Category: Field Dispatches

“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.

The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

The Other Lawrence Massacre: Sectional Politics and the 1860 Pemberton Mill Disaster

Political polarization often magnifies the public significance of a tragedy. As Americans prepared for a bitterly contested presidential election in early 1860, a gruesome industrial accident in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reignited conflict between champions and critics of wage labor. Unlike the violent episodes of 1856 and 1863 in Lawrence, Kansas, the Pemberton Mill Disaster seemed distant from issues of sectionalism and slavery, but it quickly became a political Rorschach test: some viewed the calamity as evidence of the need for repentance or reform, while others regarded the smoking ruins as proof of the superiority of slavery.

Pemberton Mill, built in 1853 by John A. Lowell and J. Pickering Putnam, was one of Lawrence’s newest and largest textile mills. Lowell and Putnam sold out during the Panic of 1857, but prosperity returned under new owners George Howe and David Nevins, and New England textile output reached record levels in 1859. By 1860, the mill’s 650 looms devoured 30 tons of cotton each week and employed nearly 1000 people; most were women and girls, and many were Irish immigrants.[1]

“Ruins of the Pemberton Mills, at Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Morning after the Fall,” Harper’s Weekly 4, no. 160 (January 21, 1860), 33. Several images of the smoking ruins of the Pemberton Mills circulated widely in the American and European press, including this image which made the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Late in the afternoon of January 10, 1860 – a cold, snowy Tuesday – around 600 workers were toiling in the mill’s six-story main building when the south wall collapsed and pulled the entire structure down with it. Onlookers rushed to free hundreds of people entombed in a mountain of brick, iron, wood, and machinery, but progress was slow. Around 9:30pm, a lamp overturned and ignited an inferno fueled by raw cotton and leaking oil.[2] The “whole mass of ruins has become one sheet of flame!” reported a journalist. “The screams and moans of the poor, buried, burning, and suffocating creatures can be distinctly heard, but no power on earth can save them.”[3] Trapped, a foreman tried to slit his throat rather than be burned alive. A girl caught in a machine ripped off two fingers to make a desperate escape.[4] Between 90 and 150 people died and scores more were seriously injured; among the dead was fourteen-year-old Margaret Hamilton, who arrived that morning for her first day of work.[5]

Inevitably, observers drew conflicting lessons from the horror. Ministers deemed it an act of divine judgment and a reminder to repent.[6] Soon, however, an inquest blamed human negligence, not heavenly wrath, for the suffering. Its report attributed the collapse to faulty iron supports, shoddy masonry, and excessive loads of machinery (recently added to maximize output) and named four engineers and architects as being especially responsible for the ghastly blunder, although none received any punishment.[7] The report absolved the mill’s past and present owners of culpability, but other observers accused them of sacrificing workers on the altar of profit. The New York Herald blamed what it called the “Lawrence Massacre” on cost-cutting capitalists who had killed and maimed over five hundred “white slaves of the North” by skimping on construction.[8] Long after 1860, critics ranging from pioneering feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to the Knights of Labor cited Pemberton Mill to illustrate capital’s inhumanity to labor.[9]

“The Building of the Pemberton Mills,” Vanity Fair 1, no. 4 (January 21, 1860), 56. Northern periodicals, like the New York-based Vanity Fair, blamed the Pemberton Mills disaster on business owners and contractors who settled for substandard building construction.

Responses took a peculiar twist in the South, where analysis of the tragedy became entwined with proslavery ideology. In the 1840s and 1850s, a vocal squad of southern theorists began to defend slavery as the best possible relationship between employers and workers of any race. They carefully avoided alienating nonslaveholding southern whites, but the abstract defense of slavery did percolate into popular publications.[10] Outraged by John Brown’s recent raid on Harpers Ferry and steeling themselves for a Republican victory in the looming presidential election, proslavery journalists pounced on the Pemberton Mill catastrophe to make provocative comparisons between wage labor’s brutality and slavery’s benevolence.

Some southern editors echoed northern criticisms of the wage-labor system they blamed for the catastrophe. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, for instance, applauded the New York Herald’s denunciation of Boston elites who excoriated slavery while sending northern millhands to be slaughtered on the factory floor. Tellingly, however, the Dispatch added its own overtly proslavery gloss to a passage attributed to the Herald but actually written by the Richmond editor, who savored the bitter irony that “the white slaves of Lawrence were massacred” while toiling to enrich “fine old Boston gentlemen” who had armed antislavery activists in Kansas and supported John Brown. Even as the “white slaves at Lawrence are mourning over their kith and kin slain by their philanthropic masters,” gloated the Dispatch, “the black chattels of the South are making merry with their holiday festivities.” The Virginian closed with a loaded question: whose lot – “that of the cotton picker in Georgia, or the cotton weaver in Massachusetts” – was “the preferable one?”[11] A New Orleans editor the same Herald article and opined that in the “strife between labor and capital in Massachusetts, labor has to endure what a Southern slave is never made acquainted with.”[12] The southern press transmuted the Herald’s bitter rebuke into an explicitly proslavery comparison between the northern and southern labor systems.

Even without northern inspiration, southern journalists wove proslavery arguments into coverage of the calamity. Three days after the disaster, a New Orleans editor carped that if it had occurred in the South, New England writers would have blamed it on slavery. In fact, he insisted, no “Southern master” was capable of the “fiendish cruelty” of northern capitalists who exposed operatives “of their own color and race” to dangerous working conditions.[13] From North Carolina came a similar argument couched in ostensibly innocuous terms. “Far be it from us to contrast slave labor with white labor in any offensive sense,” wrote a Raleigh editor. “But we must say that, as a general rule, there is more care manifested for the comfort and safety of black laborers in the South than is shown for white laborers in the North.” The latter had no masters to “bind up the broken limbs,” “provide for the poor cripples,” or care for them in old age.[14]

To be sure, none of these southern journalists openly endorsed the enslavement of white laborers. Their tone and timing anticipated the “whataboutism” rampant in modern American politics. But by weaving proslavery doctrines into their critiques of the society which produced the Pemberton Mill tragedy, southern editors escalated sectional strife as American voters anticipated a uniquely momentous election. Among those who visited Lawrence after the disaster was Abraham Lincoln, who passed through the somber town just days after giving the speech at New York’s Cooper Union which catapulted him toward the Republican nomination.[15] The Pemberton Mill disaster cast a long shadow over the climactic moments of antebellum politics.


[1] Alvin F. Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008), chapter 1.

[2] Ibid., chapters 2-3.

[3] Quoted in An Authentic History of the Lawrence Calamity (Boston: John J. Dyer & Co., 1860), 9.

[4] Authentic History, 15, 20.

[5] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 38.

[6] Authentic History, 38-46.

[7] Oickle, Disaster in Lawrence, 91-109.

[8] “The Lawrence Massacre Again,” New York Herald, January 16, 1860.

[9] Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “The Tenth of January,” Atlantic Monthly 21, no. 125 (March 1868): 346-362; George E. McNeill, ed., The Labor Movement (Boston: A.M. Bridgman & Co., 1887), 122-123

[10] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[11] ”The Lawrence Calamity,” (Richmond) Daily Dispatch, January 18, 1860.

[12] “Wholesale Slaughter of Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 23, 1860.

[13] “Southern Slaves – Northern Operatives,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 13, 1860.

[14] “The Calamity at Lawrence,” (Raleigh, NC) Semi-Weekly Standard, January 18, 1860.

[15] Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 185-186, 190.

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.

Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Congressman Charles Hays and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution dramatically transformed American society during the Reconstruction era. The amendments abolished slavery, established the concepts of birthright citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and granted all men the right to vote, regardless of color. For most members of the Republican Party, enforcing legal and political equality extended the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all races. These Reconstruction Amendments provided a tangible answer to the question of freedpeople’s status in American society following emancipation. Many moderates and conservatives in both parties, however, made a distinction between legal and political equality—which enabled men of all backgrounds the chance to participate in republican governance on an equal basis—and “social equality,” a shorthand term to describe the debate over racial integration in everyday life. These political leaders earnestly warned against any legislation covering the latter. They warned that such legislation would promote government overreach and the forced integration of black and white Americans in social situations.[1]

Not all Republicans felt this way about “social equality,” especially its black membership. The debate first emerged after Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner introduced a bill on May 13, 1870, that would have outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation, facilities, schools, cemeteries, and in jury selection. The bill created a firestorm. As one Democratic newspaper in McConnelsville, Ohio, complained, Sumner’s legislation meant that “every man, woman and child, of the Anglo-Saxon or Caucasian race, going forth into public, must expect to encounter at every turn the man of African descent.” Anyone who understood “the superiority of the white over the black race” had a duty to fight “social equality with an inferior race.”[2] Sumner and his radical counterparts unsuccessfully lobbied another four years to get enough votes to pass a Civil Rights bill. During these debates, however, one unlikely ally emerged when Congressman Charles Hays of Alabama passionately spoke in favor of Sumner’s legislation. Hays’s eloquent speech to the House of Representatives on January 31, 1874, outraged the white South and troubled conservatives throughout the country, but his powerful challenge to bigotry and white supremacy in American society continues to resonate today.

Alabama Congressman Charles Hays. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hays was born in 1834 to a prosperous family in the black belt region of Greene County, Alabama. After his father died at a young age, Hays built upon his inheritance and expanded his investments in both land and slaves. By 1860—still at the tender age of 26—Hays owned more than two thousand acres of prime cotton-growing land, almost one hundred enslaved African Americans, and an estate valued at more than $112,000. He was a reluctant secessionist when Alabama first declared itself out of the Union, but after the firing at Fort Sumter he joined the Confederacy and eventually attained the rank of major.[3]

After the war Hays successfully sought a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and took a pragmatic approach to politics. More interested in a quick end to federal oversight of Reconstruction than rehashing the results of the Civil War, he joined the Republican Party. According to biographer William Warren Rogers, Jr., he soon became a prominent member of the Union League in Greene County. Hays was then elected to Congress in 1869 with strong support from black and white party members in Alabama’s 4th Congressional district.[4]

While Hays initially favored a speedy return to civilian rule in Alabama, the acts of political terrorism being committed by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War horrified him. He gradually moved towards the radical wing of the party. Hays supported enforcement legislation to punish the KKK and came to believe that Sumner’s push for racial integration in social situations was justified.[5] Although a terrible economic depression raged through the country in 1874 and dominated both newspaper headlines and Congressional debate, Hays nevertheless believed that the time was right to push the civil rights issue forward.

As Hays began his remarks to the House, he lamented that “passion and prejudice have ruled the hour” in the South. “I shall receive the censure of those who sit and worship in the temples of a dead past,” but it was his sacred duty to promote “liberty and freedom” for his black constituents in Alabama and elsewhere. Citing his former experience as a slaveholder, Hays stated that he knew African Americans were hard workers who were oppressed not because of their natural inferiority—which was a lie—but because of the “storms of hate” heaped upon them by white racists. “Newspapers, politicians, demagogues, and inciters of sectional hate” were promoting a false portrait of what a civil rights bill would bring to American society, according to Hays. In his view the purpose of such a bill “[did] not force anything” on white society other than “the right of the colored man to be the equal of the white man.”[6]

Hays then attacked the notion that black and white Americans could not associate together or enjoy the same rights and privileges. He noted that “thousands of the most intelligent men of the South” who now opposed the civil rights bill “were born and raised upon the old plantations. Childhood’s earlier days were passed listening to the lullaby song of the negro nurse, and budding manhood found them surrounded by slave association.” In other words, blacks and whites had intermingled and even lived together in the days of slavery without any fearful talk of “social equality.” What had changed? “Now that they are free and receiving the enlightenment of education,” the freedpeople were seen as a threat to the social order of white supremacy and “not entitled to the protection of society,” according to critics of the bill.[7]

“These Few Precepts in Thy Memory,” a political cartoon about the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by artist Thomas Nast, 1875. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

Unlike many of his white contemporaries, Hays acknowledged that the South—indeed, even his own remarkable fortune—had been built on the backs of the enslaved. They had “molded our fortunes, built our railroads, erected our palatial mansions, and toiled for our bread” without compensation. Similar to other Lost Cause proponents at the time, Hays celebrated the “faithful slaves” (including his own) who stayed on plantations and refused to run away during the Civil War. But he again differed from prevailing notions by expressing his sincere “debt of gratitude to them” and stressing the importance of righting a historic wrong. In supporting civil rights, Hays pledged to do his part to “pay the debt” that had been incurred through generations of unrequited toil for the benefit of himself and his ancestors. He concluded his speech by pointing out that the white south’s continued resistance to federal authority was largely responsible for the creation of more civil rights legislation. They “would not listen to reason . . . [had] rushed blindly on in the wonted paths of prejudice and hate,” and failed to understand that “the past is gone, and the present is upon us.” Meeting the needs of the present ultimately meant granting “to our colored fellow-citizens every right that belongs to a freeman, and every privilege that is guaranteed them by the Constitution.”[8]

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed by Congress and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant following the death of Charles Sumner. It would be the last civil rights law passed by Congress until 1957. The law was poorly enforced and widely criticized, however, and in 1883 the Supreme Court declared in the Civil Rights Cases that the law was unconstitutional. The court held that the federal government only had the authority to ban acts of discrimination by state and local governments, not private individuals and business owners.[9] Nevertheless, the legacy of Charles Hays’s words would endure and his arguments were utilized in future fights for civil rights in America.


[1] Allen Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 88-89.

[2] “The Negro in Congress,” The Conservative, June 3, 1870; U.S. House of Representatives, “Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood – Legislative Interests,” U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, accessed August 2, 2018,

[3] William Warren Rogers, Jr., Black Belt Scalawag: Charles Hays and the Southern Republicans in the Era of Reconstruction (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993), 1-13.

[4] Rogers, 14-44.

[5] Rogers, 62-64.

[6] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[7] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096 (1874).

[8] 43 Cong. Rec. 1096-1097 (1874).

[9] The provision banning racial discrimination in public education was removed from the final version of the bill. For the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, see Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). The full text of the decision can be seen at Harvard University, “Civil Rights Cases (1883),” 2018, accessed August 3, 2018.

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

Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Home rule, defined as the gaining of political autonomy, is usually associated with the struggle for autonomy in Ireland. Twice defeated, the Irish Republic claimed its independence before home rule took effect.[1] While the British debated home rule in 1886 and 1893, the U.S. South was working toward its own version of what may be seen as home rule. Removing the final vestiges of Reconstruction, former slave states had assumed internal control over social, political, and racial matters by 1900, with the Supreme Court’s affirmation of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the virtual elimination of African American voting in the South thanks to poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.

Where a comparison between Ireland and the U.S. South may seem fruitful, I want to instead suggest Hungary as an intriguing comparison of home rule’s implementation. In both countries, racial or ethnic groups assumed control by embracing racially or ethnically exclusionary policies. A comparison of these home rule experiences will help historians gain a better understanding of some of the racial and political problems associated with the failures of post civil war reconciliation.

