Category: Muster

Author Interview: Bradley Proctor

Author Interview: Bradley Proctor

Today we share an interview with Bradley Proctor, who published an article in our September 2018 issue, “‘The K.K. Alphabet’: Secret Communication and Coordination of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas.” Bradley Proctor is a member of the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Originally from St. Louis, he has a B.A. in history from Bates College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is completing a book manuscript on the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction in North and South Carolina. Before teaching at Evergreen, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Brad. How did you get interested in the history of the KKK, and how did this project come to be?

Thank you so much for the opportunity. I became interested in the Ku Klux Klan because of a larger interest in racial oppression and racial equality in the United States after the Civil War. It has always struck me that Reconstruction brought an opportunity for something like real racial equality, at least in terms of political and civil rights. But by the turn of the twentieth century, white southern racists had constructed a whole new system of racial oppression with Jim Crow. I remain very interested in that wider history. Why did white southerners create a whole new system of racial oppression when afforded the opportunity to have a more equitable society? That question of why became entangled with a question about how. Obviously racial violence was a major way white southerners asserted white supremacy after emancipation—arguably the most significant way—and the KKK was responsible for some of the most awful and widespread racial violence in the South. So I wrote my dissertation on how the violence of the KKK worked to reshape racial oppression after emancipation. This article grew out of that dissertation research.

Many of our readers have read your article in our September 2018 issue, but we also have readers who do not subscribe to the journal. Can you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

The article is about a coded letter I discovered in the archives of the South Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina. Technically it is written in a cipher, not a code, as I soon learned the difference. I was able to decipher the letter because I found a key to the cipher in a book about the Klan in Tennessee, and it turns out that the letter was from a Klansman in North Carolina to his brother in South Carolina about the method of organizing Klan dens. From the bulk of the existing secondary literature, I had gotten the impression that Klan groups had no connections across state lines whatsoever, and that Klan groups were created locally, organically without any connection to the original group in Pulaski, Tennessee. All of a sudden this ciphered letter opened up a world of cross-state Klan organizing I hadn’t even thought existed. It caused me to read other sources in different ways. This article explores the story of the two brothers connected by the letter as a way for us to reassess how organized and connected the Klan was during Reconstruction.

As you say here, and again in the article itself, “this ciphered letter is an exceptional and unusual source” (460). Taking one source and parsing it, and placing it in appropriate context, must have been a fascinating—though challenging—experience. Could you talk a little about other primary sources and secondary sources you used to make sense of this cipher? In other words, how did you approach this research?

The ciphered letter was in an archival collection for Iredell Jones, the recipient of the letter. Jones kept a lot of other documents, including two orders from other Klan officers and a membership roll for his chapter of what they called the “Chester Conservative Clan”—obviously part of the KKK. So those documents provided more direct, immediate context for the ciphered letter. There was also a lot of correspondence to and from other family members, and this immediate family is fairly well documented. There is a second collection of Iredell’s family letters in the archives at Duke University, and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina houses a manuscript collection for one of Iredell’s brothers. Furthermore, there is a lot of documentation about the nineteenth century Klan. Opposition to the Klan led to lots of contemporary documentation of efforts to suppress the violence its members committed, including state and federal trials and many testimonies people gave to a congressional investigatory committee. So I spent a lot of time piecing together primary sources about the KKK in the Carolinas with the particulars of the Jones brothers. And fortunately there are really wonderful secondary sources about the Klan during Reconstruction, including recent books by Elaine Frantz and Hannah Rosen, and classic works by Allen Trelease and Richard Zuczek.[1]

That’s more documentation about this family than I would have expected, and it does make the research and writing process easier if you have a number of primary sources to work from. That said, what were the primary challenges that you faced in the research process?

Despite all those contemporary primary source documents about the Klan, very few of them came from inside the Klan. So one of the major challenges with the article was knowing just how exceptional or representative the ciphered letter was. As I said in the article, it is an exceptional source, but I think that exceptionality comes from the fact that it survived, not the fact that it was written. In other words, I suspect numerous other ciphered letters were written, but almost none of them survived Reconstruction. Proving that suspicion was difficult. It’s always hard, particularly for a historian, to prove that an absence of evidence isn’t necessarily the evidence of absence. Maybe that’s even impossible! So figuring out the significance of this one surviving letter was my major challenge over the course of researching and writing.

The Ku Klux Klan—and racial violence more broadly–have been receiving more scholarly attention of late. Your article is an excellent example of this. How do you think your research enriches our discussions about racial violence in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods? 

I appreciate this question. This research helped me to understand the extent to which racial violence in Reconstruction did not arise just because of ephemeral, amorphous cultural reasons but because of conscious organizing by specific people who shared a particular racial and political ideology. I think too often Americans think of racial violence as inexplicable or senseless. There needs to be more attention to the ways in which violence is the result of conscious organizing and specific ideological choices. I find this lesson really important as we’re seeing a very concerning rise in instances of explicitly racist violence in recent years. I think there can be a tendency among some Americans sometimes to think that racism is the natural result of economic distress and political polarization. It isn’t. Racism is a specific ideological choice, and we need to investigate and condemn the social and political networks that foster and benefit from it.

Your point about “conscious organizing” is crucial here. I appreciate how you have framed this issue. Is there anything else you want to share about this project?

I really appreciate the opportunity to talk some about my work with the Muster blog, and I really appreciate the work the JCWE does! I hope my work prompts people to look even more critically at the networks and organizing efforts that have gone into other organizations of white supremacism in the United States.

We really appreciate Dr. Proctor taking time out of his schedule to chat with us about his project. You can read the article on Project Muse, and if you have questions for Brad, he is happy to chat on Twitter, @bdproctor.


[1] Elaine Frantz Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Richard Zuczek, State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 32.

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

[7] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 13-19.

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

[9] Ibid., 43-45.

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

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

Niels Eichhorn

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

Fighting the Good Fight

Fighting the Good Fight

Today we share the conclusion to our fiction roundtable here on Muster, by our guest editor, Sarah E. Gardner. You can read all of the roundtable reviews by clicking on the links in her introduction. We hope you’ve enjoyed these reviews as much as we have here at The Journal of the Civil War Era.

“With the contemporary world rocking about their ears, American novelists seem bent on deserting the chaotic present for the past,” critic John Chamberlain wrote in 1938. “But the past that is luring more and more of them is no never-never land of shining order and fixed shared values; it is, rather, the chaotic period of the American Civil War, when society was cleft as it is today.”[1]

What was true in 1938 holds true in 2018. Sort of. I have no sense that writers in the 1930s evaded their present—economic depression, political unrest at home, and war clouds looming on the horizon—any more than writers in the first two decades of the twenty-first century seek to retreat from their present moment. Now, as then, writers turn to the past, at least in part, to encourage their readers to contemplate the world they inhabit.

