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Facing the “False Picture of Facts”: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

Facing the “False Picture of Facts”: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

In 1884, formerly enslaved African American author and newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune wrote Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, his analysis of the political and economic conditions in the South after the formal end of Reconstruction in 1877. He described the uncertain reality facing freedmen less than two decades after their emancipation. “There is no question today in American politics,” Fortune argued, “more unsettled than the negro question.” Fortune, a newspaper man himself, condemned the national mainstream press for not only failing to advocate for the rights of Black people, but also misrepresenting them as “incapable of imbibing the distorted civilization in the midst of which they live and have their being.” “Day after day,” Fortune explained, “they weave a false picture of facts—facts which must measurably influence the future historian of the times.”[1]

Sadly, the history of Reconstruction would for too long be based on these false facts and clouded by the fog of white supremacy. With few notable exceptions, until the second half of the twentieth century a narrative of unprepared freedmen, cruel and exploitative northerners, and southern nostalgia for the lost confederate cause dominated the story of Reconstruction in both academia and popular culture. From the 1950s through the present, historians worked to undo this narrative distortion, yet for many Americans the period remains one of the least understood in American history.

The PBS production Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, executive produced and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., takes this new history and presents it as an engaging, thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching documentary. The film is divided into four, hour-long episodes, televised in two parts (all episodes are also available online). Part one tells the story of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a hopeful time during what W. E. B. Du Bois called African Americans’ “brief moment in the sun.” These were the tumultuous early years of rising hopes and daunting challenges. Part one concludes with the darkening horizon following the end of federal Reconstruction and the so-called redemption of white supremacist southerners.

Reconstruction is remarkable for its ability to tell the story of the past, while never losing its anchor in present day. Beginning with the tragic and racist slaughter of Black churchgoers in the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, the film uses the story of Reconstruction to understand the persistence of white supremacist ideology and violence in America. What happened at Mother Emanuel was not a “singular horror,” but part of a tragic and dishonorable history of racism and violence going back to the end of the Civil War. “Violence,” historian Shawn Alexander explains, “goes side-by-side in American history to the creation of white supremacist racial ideology that has driven us from slavery all the way to the present day.”[2] The roots of Charleston, the film shows, start in Reconstruction.

Some of the most celebrated experts on Reconstruction guide the viewer through this history. Especially notable is the expertise of scholars like Martha Jones, Kidada Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others who push the study of Reconstruction forward with new knowledge of citizenship, the law, and the lived experience of African Americans during Reconstruction, especially that of African American women. The film, however, does not rely only on “talking head”-style commentary by academic experts to move the narrative forward. In several scenes, Gates interviews historians, descendants of Reconstruction era leaders, clergy, and lawmakers. He engages them in discussion of not just their knowledge of the past, but also what the history of the era means to them today. For the viewer, this provides an intimate connection to the past as witness to a casual conversation, providing an intimate present-day understanding of the resonance of the era.

In addition to the excellent commentary, Reconstruction makes powerful use of partially animated segments of black and white figures. These scenes typically illustrate primary testimony, showing moments of horrific trauma or violence, conveying the feeling of a nightmare or bad memory, Figures appear largely faceless, capturing not only the sense that the subjects could stand in for multiple events, but also the anonymity of the thousands of victims of atrocities for whom there is no record.

Reconstruction tells three intertwined narratives. It follows the story of recently freed men and women as they chart a future for themselves in a post-Civil War world. It also describes the ways the federal government dealt with the nation’s new post-war realities and contended with African Americans as a part of the American body politic. Finally, and overlaid over the whole story, is the creation and persistence of Confederate mythmaking that is going to influence deeply how the history of the first two themes is told.

Early in the first episode, Gates embeds African American agency firmly in the narrative of Reconstruction, and Black power and autonomy is celebrated throughout. “To a remarkable degree,” he states, “it was the slaves themselves” who were the catalysts of emancipation and ultimately the end of the Civil War.[3] Rejecting the former narrative that freedmen and women were passive pawns unprepared or unworthy of freedom, the documentary shows how almost immediately they went about searching for lost family members, building homes, acquiring land, starting businesses and institutions, and serving in elected office. The episode notes the importance of Black Civil War service as driving a new sense of pride and post-war empowerment. Yet, the freedmen and women faced severe challenges. Andrew Johnson, who replaced Lincoln after his assassination, thwarted attempts to redistribute slaveholders’ land. This undermined the struggle for Black economic independence, the fallout of which would continue for generations. Nevertheless, the rate of progress was remarkable. “There are not many moments in recorded human history,” Kimberlé Crenshaw concludes in episode one, “where a group that was so subordinated, so disposed, would within the spread of a decade actually be fully integrated into the highest echelons of political society—it’s almost like the decade advanced the possibilities of freedom one-hundred years.”[4]

The federal government was sometimes an ally and sometimes an antagonist to this quick progress. Rarely in United States history have the actions and events in Congress and the federal government had such an immediate and direct effect on the lives of its people. Episode one tells the story of how, soon after the end of the war, Congress passed amendments and legislation prohibiting slavery, establishing citizenship, and prohibiting racial discrimination in suffrage. They also passed laws limiting racial discrimination and attempting to curb racial violence. Yet, the federal government failed to go far enough to help freedmen and women gain an economic foothold, and the fate of future rights remained subject to the political will of elected officials.

Photo of Robert Smalls, Civil War hero and a proponent of Black rights during Reconstruction. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In many ways, however, it was African Americans themselves who made any progress at the federal level possible. Episode two focuses on how, as voters, they helped preserve a Republican majority in Congress, including Black senators and congressmen, and helped win Grant the White House. Especially poignant is the film’s discussion of Robert Smalls, the formerly enslaved, South Carolinian Civil War hero elected to the House of Representatives in the 1870s. Gates interviews his great-great grandson who recalls the importance of Smalls as a model for understanding African American successes of the era. “This is American history,” he tells Gates, “Robert’s story is a metaphor for this broader movement that empowered a whole race of people.”[5] Hard fought progress, however, would be undone nearly as quickly as it had come.

Episode two of part one ends in the late 1870s with the controversial compromise leading to the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the removal of federal troops from the south. The decline of the successes of Reconstruction by the end of the 1870s would be given a cultural and ideological defense by emerging white supremacist ideas that degraded African Americans and placed white southerners as the primary victims of the Civil War and its aftermath. Propaganda campaigns painted black leaders as ridiculous caricatures, Reconstruction as an utter failure, and elevated Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee to king-like status. These false narratives counteracted and undermined the realities of Black progress and ascendancy. As Shawn Alexander tells the audience, white attackers brutalized Black men and women “because they had been too successful…it flies in the face of the idea that [African Americans] are inferior.”[6]

Alfred Rudolph Waud, “The First Vote,” Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Coupled with an economic downturn that helped Democrats win northern elections, violent voter suppression propelled white Democrats into office across the South, immediately halting federal protections so necessary to prevent the slaughter of black citizens. As Gates closes the first two hours, “the success of Reconstruction depended on the will of the nation to hold the line against the forces of violence eager to undo it. As the nation’s will faltered, the rights of African Americans would be sacrificed to political expediency.”[7] Part one ends with the tragic collapse of formal Reconstruction and the dismantling of federal protection of Black rights and lives. Clinging tentatively to the hopes of the past, African Americans faced an uncertain future.

