Category: Field Dispatches

Removing Slavery from Westward Expansion: Two Case Studies of Public Memorials in Missouri

Removing Slavery from Westward Expansion: Two Case Studies of Public Memorials in Missouri

The town of Marthasville, Missouri, is located about forty-five miles west of St. Louis. The oldest town in Warren County, Marthasville today is a quiet place with fertile farmland, a lakeside resort, and numerous wineries. Although I have lived in Missouri most of my life, I had never been to this place until fairly recently. I quickly discovered that residents of Marthasville are proud of their history. Dotted throughout this rural landscape are numerous historical markers celebrating the life of Daniel Boone—whose original gravesite was located two miles from downtown Marthasville—and the voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Another historical marker explaining the history of Marthasville notes that the town was founded by Dr. John Young, who purchased more than 500 acres of land and named the town after his first wife, Martha.

It soon dawned upon me, however, that something was missing from this landscape. Dr. Young’s name rang a bell in my head, and at first I struggled to remember where I had heard his name. But then it hit me: Dr. John Young was a wealthy settler from Kentucky who had owned a large number of enslaved African Americans. The most notable of these African Americans was William Wells Brown, the famous abolitionist who went on to become a prolific writer and the country’s first black novelist with his 1853 book, Clotel.

A historical marker detailing the early history of Marthasville, Missouri, that fails to mention the famous abolitionist William Wells Brown, who lived in the town from 1817 to 1825. Photo courtesy of the author.

Of the seventeen years in which John Young owned Brown, eight of them (1817-1825) were spent in Marthasville. As Brown’s biographer Ezra Greenspan notes, Brown’s experiences distinguished him from other African American antislavery activists before the Civil War because he “grew in maturity as a participant in the great frontier drama unfolding across the interior of nineteenth-century North America. Move by move, he and his relatives were pushed westward . . . their master following the footsteps of Boone and other pioneer settlers.”[1] And yet, visitors to Marthasville today would have no idea that one of the country’s earliest civil rights leaders—a man that contemporaries compared to the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass—had spent a number of his formative years in this small town.

Brown is not the only African American missing from the story of westward expansion in Missouri. In the city of St. Charles—a nearby suburb of St. Louis that lies on the Missouri River—a statue depicting Lewis and Clark figures prominently in a local park along the riverfront. Positioned in between the two men is “Seaman,” a dog that had been purchased by Lewis and accompanied the Corps of Discovery for the entire duration of their three-year trip. Notably absent from the monument is York, an enslaved man owned by William Clark who also accompanied the Corps of Discovery and played an important role as a scout, trader, and caretaker for the expedition. As far as I can tell, there are at least ten historical sites throughout the United States with monuments or statues that either depict or mention Seaman, while York only has two statues: in Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon (Yorks Islands in Broadwater County, Montana, are also named for York).[2] The fact that a dog in the Corps of Discovery has more statues in his honor than an enslaved man (or any Indigenous people associated with the expedition) speaks volumes about the ways Americans have chosen to remember the interconnected stories of westward expansion, colonialism, and slavery before the Civil War.

The Lewis and Clark Monument and accompanying text in St. Charles, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the author.

A few conclusions can be drawn from these two historical icons in Missouri. First, while towns and cities throughout the United States frequently celebrate their “founders” and other early settlers through monuments and historical markers, the underlying historical actors who played their own roles in shaping the history of westward expansion—enslaved African Americans, Native Americans, and/or women who may have accompanied their white husbands in their travels—are often left out of the story. “Founders” monuments and historical markers often celebrate the image of heroic, “self-made” men who braved the dangers of a new frontier and helped create a new nation. That these same men contributed to growing conflicts over slavery’s westward expansion and eventual civil war is a point often ignored when told in a public history setting.

