marked those weighty eras. (That’s as far as my word count and publisher would like me to go, I suspect.)    So permit me to close by finding another moral to the story, one which stems from the cross-pollination between the fields I was either trained in (the history of the American West and military history) or have gravitated toward (the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the history of the post-Civil War U.S. Army).  For all their connections to the Civil War and Reconstruction, I would suggest that the actions of white anti-Chinese mobs in Washington Territory and the federal response to them speak to a broader interpretation of nineteenth-century American history that transcends the Civil War.  In this reading, the history of the United States in this period is to an important degree the story of a (usually) low-grade insurgency waged against federal authority by sovereign white citizens who (usually) resided on the country’s geographical margins.[9]  The southern rebellion, in fact, might be regarded as simply the most forceful expression of a much larger pattern of behavior, first manifest against Native Americans, tax collectors, and the proprieties of the General Land Office, but later fueled by the racialized and gendered aspirations of Jacksonian American and the failings of federal governance.[10]  Almost never—outside of the Civil War, really—did the government resort to violent force against disorderly whites opposed to the government.  Often, in fact, the insurgents won the day politically, a thought perhaps worthy of reflection today.[11]

[1] John Gibbon, “Chinese Troubles in Seattle,” Box 1, Folder 20, John Gibbon Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 352.

[2] See especially Gordon Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019); Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration to the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Lon Kurashige, Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Mary Ting Yi Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005);  John Haddad, The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Liping Zhu, The Road to Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013); Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco: A Trans-Pacific Community, 1850-1943(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[3] Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[4] Jules Alexander Karlin, “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Seattle, 1885-1886,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1948): 103-30 and “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Tacoma, 1885,” Pacific Historical Review 23, no. 3 (1954): 271-83; Carlos A. Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land: Unemployment, Disinheritance, and the Origin of Labor Militancy in the Pacific Northwest,” Western Historical Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1982): 373-90; Robert Edward Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, 1850-1910  (New York: Arno Press, 1978).  Specialists in history of the nineteenth-century US Army have also taken note of the army’s mission in Seattle.  See Edward Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 246-47; Robert Wooster, The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 249-50; Michael Tate, The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 199), 99-100.

[5] Adjutant-General R.C. Drum’s order appears in The Annual Report of the Secretary of War for The Year 1886 (Washington: G.P.O., 1887), 186.  See also “An Act to provide for the Suppression of Rebellion against and Resistance to the Laws of the United States, and to amend the Act entitled ‘An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,’ &c., passed February twenty-eight, seventeen hundred and ninety-five,” US Statutes at Large 12 (1861): 281; “An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and or other Purposes,” U.S. Statutes at Large 17 (1871): 14

[6] A good overview of military interventions in labor disputes can be found in Jerry Cooper, The Army and Civil Disorder: Federal Military Intervention in Labor Disputes, 1877-1900 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).  For understanding the contours of anti-Chinese sentiment in the nineteenth century; for Seattle proper, consult Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land”; Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese; and Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!, 113-36.

[7] 1886 Annual Report, 187-88; Kevin Adams, “Army of Democracy?: Moving towards a New History of Posse Comitatus in Democracy and the Civil War: Race and African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Kevin Adams and Leonne Hudson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016), 63-82.

[8] Richard E. Welch, Jr., The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988): 53-6.

[9] An early reflection of my thinking on this theme appears in Kevin Adams and Khal Schneider, “‘Washington is a Long Way Off’: The Round Valley War and the Limits of Power on a Federal Indian Reservation,” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 4 (2011): 557-96.

[10] Here we see resonances of one of Lew-Williams’s most important insights, that the federal government’s utter inability to implement a Chinese “Restriction” Act of 1882 that westerners believed would solve the “Chinese Question” transformed direct action mob violence against Chinese—which had always been present—into a centerpiece of the movement.

[11] Samuel Watson has also argued that rebellious Euro-American settlers “paradoxically…had the political advantages of insurgency” and has explored why soldiers proved reluctant to use force against said settlers.  See Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S. Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History 75, no. 1 (2011): 229-32 and “Military Learning and Adaptation Shaped by Social Context: The U.S. Army and Its ‘Indian Wars,’ 1790-1890,” The Journal of Military History, 82, no. 2 (2018): 382.

Kevin Adams

Kevin Adams is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Kent State University.