Category: Muster

The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

As a public historian working in St. Louis, Missouri, I am sometimes asked whether enslaved people living here before the Civil War ran away more frequently than enslaved people in the Deep South. Enslaved St. Louisians had the free state of Illinois across the Mississippi River, after all. While an exact response would be hard to quantify, I am fond of highlighting the story of Mattie J. Jackson as a part of my answer. Born and raised in St. Louis, Jackson wrote about her experiences with slavery in a short autobiography at the age of twenty in 1866. The Story of Mattie J. Jackson is unique in that it documents a traumatic, failed attempt by her family to seek freedom in Illinois. Jackson’s narrative highlights the intimate relationship between anti-slavery and anti-Black sentiment in the North and documents the very real dangers enslaved runaways experienced while traveling through free states (or what historian Dwight Pitcaithley more accurately describes as “non-slave states”).[1] For someone in Jackson’s position, the powerful symbolism of the North Star did not represent a path to freedom.

Title page of slave narrative
Figure 1: Front Cover of The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Photo Courtesy of Documenting the South

Slavery’s defenders in St. Louis faced unique challenges that undermined the security of its peculiar institution. The city was home to roughly 1,500 free Black residents leading up to the Civil War, a group that included a small financially elite network that styled themselves “the Colored Aristocracy.” An informal communications system between free and enslaved Blacks also existed to pass along information and promote education. For example, Mary and John Berry Meachum, leaders within St. Louis’s free Black community, operated schools for both free and enslaved people at First African Baptist Church. St. Louis was also a central destination for enslaved people looking to sue for their freedom. Early in Missouri’s statehood, state law established the concept of “once free, always free,” opening a door for African Americans to use the courts to pursue claims of unlawful enslavement. According to historian Kelly Kennington, 287 freedom suits were filed in the St. Louis County Courthouse (today the Old Courthouse at Gateway Arch National Park) between 1810 and 1860. 110 enslaved people (38 percent) earned their freedom through a successful lawsuit during this time. The city also experienced a major demographic change among its white population. By 1860, a surge of northern- and foreign-born residents in St. Louis led to increasing hostility to slavery’s presence within the city. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by the start of the Civil War.[2]

And yet, slavery remained an important component of St. Louis’s economic life and a form of social control enforced through harsh legislation. After pressure from St. Louis slaveholders, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law banning anyone from teaching an African American—whether free or slave—how to read and write in 1847. Enslaved people in Missouri were banned from getting married, riding public transit without permission, and smoking in public. Other “Black Codes” were enforced in St. Louis that prevented all blacks from making “seditions speeches” or meeting in church without a white observer present. Additionally, all African Americans needed to possess passes while moving in public as well.[3] It was with full sincerity that the famous abolitionist and formerly enslaved St. Louisian William Wells Brown recalled that “though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri . . . no part of our slave-holding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.”[4]

This was the harsh world that Mattie Jackson’s family hoped to escape. Jackson’s father, Westly Jackson, successfully ran away from St. Louis around 1850 and worked as a preacher in Chicago, but left his wife and two children in the city on a temporary basis. “Two years after my father’s departure, my mother . . . attempted to make her escape” from slavery alongside her children, Jackson recalled. While traveling through Illinois over several days, “we slept in the woods at night. I believe my mother had food to supply us fasted herself.”[5] Trouble loomed in the distance, however.

Jackson noted that the St. Louis newspapers were read by many residents in western Illinois. In publications like the Missouri Republican, advertisements with monetary rewards for capturing enslaved runaways were published on a daily basis. For white Illinoisans who had little regard for African Americans and a desire for cash, the opportunity to serve as a vigilante slave patrol for St. Louis slaveholders was appealing. “The advertisement had reached there before us,” Jackson recalled, “and loafers were already in search of us, and as soon as we were discovered on the brink of the river of the spies made enquiries respecting [our] suspicious appearance.” After their capture, “we were taken back to St. Louis and committed to prison . . . after which they put us in [Bernard] Lynch’s trader’s yard . . . we were then sold to William Lewis.”[6]

Sepia photo of slave pen with men standing outside.
Figure 2: After Jackson and her family were captured in Illinois, they were returned to St. Louis and sold at Bernard Lynch’s “trader’s yard,” which is pictured here during the American Civil War. Ironically, Lynch abandoned St. Louis at the start of the war and his building became a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates during the war. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The maintenance of slavery in eastern Missouri was highly dependent on not just a tolerance of slavery among Illinois residents, but active involvement through the capture of enslaved runaways. The state government, with strong support from political leaders in western and southern Illinois, went a step further by banning the settlement of free Blacks within the state’s boundaries in 1853. State legislator and future Civil War general John A. Logan was a leading force in getting this legislation passed. During debates he remarked that opponents of the bill were White “abolitionists” anxious to promote racial equality. “I [cannot] understand how it is that men can become so fanatical in their notions as to forget that they are white . . . it has almost become an offense to be a white man,” Logan remarked without a hint of irony.[7] Such attitudes among White Illinoisans were known among Missouri’s enslaved population and would have undoubtedly prevented many of them from taking the same path Jackson’s mother attempted to follow in running away from St. Louis.

Jackson remained in slavery through much of the Civil War, but went on to recall a remarkable irony following the Camp Jackson Affair within the city limits on May 10, 1861. Facing continued abuse from Lewis and recognizing that the she might be able to seek refuge from an increased presence of U.S. troops in the city, Jackson sought protection at the St. Louis Arsenal. She remained at a boarding house for three weeks, but when Lewis tried to sell Jackson and her mother at Lynch’s trader yard, he was promptly detained by the Army and given “one hundred lashes with the cow-hide, so that [the Army] might identify him by a scarred back, as well as his slaves.” While the beginning of the war were considered “days of sadness” for the Lewis family, Jackson fondly recalled them as “days of joy for us. We shouted and laughed to the top of our voices.” Several years later Jackson, with help from sympathetic Army officers, successfully made her way to Indianapolis to enjoy a new life in freedom.[8]

The publication of Jackson’s book in 1866 represents a final insight into her autobiography. In promoting her narrative after the Civil War’s conclusion and the beginning of the Reconstruction Era, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson served to remind readers of the horrors of slavery at a time when many Americans were anxious to move on from the past. In appealing to readers for donations to help fund her education, Jackson showed that while freedom had been achieved, the path to prosperity during Reconstruction—literacy, education, capital, land, and rights—still lay far in the future despite the recent ratification of the 13th Amendment. Jackson’s unique and courageous story demonstrates how freedom-seeking was a dangerous process that could break up families and ultimately lead to violent punishment and continued enslavement, even when freedom appeared to be staring across the Mississippi River.

 

 

[1] Mattie J. Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Her Parentage—Experience of Eighteen Years in Slavery—Incidents During the War—Her Escape from Slavery. A True Story (Lawrence: Sentinel Office, 1866), available online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jacksonm/jackson.html; Dwight T. Pitcaithley, The U.S. Constitution and Secession: A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

[2] Julie Winch, The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antono F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 25-74; Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 198.

[3] “An Act Respecting Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes,” 1847, accessed February 8, 2022. https://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/MDH/AnActRespectingSlaves,1847.pdf; Missouri State Archives, “Laws Concerning Slavery in Missouri, Territorial to 1850s,” Missouri State Archives, 2022, accessed February 7, 2022. https://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/earlyslavelaws/slavelaws.

[4] William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847), 27.

[5] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] James Pickett Jones, Black Jack: John A. Logan and Southern Illinois in the Civil War Era, reprint edition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 14-19.

[8] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 8-11.