Like the separatism of the southern states, Hungary had resented Austrian/Habsburg rule and had rebelled in 1848.[2] Their failure to gain their independence had placed Hungary at the mercy of the Austrians. However, Austria’s fortune declined as a result of diplomatic faux pas during the Crimean War and military setbacks against the Italian-French alliance in 1859, and again with the Prussian-Italian alliance of 1866. Nevertheless, like the former Confederate states during Congressional Reconstruction, Austria still ruled Hungary directly during the early 1860s, removing much political autonomy.[3]

Realizing the unsustainability of such direct governments, in 1864, the Austrian legislature (the Reichsrat) determined an accommodation with the Magyar (a Hungarian ethnic group) was in order, which would require major concession to the Hungarians.[4] This was a situation similar to the southern states, where the end of Reconstruction meant the slow abandonment of African Americans and the restoration of political power to white elites.

Ödön Tull’s Coronation of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth as King and Queen of Hungary on June 8, 1867. Courtesy of

Similar to the political compromise of 1877 in the United States, on July 18, 1866, Emperor Franz Josef invited the prominent Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák to Vienna to search for a compromise solution. The negotiations were successful and on February 17, 1867, the Hungarian parliament received permission to restore the historic Constitution of 1848, with some modifications. Hungary now had its own ministry, responsible to the Hungarian parliament.[5]

This compromise measure, called the Ausgleich, meant that henceforth Franz Josef ruled over Austria-Hungary: two states, two crowns, united in his person. Hungary contributed to the joint army and budget, but was independent in its domestic affairs. The Ausgleich was effectively an agreement between two “equal semi-sovereign states.”[6] The Austrian state had undergone dramatic constitutional revisions, similar to the United States as a result of the Reconstruction amendments and the reenvisioning of its constitutional relationship.[7]

In contrast to the U.S. South where home rule went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of African Americans and Jim Crow segregation, Hungarians first instituted home rule and then used that newfound power to implement ethnically exclusionary policies. Hungary embarked on a policy of Magyarization by preventing non-Magyar minorities from accessing politic power. Hungary’s voting population, divided into fifty different categories and electoral districts, were gerrymandered to benefit the ruling Magyar class, very similar to the modern electoral maps of the United States. Even though less than half of Hungary’s population was Magyar, they occupied 90 percent of the parliamentary seats.[8] Gerrymandering districts to benefit ethnic or racial groups, and creating ethnic or racial categories to disenfranchise people, are tactics that were employed (and still are employed) with similar effect in the states of the former Confederacy.

However, ethnic or racial oppression did not end with disenfranchisement. The United States embraced an extensive system of racial oppression, and by the time of the Great War, Hungary had gained the reputation of being the Völkerkerker (dungeon of people) of Europe. Just like white Southerners, Magyar were under the assumption they were a “master race” superior to the backward “Slavic” people, who were mostly peasants.[9] However, there was a difference. Hungary created an environment in which people could shed their ethnic identity and take on the Magyar identity to become a full part of society. In contrast, most African Americans could not change their racial status to white. However, the principle of exclusion based on superiority racial superiority was the same.

At the same time that Jim Crow laws took effect and Southern states worked on gaining home rule,[10] the Hungarian home rule government forcefully implemented Magyarization. By 1880, Magyar instruction was compulsory. Telegraph and postal service exclusively operated using the Magyar language. The Magyar elite suppressed “any political or social movement which challenged the hegemonic position of the Magyar ruling classes.”[11] The main difference to the U.S. South was that Magyarization followed the granting of home rule rather than being part of the assumption of power.

Another point of comparison is commemorative. By the 1890s, irreconcilable Kossuthists had emerged and demanded once more the independence of Hungary.[12] The Ausgleich had been an unacceptable outcome for the old revolutionary leaders. Lajos Kossuth remained committed to independence and had not acknowledged the legitimacy of this compromise government. Just as Confederate veterans and emblems offered a rallying point for segregationists in the 1960s, Kossuth offered a symbol for those opposed to the legitimate government of Hungary and Austria.[13] Kossuth had not accepted Franz Josef as emperor, just like some Southerners never accepted defeat in the Civil War.

Funeral procession for Lajos Kossuth in Budapest, April 1, 1894, reprinted in Zeffiro Ciuffoletti, Das Reich der Habsburger 1848-1918 – Photographien aus der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie (Vienna, Austria: Verlag Christian Brandstätter, 2001).

Somewhat comparable to the twenty-thousand residents who wished farewell to Jefferson Davis in New Orleans five years earlier, when Kossuth died hundreds of thousands participated in funeral parades around the country, among them veterans of the 1848 struggle with their ragged battle flags.[14] Politician Julius Justh gave a powerful eulogy for Kossuth, saying “In Louis Kossuth, we mourn one of the greatest, most honorable, and most selfless figures of history. He is not only our dead, but the dead of humanity . . . for the services of Kossuth were larger, worldwide in significance, immortal.”[15] Southerners could hardly have stated the importance of their cause and leaders any better. Just like Confederate veterans who accomplished more off the battlefield and in death, so too did Kossuth achieve more in death as a symbol of resistance than he every did alive.

When the United States disintegrated into separatist rebellion, the country faced a deadly struggle that did not end in 1865. As white southerners reasserted their political, social, and economic influence, they removed protections and benefits from the African American community to create a white supremacist environment, culminating with statues to Confederates, Jim Crow segregation, and the exclusion of African Americans from the polls. By 1900, the U.S. South had gained home rule. Like the U.S. South, Hungary experienced a separatist rebellion in 1848. By 1867, Hungary gained home rule in the Ausgleich. Just like the racism permeating the Southern states, so too did the Hungarians embrace a conviction of racial superiority that lead to a vigorous Magyarization campaign. While oppression and home rule in the United States lasted until the 1960s, and arguably are still ongoing, the Great War changed everything for Hungary, though it did not end its xenophobic, supremacist attitude. A comparison of these two home rule situations illustrates the failures of post-Civil War reconciliation within the transatlantic state system.


[1] Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998).

[2] See István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians 1848-1849 (London: Phoenix Press, 2001).

[3] For more, see Gregory P. Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[4] Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (London: Routledge, 1998), 338.

[5] Arthur J. May, The Habsburg Monarchy: 1867-1914 (1951; New York: Norton Library, 1968), 34-35.

[6] Edward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1963; New York: Penguin, 1983), 239-240, 294.

[7] See recent Muster posts on the Fourteenth Amendment by Christopher Bonner, Andrew Diemer, Hilary Green, Aaron Astor, and Martha S. Jones; all links appear in the introduction, Martha S. Jones, “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9, 2018,

[8] Bideleux and Jeffries, History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (New York: Routledge, 1998), 364-365; May, 42-43.

[9] Crankshaw, 298.

[10] See Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, eds., The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (Arlington: University of Texas, 2012).

[11] Bideleux and Jeffries, 363, 367; May, 261-262, 374.

[12] May, 267.

[13] John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).

[14] Donald E. Collins, The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).

[15] May, 346-347.

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.