The pressing question we are left with is whether, and to what degree, cultural production affects political change. Consider the conflicted emotions of a young wife whose husband was serving in the Union Army. In 1864, Lizzie Boyton Harbart, who in previous correspondence with her soldier-husband questioned his continued service in the Union Army, had reevaluated her position:

You have countless noticed criticisms upon a new book called “Peculiar”– the hero of the book being a slave, named by his master “peculiar institution.” I read it last week and it is given me more intense views of that most enormous evil of the nineteenth century, American slavery […] that I have ever read before–and when I closed the book and […] thought of all the attendant evils upon slavery I thanked God that I had been called on to give him who is dearer to me than all to a war that will eventually produce its overthrow. Sometimes I feel very brave, feel as though I could if called to do it give you up forever to my country.[2]

Lizzie had struggled with the overwhelming dread she felt when she imagined her husband dying in combat. And she still struggled when she wrote this letter. She thought she could bear the pain of his death. But she wasn’t sure. “At other times,” she confessed, “love obtains the mastery of patriotism. Selfishness predominates over love for country and I weep bitter tears at our separation and feel that if you were once more with me a whole world of wars could not–should not take you hence. It is not that I love my country less, but you the more.”[3]

This was movement, but maybe not enough. As Carole Emberton wrote in her review of Underground Airlines, Benjamin Winters challenges his readers “to imagine what true resistance would look like and how far they might be willing to go to achieve it.”[4] How far might Lizzie Boyton Harbart go? How far might we? Works that challenge the dominant narrative do just that. They lay the ground work, but they do not guarantee the results. To be sure, a novel had recalibrated Lizzie’s thinking about the scourge of slavery. Beyond that, though, tough to say.

What kind of work are we asking Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo or James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird do? Are we expecting too much?

We are well attuned to the cultural hegemony asserted by texts that carried outsized influence, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It is easy to forget that it engendered hostile reviews at the time of its publication. Malcolm Cowley’s review, which appeared in the New Republic, was particularly condescending. Mitchell’s novel, he puckishly wrote, told of “the callousness of the Carpetbaggers, the scalawaggishness of the Scalawags, the knightliness of the Ku Klux Klansmen, who frighten Negroes away from the polls, thus making Georgia safe for democracy and virtuous womanhood and Our Gene Talmadge – it is all here, every last bale of cotton and bushel of moonlight, every last full measure of full Southern female devotion working its lilywhite fingers uncomplainingly to the lilywhite bone.” Although this reading of the past was “false,” “silly,” and “vicious,” Mitchell wrote with abandon, unafraid of inevitable comparisons to more talented writers.[5]

When Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Ralph Thompson, a daily critic for the New York Times had this to say: “Here is what seemed to be when I reviewed it last year (and still seems to be) a good but overstuffed story,” he recapped, “grammatically clumsy in certain spots, historically clumsy in others, dominated by a pair of freaks named Scarlett and Rhett, and worked out with an assortment of stock-company Southerners. – and it wins not only a couple of million admirers … but the privilege of going down in history as the most distinguished novel in the year of our Lord 1936.”[6] Thompson’s disgust was palpable. But his views carried no weight with general readers. The novel’s popularity came at great cost.

Gone with the Wind was a scorched-earth text that, for a time, wiped away all other imaginary versions the Civil War. Critic Heyward Broun noted the irony of Mitchell’s claim to have written about a civilization and a culture that “have been blown from the face of the earth.” Mitchell’s fans, who raved about Gone with the Wind, Broun feared, guaranteed that publishers would continue to churn out novels written in the same vein. “You are going to get a great parcel of Southern novels from now on,” he concluded. “And on.”[7] He was spot on, of course. Although others penned Civil War counternarratives in the 1930s, none captured readers’ imaginations like Gone with the Wind.

How much of what Broun wrote in 1936 still holds true? Exciting new work appears and is reviewed favorably and prominently in the leading media outlets. But who reads the Times Book Review or listens to NPR? And how much weight do reviewers carry in an age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews? These are difficult questions to answer, perhaps especially so for those of us who believe (or want to believe) in the transformative power of literature. One wonders whether fifty years from now, when we mark the Civil War’s bicentennial, we will still have these conversations, as if on a repetitive loop of commemoration and violence.


[1] John Chamberlain, “Books,” Scribner’s Monthly 103 (May 1938): 82.

[2] Epes Sargent, Peculiar, A Tale of the Great Transition (New York: Carlton, 1864).

[3] Lizzie Boyton Harbart to William S. Harbart, Crawfordsville, Indiana, 15 March 1864, in the Elizabeth Boyton Harbart Papers, Addenda, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[4] Carole Emberton, “A New ‘Alternative’ History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, October 26, 2018,

[5] Malcolm Cowley, “Going with the Wind,” The New Republic 88 (September 16, 1936): 161.

[6] Ralph Thompson, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, May 5, 1937, 24.

[7] Heyward Broun, “It Seems to Me,” The New York World-Telegram (September 19, 1936): 19A. See also, Sarah E. Gardner, Reviewing the South: The Literary Marketplace and the Southern Renaissance, 1920-1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Sarah Gardner

Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University. She is currently writing a book on reading during the American Civil War.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

Our final review for this week’s roundtable comes from Nina Silber, Professor of History and American Studies at Boston University. You can read all of the roundtable contributions by clicking on the links in the guest editor’s introduction.

In this imaginative and deeply moving book, George Saunders has re-envisioned the moment when President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie died, in February 1862, ten months into the Civil War. Saunders’ novel is an odd and unconventional book, composed of fragments of actual historical writing and fictionalized historical passages, along with the musings of individuals who have died and now inhabit the cemetery where Willie’s body has been interred. This is the “Bardo” of the book’s title – a sort of in-between place, poised between the land of the living and a more definitive afterlife – and the book’s central premise involves the struggle to get Willie, and his father, to fully accept death so that Willie can leave this disturbing transitional world.

More than just a meditation on Willie’s tragic demise, the book is also a much larger deliberation on the overwhelming onslaught of death that gripped Americans in the middle years of the nineteenth century. It evokes, for example, the sentimental reflections of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who, pondering the misery of losing a child to slave traders, likens that to an experience that would have been familiar to many American families of the 1850s. “Has there never been,” Stowe asks her readers, “in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave.”[1] Indeed, this is precisely what Abraham Lincoln does in Saunders’ book: so grief-stricken is he by Willie’s death that he visits his burial site, opens his coffin, and even lovingly cradles his dead body. And even if the literal handling of the body has more to do with Saunders’ artistic rendering than historical truth, he nonetheless captures the profound sadness Lincoln felt at this moment, a grief that numerous historians have attested to, including some who are quoted in these very pages.