One reason for this silence is explained by my second conclusion: while historians have covered all aspects of slavery in the Deep South and Mid-Atlantic regions in recent years, the same cannot be said about slavery in the West. In her 2009 publication Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, Lea VanderVelde argued that “although there is a very important increasing body of scholarship about antebellum southern slavery . . . there has been very little scholarship about frontier slaves.”[3] In the ten years since VanderVelde’s publication a range of studies has more closely examined slavery in wide ranging places such as the Northwest territory, Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico, and California.[4] Nevertheless there remains much work to bridge the gap and better demonstrate the interconnected history of westward expansion, slavery, and the Civil War. As Kristen Epps argues in her book Slavery on the Periphery, “enslaved emigrants found themselves participating in a westward movement designed to continue their enslavement on a structural level as well as a personal one.”[5]

How does your local community commemorate westward expansion in its public memorials? Let us know in the comment section.


[1] Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 12.

[2] “Seaman – Lewis’s Newfoundland Dog,” The Lewis and Clark Trail, 2011, accessed November 5, 2019,

[3] Lea VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

[4] See Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Christopher P. Lehman, Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); Dale Edwyna Smith, African Americans Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865: Race, Slavery, and the West (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017); William S. Kiser, Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018); Stacy L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[5] Epps, Slavery on the Periphery, 15.

Nick Sacco

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

To Have and to Hold…or Not: Weddings, Independence, and the Civil War

To Have and to Hold…or Not: Weddings, Independence, and the Civil War

“Record-Low Marriage Rate,” based on data from the Center for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System. Courtesy of economist Jay L. Zagorsky.

Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the U.S. marriage rate is the lowest it has been in at least 150 years, according to economist Jay Zagorsky of Boston University. Another recent study from Cornell University researchers concluded that the U.S. has “large deficits in the supply of potential male spouses.” Lead author of the article, Daniel T. Lichter, believes “marriage is still based on love, but it also is fundamentally an economic transaction. Many young men today have little to bring to the marriage bargain, especially as young women’s educational levels on average now exceed their male suitors.” Shortage of suitors or not, the marriage rate of millennials (defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) is most certainly lower than previous generations; in 1960, 72 percent of adults were married, while today the rate is 50 percent. Put together, these statistics suggest the institution of marriage is changing.[1]

From 1861 to 1865, marriage likewise seemed to be changing for those living through the Civil War. Some white southern women felt particularly worried that there would be few suitors left by the end of it all. In 1863, unmarried Ardella Brown lamented, “If I Can get any Body to have me you Shall get to a weding But there is nobody a Bout here only Some old widiwers for all the young men has gone to the army.” While some women would use the war as an excuse to delay marriage, the shortage of eligible men did worry others who intended to become wives and mothers. As historian Drew Gilpin Faust elegantly put it, “a married woman feared the loss of a particular husband; a single woman worried about forfeiting the more abstract possibility of any husband at all.” Not only was marriage a key component of ideal, nineteenth-century womanhood, for most southern white women, it also provided a clear societal position in this time of uncertainty.[2]

“Soldiers’ Cemetery, Alexandria, Va.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

And so, as a somewhat unexpected consequence of wartime death tolls rising, wedding bells rang. From Virginia, Judith McGuire believed there to be “a perfect mania on the subject of matrimony” during the war, writing that “some of the churches may be seen open and lighted almost every night for bridals, and wherever I turn I hear of marriages in prospect.” Another young woman, Esther Alden in South Carolina, reflected, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed to-morrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace…seemed charming.” In a changing world, some women increased their dedication to seemingly unchanging institutions, like marriage.[3]

Women were not alone in this desire to marry; many young men also sought wartime weddings, wanting the reassurance of wives awaiting their return as they marched toward an undecided future. On July 2, 1861, Frank Schaller of the Twenty-Second Mississippi Infantry sent a letter to his “dearest Sophy” in South Carolina, writing, “Every day I feel more reluctant to go into an uncertain life without having the consciousness of being yours entirely…Now prepare for it. I am in earnest.” Not only did he believe, “I could fight better & do everything better” as a married man, he also reflected on her future, “Should I fall, you could have at least the satisfaction to be a soldiers widow who I trust will only die in honor. Besides, though I know you do not want me to tell you this, some pension would insure you the prospect of a humble but honorable existence.” Frank would be shot, but he ultimately survived the war. For Frank, it was not just about emotional stability, but also economic stability for Sophy.[4]

