Category: Field Dispatches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Margalit, 2.

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

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

[5] “Joseph Charless (1772-1834),” The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2020, accessed February 29, 2020,

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

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

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

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

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

[11] “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, October 16, 1854,” Teaching American History, 2020, accessed March 1, 2020,

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 War for Settler Colonialism

A War for Settler Colonialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “Out West,” HistoryNet, August 2017, Megan Kate Nelson, Adam Arenson, and Andrew R. Graybill also have criticized Gallagher for his dismissive remarks about the West during the Civil War. See Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” Historista, June 29, 2017,; Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Barba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[1] Sarah Cascone, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag That Ended the Civil War,” Artnet News, April 1, 2019,

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

[3] Silkenat, 2.

[4] Silkenat, 3-4.

[5] Silkenat, 4.

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

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

[8] Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, Updated January 4, 2020,

[9] Silkenat, 168.

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

[11] Silkenat, 267.

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

[13] Silkenat, 297.

[14] Olivia Errico, “Raising the White Flag: Sonya Clark and Dr. David Silkenat in Conversation,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University-Camden, June 6, 2019,

Hilary N. Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Eichhorn

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

Teaching Military History with the Official Records

Teaching Military History with the Official Records


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] On the OR, see Alan C. Aimone, “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, accessed January 17, 2020, The complete OR can be found online at

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

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at 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.

The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The Civil War in Southeast Asia: Trade and Privateering in Singapore

The sectional conflict in North America coincided with vast upheavals around the world, including the wars of unification in Central Europe (Italy from 1859 to 1871, and Germany from 1864 to 1871), whose impact Civil War historians have done some work to illustrate. In Asia, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), with its twenty million dead (one of the deadliest wars in human history), also coincided with the Civil War. However Civil War historians, both transnational and diplomatic, have paid very little attention to events in Asia. Yet for U.S. diplomatic and economic representatives, the war’s impact on trade, and even more, the threat posed by Confederate privateers, was an ever-present issue requiring them to protect the commercial and maritime interests of the United States, even in far away places like Singapore.

So far, the only work on Civil War relations with Asia highlights the offer of war elephants by the Siamese king to President Abraham Lincoln.[1] If this sounds somewhat reminiscent of some early Roman history with Hannibal crossing the Alps, there are some possible similarities. A blogger at The National Interest hypothesized what the 1st Ohio Pachyderm Battalion would have done at the Battle of Gettysburg, suggesting the use of the animals in the opening engagement with the Iron Brigade and the destruction of the advancing Confederates of A. P. Hill’s Corps.[2] While certainly humorous as a counterfactual exercise, to U.S. consuls in Singapore, the Civil War was all too real.

Singapore, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, sprang into existence in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established the city and port for the British East India Company. As a stopping point en route to China, the port gained importance with the opening of China as a result of the Opium War (1839-1842). The city was, and remains, an essential trade center in Southeast Asia.

View of the Harbor of Singapore, c. 1860, Leiden University Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the United States, trade in Singapore was initially of only limited importance. In January 1852, U.S. consul W. W. Shaw reported that demand for U.S.-made cotton products was “moderate.” Nevertheless, he assumed that, “the consumption of American Cotton Goods is likely to increase in this market judging from the more frequent enquiries for them of late.” Furthermore, in 1852, ships tended to leave for the U.S. Pacific Coast, especially San Francisco, if their destination was the United States. With the aftereffects of the California Gold Rush, captains had to recruit new crew members in Singapore since recruiting sailors in San Francisco was extremely expensive, which had a detrimental impact on shipping costs.[3]

By the end of the 1850s, commercial activities in Singapore boomed again. Singapore’s location “as a commercial sea-port” was the result of “being situated on the great highway to India, China, Japan, and South Eastern Asia.” Over a hundred U.S. merchant vessels visited the port annually. Consul J. P. Sullivan used the commercial importance to point out that his salary was woefully inadequate to handle the trade, pay for a building to run the consulate in, and hire staff, a common complaint among U.S. consular agents at the time.[4]

