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Queen Victoria’s Speeches to Parliament: The Role of the Civil War in British Politics

Queen Victoria’s Speeches to Parliament: The Role of the Civil War in British Politics

At the opening of each Parliamentary session, the British monarch delivers a policy statement crafted by the Prime Minister, explaining the cabinet’s plans for the forthcoming sitting of Parliament. With Parliament prorogued until October 14, 2019, when Queen Elizabeth II is supposed to read Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s agenda to Parliament, we have a modern reminder about the traditionalism and ceremonial role of the monarch in British politics. As the British political system struggles with the antics of Boris Johnson, faces the disintegration of the Conservative Party majority, and crumbles from the utter disaster Brexit has become, we may look into the past when the United States suffered from rebellion, and how Queen and Prime Minister addressed the international crisis of the early 1860s, as a reminder of the always entangled history of British foreign and domestic relations.

The Queen’s Speech historically included not only an elaboration of domestic policy plans but also dealt significantly with foreign and imperial challenges. The speech offers a glimpse at what the British cabinet assumed the most important issues would be in the coming months This post refers to this as the Queen’s Speech, and will refer to Queen Victoria as the deliverer and speaker of the speech in a metaphorical sense, crediting her even after Prince Consort Albert’s death, when the Lord Commissioners read the Queen’s Speech for her. These speeches in the early 1860s indicate how important the United States and the southern rebellion was to British policy makers. A nuanced understanding of British foreign relations during the Civil War requires an appreciation of the various British foreign policy entanglements.

“Queen Victoria at the opening of Parliament, 1866. The Lord Chancellor reading the Royal Speech in the House of Lords,” Illustrated London News, c. 1866. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

On February 5, 1861, the Queen opened the new session of Parliament. Considering news required at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, the British were not yet aware of the secession of Louisiana or Texas, nor aware of the formation of the Confederate States of America. Noting the state of peace in Europe, the Queen’s government hoped for a continuation, despite some uncertainties. At the top of the foreign policy concerns were Italian unification, the French peacekeeping mission to prevent further atrocities against Christians in Syria, and the continuation of the Arrow War in China. The rebellion in the United States followed Indian imperial issues and insurrectionary Maori in New Zealand.[1] By August, when the Lords Commissioners delivered the closing address in the House of Lords, the conflict in the United States had risen to second place, right after Italian unification and before the lingering concerns over Syria.[2] Therefore, when it came to British political attention, the United States in the first year of the rebellion had to contend with a number of other foreign policy crises. However, the uncertainty and fear of getting dragged into a maritime conflict–either because of the lack of policy directives, or the belligerent, Anglophobic policies of Secretary of State William H. Seward–forced the British government to initially pay close attention to the events in North America.[3]

The following year, having just resolved the Trent affair with the release of the Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell and a suitable apology, the Queen opened Parliament in February 1862. She noted her gratification with the “satisfactorily settled . . . restoration of the passengers to British protection.” Even more the Queen concluded, “The friendly relations between Her Majesty and the President of The United States have therefore remained unimpaired.” However, the Queen worried about the Americas. The offenses done toward foreigners in Mexico and the country’s refusal to honor foreign debtors had forced Spain, France, and Great Britain to join for a debt collection mission.[4] As a result, both the United States and Mexico were of grave concern. However, with the danger of getting dragged into the Civil War averted, the British had to closely watch their partners, especially France, as they tried to force Mexico to honor its foreign debt. In the rapidly changing political, diplomatic, and imperial environment of the early 1860s, British policy makers had to remain flexible and ever cautious to avoid committing to unpredictable adventures overseas.

By the time of the closing of Parliament, and only two months removed from the cabinet debate about intervention in North America, the Lord Commissioner noted the growing intensity of the war in North America, “but Her Majesty, having from the outset determined to take no part in that contest, has seen no reason to depart from the neutrality to which she has steadily adhered.” Also foreshadowing other issues later in the fall, the British government worried about “disturbances” in the frontier regions of the Ottoman Empire, which could challenge the post-Crimean War equilibrium.[5] With global tensions declining, the rebellion in the United States drew attention, but the crown’s desire to maintain strict neutrality remained.

By early 1863, Queen Victoria’s speech focused on the recently vacated Greek throne. The queen refused to let her son Alfred ascend to such a dangerous, revolution-prone monarchy. The “Greek Question” was closely tied to the larger “Eastern Question’s” containment of Russia. Nevertheless, the United States lingered as a topic and the Queen included the rather ironic statement that “Her Majesty has abstained from taking any step with a view to induce a cessation of the conflict between the contending parties in the North American States,” a reference to the recent cabinet debate. In addition, the government worried about the impact of the blockade on cotton manufacturing, but the speech noted that “this suffering and this distress are rather diminishing than increasing, and that some revival of employment is beginning to take place in the manufacturing districts.”[6] When faced with the difficult decision to prioritize the “Eastern Question” or the rebellion in the United States, Great Britain always focused on the former as the greater threat.

Throughout the Civil War, the British government of Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston operated in the shadow of the Crimean War. Home Secretary Palmerston had been instrumental in drawing Great Britain into the conflict with Russia, which he oversaw and brought to an inconclusive peace as Prime Minister.[7] Throughout his political tenure, Palmerston desired to contain Russia’s autocratic political system. Even once the country suffered under what might be called a “Crimean War Syndrome,” causing a general desire to avoid another inconclusive war, Palmerston watched cautiously against any political or territorial advances by Russia into Europe or the Mediterranean. Despite his occasionally belligerent language toward the United States, Russian containment had priority.[8]

“Lord Palmerston making the Ministerial Statement on Dano-German Affairs in the House of Commons,” Illustrated London News, July 2, 1864. Courtesy of University of Southampton Special Collections.

When Queen Victoria delivered the opening speech in February 1864, North America was entirely absent and European issues took priority. The death of the Danish king and anxieties about the future of the Protocol of London of 1852, which had ended the First Schleswig-Holstein War predominated the speech, foreshadowing the Dano-German War that was about to destabilize the Jutland Peninsula. Like so many other instances, the Queen’s government desired peace. Despite the ever-increasing death toll in North America, the only other three foreign policy issues the Queen touched on were recent assaults of British subjects in Japan, the continued insurrectionary behavior of Maori in New Zealand, and the return of the Ionian Islands to Greece.[9] By the last year of the war, British attention had turned away from North America. With the Wars of German Unification destabilizing Central Europe, British political leaders worried that French and Russian ambitions could escalate the localized conflicts in Denmark (1864) and between Austria and Prussia (1866) into a general European war, prohibiting an unpredictable overseas engagement in North America.

These speeches by Queen Victoria offer a glimpse into the British political mind. Civil War historians have long argued about what British foreign policy regarding the Civil War, but these works hardly take into consideration the many British foreign entanglements, especially the adventurous French emperor and the “Eastern Question.” The Queen’s Speech, authored by her cabinet, allows readers to gain a better understanding of British foreign policy priorities. While the rebellion in the United States during the first two years ranked high on the list of British concerns, it was never alone and had to contend with other far-flung questions. During the crucial final months of 1862, when Civil War historians emphasize the British cabinet debate, the Queen and her cabinet looked east to Greece. The speeches offer a first step to reevaluating Civil War diplomatic relations within the larger British foreign policy entanglements.


An earlier version of this post failed to note that Queen Victoria did not personally deliver all of these speeches, due to her being in mourning for her late husband. We have edited the original to clarify this.


[1] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 5, 1861, in British and Foreign State Papers, 1860-1861 (London: William Ridgway, 1868), 1-2 (hereafter BFSP).

[2] Speech of the Lords Commissioners, on the Closing of the British Parliament, Westminster, August 6, 1861, BFSP, 1860-1861, 3-4.

[3] For good studies on the subject see Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976); Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Phillip E. Myers, Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008).

[4] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 6, 1862, BFSP, 1861-1862, 1-2.

