Category: Muster

Public Monuments and Ulysses S. Grant’s Contested Legacy

Public Monuments and Ulysses S. Grant’s Contested Legacy

On Memorial Day, three million people watched the first part of a three-episode documentary on the life of General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Three weeks later—on the much-publicized Juneteenth holiday, no less—a statue of Grant in San Francisco was vandalized and toppled. What gives?

The motivations for this act are still unknown as of this writing, but two things are clear. Despite the largely positive interpretation offered by the History Channel, this event might suggest that the debate over Grant’s legacy is far from settled. Equally important, the debate over commemorative monuments and statues is, for better or worse, moving beyond icons celebrating the Confederacy towards people and events celebrating United States history. There are no easy answers for what the nation’s commemorative landscape will look like moving forward, but re-examining Grant’s record on civil rights might provide some insights as to why his statue specifically may have been targeted.

Figure 1: Ulysses S. Grant during his presidency (1869-1877). Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Early speculation about the statue’s removal on Twitter and popular media revolved around Grant’s ownership of an enslaved man before the Civil War.[1] It is true that Grant acquired William Jones from his father-in-law, “Colonel” Frederick Dent, while living in St. Louis. For five years (1854-1859) Grant worked as a farmer at White Haven, an 850-acre plantation owned by his father-in-law and worked by upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans. On the one hand, defenders have claimed that Grant only owned Jones for one year. Allegedly concerned about his role in slavery, Grant proceeded to free Jones by signing a manumission paper at the St. Louis Courthouse on March 29, 1859. This manumission paper is the lone document tying Grant to the ownership of an enslaved person.[2] There is more to Grant’s relationship with slavery, however.

For one, the manumission paper Grant signed does not indicate when he acquired Jones. He could have owned Jones for five years or five days, and in any case the length of time does not diminish the fact that Grant owned human property at some point in his life. Moreover, the few existing letters from Grant’s time in St. Louis do not indicate his feelings towards slavery one way or the other. It is impossible to determine why he acquired Jones in the first place or why he chose to free him. Further complicating matters is that after Grant freed Jones in 1859, four enslaved people informally gifted from Colonel Dent to Grant’s wife Julia—Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia—continued to live with the Grants and serve their needs until the family chose to leave St. Louis for a new life in Galena, Illinois, in early 1860.[3]

Grant’s relationship with slavery while in St. Louis took other forms. When a neighbor died in 1854, Grant served as an appraiser for the family estate. This process included the appraisal of three enslaved people (Bill, Augustus, and Amanda), two of whom were later sold at the St. Louis Courthouse. Grant also hired out enslaved laborers to assist with his farming ventures. For example, recently discovered documentation indicates that one of the enslaved men Grant hired out in 1858 was George, a 21-year-old who had been the property of Frances Sublette, wife of a wealthy St. Louis fur trader.[4] Politically, Grant had never voted in an election while a member of the U.S. Army. He recalled in his Personal Memoirs, however, that while he had been “a Whig by education and a great admirer of Mr. [Henry] Clay,” he chose to vote for Democrat James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential election. “The Republican Party was regarded in the South and the Border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution . . . sensible persons appeared to believe that emancipation meant social equality,” Grant recalled. Seeing Buchanan as the most nationally appealing candidate who could prevent Southern secession, “I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.” Although he had not lived long enough in Illinois to vote in the 1860 election, Grant also acknowledged that he would have voted for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas had he been eligible to do so.[5]

My recent article for The Journal of the Civil War Era provides an in-depth review of Grant’s relationship with slavery while living in St. Louis and can be downloaded here.

Despite these connections to slavery, it is fair to ask whether Grant’s prewar experiences define the entirety of his character and legacy. Grant’s remarkable political evolution during the Civil War and Reconstruction must be recognized. While originally opposed to a war against slavery and fearing the further alienation of white Southerners, Grant came to understand that emancipation was necessary as a war measure by 1863. He understood that African Americans were anxious to provide aid and intelligence to the U.S. military. He welcomed their entrance into the ranks of the Union Army. During the Vicksburg campaign, Grant worked with Chaplain John Eaton to establish refugee camps and education for African Americans in the surrounding area. He also took a principled stand by ending prisoner-of-war exchanges with the Confederacy after it was discovered that Black soldiers were considered “fugitive slaves” by the Confederate government and sold back into slavery (or in some cases outright executed).[6]

During Reconstruction, Grant gradually transitioned to the Republican Party. He originally opposed Black male voting rights, believing that “a time of probation, in which the ex-slaves could prepare themselves for the privileges of citizenship” was necessary, but came to believe by 1868 that African Americans were the most loyal Unionists in the South and that military service had established a right to vote for Black men. When the 15th Amendment banning racial discrimination at the ballot box was ratified in March 1870, Grant declared it to be “the greatest civil change[,] and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.” As such, he implored his fellow white Americans to “withhold no privilege of advancement to the new citizen” and to treat Black Americans with dignity and respect. Ultimately, few white men had a larger role in promoting civil and political rights during Reconstruction than Grant. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass later recalled that Grant had been not just a military leader, but a moral leader for the country through his advocacy for Black rights. Grant overcame “popular prejudice” and successfully adjusted himself “to new conditions, and adopt[ed] the lessons taught by the events of the hour,” argued Douglass.[7]

Seen in this light, one might view the Grant statue toppling on Juneteenth as a crucial mistake in the larger effort to promote racial justice in today’s United States. Defenders of Confederate statues now have an excuse to say “I told you so” and dismiss the larger goals of the movement to end systemic racism against Black Americans.