Long Haired Sixties Radicals

Long Haired Sixties Radicals

Louisa was fifteen when the revolution began, and her enthusiasm was undimmed when she wrote her memoirs sixty years later. She recalled the spectacle: houses illuminated with candles, bells ringing, tar barrels burning, flags waving. Most of all, she remembered the people. “I can never forget how those men used to look standing on some impromptu platform,” she wrote, “with the wild light of the bonfires on their faces, and their hair which men wore longer in those days, blown back from their faces by the wind, or the energy of their own movements.” Their vitality still thrilled her: “such light in their eyes! So much hope and so much courage.”[1]

These stirring scenes might evoke a campus protest in 1968, but they came from South Carolina in December 1860. Louisa McCord Smythe was the daughter of writer and lawyer David J. McCord and Louisa McCord, an accomplished author, fierce proslavery theorist, and ardent secessionist. Smythe’s recollection reminds us that secession was especially popular among younger southern whites.[2] It demonstrates that although secession was a defensive, reactionary move, it also inspired hope among those who saw the Confederacy as what historian Michael T. Bernath has termed a “moment of possibility” – an opportunity for change of all sorts, from improving women’s education to stemming the tide of democracy.[3]

“Edmund Rubbin [i.e., Edmund Ruffin].” Born in 1794, Edmund Ruffin was an early and vocal proponent of secession and fired one of the war’s first shots in April 1861. Although much older than many other long-haired secessionists, Ruffin’s hairstyle marked his identification with their cause. As the Confederacy collapsed around him in 1865, the luxuriantly-maned fire-eater committed suicide. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It also illuminates a largely neglected visual signature of secessionist politics, a hirsutal affirmation of everything Smythe’s neighbors were celebrating: long hair.

Trimmed, wavy hair was fashionable for white men in late antebellum America, so those with longer locks stood out.[4] Not all were fire-eating disunionists, of course, but during and after the 1860-1861 secession crisis, particularly in cities along the troubled Union-Confederate border, long hair marked the class, section, and ideology associated with secession. From Virginia to Arkansas, secessionists, many in their twenties and thirties, sent a political message just as powerful as that of a century later. In the 1960s, long hair signaled a provocative, bodily challenge to behavioral norms and political elites.[5] In the 1860s, secessionists’ long hair made a comparably defiant statement, albeit on behalf of preserving, not subverting, the South’s peculiar social and political hierarchies. Unionists and secessionists alike identified long-haired men as members of the “chivalry”: the notoriously radical and vehemently proslavery southern elite. The image became a stereotype familiar to reporters, law enforcement officers, and anyone seeking to clarify regional difference.

Northerners regularly associated long hair with southerners, especially those of elevated rank and extreme politics. In his autobiography, Bostonian Charles Francis Adams, Jr., recalled that Lucius Q.C. Lamar, a fierce secessionist congressman from Mississippi, “looked the Southern college professor – lank, tall, bearded, long-haired, and large-featured.”[6] A newspaper correspondent covering Abraham Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration described the audience as a massive crowd of “old and young, of male and female,” with “but few Southerners, judging from the lack of long haired men in the crowd.”[7] A wartime passenger on an Ohio River steamboat looked askance at a “very Southern looking young man with long hair, and an extensive display of very suspicious looking jewelry,” who was denouncing Lincoln as a racial egalitarian.[8] To a Union prisoner of war, Confederates in Charleston were “long haired secession devils.”[9] Perhaps no one epitomized the secessionist image better than Roger A. Pryor, a Virginia politician and newspaper editor who traveled to South Carolina to press for an immediate attack on Fort Sumter in hopes that this would propel his own state out of the Union. Contemporaries regarded the long-haired and heavily armed Virginian as “the very embodiment of Southern chivalry.”[10]

Roger Atkinson Pryor, 1828-1919. A generation younger than Ruffin, Roger A. Pryor was an equally ardent secessionist who worked as a newspaper editor and diplomat before serving in Congress and later in the Confederate Army. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Authors used the long-haired secessionist image to spice their narratives or vent their anger, but for Unionists who risked imprisonment or execution to ferret out information along the dangerous border, identifying friends and foes was deadly serious. Albert D. Richardson, a New York Tribune correspondent who was later captured and then escaped from a Confederate prison camp, read Kentuckians’ loyalties in their appearance – including their hair. The “sinewy, long-limbed mountaineers” passing through Louisville were likely on their way from eastern Kentucky to Indiana to enlist in the Union army, while the “pale, long-haired young men” heading the other direction were obviously Confederate recruits.[11]

Hairstyles even offered vital clues to Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who uncovered a plot to assassinate president-elect Lincoln when he passed through Baltimore en route to Washington in early 1861. Pinkerton recalled that Barnum’s Hotel was the “favorite resort” of Baltimore’s southern sympathizers, and he identified them by their hair. During the evenings, “the corridors and parlors would be thronged by the tall, lank forms of the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests.”[12]

“The rebel chivalry as the fancy of ‘My Maryland’ painted them; as ‘My Maryland’ found them.” This cartoon was printed in the pro-Union magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1862. It mocks the ostensibly exaggerated pretensions of the secessionist “chivalry” and depicts two stereotyped images: the secessionist as flowing-haired cavalier and the secessionist as mangy ruffian. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Pinkerton believed that the plot’s mastermind was Cypriano Ferrandini, a Corsican barber who worked in the hotel basement. Allegedly, Ferrandini had proclaimed that the “hireling Lincoln shall never, never be President,” and declared his readiness to die “for the rights of the South and to crush out the abolitionist.” Pinkerton depicted Ferrandini as “a fitting representative of so desperate a cause,” complete with “black eyes flashing with excitement, his sallow face pale and colorless and his long hair brushed fiercely back from his low forehead.”[13] Ferrandini was never charged with a crime, but Lincoln passed through Baltimore under cover of night to evade his long-haired would-be assassins.

From flappers’ bobbed hair to the forced haircuts inflicted at Indian boarding schools, hairstyles are closely tied to our identities and our ideals. After the Civil War, secessionists’ hairstyles were largely forgotten, though they are echoed in the southern outlaw image which, like other recent long-haired figures, emerged in the 1960s.[14] Ironically, the style of the chivalry was reborn among the rural working class.

[1] “Louisa McCord Smyth Recollection,” South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

[2] Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974); Henry James Walker, “Henry Clayton and the Secession Movement in Alabama,” Southern Studies 4, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 341-360.

[3] Michael T. Bernath, “The Confederacy as a Moment of Possibility,” Journal of Southern History 79, no. 2 (May 2013): 299-338; John F. Kvach, De Bow’s Review: The Antebellum Vision of a New South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[4] Amy D. Scarborough, “Hairstyles and Head Wear, 1820-1859,” in José Blanco F., ed., Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, 4 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016), II, 151-152.

[5] David Farber, The Sixties: From Memory to History, new ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 274-276, 281-282; Gael Graham, “Flaunting the Freak Flag: Karr v. Schmidt and the Great Hair Debate in American High Schools, 1965-1975,” Journal of American History 91, no. 2 (September 2004): 522-543.

[6] Charles Francis Adams, Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), 47.

[7] “Inauguration Ceremonies of the President Elect,” Cadiz (OH) Democratic Sentinel, March 13, 1861.

[8] Silas, “From ‘Down the River,’” Evansville (IN) Journal, December 24, 1862.

[9] Charles D. Duncan to Dear Father and Mother, March 31, 1865, in John E. Duncan, “The Correspondence of a Yankee Prisoner in Charleston,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 75, no. 4 (October 1974), 220.

[10] “Glorious Defense of Sumter!!” New York Tribune, April 19, 1861.

[11] Albert Deane Richardson, The Secret Service: The Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1865), 164.

[12] Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1884), 59.

[13] Ibid., 63-64.

[14] Kirk Hutson, “Hot ‘N’ Nasty: Black Oak Arkansas and Its Effect on Rural Southern Culture,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1995), 185-211.

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 Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

Today we share the first Field Dispatch from our latest addition to the correspondent team, Angela Esco Elder. Angela is an Assistant Professor of History at Converse College in South Carolina. She is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate widowhood for publication; her dissertation won the SHA C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize and St. George Tucker Society’s Melvin E. Bradford Dissertation Prize. Elder recently published a co-edited collection, Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. On Muster, she will be writing on women’s history and gender history topics.

Todd Heisler, “Final Salute” series, 2008. Courtesy of the New York Times.