[5] Speech of the Lords Commissioners, on the Closing of the British Parliament, Westminster, August 7, 1862, BFSP, 1861-1862, 3.

[6] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 5, 1863, BFSP, 1862-1863, 1-2.

[7] For works on the Crimean War see Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Picador, 2012); Paul W. Schroeder, Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: The Destruction of the European Concert (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972).

[8] For more detail on how Great Britain prioritized the “Eastern Question” over North America, see Niels Eichhorn, “The Intervention Crisis of 1862: A British Diplomatic Dilemma?” American Nineteenth Century History 15 (November 2014): 287-310. The best study of Palmerston’s political identity and his views on liberalism vs. Russia is in David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

[9] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 4, 1865, BFSP, 1863-1864, 1-2.

Niels Eichhorn

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

Editor’s Note: September 2019 Issue

Editor’s Note: September 2019 Issue

The September 2019 issue is Judy Giesberg’s last as editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. She has been integral to the journal since its first issue in 2011, and the editorial team would like to thank her for her pathbreaking service. We have been privileged to work with her during her four-year tenure as editor and greatly appreciate the groundwork she and founding editor Bill Blair have laid for the future of the field, through this publication. It has been a true pleasure, Judy. Thank you.

While the Richards Center searches for a new head editor this fall, we look forward to answering inquiries and receiving submissions.

This issue includes essays that offer new perspectives on Ulysses S. Grant and the Compromise of 1850. Two others focus on culture: one takes a fresh look at northern loyalty and patriotism, and the other considers northerners’ darker emotions. Together, these pieces attest to the vibrancy and diversity of Civil War era studies.

George Rable’s Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, “Fighting for Reunion: Dilemmas of Hatred and Vengeance,” starts out this issue. In a sequel to his Damn Yankees! which examined the vitriolic rhetoric Confederates used to describe northerners, Rable measures the depth and temperature of northern hatred of the Confederacy—by comparison, it was never very deep and at most tepid. According to Rable, northerners were slow to demonize Confederates, and when they did, they tried to identify those who really deserved it rather than those who were simply duped and deluded. In the end, Rable finds northern war rhetoric “vague, contradictory, and at times almost schizophrenic” in its denunciations of the enemy, something that makes sense, he reminds us, in a war aimed at reunification. In seeking answers to why northerners never called for vengeance on the South, Rable quotes the most recognizable phrase from Lincoln’s second inaugural: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Rable’s essay may leave some readers wondering if some of the explanation also lies in the sense—which Lincoln expressed in the lesser known section of that speech—that the war was God’s vengeance on both sides for the sin of slavery: “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense [of ‘American slavery’] came.”

Despite popular illustrations of women’s patriotism featuring women bent over in their chairs, knitting socks and stitching together homemade flags for the soldiers, Joanna Cohen’s essay, “‘You Have No Flag Out Yet?’ Commercial Connections and Patriotic Emotion in the Civil War North,” reveals that elite women in the urban North were very happy to buy these items, embracing “the opportunity to mingle commerce and patriotic feeling.” Indeed, some of the very same people who expressed concerns about a purchased patriotism shopped for patriotic stationary and explained away their purchases of machine-made socks and blankets for the soldiers as freeing them to do more work for the cause. Their embrace of a consumerist patriotism was a privilege of their class, and so Cohen’s essay will no doubt leave readers with questions about how other Civil War Americans understood the relationship “between emotion and market relations.” When folks like New York’s elite Woolsey family decided it was “more efficient” to buy supplies rather than make them, they were also rendering a judgement about time and its worth, to themselves and others. Cohen’s essay is a good reminder of how Americans’ relationship to capitalism and class underwent key changes during the war.

Although the scarcity of primary sources prevents our knowing much about Ulysses S. Grant’s early thoughts about slavery, historians have generally asserted that he was opposed to the institution throughout his life. In his essay, “‘I Was Never an Abolitionist’: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854–1863,” Nicholas W. Sacco sets aside historians’ “unhelpful mythmaking” about Grant as always an antislavery man for a fuller picture of how Grant, like other military men, was converted to emancipation on the battlefield. To do so, Sacco digs into the sources documenting the Grants’ years at the Dent family’s White Haven plantation, where they benefited—even if they did not profit—from the work of several enslaved people. While among slaveholders, Grant acted comfortably like one, at one point appraising the value of a neighbor’s slaves and making decisions for his family based on securing his family’s enslaved property. The growing sectional conflict did not spur Grant toward a moral reckoning about slavery any more than did his own father’s strong aversion to the institution. Instead, as Sacco argues, it was the war that did that work. Whether or not you were convinced by Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Grant, you will find Sacco’s careful treatment to be imminently sensible.

Michael Woods closes out this issue with an essay reviewing the scholarship on the Compromise of 1850. Woods identifies three types of studies: celebratory accounts that focus on how the measure delayed the war and gave Republicans the chance to build support, an emerging critical approach that dismisses the act as an appeasement of aggressive southern slaveholders, and a third perspective that remains skeptical of the compromise’s reach. While the critics currently own the day, the skeptical approach fits well with new scholarship on the West, where the federal state had the greatest ambitions and the least authority. Woods’s essay is a welcome review of the origins and development of these three interpretative threads, and it provides a useful roadmap for where scholars might take things from here.

Robert Colby Announced as Winner of Inaugural Tony Kaye Memorial Essay Award

Robert Colby Announced as Winner of Inaugural Tony Kaye Memorial Essay Award

The Journal of the Civil War Era is pleased to announce that the winner of the Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award for 2019 is Robert Colby, a postdoctoral fellow at Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership and American Studies at CNU. His essay “’Negroes Will Bear Fabulous Prices:’ The Economics of Wartime Slave Commerce and Visions of the Confederate Future” will have the opportunity to be published in a forthcoming issue. The award will be given at the SCWH’s conference this coming June, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This biennial award honors Tony Kaye (1962-2017), a pioneering scholar of slavery who was integral to the journal’s founding. The award was created by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, The Journal of the Civil War Era, and the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH), to honor Tony’s passion for putting scholars in disparate fields in conversation with each other. More information can be found here.

Congratulations again, Robert, and thanks also to the awards committee– Frances Clarke, Paul Escott, and Kelly Mezurek–for their commitment to this process.

Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

The rhythms of academic life make August an opportune time to reflect on past teaching and to plan new lessons. Teachers of history at all levels appreciate that primary sources can pique students’ curiosity and introduce them to historical methods. Whether through the Document-Based Questions featured in Advanced Placement exams or the document readers often assigned in college-level courses, thousands of history students will pore over primary sources this fall. Yet while DBQs and published readers certainly provide hearty intellectual sustenance, they necessarily arrive pre-packaged, offering boneless and skinless fare which obscures the messier details of how historians make sense of the past. There is, however, a simple way to widen the menu: incorporate raw primary sources and make transcription the first step in the process of interpretation.

Six years ago, I decided to supplement a class discussion by distributing copies of a raw primary source that illustrated the intense backlash against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Browsing through my own research notes to find a suitable sample, I selected a letter written by Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker to New Hampshire senator John P. Hale in May 1854. The document, which is only a few sentences long and written in reasonably legible script, seemed appropriate for a 50-minute survey course, and I hoped it would provide a fresh alternative to the processed sources my students had been digesting all semester.

It did—and I’ve used the letter in every survey class I’ve taught since then. My students relish the challenges of interpreting nineteenth-century scrawl (and sometimes surprise themselves with their facility of comprehension), thinking about the author and recipient to make sense of the letter’s importance, and connecting the letter’s contents to the larger story of sectional conflict. The Parker-Hale letter presents a puzzle to solve (is that a “g” or a “j’? was it dated before or after the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law? who exactly was John P. Hale?) even as it puts a more individualized, humanized face on an amorphous “North.” It forces students to slow down, read carefully, and make educated guesses about specific words, using context to fill in gaps left by Parker’s sometimes unsteady hand and hasty phrasing. It presents them with a complete text, including the salutation and signature sometimes omitted from published documents, thus illuminating epistolary conventions and adding a bit of historical flavor. Most importantly, it makes reading an active rather than passive activity, a habit I hope students will carry with them long after graduation. By grappling with the letter, my students have learned something about the raw materials with which historians work.