Grant’s legacy via commemoration has been challenged in the past, however. Although not a form of outright protest, the mausoleum in New York City where Ulysses and Julia Grant rest was regularly vandalized in the mid-1900s through neglect and inaction both by the city and the National Park Service. And few readers may remember that three years ago a small movement called for the destruction of Grant’s Tomb because of General Orders No. 11, which banned Jewish residents from Grant’s military lines in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi in December 1862. Although Grant later apologized for the order, the fury in 2017 was large enough that historian Jonathan Sarna wrote a passionate op-ed against the tomb’s destruction.[8]

We must also deal with the realities of Grant’s treatment of the various Indian nations who endured the pain of violated treaties, forced removal to poorly-run reservations, assimilationist policies that destroyed their traditional ways of living, and in some cases outright massacres of Indigenous populations at the hands of the U.S. Army during his presidency. The Reconstruction era was not just about the re-admittance of former Confederate states into the Union or the promotion of Black civil rights. It was also about the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny and the removal of all Indian nations as a political threat in the West. As NPS Cultural Affairs Manager Reed Robinson described in a recent interview, “Reconstruction was a process of Deconstruction for Indian Country.” The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Enforcement Acts used to shut down the KKK, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 live in coexistence with the Camp Grant Massacre, the Modoc War, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Ponca Trail of Tears.[9]

Figure 2: “Robinson Crusoe Making a Man of His Friday” was a political cartoon by artist Thomas Nast that neatly summarized the assimilationist goals of Ulysses S. Grant’s Indian Policy. Cartoon Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Grant genuinely sought a peaceful solution. He believed that Indians had been “put upon” by whites and that fraud and corruption were widespread in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Grant appointed his friend and Seneca Indian Ely S. Parker (Donehogawa) to head the BIA at the beginning of his presidency, established a Board of Indian Commissioners to oversee the BIA’s operations, and was praised by the chiefs of the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw nations for his proposed policies. But Grant and the Republican Party’s vision of mass settlement, free labor farming, and a vast railroad infrastructure in the West was predicated on the belief that this land was theirs for the taking in the first place. Any Indian nations opposed to the Grant administration’s assimilation policies—including removal to reservations, a transition to farming, Christianization, and eventual “civilization” and U.S. citizenship—faced the prospect of military conflict and potential war. A recent article defending Grant may be correct in asserting that “perhaps there was a better way than Grant’s, but nobody ever found one,” but those words probably ring hollow to the Indian nations negatively affected by Grant’s policies.[10]

Seen in this light, we must remember that civil rights are not the exclusive purview of African Americans alone, but something that has meaning to everyone. Reconstruction was decidedly not a civil rights movement for the country’s indigenous population.

The transition from Confederate monuments as targets for removal to Columbus statues and now historic figures such as Washington, Lincoln, and Grant suggests that the debate is shifting. Concerns about celebrating slavery and secession in public commemorations are now being accompanied with concerns about settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, Indian removal, and genocide. As a friend of mine recently stated, expanding the discussion to mistreatment of Indigenous populations blurs the distinction between right and wrong. “With a colonial nation, everybody’s hands are dirty to some degree. Who sets the bar? What will be the metric?” she asked. Indeed, one could make the case that someone like John Brown—as committed to social justice as anyone in the nineteenth century—nevertheless engaged in settler colonialism by fighting to make Kansas a free state. Frederick Douglass denigrated the Indian nations of the West by arguing that while Blacks achieved the “character of a civilized man,” backwards-looking Indians were not prepared for “civilization” and viewed “your cities . . . your steamboats, and your canals and railways and electric wires . . . with aversion.”[11]

Figure 3: “Historical Geography” by John F. Smith (1888) summarized the dreams of Reconstruction: A reunited country without slavery and the fulfilment of Manifest Destiny. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Finally, a word about public monuments in general is warranted. While the seemingly indiscriminate vandalizing of monuments (which now includes the 54th Massachusetts Memorial, abolitionist Hans Heg, and even guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn) raises important questions about the ways Americans choose to remember their past, it might be fair to ask whether erecting new monuments is an appropriate course moving forward. President John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” Monuments, in Adams’ view, were undemocratic, coercive tools of monarchy. These troublesome icons demanded unquestioned fealty and promoted a version of history as simple hero-worship.[12] Are there better ways to utilize these public spaces in the future?

In public history, practitioners regularly preach the importance of highlighting multiple historical perspectives, “sharing authority” with communities in telling diverse stories, and thinking critically about the past. Most monuments fail to achieve these lofty goals. Regardless of how one might personally view Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy, most of the monuments erected in his honor probably do a poor job of telling the full story. While it is more than fair to be concerned about the future of public monuments, discussions about who, how, and why we honor certain historical figures must continue. Local communities should be empowered to make decisions for themselves about who they choose to honor. And perhaps most importantly, these conversations must be accompanied with calls for increased funding to promote the teaching of history in public education, historical sites, and museums around the United States.


[1] Riviano Barros, Joe (@jrivianob). 2020. “Nearby statue of Ulysses S. Grant is also toppled. He was a slave owner too, before the Civil War. That’s three for three this night.” Twitter, June 19, 2020, 11:15PM.; Marty Johnson, “Protestors Tear Down Statues of Ulysses S. Grant, National Anthem Lyricist Francis Scott Key, The Hill, June 20, 2020, accessed June 30, 2020.

[2] The text of the manumission document can be found in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1: 1837-1861 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 347.

[3] On Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia, see Julia Dent Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 82-83.

[4] Nicholas W. Sacco, “I Never Was An Abolitionist: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854-1863” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, number 3 (September 2019), 410-437.

[5] Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 1 (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885), 212-216.