Nick Sacco

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

Previewing March 2022 JCWE

Previewing March 2022 JCWE

This issue of the Journal of the Civil War contains three research articles and an historiographic review essay that reflect the field’s increasing geographic and topical breadth. Together they indicate that calls to envision an expansive Civil War Era are being answered in increasingly rich and complex ways, and they suggest that we might turn to analyzing the different ways the Civil War Era is being expanded and the varying implications of those expansions.

Peter Guardino’s “The Constant Recurrence of Such Atrocities: Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency during the Mexican-American War” analyzes US military responses to guerrilla warfare over the course of the US-Mexico War. Guardino traces how wars against Native Americans shaped early US military actions in northern Mexico and then examines how US commanders made it official policy to attack Mexican civilians as the war moved into central Mexico. This story, important in its own right, also provides a backstory and partial contrast to anti-guerilla campaigns in the US Civil War.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger looks east to expand our sense of how mid-nineteenth-century Americans understood and changed the laws of war. She argues that the Prussian immigrant Francis Lieber was influenced by Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, first published in the 1830s, but also that Lieber’s time in the United States shaped his thinking about modern war and democracy. What emerged from this mix of European theory and US reality, Bellinger claims, were new and distinctive theories that are best understood when placed in their own historical context.

Heading west, Jonathan Wells’s “Printed Communities: Race, Respectability, and Black Newspapers in the Civil War West,” examines Black editors and journalists in the US West between 1860s and 1880s as they attempted to create a distinct set of western identities for African Americans there, to engage with the complex racial politics of the West, and to construct new models of respectability to fit new spaces.

Cameron Blevins and Christy Hyman’s review essay, “Digital History and the Civil War Era,” assesses the ways that transformations in computational methods, tools, and platforms have reshaped representations and analysis of the Civil War Era. Blevins and Hyman show that scholars have made extraordinary use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping and of less-heralded digital systems, and they encourage us all to think more expansively and critically about digital technologies as they reshape historical practices.

This essay’s book reviews once again demonstrate book review editor Kathryn Shively’s extraordinary commitment under unusually challenging publishing circumstances, and also the professionalism and dedication of our colleagues, as scholars continued to produce sharp, informative reviews during the pandemic. 

 

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.

Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions

Challenging Exceptionalism: The 1876 Presidential Election, Potter Committee, and European Perceptions

In May 1878, the House of Representatives appointed Representative Clarkson N. Potter (NY-12) to investigate claims of fraud during the 1876 election. The commission, as Adam Fairclough untangles in his new book, uncovered massive wrongdoing on both sides, including so-called bulldozing by Louisiana Democrats, Republican election theft, and attempts to buy off the individuals in charge of the vote count. Designed to embarrass President Rutherford B. Hayes, Democrats’ efforts backfired as neither side emerged unscathed in the final report.[1] However, this was not the first or the last time elections in the United States were fraught with violence, corruption, and bribery.[2]

Europeans were well-aware of how “democracy” worked in the North American republic. Many, even those who favored electoral reforms, were often torn about using the United States as an example because of that well-known stigma. Nevertheless, and despite its transnational turn, the Civil War has retained an exceptionalist character, even among scholars who wish to internationalize the conflict. The notion that the war, in some form, was to safeguard republicanism continues. As one recent scholar terms it: “Were southern secession to succeed, slavery would be preserved, the republican experiment discredited.”[3] As I have shown elsewhere, Europeans were wary invoking the U.S. experiment when calling for electoral reforms at home.[4] The coverage of the 1876 election and Potter Committee investigation certainly did not aid the standing of the republican experiment’s cause among Europeans. Europeans’ views of the contested Election of 1876 and the Potter Committee further challenge the exceptionalism myth of the United States and the American Civil War as safeguarding republicanism.

Henry Ogden, “Washington, D.C. – The Potter Investigation Committee in Session in the Basement of the Old Capitol,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 22, 1878.

European newspapers always paid close attention to the events in North America, especially U.S. presidential elections. With the transatlantic cable in place, news arrived fast. On November 16, 1876, the Neue Freie Presse, an Austrian newspaper, briefly reported that the election was called in favor of President Hayes, but that both parties had sent influential members to Louisiana to check on the vote counting.[5] Die Presse voiced a similar concern and questioned whether additional scrutiny would reveal serious electoral trickery. Reporting some of the initial issues with the vote, the editors worried of a new civil conflict.[6]

As more detailed news of the elections in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina arrived, the newspapers added their editorial spins. By December, Die Presse expressed its disbelief over the lack of a clear winner. The paper highlighted that the election board in Louisiana had thrown out the democratic election results in eight parishes. Die Presse editors blamed the corruption of the outgoing Grant administration for causing some of the fraudulent activities in Louisiana. The newspaper editors worried that the situation was so tense that any misstep could bring about a dramatic escalation.[7]What message about democratic government did such news send to Austrian readers?

Meanwhile, Das Vaterland ran a lengthy article on the contested election in mid-January. The newspaper also worried that the election could easily result in another civil conflict as the U.S. Constitution offered little guidance for resolving a tie in the electoral college. Explaining the complicated presidential electoral system and the issues of 1876 to its readers, Das Vaterland wondered if the two major political parties could find an agreement as to whose electors would be counted. While remaining hopeful that a peaceful transfer of power was possible, there was an undertone in the article that alluded to the unexpected disaster of the 1860 election.[8] The Austrian media expressed disbelief at what transpired in Louisiana.

The French press did not cover the presidential election in great detail but observed pointedly that the election of 1876 in Louisiana involved, in the words of Le Figaro, “gigantic fraud.” The news coverage also highlighted that the election had involved intimidation and other irregularities.[9]

Among the Austrian and French press, the Potter Committee did not receive extensive coverage, but a few brief mentions did occur. The Wiener Zeitung briefly noted the creation of the Potter Committee and its initial focus on John Sherman and other Republicans associated with Hayes and the election in Louisiana and Florida.[10] The committee was likely to find issues as the Neue Freie Presse reported because recently witnesses had stepped forward who had taken part in the manipulations of the votes. The editors assumed Democrats had reopened the question to benefit their political chances in the upcoming mid-term elections.[11] Austrian readers could read into these brief reports what they wished, but the indication of a fundamental flaw in the U.S. election system was obvious.

The British Press also reported on the Potter Committee and the voting fraud of 1876. The testimony of James E. Anderson drew great interest as he illustrated how much fraud and corruption were part of the Louisiana election and how many influential politicians were involved in the efforts to make Hayes president.[12] However, all these reports were minor in their open criticism of the United States to what the Pall Mall Gazette said.

On September 6, 1880, the Pall Mall Gazette fired a devastating broadside against the U.S. electoral system. (Note that this is after the change of ownership at the Gazette and its new editorial policy aligning closer to the Liberal Party.) In the lead up to the election of 1880, the paper revisited the previous presidential contest and observed that Hayes was the “legally elected” president, but that his election was made possible by fraud. The paper dismissed some reports detailing the intimidation and violence directed at Black voters. At the same time, the editors reminded their readers that both sides in the political contest engaged in significant voter fraud and manipulation. The choice between armed military despotism and fraud was an easy one in the United States—fraud was more agreeable. At the same time, the editors contended that most people did not pay attention or care much about politics. Frequent elections were cited as a cause of the disinterest.

However, the paper offered the clearest indictment of the U.S. political and electoral system. Comparing the United States to Napoleon III’s France, the paper wondered how democratic the United States truly was. Worthy of quoting in full, the British newspaper concluded: “Thus there is the most singular toleration of acknowledged foul play by both the players; and this is all the more noteworthy because communities and Governments, far less scrupulous on the whole, have proved extremely intolerant of electoral fraud. If ever there was a Government which might be supposed capable of it, it was that of the Second French Empire. The Ministers and prefects of Napoleon III did not indeed neglect some American precedents; to use the American phrase, they often ‘gerrymandered’ the constituencies by grouping them so as to produce a favorable result; but they never ventured to tamper with the ballot-box.”[13] In other words, even the often vilified Emperor Napoleon III did not engage in activities done by U.S. politicians. Nor did he, as Louisiana politicians in 1876, outright manipulate the vote. How could the United States be an example for democratic elections if it did not respect the voice of the voters?