The Civil War soon had an impact on the trade in Singapore. Whereas U.S. merchants represented the second largest group of ships in port prior to the war, the conflict allowed German merchants to assume second place. The change was in part the result of Confederate activities in Asian waters.[5]

One particular incident speaks to how Confederate naval operations complicated the U.S. presence in Asia. On December 8, 1863, U.S. consul Francis W. Cobb reported the departure of the U.S.S. Wyoming in search of the raider C.S.S. Alabama, an infamous Confederate ship that roamed the oceans for nearly two years.[6] Only two weeks later the Alabama arrived in Singapore. Captain Raphael Semmes had made his way across the Indian Ocean from the Cape Colony. The Alabama overnighted in port, and as Consul Cobb wrote in his report, took on coal for its continued voyage.[7]

The CSS Alabama. Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Cobb’s attempts to communicate with the crew of the Alabama failed, as port authorities did not allow anyone near the ship. Like all U.S. representatives overseas, Cobb wanted the ship brought to justice and he frantically tried to locate the Wyoming’s exact whereabouts. He knew the U.S. vessel was on its way to Batavia to repair its boiler.[8] Unfortunately, the Wyoming did not receive the honor of bringing down Semmes. In accordance with British neutrality laws, which required belligerent vessels to depart port again within twenty-four hours, the Alabama put to sea on December 24. Despite Cobb’s failure to reach the vessel, others were luckier. Cobb explained that many Singaporeans visited the ship out of curiosity, which, he thought, should not be confused with sympathy.[9] Sadly, on the day of the Alabama’s departure from Singapore, the raider destroyed a British and U.S. merchant vessel, the latter probably the Texas Star.[10] Thankfully, after only three destroyed ships, Semmes departed the region for refits in France, where its career eventually ended outside of Cherbourg.

Ever so briefly the Civil War reared its ugly maritime face in Singapore, but merely the threat of Confederate privateering had an impact on U.S. trade in the region. While elephants at Gettysburg is a hair-brained counterfactual, much less crazy is the possibility of the Wyoming bringing the Alabama to battle in the Straits of Malacca. British colonial authorities around the empire faced difficult decisions when Confederate vessels put into port—a topic that is finally getting attention within the Atlantic context, but still needs more attention in Asia.[11] Similarly, the threat of these vessels had an impact on U.S. trade in Singapore, which was still on the margins of the U.S. trade network during the 1850s and 1860s. However, only once Civil War diplomatic and transnational historians start to integrate the far flung places of empire will we get a full understanding of the impact of the war around the world, and not be stuck with the decision makers in London and Paris.


[1] William F. Strobridge and Anita Hibler, Elephants for Mr. Lincoln: American Civil War-Era Diplomacy in Southeast Asia (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006).

[2] Angry Staff Officer, “What Would Have Happened If Lincoln Had Used Combat Elephants in the Civil War?” The National Interest, September 29, 2019,

[3] W. W. Shaw to Daniel E. Webster, January 30, 1852, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 3, January 21, 1852-August 20, 1855, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as NARA).

[4] J. P. O’Sullivan to Lewis Cass, January 23, 1859, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 5, February 1, 1858-November 16, 1859, NARA.

[5] Percy E. Schramm, Deutschland und Übersee: Der Deutsche Handel mit den Anderen Kontinenten, insbesondere Afrika, von Karl V. bis zu Bismmarck (Braunschweig, Germany: Georg Westermann Verlag, 1950), 88-90.

[6] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 8, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[7] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[8] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, December 22, 1863, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 6, December 8, 1859-December 31, 1863, NARA.

[9] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[10] Francis W. Cobb to William H. Seward, January 8, 1864, Despatches from United States Consuls in Singapore, 1833-1906, Volume 7, January 8, 1864-December 31, 1869, NARA.

[11] Beau Cleland, “Between King Cotton and Queen Victoria: Confederate Informal Diplomacy and Privatized Violence in British America During the American Civil War,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Calgary, 2019).

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.

