Category: Blog

Author Interview: Camille Suárez

Author Interview: Camille Suárez

Today we share an interview with Camille Suárez, who published an article in the March 2023 JCWE, titled “A Legal Confiscation: The 1851 Land Act and the Transformation of Californios into Colonized Colonizers.” Camille Suárez is an assistant professor of history at CalState LA. As a historian of the US West, she focuses on the history of California, the Mexican American experience, and the environment. At present, she is finalizing her first book manuscript.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Camille. What interested you in the topic? 

When I began working on nineteenth century California, I was struck by the absence of Californios from the narrative and the lack of scholarship that explored their complex role and motivations in California politics. I wanted to understand the political motivations behind Californios’ political decisions. For example, what can we learn when we investigate Andrés Pico’s support of state division in 1859 independent from pro-slavery Southern supporters’ motives? With Mexican land grants, in particular, I wanted to understand how Californios attempted to negotiate an extralegal land seizure that violated their treaty rights. As I looked at Californio sources, it became clear to me that there was a larger story to write about state making and the encounter between two cultures that, I would argue, shapes present-day racial logics in California and the United States.

I appreciate how you examine Anglo-American and Californio settlers’ efforts to establish legitimate landholding practices according to their culturally specific racial logic.  As you conducted your research, was there an interesting source, person, and/or development that shaped your conclusions? 

A portrait of elite Californios Pablo de la Guerra, Salvador Vallejo, and Andres Pico taken in 1865. Courtesy of the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library.

The life and archival record left by Pablo de la Guerra has been integral to my conclusions, that is why he is a central actor of the article! De la Guerra’s remarks at the 1849 California Constitutional Convention helped me understand why Californios would ally with Anglo-American settlers immediately after a war conquest. When the delegates discussed citizenship rights, Anglo-American delegates attempted to exclude Californios on the basis of whiteness; and as a delegate, de la Guerra questioned the American definition of whiteness because he saw Californios as included in the category, even if Anglo-Americans didn’t. Rather that push back against this definition of whiteness, de le Guerra attempted to perform his whiteness or superiority by making clear that he also believed that people of African descent ought not to be considered full citizens. As a settler class, Californios attempted to perform their superiority by upholding settler and racial regimes. I think understanding this strategy has allowed me to uncover de la Guerra’s and other Californios’ rationale and goals in their dealings with Anglo-American settlers and other racialized groups.


What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain for either their own teaching or future research? 

When teaching the late-nineteenth century, I hope after reading the article one feels ready to highlight the role Californios performed in California becoming a US state. I also hope other scholars pursue work that recovers the Mexican national and Indigenous voices that shaped the politics and social worlds of the region after the US-Mexico War, and well into the Reconstruction Era. With my research, I hope to highlight the political power that a variety of people wielded to abet or challenge the settler state.

After this interesting article, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project? 

At the moment, I am finishing up my book manuscript, tentatively titled Colonial State Making: The Conflict Over Race, Land, and Citizenship in California, 1846 – 1879. Colonial State Making is a history of multiracial state-making in California that considers state makers beyond white settlers. In the manuscript, I center Californios, as an elite settler class, and demonstrate their central role in cementing US authority in the region and the making of a racial hierarchy that privileged whiteness. In addition to centering Californios, I make efforts to highlight the varied efforts, such as that of Black American communities, to reject the imposition of a racial hierarchy in a free state.

I am also working on an article about Reconstruction Era California, that I think would be of great interest to JCWE readers. In this article, I parse through Californio actions, mostly that of Los Angeles-based Californio, Antonio Coronel, to aid the state Democrat Party during Reconstruction. I wanted to better understand why the California State Legislature refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the roots of the state’s anti-immigrant policies. In Los Angeles and Santa Barbara County, the Californio electorate played a crucial role in Democrat electoral victories. Elite Californios, like Coronel, made speeches on behalf of the Democrat Party and explicitly rejected the multiracial project of Reconstruction. By looking at Spanish-language sources, I think we get a better sense of how and why California rejected Reconstruction and embraced white supremacist polices in the late nineteenth century.

Thank for these responses!

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).

Researching Northern Black Families’s Civil War: An Interview With Michelle Marsden

Researching Northern Black Families’s Civil War: An Interview With Michelle Marsden

When I began examining the lived experiences of northern United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers, I thought it was critical to emphasize their lives and familial dynamics beyond their time in the U.S. Army.  My book-The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice-details northern freeborn families battling for racial and gender equality before and after the existence of the USCT regiments.[1] Taking this long chronological approach provides an essential historical intervention to both public and academic discourse by illuminating the lives of people that are usually portrayed as the audience member hearing Frederick Douglass’ speech of the “Eagle on the Button” as essential to providing African American manhood and citizenship claims while seeking to destroy slavery simultaneously.[2] It is long overdue to center on those African Americans to acknowledge how they were significant agents of social change. More specifically, these working-class freeborn northern African Americans were responsible for saving the U.S., defeating the Confederacy, ending slavery, and seeking a more equitable society.

After a presentation at a Philadelphian-based institution, these points became more critical when I received an email from an individual researching their family. The email writer was Michelle Marsden (who has studied her family’s history for thirty-years)[3] She is also a descendant of the Rothwell family (including Elizabeth and Alfred) that my monograph examines. Through that and numerous other conversations, I have a deeper appreciation of how studying history can empower African American families to know that their families were important historical figures. To that end, I have the privilege of interviewing Michelle on why it is vital to center on African American families, like the Rothwells, to fully understand the complexity of U.S. and Civil War Era history.



HP: Scholars have often relied on well-documented and famous Black people, like Frederick Douglass, to understand the Civil War era. But why do you think examining people, like your kin, would add even more depth and complexity to understanding Black people throughout the Civil War era?