[6] Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000), 162-163, 375.

[7] “Ulysses S. Grant & the 15th Amendment,” National Park Service, April 8, 2020, accessed June 28, 2020.; Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881), 433-435.

[8] On Grant’s Tomb, see Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 261-302; Jonathan Sarna, “Why the Rush to Tear Down Grant’s Tomb is Ignorant,” Forward, August 24, 2017, accessed June 25, 2020.

[9] “Ranger Chat with Reed Robinson,” National Park Service, 22:31, May 15, 2020, accessed June 30, 2020.; see also Philip Weeks, “Farewell, My Nation”: American Indians in the United States in the Nineteenth Century (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson Publishing, 1990).  

[10] See Mary Stockwell, Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), 2018; C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy After the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Stephen Kantrowitz, “’Not Quite Constitutionalized’: The Meanings of ‘Civilization’ and the Limits of Native American Citizenship” in Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 75-105; Dan McLaughlin, “In Defense of Ulysses S. Grant,” National Review, June 23, 2020, accessed June 25, 2020.  

[11] Douglass quoted in David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 486.

[12] Adams quoted in Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., The National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 1.

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

Juneteenth and the Limits of Emancipation

Juneteenth and the Limits of Emancipation

On June 19, 1865, not long after forcing the surrender of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith at Galveston, Texas, General Gordon Granger issued General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’”  For the approximately 275,000 enslaved Black people living in Texas at the time, Granger’s declaration was momentous.  Two long months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, official word of emancipation had finally made its way to the western reaches of the Confederacy.[1]  As Green Cumby recalled during an interview with a Federal Writers’ Project journalist in the late 1930s, when news of emancipation reached him, “I felt like it be Heaven here on earth.”[2]

Elderly African American man seated in a chair with a cane.
Green Cumby, Abilene, Texas, 1937. Cumby was born into slavery in Henderson, Texas, around 1851. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The date of June 19, or Juneteenth, quickly would be enshrined in Black celebrations of Jubilee Day, first in Texas and then across the United States.  By the 1930s, tens of thousands of African Americans would assemble in mass gatherings to celebrate the holiday in Texas alone.  Although the popularity of Juneteenth ebbed and flowed throughout the 1900s, by the turn of the twentieth century, Shennette Garrett-Scott writes, “people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities in the United States and in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe celebrated Juneteenth.”[3]   Amidst this present moment of transnational Black Lives Matter protest, Juneteenth has only grown in renown.

Despite the holiday’s significance in the longer struggle for Black freedom, the history of Juneteenth–archived in the Federal Writers’ Project testimonies of formerly enslaved people–is also a clear reminder of the fundamental limits of the U.S. federal government’s wartime emancipation program and White America’s commitment to anti-Blackness.[4]Occurring several weeks after Appomattox, General Orders No. 3 demonstrated the enduring power (and violence) of White enslaver society, even in the face of defeat.  To some extent, Texas had become the final stronghold of Confederate influence, as thousands upon thousands of Whites “refugeed” their slave property “way over in Texas,” especially after 1862.  Relocating some 50,000 or more enslaved Black people, these enslavers effectively prolonged and enhanced slavery along the western frontier of the Confederacy, distant from even the bloodshed of the Civil War’s “western theater” along the Mississippi River.  “Dey say we’d never be free iffen dey could git to Texas wid us,” explained Elvira Boles.[5]  In this context, there were too few Union troops for mass movement against slavery, nothing quite like the “general strike” that swept across the rest of the Confederacy.  Instead, the struggle for Black freedom in Texas persisted in more personal ways, through community building, fugitivity, and other forms of resistance and survival.[6]  As Martin Jackson recollected, “I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away.”[7]

With the arrival of General Granger and his 1,800 or so Union troops at Galveston in June 1865, Black freedom was momentarily buoyed by the power of the U.S. federal government, and General Orders No. 3 put to paper this new dynamic.  Yet, the limits of emancipation also were built into this very instrument.   Although Granger’s message declared “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” his General Orders No. 3 simultaneously curtailed Black liberty.  Not only were the newly freedpeople “advised to remain quietly at their present homes,” immobilized in the presence of their recent violent enslavers; Granger also sought to redefine the slave-enslaver relationship as now one “between employer and hired labor.”  As Granger explained, “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”  Freedom, therefore, was to fit the White Northern mold of “free labor.”[8]

Elder African American couple standing on a porch.
Anderson and Minerva Edwards, Marshall, Texas, 1937. Anderson Edwards remembered that his enslaver “didn’t tell us we’s free till a whole year after we was.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Federal projections notwithstanding, ex-enslavers and their co-conspirators worked tirelessly to undermine emancipation, even after Union military occupation.  Many forced or manipulated freedpeople into oppressive labor arrangements.[9]  Others reimagined state powers to control and exploit Black bodies.[10]  Still others resorted to White enslaver traditions of information suppression, violence, and intimidation, in some cases whipping freedpeople “after the war jist like [they] did ‘fore.”[11]  In fact, waves of violence swept over Texas starting in the fall of 1865, as former enslavers, the Ku Klux Klan, and other White supremacists terrorized Black communities.  “You could see lots of [Black bodies] hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” Susan Merritt remembered.[12]  With institution of the convict leasing system in the years that followed, Black people in Texas faced bondage through criminalization.  By the twentieth century, this state-run apparatus, which leased out criminalized Black people as farm, mining, railroad, and construction laborers, appeared to social scientist Charles S. Potts as “nothing more nor less than a form of human slavery.”[13]  The 1930s accounts of formerly enslaved people–ostensibly about life under slavery–also make evident the enduring violence and oppression of a White supremacist Texas society. According to Eli Coleman, since emancipation “it been Hell.”  The Black man, he continued “has advance some ways, but he’s still a servant and will be, long as Gawd’s curse still stay on the Negro race.”[14]