While some exceptionalist-minded scholars continue to view the victory of the United States and its political system in the American Civil War as one safeguarding democracy and republicanism, the reality was very different. For the surveyed European newspaper editors, the United States contributed to that reality. The many reports of fraud, violence, and corruption of antebellum elections had already made the United States a less than desirable example for those wishing to bring about democratic reforms. The coverage of the 1876 election and Potter Committee, even if limited, drove further home that very point. How much would anybody wish to mimic a system where violence, intimidation, corruption, and the political wishes of a few people could turn the ballot voice of voters around? And as the Pall Mall Gazette observes, if the villain of some U.S. scholarship, Napoleon III, did not even engage in such outright voter fraud as practiced in Louisiana, how much can we truly view the United States as the beacon of republicanism everybody looked up to, especially after the Civil War?

 

[1] Adam Fairclough, Bulldozed and Betrayed: Louisiana and the Stolen Election of 1876 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021).

[2] Frank Towers, The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004).

[3] Joseph A. Fry, Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relation in the Civil War Era (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), 188.

[4] Niels Eichhorn, “Democracy: The Civil War and the Transnational Struggle for Electoral Reform,” American Nineteenth Century History 20 (2019): 293-313.

[5] Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), November 16, 1876.

[6] Die Presse (Vienna), November 20, 1876.

[7] Die Presse (Vienna), December 3, 1876.

[8] Das Vaterland (Vienna), January 17, 1877.

[9] Le Figaro (Paris), December 29, 1876.

[10] Wiener Zeitung (Vienna), May 14, 1878.

[11] Neue Freie Presse (Vienna), May 17, 1878.

[12] “The American Election Frauds,” The Freeman’s Journal, June 17, 1878; “The Election Frauds in America,” Birmingham Daily Post, June 11, 1878; “The Alleged Electoral Frauds in America,” Daily News, June 27, 1878. Special thanks to John Legg for helping me locate British newspaper sources for this project.

[13] The Pall Mall Gazette (London), September 6, 1880.

 

Niels Eichhorn

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

Hollywood Has Yet to Capture the Relationship that Developed between African Americans and Lincoln

Hollywood Has Yet to Capture the Relationship that Developed between African Americans and Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln has been featured in movies since the dawn of cinema, but it’s only been in recent years that his connection with African Americans has gained significant attention. Released in 2012, two films highlighted the role of Black men and women in the Lincoln White House. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter included a childhood friend named William Johnson (played by Curtis Harris) who was sold into slavery, escaped, and grew up to serve as one of Lincoln’s closest presidential advisors. Although wholly fictionalized in the film, William H. Johnson was a real figure in Lincoln’s adult life—a valet and barber who served Lincoln in both Springfield, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.

Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Lincoln also featured two important Black figures—William Slade (played by Stephen Henderson) and Elizabeth Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben). As the president’s usher and valet, Slade had great responsibility in the Executive Mansion. He managed the other servants and attended to the president’s needs. (Slade also had the unenviable task of preparing Lincoln’s body to be placed in the coffin in April 1865.) According to Slade’s daughter, the president regularly discussed his speeches and political decisions with Slade. She even claimed that by the time the Emancipation Proclamation was released her father “already knew every word of it.” Slade also had important public roles in wartime Washington. He was active in several Black social and political organizations, was an elder at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, and was a leader in the African American community in Washington when it came to military recruitment.[1]

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Keckley, the most famous African American woman in the Lincoln White House, served as Mary Lincoln’s seamstress and modiste. Born to an enslaved mother and a white planter in Virginia in 1818, Keckley’s life in bondage was one of grit, suffering, and endurance. As a teenager she was sent to North Carolina, where she was severely beaten. For four years she was raped by “a white man” who had “base designs upon me” and “persecuted me . . . and I—I—became a mother.”[2] (Her son would later die as a soldier in the Union army.) Eventually, in 1855, she was able to purchase her own freedom.

Keckley moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a dressmaker for prominent women of the city, including Varina Davis. In 1861 Mary Lincoln hired her and the two developed a close friendship. In fact, Keckley was present for some of the most painful and moving scenes in the Executive Mansion, including the death of Willie Lincoln in February 1862. She was also active in raising funds for former slaves who had been displaced by the friction and abrasion of the war. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley remained a close confidant of the widow. Abolitionist Julia Wilbur wrote in her diary, “Mrs. Slade & Mrs. Keckley have been with Mrs. Lincoln nearly all the time since the murder, not as servants but as friends. Both colored women; & Mrs. Lincoln said she chose them because her husband was appreciated by the colored race; they (the colored people) understood him.”[3] In 1868 Keckly published a now-celebrated memoir, Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The revelatory nature of the book infuriated Mary Lincoln and created a permanent schism between the two women.

In the Spielberg film, Keckly and Slade make several appearances. In Slade’s most poignant scene, young Tad Lincoln looks at a photograph of a slave who has been beaten severely. Tad asks his father, “Why do some slaves cost more than others?” Tad’s older brother Robert replies that a slave’s value is related to his or her age and health, or whether a woman can conceive. Lincoln tells Tad to put the images back into the box. Tad then turns to Slade and asks innocently, “When you were a slave, Mr. Slade, did they beat you?” Slade replies with a smile, “I was born a free man. Nobody beat me except I beat them right back.” Keckly then enters the room and Slade says to Tad, “Mrs. Keckly was a slave. Ask her if she was beaten.” “Were you?” Tad asks, as his father shakes his head. “I was beaten with a fire shovel when I was younger than you,” she replies.

Title page of Behind The Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley.

In another pivotal scene, Keckley thanks Lincoln for all he is doing to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives. “Thank you for your concern over this,” she says. “And I want you to know they’ll approve it. God will see to it.” Lincoln replies with wry humor: “I don’t envy him his task.”

After a few more words pass between them, Lincoln asks the seamstress, “Are you afraid of what lies ahead for your people? If we succeed?”

Keckley replies, “White people don’t want us here.” (This is an allusion to colonization, a scheme supported by many whites—including Lincoln until 1863 or 1864—to send freedpeople to Africa or other parts of the world.)

“Many don’t,” Lincoln concedes.

“What about you?” she asks.

Lincoln pauses. “I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you.” Lincoln then continues, “What you are to the nation—what will become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.”

With dignity in her voice, Keckley replies: “What my people are to be I can’t say. I never heard any ask what freedom would bring. Freedom’s first. As for me, my son died fighting for the Union. Wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. And I am his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?”

Spielberg’s inclusion of Keckley and Slade in Lincoln was essential for capturing the White House as it was in Lincoln’s day. But they were far from the only African Americans to enter the White House during the period covered in the film.[4] Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin R. Delany visited the White House during the period covered by the film. So did a number of other African Americans whose names have since been lost to history.

In fact, African Americans visited the White House in significant numbers between 1862 and 1865. The filmmakers’ decisions to focus only on White House staff missed a much bigger story. And the line that Spielberg’s Lincoln says to Keckley—“I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley. Any of you.”—ignores the relationship that developed between the sixteenth president and African Americans during the Civil War.

During the Lincoln Administration, hundreds of African Americans boldly walked through the White House doors for private meetings and public receptions—claiming “the People’s House” as their house, and the president as their president. This was a significant shift in American race relations. Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests. But wartime Washington experienced a shock to the norm.

