Category: Field Dispatches

“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

Historians have rarely examined the German States’ reactions to the Civil War. Much has been said about German immigrants fighting in the war, German-American political leaders involved in community and political organization, and the nativist backlash in the United States; however, Central Europe’s perspectives are a blank page in English language scholarship.[1] As the archetypal political schemer of the era, Otto von Bismarck looms large in German politics and misconceptions continue to persist about where Bismarck may have gotten some of his opinions about the Civil War.

Photograph of John Lothrop Motley in the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The answers may come through a deeper understanding of the relationship between the U.S. Minister in Vienna, John Lothrop Motley, and his friend from university, Prussian Minister President Otto von Bismarck. In August 1864, a peculiar meeting took place in Vienna between Motley and Bismarck. Bismarck had come to Vienna for the peace negotiations ending the Dano-German War, which started earlier that year over constitutional and royal succession questions in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and resulted in a resounding military victory for the German allies. Bismarck and Motley enjoyed a trouble-free evening together; however, the self-absorbed Motley walked away with the impression that he had enlightened Bismarck regarding the events in North America. The two men shared a deep bond of personal friendship.

After having started his education at Harvard, Motley transferred to the University of Göttingen in 1831. Göttingen was one of the premier universities in the German states, whose faculty at the time included such respected professors as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus, physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber, and theologian and orientalist Heinrich Georg August Ewald. At Göttingen, Motley encountered Bismarck for the first time. The two friends eventually transferred to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin where Bismarck impressed with his drinking and sword-dueling skills, rather than his scholarship.[2] Apparently Motley was so drawn to Bismarck that he made him the main character of his unsuccessful novel, Morton’s Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial, which included an Otto von Rabenmarck.[3] The two friends reconnected every decade as Motley became a respected writer and historian.

In 1861, Motley’s friend Charles Sumner obtained a diplomatic post in Europe for his fellow Bay Stater. The two were lucky. The Lincoln Administration had initially intended to send Anson Burlingame to Vienna. However, the Austrian court had refused the appointment due to ties between Burlingame and the Hungarian rebellion of 1848. With Burlingame finding an abundance of opportunities in his new post at Beijing, Motley assumed the post in Vienna.[4]

In May 1864, Bismarck reached out to Motley, most likely remembering their friendship and revisiting the days of carefree fun. In an informal tone, Bismarck wrote his friend, “Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you, and do you do that you never write a line to me? I am working from morn to night like a nigger, and you have nothing to do at all-you might as well tip me a line as well as looking on your feet tilted against the wall of God knows what a dreary colour.” Bismarck did not stop with this scolding of his friend to be a more active correspondent. He insisted that Motley should come for a visit to Berlin, proposing “Let politics be hanged and come to see me. I promise that the Union Jack shall wave over our house, and the conversation and the best old hock shall pour damnation upon the rebels.”[5]

Steel engraving of Otto von Bismarck, after a painting by Alonzo Chappel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was a rather peculiar moment for Bismarck to remember his friendship and to express his desire to escape politics with his old college buddy for a few days. Just as Bismarck wrote to Motley, the international community had come together in London for negotiations on how to settle the Dano-German conflict. Motley did not leave his post in Vienna, but the two friends soon had another opportunity to reconnect in person.

During the peace negotiations, the two met and shared a peaceful evening together, allowing Bismarck to escape the political and diplomatic wrangling over the terms of the agreement. Motley recounted the meeting in a letter to his mother, “He thinks it about as possible to transplant what is called parliamentary government into Prussia, as Abraham Lincoln believes in the feasibility of establishing an aristocracy in the United States.”[6] The conflict in the United States of course became part of the conversation.

Motley’s wife dramatically recounted in a letter to their daughter, “Your father gave him [Bismarck], at his request, a brief but graphic sketch of our affairs, the causes of the war and the sole conditions upon which it would terminate, etc., etc. He was listened to with the greatest interest and respect, and Bismarck told him he was very glad to know his opinions which he accepted unequivocally and adopted and should use as his own when occasion required.”[7] The statement by Motley’s wife has created the perception that Motley enlightened Bismarck about the Civil War’s causes and that the Prussian adopted Motley’s views as his own.[8]

It is highly unlikely that a man of Bismarck’s shrewd diplomatic and political caliber would not have understood the causes of the Civil War by 1864. Newspapers in Berlin and all major cities of the German states covered the events in North America on an almost daily basis. The Prussian minister in Washington, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt had been in his post since 1844 and could provide Bismarck with remarkable insights. Furthermore, if the friendship between Bismarck and Motley was as deep as the “My Dear Jack” line indicates, then even in distant St. Petersburg, where Bismarck was stationed in 1861, the Prussian would have read Motley’s lengthy editorial in The Times of London explaining the Union cause and righteousness of the U.S. war effort.

As Bismarck was extremely eloquent in crafting his own personal history, often infusing myth and legend, a closer and critical examination of the relations with Central Europe is long overdue. Motley and his family encountered a good friend in Vienna in August 1864 and had a private evening. Bismarck likely humored Motley as he tried to escape ever so briefly the realities of diplomacy. While Motley’s correspondence is extraordinarily rich, one has to be careful as he occasionally overstates his importance. Even more, an over emphasis on Motley or Bismarck in Central Europe’s relations with the belligerents in North America, is problematic and assumes a reality that did not yet exist, such as Prussia’s success in the Wars of German Unification and thus dominance in German affair. The relationship between the two men reminds us of the multifaceted diplomatic relationship with Prussia, Austria, and the other German states, but also how much Bismarck’s Prussia and Motley’s post in Austria soon collided in a civil war similar to the one in the United States.


[1] The only significant works are in German. Enno Eimers, Preussen und die USA 1850 bis 1867 (Berlin, Germany: Dunker and Humblot, 2004); Michael Löffler, Preussens und Sachsens Beziehungen zu den USA während des Sezessionskrieges 1860-1865 (Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 1999)

[2] J. Gubermann, The Life of John Lothrop Motley (The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijohoff, 1973); Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir (Boston, MA: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879).

[3] John L. Motley, Morton’s Hope: The Memoirs of a Provincial (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1839).

[4] David L. Anderson, Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861-1898 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 19.

[5] Otto von Bismarck to John Lothrop Motley, May 23, 1864, in The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, ed. George W. Curtis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1889), 2:160.

[6] Motley to his Mother, August 3, 1864, Ibid., 2:170.

[7] Mrs. Motley to Lily Motley, August 1, 1864, in John Lothrop Motley and His Family, ed. Susan Margaret Stackpole Motley, St. John Mildmay, and Herbert Alexander St. John Mildmay (New York: John Lane, 1910), 210, 214.

[8] Graf Otto zu Stolberg-Wernigerode, Germany and the United States of America during the Era of Bismarck, trans. Otto E. Lessing (Reading, PA: Henry Janssen Foundation, 1937), 62.

Niels Eichhorn

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

Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage and the Civil War Centennial

On March 30, 2019, a group of public historians will convene at the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting to discuss the interpreter Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication, Interpreting Our Heritage. My fellow NPS colleague Allison Horrocks and I created this conference panel to discuss Tilden’s ideas in historical context and contemplate the state of interpretation moving forward. We also built a website where readers can learn more by visiting In the meantime, I’ve been re-reading Tilden and thinking about the influence of Interpreting Our Heritage within the context of the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War Centennial from 1961 to 1965.

An NPS Park Ranger gives a tour of Spotsylvania Courthouse Battlefield. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Interpreting Our Heritage came at an important moment for both the NPS and those interested in commemorating the Centennial. The book was published only four years after the NPS undertook a major reorganizational plan that saw the creation of an Interpretation division within the agency. Likewise, plans to commemorate the Centennial at major Civil War battlefields under the NPS’s management were starting to take shape at this time.[1] Interpreting Our Heritage was the first full-length study to examine the theoretical aspects of interpreting natural and cultural resources. The book became mandatory reading for NPS interpretive staff in the 1960s, and it remains an important resource for public historians today. While Tilden was not an expert on the history of the American Civil War, he cited examples from the war numerous times in Interpreting Our Heritage. Examining these references offers slight clues into how interpreters might have approached the task of telling stories about the Civil War to their audiences.