Juneteenth marks a watershed moment in the history of Black freedom in the United States, the day “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”[15]  But Juneteenth’s history also teaches us that the foundations of anti-Black slavery–violence, exploitation, fungibility, and extinguishability–hardly died with U.S. federal intervention in the summer of 1865.[16]  If a federally led emancipation held the promise of a new epoch, the new order could not–or would not–disentangle itself from centuries of capturing, owning, using, and looting Black bodies.  Even the dynamic of formerly enslaved people speaking to White interviewers (sometimes the relations of their former enslavers) during the heyday of Jim Crow could not obscure or erase that reality.  Juneteenth thus reveals the paths of Black freedom as ongoing struggle.  And as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of a century and a half later declare, the fight lives on.


[1] For discussion of the contested process of surrender in Texas, see David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 258-66.

[2] Testimony of Green Cumby, in Federal Writers’ Project, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, Assembled by the Library of Congress Project Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia Sponsored by the Library of Congress (Washington, 1941), “Texas Narratives,” Volume XVI, Part 1, 262.  For all of the published narratives, see

[3] Shennette Garrett-Scott, “Why Juneteenth Matters,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History (June 2020)

[4] Of course, the testimonies must be read with a critical eye, as White journalists typically conducted the interviews and transcribed the testimonies.  The significance of these testimonies was not lost on Wes Brady, who frankly stated: “Some white folks might want to put me back in slavery if I tells how we was used in slavery times.” Testimony of Wes Brady, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 134.  Also see Sharon Ann Musher, “Contesting ‘The Way the Almighty Wants It’: Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection,” American Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (March 2001): 1-31.

[5] Testimony of Virginia Bell, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 64 (“way over in Texas”); Dale Baum, “Slaves Taken to Texas for Safekeeping during the Civil War,” in Charles D. Grear, ed., The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 208), 83-103; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865, 245; Testimony of Elvira Boles, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 107.

[6] Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995, 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 36-37; W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935); Testimony of Jacob Branch, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 142.

[7] Testimony of Martin Jackson, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 189.

[8] For White Northern attempts to impose a wage labor system onto the defeated South, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

[9] Testimony of Eli Coleman, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 239; Testimony of Clinto Lewis, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 3, 2-3; Carl Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction (Texas A& M University Press, 2004), 23.

[10] Testimony of William Green, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 96; Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War, 55-61.

[11] Testimony of Anderson and Minerva Edwards, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 8; Testimony of John Crawford, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 258; Testimony of Issabella Boyd, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 115; Testimony of Katie Darling, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 279-80 (“after the war”).

[12] Testimony of William Hamilton, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 106-7; Testimony of Susan Merritt, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 3, 78; Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War, 34-36, 80-84; Crouch, 80-81, 95-110.

[13] Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 92; David M. Oshinsky, “Convict Labor in the Post-Civil War South: Involuntary Servitude After the Thirteenth Amendment,” in Alexander Tsesis, ed., The Promises of Liberty: The History and Contemporary Relevance of the Thirteenth Amendment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 104; Charles S. Potts, “The Convict Labor System of Texas,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 21 (May 1903): 88.

[14] Testimony of Eli Coleman, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 239.

[15] Testimony of Felix Haywood, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 132.

[16] See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19-25.

Paul Barba

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

Announcing “Race, Politics, and Justice”

Announcing “Race, Politics, and Justice”

Uprisings prompted by recent police killings of Black people, like all incidents of racist violence and anti-racist protest, must be understood in the context of their present moment. People also rightly turn to history to understand how we arrived here. The Civil War Era was a critical moment in the long struggle for racial justice. As a small gesture toward making that history more visible, the JCWE editors, with support from UNC Press and Project MUSE, have made available via open access a selected set of articles from the Journal of the Civil War Era. The articles, drawn from the journal’s nearly ten years of publishing, emphasize the intertwined histories of African Americans, race, and white supremacy.

We also draw readers’ attention to our freely available online forum from 2017, The Future of Reconstruction Studies. The forum includes essays by Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gerstle, Thomas C. Holt, Martha S. Jones, Mark A. Noll, Adrienne Petty, Lisa Tetrault, Elliott West, and Kidada E. Williams, as well as a roundtable on public history moderated by David M. Prior.

In addition to offering these articles, which will remain open through August 2020, we aim to make the journal’s blog, Mustera venue for reflections on our current moment and its connections to the Civil War Era.

The editors wish to amplify the many strong statements of support for activists seeking to challenge the country’s longstanding commitment to white supremacy in policing, as in many parts of U.S. life, including statements by the AHA (endorsed by the Society of Civil War Historians), the OAHASALHNAISA, and LAWCHA.

The full issue is free and available here.Check it out!




The Even Uglier Truth Behind Athens Confederate Monument

The Even Uglier Truth Behind Athens Confederate Monument

On Sunday, May 31, 2020 protestors gathered at a Black Lives Matter protest around the so-called Athens Monument, a monument to the Confederate dead that has been a flashpoint in Athens, Georgia for decades. The protest was organized by city commissioner Mariah Parker, and the protest included the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, Athens for Everyone and other local organizations. Among the issues raised were continued police violence in the city. They pointed out that six people in Athens had been shot by police in 2019.

At around midnight that Sunday, shortly after National Guardsmen left the scene, the Athens city police used teargas to disperse the crowd, then fired rubber bullets at protesters who were standing near the canisters, allegedly to prevent them from throwing them back. Graffiti later scratched on the monument–including ACAB, short for All Cops Are Bastards–suggest that the monument was part of the problem.