Abraham Lincoln, Farewell Address given at Springfield, IL, February 11, 1861. Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Whether presented as digital image files or photocopies—or, for students lucky enough to access them, original copies—handwritten primary source documents offer unique access to the past. Reading Lincoln’s farewell address to his Springfield neighbors is always a moving experience, but the raw immediacy of the original document helps to humanize the author and his audience.

This simple classroom activity can be adapted in all sorts of ways. In my advanced Civil War and Reconstruction course, I’ve asked students to transcribe a longer letter, written just after the caning of Charles Sumner, and to write a paper analyzing what it reveals about the escalation of sectional strife. This reduces the time constraint and enables me to assign a meatier source, but also introduces the pressure of a grade into the task. Other teachers might incorporate a transcription and interpretation activity into a quiz or exam, although advance preparation would likely be necessary. Instructors seeking to make transcription a regular feature of their early U.S. history surveys could assign Mark M. Smith’s Writing the American Past, a unique document reader which includes copies of texts in their original, handwritten format, along with the interpretive apparatus typically found in such volumes.[1] And while I have primarily used documents drawn from my own archival research, many online databases—including the Abraham Lincoln Papers—include images of raw sources alongside transcriptions, making them available to students in online and traditional courses alike.

The challenge and the joy of teaching history comes in no small part from the effort to make the past seem as relevant and as tangible to students as it does to historians. For teachers of Civil War-era history, the bountiful archive of handwritten sources can offer a feast for novice and advanced students alike.


[1] Mark M. Smith, ed., Writing the American Past: US History to 1877 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond

Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond

Two monuments at the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one on the left is General Alexander Hays, and the one on the right is dedicated to the 126th New York Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last year I published a post on this website about visitation trends to Civil War historic sites within the National Park Service (NPS) during the Civil War Sesquicentennial from 2011 to 2015. After looking at the numbers I concluded that visitation to these sites remained relatively strong, but not everyone feels the same way. Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico argue that historic sites throughout the United States are losing both visitors and their general relevance as tourist attractions. The Wall Street Journal article focused specifically on Civil War battlefields and painted a bleak picture of the future; no more battle reenactments or living history performances, gift shops going out of business, and a generation of young people who lack “respect” for history.[1]

While it is fair to discuss the future of Civil War battlefields and historic sites more broadly, these articles fall short in one crucial way: they leave out the perspectives of the public historians who make their living interpreting history at these sites. Curious to learn more myself, I put a call out on social media asking for comments in response to three of my own questions about visitation to Civil War sites. A few public historians who work at these sites responded and their comments are summarized below.[2]

1. What do think about visitation trends to Civil War battlefields today?

Almost everyone who responded warned that visitation numbers needed to be placed into context. Eric Leonard pointed out that NPS historic sites experienced a forty-year decline in visitation from roughly 1976 until the mid-2000s. “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and ‘Find Your Park’ campaigns have helped buck that trend,” argues Leonard. Jake Wynn pointed out that non-military historical sites have something new to offer visitors. He cited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine as an example of a site that has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years. Stephanie Arduini gave a thoughtful answer, stating that “All history sites are trying to understand the larger decline in numbers, but [I] suspect it’s a combination of competition for limited time/funds, disconnect with older narratives not relevant to contemporary audiences or are too nostalgic at the expense of accuracy, and even aspects of design/platform for how visitors want to engage.” And Chris Barr reminded me that people visit historic sites for a range of reasons not necessarily connected to history education. “A lot of our parks that are near relatively large urban areas have growing visitation. Runners, hikers, joggers, etc…. Those people are every bit as much visitors as anybody.”

It seems that the bigger question, as Leonard suggested in his comments, is how to make all historic sites more relevant in the future.

2. Do children have a lack of respect for history?

A common talking point I’ve seen online suggests that young people are glued to their cell phones and not interested in visiting historic sites. At the same time, I have also seen articles contending that nature sites such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are “being loved to death” because of record visitation and young people who will stop at nothing to get the perfect image for Instagram.[3] In both cases alleged visitation trends are unfairly blamed on young people. In reality, the primary drivers of historic site visitation are currently older Americans (Generation X and Baby Boomers, for example) who have more time and disposable income to travel. Ultimately young people are shaped by the environment around them, and they are more likely to be interested in history if they are exposed to it early in life. The comments I received from others echoed my own sentiments.

Barr suggested that young people respect history as much as previous generations and that “one day [in the future] today’s young people will grumble about kids not respecting or caring.” He also pointed out that the history curriculum in K-12 education has evolved and the Civil War simply isn’t given as much emphasis as it used to. “If you’re 70 years old right now the Civil War Centennial hit when you were in middle or high school,” said Barr. “The conflict loomed large and took up a huge part of the curriculum you studied. Your grandparents may have been alive in the 1800s and there’s a chance you may have even met an elderly Civil War vet when you were a little kid. You definitely knew children of Civil War soldiers and the conflict was still in living memory.” But today “somebody in an 11th grade US History course right now was born in 2003, the same year the US invaded Iraq. Your curriculum has to run all the way up through probably 9/11.” It isn’t so much that students don’t respect history, Barr argued, but that they might “feel a stronger connection to eras other than the Civil War.”

Several commenters spoke to the need of finding new ways to hook students into Civil War history using more primary source documents and interactive activities. Arduini spoke to the larger challenge of building an environment—both at historic sites and elsewhere—in which “learning is built based on their curiosity and inquiry instead of rote memorization, and also where the adults in their lives feel both comfortable and confident supporting their learning.” That challenge partly means finding ways to deal with decreased field trips for students amid increased time for standardized tests in the classroom. Leonard asserted that blaming young people for visitation declines is “lazy and stupid” and cited the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program as an effective example of providing students the chance to learn and “speak to their experiences.” Finally, Andrew Druart offered an optimistic take on the future. Druart, who leads the “Civil War Kids” initiative for the American Battlefield Trust, cited Pamplin Park in Petersburg, Virginia, as an example of a site that emphasizes youth education by “finding personal connections and reading diaries from those who lived it to help kids better understand the human perspective.”

3. What new, dynamic ideas can sites implement to achieve relevance?

All commenters stressed the importance of finding new strategies for meeting young people where they are. Several emphasized the importance of audience-centered education and facilitated dialogue techniques in educational programming. Barr explained the challenge to me in a straightforward way: “Many of us who choose to work in these sites are ‘buffs’ to varying degrees. Where we fail is when we try to come up with something to force our interests on somebody else.” Understanding what visitors bring to the table (and why other people choose not to visit at all) is a crucial aspect moving forward. “We all have this idea that building relevance or connection is still going to be a ranger-centered or historian-centered endeavor. [But] relevance and audience building won’t come from a cool new topic to talk about, or a new subject to emphasize on a tour. It’s going to come from us being facilitators for the public to make their own connections and experiences,” said Barr.

Arduini and Wynn both highlighted the importance of using historical artifacts and documents in education programming. Arduini suggested that part of the challenge is using “contemporary design that helps people feel like the stories are contemporary and relevant.” She cited the new American Civil War Museum’s efforts to use colorized photos in their permanent exhibits and a larger effort to build partnerships with organizations not previously associated with Civil War history sites as two different ways to create a culture of honesty, accuracy, and inclusion in the museum’s historical interpretations. And Leonard differed slightly from Barr’s arguments by stressing the importance of more explicitly interpreting the Reconstruction era as a relevant and crucial historical moment in U.S. history. “All [Civil War sites] have Reconstruction stories,” he asserted. Leonard would also like to see a reevaluation of living history programs, both in content and methods. “Are we doing living history because visitors have come to expect it, or because it’s the most effective means for communicating a subject?”