Tilden passionately argued that “information” was not the same as “interpretation.” He criticized previous programming at Civil War battlefields for being too detail-oriented and factual. “In the fifty years following the end of that fratricidal war, there was much emphasis, when the veterans and their children were visiting the scenes of each bloody combat, upon information. It was then a thrill to know, to recall, just where papa’s regiment had stood, by what road an advance or retreat was made,” according to Tilden. Now the time had come for a telling of the “great human story” that went beyond tedious military details. “The battlefield of our great fratricidal American war is not merely a place of strategy and tactics; not a place where regiments moved this way and that like checkers on the board; not merely a spot where something was decided that would lead to another decision.” Tilden preached, in other words, the importance of placing the human experiences of warfare front and center. It made little sense to present interpretations best suited for “a group of Civil War Roundtable enthusiasts” to a general audience experiencing the war’s history for perhaps the first time.[2]

When it came to interpreting historical content, Tilden presented what scholars today would describe as a “reconciliationist” view of the Civil War.[3] The conflict was, in his view, a battle of patriotic Americans fighting for equally valid causes. The meaning of these battles came from the fact that they were “made famous and treasurable by the acts of men and women, where the story is told of courage and self-sacrifice, of dauntless patriotism, of statesmanship and inventive genius.” The Civil War, argued Tilden, had been a tragic conflict between “armed men following their ideals to the valley of the shadow.” Learning stories of courage and patriotism would inspire contemporary Americans to have a stronger pride in their country.[4]

A Commemorative postage stamp from the Civil War Centennial, 1964. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tilden also sought to build historical understanding through connections between the past and the personal experiences of everyday people, what scholars today might describe as building a sense of empathy. He asked his readers to put themselves in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s shoes: “[Arlington] was the scene of the great tragic moment when a man who loved the Union, and the United States army he had served, had to make a decision. Virginia was his mother. What should he do?” Tilden asked. “What, given all those circumstances, would the visitor have done?” He portrayed the Civil War elsewhere as a brothers’ war of divided loyalties. In discussing the Battle of Vicksburg, Tilden recommended using the story of the 11th Missouri Regiment (U.S.) fighting the 3rd Missouri Regiment (CSA) on the battlefield. He flippantly asked, “what difference does it make now, except to the researcher, who commanded these regiments?” The importance was that “some of these Missouri boys, now striving to kill each other, were once fed gingerbread and doughnuts from the same Aunt Nellie’s jar.” The role of NPS interpreters, then, was to make connections through the stories of heroic Confederate and Union soldiers.[5]

Tilden also reinforced a mythic view of westward expansion that eliminated the presence of indigenous people from the historical narrative. He celebrated “the heritage from our fathers” in highlighting the Oregon Trail, a symbol of national expansion that “gives us the thrill that we belong.” Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin—itself a mythic creation—represented “the heroism of western pioneers.” Moreover, Tilden argued that “the fullest appreciation of unspoiled nature is found by those [visitors] who are willing to imitate in some degree the experiences of the pioneers,” a particularly ironic statement since forced Indian removal played a central role in the creation of some of the country’s most popular National Park sites.[6]

Finally, Tilden stressed the importance of finding happiness and beauty at natural and cultural sites, including Civil War battlefields. Interpreters at these sites were “middlemen of happiness” who highlighted the stories of “great men” at battlefields that in his mind were “shrines” to heroism, patriotism, and beauty. Their primary duties in this sense were “first, to create the best possible vantage points from which beauty may be seen and comprehended; and second, to do all that discreetly may be done to establish a mood, or sympathetic atmosphere.” For Tilden, visitors to these sites were, in a somewhat condescending tone, “wonderfully well-mannered and pathetically eager for guidance toward the larger aspects of things that lead toward wisdom.” They came to these sites with personal experiences but were, to a large extent, empty vessels waiting to be filled by knowledgeable interpreters.[7]

Interpreters looking at Tilden’s ideas sixty years later will most likely find them simultaneously insightful and debatable. Tilden’s calls for a better focus on the human side of war and programming that went beyond the mere conveyance of “information” still resonate today. While Tilden probably aimed to keep these stories focused on the (white, male) participants engaged in battle, interpreters today have expanded their narratives to include the stories of women, enslaved African Americans, and Native Americans during the war, both on and off the battlefield.[8] Promoting multiple perspectives in historical narratives has become a centerpiece of good interpretive practice today, and meaningful dialogues between visitors and interpreters are more highly valued today than in Tilden’s time. In any case, it is no longer enough to ask visitors to simply consider General Lee’s perspective, but also the perspectives of those who considered the entire Union their “mother.” It is no longer enough to highlight the divided loyalties of white residents in the border slave states but also the enslaved people whose loyalties were undivided as the Civil War increasingly became a conflict over slavery’s future. The mythic narrative of westward expansion to a vast, empty frontier that Tilden celebrated also seems out of place and inaccurate today.

Likewise, Tilden’s emphasis and on happiness and beauty—outgrowths of his desire for themes of sectional reconciliation and patriotism during the Cold War—is questionable. As NPS historian Edward Roach argues, “many resources that are significant and worthy of commemoration are not beautiful. There was no beauty in the battle of Gettysburg, a noisy, destructive, smelly, bloody mess. The Sand Creek massacre was just that . . . [Visitors] do not have to be in love with the story being told. They merely need to find it worthy of telling, worthy of being understood by more and more people.”[9] Perhaps now more than ever, interpreters at Civil War historic sites need to emphasize the harsh realities of warfare, as viewed from the multiple perspectives of the people who experienced the brutality of the Civil War firsthand. Ultimately Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage is an important resource for interpreters looking to hone their skills, but it is a product of its time. Its ideas must not be held to the status of dogma for those working at Civil War historic sites.


[1] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 35; Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

[2] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 24, 69.

[3] The term “reconciliationist” was coined by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2-5.

[4] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 69.

[5] Ibid., 13, 15, 42-43.

[6] Ibid., 68, 77; Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 12, 85.

[8] See discussions in James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds., Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[9] Edward Roach, “Edward Roach Case Statement,” Interpreting Our Heritage, 2019, accessed February 22, 2019,

Nick Sacco

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

“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

Is materialism ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day?

Every February, thousands of Americans lament the commercialism of this holiday with critical articles and tweets about modern consumerism. Some blame the pressures of social media on the rise in spending. And it is definitely rising; the National Retail Federation estimates that more than $20 billion will be spent on 2019’s Valentine celebrations. The creativity of advertisers is not to be undersold, of course, as enterprising executives have discovered how to widen the consumer market to include those who are currently unattached. “After the chocolates have been eaten and the flowers wilt, roaches remain thriving and triumphant. Give the gift that’s eternal and name a roach for Valentine’s Day.” That’s right, for fifteen dollars, you can name a roach after your ex and send them a digital certificate from the Bronx Zoo.[1]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The New York Herald, January 27, 1863. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Some may be surprised to learn that St. Valentine’s Day, and all its commercialism, was alive and well during the bloodiest war of our nation’s past. Much like today, nineteenth-century advertisers and newspapers relentlessly warned their patrons that the holiday loomed. On February 11, 1864, the Holmes County Farmer newspaper in Ohio read, “We are reminded that Valentine Day is approaching. Tuesday next, the 14th inst., is set aside as the carnival of lovers. It is said the birds choose their mates on that day, and, it being leap year, it is expected all the marriageable girls will select their mates.”[2]

During the war, companies ran a number of Valentine ads that targeted women with loved ones off at battle. “Don’t forget your soldier lovers. Keep their courage up with a rousing Valentine. All prices. Six cents to five dollars each,” advertised Strong’s Valentine Depot in 1862. In 1863, New York City’s American Valentine Company promoted “soldiers’ valentine packets,” “army valentine packets,” and “torch of love packets.” In Washington D.C., Shillington’s likewise advertised packets specifically for soldiers, which “contains two superb sentimental valentines and elegant embossed envelopes; also comic valentines and beautiful valentine cards in fancy envelopes.”[3]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The Evansville Daily Journal, February 11, 1862. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

In some cases, this collision of holiday and war was quite jarring. For example, in February 1862, Indiana’s Evansville Daily Journal described Main Street bookstores filled with card displays “large and varied enough to suit the tastes of all.” Immediately beneath this bulletin was a notice to the recently wounded and those in mourning: “Disabled soldiers applying for pensions, and the widow or heirs of soldiers who have been killed, or died in service, should call” began the section, followed by another notice related to “troops moving.” This newspaper column, flowing from one topic to the next, provides powerful insight into the daily experiences of the homefront. Yes, the war was about troop movements. Yes, the war included wounds, death, and pensions. But even as wives worried ceaselessly about the loss of husbands, scanning the papers for news, they also read advertisements and planned for their Valentine’s celebrations. Life did not stop in the midst of war. Neither did holidays. And advertisers knew it.[4]

Soldiers at war also remembered Valentine’s Day. Though they appear less likely to purchase formal Valentine’s stationery, original poetry and letters of love came home in abundance. One particularly special valentine came from Confederate soldier Robert H. King, who created a paper heart with a pen knife for his wife, Louiza. When opened, the seemingly random holes in the paper reveal two people separated from one another, crying.[5]

Robert H. King’s valentine for Louiza. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