What is this monument? Finished and dedicated in June of 1872, the Athens monument was one of the first monuments to the Confederate dead, but it was much more than that. Knowa Johnson of the Athens Anti Discrimination movement had asked me to attend a radio show in 2017 to discuss the monument. Doing my due diligence I read some background material about the monument. Then I read some more. Because the Athens Monument was not just a monument to the Confederate dead, it was also a monument to the Klan. It was commissioned during Congressional Reconstruction, when the South was divided into military districts. The US Congress required that African-Americans be allowed to vote in state elections, a move that former Confederates Benjamin Hill and Howell Cobb attacked.

In a series of public speeches in July of 1868 called the Bush arbor speeches, Benjamin Hill and Howell Cobb forcefully criticized the newly-written Georgia constitution which required that black people be allowed to vote. These fiery speeches used the language of blood and soil, much like those we heard in Charlottesville in 2017. Hill and Cobb argued that Georgia’s Assembly was a “band of foreigners” and that men should take up arms against black voters. More to the point, these Bush arbor speeches marked the first public appearance of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan. In Athens, Atlanta, and throughout the upcountry it led to secret orders being formed that harassed and intimidated black voters. Klansmen declared that they were the ghosts of the Confederate dead, who still wore the burial shrouds of fallen soldiers – that’s the reason for the white robes. The Klan said they were, quoting Hebrews 12:23, “the spirits of just men made perfect.” They killed Black politicians and scared away white ones. Klansmen argued that Black men and women would be so frightened to see these ghosts of the Confederacy that they would not push to either vote in elections or try to attend classes at the University of Georgia in Athens, which, according to contemporary newspaper reports, Black men and women apparently tried to do in the same year.[1]

In the same year, in 1868, Benjamin Hill, Howell Cobb, and Cobb’s sister Margaret Rutherford gathered to organize a memorial to the Confederate dead in downtown Athens. Margaret Rutherford became the front person for this effort through an organization she called the Ladies Memorial Association. The monument would use the same language as Cobb, Hill and other originators of the Klan in Georgia. One can read from the monument “these heroes, ours in the unity of blood…struggled for the rights of states.” On the other side it says “Bright angels come and guard our sleeping heroes.” Who were the angels come to guard these sleeping heroes?: The Klan, whose leaders Ben Hill and Howell Cobb were the principal supporters of the Athens monument.

Confederate Veteran Alexander S. Erwin made the connection between Klan and monument clear in a speech he gave when the monument was finished in July of 1872. He urged that his contemporaries should take the ghosts of the Confederacy seriously. “It is said by some that spirits of the dead come back to the earth” Erwin joked at the beginning of the dedication, and he was, he continued, “not prepared to deny” this. He made it clear that the monument had a political message against black voting, saying, “no defeat, no misfortune, no tyrant, no President, no Congress, no fanatical party, no mad majority…can ever dim the luster of their names.” Further he argued that the South would rise again “in spite of oppression the most tyrannical and malignant; in spite of robbery the most flagrant and atrocious…in spite of the treachery and betrayal of once trusted friends and cherished children” [a reference to the previously enslaved] “they [former slave masters] have exhibited a recuperative energy and power unparalleled in history…true to the memories of their dead heroes.”[2]

I learned all this in 2017 when Knowah Johnson asked me to talk about the history of the monument. He then asked me to tell the Athens city council about it, and I did so at the time allotted for public comment. Mostly the city council ignored me, as they did the many other citizens there who raised questions about the monument. Local newspapers covered the meeting however, and circulated some of the observations I and others made in 2017. Not much happened until students at UGA made a movie about the monument and asked me and others to describe the monument’s ugly place in the history of the city of Athens.[3]

The Athens monument, just like the Nazi monuments in Berlin that were taken down in the 1950s and the Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe taken down in the 2000s were supposedly monuments to the dead but were in fact monuments to politics, to who rules now and who must bow down before those in power. By July of 1872 white Athenians of the planter class had driven black voters away by fraud and intimidation. Reconstruction was over, the Klan was disbanded, the monument was up. And it has stayed up ever since.

By 1872, when the monument was finished, it was designed as a beacon to recognize the Confederacy but also a gathering post for Klansmen, the self-proclaimed angels and ghosts of the Confederacy, who had restored power to the planter class in Georgia. The second Klan, when it emerged in the 1920s, used this beacon as a gathering point before they went off to attack and murder black men and women. In the 1960s it was also a beacon and gathering point for attacks on black men and women who argued for voting rights and public accommodations and access to the University of Georgia campus.

The film that UGA students made did make a difference after the protests started. The city council (I have heard) watched the film shortly after the shooting event in Athens and decided to remove the monument to Oconee Cemetery, though a week after the protest it has yet to be moved.

Should the town’s monument to white supremacy remain in the city center or be moved to Oconee Cemetery where it will be safe from vandalism? Right now it stands as an insult to Athens’ real heroes, the Black and white men who fought for the Union against the rebellion to protect slavery, the Black men and women who tried to join the class of 1868 on the grounds of UGA, only to be driven away by police and dogs. The monument also insults the heroes, Black and white, men and women, who fought against the Klan as the Klan gathered under its shadow in the their first, second, and third incarnations. Perhaps now it can go away.

[1] Scott Reynolds Nelson, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1999).

[2] [Athens] Southern Banner, 14 June 1872.

[3] Accessed 17 June 2020.