While the first half of Reconstruction tells an impactful story and rebuts the previous narrative of the Lost Cause, it remains largely confined to Southern states and limited to a fairly standard revisionist narrative. Recently historians have pushed the study of Reconstruction in exciting new directions not addressed in the film. Historians like Heather Cox Richardson, who appears in the film, push the geographic boundaries to look at places beyond the former Confederacy, like the American West. Others have shown how women’s rights and American labor organizing expanded at unprecedented rates during this same period. The Journal of the Civil War Era’s forum on the future of Reconstruction studies is an excellent place to start.[8]

These limitations, however, are less critique than points for further exploration. Reconstruction provides an engaging reexamination of what Gates calls a “chaotic, exhilarating, and ultimately devastating period.” It provides an effective preamble for the stark erosion of Reconstruction, Black freedom, and American democracy that continues in the second two hours of the film. The film is a powerful counter-force to the “false picture of facts” that proliferated and continue to have a hold on how many Americans understand the era. It captures with stark images and commentary the lost opportunity, the failure of which we are continuing to reckon with today.



[1] T. Thomas Fortune, Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1884), 13-14.

[2] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 2, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] Reconstruction, episode 1.

[4] Reconstruction, episode 1.

[5] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[6] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[7] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[8] “Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, accessed April 21, 2019,

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of African American history, race, law and politics. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2011. His book, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston was published with the University of North Carolina Press in 2018. His article “‘We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks’: African Americans Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Massachusetts” was awarded the Richards Prize by the Journal of the Civil War Era for best article published in 2015.

The Multiple Meanings of Military Occupation: A Report from the OAH

The Multiple Meanings of Military Occupation: A Report from the OAH

The United States’ prolonged military engagement in the Middle East has given new prominence and urgency to occupation studies across a wide range of disciplines, including our own. Taking seriously the need to contemplate and reckon with the multiple meanings of military occupation, a panel at the Organization of American Historians’ 2019 meeting, “Between Occupation and Liberation: Negotiating Freedoms across Three Centuries of American Military Occupations,” conceives of “occupation” as a distinctive category of analysis, encouraging scholars to compare race and gender across time and space.

The panel commenced with Lauren Duval’s (American University) paper, “Liberty’s Limits: British Military Occupation and Civilian Freedoms in the American Revolution,” a preview of her book manuscript. In August 1777, a British captain and a local apothecary knocked fists. Far more than a simple street brawl, court martial proceedings revealed the fight as a battle over domestic space and the labor within that space. British occupation during the American Revolution, Duval contends, brought the war home to civilians, disrupted hierarchies, disordered households, and challenged the patriarchal authority of civilian men. The absence of husbands and fathers, coupled with the presence of the British army, gave women and the enslaved an opportunity to change their life’s circumstances by negotiating labor or having social relations with British officers. As hierarchies crumbled, however, traditional means of protection eroded as well, leaving women exposed to sexual abuse or abandonment. According to Duval, occupation was not “a bid for freedom” but rather a period of intensive renegotiation where women and the enslaved could leverage their labor and status amid the chaos of war. Women especially were still held in a position of subordinate dependence, but amid the destabilizing forces of occupation, they could decide who they wanted to be dependent upon.

Andrew F. Lang’s (Mississippi State University) “Emancipation, Martial Discipline, and the Problem of Military Citizenship in the United States Colored Troops’ Civil War” examines the contested place of the United States Colored Troops within the narrative of occupation. According to Lang, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation relegated African-Americans to permanent auxiliary positions behind the lines. Segregated and removed from the battlefield, garrison posts “placed African American troops on the threshold of slavery’s death and within a new birth of racial discrimination.” While fighting to end slavery, African-American soldiers experienced new forms of discrimination in the army. These soldiers, Lang maintains, protested their role as garrison troops, protested pay discrepancies, and protested disciplinary inequalities. Indeed, protest emerges as the central theme of Lang’s argument. Refusing to be subjected to the army’s racial hierarchies, African-American soldiers wanted to be recognized and treated like the citizen-soldiers they were, not like the hirelings or laborers that army policy perceived them to be. Seeking a chance to prove themselves as men and citizens on the field of battle, these soldiers challenged what they considered direct violations of a citizen-soldier’s contract. Most means of resistance were non-violent, but peaceful protest sometimes failed. And, when it did, some African-American soldiers turned to mutiny. It was, Lang concludes, a limited victory. In June 1864, the army instituted an equal-pay provision for all soldiers, regardless of race. While still largely confined to garrison duty, “it appeared that they could successfully undermine the restrictive stigma authored in Lincoln’s Proclamation.”

Moving into the twentieth century, “Occupation’s Diaspora: Alonzo P. Holly and the Global Black Freedom Struggle” uses one individual’s life to consider the broader implications of the United States occupation of Haiti during the 1920s. Placing the Haitian diaspora in an international context, Brandon Byrd (Vanderbilt University) argues that occupation “certainly led to Haitian critiques of Western ‘modernity’ and calls for a return to African culture, [but] it also resulted in new forms of internationalist politics and thought.” As a man well-traveled and well-educated, Holly’s cosmopolitan life took him to Port-au-Prince, New York, London, and Miami. Having spent his life immersed within these African Diaspora communities, Holly actively opposed the United States occupation of the Caribbean and, as an opposing force, advocated for collective black internationalism. Byrd argues that this particular from of black internationalism emerged directly from the experiences of occupation, which had magnified the lingering problems associated with American imperialism. According to Byrd, occupation was, to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. DuBois, “but a local phase of a global problem.” And as such, global problems—racism, imperialism, colonialism—could be addressed at the local level.

Moving beyond the scope of their papers, these scholars placed occupation in the broader historiographical conversation during the session’s closing remarks. Facing a daunting, but revealing audience question—Why occupation?—these scholars contended with the meaning, possibilities, and limitations of “occupation” in American history. Seizing the question, Lang deemed occupation central to American martial, political, and cultural life. It is and was, he argued, an “uncertain but necessary” period “needed to achieve particular goals.” On the flip side of the same coin, leaders were uncertain just how to go about achieving those goals. Emerging from the maelstrom, created by uncertain and undefined objectives, was great dynamism on the ground. Participants, such as African American soldiers and freedmen, had ample room in which to act and redefine their social, political, or cultural roles. As Civil War garrison and auxiliary troops, Lang noted, African-American soldiers were behind military lines—intentionally kept far from the battlefield and far from a chance at battlefield glory—but that, in turn, left them as the vanguard of occupation. Given their unique position as the frontline occupation force, these blue-clad soldiers collapsed slavery from their place inside the South. What was intended by Washingtonians to be a conservative measure instead transformed into a powerful political force in the fight for emancipation. As a “contest of power” and “generative force,” occupation temporarily redefined the meaning of Civil War and Reconstruction for the overwhelming majority of the population. Concluding his remarks, Lang astutely declared that “occupation is normal in the American context, but also exceptional.” Building upon these same themes, Duval emphasized fluidity within the Revolutionary Era household. So, too, as did nineteenth-century soldiers in the USCT, absentee patriarchs, emboldened women, and stirred slaves negotiated and renegotiated their household roles, gender relations, and working conditions during the eighteenth-century British occupation. Diverging from his fellow panelists, Byrd portrayed occupation as a mirror magnifying societal problems, such as oppression, hierarchies, imperialism, colonialism, and other points of conflict on a global scale. And, by illuminating these social, political, and economic woes, occupation presented an opportunity for real change—a chance, however fleeting, for national absolution and redemption.

While defining occupation differently, and rooting their analysis within their own particular field of study, each panelist nonetheless portrays occupation as a fluid and defining moment of untold possibilities and endless potential—a moment worthy of extensive analysis. Few scholars today would disagree. But what, I wonder, about the instance when the troops, be it red-coated British, blue-clad federals, or civilian-clothed officials, took their leave. Then what? Do the changes so greatly fought for and so dearly paid for vanish into the peacetime abyss? The aftermath of occupation was a topic the panelists only briefly mentioned in their admittedly time-constrained presentations. Yet, post-occupation backlash does, in fact, underscore the powerful potential of occupation by demonstrating the strength needed to contain the forces of change unleased by war and its aftermath.