On November 8, 1861, Robert had written to his wife, “it panes my hart to think of leaven you all” and signed his letter as many soldiers did, with “yours til death.” Ultimately, this would be true, and all Louiza would be left with was this paper heart. Robert died of typhoid fever near Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1863. She kept this valentine until her own death decades later, perhaps believing there is more heart in handmade.[6]

To return to our original question, are our contemporaries correct in their claim that materialism is ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day? Perhaps not. At least in the nineteenth century, materialism was part of the holiday all along. When Sarah Woif married Sylvanus Emswiller of Shenandoah County on Valentine’s Day 1861, she likely was not thinking about advertisers, but rather, the love associated with the holiday. She certainly was not thinking about the fact that she, too, would become a widow in 1863 when Sylvanus died of pneumonia, fighting with the Second Virginia Infantry. Love, loss, celebration, heartache – they all swirled together in the Civil War. And the newspapers certainly reflected it.[7]


[1] Katherine Cullen, “Is love still in the air?” National Retail Federation, January 30, 2019,; “Name a Roach,” Bronx Zoo, accessed February 10, 2019,

[2] Holmes County Farmer, Millersburg, Ohio, February 11, 1864. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[3] The New York Herald, February 14, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,; The New York Herald, February 7, 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,; The National Republican, Washington, D.C., February 8, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress,

[4] The Evansville Daily Journal, Evansville, Indiana, February 11, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress,

[5] Robert H. King, Valentine to Louiza A. Williams King of Montgomery County, Virginia, undated, in Robert H. King Papers, 1861-1910, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[6] There is a photograph of Eliza (c. 1910) within this collection. Her exact date of death is unknown. Robert H. King to Louiza A. Williams, November 8, 1861; ibid.

[7] George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War Database, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV.

Angela Esco Elder

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

Lessons from the Crimean War: The Augusta Arsenal

Lessons from the Crimean War: The Augusta Arsenal

In 1853 a conflict began that, for the first time since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, pitted most of the great powers of Europe against each other. What initially started as a conflict between the Russian and Ottoman empires quickly escalated to involve the western European maritime powers, Great Britain and France. New technology altered the fighting and forced adjustments to medical care.[1] While military planners quickly forgot most lessons of this Crimean War, turning the conflict into one of the century’s forgotten wars, the struggle had a profound impact on the Civil War. The architectural style and building plan of the Confederate Arsenal at Augusta, Georgia, illustrates a strong resemblance to the new Austrian Arsenal in Vienna, and in the absence of explicit written statement by Confederate authorities, this architectural transnational comparison highlights how Jefferson Davis’s government learned from recent European military experiments to ensure the Confederacy’s survival.[2]

Watercolor by Rudolf Alt of the Museum at the Vienna Arsenal in 1856. Courtesy of the Austrian Military Museum.

Initially, the new military achievements were supposed to benefit the United States. The U.S. government under Franklin Pierce determined to learn from the European conflict by sending officers to observe and report advances in military technology. On April 3, 1855, Major Richard Delafield, commander of New York City’s harbor defenses, received orders to head to Washington and report to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Besides Delafield, the same telegraphic order went to Captain George B. McClellan and Major Alfred Mordecai. Secretary Davis instructed the three men to visit Europe and report on the newest European military developments, including but not limited to uniforms, arms, fortifications, and transportation infrastructure.[3] The three men brought back valuable but frequently ignored information, published in voluminous reports over the next few years.

Blueprint of the arsenal from Richard Delafield, Report on the Art of War in Europe in 1854, 1855, and 1856 (Washington: G.W. Bowman, 1860).

Delafield had orders to inspect European production facilities for weaponry and report on new weapons technology, fortifications, bunkers, and others military advances. Much of his report and information came from the new Vienna arsenal. Besides talking about new cast iron technology and weapons, Delafield focused on the new arsenal building in Vienna. He commented that “no arsenal in Europe will compare with it in extent; none in which there is more unity of design.” He lauded the arsenal, calling it “perfect in all respects.”[4] The report included a detailed blueprint of the new arsenal and detailed descriptions, especially of the military and weapons museum:

Nearest to and parallel with the front is a richly ornamented two-story building of 130 by 30 toises (1 toise is about 1.9m), with projecting wings and center for a museum of ancient armor, arms, trophies, &c., &c., illustrative of the history of this branch of the art of war, with extensive arm racks as a store house for the small arms now being manufactured.[5]

In addition to the detailed report of the structures, Delafield noted that the arsenal could produce about “2,400 stand of arms per week.” He concluded in his report that construction commenced in 1851 and finished in 1856. “The cost is said to have been 7,900,000 florins, including 180,000 florins, the cost of the ground, containing 107 yokes of 1,600 square toises each. . . . The museum is calculated to hold in its wrought-iron racks 211,968 muskets.”[6] While the brief section on the architectural design of the Vienna Arsenal may seem of little importance, Secretary Davis seems to have remembered.

In September 1861, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, ordered the creation of a new arsenal at Augusta for both the manufacture of weapons and ammunition. Confederate authorities completed construction in early 1862. With the powder works and material in place, the facility was producing a large amount of materiel for the Confederate war effort between 1863 and 1865. The arsenal became a major producer of Confederate ammunition.[7]

Central Avenue, U.S. Arsenal, Augusta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The workshop building at the Augusta Arsenal bears strong resemblance to the Museum of Arms at the Vienna Arsenal. While the Augusta facility was only one story, except for the central and two outer wings, and far less ornate than the Vienna structure, the blueprint of the two buildings was remarkably similar. Unfortunately, available sources do not indicate whether Davis or the Confederate authorities directly relied on the Vienna Arsenal report in the construction of the site in Augusta. However, an architectural comparison indicates the strong similarity between the two sites. The builders in Augusta likely had some knowledge of the Vienna arsenal. This architectural comparison offers another avenue to explore transnational relations and exchanges during the mid-nineteenth century. Finally, despite the often-perceived agrarian and backward status of the Confederacy, the correlation between the two arsenals illustrates that the Confederacy paid attention to international, military achievements to use in their own struggle for survival.

The Crimean War signaled the arrival of modern warfare and offered keen observers an opportunity to learn important lessons.[8] Equipping an army with new weapons required new technology, which in turn required modern production facilities such as the Arsenal in Vienna. It is likely that the Confederacy used material from the Crimean War reports when constructing the Arsenal at Augusta and thus learned important lessons about modern military production facilities. In general, military planners did not embrace the lessons of the Crimean War, but the Augusta Arsenal is a refreshing reminder that transnational lessons were learned.


[1] Niels Eichhorn, “A Transnational View of Medicine and Medical Practices During the Civil War,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, November 13, 2018,

[2] I want to thank Park Historian James “Jim” Ogden at the Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park, who in his many public talks made me aware of the possible transnational comparison between the Augusta and Vienna arsenals.

[3] Richard Delafield, Report on the Art of War in Europe in 1854, 1855, and 1856 (Washington: G.W. Bowman, 1860), xiii-xiv. Also see George B. McClellan, Report of Captain George B. McClellan One of the Officers sent to the Seat of War in Europe in 1855 and 1856 (Washington, DC: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1857); Alfred Mordecai, Military Commission to Europe, in 1855 and 1856 (Washington, DC: George W. Bowman, 1860).

[4] Delafield, Report on the Art of War, 261.

[5] Ibid., 261.

[6] Ibid., 262, 264.

[7] Gordon A. Blaker, “From Powder to Projectile: The Production of Ammunition in Augusta,” in Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia, ed. C. L. Bragg, et al. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 132-156.

[8] Reid Holden, The Civil War and the Wars of the Nineteenth Century (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2006).

Niels Eichhorn

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

The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

This is our final field dispatch from correspondent James Marten. We have greatly enjoyed his contributions to Muster and it has been such a pleasure having him on our team. We will be announcing his replacement in 2019, so stay tuned!

For decades before and after the Civil War, thousands of lecturers, “elocutionists,” ventriloquists, and other performers toured the country, entertaining audiences in churches, fraternal lodges, opera houses, auditoriums, and countless other venues in towns large and small. Some of the best-known figures of the Civil War era traveled this circuit, often making hundreds of dollars per lecture. They included Frederick Douglass and Blanche K. Bruce, Anna Dickinson and William Herndon, Mary Livermore and John S. Mosby. In the 1880s and 1890s, these lectures provided one important thread of memory for the military history of the Civil War.

A notice of a Livingston appearance in Brooklyn in 1885. “Both Sides of Army Life,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 3, 1885.