The Limits of Black Forgiveness

The Limits of Black Forgiveness

Since May 25th, when we lost George Floyd, a whole lot of white folk have been apologizing and asking for forgiveness for the systemic racial injustice that has existed for at least four hundred years. I know a few white allies well.  I know they sincerely grieve with us and are genuinely humble when asking forgiveness and expressing repentance. I know as best they can from their position in American society, they get it. I also know they are not representative of most white Americans through our long, tortured history.  I am fairly certain they are not representative of a large segment, if not the majority, of white Americans today. Regardless of what proportion of white folk they represent, sincere apology, while important, is not sufficient.

African Americans, since well before the Civil War, have echoed the sentiments expressed by Martin Delany: “I forgive those misguided, deluded brethren with all my heart.”[1] Public forgiveness flowed from both Christianity’s influence and tactical pragmatism. But most African Americans also knew that apologies, repentance and forgiveness would never be enough to move white society to make substantive changes. It was not enough then and it will not be enough now.

A friend of mine worked twenty-five years as a state trooper. He recently retired in part because enduring twenty-five years as one of few black state troopers in Pennsylvania trying to work for change “from within” proved too much (nonetheless I still say do not hate the police because, hey, I have a police friend.) As someone who has seen a lot of wrong from all sides, he likes to remind people that a real apology connotes restitution; it implies you are going to do something to make the wrong right.

African Americans have historically tried to push white Americans beyond apology and their public statements about making what has been wrong at least a little bit better. We have not had much lasting success. Even in the rare instances when black leaders had a little more political power than their white counterparts, tangible rectification was limited or short-lived. The subverted radical potential of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention is just one example. On the second day, white Convention president Albert Mackey’s first specific statement of policy erected the first wall on the foundation of white supremacy that was centuries deep when he declared: “I am opposed to all confiscations of property, because the confiscation of all the lands of rebel owners in the State can have no effect in promoting the welfare of the state.” He was likely familiar with Thaddeus Stevens’ March 1867 HR 29 bill calling for the confiscation and redistribution of the land of wealthier slaveholders. Although Mackey’s racism differed from President Andrew Johnson’s virulent racism in significant ways, he also paralleled Johnson in some respects.  He was likely familiar with Johnson’s response to Congress, just a month before Mackey addressed the Convention, that “already the negroes are influenced by promises of confiscation and plunder.” [2] On the convention’s fourth day, Governor James Orr’s blatantly racist speech included a recommendation that the financial well-being of formerly wealthy white slaveowners be secured by the majority-black, all male delegates recusing their debt and protecting their land. Francis Cardozo and many of the black delegates—though not all—pushed for more far-reaching changes. They tried to deliver, but ultimately were thwarted, what black women and men working in the fields wanted: land as restitution for generations of their labor that made that land rich. These were the workers who “answered with a flat refusal to make any contract at all” with former slaveholders and expected the governments of South Carolina and the United States to distribute land to their families.[3]This was the best kind of revenge.

Cardozo knew in 1868 what Kiese Laymon understood in 1992 as a seventeen-year old. After the Los Angeles uprising in the wake of the acquittal of the thugs who beat Rodney King, Laymon “knew there was no way to not lose unless we took back every bit of what had been stolen from us. I wanted all the money, the safety, the education, the healthy choices, and the second chances they stole. If we were to ever get back what we were owed, I knew we had to take it all back without getting caught.”[4] They both knew people needed more in order to do more than just survive. Black power and black voices enable some of us to survive. But like Laymon goes on to say, “I never understood how surviving was our collective superpower when white folk made sure so many of us didn’t survive. And those of us who did survive practiced bending so much that breaking seemed inevitable.” Black power and black voices matter. But that wasn’t enough to do more than keep bending in 1868, 1992, and that won’t be enough in 2020.[5]

A brief segue: when I interviewed for the job I still have, I was asked how I felt about being jointly appointed in History and African American Studies (now Africana Studies). I recognized (or thought I did) the potential problems of a joint appointment; however, I said something like “I want that—because I’m strongly attracted to how African American Studies, as a field, makes very clear that they have an explicit social agenda.” This is a field committed to being useful, in tangible ways, to making a positive difference politically, economically, culturally and legally in the lives of people of African descent. We do not pretend to have some kind of scholarly, academic distance. We are committed to work thoroughly grounded in rigorous research and the highest standards of peer-review while simultaneously being personally, emotionally, intellectually and publicly committed to Black advocacy and activism. We can, of course, always do this better. But that is the noble dream for this field.

Is it for the discipline of History? Danez Smith says “history is what it is. It knows what it did.”[6] In my estimation, our discipline has yet to be explicitly, publicly, prominently anti-racist. But we can be. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “Only the historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”[7]

The enemy has been and still is white supremacy. The breaking that Laymon thought inevitable may not be—black people might be able to bend for another four hundred years. If academia is genuinely committed to not living off those bent backs, we—as in everybody—need every historical journal and every history department, which have a significant number of white editors, chairs and senior scholars, to articulate clear and prominently visible social, political, economic and legal agendas to end the enemy’s protection and maintenance of whiteness within and without the academy. And this means more than issuing an apology or a statement opposed to racism.  It means developing an agenda: an articulation of how this discipline, in whatever organization it’s manifested, is doing the anti-racist work to end white supremacy. I am ashamed that I have not done this yet as the (we think) first African American to chair a department in Gettysburg College’s 188-year history. But I will be pushing it this week. We need History to completely lose the pretense of that noble dream of an objective, dispassionate distance. We can be rigorous, thorough scholars who check and challenge the strengths of one another’s work while still clearly being activists in and out of the classroom. We can do this without bullying students into our own points of view. We can do this and still treat with dignity anyone who disagrees while systematically dismantling unfounded, misleading positions that simply prop up the white supremacy Mackey, Johnson, Orr and thousands of others have continued to so vociferously protect. We do this on the written page, on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and in committee meetings and on the streets. We do this pointedly, unapologetically and right now.

