Category: Blog

The Gendered Consequences of Legislation Targeting Critical Race Theory

The Gendered Consequences of Legislation Targeting Critical Race Theory

When Professor Silber asked us to reflect on what it means to study women and gender in the Civil War era, the news in the state of Texas, but also in other states, centered on efforts in the legislature to restrict what we teach in American history and the theoretical lenses we use to do so.  So, my comments take a bit of a turn, because of where I live and our present political moment. I want to focus on the fact that thinking seriously about women and gender in Civil War history, and in history more broadly, is a political act, perhaps more explicitly now than ever.

Recently, a host of state legislatures have passed laws to ban the inclusion of critical race theory in discussions of American history. Critical race theory–the recognition that there are racial inequalities built into many of the institutions in society, that these inequalities have historical roots, and that people’s identities are intersectional–has been around for a few decades, but it is clear that the award-winning 1619 Project spearheaded by journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones has touched a particular nerve. Many politicians, it turns out, do not appreciate the 1619 Project’s goal to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

In fact, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill, which became law on Sept. 1, 2021, creating “The 1836 Project,” which invokes the year Texas seceded from Mexico and is intended to “promote patriotic education.” This law creates a committee to disseminate educational materials centering “Texas values” at state landmarks and in schools.[1]Another new Texas law related to “civics instruction” includes curriculum standards requiring students to understand documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. The law directs Texas students to learn about the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; and the relationship between Texas and Mexico.[2] It also demands that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving “deference to any one perspective.” During the legislative process, the Senate attempted to remove from the House of Representatives’ bill more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color.[3]

The gendered element of these laws has attracted much less attention than the laws’ implications for teaching about race. According to Texas lawmakers, these bills were intended to prevent students from being taught that one race or gender is superior to another.[4]

I think it’s worth reading in full the exact text of one of clauses of the new law:

No teacher, administrator, or other employee in any state agency, school district, campus, open-enrollment charter school, or school administration shall require, or make part of a course the following concepts: 1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; 2) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; 3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex; 4) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; 5) an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; 6) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex; 7) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or 8) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.

Seven of these eight restrictions call out perspectives that consider sex as unacceptable. This language is vague, so one wonders what would happen if a teacher assigned Professor Thavolia Glymph’s new book or some of the texts I found so formative (Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women or Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society or Tiya Miles’ Ties that Bind or The House on Diamond Hill or Martha Hodes’ work on illicit sex).[5]  Does the proposed legislation outlaw the teaching of whole sub-disciplines in history? Would this panel be permissible under this legislation?

The Texas bills link the study of gender and race in ways that were perhaps less true 50 years ago.  One critique of the study of women and gender in the past, for instance, has been that women of color have been left out. Here I am thinking of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave or This Bridge Called My Back.[6] We (historians, academics, feminists) often talk about our work, merely by including women and more sophisticated thinking about gender, as political and subversive, as dangerous and having the ability to upend power structures.  I think the present moment tells us how true that is.

And this moment reminds us that we have a public audience: we do not and should not write only for other academics.

 

[1] The text for this bill can be found here:  https://www.billtrack50.com/BillDetail/1334141.

[2] The original Texas Senate bill excluded the Fifteenth Amendment, but the final version of the legislation does include it. See https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=87R&Bill=HB3979 for the final text.

[3] The text of the Senate bill can be found here:  https://www.billtrack50.com/BillDetail/1357834. Journalist Kate McGee discusses the changes here: https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/22/texas-critical-race-theory-legislature/.

[4] The text of the law explicitly makes this claim, as do Texas politicians such as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick:  https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/05/texas-critical-race-theory-schools-legislature/.

[5] Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: the Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998) and Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987); Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: the Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[6] Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982) and Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983).

Why We Should Forget the Civil War

Why We Should Forget the Civil War

Nearly twenty years ago, now, in a 2002 review essay on women in the Civil War, Thavolia Glymph concluded that “the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction remains the most racially gendered and regionally segregated historiographical space in US history.”  Surveying the first wave of literature on the period that had followed Maris Vinovskis’ call to social historians to remember the war, Glymph concluded that, after twenty years, “the ‘woman’s war’ as traditionally written and understood was the history of white women, and more particularly, the history of middle and upper class white women.”  “From any perspective, women’s history remains the least studied and analytically sophisticated aspect of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  For a period that witnessed the most voluminous outpouring of writing by and about women of any in American history…this seems on the surface an odd result.”[1]

It seems appropriate, twenty years later, to see where we are.  What has changed and what has not.

In regard to Glymph’s last point, that’s easy.  Women’s history of the Civil War is undergoing rigorous study and that work is analytically sophisticated.  One has only to look at the work of the members of this panel.  Fay Yarbrough’s work shows how Cherokee women sought to assert their rights as citizens and as women within the nation’s restrictive postwar marriage laws.  Stephanie Jones-Rogers reminds us how very invested white women were in slave ownership and how, in it, white women found their freedom.  Stephanie McCurry shows how the patriarchal family served as an elemental form of governance and how, despite Union war policy written by Francis Lieber, Henry Halleck, and others, patriarchy survived the Civil War.  Not on this panel but whose hard work is evident everywhere in this conference–Amy Taylor’s Embattled Freedom, reflects the analytical sophistication of women’s history in its sensitive treatment of female refugees. Thavolia Glymph’s Women’s Fight stakes out a lot of important new ground, and it makes the point that Black women’s labor—overlooked, coerced, dangerous, and often unremunerated—was central to the U.S. Army’s success in the field.[2]

These works have received well-deserved critical acclaim and made clean sweeps of the book awards.  By my count, these books have won 26 major prizes—including the Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Avery O. Craven, Darlene Clark Hine, John Nau, and the Tom Watson Brown Prize of this society.

Women’s Civil War history is no longer exclusively “the history of white women,” and to the extent that it is, white women’s motivations are not as pure and “virginal,” as Glymph put it, as they once were.  Women’s Fight should force a far-reaching reconsideration of elite white women’s war work, in how it links their work on such efforts like the Sanitary Commission to their families’ investments in slavery and exposes the shocking “plantation fantasies” of freedmen’s teachers.  For that matter, Tom Brown’s  damning assessment of the late effort to commemorate middle class northern white women through statuary should stop all of us who have bemoaned the absence of such statues fast in our tracks.[3]  Is anyone disappointed that there are so few statues of white women being torn down now?

The experiences of indigenous, enslaved, freedom-seeking, and free Black women are central to much of the scholarship.  As a result, it is increasingly difficult for scholars operating in the field to defend the remnants of “racial gendering” that still remain—no one would dare assume, for example, that the experiences of a Mary Chesnut or a Louisa May Alcott was “representative.” Regional segregation lives on, to some extent.  In general, though, one happy result of having brought the motivations of northern middle-class white women decidedly into question, is that the moral high ground on which this regional segregation once stood is cracking.

So, on that front, too, we can report considerable progress in the past twenty years.

