Category: Field Dispatches

Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Let’s start with a quiz.

1: What are zygomatic arches?

2: Who, exactly, was Amunoph IV?

3: What are the key similarities and differences between the Esquimaux Dog (C. familiaris, Desm.) and the Hare-Indian Dog (C. familiaris lagopus)?

These questions are drawn from references made in one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous books: Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854). Regularly cited as a crucial contribution to American proslavery ideology, Types of Mankind promoted the doctrine of polygenism, which held that people of different races are descended from separately created original pairs, and thus belong to different species.[1] Although rightly remembered as an insidious blend of pseudoscience and proslavery propaganda, Types of Mankind is dense and often dull. It sprawls across some seven hundred pages. It brims with specialized scientific and archaeological jargon. It cost five dollars at a time when laborers might earn one dollar per day. Perhaps Nott and Gliddon’s book was more important as an intellectual milestone than as a direct influencer of popular culture and mass politics. If so, we have much to learn about precisely how the era’s increasingly rigid racist doctrines spread from academic halls and affluent parlors into humbler homes.

Figure 107 from Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854), 171. Much of the book’s argument rested on selective analysis of Egyptological sources, including images of human figures rendered in ancient carvings and paintings such as these.

To trace this process, we need to shift our focus away from the inventors of these perfidious doctrines and toward the popular writers and publishers who promulgated them. Among the latter, arguably none was more widely influential than John H. Van Evrie. Born in Canada, educated as a physician, and active for a quarter century in America’s publishing capital, New York City, Van Evrie turned scientific racism and proslavery politics into a highly marketable product that he peddled to white Americans of all regions and classes. As the author of two books and a pile of pamphlets, the editor of a widely read newspaper, and the publisher of dozens of racist treatises, Van Evrie repackaged scientific racism for popular consumption.

Title page of J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853). Van Evrie’s innovations lay not in his ideas, but in how he marketed and distributed them, including by packaging them in cheap pamphlets such as this, his first.

Van Evrie’s first publication, a pamphlet entitled Negroes and Negro “Slavery, reveals his approach to the work of the propagandist. Published in 1853 and reprinted widely for the next several years, Negroes and Negro “Slavery” offered few new ideas to the country’s escalating debate over slavery. Its two-part thesis is simple: first, polygenism proved that nature intended whites to be masters and African Americans to be slaves. “The negro,” insisted Van Evrie, was “a DIFFERENT AND INFERIOR SPECIES OF MAN,” created by God for servitude. Second, he warned that abolitionism was a British plot concocted to divide and destroy the United States.[2]

By 1853, these ideas were old hat. Van Evrie’s arguments about polygenism copied the work of previous authors like Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott, who had been pontificating about separate creations for more than a decade. His Anglophobic anti-abolitionism echoed politicians like John C. Calhoun. His references to contented slaves and beneficent masters rehashed standard tropes of proslavery literature. Yet Van Evrie’s significance was not as an original thinker, but as a marketer and popularizer. Like the rest of his work, his first pamphlet mattered less for what he said, than for how he said it—and to whom.

Van Evrie used several strategies to amplify his hateful message. Note, for instance, how he burnished his credentials. The “M.D.” placed conspicuously after his name asserted intellectual authority. This was reinforced by the endorsements printed on the pamphlet’s inside covers: enthusiastic blurbs from slave-state politicians provided a southern stamp of approval, while one from a New York senator added regional balance and another from proslavery physician Samuel Cartwright affirmed Van Evrie’s scientific rigor. Together, these marketing techniques promised that Van Evrie would provide a scholarly and objective appraisal of a controversial topic.[3]

Van Evrie also aimed his words at an audience far broader than the comparatively affluent customers who provided much of the market for books. He carefully limited his page count, condensing his message into a widely marketable pamphlet. Heeding the advice of friends who cautioned against immediately publishing a book-length polygenist text, Van Evrie issued his work in monthly installments, a strategy ironically reminiscent of the recent serial publication of the antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Thus, he offered Negroes and Negro “Slavery” as a concise, accessible introduction to a larger projected work that was eventually completed in 1861. He also used simple, jargon-free prose. Although not written in the crude, demagogic style of his later newspaper editorials, the pamphlet did not require the scientific vocabulary and prior knowledge demanded by Nott and Gliddon’s work. Finally, Van Evrie offered the pamphlet at the rock-bottom price of twenty-five cents—and in some cases apparently gave it away. According to one account, Van Evrie’s supporters raised a subscription fund to finance the pamphlet’s free distribution.[4] Van Evrie discounted his publications for the rest of his career, marketing his newspaper as the “World’s Cheapest” and selling his polygenist book for just one dollar.[5]

W. G. Jackman, Portrait of John H. Van Evrie, c. 1860-1869. Emblazoned with Van Evrie’s signature and the slogan “The White Republic against the World,” this lithograph was distributed as part of a marketing campaign for Van Evrie’s numerous publications. William G. Jackman was a prolific engraver who produced lithographic portraits of many prominent Civil War-era figures, including Nathan B. Forrest, Fernando Wood, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Amid the mountains of cheap texts that circulated in the mid-1850s, Van Evrie’s managed to stand out, attracting the attention—and provoking the controversy—on which his career would thrive. Sympathizers quickly identified him as a rising star. Samuel Morse, famous for his pioneering work in telegraphy but also a strident proslavery ideologue, exulted that Van Evrie’s arguments were “founded on God’s truth” and ordered copies of the pamphlet directly from the publisher.[6] Critics, meanwhile, provided additional publicity for Van Evrie’s ideas, even as they debunked them. Frederick Douglass devoted several columns to refuting Van Evrie’s “shallow” reasoning and mocking his “pompous” style.[7] Yet he and other abolitionists worried that Van Evrie was winning converts, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. One correspondent reported that even in the abolitionist hotbed of western New York, Van Evrie’s pamphlet had “circulated considerably” and persuaded some readers to “believe its sophistries.”[8] Negroes and Negro “Slavery” laid the foundation for a career that lasted until 1879.

Historians of proslavery and racist ideologies have paid comparatively little attention to Van Evrie because of his lack of originality. But racism has a political history, a communications history, and a business history as well as an intellectual history, and in these realms, Van Evrie’s labors are instructive: he took the nefarious doctrine of polygenism and sold it to a wide audience, exposing thousands of lay readers to popularized versions of sometimes rather arcane theories. His career is a reminder that new communications technologies are only as enlightening as the content they carry and the people who use them.

 

Quiz Answers:

1: Formed by parts of the zygomatic bone (commonly called the cheekbone) and the temporal bone, the zygomatic arch connects the cheekbone to the upper jawbone and is an important base for muscles used in chewing.

2: Eventually called Akhenaten, Amunoph (or Amenhotep, in the more common modern spelling) IV was an Egyptian pharaoh, the tenth ruler of the eighteenth dynasty. He is best known for introducing Atenism, the worship of Aten, the disc of the sun.

3: According to the naturalists cited in Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (p. 383), the Esquimaux Dog closely resembles the gray wolf in both color and size, while the Hare-Indian dog more closely resembles the prairie wolf, or coyote. The two animals are closely related but the coyote is smaller, has taller and more pointed ears, and has a narrower snout.

 

[1] Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854).

[2] J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853), 2.

[3] Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery, title page and inside front and back covers.

[4] “Pillicoddle,” “Correspondence of the Boston Post,” Boston Post, December 20, 1853.

[5] See the large advertisement for the book in American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette 7, no. 5 (February 2, 1861), 54.

[6] Samuel F.B. Morse to N.R. Stimson, October 6, 1855, in Rushmore G. Horton Papers, New York Public Library.

[7] “Is the Negro a White Man?—Dr. Van Evrie and the New York Day-Book,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, September 14, 1855.