Should Civil War battlefields and related sites be worried about future visitation trends? I believe that the Wall Street Journal article painted too gloomy a picture that almost implies a crisis is at hand. I also reject the notion that young people are to blame. Nevertheless I fully agree with the various commenters that new ideas for innovative outreach, programming, and interpretation are crucial moving forward. There are no easy answers, but we need to keep placing the perspective of public historians working at Civil War historic sites front and center as this conversation continues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay reflect the personal views of those who were willing to be interviewed. They do not reflect the views of their previous or current employers.


[1] Cameron McWhirter, “Civil War Battlefields Lose Ground as Tourist Draws,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2019, accessed May 30, 2019,; M. Scott Mahaskey and Peter Canellos, “Are Americans Falling Out of Love with their Landmarks?,” Politico, July 4, 2019, accessed July 7, 2019,

[2] Most of these conversations took place on Twitter through Direct Messaging on July 7 and July 8, 2019, between Jake Wynn (@JayQuinn1993), Chris Barr (@cwbarr), Stephanie Arduini (@ACWMuseum), Andrew Druart (@AndrewDruart), and myself (@NickSacco55). The conversation between Eric Leonard and myself took place on July 7, 2019, through Facebook Messenger.

[3] John Coski, “Whither Public History?,” The Civil War Monitor, June 25, 2018, accessed June 26, 2019,; I responded to Coski on my personal website. See Nick Sacco, “The Times Are A Changin’,” Exploring the Past, July 9, 2019, accessed July 9, 2019,; See also National Public Radio, “Instagramming Crowds Pack National Parks,” National Public Radio, May 28, 2019, accessed May 28, 2019,

Nick Sacco

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

Sustaining Motivations and the General Officer: Robert E. Lee and the Death of John Augustine Washington III

Sustaining Motivations and the General Officer: Robert E. Lee and the Death of John Augustine Washington III

Today we share our first post from new correspondent Barton A. Myers, who will be writing on soldiers, veterans, and military history broadly defined. Myers is Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and History and Associate Professor of Civil War History at Washington and Lee University and the author of the awarding winning Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (LSU Press, 2009), Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and co-editor with Brian D. McKnight of The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War (LSU Press, 2017).

In his now classic work For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, historian James M. McPherson utilized the framework of initial, sustaining, and combat motivations to probe the letters and diaries of hundreds of Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, to determine what they fought for between 1861 and 1865. McPherson borrowed an important scholarly framework from John Lynn, the great French Revolution military historian, to help readers better understand the common soldier’s three phases of motivation. Today, we have an incredibly rich scholarship on the motivations and thinking of the enlisted or common soldier, from Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank to Peter Carmichael’s deeply penetrating work The War for the Common Soldier.

Yet, surprisingly, one of the areas where the scholarship remains limited in this discussion of soldiers’ motives (beyond the illiterate African American soldiers of the Union Army, irregular soldiers of both sides, and Native American warriors in the west and far west) is in closely examining the sustaining and combat motivations of general officers after they enlisted. Searching their private letters offers a different window into what fueled the regular, conventional battlefield’s raging violence. Further, a comparative study of general officers’ sustaining motivations would be fascinating for either Northern or Southern armies.[1]

What if we consider that the motives that kept a general officer fighting in the field were often, even while couched in ideological language, driven more and more by the even more visceral reasons of the moment, including the death of a fellow comrade? Where does that take our scholarly debate over the meaning of the general’s experience or the causation/escalation of Civil War violence in a more holistic sense? When generals are driven by both rational calculation and emotional reasons, how does it impact their waging of civil war? It is a question worth contemplating on an individual and collective basis as we consider the escalation and deescalation of wartime violence across the United States and the Confederacy.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Consider this one moment from the life of General Robert E. Lee, whose own initial motivations have been well examined by scholars from Douglas Southhall Freeman and Elizabeth Brown Pryor to Allen Guelzo and Emory Thomas, coming to divergent conclusions about Lee’s reasons for resignation from the U.S. Army, personal secession in support of Virginia, and his ultimate support of the Confederacy, a slaveholders’ rebellion.

A remarkable series of letters housed in the Special Collections library at Washington and Lee University point toward other personal motives fueling the general officer on military campaign. In September 1861 during the Cheat Mountain Campaign in present day West Virginia, General Robert E. Lee lost one of his closest friends to Union bullets. His tentmate, the lineal descendant of George Washington, Washington’s great-grand-nephew, and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, John Augustine Washington III, was killed while on a scouting mission. John Augustine was also Lee’s distant relative via his marriage to Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Though not a military man, Washington became aide-de-camp to Lee and a Lt. Colonel in the Confederate Army, when he zealously signed on to support Virginia’s secession and the cause of Confederate independence. Douglas Southall Freeman described him as “a gentleman of the highest type and a true aristocrat.” The controversial circumstances surrounding his death fueled some of the anger over it, since it was not clear who among the Union army soldiers was responsible for killing him.[2]

Scouting was a dangerous and liminal military activity. John Augustine Washington lost his life seeking intelligence on the Union army’s position. He almost certainly never saw the face of the person who fired the fatal volley. The concern that the fight had not been fair was a common feeling among the friends and relatives of those men who lost their lives when a concealed detachment took the life of a beloved soldier.

John Augustine Washington III. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association Collection.

On September 14, 1861, Lee wrote: “Before they were aware they were fired upon by a concealed party who fired about 40 shots at four men. He [Washington] was the only person struck and fell dead from his horse.” Washington “met his death by the fire from the enemy’s picket.” Three balls struck Robert E. Lee’s son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee’s horse during the incident as well. After expounding the specific circumstances of his friend’s death, Lee described what the loss meant to him personally. “His death is a grevious [sic] affliction to me, but what must it be to his bereaved children and distressed relatives,” Lee lamented. “The Country has met with a great loss in his death. Our enemies have stamped their attack upon our rights with additional infamy by killing the lineal descendant and representative of him who under the guidance of Almighty God established them and by his virtues render our republic immortal. I enclose a note for his daughter. May God have mercy on them all.” This death, and the near death of his own son in the same incident, had made Lee’s war not just an abstract political question, but a personal war.[3]

Fascinatingly, Lee carried another letter, the final letter Washington ever wrote, with him for the remainder of the war. Ostensibly this was to give it to his daughter, but the letter could have been easily carried by an aide to the young woman earlier. Lee kept this memento arguably because it was a reminder of what the war cost him and his family and what the Union army had done to him personally.[4] So close was Lee with the family of John A. Washington III that in 1868 his daughter Louisa inquired as to Robert E. Lee’s preference on the text for the grave marker of her late father. Lee explained that he preferred simple descriptions and language on the monument. Lee suggested the inscription: “It is honorable and glorious to die for our Country.” But, he also cautioned that “In the present state of affairs it would not be well I think to state more particularly his devotion and sacrifice to his State.”[5]

At least for a period, Lee’s sustaining motives were fueled by avenging the death of an obviously beloved friend and family member. Clearly, the death of his prominent friend lingered with Lee, as he kept the final letter of his friend with him in the command tent among his personal papers during the entire war. Loss of a soldier under confusion or shrouded circumstances inflamed the anger of both Union and Confederate commanders. This was especially true when alleged bushwhackers might have been the culprits. In this case, it was likely a picket line that the party stumbled upon. The suddenness of losing a friend in such a way could shake even the carefully comported like R.E. Lee. As scholars examine the individual motives of officers and enlisted soldiers on campaign during the Civil War, using the wider lens of compounded personal loss to understand the conditions of the battlefield is another question that is worth raising consistently.