Photograph taken in Matthew Brady’s studio showing Willie Lincoln, center, Tad Lincoln, right, and their cousin Lockwood Todd, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Also in the spirit of Stowe, Saunders’ book is a story about empathy: about learning to see and feel the full spectrum of the human experience, and especially human suffering. For Lincoln this means confronting not just the death of his child but the thousands and thousands of deaths on the battlefield. Saunders references the battle at Fort Donelson, which occurred just a few days before Willie died, to show the exponential mounting of Civil War casualties, beyond what anyone living had anticipated. “The dead at Donelson, sweet Jesus,” writes one of Saunders’ imagined informants. “Heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two on top of three.”[2] As historian Drew Faust has suggested, death at Fort Donelson, and even more so at battles yet to come, forced Americans in these years to reckon with the very meaning of death, grappling with what such monumental sacrifice might signify not just for individual families but for an entire nation. One suspects that Saunders, having read Faust, has exactly this point in mind: to consider how Lincoln may have worked through his sadness about Willie’s death into a larger reflection on Civil War mortality. As Lincoln begins to accept the finality of Willie’s passing we become privy to the president’s inner thoughts: “Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.”[3]

Willie’s death, in short, teaches Lincoln that he must pursue the war, swiftly and efficiently. It also forces Lincoln to think about what the killing means, what purpose, in short, the war would serve; fragments of the Gettysburg Address are even beginning to form in his mind. Saunders moves, perhaps, a bit too mechanically from this one episode of Lincoln’s private suffering to the Lincoln overseeing matters of great national import, yet much about his way of describing the president’s thought process – logical and ponderous, even in contemplating grief – rings true.

Although Saunders, like many historians, sees Lincoln primarily motivated to wage a war that would preserve a society giving opportunity to free white men, the author by no means neglects the horrors of slavery and how that, too, comes to weigh on Lincoln’s conscience. Thus the Bardo holds not only white characters but also, in a segregated section, black ones as well. This group includes Litzie, a young light-skinned woman who has endured such an unspeakable litany of abuse she has been rendered mute. Frequently accompanying Litzie is Mrs. Francis Hodge whose feet and hands have been worn away to bloody stumps. Like the white characters, the black ghosts, too, are moved by the sight of Lincoln cradling Willie’s dead body and see a chance to make their stories known to a figure from that “other place.” And, just like the white spirits, the black ghosts also have the ability to pass through Lincoln’s body, even affecting the living president’s thoughts and feelings. As Lincoln turns away from the cemetery and towards the task of waging a monumental war, he leaves with a black ghost clinging to his form, perhaps even to remain with him in perpetuity.

I suspect Saunders wants us to see this black figure, literally, as the weight upon Lincoln’s conscience. In this, Saunders advances an interpretation that, despite the fantastical scenario, would find favor with many historians: that the impulse to do right by black men and women may not have come completely naturally to Lincoln, but that the circumstances of the war gave the Civil War president a stronger sense of empathy that allowed him to move just a little bit closer towards addressing the human suffering of both white and black Americans.


[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 93.

[2] George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 152.

[3] Saunders, 306.

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is Professor of History at Boston University where she teaches classes on the Civil War, women and gender, and the American South. Previous publications include: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press), Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard University Press) and This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (University of North Carolina Press).

A New “Alternative” History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines

A New “Alternative” History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines

Because most are poorly-plotted, barely-disguised apologies for the Lost Cause, many historians have a low tolerance for “alternative histories” of the Civil War. Whether in the form of Confederate memorials like Silent Sam or Harry Turtledove novels, folks love to fantasize about what the United States would have been like if the South had won. Missing from most of these alternative histories is any mention of slavery, or when it does appear, as in Turtledove’s 1992 novel The Guns of the South, it appears as a foil to highlight the noble characteristics of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. However, a promising new alternative history, which may be of interest to scholars and history buffs alike, breaks this mold and makes slavery central to its narrative.

Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines, a new Civil War alternative history set in the twenty-first century, imagines a future “dis”-United States that has avoided civil war altogether. The nation is now governed by something akin to the Crittenden Compromise, where federal law sustains slavery where it existed, while prohibiting its further extension. By the time we meet the novel’s protagonist, Victor, a former PBL (“Person Bound to Labor”), slavery has been abolished in all but the “Hard Four” slave states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and “Carolina.” In exchange for his freedom, Victor has become a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals, scouring the free states in search of runaways who have liberated themselves from the highly industrialized–yet no less brutal–business of twenty-first century slavery. Traumatized by his childhood on just such a corporate plantation, Victor is haunted by dreams of his violent upbringing, yet he excels at his job as a slave catcher. He performs so well because he cherishes his own freedom, such as it is. Victor is not quite free; the Marshals have fitted him with a tracking device in case he decides to run. But how long will he be able to continue his horrific career? Will his cold, hard heart, that slavery has given him, finally be warmed and softened to the plight of those he pursues? And if it does, will he survive?

Resistance is a popular term these days, as it has been in slavery studies for at least half a century. Winters teases out the complicated meanings underlying individual resistance to an entrenched system of exploitation. By demonstrating a symbiotic relationship between slavery, capitalism, and American democracy, the novel challenges readers to imagine what true resistance would look like and how far enslaved people might be willing to go to achieve it.

Underground Airlines is a fast-paced thriller with the heart of a slave narrative. Winters has earned a reputation as a sci-fi/detective novelist, and this novel reflects that. Think John Grisham meets Solomon Northup. Victor is a flawed, hard-edged man who wants to do the right thing. Standing in his way is a conglomerate of detached, yet brutal, government bureaucrats who will stop at nothing to see the law carried out. And all the hard, philosophical questions concerning slavery are there: How does an enslaved person maintain a sense of his own identity and morality separate from that of his enslavers? What are the limits of the “slave community”? How does trauma shape the people we become and the choices we make? How long can a house divided against itself stand?

Winters answers that last question definitively: a long damn time. It’s 2016, but there is no sign of slavery “dying out” in the Hard Four, despite immense national and global pressure. The times have changed, but slaveholders have adapted, using modern technology to keep slavery profitable and more efficient. They have powerful lobbyists who buy Congressional support. All the corporate shenanigans that allow Starbucks and Amazon to avoid taxes and reap mega profits also allow companies like Garments of the Greater South to evade the various anti-slavery financial mechanisms that the U.S. and its global allies have instituted. And finally, injustice’s oldest allies–racism and apathy–prevent most Americans from caring too much about what happens “down there,” much less to the black people who live stigmatized and segregated in free cities throughout the rest of the country.