Frank was not alone in his urgency to secure the label of marriage – take Georgia Page King and William Duncan Smith’s story, in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. Just three months into his courtship he wrote, “A war is fast approaching. Oh Let me claim you as my own! Let me have the right to protect you, and shield you by my earnest love.” Realizing Georgia might object to their rushed courtship, he urged, “Do not let, oh! do not let, any slight obstacles, or conventionalities, prevent you from being mine as soon as you can. We know not what may happen!” They married July 9, 1861. William died in Georgia’s arms on October 4, 1862, after sixty-seven days of dysentery. In a time when everything seemed uncertain, and everyone seemed to be declaring independence, Georgia claimed her own in choosing to marry William. As she explained to her brother, “I feared that you all might not approve—but my heart relented.”[5]

Unexpected matches brought on by ambiguity and emotion reached even Abraham Lincoln’s family, with Elodie Todd, little sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Elodie sent a letter to her future husband in May 1861, writing, “Ever since I can remember, I have been looked upon and called the ‘old maid’ of the family, and Mother seemed to think I was to be depended on to take care of her when all the rest of her handsomer daughters left her, and I really believe they all think I am committing a sin to give a thought to any other than the arrangements they have made for me.” They had just met in February. Elodie was twenty, he was thirty-two, twice-widowed, and the father of two little girls. It was an unlikely match, and a surprising proposal, made even more surprising when Elodie decided, “But as this is the age when Secession, Freedom, and Rights are asserted, I am claiming mine.” She married him the following year.[6]

“Marriage at the camp of the 7th N.J.V. Army of the Potomac, Va.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 2019, women are more likely to claim independence not in the choice of marriage partner, but in the choice of marriage, period. Though the choices in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries may appear to be totally different, they are opposite avenues to the same path – choosing a future that best suits them. In a time of political and economic upheaval, some nineteenth-century women chose marriage in a search for stability, while today, some women delay marriage for similar reasons. If walking down the aisle, today many millennials do so with a combination of prenuptial agreements, cohabitation before marriage, and marriage at a later age (late twenties). Experts have also estimated that millennials are driving down the divorce rate as much as 24 percent since the 1980s. In short, fewer millennials are marrying, but those that do are staying married. While single white women of the Civil War era feared their chances for marriages would lessen, it turned out to be a false fear; “the vast majority (approximately 92 percent) of southern white women who came of marriage age during the war married at some point in their lives.” Today, with a percentage so much lower than this, it appears the institution of marriage is shifting again, with effects still to be seen.[7]


[1] Jay Zagorsky, “Why are Fewer People Getting Married,” The Conversation, 1 June 2016,; Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price, Jeffrey M. Swigert, “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 4 September 2019,; John Anderer, “Why are Marriage Rates Down? Study Blames Lack of ‘Economically-Attractive’ Men,” Study Finds, 5 September 2019,; Kim Parker and Renee Stepler, “As U.S. Marriage Rate Hovers at 50%, Education Gap in Marital Status Widens,” Pew Research Center, 14 September 2017,

[2] This post keeps all spelling and phrasing quoted from documents in its original form without including [sic], except for on occasions when punctuation has been converted to modern-day notations. For elite white women, Confederate loyalty/service replaced many of the other qualifications, like wealth, manners, and family lineage, in evaluating the worth of a suitor, according to Anya Jabour, “Days of Lightly-won and Lightly-held Hearts: Courtship and Coquetry in the Southern Confederacy,” in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, ed. Stephen Berry (Athens: University of Georgia Press: 2011); Ardella Brown to Cynthia Blair, 20 May 1863, Blair Papers, Duke University, quoted in Anya Jabour, Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 270; Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 151.

[3] Judith W. McGuire, 8 January 1865, Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War by A Lady of Virginia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 329; Esther Alden, quoted in Francis Butler Simkins and James Welch Patton, The Women of the Confederacy (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1936), 188.

[4] Frank Schaller, Soldiering For Glory: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Frank Schaller, Twenty-Second Mississippi Infantry, ed. Mary W. Schaller and Martin N. Schaller (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 44.