On July 7, 2018, numerous headlines informed the public of a “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan.”[1] The statement came just days after our Facebook feeds filled with Fourth of July red, white, and blue, with videos of fireworks, coordinated family outfits, and patriotic inspiration posted in abundance. Not long before that, Memorial Day brought its share of American flag memes and quotes about soldiers’ sacrifices. Summer holidays offer a powerful reminder that American freedom is intertwined with American death. Yet, even as we offer our condolences and prayers to the families of fallen heroes, the national narrative often remains on the one who gave “the ultimate sacrifice.” We focus on the deceased soldiers. We print their stories. What about those loved ones, who are sentenced to life?

When I started graduate school, I found myself drawn to stories of loss in the Civil War, sifting through letters tucked away in archives across the South. This was not a topic I expected to fall into. I blame Stephen Berry and John Inscoe, who sent me into the University of Georgia archives to find a seminar topic. The Special Collections in Athens weren’t as fancy as they are now. Back then, the archives existed in a room tucked away in a dated corner of the library, walls overburdened with artifacts, sunlight catching the dust as it floated lazily through the air. Or perhaps that’s the nostalgia of a first archival experience speaking. Either way, in I walked, wanting to read something about women and the Civil War. I have since come up with theory-laden scholarly justifications to support this pursuit, but at the time, the honest truth was that I was just interested in it. I loved stories. I loved writing. I was curious what the war was like for women and had no idea there was already a vast amount of scholarship behind it. So, I began reading through boxes of correspondence.

At some point in that first week, I stumbled across the story of William and Rosa Delony. I had just walked past the location of their Athens home that morning, now a downtown parking lot. They had a summer wedding in 1854. When Will left to fight for the Confederacy, they had three children under the age of four. I fell into their letters, a quiet conversation of paper and ink. They bore the separation as well as they could, focusing on the future, but the couple had their challenges. On his ninth wedding anniversary, Will found himself in Gordonsville, Virginia, miles from Georgia with a “longing for home makes my army life almost insupportable.”[2] What Rosa didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize, was that I was holding one of his last letters.

Telegraph to Mrs. P. Stovall, October 6, 1863. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Archives.

I flipped the page and the next thing in the folder was a smaller slip of paper, a telegram to a neighbor with the instructions, “on account of her condition, break the news to Mrs. Deloney as best you can.” Will had received a mortal wound in his left thigh. He died in a Union hospital. Rosa was eight months pregnant with their fourth child. And then there was me, 150 years later, sitting in this uncomfortable metal chair, holding a smudged wisp of paper that changed a family’s life.

But the story didn’t end with this telegram, or with Will’s death. There was more in the box. Rosa had her baby, a girl, in November 1863, and turned her attention to bringing her husband’s body home. She wanted his remains in Georgia with her, to have a place to visit and mourn. Then, in July 1866, that final daughter, now a toddler, died of whooping cough.

Delony family plot in the Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Courtesy of the author.

Two months later, Rosa buried Will’s body beside this tiny grave. In 1863, Will had not been able to contain his excitement as he planned a trip home to Georgia for Christmas and the birth of his child. Now, he lay beside her in the Oconee Hill Cemetery. If Rosa could have chosen, she would not have planned for this chain of events. But at least now, in the midst of her uncertain future, one thing was certain. Will was finally home with his child. This was the first time I really thought about what it meant for women to live through and beyond the Civil War.

Certainly, she wasn’t the only one to live through a loss. At the Georgia Historical Society, I read a January 30, 1865, letter from a wife to her husband, who served in Company H, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops:

I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why dont you write to me and let me hear some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you…relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you…[3]

This letter was found close to a body at the site of the Battle of Natural Bridge, in Florida.

At the Kentucky Historical Society, I spent time with a letter between Lucinda Helm and her daughter-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm, dated October 21, 1863:

My son, my son, my first born, my first born, my pride, my hope – Oh this wicked war of oppression—I know he died gloriously fighting for the freedom of his country but I can not feel that…the loss of my child, my darling son, how can I out live him?[4]

Lucinda’s son died during the Battle of Chickamauga. She would live another twenty-three years without him.

At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I picked up the letter of farmer Asa V. Ladd, dated October 29, 1864:

My dear wife and children, I take my pen with trembling hand to inform you that I have to be shot between 2 and 4 o’clock this evening. I have but a few hours to remain in this unfriendly world. There is 6 of us sentenced to die in room of 6 union soldiers that was shot by Reeves men. My dear wife dont grieve after me. I want you to meet me in heaven. I want you to teach the children piety…I must bring my letter to a close leaving you in the hands of God. I send you my best love and respect in the hour of death…good-by Amy.[5]

Surrounded by several hundred spectators, Asa was tied to a post, blindfolded, and shot at 3:00 p.m. This letter serves as yet another reminder of a woman who lived through and beyond the Civil War.

Many scholars have moments like this, stories that grab them, shake them, and demand attention. We spend months and years of our lives with these characters and stories. And they change us. When I read a news bulletin about warfare or refugees or disease or famine, I now think of the women within and behind these stories. Instinctively, many historians search for the absent voices, the underrepresented voices, the voices not invited to the table. For those of us who teach, we often ask our students after lectures or readings, “Why does this matter? What is the significance of this event? What is the big picture?” I’ve heard it said that the death of a single Civil War soldier is like a stone dropped in a pond, sending out ripples. But I don’t just want to study the stone, I want the story of the pond. Throw in a handful of stones, perhaps 750,000 or so, and well, welcome to the world of Civil War studies.


[1] “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan,” BBC News, July 7, 2018, accessed July 9, 2018,

[2] William Delony to Rosa Delony, May 14, 1863, Delony Family Papers, Hargrett Special Collections, University of Georgia Archives, Athens, Georgia.

[3] C. Ann Butler to William Butler, January 30, 1865, C. Ann Butler Letter, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia.

[4] Lucinda Helm to Emilie Todd Helm, October 21, 1863, Helm Family Papers, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Asa V. Ladd (Gratiot St. Prison in St. Louis), to wife, October 29, 1864, Asa V. Ladd Papers, 1864, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

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.

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Post Office, Mooresville, Alabama. The oldest post office in Alabama, this Mooresville structure dates to the early nineteenth century and exemplifies the humble but significant nodes of the postal network that connected antebellum Americans to each other – and to their government. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If your state seceded from the United States today, how would it first affect your daily life? Scholars typically study the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861 in terms of high politics, with the action unfolding in Washington and southern state capitals. For humbler residents of the seceding states, however, a distant convention did not necessarily make disunion a tangible reality. Instead, many literate white southerners first encountered the practical consequences of secession through the mail.

Historians have long noted that the Post Office was a primary connection between antebellum Americans and the federal government. “For many Americans of that time,” writes one scholar, “mail service was the only daily – or even regular – contact they had with their government. Indeed, in some of the country’s smaller settlements, the post office was the only manifestation of the federal government that people would ever come in direct contact with.”[1] One should not overstate this point: it would be difficult to convince a Cherokee survivor of the Trail of Tears, a post-1848 resident of California or New Mexico, or a fugitive slave captured after 1850, that the antebellum federal government was small and unobtrusive. But the Post Office theme does dramatize changes wrought by the Civil War, during which the federal government conscripted citizens, taxed incomes, and otherwise extended its reach. Less well-known, however, are the ways in which rituals of sending and receiving mail brought the reality of secession into routines of daily life.