Spanning geographical boundaries and over three centuries, these excellent scholars offer compelling interpretative frameworks and methodological approaches for the future of occupation studies, approaches that will, no doubt, influence scholars of mid-nineteenth-century America as they continue to grapple with the ramifications of the Civil War. It was, as panel chair Gregory P. Downs (University of California, Davis) noted in his opening remarks, a Saturday 8:00am panel that was “well worth not hitting the snooze button” for.

Tracy Barnett

Tracy L. Barnett is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia and a Digital Humanities Research Fellow for UGA’s eHistory. Her primary research interest is the cultural history of the mid-nineteenth-century South and she is fascinated by male behavior—especially the bad and unsavory varieties. Her dissertation, “Armed, Drunk, and Dangerous: White Paramilitary Violence in the Civil War Era South,” is a study of white paramilitary organizations, firearms, and alcohol from the 1840s to the 1870s. She also has a forthcoming article, “Mississippi ‘Milish:’ Militiamen in the Civil War,” that will be published in Civil War History.

“Where the spiders are”: Law, Economy, and the North at the Coming of the Civil War

“Where the spiders are”: Law, Economy, and the North at the Coming of the Civil War

At this year’s meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Philadelphia, participants heard from leading slavery historians at a panel titled “Kidnapping, Capital, and Slavery: Rethinking the North in the Civil War Era.” This panel explored how the kidnapping of free African Americans from Northern free states affected law and politics, intertwined with the life of cities like New York, and influenced the opinions of white Northern voters as the Civil War approached. Richard Blackett, of Vanderbilt University, served as chair.

Caleb McDaniel (Rice University) began the panel by noting that reparations have become a topic of discussion in the lead up to the 2020 election, particularly by Democratic candidates, but that some journalists and pundits believe feasibility and implementation are concerns. He mentioned an article in the New York Times four weeks ago by David Brooks, which was a surprisingly sympathetic response to the famous Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic, both titled, “The Case for Reparations.” This reminded McDaniel of an 1878 article in the New York Times which asked the same question, “What would happen if restitution for freed slaves was required?” There had been debate over compensating slaveholders after the Civil War, which had then been prohibited. Then, McDaniel turns to the subject of his forthcoming book, Sweet Taste of Liberty, the “true story” of Henrietta Wood, born in 1818 Kentucky. She was sold around age fourteen, then again at twenty, living for a time in New Orleans before being taken to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she obtained freedom papers in 1848. In 1853, Wood was tricked by her employer into entering a carriage that crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. There she was kidnapped by a local deputy named Zebulon Ward, who sold her into slavery. Wood lived in Mississippi briefly, before being taken to Texas to prevent her being emancipated. In 1869, she returned to Cincinnati, where she filed suit for kidnapping and lost wages. The case went to federal court in 1878 and the jury decided in Wood’s favor. This led to the Times article, which stated, “we would close the chapter,” but Henrietta Wood reopened it. This story, McDaniel told us, is important because of its place in the larger context: it is representative of the experiences of formerly enslaved people, in terms of their legal battle for recognition, recompense, and ultimately, citizenship.

To provide context for Wood’s story, McDaniel also mentioned the case of Solomon Northup, whose memoir (12 Years a Slave) was published in 1853. Abolitionists petitioned for restitution for Northup, which helps place his case in a larger struggle for reparations. McDaniel noted that Wood’s case takes place in the borderlands of the Ohio River Valley, where kidnapping was a present danger—she was born on the southern side of the Ohio River, a geographic closeness that resulted in a constant threat of kidnapping. In 1829, another case, of a man named Samson, who sued for kidnapping and false imprisonment, was brought to court, and decided in 1830 in his favor. The cotton trade, suggested McDaniel, was an inducement for kidnapping, due to the profits possible. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which carried a light burden of proof on the part of slaveholders, also provided opportunity for sheriff’s agents to conspire with kidnappers. McDaniel also mentioned the case of David Young, who escaped to Ohio in 1850, was recaptured and sold, and who eventually became a state legislator. “Revolutions can go backwards,” however, as McDaniel reminded us, and the retreat during Reconstruction affects the significance of Wood’s legal victory, as well as raising the question of whether it was a triumph, versus what she had endured. McDaniel concluded that no one questioned the plausibility of Wood’s story; the surprise was that her suit succeeded.

Jonathan Wells (University of Michigan) next spoke, centering his discussion on the New York kidnapping club, which took actions to return runaway slaves and kidnapped free(d) persons into slavery. The extent of kidnapping in New York was obscured, but anger over kidnappings in the North affected the debate over slavery, and this places African Americans in the center of arguments over Civil War causation. Wells cautioned the need to separate illegal kidnapping from legal (if immoral) recovery of runaways. The courts in the North had to balance the “invasion of free state borders” and support of Southern slavery with their legal requirements. In 1832, sixteen slaves in Virginia stole a boat and headed for New York City. The slaveowner appealed to New York’s government and police, which could claim nearly anyone as the potential runaways. This started the New York kidnapping club. In the summer of 1832, children started disappearing at the rate of more than one per week. One seven-year-old, Henry, was taken from his school in Manhattan. There was no proof of his being a fugitive, but the court recorder, Riker, had him remanded. Henry was eventually released. Henry’s story shows that anyone could be targeted, that slave catchers and kidnappers were always lurking, and that recovery of fugitives was made easier due to complicity in the New York courts. This created turmoil in New York and raised a “Northern fury.” Voters had seen slavery as a Southern problem until its slaveowners invaded the north to recover slaves. Mobility across the border had become easier, as no wall would prevent the desire to move for better conditions for one’s self and family. This resulted in placing black citizenship rights at the center of the sectional conflict.

Maria Montalvo (Newcomb College Institute) spoke on the case of Isaac Wright in New Orleans. This case centered on the selling of a free man by someone who knew he was free. An estate administrator, working for Wright’s former owner, brought suit due to this action in bad faith and sought reimbursement. The lawsuit was between two men who used to own Wright, Wright was neither plaintiff nor defendant, but his story nevertheless speaks to how courts treated formerly enslaved people. The case allows historians to recover experiences where it is difficult to do so due to the limits of sources, to use what is available to expand the image. Wright’s free family originated in Virginia and moved to Pennsylvania for more opportunities. Wright’s mother signed a contract for him to become an apprentice, and he moved to New York for some time. In 1838, while working on a steamboat, the substitute captain imprisoned Wright and had him sold. They were given false backgrounds and tortured into presenting it as truth.

To sum up the discussion, Adam Rothman (Georgetown University) offered comments and evinced the need to “go where the spiders are” in order to disentangle the elements of the discussion, and not to simply “reproduce abolitionist discourse.” Rothman suggested that we should distinguish between kidnapping as an experience, a crime, and a rhetorical device; and that the three papers show the importance of agents of the state in the kidnapping and enslavement of free people of color. A question from the audience noted that Southern law created a legal fiction to enable freedom suits. While laws were passed to limit restitution, the kinds of cases brought to court were broadened from wrongful imprisonment to lost wages.

The work presented by this panel adds to our understanding of the ways in which the law worked both in support of and against slavery. Both sides of the fight created legal tools—sometimes fictive—in order to press their aims. In addition, it suggests the need to further engage with the role of capitalism both in the development of slavery and work against it. The multiple ways in which incidents described as “kidnapping” were understood and used is also of interest. Overall, the panel fits neatly with other recent scholarship on the question of the role of the economy and legal system in the coming of the Civil War.

Katie Lowe

Katie Lowe is a student in an interdisciplinary master's degree program at Towson University in Maryland. Her interests lie in the intersection of history, geography, and political science, especially with regard to nineteenth century America. She is currently working on a project focusing on urban spaces, the environment, and public health. She hopes to pursue a PhD in history and an MD in the future.