[1] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943); Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952); Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[2] R.E. Lee to Edward Turner, September 14, 1861, “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” Manuscript Collections, James G. Leyburn Library Special Collections and Archives, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia (hereafter WLU); Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), 1:489, 530, 541, 554-555, 568-569, 574, 639-640.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. E. Lee to Louisa Washington, August 31, 1865(?), “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” WLU.

[5] R. E. Lee to Louisa Washington, December 11, 1868, “Robert E. Lee letters on death of John Augustine Washington III and follow-up letters to Louisa A. Washington,” WLU.


Barton A. Myers

Barton A. Myers is Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and History and Associate Professor of Civil War History at Washington and Lee University and the author of the awarding winning _Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865_ (LSU Press, 2009), _Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists_ (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), and co-editor with Brian D. McKnight of _The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War_ (LSU Press, 2017).

Teaching Civil War Battles and Leaders through Classroom Simulations

Teaching Civil War Battles and Leaders through Classroom Simulations

For as long as historians have chronicled and interpreted war, they have confronted the intertwined issues of contingency and battle. Historical contingency is a difficult concept, but it is fundamental to historical thinking and essential to understanding the significance of battles, military leaders, and decisions in war. A working definition of contingency is how past events, circumstances, contexts, and outcomes influence possible futures within the context of that past. For purposes of teaching the Civil War, then, war’s military history is why and how the war unfolded on the battlefield and beyond, which determined what followed. None of it was predetermined, and the decisions that created and shaped military operations, subject to friction, fog of war, chance, weather, logistics, incomplete or erroneous information, and human frailty, provide historians with avenues to explore contingency, possibility, and leadership in war.[1]

One of the toughest challenges in teaching the military history of the Civil War is to get students to fully understand the complexity and contingency of war from the perspective of its participants. Historians such as Ken Noe and Carol Reardon encourage us to think of perspective in war and to consider battles as puzzles or mosaics with multiple pieces making up the whole.[2] Put another way, Civil War battles were complicated, frightening, confusing, and uncertain, and outcomes often hinged on key decisions or actions. These were fragmentary experiences lacking clarity and, in some cases, even coherence for participants. Most of what we know about Civil War battles and leaders stems from more than a century-and-a-half of hindsight. Therefore, to understand why the Civil War unfolded as it did, and more fully empathize with its participants, we ought to try to experience, in some small way, a measure of that fear, uncertainty, and pressure of critical decision-making that Civil War military commanders often faced. As my review essay in the June 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era demonstrates, careful deliberation and comprehension of the decisions, alternatives, and context of military events, and the leaders who shaped them, can open important avenues into our understanding of the Civil War. To accomplish this, students must be equipped to engage in judicious interpretation of evidence, contextualization, and empathy.[3]

The Battle of Antietam, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

How might historians bring these issues into a teaching environment? Professional military educators have already been doing this sort of thing for years, and with excellence. Campuses across the United States incorporate some form of participatory military history exercises into their curriculum. These “staff rides” trace their origins to the Prussian general staff of the nineteenth century and have proven extremely useful in imparting the complexity and contingency of battle to military professionals, historians, and students for decades. The U.S. Army Center of Military History explains the purpose of these exercises as exposing students “to the dynamics of battle, especially those factors which interact to produce victory and defeat,” along with the so-called “face of battle,” or “the timeless human dimensions of warfare.” Through case studies, intensive preparation, and field trips to battle sites, staff ride participants learn the specifics of combined arms operations, technology, doctrine, leadership and group dynamics, unit cohesion, logistics, terrain, and any other number of aspects of war.[4]

While staff rides may be too technical, complex, or impractical for some faculty to incorporate into their curriculum, many of the techniques and principles that go into the professional staff ride are readily adaptable to a classroom environment for undergraduates or graduate students. I have conducted simulation exercises for the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam alike, and I find both to be stimulating and useful in helping students come to grips with many of these issues. Antietam is particularly suitable for this sort of thing, for several reasons. First, the Battle of Antietam unfolded over a single day, and in several distinct and easily grasped phases, simplifying the technical details students would need to master. Second, Antietam involved a number of famous episodes that appeal to students, including Robert E. Lee’s infamous “Lost Order,” A.P. Hill’s last minute arrival on the battlefield, the heroics of units like the Irish Brigade at Bloody Lane, the tragedy of Burnside’s Bridge, the difficult relationships between leaders like George B. McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Third, and perhaps most important, Antietam illustrates both the importance of battles to historical contingency, and the relationship between war, politics, race, and slavery in paving the way for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Naturally, any number of Civil War battles can accomplish these goals; Antietam is simply a good place to start.

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The simulation itself is not a game; there is no dice rolling or tactics. The purpose of the exercise is not to win or lose the battle, nor is it to change the outcome of history or “improve” a flawed strategy of the past. Rather, students should understand from the beginning that a simulation is an attempt to recreate the process of battle, and in doing so to gain a deeper and clearer understanding of the decisions and actions that informed the sequence of events that followed. In the simulation, as in a staff ride, students are assigned roles to assume; these are usually commanders, from army leaders like Lee or McClellan, to corps commanders like James Longstreet or Joseph Hooker, all the way down to division, brigade, or in some cases, even regimental level. Once students have their roles, it is their responsibility to dive into the sources to discover as much relevant information about their assigned leader’s experience in the battle. As I point out in my review essay, historians and students seeking a deeper understanding of issues like motivation, personality, and relationship dynamics among military leaders can take on the approach of the historical biographer. Students can, in uncovering these details, see how patterns of behavior often spring from the lives and experiences of military leaders and thus help to shape military operations.[5]

This can be a great opportunity to teach students how historians conduct research, introducing them to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, letters, diaries, postwar memoirs, and other archival material, along with the vast corpus of scholarship on the Civil War. I have found it helpful to compile lists of relevant resources for students and even to provide them with some of the many freely available staff ride and primary resource collections available online from the Center of Military History, the Civil War Trust, the Library of Congress and National Archives, National Park Services sites, and other institutions or organizations. If you are fortunate enough to be near an actual battlefield site, as I am, field trips are also invaluable. It may be necessary to guide students’ research efforts through handouts or worksheets, so they have a clear understanding of their objectives and are not overwhelmed.

Map of the battlefield of Antietam. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In my experience, students react favorably to a physical representation of the battle simulation. The Library of Congress and the National Archives provide copyright free historical maps of battles like Antietam and Gettysburg on their websites. These images may be transferred to posters or, even better, to large photo blankets, at many retail photo centers. Students can mark the locations and movements of their leaders by using simple paper markers, and troop lines and columns are easily represented with popsicle sticks or even toy soldiers. Providing participants with a detailed timeline of the battle helps keep the simulation moving along, and as the ebb and flow of the simulation unfolds, students chime in by sharing their research and explaining their participant’s role in the action. Students should come prepared to explain their figure’s biography, their place in the chain of command, their objectives and orders during the battle, their historical actions, and the student’s plan to implement and explain all of this to their fellow students.

Implementing a battlefield simulation in the classroom requires extensive preparation. Students, particularly undergraduates, may be at a loss as to how to approach an exercise like this. There are, of course, many ways a simulation like this can develop, and, as in war, there are many opportunities for confusion and even disaster. I have found that preparing a briefing packet for students containing the timeline, a copy of the map, detailed orders of battle and chains of command, and additional readings beforehand is essential. Perhaps the most important component to a simulation like this comes after the fighting ends; students ought to provide a written reflection on the experience, describing lessons learned, insights gained, questions raised, and possibilities for further inquiry. I suggest posing questions such as:

  • What did you learn about your person’s participation in the battle, and how did their decisions or actions shape the outcome?
  • Were you confused, and does that confusion tell you something about the nature of battle in the Civil War?
  • How does your experience correlate to how historians have written about your person or this battle?

These kinds of questions encourage students to think historically about contingency, complexity, perspective, and war in ways that stretch the limits of what we can normally accomplish in a traditional classroom setting.