[1] Frederick Douglass’s Paper,  November 17 1848, 2.

[2] Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina v. 1 (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 17. For Steven’s bill, see “H.R. 29 Relative to Damages Done to Loyal Men, and for other Purposes,” Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 203 (March 19, 1867). For Johnson’s address, see Journal of the House of Representatives, 40th Congress, 2d Session (December 3, 1867), 19.

[3] Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina, 111-112.

[4] Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 107.

[5] Laymon, Heavy, 107.

[6] Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), “summer, somewhere”, Kindle

[7] Walter Benjamin quoted in Charlotte Odilla Bohn, “Historiography and Remembrance: On Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Eingedenken” Religions 10, no. 1: 40 (January 2019)


Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. He has more recently begun exploring how whiteness has been manifested on post-Civil War memorializations of battlefields. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @scotthancockOT.

Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts

Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts

Today we share an interview with Alaina E. Roberts, who published an article in the June 2020 issue, titled “A Different Forty Acres: Land, Kin, and Migration in the Late Nineteenth-Century West.” Alaina is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her forthcoming book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2021), uses archival research and family history to upend the traditional narrative of Reconstruction, connecting debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship to westward expansion onto Native land. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Western Historical Quarterly, and Al Jazeera.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Alaina. Many of our readers have read your article in the June 2020 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

“In “A Different Forty Acres,” I argue that nineteenth-century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) allows us to see that, for some people of African descent, the acquisition of land was more important than the realization of political rights. Black women and men enslaved by Chickasaw Indians had a unique quandary: they could opt to receive 40 acres of land (as a consequence of post-Civil War negotiations between the Chickasaw Nation and the U.S. government) or they could leave the Chickasaw Nation (where they had no rights as citizens) and live in the United States, where they could share in the citizenship and political rights African Americans had just won. Surprisingly (to me, anyway!), a very large number chose to stay in the Chickasaw Nation as a people without any clear civic status. I believe this is a great case study in the diversity of Black historical actors’ definitions of freedom and belonging.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this article is how you demonstrate the value of reading the Dawes Roll testimonies for recovery of black and mixed-race Chickasaw freedpeople’s voices.  Can you talk a little about your process and any scholars guiding your reading practices?

“Two of the primary issues scholars who write about marginalized people face are a lack of sources written by the people they study and the fact that the majority of the archives we have were created to tell the stories of those with power, influence, and wealth. Following the lead of scholars like Tiya Miles and Marisa Fuentes, I read against the grain and used multiple sources to “fill in the blanks” when I could not locate any information on a specific person I wanted to write about. In this article (and in my forthcoming book, from which this article is derived), I take an archive (the Dawes Commission records) that was created to delegitimize and classify people of African descent and I use it to closely examine what Chickasaw freedpeople were trying to tell their listener about themselves, their families, and their communities.”

I really appreciated being introduced to Josie Jackson. What drew you to her testimony? What does her experience reveal about the gendered definition of land, space and belonging in the Chickasaw Nation? By extending the gaze beyond southern states, what does her experience reveal about the diversity of freedpeople’s experiences during Reconstruction? 

“I decided not to make it the focus of this article, but much of my work revolves around the histories of my own family members. Josie is my great-great-grandmother. When I began looking into my own genealogy, hers were some of the first words I ever read from someone I descended from. It was amazing to read about her courageous nineteenth-century journey in her own words, but also to realize, as I looked through the Dawes sources, that she was one of a number of Black and mixed-race women in the Chickasaw Nation (and other Indian nations) who, as heads of their households, made choices about mobility that impacted their families socially, politically, and economically. Black western history offers a wealth of narratives like Josie’s that have much to teach us about the intersection of race, gender, labor, and migration.”

On pp. 221, you state that only 73 out of 1,523 freedpeople who testified had “temporarily left the Chickasaw Nation.” I fully understand that few individuals might have the means to participate in postwar migration. Based on their testimonies, what are some of the reasons/factors causing them to remain?

“Not to promote my book too much, but its title, “I’ve Been Here All the While,” is actually taken from the Dawes testimonies I read. Approximately 76 people used the phrase “all the while” or something similar to denote the fact that they had lived in the Chickasaw Nation their entire lives or much of their lives. Proving their residence was essential for claiming a land allotment. But perhaps more importantly for them, the space of the Chickasaw Nation represented their kinship connections and the coerced labor they and their families had endured. For these people to never venture out of the nation or, if they did, to quickly or regularly return, meant that they were committed to remaining in a place they saw as their well-deserved home, despite the violence and hardship they faced there.”


Thank you again, Alaina, for participating in this interview! Your work is a wonderful example of how Civil War era historians can—and should—consider stories that are outside the traditional geographical scope and explore the rich diversity of freedpeople’s experiences during Reconstruction.

You can read the article on Project Muse, and if you have questions for Alaina, she is happy to chat on Twitter@allthewhile1 or drop her a line in the comments below!

Farewell to Founding Digital Editor of Muster!

Farewell to Founding Digital Editor of Muster!

June has been a period of transitions. With the postponement of SCWH conference until next year, Muster, too, has undergone a major editorial transition—the first of its kind—the departure of Kristen Epps. As I step into this role, I am forever grateful for her guidance throughout the process. In today’s Muster post, Kate Masur and Greg Downs, current JCWE editors offer some reflections on her foundational role in developing this digital space.