[8] “W,” “Notes by the Way,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 28, 1854.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. 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, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

Interpreting Slavery Through Video Games: The Story of Freedom!

As a child of the 1990s, some of my earliest memories revolve around playing PC video games. Whether connecting to the dial-up modem to play a racing game with my grandfather or walking with my classmates to the school computer lab, video games sparked my curiosity and provided countless hours of entertainment. Today, as the world faces the uncertainties of a terrible global pandemic and the realities of stay home orders and quarantines, I have passed some of my free time playing classic video games from my childhood on MyAbandonware, a website with more than 15,000 games available for free download.[1] (I am not the only person thinking this way; a disclaimer on the website currently says “we are under [a] heavy load of retrogamers wanting to travel back to those old and safe times.”)

I did not grow up with an interest in the Civil War era, nor did I play Civil War video games. But I am now learning about and playing some of the classics from the 1990s: Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee: Civil War General, and Grant, Lee, Sherman: Civil War Generals 2, just to name a few. Like other military video games then and now, these titles combine decision-making, strategy, narrative, and compelling graphics to draw gamers into these imaginary worlds. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in particular became an award-winning hit with more than 200,000 copies sold after its 1997 release.[2]

One thing sticks out to me about these Civil War video games, however. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these games did little to provide a larger context for the causes, context, and consequences of the war. Gamers could play as either the Confederacy or United States militaries and had to develop tactics and strategies for defeating the enemy, but what these militaries were fighting about was left unanswered. I then wondered if anyone had ever thought about creating a video game about slavery. To my surprise I discovered that the answer was “yes,” after reading about Kamau Sebabu Kambui in a recent, brilliant feature in the New Yorker by the journalist Julian Lucas.

This screenshot from Freedom! shows the introductory screen in which players learn more about their character’s attributes and shortcomings. Courtesy of the author.

Kamau Kambui was an esoteric black nationalist in Minnesota who became a leader in developing experiential-learning activities about slavery. According to Lucas, Kambui created a living history program called the “Underground Railroad Reenactment” in 1987, one of the first of its kind and a precursor to contemporary living history programs about slavery like “Follow the North Star” at Conner Prairie. He was also approached by Disney at one point to serve as a consultant for a ride (which was never completed) that would have recreated the experience of a fugitive slave running for freedom. “You can read in a book what [slavery] feels like. You can see it on a video. But tonight you have the opportunity to feel the Underground Railroad,” Kambui would say at the beginning of his Underground Railroad programs.[3]

Kambui’s interest in experiential learning also led him to a major role in creating Freedom!, the first computer game about slavery in the United States. Released in 1992, Freedom! was created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), the same software company that created The Oregon Trail. Kambui served as an advisor to the five white programmers who developed the game’s feel and aesthetic. According to Lucas, Kambui stressed the importance of nature (swamps, prairies, and forests are prominent in the game) and was adamant that the enslaved characters in the game use period dialect and have “a distinctly ‘African’ look.”[4]

This screenshot shows a typical scene from Freedom! Note that the lettering on the sign appears unreadable because the enslaved character is illiterate. Courtesy of the author.

Freedom! starts in the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware in 1830. The gamer plays the role of an enslaved African American boy or girl (player’s choice) trying to run away to freedom. Players must converse with other enslaved laborers, navigate any potential warning signs (such as slave catchers with dogs, hostile free whites, and wrong directions) and maintain adequate levels of nourishment, stamina, food, and health during their journey. The developers also included a disclaimer at the beginning of the game, stating that Freedom! intended to teach students how to collect and interpret data, determine directions from observation, and predict relationships between possible friends and adversaries. In choosing to run away, the player must determine whether or not to seek advice from family members before leaving, “ask the master for a pass,” or to simply go it alone without help. In each simulation, the chosen enslaved person has different talents and challenges. For example, when I played the game the first time, my character was able to swim but unable to read or write. In the end, the game was very difficult and each time I played the simulation I was unable to get to freedom. Each time I faced the struggle of finding enough food and was eventually captured by slave patrollers with dogs.

Freedom! was distributed to one third of all public-school districts around the United States in the fall of 1992. It did not take long for controversy and legal troubles to emerge around the game. In Arizona, parents of an eleven-year-old African American student filed a lawsuit against the Tempe School District alleging that their son was “humiliated by classmates while playing the game . . . and that his civil rights were violated.” The mother, Sonia Campbell-Vinson, argued that her son “was hurt that people were making fun of the characters in the game. It was very condescending to [my son] as a black. He woke up crying at night. He was upset that he was being thought of as a slave.”[5]

Meanwhile, a parents’ group in Merrillville, Indiana, spoke with Kambui, MECC, and a representative of the NAACP in January 1993. The parents noted that the game was offered in the school’s computer lab, but that no curriculum accompanied it. Since the game was played during students’ free time, those who struggled “were not receiving healthy feedback or positive reinforcement” from teachers. A spokesperson for the group, Paulette Davis, argued that Freedom! trivialized and “Nintendoized” slavery. She asserted that “African American history doesn’t begin with slavery, but in the kingdoms of Africa,” a larger fault within the entire historical curricula of the school district. Following this meeting and facing mounting legal costs, MECC instructed all schools to return or destroy their copies of the game.[6] Kambui later passed away in 1998 from cancer.

The use of period dialect and stereotypical portrayals of enslaved African Americans throughout Freedom! generated much controversy from parents whose children played the game in school. Courtesy of the author.

The quick rise and fall of Freedom! can be attributed to numerous factors. For one, the game required additional historical context and curriculum materials that many teachers were unable or unwilling to utilize. The history of slavery did not have a central place in history education in many districts around the country during the 1990s. Equally important, while the game reinforced enslaved people’s agency by demonstrating their own role in ending slavery in the United States, some black children at majority white schools clearly felt isolated and stereotyped by their white peers. It appears that all too often students who were not black saw the game as a joke rather than a serious history lesson.

Freedom! nevertheless raises some interesting questions about the role of video games and experiential learning in teaching students about the history of slavery. How can this history be told in way that is meaningful, accurate, and respectful? Is Kambui’s vision of a history that is not just read but felt even possible? Are there certain historical topics that simply can’t be taught through experience? Can video games about war go beyond military tactics to also incorporate political decision making? What role can historians—from K-12 teachers to public and academic historians—play in using video games and visual mediums as educational tools?

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

[1] “Home Page,” My Abandonware, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.myabandonware.com/.

[2] Colin Campbell, “What’s Up with Sid Meier’s Antietam?, IGN.com, August 30, 1999, accessed April 30, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20020602050912/http://pc.ign.com/articles/069/069973p1.html.

[3] Julian Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?,” New Yorker, February 10, 2020, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/17/can-slavery-reenactments-set-us-free.

[4] Lucas, “Can Slavery Reenactments Set Us Free?”; see also Joe Juba, “A Pioneer Story: How MECC Blazed New Trails,” Game Informer, April 7, 2017, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2017/04/07/a-pioneer-story-how-mecc-blazed-new-trails.aspx.

[5] “School’s Computer Game on Slavery Prompts Suit,” New York Times, August 28, 1995.

[6] Paul C. Schuytema, “What Cost Freedom,” Compute! Magazine, September 1993.

Nick Sacco

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

Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of digital humanities (DH) projects and accessible digital tools for those locked out of traditional archival repositories.  The recent and expanding democratization of archival materials, moreover, has introduced new possibilities for researching African American reunification efforts as an embodied application of Civil War memory. Both the Lost Friends and Last Seen DH projects, for instance, showcase the advertisements placed by African Americans seeking to reunite with families separated by slavery and the Civil War and amplified the conclusions of Heather A. Williams’s Help Me to Find My People (2012).[1] When combined with other digital collections and non-digital scholarship, these projects have expanded the possibilities for scholars and descendants to answer old, as well as new, questions. For instance, how do race, gender, class, and place influence black mothers’ use of memory in their efforts to reunite with loved ones taken during wartime campaigns at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border?