Resources and Recommended Reading:

Ballard, Ted. The Staff Ride Guide to the Battle of Antietam. CMH Pub 35-3-1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2018,

Bledsoe, Andrew S. “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 2 (June 2019), 275-301,

Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II. 4 vols. New York: The Century Company, 1887, 545-695.

McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Robertson, William Glenn. The Staff Ride. CMH Pub 70-21. Washington, DC.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2014,

Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

U.S. War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. Series 1, Volume 19, Parts 1-2 contain most of the relevant material on Antietam, including reports, returns, and orders of battle,



[1] Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History, January 2007, Civil War historian James M. McPherson believes that “at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently.” James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 858.

[2] Carol Reardon, “Writing Battle History: The Challenge of Memory,” and Kenneth W. Noe, “Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives,” both in Civil War History 53 (September 2007): 252-63, 236-43.

[3] Andrew S. Bledsoe, “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 2 (June 2019): 275-301.

[4] William Glenn Robertson, The Staff Ride. CMH Pub 70-21 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2014), 3-6.

[5] Bledsoe, “Beyond the Chessboard of War,” 287.

Andrew S. Bledsoe

Andrew S. Bledsoe is associate professor of history at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in history from Rice University in 2012. He is the author of Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2015), and co-editor (with Andrew F. Lang) of Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America’s Civil War (LSU Press, 2018).

Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs’s only known formal portrait, taken in 1894 about three years before her death. Used with permission.

The popularity of the narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has only grown since historian Jean Fagan Yellin connected what some believed was a fictionalized account, with Harriet Jacobs’s authentic experiences in slavery and freedom.[1] Multiple versions of the text, and dramatic presentations based on it, abound. Award-winning author Colson Whitehead acknowledged that Jacobs inspired his depiction of his protagonist, Cora, and several scenes in his novel The Underground Railroad.[2] Most references to Jacobs focus on her enslavement and escape, including the almost seven years she spent in the attic of her grandmother’s home in North Carolina, before her family could arrange her escape north. Jacobs’s narrative Incidents ends with her legal freedom, although she continued longing for “a hearthstone of my own.”[3]

Not following Jacobs’s life after legal freedom misses her later contributions as an activist and advocate. During the Civil War, she worked as a relief agent in Alexandria, Virginia, helping thousands of people who had escaped slavery by crossing Union lines. “I want to add my testimony,” Jacobs had written to explain her reason for publishing Incidents in early 1861. Little did she know that she would not only testify about slavery’s horrors based on her own life, but she would also participate in finding solutions for other newly emancipated people.

But first, she had to find her place.

The Union Army occupied Alexandria, the closest Confederate town to Washington, for the entirety of the conflict. As in other such areas, people escaping slavery soon followed, once word circulated that the federal government considered them “contraband of war” and, thus, would not return them to the enemy, their enslavers. The Army was officially responsible for their well-being but fell far short, despite Congress’s attempts to formalize these policies with the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862.[4] Northern religious, antislavery, and other relief organizations began sending supplies and aid workers south, somewhat akin to how organizations help refugees today.

In the summer of 1862, Jacobs traveled to Washington and Alexandria for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. She bore witness to dire poverty and ill health but also reported on people’s determination to become free and self-sufficient. “Trust them, make them free, and give them the responsibility of caring for themselves, and they will soon learn to help each other,” she wrote in “Life among the Contrabands.”[5] She did more than observe and report; she pitched in to help. The trip made her recognize the role she could play if she returned.

Jacobs found her opportunity with the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends. In November 1862, several members had traveled south on a fact-finding mission. They visited Alexandria, where they met Julia Wilbur, a white former teacher sponsored by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. Although their report does not mention her, Wilbur wrote about meeting them in her diary.[6] It is possible the encounter planted the idea for the Quaker group, because as reported at the end of 1862, the “Committee concluded to accept the services of Harriet Jacobs—herself a former slave—to act as their agent at Alexandria.”[7]

On January 14, 1863, Jacobs moved to Alexandria, along with boxes of supplies collected by the group. Although she had seen the area five months earlier, mid-winter Alexandria was not welcoming. Not surprisingly, given the conditions, she fell ill. Wilbur was initially not very hospitable. No personal letters survive from her first fraught weeks, but in March she wrote abolitionist Lydia Maria Child (knowing Child would widely share the letter, which she did), “The misery I have witnessed must be seen to be believed.”[8]

The freedmen’s barracks, even when opened in early 1863, did not have enough room for the refugees coming into Alexandria. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jacobs soon adjusted, and she and Wilbur developed a bond. Their first of many battles with the Army establishment revealed they could accomplish more together than either could alone. They became allies and friends, a bond that lasted until both died in the 1890s.

The Army had built utilitarian barracks for freedmen, but shelter remained insufficient. The women learned of the Army’s solution to one aspect of the shortage: house orphans in a newly built smallpox hospital south of town. Julia Wilbur wrote to her Rochester sponsors: “Dr. B [John Bigelow, a New York physician working in Alexandria] says he means to have all the orphans taken out there & kept & the same old women & nurses that take care of the sick can take care of the children. Would you think such an idea could enter the head of a sane, Christian man wh[ich] he proposes to be?”[9] The two women didn’t need medical training to recognize the folly of exposing healthy children to this contagious disease. They protested to the military governor, a mercurial general named John Slough.

The idea that two civilian women—including an African American—went “to the top” to lodge a complaint was extraordinary. They realized it as well. “My friend, this was really a great undertaking for us; we are in such a state of nervous excitement, that we were all of a trouble, & we had such a head ache too!” Wilbur wrote back to her Rochester sponsors. “Mrs. Jacobs spoke very handsomely to him, & when pleading for these children, said she ‘I have been a slave myself.’”[10] They stopped the move. And it is doubtful that Slough had ever spoken with a black woman in this kind of meeting before.

This photograph of the Jacobs School was distributed to Northern supporters. Note the “x” under Harriet Jacobs in the group and handwritten notation “H Jacobs, an ex slave” in the right hand corner. Courtesy of the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

With experiences like this under her belt, Jacobs succeeded in achieving a powerful dream: to establish a tuition-free school for African American children, led by African Americans. At least ten schools for freed children opened in Alexandria after 1861, but they charged a fee and/or were white-led.[11] Jacobs raised funds in the North and from local blacks for a building and to pay teachers, but that proved only half the battle. Who would control the school? Several white males made the case to the school trustees (most of them enslaved until recently) that their missionary society should take charge. But Jacobs urged otherwise: “I wanted the colored men to learn the time had come when it was their privilege to have something to say,” she wrote.[12] The trustees voted that Harriet’s daughter Louisa would head the school, with another young black woman as her assistant. The Jacobs Free School opened in January 1864.

During her time in Alexandria, Jacobs did not always succeed, but she learned the power of her own voice and experience. She continued to advocate for healthcare, education, housing, and, more broadly, the human rights of freedpeople. She witnessed joy and hope as the war ended, as well as trauma after President Lincoln’s assassination.

In 1865, she wrote the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends that “the time has come when I should go where labor is more needed.”[13] She hoped to establish an orphan asylum in Savannah; despite action that included a fundraising visit to England, the realities of post-war Georgia thwarted her plan. She spent years struggling to attain the yearned-for “hearthstone” about which she wrote in 1861. Her Civil War and post-Civil War work illustrate why it is premature to stop Jacobs’s story with publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.


[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (1861; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[2] Rick Koster, “Middle Passage: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead talks to Professor of History Jim Downs about the novel The Underground Railroad,” Connecticut College Magazine, Summer 2017,

[3] Jacobs, 259.

[4] For a description of army policies and attitudes toward freedpeople, see, for example, Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

[5] Harriet Jacobs. “Life among the Contrabands,” The Liberator, September 5, 1862.

