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The War of the Rebellion a European-style War?: Latin American Comparisons

The War of the Rebellion a European-style War?: Latin American Comparisons

The War of the Rebellion in North America has brought forth a massive number of studies in military history. Very few of them are comparative in nature.[1] In addition, there does not seem to be a corresponding scholarly interested in the many civil wars and revolutions in Latin America during the mid-nineteenth century, at least not in English-speaking scholarship. While the Americas had inherited European military traditions, there were marked differences. If we truly wish to challenge the notion of exceptionalism, both of the United States and of the Civil War, we should not just look to Europe, but also to the South—South America that is.

Like Steven Hahn, I am using War of the Rebellion because it better recognizes that the Confederate States were an unrecognized, rogue state without international legitimacy.[2] At the same time, by thinking of the Confederate States in terms of a challenge to constitutional state power, it allows for comparison to similar challenges by political and military leaders in South America. Whereas Europe struggled to define nation-states in the many wars during the Civil War era, the states of the Americas struggled militarily and politically to define the contours of constitutional and federal state systems. Although the United States had much in common with the other states in the hemisphere, it looked increasingly more like Europe militarily.

During the Age of Revolutions, armies in the Americas were small and engagements rarely involved more than 15,000 combatants. In contrast, the battles of the Napoleonic Wars included around 200,000 soldiers. By the mid-nineteenth century, European battles, like Königsgrätz, involved as many as half a million soldiers. The battles of the War of the Rebellion were smaller than its European counterparts. The largest engagements in the United States, such as the Battles of Gettysburg and in the Wilderness, involved about 160-180,000 troops. The larger population in Europe, the more militarized states with their conscription systems, and the professional character of the European militaries contributed to the much larger battles. At the same time, both European and North American military planners hoped that by putting a large force in the field they could deliver one knockout blow. Nevertheless, the question remains were the battles of the War of the Rebellion in line with other battles in the Americas?

At mid-nineteenth century, internal conflicts plagued the Americas. The War of the Rebellion coincided with rebellions in at least the Argentinian Confederation, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Venezuela. In all these rebellions, the two sides disagreed about the political organization of their states, such as how much autonomy did provinces/states retain as their country embraced more centralized forms of governments. Despite the shared causation, the military situation was vastly different. U.S. generals and politicians initially assumed that one major engagement would end the rebellion in a few weeks, but these expectations did not pan out. Instead, it took almost four years and the lives of over 360,000 U.S. soldiers to suppress the rebellion. In some cases, like Peru, campaigns were long drawn out affairs but involved little fighting as commanders embraced an extremely cautious approach to their campaigns. In Argentina, however, the struggle between the Confederation and Buenos Aires in 1861 involved only one engagement, the Battle of Pavón.

On September 17, 1861, the armies of Bartolomé Mitre, the governor of Buenos Aires, and Justo José de Urquiza, the commander of the forces of the Argentine Confederation, met in battle at the small hamlet of Pavón. The conflict was the most recent installment of a long and intermitted civil war over the role and place of Buenos Aires within Argentina. Buenos Aires did not wish to surrender its sovereignty and trade privileges. The battle was odd for Latin America. As one British minister reported, the national army was predominately cavalry while Mitre had a force predominately of infantry. Both armies were similarly sized with about 16,000 men each.[3] The size of the armies was roughly equivalent to the larger engagements in the Trans-Mississippi region, such as the Battle of Pea Ridge which involved about 26,000 soldiers or the Battle of Wilson’s Creek with its almost 18,000 combatants.

The battle unfolded in two stages. The fighting began with Urquiza’s cavalry charging, overwhelming, and chasing off the field the opposing cavalry. With the cavalry eliminated, Mitre brought his large infantry force to bear and overwhelmed Urquiza’s troops. Urquiza fled with only an escort of about fifty men and did not stop until he returned home in Entre Rios. Mitre withdrew the next day as well. Both sides claimed victory. Mitre boasted that he had forced the enemy infantry to flee from the field.  The Argentina Confederation claimed that Mitre did eventually abandon the battlefield and the Argentinian cavalry had practically annihilated the enemy cavalry.[4] There were no other large military engagements as Argentinian resistance collapsed. Ultimately, Mitre’s victory allowed for the unification of Buenos Aires and the Argentinian Confederation with a new more centralized government.

Similarly, Colombia’s federated state also suffered from rebellion when liberal and conservative forces clashed in 1860. The conflict started when the Provinces of Antioquía and Santander seceded from the New Granadan Confederation and the conservative government tried to remove the governors. Faced with this situation, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, the governor of Cauca, rose up against the government. By early 1861, the New Granadan government had 9,000 men under arms.[5]

After much skirmishing around Cauca, Mosquera decided to advance toward Bogota and connect with another rebel army. Mosquera located a strong defensive position where he entrenched his force but the position did not allow Mosquera to use his cavalry. General Joaquín Paris Ricaurte, the commander of the government force, had 4,000 men for the defense of Bogota. On May 25, Paris finally attacked. Both sides had significant casualties without achieving a clear victory. Mosquera lost three generals, several officers, and over 1,200 men dead, wounded, or missing. The government forces had lost about 800 dead and wounded. After four days of eying each other uneasily, another skirmish resulted in the destruction of Mosquera’s reinforcements.[6] Considering only about 8,000 soldiers were involved in the battle for Bogota, this would have been a small battle in the War of the Rebellion. The contemporaneous Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) involved about 40,000 troops.

These are only two examples, but it was fairly common that large scale military engagements in Latin America used such small armies. When compared to contemporary battles in North America or Europe, however, these Latin American engagements were more reminiscent of the fighting during the American Revolutions where smaller engagements like the Battle of Cowpens, which only involved about 3,000 soldiers, and larger battles like Saratoga or Yorktown involved about 16,000. The War of the Rebellion was unique for involving far larger armies than were common in the Americas. These engagements proved almost European in nature. Of course, the central irony is that many people in the United States, from Southern imperialists to the radical George Henry Evans, had always wished to avoid becoming like Europe, but on some level, they had become similar to Europe.[7]


[1] Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, On the Road to Total War The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Brian Holden Reid, The Civil War and the Wars of the Nineteenth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

[2] Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016), 4.

[3] Edward Thornton to Lord John Russell, September 7, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, Brazil, FO 6, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[4] Edward Thornton to Lord John Russell, September 22, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, Brazil, FO 6, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[5] Philip Griffith to Lord John Russell, January 1, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, New Granada, FO 55, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[6] Philip Griffith to Lord John Russell, May 30, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, New Granada, FO 55, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[7] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 268; Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Claire M. Wolnisty, A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

No Flag, No State

No Flag, No State

Comedian Eddie Izzard once did a routine where he described the cunning nature of the British to “steal countries” by claiming they had a flag. He starts the bit by describing the British conquest of India and simulates a conversation between an indigenous person and a British soldier’s first encounter with each other. Izzard begins, “Well do you have a flag? No flag, no country. You can’t have one. Those are the rules that I just made up. Ha ha ha.”[1] To some, a flag is just a piece of cloth and to others it imparts significant social meaning. A flag may unify individuals working toward a common goal, provide a sense of identity or boast pride in one’s state. But a flag can also harken back to a time when civility was fraught with racial tension, as it was in the post-Civil War era. Controversies surrounding Confederate monuments, historically named districts and streets are flooding mainstream media across the country, including the state of Mississippi. Bearing the Confederate battle emblem, the Mississippi state flag served as a daily reminder of its participation in the Confederate nation led by Jefferson Davis. Its inclusion stood to demarcate a sense of nostalgia once expressed by poets during the Reconstruction era. Today, Mississippians perceive the state flag to be an affront to social justice. As a symbol, it marks the racialized attitudes of the past and continues to boast of that legacy when displayed over the state’s capitol building. The citizens said no more this summer. On June 30, 2020, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a law to retire and remove the state flag from all public buildings. The state currently remains flagless.[2]

Former Mississippi state flag.