Although he was not one of the “star” speakers on the circuit in the late 1880s, Rev. E. Livingston Allen, unlike most of his more famous colleagues, left a complete version of his lecture, which he self-published as Both Sides of Army Life: The Grave and the Gay. It provides a sense of what many of the military-oriented lectures would have been like. It is filled with rhetorical flourishes and alliteration, cadences that work far better when heard than when read silently, and italicized and capitalized passages marking important thematic and emotional points. One can almost imagine the red marks, underlines, and circles on the script from which Allen would deliver his public lectures. Taken as a whole, Both Sides of Army Life checks several “boxes” in what had become a common veteran’s memory of the war, focusing on the patriotism of the volunteers, memorable battle scenes, oddball soldiers providing comic relief, and reconciliation between the sections. Although it’s hard to know how often he gave the lecture, he did present it several times in New York and Brooklyn in 1885.[1]

Allen, a long-time Methodist minister in New Jersey and New York, was also active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). At the age of eighteen he quit studying for the ministry to enlist in the Thirteenth New Jersey, serving as a corporal in Company K until the last few months of war, when he was promoted to sergeant. Although the regiment did not suffer heavy casualties–Allen himself was wounded three times–it did serve with distinction, fighting at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the March to the Sea.[2]

Allen’s talk began with several paragraphs on past wars and on Fourth of July orators who inculcated ardent patriotism and emotional attachment to the American flag: “All this with reference to the flag and eagle was sentiment; but it educated Young America patriotically.” Once the flag was attacked, “this sentiment was to become crystallized into the solid steel of military activity, and was to be proven the VERY EMBODIMENT OF INVINCIBLE FORCE!”[3]

Allen briefly described the assembling of “the boys” into the regiment and their rush to the Maryland front, where incredibly, they first loaded their guns as they went into battle at Antietam. Allen peppered his talk with military terminology, and with phrases that are a little jarring to read but which must have drawn audiences in with his dramatic use of repetition and alliteration: “As the gray dawn was pushing back the blackness of night, revealing the blue of day, we were ordered by the gray-haired Mansfield to push back the grey of treason and show the enemy the pure blue of loyalty.” The battle scene that followed was both particular to his experience yet also generic—similar scenes appeared in virtually every first-person account of combat. As the Thirteenth pressed forward, they passed a young soldier from the 107th New York, “with both limbs broken by a solid shot; and he, in his agony, knowing death must soon come, was calling, Mother! MOTHER! MOTHER! Brave hearts trembled–strong men wept–indescribable emotions swept over mind and heart–Forward! FORWARD! the command rose higher, and on we went.”[4] Most of the battle scenes offered similar drama and effects—his description of Chancellorsville captures perfectly the confusion on the Union right flank.

The monument to the Thirteenth New Jersey at Gettysburg. Courtesy of Stone Sentinels.

Allen’s talk featured a number of iconic facets of military reminiscences: rich, often funny characters, a no-hard-feelings approach to the enemy, and a few references to humorous incidents occurring at the height of battles–including a moment during a battle in Georgia when the regimental color guard (which included Allen) takes cover behind a rock and spends part of the battle eating blueberries. One fellow member of Company K, Sam C. Davis, who the “boys” inevitably nicknamed “Jeff,” was a “cross, crabbed, cranky, crusty, cantankerous” fellow–again, with the alliteration–who seemed most upset in the middle of crucial battle when a bullet ruined the fry pan crammed into his knapsack. Another of Allen’s stock characters, a German named John Icke, offered a little ethnic humor when Icke remarked on the quantity of rations provided in winter quarters in early 1863: “See vat Hooker feeds us mit: he is fattenen us up fur de schlauter-house.” Later in the war, the company gets a recruit named Young–nicknamed, of course, “Brigham”–whose uniform is ill-fitting and whose cap is worn at an awkward angle, and whose feet were so large that they kept the fire from warming him. Always hungry, he became the camp thief, stealing provisions from company stores at every opportunity, until he was caught, court-martialed, and fined.[5]

The reconciliationist impulse of the Gilded Age allowed Union soldiers to admire the bravery of their erstwhile enemies, which Allen does on several occasions. At Chancellorsville, in the face of concentrated rifle and artillery fire, the Confederates advanced “without flinching . . . close up the gaps made in their ranks, and, with their eyes, and hearts, and purposes fixed on the batteries, they reach the guns as the artillerymen fire the last shot, while the horses are being attached to take them away.”[6]

Allen’s narrative is shot full of striking images. There was the soldier who wills himself to make his escape by climbing onto a departing cannon despite two broken limbs; he’s found after the retreat finally stops, dead, but still clinging to the cannon. There is the soldier fined $10 a month for fleeing during a battle, who was convinced the bullets were singing “Where is he? Where is he?” while the shells called “That’s him! That’s him!” There is the sentry who sets off a commotion when he fires into the dark at what turns out to be an army mule, rather than an enemy patrol. Allen also includes set piece incidents that appear in many other narratives, included soldiers bravely rescuing wounded comrades and moments when survivors were powerless to help wounded men caught between the lines crying for help and water. And there is the obligatory scene of encountering a young slave, who ends up the butt of a soldier’s joke.[7]

After describing a few more oddball soldiers, Allen spends the bulk of the last few pages of the lecture on more serious subjects that captured the pathos of sacrifice by Union troops, the tragedy of the contraband refugees who followed Sherman’s army through Georgia, and the relief and pride the army felt when the war finally ended with the rebellion crushed. He finishes with a narrative of the regiment’s mustering out and welcome home, a report on the charitable and educational activities of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a tribute to the men and women who had supported the troops on the home front.

Allen lived into the twentieth century, although his date of death is unknown. He was reported to be in ill-health in 1892–he was only forty-eight, and it’s not clear if his health problems were related to his war-time injuries–but he was ministering to Methodists in Cape May Courthouse as late as 1902.[8] Although the pastor had spent a long life serving God, he, like many other Civil War veterans, had never forgotten the two or three years he had spent serving his country.


[1] Brooklyn Eagle, October 3, 1885; New York Times, October 18, 1885.

[2] Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Trenton, NJ: John L. Murphy, 1876), 658.

[3] Rev. E. Livingston Allen, Descriptive Lecture: Both Sides of Army Life, the Grave and the Gay (np: The Author, 1885), 1. Interestingly, James “Corporal” Tanner, a much more famous lecturer—and a non-commissioned officer who, like Allen, enlisted at the age of eighteen—used an almost identical title for his most popular talk.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 3, 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Minutes of the Fifty-Sixth Session of the New Jersey Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Camden: Gazette Printing House, 1892), 59; Churches of Salem County, New Jersey (Salem: Salem County Clerk’s Office, 2015), 100.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Writing home from Alabama in November 1863, an Ohio cavalryman celebrated the overthrow of the Southern aristocracy: “The mud sills of the North roam at will over the plantations, burn rails, forage on the country, and the negroes flock into our camps, leaving their lordly masters helpless and dependent,” he rejoiced. “Alas! for the pride and boasting of the chivalrous subjects of King cotton!”[1] He described not one, but two intertwined revolutions unleashed as slavery collapsed and elite pretensions crumbled. Especially illuminating was his triumphant reference to “mud sills,” a loaded term which connected wartime upheaval to antebellum politics.

“Mudsill” became a political catchword in 1858 thanks to an infamous speech by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina. A separate southern nation, he proclaimed, would thrive, thanks to its control over cotton production and its stable social order. According to Hammond, every civilization needed a class of manual workers: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” he proclaimed. “It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.” Northerners consigned whites to this degraded status, but the South had “found a race adapted to that purpose” and built a society on the bedrock of black labor. “We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves….I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.[2]

Northerners, convinced that proslavery ideologues threatened the dignity and liberty of all working people, were outraged. Workers appropriated the mudsill label, transforming an insulting epithet into a badge of pride. Across the North, “high-spirited mechanics and laborers” organized “Mud-Sill Clubs” and urged workingmen to vote Republican in the 1858 midterm elections. A banner hoisted at one of Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas read: “Small-Fisted Farmers, Mud Sills of Society, Greasy Mechanics, for A. Lincoln.”[3] As Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson recalled, Hammond “opened the eyes of [northern] men to the spirit, aims, and purposes of the Slave Power as perhaps no previous demonstration had been able to effect.”[4]

This “demonstration” shaped popular understandings of the crisis that followed A. Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860. Northerners readily attributed secession to the same elite class that espoused the mudsill doctrine. One Illinois soldier commenced his wartime diary by writing that the “slave olagarchy of the southern states…having lost their former political control of the government and not being minded to submit to the humiliation of sharing that control with the mud sills of the north…determined to suceed from the federal union and form a confederacy of their own based on the foundation rock of slavery.”[5]

E. Bowers and G.L.J., “Mudsills Are Coming: A New Army Song” (Boston: Russell & Patee, 1862). Songs like “Mudsills Are Coming” reminded northerners of the insulting implications of proslavery ideology and sustained their enthusiasm for the war. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Hammond’s epithet also spurred northern workingmen to enlist. “‘I am a mud-sill’ is now a common expression of the Soldiers who fight for liberty,” reported the New York Tribune in June 1861.[6] Patriotic songs and poems amplified this theme. The song “Northmen, Come Out!” encouraged recruits to come “Out in your strength and let them know/How Working Men to Work can go./Out in your might and let them feel/How Mudsills strike when edged with steel.”[7] The poem “March of the Mud-Sills” exhorted northern workers to vanquish southern oligarchs and reconstruct a truly democratic Union, so that “the class that built the nation, from their energy and skill/Shall be free to mould its progress by the edict of their will.”[8]