Paul Barba Joins Us as Field Correspondent

Paul Barba Joins Us as Field Correspondent

As longtime readers know, at Muster we publish pieces that are commissioned or submitted to us for consideration, but we also have a slate of field correspondents who write regular “dispatches”–posts that explore the varied facets of life in the Civil War era and help readers broaden their understanding of the period. We are pleased to announce that we have a new correspondent joining us in 2020, writing on the Civil War in the West and borderlands history. Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the journal Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. Welcome to the team!

We would also like to thank Maria Angela Diaz, who was our first correspondent covering Western topics. She stepped down to focus on writing her manuscript, currently titled Saving the Southern Empire: The Gulf South, Latin America, and the Civil War. Thank you, Angela, for your contributions to Muster!

Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

For better or for worse, public opinion polls are deeply embedded in American politics. Proponents argue that polls keep elected officials connected to their constituents, make the government more responsive to popular demands, and dispel “myths and stereotypes that might otherwise mislead public discourse.”[1] Critics argue that strict obedience to even the most accurate polls enables politicians to shirk the responsibilities of leadership, while misleading ones can damage the policymaking process and skew elections. Ever since George Gallup correctly projected Franklin Roosevelt’s victory over Alf Landon in 1936, however, serious politicians have relied on polls to help them manage campaigns and make crucial decisions.

But what about the generations of politicians who won, lost, and governed without the benefit of scientific polling? How, for instance, did Civil War-era politicians keep a pulse on public opinion? And how can historians recover their efforts to do so?

Nineteenth-century politicians had several tools for measuring the public mood. Like their constituents, politicians were voracious newspaper readers. While most Civil War-era papers were openly partisan, their news columns and editorials provided valuable information about what journalists were thinking and what voters were reading. Determining what any given politician read can be tricky, but traces turn up in a variety of sources, including congressional records, which reveal which newspapers were purchased for individual senators and representatives. The contingent expense report for the 35th Congress (1857-1859), for example, shows that eight members of the House of Representatives subscribed to the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, including both Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, later an infamous “Copperhead” Democrat, and Francis Preston Blair, Jr., a Missouri Republican and future Union general.

“Contingent Expenses – House of Representatives,” Letter from the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Communicating His Annual Report of the Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives, House Documents, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., Misc. Doc. No. 25 (n.p.: n.p. [1860]), 117.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives kept careful track of the newspapers that were purchased for and delivered to their members. Although somewhat obscure, these records reveal much about how Civil War-era politicians kept up with national and local opinion.

Mingling directly with constituents was another option, of course, and some officeholders reserved time for regular face-to-face contact. Abraham Lincoln famously held biweekly receptions to allow any and all visitors to speak with him in the White House. Although taxing—and potentially dangerous—these “public-opinion baths,” as Lincoln called them, yielded vital political intelligence. “I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way,” Lincoln explained, and the receptions gave him “a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage” to which he was responsible.[2] These were far from scientific polls, of course, and they were necessarily limited to those able to visit Washington, D.C., but the ritual reflected both the humanity and the shrewdness of a man who believed that “public sentiment is everything” in American politics.[3]

Private correspondence was another valuable source of information, particularly for occupants of state or national offices who had to relocate to state capitals or Washington for extended periods of time. Thus, archival collections of politicians’ papers can illuminate crucial intelligence-sharing networks. Some statesmen relied on family members for the latest news on public sentiment. Lucy Lambert Hale, for instance, maintained a politically candid correspondence with her husband, New Hampshire senator John Parker Hale, while he was away at Washington. In December 1848, she reported on a sermon delivered by a local minister who warned against making any degrading compromises on slavery, and in other letters detailed the extent of antislavery sentiment in their hometown of Dover.[4] For all their insight, however, Hale’s letters are limited in scope because it would have been considered unseemly for her to mingle in many of the spaces, like courthouses or taverns, where so much of nineteenth-century politicking took place.