Black men and women came to the White House for a variety of reasons. Some merely wished to see the president, or to thank him. A few even brought him gifts. But others had larger objects in mind. In 1862, for example, Robert Smalls pushed Lincoln to enlist black men into the Union army. In 1863, Frederick Douglass strongly encouraged the president to ensure that U.S. Colored Troops received the same treatment as white soldiers. And in 1864, at least three delegations of Black southerners urged Lincoln to support Black male suffrage. One of these visitors, Rev. Richard H. Parker of Norfolk, Virginia, later recalled: “I knew [as] soon as I heard that man speak, and saw his kind face, that he would be a good friend to my people; and I’ve never had cause to change my mind.” Parker then said that he went “home contented, with a full heart.”[5]

Personal interactions with African Americans changed Lincoln’s views on several important policy matters. Shortly after meeting with Robert Smalls, for example, Lincoln came to support the enlistment of African American soldiers. The southern delegations’ push for voting rights also helped shape Lincoln’s thinking on that matter. Lincoln’s many personal interactions with African Americans in wartime Washington have been largely forgotten, but they are stories that should be better known—and that could be told in compelling ways on the big screen. For three years African Americans and Abraham Lincoln worked together to make strides for equality, to quote First Lady Michelle Obama, “in a house that was built by slaves.”

[1] John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942), 105-117; Natalie Sweet, “A Representative ‘of Our People’: The Agency of William Slade, Leader in the African American Community and Usher to Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 34 (Summer 2013): 21-41.

[2] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1868), 36-39.

[3]Julia Wilbur, diary entry for April 20, 1865, Haverford College, Quaker and Special Collections (transcriptions by Alexandria Archaeology).

[4] Gary L. Flowers, executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, also made this point in “‘Lincoln’: What’s Missing from this Movie?” Philadelphia Tribune, November 30, 2012.

[5] H. C. Percy, “Father Parker,” American Missionary 12 (August 1868): 169-72.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author or editor of 13 books, including A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (2022) and To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln (2021). Follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.

Reclaiming Roots for the Next Generation

Reclaiming Roots for the Next Generation

Sometimes, a new historical study can raise new questions to previously discussed topics while reintroducing classic works with refreshing perspectives. Tyler D. Parry’s Jumping the Broom is one such work. Parry uncovers the complex and interconnected histories of Europeans, Africans, and African Americans’ marital ceremonial practice of jumping the broom as a form of agency in order to have their unions legitimized (at least within their communities). Additionally, Parry traces the rising popularity within the wedding industrial complex, which continues marketing the act as an African ritual confirmed in the 1976 edition of Alex Haley’s Roots miniseries where Kunta Kinte and Belle wed (an act that did not receive as much detail in Haley’s book).[1] By refocusing on the significance of enslaved people’s cultural practices, Parry shows readers how it is possible to uncover the complexity of intimate relations, marital practices, and enslaved people’s agency while living within the oppressive system of slavery. For me, Parry’s analysis and conclusions raised the possibility of structuring an undergraduate course that critically analyzes Haley’s printed and dramatized works and places them in conversation with relevant scholarship might provide current students with Black genealogical histories and cultural practices across multiple generations.

Older Black man in gray hair standing next to a younger black man draped in a blanket and wearing a hat.
Lou Gossett Jr. (left) and LeVar Burton (right) star in the Roots miniseries.

Alex Haley’s Roots, both the book and miniseries, remain relevant and ever-present in American society. It is plausible to connect the material to current conversations regarding social and racial justice, systemic racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically, Roots’ centralized focus on Haley’s family history dating back to the mid-eighteenth century includes several issues, including but not limited to, detailing African culture, depicting the Middle Passage for enslaved people, highlighting how enslaved people repeatedly demonstrated agency against slaveowners, and emphasizing the significance of Black families (in and outside of bondage). Both the literary and visual images invoke, then and now, vivid ways to understand the lives of diverse Black people across hemispheres and generations and their struggles to have their humanity recognized, marital unions legitimized, and families protected.

A compelling aspect of Haley’s work was that he focused on significant historical moments from the perspective of Black people rather than white people. Whether it was the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, the shifted gaze provides a lens that reveals how knowledgeable, resourceful, and intelligent enslaved people were to key events as they continued to adapt for their survival, which previous academic and public discourses downplayed or ignored.

Given that Roots held both the number one spot as a New York Times Best Sellers list and was also one of the most-watched miniseries, it was unsurprising that it received a diverse and wide number of public responses, positive and negative, from audiences in the United States and internationally. Some African Americans, such as James Baldwin, saw Roots as an invaluable contribution to conversations about race and racism by doing pro-Black work that emphasized agency, strength, and familial importance in the face of unending racial discrimination.[2] White audiences, meanwhile, ranged from people stating that Roots uncovered, for them, a historical past that some did not know, while others denounced Haley for promoting (supposed) racialized propaganda. At the same time, President Jimmy Carter minimized the Black experience depicted in work by claiming that they “were one group among many.”[3] Incorporating these varied public opinions into the classroom can potentially stimulate discussions on the complex and differing public responses to the work that analyzed the realities of slavery and racial and gender discrimination from the perspective of Black families at the center of the topics.

Aside from public debates, some critics raised multiple questions about the authenticity and accuracy of Roots. Regarding the book, numerous questions arose over Haley’s research methods, his personal biases, the writing process with his collaborators, and even concerns of potentially plagiarizing the works of Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander.[4] These are important and valid issues to raise when discussing the complex public and scholarly debates surrounding Roots. Adding these points to the classroom presents an opportunity to unpack issues related to authenticity and a project’s originality and how the popularity of Roots continued to this day. Currently, students (at a wide range of institutions) engage in similar debates over the 1619 Project and critically discuss issues of race, gender, religion, class, and other important topics.[5] By placing such issues into a historical context, students gain deeper and more nuanced understandings of how previous generations dealt with historical moments, people, and thought-provoking pop cultural phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Matthew F. Delmont provides insight on the various politics of producing, filming, broadcasting, and viewing the 1976 miniseries. He details the lived and real trauma that Black actresses and actors experienced throughout the filming. For instance, the Middle Passage depictions below the deck on the Lord Ligonier had cast members tightly chained together with simulated vomit and fluids, which led to numerous extras refusing to return after one day of shooting.[6] Understanding the physical, psychological, and emotional distress that cast members experienced is critical for classroom discussions about the unintended consequences of bringing such intense and compelling stories to the screen.

There is a wealth of scholarship that educators could assign, in conjunction with Roots, to provide illuminating dialogues regarding the Black family experience in the various locations and periods that Haley’s work discusses. The work of Jennifer L. Morgan and Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh provide a counternarrative to Haley’s patriarchal emphasis of Black familial and communal dynamics to focus on life, in freedom and bondage, for Black women. Both scholars denote how West African women repeatedly demonstrated agency against slaveowners, including practicing West African tradition throughout the violent “Americanizing” process.[7] Walter Johnson’s work remains one of the best studies that explore both the processes of commodifying and dehumanizing enslaved people in public slave markets.[8] Meanwhile, the collective work of Amy Murrell Taylor, Tera Hunter, and Brandi C. Brimmer provides insight into the personal lives of African American families (including those connected to the United States Colored Troops soldiers) as they navigated the difficulties of freedom during and long after the Civil War.[9] Ultimately, placing these and similar studies in conversation with Roots can yield informative course content that highlights how studies of Black families were, and still are, an important topic that can reframe public and academic discourses on history, race, and gender in informative and lasting ways. At the same time, their work highlights how relevant the content and points of emphasis in Roots remain ever-present today. Hopefully, students (mine and others) will gain a better understanding of Roots, genealogical studies, and Black history in the process.

 

[1] Tyler D. Parry, Jumping the Broom: The Surprising Multicultural Origins of a Black Wedding Ritual (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[2] James Baldwin, “How One Black Man Came To Be an American: A Review of Roots,” New York Times, September 26, 1976.