[5] William Duncan Smith, Savannah, to Georgia Page King, St. Simons, 10 April 1861, King and Wilder Family Papers [K-W Papers], 1817-1946, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia; Georgia Page King to Henry Lord Page King, 1 July 1861, K-W Papers, GHS.

[6] Elodie Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, 28 April 1861, quoted in Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder, eds., Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 22-24.

[7] Hillary Hoffower, “7 Ways Millennials are Changing Marriage, from Signing Prenups to Staying Together Longer than Past Generations,” Business Insider, 24 May 2019,; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns,” The Journal of Southern History 76, no. 1 (February 2010): 42.

Angela Esco Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Eichhorn

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

Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Michael E. Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Nick Sacco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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


Barton A. Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

[3] Ibid., 17-19.

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

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

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 29.

Niels Eichhorn

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

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Cassidy

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

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria announced Great Britain’s neutrality in the Civil War, which raised Southern hopes of recognition and Northern fears of the same. The Queen’s proclamation and public reaction to the outbreak of hostilities were the result of long-standing assumptions about the sectional division in the United States.[1] Aware of British attitudes about the political system, slavery and abolition, and the geographic differences in the United States, private individuals determined to explain to British readers the causes of the rebellion, attract British sympathy and support, and hopefully alter the course of the war in their section’s favor.

One week after the announcement of British neutrality, in London’s newspaper The Times, northern and southern writers debated the reasons for secession and war and laid out arguments for why Great Britain should support their section. On Monday, May 20, 1861, The Times published a letter by the anti-slavery Kentuckian and new U.S. Minister to the Russian court, Cassius M. Clay, and on Saturday, May 25, 1861, Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt, provided a southern counterargument. Clay and DeLeon eloquently defended their respective sections with arguments designed for a British audience and to solicit British support. They utilized arguments to fit their audience’s expectations and perceptions. These two installments of the debate in The Times (a future post will deal with the third one by John L. Motley) illustrate how public diplomacy played out in the British newspapers as individuals from the two belligerents tried to win European support.

Cassius Clay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the first letter, Clay addressed the causes of secession, explaining that the Union fought for its national integrity and the principle of liberty. He wrote that “the so-called ‘Confederate States of America’ rebel against us—against our nationality and against all the principles of its structure.”[2] According to Clay, secession violently split the nation into separate independent entities and was treason. Based on the Constitution, Clay dismissed the Southern claim to state sovereignty. He reminded his readers that the Constitution had taken independence away from the states and bestowed sovereignty in the people. He directly tackled states’ rights in order to undermine secessionist arguments and address British assumptions about the United States.

Aware of British perceptions of the sectional tensions in the United States, Clay contended that the Southern states could “no more ‘secede’ from the Union than Scotland or Ireland can secede from England.” Despite potential shortfalls, Clay’s analogy was a well-intended device to illustrate the conflict’s dilemma to the British public. Even more, Clay felt the need to remind the British public about the southern slaveholding aristocracy.

Shifting to slavery as an issue, Clay accused slaveholder of a “despotic rule” aimed at subjugating the “white races of all nations.” Slaveholders favored restricting the freedom of speech and press to protect their own interests and used the “terrorism of ‘Lynch law’” to accomplish their goals. In addition, Clay argued that slaveholders saw only one solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and that was for capital to own labor, an implicit appeal to the British working classes.

However, Clay was not only interested in explaining causation; he wanted to obtain British support and asked “Where should British honour place her in this contest?” He reminded his readers that the North was Great Britain’s honest friend as the two protected democracy, Great Britain in Europe and the Union in North America. Furthermore, he wondered whether Confederate independence would indicate that Great Britain was wrong about abolishing slavery, getting to the very heart of Britain’s moral foreign policy. Finally, Clay reminded readers that the United States was Great Britain best customer, downplaying the impact of the highly controversial, recently passed Morrill Tariff.