Sound familiar?  It should. Underground Airlines is as much a story about today as it is about the past. In that sense, it recalls the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A., which imagines a white supremacist fantasy world where the Confederacy won, but that world looks a lot like the world we actually live in. If C.S.A. challenged the sanitized text-book version of the Civil War that so many Americans grow up believing, then Underground Airlines continues this work by provoking readers to consider whether Winters’s fictionalized world differs in any meaningful way from the “real” one we inhabit everyday. For scholars of Civil War-era history, the dystopian alternative universe Winters has created feels a lot like home.

Today’s contribution to our fiction roundtable comes from Carole Emberton, associate professor of history at University of Buffalo. You can read previous and subsequent entries by using the links here in the guest editor’s introduction.

Carole Emberton

Carole Emberton is associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo. Her book Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War was published 2013. She is currently at work on a new project exploring the vernacular memories of the Civil War and emancipation contained within the Federal Writers’ Project’s Ex-Slave Narratives.

James McBride’s Reimagining of John Brown and His Legacy

James McBride’s Reimagining of John Brown and His Legacy

Below you will find the third review in our Civil War fiction roundtable, from Hilary Green, an associate professor at the University of Alabama. Previous and subsequent reviews in the series are available by following the links in the guest editor’s introduction.

The controversial figure of John Brown–and his connections to race relations, sectionalism, and the politics of memory–has influenced statues, songs, public murals, and even Jacob Lawrence’s “The Legend of John Brown” graphic series. For white Americans, John Brown is cast as either a fanatical zealot or a martyr for the abolitionist cause. African Americans have typically viewed him as a freedom fighter who used violence for equality and social change.[1] Scholars have yet to mine fully the surviving oral traditions and archival materials that hint at motivations and experiences of African Americans who supported and later actively remembered John Brown as a freedom fighter. Questions remain regarding why enslaved men, women, and children would follow a charismatic leader, even if meant possible death or retaliation against members of the African American community? Why would freeborn black Pennsylvanians open up their homes, churches, and pocketbooks to fund John Brown’s war against slavery? These are tough questions for scholars interested in recovering these historical voices. This is where literature can play a role.

Writers of historical fiction are able to erase the silences present in the archives and existing scholarship. James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013) builds on the literary tradition seen in Charles Chestnut’s Marrow of Tradition (1901), William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and David Bradley’s Chaneyville Incident (1981). McBride masterfully and imaginatively explores the above questions through the protagonist of Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford. Opening with the 1966 discovery of Shackleford’s slave narrative, the novel follows a young enslaved boy who navigates slavery and sectional politics from 1856 Kansas Territory to 1859 Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Organized in three parts, the protagonist’s journey is a plausible narrative delving into the interior lives of the enslaved and John Brown’s complicated legacy.

McBride introduces readers to Henry Shackleford by following genre conventions of the slave narrative. True to form, Shackleford opens the account by providing some of his life history, describing the enslaved community from which he emerged, and portraying the enslavers’ world in Kansas Territory. McBride, however, disrupts the familiar narrative in the first sentence – “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”[2] When an altercation results in the death of his father, Henry becomes Henrietta (nicknamed “Little Onion”) in order to survive as a fugitive. Rather than correct the mistaken gender identity, Henry embraces the confusion, explaining to his readers: “Truth is, lying comes natural to all Negros during slave time.”[3] Afraid, without kin, and a witness to his father’s brutal death, he chose life and followed John Brown’s army until opportunity permitted a clearer path to freedom.

John Brown, abolitionist and freedom fighter. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

That opportunity emerges during the Pottawatomie Creek massacre. McBride’s description of the post-massacre retribution against African Americans reads like a scene from Harriet Jacobs’ depiction of Edenton following Nat Turner’s rebellion.[4] The violent reality of John Brown’s army prompted Henry to flee. While in flight, he encounters Nigger Bob, an older African American who doubts “Henrietta’s” true identity but nevertheless assists the young protagonist. Henry’s life as a fugitive, this time from John Brown’s army is short lived, however. When captured by one of Brown’s sons, Henry laments in the chapter entitled “Prisoner Again” that “I was full-blow back in his army and the business of being a girl again.”[5] After the Battle of Osawatomie where his son Frederick is brutally murdered, John Brown departs for parts unknown to his followers. Before leaving for two years, the protagonist recalls him saying to Owen and his other sons present: “Bury Fred right. And take care of Little Onion.”[6]

Throughout the novel, McBride deftly weaves historical accounts of John Brown’s exploits and enslaved people’s experiences with his own literary imaginings. Readers are able to understand how a scared enslaved boy tries to reject the violent life associated with John Brown. After Osawatomie, Little Onion searches for replacement parents in Nigger Bob and Pie, a prostitute who plies her trade at a brothel that attracts ruffians of all political stripes. Ultimately, Little Onion finds his surrogate father in John Brown and his brothers among the white and black members of Brown’s army. Happenstance allows the protagonist not only to survive as a fugitive traveling with John Brown’s army, but also to meet Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman during Brown’s pre-Harpers Ferry’s recruitment tour of the eastern United States and Canada. By the final section, Little Onion’s inclusion in real historical events appears natural in the fictional Civil War era world crafted by McBride. Henry-Little Onion has fully embraced John Brown’s mission. He recruits for the Harpers Ferry attack among freeborn and fugitive African Americans. The chapter titled “Unleashing the Hive” sees the unfolding events of Harpers Ferry, Brown’s capture, and Henry-Little Onion’s escape so that he can “tell the stories” to future generations.[7] McBride returns to real historical events of the trial, hanging of Brown and his army, and early African American remembrances of Harpers Ferry in the concluding pages.

John Brown House (Ritner Boarding House) operated by the Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the author.

Here, McBride taps into how African American collective memories of the American Civil War at the Pennsylvania-Maryland-West Virginia border allowed for the persistence of John Brown’s legacy as a freedom fighter. In the war’s aftermath, the nation strongly encouraged border African American residents to forget John Brown’s raid, the Civil War enslavement of freeborn African Americans, and the military experiences of those who either enlisted or were drafted. Remembrance became a political act essential to postwar African American border identity. These African Americans refused to accept the hegemonic Lost Cause and Reconciliationist impulses. Through oral traditions and postwar commemorations in segregated African American spaces, they developed and sustained a Civil War collective memory that empowered them to actively remember–while the nation purposefully forgot–well into the twentieth century. Thus, James McBride’s acknowledgement is as powerful as the opening prologue. He recognizes and celebrates the actions of ordinary African Americans “who, over the years kept the memory of John Brown alive.”[8]

The Good Lord Bird deepens our understandings of sectional debates over slavery, violence, and the diverse African American experience on the eve of the American Civil War. Moreover, it provides important insights into the role of memory, violence, and the intersectional contours of African American remembrance of the Civil War through Henry-Henrietta-Little Onion and those who sang “Blow ye trumpet blow” at the hanging of John Brown and in subsequent years.[9]


[1] See R. Blakeslee Giplin, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[2] James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 3.