Since its inception, the Mississippi state flag has been in a perpetual state of motion. For a period of nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the state was technically flagless. It is rumored that in 1894, Governor John Marshall Stone brought it to the attention of the Mississippi state Legislature.[3] (Insert flag). A joint legislative committee sent Stone a description of the desired flag as follows:

One with width two-thirds of its length, with the union square in width, two-thirds of the width of the flag; the ground of the union to be red and a broad blue saltier thereon bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen (13) mullets or five-pointed stars, corresponding to the number of the original States of the Union; the field to be divided into three bars of equal width, the upper one blue, the center one white, the lower one red; the national colors; the staff surmounted with a spear-head and battle-axe below; the flag to be fringed with gold, and the staff gilded with gold. [4]

Senator E.N. Scudder of Mayersville, a member of the Joint Legislative Committee for a State Flag, is believed to be the designer of the flag and it was signed into law by Governor Stone as the official state flag on February 7, 1894. Twelve years later, the law establishing the flag was repealed citing a legal oversight requiring the Legislature’s approval.[5] The 1906 repeal temporarily rendered the state without an officially approved flag. Nevertheless, Mississippians readily adopted the flag without much regard for this logistical error. In a 1924 address to the annual convention of the Mississippi Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Fayssoux Scudder Corneil, daughter of Senator Scudder, recalled “that her father designed the flag and included the Beauregard battle flag in the canton corner to honor the Confederate soldier.”[6]

For over one hundred years, the emblem has served as a cloth Lost Cause memorial. It had been a symbol of Southern pride for some, while causing pain for others. Several advocacy groups lobbied for an official change to the state flag. In 2001, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum to change the state flag by a margin of 2 to 1.[7] This underscored the importance of the flag to many white Mississippians who refuse to let naysayers force them to upend their understanding of state history. And yet, this defeat reflected the desires of some but not all residents. Black and white Mississippians continued their efforts. They have rallied around the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and successfully pressured Governor Tate Reeves to respond to the people. At the end of June 2020, he signed the historic legislation that officially retired and removed all state flags across Mississippi public spaces.[8]

Here lies the issue for a state that wrestles with the nostalgia of the Civil War by some with those who endured the negative consequences of the symbolism imbued in the Confederate battle emblem. This ongoing debate is being held among historians, scholars, the general public and certainly within the school system. Inquisitive students are asking their teachers, “How did we get here? What meaning does a flag convey? Why has it taken 126 years to replace?” All of these critical questions transport us back to the era of Reconstruction and the often overlooked role of  poetry.

Reconstruction Era poets contributed to a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Despite resulting in defeat, the poetic verses served to reignite the old sentiments which captured the hearts of white Southerners, both past and present. Rather than providing reconciliation for modern Southerners, the poems fueled the ongoing cultural wars that have become increasingly politicized today. In 1866, Anna Peyre Dinnies penned a poem entitled “The Confederate Flag” to mourn the loss of the war. The Louisianian poet wrote:

Take that banner down, ‘tis weary,

Round its staff, ‘tis dreary,


Furl it, hide it, let it rest;

For there’s not a man to wave it-

For there’s not a soul to lave it

In the blood that heroes gave it.

Furl it, hide it, let it rest.


Take that banner down, ‘tis tattered;

Broken is its staff, and shattered;

And the valiant hearts are scattered

Over whom it floated high.[9]

Dinnies waxed nostalgia for Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War.  She romanticized the war and the men who fought for the Confederacy. The Confederate battle flag was, to many, emblematic of the courage displayed by Confederate soldiers.  Its incorporation to the state flag provided a lasting memory for generations of Mississippians to follow. Written over 150 years ago Dinnies’ poem captures the sense of loss expressed by current residents of Mississippi who are grieving the removed state flag while still obscuring those Mississippians who never accepted the Lost Cause legacy. As such, the Reconstruction era poem has resonance in the present debate.

The Summer of 2020 events ushered a new chapter in the history of the Mississippi state flag. Nationwide protests over the injustices that Black Americans face have rekindled debates. Laurin Stennis, granddaughter of Miss. Senator John Stennis, was commissioned to work with the legislature on developing the new state flag.[10] In an interview with the Carbon County News, she explained that “the reintroduction of the Confederate symbol in 1894 was a ‘giant reassertion of white supremacy’ and carried out in ‘response to Federal decisions that they didn’t agree with. Georgia did the same thing.’”[11] The resulting Stennis flag prototype, however, received mixed reviews. Supporters praised the removal of the Confederate battle emblem. Opponents professed their fears that the design continued to erase the state’s history. The issue of the Mississippi flag even extended beyond state borders. At the Red Lodge Broadway Flag Committee (RLBFC) virtual presentation with Laurin Stennis, one attendee voiced his opposition to the redesign process: “Every society or country has some issues in their past concerning their national symbols in their flag, every country has a skeleton in their cupboard.”[12] Another attendee countered: “Exclusivity is to all (but) is not demonstrated by a racist or derisive symbol and the American flag promotes unity.”[13] While prompting fierce local and national debate, the official selection process has continued.

One of two final flags designs considered by the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag.

In early September 2020, the Commission to Redesign the Mississippi State Flag submitted two final designs. Members of the committee voted on their preferred design in a non-binding public poll. Instead of the Stennis prototype, members chose a flag designed by Rocky Vaughan.  Referred to as the “New Magnolia Flag,” the final design was then sent to the governor and legislature.[14] Mississippians will voice their approval, or not, on the November 3rd ballot when the fate of the proposed redesigned state flag will be determined.  Until then, Mississippi will remain flagless once more.

[1] Eddie Izzard, “Dress to Kill,” filmed June 1999 at San Francisco, CA, stand up comedy routine, 1:54.08.

[2] Rick Rojas, “Mississippi Governor Signs Law to Remove Flag with Confederate Emblem,” New York Times, June, 30, 2020.

[3] David G. Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi,” Mississippi History Now, a Mississippi Historical Society Online Publication, accessed September 5, 2020,; Historians widely accept sources which point to Scudder as the designer of the flag, though this is not explicitly stated.

[4] House Journal, 1894 (Clarion-Ledger Publishing Co., 1894), 193-194, 350-351.

[5] Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi.”

[6] Sansing, “Flags Over Mississippi.”

[7] Anne Marshall, “Mississippi’s Confederate flag is gone- but a legacy of white supremacist policy remains,”, July 1, 2020,

[8] Marshall, “Mississippi’s Confederate flag is gone.”

[9] Anna Peyre Dinnies, “The Confederate Flag,” poem, 1866, accessed in the Newberry Digital Collection,

[10] Alastair Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons,” The Carbon County News,

[11] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[12] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[13] Baker, “Mississippi flag debate unfurls pros and cons.”

[14] “Mississippi Department of Archives & History,” “State Flag Commission Picks New Magnolia Flag for November Ballot,” accessed September 2, 2020.

The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of

The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of

When I first heard of the Civil War Day of Action led by the Journal of the Civil War Era, I was ecstatic and excited at the prospect of bringing forgotten and ignored history to people. I also knew my location. It would be 156 years almost to the day of a ferocious Civil War battle marked by heroism, sacrifice, leadership, and triumph. September 29th, 1864 was the greatest day in African American military history. A day that the U.S. military and the entire nation should remember and celebrate. It, however, has not except for a few avid historians. The battle of New Market Heights has been lost to history because the vast majority of those soldiers who fought it were Black.

Several United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments fought against the Confederate army defending Richmond, Virginia in the fall of 1864. Composed of both free and former enslaved men these regiments formed the nucleus of the Union attack that fateful September morning. They fought bravely. After a hard struggle, those USCT regiments forced the enemy to retreat. Due to almost 160 years of Lost Cause historiography, racism, and intentional forgetting, most Americans have no knowledge of this Civil War battle and the pivotal role African American soldiers played. It is time to remedy this reality.

After President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, many Black men flocked to the colors and enlisted in the Union Army. Thousands turned out to enlist across the North, even more from the seceded Southern states joined up. Led by white officers, the soldiers who fought at New Market Heights had been in the Army for over a year when the battle took place. By September 1864, they were now grizzled veterans and professional soldiers who were well trained, disciplined, and would be a part of the army that ultimately won the Civil War.

The idea of Black Americans fighting for the Union was a child of many fathers. Union generals, like John C. Fremont and Benjamin Butler, led the way by forming units of former enslaved men to fight the Confederacy as early as 1861. President Abraham Lincoln and government officials admonished them. By 1862, the cry from abolitionists, the northern Black communities, and stressed state governors needing to fill their quotas convinced Lincoln to change policy. Once emancipation was introduced, Federal officials formed Black regiments and recruited men in earnest. Almost 200,000 Black men were brought into military service and helped to secure a United States victory.[1]

In all, over 180 regiments would join the United States army to fight for not only the Union but to prove themselves as men. They also fought for the freedom of their families. Many would make up an entire corps of the Army of the James, which participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s assaults on Richmond and Petersburg.[2]

Early on the morning of 29 September 1864, USCT regiments from the Union Army of the James moved into position to attack Confederate defenses to the Southeast of Richmond, a place called New Market Heights. These units included the 4th and 6th US Colored Infantry Regiments, who would make the main assault that day.[3] The enemy was well entrenched behind fallen trees and trenches, and the Four Mile Creek ran parallel to their lines. Through the mist Union forces moved forward, got caught in the defensive line and took heavy fire from rifles and cannon. The unsupported first regiments fell back to regroup. More USCT units joined the attack and pushed forward through the trees. Private James Harris and First Sergeant Edward Ratcliff were the first to reach the trenches. Ratcliff took over the command of the company after his commanding officer was killed. First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty of the 5th USCI did the same.[4] Private James Gardiner, a member of the 36th USCI, mounted the parapet in front of the trench, shot a Confederate officer and ran him through with his bayonet before waving his comrades forward. Corporal Miles James of the 36th USCI had his arm mutilated by an enemy shot yet continued to load and fire at the enemy. Others like Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood saw their fellow comrades fall and pushed forward, seizing the regimental colors and carrying them the rest of the fight. By mid-morning the trenches were clear and the Confederates retreated to another defensive line. In the attack hundreds of men were killed or wounded, including captured Black soldiers executed by Confederate defenders, and fourteen Black men would earn Medals of Honor for their gallantry.[5]These USCT regiments played a key role in destroying the Confederacy during 1864 and 1865.