With all this, though, I do wonder if it isn’t time to ask how this work has mattered to the field?  One would expect that these highly regarded studies would have gone a long way toward rewriting the war’s master narrative. But this seems to not be the case.  Recent narratives or syntheses show more inclusion but little in the way of a substantive rewriting of the narrative. Elizabeth Varon’s 2019 Armies of Deliverance is rich with stories of individual women—Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Van Lew, Charlotte Forten, Susie King Taylor, and many others—but, with the exception of Tubman, they are not part of the delivering army.  Women’s wartime conflicts with various authorities—Ben Butler, for instance, but also Union male medical authorities—is about accountability and authority, but not politics.[4]  Louis Masur’s ambitious but slim 2011 narrative of the war shows how the war “wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations,” but NONE of this seemed to concern women or gender.[5]  In The American War, Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh dedicate a robust chapter to women’s wartime experiences.  Focusing primarily on middle class and elite white women, northern and southern, who experienced the war “in a domestic setting,” though, these women are not centrally connected to the narrative that focuses on reestablishing the centrality of the Union Cause over the competing Lost and Emancipationist Cause interpretations of the war that continue to today.[6]  The same is true in Paul Anderson’s 2019 narrative where a few women are named—including Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Mary Todd Lincoln & Julia Ward Howe—but their experiences do not matter in Anderson’s portrait of “an experience in shared pain, suffering, struggle, and division…that fulfilled America.”[7]

So, what gives?  For at least forty years, scholars have painted a rich and textured history of women’s wartime experiences; how their loyalty, disloyalty, dissent, and work mattered to the war’s outcome.  This work has undergone ambitious revision and expansion in response to critique.  In fact, I would argue, this scholarship is now among the most “analytically sophisticated aspect(s) of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Yet the larger narrative of the war has remained largely and stubbornly immune to intervention.  Women’s and gender historians have not forgotten the Civil War, but the question I pose for this plenary, is rather, when it comes to rewriting the war narrative, why have so many talented scholars continued to find this work forgettable?

 

Civil War Book Awards List

Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom

  • 2019 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
  • 2019 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, Society of Civil War Historians
  • 2019 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia
  • 2019 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019 Merle Curti Social History Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019Choice Outstanding Academic Title
  • 2019 Governor’s Book Award, Kentucky Historical Society and the Office of the Governor
  • 2019 Theodore A. Hallam Book Award, University of Kentucky Department of History
  • 2019 Museum of African American History Stone Book Award (shortlisted)

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property

  • 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize, Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery
  • 2020 Best Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
  • 2020 Merle Curti Social History Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2020 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, Southern Association for Women’s Historians (co-winner)
  • 2020 Charles S. Sydnor Award, Southern Historical Association (co-winner)
  • 2020 Frederick Douglass Prize (finalist)
  • 2020 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize (finalist)
  • 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History
  • 2019 Stone Book Award, Museum of African American History
  • 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Thavolia Glymph, Women’s Fight

  • 2021 Civil War and Reconstruction Book Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Darlene Clark Hine Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Mary Nickliss Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, Society of Civil War Historians
  • 2021 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia
  • 2021 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize (finalist)

Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning

  • 2011 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  • 2011 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2011 Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians
  • 2011 Merle Curti Award, Organization of American Historians (co-winner)
  • 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History (finalist)

 

[1] Thavolia Glymph, “The Civil War Era,” in ed. Nancy A. Hewitt, A Companion to American Women’s History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005).

[2] Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2019); Stephanie McCurry, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom:  Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Fay A. Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[3] Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[4] Elizabeth R. Varon, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 127.

[5] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), xii.

[6] Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh, The American War: A History of the Civil War Era (Flip Learning, 2015), 146.

[7] Paul Christopher Anderson, A Short History of the American Civil War (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 243.

Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg holds the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and is Professor of History at Villanova University. Giesberg directs a digital project, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, that is collecting, digitizing, and transcribing information wanted ads taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for family members lost to the domestic slave trade.

Introductory Remarks: The Study of Gender and the Civil War

Introductory Remarks: The Study of Gender and the Civil War

When we began planning for the SCWH 2020 conference, one critical component of our planning entailed a special plenary that would survey the field of gender and Civil War history.  This is a field of long-standing interest for me, going back to the publication of the co-edited collection I did with Catherine Clinton, Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War.  Published in 1992, this path-breaking (for its time) volume brought together the work of eighteen different scholars, including many younger scholars just entering the Civil War field, and offered one of the first wide-ranging looks at the different ways gender shaped the war and the war shaped gender.[1]  Since that time, a veritable revolution has transpired in this field of scholarship; numerous prize-winning and influential books and essays have appeared examining the experience of enslaved women and the push for emancipation; free Black women and the anti-slavery struggle in the North; and both yeomen and slaveholding white women in the South.  Although the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement of the 2020 conference, we were able to reconvene the conference, along with that special plenary, in a virtual format in June 2021.  This online forum draws from that plenary session.

As the chair and moderator of the session, I asked the panelists to think about how this field has changed in the last thirty years – using the publication of Divided Houses as a kind of benchmark – and to consider the kinds of questions and challenges scholars continued to confront in this work.  As I saw it, many things had changed radically in the field.  Perhaps most important was the way scholars had centered Black women’s experiences in the larger narrative: as participants and leaders in wartime rebellions; as enslaved women working against the oppressive demands of the slave plantation system on a daily basis; as free women who initiated campaigns in northern states that would give support to the abolitionist and civil rights struggles.

It’s clear, too, that the new scholarship has also greatly complicated our understanding of patriarchy in this era.  Increasingly, a picture was emerging not of undifferentiated women’s oppression at the hands of men, but a system of oppression and exploitation that often made white women the beneficiaries and practitioners of social and economic power.  White slaveholding women, we have learned, had a strong economic stake in the slave system and were often ruthless perpetrators of plantation exploitation.  Even white northern women who came South to aid the freed people, in the immediate postwar era, had been shaped by a system of racial power which strongly affected their interactions with Black women.  In her remarks, Judy Giesberg observed how the “moral high ground” which northern white middle-class women once occupied has started to crack.  As Thavolia Glymph put it, long-standing assumptions about gender solidarity, the “bonds of womanhood” that some saw extending across lines of race and class, can also no longer withstand scholarly scrutiny.

My initial question for this panel  – to consider the changes in the field over the past 30 years –  was meant as a prompt, encouraging us to think broadly about the field in terms of chronology, in terms of region, and in terms of historical actors and to think, too, about the kinds of challenges we still encounter in this field.  The panel elicited some deeply insightful reflections from the panelists as well as an exciting and lively exchange with the audience.  Judy Giesberg asked one of the most provocative questions when she wondered why all the new and exciting scholarship on gender and the Civil War had failed, thus far, to change the general narratives about the war.  Fay Yarbrough brought the discussion into the present day, observing how the study of women and gender in the Civil War era has become a highly-charged political act, an act that is currently under attack as state legislatures across the US have begun enacting laws to promote “patriotic education”.  Indeed, listening to Fay’s presentation, I was surprised to learn how this reactionary legislation has not just voiced opposition to “critical race theory”, but also to work that considers the structural basis of sexism.   Scholars working in this field face a particularly difficult confluence of events: a tendency among Civil War scholars to overlook scholarship on women and gender as well as a political climate that actually tries to outlaw classroom discussions that focus on sex and gender.