Changes at Muster HQ

Changes at Muster HQ

We are pleased to announce the addition of a new field correspondent to the Muster team! Please join us in welcoming Michelle Cassidy, who will be contributing posts on Native Americans in the Civil War era, starting sometime later this spring. Dr. Cassidy is an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current project emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. She has presented her research at numerous conferences, including the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, Ethnohistory, and the American Historical Association. Her article in the Michigan Historical Review, “‘The More Noise they Make’: Odawa and Ojibwe Encounters with American Missionaries in Northern Michigan, 1837-1871,” explores how Anishinaabe cultural logic, leadership, and perceptions of spiritual power shaped Native life in the mid-nineteenth century and influenced some Anishinaabe men to enlist in the Union army. Dr. Cassidy can be contacted at

We also have another change to our list of field correspondents. Maria Angela Diaz will no longer be writing for us on a regular basis, but we wish her well on her future projects, including her manuscript, currently titled Saving the Southern Empire: The Gulf South, Latin America, and the Civil War. Her work brings an important perspective to discussions of race, gender, and class in the Gulf South during this period. Thank you, Dr. Diaz, for your service to Muster.


Teaching the American Civil War Through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

Teaching the American Civil War Through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

South elevation (front) of Beauvoir as it appeared in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Studying the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students understand the complex forces that shaped late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. Their life stories help instructors explain soldiers’ motivations for service, discuss battles and campaigns, describe conscription and dissent, unravel the process of emancipation, and examine the political and economic upheaval of the era. By studying a veteran from a single company or regiment — and the communities in which they were raised — students discover how historical figures experienced the larger historical trends we study in class. I have developed an exercise focused on veterans to help undergraduates conduct the kind of “on the ground” research that Civil War historians routinely do using online databases.

Lately, my students have been researching the veterans, wives, and widows who lived at Mississippi’s Confederate home from 1903 through 1957, which is also the subject of my article in the March 2019 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.[1] The project brings sweeping historical concepts to a local level that is both familiar and approachable, and it helps students study the Civil War generation not as monuments and memorials, but as men and women whose lives personified the complex forces that shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and continue to inform our classrooms.

Take, for example, the case of Jacob and Mary Ratzburg, who moved to the Jefferson Davis Soldiers’ Home in Biloxi, Mississippi, in March 1905. He was seventy-nine and she was sixty years old. Jacob had immigrated to the United States from Schleswig-Holstein in 1852 at the age of twenty-seven, coming through New Orleans and eventually settling in Lauderdale, Mississippi, in 1860, one year after he became a U.S. citizen. He worked as a brick mason and supported his German-born wife Louisa and a daughter or step-daughter, Louena. Across town, Mary Jane Beverly was just fifteen years old, one of six children, none of whom attended school, and who were supported by her father and eldest brother who were both carpenters and poor, but independent farmers.

In April 1861, Jacob Ratzburg was part of the early rush of men to arms. He joined the 8th Regiment Mississippi Volunteers for one year and re-enlisted in the spring of 1862. He appears to have served in good health and without injury until the Atlanta Campaign in 1864, when Private Ratzburg was captured and held as a prisoner until the end of the war. Less than a year after returning home, he married Mary Jane Beverly. It’s unknown if he and his first wife divorced or if she died; little is known of her daughter either. By 1870 Jacob, still a brick mason, and Mary had three African-American farm laborers living with them, including an eleven-year-old girl named Eda Ratzburg, whose surname indicates that she may have been enslaved to Jacob or a member of his family before 1865. By 1880, the Ratzburgs had moved to nearby Meridian, where Jacob and Mary supplemented his income by running a boarding house, but by the early 1900s, they were struggling. In 1904, Jacob, now seventy-eight, was sufficiently impoverished to be approved for a Mississippi Confederate pension. But the Ratzburgs still could not live independently, which led to their admission to Mississippi’s Confederate Home, commonly known as Beauvoir. Jacob died there in 1907, two years after arriving. Mary was eligible to stay as a Confederate widow, and she married a fellow veteran resident, J.N. Webb, at the home in 1914, and after his death, Mary remarried to another resident, George Bazemore. She died at Beauvoir in 1929.

This is a solitary case of a Civil War veteran, but consider the numerous nineteenth-century themes that run through his life: ethnicity and immigration; slavery and emancipation; education and literacy; economic instability; labor and farming; birth, death, and marital rates; extended families resulting from death, divorce, and remarriage; and New South efforts to care for and memorialize Confederate veterans. And these are in addition to fundamental military history themes in his story: early volunteering vs. later enlistees or draftees; the Confederate effort to motivate one-year volunteers to re-enlist by offering leaves of absence (which Ratzburg received in the spring of 1862); the heavy toll of combat at places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the 8th Mississippi suffered 47 percent casualties; the increasing intensity of the war by 1864 seen in the Atlanta Campaign; and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system witnessed through Ratzburg’s long captivity.

The research involved to uncover these stories can be adjusted depending on the time instructors want to dedicate to the topic and students’ skill sets. A simplified project might involve picking a veteran home — U.S. or Confederate — or picking a military unit from the county or region where you teach. Don’t assume that this requires you to restrict yourself to Confederate units if you live in the South. Were African-American units raised in your area? Were other Union units? Similarly, if you live in the North, you can study dissent just as well as southern students can. Are you teaching in sections of the country where northerners and southerners deserted the ranks in large numbers? Where draft riots shocked communities from New York to Wisconsin? Supplementing students’ research with readings from published experts will help them contextualize the records.[2] Similarly, the articles in the March 2019 Journal of the Civil War Era special issue on veterans will aid their interpretation of veterans’ postwar years.[3]

Once instructors select their approach – such as a particular company or regiment – they’ll need a list of those who served in the unit (a muster roll). These are accessible through sites like, which allows instructors to isolate their search to the Civil War, then to the Union or the Confederacy, to a specific state, to individual units, and then to a surname. When students locate an individual’s name, they can access the soldier’s compiled military service record, which contains information like their age and location when they enlisted, as well as anything that happened to them during their time in service: wounds, illnesses, leaves of absence, or records of capture, imprisonment, or exchange.

When students have secured the location and date of a veteran’s enlistment, and hopefully their age, this helps students locate the veteran in census records using databases like or the free online resource Census records can reveal if they were large or small slaveholders and, in the case of Jacob Ratzburg, if freedpeople remained in the same area after the war and possibly in the same households. This opens an opportunity to discuss the challenging process of emancipation, a lesson that can be enhanced with digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records on Ancestry or FamilySearch. These help students study the process of emancipation at the local level while they also ponder how white and black soldiers shifted from wartime service to occupation duty (a topic that resonates with veterans in today’s classrooms).

Students can then access digitized pension records available through Ancestry, Fold3, or state archives or historical society websites to study the postwar lives of veterans and their wives or widows who, facing poverty, were eligible to receive financial assistance from the federal government (Union veterans) or their southern state government (Confederate veterans). Digitized newspaper collections like Chronicling America (free),, or also add to these projects by allowing students to see how a veteran’s community experienced the war and postwar period on a daily basis. Veterans and their families sometimes appear in articles or in obituaries, but newspapers are most useful for helping students consider significant wartime and postwar developments at a local level. Admittedly, some of these databases have subscription fees, but instructors can often get free access through libraries, or they can factor subscriptions into students’ expenses for the class (much like the cost of books).

Teaching the American Civil War through the experiences of veterans help students wrestle with key concepts about this conflict and era. It also brings the experiences of individuals who are often overlooked — due to a lack of traditional sources like letters and diaries — into the classroom. Finally, students master valuable research skills and engage with and contribute to their local communities. It’s an active learning project that excites and inspires students, helping them see connections between the present and the past, and the lessons to be learned from each.