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 ended. With the resurgence of white supremacist governance in the South, Jim Crow laws, and Lost Cause historiography, post-Civil War recognition of their deeds disappeared altogether. The Civil War as taught to generations of Americans became solely a white man’s war with USCT contributions erased from history.

Today, the New Market Heights battlefield is made up of private homes, small farms, and a county water treatment plant. The battlefield land is not protected like Gettysburg or Chickamauga. There are no monuments to the various USCT units or states involved. There is one historical marker located hundreds of yards west of the actual battlefield. Another newer marker has been placed along the road by the creek. The American Battlefield Trust has preserved a small portion of the battlefield where only white soldiers fought on. The lack of educational placards, maps, and an interpretive center discourages visitors. It’s among the many forgotten Civil War sites and has become lost to popular memory. Although Civil War USCT scholarship and the contribution of African Americans has increased over the years, the battlefield and those who fought there are still ignored.

It is now my mission to actively remember. It must become our mission. Through our efforts, we must ensure that their sacrifices for Union and for freedom are never forgotten again on subsequent anniversaries of their noble deeds.

[1] See Douglas, R. Egerton, Thunder At The Gates, The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[2] Edward G. Longacre, Army of Amateurs, General Benjamin F. Butler and the Army of the James, 1863-1865 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1997).

[3] Edward G. Longacre, A Regiment Of Slaves, The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

[4] Versalle F. Washington, Eagles On Their Buttons, A Black Infantry Regiment In The Civil War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999).

[5] James S. Price, The Battle of New Market Heights, Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword (Charleston: The History Press, 2011).

A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

The beeping of construction equipment pierced the morning air. The dull sounds of traffic and commuters interrupted by a backhoe in the middle of the park. Then, a groan and a creak, and the taut cable began its work. The column upon which John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood for more than a century then collapsed to the ground. An echoing boom not unlike the crack of artillery that once rained over Charleston almost 160 years prior.[1]

Statue on a marble column with buildings in background.
Calhoun’s monument stood silently over Marion Square for 124 years. Like the man himself, this reserved monument caused its share of conflict. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Visual reminders of Charleston’s past surround the now empty pedestal in Marion Square. Fort Sumter, where the first bellowing  shot of the Civil War was aimed, sits idly in the harbor. Less than a mile away, the towering white steeple of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands high in the skyline. Below, tour guides recount tales of the steeple being painted black during the Revolutionary War to shield it from British bombardment. The story paints a striking visual contrast to the white tower that stands today.[2]

While the sites of history are a driving force behind Charleston’s economy, its sounds have been lost to time or buried beneath the noise of a modern city. John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood over Marion Square, gazing down upon Calhoun St., towering above the greenscape it surrounds, but his memorial was silent. Silent until it fell this summer.

While the monument stood quietly over Marion Square, the public below was not so subdued in its response. In 1895, the News and Courier referred to the first statue as a “dreadful eyesore” and the African American community in Charleston immediately recognized the statue as a symbol of Jim Crow’s rise. Many critics took advantage of any opportunity to vandalize the monument, including using “the Calhoun Monument for target practice.” In 1894, an African American was even arrested for inadvertently shooting a white child while aiming at the statue.[3]

Criticism of the monument rose to new heights in 2015. A re-envisioning of public memory and memorialization was sparked first by the racially-motivated attack in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. In 2017, the Charleston Commission on History and the City Council agreed to amend the plaque at the statue, adding specific language defining Calhoun’s support of slavery. The new plaque was never installed. Controversy over public monuments and memorials continued in the coming years. The Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds in response to the Mother Emanuel shooting. Tensions then reached new heights in 2017, when right-wing protesters violently marched on Charlottesville, VA protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. The reckoning with public monuments gained new momentum in 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.[4]

The monument’s collapse in 2020 provided the perfect allegory for the man it memorialized—as silent and reserved in death as he had been in his life and political career. Just as Calhoun’s elegant, yet divisive, rhetoric was overshadowed by the chaos and destruction of war inspired by his sectional oratory; the silent, inanimate statue sowed its own divisions that were eventually punctuated by modern noise and destruction.

The Cast-Iron Man—later immortalized in stone twice in Marion Square—was not known for loud or boisterous tones. Calhoun was “resistant to either emotional pleas or divine commands” and did not rely on them in his speech.[5] He did not present a fire and brimstone lecture on sectionalism and division, even as he began secession discussions in response to the Compromise of 1850.

Handwritten cursive writing on aged document.
Calhoun was neither able to write nor deliver his final speech to the Senate. He did, however, make his own visible revisions after dictating the speech to his secretary. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In giving his most famous speech, his final statement before the Senate, on March 4, 1850, Calhoun was stone quiet. Weakened by chronically poor health, Calhoun instead relied on Virginian Senator James Murray Mason to deliver his remarks. As Mason began the address, “every senator listened with profound attention and unfeigned emotion; the galleries were hushed into the deepest silence.” This was not the scene of a Southern Fire-Eater rallying for war. Instead it carried the “impressive solemnity of a funeral ceremony.” Mason was, in a sense, delivering Calhoun’s eulogy before his own eyes and, quite possibly, eulogizing the Union at the same time.[6]

Calhoun “sat motionless in his chair, sweeping the chamber now and again with deeply luminous eyes.”[7]Silently watching over his comrades in the chamber, his own words sounded out beyond his seat, absent of his voice. He wrote that, if the North were unwilling to compromise on the addition of new territories to balance the divide between free and slave states the two sections should, “agree to separate and part in peace.” Northern “silence,” Calhoun continued via his proxy, would send a signal loud enough to the South that the Union would not and should not continue.[8]

Calhoun’s silent and feeble figure slipped out of the Senate chamber and later out of this world, passing only weeks after his final address. The 1850 Compromise passed. His quiet remarks laid the foundation for the explosion of war in Charleston.

Just over a decade after Calhoun’s death, the cacophony of war reigned over Charleston. In what the Citadel calls “first hostile shots of the Civil War,” the silence was first broken by Citadel cadets firing upon the Star of the West, a merchant vessel sent to resupply Fort Sumter. The regular noise of city life was replaced for the next four years by artillery bombardments at Fort Sumter, infantry assaults at Battery Wagner, and naval battles in the harbor.[9]

The sounds of this clash soon passed and Marion Square would return to more familiar duties. It served as a parade ground for the occupying federal troops. It hosted circuses and baseball games, including at least one game that got so out of hand that police had to disperse the rioting crowd with gunfire. The echoes of war, it seemed, again interrupted Charleston’s atmosphere.[10]

Under Calhoun’s watchful eye, Marion Square returns to its Antebellum duties, providing a parade ground for Citadel Cadets. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Calhoun’s steely gaze returned to South Carolina in 1887, 37 years after his final speech and death, as part of the Civil War culture wars. The state was reemerging from Reconstruction and Calhoun’s monument would not only memorialize the Cast-Iron Man but also remind the city of an era of Southern strength in national politics, instead of the federal occupation it had experienced for more than a decade after Confederate soldiers abandoned Charleston in February 1865.

The monument was installed at the center of the city, making Calhoun’s effigy the focal point of a growing and expanding Charleston. The statue set in stone the new order of the Southern government. White “Redeemers” had already set about undoing the democratic progress made during Federal Reconstruction and began systematically stripping African Americans of their newfound voting rights. Calhoun’s memorial was installed only five years after the state passed the “Box Law,” silencing African American votes “by requiring voters to place ballots in separate boxes.”[11]

When the “cannon fire and enthusiastic shouts” of the dedication ceremony fell silent, Marion Square was instead filled with the critiques of the monument and the sounds of pen knives steadily chipping away at its marble. Almost immediately, it became the subject of disdain in both the white and black communities in Charleston, albeit for entirely different reasons. White objections were predominately aesthetic. A Charleston cotton broker, Henry S. Holmes described the first monument as “a frightful sight to citizens passing over Marion Square.”[12]

For the African American community in Charleston, Calhoun’s monument was the physical embodiment of segregation.[13] In her memoir, Lemon Swamp and Other Places, Charlestonian Mamie Garvin Fields describes the African American reception to Calhoun’s first monument, writing that Calhoun’s likeness seemed to say, “you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.” Such a loud statement by the memorial was sure to cause a response and Fields and her neighbors set out to strike back, defacing the monument at any opportunity they had. “We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose.”[14]

Elevated to its new position nearly one hundred feet over Marion Square and out of harm’s way, the quiet statue stood watch for more than a century before its removal in late June 2020. Still reeling from the racially-motivated shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, the city began efforts to reconcile with its destructive past. Shortly after the vote unanimously passed to remove the monument, a thunderstorm detonated across the Charleston sky.[15] The air in Marion Square undoubtedly echoed the sounds of January 1861, when the Citadel Cadets fired upon Union merchant ships in Charleston Harbor.