Still, this is a field that continues to draw a host of scholars, including many junior academics and graduate students, and the work here remains exciting and dynamic.  With more attention shifting to the study of the reconstruction era, scholars would do well to learn more about how gender, and women’s experiences, shaped this critical historical moment: how, for example, did formerly enslaved women find new opportunities, perhaps in terms of property ownership, professional work, or education? What challenges did women (and men) face as they tackled the work of reconstituting formerly enslaved families?  What can we learn about nonslaveholding white women in this postwar era, including their own dislocations in the shift away from the slave economy?  An obvious blind spot exists – one that was highlighted during the plenary discussion – regarding our knowledge of same-sex relations and a larger array of queer gender experiences, among both men and women in this era. Likewise, to echo a point Judy Giesberg made in the discussion, our understanding of working-class women occupies a distinct void in our picture of the Civil War era: how, for example, did the labor and racial upheaval of the Civil War era shape the political identities of Northern white working women? And while we know quite a bit about elite southern white women in the post-war resurgence of white supremacy, it might be useful to ask how northern white women may have also contributed to that resurgence since the ascension of racist power was hardly limited to the states below the Mason Dixon line.  I look forward to reading work on these subjects, and more, in the years to come.

 

 

[1] Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, eds., Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is the Jon Westling Professor of History at Boston University and recently served as the President of the Society of Civil War Historians. Her most recent book is This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (Chapel Hill, 2019).  She’s currently at work on a history/memoir about her father, a central figure in the mid-twentieth century folk revival.

Jousting with History-on-a-stick: Centering African American Women in Civil War Public History

Jousting with History-on-a-stick: Centering African American Women in Civil War Public History

In April 2021, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would add five new markers focused on African American history to its state historical marker program. Playfully referred to as “history-on-a-stick,” historical markers are intended to inform passersby about a significant person, place, or event. As useful as they might be for promoting public history, such markers also reveal how easily history can be misrepresented and misunderstood, even when the intention is to make commemorations of the past more inclusive.

Historical marker with text
1994 historical marker commemorating “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” Photograph courtesy of Lois Leveen.

According to the official press release, one of the new markers will honor Mary Richards Bowser. [1] But if you stroll along East Grace Street in Richmond, you will find there is already a marker, erected in 1994, that reads, “Mary Elizabeth Bower: Freed slave of the Van Lew family and indispensable partner to Elizabeth Van Lew in her pro-Union espionage work, she worked at the Confederate White House gathering and passing on military intelligence to the Union through Van Lew to General Grant.”  Just a few feet away, you will encounter another marker, put up in 2005, that reads in part: “During the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew led a Union espionage operation. African Americans, such as Van Lew’s associate Mary Jane Richards (whose story closely parallels that of legendary spy Mary Elizabeth Bowser), served in Richmond’s Unionist underground.”  Taken together, these markers provide a cautionary tale: well-meaning efforts to celebrate previously overlooked historical figures can obscure rather than improve our understanding of the past.

Historical marker with text
2005 historical marker commemorating the Adams-Van Lew House. Photograph courtesy of Lois Leveen.

History-on-a-stick typically reinscribes America’s beloved trope of a lone hero, usually someone who succeeds against all odds. In its earliest manifestations, that hero was almost always a white male. But simply expanding who occupies the role of “lone hero” by gender or race/ethnicity can make us think we are being more accurate when we are actually erasing the contributions of everyone but that “lone hero.” And, as the example of these particular markers reveals, if we rush to add more diversity to our pantheon of heroes without diligently documenting and accurately interpreting history, we can repeat erroneous information and even produce audacious new falsehoods.Circulating everywhere from history-on-a-stick to social media posts, newspaper articles, and purportedly nonfiction books, such inaccuracies reflect an impulse to celebrate diversity that presumes women’s history and Black history do not deserve meticulous research and assiduous evaluation of sources. In response, public history projects like the newly proposed marker – and broader efforts like #MoreHistory2021  –  need to demonstrate the care historians must take to center African American women’s history.

In 1911, William Beymer, a white writer, published a series of articles about Civil War spies in Harper’s Magazine. Taking a somewhat expansive approach, Beymer included an article about a civilian woman, Elizabeth Van Lew. This white Virginian’s wartime efforts to aid the Federal government remind us that not everyone who lived in the South supported secession. But the Southerners who had the greatest stake in defeating the Confederacy were the millions of enslaved and free African Americans residing within the states in rebellion. They thwarted Confederates and supported the Federal military efforts in many ways. Yet in Beymer’s sixteen-page article, the wartime experiences of Black Virginians are reduced to one paragraph about one African American, invoked only to “add color” to the story of Van Lew:  a woman Beymer identified as “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” The name and scant details the article offered about her were drawn from a single conversation with Van Lew’s niece. The 1911 article failed to note that the niece, having been a child during the Civil War, admitted she was never privy to details of either woman’s espionage. Nearly fifty years later, what little she recalled was inaccurate – even the name “Mary Elizabeth Bowser.” But Beymer relied unquestioningly on the niece’s account, embellishing it with his own rhetorical flourishes, which emphasized Van Lew’s brilliance and benevolence, framing the Black “girl” (who had actually been in her 20s) as her passive servant.[2] The inaccuracies in Beymer’s account were taken up as historical fact and repeated even in works intended to foreground African American women’s experiences.[3] Decades later, to promote growing public interest in women’s history, the Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Foundation created a “Women of Virginia Historic Trail,” which included “Mary Elizabeth Bowser”; Beymer’s tale of Van Lew’s Black spy in the Confederate White House became the basis of their 1994 marker.

In 2003, nearly a century after Beymer’s article, Civil War historian Elizabeth Varon published a meticulously researched biography of Elizabeth Van Lew. This was hardly a tale of a lone hero. Piecing together wartime and postbellum government records, published memoirs, personal diaries, and newspaper accounts, Varon documented the network of free African Americans, enslaved Black people, European immigrants, white working-class laborers and yeoman farmers, and wealthy white Richmonders who participated in the underground ring that operated in and around the Confederate capital. From the earliest months of the war, this interracial network aided US soldiers held prisoner in the city by bringing them food and medicine, exchanging information, and abetting their escapes to federally held territory. By 1864, the underground was smuggling military and political intelligence to the US army. The ring’s collective contributions were lauded by Generals Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Butler, and George Sharpe, with the preponderance of their praise going to Van Lew for coordinating and financing much of the group’s activities.[4]

So what did Varon discover about “Mary Elizabeth Bowser”?  Very little – yet also quite a bit. The only nineteenth-century source she could find pointing to a Mary Bowser came from St. John’s Church, the wealthy white congregation of which the Van Lews were members. According to the church annals, on April 16, 1861 – the day before the passage of the Virginia Ordinance of Secession – a man named Wilson Bowser and a woman named Mary, both described as “Colored” and as “servants to E. L. Van Lew” were married. As important as this single record is, it does not illuminate what today we might most want to know: what were the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a young Black adult, entering an enslaver’s church to be married just at the moment when politically powerful white men elsewhere in the city were debating whether to secede from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery?

Although Varon could find nothing else about Mary Bowser, she discovered enough to sketch out the life of Mary Jane Richards. The same church annals document the 1846 baptism of “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew” (Elizabeth Van Lew’s widowed mother). A few years later, the Van Lew women arranged for Mary Jane to be educated in New Jersey, and in 1855, at their behest, a fourteen-year-old “Mary J. Richards” was sent to Liberia. Like many expatriated African Americans, she was unhappy there, expressing her displeasure so fervently that Elizabeth Van Lew eventually agreed to pay for her 1860 return to America. Varon was able to substantiate that Mary Jane Richards was among the Richmonders who participated in the pro-Federal network during the war, later teaching the newly emancipated in schools in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. By 1867, she seemed to disappear from the historical record.