[3] Clare Corbould, “Roots, the Legacy of Slavery, and Civil Rights Backlash in 1970s America,” Roots Reconsidered: Race, Politics, and Memory, eds. Erica L. Ball and Kellie Carter Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 33-34.

[4] Arnold H. Lubasch, “ ‘Roots’ Plagiarism Suit is Settled,” New York Times, December 15, 1978.

[5] “The 1619 Project” Critical Race Training in Education, https://criticalrace.org/the-1619-project/, accessed on 1/25/2022.

[6] Matthew F. Delmont, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

[7] Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

[8] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[9] Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Brandi C. Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020); Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

Echoes of 1891 in 2022

Echoes of 1891 in 2022

The New York Times recently deplored the ongoing threats to democratic governance and quoted President Benjamin Harrison’s 1891 Annual Message, where he warned against moves then underfoot to allow state legislatures to select presidential electors in disregard of the popular vote.[1]

Even more recently, Senator Angus King from Maine and his Oregon counterpart, Jeff Merkley, have depicted 1891 as a crucial watershed, when the Senate was stymied by a filibuster and failed to enact voting rights legislation.[2]

These little-remembered episodes from 130 years ago offer important perspective on our current political travail.  The erasure of voting rights in the late nineteenth century is a story that ought not be forgotten.  For more than a decade after 1877, often thought of as the end of Reconstruction, no state dared to enact formal disfranchisement legislation. African Americans still had a precarious right to vote. In much of the Upper South, they exercised that right, with the result that party competition remained close in states such as Virginia and North Carolina. Black voters in the Deep South, however, were routinely subjected to rampant intimidation and violence when they attempted to cast ballots, and the counting process often was fraudulently perverted. The Upper South had its own problems, such as the purging of eligible voter lists, but elections in the Deep South made a mockery of democratic norms.

Formal portrait photograph of Benjamin Harrison.
President Benjamin Harrison (Library of Congress)

Harrison was a Republican. His party had gained narrow margins in both houses of Congress when he was elected in 1888.  Louis T. Michener, the president’s chief political agent in his home state of Indiana, reported in 1889 that he had met with a number of influential Black leaders in Indianapolis. With “great power and earnestness,” they conveyed shocking details about the situation in the South and pleaded for “action on the part of this administration” to give Southern Blacks “some protection in their rights as citizens.” “My blood boiled while I listened,” Michener reported: “the truth of the matter is, that the people of the North do not hear of the one thousandth part of the outrages committed upon the colored people by the white people of the South.”[3]

Black voting had been the cornerstone for Congressional Reconstruction. It had been designed to secure dual objectives—to enable those formerly enslaved to defend their new freedoms, and to provide a mechanism through which pro-Union (and pro-Republican) electorates might take root in the ex-Confederate states. But neither objective had been secured. The “Solid South” had become a Democratic party bastion that carried Grover Cleveland to the presidency in 1884, while Southern Blacks lacked the political leverage to redress their grievances.

Northern Republicans fumed that those who had “nullified and uprooted” Black voting consequently enjoyed increased representation in Congress and additional clout in presidential elections.[4] Harrison had bested Cleveland in 1888 only by assembling wafer-thin margins in several pivotal Northern states, including his own. The new president had ample motive to pay attention to Indiana’s modest cohort of Black voters. Republicans could not hold the state without them.  But any effort to protect Black rights ran headlong into the fatalistic views of many educated white Northerners, who presumed that no law could overcome Southern white resistance to Black voting.[5]

Engraving of two men talking to one another.
Mainstream national publications such as Harper’s Weekly, which opposed the Elections bill, also propagated insulting stereotypes of African Americans. (Vol. 33, October 19, 1889, p. 835)

Harrison and his managers decided to give priority to enacting a Federal Elections bill, but the devil was in the details. The best way to secure “a free vote and a fair count” might have been to remove the electoral process from the tainted hands of Southern state and local officials—and to place the federal government in charge of registration, voting, vote counting, and certification.   Many Blacks and some white Republicans indeed called for thoroughgoing federal control. But an intense behind-the-scenes tussle revealed that proponents of federal control would have to settle for a plan to place federal supervisors at polling places and to empower federal canvassers to certify voting returns. Whatever its limitations, the bill threatened to overturn the ability of Southern state governments to validate election outcomes. “The law proposed is not as strong as it should be, but it is the best in sight,” noted T. Thomas Fortune, the African American editor of the New York Age.[6]

Formal portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge.
Henry Cabot Lodge (Library of Congress)

Massachusetts representative Henry Cabot Lodge, who managed the House bill and whose name became attached to it, shared his party’s frustration about the malign consequences of Democratic cheating in the South, but his defense of the Elections bill transcended narrow partisanship. He warned that “a failure to do what is right brings its own punishment to nations as to men.”  The American people, who had paid a heavy debt because of slavery, ran a renewed risk: “If we permit any citizen, no matter how humble, to be wronged, we shall atone for it to the last jot and tittle.  No great moral question of right and wrong can ever be settled finally except in one way, and the longer the day of reckoning is postponed the larger will be the debt and the heavier the payment.” The United States government, having “made the black man a citizen,” was obligated to protect him in all his rights.  And, Lodge thundered, “it is a cowardly government if it does not do it!”[7]

In early July, the House approved the Lodge bill. Thomas B. (“Czar”) Reed, the Speaker, overcame Democratic obstruction and vituperation about a “force bill” to craft a narrow victory margin, 155 to 149.  Reed ruled out the subterfuge of a “disappearing quorum,” a Democratic party tactic to filibuster the House.  The Speaker’s firm discipline kept Republicans together on the near party-line vote.[8]  But the bill floundered in the Senate. Amid the sweltering heat of a humid Washington summer, long before the arrival of air conditioning, Republican managers found themselves unable to muster a majority to alter the Senate’s rules that permitted unlimited debate.

Republicans then suffered a landslide defeat in November’s congressional elections. Their only remaining chance to enact the Federal Elections bill rested with the lame duck session of the old Congress, which assembled in December 1890. The powerful Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who headed the Rules Committee, proposed a temporary change in Senate rules to limit debate to thirty minutes per senator on the Elections bill after discussion had proceeded for a “reasonable” length of time. For more than a month, until late January 1891, the Senate wrestled with the Aldrich Resolution, and the fate of the Elections bill hung in the balance.[9]

As the Senate dithered, the state of Mississippi adopted a new constitution, which enacted a poll tax and created a gauntlet through which prospective voters would need to read any section of the state constitution or be able to “understand the same when read to him or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” Convention delegates candidly acknowledged their goal: “to restrict negro suffrage.” Mississippi’s insidious “understanding clause” set an example that other Southern states soon would follow.[10]

To make a long story short, a Southern-led filibuster in the Senate killed the Elections bill.  Northern Democrats sided with the white South, and several Republican senators refused to support the Aldrich Resolution. This defeat marked the end of any federal effort to stave off disfranchisement. Within the next decade, hardly any Black voters remained in the former Confederate states, while Jim Crow abuses and terror gained wicked momentum.[11]

Albion Tourgée, who had championed equal rights as a carpetbagger in North Carolina, stood out as a lonely Cassandra. Having lobbied tirelessly for a stronger Elections bill, he blasted Mississippi’s flagrant nullification of the Fifteenth Amendment (“a substitute for armed rebellion”) and contemptuously rebuked “Northern doughfaces” who assumed that “only the rich and cultivated are fit to have a voice in government.” Tourgée correctly predicted that the worst would follow. He echoed Frederick Douglass, who mourned the Republican party’s callous disregard of “an oft deceived, betrayed and deeply wronged people.”[12]

 

 

[1] “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now.” New York Times, 2 Jan. 2022, Sunday Review, 8.