[6] Julia Wilbur, diary entry, November 26, 1862, in Julia Wilbur Papers (HC.MC-1158), Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

[7] New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, Second Report of a Committee of Representatives of New York Yearly Meeting of Friends upon the Conditions and Wants of the Colored Refugees (New York: Author, 1863), 4,

[8] Harriet Jacobs to Lydia Maria Child, March 10, 1863, in Jean Fagan Yellin, et al., The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, vols. 1 and 2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 468.

[9] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, February 27, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

[10] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, March 10, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[11] In 1831, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law to officially prohibit the education of enslaved and free blacks. After 1861, schools were established in Alexandria and other Union-occupied areas, such as Fortress Monroe, although black education remained illegal in the rest of the state, which remained under Confederate rule. For a list and short descriptions of schools for freedpeople in Alexandria during and right after the Civil War, see U.S. Bureau of Education, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools: in the District of Columbia: submitted to Senate June 1868, and to the House with addition, June 13, 1870. (Washington, DC: [publisher not identified], 1871), 283–293.

[12] Harriet Jacobs to Hannah Stevenson, March 10, 1864, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 551.

[13] Harriet Jacobs to the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, March 30, 1865, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 629. Harriet and Louisa Jacobs continued to work in Alexandria until July 1865.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose was published by Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her website and blog are at

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain II: John Lothrop Motley and the Causes of the Civil War in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain II: John Lothrop Motley and the Causes of the Civil War in The Times of London

To read Part I of my analysis of this debate, click here. Part I discusses two articles by Cassius Clay, an antislavery Kentuckian and U.S. Minister to the Russian court, and Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt.

British neutrality inspired Clay and DeLeon to present their section’s reasoning to gain British support. Sandwiched between their articles on Thursday and Friday, May 23 and 24, 1861, was a third letter by well-known historian John Lothrop Motley, the future minister of the Lincoln administration to Vienna. Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley geared his appeal to the British people and based it on his many connections in British society, so Motley’s voice should have carried much weight. Motley also hoped he could change British policy with regard to the United States. However, a number of Motley’s arguments were designed for the United States, where his editorial was eventually published in pamphlet form, and he overlooked serious British concerns with regard to the Lincoln administration’s policies. Motley’s letter illustrates how focusing on upper-class opinions could undermine arguments, and even more, the importance of understanding the desire for official statements instead of opinions by private individuals. Nevertheless, Motley’s arguments highlight the issues of importance in May 1861 for the British.

Focused on legality, Motley started with a distinction between the de facto and de jure situations in the United States. De facto secession had occurred; the conflict in North America had become a war, and the United States would survive or die as the “great Republic.” However, de jure secession was illegal, according to Motley. He described the insult to the national flag at Fort Sumter and expressed fear that the same fate could happen in Washington. Motley laid out a lengthy and complicated legal argument against secession, making clear that the United States was “not a Confederation, not a compact of Sovereign States, not a copartnership, it [was] a Commonwealth” with a constitution that acted as fundamental and organic law. The United States had abandoned the state of chaos with the Constitution, an argument designed for readers in the United States and not Great Britain.[1]

John Lothrop Motley by John Sartain, engraver, and Trow and Co Leavitt, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dismissing the Articles of Confederation period where the country was a “league of petty sovereigns,” Motley noted that the Constitution “was ordained and established” by a power superior to the states: the people. He ridiculed the idea of state sovereignty as a constitutional right. Continuing to deride state power, Motley stressed that “the name of no state is mentioned in the” Constitution; rather, the states “receive commands.” He reinvigorated his point later in the letter by stressing that the president “knows nothing of states;” rather “he deals with individuals.” The power of states did not exceed those of the federal government and secession was not a state’s right. While British readers were familiar with states’ rights arguments, they likely had a mixed reaction to majority rule and democracy.

At the same time, complicating his impact in Great Britain, Motley upheld the right to revolution and the people’s obligation to rebel against oppression. He referenced Daniel Webster, who granted the right to secession as a revolutionary act but denounced the right to secede under the Constitution. According to Motley, Webster called it “an absurdity, for it supposes resistance to government under the authority of government itself; it supposes dismemberment without violating the principles of Union; . . . it supposes the total overthrow of government without revolution.” Unfortunately, Motley presented a confused response to secession. He ridiculed Southern states’ claims to a right of secession as revolution, but simultaneously called it revolution. British readers, including those concerned with recent events in 1848, might not look as favorably on the right to revolution as the New England patrician.[2]

Aware of his British audience, Motley expanded on Clay’s Scotland-England analogy. He too argued that Scotland could not secede from England. Nevertheless, he hypothesized that if Scotland seceded, seized British property and public treasure, organized an army, requested foreign recognition, and preyed on British commerce with pirates protected by the Scottish flag, would Great Britain not protect its nation’s honor? While this appeal provided a more elaborate set of similarities to the secession crisis in the United States, Motley likely fared little better than Clay.[3]

In contrast to Clay and DeLeon, Motley paid close attention to the Morrill Tariff, which significantly angered British free traders. The Morrill Tariff, passed by Congress in February 1861, doubled import duties. British politicians, especially those who stood for free trade, looked with concern at this change. John Bright and Richard Cobden, who were two of the most loyal supporters of the Union, were outraged by the new tariff.[4] Motley called the Morrill Tariff “absurd” and noted that secession had nothing to do with the tariff since the South had seceded under “the moderate tariff of 1857.” He believed that protective tariffs were unnecessary since U.S. manufacturers could prevail in the domestic market over European products. He assured British readers that modifications would soon lower the Morrill Tariff, maybe as soon as the emergency Congressional session in July, but he did not indicate how, since Republicans had solidified their majority in Congress.[5] Motley understood potential negative impacts of the Morrill Tariff, but his attempt to minimize its implications provided little solace for British free-trade thinkers.

Title page of the pamphlet version of Motley’s letters.

To convince British readers about the benefits of supporting the United States, Motley needed an appealing subject, such as British fears of Southern slavery’s expansion. He argued that a united Confederacy would turn into a “new and expensive military empire.” To raise revenue and protect an infant industry, the Southern Confederacy would charge high tariffs. Building on British fears, Motley asserted that the Confederacy might create a cotton-based Gulf empire and reestablish the African slave trade, a reminder of the many southern-sponsored filibusters. Unfortunately, Motley did not fully develop this idea, failing to strike a moral chord with the British without defying Lincoln’s domestic policy.[6]

Like Lincoln, Motley largely avoided slavery, but he argued that Southerners had seceded to prevent an attack on their lifestyle and their human property. Aware of British assumptions that slaveholders represented an aristocracy, Motley called them “a privileged oligarchy.”. Motley noted that the federal government had enacted a fugitive slave law and land purchases in the last two decades added slave territory. After insisting that the small number of abolitionists rendered the debate harmless, Motley clarified that the Republican Party’s platform only opposed slavery’s expansion into new territories, not slavery itself. For Motley, there was no compromise if slavery was extended; “compromise will no longer be offered by peace conventions, in which slavery is to be made national.”[7] Trade and slavery appealed to the British but were only a side note in Motley’s letter.

Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley explained to his British audience the causes behind secession and the war. Being well acquainted with member of the British upper strata, Motley should have been well aware of their assumption and views about the United States. However, overall, his argument was geared just as much toward a U.S. audience as a British audience. Avoiding the issue of slavery, just like the Lincoln administration, only helped to confuse British political leaders and increase their desire to await events, even turning some toward the Confederacy. Motley’s contribution during the early stages of the struggle illustrates, just as Clay and DeLeon’s did, the importance of public diplomacy. It also urges historians to be cautious since the well-connected Motley did not have the desired impact, forcing us to carefully consider both the impact of U.S. opinion makers and British attitudes about the United States.



[1] John L. Motley, The Causes of the American Civil War: A Letter to the London Times (London: Cox and Wyman, 1861), 5-7.

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

[3] Ibid., 17-19.

[4] Richard J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 21; Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century 1815-1915: A Study of Empire and Expansion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 21, 30-31, 109-110.