Having pieced together all the evidence she could find, Varon surmised that perhaps Richards was the woman who married Wilson Bowser. (If so, the marriage must have been short lived: throughout the war, she used several other surnames, and Wilson Bowser remained in Richmond long after Mary Jane Richards left the city.) But when the biography of Van Lew was published in 2003, Varon did not know for sure. Varon’s research shapes what appears on the 2005 marker erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which introduces passersby to the name Mary Jane Richards, even as it acknowledges they may already know the legend of Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Alas, once a legend has circulated as fact, it is very hard to snuff out. Since Varon’s biography of Van Lew was published, other books, articles, podcasts, and online posts have continued to repeat details Varon definitely disproved. Moreover, some subsequent accounts have added outlandish new (and sometimes quite demeaning) claims about Mary Bowser. Created in response to increasing public interest in women’s history and particularly African American history, these accounts nevertheless distort the past, revealing how ill-equipped members of the public – and even editors at major publishing houses and respected newspapers – are to evaluate historical claims or to understand the process by which historians gather and interpret evidence about the past. One recently fabricated claim is that Bowser, having been planted by Van Lew in the Confederate White House early in the war, sewed secret dispatches filled with military intelligence into Varina Davis’s dresses, then brought the dresses to a seamstress who removed the messages and shared them with Van Lew. This preposterous assertion strains credulity by presuming an enslaved person – or someone posing as a slave – would have the time, materials, and liberty to handsew secret missives into garments regularly over a period of years without being detected by the person who wore those garments or other members of the household.  It presumes that the enslaved would have the power to decide when garments would be removed from the enslaver’s house and taken to a seamstress whose services the enslaver would have to engage and pay for. It also directly contradicts details both Van Lew and Richards recorded about their wartime endeavors. But this whopper now circulates as historical fact online and in print, likely because it appeals to Hollywood-inspired notions of what constitutes espionage. Another newly invented assertion involves an especially debasing twist on the white savior trope: when Confederates finally became suspicious of Bowser, Van Lew rescued the black woman by loading her into a wagon, covering her with manure, and having her spirited off to Philadelphia. This invented scatological episode promotes a particularly disturbing message: black activists must endure the “shittiest” of treatment, even from their closest white allies.[5] These examples provide an important caution for efforts like #MoreHistory2021. As historians, we must undertake our work with the awareness that members of the public, reporters, and publishers may also want more history, including more diverse and inclusive history; nevertheless, a dearth of historical understanding and an inability to assess historical claims can leave well-intentioned Americans enthusiastically accepting and recirculating blatant falsehoods as historical fact.

Building on Varon’s foundation, I am now researching and writing the first scholarly nonfiction book about this historically significant yet elusive African American woman. The project involves a painstaking process of uncovering sources in disparate archives that more fully represent her point of view, and centering African American women’s history when analyzing the emerging evidence. Although my research is still in progress, I have already confirmed Varon’s hypothesis that Richards married Wilson Bowser. I also uncovered details about two other subsequent marriages, as well as more information about her early life and her substantial postbellum activism for racial justice and women’s rights. In interpreting this evidence, it is important draw on the work of many other historians who are foregrounding the efforts of nineteenth-century Black activists.[6] Rather than reinscribing a “lone hero” version of history, or emphasizing her exceptionalism in ways that erase the contributions of countless other African Americans, this biography will explore how she participated in Black and interracial networks throughout her life. Allying herself with Black intellectual, political, and religious leaders as well as white allies, she strategically challenged powerful whites to secure full citizenship for African Americans and equal rights for women, even after the war ended.

Even as I conduct this research, the inaccurate and outlandish claims continue to circulate. So when I learned of Virginia’s plans for yet another history-on-a-stick tribute, I contacted Jennifer Loux, who oversees the marker program for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Loux holds a Ph.D. with a specialty in African American history and thus understands the importance and challenges of accurately commemorating Black women’s contributions – in no more than 700 characters, including spaces. Our back-and-forth discussion illuminates the care it takes to get history, especially history-on-a-stick, right.

The first challenge involved what name should appear on the marker. Although the press release referred to “Mary Richards Bowser,” my research reveals that from childhood on, she used at least half a dozen different surnames. For much of her adult life, she chose to use “Denman,” her third husband’s surname, even long after their marriage ended. By contrast, I have as yet found no documents in which she chose to self-identify using the surname Bowser. In response to my concern that identifying her as “Mary Richards Bowser” would reinscribe Beymer’s misrepresentation, Loux suggested “Mary Richards Bowser Denman.” In the realm of history-on-a-stick, she asserted there was value in including the surname Bowser; otherwise, “the public will think this marker is about someone other than the ‘Mary Bowser’ they’ve heard so much about, and we will end up generating confusion rather than correcting the historical record. Since Mary did marry Wilson Bowser, albeit briefly, this name is not technically incorrect, and I think using it on the marker—where we don’t have the luxury of footnotes or long explanations—will do more good than harm.” She suggested the marker frame this issue by explicitly explaining this historical figure “used various aliases throughout her life.”[7] But the word “alias” implies an attempt to disguise one’s identity; I understand this woman’s complicated, ongoing process of self-renaming as a way she asserted her identity – a practice many formerly enslaved people adopted upon gaining freedom, to proclaim their personhood and to underscore the relationships of import to them. For the final marker text, “Bowser” remained but “alias” was replaced.

Loux and I agreed the marker should emphasize that many people participated in the interracial underground, rather than aggrandizing either Mary Richards Bowser Denman or Elizabeth Van Lew. Although I have found evidence that, as Beymer and others claimed, Denman infiltrated the Confederate White House, her own accounts describe that foray as only one part of her multifaceted wartime work on behalf of the U.S., and so the marker does not call it out. The marker also contextualizes her espionage with details about her life before and after the war. Most importantly, it emphasizes how her activism continued during Reconstruction, challenging feel-good accounts of American history that culminate in a happy-ending of emancipation. Denman’s postbellum efforts underscore the larger, continuing struggle to ensure full citizenship for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.

In collaborating on the marker text, I wanted to correct previous inaccuracies, and also to recognize that new information will continue to emerge, both from my research and from other historians who may build on my project in the future. Knowing how much currently remains unknown about this figure, it was challenging to craft text for the new marker that (hopefully!) will not end up being as outdated and inaccurate as so many earlier accounts now seem. For example, Varon’s biography of Van Lew described Mary Jane Richards as having been sent to Liberia “to serve as a missionary,” a conclusion I previously repeated in my own publications and talks. But as I piece together what her life in Liberia entailed, my research indicates it was unlikely she could have been a missionary. Thus, Loux and I decided the marker will simply communicate that she was sent to Liberia at Van Lew’s behest, leaving the complicated dynamics of the colonization movement and her specific experience in Monrovia to be explained elsewhere.

Rather than being sited on Grace Street, at the Church Hill address where her enslavers lived, the new marker will be located on Broad Street adjacent to Capitol Square, locating her commemoration in proximity to the seats of Confederate and Virginia power she worked to defeat.[8] The marker’s propinquity to twenty-first-century government offices, tourist attractions, and a major hospital means a multitude of residents and visitors will have the opportunity to read and learn from it. The final text for the new marker reads:

Mary Richards Bowser Denman

Mary Richards Bowser Denman was born enslaved in Virginia ca. 1840. Given de facto freedom by Elizabeth Van Lew, whose family enslaved her, she was educated in New Jersey and sent to live in Liberia before returning to Richmond in 1860. During the Civil War, she participated in a secret network of free and enslaved African Americans and pro-Union whites, including Van Lew, who assisted federal prisoners of war and passed intelligence to the U.S. Army. Denman, who used various names throughout her life, later taught in schools for the formerly enslaved in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia, gave lectures in the North, and was an activist for equal rights and full citizenship for black Americans.