[3] McBride, 30.

[4] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself (Boston: 1861), 97-104, Documenting the American South, accessed October 15, 2018,

[5] McBride, 77.

[6] McBride, 123.

[7] McBride, 427.

[8] McBride, 459.

[9] McBride, 457.

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).

Slavery and the Historical Imagination: A Review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man

Slavery and the Historical Imagination: A Review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man

Today’s contribution to our fiction roundtable comes from Timothy J. Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. You can read previous and subsequent entries by using the links here.

In 1997, Patrick Chamoiseau, author of a dozen works about his native home of Martinique, published Slave Old Man in Creole and French. Now in 2018, the beautiful English translation by Linda Coverdale makes this short yet sophisticated novel accessible to American audiences. Set “in slavery times in the sugar isles,” or the early nineteenth-century French West Indies, the novel illustrates the raw operation of plantation slavery in a place that white southerners both coveted and critiqued in the Civil War era. The French West Indies were strategic islands in a broader world system of slavery and sugar. As Matthew Karp explains, southern slaveholders kept a watchful eye on these islands as part of a broad, “hemispheric defense of slavery.” After the French abolished slavery on the islands in 1848, they explicitly argued that economic decline on the islands was the fault of disorder that emancipation wrought.[1] Thus, a story of an escaped slave, young or old, would have (and did) instill fear in the minds of the region’s ruling classes.

The novel follows the one slave least expected to escape—a silent and sagacious old man who is never named in the novel—as he flees his master, running and limping through a rain forest, with a bloodhound on his heels. This simple plot of the escape of a never-named old slave man, however, is the only thing simple about Chamoiseau’s novel. When the structures of enslavement—mastery, violence, fences, and patrols—crumble, the reader is left with a disorder so palpable that it becomes transcendent. In the process, the novel at once unearths the traumatic world of slavery and the nature of history.[2]

Indeed the slave old man’s “Master,” though he rarely inhabits the narrative’s foreground, acts as sadistically as Simon Legree or Edward Covey. To underscore the master’s inhumanity, Chamoiseau manufactures an alter ego for him in a ferocious hound, or “mastiff.” “The slaves hated these dogs in a way that can no longer be imagined,” but “the mastiff expressed the cruelty of the Master and that plantation.”[3] He was the “master’s rudderless soul” and the slaves’ “double suffering.”[4] The master trained this brooding creature to maul any slave who ventured beyond the pale. Yet slave old man managed to go undetected long enough to escape. When the dog realized slave old man had run, undetected, he howled so ominously that the master unleased his rage, literally, and sent the dog into the forest after his runaway property.

Thus slave old man embarks on an epic journey into a primeval forest, pregnant with the waters of new birth. The jungle assembled the body which he never felt he possessed in slavery: “His run had propelled his flesh to its ultimate limit and his formerly separate organs, reacting en masse, passing beyond all distress, kept on going, leaving him panting with innocence in a hazy awareness of himself he had never known before.”[5] In his flight, though the mastiff’s thumping paws “almost matched the rhythm of his heart,” slave old man “rediscovers a primordial darkness” and “feels himself penetrating into the cavern of ages.”[6] He emerges from the cavern not “slave old man” but “the old man who had been a slave.”[7] And, for the first time in the novel, Chamoiseau moves the narrative from third-person omniscient to the first person.

This is a hero’s journey of classical epic. At one point, falling into a spring of “icy-icy water,” the old man who had been a slave encounters “once again the nightmares of the slave-ship hold,” indelibly marked in his memory.[8] A will to live helps him free himself and continue his flight. Despite breaking a leg bone, encountering a snake, and ultimately meeting the mastiff “face-to-face,”[9] the slave old man invokes the memories of his ancestors, draws from their strength, and becomes himself in the process. Rather than spoil the book’s plot entirely, suffice to say that the journey ends. But for historians, it’s not so much the journey that matters as the way Chamoiseau uses the novel as a broader philosophy of history.

The novel provokes a meditation on history that will likely interest scholars across disciplines. In the book’s final chapter, an anthropologist discovers bones, including that from a broken leg, which he described as “a cartload of memoires–histories–stories and eras gathered together.”[10] Instinctually, he feels that these bones powerfully tell a story of shared humanity. Though historians generally don’t work in ossuaries, the brittle pages of archives, like bones, likewise expose complex, haunting human records.

Integrating memories and stories are of great interest to cultural historians of gender such as myself. But we often fail to move out of the tidy work of categories inspired by the social science side of our academic heritage. I have grown increasingly frustrated with the continued reliance on invented paradigms (i.e., honor, southern manhood, martial manhood, restrained manhood, and even intellectual manhood, which is the subject of my first book).[11] Chamoiseau’s world of slavery and freedom, however, is messy, violent, visceral, corporeal, and animal. There are few neat “categories of analysis” when it comes down to bones and memories, but Chamoiseau’s old man slave/slave old man/man who had been a slave asks us to think about the categories we use and why we use them.

Slave Old Man is many things. Just a little more than 100 pages in length, it is a translation; a story of enslavement and escape; a discourse on the nature of French West Indies; the story of an old man, or an old slave, or both, but a man nonetheless; and a meditation on history. But we also cannot miss its moral significance as another reminder of the pernicious and lasting legacy of New World slavery and white supremacy in our own time. Thus, this new English translation contributes to and extends a vibrant and politically significant genre of neo-slave narratives, pioneered in the midst of the Civil Rights movement by Margaret Walker, and sustained by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and most recently Colson Whitehead, whose prize-winning Underground Railroad (2016) Manisha Sinha reviewed for Muster.[12] This novel may not be as easy to read or teach as Whitehead’s, but it serves an important purpose nonetheless.


[1] Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 89, 132.

[2] Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man: A Novel, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: The New Press, 2018), 3.

[3] Ibid, 21, 26.

[4] Ibid, 32.

[5] Ibid, 42-43.

[6] Ibid, 45, 50, 51.

[7] Ibid, 57.

[8] Ibid, 63.

[9] Ibid, 86

[10] Ibid, 118.

[11] Timothy Williams, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[12] Manisha Sinha, “The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel,” Muster (blog), Journal of the Civil War Era, November 29, 2016,

Timothy J. Williams

Timothy J. Williams is assistant professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon. His research focuses on the intellectual and cultural history of the nineteenth-century United States, especially the South in the Civil War era. He is the author of Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (2015) and editor (with Evan A. Kutzler) of Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863-1866 (2018).