In his effort to gain British support, Clay not only appealed to public sentiment, but he also unnecessarily threatened the possibility of a future war if Great Britain did not support the Union. Clay explained that the Union would easily subdue but not subjugate the revolting states. With 20 million “homogeneous people” against the South’s 8,907,894 whites and about 4 million slaves, Clay assumed the war would be over after one year. He warned at the end of his letter, pointing to the rapid growth in population, correctly estimating that it would reach 100 million in the next fifty years, “Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge in all our future!” He concluded that Great Britain would be wise to join forces with its natural ally, the North. Clay presented an argument based on his personal experiences and commonly held opinions; however, he geared his arguments toward a British audience to appeal to their understanding of the United States in order to gain support.

Edwin DeLeon in Thomas Cooper DeLeon, Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the 60’s (New York G. W. Dillingham Company, 1909), 411.

Countering the Kentuckian’s argument, DeLeon laid out his own case using his understanding of British opinions. First, DeLeon accused Clay of drawing “upon his imagination for his facts and figures,”[3] claiming that another three states (the border states) would soon join the eleven seceded states. In contrast to Clay, De Leon claimed that the seceded states contain a homogeneous population without a large Unionist element. Even more, the firing on Fort Sumter had increased southern resilience. He played directly into British assumptions that ethnic cohesion existed in the southern section of the country.

Aware of Clay’s England-Scotland analogy, DeLeon dismissively called it “absurd.” In contrast to the hypothetical departure of Scotland, sovereign states had seceded from a federal union. DeLeon corrected that the people in the Southern states “through States’ Conventions specially called for the purpose, have initiated and adopted the ordinances of secession” just like states had ratified the constitution originally. DeLeon’s legal defense of secession illustrated a nuanced understanding of U.S. history and appeal to British audiences.

Angry with Clay turning against his native home, DeLeon wrote, “Mr. Clay should know that we regard as ‘doubly traitors’ those who, born and bred on Southern soil, not only desert but defame their Southern brethren, in arms against a worse than Austrian despotism.” With that, the Southern internal debate had crossed the Atlantic and was verbally continued in The Times.

DeLeon probably knew that such accusations would not help him convince his European audience; therefore, he needed to remind the British about their hatred for U.S. expansionism. Using Clay’s language, DeLeon argued that such words would fit “the taste of North-western stump speakers.” However, it would not do with people in Great Britain as it would cause them “to smile at such a specimen of ‘Spread Eagle-ism,’” which was a direct reference to expansionism. By stressing both Clay’s vulgarity and expansionism, DeLeon raised concerns about the future of British imperial and commercial interests.

After dismissing slavery as a cause of secession and denying the North’s right to subdue the South, DeLeon arose long-standing British fears of popular revolution, especially the French Revolution. Reminding the British of the French Revolution and the upheaval and despotism it caused, DeLeon drew a parallel to the events in the United States:

The old watchword of the Jacobins in France’s darkest day of blood and tears, ‘Fraternité, ou la mort’ (‘Be my brother, or I will kill you!’), is now the rallying cry of the ‘free North,’ not of the South, who stands with drawn sword beside her own altars, is that a watchword to enlist the sympathies or stir the pulses of free-born Englishmen when a new reign of terror is sought to be inaugurated, once more under the desecrated name of liberty, over the smiling and happy homes of the sunny South?

Playing on the fear of a reign of terror may have helped DeLeon scare British readers who preferred stability over chaos. Having dismissed all of Clay’s arguments, DeLeon contended that the British government should extend recognition to the Confederate States.

The discussion between Clay and DeLeon in The Times in May 1861 provided British readers an insight into the emerging conflict in the United States. However, the two authors geared their arguments to address British assumptions about the United States, including sectional division, slavery, and politics. Besides explaining the reasons for the conflict in a way understandable to their British audience, Clay and DeLeon used their letters to also ask for support. Both authors engaged in public diplomacy, but made an effort to understand British assumptions and shroud their appeal in understandable language. They failed to recognize Britain’s uncertainty about the causes of the conflict based on the official statements coming from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The two letters offer a glimpse into the importance of understanding both the unofficial diplomatic efforts by private individuals and the need to understand British public opinions about the United States, to understand why Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict.