Portrait of Postmaster-general John H. Reagan. John H. Reagan of Texas was the Confederacy’s first and only Postmaster-General. After fleeing from Richmond in 1865, Reagan was captured with Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials in Georgia on May 10. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

U.S. and Confederate policymakers knew that mail delivery was significant as both a public service and an expression of sovereign power. After February 1861, Confederate Postmaster-General John H. Reagan swiftly built a new postal system upon the foundation of the extant U.S. network, aided by postal clerks who brought skills – and all manner of blank forms and other bureaucratic supplies – with them from Washington. Local postmasters, route agents, and other personnel were directed to continue the work they had done under US authority. Reagan would be one of the Confederacy’s most capable cabinet-level officials.[2]

For his part, Abraham Lincoln vowed in his inaugural message to continue delivering the mail in the seceded states, unless such efforts were “repelled” by secessionist attacks.[3] This was part of Lincoln’s policy of maintaining normal relations with the seceded states so far as possible, and it was up to his Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, to execute Lincoln’s order. Anticipating trouble, however, Congress had already passed a law in February 1861 authorizing the discontinuance of service on routes where delivery was unsafe; eventually, under this authority, Blair suspended mail delivery in the seceded states (exempting the future state of West Virginia) in late May. Subsequently, mail addressed to a seceded state was routed to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, although later some carefully scrutinized letters did pass between the lines under flag of truce.[4]

The son of Francis Preston Blair, Montgomery Blair was born in Kentucky and spent much of his professional life as an attorney in Missouri and Maryland. Blair, a former Democrat, helped to organize the Republican Party in the mid-1850s and served as Lincoln’s Postmaster-General until September 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite the swift movements of Union and Confederate leaders, the situation on the ground was confusing and uncertain, particularly during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861. It was in these wrenching months that Americans first grappled with secession’s sometimes unexpected intrusions into previously mundane daily tasks.

Secession left southern postmasters – who in that era were political appointees, not trained professionals – in a precarious position. Customers continued to buy stamps and post letters, even as a collision between state and federal authorities seemed imminent. Rumors proliferated, and while attention fixated on federal forts (particularly Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina), there was talk of disrupted mail service, too. Knowing that this could leave them dangerously perched between competing sovereignties, postmasters sought guidance. James R. Gates, a postmaster in Mississippi, wrote to Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for counsel in mid-February. His state had seceded a month before, but he pleaded for assistance from a well-placed US senator who could offer insight into what president-elect Lincoln might do. “Let me know if the mails will be stoped [sic],” he asked, and “when it will take place.”[5]

Postal customers were similarly uneasy. Stephen W. Church, a northern-born merchant living in Charleston, wrote his uncle two weeks after South Carolina seceded to report that everything was “in a complete state of anarchy.” Exhibit A was the pending collapse of the mail system due to a shortage of postage stamps. The local supply had run out, and the Postmaster General had refused to resupply the city. “This of course is one of the least of the troubles,” Church admitted, “but it annoys me very much,” as he had struggled to find a single stamp for the letter to his uncle in New York.[6] For a displaced Yankee, life in Charleston was necessarily nerve-wracking, but the interruption of mail service threatened to isolate him entirely from sympathetic kin.

In secession’s immediate aftermath, addressing a letter sometimes brought home the magnitude of the moment. When Andrew McCollam penned a note to his wife the day after Louisiana’s state convention voted to secede, he dated it from the “Republic of Louisiana.” “From the above caption,” he solemnly reflected, “you will see and perhaps realise the fact that…you are no longer a citizen of our Glorious Republic of North America.” McCollam, a convention delegate, had tried to delay disunion but ultimately accepted that it was inevitable.[7] The gravity of his failure struck him when he first dated a letter from outside the United States.

Disunion was similarly vexing for those seeking to send mail into seceded states. In mid-November 1860, one Washington, DC, resident hastily scribbled a letter to South Carolina fire-eater William Porcher Miles, determined to mail the message before he would “be required to pay ‘foreign postage’ on a letter to Charleston.”[8]

Perhaps no one felt the disruption of mail delivery more keenly than Unionists who were also young and in love. John Wesley Halliburton, a Tennessean attending the University of North Carolina, regularly corresponded with his fiancée (and second cousin) Juliet Halliburton, who lived in Little Rock. Divided from her by distance and politics – Juliet was an avowed secessionist – John worried that disunion would halt mail delivery and permanently divide the star-crossed lovers. “No more to feel the joy which nothing but her letters or presence can inspire,” he lamented. “No more can you render me perfectly happy by telling me you love me….I among the first will suffer from the dissolution of this mighty fabric.” For the lovesick Halliburton, isolation from Juliet would likely be among the “first fruits of that disastrous course” pursued by secessionists.[9]

Envelope Showing Confederate Flag, addressed to Miss Lou Taylor, c. 1861-1865. Patriotic stationery flourished in the Union and Confederacy alike, allowing partisans on both sides to affirm their political loyalties whenever they wrote a letter. This interesting envelope bears the image of the Confederacy’s first national flag, but the recipient lived in Ohio. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In time, however, Unionists and Confederates alike soon found that the mail could also reaffirm new political identities. Hence the abundance of patriotic stationery, emblazoned with flags, slogans, martial imagery, and portraits of national heroes.[10] By using these items, partisans on both sides could express their national loyalties every time they mailed a letter. Some of these nationalistic materials crossed the lines; one can only imagine what Lou Taylor of Cincinnati thought if and when she received the envelope bearing a Confederate flag. Unless she was a displaced rebel, this letter reflects the continued desire to correspond with friends and family living on the other side of the Civil War’s bloody chasm. Thus, whether it ran smoothly or ground to a halt, the mail offered daily reminders that the hard hand of war touched every aspect of life.


[1] Bruce T. Harpham, “Postal Service, U.S.,” in The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History, ed. Christopher G. Bates, 4 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2015), III, 836. See also Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 5; Adam I. P. Smith, The American Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 5; and James McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Walter Flavius McCaleb, “The Organization of the Post-Office Department of the Confederacy,” American Historical Review 12, no. 1 (October 1906): 66-74.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address,” The American Presidency Project, accessed June 4, 2018,

[4] Report of the Postmaster General Respecting the Operations and Condition of the Post Office Department during the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1861 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861), 10; Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 107-116.

[5] James R. Gates to Stephen A. Douglas, February 19, 1861, Box 39, Folder 4, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[6] Stephen W. Church to Thomas J. Coggeshall, January 3, 1861, Stephen W. Church Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[7] Andrew McCollam to Ellen McCollam, January 27, 1861, Andrew McCollam Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[8] [?] Nelson to William Porcher Miles, November 18, 1860, William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[9] John Halliburton to Juliet Halliburton, February 12, 1861, John Wesley Halliburton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[10] See Stephen W. Berry, “When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865,” Southern Cultures 4, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63-83.

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.

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

A certain cohort of the baby boomer generation—boys born between the late 1940s and mid-1950s—spent their high school years wondering if they would be drawn into the Vietnam War. With older brothers, neighbors, and older friends anxiously awaiting their lottery numbers; with the nightly news and weekly news magazines providing images of the bloody and frustrating fighting a world away; and with no clear end in sight, most young boys spent their adolescence wondering if they would end up at the sharp end of war.

Those same forebodings or yearnings no doubt shaped the lives of Civil War-era teenagers, virtually all of whom would have had a family member or close neighbor in the army. In the Confederacy, almost complete mobilization occurred; in the United States, although the percentage of males of military age who served was closer to 40 percent, 81 percent of boys born in 1844 joined the Union army.[1]

Newark High School, c. 1860s. Courtesy of the Barringer High School Alumni Association.