During an October 1862 slaving raid, several African American men were taken from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and eventually returned after white community leaders secured their release. “Negroes Driven South by the Rebel Officers,” Harper’s Weekly, November 8, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

DH projects can reveal one Franklin County, Pennsylvania mother’s deployment of Civil War memory in her reunification efforts. Using resources commonly associated with newly emancipated southern African Americans, Priscilla Marshall made claims of citizenship by seeking justice for the wartime enslavement of her children in Virginia. In effect, Marshall’s application of Civil War memory transcended physical boundaries, gender expectations, and notions of belonging. Digital tools illuminate her efforts.

Following Confederate defeat, black Pennsylvanians attempted to reunite with their family members enslaved during several Confederate Army raids. Some turned to state officials for assistance but to no avail. A state commission would only accept claims for property either damaged or lost (i.e. livestock, crops, business expenses, and household goods).[2] Excluded from state resources, black Pennsylvanian women relied on federal resources for southern freedpeople, the black press, and postwar communal networks. In so doing, they directly applied Civil War memory in their struggle for reunification and rebuffed state officials’ demands to forget the civilian trauma endured. Some women placed the newspaper advertisements now contained in the Last Seen and Lost Friends DH projects. They firmly understood that their efforts might be “rarely fulfilled but the possibility kept them hoping, and intermittent stories of success kept them encouraged.”[3] Yet, hope, memory of loved ones, and the possibility of reunification served as the greatest motivator for their efforts.

Instead of placing advertisements, Priscilla Marshall used the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Virginia (the Freedmen’s Bureau). The Pennsylvanian mother, like countless southern black women,  “chose to use the apparatus of the Union Army and the strategy of claiming national inclusion to maneuver for a better life and to construct a civic existence.”[4] The Freedmen’s Bureau courts, local agent offices, and even state headquarters served as a venue for justice and restitution where the Pennsylvania Claims Office could not.

Marshall found success. Actively remembering their wartime enslavement, she appealed for her three children–Rosa, Sallie, and Jack–taken during the Gettysburg Campaign.[5] Initially encountering unsympathetic Freedmen’s Bureau agents, Marshall fiercely resisted. She escalated her claim to General Orlando Brown, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia. She also secured and presented witness statements to General Brown in April 1866.[6] As a result, she reconnected with two of her three children who had been enslaved in the Shenandoah Valley. Her digitally accessible letters also reveal how much the mother fought with the agency for reunification. According to two March 1866 letters, Marshall refused to accept any transportation assistance from the federal agency.  Instead, she secured her own travel arrangements for her children with a black woman whom she trusted.  She also expressed hope that her children could assist in locating Rosa. While failing in this effort, the 1870 federal census revealed that her restored family remained intact. Throughout her struggles, the Pennsylvanian mother redefined postwar citizenship according to her gendered notions of freedom and successfully applied Civil War memory in the reunification of her family. Her success continued to encourage other black Pennsylvanian mothers to not give up hope. Previously outside of the collective consciousness, the combination of older and new DH tools has made visible the archival traces of one mother’s love and application of Civil War memory for scholars, educators, and descendant communities alike.[7]

Priscilla Marshall’s reunification efforts, therefore, demonstrates the promise of DH projects and accessible digital tools for asking new questions and creating new insights on the post-emancipation experience. While not perfect, interesting and potentially exciting opportunities for deepening our understanding race, gender, and Civil War memory abound. Whose experience might be rediscovered when DH projects are actively used during and beyond this current crisis? Beyond their teaching utility, how might DH projects influence future Civil War era scholarship?

 

[1] Williams Research Center, Lost Friends: Advertisements from the Southwestern Christian Advocate, The Historic New Orleans Collection, https://www.hnoc.org/database/lost-friends/index.html; Villanova University, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, 2017, https://informationwanted.org/; Heather A. Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012).
[2] While Priscilla Marshall did not file a claim, other Franklin County residents did. Successful applicants received restitution for real property only. None of the few claims of personhood received restitution. For all claims, see Damage Claim Applications for Cumberland and Franklin Counties, 1871-1879, Records of the Department of the Auditor General, RG-2, roll 6161, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
[3] “Information wanted of Rose Jackson,” The Christian Recorder, August 14, 1869, Last Seen, accessed April 26, 2020, http://informationwanted.org/items/show/342; Williams, 168.
[4] Sharon Romeo, Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 3.
[5] “Albert Ordway to Orlando Brown, February 1, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, accessed April 26, 2020, https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1243 and “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow, accessed April 26, 2020, https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1226. Her son’s name is inconsistently noted as Jack in some records and Zack in other records. Despite this inconsistency, his parentage, age, enslavement, and postwar return is accurately documented.
[6] “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866.”
[7] “Priscilla Marshall to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866” and “Ann Gibbons to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866,” Registers of Letters Received, vol. 1, Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872, FamilySearch, http://FamilySearch.org; “Marshall, Priscilla,” in Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Population Schedules, Ancestry.com; Romeo, 81-84.

Hilary N. Green

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

Welcoming P. Gabrielle Foreman to the Muster Team

Welcoming P. Gabrielle Foreman to the Muster Team

We are pleased to announce the addition of a new correspondent to our Muster team, P. Gabrielle Foreman. Gabrielle recently moved to Penn State from the University of Delaware where she was the founding faculty director of the award-winning Colored Conventions Project. At Penn State, she’ll launch and direct the Center for Black Digital Research. That Center, also called #DigBlk, will house the Colored Conventions Project as well as Douglass Day and the new Black Women’s Organizing Archive. Gabrielle is a poet’s daughter turned literary historian. She is finishing a monograph called The Art of DisMemory: Historicizing Slavery in Poetry, Print and Material Culture as well as an edited collection called Praise Songs for Dave the Potter: Art and Poetry for David Drake about the enslaved master poet and potter whose work appears in museums across North America. The volume The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, the first collection on this early Civil Rights movement that spanned seven decades, is forthcoming with UNC Press. For Muster, she’ll be writing about digital and distributed archive building, nineteenth-century Black organizing, Black memory and the arts, and Black history’s continued hold on the present. Gabrielle holds an endowed chair in Liberal Arts and is Professor of English, African American Studies and History as well as affiliate faculty at the Penn State University Library. She’ll be the Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society in 2021-2022.

Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Defending Residents Abroad: The Almost Abduction of Martin Koszta in Smyrna

Since 1950, the United States has maintained the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, headquartered today in Naples, to protect U.S. interests. The fleet has been instrumental in recent struggles against ISIS. However, the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean is as old as the country. Thomas Jefferson had dispatched ships to the region to deal with the Barbary Pirate state of Tripoli in 1801. When Europe’s great power framework briefly disintegrated during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the United States seemed poised to take advantage of this European distraction and make the country’s presence felt in the region, defending its citizens abroad.

We often think today of the United States’s role and involvement in the world as a modern phenomenon, as its aircraft carrier groups plow the world’s oceans to project the country’s imperial ambitions. However, the United States was not as isolationist in the nineteenth century as popular myth wants us to think. What almost transpired in the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1853, when a U.S. warship attacked the warship of another country in violation of international law, may sound familiar to Civil War era historians. In October 1864, the commander of the Wachusett attacked and captured the C.S.S. Florida in Brazil’s neutral port of Salvador, Bahia province.[1] We tend to treat the Bahia incident as unusual, but the events in Smyrna illustrate the continuity of a belligerent U.S. gunboat diplomacy to protect U.S. interests and citizens/residents abroad.