The noise of its demolition that followed—first the calm and calculated removal of the stone figure, and then the fleeting collapse of the granite column—ended the city’s long history with Calhoun’s monument, while briefly reminding it of the sounds of a war he once influenced. Reporters on-site wrote that “Marion Square shook” as the steel cable pulled the column down from its now-empty pedestal. As the crashing column fell and then returned to silence, the small crowd of witnesses returned to their normal Wednesdays and the sounds of present-day life fell back over the city.[16]

His words had long since fallen beyond our ears, but his beliefs remained for generations. For decades, Calhoun’s figure silently watched over a city that struggled to grow out of the past that he once advocated. After a life in which Calhoun argued that slavery was a “good—a great good,”[17] his image watched over a city that grew and modernized. After his death, Charleston struggled with racism, and hosted countless Civil Rights demonstrations that included strikes, marches and speeches led by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. All of this under the watchful eye of his stone image.[18]

The removal of the monument may have briefly returned the sounds of destruction to Charleston’s ears but it also, as Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg so somberly stated, brought peace to the city.[19]

[1] Mikaela Porter, “In 21 Seconds, Granite Column That Held John C. Calhoun above Charleston Tumbled to Ground,” Post and Courier, September 03, 2020, Accessed September 01, 2020.

[2] “St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (U.S. National Park Service),” National Parks Service, Accessed September 01, 2020,

[3] Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of Confederacy (New York, NY: The New Press, 2019), 109.

[4] Fleming Smith, “Sparked by Protests, Campaigns Renew to Remove Calhoun Monument from Marion Square,” Post and Courier, June 4, 2020, Accessed September 17, 2020.

[5] Holley Ulbrich, “John C. Calhoun,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, March 06, 2003, Accessed September 01, 2020,

[6] Hermann Von Hoist, “John C. Calhoun,” Internet Archive, January 01, 1883, Accessed September 01, 2020, Digital copy of original 1883 publication. Added to the internet archive 14 April 2008.

[7] “John C. Calhoun’s Speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850, 4 March 1850,” The Library of Congress, Accessed September 04, 2020,

[8] “John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, Speaking before the Senate, March 4, 1850,” National Humanities Center, Accessed September 01, 2020,

[9] “War Between The States,” The Citadel, Accessed September 03, 2020,

[10] “A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 2.” Charleston County Public Library, October 26, 2018, Accessed September 03, 2020,

[11]  Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 106.

[12] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 108.

[13] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 105.

[14] Quoted in Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso Book, 2014), 182.

[15] Victoria Hansen, “Calhoun Statue Overlooking Charleston Takes Time to Come Down,” South Carolina Public Radio, June 25, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020,

[16] Porter, “In 21 Seconds…”

[17] Ethan S. Rafuse, “John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War,” HistoryNet, May 02, 2019, Accessed September 03, 2020,

Originally published in the October 2002 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

[18] Lottie Joiner, “Charleston Church Shooting and a City’s Place in Civil Rights History,” Time, June 19, 2015, Accessed September 03, 2020,

[19] Ray Rivera, Patrick Phillips, “Crews Remove John C. Calhoun Statue from Marion Square,” WTOC. June 24, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020,


Justin Bristol

Justin Bristol is an educator and public historian in Savannah, GA. A graduate of both the University of South Carolina and Armstrong State University's (now Georgia Southern University) History programs, Justin has sought to make Savannah's past relevant to his students and museum guests through participatory and active experiences. Inspired by his museum and classroom experience, his ongoing research seeks to grow sensory connections between our modern sites and the events and people that make them historic.

But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

As Confederate Civil War monuments continue to come under siege for their white supremacist representations of the nation’s most transformative conflict,[1] Union Civil War monuments and their inscriptions exist in an illusory realm of public approval. In fact, there is an inherent belief among many people that Union Civil War monuments––by their very nature––exemplify the antithesis of a proslavery racist South. As Thomas J. Brown points out, however, “[a]part from those that included the end of the Gettysburg Address, less than 5 percent of known Union inscriptions refer explicitly to the abolition of slavery as an achievement celebrated by the monument.”[2] By failing to acknowledge the Union victory as a long-overdue deliverance of the egalitarian principles under which the nation was founded, Northern Civil War monuments contributed to a collective historical ignorance that surrounded the war’s meaning and memory for decades. Rather than make a definitive statement on the Civil War’s emancipationist outcomes, the vast majority of Union monuments bypassed the issue of slavery altogether and instead expressed the war’s purpose in far more temperate terms.

Soldiers’ Monument, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

To be clear, Union and Confederate monuments do not offer homogeneous depictions of the Civil War. Northerners prided themselves on their victory over the South, and for the most part the public monuments honoring their sacrifices reflected that sentiment. Across the entire region, Union monuments in various constructs celebrated the preservation of the United States and the defeat of a rebellious South.[3] Still, in the frenetic postwar race to erect tangible interpretations of the war’s legacy, Northerners and Southerners found common ground. In their physical manifestations and their inscriptions, Confederate and Union memorials generally paid nondescript homage to the soldiers who had periled or lost their lives in the war. While many Northern monuments touted guardianship of the Union as the main impetus for war, and Southern monuments conversely pointed to states’ rights, the question of whether or not this was a war to abolish slavery remained unclear. In fact, anyone visiting Civil War monuments in either region was likely to get the impression that the war had nothing at all to do with emancipation.[4]

Although the past twenty plus years of Civil War scholarship has produced a significant number of memory studies, very few have focused exclusively on Union monuments and their inscriptions. Nevertheless, in the studies that do include analyses of Northern Civil War commemoration, two predominant themes have clearly emerged. In Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, Kirk Savage asserts that in order to perpetuate the nation’s ingrained framework of white supremacy, Northerners and Southerners deliberately constructed monuments that disregarded the war’s emancipationist purpose.[5] Likewise, in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight argues that in the interest of maintaining a deeply-rooted antebellum racial hierarchy, soldiers’ monuments emphasized reconciliation and neglected the war’s abolitionist aims.[6] In contrast, scholars such as Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney maintain that Union Civil War commemoration was hardly an exercise in rapprochement, and instead argue that Northern monuments exalted the Unionist cause.[7] More recently, Thomas J. Brown’s Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America “reframes” leading reconciliationist theories to argue that by the 1930s Civil War monuments reflected the county’s transformational adoption of military principles.[8]Differing historical interpretations notwithstanding, however, one thing remains true: the overwhelming number of Northern Civil War monuments make no reference to slavery whatsoever.[9]

Perhaps a closer look at one of the few Northern monuments to candidly announce emancipation as a Civil War outcome will help further illuminate the deficiencies of the vast majority of those that did not. Erected in 1874, the Soldiers’ Monument in Fitchburg, Massachusetts represents a clear case of anti-reconciliatory monument building. Dedicated to those from Fitchburg who “SECURED THE UNITY OF THE REBUBLIC, / AND THE FREEDOM OF AN OPPRESSED RACE,” the Soldiers’ Monument announced to everyone who visited that the Civil War served the unmistakable dual purpose of safeguarding the Union and emancipating four million slaves from bondage.[10] As a small New England town with profound connections to its Revolutionary heritage, Fitchburg’s Unionist convictions were entrenched in the community. The town was also an epicenter of antislavery activism in the mid-1800s and many locals worked directly with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and a host of others. This abolitionist ideology mixed with the community’s memory of the Revolution to produce a Soldiers’ Monument that anchored Fitchburg’s Unionist and emancipationist understanding of the Civil War for decades.[11]

Soldiers’ Memorial, Worcester, Massachusetts

Just thirty miles down the road from Fitchburg in Worcester, Massachusetts, however, residents completely ignored the issue of slavery in their Civil War commemoration. This is telling as not only was Worcester a hotbed of abolitionism in the antebellum era, but fifteen African Americans from Worcester volunteered for service with the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, twenty-two served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, five joined the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts, some served with Colored regiments in Rhode Island, and still others volunteered to fight in units outside of New England. Moreover, Worcester resident and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson took command of the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry in November, 1862.[12] Yet, rather than build a monument that voiced the community’s support for emancipation and universal civil rights, Worcester’s Soldiers’ Monument was dedicated to the memory of the men who gave their lives “For the Unity of the Republic.”[13] Like all Civil War memorials, both the Fitchburg and Worcester Soldiers’ Monuments were intended to sustain a lasting memory of the community’s interpretation of the causes and consequences of the conflict. Although both communities saw the war––at least in part––as a battle for the abolition of slavery, only one of them chose to honor that objective in their monument.