I hope it will long serve as both a fitting tribute to this figure and an example of history-on-a-stick at its best, allowing the public to understand the many ways in which countless African Americans challenged manifold manifestations of white supremacy, before, during, and after the Civil War.

[1] “Governor Northam Announces Five New State Historical Highway Markers Addressing Black History in Virginia,” April 20, 2021 press release from the Office of the Governor, available online at https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2021/april/headline-894520-en.html.

[2] William Gilmore Beymer, “Miss Van Lew,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June 1911, 86-99.  The interview with Elizabeth Van Lew’s niece Annie Randolph Hall is described in John P. Reynolds to William G. Beymer, December 9, 1910, William Gilmore Beymer Papers, Box 2K394, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

[3] See for example, Ella Forbes, African American Women During the Civil War (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 52, 59; and Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 133-34.

[4] Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] The invented details about the handsewn message and the cartload of manure both initially appeared in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (New York:  HarperCollins, 2014) by Karen Abbott. Marketed as nonfiction despite its use of invented dialogue, scenes, and plot, Abbott’s book focuses on four white women, once again invoking “Mary Bowser” in a subservient role to “add color.” Her descriptions of Bowser sewing messages into Varina Davis’s garments seems to be an intentional distortion, as it contradicts Varon’s meticulously documented account of the espionage ring, as well as Van Lew’s own description in her journal of how the women shared the intelligence they gathered, both of which are included in the bibliography of Abbott’s book. By contrast, the sole source Abbott cites in her endnotes for the seamstressy, the cartload of manure, and other dubious details are emails from the great-grandson of Bet’s niece Annie Randolph Hall. Although such citations imply they come from treasured and trustworthy family lore, Abbott’s bibliography also includes the interview from a century earlier in which Hall herself declared that she did not know any specifics related to the espionage activities. For examples of how these dubious claims are now cited as historical fact, see Michael S. Rosenwald, “A Freed Slave Became a Spy. Then She Took Down the Confederate White House,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2019; and Chenjerai Kumanyika and Khadijah Costley White, “The Ring,” Uncivil, November 9, 2018, podcast produced by Gimlet Media, available online at https://gimletmedia.com/shows/uncivil/39hw6e/the-ring. The latter dwells on the fabricated episode involving the manure in particularly disturbing ways: one of the hosts laughs as she badgers an African American woman erroneously identified as the “great, great, great, great niece of Mary Elizabeth Bowser” into describing the black woman being covered in manure. The exchange would be gratuitously traumatizing even if the story were true. It is all the more so because it never happened. For a larger discussion of who benefits from this circulation of ever more inaccurate and demeaning depictions of this figure, see Lois Leveen, “When Black History Becomes Multicultural Clickbait, Manure Happens,” presented at the AskHistorians 2020 Digital Conference Business As Unusual: Histories of Rupture, Chaos, Revolution, and Change, September 16, 2020, available online at https://www.askhistorians.com/sinners-saints-spies.

[6] My project benefits from the insights of scholars focusing on a wide range of areas of African American history, such as Thavolia Glymph’s numerous publications on Black women and the Civil War; studies by Christopher Bonner, Martha S. Jones, and Kate Masur of African Americans’ antebellum quest for full citizenship; Elsa Barkley Brown’s and Kidada Williams’s careful delineations of the many ways African American women and men asserted themselves as political actors in the wake of emancipation; and biographies like Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, and Caleb McDaniel’s Sweet Taste of Liberty, which serve as models for excavating the lives of nineteenth-century Black women, including those who have long been inaccurately mythologized and those who have been overlooked entirely. While hardly an exhaustive list of the historians whose work informs my study of this figure, these varied sources represent the breadth of integral work being done by many scholars to center African American women’s experiences.

[7] Quotations and summaries regarding the crafting of the marker text are taken from email correspondence between Jennifer Loux and Lois Leveen, April 2021 through June 2021.

[8] For a discussion of this site as the seat of Confederate power, see Mark K. Greenough, “The Virginia State Capitol During the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, February 2021, available online at https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-state-capitol-during-the-civil-war-the/ .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Previewing September 2021 Issue: Immigration in the Civil War Era

Previewing September 2021 Issue: Immigration in the Civil War Era

While recent immigration scholars have turned most of their attention to the twentieth century, many historians are also reexamining immigration policy in the mid-nineteenth century. Alison Clark Efford, in a recent review essay in this journal, reflects on how nineteenth-century immigration historiography is marked by an “imperial framework in which the government of the United States endeavored to control new groups of people and bring them into the polity on a variety of terms.” This trend, she continues, emphasizes the “disputed and changing boundaries of federal power” and the “diverse statuses held by US residents, showing that inconsistency and hierarchy were persistent features of governance” rather than “exceptions to the rule.” This special issue, although it is not based on the theme of empire, takes up several of these questions, especially the relationship between slavery and immigration; the balance between state and federal policy; the connections among race, birthplace, and citizenship; and the international dimensions of US immigration policy during and after the Civil War.1

The articles in this issue are part of an emerging body of scholarship on slavery, immigration policy, and citizenship in the nineteenth century.2 Historians examining nineteenth-century immigrants increasingly draw from this historiography, rather than the classic social history texts.3 Since Gerald Neuman’s seminal 1993 call to examine the “lost century of American immigration law,” scholars such as Anna O. Law, Hidetaka Hirota, and Kunal Parker have published exceptional legal histories of nineteenth-century immigration policy.4 Of course, this is just one trend in the recent historiography of immigration in the Civil War era. Historians continue to produce important studies of migration and settlement, the rise and decline of political nativism, immigrant participation in the Civil War, and other well established themes. The four articles presented here complement rather than challenge this larger body of work.5

Before the Civil War, Congress played almost no role in regulating the admission of immigrants. Local and state governments developed their own policies for regulating the mobility of foreign paupers, free black people, and visiting seamen, exercising their police power to regulate public safety, health, and morality.6 Constitutional debates over immigration policy pitted the police power of the states against the commerce power of the federal government. Under the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, Congress had the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”7 But how far did this power extend? If it covered movement between the states as well as into the country, Congress could potentially regulate the movement of free black people—which was under tight local control, both in the South and in the North—as well as the immigration of foreigners. It could even potentially regulate the interstate slave trade. The political implausibility of using the commerce power in this way did not prevent abolitionists from supporting the idea. Questions concerning the regulation of foreign immigrants, in short, were inherently tied to questions about the domestic system of slavery and racial hierarchy. Invalidating the power of Massachusetts or New York to control the arrival of immigrant paupers through taxes and bonds, for example, jeopardized state laws based on the same police power that regulated the movement of free black people.8

Until the 1870s, towns and states regulated the admission of foreigners. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Supreme Court determined that navigation was a form of commerce, opening the possibility for federal control over immigration as well as interstate travel. If the federal government could regulate shipboard conditions, however, this power ended and local police power began when the immigrants arrived in port. Precisely when that transition occurred—at the moment a vessel arrived in a harbor, or after the passengers came ashore—remained a matter of judicial dispute. The Supreme Court ruled in New York v. Miln (1837) that states, under their police power to protect the general welfare, had the right to require reports from ship masters detailing alien passenger arrivals. The majority decision upheld New York’s police power over immigrants, a move that reassured the Southern states that the federal government would not impinge on their policies regulating the movement of free black people, which were based on the same kind of power. In upholding the state law, the court ruled only on the requirement that ship captains file reports, not on the constitutionality of the passenger taxes and bonds that were also part of the law.