Furthermore, the current administration has done little to protect U.S. nationals overseas. There is the recent reluctance to defend U.S. citizens and permanent residents abroad and to bring assassins to justice, such as in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought many news stories regarding the failure of the State Department to repatriate U.S. citizens stranded abroad. However, it might be worth remembering the lengths to which the United States went to defend and protect citizens and residents abroad in the 1850s. History can illustrate the normal and abnormal of our modern situation.

Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), c. 1860-1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 21, 1853, Martin Koszta, having recently returned from a trip to Constantinople, was attacked and abducted from Cristo’s café in Smyrna by a group of armed ruffians hired by the Austrian consul general, Peter Ritter von Weckbecker. They threw Koszta into a boat waiting at the quay and rowed to the Austrian brig E. K. Hussar. Koszta was in a peculiar situation, since only two years earlier, a similar incident had ended with the “bullet-ridden body” of an abducted Hungarian appearing in an alley in Trieste.[2] Abductions were a scheme the Austrians had developed shortly after the Hungarian uprising (1848-1849).

During the uprising, Koszta had joined the Hungarian nationalists and served in the Hungarian army. After the revolution’s defeat, Koszta went into exile in the United States. He made his declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen in July 1852. For about a year, he worked various jobs around New York. Then, before obtaining a passport and citizenship, he went on this fateful trip to the Ottoman Empire.[3]

When he heard of Koszta’s abduction, Edward S. Offley, the U.S. consul in Smyrna, faced a dilemma. He knew that Weckbecker had orchestrated the abduction, but Offley had no U.S. naval support to demand Koszta’s release.[4] Nevertheless, he had to find a way to protect the Hungarian from Austrian repressions.

Watercolor of the sloop U.S.S. St. Louis by Gunner Moses Lane. Painted between 1852 and 1855. Courtesy of the Hissem-Montague Family Genealogy Page.

Luckily, the next day, the U.S.S. St. Louis under the command of Duncan N. Ingraham arrived in Smyrna. Only a few days earlier, the St. Louis had assisted U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire George P. Marsh in Athens, protecting the interests of a U.S. missionary.[5] Once the ship put into port, Offley came on board and informed Ingraham of the recent developments.[6] The consul and the naval officer went to Captain August von Schwarz of the Hussar to interrogate Koszta. They were uncertain if his documents stating his intention to become a citizen of the United States were sufficient for them to demand his release from the Austrians.[7] They decided to await instructions from Constantinople.

The U.S. chargé d’affaires John P. Brown, and Austrian minister Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Bruck in Constantinople, had to negotiate the delicate citizenship question involved with Austria claiming that Koszta had “never ceased to be a subject.”[8]

Ever since the creation of the United States, the country had to protect its naturalized citizens abroad against European assumptions that a person never ceased to be a subject. These legal problems underlay the impressment issue that eventually contributed to the War of 1812. By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. representatives often had to protect citizens against unfulfilled military service demands in their home states. These legal questions of citizenship remained contentious and required much work of U.S. representatives.

However, Brown quickly realized that the Austrian minister stalled to remove Koszta on the next Lloyd steamer to Trieste. As a precaution, Ingraham moved the St. Louis between the Hussar and the Lloyd steamer, loading his cannons in a blatant violation of Ottoman neutrality.[9] Ingraham issued an ultimatum to Schwarz to hand over Koszta, or the St. Louis would open fire and forcefully remove the Hungarian. To avoid such an outcome, Offley and Weckbecker came to a last-minute agreement placing Koszta in French custody until the legations in Constantinople could sort out the legal question of Koszta’s citizenship.[10]

Photograph of George Perkins Marsh of Vermont. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Desiring a quick settlement, on August 4, 1853, Marsh, who had recently returned from Athens, suggested to the Austrian minister that the consuls should put Koszta on the next vessel departing for the United States. If Koszta left the ship in any European port and terminated his passage, he would forfeit the protection of the United States and Austria could do with him as she desired.[11] The Austrian legation submitted the offer to Vienna for consideration, and on September 14, Marsh reported their approval.[12] After a brief delay, Koszta was on a ship to the United States.[13]

In the 1850s, trigger-happy naval commanders and diligent diplomatic representatives stood ready to defend U.S. citizens and their rights abroad. Where usually the defense of citizen rights involved lengthy diplomatic exchanges and elaborate legal arguments of the difference between subject and citizen, rarely did naval commanders bring the United States to the brink of war with another European country. Considering his origin, Koszta was lucky that the U.S.S. St. Louis prevented his abduction and murder by the Austrian authorities. Unfortunately, more recently, Jamal Khashoggi was not so lucky, nor are thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad. In times of great aberration, it is worth remembering that there was a time where the United States was willing to take on a great power to protect the life and liberty of its people abroad.

 

[1] Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 102-103.

[2] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Andor Klay, Daring Diplomacy: The Case of the First American Ultimatum (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), 20-36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Klay, Daring Diplomacy, 40-44.

[5] Angelo Repousis, “‘The Devil’s Apostle’: Jonas King’s Trial against the Greek Hierarchy in 1852 and the Pressure to Extend U.S. Protection for American Missionaries Overseas,” Diplomatic History 33 (November 2009): 807-37.

[6] Griffith to Brown, June 24, 1853, and Ingraham to Dobbin, June 24, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA. While John Griffith writes in his report that he informed Ingraham of the developments, Ingraham relates that he arrived on June 23 and not June 22 as the consul implies, and that he sent for the consul to get accurate information. These inconsistencies do not distract from the main narrative, which is similar.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bruck to Brown June 27, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[9] March to Webster, August 21, 1852, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[10] Offley to Brown, June 30, 1853, Offley and Weckbecker to Pichon, July 2, 1843, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[11] Marsh to Marcy, August 4, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Ottoman Empire/Turkey, NARA.

[12] Marsh to Marcy, September 14, 1853, Ibid.

[13] Marsh to Marcy, October 20, 1853, Ibid.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the philosopher Avishai Margalit argues that “we should be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”[1] The essence of popular government rests on the idea that compromise is not only necessary, but that it is a positive function in promoting the interests of the public good. Margalit warns, however, that political compromises can easily lead to immoral and violent outcomes. He defines a “rotten political compromise” as one that helps “establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation . . . that does not treat humans as humans.”[2] This provocative definition might compel students of nineteenth-century U.S. history to consider numerous instances of political compromise when slaveholders’ interests were perpetuated in the interest of national harmony.

One such moment that I have been studying more lately is the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As we approach the 200th anniversary of this crucial legislation, I have taken an interest in studying figures who refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s existence in the new state of Missouri. In particular, I have been fascinated by the responses of a small number of Missourians who unsuccessfully fought to ban slavery in the state.

A Map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Missouri Compromise story is well-known to nineteenth-century historians. A bill on Missouri statehood was first brought up for debate in Congress on December 18, 1818. Fearing the rapid spread of slavery into new western territories, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed a plan to gradually end slavery in Missouri. Any black Missourians born after statehood would be free and the remaining enslaved population in the state would be gradually emancipated over time. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois proposed a further amendment to ban slavery north and west of Missouri in other territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase, a precursor to the final legislation that Congress would eventually pass.[3]

These proposals caused such a furor among proslavery politicians—not least Missouri’s own proslavery leaders—that the Missouri statehood bill failed to pass before Congress adjourned in March 1819. John Scott, Missouri’s non-voting representative in Congress, complained that his prospective state was entitled to the “rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed the other states.” Dismissing earlier Congressional legislation banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, Scott argued that as long as a republican form of government for white men was established in Missouri, Congress could not interfere any further. If Congress could ban slavery in Missouri, it could also establish “what religion the people should subscribe . . . and to provide for the excommunication of all those who [do] not subscribe.” Slavery had existed in Missouri territory for one hundred years at that point and should be allowed to exist moving forward, according to Scott.[4]