MM: Leaders in the community of free people of color are essential to our understanding of the Civil War era. While we know that Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth stood at the forefront of the abolitionist movement and worked tirelessly to eradicate slavery, there is also a need to explore the experiences of other northern free people of color. Records indicate that my family, the Rothwells, moved from Delaware to Pennsylvania in 1851 as my fourth great-grandfather, Isaac Rothwell, Sr., worked as a free man of color in the fishing industry. Even though he was already a free person of color, Delaware was still a state that endorsed slavery. His move slightly northward from New Castle, Delaware to Chester, Pennsylvania a year after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, tells a story that deserves scholarly attention.

By researching and sharing histories like his, we gain a more nuanced view of the Black family’s experience. There is a good chance that location and proximity to slavery affected their decision-making. Many northern free Blacks, like my family, had to create a delicate balance between employment, and resistance to a system that could have risked their family’s safety. As boatwrights, our family worked on ships that sailed between slave states and northern free states. There is an oral history of the Rothwells using their knowledge of the ships that they worked on to help hide Black people seeking freedom. Research on Harriet Tubman and how she used Black sailors for this very purpose has been documented. By examining the life of average citizens like Isaac Rothwell, Sr., who may have assisted the abolitionist movement in personal ways, we learn much more about the experiences of Black America and the African American family.

HP: In your opinion, what is the potential harm of primarily focusing on the experiences of freedpeople while simultaneously minimizing the historical significance of working-class freeborn northern African Americans?

MM: If one is to study the self-liberated and freeborn Black community in the North but only focus on the journey of those that were fortunate enough to become prosperous with a public voice and platform, then the disadvantage is that we see the African American experience from a very myopic point of view. Clearly, everyone’s journey northward or generational history in the North would have been different. By expanding into the lives of those from various socio-economic backgrounds, we gain the ability to learn about the myriad of hardships they endured and the successes they accomplished in spite of the racial and gender discrimination prevalent in the Civil War era.

A scholarly investigation such as this would also work to eliminate stereotypes and expand the perception of northern free people of color. Prior to doing my genealogical research, for example, I assumed that freedom itself issued African American access to a public school education. I naively thought that simply living in the North meant schools were prevalent and readily available to all northern Black communities. What I have found is that this was not necessarily the case. Some of my Rothwell ancestors were sent to the Soldier’s Orphan School at Bridgewater, located in Bucks County, PA. While it was publically self-proclaimed as a safe haven for those that became fatherless as a result of the Civil War, this particular school for Black children was documented as one that existed under dilapidated conditions. The Black children suffered from the lack of maintenance to the physical building as well as the lack of consistent, adequate staffing. This is just one example of how an in-depth study of northern Black communities would give us detailed information about the lives of those that lived in this era. We could benefit from learning how they used grit, culture, tradition, family, and faith to survive.

HP: How do you, on a personal level, process seeing important aspects of American history (such as Black military service) knowing that your relatives’ firsthand experience?

MM: Conducting genealogical research for the past thirty years has allowed me to see my family’s journey within the complexities of the larger story of America. I see them as part of the evolution of this country. Their fortitude and willingness to fight to end the institution of slavery inspires me. Two of my great-great-great-grandfathers, Isaac D. Rothwell and Geroge Potts, in addition to two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Samuel Rothwell were all free men of color. Each one enlisted in the U.S. Army for the Civil War between July 4 and July 20, 1863.  The Bureau of Colored Troops was formed at the end of May and only started their Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recruitment in June. If the oral history is true about my fourth great grandfather Isaac Rothwell Sr using his sailing expertise to help hide Blacks seeking freedom, then this means that he was part of the underground railroad. Having that value system and perhaps sharing it with his family, would help to explain why his sons Isaac D. Rothwell, Alfred Rothwell, Samuel Rothwell, and their neighbor George Potts enlisted into the U.S.C.T. so quickly. All of the men became members of the 3rd United States Colored Troops and served in various companies.  According to the enlistment papers, Isaac D. joined Company G at age 19, Samuel, whose name was misspelled as Rothville, Ruthville, and Rathwill in his military files, joined company H at age 19, and George Potts joined Company G at age 16.

Uncle Alfred, who served in Company D, enlisted at age 26 and was the oldest of the four men.  He was the first one to volunteer even though he knew he would be leaving behind a wife, and three children. Unfortunately, he also has the misfortune of being the only one of my ancestors to die in the Civil War. As the regiment served at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, Alfred Rothwell was shot during his garrison duty. In his pension file, there is a copy of the letter that was to be delivered to his wife in the event of his passing. Other records in his pension file show how his widow Elizabeth and children James, Isaac, and Hannah suffered greatly after his death. The men in the 3rd USCT saw action at Fort Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina, Marion County, Florida, and mustered out in Jacksonville, Florida. I am grateful for all of their sacrifices and look for ways to honor their legacies.

When I look at American history I also feel a personal connection to this era because I have also studied how these four men helped to free those that were enslaved on the other side of my family tree. Without knowing each other, my great-grandfather Peter Vaughters was a direct beneficiary of the acts of the USCT regiments and the end of the Civil War.  He was unfortunately born into the institution of slavery in Carnesville, Franklin County, Georgia in 1852. By the time the war ended, he was a thirteen-year-old young man working on the Vaughters plantation with two other young, forced laborers. His mother, Clary, was sold away from him when he was three. Hiram Vaughters died intestate and the family sold Clary to balance the debts that they owed. Fortunately my great grandfather Peter and my 2nd great grandmother Clary were given the chance to reunite and share the same home as mother and son at least once again before her passing. According to the 1880 Franklin County census of that year, Peter brought his mother to live with him, his wife and three sons. Over the years they continued to live near the old plantation in Franklin County, Georgia. When I encounter American history in an academic, or even in a public cinematic platform, these are the people and moments that I think about. I place the stories of my ancestors’ lives into the narrative of what I learn about America.