Northern recruits itched to prove themselves in combat. While idling on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, one soldier wrote that all his comrades wanted was a chance to “teach the rebel scoundrels a lesson which will convince them that the ‘mud sills’ of the north are fully equal to any chivalry the F F V’s [First Families of Virginia] can produce.”[9] Battlefield victories were especially sweet for Union soldiers like Charles Harvey Brewster who relished seeing the “chivalry and the cream of everything in the United States…break and run like sheep before the Mudsills” at the Battle of Malvern Hill.[10]

Mudsill-related resentments also shaped Union soldiers’ interactions with southern civilians. They inspired some soldiers to assist fugitive slaves, not least because they savored opportunities to humiliate lordly masters. A New York artilleryman reported on a Virginia planter who boarded his transport ship in search of runaway slaves: blue-collar soldiers seized the “fine Virginia gentleman” and tossed him overboard. Imagine, the soldier wrote to his parents, “a F[irst] [F]amily [of] V[irginia] being tossed fifteen feet in the air, three times, by Union solders – Northern mudsills.”[11]

“The Pending Contest.” Published in 1864, this political cartoon depicts the Civil War as a battle between secession and popular rule. The caption throws the mudsill epithet back at the humbled secessionist, who laments: “I will kill him if I can, and yet, this Mudsill, whom I have despised as a mercenary coward, insulted, and would have trodden under foot, has proved to be a very giant in courage and resources.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Similar sentiments also goaded Union soldiers to target wealthy households for pillage and destruction. While campaigning in Mississippi, a group of Illinois volunteers spared the home of an impoverished Unionist and raided a larger estate owned by a Confederate matron who denounced them as “mudsills” and “Lincoln hirelings.” To the Illinoisans who emptied her larder, she was triply implicated by her wealth, allegiance, and conceit.[12]

Union vengeance against South Carolina aristocrats was especially severe. As William T. Sherman’s legions prepared to march into the Palmetto State in early 1865, Union General Henry W. Slocum mused that Sherman “will soon introduce his mud-sills of the north to the cream of southern aristocracy.” “The meanest private soldier,” Slocum added, “knows the history of this contest and the part played by South Carolina. She will pay a fearful penalty.”[13] Slocum was right. Weeks later, a Massachusetts officer surveyed with satisfaction the ruined homes of “rich, aristocratic, chivalrous, slaveholding” Carolinians who had started the war to “gratify their aristocratic aspirations…and to indulge in their insane hatred for us Yankee mud-sills.”[14]

Unionists expected that mudsill ingenuity would rebuild the South on a foundation of freedom and progress. “The South will yet blossom like the rose over the grave of slavery,” wrote one eager editor in 1864, “and ‘Northern mudsills, greasy mechanics, and small fisted farmers’ be the media through which her regeneration shall be accomplished.”[15] Some called for dividing plantations into small farms worked by northern mudsills and emancipated slaves.[16]

Reconstruction did not fulfill these hopes, but attention to mudsill rhetoric reminds us that words matter. Intending to celebrate southern strength, Hammond provoked a storm of northern fury that raged until much of the South lay in ruins. A generation later, an Indianan remembered Hammond’s speech as a turning point:

It is hardly possible to estimate the power which may be concentrated in a word, or a phrase. In March, 1858, in the Senate of the United States, the haughty J.H. Hammond christened the laboring men of the Free States as “Mudsills,” and the sneering and insulting epithet burned the quick sensibilities of the mechanics, the artisans, the farmers and the laborers of the nation, as molten lava might burn their physical frames, and they never forgot nor forgave the atrocious and cowardly insult, until they lit their pathway through South Carolina by the light of blazing homes and burning palaces.[17]

Living in a digital age in which we are bombarded by ephemeral text, it is worth remembering that words can stick, and ideas can take hold – and have consequences far into the future.


[1] “B” to Dear Harper, November 12, 1863, Gallipolis Journal, November 26, 1863.

[2] Cong. Globe, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., appendix, 71.

[3] Eugene Fitch Ware, The Lyon Campaign in Missouri: Being a History of the First Iowa Infantry (Topeka: Crane & Company, 1907), 33-34; “The Ground Tier Moved!” Lewisburg (PA) Chronicle, August 20, 1858; Bangor (ME) Whig, reprinted in the Randolph County (IN) Journal, August 19, 1858; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 196-198.

[4] Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), II, 550.

[5] William Wiley, entry for August 1862, in The Civil War Diary of a Common Soldier: William Wiley of the 77th Illinois Infantry, ed. Terrence J. Winschel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 1.

[6] “Mud-Sills,” New York Tribune, reprinted in (Findlay, OH) Hancock Jeffersonian, June 14, 1861.

[7] “Northmen, Come Out!” Vanity Fair 3 (May 4, 1861), 215.

[8] [G.P. Stevens] “The March of the Mud-Sills,” Harvard Magazine 8, no. 68 (October 1861): 59-61.

[9] Charlie to My own darling wife, May 3, 1862, in Dear Friends at Home: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, First Battalion, 1861-1864, ed. Edward K. Cassedy (Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 2001), 82.

[10] Charles Harvey Brewster to [?], ca. July 4, 1862, in Charles H. Brewster, When This Cruel War Is Over: The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster, ed. David W. Blight (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 343.

[11] Edmund Evarts to My Dear Parents, September 9, 1863, in Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battle-Field and Prison, ed. Lydia Minturn Post (New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1865), 191-192.

[12] Daniel O. Root, War Time Stories: An Illinois Soldier’s Civil War Experiences, ed. Richard A. Chrisman (n.p.: Trafford Publishing, 2011), 59-62.

[13] Quoted in Brian C. Melton, Sherman’s Forgotten General: Henry W. Slocum (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 193.

[14] Charles Fessenden Morse to [?], January 31, 1865, in Letters Written During the Civil War 1861-1865 (n.p.: Privately Printed, 1898), 210-212.

[15] “The Demand for Men,” Daily Union, reprinted in (Brattleboro) Vermont Phoenix, April 22, 1864.

[16] “Rewarding the Army,” Continental Monthly 2, no. 2 (August 1862): 161-165; Daniel M. Holt to My dear Wife, February 7, 1864, in A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., ed. James M. Greiner, Janet L. Coryell, and James R. Smithier (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994), 171-172.

[17] Corydon E. Fuller, Reminiscences of James A. Garfield with Notes Preliminary and Collateral (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1887), 309.

Michael E. Woods

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

1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

Mary Lincoln, 1846 or 1847. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Just over two hundred years ago today, on December 13, 1818, Mary Ann Todd came into the world screaming. Or at least, we assume she came into this world screaming, as most babies do. It was a rainy Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky. Mary’s mother Eliza likely sent for the midwife. Together, the women would have laughed, cried, and worked through the labor in a female experience, a female world not yet dominated by male doctors. The midwife would have encouraged Eliza, and perhaps offered some mulled liquor, until the big moment of Mary’s arrival.[1]

When she married Abraham Lincoln, she dropped the Todd, and would sign her name Mary Lincoln for the rest of her life. Her life and legacy would be haunted by thousands of interpretations and misinterpretations. Mary the sane, Mary the insane, Mary the devoted wife, Mary the calculating manipulator. She shopped too much, cried too much, complained too much. After losing two sons, she turned to spiritualism, holding as many as eight seances in the White House. Then her third son passed, and later, her fourth would send her to an Illinois asylum. She later deemed it a “cruel persecution by a bad son” and to obtain her release, she secured the services of Myra Bradwell, one of the few female lawyers of the time.[2]

Lincoln Family in 1861, painted by F. B. Carpenter, engraved by J. C. Buttre, 1873. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But to her core, she cared about family. A family she loved, a family she lost, a family that lay shattered around her. We can imagine the movie of her life, with scenes flickering by – Mary in 1842, courting a tall and talented backwoods lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. In 1860, the wife whose husband reportedly ran home yelling “Mary, Mary, we are elected!” after he learned that he had won the presidential election. In 1862, a mother, miserably consoling her eleven-year-old son Willie, as he lay dying of typhoid fever. And on April 14, 1865, that fateful night she held her husband’s hand as he laughed at a line in the theatre, unaware of the gun to his head.[3]

Mary had five Confederate sisters – a source of joy, grief, embarrassment, and anger throughout the war.  Through a study of Mary Lincoln and two of her Confederate sisters, we can see how gendered tensions of the war played out within a household.  After all, Mary was many things, but before she became a Lincoln, she was a Todd.