[2]  David Rohde, “The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy,” New Yorker, 19 Jan. 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-senates-dangerous-inability-to-protect-democracy; King and Merkley both addressed the Senate on Wednesday evening, 19 Jan. 2022.

[3] Louis T. Michener to E. W. Halford, 1 and 5 October 1889, Benjamin Harrison Papers, Library of Congress.

[4] John Sherman, Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 1998-2001.

[5] Harper’s Weekly, 30 Nov. 1889, p. 950.

[6] New York Age, 12 Apr. and 16 Aug. 1890.  The best secondary source on the Federal Elections bill is Charles W. Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 226-59.

[7] Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 6537-44, esp. 6543.

[8] Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 6940-41.

[9] New York Times, 16, 18, 19, 24 Dec. 1890

[10] Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947), 206-15.

[11] Richard M. Valelly, The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 121-48; Daniel W. Crofts, “The Blair Bill and the Elections Bill, the Congressional Aftermath to Reconstruction” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1968), 312-43.

[12] Chicago Inter-Ocean, 1 and 29 Nov. 1890; Frederick Douglass to George F. Hoar, 2 Sept. 1890, George F. Hoar Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic, 252.

Daniel W. Crofts

Daniel W. Crofts, Professor Emeritus of History at The College of New Jersey, has written extensively about the North-South political crisis that culminated in secession and Civil War. He was awarded the University of Virginia's Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize for his 2016 volume, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press).

“Playing at War:” A Pre-AHA 2022 Recorded Roundtable Conversation

“Playing at War:” A Pre-AHA 2022 Recorded Roundtable Conversation

Editor’s note: As part of the SCWH Outreach Committee’s effort to promote the work of early career scholars, this pre-AHA 2022 recorded roundtable showcases four contributing authors and two co-editors from the forthcoming edited collection, Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Video Games (LSU Press).

*****

This recorded roundtable conversation convenes the co-editors and four contributing authors from the forthcoming edited collection, Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Video Games (LSU Press), that analyzes the varied ways in which American Civil War-themed video games depict conceptions of American identity and historical memory. In an online roundtable discussion the editors and authors explore how their respective chapters and the overall volume contextualize the creation, reception, and evolution of video games and their content in relation to prevailing, competing, and evolving historical memories of the Civil War era in popular culture. Dr. Katherine Brackett delineates how Civil War era video game manuals tend to disregard current historiography to perpetuate vintage myths and understandings of that era in an often-deliberate appeal to the prevailing cultural identity and historical memory of the typical white, male Civil War gamer. Dr. Jonathan S. Jones discusses how Red Dead Redemption 2, a story of violence in the American West, sends an anti-racist message for players to learn about and reject Lost Cause and neo-Confederate ideologies, a timely message into today’s political context. Aaron Phillips explores how Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood (2009) engages the dynamic relationship between irregular violence in the American West and the legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson expounds upon the relationship between video game design, research accuracy, and compelling gameplay. Collectively, these four authors, in conversation with editors Patrick A. Lewis and James “Trae” Welborn, demonstrate the complex relationship between Civil War Era video games and shifting conceptions of martial identity and historical memory within American popular culture. In so doing the roundtable charges historians working outside historical game studies to engage more deeply and directly with video games as an important cultural medium in modern American society.

Moderators:

  • Dr. James “Trae” Welborn III, Associate Professor of History, Georgia College & State University
  • Dr. Patrick A. Lewis, Director of Collections & Research, Filson Historical Society

Panelists:

  • Dr. Katherine Brackett, Research Assistant Professor, Middle Tennessee State University
  • Dr. Jonathan S. Jones, Assistant Professor of History, Virginia Military Institute
  • Aaron Phillips, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Alabama
  • Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, Independent Scholar & Adjunct Instructor of History, Pierpont Community and Technical College (Fairmont, WV).

See the full conversation here.

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).

“Deceive and Inflame the Masses”: Placing Blame for New Hampshire Civil War Draft Resistance

“Deceive and Inflame the Masses”: Placing Blame for New Hampshire Civil War Draft Resistance

Near midnight on a crisp October night in 1863, the brilliant fall foliage covering the flanks of the mountains in Jackson, New Hampshire, were suddenly awash in a bright glow. It was not an early dawn. The Forest Vale House, an inn nestled under the hulks of the White Mountains, was on fire. Two U.S. Army officers sleeping in the house awoke to a start and scrambled to escape the roaring flames, with one of them jumping from a third-story window. The conflagration consumed the four-story house and large stable, including the officers’ horses, wagons, and harnesses. Capt. Horace Godfrey, one of the Army officers, asserted in his report of the incident that “the fire was undoubtedly the work of an incendiary.”[1]

Birds eye photograph of Jackson, NH
Jackson, New Hampshire, circa 1890 (Library of Congress)

Godfrey, the Draft Enrolling Officer for the 1st District of New Hampshire, had good reason to believe an arsonist was the cause of his brush with death. The local residents had met him and his companion, Deputy Provost Marshal Hiram Paul, with open hostility since the two officers arrived in the mountains to serve draft notices for the district’s first quota of the 1863 Enrollment Act (which established the first national conscription). The fire at the Forest Vale House was the final straw. Fearful for their safety, Godfrey and Paul gave up on delivering their final four draft notices and retreated back down the long road to their headquarters in Portsmouth. Republican and pro-war newspapers in that port city and across the region disavowed this violence as dangerous and unpatriotic. They did not, however, place full responsibility on the then-unknown perpetrators. Editors instead blamed the inflammatory rhetoric of prominent anti-war Democrats (known as Copperheads) in New Hampshire and across the country, who they claimed had misled an easily influenced citizenry.[2]

The denigration of their Democratic political opponents was a clear objective of this pro-war reporting on the draft resistance; newspapers were, after all, organs of political parties with the goal of making partisanship essential to the lives and identities of American men. What is less evident, however, is if editors intentionally sought to portray the masses as naïve and easily manipulated. Whether intentional, or merely a by-product of their political goals, these newspapers still spread this message to countless loyal readers. The effects of a persistent message of a society unaccountable for its actions on the fabric of a democratic society seems ripe for further study.[3]

Black and white engraving of a large crowd in an office.
An image from Harpers Weekly depicting the draft in the provost marshal’s office of New York’s Sixth District (Library of Congress)

This tactic by the state’s pro-war papers in response to incidents of draft resistance actually began several months earlier. After the initial draft call for nearly 2,000 men in July 1863, restless and rowdy crowds had gathered in Portsmouth, the District’s largest city and where the draft was to be held. Capt. John S. Godfrey, the District’s Provost Marshal (and brother of Enrolling Officer Horace, who would escape the fire in Jackson) called for an extra contingent of soldiers and Marines from nearby Fort Constitution and the Portsmouth Navy Yard to safeguard his office and the administration of the draft. Several days of clamorous protests came to a head on July 16. The Portsmouth civilian police force arrested the supposed ringleaders of the mob. Members of the crowd apparently tried to free them, and in the confusion, someone opened fire. One policeman was shot through the hand and two other people were wounded in the fracas that followed, but no one was killed.[4]

Frank W. Miller’s Portsmouth Daily Chronicle tried to paint the mob as naïve citizens who had simply been led astray by influential anti-war politicians. The mob was “composed chiefly, as all mobs are, of low and ignorant” people, the newspaper claimed, that could be “easily excited to do desperate things.” Their path to violence began at a public meeting held earlier in the week by prominent local Copperheads. The Daily Chronicle asserted the meeting was designed to “denounce the government and encourage the rebellion,” and that eventually “the treasonable ball [had] kept rolling, gaining as it went,” with “the agitators continuing to foment the excitement” up until the shooting affair on July 16. Only the proper show of force from the miliary and the police had dispersed the deluded crowd, which “ran like sheep” back to their homes or to “the low groggeries from which, maddened by rum and inflamed by demagogues’ appeals, they had come forth.”[5]