Fitchburg’s adjoining town of Leominster, Massachusetts illustrates a slowly evolving change in the way that one Northern community dealt with the issue of slavery in regards to Civil War monument construction. Erected in 1866, just one year after the war ended, the Soldiers’ Monument in Leominster made no mention of either slavery or union. Instead of declaring any specific cause or outcome of the Civil War, the monument was simply dedicated in “HONOR TO THE BRAVE.” In 1998, however, the people of Leominster redefined the community’s understanding of the Civil War with a monument that commemorated the service of Oliver E. Hazzard, an African American resident who fought with the 54thMassachusetts Infantry. The monument not only features a sculpture of Hazard in his uniform, but it is also inscribed with language that clearly contextualizes the Civil War in emancipationist tones: “THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED / TO HONORING THE MEMORY OF / ALL LEOMINSTER SOLDIERS / WHO SERVED WITH COURAGE / FOR FREEDOM AND JUSTICE. / WE MUST WE CAN AND WE WILL BE FREE.”[14]

Oilver Hazard Monument, Leominster, Massachusetts

Although Leominster was a place that fostered antislavery activity and often collaborated with abolitionists from Fitchburg and Worcester, the town did not imbue their Civil War monument with any emancipationist significance.[15]Rather, they chose to commemorate a generic version of wartime valor only. The timing of the 1998 Hazard Monument, moreover, is likely an outgrowth of the unyielding efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. This long delay in Leominster’s recognition of the abolition of slavery as a direct consequence of the Civil War demonstrates the glacial pace at which most Northern communities shifted their viewpoints, and further highlights the progressive mindset of the people of Fitchburg in the mid-nineteenth century.

This very limited examination of Northern Civil War monuments in central Massachusetts reveals three very different approaches to the question of slavery and how it was remembered within the context of the war. Because the Fitchburg Soldiers’ Monument represents an anomaly of Union Civil War commemoration, it also exposes an intentional forgetting in the great majority of all other Northern monuments. Over time, the abandonment of the Civil War’s emancipationist implications helped muddle the war’s true meaning. By emphasizing the preservation of the Union and ignoring the issue of slavery, most Northern monuments helped engrave an obscured memory of the war in both the landscape and minds of the nation. This deliberate erasure also hindered the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States. As such, a concerted effort by modern historians to determine why exactly so many Northern monuments disregarded the war’s fundamental issue of slavery will add considerably to our understanding of Civil War memory. In fact, studies that spotlight the shortcomings of Northern Civil War monuments will likely reveal as much––if not more––about the Civil War and its aftermath as those that focus entirely on their notorious Lost Cause counterparts.


[1] Alisha Ebrahimji, Lauren M. Johnson, and Artemis Moshtaghian, “Confederate Statues Continue to Come Down: Here’s What We Know,”, last modified July 1, 2020, accessed August 21, 2020,

[2] Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 37.

[3] Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 106.

[4] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 35-39.

[5] Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[6] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 199.

[7] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 156-159; Janney, Remembering the Civil War, 106-107.

[8] Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 9.

[9] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 37.

[10] Report of the Soldiers’ Monument Committee, of the City of Fitchburg (Fitchburg, MA: Printed at the Office of Henry F. Piper, 1874).

[11] On Fitchburg’s involvement in the American Revolution see, Rufus C. Torrey, History of the Town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts (Fitchburg, MA: J. Garfield, Printer, 1836), 63-85; J.F.D. Garfield, “Fitchburg’s Response to the Lexington Alarm,” April, 18, 1892, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Vol. I. (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, Sentinel Printing Company, 1895), 113-122; Doris Kirkpatrick, The City and the River (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, 1971), 105-113. On Fitchburg’s deep engagement with abolitionism and the antislavery movement see, Martha Snow Wallace, My Father’s House (Boston, MA: George H. Ellis Co., 1915); Martha E. Crocker, “The Fugitive Slave Law and its Workings,” June 18, 1894, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 220-228; Kirkpatrick, The City and the River, 193, 235, 238, 259-271.

[12] Abijah P. Marvin, History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester, MA: Published by the author, 1870), 397-398.

[13] George Crompton, E. B. Stoddard, Charles A. Chase, Dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument at Worcester, Massachusetts, July 15, A. D. 1874 (Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1874), 10.

[14] Thomas K. Hazzard, Diane M. Sanabria, Robert Cormier, Images of America: Leominster (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999), 80. The author of this Blog post has verified in person the inscriptions on the Leominster Soldiers’ Monument and the Oliver E. Hazard Monument.

[15] Michael Bennett, Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 20; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), 132.

Darren Barry

Darren Barry is an independent scholar and United States history teacher at Montachusett Regional High School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He has published works in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts and African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs. Barry is currently working on a manuscript that explores the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their history, public image, and identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Extending the Civil War Day of Action

Extending the Civil War Day of Action

I had conflicted feelings when the controversy over the Confederate battle flag and statues commemorating Confederate traitors recently flared up once again. On the one hand, I was ecstatic this summer when I saw the spontaneous, collective work of art that activists created on the base of Robert E. Lee’s statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. This artistic embellishment offered a vibrant rebuke to the false historical narrative in which the statue trafficked, and made the monuments a foil for critical conversations about racism and inequality.  On the other hand, I can’t shake the words of my great aunt, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, who, in her late 80s, faced off against rebel-flag-waving Ku Klux Klan members from a lawn chair, but was indifferent about the rush to remove the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the South Carolina State House during the 1980s: “Leave the damn rag up there,” she said. “I’d rather see the Klan in sheets than in suits. As long as that flag flies above the State House, you know what’s in the hearts and minds of those inside.”[1] Toppling statues and yanking down flags feels inconsequential when fundamental problems persist. Even as I rejoiced when the flag was removed in 2015 after the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I recognized that it didn’t signal a commitment to addressing the persistent poverty, and social and economic hardships that many South Carolinians face. Like many scholars and activists, I have often viewed such efforts as distractions from more pressing political action.[2]

The Journal of the Civil War Era’s Call to Action and the opinions of other historians helped me reconcile myself to the fact that erasing silences from the public memorial landscape and from museums is critically important political work.[3] Broadening the public’s store of accurate historical knowledge and prompting critical thought contributes to a more informed citizenry and has the potential to inspire a healthy reimagining of our politics and institutions. The JCWE’s call for “more history” took on greater urgency last week, when President Trump announced plans to promote patriotic history. It should come as no surprise that he wished to elide the history of slavery to promote his racist political agenda; history has often been manipulated for political ends. Myths about American history have propped up and legitimized policies and ways of thinking that perpetuate some of our country’s most entrenched problems. That’s why a fuller accounting of our nation’s past matters if we have any hope of bringing about social justice and strengthening our frail democracy.

Modjeska Monteith Simkins House and historical marker, Columbia, SC

Academic and public historians have an important role to play in focusing on what’s missing from the memorial and historic landscape, bringing evidence-based history to the public. I had the opportunity to participate in such work at the recently renovated in Columbia, South Carolina, which, public health permitting, is tentatively set to open next month. Simkins, known as “the Matriarch of Civil Rights activists of South Carolina,” served as state secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. As both a family member and as a historian, I met several times with my cousin, Henrie Treadwell Monteith, and with Robin Waites and Katharine Allan, two wonderful public historians at Historic Columbia, to contribute my own research and to make suggestions about the new exhibits.[4]

Now, more than ever, academic historians and public historians should step up our collaborations. Rebecca Capobianco Toy, a Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary and a National Park Service (NPS) intern, shared several ideas with me about how academic historians can assist Park Service administrators, in particular.

First: Share your research

Because the NPS has moved away from hiring professional historians at national parks, academic historians have an important role to play. “Find out if there are stories that site administrators would like to know more about, but don’t have the time to look into,” she said. “In many cases, parks are dependent on a knowledge pool that was developed when the NPS still hired historians, but in a vastly different historiographical era.  What can you do to help expand that knowledge pool?” Swamped by day-to-day operations, Park Service employees often lack the time to conduct extensive research projects, and also lack the level of access to databases that academic historians have, Toy said.