A minority of white Missourians opposed slavery and refused to compromise on the issue, however. Through the spring and summer of 1819, a vigorous debate about slavery in Missouri occurred in the pages of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, the first newspaper to be published west of the Mississippi River. Published by Joseph Charless, an anti-slavery Irish immigrant who Meriwether Lewis had urged to settle in St. Louis, the Missouri Gazette published a series of antislavery letters by an anonymous writer that went by the name “A Farmer of St. Charles County.”[5]

“A Farmer of St. Charles County” began his correspondence with the newspaper on April 7th. He complained that territorial laws often referred to the “inhabitants” being given the same rights as U.S. citizens, but that only white men truly enjoyed those rights. Taken literally, “the word ‘inhabitants’ would comprehend every individual of the human race, whatever might be his color” could claim the right of citizenship. The farmer then complained that the slave state simultaneously complained about their “species of property which they have found troublesome and dangerous to keep at home.” Why would Missouri choose to indulge in such a danger any further? Slaveholders, according to the St. Charles farmer, became greedy, lazy, and prone to vices like “gambling, drinking, and dueling.” Only the spirit of the Declaration of Independence could correct slavery’s wrongs.[6]

Joseph Charless, antislavery editor of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The farmer continued his letters by arguing that restricting slavery’s growth could eventually lead to its eventual demise. Restriction would “reduce the price of slaves in the slave states, and make their owners more willing to emancipate” and perhaps colonize them to Africa. Slavery was the “foulest blot on our national character” and created an unfair economic advantage for slaveholders. Finally, the farmer correctly predicted that “Virginia and Kentucky will grow an abundance of negroes. [The excess] must be sold or emancipated, for it would not do to let them remain in those states. Therefore they want a market for them in Missouri. They know that slavery is a curse, and they want us to have a share in that curse, and to pay them well for it besides.”[7] Another anonymous farmer, inspired by the St. Charles farmer’s letters, wrote to the Missouri Gazette wondering what proslavery thinkers would say if Congress passed a law requiring that “the people of Missouri should never make any laws prohibiting or restricting slavery,” even if it was against the interests of Missourians. Would such laws respect states’ rights and the spirit of popular government?[8]

Another significant moment occurred in St. Ferdinand, St. Louis County, in June. Antislavery residents there passed a series of resolutions arguing against slavery in Missouri. “Slavery is contrary to the term freedom, and is also contrary to the laws of nature” and “one of the greatest evils we have to regret at this present day in the United States,” they argued. Slavery’s continued growth would “eventually end in an entailed hereditary misery on our future prosperity, and bring upon us their just censure, as well as the judgment of a just, but angry God.”[9]

These antislavery appeals in the Missouri Gazette failed to greatly change public opinion. Several people wrote to Charless accusing the St. Charles farmer of not actually being a farmer or a St. Charles resident, since no one in that town could so oppose the right to own enslaved laborers. Leading territorial politicians such as Alexander McNair and Thomas Hart Benton held public meetings against any compromises with antislavery politicians. Both made the self-serving argument that expanding slavery to Missouri was preferred by enslaved blacks, because the future state’s lands were not suitable for cotton growth. Slaves would be treated better and welcome the chance to work on a small-scale farm rather than a giant plantation further south. When McNair and Benton were elected as delegates to a state constitutional convention in 1820, they helped author a clause that would have banned free black settlement in the state, although Speaker of the House Henry Clay later asked that Missouri not enforce this clause before Congress accepted the new constitution.[10]

Article II, Section 26 of the Missouri Constitution, which banned free black settlement in Missouri. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In the end, Clay engineered a compromise that gave a little to both sides of the divide. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while Maine would come in as a free state, setting the precedent of balancing free and slave territories when adding new states to the Union. Territory north of the 36˚30′ parallel would be free of slavery (excluding Missouri) while territory south would be allowed to establish it. While both sides at the time found room to criticize the Missouri Compromise, the legislation became sacrosanct in the minds of antislavery thinkers like Abraham Lincoln thirty years later. Criticizing the law’s repeal by Congress in 1854, Lincoln argued that the Compromise protected the “sacred right of self-government” and that its repeal guaranteed the “sacred right of taking slaves to Nebraska” and other western territories.[11] Replacing the Missouri Compromise with the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” soon ushered the creation of the Republican Party and eventually the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 worth it, or was it a “rotten compromise” that compromised the nation’s values? In the minds of antislavery Missourians, it was not the “Missouri Compromise,” but “Missouri Compromised.”

 

[1] Avishai Margalit, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Margalit, 2.

[3] See Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 1804-1821 (Jefferson City: The Hugh Stephens Printing Co., 1916).

[4] “Remarks of Mr. Scott, of Missouri,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 12, 1819.

[5] “Joseph Charless (1772-1834),” The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2020, accessed February 29, 2020, https://historicmissourians.shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/c/charless/.

[6] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 7, 1819.

[7] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819.

[8] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 21, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Louis County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 9, 1819.

[9] “For the Missouri Gazette,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 23, 1819.

[10] “Sydney,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 14, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819; Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 84-88; “The Second Missouri Compromise,” Last Best Hope of Earth, March 28, 2016, accessed March 1, 2020, https://lastbesthopeofearth.com/2016/03/28/the-second-missouri-compromise/; Junius P. Rodriguez, The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 229.

[11] “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, October 16, 1854,” Teaching American History, 2020, accessed March 1, 2020, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-the-repeal-of-the-missouri-compromise/

Nick Sacco

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

A War for Settler Colonialism

A War for Settler Colonialism

Today on Muster we share the first post from our recent addition to the correspondent team, Paul Barba. Paul is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University who studies slaving violence in the Texas borderlands. He will be writing on the Civil War in the West. Welcome, Paul!


In a brief 2017 Civil War Times article on the West during the Civil War, esteemed Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher argued that “the Trans-Mississippi Theater, which included noteworthy military and political action primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, lagged far behind the Western and Eastern theaters in significance.” This insignificance, he noted, was most evident when it came to wartime decisions regarding resource allocation, as “neither the United States nor the Confederacy made it [the Trans-Mississippian Theater] a priority.” The net result, he claimed, was that “events on the margins of the theater, such as Henry Hopkins Sibley’s quixotic foray into New Mexico in 1862, scarcely rise to the level of inconsequential.” As Professor Gallagher would have you believe, for the Civil War enthusiast there’s nothing worth seeing “out west.”[1]

Professor Gallagher’s views of this period are, like those of so many other Civil War historians, Anglo-centric. Although Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis may not have fixated on the outcomes of “quixotic forays” into New Mexico the way they obsessed over military victories in the Chesapeake or even along the Mississippi, the violence that reverberated back and forth across the West during the 1860s (and after) was no less profound – or consequential – for the Indigenous peoples of North America. Interpretive scope matters. If we isolate the Civil War as strictly a moment of disjuncture, a completely unique and extraordinary event, we fail to appreciate how the North-South affair simply escalated forces already in motion. A focus on the West, where Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic people contended with White American visionaries’ plots for their nation’s future, requires scholars to think capaciously about the Civil War’s significance. From this perspective, events out west were not simply “noteworthy”; they were emblematic.

Indigenous studies scholars have argued that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, “whereby an imperial power seizes Native territory, eliminates the original people by force, and resettles the land with a foreign, invading population.” Settler colonialism, Nick Estes has argued, “calls for the annihilation of Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human kin”; it is a historical structure that demands Indigenous destruction, resource extraction, and settler colonial dominion.[2] The history of the Civil War does not exist outside of this longer history of U.S. colonialism. If we appreciate the Civil War as more than an “event” – but instead a pronounced moment of acute violence within a broader chain of structural violence – “the West” no longer appears marginal or “inconsequential.”[3] Rather, the West emerges as an equally important arena in the fight for settler colonialism’s future. We might, therefore, rethink the Civil War as the violent contest over visions of the implementation of conquest.