Online Resources to Bring Veterans into the Classroom


Sample Classroom Project:

The Beauvoir Veteran Project


Selected Databases:


Chronicling America

Connecticut Civil War Records

Family Search

Florida Confederate Pension Applications

Florida Old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Home

Fold 3

Genealogy Bank

Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls

Indiana Digital Archives

Michigan Civil War Service Records

Mississippi Confederate Pension Applications

Missouri Soldiers’ Records: War of 1812 – World War I


Pennsylvania Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866 Indexes

Soldiers and Sailors Database



[1] Susannah J. Ural, “‘Every Comfort, Freedom, and Liberty’: A Case Study of the Mississippi Confederate Home,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 55-83. Their research is featured online at

[2] Readings might come from Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2008); Richard Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[3] Special Issue: Reconsidering Civil War Veterans, The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019). See also Brian Matthew Jordan, Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2016); James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); 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).

Susannah Ural

Susannah Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military experiences of U.S. Civil War soldiers and their families. Dr. Ural's latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (LSU, 2017).

“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

Historians have rarely examined the German States’ reactions to the Civil War. Much has been said about German immigrants fighting in the war, German-American political leaders involved in community and political organization, and the nativist backlash in the United States; however, Central Europe’s perspectives are a blank page in English language scholarship.[1] As the archetypal political schemer of the era, Otto von Bismarck looms large in German politics and misconceptions continue to persist about where Bismarck may have gotten some of his opinions about the Civil War.

Photograph of John Lothrop Motley in the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The answers may come through a deeper understanding of the relationship between the U.S. Minister in Vienna, John Lothrop Motley, and his friend from university, Prussian Minister President Otto von Bismarck. In August 1864, a peculiar meeting took place in Vienna between Motley and Bismarck. Bismarck had come to Vienna for the peace negotiations ending the Dano-German War, which started earlier that year over constitutional and royal succession questions in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and resulted in a resounding military victory for the German allies. Bismarck and Motley enjoyed a trouble-free evening together; however, the self-absorbed Motley walked away with the impression that he had enlightened Bismarck regarding the events in North America. The two men shared a deep bond of personal friendship.

After having started his education at Harvard, Motley transferred to the University of Göttingen in 1831. Göttingen was one of the premier universities in the German states, whose faculty at the time included such respected professors as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus, physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber, and theologian and orientalist Heinrich Georg August Ewald. At Göttingen, Motley encountered Bismarck for the first time. The two friends eventually transferred to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin where Bismarck impressed with his drinking and sword-dueling skills, rather than his scholarship.[2] Apparently Motley was so drawn to Bismarck that he made him the main character of his unsuccessful novel, Morton’s Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial, which included an Otto von Rabenmarck.[3] The two friends reconnected every decade as Motley became a respected writer and historian.

In 1861, Motley’s friend Charles Sumner obtained a diplomatic post in Europe for his fellow Bay Stater. The two were lucky. The Lincoln Administration had initially intended to send Anson Burlingame to Vienna. However, the Austrian court had refused the appointment due to ties between Burlingame and the Hungarian rebellion of 1848. With Burlingame finding an abundance of opportunities in his new post at Beijing, Motley assumed the post in Vienna.[4]

In May 1864, Bismarck reached out to Motley, most likely remembering their friendship and revisiting the days of carefree fun. In an informal tone, Bismarck wrote his friend, “Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you, and do you do that you never write a line to me? I am working from morn to night like a nigger, and you have nothing to do at all-you might as well tip me a line as well as looking on your feet tilted against the wall of God knows what a dreary colour.” Bismarck did not stop with this scolding of his friend to be a more active correspondent. He insisted that Motley should come for a visit to Berlin, proposing “Let politics be hanged and come to see me. I promise that the Union Jack shall wave over our house, and the conversation and the best old hock shall pour damnation upon the rebels.”[5]

Steel engraving of Otto von Bismarck, after a painting by Alonzo Chappel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was a rather peculiar moment for Bismarck to remember his friendship and to express his desire to escape politics with his old college buddy for a few days. Just as Bismarck wrote to Motley, the international community had come together in London for negotiations on how to settle the Dano-German conflict. Motley did not leave his post in Vienna, but the two friends soon had another opportunity to reconnect in person.

During the peace negotiations, the two met and shared a peaceful evening together, allowing Bismarck to escape the political and diplomatic wrangling over the terms of the agreement. Motley recounted the meeting in a letter to his mother, “He thinks it about as possible to transplant what is called parliamentary government into Prussia, as Abraham Lincoln believes in the feasibility of establishing an aristocracy in the United States.”[6] The conflict in the United States of course became part of the conversation.

Motley’s wife dramatically recounted in a letter to their daughter, “Your father gave him [Bismarck], at his request, a brief but graphic sketch of our affairs, the causes of the war and the sole conditions upon which it would terminate, etc., etc. He was listened to with the greatest interest and respect, and Bismarck told him he was very glad to know his opinions which he accepted unequivocally and adopted and should use as his own when occasion required.”[7] The statement by Motley’s wife has created the perception that Motley enlightened Bismarck about the Civil War’s causes and that the Prussian adopted Motley’s views as his own.[8]

It is highly unlikely that a man of Bismarck’s shrewd diplomatic and political caliber would not have understood the causes of the Civil War by 1864. Newspapers in Berlin and all major cities of the German states covered the events in North America on an almost daily basis. The Prussian minister in Washington, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt had been in his post since 1844 and could provide Bismarck with remarkable insights. Furthermore, if the friendship between Bismarck and Motley was as deep as the “My Dear Jack” line indicates, then even in distant St. Petersburg, where Bismarck was stationed in 1861, the Prussian would have read Motley’s lengthy editorial in The Times of London explaining the Union cause and righteousness of the U.S. war effort.

As Bismarck was extremely eloquent in crafting his own personal history, often infusing myth and legend, a closer and critical examination of the relations with Central Europe is long overdue. Motley and his family encountered a good friend in Vienna in August 1864 and had a private evening. Bismarck likely humored Motley as he tried to escape ever so briefly the realities of diplomacy. While Motley’s correspondence is extraordinarily rich, one has to be careful as he occasionally overstates his importance. Even more, an over emphasis on Motley or Bismarck in Central Europe’s relations with the belligerents in North America, is problematic and assumes a reality that did not yet exist, such as Prussia’s success in the Wars of German Unification and thus dominance in German affair. The relationship between the two men reminds us of the multifaceted diplomatic relationship with Prussia, Austria, and the other German states, but also how much Bismarck’s Prussia and Motley’s post in Austria soon collided in a civil war similar to the one in the United States.


[1] The only significant works are in German. Enno Eimers, Preussen und die USA 1850 bis 1867 (Berlin, Germany: Dunker and Humblot, 2004); Michael Löffler, Preussens und Sachsens Beziehungen zu den USA während des Sezessionskrieges 1860-1865 (Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 1999)

[2] J. Gubermann, The Life of John Lothrop Motley (The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijohoff, 1973); Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir (Boston, MA: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879).

[3] John L. Motley, Morton’s Hope: The Memoirs of a Provincial (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1839).

[4] David L. Anderson, Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861-1898 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 19.

[5] Otto von Bismarck to John Lothrop Motley, May 23, 1864, in The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, ed. George W. Curtis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1889), 2:160.

[6] Motley to his Mother, August 3, 1864, Ibid., 2:170.

[7] Mrs. Motley to Lily Motley, August 1, 1864, in John Lothrop Motley and His Family, ed. Susan Margaret Stackpole Motley, St. John Mildmay, and Herbert Alexander St. John Mildmay (New York: John Lane, 1910), 210, 214.

[8] Graf Otto zu Stolberg-Wernigerode, Germany and the United States of America during the Era of Bismarck, trans. Otto E. Lessing (Reading, PA: Henry Janssen Foundation, 1937), 62.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

On March 30, 2019, a group of public historians will convene at the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting to discuss the interpreter Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication, Interpreting Our Heritage. My fellow NPS colleague Allison Horrocks and I created this conference panel to discuss Tilden’s ideas in historical context and contemplate the state of interpretation moving forward. We also built a website where readers can learn more by visiting In the meantime, I’ve been re-reading Tilden and thinking about the influence of Interpreting Our Heritage within the context of the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War Centennial from 1961 to 1965.