Black and white photographic view of Market Street in Portsmouth, NH
Market Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, circa 1910 (Library of Congress)

When resistance broke out again in the district with the burning of the Forest Vale House in Jackson, pro-war papers continued the narrative they had established in July. A correspondent for the Boston Journal, who had been in Jackson at the time of the burning of the inn, penned an account that made its way into numerous papers across the state and into the minds of countless readers. The journalist ultimately did not regard “those ignorant fellows who commit the overt acts as so guilty as certain leading politicians in that region,” who had done a great deal to “deceive and inflame the masses.” The Oxford (Maine) Democrat[6] meanwhile, asserted that “the trouble [was] attributed to the influence of politicians rather than a disposition to resist on the part of conscripts.” The Exeter Newsletter similarly claimed that the townspeople’s ignorance contributed to their belief in the righteousness of their resistance, and their choice to treat the Army officers “quite uncivilly” upon their arrival in Jackson. Although the Boston Journal correspondent maintained that the government would still enforce the draft in Carroll County, he also warned that “a few desperadoes may be incited to [additional] deeds of violence by men who claim to be respectable.”[7]

The newspapers furthered the notion of a naïve public even in the portrayal of the victims of the draft resistance. Editors described Mr. Horace Goodrich, the proprietor of the Forest Vale House, as “a very quiet man, seldom discussing politics,” who even “refrain[ed] from voting in town affairs.” They claimed Goodrich had been born poor, but “by industry and good management had accumulated a handsome property,” most of which was destroyed in the fire. In other words, how could the offenders be so naïve to burn down the home of an honest working man, who had nothing to do with the draft and only provided lodging to weary travelers?[8]

Several weeks later, the officers returned to the mountains, this time accompanied by a large detachment of Invalid Corps soldiers from Portsmouth. The pro-war newspapers claimed a drastic change in tone and behavior of the area residents. With unsubtle exaggeration, a “looker-on” in Jackson informed the Dover Enquirer that when the soldiers arrived, the fiery rhetoric of the townspeople softened, and “up went the flag…open went the church for their shelter, and loyalty began to abound, which continued to such a degree, that men came in to get notices they were drafted.” Apparently, all it took was a proper show of force to easily persuade an impressionable public and enforce the draft.[9]

Photograph of soldiers standing in a line
Soldiers of Company H, 10th Veteran Reserve Corps (formerly Invalid Corps), April 1865 (Library of Congress)

These sentiments first spread by the press in 1863 continued to hold past the end of the war. In his official report of the draft nearly two years later, new District Provost Marshal Capt. Daniel Hall wrote that “from the beginning of the war, many persons in this District had held and declared the most disloyal sentiments.” Hall claimed that this was “a great degree instigated and encouraged by the treasonable utterances of prominent public men, and newspapers published within the District and the large cities of the North.” Hall, like the Portsmouth Chronicle at the time, attributed the unrest in Portsmouth in July 1863 to the meeting in the city held where residents were “harangued by disloyal persons inciting them to…violence against the Enrollment Laws and its officers.” Hall also believed that the actions of the mob “[covered] in disgrace all who participated in it or its spirit,” particularly “those prominent and respectable persons who sympathized fully with its object and really instigated and sanctioned it,” but managed to “shirk all entire and open participation in its crime.”[10]

Contrary to the writings of newspaper editors and draft officials, however, accountability ultimately fell to those who committed the crime. In November 1865, more than two years after the incident, the Oxford Democrat reported that two men, Joseph Libbey and Elias Nute, were finally arraigned on the charge of burning the Forest Vale House.[11]

[1] History of the operations of the 1st District of New Hampshire since its organization, June 18, 1865, MM1163 (Microfilm), Records of the Provost Marshal General Record Group (RG) 110, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; William Marvel, The Neighbors’ War: Conway, New Hampshire 1861-1865 (Conway, NH: Conway Historical Society, 2014), 111-112; “Copperhead Outrage in Jackson,” Dover Enquirer, October 15, 1863; “Riotous Proceedings About the Draft in Carroll County,” Manchester Dollar Weekly Mirror, October 17, 1863.

[2] Copperheads, also known as Peace Democrats, were members of an anti-war faction of the Democratic Party. Operations of the 1st District New Hampshire, RG 110, NARA; Marvel, Neighbors’ War, 111-112; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 600-611.

[3] Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), XVI-XXII; Elizabeth R. Varon, “Tippecanoe and Ladies, Too: White Women and the Party Politics in Antebellum Virginia,” Journal of American History 82 (September 1995): 504. For examples of misinformation and lack of accountability, see David Klepper, “Defense for some Capitol rioters: election misinformation,” AP News, May 29, 2021 (accessed November 5, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/dc-wire-donald-trump-health-coronavirus-pandemic-election-2020-b7e929bb8d49b77d0922eae7ad3794b7.

[4] Operations of the 1st District New Hampshire, RG 110, NARA; “The Portsmouth Mob,” Portsmouth Morning Chronicle, July 17, 1863; “Rioting in Portsmouth,” Dover Enquirer, July 23, 1863; “Riot in Portsmouth,” Manchester Dollar Weekly Mirror, July 25, 1863.

[5] “The Portsmouth Mob” and “The Riot in Portsmouth,” Portsmouth Morning Chronicle, July 17 and 18, 1863; “Rioting in Portsmouth,” Dover Enquirer, July 23, 1863.

[6] Originally a Democratic paper founded by two former apprentices of Hannibal Hamlin, it had become solidly Republican by the Civil War.

[7] “Copperhead Outrages in Carroll County,” Littleton Peoples Journal, October 17, 1863; “Copperhead Outrage in Jackson,” Dover Enquirer, October 15, 1863; Oxford Democrat, October 16, 1863; “Copperheadism in Jackson,” Exeter Newsletter, October 19, 1863.

[8] “Copperhead Outrages in Carroll County,” Littleton Peoples Journal, October 17, 1863; “Copperheadism in Jackson,” Exeter Newsletter, October 19, 1863; “Riotous Proceedings About the Draft in Carroll County,” Manchester Dollar Weekly Mirror, October 17, 1863; “Copperhead Outrage in Jackson,” Dover Enquirer, October 15, 1863; “The Outrages in Jackson,” Portsmouth Morning Chronicle, October 13, 1863.

[9] Operations of the 1st District New Hampshire, RG 110, NARA; “Letter from Jackson,” Dover Enquirer, October 29, 1863; “The Disturbance in Jackson,” Manchester Dollar Weekly Mirror, October 24, 1863.

[10] Operations of the 1st District New Hampshire, RG 110, NARA.

[11] “Fryeburg Items,” Oxford Democrat, November 17, 1865.

Nathan Marzoli

Nathan A. Marzoli is a Staff Historian at the Air National Guard History Office, located on Joint-Base Andrews, Maryland. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he completed a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in history and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire. Mr. Marzoli’s primary research and writing interests focus on conscription in the Civil War North—specifically the relationships between civilians and Federal draft officials. He is the author of several articles in journals such as Army History and Civil War History, as well as numerous blog posts.

Enslaved children, trauma, and “American Family Values:” A Recap of the 2021 Southern’s SAWH Keynote

Enslaved children, trauma, and “American Family Values:” A Recap of the 2021 Southern’s SAWH Keynote

Though attendees lamented their inability to meet up for drinks afterward, the Southern Association for Women Historians’ annual keynote remained an illuminating and fascinating event. Judith Giesberg’s address “‘I desire some information about my mother’: Henry Tibbs’ Search for His Mother and What It Can Tell Us about How Slavery Shaped American Family Values” raised important, if heartbreaking, questions about slavery, child-trafficking, and trauma with the use of digital archives.