Part II of this post has now been published here.


[1] Peter Connor, American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[2] Cassius M. Clay, “To the Editor of the Times,” Times (London), May 20, 1861.

[3] Edwin De Leon, “The Civil War in America,” Times (London), May 25, 1861.

Niels Eichhorn

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

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

The cry echoed throughout the crisis which followed Abraham Lincoln’s election: “Oh, for an hour of Jackson!” It crossed party and even sectional lines, linking dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans, and indignant northerners to anxious southern dissenters. As they scorned lame-duck James Buchanan and awaited his untested successor, many Unionists recalled Andrew Jackson’s unbending defense of federal authority during the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833) and pined for his return.[1]

Appeals to Jackson came from all quarters, as diverse Americans claimed Old Hickory as their own.[2] Buchanan cited Jackson’s example in his December 3, 1860, message to Congress, in which he denied that states could secede and then insisted that the federal government could not stop them.[3] Frustrated by Buchanan’s timidity, northern Democrats swore that Jackson would have nipped secession in the bud. “O! that we had such a man as Jackson at the helm of state,” one lamented to Stephen A. Douglas. “Then the dangerous rock of secession would have been foreseen afar off–and completely avoided.”[4] Republicans also lauded Jackson, notwithstanding his partisan affiliation, and urged Lincoln to take a Jacksonian stand against secession.[5] Lincoln heeded their advice, studying Jackson’s anti-Nullification proclamation of December 1832, and promising an anxious visitor that he would not “yield an inch” in the coming showdown.[6]

These sentiments required little prompting. Jackson loomed in living memory long after his passing in 1845, not least because Democrats celebrated his victory at the Battle of New Orleans every January. The parallels between Nullification and secession, moreover, were obvious to critics who blamed both problems on South Carolina planters’ determination to rule the country or ruin it. A closer look at invocations of Jackson, however, suggests that contemporary scholarship primed Americans to find Jacksonian precedents for their own tumultuous times. The first professional biography of Jackson serendipitously appeared in print amid the escalating crisis of 1860, providing readers and pundits with a historical lens through which to view current events. Historians, take note: a well-written and well-timed piece of scholarship can influence popular opinion.

Frontispiece to James Parton, Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1872). Born in England and raised primarily in the United States, James Parton was among the leading biographers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Life of Andrew Jackson, published in three volumes by Mason Brothers of New York City in 1859 and 1860, was written by James Parton. Born in England in 1822, Parton moved to the United States in 1827, a year before Jackson’s election to the presidency. Parton’s endeavors ranged widely, from teaching to editing, but he made his mark as a pioneering biographer. His lives of Horace Greeley and Aaron Burr appeared in the mid-1850s to widespread acclaim, and he would later publish books on Benjamin Butler, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. He is best known, however, for his three hefty tomes on Andrew Jackson. Parton commenced the project in 1857, scouring bookstores and libraries for several years before embarking on a long tour of Washington, D.C., and the South in 1859, during which he interviewed Francis P. Blair, Roger Taney, and others who had been close to the seventh president. Working at a remarkable pace, Parton finished the first volume in late 1859 and churned out the second and third the following year.[7]

The sprawling study was widely hailed as a masterpiece. “Seldom has a biography been able to excite a furore,” remarked a Tennessee editor, who appreciated the first volume’s appeal to learned and popular audiences alike. Marveling at Parton’s meticulous research and vivid style, many reviewers quoted the New York Home Journal’s appraisal: “It is as romantic as a mediaeval romance, and yet has the advantage of being true.”[8] Initially, these endorsements came from all corners of the divided country. Readers from Mississippi to New York lauded the first two volumes with equal enthusiasm, and editors nationwide eagerly reprinted extracts recounting colorful episodes of Jackson’s life, including his duel with Charles Dickinson and his triumph at New Orleans.[9]

When the third volume appeared in fall 1860, however, Unionists embraced it as a political weapon. Escalating tension over the presidential contest and secession shaped their reception of the final installment, which covered Jackson’s presidency and included three chapters on Nullification. Parton invited such a reading when he reflected on Jackson’s acceptance of the compromise tariff bill which ended the standoff with South Carolina: “The time may come,” he mused, “when the people of the United States will wish he had vetoed it, and thus brought to an issue, and settled finally, a question which, at some future day, may assume more awkward dimensions, and the country have no Jackson to meet it.”[10] For Unionists, the lesson was clear: another national hero must finish what Old Hickory had started.