An NPS Park Ranger gives a tour of Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Interpreting Our Heritage came at an important moment for both the NPS and those interested in commemorating the Centennial. The book was published only four years after the NPS undertook a major reorganizational plan that saw the creation of an Interpretation division within the agency. Likewise, plans to commemorate the Centennial at major Civil War battlefields under the NPS’s management were starting to take shape at this time.[1] Interpreting Our Heritage was the first full-length study to examine the theoretical aspects of interpreting natural and cultural resources. The book became mandatory reading for NPS interpretive staff in the 1960s, and it remains an important resource for public historians today. While Tilden was not an expert on the history of the American Civil War, he cited examples from the war numerous times in Interpreting Our Heritage. Examining these references offers slight clues into how interpreters might have approached the task of telling stories about the Civil War to their audiences.

Tilden passionately argued that “information” was not the same as “interpretation.” He criticized previous programming at Civil War battlefields for being too detail-oriented and factual. “In the fifty years following the end of that fratricidal war, there was much emphasis, when the veterans and their children were visiting the scenes of each bloody combat, upon information. It was then a thrill to know, to recall, just where papa’s regiment had stood, by what road an advance or retreat was made,” according to Tilden. Now the time had come for a telling of the “great human story” that went beyond tedious military details. “The battlefield of our great fratricidal American war is not merely a place of strategy and tactics; not a place where regiments moved this way and that like checkers on the board; not merely a spot where something was decided that would lead to another decision.” Tilden preached, in other words, the importance of placing the human experiences of warfare front and center. It made little sense to present interpretations best suited for “a group of Civil War Roundtable enthusiasts” to a general audience experiencing the war’s history for perhaps the first time.[2]

When it came to interpreting historical content, Tilden presented what scholars today would describe as a “reconciliationist” view of the Civil War.[3] The conflict was, in his view, a battle of patriotic Americans fighting for equally valid causes. The meaning of these battles came from the fact that they were “made famous and treasurable by the acts of men and women, where the story is told of courage and self-sacrifice, of dauntless patriotism, of statesmanship and inventive genius.” The Civil War, argued Tilden, had been a tragic conflict between “armed men following their ideals to the valley of the shadow.” Learning stories of courage and patriotism would inspire contemporary Americans to have a stronger pride in their country.[4]

A Commemorative postage stamp from the Civil War Centennial, 1964. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tilden also sought to build historical understanding through connections between the past and the personal experiences of everyday people, what scholars today might describe as building a sense of empathy. He asked his readers to put themselves in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s shoes: “[Arlington] was the scene of the great tragic moment when a man who loved the Union, and the United States army he had served, had to make a decision. Virginia was his mother. What should he do?” Tilden asked. “What, given all those circumstances, would the visitor have done?” He portrayed the Civil War elsewhere as a brothers’ war of divided loyalties. In discussing the Battle of Vicksburg, Tilden recommended using the story of the 11th Missouri Regiment (U.S.) fighting the 3rd Missouri Regiment (CSA) on the battlefield. He flippantly asked, “what difference does it make now, except to the researcher, who commanded these regiments?” The importance was that “some of these Missouri boys, now striving to kill each other, were once fed gingerbread and doughnuts from the same Aunt Nellie’s jar.” The role of NPS interpreters, then, was to make connections through the stories of heroic Confederate and Union soldiers.[5]

Tilden also reinforced a mythic view of westward expansion that eliminated the presence of indigenous people from the historical narrative. He celebrated “the heritage from our fathers” in highlighting the Oregon Trail, a symbol of national expansion that “gives us the thrill that we belong.” Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin—itself a mythic creation—represented “the heroism of western pioneers.” Moreover, Tilden argued that “the fullest appreciation of unspoiled nature is found by those [visitors] who are willing to imitate in some degree the experiences of the pioneers,” a particularly ironic statement since forced Indian removal played a central role in the creation of some of the country’s most popular National Park sites.[6]

Finally, Tilden stressed the importance of finding happiness and beauty at natural and cultural sites, including Civil War battlefields. Interpreters at these sites were “middlemen of happiness” who highlighted the stories of “great men” at battlefields that in his mind were “shrines” to heroism, patriotism, and beauty. Their primary duties in this sense were “first, to create the best possible vantage points from which beauty may be seen and comprehended; and second, to do all that discreetly may be done to establish a mood, or sympathetic atmosphere.” For Tilden, visitors to these sites were, in a somewhat condescending tone, “wonderfully well-mannered and pathetically eager for guidance toward the larger aspects of things that lead toward wisdom.” They came to these sites with personal experiences but were, to a large extent, empty vessels waiting to be filled by knowledgeable interpreters.[7]

Interpreters looking at Tilden’s ideas sixty years later will most likely find them simultaneously insightful and debatable. Tilden’s calls for a better focus on the human side of war and programming that went beyond the mere conveyance of “information” still resonate today. While Tilden probably aimed to keep these stories focused on the (white, male) participants engaged in battle, interpreters today have expanded their narratives to include the stories of women, enslaved African Americans, and Native Americans during the war, both on and off the battlefield.[8] Promoting multiple perspectives in historical narratives has become a centerpiece of good interpretive practice today, and meaningful dialogues between visitors and interpreters are more highly valued today than in Tilden’s time. In any case, it is no longer enough to ask visitors to simply consider General Lee’s perspective, but also the perspectives of those who considered the entire Union their “mother.” It is no longer enough to highlight the divided loyalties of white residents in the border slave states but also the enslaved people whose loyalties were undivided as the Civil War increasingly became a conflict over slavery’s future. The mythic narrative of westward expansion to a vast, empty frontier that Tilden celebrated also seems out of place and inaccurate today.

Likewise, Tilden’s emphasis and on happiness and beauty—outgrowths of his desire for themes of sectional reconciliation and patriotism during the Cold War—is questionable. As NPS historian Edward Roach argues, “many resources that are significant and worthy of commemoration are not beautiful. There was no beauty in the battle of Gettysburg, a noisy, destructive, smelly, bloody mess. The Sand Creek massacre was just that . . . [Visitors] do not have to be in love with the story being told. They merely need to find it worthy of telling, worthy of being understood by more and more people.”[9] Perhaps now more than ever, interpreters at Civil War historic sites need to emphasize the harsh realities of warfare, as viewed from the multiple perspectives of the people who experienced the brutality of the Civil War firsthand. Ultimately Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage is an important resource for interpreters looking to hone their skills, but it is a product of its time. Its ideas must not be held to the status of dogma for those working at Civil War historic sites.


[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 35; Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

[2] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 24, 69.

[3] The term “reconciliationist” was coined by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2-5.

[4] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 69.

[5] Ibid., 13, 15, 42-43.

[6] Ibid., 68, 77; Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 12, 85.

[8] See discussions in James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds., Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[9] Edward Roach, “Edward Roach Case Statement,” Interpreting Our Heritage, 2019, accessed February 22, 2019,

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at

Editor’s Note: March 2019 Issue

Editor’s Note: March 2019 Issue

Our March 2019 issue is a special issue on veterans, with Susannah Ural serving as guest editor. Below you will find her note of introduction. To access these articles, you can purchase a copy of the issue or subscribe to the journal. It will also be available (in March) on Project Muse.

In 2015, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, Barbara Gannon, and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh offered broad analyses of veterans within a national and global context in this journal’s first special issue on veterans. Their work reflected a strong body of scholarship that has continued to grow and enrich our understanding of veterans’ readjustment to civilian life, the challenges they faced as their age advanced and their health declined, and the battles they waged over how their service would be remembered and who would tell that story.