Giesberg is the director of the Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a digital archive of over 4,300 advertisements and letters that attempted to reunite Black families forcibly separated by slavery. Drawing on this archive, the digital humanities project reveals that these reunification attempts extended beyond the traditional patriarchal nuclear family. Many documents contain friends and grandparents searching for loved ones. It also shines light on a devastating fact: 46% of the database’s documents mention a mother, which indicates what Giesberg called a “routine and casual removal” of mothers from children. In fact, if historian Michael Tadman’s estimates are correct, one in three enslaved children under the age of 14 lost a parent to long distance sales. If one million slaves were sold, then 50,000 children were sold through the domestic slave trade, many of whom were sold alone. Thus, Giesberg showed, the story of U.S. slavery is the story of child trafficking in her captivating keynote address.

Henry Tibbs’ story took center stage in Giesberg’s keynote for what it revealed about childhood trauma and memory production. Tibbs’ wartime and postwar life can be traced through archival records: he rose to corporal during the Civil War and survived the horrors of the Fort Pillow Massacre, settling in Yazoo, Mississippi after the war. It was during this period that he began looking for his mother Hannah. On December 11, 1879, the Southwestern Christian Advocate in New Orleans published his request for information.

Newspaper text of ad
“Henry Tibbs searching for his mother Hannah,” Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), December 11, 1879, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, accessed December 16, 2021, https://informationwanted.org/items/show/1400

Henry Tibbs’ letter to the editor in search of Hannah detailed the traumatic story of his last meeting with his mother. Jailed by a slave trader to await his sale, the young Tibbs wept to the extent that the trader “told me if I would hush he would bring my mother there next morning, which he did.” When Hannah arrived, the trader cruelly forced her to choose Henry from a lineup. Hannah quickly and successfully identified her son and gave him “some cake and candy.” This, Henry Tibbs remembers, was “the last time I saw her” before he was sold, alone, from Virginia to Louisiana.

Tibbs provided as much information about his age and the names of enslavers and slave traders as possible; neither the names nor the dates were accurate. Giesberg discovered more likely matches due to geographical location and phonetically similar names from sources outside of Last Seen. She explained that reading and writing was illegal under slavery and thus the letter writers likely never saw their names in writing and relied upon their auditory memory instead. Furthermore, Tibbs was a young boy when he was sold and thus far removed from the event, which is why, Giesberg reasoned, many of his details were likely inaccurate. Giesberg was able to roughly approximate the year due to Henry’s details about his mother.

The gaps in Tibbs’ memory, Giesberg argued, are not only due to the significant passage of time but also the effects of trauma on a young child’s mind. Today we know that children often forget details of memories made during traumatic events but do not forget the trauma itself. Even if the memory is retained, trauma literally reshapes the brain, causing children to age more quickly or miss developmental milestones. This extremely traumatic experience of child trafficking and abuse affected, through the domestic slave trade in the U.S., roughly 50,000 children. What did this do to their memories and brain development? How did this hinder their ability to reunite with their beloved family members? Only 100 documents in the Last Seen digital archive recount a successful reunion. This does not necessarily mean that these are the only success stories, as some might simply not have been announced, but it does reveal the difficulties in recalling an event long past with enough accuracy to successfully locate a loved one.[1]

In the antebellum period, white abolitionists in the U.S. North often emphasized the depravity of the separation of enslaved families as evidence of the moral evils of slavery. Why, then, Giesberg asked, was this topic quickly dropped after the war by white Americans? Giesberg pointed to the romantic reunions and reconciliations occurring at the end of Reconstruction between white northerners and southerners in which they “came together as a nation” and thus abandoned Black southerners to the violence of Jim Crow. White publications celebrated the nuclear, child-centric family structure, obfuscating the attempts of freedpeople to reunite with loved ones and undo decades’ worth of trafficking. Giesberg argued that this timing was deliberate. The Black presses and their “Dear Editor” pieces presented a counternarrative to remind America that the “structural exercise in child abuse” of the domestic slave trade could not be resolved in a single generation.

Giesberg’s presentation was a masterclass in utilizing documents that are often unreliable to create stories that may remain forever incomplete, but no less significant. Despite these discrepancies, like Tibbs’ inability to recall the precise date and names of his abusers, Giesberg was able to provide an educated guess that allowed her to continue telling his story. The accessibility of this digital archive allows other historians, regardless of institutional access, to recreate similar stories. Giesberg’s use of the Last Seen database reveals how we can use these advertisements to understand how child abuse and cultural violence shaped America. In fact, Giesberg argued in the ensuing Q&A, family separations, such as those occurring at the United States-Mexico border and through ICE raids, are still central to the American story.

[1] These findings support Heather Andrea Williams’ work with the same advertisements. See Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012). Chapter 5, Information Wanted: The Search for Family After Emancipation; and Chapter 6, Happiness Too Deep for Utterance: Reunification of Families are of particular interest.

Melissa DeVelvis

Melissa DeVelvis is an Assistant Professor of History at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She specializes in the nineteenth-century U.S. South, Civil War Era, and women and gender studies. Her book, Gendering Secession: White Women and Politics in South Carolina, 1859-1861, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Follow her on Twitter at @develvishist.

Previewing the December 2021 JCWE Issue

Previewing the December 2021 JCWE Issue

As we write this editors’ note in summer 2021, we are hopeful that many in-person activities will soon resume, including the conferences, seminars, workshops, and writing groups that are so important to our collective work.

Our issue features three research essays about men’s lives that touch on politics, ideology, and power. Daniel Crofts takes a new look at a famous diarist in “Sidney George Fisher and the Coming of the Civil War: How Southern Overreach Alarmed a Conservative Philadelphian.” An elite Philadelphian, Fisher had generally conservative political instincts. Yet he became increasingly troubled by southern politicians’ demands for dominance in the 1850s, eventually siding with the Republicans and, when war came, even supporting emancipation. The story of Fisher’s political evolution is a reminder of the diversity and contentiousness of the Republican coalition.

In “William Henry Trescot, Pardon Broker,” Cynthia Nicoletti follows Trescot, a South Carolina lawyer and politician (and historian), to Washington, DC, where he lobbied President Andrew Johnson to restore land to his state’s planter elite. Trescot entered directly into political negotiations about the future of land confiscated from Confederates during the war, using his legal savvy and political connections to discredit demands for land redistribution by South Carolina freedpeople and O. O. Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Tarik Yiğit explores Civil War veterans in Egypt in “Reconstructing the American under the Most Unimaginable Conditions: Civil War Veterans in the ‘Arabian Nights.'” Egypt’s leader, Ismail Pasha, sought American advisors after the war, and many U.S. and Confederate veterans were happy to oblige. Impelled by the chance to earn an income and an associated sense of manhood, Civil War veterans in Egypt contributed their skills in surveying, military training, and armed conflict itself. Many had known each other before the war, and Egypt became a site where Americans who had fought on both sides grappled with one another and with the Civil War’s legacies.

In his review essay, “The Common Soldier of the Civil War: His Rise and Fall,” Gerald Prokopowicz examines evolving scholarly interest in Civil War soldiers. Historical scholarship on the rank and file has been shaped by subsequent wars and by historians’ changing approaches to the past. What was once represented as a generalizable “common soldier” experience—at least for Confederate soldiers on the one hand and US ones on the other—has been shattered, but questions of why people fought endure.

With this issue, we say goodbye to our editorial assistant, Megan Hildebrand, a PhD candidate at Penn State, whose term is ending and whose excellent work we have appreciated tremendously. Edward Green is the new editorial assistant, and we welcome him to the team. We also express special gratitude to the authors, peer reviewers, and book reviewers who made time to contribute to the journal during the difficult months of the pandemic. We hope they and all our readers are faring well and that we’ll see one another soon.

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.