HP: Why should a Community Care perspective be something that scholars need to consider when conducting their research?

MM: Looking at the community is essential to form any depth of understanding of a historical era. Genealogists often look at the neighbors, places of worship, local events, and  possible support systems that an ancestor would have had in order to gain a broader view of their life. Knowing the time period, and the location of the family on a farm, or in a city or town can help reveal their story. How close or far away they lived to historical happenings can speak to the stress, anxiety, or tensions of a community. In order to move beyond the single narrative, everything matters when we look back in time.

HP: What advice would you give to others who might be interested in researching their own family history? 

MM: My advice for anyone who wants to learn about their past is to start with your oldest living relative and ask questions. Listen and document everything they have to say. If possible, use today’s technology to help you record their life story. In addition to the elders, I would talk to aunts, uncles, parents, and cousins. Anyone who is willing to share should have their history documented.

Then, I would build a family tree. This can be on paper or on a digital platform. As you add names and dates, try to find the relatives in public archives. This can range from U.S. or state census records to tax digests and old newspapers, town histories and records for local places of worship. Next, I would tell them to learn about the historical significance of the various time periods. Re-examine American history, but specifically from the lens of their ancestors. Learning local, and national context adds to our ability to build empathy, and appreciation of the past.

Finally, I would tell them to share what they’ve learned with their family members. Use family reunions, newsletters, or even online platforms to help all of the descendants understand how the path of their ancestors led them to who they are today.


As this interview has shown, studying history is ever-changing and can also be very personal to the descendants of the people we learn and discuss. USCT regiments must remain critical historical figures that fundamentally reshaped U.S. history in numerous ways. As historians (including Kelly D. Mezurek and William Seraile) demonstrate, northern free African Americans lived complex lives that need to be the center of scholarly analyses.[4] Moreover, it is time to stop over-emphasizing enlistment rhetoric to understand USCT soldiering and instead focus on enlisted men and their kin (in and outside their military service). Doing so will (hopefully) illustrate to USCT descendants, like Michelle Marsden, that we remain grateful for their families’ sacrifices and profound impact on our society.

[1] Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., The Families Civil War: Black Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022), 1-12. For more insight on northern USCT familial studies see: James G. Mendez, A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020); Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[2] Frederick Douglass, “Another Word to Black Men,” Weekly Anglo-African, March 17, 1863.

[3] Michelle Marsden, “My Trip to Uncover a Family Mystery from 1852,”, February 14, 2020,, Accessed on 3/1/2023; Michelle Marsden, “Discovering African American Heroes in My Family Tree,”, February 23, 2023,, Accessed on 3/1/2023.

[4] Kelly D. Mezurek, For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016); William Seraile, New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

Editors’ Note for March 2023 JCWE

Editors’ Note for March 2023 JCWE

Welcome to the first issue of the 2023 volume of the Journal of the Civil War Era. The issue features three research essays and a review essay that highlight the journal’s broad geographical, chronological, and topical coverage. We present articles that take us from the antebellum North to California to Indian Country and to the Ottoman Empire, and that tackle antislavery politics, dynamics of race and status in overlapping empires, and patronage politics and international diplomacy.

Bryan LaPointe’s article, “A Right to Speak: Formerly Enslaved People and the Political Antislavery Movement in Antebellum America,” is the winner of the 2021 Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award. LaPointe demonstrates that on the lecture stump, formerly enslaved men often drew on their own experiences to incite moral outrage among Northern largely white audiences. While freed women were rarely political speakers, they shaped politics through their interactions with white male politicians, who often spoke of their plight to elicit audiences’ sympathies. LaPointe’s piece contributes to our growing understanding of how, through channels other than voting, Black Americans influenced politics in the antebellum north.

Antebellum California is the subject of Camille Suárez’s essay, “A Legal Confiscation: The 1851 Land Act and the Transformation of Californios into Colonized Colonizers.” Suárez examines the way elite Californios—who were of Spanish and sometimes Native origin and owned land in California before the US-Mexico War—tried to forge alliances with Anglo-Americans in the early days of statehood. Portraying themselves as gente de razón who were entitled to land and political rights based on their Christianity and “civilized” modes of behavior, elite Californios were disappointed to discover how many Anglos saw them as their inferiors. Adopting an innovative turn of phrase, Suárez argues that the Californios thus became “colonized colonizers,” in an article that examines struggles over land claims in the state courts.

In “The ‘Bull-Dog’ in Istanbul: James Longstreet’s Revealing Tour as US Minister to Turkey, 1880–81,” Elizabeth R. Varon takes us to the post–Civil War period, when former Confederate general James Longstreet served as US minister to the Ottoman Empire. Joining other recent investigations into American foreign policy during Reconstruction, Varon uses Longstreet’s tour as minister to shed light on the complicated career of this unusual Confederate-turned-Republican. As minister, Longstreet engaged with complex questions of US-Ottoman diplomacy, including US efforts  to protect missionaries. Longstreet’s tenure in Istanbul and his return to Georgia to become a US marshal suggest both the power of his commitment to postwar Republicanism and the relative powerlessness of the Republican Party to project its force onto the South or the world.