Second: Have a community mindset

We can make our contributions longer lasting, and build trust with members of the public, by becoming a more consistent partners at historic sites.  “Academic historians can help by volunteering, whether that’s in a visitor center once a month where they interact with the public, or offering to help research new programs,” Toy said.

Third: Make parks your classroom and create opportunities for students

Toy also suggests building relationships with staff members at local public history sites by taking our students on field trips, developing research projects in which students spend a semester doing research that would benefit a local site. There is also room for colleges and universities to support public history by funding internship opportunities at historical parks, as Gettysburg College and West Virginia University do, so that students gain work as summer seasonal employees, and so that the parks and other sites have people freshly immersed in the latest historical knowledge who can, in turn, inform the public. I would add that our profession and the universities where many of us teach should incentivize and reward this work.

By extending the JCWE’s call to action, we have the opportunity to expose the public to long ignored stories that help people make sense of competing narratives about the past. Coming to terms with a more expansive and honest understanding of American history promises to encourage the public to think critically, but no less optimistically, about fighting for our democracy and achieving something concrete.

[1] Dawn Hinshaw, “KKK March to State House Greeted by Throng of Counterdemonstrators,” The State, July 4, 1988, 2B, NewsBank; Becci Robbins, Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary (Columbia: South Carolina Progressive Network, 2014), 35. Simkins shared her views with activist Brett Bursey. See SC Progressive Network, “Modjeska Simkins on the Confederate Flag,” March 15, 2014,, accessed September 27, 2020. The rebel flag was removed from the dome of the state house in 2000 and moved to the grounds, where it remained aloft and unfurled until 2015.

[2] For example, see Miranda Baines, “Local NAACP leader says controversy surrounding symbols a distraction from the ‘real work’ that’s needed,” Gazette-Virginian, June 8, 2020,, accessed September 27, 2020.

[3] Robert Greene II, “It’s Time for New Monuments,” Current Affairs, January/February 2020,, accessed September 26, 2020.

[4] Adrienne Monteith Petty, “The Town and Country Roots of Modjeska Monteith Simkins’s Activism,” Agricultural History 93, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 452-476.

A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

Confederate flags are coming down, statues are being toppled, Lady Antebellum has lost the “Antebellum,” and the Dixie Chicks have lost the “Dixie.” But the reckoning that’s been sweeping the United States in recent months has left one Civil War monument strangely untouched: the Ken Burns documentary. When it was first broadcast on PBS, thirty years ago this September, The Civil War was an unprecedented cultural event: a history documentary that not only won Emmys and Grammys, but was mentioned on Twin Peaks, parodied on Saturday Night Live, and immortalized in New Yorker cartoons. To this day, it’s enshrined as the definitive story of the American Civil War. There’s just one problem: the war depicted in these nine episodes never happened.

Ken Burns presents a Civil War caused not by slavery, but by a failure to compromise. A war in which the Confederacy fought for a noble cause, and whose heroes include not only Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, but Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1996, Robert Toplin published Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, a collection of nine critical essays about the documentary. Scholars compared it to everything from Homer’s Iliad, to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and many historians signalled their dismay with Burns’s simplistic treatment of the war.[1] These debates, however, have had little effect on the popular consensus, and most viewers continue to accept Ken Burns’s version of the war uncritically. But The Civil War is long overdue for a reckoning – and a remake. In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.

The trouble begins with the documentary’s star: Shelby Foote is a southern novelist with a down-home drawl, a gift for storytelling, and a very troubling version of the events of 1861 to 1865. Foote’s account of the Civil War has very little to do with slavery. He argues the war began “because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” and that southerners were merely fighting to defend themselves against the northern aggressor. Foote’s unabashed admiration for the men who led the Confederacy is clear: Robert E. Lee is a “warm, outgoing man” who “always had time for any private soldier’s complaint,” Confederacy president Jefferson Davis “an outgoing, friendly man; a great family man, loved his wife and children; an infinite store of compassion.”[2]

Foote speaks of the men who fought for the South as if they were not historical figures, but old friends – a method that made him a fan favorite upon the documentary’s release. It’s also what made him so dangerous as a historical source. This cozy brand of storytelling allows Foote to create deeply sympathetic portraits of men who fought to preserve slavery. In one of his most alarming assertions, Foote proclaims that “the war produced two authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.[3] The former slave-trader Forrest oversaw the infamous massacre at Fort Pillow, in which Confederate troops murdered an estimated 200 Black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender.[4] Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact Foote neglects to mention when he thrills at the memory of once twirling the general’s sword over his head.

And Foote wasn’t done yet. In a 1999 interview with the Paris Review, he stated that he would certainly have fought for the southern cause had he been alive during the Civil War. “What’s more,” he added, “I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar.”[5] In an interview for the 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic, Foote told author Tony Horwitz that he was dismayed by “the behavior of blacks,” who “are fulfilling every dire prophecy the Ku Klux Klan made. It’s no longer safe to be on the streets in black neighborhoods. They are acting as if the utter lie about blacks being somewhere between ape and man were true.”[6] Everything that Ken Burns gets right in this documentary – the music, the imagery, the storytelling – is powerfully overshadowed by everything that Shelby Foote gets wrong.

Shelby Foote’s views on the war, and race, stand in sharp contrast to that of the documentary’s other principal source, an eminent Civil War historian who gets a mere fraction of Foote’s screen time. Barbara Fields, the first Black woman awarded tenure at Columbia University, clearly identifies slavery as the foremost cause of the war, and is emphatic about the war’s devastating racial legacy. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Fields says, “The Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and, regrettably, it can still be lost.” As Keri Leigh Merritt notes in her essay, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Barbara Fields is granted fewer than nine minutes of screen time. Shelby Foote gets forty-five.[7]

Foote’s presence points to a larger problem with the documentary: its embrace of the Lost Cause. This mythology appears throughout all nine episodes, beginning minutes into the first. The war, the viewer learns, “began as a bitter dispute over union and state’s rights.” Missing from this statement is the fact that the southern states seceded over a very particular state’s right – the right to own slaves. The documentary also buys into the classic Lost Cause tenet that the Confederacy was doomed to fail from the outset of the Civil War, never standing a chance against the vast industrial might of the North, but fighting nobly to the end.

Perhaps the film’s most troubling adherence to Lost Cause lore is its idolatry of Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general is introduced as “the courtly, unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of secession and slavery, yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.” Lee’s greatness, Burns suggests, was evident from his early days at the military academy West Point, where he did not earn a single demerit. “Classmates called him ‘The Marble Model’ – but liked him in spite of his perfection.”[8] The Robert E. Lee celebrated in this documentary is valiant, tragic, and brave. The real Robert E. Lee was something else entirely.

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes in “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” Lee was not only a slave owner, but a ruthless one. He separated slave families and brutally beat those who disobeyed him.[9] Wesley Morris, an enslaved man who tried to escape from Lee’s plantation with his sister, recalled what happened when they were recaptured: “Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh,” he recollected, “Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”[10] The image of Lee as a noble man who personally despised slavery – but fought for it out of loyalty to his beloved Virginia – is one of the most persistent myths of the Lost Cause. Yet instead of reckoning with any of this, Ken Burns introduces the courtly Marble Man of Perfection to new generations of history students.

The Lost Cause shares screen time with another troubling Civil War narrative: reunion. The Civil War memory historian David Blight notes that although reconciliation is a “noble and essential human impulse” after a convulsive Civil War, reunion came at a devastating cost, as civil and political freedom for Black Americans became “sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion.”[11] But reunion is a theme Ken Burns is unable to resist. Poignant scenes of reconciliation tug at the heartstrings as the series draws to an end. The final episode takes viewers to the 50th and 75th Blue-Gray reunions in Gettysburg, PA, with photos and grainy film footage dating back to 1913 and 1938. Frail, elderly Union and Confederate soldiers embrace one another, laughing and shaking hands on the very battlefield where they had fought against each other a lifetime ago. As the historian Eric Foner notes, “Faced with a choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia.”[12] Foner’s critique points to a curious fact about the series: historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction have long been troubled by many aspects of Ken Burns’s brand of storytelling – a concern that has never quite reached the rapt mainstream audience, likely because The Civil War is a documentary.