U.S. presidential election propaganda, 1856. The cartoon was an indictment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It also trafficked in anti-Indigenous stereotypes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As generations of scholars have noted, the future of the West was at the heart of the sectional crisis. Rightfully, scholars have spotlighted the political, cultural, moral, and economic salience of slavery in explaining the sectional wedge that formed within White America during the mid-nineteenth century. Anti-Blackness – whether it be of the xenophobic variety of “Free Labor” advocates, who worked tirelessly to forge an all-White western utopia, or of the exploitative variety of slaveholders and their proxies, who wanted to extend their regime of violence and terror against enslaved people westward – drove mid-century White visions of the West. The political controversies of Texas and Mexican cession, the founding of California, and the Kansas crisis all exposed how diverging White assumptions about the West’s future fomented sectionalism in the United States. Of course, any frank (White) assessment of the West presumed the eventual – if not inevitable – conquest or displacement of Native peoples, as westward settler expansion (by slaveholders, Free Soilers, and others) necessitated the “emptying” or “freeing” of Native lands. And this is to say nothing of the “stars” of the Civil War who, like Robert E. Lee, earned their stripes in the violent gauntlets of the West.

Recent scholarship on the West during the Civil War (i.e., when westerners supposedly were not “made a priority”) has brought into stark relief the stakes of the Civil War’s reverberating violence. In Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands (2017), Andrew Masich has detailed the convergence of western and eastern, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo, “martial credos” – a convergence that ultimately gave way to a distinctly Anglo penchant for “wars of extermination.” Megan Kate Nelson has situated the military concerns of Unionists and Confederates, who viewed the West as a thoroughfare for commerce, a key domain for resource extraction, and recruiting grounds for soldiers, within the broader context of Indigenous campaigns to defend their homelands. The political ramifications of the Civil War were especially important. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, “In the midst of war, Lincoln did not forget his free-soiler settler constituency that had raised him to the presidency.” (The Homestead Act of 1862 is perhaps the greatest example of how White easterners, at the expense of Indigenous people, grafted onto the West the fate of their nation during the war.) And then there were the obvious episodes of U.S.-led genocide, with Colonel John Chivington’s 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people being the most notorious.[4] Although few authors have sought to emphasize explicitly the Civil War’s role in escalating settler colonial development, their studies make it abundantly clear that the Civil War did not represent a pause in the ongoing process of Indigenous genocide and dispossession in North America. Instead, it was, like virtually every other U.S. war prior, a jolt of energy for the next phase of anti-Indigenous devastation.[5]

War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, Lean Bear, Yellow Wolf, and others, at the White House Conservatory, March 27, 1863. Yellow Wolfe would be among those massacred by Colonel Chivington and his followers at Sand Creek in November 1864. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Studies that carry the narrative into the post-Civil War period only further highlight the historical connections between the western sphere and the North-South, Atlantic seaboard heartland.[6] Black liberation fighters during the war forced the emancipationist hands of White Northern politicians, but even the momentous Thirteenth Amendment would not remain solely an eastern-facing mechanism for abolition and social transformation. In the West, where various forms of bondage had thrived, legally and extra-legally, under multiple regimes of power for centuries, the fight for emancipation would appear no less contested or uncertain than it was in the East.[7] As William S. Kiser has demonstrated in Borderlands of Slavery (2017), the persistence of slavery in places like New Mexico frustrated White American reformers, who in response “effectively expanded the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment.”[8] Thus even federal government policy was not unilateral; rather, it emerged in dialogue with events and conversations originating in western contexts. Just as important, however, was the reality that expanded federal powers – whether through emancipationist policies or a beefed-up military apparatus – also expanded the capacity and speed of U.S. colonialism.[9]

If anything, scholarship on the West will continue to usher in the next wave of groundbreaking scholarship on the Civil War. Because “the West” has been, since the earliest days of European colonialism, a nebulous construct (part natural, part geographical, part political, and part imaginary), those who study it tend to be methodologically flexible. We search for connections that transcend conventional periodizations and geographical parameters and look beyond Anglo-centric narratives that assume all “meaningful” histories originate from White population centers.[10] Clearly, the Civil War need not be understood solely as a contest among easterners; its sinews and legacies extended far and wide. Indigenous voices, above all, are testament to that fact.

 

[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “Out West,” HistoryNet, August 2017, https://www.historynet.com/insight-gary-gallagher-war-west.htm. Megan Kate Nelson, Adam Arenson, and Andrew R. Graybill also have criticized Gallagher for his dismissive remarks about the West during the Civil War. See Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” Historista, June 29, 2017, http://www.megankatenelson.com/why-the-civil-war-west-mattered-and-still-does/; Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8-9.

[2] Nick Estes, Our History if the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 16, 89-90; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 20), 2; Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387-93. Also see the posts of my fellow Muster correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/author/michelle-cassidy/.

[3] Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, eds., On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 14.

[4] Andrew Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 13-17; Megan Kate Nelson, The Three Cornered-War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner, 2020), xiii-xx; Dunbar-Ortiz, 140; Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[5] For settler colonialism during previous U.S. wars, see Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[6] Todd W. Wahlstrom’s The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) has illuminated the West’s importance as a gateway to Confederate visions of post-war survival and resurgence.

[7] Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

[8] William S. Kiser, Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 15-16, 155-69.

[9] On the devastating, if complicated, ramifications of the Five Nations’ mixed participation in the Civil War, see, for instance, Christopher B. Bean, “Who Defines a Nation?: Reconstruction in Indian Territory,” in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory, ed. Bradley R. Clampitt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 110-26; Fay A. Yarbrough, “‘Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master’s’: The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople,” in Civil War Wests, 224-36.

[10] Methodological flexibility, I believe, is the hallmark of Borderlands literature. For a conceptual overview, see especially Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (September 2011): 338-61. For a discussion of the methodological flexibility of Western scholars more broadly, see Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-91.

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

Sonya Clark’s exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of Jonathan VanDyke.

From late March to August 2019, the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia showcased the innovative work of Sonya Y. Clark. Known for “Unraveling,” an art piece consisting of a deconstructed Confederate battle flag, the Amherst College professor’s recent works have explored race, symbols and Confederacy, and the nation’s struggle with its legacy of slavery. In the “The Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know” exhibit, Clark reintroduced contemporary museum attendees to another symbol of the Confederacy. The massive truce flag constructed from a humble, waffle-weaved tea cloth measuring 15 feet by 30 feet, and dyed with tea and other natural dyes, forced viewers to contend with one poignant question on the concluding panel: “What if this was the symbol that endured?”[1]

This is a great question that can reframe our understanding of the war’s legacy and illustrate the intersection between academic scholarship and public art. Scholars of Civil War memory have challenged us to reconsider many aspects of the Civil War and its legacy.  For instance, David Silkenat’s Raising the White Flag adds to the conversation.[2] He explores the role of surrender in the Civil War and how its legacy has contributed to the contentious ways Americans have to come to understand this flag and the act of surrender. As a defining feature of the Civil War, he reminds readers how the “American Civil War began with a surrender and ended with a series of surrenders.”[3] By the war’s conclusion, he contends that popular understandings had evolved and challenged “southerners and northerners alike” in how to “best remember and commemorate surrenders.”[4] This struggle has subsequently “demonstrated the difficulties Americans have had in making sense of surrender.”[5]

As “the prototype of the honorable surrender,” Robert Anderson and his surrender at Fort Sumter revealed a shared understanding of acceptable terms of surrender and the marks of cowardice and excessive violence as unacceptable behavior by Federal and Confederate forces.[6] The surrenders of Forts Henry and Donelson, however, shifted attitudes among the common soldiers, military leadership, and civilians in their respective homefronts, according to Silkenat. For the Confederacy, surrender became increasingly viewed as a referendum on the national project. For the United States, it became viewed as the only true pathway toward peace. As argued by Silkenat and others, these nuanced understandings have been lost in the contemporary public debates over the Confederate monuments, in a post-Charleston Massacre and Charlottesville 2017 climate.[7]

How does one engage in these conversations where the works of historians does not always reach general audiences? Or, when public historical projects such as the 1619 Project try to, how do non-academics, especially persons of color, attempt to participate when scholars openly challenge the creators’ authority for intervening in public debates?[8] [Image 2] Here, Clark’s public art offers another pathway for reconciling the lingering Civil War era legacy in the present. At the end of the Monumental Cloth exhibit, a table displayed works by James Baldwin, David Brion Davis, Andrew Delbanco, Carol Anderson and others and encouraged further contemplation, perusal, and conversation. In other words, engagement meant to continue after the viewing in the attendee’s respective homes and communities.