In a review essay, “Black Slaves and Indian Owners: The Continuous Rediscovery of Indian Territory,” Alaina E. Roberts charts historians’ approaches to the history of Native peoples of the US South over the last century. Scholars have become increasingly interested in Native people’s ownership of slaves and in the perspectives of the people of African descent who were enslaved by Native groups and later became free in Indian Territory. Providing a helpful resource for readers looking to deepen their understanding of the field, Roberts also links the past with the present by reminding readers of continuing conflicts about the tribal membership of descendants of freedpeople in Indian country.

We are pleased to publish the usual complement of book reviews that range across many areas embraced in the Civil War Era. We are, as always, grateful to the associate editors and to the article authors, book reviewers, and peer reviewers who keep the journal in working order. We also thank Penn State PhD candidate Ed Green, who in the summer of 2022 completed his term as graduate assistant to the journal, and we wish him well with his dissertation. We’re delighted to welcome Heather Walser as the new graduate assistant, and we congratulate managing editor Matt Isham on the new addition to his family. 

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.

Civil War Historians and Terminology: Diplomatic History

Civil War Historians and Terminology: Diplomatic History

As historians of the Civil War era, we are all extremely familiar with the growing desire of using appropriate terminology in our scholarship and the pushback that such terminological changes have brought. We saw this when the Army University Press abandoned the term “Union” in its publications.[1] Slavery scholars had similar conversations regarding the use of enslaved versus slave, and other words surrounding the institution of slavery.[2] Or even more profoundly, there has been a growing conversation of what to call this conflict. We continue to use the term American Civil War, but as Steve Hahn and others have suggested contemporaries favored the more accurate description War of the Rebellion since the rebels had no intention of taking over the entire country but wanted to establish their own nation-state.[3] These debates are about using the most proper, accurate, and appropriate terms that communicate a more precise sense of past events and people. A debate worthwhile having.

However, one topic has not seen similar discussions but all too often creeps into the scholarly, even specialist literature, of the international relations of the Civil War era. Historians frequently use the modern terminology of ambassador when talking about foreign representatives in Washington, D.C. during the 1860s. While we certainly want to be cautious about using the terminology of the period when it comes to African American or Native American representatives, we need to acknowledge that the modern term ambassador is incorrect for mid-nineteenth century Atlantic relations. The modern usage of ambassador that people are familiar with dates to a 1957 conference streamlining international relations. We should strive to use the best, most accurate, and proper language in all areas of Civil War era scholarship.

Over the past ten years, I have heard conference presentations and commented on manuscripts that have used the term ambassador to talk about the foreign representative in the United States or from the United States during the 1860s. Joseph Fry, for example, identifies the British and French representatives in Washington, Lord Lyons and Henri Mercier respectively, as ambassadors.[4] Similarly, Don Doyle in his acclaimed The Cause of All Nations incorrectly upgrades the British, French, Spanish, and even Mexican representatives in Washington to full ambassadorial statues.[5] Maybe both scholars were thinking about a future Lord Lyons as he would be the ambassador of Great Britain to France for twenty years from 1867 to 1887. However, nobody in Washington held the title ambassador. While it may help modern, popular audiences, the terminology is incorrect and presents a false level of relationship.

When we talk about nineteenth century diplomatic relations and terminology there is actually a well-developed and treaty-enshrined system and language. These terms are not imaginary creations or were used interchangeably, these were actual titles and representatives were insistent on them. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815, which ended the European wars and territorial changes that had started with the French Revolution and escalated during the reign of Napoleon I, had established a four-tier hierarchy among diplomatic representative.[6]

At the very top sat the ambassador, who was classified as the personal representatives of their respective sovereign. The physical space that housed an ambassador was an embassy. These appointments were reserved for the European monarchies amongst each other. For example, France had an ambassador in London, Berlin, and Vienna. However, some of the smaller European monarchies, such as the German states, did not accredit full ambassadors.

The second tier occupied the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary (often simply minister or occasionally envoy for short). These representatives physically occupied a legation, not an embassy, as their home and place of business interaction. These officials were government representative and often had special negotiating powers to make bilateral agreements. Less common was the ministers resident. Smaller states usually used this title for their diplomatic representatives. The implication is that the government sent a minister, sometimes with a special mission, and he took up residence in that town or state. And finally, there was the Chargés d’affaires, or Chargé for short, who served as aid to ambassadors and ministers with the same powers those two ranks include. Chargé are usually left in charge when their direct superior leaves for short or extended periods of time. All these four titles were enshrined and formally employed signaling the relationship statues between two countries.

Group of men dressed in suits and hats in front of a waterfall.
W. J. Baker, Secretary of State William Seward and a delegation of diplomats at Trenton Falls, New York, 1863. [Utica, New York: W. J. Baker] Library of Congress.

When the Lincoln Administration took office in March 1861, the vast majority of foreign representative in Washington were ministers, second tier representatives. There were of course Lord Lyons from Great Britain, Henri Mercier from France, Eduard Andreevich Stoeckl from Russia, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt from Prussia, and Georg Ritter von Hülsemann from Austria. Other European powers too had ministers: Roest van Limburg from the Netherlands, Don Gabriel Garcia y Tassara from Spain, Joaquim C. de Figaniere è Morào from Portugal, Giuseppe Bertinatti from Italy, and Edouard Blondeel von Cuelebrouk from Belgium. From South America, there were A. J. de Yrisarri from Guatemala and San Salvador, Luis Molina from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and Miguel Maria Lisboa from Brazil. The only Ministers Resident was Rudolph Schleiden representing the Hanseatic City of Bremen. In addition, there were four Chargé W. de Rasloff from Denmark, Matías Romero from Mexico, Rafael Pembo from New Granada, and F. S. Asta from Chile. During the war, Lyons, Gerolt, Schleiden, and others took brief vacations at home, their respective Chargé took care of business during the minister’s absence.[7]

The United States was not considered a first-tier state during the mid-nineteenth century. Foreign relations were not on the ambassadorial level until the country grew and considered imperial projects. Before 1893, all foreign officials of the United States were ministers. In 1893, the newly inaugurated Grover Cleveland administration decided to upgrade the relationships with Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy to the ambassadorial level. It is also worth noting that the U.S. relationship with for example the Netherlands remained on the envoy level until 1942.[8] After the Second World War, all foreign relations were uniformly ranked on the ambassadorial level to avoid this tiered power relations, at least in theory.