The historian Robert Rosenstone writes that people are generally more trusting of documentaries than they are of feature films. But this is a “mistaken form of trust.” Rosenstone argues that, like feature films, documentaries also dramatize scenes and impose certain storytelling conventions – often constructing a narrative that begins with a conflict and ends with a resolution. Unlike the Hollywood film, however, the documentary implies that “what you are seeing onscreen is somehow a direct representation of what happened in the past.”[13] Professor of education Jeremy Stoddard refers to this as “The History Channel Effect,” and suggests that documentaries are “often treated with the same reverence given to primary historical sources.”[14]

And few documentaries are treated with the reverence lavished on this one. For three decades , teachers have used The Civil War as a teaching tool. Just last year, PBS launched Ken Burns in the Classroom, offering teaching resources and lesson plans as companion material for The Civil War and other Burns documentaries. But The Civil War has been teaching lessons for years. In 2017, former White House chief of staff John Kelly ignited controversy when he stated that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him: “I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.”[15] Ken Burns was swift to respond on twitter, getting it right thirty years too late: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”[16]

The year 2020 has brought a profound reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy – and it is long past time that reckoning reached Ken Burns. His beloved documentary invites viewers to revel in the drama and emotion of the war without ever acknowledging its legacy of white supremacy. Echoing Keri Leigh Merritt and others, it’s time for a new Civil War documentary: one that honors Barbara Fields’s observation that the Civil War isn’t over – and can still be lost. Every Confederate monument can be toppled, but as long as Ken Burns’s The Civil War is seen as the definitive telling of the story, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest will remain on their pedestals.

[1] Robert Brent Toplin, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] Ken Burns, The Civil War (PBS, 1990).

[3] Burns, The Civil War.

[4] DeNeen L. Brown, “The Civil War Massacre That Left Nearly 200 Black Soldiers ‘Murdered,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2018,

[5] Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, no. 151, Summer 1999.

[6] Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 152.

[7] Burns, The Civil War; Keri Leigh Merritt, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2019.

[8] Burns, The Civil War.

[9] Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic, June 4, 2017.

[10] Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.”

[11] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 139.

[12] Eric Foner, “Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion,” in Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, ed. Robert Brent Toplin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 112.

[13] Robert A. Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 2012). 80.

[14] Jeremy D. Stoddard, “The History Channel Effect,” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 4 (2010), 80.

[15] Rebecca Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’,” The Hill, October 31, 2017.

[16] Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’.”


Ella Starkman-Hynes

Ella Starkman-Hynes is an independent author and graduate of McGill University. Her research focuses primarily on the depiction of the Civil War in popular culture, and she is currently working on a project examining northern memory of the war through twentieth-century literature. She will be starting her Master's in history at Yale in Fall 2021.

Upcoming JCWE Webinars

Upcoming JCWE Webinars

The Journal of the Civil War Era is sponsoring three webinars with historians in coming weeks. For each event, JCWE editors Greg Downs and Kate Masur will interview the featured historian(s) and take questions from participants. Recordings will be posted on the JCWE’s YouTube channnel. Please see below for more information and to register for these free events.


Thurs. Oct. 8, 4:00 PM ET

Dr. Aston Gonzalez, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century

The fight for racial equality in the nineteenth century played out not only in marches and political conventions but also in the print and visual culture created and disseminated throughout the United States by African Americans. African American activists seized on advances in visual technologies–daguerreotypes, lithographs, cartes de visite, and steam printing presses–to produce images that advanced campaigns for black rights. Aston Gonzalez will talk about how African American visual artists helped build the world they envisioned and how they employed networks of transatlantic patronage and travels to Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa to address the pressing concerns of Black people in the Atlantic world.

Register for the webinar here.


Fri. Oct. 30, 4:00 PM ET

Nineteenth-Century Governors’ Papers: A Roundtable

Nineteenth-century governors’ papers are a treasure-trove of everyday experiences because Americans of all backgrounds regularly contacted their governors with complaints and requests. This roundtable includes representatives for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK), the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM), and the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Alabama (CWRGA) projects. They will share insights their collections offer historians and discuss how the collections are challenging historiographical norms. The presenters will also address the public history nature of the projects and seek feedback from audience members regarding new questions the teams might investigate.

Register for the webinar here.


Thurs. Dec. 3, 4:00 PM ET

Dr. Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade

Alexandra Finley’s recently published An Intimate Economy adds crucial new dimensions to the boisterous debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism by placing women’s labor at the center of the antebellum slave trade, focusing particularly on slave traders’ ability to profit from enslaved women’s domestic, reproductive, and sexual labor. She will speak with the JCWE editors about how women’s work was necessary to the functioning of the slave trade and its spread and how slavery reached into the most personal spaces of the household, the body, and the self.

Register for the webinar here.



Thurs. July 23

Dr. Nicole Myers Turner, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia

How did African Americans develop religious institutions in the wake of slavery? How did Black churches connect with electoral politics? In this highly original study, Dr. Turner focuses on the Southside region of Virginia and uses digital humanities methods. A digital version of her book, with enhanced maps and charts, is available here.

A recording of this webinar is available here.


Thurs. Aug. 13

Dr. Stephanie McCurry: The Confederate States of America 

What was the Confederacy and what did it stand for? These are important questions in both history classrooms and public debate. Dr. McCurry will discuss what Confederate leaders believed they were doing; the challenges they faced both from within the South and outside it; the experiences of Black and white women in the Confederacy; and the role of women in the history of war.

A recording of this webinar is available here.


Wed. Aug. 19

Dr. Thomas J. Brown: Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America 

The many Civil War monuments that dot the American landscape continue to incite controversy. Dr. Brown will explain who built these monuments and why; what Civil War monuments tell us about American culture; and how the monuments’ meanings have changed over time.

A recording of this webinar is available here.


Wed. Aug. 26

Dr. Tera Hunter: Emancipation During the Civil War 

This year, amid renewed discussion and celebration of Juneteenth, many people have questions about slavery’s destruction during the Civil War. Dr. Hunter will discuss how enslaved people fought for their own freedom and that of their families; the relationship of the Emancipation Proclamation to Juneteenth; why there were so many emancipations; and the importance of gender and the family in the experience of emancipation.

A recording of this webinar is available here.


Wed. Sep. 9

Dr. Scott Hancock: Civil War History: A Call to Action

This spring and summer have seen renewed protests against monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders. We believe historians can play an important role in the ongoing, broad-based conversation about the history and memory of the Civil War Era. Dr. Hancock will discuss how historians can engage the public at national and state parks and other public history sites to demonstrate good history.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

Hilary N. Green

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

Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

If every person who declined to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election wore a “Did Not Vote” sticker, the total would number more than 100 million people, or four out of every ten Americans.[1] As we approach another election in 2020, a moment should be taken to remember the 15th Amendment, which banned racial discrimination at the polls and was ratified 150 years ago during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. For Black Missourians who had fought for voting rights for several years without success, the 15th Amendment signaled a possible pathway towards better political representation and racial equality in that state.

When Congress placed ten former Confederate states under military rule in 1867, it required that these states guarantee black male voting rights as a condition for readmission into the Union. This would not be the case in Missouri, a former slave state that was badly divided but had ultimately remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Instead, Missouri’s political leaders managed their own affairs without federal interference. As such, most delegates at the convention opposed black voting rights when a state constitutional convention was held shortly after the end of the war. Even convention leader Charles Drake and other like-minded Radical Republicans feared that such a provision would lead to the constitution’s rejection by voters. When voters ratified the new state constitution with a narrow 1,800 margin in July 1865, former Confederates and African Americans in Missouri were both excluded from the ballot box.[2]

In response to these developments, the Missouri Equal Rights League was formed in the fall of 1865. Dedicating themselves to the cause of black voting rights and equality before the law, the organization was composed of several noteworthy Black Missourians. The Reverend Moses Dickson was an abolitionist who aided enslaved runaways on the Underground Railroad and was a co-founder of Lincoln University, the first black college in the state. Blanche K. Bruce established a school for black children in Hannibal during the Civil War and later went on to become the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate for the state of Mississippi. James Milton Turner served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools under Governor Thomas Fletcher and worked to establish Black schools throughout Missouri. President Grant later appointed him to become the nation’s Minister to Liberia in 1871. These men were joined by prominent national leaders who agreed to assist the Missouri Equal Rights League. John Mercer Langston was an established African American lawyer who had attended the Oberlin Institute with Turner before the Civil War, and George Downing was a wealthy restaurateur with establishments in New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.[3]

James Milton Turner in his later years, circa 1910s.