Most politicians also received piles of constituent correspondence, which typically consisted of fulsome praise, angry recrimination, and, above all, urgent requests for patronage, ranging from pensions to postmasterships. Careful readers could glean nuggets of political intelligence from these letters, but the authors were prone to irrational exuberance or despondency, particularly right after elections. Many were also laden with self-serving flattery; a constituent seeking a plum government job, after all, would hardly be inclined to downplay the recipient’s popularity at home.

Not surprisingly, many powerful statesmen relied on one type of correspondent: the local agent who may or may not have held office, but served as the politician’s eyes and ears within a particular community. Careful study of rich archival collections shows that many of these pen pals supplied politicians with vital local updates over extended periods of time. One example is the unheralded but politically astute Samuel Ashton, who for several turbulent years provided Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas with timely and candid appraisals of public opinion in Chicago. Douglas had called Chicago home since 1847 but spent much of the year in Washington while the Senate was in session. As a register at the local land office and, from 1854 to 1856, an alderman from Chicago’s eighth ward, Ashton was well-positioned to keep tabs on developments in a city that had once been a base of Douglas’s strength but, by the 1850s, was beginning to turn against him.[5]

“Chicago, As It Was.” Currier & Ives, ca. 1856-1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The bustling Lake Michigan port city of Chicago had been a core element of Stephen A. Douglas’s political strength since his first bid for a congressional seat in 1838. As his political support in Chicago waxed and waned in the 1850s, updates from local operatives like Samuel Ashton provided a vital link between Douglas and his home city.

Ashton wrote to Douglas less frequently than some of the senator’s other operatives, like Indianapolis postmaster William W. Wick or Springfield resident Isaac R. Diller, but he offered inside information at critical moments. As the backlash against Douglas’s pending Kansas-Nebraska bill intensified in early 1854, for instance, Ashton penned a detailed account of a protest meeting held at North Market Hall (now Court House Place).[6] Two years later, Ashton sent a much more buoyant report shortly after Chicago Democrats endorsed Douglas for the presidential nomination.[7] Ashton’s commentary was colored by his partisanship—he denounced the anti-Nebraska meeting as the work of “violent whigs and abolitionists, assisted by a number of broken down politicians and disappointed office seekers”—but he shared an informed perspective on local affairs when Douglas was away from home for months at a time.[8] And because Ashton was politically prominent without being a rival for Douglas’s power in the Illinois Democratic Party, he was an ideal source of news.

Douglas clearly appreciated Ashton’s insights because in 1855 he sought to repay the shrewd Chicagoan in the expected nineteenth-century style: by securing him a patronage appointment. In the spring of 1855, Douglas recommended Ashton for a captaincy in one of the U.S. Army’s new regiments. The nomination provoked a prickly exchange of letters with the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and ultimately Ashton—and Douglas—came away empty-handed when the commission went to another applicant.[9]

The Ashton episode seems trivial in comparison with the weighty decisions and quotable speeches that made Civil War-era politics so dramatic. But tracing the networks of family, friends, and allies which kept politicians apprised of developments back home, helps to reveal the inner workings of a nineteenth-century political world in which information was, as it always is, a vital source of power.


[1] Quoted in Matthew J. Streb and Michael A. Genovese, “Polling and the Dilemmas of Democracy,” in Polls and Politics: The Dilemmas of Democracy, eds. Michael A. Genovese and Matthew J. Streb (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004), 2.

[2] Charles G. Halpine recollection in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, comp. and ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 194.

[3] Quoted in Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 493.

[4] Lucy Lambert Hale to John P. Hale, December 3, 1848, Box 1A, Folder 5, John Parker Hale Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire.

[5] M.L. Ahern, The Political History of Chicago (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1886), 105-106; Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 166.

[6] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

[7] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 5, 1856, Box 4, Folder 21, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[8] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[9] Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, March 15, 1854, Box 42, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers; James Shields and Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 23, 1854, in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), II, 450; Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 30, 1855, in The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, ed. Robert W. Johannsen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 336; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, April 5, 1855, in Rowland, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, II, 448-450; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, February 10, 16, 1857, Box 42, Folder 6, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

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.