Therefore, as we work on a better terminology for the Civil War era, we should also remember that some terms have very specific meaning. While a modern reader of a popular history book may struggle with the concept of a minister, it is the correct term, and we need to use it. To call Charles Francis Adams, Sr. an Ambassador of the United States gives modern audience a sense of his role; but it also presents an incorrect level of relationship between the United States and Great Britain. It would have created a major consternation in the relationship between the two countries. We need to talk about terminology and search for the most accurate words in our writing. There are some instances where bending to modern demands distorts, however. Let’s avoid the word ambassador in our Civil War era writing.

[1] “Publisher’s Note on the use of Civil War Terms,” Army University Press,

[2] Graeme Wood, “Just Say ‘Slavery’: Involuntary relocation and enslaved person are misguided euphemisms,” The Atlantic (July 11, 2022),; P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al., “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help,” crowdsourced document,

[3] Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016), 4-6; Gaines M. Foster, “What the Name ‘Civil War’ tells us,” Journal of the Civil War Era Muster Blog, September 11, 2018,

[4] Joseph A. Fry, Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[5] Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

[6] Report of the International Law Commission covering the work of its ninth session, 23 April—28 June 1957,

[7] “The United States Government,” The American Register and International Journal 1 (July 1861), 45.

[8] “Ambassadors vs. Ministers,”

Niels Eichhorn

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

2023 Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award: Call for Submissions

2023 Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award: Call for Submissions

The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, the Society of Civil War Historians, and the Journal of the Civil War Era invite submissions of unpublished essays from early career scholars (doctoral candidates at the writing stage and PhDs not more than two years removed from having earned their degree) for the Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award. Essays on any topic concerning the history of the Civil War era, broadly defined, will be considered. The winning essay will earn the author a $1,000 prize and an additional $500 travel stipend to the Society of Civil War Historians conference where the award will be presented.  Authors must be willing to attend the conference in order to be eligible for the award. The winning essay will be eligible for publication in the Journal of the Civil War Era.

The submission deadline is June 1, 2023. Submissions should be sent to the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center ( with the subject line “Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award.” Submissions should be double-spaced and not exceed 11,000 words, including notes. Submissions must include a cv. The award committee prefers submissions written according to The Chicago Manual of Style. The winning essay will be selected by a three-person panel chosen by the JCWE editor.

For more information and to see past award winners, visit the Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award page. 

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).

Imperfect Justice in the Imperfect Archive: Uncovering Extrajudicial Black Resistance in Richmond’s Civil War Court Records

Imperfect Justice in the Imperfect Archive: Uncovering Extrajudicial Black Resistance in Richmond’s Civil War Court Records

As the guest editors and article authors of the December 2022 JCWE special issue, “Archives and Nineteenth-Century African American History” demonstrate, there is no perfect archive.  Historians must therefore read every imperfect archive with a particular perspicacity, to uncover the histories so many archives were meant to suppress or erase.[1]  Interrogating the proximity of seemingly unrelated items preserved within an imperfect archive can allow us to hypothesize about subversive strategies developed and deployed by African Americans in the nineteenth century, strategies that might otherwise be invisible to us today.

While reading through an artificial collection at the Library of Virginia containing extant (and frustratingly incomplete) court records from Civil War-era Richmond, I happened upon several sets of documents related to very different crimes that occurred in the same neighborhood, a few months apart.[2]  These documents reflect a familiar truth about race and justice:  the judicial system that subjected free and enslaved Black Richmonders to harsh sentences simultaneously treated white criminality with astonishing leniency – at least when the victims of white criminality were Black.  Read together, however, the surviving documents from these ostensibly discrete cases also suggest a more complicated and intriguing possibility:  Black Richmonders, well aware of the white supremacy inherent in Richmond’s legal system, may have pursued extrajudicial efforts to enact punishment for white crimes against African Americans.

One of the cases involved Curtis and Jacob, two enslaved men, and Richard Drew, a free Black man.  All three were arrested on October 15, 1864, accused by a white shopkeeper of breaking into his store the previous night and stealing foodstuffs, cloth and clothing, and other commercial goods totaling $3230 in value.  On October 19, the white mayor ordered the accused held in jail until the trial date, which he set for the following month.  When the case was heard on November 14, the shopkeeper and two of the arresting police officers recounted finding the stolen goods hidden in and around the stable where the Black men worked.  Based on this testimony, Curtis and Richard Drew were convicted.  Curtis was transported out of state for sale (with his owner to be compensated $4000). Richard Drew was sold into slavery. Jacob, the other enslaved man, was deemed not to have participated in the burglary and discharged from the court system.[3]  As devastating as enslavement must have been for Richard Drew and forced removal from the community must have been for Curtis, such harsh sentences might not strike historians as exceptional, given the decades and centuries of legal subordination of free and enslaved Black Richmonders.[4]  White property rights were consistently privileged over Black personhood, with the former so subsuming the latter that even free Blacks were routinely reduced by the courts to becoming white property.