A few boys—just a year or two younger than that martial cohort—attending Newark High School in New Jersey worked through their thoughts and some of their fears in the pages of the Athenaeum, a hand-written school paper published during the war. It was the second iteration of the paper. The “old Athenaeum,” as the current editors called it, had been born at the beginning of the conflict, but much had changed since then, and it was impossible for these men-in-the-making to ignore the war. At least a few of the original editors had actually gone off to war; one was an officer in the Army of the Potomac. An editorial in May 1864 remarked that the number of boys at school had dropped by half. “What makes this change[?] War! War!.” Some had joined the army but others had gone into business to replace older brothers and fathers. “They are no more,” continued the editorial in sentimental wartime rhetoric, “the vacant seats seem to proclaim.”[2]

The boys produced a few short pieces of romantic fiction, poems, and a few strained jokes (although a humorous piece on “Shaving” effectively chided fifteen and sixteen-year-olds for thinking that the “fuzz’ they managed to grow on their lips or chins earned them the right to shave every Sunday). But the bulk of the articles are painfully sincere (but also rather pompous) essays on “Perfection,” Success,” “Faithfulness,” “Home,” “Revenge,” “Perseverance,” and, somewhat improbably, “First Baby.” In the way of nineteenth century writing for young adults, most are aspirational, and they reflect both a nostalgia for childhood and a certain amount of angst about making a living in the world.[3]

At the same time, they were clearly processing their concerns about the war. Numerous pieces dealt with the war; like the juvenile magazines they seemed to be using as models of style and content, they approached the war as a source of inherently interesting news, as a fundamental threat to the nation, and as a chance to demonstrate political loyalty and masculine values. A story that could easily have been published in The Student or Schoolmate or Our Young Folks or any other juvenile magazine from the period told a typical tale of a soldier training, fighting, being captured, and escaping from Libby Prison—but this time, through a story told from the point of view of his boot![4]

A typical page from the Athenaeum. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

But a close reading of the boys’ essays reveal the fact that they are preparing themselves for the possibility of fighting. They describe hardships, but frame the war as survivable. They acknowledge the terrible sacrifices made by many soldiers but present those sacrifices as necessary for the greater good. Throughout, they balance fear with loyalty, loss with the benefit of Union, and hardship with motivation.

Although a few essays employed humor, most were dead serious. A piece on “Courage” equated moral courage with the kind of courage that “enable[d] men to encounter difficulties and dangers with firmness or without fear,” while a Christmas editorial acknowledged the joys of the season—including a welcome break from school—but urged readers not to forget “the poor soldiers . . . fighting the enemies of our country and enduring hardships to save our much-loved Union and secure freedom to all.” A reflection on “The Soldier” acknowledged that life in the army inevitably led to dissolution and sin, but also deserved our sympathy and gratitude.[5]

In a piece called “Blighted Hopes,” the boys indicated they understood the personal stake each American had in the conflict. “Thousands have died on the field of carnage,” it began. “Thousands in whose bosoms have been kindled some high some noble flame aspiring to some great object of which the power of their imagination has enabled them almost to obtain a sweet fore-sight rising up before them like some luminous orb in the far off future.” They died doing their duty, which could be a “hard master.” Some men survive the “leaden hail of the enemy” and return to happy homes, where family members wept tears of joy. But in other homes, where loved ones have failed to return safely, “vacant chairs seem to proclaim to us in loud accents, ‘Blighted Hopes.’” Widows and orphans mourn fallen husbands and fathers’ “war is indeed dashing down the anticipations of many.”[6]

The editors featured sentimental domesticity in a number of articles and a few drawings. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

A poem published in May 1864 tried to imagine the war ending, when, even as the last victims of the war were being buried and their widows began to mourn them, surviving soldiers march home: “The soldiers are coming,/from carnage and gore./They come to their homes,/to be happy once more./They have tasted the hardships,/and dangers of war;/they have learned to know well,/what soldiers are for.” A few months earlier, another poem, “The Dying Soldier,” captured with unusual poignancy—if little literary flair—the conflict between the individual tragedies of soldiers’ deaths and the necessity of those deaths in winning the war. The poem features the thoughts of a dying soldier, who understands that news of his death would break many hearts but understands that it really didn’t matter: “He thought of the tears,/Twould be shed ‘ore his fate,/he thought of the hearts,/that for him would await./It mattered but little,/he was but one./One soldier was naught;/Victory was won.”[7]

The somewhat war-weary and knowing tone of many of the essays and poems in the Athenaeum show teenaged boys, assuming—fearing—that they would eventually play their parts in the war that had been raging for most of their adolescence. They sought to create credibility, to begin to prepare for something they may have instinctively known they could never prepare themselves for, to understand the causes and reasons that the war had to be fought, to talk themselves into thinking that they would be ready when the call came.


[1] Dora L. Costa, The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198.

[2] Newark High School Athenaeum, October 1863; May 1864, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ.

[3] Athenaeum, April 1864. For a short overview of children’s magazines, see James Marten, “For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Northern Children’s Magazines and the Civil War,” Civil War History 41 (March 1995): 57-75.

[4] Athenaeum, April 1864.

[5] Athenaeum, October 1863; December 1863; April 1864.

[6] Athenaeum, June 1864.

[7] Athenaeum, May 1864; December 1863.

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.

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

In one of his final acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama utilized the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Reconstruction Era National Monument (REER) in Beaufort, South Carolina, as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) on January 12, 2017. Like many historians of the Civil War era, I was thrilled to hear that the NPS would finally have a site dedicated to interpreting the Reconstruction era on its own terms. For public history, no longer would Reconstruction exist only as a brief interpretive footnote or be simply ignored at a Civil War history site. Finally, Americans from all backgrounds would get to see a tangible representation of a greatly misunderstood era in this country’s history; a time in which dynamic changes to America’s political, social, and economic life transformed the country after the Civil War.[1]

The Old Beaufort Fire House will function as the Visitor Center for Reconstruction Era National Monument when it opens to the public. Courtesy of the Reconstruction Era National Monument, National Park Service.

Given the significance of this event for the future of Civil War era history, it came as a great surprise and a high honor when I was asked in April 2017 to manage REER’s social media accounts. Over the next year I created more than 250 Facebook and Twitter posts dedicated to interpreting Reconstruction. With these posts I aimed to discuss significant events and people from the era, the historiography of Reconstruction, and why Beaufort is a remarkable symbol of Reconstruction’s enduring significance. I tried to move beyond common stories of allegedly corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags towards posts about African Americans, women, Native American Indians, and others. My overarching goal was to portray Reconstruction as a fluid, dynamic era that was in some ways the country’s first civil rights movement.[2]

It is hard to determine the true success of these social media posts. Counting the number of likes, retweets, and reactions is one way to measure success, but it is tough to determine if those reacting to the posts actually do anything beyond the act of tapping their phone screen. Do they mention REER to a friend in polite conversation, go to the library to read about Reconstruction, or make plans to travel to South Carolina to learn about the Civil War era?[3] What I do know is that by the end of my experience this past April, REER’s Facebook page had more than 1,100 followers and its Twitter page had more than 700 followers.

In the course of my work I learned a lot about interpreting history on social media. I believe some of the strategies I developed for REER’s social media posts can be relevant for others looking to create compelling social media posts about the history of the Civil War era. What follows are three takeaways for interpreting the past on social media.

Build alliances with like-minded historical sites: When I began working for REER I received valuable assistance from Chris Barr and Emmanuel Dabney, two talented public historians working at NPS Civil War battlefields. They helped REER during its early months and started using the #ParkSpotlight hashtag to highlight other NPS units with connections to the Reconstruction era. I found this to be a useful strategy in a number of ways. For one, it gives credit to and celebrates the work of other NPS units working to interpret the Civil War era. Equally important, by tagging these sites in our posts, we made them aware of REER’s social media presence. For instance, I highlighted places like Nicodemus National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, and Appomattox National Historical Park while working for REER.