Honoring and Remembering Indigenous Civil War Veterans in Public Spaces

Honoring and Remembering Indigenous Civil War Veterans in Public Spaces

Artist rendering by Harvey Pratt/Butzer Architects and Urbanism, illustration by Skyline Ink. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial was held on September 21, 2019—the fifteen-year anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The memorial will be located on the grounds of the NMAI on the National Mall. The ceremony included the presentation of the colors by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, speeches, a blessing of the ground before the groundbreaking, and, in closing, an honor song by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Singers.[1] The finished memorial—the Warrior’s Circle of Honor—will consist of a steel circle standing on a stone drum with water-flowing off of the drum, surrounded by lances where visitors can tie prayer cloths. The artist, Harvey Pratt, hopes his design will create a sacred place of “healing and comfort” for visitors, especially veterans.[2]

Pratt is a multimedia artist and forensic artist. He is also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. The memorial is meant to honor Indigenous veterans from the American Revolution through the present—a goal Congresswoman Deb Haaland commented on in her speech during the groundbreaking. Haaland’s parents both served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Congresswoman Sharice Davids (also the daughter of a veteran) were the first Native American women elected to Congress. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Haaland emphasized that “Native Americans have served the nation’s military at a higher rate than any other group of people and have participated in every major U.S. military encounter since the Revolutionary War, yet Native American veterans and their contributions to our country have largely gone unrecognized throughout history. But we’re going to change that with the installation of this wonderful memorial. Our country owes a great deal of gratitude to the Native American community.” [3] Haaland briefly mentioned the Civil War, along with the American Revolution and the War of 1812, before talking about Indigenous contributions to twentieth-century conflicts. The National Native American Veterans Memorial has been a long time in the making with veterans, activists, and supporters arguing for a space to honor Native American veterans.

As part of these larger efforts to specifically recognize the military service and contributions of Native Americans, Indigenous individuals and nations have worked for Native Civil War veterans to be honored and remembered. In May 2010, descendants of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) soldiers in Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters traveled to Andersonville, Georgia, to honor seven Anishinaabe soldiers who died at Camp Sumter. The seven Anishinaabe men who died at Andersonville were part of a group of fifteen Company K soldiers captured at Petersburg in June 1864. Members of the Anishinabe Ogitchedaw Veteran and Warrior Society conducted a drum ceremony, sang a Mukwa (bear) song, and saluted the graves of the soldiers.[4]

Andersonville is not the only Civil War site where Company K men have been honored and remembered. In December 2010, Company K descendants and tribal representatives traveled to Petersburg, Virginia, to honor and recognize American Indian soldiers buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery (including graves of Brothertown Indians and Menominee).[5] Eric Hemenway, who is currently the Director of the Department of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was one of the tribal representatives honoring Anishinaabe soldiers at Poplar Grove. Hemenway also attended a July 2014 commemoration of the Battle of the Crater, where Company K men fought.[6] Hemenway has researched and talked about Company K in multiple venues, working towards recognition of the participation of the Anishinaabek from Michigan in the Civil War. He argues that their story is important to understanding the Civil War, and he stresses their contribution to the Union war effort despite not being United States citizens.[7] The National Park Service has acknowledged the specific contributions of American Indians to the Civil War, releasing a collaborative book in 2013 to help educate the public.[8] There are plans and conversations at specific sites to facilitate collaborations between the NPS and several tribes in order to remember and honor Indigenous peoples who participated in the Civil War.