New audiences became aware of this rich scholarship as well as the role of race in shaping contemporary understandings. During the Civil War, race contributed to the uneven application and utter disregard of military understandings of surrender for African American soldiers. By comparing Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Silkenat reveals the shifting understandings and its limits with racial violence.  For Forrest, his brutal use of surrender and refusal to accept black soldiers as legitimate combatants resulted in not only the Fort Pillow massacre but also African American soldiers’ preference of fighting until death instead of surrendering at Brice’s Crossroads and other later engagements. By 1864, such racial animosity contributed to a “nadir of surrender’s acceptability” by both warring sides.[9] The legacy of this nadir has not diminished.

Smaller flag of surrender, also from the Sonya Clark exhibit. Courtesy of Carlos Avendaño.

In a war filled with surrenders, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House has eclipsed all other surrenders. Silkenat and other scholars have shown that generous terms of surrender neither appease all participants nor served as an ultimate truce. Early Confederate soldiers who rejected the Appomattox Court House surrender were amongst the first to engage in terrorism and a perilous peace during Reconstruction.[10] Appomattox Court House initiated a series of surrenders concluding with the final domestic surrender of Stand Watie in Oklahoma and James Iredell Waddell’s international surrender of the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England.[11] Yet, the power of the April 9, 1865, surrender contributed to the erasure of post-Appomattox Court House surrenders, the whitewashing of the diverse participants’ racial backgrounds, and even captured Clark’s imagination.

Since the Civil War’s end, Americans have struggled to remember and commemorate Civil War surrender sites.  While African Americans celebrated “Surrender Day” as early as 1866, African American commemorative traditions have remained outside of the national popular consciousness.[12] Lost Cause and Reconciliationist traditions encouraged selective remembrance, from Julian Carr’s dedication speech for the Silent Sam unveiling at UNC-Chapel Hill, to the transformation of Bennett Place and Appomattox Court House into tourist attractions. As a result, the Civil War memory wars and understanding of surrender continues into the present.

Ultimately, scholars like Silkenat reach a similar conclusion as Clark on the role of Confederate flag of surrender and its complicated legacy for present generations. “Yet if we are able to learn anything from the Civil War generation,” he concludes that “we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity.”[13] It is fitting that museum administrators agreed. On July 13, 2019, the internationally renowned artist and the historian shared a Philadelphia stage and connected museum goers, academics, and non-academics in a productive conversation about the role of surrender, the Confederate flag of truce, the Civil War and memory.[14] Maybe this will be a model for future collaborations between artists and historians as the questions from the Civil War and its legacy remain pertinent in the current political moment. Artistic expression, scholarly insights and engaged diverse publics might be the only pathway forward.

 

 

[1] Sarah Cascone, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag That Ended the Civil War,” Artnet News, April 1, 2019,  https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/sonya-clark-fabric-workshop-confederate-flag-1502869.

[2] David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Silkenat, 2.

[4] Silkenat, 3-4.

[5] Silkenat, 4.

[6] Silkenat, 41; See Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[7] See Catherine Clinton, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Karen L. Cox, Gary W. Gallagher, and Nell Irvin Painter, Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).

[8] Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, Updated January 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/we-respond-to-the-historians-who-critiqued-the-1619-project.html.

[9] Silkenat, 168.

[10] See Caroline E. Janney, “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox,” Journal of Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 4-28, and Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] Silkenat, 267.

[12] Silkenat, 278; See Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018).

[13] Silkenat, 297.

[14] Olivia Errico, “Raising the White Flag: Sonya Clark and Dr. David Silkenat in Conversation,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University-Camden, June 6, 2019, https://march.rutgers.edu/event/raising-the-white-flag-sonya-clark-and-dr-david-silkenat-in-conversation/.

Hilary N. Green

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

An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

An Anti-Filibuster Alliance: Latin America and Opposition to U.S. Expansionism

When we think of a filibuster today, we likely think of the increasingly disappearing action by a Senator to hold up a piece of legislation by continued speech; however, in the mid-nineteenth century, filibusters were military strong men who desired to project and expand U.S. power into the Caribbean. The war with Mexico in 1846 set the United States on a trajectory toward expansion and created an assumption in Latin America that the United States had turned from a beacon of republicanism into an imperial, autocratic oppressor similar to Russia. This is an image the country still struggles with in Latin America.

During the 1850s, Central America and Cuba became repeated targets of private filibuster armies. Historians have done much to explain the role of these southward expansion projects in the causation of the Civil War.[1] However, these studies do not take into consideration Latin America and the reactions of the states in the region. Considering the tension-laden relationship between the United States and Latin American states, it is worth looking back in time to see the origin of Latin America’s mistrust as well as early coping mechanisms against U.S. expansionism.

Setting off the turbulent decade of the 1850s was Narciso López, who in 1850 and 1851 tried unsuccessfully to free Cuba from Spanish rule. However, nobody could rival the illustrious William Walker and his adventures to capture Sonora and Baja California in 1853, or his odd career in Nicaragua. Even if the filibusters were limited in scope and even more in success, they put fear into the minds of the people in Central America, worrying that what had happened to Mexico could happen to them, or that a filibuster would take over their government.[2] Therefore, some of the Latin American states assumed it best to form an alliance against U.S. aggression.

Engraving of John Randolph Clay, 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In November 1856, the U.S. Minister to Peru, John Randolph Clay, reported to Washington the content of what he termed the “Continental Treaty” between Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. He had tried for a while to figure out its details. In his letter, Clay explained that the treaty was a reaction to U.S. activities in the Caribbean basin. He pointed to the recent protest by the Peruvian Minister Resident in Washington regarding U.S. recognition of the new William Walker regime in Nicaragua. Considering the controversy surrounding the Walker government, the Peruvian protest and creation of an anti-filibuster treaty should not have come as a surprise.[3]

However, Clay blamed outside forces for the new treaty between the three Latin American states. In his letter to William L. Marcy, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of State, Clay wondered if Brazil was behind the decision to form a continental alliance against the United States, indicating that Clay viewed the Brazilian Empire as a rival in Latin America. Despite lacking evidence, he called on Washington to “not permit Brazil, to continue to act secretly against our interests in South America.” Trying to give reasons, Clay wrote, “They think to attain this object, by exciting the prejudices of the inhabitants throughout South America by representing us as foreign to them ‘in blood and religion.’”[4] Despite Great Britain often appearing as the rival for U.S. interests in Latin America, Brazil was just as significant a rival to worry about.

Even a year later, Clay continued to worry about Latin American countries forming defensive alliances against the United States. Ignoring the war against Mexico and recent filibusters, Clay in sanctimonious fashion wrote, “I should regret if the Government of Peru participated in the idea, that there was anything in the foreign policy of the United States subversive of the rights of any of the HispanoAmerican Republics, as the suspicion, besides being unjust, might induce Peru to act in a manner to weaken the friendly relations existing between the two Nations.”[5] Despite his country being frequently the aggressor in the last decade, Clay failed to understand Latin American fears regarding U.S. threats to their sovereignty.