Shippers challenged those taxes in the contentious Passenger Cases, decided by the court in 1849. Five of the justices invalidated passenger laws in New York and Massachusetts on Commerce Clause grounds. The other four, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, upheld the laws and warned of the consequences for the slave South if state laws regulating immigration were invalidated. Taney and his colleagues predicted that if the court ruled that states could not regulate immigration, states would no longer be able to prevent the arrival or return of free black people. This proposition was never tested in the courts, and Northern states amended their immigration statutes to bypass the Passenger Cases ruling, converting taxes into mandatory commutation fees in the same amount. But in the 1870s, with slavery removed from the picture, the Supreme Court finally ruled unanimously that the admission of immigrants fell under the federal government’s power to regulate commerce, invalidating state laws that intruded on that power.9

Against this backdrop of the entanglement of immigration with slavery, Michael Schoeppner’s article interprets regulation of black people’s mobility in the antebellum era as a form of immigration law. In contrast to European migrants, free black migrants could not move unhindered across state lines. Laws prohibiting the migration of free black people were “so widespread,” Schoeppner argues, that they were akin to the level of a “national immigration regime” that was “created by the states and supported in part by federal legislation.” He locates the roots of later restrictive federal immigration policy in these state and federal regulations on black movement before the Civil War. Schoeppner concludes by reflecting on black migrants’ resistance to the laws they endured—through negotiations with white power brokers, filing petitions, meeting bonding requirements, relocating when under suspicion, and asserting citizenship through birthright. A deeper immersion in local court and jail records, he suggests, will reveal not only the distinctions between “law on the books” and “law in action,” but also the relationship between anti-black animus, resistance, and the development of immigration law.

In the absence of federal laws regulating the entry of foreigners before the Civil War, shipping merchants played a vital role in crafting and implementing policy at the municipal and state levels. Katherine Carper’s article examines this overlooked dimension of US immigration history. As immigration rates rose in the late 1840s and early 1850s, shipping merchants advocated for a state-level immigrant processing organization that would control the passenger fund provided by the fees collected from ship captains for each passenger they landed on New York soil. By lobbying state government officials, they put passenger trade merchants on the board of this state-level immigrant processing organization, the New York Commissioners of Emigration. In this way, Carper explains, shipping merchants gained control over policy in the state that processed the largest number of immigrants in the 1850s. The Civil War disrupted shipping merchants’ control over immigration policy. The merchants’ political influence was commensurate with their economic influence, and a crisis in the transatlantic passenger trade business—caused by low immigration rates and the war’s disruption of the shipping industry—weakened their position. In the decade after the Civil War, however, merchants enlisted the help of the federal government and reasserted their influence over immigration. These efforts culminated in the case of Henderson v. New York (1876), which transferred regulatory power over immigration from the states to the federal government.10

Federal immigration policy, as Kevin Kenny’s article demonstrates, was decisively shaped by the ideology of antislavery. Kenny compares two pieces of legislation passed during the Civil War, An Act to Prohibit the “Coolie Trade” by American Citizens in American Vessels (1862) and An Act to Encourage Immigration (1864), which together laid the groundwork for the national immigration system that emerged in the postbellum era. The 1862 law prohibited American vessels from transporting Chinese contract workers on American ships to foreign destinations—though not to the United States, where Chinese workers were still classified as free immigrants rather than “coolies.” Two years later, by contrast, the Act to Encourage Immigration sanctioned the importation of European contract workers. Over the next twenty years, anti-Chinese activists claimed that all Chinese laborers in the United States were “coolies” who should be excluded on antislavery grounds. Opposition to the importation of European contract workers, meanwhile, led to the prohibition of that practice under the Foran Act of 1885—also on antislavery grounds. In this way, Kenny concludes, the unfree Chinese laborer emerged as the counterpart of the voluntary European immigrant, whose freedom was defined by government regulation, a transition he traces to the Civil War.

While Schoeppner, Carper, and Kenny focus on the antebellum and war years, Lucy Salyer shows how mobility and belonging remained contested during Reconstruction. The Expatriation Act of 1868, a high point in the American tradition of allowing immigrants to renounce their allegiance, implied a clear path to naturalization. But no sooner had this measure been passed than Republican reformers attempted to make the path more complicated. Why, Salyer asks, did the triumph of the American doctrine of expatriation and voluntary allegiance coincide with a drive for greater control over naturalization? Expatriation, she demonstrates, raised concerns about the allegiance of all immigrants, and reformers believed that placing the naturalization process under federal rather than state control would remove it from local politics.

Previous work on the Naturalization Act of 1870 has focused on national party political strategy and on the status of Chinese immigrants. Salyer explores both of these avenues, while offering a new, global perspective that situates naturalization policy in the context of domestic and international disputes sparked by mass migration. Radical Republican efforts to remove the word white from naturalization law and extend the process to Chinese immigrants encountered fierce opposition, so that in the end, the right to naturalize was extended only to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Although the 1870 act did not fully centralize naturalization, it did enhance federal oversight over elections in cities where immigrants congregated. And by confirming that immigrants from Europe, but not those from China, were natural candidates for citizenship, the law paved the way for Chinese exclusion. The national immigration regime that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s, as presaged by developments during the Civil War, rested once again on a clear distinction between desirable immigrants from Europe and excludable immigrants from Asia.

In bringing these articles together as a special issue, we provide new perspectives on how immigration and naturalization laws defined, regulated, and limited the movement of people in the Civil War era. Together, the articles offer important insights into the transition from state to federal control over US borders, a major development in the history of American immigration.

NOTES

  1. Alison Clark Efford, “Civil War–Era Immigration and the Imperial United States,” Journal of the Civil War Era10 (June 2020): 234.
  2. This special issue originated in a panel organized by Katherine Carper at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia in 2019 (Organization of American Historians 2019 Annual Meeting, #AM2846, “Freedom of Movement in the Slavery Era: Defining, Regulating, and Limiting the Movement of Migrants and Sailors in the Nineteenth Century,” April 5, 2019).
  3. Early examples include Oscar Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941); Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825–1863 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949).
  4. Gerald Neuman, “The Lost Century of American Immigration Law (1776–1875),” Columbia Law Review93 (December 1993): 1833–901; Anna O. Law, “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration Federalism and the Early American State,” Studies in American Political Development 28 (October 2014): 107–28; Hidetaka Hirota, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Kunal M. Parker, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  5. For a sample of older and recent works, see Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Jason H. Silverman, Lincoln and the Immigrant(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015); Susannah Ural Bruce, The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861–1865 (New York: New York University Press, 2006); David Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Ryan W. Keating, Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015); Alison Clark Efford, German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2017), especially 158–76, 170–73, 176–81.
  6. Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 41–91; Parker, Making Foreigners, 81–115; Michael A. Schoeppner, Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Santiago Legarre, “The Historical Background to the Police Power,” Journal of Constitutional Law 9 (2007): 745–96; Harry N. Scheiber, “State Police Power,” in Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, 6 vols., ed. Leonard W. Levy et al. (1986; repr., New York: Macmillan Reference, 2000), 4:2505–12; William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
  7. U.S. Const., Article 1, § 8, clause 3.
  8. David L. Lightner, Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). The closest the US Supreme Court came to confronting the implications of federal commerce power for the interstate slave trade, before shying away from the matter and resolving the case on a technicality, was Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 449 (1841). On the links between immigration law, state police powers, and African Americans’ status in the free states, see Kate Masur, “State Sovereignty and Migration before Reconstruction,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9 (December 2019): 588–611.
  9. Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.), 1 (1824); City of New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. (11 Pet), 102 (1837); Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 283 (1849); Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America(New York: Russell Sage, 2006), 142–45; Henderson v. Mayor of New York, 92 U.S. 259 (1876).
  10. Henderson v. Mayor of New York, 92 U.S. 259 (1876).
Retracing Hallowed Grounds From the Battle of the Crater