Confederate Widow Confidential: Varina Tells (Almost!) All

Confederate Widow Confidential: Varina Tells (Almost!) All

Today we share the first post in our roundtable on recent Civil War fiction. The guest editor’s introduction, by Sarah E. Gardner, includes links to all the posts and can be found here.

The cover of Charles Frazier’s Varina: A Novel identifies its author as the “bestselling author of Cold Mountain.” When Cold Mountain, his first Civil War novel, appeared in 1997, it stayed on the New York Times list for over a year and won him the National Book Award. The star-studded film in 2003 earned $175 million worldwide, and Renée Zellweger collected an Oscar for her performance as Ruby Thewes. The relationship between Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes was a nuanced counterpoint to Ada’s love story with Inman, and it emerged as a paean to female friendship and to wartime survival.

Some scholars took umbrage at the book’s particularly whitewashed landscape. Frazier was reprimanded—at times savaged—for the absence of black voices. People of color were few and far between in his story; for instance, at one point, an enslaved woman was carried to the riverside to be drowned by a white preacher, disposing of her as if an unwanted kitten. Frazier concentrated on how those fighting for the Confederacy were fighting for “home,” rather than to shore up the slave power (and by association, white supremacy)—and so the perpetual wrangle continues.

Thus Varina, his fourth novel, confronts issues of race and southern identity, and perhaps signals penance. Frazier’s main character, James Blake, is described as a black child orphaned by war then adopted by Jefferson and Varina Davis. After surrender in 1865 and despite his protests, he was torn from the Confederate First Family. This backstory is based on Jimmie Limber, a refugee featured in Elizabeth Botume’s First Days Amongst the Contrabands.[1]

Jimmy Limber, or James Henry Brooks, lived for about a year with the Confederate First Family. He transformed into James Blake in Frazier’s novel Varina. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia.

In the novel, Blake accidentally discovers his former protector nearly forty years after their forced separation. He seeks out “V” (as she is called throughout the novel) and insists upon answers about his heritage. Over the course of several Sunday afternoons, the former first lady of the Confederacy reminisces, prompted by Blake’s interrogation, and the tale unfolds. Frazier and James Brooke do not let V off the hook. When she confides to James about the days “when we all took care of one another,” James retorts “who is we?” During formalized exchanges, James poses uncomfortable questions: “Did you own me?” “Was I your pet?” Further, he challenges her memory of her “friendship” with Ellen, the (enslaved) African American house servant who accompanied her on the flight from Richmond. She recalled in an interview that Varina may have been a good mistress, but Ellen was happier with her freedom. But V attends Ellen’s wedding, proclaiming sisterhood.[2]

Frazier threads “truth and reconciliation” into the book’s clever patterns of warp and weft. V is alternately self-deprecating and self-serving. Her acerbic observations—drawn from both her own writings and those of Mary Chesnut—as well as Frazier’s scintillating insights, rattle and snap throughout the book. Frazier allows his leading lady’s memory to be selective, indeed blatantly faulty. She exhibits self-pity by reporting how black silk ran out by the time of her young son Joseph’s funeral in 1864: several months pregnant, she was reduced to using “a muddy brew of walnut hulls and indigo” to dye her mourning costume.[3] In another segment, Frazier shows Varina reading House of Mirth, complaining she cannot abide any novels set in the South. Frazier hints she is an aging Lily Bart, but a feistier version, as V confesses: “At least I had my little suicide pistol to comfort me.”[4]

The newlyweds Jefferson Davis and Virginia Howell, who went on their honeymoon to visit the grave of Davis’s first wife, the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. Courtesy of Essential Civil War Curriculum.

Frazier allows V to filter her responses through her lament of endurance. She survived her father’s repeated financial failures, trading V on the southern marriage market. She survived her honeymoon, being taken to the grave of Jefferson’s first wife. She survived her husband’s bullying older brother, the family patriarch, Joseph Davis. She survived the death of five of her six children who predeceased her, but proudly posed with four generations near the end of her life. She survived the war, her husband’s sinking prospects, and the spring of 1865 when “a hundred thousand tragedies played out.” [5] Her husband’s capture, imprisonment, and exile all contributed to a quake-like instability. She struggled as her husband’s betrayals became legendary; Jefferson Davis’s involvement with a devoted female admirer caused scandal and further alienation.

With her husband’s death in 1889, Varina Davis made her way to Manhattan to live by her wits and her pen. (This factoid, Frazier maintains, launched him on his journey to creating “V”.) She parted company with most former Confederate widows and her homeland. Was she disloyal? A pragmatist? Rebel, or no rebel at all? She was perhaps happy to leave the crumbling Confederate states behind, done with mourning, as she tartly advised her surviving daughter: “Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health, and will depress your husband.”[6]

Joan Cashin’s superb 2006 biography, First Lady of the Confederacy, projected a convincingly modern, albeit flawed, protagonist. Frazier echoes and expands this image, making excellent use of recent scholarship and many details are clearly drawn from the meticulous research of recent Civil War scholarship whose authors, regrettably, are omitted from his slim bibliography[7]

Jefferson Davis’s second wife, his helpmeet in the White House of the Confederacy, his defender and devoted ghost writer during the post-war years, is not a household name. But the distinctiveness of her name lingers—a faded mural on a Richmond building in the 1970s proclaimed: “Varina Ice Company.” As a political wife saddled with daily Scylla and Charybdis dilemmas—her character and context remain compelling. By taking in Jimmy Limber, the “Ice” Queen Varina appears a tantalizing puzzle to deconstruct. And once cracked open, who can put Varina back together again?

Charles Frazier has produced a brilliant and riveting glimpse of Varina’s life, immersing himself in his characters’ time and place. We are transported and in his debt, as he grapples with the mesmerizing, with the mercurial, and with riddles the Civil War still evokes. Varina emerges full of caution, compassion, grit, and woe. Frazier’s power lies not just in his authenticity but in the way he applies his gift of imagination to this epic era and haunting Confederate emblem.

[Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Jefferson Davis’s first wife was the daughter of James K. Polk. His first wife was Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. The post has been corrected. Our apologies for the error.]


[1] Elizabeth Botume, First Days Amongst the Contrabands (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1892).

[2] Charles Frazier, Varina: A Novel (New York: Ecco, 2018), 312.

[3] Ibid, 115.

[4] Ibid, 57.

[5] Ibid, 42.

[6] Ibid, 352-3. This was a “deathbed” directive in 1906.

[7] Frazier mentions Elizabeth Botume’s First Days Amongst the Contrabands but doesn’t include it in his bibliography. And his list of only five sources—three from the twentieth century—fails to cite current scholarship, particularly on African Americans, from which he clearly draws, including Jim Downs’s Sick From Freedom and Jean Yellin’s Harriet Jacobs.