As the United States disintegrated into rebellion and war, its attention to Latin American affairs declined. However, the European intervention to collect debt in Mexico and eventual French invasion caused renewed concerns about Latin American security.[6]

Withdrawal of the French forces from San Juan Bautista, capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco, on February 27, 1864. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By early 1862, as word spread about the allied landing in Vera Cruz, the Peruvian President worried about the intentions of the three European governments: was this more than just debt collection? He was certain that the American states would resist any attempt by European powers to reconquer lands in the Americas.[7]

The events in Mexico continued to concern the Peruvian government, and the new U.S. minister in Peru, Christopher Robinson, reported that the people of Peru not only sympathized with the Mexicans but felt a heightened sense of patriotism as well. Clubs had formed with the goal to create a union among the Spanish-American countries, allowing them to jointly deal with foreign threats. Even more, the clubs called for the creation of national guard units to prepare for Peru’s defense. Robinson claimed that the club looked to the United States as a bulwark against reconquest and expressed their sadness at the rebellion in the country, which had made the Mexican situation possible. This represented a dramatic change in attitude, according to Robinson. Initially, Peruvians had looked favorably to the secession crisis and a possible victory of the southern states, as it precluded renewed filibuster expeditions against Latin America.[8]

The Latin American side is a story lacking in most accounts of the 1850s filibusters. While we know much about how the government’s decision to prevent filibusters from using U.S. soil to prepare for invasions impacted northern and southern political attitudes, leading eventually to the rebellion of some southern states, the reactions of Latin American governments remain absent. In light of the unjustified war of aggression against Mexico and the incorporation of vast amounts of Mexican land, the United States lost much of its role-model image for Latin American states, and the filibusters only confirmed that. It is therefore not surprising that Latin American states sought to defend themselves against such acts of aggression with defensive alliances.

At the same time, a closer examination of Latin American relations during the Civil War may yield a far more complex picture than U.S.-Latin American scholarship has so far provided, with rivalries that not only involved France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, but also the Brazilian Empire. This is a story that moves well beyond the power center in Washington or filibuster ground zeros, and into the hall of presidential palaces in Lima, Bogota, or Caracas.

 

[1] See Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); Slavery, Race and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] See Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Tom Chaffin, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[3] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA).

[4] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, November 10, 1856, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856, NARA.

[5] John Randolph Clay to Lewis Cass, July 11, 1857, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 13, January 1, 1857-December 27, 1857, NARA.

[6] See Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph Over Monarchy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971).

[7] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, February 25, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

[8] Christopher Robinson to William H. Seward, June 10, 1862, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 18, November 6, 1860-June 12, 1863, NARA.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

Teaching Military History with the Official Records

Teaching Military History with the Official Records

 

Title page, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. 1, Vol. XI, Part II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884). Published in 128 volumes between 1881 and 1901, the Official Records, as they are commonly known, remain an indispensable source for Civil War historians and can be invaluable for classroom use as well.

Every time I teach my Civil War and Reconstruction course, I meet students who probably would not have taken any other history class. The enormous popular interest in military history, as most academic historians know, can draw students into the discipline. At a time when boosting course enrollments and attracting new majors is imperative, the Civil War’s battles, campaigns, and leaders can provide very powerful marketing opportunities. Yet military history presents fascinating pedagogical opportunities as well. Civil War battles generated mountains of paper—official orders and reports, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and some notoriously self-serving memoirs, among others—and within this abundant archive there are materials for countless projects that can introduce students to the joys, vexations, and rewards of writing history.

Most students enter college having consumed history from books, movies, or historic sites, but without having produced history themselves. For this reason, every history course must address historical methods: how to ask good questions, evaluate primary sources, handle deficient or conflicting evidence, and reach judicious conclusions. Military history, including study of battles and campaigns, offers an invaluable starting point for wrestling with these problems, because the sources reflect the confusion of battle, the fog of war, and the impulse to shift blame or claim credit. “Battle history looks deceptively simple from the outside,” wrote historian Kenneth W. Noe, but “even for a seasoned scholar it can prove the hardest, most mentally taxing work of one’s career. Never again will one use so frequently the skills we teach young scholars in methodology and historiography courses, especially the selecting and weighing of conflicting evidence.”[1]

Portrait of General Robert E. Lee, February 18, 1865. This photograph was taken nearly three years after Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862. His first major test in this role would come a few weeks later, between June 25 and July 1, during the Seven Days Battles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Eager to guide undergraduates through some of these methodological mazes, I created an assignment that capitalizes on the wealth of material available in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, usually referred to as the Official Records or the OR. A staple of historical research since it was published by the U.S. War Department between 1881 and 1901, the Official Records comprise 128 volumes (plus 31 naval volumes) packed with orders, reports, letters, casualty returns, and other pieces of the vast paper trails left by Civil War armies and navies.[2] The OR’s pedagogical possibilities are boundless, but I decided to focus the assignment on two high-level accounts of the same event: General George B. McClellan and General Robert E. Lee’s reports of the Seven Days Battles, fought just east of Richmond, Virginia, from June 25 to July 1, 1862.[3]

Not only were the reports penned by opposing commanders in a massive series of battles that are sometimes overshadowed by Antietam and Gettysburg, they also invite students to think about how, and for what purposes, historical documents were created. McClellan wrote his four-and-a-half-page report two weeks after the Seven Days Battles ended, while his army was still perched on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James Rivers. This meant that the clashes remained vivid in his mind, though he had not yet received reports from all of his subordinate officers. Lee’s report, in contrast, runs to nine pages and was written eight months later in March 1863. Thus, although the events were less fresh, Lee  had the benefit of reading what lower-echelon officers had written about the Confederate side of the battle.

With this background in mind, the documents open a range of questions for students to explore in their roughly five- to seven-page papers. Whose account, if any, seems more reliable, and why? What do the reports tell us about their authors, both as generals and as people? What do they reveal about the nature of Civil War combat, as viewed from army headquarters, and what do they obscure? Can they be combined to create a single coherent narrative? Or are the accounts too contradictory? I encourage students to pursue the questions that interest them most, so long as they develop and defend a clearly-stated thesis, and the assignment does not require research beyond the class notes that put the Seven Days Battles into broader context. The point is to introduce students to the richness of the OR, the complexity of reconstructing what happened in a Civil War battle, and the difficulties of weighing discrepant accounts of the same events.

George B. McClellan. Major General Commanding U.S. Army, c. 1862. This lithograph was published by J.H. Bufford in 1862, while McClellan commanded the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s first major campaign as army commander culminated in the Seven Days Battles, during which his army was driven away from the outskirts of Richmond. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Of course, the OR could be used in assignments for students of all levels, from high school through doctoral study, and can empower them to ask and answer questions of all sorts. They might compare how an army commander and a junior officer experienced the same battle, for example, or analyze two documents written by the same person at different stages of the war. The OR also contains valuable material on non-battlefield events and issues, including the treatment of prisoners of war, military-civilian relations, the process of emancipation, and much else. Plus, the OR is available, free of charge, to anyone with an Internet connection, making it ideal for instructors teaching online courses, those who work at institutions with less-than-stellar libraries, and anyone who is concerned about the rising cost of textbooks. Most importantly, the OR enables students to do the same kind of work done by professional historians—and to explore the same trove of documents that has sustained generations of groundbreaking research on the Civil War.

 

[1] Kenneth W. Noe, “Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives,” Civil War History 53, no. 3 (September 2007), 237.

[2] On the OR, see Alan C. Aimone, “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, accessed January 17, 2020, https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/official-records-of-the-union-and-confederate-armies.html. The complete OR can be found online at http://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/waro.html.

[3] On the Seven Days Battles, see Brian K. Burton, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); and Brian K. Burton, The Peninsula and Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. 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, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).