Retracing Hallowed Grounds From the Battle of the Crater

For Black men during the Civil War, military service in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) offered a hopeful pathway towards citizenship and equality. Freedom would be theirs by the sword. However, to temper prejudicial Northern attitudes concerning the arming of black men, the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Colored Troops instructed white officers to lead these segregated units. Among the approximately 7,000 USCT wartime officers was William Welsh. “I passed an examination…and received an app[ointment]t as Captain in the 19th U.S.C. Troops Feb’y 21st 1864,” Welsh journaled.[1]

A schoolteacher in the Buckeye State before the war, Welsh mustered into the Fourth Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI). “I entered the service April 15th 1861 as a Private solider,” he penned in an antebellum letter to an Ohio Congressman.[2] Welsh distinguished himself in more than two dozen battles, attained rank promotions, and earned bravery citations. “I received the brevets of Major and Lieut-Colonel…for gallantry in battle at Fredericksburg [and] gallantry in battle at Gettysburg.”[3] Like all prospective USCT commanders, Welsh’s application and credentials underwent review.

Portrait of William Welsh standing with hand over breast in uniform.
Wartime photo of William Welsh in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Courtesy of author)

Very few white officers of black regiments hailed from abolition or political networks such as the lauded Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment commander Robert Gould Shaw. Interestingly, college students and schoolteachers like Welsh comprised a sizeable portion of USCT officers. Their educational aptitude endowed them with a more enlightened bearing on matters such as race.[4] Indeed, some opportunistic USCT officer applicants sought only increased pay and rapid promotion. Others, recognizing the expansion of black regiments for the Federal war effort, saw an opportunity to mentor and mold new recruits.[5]

Whatever Welsh’s motivation for joining the USCT, it is undeniably rooted in his profound sense of patriotic duty. “I have served my country in the field since the commencement of this war and want to remain there until the end,” he penned in February 1864 to his USCT commander, Henry G. Thomas.[6] On March 22, 1864, Welsh assumed command of the Nineteenth USCT’sCompany K whose ranks, like most of the regiment, were comprised of freed slaves from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coastal regions.

While no stranger to combat, Welsh’s USCT appointment posed a new threat. “The Confederate Congress issued a statement that any black man captured fighting against the South would be subject to immediate execution for servile insurrection, as would their white officers.”[7] Notwithstanding these dangers, Welsh and his USCT men stood resolute.

Organized and trained at Camp Stanton in Benedict, Maryland throughout the winter of 1863-1864, the Nineteenth USCT initially performed guard duty in Baltimore until assigned to the Army of the Potomac in mid-April 1864.[8] The regiment fought throughout the entirety of the Overland Campaign in Virginia, receiving their baptism by fire at the Battle of Wilderness. By June 1864, the Nineteenth USCT were among the Federal units entrenched roughly a mile from the city of Petersburg.

Faced with a prolonged siege, one Pennsylvania Lieutenant Colonel suggested tunneling underneath the Confederate frontlines, detonating explosives, sending thousands of Federal troops over the destroyed rebel trenches, and seizing Petersburg to end the stalemate.[9] Nine black regiments of roughly 4,500 men, to include the Nineteenth USCT, were selected to lead the attack. However, just hours before the scheduled assault, the U.S. Army’s high command ordered three white divisions to lead the charge; the USCT men would accompany them in the rear. “Both our officers and men were much disappointed, as it was an opportunity to show what they could do,” reflected a crestfallen Nineteenth USCT officer.[10]

In a sense, the USCT soldiers and officers were robbed of their chance to demonstrate their fighting prowess and dispel pervasive discrimination in the Federal ranks. “There was a prevalent feeling in the higher echelons of the army that black troops were best utilized as laborers and not as soldiers.”[11] In additional to these racial biases, political sensitivities underpinned the last-minute troop substitution. As Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant later explained, “if we put the colored troops in front and [the attack] should prove a failure…it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything for them.”[12] Notwithstanding, Grant later pronounced the ensuing battle as the saddest affair of the war.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, 1864, the Federals detonated 8,000 pounds of gunpowder within the makeshift mine. “Imagine a pile of earth the size of a half acre going up,” one soldier described, “with cannon, horses, human beings and all, and then the whole falling together in a mass of ruins…”[13] Due to incompetent and disorderly planning, the first echelons of Federal soldiers rushed into the gaping hole–some two hundred feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty-feet deep–and were met by merciless Confederate gunfire. The USCT men, once the vanguard who drilled for weeks to spearhead the assault, now assumed the herculean task of salvaging the ever-worsening calamity.[14]

Four hours after the mine explosion, the USCT men advanced under the most inhospitable conditions. “Our men were not only exposed to the terribly musketry fire in front,” recounted one Nineteenth USCT Captain, “but to an enfilading fire of shell, grape and canister that no troops could withstand, and the charge was made through a line of white troops going to the rear.”[15] All but one USCT regiment bypassed the suffocating crater which, as the Second USCT Brigade commander described, “was so full that no man could get through.”[16] The last Federal regiment marshaled into the fray, the men of Nineteenth USCT–with Welsh’s Company K in the rear–could not advance beyond the sunken landscape. Instead, many were swept into the depths of the crater.

Further ahead, the leading USCT regiments incurred staggering casualties in their attempts to press forward on the crater’s left and right flanks. “One regiment had already lost so many officers the men were demoralized…officers were shot down trying to coax their companies forward.”[17] Coupled with the maelstrom of shot and shell, the trenches into which the men were sent “were entirely occupied by dead and dying rebel troops and our own,” the Second USCT Brigade commander described. “There was no room for us to move up.”[18]

Battle scene with men fighting and holding flags
Artistic rendering of USCT men engaged with Confederate troops during the Battle of the Crater (Courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities)

The First USCT Brigade advanced farther than any other Federal unit, but soon encountered rebel resistance. “Our men, inflamed to relentless vengeance by their presence,” retold one Virginia officer, “disregarded the rules of warfare…and butchered the blacks until the slaughtering was sickening.”[19] From the Confederate’s perspective, Petersburg’s defense–and, by extension, the preservation of slavery–justified the unspeakable wrath against this armed slave uprising incited by white officers.[20]

As the rebels rallied in their rage, those Federal troops with hard-won territorial gains hastily fell back, with most pouring into the horrid pit. One New England soldier recalled these men jumping into the crater, “forcing the soldiers already in it further up against the steep walls of the pit and touching off a terrific frenzy of shoving and pushing and cursing for space to fight.”[21]