[5] Motley, Causes of the American Civil War, 20-21.

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 29.

Niels Eichhorn

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

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

Today we share our first post from our new correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy, an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. Her current research emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. Drop a note in the comments below and welcome her to the Muster team!

Private Peter South was part of Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, known by contemporaries as “the Indian Company.”[1] In June of 1864, Confederate soldiers captured South near Petersburg, Virginia. Six months later, South died due to scurvy while a prisoner at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia. His mother, Lucy Kamiskwasigay, applied for a pension soon after her son’s death. Other Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi) individuals tried to help Kamiskwasigay receive a pension.[2] For example, in May of 1868, Joseph Wakazoo testified in support of his late comrade’s mother: “Her son Peter, had he lived and discharged a son’s part, would have supported her in old age, but he gave his life to his country….” Wakazoo pleaded on behalf of Kamiskwasigay: “All her property—except a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department, + which she has no right to sell, or means to improve—would not sell for over fifty dollars, and that amount would not pay her debt, contracted on the sure belief that the United States Gov. would redeem its pledge by granting her, in common with others, a pension.”[3]

Wakazoo made many claims on the government in his brief deposition. He appealed, like many veterans, to the government’s “pledge” to support Union soldiers and their families. By mentioning Kamiskwasigay’s allotment—”a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department”—he also noted her Indian identity and status. Wakazoo emphasized that this Anishinaabe mother should “get her just due” from the government.[4] Kamiskwasigay was awarded a pension in 1869.[5]

Caption: Kamiskwasigay lived about two miles from the south shore of Little Traverse Bay, near Bear River (Petoskey, Michigan). Henry Francis Walling, ed., Atlas of the state of Michigan: including statistics and descriptions of its topography, hydrography, climate, natural and civil history, railways, educational institutions, material resources, etc. (Detroit, MI: R.M. & S.T. Tackabury, 1873), 51. Courtesy of Michigan County Histories and Atlases.

The pension claim of Private South’s mother tells a familiar story, illuminating how a network of South’s former comrades and community members worked to help his mother receive a pension for a dependent parent. Kamiskwasigay’s pension application also tells a story of Indigenous soldiers and their families that is not as familiar to Civil War audiences, especially undergraduate students. Peter South was one of the approximately twenty-thousand American Indians who served in Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.[6]

The experiences of Indigenous veterans and their families demonstrate intersections between the Civil War and settler colonialism in a way that is accessible to students. Susannah Ural, in her March 2019 Muster post, notes that student research on the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students gain a better understanding of complex topics and issues.[7] I encourage students to consider the concept of settler colonialism. While colonialism is often characterized by the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism requires the removal of Indigenous people in order for settlers to permanently occupy the land. The logic of settler colonialism in the nineteenth century demanded that American Indians disappear through physical removal or cultural and political assimilation.[8] My students discuss how settler colonialism applies to the history of the nineteenth-century United States and how to use it as an analytical framework for understanding primary sources.[9]

The narratives found in American Indian pension files help deconstruct the concept of settler colonialism while encouraging students to think about what settler colonialism actually meant for American Indians—individuals, families, communities, and tribes. Depositions in support of Kamiskwasigay’s pension application hint at the results of treaties. The Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, negotiated in Detroit in 1855, reserved tracts of land for the Anishinaabek and detailed a process for the allotment of Indigenous land into eighty- and forty-acre lots.[10] From the perspective of the federal and the state governments, allotment in the 1855 treaty, like the large-scale allotment of Indigenous land in the later Dawes Act, was meant to encourage American Indians, especially men, to become individual, landholding farmers. The idea behind allotment was to discourage and restrict seasonal subsistence strategies based on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture. In the logic of settler colonialism, transforming the Anishinaabek into individual landholding farmers would mean the Anishinaabek required less land, which opened the possibility that Anishinaabe land could be sold by these individual landholders in the future. Wakazoo’s 1868 testimony suggests that Kamiskwasigay had an allotment connected to the 1855 treaty. American Indian pension files underscore that some Civil War veterans and their families were dealing with multiple branches of the Department of the Interior—both the Bureau of Pensions and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Description of a mother’s pension application, 1862. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Kamiskwasigay’s story demonstrates the effects of both the Civil War and settler colonialism on her life—the loss of her son and her ability to support herself related to disputes over reserved land, the allotment process, and land title. Individual stories help students gain a better understanding of settler colonialism during the Civil War era. Through the pension application process, American Indians appealed to the federal government for resources based on their identities as veterans (or veterans’ family members), while at the same time working to remain on or near parts of their homelands.

By including stories like Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s in discussions of Civil War veterans and their families, we gain a better understanding of the ramifications of the Civil War for multiple groups of people. The pension process, seen from the perspective of American Indian veterans, demonstrates a need to consider the effects of settler colonialism. In general, veterans complained of skeptical bureaucrats who orchestrated invasive questions and medical exams during the application process, especially if a special examiner was sent to question neighbors and the pension applicant.[11] For Indigenous veterans, invasive questioning seemed threatening due to multiple circumstances. In reports concerning two Company K veterans, for instance, the special examiner noted that many of the Anishinaabek he tried to interview refused ”to talk to a stranger because they have been so persistently and shamefully defrauded by the whites that they think any time a white stranger enters into conversation with them it is for the purpose of gaining information that will bring them trouble or deprive them of their property in future.”[12] Pension examinations coincided with Anishinaabe struggles to gain clear title to their lands, as well as land fraud committed by speculators who obtained deeds through deception. The Anishinaabek were wary of strangers, questions, and paperwork. Their wariness, compared to their white comrades, had an additional layer determined by their Anishinaabe identities and dealings with white government officials.

Pension cases that introduce students to the post-war experiences of American Indian veterans are also important to consider in comparison to other veterans’ experiences. Considering African American and American Indian pension files in juxtaposition can help students understand how constructed racial hierarchies and nineteenth-century conceptions of “savagery” and “civilization” affected veterans’ experiences and the pension application process. Furthermore, pension files are replete with stories of white settlers. Considering American Indian veterans next to their Euro-American counterparts, and reading pension files through the analytical framework of settler colonialism, helps students understand Euro-American pension files in new ways. In addition, Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s pension application is a reminder that, while the majority of Indigenous peoples lived west of the Mississippi River after the Civil War, there were also Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi who were negotiating settler colonial policies.


[1] “The Michigan Sharpshooters,” Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, September 5, 1864, 4.

[2] Louis Miskoguon, September 1, 1865, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay (mother of Peter South), RG 15, National Archives, Washington D.C., and Compiled Service Record of Peter South, Civil War, Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, RG 94, National Archives.

[3] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa [Augustus Ottawa], May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[4] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa, May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[5] Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay. Kamiskwasigay is also discussed in Michelle Cassidy, “‘Both the Honor and the Profit’: Anishinaabe Warriors, Soldiers, and Veterans from Pontiac’s War through the Civil War,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2016), 285-286.

[6] Laurence M. Hauptman, “Introduction,” in American Indians and the Civil War, ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013), 11.

[7] Susannah Ural, “Teaching the American Civil War through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans,” Muster, March 26, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[8] For definitions of settler colonialism, see, for example, Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4-6; Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, and Legacies (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 2-4, and Nancy Shoemaker, “A Typology of Colonialism,” Perspectives of History (October 2015), 29-30.

[9] For more teaching ideas related to settler colonialism and the Civil War, see Cate Denial, “A Different View of the U.S. Civil War” Cate Denial Blog, May 23, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[10] Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, 1855, in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties vol. II, ed. Charles J. Kappler (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 725-731.

[11] Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014), 151-169.

[12] Special Examiner R.P. Fletcher to the Commissioner of Pensions, May 1887, Civil War Pension File of Leon Otashquabono, NARA.

Michelle Cassidy

Michelle Cassidy is assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current project emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. She has presented her research at numerous conferences and has published an article in the Michigan Historical Review.