The group held its first public meeting in St. Louis on October 3, 1865. Several speakers cited the service of black soldiers who had served in United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments during the Civil War. Four such regiments had been organized in St. Louis at Benton Barracks during the conflict, including the 62nd USCT regiment, which contributed funds to the establishment of Lincoln University. In a statement published by the Missouri Democrat, the Missouri Equal Rights League argued that the right to vote “rightfully and logically belong[s] to us as freedmen, and as those [of us] who have never deserted the flag of our common country in the hour of its darkest peril.” Furthermore, they asserted that they would only support the re-enfranchisement of former Confederates until they agreed to guarantee a “universal right to the ballot box.”[4]

The October meeting was representative of a common strategy used by Black political leaders throughout the United States. Starting around the 1830s in the North but expanding to the rest of the country during Reconstruction, African Americans held public conventions—often referred to as “Colored Conventions”—to publicly declare their support for voting rights, education, labor rights, and equal treatment before the law. By hosting a large public meeting in the state’s largest city, Missouri’s Black political leadership tapped into a tradition of creating what the Colored Conventions Project describes as “opportunities for free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to organize and strategize for racial justice.”[5]

Shortly after the meeting, leaders in the Missouri Equal Rights League wrote and distributed the group’s manifesto, Address to the Friends of Equal Rights. The Address invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence and highlighted the notion that fair legislation in a republic came from the “consent of the governed.” Preventing black Missourians from exercising the right to vote was the same as being taxed without representation and having no say in the creation of laws. The Address again reinforced the sacrifice of black troops during the Civil War, who “bared their breasts to the remorseless storm of treason, and by hundreds went down to death in the conflict.” The ultimate reward for military service, the Address argued, was the right to vote.  “We ask only that privilege which is now given to the very poorest and meanest of white men who come to the ballot box.”[6]

In the short term, the Missouri Equal Rights League’s efforts failed. Black voting rights never gained widespread acceptance in Missouri and the State Legislature never passed legislation to that effect. Many white Missourians supported the views of Congressman Frank Blair, who represented much of St. Louis and actively campaigned against Black voting rights. When he was nominated as the Democrat Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1868, Blair argued that electing Grant as president would lead to a race war and that Black men would sexually “subject white women to their unbridled lust.” Nevertheless the 15th Amendment’s ratification in 1870 made black men around the country eligible voters by stating that citizens could not be prevented from voting on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” President Grant declared shortly after its ratification that the “fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.”[7]

The success of the 15th Amendment was fleeting, however. Because the Amendment did not guarantee a universal right to vote, “race-neutral” loopholes such as poll taxes and literacy tests were exploited by Southern state governments—including Missouri—that were anxious to keep blacks from voting. The spirit of equality during the Reconstruction Era was replaced with the spirit of Jim Crow. And women were still prevented from exercising the right to vote (whether the Missouri Equal Rights League supported women’s suffrage was left unstated). Even with the ratification of the 19thAmendment in 1920, which prevents voter discrimination on the basis of sex, Black women under the force of the Jim Crow South would not gain access to the ballot until the 1960s.

As we assess political candidates for the 2020 presidential election, some potential voters will ultimately choose not to vote. Indeed, one could argue that non-voting is a form of protest in its own way. But the ability to choose not to vote is a rare privilege. Let us remember that throughout most of our country’s history, a majority of U.S. citizens never possessed a right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

[1] “2016 November General Election Turnout Rates,” United States Election Project, September 5, 2018, accessed September 10, 2020.

[2] William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri, Volume III: 1860 to 1875 [2nd Edition] Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990, 120-124, 143-150; the 1865 Constitution is available online at Missouri Digital Heritage, “Missouri Constitution, 1865,” Missouri Secretary of State, Missouri Digital Heritage, 2020, accessed September 20, 2020.

[3] William P. O’Brien, “Moses Dickson (1824-1901),” BlackPast, January 18, 2007, accessed September 12, 2020.; “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” United States House of Representatives, 2020, accessed September 12, 2020.; Gary R. Kremer, James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Black Leader (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991).

[4] Missouri Democrat, October 16, 1865; Kremer, 18-24.

[5] See “Colored Conventions Project,” University of Delaware, accessed September 20, 2020.; “Colored Conventions: National Affiliate Library Research Guides, Penn State University Libraries, accessed September 20, 2020.

[6] Missouri Democrat, January 15, 1867.

[7] Nick Sacco, “A Free Country for White Men: Frank Blair and His Statue in St. Louis,” Muster (Journal of the Civil War Era), July 28, 2017, accessed September 14, 2020.; “Ulysses S. Grant & the 15th Amendment,” National Park Service, 2020, accessed September 14, 2020.

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

Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

On the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action. I am planning to join my former colleagues and community members in Elizabeth City, NC. Together, we are shedding light on the silenced diverse Civil War experiences, specifically freedpeople, USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic comrades.

The Civil War Era history of northeastern North Carolina is rich but sorely absent from the commemorative landscape.  When I joined the faculty at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), I was struck by the absence of public presentation of diverse Civil War experiences. African Americans served in the USCT regiments, Quakers abstained from the struggle, white men served in the Federal Army and Navy, and some white people engaged in guerrilla violence following the fall of Elizabeth City, but the only story told was of Confederates. The silenced African American experience was especially noticeable.[1]

This diversity of experience informed Civil War memory and shaped the uses of the downtown area from the time of the war to the 1911 placement of a Confederate Monument by the D. H. Hill chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.[2] African Americans regularly held emancipation day parades through the downtown streets and heard celebratory speeches from the Courthouse lawn.

Newspaper print text
The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888.

At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the celebration featured a speech by Hugh Cale. Born enslaved in Perquimans County, Cale became active in post-emancipation Elizabeth City politics and served as a county commissioner and state legislator. In 1891, three years after the 25th anniversary, Cale introduced House Bill 383 in the state legislature and laid the groundwork for the founding of present-day ECSU. While emancipation day parades ended in the twentieth century, ECSU has continued the tradition established by freedpeople, USCT veterans, and Reconstruction era leaders by claiming the downtown streets for its annual homecoming parades. As an HBCU, they continue to carry on the legacy of the emancipationist Civil War tradition by educating underserved communities and occupying the space defined by the Civil War era parade routes.[3]

The African American Civil War veteran experience is another history to be told. USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) comrades are interred at several local cemeteries. Their graves continue to be adorned with flowers and flags during major holidays. The history of the Fletcher Post, an African American GAR post, is better known but remains largely absent from the current commemorative landscape, except for their headstones in the Oak Grove Cemetery. The 1898 encampment of the Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic is not widely known. Months before the Wilmington Massacre, white and black comrades celebrated at the Court House and received the shown printed program.[4]

GAR program cover
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Moreover, the Elizabeth City veterans continued to celebrate their Civil War experiences. As their numbers dwindled, they often joined the brethren in the Hamptons Road area for reunions, including a Norfolk, Virginia reunion captured in a photograph available at a University of Virginia archive. These men remained active in local and regional activities and celebrations even if meant riding in wagons and early automobiles or turning over the event planning to Spanish American and World War I veterans.[5]

Few markers exist. Many do not include this above history. On September 26, I plan to tell this history and amplify these voices. Using Canva, a free graphic design website, I have designed three posters that highlight research materials from an in-progress book on African American memory of the Civil War. I am excited to talk about the emancipation parades, the activities of USCT veterans, and even the 1898 GAR reunion held in a community where I lived, taught, and worked with Museum of the Albemarle and other community activists for several years. But, I will do so in collaboration with individuals who are doing important public history work on the ground.

ECSU faculty are and have been actively involved in eliminating the historical silences in the landscape. They are engaged with the Museum of the Albemarle, a local museum, on designing special exhibits, sustaining student internships programs, serving on its Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle group, and participating in public events. Glen Bowman and Melissa Stuckey regularly write history columns for the Daily Advance and the Virginian-Pilot. With their Digital and Public History concentration, Charles Reed and Latif Tarik are actively preparing students to use digital tools to make this history more visible. In the process, students are learning to appreciate their own institution’s role in African American education. Through several external grants secured by Melissa Stuckey, faculty, students and other campus stakeholders are currently preserving the campus Rosenwald school and developing the site into a public museum. As such, I have continued to work with them on their various public history initiatives from my current institutional home.

Since my sabbatical brings me to North Carolina, I will make the drive. By filling a void, we will tell and amplify the underappreciated history of the African American Civil War era experience and its legacy in northeastern North Carolina. Viking pride will be fully displayed on September 26, 2020.

Follow us at #wewantmorehistory.


[1] For an overview of the diverse Civil War experience of Elizabeth City, see Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007).

[2] “Unveiled Amid Inspiring Scenes,” Tar Heel, May 12, 1911, 1; “Pasquotank County Confederate Monument, Elizabeth City,” Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina,;

[3] “Local Briefs,” The North Carolinian, January 7, 1874, 3; “Untitled,” The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888, 3; “Our History,” Elizabeth City State University,; “Emancipation Day,” The Weekly Economist(Elizabeth City), January 4, 1901, 3.

[4] Department of Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic, Twenty Seventh Annual Encampment Held in The Court House Elizabeth City, North Carolina, April 27, 1898. Records of 1897 and Journal of 1898.  (Hampton, VA. N. S. Press, Printer and Binders, 1898).

[5] Photograph of Grand Army of the Republic Reunion of African-Americans ca. 1910, Accession #11436, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; “Negro Veterans of Two Wars Appear in Parade,” Independent (Elizabeth City), January 2, 1920, 1.

Hilary N. Green

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