Know your platform and always share interesting photos and links: One of the most important realizations I made during this experience is that one cannot assume that all social media platforms have the same user base. Facebook is most heavily used by millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers; young people under twenty-one are much more likely to use Instagram and/or Twitter on a regular basis than Facebook. Conversely, Twitter is fun for emojis and GIF-based tweets, but it can be awkward to use those tools when creating Facebook posts.

No one wants to read a dissertation-length post on Facebook. Brevity is a virtue on social media. I found, however, that one- or two-paragraph FB posts received positive reactions from users.[4] A good example of a well-received post is the one below about Congressman Joseph Rainey.

Screenshot of Facebook post about Congressman Joseph Rainey for Reconstruction Era National Monument. Courtesy of the author.

In my opinion, there are three crucial keys to a good post, regardless of platform:

1.  An attractive picture that draws attention to the post.
2. Clear, concise text that is not overwhelming for readers.
3. When possible, provide clickable links for users to learn more. Whenever there exists a good article on a historical topic, direct readers to that article rather than trying to tell the whole story yourself. I am not an expert on all things Reconstruction; sometimes it’s best to highlight other historians and resources that can do an effective job of discussing a particular topic for users.

Establish a cohesive theme for your posts: About halfway through my experience I talked with historian Kate Masur—a leader in the effort to establish REER—about what I could do to improve my posts. She recommended that I develop a monthly theme to help guide the direction of my interpretations. It was a valuable idea that did much to boost the reach of my posts.

The most notable example occurred this past February. To celebrate Black History Month, I decided to highlight the experiences of fourteen African American men and women who were politically active in South Carolina during Reconstruction. On Facebook I wrote short descriptions for each individual that were posted throughout the month, while on Twitter I created a tweet thread that I periodically updated (you can see the thread here). Several individuals and organizations sent me messages saying how exciting it was to check their social media every morning to learn a new tidbit about the Reconstruction era.

A screenshot from Reconstruction Era National Monument’s Twitter page. Courtesy of the author.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War sesquicentennial was the use of social media as a medium for conversations about the Civil War’s legacy. No longer confined solely to the classroom or historical site, the stuff of the past is shared on the internet by historians and lay audiences alike on a literal minute-by-minute basis. Social media is already and will continue to be an active medium for the creation of historical knowledge and memories, but also for misinformation and myths. As historian and educator Kevin M. Levin points out, “the ease with which we can access and contribute to the web makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse. The internet is both a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion.”[5]

The work of managing social media at a Civil War era historic site may not be considered a top priority by a site’s leaders. Conducting historical research, crafting clear and concise language, and interpreting complex history in a roughly 100-word post is very time consuming. For public historians trying to balance on-site educational programming with social media outreach, establishing a consistent presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms can be difficult. But social media managers at these sites can play an important role in the sharing of accurate, fascinating, and even inspiring historical content if they make it a priority in their daily work.



[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument to Reconstruction,” New York Times, January 12, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018,; Sarah Jones Weicksel, “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction,” AHA Today, March 8, 2018, accessed May 29, 2018,

[2] In addition to standard overviews of Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Douglas Egerton, Eric Foner, and Heather Cox Richardson, I read the following books on Reconstruction in South Carolina: Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: Norton, 1973); Willie Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964); Lou Faulkner Williams, The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

[3] Reconstruction Era National Monument is not yet open to the public, reinforcing the importance of having a strong social media presence to provide contact info and assistance to those wanting to learn more about the site.

[4] Not all NPS social media managers agree with me, and I did receive some criticism for occasionally making my posts too long.

[5] Kevin M. Levin, “The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 6, 2016, accessed June 9, 2018,

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 Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

The 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference is in the books. Reconstruction-era scholars, museum professionals, and non-academics converged on the city of Charleston for an insightful and productive conference. Though the chronology debate remains unresolved, the 2018 CLAW conference was one of the most important conferences on Reconstruction in recent memory. With so many panels, plenaries, and public history events, I share a few highlights below.

Plenaries and roundtables served as generative spaces for discussing the issues, challenges, and opportunities for Reconstruction Studies. After the wonderful dedication of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 marker, the plenary on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction provided the opening salvo for the rest of the conference. Brian Kelley considered the work as the starting point for future directions of Reconstruction Studies. Heather Cox Richardson characterized the massive tome as a political document and a meditation. On the other hand, Thavolia Glymph offered the text as a call to action, indictment, and a monument to African Americans. Following this stimulating opening roundtable, Bruce Baker asked that we grapple with the major question of “Who was Reconstruction For?” in his keynote address. The Saturday plenary brought together Eric Foner, Kate Masur, Michael Allen, and other key individuals involved with the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. The remarks of Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort, South Carolina, drove home the site’s importance. It allows local residents, white and black, to “know the truth,” use history as a vehicle for reconciliation, and answer “why has Reconstruction been muted?”

Two intriguing panels explored the possibilities yielded from an international perspective of Reconstruction in the Atlantic World. These panels demonstrated some of the benefits of moving toward an international history of Reconstruction, to borrow from Don Doyle’s wonderful paper title. Comparative frameworks of slavery have been instructive for understanding the institutions, motivations of enslavers, modes of resistance, and even the experiences of the diverse enslaved communities. Can Reconstruction provide an appropriate comparative framework? Or does a Reconstruction framework have any utility for understanding its legacy within a global African Diaspora, as suggested by Alison McLetchie? Does an international perspective simply provide unintentional fodder to individuals desiring the overturn of current Reconstruction Studies toward a Neo-Dunning School? While I am not sure what this direction will do for the overall field of Reconstruction Studies, I know that these scholars are actively addressing this aspect of Luke Harlow’s introduction to the JCWE’s “Future of Reconstructions Studies” forum.[1]

After spending time with these non-academics throughout the 2018 CLAW conference, I renew my call to Reconstruction scholars to enter the fray of public engagement as we contemplate the future of Reconstruction Studies. Multi-disciplinary and intersectional narratives demonstrate our relevance to popular audiences. Public schools remain an important site in the struggle for creating a better society. Yet, our work does not reach the predominantly black and brown communities educated within the system. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates are addressing the needs of individuals who are seeking to correct their K-12 education and/or the misinformation circulating on the internet (i.e. Black Confederates and most recently, Kanye West). AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Muster blog, Twitter crowdsourced syllabi, digital humanities projects, and even the new Reconstruction Era National Monument are solid attempts to reach these audiences through accessible scholarship, advisory roles in exhibitions, documentaries and textbooks, public lectures, and writing the occasional op-ed. To echo Kidada Williams, the field of Reconstruction Studies requires “more narrative histories of African Americans in the whirlwinds of freedom” that span time and the “geographic divides while covering a variety of subjects for African Americans across the nation and world.”[3]

We, as Reconstruction scholars, must be intentional in our chronologies, audiences, and scholarship. The conference demonstrates the need as well as the rewards of historical consulting on museum exhibitions, public lectures outside of the ivory walls of the academy, and writing accessible scholarship. It is hard work. It is, however, necessary. The important question that must guides our reflection on the future of Reconstruction Studies is “whether or not we are ready and willing to come through.”[4]

Thanks to Adam Domby and other CLAW organizers for providing a space for new scholarship, approaches, and essential conversations for addressing the scope, content, and future directions of Reconstruction Studies. I am excited to see how these conversations turn into action whether its public engagement or engaging scholarship. In short, the Reconstruction confab in Charleston was a resounding success.

Now, the real work begins.


[1] Luke Harlow, “Introduction to Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, This forum also appeared in the March 2017 issue.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291.

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018,

[4] Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom.”


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).