Catherine Clinton

Catherine Clinton is the Denman Chair of American History at the University of Texas San Antonio; she has published nearly thirty books, including The Plantation Mistress (1982), Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004) and Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2009). Her Fleming Lectures appeared in 2016: Stepdaughters of History. Her forthcoming edited volume, Confederate Statues and Memorialization, will inaugurate her new series (co-edited with Jim Downs) HISTORY IN THE HEADLINES, to be published by UGA Press. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016, she is working on her project on Union soldiers and madness during and after the Civil War.

Fiction Fights the Civil War

Fiction Fights the Civil War

This week, Muster begins a series on recent fiction about slavery and the Civil War. Interest in how the war is represented in popular literature remains unabated because the legacies of slavery and the war endure, a point emphasized by Carole Emberton in her roundtable review of Underground Airlines. Who determines the meaning of those legacies in large measure informs our current political moment. And though that might be true of any period in the last 150 years, it seems especially so now, one year after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Urgency does not lessen the difficulty of dislodging dominant narratives, however. “Deeply embedded in American mythology of mission, and serving as the mother lode of nostalgia for antimodernists and military history buffs,” David Blight explained, the Civil War remains very difficult to shuck from its shell of sentimentalism. “Over time,” he continued, “Americans have needed deflections from the deeper meanings of the Civil War. It haunts us still, we feel it […] but often do not face it.”[1] The politics of memory is a tricky business, as Blight and others have demonstrated. This roundtable looks at recent works that stare into the belly of the beast, that seek to reimagine what the war might mean.

It opens with Catherine Clinton’s review of Charles Frazier’s Varina (2018), which Clinton reads as an atonement to Frazier’s blockbuster 1997 novel Cold Mountain. Frazier’s creation of James Blake, an African American child orphaned by the war and adopted by the Confederacy’s first family, allowed the author to confront head on those topics he evaded in his debut novel. In so doing, he also forced himself to grapple with his own role in perpetuating a narrative of the Civil War that ignores (or denies) the centrality of slavery to the conflict.

Timothy J. Williams reviews Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, published originally in French and Creole in 1997, but only recently translated into English by Linda Coverdale. The world Chamoiseau created is governed by power structures erected by sugar planters in colonial Martinique. But once the old man escapes the plantation, he dissolves into the colony’s primordial “forestine soul” where time is not marked by particular events that occur in sequential order. In this world, Williams explains, distinctions evaporate, including those between past and present, between Africa and colonial Martinique, between memory and history.

Slave Old Man is not the only epic tale reviewed in this roundtable. Hilary Green reviews James McBride’s Good Lord Bird (2013)an imaginative retelling of John Brown’s final years. The novel suggests that Brown was a man of twists and turns. Or, to borrow from Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, Brown was a complicated man. And Green notes in her review of the (in)famous abolitionist occupies an ambiguous position in American memory. In this novel, McBride engages this conflicted legacy by turning attention away from Brown, although his presence lingers, to an invented character, Brown’s ersatz son, Henry Shackleford. Henry emerges as the tale’s protagonist, a Telemachus-figure in search of his patrimony. Henry’s recollections, the literary device that frames the novel, offer readers a way into African American collective memory.

Carole Emberton’s review of Ben Winters’ genre-bending novel Underground Airlines (2016) reminds readers that not all counterfactual narratives of the Civil War avoid slavery’s legacy. Instead of imagining a world in which the Confederacy had won, Winters’ imagines a world in which the Civil War had never taken place, a world in which slavery still exists in four states and shows no signs of dying out. The novel’s protagonist, a former slave turned fugitive slave catcher, is every bit as complicated as John Brown. And the world in which he inhabits is as every bit as complicated as our own, in large measure because it is our own.

The series concludes with Nina Silber’s review of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). It is commonplace for publishers to boost their lists by claiming for one of their titles, “the most eagerly anticipated novel of the year.” In the case of Lincoln in the Bardo, however, publicists were not far off the mark. The novel was Saunders’ first in nearly a two-decade career as one of the nation’s most acclaimed writers of short fiction. It is perhaps fitting that Saunders returned in this novel to the Civil War and its persistent influence on contemporary society. The titular story of his first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a tale of a dilapidated theme park set in the not-too-distant future, shares with his first novel an interest in haunted landscapes and similarly offers a meditation on horrific violence. That story ends in a bloodbath, with little sense that the repetitive loop of commemoration and violence will end. Lincoln in the Bardo ends differently and, as Silber suggests, holds out the possibility for both empathy and justice.


Now that the roundrable has ended, our guest editor’s concluding post can be found here.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.

Sarah Gardner

Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University. She is currently writing a book on reading during the American Civil War.

“The Most Potent Money Power”: Slave Traders, Dark Money, and Elections

“The Most Potent Money Power”: Slave Traders, Dark Money, and Elections

With the 2018 midterm elections approaching, the role of money in politics once again looms large in American political discourse. For many, shadowy super PACs, mega-donors, and dark money stand in stark contrast to the sanctity of the individual voter. Political actors recognize and deploy this, with politicians going to great lengths to avoid seeming beholden to monied interests.[1] This, however, is not a new issue in American politics. Fears of wealth’s influence resonated in the nineteenth century as well, as electoral combatants used accusations of purchased influence to attack their opponents’ legitimacy. Even as the Civil War loomed, such rhetoric helped shape the terms of debates over the Union’s future. We see this with particular clarity in Virginia, as Virginians wrestled with secession during the secession winter. Much as opponents of slavery had long accused the “Slave Power” of wielding undemocratic political influence, those combating secession summoned fears of slave money (particularly that spent in the political arena by slave traders) to undercut disunion’s democratic legitimacy and to bolster the Union.

Slave traders and their political influence had long been an obvious rhetorical target. As the most obviously odious of all the actors within the slave system, they could be (and were) attacked with particular venom. And connection to them and their ill-gotten gains could prove damning. In 1844, Horace Greeley blamed slave traders for Martin Van Buren’s defeat in that year’s Democratic Convention, citing their desire to see Texas annexed in order to increase the prices of the enslaved, while in the 1850s a Stephen Douglas mouthpiece attacked a rival as the “the nigger traders’ candidate for President” for opposing homestead legislation.[2] Linkages to slave commerce—and to the money generated therefrom—was a potent rhetorical tool in the parlance of the antebellum United States.