The hellish and Sisyphean fighting conditions remain the most inexorable part of the Battle of the Crater, as it became known. One Federal soldier likened the crater to “a mighty whirlpool, whose suction drew in and engulfed all who came near…”[22]There, an estimated one hundred men of the Nineteenth USCT remained for hours “expending all their own ammunition and all they could take from the cartridge-boxes of the wounded and dead men that lay thick together…”[23] Unrelenting mortar and musket fire, as well as bayoneted muskets hurled like spears from Confederates around the lip of the depressed earth, befell the trapped bluecoats. “Men were being torn and mangled by the hundred every moment” described one Nineteenth USCT Captain.[24]

So intense were the thundering guns that Welsh himself “incurred deafness of both ears from concussion while exposed under heavy and continuous cannonading.”[25] So lethal were the exploding shells that, per the account of one Federal soldier, “men’s clothes were covered with blood and fragments of human flesh and brains to a degree never seen…”[26]

Modern battlefield with photo of Welsh in foreground
L-R: The Federal’s mineshaft entrance, remnants of the crater, and a wartime photo of William Welsh placed near the crater during a visit to the Petersburg National Battlefield (Courtesy of the author, May 2021)

The Battle of the Crater ended in humiliating defeat for the Union. USCT regiments accounted for forty-one percent of Federal casualties incurred, though they constituted only a fifth of the total forces engaged.[27] An estimated half of the Nineteenth USCT’s men experienced casualties. Within Welsh’s Company K, fourteen men were killed, nineteen wounded, and three captured. Two of whom – Privates Alfred Carter and Mildey Finnick – were subsequently sold into slavery.[28] Despite their gauntlet, the USCT’s fighting spirit made immediate impressions. “These black men commanded the admiration and respect of every beholder,” penned the Second USCT Brigade commander.[29] Major General Ambrose Burnside even noted that “no officers or men behaved with greater gallantry than they did.”[30]

Sadly, most USCT contributions were overlooked, amplified by the Lost Cause narrative, and all but erased from collective memory for generations. “While lauded by their leaders at the time for their bravery and martial skill, USCT soldiers were given little to no formal recognition during or after the war…”[31] Fortunately, their contributions have experienced a renewed sense of appreciation and research, best chronicled in Muster by William Kurtz, Holly Pinheiro, and Melissa Stuckey.

Two monuments
L-R: USCT monument at the Petersburg National Battlefield (Kyle Nappi photo, May 2021) and the African America Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

“Without the military help of the black freedmen,” President Abraham Lincoln decreed, “the war against the South could not have been won.”[32] As one USCT chaplain summarized, “the historian’s pen cannot fail to locate us somewhere among the good and great, who have fought and bled upon the altar of their country.”[33] Most notably, the Nineteenth USCT were among the first Federal soldiers to enter the fallen Confederate capitol of Richmond on April 3, 1865. By then, Welsh had attained the ranks of Major and Brevet Brigadier General, having served the entirety of the Civil War. “I was in fifty battles and engagements,” he penned in an antebellum letter to an Ohio Congressman.[34]

 

[1] “Welsh, William – Age 28, Year: 1864 – 19th US Colored Infantry”, Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers who served with the United States Colored Troops: infantry organizations, 14th through 19th, Record Group 94, Microfilm 1822, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., https://catalog.archives.gov/id/42626461, Accessed May 18, 2021.

[2] William Welsh, Letter to John A. Bingham, September 31, 1889, Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives, RHC-89, William Welsh papers, 1855-1908.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 16.

[5] Joseph Glatthaar, “The Civil War’s Black Soldiers”, National Park Civil War Series, National Parks Service, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/civil_war_series/2/sec11.htm, Accessed June 5, 2021.

[6] “Welsh, William.”

[7] “The United States Colored Troops”, American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/united-states-colored-troops, Accessed June 1, 2021.

[8] L. Allison Wilmer, J. H. Jarrett and Geo. W. F. Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-5, Volume 2(Baltimore: Guggenheimer, Weil, & Co., 1899), 206.

[9] William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (Washington, D.C., Center of Military History, 2011), 355-356.

[10] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Fifth Series, No. 1 (Providence: Snow & Farnham Printers, 1894), 26-27.

[11] John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 94.

[12] William S. McFeely, Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), 178.

[13] Dobak, Freedom by the Sword, 359.

[14] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 27.

[15] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 27.

[16] U.S. Department of War, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 40, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892), 104.

[17] Michael A. Cavanaugh and William Marvel, The Petersburg Campaign, The Battle of the Crater, ‘The Horrid Pit’, June 25-August 6, 1864, Second Edition, (Lynchburg: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1989), 57.

[18] The War of the Rebellion, 104.

[19] John Sergeant Wise, The End of An Era, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899), 366.

[20] Kevin M. Levin, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 29.

[21] Warren Wilkinson, Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864-1865, (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 254.

[22] John Anderson, The Fifty-Seventh Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, (Boston: E.B. Stillings & Co Printers, 1896), 180.

[23] The War of the Rebellion, 599.

[24] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 28-29.

[25] Robert Summers, Maryland’s Black Civil War Soldiers: 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops (Middletown, 2021), 11-12.

[26] John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 251.

[27] Levin, Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 19.

[28] Wilmer, Jarrett and Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, 230-232; Summers, Maryland’s Black Civil War Soldiers, 418-469.

[29] Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater, 222.

[30] The War of the Rebellion, 64.

[31] Mark Herbert, “The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of”, Muster, The Journal of the Civil War Era, October 27, 2020, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2020/10/the-most-heroic-day-youve-never-heard-of/.

[32] “USCT History”, African American Civil War Memorial & Museum, https://www.afroamcivilwar.org/about-us/usct-history.html, Accessed May 25, 2021.

[33] William R. Forstchen, We Look Like Men of War, (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2003), 9.

[34] William Welsh, Letter to John A. Bingham.

Kyle Nappi

Kyle Nappi is a descendant of the brothers Samuel Kael Groah and Andrew Jackson Groah and the great-great-great-grandnephew of William Welsh. An alumnus of The Ohio State University, Kyle serves as a national security policy specialist in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He is also an independent researcher and writer of military history (chiefly the World Wars), having interviewed ~4,500 elder military combatants across nearly two-dozen countries. Kyle would like to acknowledge the archival assistance of Grand Valley State University's Leigh Rupinski and Tracy Cook.

Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

Contested Freedoms: Black Life in Texas During Juneteenth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Henry Louis-Gates, “What Is Juneteenth,” Public Broadcast System, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/, accessed on 7/7/2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History 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.

Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 80-83; for Julia Dent Grant’s travels during the Civil War see, “Julia Dent Grant Chronology,” National Park Service, January 21, 2021, accessed June 21, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/julia-dent-grant-chronology.htm

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

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

Nick Sacco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] “See all 4 Confederate monument removals in New Orleans in photos and video,” nola.com, 07/22/2019, accessed: 06/23/2021, https://www.nola.com/news/politics/article_3a11f27b-bce2-5a2c-98ac-53ab0d67d259.html; Karen L. Cox, “Why Confederate Monuments Must Fall,” newyorktimes.com, 08/15/2017, accessed 06/23/2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/opinion/confederate-monuments-white-supremacy-charlottesville.html.

[4] “Empty Pedestals: What should be done with civic monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders?” historynet.com, October 2017, accessed: 06/23/2021, https://www.historynet.com/empty-pedestals-civic-monuments-confederacy-leaders.htm.

Tom Barber Jeff Crawford

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