But for all of this rich scholarship, significant holes and flawed interpretations remain in our work on veterans, which this special issue seeks to fill. Scholars are well versed, for example, in the tensions that existed between northern civilians and Union soldiers who came home. But how did this relationship collapse? It began with eager, devoted aid workers volunteering time, energy, and capital to the plight of the soldier; with civilians raising funds for hospitals and supplies; with parades and meals prepared for men heading off to war. It ended in deeply entrenched resentment and miscommunication. That disconnect inspired Sarah Gardner’s article, which opens this issue. What caused such angst and such—from our perspective—coldness in civilian activists devoted to veterans in need? One source of that friction, Gardner observes, is Americans’ talent for honoring their battlefield dead and their habitual failure to care for soldiers who survive. Victorian concerns over the degrading influence of charity partly explains this failure, Gardner agrees, but her close study of a Pennsylvania chapter of the U.S. Sanitary Commission reveals something more. These were not simply Gilded Age reformers frowning at veterans who failed to meet society’s expectations. Relief workers truly struggled to reconcile their drive to uplift with their compulsion to maintain a stable society, but in the end, they sacrificed empathy in the name of stability.

By examining the metamorphosis of soldier to veteran—a puzzling process when, in the cases of most Confederates, there was no formal demobilization—Caroline Janney’s essay spotlights another gap in our understanding of veterans. Janney follows the soldiers of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from Appomattox Court House through the post-surrender period, tracing moments of continued military order and discipline as soldier-veterans journeyed home as companies and even brigades. But that discipline was tenuous and often went unenforced by officers who, Janney observes, had no official authority and who, along with their men, resented the myriad symbols of what Union victory wrought: the unraveling of slavery, debilitating poverty, and armed occupation by both white and black Union soldiers.

Kurt Hackemer shifts our attention to Dakota Territory as he seeks to understand what drove veterans west after their Civil War service. Scholars have tied this movement to military service, but until now there has been little evidence to support such claims. Through a close statistical analysis of a special census of more than six thousand veterans, he finds that some men were escaping lingering wartime trauma after especially hard service, but in other veterans, Hackemer uncovers patterns of mobility that started before the war. In these cases, prewar experiences affected veterans’ postwar lives as much as their military service. We should not, Hackemer warns, grant too much causation to a war that was a brief, though exceptionally intense, period of a veteran’s life.

Mississippi’s Confederate home—known as “Beauvoir”—inspired my own essay. Beauvoir challenges historians’ understanding of Confederate veteran facilities as places where aging men sat in fading gray uniforms, isolated from society, and waiting to die. That flawed narrative is the result of an overreliance on a Lost Cause framework to interpret these homes. My close analysis of the gender and racial diversity of Beauvoir’s residents and administrators at this state-funded, state-run facility reveal that New South modernization and segregation shaped Beauvoir just as much as its Lost Cause roots.

Ian Isherwood closes this special issue with a review essay that brings two fields awash in veteran studies in conversation with one another. In a carefully crafted thematic analysis of the scholarship on Civil War and First World War veterans, Isherwood offers his thoughts on three key themes in the literature on both wars—service, suffering, and survival—and highlights areas ripe for comparison that will, we hope, encourage scholars in both fields to take inspiration from one another and lead to future collaborative efforts.

This special issue tests our sweeping conclusions about Civil War veterans by looking at discrete communities of veterans and the relief workers who hoped to help them. In each essay, readers will find new approaches to studying veterans’ diverse experiences. More to the point, they will encounter finely grained explorations of how veterans and those who lived and worked with them adjusted to postwar life as individuals and families, as communities of soldier-veterans, and as independent organizations rallying to address veterans’ frequently changing needs. These essays open up our thinking about veterans to acknowledge both the prewar and the extended postwar experience, pushing us well into the twentieth century.

We hope this issue inspires explorations into the untold ways veterans and those who cared for them adjusted to postwar life. These adjustments varied over time and space, reminding us that the veteran experience was a complex one. The burgeoning scholarship is promising and inspiring, and it is demonstrating new ways to think about the lasting effects of civil war.

Susannah Ural

Susannah Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military experiences of U.S. Civil War soldiers and their families. Dr. Ural's latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (LSU, 2017).

“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

Is materialism ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day?

Every February, thousands of Americans lament the commercialism of this holiday with critical articles and tweets about modern consumerism. Some blame the pressures of social media on the rise in spending. And it is definitely rising; the National Retail Federation estimates that more than $20 billion will be spent on 2019’s Valentine celebrations. The creativity of advertisers is not to be undersold, of course, as enterprising executives have discovered how to widen the consumer market to include those who are currently unattached. “After the chocolates have been eaten and the flowers wilt, roaches remain thriving and triumphant. Give the gift that’s eternal and name a roach for Valentine’s Day.” That’s right, for fifteen dollars, you can name a roach after your ex and send them a digital certificate from the Bronx Zoo.[1]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The New York Herald, January 27, 1863. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Some may be surprised to learn that St. Valentine’s Day, and all its commercialism, was alive and well during the bloodiest war of our nation’s past. Much like today, nineteenth-century advertisers and newspapers relentlessly warned their patrons that the holiday loomed. On February 11, 1864, the Holmes County Farmer newspaper in Ohio read, “We are reminded that Valentine Day is approaching. Tuesday next, the 14th inst., is set aside as the carnival of lovers. It is said the birds choose their mates on that day, and, it being leap year, it is expected all the marriageable girls will select their mates.”[2]

During the war, companies ran a number of Valentine ads that targeted women with loved ones off at battle. “Don’t forget your soldier lovers. Keep their courage up with a rousing Valentine. All prices. Six cents to five dollars each,” advertised Strong’s Valentine Depot in 1862. In 1863, New York City’s American Valentine Company promoted “soldiers’ valentine packets,” “army valentine packets,” and “torch of love packets.” In Washington D.C., Shillington’s likewise advertised packets specifically for soldiers, which “contains two superb sentimental valentines and elegant embossed envelopes; also comic valentines and beautiful valentine cards in fancy envelopes.”[3]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The Evansville Daily Journal, February 11, 1862. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

In some cases, this collision of holiday and war was quite jarring. For example, in February 1862, Indiana’s Evansville Daily Journal described Main Street bookstores filled with card displays “large and varied enough to suit the tastes of all.” Immediately beneath this bulletin was a notice to the recently wounded and those in mourning: “Disabled soldiers applying for pensions, and the widow or heirs of soldiers who have been killed, or died in service, should call” began the section, followed by another notice related to “troops moving.” This newspaper column, flowing from one topic to the next, provides powerful insight into the daily experiences of the homefront. Yes, the war was about troop movements. Yes, the war included wounds, death, and pensions. But even as wives worried ceaselessly about the loss of husbands, scanning the papers for news, they also read advertisements and planned for their Valentine’s celebrations. Life did not stop in the midst of war. Neither did holidays. And advertisers knew it.[4]

Soldiers at war also remembered Valentine’s Day. Though they appear less likely to purchase formal Valentine’s stationery, original poetry and letters of love came home in abundance. One particularly special valentine came from Confederate soldier Robert H. King, who created a paper heart with a pen knife for his wife, Louiza. When opened, the seemingly random holes in the paper reveal two people separated from one another, crying.[5]

Robert H. King’s valentine for Louiza. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

On November 8, 1861, Robert had written to his wife, “it panes my hart to think of leaven you all” and signed his letter as many soldiers did, with “yours til death.” Ultimately, this would be true, and all Louiza would be left with was this paper heart. Robert died of typhoid fever near Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1863. She kept this valentine until her own death decades later, perhaps believing there is more heart in handmade.[6]