Slave Auction at the South, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1860 and 1861, as state conventions assembled to debate secession, the possibility that slave traders’ lucre might influence the course of gained heightened significance. Such fears had considerable credibility even within slave states where Unionist delegates hailing from regions with lower enslaved populations clashed with their counterparts from the plantation belts. In Richmond, Virginia, capital of both the commonwealth and the mid-Atlantic’s slave trade, delegates met for two months within blocks of the city’s slave-trading district and with one eye on their potential influence over the proceedings. Delegates heightened their vigilance as the convention’s Unionist majority endured an outdoor political campaign with mass meetings and demonstrations whipping the city into a frenzy.[3]

Those opposed to secession quickly attributed these mobs to the malign influence of slave traders in a practice reminiscent of contemporary accusations of “astroturfing” and of paid protesters. When, for example, a delegate issued a particularly stirring call for maintaining the Union, a crowd marched on the Mechanics’ Institute where the convention sat in session. Unionists argued that this mass action (which originated near Richmond’s slave jails and auction houses) had clearly been “gotten up by negro traders.”[4] Two weeks later, after secessionists ascended the state capitol and unfurled a Confederate flag, the New York Tribune complained that such mob activity revealed that Richmond’s slave traders had “let themselves loose” upon the city and inaugurated a “Reign of Terror” designed to intimidate delegates.[5]

Virginia State Capitol. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Besides instigating protests, Virginian Unionists were convinced that slave dealers were bankrolling the secession movement in the commonwealth. Elizabeth Van Lew, future United States spy and a relative of the slave jailer Silas Omohundro, fumed in her diary that when slave traders hoisted the Confederate flag in Richmond they proved that they had been “fabricating for years” a plot against the Union.[6] A correspondent of Shenandoah Valley minister and educator George Junkin similarly feared that slave dealers had engaged their “immense capital” in “buying up votes and presses, and paying agents to get up county secession meetings.”[7] A convention delegate concurred in this assessment and, even after an initial two-to-one vote against immediate secession, wrung his hands over the “the powerful influence exerted by the most potent money power, that has ever existed in Virginia… the power of the Traders in negroes.” These, he correctly noted, operated their own bank, and had considerable capital of their own to throw into the secession cause. “The interest of these people,” he feared, “is entirely with the seceded states, and to promote it, they would sacrifice every other interest in the state, without the least scruple.”[8] A well-funded group of single-issue voters, then, threatened the sanctity of the democratically elected convention and to take Virginia to war on their own behalf.

John Minor Botts. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Virginia’s secession and the onset of war perpetuated claims that Richmond slave brokers had hacked the electoral process using the proceeds of their traffic. John Minor Botts, one of Virginia’s most famous Unionists, complained that “the gamblers and nigger traders of Richmond spent ten thousand dollars” to steal his slot in the convention and thus wield influence within that body. Their campaign succeeded, and their dark money thus secured secession “for the exclusive benefit of the holders and dealers in slaves.”[9] The abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher, meanwhile, shared Botts’s paranoia, arguing that “a conspiracy of slave traders” had “dragooned” Virginia “out of the nation” via a campaign of influence and intimidation that frustrated the will of the people.[10] The Unionist Wheeling Daily Intelligencer put things most pointedly. Richmond’s slave trading class, it argued, had been “the first to embrace Secessionism:” it “contributed the first money,” raised the first flag, and headed “All the processions, by day or night.” “They were,” in short, “the leaders of every Secession enterprise.” These dealers in humanity’s actions, then, were not out of interest in the common good but to defend their own businesses, elevating the good of the few over the needs and voices of the people.[11]

Because many United States citizens persistently believed in a silent Confederate majority in favor of restoring the Union, wealthy, influential slave dealers remained a useful excuse for explaining the lengthening conflict. Their corrupting influence and deep pockets, the argument ran, enabled a minority to beat the drum for war over the wishes of most Southerners. A Cleveland periodical thus claimed that while most Virginians desired reunion, large slaveholders and “negro traders” opposed this and held them in political bondage.[12] Another paper blamed “the negro-traders, the blacklegs, the overseers, and all the parasites of slavery” for abetting secession and for the ongoing war.[13] Though such claims became less convincing as the war dragged on, the idea that secession had been not only legally but democratically illegitimate thanks to the undue influence of a monied class remained broadly compelling.

The surviving evidence is inconclusive regarding the actual role of slave-trading money in the political crisis of 1860-1861. Certainly many slave dealers were politically active, and contemporary testimony does place them in the thick of anti-Union activities; after the war, one of their own implicated many leading slave traders, for example, in running the secession flag up over the state capital in Virginia.[14] Their surviving correspondence, however, gives little indication of a broad conspiracy. Regardless of the reality of their actions, however, the threat of slave trading capital deployed in the political process remained rhetorically useful for proponents of the Union. By playing on existing fears of slaveholders’ dominance, their notoriety, and their widely known profits, Unionists made them into plausible enemies. Though they ultimately failed politically, blaming secession on slave dealers’ money and purchased influence provided a compelling scapegoat, allowing Unionists could tout their own authority amidst the secession crisis and to discredit their opponents. They thus joined a long and, as contemporary events show, ongoing history of using political financing as an issue in shaping electoral behavior and determining the legitimacy of the democratic process.


[1] Peter Overby, “Every Position Donald Trump Has Taken on How He’ Is Funding His Campaign,” NPR, July 14, 2016, accessed October 15, 2018,; Beto O’Rourke, “Make a Donation,” Beto For Senate, accessed October 15, 2018,

[2] Excerpted in “The Negro Traders as Politicians,” Christian Advocate, January 14, 1864; quoted in George M. Stephenson, The Political History of the Public Lands From 1840 to 1862: From Pre-Emption to Homestead (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1917), 217.

[3] Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 281-282, 315-323.

[4] “Secession at Richmond,” Orleans Independent Standard, March 1, 1861.

[5] “From Virginia,” New York Tribune, March 17, 1861.

[6] David D. Ryan, ed. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Boos, 1996), 30, 33.

[7] D.X. Junkin, George Junkin, D.D., LL.D.: A Biography (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1871), 516.

[8] Quoted in Bruce S. Greenwalt, “The Correspondence of James D. Davidson, Reluctant Rebel” (M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1961), 35, 41.

[9] John Minor Botts, The Great Rebellion: Its Secret History, Rise, Progress, and Disastrous Failure (New York, 1866), 240; “From Richmond,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, February 27, 1861; Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, 277.

[10] Henry Ward Beecher, Patriotic Addresses in America and England, From 1850 to 1885, on Slavery, the Civil War, and the Development of Liberty in the United States (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1887), 373.

[11] “Late News From the Rebel States,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, August 17, 1861.

[12] “The Situation at Richmond,” Cleveland Morning Leader, October 13, 1862.

[13] “Slaveholders Unionists,” Herkimer Democrat, April 29, 1863.

[14] “Notice,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 5, 1860; James L. Apperson, Amnesty Petition, June 21, 1865, Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, Record Group 94, NARA. Accessed via

Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His dissertation, "The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South," examines the ways in which the domestic slave trade shaped the course of the Civil War and the experience of emancipation. You can follow him on Twitter, @rkdcolby86.