The other case documents revealed a far more horrific series of crimes, in which the victim was Black and the perpetrators were white.  These crimes were so sadistically violent that the archived documents detailing the charges and testimony are disturbing to read, even for those of us whose research regularly exposes the brutality of slavery.  For several months, a three-year-old girl was continually abused by the white couple that enslaved her.  These white adults subjected the child to physical torments that included “very frequently” stripping her naked and “whipping [her]… with a heavy leather strap”; “tak[ing] a brick and strik[ing] the child”; “very frequently … beat[ing] the child [with both the strap and the brick] until it was almost lifeless”; and “often” drenching the naked girl in cold water before leaving her outside in frigid weather.  Both the leather strap and the brickbat were used “upon the naked back, sides, shoulders, belly, loins, chest, and body of her the said female child slave.”  Much of this abuse occurred outdoors, observed by those working on or visiting neighboring properties, some of whom would eventually testify about the violence in court.  But they did so only after the months of torture culminated in a final, fatal beating on August 15, 1864, from which the child “did languish” in pain for another day before dying of her injuries.[5]

The August 19, 1864 document recording Jacob Hoeflick’s release on bail twice referred to the murdered child as “Josephine,” although the name was then crossed out (subsequent documents related to the crime refer to her only as “name is unknown”). While this expunction may have been made to correct an error in an official court document, the pen-strokes also underscore the negation of this child’s full personhood, the erasure of her specific identity, and the obliteration of her young life. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

On August 19, one of the perpetrators, Jacob Hoeflick, the white male enslaver who was head of the household, was charged with “feloniously and of Malice aforethought Kill[ing] and Murder[ing] a certain negro Child Slave … by then and there and on divers other days before that day unlawfully and feloniously, cruelly and inhumanely and brutally assaulting, beating, and otherwise abusing and injuring the person of the said infant negro child.”  The white mayor released Jacob Hoeflick on bail the same day, and he remained at liberty as the legal proceedings against him stretched into the following year.[6]  Despite detailed testimony from multiple white witnesses regarding his role in the abuse and murder, on January 18, 1865, Jacob Hoeflick was acquitted of all charges.[7]

Abigail Hoeflick, Jacob’s wife, was indicted on the same charges on November 21, 1864.  According to the witnesses’ testimony, she had committed an equal and perhaps greater share of the violent and ultimately fatal abuse.  Yet, Abigail Hoeflick was never tried for her crimes.  She allegedly fled the Confederacy sometime after the child’s death. She possibly returned to her birth state of New Jersey or to Pennsylvania, where she and Jacob had married and resided in the late 1840s prior to moving to Richmond.  In the final document related to the case, dated December 23, 1865, the charges against Abigail Hoeflick were dismissed.[8]

The extant court documents related to these cases are preserved within an artificial collection created by archivists at the Library of Virginia in 2013 to assist researchers seeking to learn about criminal cases “involving African Americans (slave and free) … that were heard by the Hustings Court and Judge’s Court (also referred to as Mayor’s Court) held in the city of Richmond.”[9]  Entries in this physical collection are arranged chronologically, beginning with 1843 court documents and extending through cases from 1866.  I read through this collection as part of my research for a book in which I am examining the strategies for survival and resistance developed by Black Virginians during the antebellum period, and exploring how African Americans extended those strategies during the Civil War to undermine the Confederacy.  Neither the legal proceedings that left the abusive and murderous white couple unpunished, nor the conviction and harsh sentencing of an enslaved man and a free Black man for larceny, might have seemed relevant to my topic, except for one striking detail.  The white storekeeper who accused the Black men of burglarizing his property in October 1864 was Jacob Hoeflick, the same man who had been arrested yet remained at liberty on bail (and whose wife had fled Richmond) after murdering a three-year-old Black girl two months earlier.  This detail led me to reread the extant materials, probing for what official court documents and archived materials obscured.  Could Jacob Hoeflick’s status as both unpunished perpetrator and self-identified victim of two such disparate crimes be more than a coincidence?  Might it suggest a new way to understand perspectives and motivations that are otherwise absent in the archive?

The crimes took place on Tenth Street between Cary and Main Streets, part of the busy commercial district portrayed in this drawing by the British artist Eyre Crow, published by the Illustrated London News on July 26, 1862, under the title “The Civil War in America: High-Street, Richmond, Virginia.” Digitized newspaper accessed via Google Books.

Consider how the Black men would have experienced both sets of crimes, not as discrete events but as purposefully interconnected ones.  For years, Richard Drew and Curtis had labored at a stable on a busy block of Tenth Street, near the property where the Hoeflicks resided, ran their store, and over the course of several months in 1864 tortured a child to death.  For everyone working at or visiting the stable, “It was an every day occurrence to see the child thus cruelly treated,” as one white witness testified in the proceedings against Jacob Hoeflick.[10]     In addition to their daytime labors, Richard Drew “ha[d] charge of the stable at night,” and Curtis slept there as well, further exposing them to the sounds and sights of this three-year-old Black girl being tormented.[11]  The legal system denied African Americans any means to disrupt, deter, or ameliorate the abuse during the child’s brief life, nor did it allow them a role in the official justice system’s (ultimately inadequate) effort to hold the Hoeflicks accountable after the murder.

Richard Drew, Curtis, and other enslaved and free Blacks who worked and lived in this area knew what horrific things the Hoeflicks did.  They knew these crimes were openly committed on a busy commercial corner just blocks from the edifices of white power that dominated Capitol Square.   They saw Jacob Hoeflick continue to go at liberty even after his arrest, his business thriving as he retained a respected place in the white community (for example, Hoeflick’s testimony against the Black men reveals that he continued to serve as a member of Richmond’s fire brigade).  Perhaps the only punishment this wealthy white enslaver might undergo was one the Black men could enact themselves:  depriving him of some of the property and profit he valued far more highly than he did the life of an African American child.