To return to our original question, are our contemporaries correct in their claim that materialism is ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day? Perhaps not. At least in the nineteenth century, materialism was part of the holiday all along. When Sarah Woif married Sylvanus Emswiller of Shenandoah County on Valentine’s Day 1861, she likely was not thinking about advertisers, but rather, the love associated with the holiday. She certainly was not thinking about the fact that she, too, would become a widow in 1863 when Sylvanus died of pneumonia, fighting with the Second Virginia Infantry. Love, loss, celebration, heartache – they all swirled together in the Civil War. And the newspapers certainly reflected it.[7]


[1] Katherine Cullen, “Is love still in the air?” National Retail Federation, January 30, 2019,; “Name a Roach,” Bronx Zoo, accessed February 10, 2019,

[2] Holmes County Farmer, Millersburg, Ohio, February 11, 1864. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[3] The New York Herald, February 14, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,; The New York Herald, February 7, 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,; The National Republican, Washington, D.C., February 8, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress,

[4] The Evansville Daily Journal, Evansville, Indiana, February 11, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress,

[5] Robert H. King, Valentine to Louiza A. Williams King of Montgomery County, Virginia, undated, in Robert H. King Papers, 1861-1910, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[6] There is a photograph of Eliza (c. 1910) within this collection. Her exact date of death is unknown. Robert H. King to Louiza A. Williams, November 8, 1861; ibid.

[7] George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War Database, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Author Interview: Timothy Williams

Author Interview: Timothy Williams

Our December 2018 issue featured top-notch work on the Civil War era, including a fascinating piece by Timothy Williams, titled “The Readers’ South: Literature, Region, and Identity in the Civil War Era.” We share below a recent interview with Dr. Williams, who is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. Professor Williams works in the fields of intellectual and cultural history, focusing particularly on the nineteenth-century United States and the American South. He is currently researching and writing a new book, tentatively titled Civil War Prisons and the Intellectual Life of the Confederacy.

Thanks for speaking with us, Tim. Many of our readers have read your article in our December 2018 issue, but it would be useful if you could briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article.

Thanks for talking with me about the article! In short, this article considers the Civil War Era South from the perspective of its intellectual culture. I focus specifically on generally well-off young white men and women who made books and reading a regular part of their lives. I interrogated the archive not just for learning what these young people read, but how they read, why the read, when they read, where they read, and how they processed what they read. Muster readers will be interested in knowing that these readers were not nearly as concerned with their southern-ness as historians have been! Instead, these young men and women thought and acted very much like northern middle-class readers. They read for entertainment, of course, but also for their own moral and intellectual development. As a result of the latter, they were keenly aware of the morality of what and how they read. For example, they believed that reading history and biography taught useful moral lessons, but reading novels was a dangerous practice (one they denounced but also pursued eagerly). Surprisingly, I found that sectionalism did not have as strong of an effect on reading lives as some might presume. In the late antebellum period, some readers, of course, entirely eschewed northern authors, and others read them and critiqued them. But region was not the primary lens through which young southerners approached intellectual life on a daily basis. Even amid secession and war, the ingrained practice of reading for self-improvement that they cultivated in the prewar years continued to shape their experiences in a variety of settings, which I highlight at the end of the article. In all, I hope that the essay serves as an example of how cultural and intellectual history helps to uncovers how individuals lived through the era and how books and reading habits followed them across the “eras” historians have created around them.

Your article is a great example of the intersection of cultural and intellectual history, for sure. Early in the article you point out the common stereotype of white Southerners as illiterate. You write that “this trend persists in spite of a robust and growing literature examining authors and editors, publishers and booksellers, class and society, education and students, and both national and international contexts.” (565) Why do you think this is still the case?

That’s a great question! Maybe we’re not reading outside of our own subfields as we should. I thought about this a few years ago when I was on a conference panel with Sarah Gardner (@BookHistorian) and a very well-respected historian in the audience explicitly dismissed our work saying, “but we all know most southerners couldn’t even read.”  This statement really stuck; it simply isn’t true, we explained to the audience. But even if we are reading outside our sub-, sub-, subfields, then perhaps we haven’t done a good enough job within the field of showing how intellectual history—the history of ideas and their contexts—fits into the narratives we’ve established in social and political history. If all roads lead to secession and war in the way we teach the U.S. survey, for example, only certain elements of intellectual history get taught—the big texts and the big authors who wrote them. But who read these works? Who talked about them? Where? When? Why? This is where I think the study of “intellectual life” can be most beneficial because it moves the field away from canon into the social and political life of books and ideas.

Those are all fruitful questions! One topic you address is how these young people thought carefully about genre. It made me wonder: to what extent were these anxieties about reading the “right kind” of literature tied to class identities?

Yes, these anxieties were deeply tied to class identities. Elite and middle-class southerners set the discourse around reading, which they offered in academies and colleges. These institutions were mostly, but not always, the provenance of social elites and intended for preparing young men for public life and young women for domestic life. Propriety figured prominently in how young men and women discerned appropriate reading material. But it is important to note that gender, of course, inflected these class identities. I use the example of Elizabeth Ruffin in the article because she explicitly acknowledged that a young woman of her standing ought not to read novels, but she nevertheless “devoured” them. Similarly, an elite southern man, imprisoned during the Civil War, acknowledged that it was inappropriate to read fiction in any other situation than captivity. In both cases, public propriety mattered both in terms of class and gender.

The role of gender is so critical, and your discussion of how gender shaped reading habits was particularly interesting. How did the literary lives of young men and young women differ? And, as a corollary, what differences did you find between Northern and Southern readers?

The literary lives of young men and women differed very little. They all read periodicals and newspapers, novels, and histories. They were all taught to read the Bible. Young men may have read more ancient Latin and Greek texts, however. The greatest difference, however, was in how they wrote about what they read. In the diaries and letters I examined for this article, for example, young men clearly wrote about sex and intimacy with greater candidness then young women. While the article does not explicitly compare northern and southern readers, the evidence I have studied from southerners does not look very different from artifacts of northern intellectual culture for young men and women. Here, I find common ground in the moral capital of reading that Thomas Augst outlines in The Clerk’s Tale  and the gendered world of young school girls in Mary Kelly’s Learning to Stand and Speak. Similarly, the concerns about morality of reading among the “gentlemen” versus the “roughs” in Lorien Foote’s book of the same title appear throughout the materials I’ve read of young southerners.[1]

We have a question from one of our Twitter followers, @loyaltyofdogs, who asks: “newspapers, especially for their coverage of the war and politics, were important to soldiers on both sides and to the civilian population. Did many young people read newspapers during the Civil War?”

Newspapers were staples of wartime reading for teenagers, to be sure. And not surprisingly, in writing about reading the news we also get a fair amount of sectionalism. Young southern prisoners of war, for instance, were not allowed to read southern papers and frequently commented on the mistrust of what we might call “fake news” in today’s political landscape.

Before we conclude, is there anything else you will like to say to readers about this project?

Yes! I want to say one thing about the evolution of this article. While writing about nineteenth-century southern college students in Intellectual Manhood (UNC Press, 2015)—how they read, wrote, and imagined their way to adulthood—I realized that there was plenty of literature out there about northern readers but very little about their southern counterparts, especially outside of studies of education. And those studies tended to focus on everything but reading. Yet as I read published and unpublished diaries of young southerner men and women, I began noting all the occasions they mentioned reading and thought that this was an important way to understand intellectual culture that hadn’t been explored very thoroughly. Around the same time, Beth Barton Schweiger’s important article, “The Literate South,” appeared in the third volume of the JCWE, which framed the need for a study not only on literacy but also the uses of literacy. So I am very much indebted to both Schweiger and the journal for facilitating this important conversation!

You are very welcome! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with our Muster readers.

If anyone has further questions for Dr. Williams, he is active on Twitter (@tjwwfu). The article he discusses here is available through subscription to the print journal and also thanks to our partnership with Project Muse.


[1] Thomas Augst, The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).