Emilie Todd Helm. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society Collections.

During the war, Mary dropped a newspaper in the midst of reading bad news and said, “Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me.  I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South.”  Emilie, an adored little sister of Mary, had a husband who had just died defending the Confederacy. Even so, the Lincolns welcomed her into the White House, as family.  Political alliances prevented them from speaking as freely as Emilie would like, but she felt for Mary and wrote, “we weep over our dead together and express through our clasped hands the sympathy we feel for each other in our mutual grief.”[4]

But not everyone who encountered Emilie would put aside their alliances. Emilie was, after all, a widow of the enemy. “Well, we whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits,” jabbed Senator Ira Harris of New York when he visited the White House. Answering “with a choking throat,” Emilie retorted, “It was an example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.” After a failed attempt to get a rise from Mary, Harris returned to prodding Emilie and informed her “if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels.” Forgetting where she was but not her Confederate loyalties, Emilie responded, “And if I had twenty sons, Senator Harris, they should all be opposing yours.” When the incident was relayed to Abe, he chuckled that “the child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”[5]

Longing for home and believing “my being here is more or less an embarrassment,” Emilie decided it was time to return to Kentucky. Emilie left, with an invitation for her to return and a pass to do so. She took advantage of this in 1864 when she needed a license to sell six hundred bales of cotton. Lincoln refused. Emilie, after all, still had not signed an oath of loyalty and remained an outspoken Confederate. Pledging her loyalty, Emilie believed, would bring dishonor to her dead husband’s memory. So she angrily returned to Kentucky and penned a searing letter. Mary would never see or write her again.[6]

In the fall of 1861, another Todd sister, Elodie, lamented, “Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact situation of ours and I hope will never be [another] so unfortunate to be surrounded by trials so numerous.” Elodie was living in Selma, Alabama, and was engaged to be married to a Confederate officer, Nathaniel Dawson.[7]

Elodie Breck Todd. Courtesy of the Kentucky Digital Library.

In a letter to Nathaniel, Elodie describes Mary’s reaction to the engagement. Mary “receives the news seriously and writes me a long letter on the subject of matrimony and adjoins me that I am a great deal better off as I am. She ought to know as she committed the fatal step years ago, and I believe another such letter would almost make me abandon the idea.”[8]

Despite her sister’s objections, Elodie would ultimately say yes. “How singular that I should be engaged to the sister of Mrs. Lincoln,” Nathaniel wrote, “I wish you would write her to that effect so that in case of being taken prisoner I will not be too severely dealt with.” For Elodie, the Todd family drama is not a singular oddity but a tragedy. Though clearly committed to the Confederacy, she refused to let anyone speak ill of the Lincolns in her presence and admitted reflection on her family’s situation sometimes left her unable to get out of bed.[9]

But even as Elodie defended Mary and her husband, she also expressed private dismay and frustration over Mary’s wartime actions. After reading a newspaper that claimed Mary spoke poorly about her brother David, Elodie wrote to her fiancé, saying, “I do not believe she ever said it and if she did and meant it she is no longer a sister of mine nor deserves to be called a woman of nobleness and truth…What would she do to me, do you suppose? I have as much to answer for.” Nathaniel responded, “I do not believe that Mrs. Lincoln ever expressed herself as you state about your brother David. If she did, it is in very bad taste and in worse temper and unlike all the representations I have seen of her character…How deplorable is this fratricidal war. Two brothers met in the battle of Manassas on opposite sides and are now here in the hospital, both wounded.”[10]

We often talk of this war as brother vs. brother, but what of sister vs. sister? We often study the reconciliation efforts of soldiers at battlefield commemorations after the war, but what of the women whose fierce sectional hatred burned for more than four years? Exploring sisterhoods reminds us, if nothing else, that women experienced war in a variety of ways. By delving in and allowing these women their individualities, we broaden and deepen our understanding of the female world. If we grant, as we now do, that women did critical cultural work in prosecuting the war and interpreting its meaning, we must pay greater attention to the way they went about their work, including how they resolved disputes. Indeed, we should consider the way the war continued on as a conflict between women and within households. After all, this was a situation that Mary knew so well.


[1] I presented a version of this post at the Mary Todd Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium, hosted by the Mary Todd Lincoln House and University of Kentucky in November 2018. Other participants included Catherine Clinton and Jennifer Fleischner–conversations with both strengthened this piece, for which I am grateful.

[2] As quoted in Jean H. Baker’s 2008 preface, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008).

[3] Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), 46.

[4] Katherine Helm, The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1928), 224-233; John L. Helm, Frankfort, Kentucky, to Emily Todd Helm, January 20, 1864, Emilie Todd Helm Papers, 1855-1943, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, September 1, 1861, in Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, ed. Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 183.

[8] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, May 26, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 69.

[9] Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, May 16, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 46.

[10] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, July 23, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 139; Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, August 3, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 157.

Angela Esco Elder

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

The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

On March 29, 1859, Ulysses S. Grant went to the St. Louis Courthouse to attend to a pressing legal matter. That day Grant signed a manumission paper freeing William Jones, an enslaved African American man that he had previously acquired from his father-in-law, “Colonel” Frederick F. Dent. Described as being “of Mullatto [sic] complexion,” five foot seven in height, and aged about thirty-five years, Jones now faced an exciting, but arduous life journey in freedom.[1] As fate would have it, William Jones would become the last enslaved person ever owned by a U.S. president, while Ulysses S. Grant holds the strange distinction of being the last of twelve presidents in U.S. history to have been a slaveholder.

The manumission of William Jones written in Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting on March 29, 1859. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

From 1854 to 1859, Grant struggled to support his family as a hardscrabble farmer in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time he grew fruits, vegetables, grains, and oats at White Haven, an 850-acre plantation that was the childhood home of his wife, Julia Dent Grant, and owned by his father-in-law. Enslaved labor did most of the work at White Haven, and at some point Grant acquired ownership of William Jones.[2] Beyond these basic facts, the relationship between Grant and Jones is riddled with ambiguity. When did Grant acquire Jones? Did he pay money for Jones, or was he a “gift” from his father-in-law? Why did Grant feel the need to acquire a slave in the first place? Why did he free him? What sort of work did Jones do for Grant and his family? What was the relationship between the two men like? Unfortunately the single primary source document for historians to analyze—the manumission paper written in Grant’s own hand—fails to convey reliable answers to these questions. Further complicating matters, Grant never mentioned Jones again in any of his existing papers or in his famed Personal Memoirs. And perhaps the biggest question looming over the entire discussion is “what happened to William Jones after he was freed?”

As an interpreter at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, I face visitor questions about William Jones on a daily basis. While I often struggle to give satisfactory answers to these questions, I have taken a great interest in trying to provide some sort of answer to the last one. After all, Jones should not exist simply as a footnote in Ulysses S. Grant’s life story (as he is so often depicted in popular Grant biographies) but as an individual with his own thoughts, experiences, and struggles both in slavery and in freedom. To that end I have endeavored over the past year to research what may have happened to Jones after his manumission. In the course of my work I have made two important, but very tenuous, discoveries about William Jones.

The first concerns where Jones may have settled once he became free. In a time before the invention of the telephone, major cities throughout the United States published city directories that listed residents’ names, home addresses, and occupation. In the course of looking through the 1860 St. Louis city directory online I found a listing for “Jones William (Col’d)” in the directory. His listing states that he worked as a horse driver and was living at rear 100 Myrtle Street, which was very close to the St. Louis riverfront and is now part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. (“Rear” refers to an outbuilding or small home in a back alley.) Further research in the directory found that Jones was living with five other free people of color in the same house, while a man named Herman Charles who worked in the furniture business was living at the main home. He was most likely renting out the rear home to Jones and his cohorts.[3]

A screenshot of the William Jones listing in the 1860 St. Louis City Directory. Photo Courtesy of Rollanet.

Does this listing represent the same William Jones that was freed by Ulysses S. Grant? Unfortunately, there is no listing in the 1860 federal census for a William Jones of African American descent living in downtown St. Louis. On the one hand, it was common—both then and now—for census-takers to miss residents during the surveying process.[4] Moreover, it is entirely plausible that Jones would have opted to stay in St. Louis. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by 1860, and a small but thriving community of 1,500 free blacks lived and worked in St. Louis as barbers, blacksmiths, cooks, dockworkers, hotel and restaurant workers, and laborers.[5] Where else would Jones have been able to quickly settle and start working, especially if he had any other family to support? St. Louis may have been his best option at the time. On the other hand, a census listing would have confirmed the age of the William Jones listed in the directory and helped confirm if he was the same person previously owned by Grant. That “William Jones” is such a common name further complicates matters. Without a census record the city directory listing is therefore compelling but inconclusive.