A red arrow indicates the block of Tenth Street where the crimes took place, revealing that the Hoeflicks’ extended abuse of the child occurred in close proximity to a range of government buildings, religious institutions, and businesses owned and frequented by white elites, none of whom intervened to save the girl. Detail (arrow added) from the United States Coast Survey, Map of the City of Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Crossing into criminality would not have come easily to these Black men.  During their trial, Robert Crow, Ben Green, and Joseph Hix – three white men who had known and employed them for years – testified to the African American men’s long-standing honesty and good character.  (Crow and Hix each made a point of declaring that the Black men’s accuser, Jacob Hoeflick, lacked honesty, trustworthiness, and good character.  Crow also served as a witness in the separate court proceedings against the Hoeflicks for the abuse and murder of the enslaved girl, breaking ranks with the greater preponderance of elite white men who continued to approve of Jacob Hoeflick, most notably the twenty-four grand jurors who found Hoeflick not guilty.)  Like all Black Richmonders, Richard Drew and Curtis were accustomed to having their lives surveilled, curtailed, and disciplined by white supremacist laws, ordinances, and systems.  They would have calculated the enormous risk involved in enacting revenge upon Jacob Hoeflick, even if they felt justified in their actions.  And, as the archive evidences, unlike the white perpetrators, these men suffered dearly as a result of their arrest and conviction.  Moreover, they and other Black Richmonders would continue to bear the trauma of witnessing a young child slowly tortured and killed, and the horror of knowing the perpetrators remained at large.  Yet these details make this interpretation of their actions all the more poignant and significant.

Excavating episodes like these from imperfect archives is crucial for understanding not just what people did in the past, but why they did it.  Historians can strengthen our interpretive approaches to archival holdings by adopting the practices long honed by African American feminist literary critics, “to read the silences, read the gaps, be attentive to the ellipses.”[12]  Proceeding with curiosity and informed conjecture in this way yields insights far beyond what the original creators of the items in the archives intended to preserve.  Such elucidation is especially significant for understanding the experiences of individuals and groups whose history has been decentered, distorted, or denied by most archives.

[1] Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry, “Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History,”; Thomas A. Foster, “‘No Perfect Archive’: Recovering Histories of Enslaved People at Abingdon Plantation”; Kimberly Welch, “The Stability of Fortunes: A Free Black Woman, Her Legacy, and the Legal Archive in Antebellum New Orleans”; Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Partial Portraits: African Americans in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine“; and Brandi C. Brimmer, “Tracing the Intimate Histories of Poor Black Women in the Late-Nineteenth-Century US South,” JCWE 12, No. 4, (December 2022).

[2] As noted in the Society of American Archivists’ Dictionary of Archives Terminology, “Artificial collections, as distinguished from organic collections, typically do not grow out of a single, specific function, and are often arranged for the convenience of description or retrieval rather than in an order originally established by the creator.”

[3] Richard Drew, Commonwealth Cause, 1864, held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records, Library of Virginia.  This Cause also contains the court documents related to Jacob and Curtis.

[4] For an extended discussion of how structural racism within Richmond’s legal system affected enslaved people, free Blacks, and whites, see James M. Campbell, Slavery on Trial:  Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia, (Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 2007).

[5] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864; and Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865; both held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records,Library of Virginia.  Here and elsewhere, the surname was sometimes recorded as Hoeflich.

[6] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[7] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865.

[8] Abby G. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865, held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records, Library of Virginia.  “Local Matters,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 30, 1864.  “Pennsylvania, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Marriage Records, 1512-1989”, database, FamilySearch ( : 13 January 2021), Jacob N Holflick, 1848.  Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.  For an extended discussion of white women enslavers’ active participation in brutalizing enslaved African Americans, see Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property:  White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2019), especially 78-80.

[9] A Guide to the Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866 (bulk 1860-1866),  I am grateful to Gregory Crawford and Lydia Neuroth at the Library of Virginia for their dedication in making these materials available to researchers.  This physical collection has been scanned, transcribed, and indexed, and can now be searched and accessed online as part of Virginia Untold:  The African American Narrative, a larger digital collection that includes a great variety of materials from counties and cities across Virginia involving African Americans residing in Virginia from the 1600s through 1865.  As valuable as this digital resource is, particularly to researchers working remotely, Virginia Untold works best when one is seeking information about a particular individual or family.  Searching more generally by keyword or record type or locality often yields an unwieldy number of results, and the interface for delving into those results is cumbersome.

[10] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[11] Richard Drew, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[12] Charles H. Rowell, “An Interview with Farah Jasmine Griffin,” Callaloo 22 (Autumn 1999), 872-892.

Lois Leveen

Dr. Lois Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. Her writing has appeared in scholarly journals, academic collections, and in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and similar outlets. Having turned a footnote from her dissertation into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins 2012), it is now her pleasure and her penance to be researching the first scholarly biography of Mary Richards Denman, the real figure behind the Mary Bowser myth. She is a 2020-21 Virginia Humanities Fellow at the Library of Virginia and a Mellon Research Fellow at the Virginia Historical Society.

For the Cause of Freedom: William Still and Abolitionist Data Collection

For the Cause of Freedom: William Still and Abolitionist Data Collection

Emeline Chapman faced a difficult choice in the summer of 1856. As an enslaved woman in Washington, D.C., Chapman and her husband John Henry were raising a young family while enduring the daily struggles of enslavement. Chapman’s enslaver, Emily Thompson, profited by regularly hiring her out to different White residents in the DC area. By summer 1856, however, Thompson decided that she was ready to send Chapman to the auction block and made threats implying as much. Seeing that a sale would lead to permanent separation from her two children (Margaret, age 2, and John Henry, eight months old), Chapman took matters into her own hands. Moving west by foot, Chapman and her children became freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad on August 30.