Reviewers and advertisers promoted Parton’s work by explicitly connecting it to current events. Writing one week before South Carolina seceded, a Washington editor commended Parton’s coverage of “President Jackson’s war upon the nullifiers,” opining that it provided “much good reading for the present day.”[11] A month later, an English reviewer predicted that recent developments would boost Parton’s readership, since “Andrew Jackson is the only President who has ever had to deal with a crisis” comparable to “that which is now straining the powers of President Buchanan.”[12]

Advertisement from (Washington, D.C.) National Republican, January 25, 1861. With war on the horizon, readers eagerly snapped up tactical manuals and other volumes on military science. Tellingly, booksellers regarded Parton’s Life of Jackson as another likely top seller during the escalating crisis. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Parton’s account of Jackson’s unbending defense of national unity and federal authority, coupled with his commentary on the issues left unsettled in 1833, armed opinion-makers with potent arguments. Unionists who were tired of Buchanan’s vacillations and hoped that Lincoln would stand firm cited Parton’s analysis of the Nullification crisis. A widely reprinted article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, quoted Parton at length to show that secession was “incompatible with the fundamental idea and main object of the Constitution.”[13] Scenes from Jackson’s final weeks thrilled Unionists, who readily quoted Jackson’s deathbed declaration that he would have hanged the Nullifiers as “high as Haman” if they had not given way.[14]

It was an advertisement, however, which most pointedly exhibited the value of Parton’s work for Unionists in 1861. That January, booksellers French & Richstein in Washington, D.C. announced that their store at 278 Pennsylvania Avenue carried a number of important “Books for the Times.” Aware that Unionists were girding for war, they had stocked up on Hardee’s Tactics, Jomini’s Art of War, the Military Laws of the United States, and other martial tomes. Listed at the head of this militaristic catalogue was Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, a must-read for Unionists steeling themselves for a showdown with Carolina hotspurs.

The Civil War soon swelled to such cataclysmic proportions that the Nullification Crisis now appears as a mere prelude. But in the uncertain and anxious days of late 1860 and early 1861, as Americans scrambled to find historical precedents for their turbulent times, James Parton’s study of Andrew Jackson fortified Unionists for the great task that lay before them.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 249 (quotation); Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 126-129.

[2] Aaron Scott Crawford, “Patriot Slaveholder: Andrew Jackson and the Winter of Secession,” Journal of East Tennessee History 82 (2010): 10-32.

[3] James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” American Presidency Project, accessed April 18, 2019,

[4] Mills S. Reeves to Stephen A. Douglas, February 18, 1861, Box 39, Folder 3, in Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[5] Robert J. Cook, “The Shadow of the Past: Collective Memory and the Coming of the American Civil War,” in Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 82-84.

[6] Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 256.

[7] Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1951).

[8] “Life of Andrew Jackson,” Clarksville (TN) Chronicle, January 6, 1860.

[9] “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” Ripley (MS) Advertiser, February 22, 1860; “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” New York Daily Tribune, January 25, 1860; “General Jackson’s Duel with Dickinson,” Shasta (CA) Courier, April 14, 1860; “Gen. Jackson at New Orleans,” Emporia (KS) News, May 19, 1860.

[10] James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859-1860), III, 481-482.

[11] (Washington, DC) Evening Star, December 13, 1860.

[12] “Literature,” The Athenaeum, no. 1734 (January 19, 1861), 75.

[13] Reprinted as “Secession in 1832,” Sunbury (PA) American, December 1, 1860.

[14] “Jackson and the Nullifiers,” (Marysville, CA) Daily National Democrat, January 4, 1861.

Michael E. Woods

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