A map of St. Louis in 1857. The red square notes where 100 Myrtle Street was located at the time. Today it is part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. Photo courtesy of the author.

The second insight concerns court records from the St. Louis Courthouse. On May 6, 1861, the court records indicate that a “William Jones (Col’d)” was arrested with several other free blacks for not having their freedom papers. Like other slave states throughout the South, Missouri law assumed that African Americans were enslaved unless proven otherwise. When African Americans received their freedom in Missouri, they were required to apply for a “freedom license,” post a bond between 100 dollars and 1,000 dollars, and demonstrate to the court that they were “of good character and behavior, and capable of supporting [themselves] by lawful employment.”[6] Sometimes a benevolent slaveholder would pay the bond, but often the person being freed was held responsible. Grant’s financial troubles while living in St. Louis would have most likely prevented him from posting Jones’s bond in 1859. In any case, the William Jones arrested in 1861 was publicly whipped on the steps of the courthouse for his indiscretion and ordered to leave Missouri within three days. Gateway Arch National Park Historian Bob Moore originally found this court record and stated in an email to staff at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that he believes it was the same William Jones that was freed by Grant, but nevertheless staff at both sites recognize that the evidence once again cannot fully corroborate the claim one way or the other.[7]

Other research I conducted proved frustrating and led to dead ends. I looked at the military records of more than 250 black soldiers named “William Jones” who served in United States Colored Infantry units during the Civil War without finding one who matched the description for height, complexion, and age listed in the 1859 manumission paper. Likewise, while there are multiple listings for “William Jones (Col’d)” in St. Louis City Directories from 1861 to 1865, it is nearly impossible to confirm if they are the same one previously listed in 1860. Furthermore, there is no William Jones of African American descent listed in the 1870 federal census for St. Louis. My research continues in earnest, but like many enslaved African Americans, the story of William Jones’s life in freedom is shrouded in mystery. As Fredrick Douglass once stated, “genealogical tress [sic] do not flourish among slaves.”[8]

Where else should I look for information on William Jones? What research have you done on enslaved African Americans and their transition to freedom? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.



[1] The original manumission paper is housed at the Missouri Historical Society. A transcription of the document is located in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1:1837-1861 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 347.

[2] National Park Service, “Slavery at White Haven,” Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, April 2, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018,

[3] “Kennedy’s 1860 St. Louis City Directory,” Rollanet, 2007, accessed October 24, 2018,

[4] Pew Research Center, “Imputation: Adding People to the Census,” Pew Research Center, May 4, 2011, accessed October 20, 2018,

[5] National Park Service, “African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018,; Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).

[6] The mention of William Jones is in the St. Louis County Record Book 10, “May 6, 1861,” 333, Gateway Arch National Park Archives, St. Louis; Ebony Jenkins, “Freedom Licenses in St. Louis City and County, 1835-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2008, accessed October 26, 2018,; Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017).

[7] Robert Moore, email to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Staff, November 10, 2017.

[8] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1855), 34.

Nick Sacco

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

A Transnational View of Medicine and Medical Practices during the Civil War

A Transnational View of Medicine and Medical Practices during the Civil War

Interest in the medical history of the Civil War has increased in recent years, not in small part due to Shauna Devine’s Tom Watson Brown Award-winning work, Learning from the Wounded.[1] Tens of thousands of U.S. and Confederate soldiers suffered some form of injury in the course of the Civil War. The war, as is often the case, provided an opportunity for medical professionals to experiment with better treatments, more rapid removal of soldiers from the battlefield, and the recovery of wounded men. While the Civil War is often told as an exceptional domestic story, the history of mid-nineteenth-century nursing and medical advances should not start on the wounded-covered banks of Bull Run, but in the filthy and vermin-covered barracks of the other major mid-century war, the Crimean War (1853-1856).

By the time the Ottoman and Russian empires started the next installment of their long ongoing conflict over Black Sea and Mediterranean dominance in 1853, military technology had changed dramatically. The minié ball, a lead-based projectile, caused significant wounds, often leaving parts of the fabric and the bullet itself in the body of the wounded, causing infection. Like in every war, soldiers suffered from cholera, dysentery, and gangrene.[2] However, the emergence of the telegraph and popularity of newspapers allowed the first war correspondent, William Howard Russell, to report on the dismal state of the field hospitals, forcing a change in thinking among both medical professionals and the public.

The British military hospital at Scutari, on the outskirts of Istanbul, was filthy, damp, and infested. Worse, the Inspector General of Hospitals, John Hall, urged his officers against chloroform, writing: “the smart knife is a powerful stimulant; and it is better to hear a man bawl lustily, than to see him sink silently into the grave.”[3] With the French sending a group of fifty charity sisters, the British asked Florence Nightingale, a former director of a sanatorium in London, to recruit a group of British nurses for Crimea. She arrived with twenty-four women in November 1854 and immediately requested “a thousand mops, fifty quart bottles of disinfectant, three thousand tin plates and thousand yards of toweling.”[4] By the end of the war, her work reduced the number of British deaths from sickness. Whereas the French lost 21,191 soldiers to disease, the British only lost 606. The British had made significant advances in the treatment of wounded soldiers; however, these lessons were soon lost to contemporaries. As a result, the majority of Civil War soldiers still suffered horrendously from wounds sustained.

Crimean War: Florence Nightingale and her staff nursing a patient in the military hospital at Scutari. Coloured lithograph, c. 1855, by T. Packer after himself. Courtesy of The Wellcome Library.

Nightingale laid the foundation for the modern nursing profession in both Europe and the United States. She wanted her nurses to be “sober, honest, truthful, trustworthy, punctual, quiet and orderly, cleanly and neat.” She reserved the profession for respectable women. She had no time for “excellent gentlewomen more fit for Heaven than a hospital.” She called for a dramatic revision of the medical service within the army.[5] However, her lessons and work, just like that of the soldiers in the trenches of Sevastopol, were quickly forgotten by contemporary military officials and politicians.

If the Crimean War tried to alter the medical world pre-American Civil War, so did the Wars of Italian Unification (the Second War of Independence in 1859 and Third War of Independence in 1866). Just like the events in Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, or Cold Harbor, many wounded soldiers in Italy remained untreated on the battlefield for days after the fighting ceased. During the Battle of Solferino, Franco-Italian forces assaulted the Austrian army. A bloodletting ensued and many soldiers remained on the field for hours, at times days. On June 27, having tried his best to help, Genevan businessman Henri Jean Dunant departed the region in disgust.

Dunant recollected, “The stillness of the night was broken by groans, by stifled sighs of anguish and suffering . . . Heart-rending voices kept calling for help. Who could ever describe the agonies of that fearful night.” The medical services were incompetent; the French army only had one doctor for every one thousand soldiers and no medical equipment. Dunant observed, “The poor wounded men . . . were ghostly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look. . . . Others were anxious and excited by nervous strain and shaken by spasmodic trembling. Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery; and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the grip of the death struggle. . . . Many were disfigured . . . their limbs stiffened, their bodies blotched with ghastly spots, their hands clawing at the ground, their eyes starting wildly, their moustaches bristling.”[6]

In October 1862, Dunant’s Memory of Solferino was published and Guillaume-Henri Dufour, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and commanding general of the Swiss Confederation forces in the recent Sonderbundskrieg (a civil war that tore the Swiss Confederation apart for a month in 1847) reached out to Dufour to humanize the face of war for wounded soldiers. Dunant, Dufour, and a few others decided to take their idea for an international relief organization to the International Charity Congress in Berlin in October 1863. To lend weight to their project, they established the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. Questions immediately arose about military doctors in uniforms being indistinguishable from fighting men and thus unprotected from enemy bullets or the treatment of wounded regardless of affiliation. In Berlin, Dunant invited interested parties for another meeting in Geneva.[7]

On October 23, 1863, representatives of sixteen countries were in Geneva. For four days, the delegations debated a list of ten articles which called for the creation of committees in the individual countries, advice to army medical services, preparation to enlist volunteer medical personnel on the battlefields (wearing armbands with a red cross distinguishing them as noncombatants), and the coordination of committees by the central body in Geneva. Out of this conference was born the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC. While these notions and opportunities did not reach the Civil War in time, the ICRC immediately found an opportunity to test their new accomplishments during the Dano-German War of 1864. Unfortunately, many on the ICRC’s accomplishments were neither new nor productive, leaving Nightingale worried that the ICRC would negate many of the changes in medical treatment and care she had pushed for during the past decade.[8]

The Dano-German War was almost over when on August 8, 1864, sixteen nations assembled in Geneva to ensure that hospitals, field stations, and medical personnel were considered neutral. There was disagreement regarding whether nurses were included in this neutrality. The United States had two unofficial representatives from the U.S. Sanitary Commission present, who faced much ignorance about their work and the advances in medicine during the Civil War. On August 22, 1864, those present, except for the United States and Great Britain, the two countries with the most experience in military medicine, signed the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, which institutionalized many of the already agreed upon stipulations. The conference also adopted the inversed Swiss flag as its symbol, which meant the organization was increasingly called the Red Cross.[9]

Picture of the signing of the First Geneva Convention by Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq. Reproduced in Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (Geneva, Switzerland: ICRC, 2011), 98-99.