In the late 1860s, government officials sometimes remarked on the Civil War service of American Indian veterans. The U.S. Indian Agent for the Mackinac Agency, Richard Smith, wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about “our Indians.” Smith estimated 196 Native men from the Mackinac Agency enlisted in the Union army. “Very much to their credit and praise it is to be mentioned, that when offered an opportunity of engaging in the military service of the country, they promptly and cheerfully came forward and assumed all the duties and responsibilities of the soldier.” In common rhetoric for a nineteenth-century government official, Smith noted that “these men who have thus periled their lives for their country deserve none the less of that country because of the tawny color of their skins.” Smith goes on in the following paragraphs to request “special attention” for the “land matter of the Indians of this agency.”[9] Service in the Civil War was mentioned occasionally in other correspondence related to land and politics in Michigan. Drawing attention to Anishinaabe Methodists and their contributions to the war, an 1866 report underscored: “These people are patriots as well. This mission [Pine River], was represented in the noble army of the Union. Some of their numbers went forth to return no more…. They fell in the conflict, and are now sleeping in honorable and honored graves on the battlefields of the republic.”[10] The Anishinaabek and government officials used similar rhetoric when negotiating citizenship after the war. While returning veterans were noted by government officials, many of the promises related to land were not fulfilled. As Hemenway has recounted in numerous interviews, the Anishinaabe members of Company K who returned home “were dealing with the same discrimination and same issues that were plaguing Native communities before they left.”[11]

The First Michigan Sharpshooters monument outside of the Michigan State Capitol was authorized by the state legislature in 1915. Photo by author.

Anishinaabe veterans took part in reunions and remembrances of their Civil War service. Veteran Francis Tabasash gave a speech about the war and his exploits at an event attended by the Indian agent for the Mackinac Agency. An account of the event calls it a “war-dance” but does not provide details about the context, participants, or attendees.[12] Tabasash may also have participated in Memorial Day parades. Upon Tabasash’s death, a newspaper reported that “[a]fter the war he returned to his farm, and his stooped form and gray hair were always seen in the soldiers’ parade here [Harbor Springs] on Memorial Day. He was the oldest member of the local G.A.R..”[13] Some Anishinaabe veterans joined the Grand Army of the Republic and took part in G.A.R. events, as well as regimental reunions. As part of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, Anishinaabe soldiers are memorialized with the First Michigan Sharpshooters monument outside of the Michigan State Capitol. They have been remembered in multiple ceremonies, talks, and discussions across Michigan by descendants, tribal nations, and outside researchers. The honoring of Native American veterans on the National Mall will be another step toward acknowledging the service of Native Americans in the Civil War, which is just one part of the larger contribution Native Americans have made to the U.S. Armed Forces.

[1] Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), “The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, September 26, 2019, accessed November 10, 2019,

[2] Harvey Pratt, “Meet Your Designers 4— National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, February 7, 2018, accessed November 10, 2019,

[3] Congresswoman Deb Haaland, “The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, September 26, 2019, accessed November 10, 2019, Also quoted in Rosemary Stephens, “Breaking Ground for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune, October 1, 2019, 1 and 7. Accessed November 10, 2019,

[4] David B. Schock, Kookoosh Roger Williams Kchinodin, and Chris Czopek, The Road to Andersonville [film], Penultimate, Ltd., 2013.

[5] Major Jo Ann P. Schedler, “Wisconsin American Indians in the Civil War,” in American Indians and the Civil War ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013), 86.

[6] Jim Burnett, “American Indians in the Civil War? Petersburg National Battlefield is Part of the Story,” National Parks Traveler, December 17, 2010, accessed November 10, 2019, and Thomas Duvernay, “Retracing the Footsteps of their Ancestor, A Member of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters,” Odawa Trails, October 2014, 6. Accessed November 10, 2019,

[7] Eric Hemenway and Sammye Meadows, “Soldiers in the Shadows: Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters,” in American Indians and the Civil War, 48.

[8] Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., American Indians and the Civil War (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013).

[9] Richard M. Smith to Dennis N. Cooley, October 30, 1865, in Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1865 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865), 452-453.

[10] The Forty-Seventh Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1865 (New York: The Society, 1866), 121.

[11] Eric Hemenway and Steve Ostrander, Stateside/Michigan Radio NPR, “The Story of Company K: Native Americans from Michigan who saw Tough Action in the Civil War,” August 23, 2017, accessed November 10, 2019,

[12] Andrew J. Blackbird to James W. Long, December 12, 1869, in Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives Microfilm 234, Reel 408.

[13] “Indian Veteran Dead,” Grand Rapids News, November 23, 1912, 5.

Michelle Cassidy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nick Sacco

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