Thompson failed to locate Chapman and her children for more than three weeks after their departure. Looking for help from other enslavers and their supporters around Maryland, she posted an advertisement offering a $300 reward on September 23 in the Baltimore Sun, a proslavery newspaper that regularly posted notices about enslaved runaways in its pages.[1] Thankfully, it appears that Emeline Chapman and her children were never captured or re-enslaved. What Thompson failed to discover was that Chapman had sought freedom with the abolitionist William Still and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia.

Printed newspaper ad for the return of a self-liberating African American woman.
Emily Thompson, an enslaver in Washington, D.C., paid to have this advertisement of Emeline Chapman’s disappearance printed in the Baltimore Sun on September 23, 1856.

Chapman and her children were among nearly 1,000 freedom seekers who sought refuge with William Still during the 1850s and early 1860s. While much Underground Railroad activity around the country was shrouded in secrecy and word-of-mouth communication between the enslaved and an abolitionist community of “conductors,” Still bucked this trend by taking detailed notes about the freedom seekers who sought refuge with him. Writing down names, ages, dates of escape, transportation modes, hometowns, and more, Still remarked that he compiled this data “to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom under difficulties.” In other words, Still leveraged the power of data to demonstrate how freedom seekers like Emeline Chapman proactively worked to escape slavery. Seven years after the legal end of slavery in the United States, Still’s notes were published in The Underground Railroad, a comprehensive recollection of the people whom Still assisted in Philadelphia.[2]

In recent years, the emergence of the digital humanities as a form of scholarly inquiry has created opportunities to study the history of slavery with computational methods. Using spreadsheets, text mining, GIS mapping technology, and data visualizations, scholars now have tools for thinking anew about slavery, abolition, and emancipation in the nineteenth century. Robert Nowatski highlighted some of these projects in a 2020 article for The American Archivist, but also demonstrated how digital humanities scholars have largely ignored the study of slavery or Black history more broadly. In an analysis of 1,256 articles published with Digital Scholarship in the Humanities and 367 articles with Digital Humanities Quarterly since 1986, Nowatski found that only eight articles mentioned Black history and culture, less than one percent of all articles published in these journals.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, to discover that no comprehensive dataset of William Still’s notes was freely available online until recently.

Portrait of a Black man sitting looking at the camera.
William Still (1821-1902), a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped nearly 800 enslaved African Americans to freedom.

Although I was previously aware of William Still’s abolitionist data, I became interested in mining the data further when I was hired to teach an Introduction to Digital Humanities course for the spring 2023 semester at IUPUI (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis). Struggling to figure out a good final project for the course, I decided to see what I could do with the Still data.

One crucial study I came across was William C. Kashatus’s 2021 book, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia.[4] While the book is really more about PASS as an abolitionist organization rather than Still’s own life experiences, Kashatus and the late scholar James McGowan meticulously researched The Underground Railroad and created an appendix with Still’s data on 995 enslaved individuals.[5] All scholars of slavery should be grateful for this scholarly contribution, which took many years to complete. However, Still’s data in print form is, for a lack of a better term, not flexible. Scholars can’t create a visualization, graph, or map of the Still data from the appendix unless they spent countless hours converting the printed text to computer software.

I set out to change this situation by making the Still data freely available online. Throughout fall 2022, I converted Kashatus and McGowan’s research into an Excel spreadsheet. I also studied The Underground Railroad in an effort to correct a limited number of typos, mistakes, and missing information not included in the original print appendix of William Still. I didn’t invent the wheel, so to speak, but I undertook this work to make it more efficient and accessible. Thankfully, I managed to complete the dataset in time to include it in the syllabus of my upcoming course.

While the future online home of this dataset remains to be determined, I am hosting it on my Google Drive for the time being and you can download it for yourself by clicking this hyperlink.

Unfortunately, the digital humanities course I was scheduled to teach this spring was cancelled shortly before I began writing this essay. However, I am hopeful that I’ll get the chance to teach William Still’s remarkable story and dataset to students in the future. More importantly, I hope other scholars can use this data in their classrooms and for their own research purposes. Students can benefit from Still’s life story as they consider the ways historians use data to make arguments about the past. For example, I had planned assignments in which students would create maps highlighting the hometowns of enslaved freedom seekers, graphic representations of age, runaway date, and modes of transportation used to seek freedom, and a final project that challenged students to create a website highlighting the dataset.

By making this spreadsheet freely available, I hope others find creative ways to help students understand the relationship between data and the study of slavery. Additionally, scholars can use this dataset to provide new insights into the life experiences of individual freedom seekers such as Emeline Chapman who came to Philadelphia dreaming of liberation. The possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing what can be accomplished with William Still’s data moving forward.

[1] “Reward: $300,” Baltimore Sun, September 23, 1856.

[2] William Still, The Underground Railroad: A Record (Philadelphia: Henry B. Ashmead, 1872), 6. See also Julia W. Bernier, “’The Times Requires this Testimony’: William Still’s The Underground Railroad, Black Perspectives, December 5, 2022.

[3] Robert Nowatzki, “From Datum to Databases: Digital Humanities, Slavery, and Archival Reparations,” The American Archivist 83, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2020), 430.

[4] William C. Kashatus, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021); see also Andrew K. Diemer, Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad (New York: Knopf, 2022).

[5] The appendix can be seen in Kashatus, William Still, 221-278.

Nick Sacco

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

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 (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, 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:// 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) 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, 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, 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,; and its “Curriculum Library,” accessed July 6, 2022, 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, 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 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,

[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.