Charles Bowles, the representative of the U.S. Sanitary Commission to the conference, wrote, “The result of the Congress is a treaty which, althou’ less than perfect, is far more than was really to have been expected. . . . Its grand test, future practicability, remains to be applied. To reconcile humanity with the exigencies of war, or inhumanity under another name, is a task of almost insurmountable difficulty. Its influence will be felt, and the justice of its principles acknowledged, and those who violate it will at least be morally accountable . . . It will be marked by the future historian as a forward step in the civilization of the nineteenth century.”[10]

Only after the Civil War did the Red Cross get an opportunity to test its operation and principles in wartime, during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The one major battle at Königgrätz caused 30,000 Austrian casualties, versus 10,000 Prussian casualties. Prussia was entirely responsible for the care of all the wounded. Prussian stretcher-bearers wore the Red Cross as they carried wounded off the field. Chloroform was used during operations. The railroads carried the wounded back to hospitals in Prussia with local committees along the railroad providing the wounded on the trains with refreshments. In contrast, Austria was unprepared; five days after the battle Prussian volunteers found a primitive field hospital with 300 badly wounded and barely alive soldiers. There were 800 men already dead for lack of treatment.[11]

The many wars of the mid-nineteenth century dramatically highlighted the suffering among wounded soldiers on the battlefield. As a result, states and private individuals sought to improve the fate of the wounded. The Atlantic was more barrier then highway of information during the Civil War era. In the end, the emergence of nursing, the professionalization of medicine, and the creation of the Red Cross dramatically improved the suffering of soldiers wounded during battle. The battles of the mid-nineteenth century, including the American Civil War, forced this rethinking, but many of these advances came too late for over half a million U.S. residents killed by insufficient medical care in the war.


[1] Shauna Devine, Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014)

[2] Frank R. Freemon, Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 48-49

[3] Caroline Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross (London: HarperCollins, 1998), 30-32.

[4] Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert, December 21, 1854, in Florence Nightingale: Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, ed. Lynn McDonald (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010): 14:85-86.

[5] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 32.

[6] Henry Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (Geneva, Switzerland: ICRC, 2011), 41, 44.

[7] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 13-19.

[8] Ibid., 20-21, 30.

[9] Ibid., 43-45.

[10] Charles S. P. Bowles, Report of Charles S. P. Bowles: Foreign Agent of the United States Sanitary Commission, Upon the International Congress of Geneva, for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of Armies in the Field, Convened at Geneva, 8th August, 1864 (London, UK: R. Clay and Taylor, 1969), 15.

[11] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 53-55.

Niels Eichhorn

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

“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

In early October 1864, Gen. U. S. Grant planned a trip to Washington. He believed that 30,000 to 40,000 troops were gathered in “depots all over the North” and wanted to “see if I cannot devise means of getting [them] promptly into the field.” Although he canceled the trip, his concern was well placed.[1]

The Army of the Potomac had begun the summer of 1864 with more than 100,000 men, but the massive casualties incurred during the Overland Campaign, along with the redeployment of some units, had left it with about 50,000 effectives at the end of the summer. Replacements did appear throughout the fall, but the Army of the Potomac was a very different organization than it had been three months earlier, and Union generals were almost as worried about the preparedness of their men as they were about the Confederates they faced across the wrecked Virginia landscape.

A lot was being asked of these men. Soldiers were constantly adjusting their lines, improving old earthworks, and destroying or modifying captured enemy works. Moreover, the wood and dirt fortifications, hard-used by the men, subject to heat and rain, and fouled by decomposing bodies and human waste, constantly had to be rebuilt. Others dug mines and countermines, while still others created primitive minefields by planting “torpedoes.” These major construction projects occurred during nearly constant skirmishing, scouting, and artillery duels. By early fall, insects, rats, lice, dirt (and, when it rained, bottomless mud) further plagued the men who were digging, fighting, and dying in the Union trenches.[2]

Fort Sedgwick near Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout the fall campaign, Grant and his generals fretted about the readiness of new recruits, frequently reorganized units, and, on occasion, delayed operations until a time when more battle-ready men were available. Gen. Winfield Hancock worried that his men, particularly replacements, were being asked to work too hard; “there are a good many recruits in the command whom we are trying to drill, and I have not allowed them to be worked within the last few days on that account.”[3] In early October, Gen. G. K. Warren, a famous worrier, warned that “We need time to get our new levies in order, and no matter how great the pressure, we cannot succeed with them till they have at least acquired the . . .rudiments of their drill and discipline.”[4] Gen. Nelson Miles complained that some of his regiments “are mainly composed of substitutes who have recently joined, and the frequency of desertions among this class of men renders it necessary that they be placed in positions where they can easily be watched and guarded.” In fact, Nelson wanted his new soldiers to be moved out of the trenches so they could be better trained and disciplined.[5]

At the other end of the Union position, north of the James River, Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was also going through growing pains. Butler complained of a group of about 300 “unorganized recruits” intended as replacements for a New York regiment. They seemed to have been sent by the War Department without orders or leaders; “the captains that have been commissioned have deserted them and cannot be found.” The men had elected their own officers, but had become “a mob.” Butler wanted them sent to their intended regiment so they could be integrated into “good companies.” “Otherwise, they are worse than useless for months.” This was apparently not the only time a group of reinforcements had appeared without clear directions. “We have suffered so much from these new organizations rendering men useless that I trust that where there is no organization we shall not wait for a mob to make one.”[6]

These desperate messages remind us that, despite our hindsight-influenced sense that the Confederacy was on its last legs by October 1864, that was not necessarily how Union commanders saw it. They doubted the capacity of their men to withstand the rigors of this new—to them—form of warfare, and seemed to be worrying that the effectiveness of the army had hit a tipping point. They had to make Grant and the War Department aware, through more negative than usual rhetoric describing their men, that winning the war required further investment in men and training.

But a decidedly different rhetorical style reflected another of the war’s imperatives. Butler bragged that at Chaffin’s Farm his 2500 black soldiers had “carried intrenchments at the point of the bayonet” that had previously stymied twice the number of white troops. “Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.” The same day he declared that he could break the Bermuda line between the Appomattox and the James Rivers “with 3,000 negroes” and asked for more black regiments.[7]

This flag, “One Cause, Once Country,” was the regimental flag of the 45th USCT, several companies of which fought with Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Butler’s message to the “Soldiers of the Army of the James” on October 11 featured fulsome praise for the officers and men of every unit in his army, including the Third Divisions of the Eighteenth and Tenth Corps, both of which were comprised of black troops. “Better men were never better led, better officers never led better men,” Butler declared. In addition to congratulating dozens of white officers, he spent several paragraphs noting the heroics of black soldiers, from the private who bayonetted a Rebel officer trying to rally his men to the sergeant who led his company into the enemy’s works after their captain was killed. Several black soldiers were noted for their gallant action to take over for disabled color bearers, despite being wounded themselves. By the time Butler wrote his message, at least four of the companies in the Sixth U. S. Colored Troops were led by black sergeants after their officers had been killed or wounded, and several companies in other regiments also went into battle behind black sergeants. Butler ordered a “special medal” created in their honor.[8]

Butler was a famous self-promoter, and he drew glory from the excellent performance of black units that many commanders were reluctant to command. But he also knew that, even as the fighting qualities of white soldiers seemed to be on the decline, the black troops fighting for the freedom of their race needed to be seen as effective, showing high morale and leadership possibilities.

The war was, in fact, entering its final phase in the fall of 1864—but the generals could not be sure of that. As a result, they shaped their messages to illustrate the immediate needs of the army, arguing that the army’s poor condition required urgent measures and implying that victory could still slip away. But a few also highlighted the contributions of the black soldiers, hoping that the aftermath of the war for African Americans could be shaped by public recognition of their loyalty and courage.



[1] Grant to Gen. George G. Meade, October 3, 1864, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 51. Hereafter call the OR.

[2] Earl J. Hess details the growth of the entrenchments around Petersburg, and the lives of the men who built them, in In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), esp. 50-77.

[3] Hancock to Meade, October 15, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 238.

[4] Warren to Meade, October 1, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 20.

[5] Miles to Maj. H. H. Bingham, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Second Corps, October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 160.

[6] Butler to Grant, October 12, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 184.

[7] Butler to Stanton, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.; Butler to Grant, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.

[8] Gen. Benjamin Butler, “Soldiers of the Army of the James,” October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 161, 163, 167-170.


James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.