* * * * * * * *

Kristen Epps became the journal’s founding digital editor in 2016. Understanding the importance of an online presence for the journal and the benefit of a platform that is nimbler and more accessible than the journal itself, Kristen worked with editor Judith Giesberg to bring Muster into existence. During her time as digital editor, Kristen made Muster a vibrant place for commentary about the Civil War Era and news from the journal. Drawing on the talents of our field correspondents, she has published articles that represent the breath of coverage that the JCWE journal aspires to. She has also been a stalwart advocate for the print journal, taking to social media to publicize new issues, interview authors, and solicit articles on teaching. We have especially appreciated her strong advocacy for women and people of color in this field. She has sought out authors who might not have seen this journal as a place to publish — and topics that have been traditionally but unfortunately marginal to the “Civil War Era” — and featured them on the site. We are so grateful for Kristen’s work and for her leadership, and we wish her well in her new position at Kansas State, as history faculty and editor of the journal Kansas History. We’re also delighted that Kristen leaves Muster in the skillful and energetic hands of Hilary Green, whom we welcomed last month as the new digital editor.

Thank you, Kristen!

Congratulations to the Winner of the 2019 George and Ann Richards Prize

Congratulations to the Winner of the 2019 George and Ann Richards Prize

Caroline E. Janney has won the $1,000 George and Ann Richards Prize for the best article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era in 2019. The article, “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox,” appeared in the March issue.

Janney’s essay examines the period immediately following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. It shows that the actions of these soldiers while being disbanded presaged the violent opposition to the social and political changes wrought by emancipation in the postwar South.

In the words of the prize committee, Janney’s “systematic interpretation of the disbanding of the Army of Northern Virginia reveals at once the dynamism of military history to explain broader social and cultural issues.” Furthermore, “her measured nuance helps the reader to understand that ‘surrender’ at Appomattox and general emancipation were not just a ‘finish’ or a ‘start,’ but rather both a panoply of contested beginnings, endings, and turning points in regional, national and racial identities. To that end, Janney encourages readers to center contingency and context when investigating the past.”

Janney is the John L. Nau III Professor of the American Civil War and Director of the John L. Nau Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (UNC Press, 2008) and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (UNC Press, 2013). She co-edited with Gary W. Gallagher Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (UNC Press, 2015) and edited Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (UNC Press, 2018). She serves as a co-editor of the University of North Carolina Press’s Civil War America Series and is the past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Awarded annually, the Richards Prize celebrates the generosity of George and Ann Richards, who were instrumental in the growth of the Richards Civil War Era Center and in the founding of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

For more information, visit

Serving the Society of Civil War Historians in the Coronavirus Era

Serving the Society of Civil War Historians in the Coronavirus Era

This essay is offered as an effort in presenting my thoughts about navigating the current pandemic and what it means for me as a historian and as SCWH President. Although these are largely personal reflections, I hope that they find some resonance with other scholars and students of Civil War history.

Like so many of you, I am doing my best to work through the uncertainties and the anxieties of this moment. I have been on sabbatical this spring so I have not had to face the challenges of Zoom teaching. My heart goes out to all of you who have. Instead, I have been facing the trials of focusing on a research project at a time when my mind often feels clogged by the layers of crises surrounding us. It is definitely hard to take yourself out of our current, tumultuous, moment and get yourself settled into the past. I am sorry, too, that I have had to postpone trips to the archives. Lately, I have been feeling like I am trying to forge ahead with a project that is filled with blind spots, far more than the usual blind spots we historians usually encounter. I have renewed appreciation for the archivists out there and cannot wait to see you again! I feel fortunate, of course, to have a job, with tenure, but I am very aware of the toll this crisis has taken on many colleagues and many graduate students and former graduate students, including some of my own, who are facing lost jobs, diminished funding opportunities, and a damaged job market.

As a historian, I have been thinking a lot, too, about the historical perspective on all of this. I have been reading books and articles about past public health crises (shout out here to my old grad school buddy, Nancy Bristow, and her book American Pandemic about the so-called “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918-1919). I have been fascinated by the many social, political, and emotional similarities between that moment and ours. It is also hard not to be struck by the way crises like this–and the Civil War surely counts as another one–compound and exacerbate the social and economic inequalities of our society, making basic survival for some an overwhelming ordeal. It has made me think about the many stories we probably still do not know about how various vulnerable populations in the mid-nineteenth century faced added trauma during the Civil War.

In my attempt to practice history in the era of the coronavirus, I also, perhaps like some of you, started keeping a journal. I try to write in it regularly, not with particularly deep insights, but mostly as a way to observe the many ways our world has shifted: the different ways we relate to people; the new patterns that emerge; the way our thinking starts to change about everything from wearing face masks to what we expect from our political leaders. I am particularly interested in the way we manage, often seamlessly, to shift into new patterns of behavior and new ways of thinking. As I do all this, I cannot help but think about the many diaries and journals I’ve read for my own research. I try to pay attention to details, thinking about what a future historian might want to know. I also try to keep my penmanship neat.

From my SCWH perspective, I am, of course, deeply saddened about our cancelled conference. I just took another look at the program we had planned, and it made me sad all over. One of our goals for this conference had been to convey the wide and extremely rich variety of topics scholars are pursuing about the Civil War era. This included, for example, the new directions being taken in environmental history; the material culture of the Civil War; the international dimensions of the Civil War; and the Civil War West. Additionally, our program featured a number of panels focused on topics that have always been fundamental to Civil War scholarship–like military units and regimental histories, the archival records so many scholars have relied on, and medical practices–but how we’re approaching those topics with new questions in mind.

I was also particularly excited about the two special plenaries we had planned. The Friday plenary, on women and gender in the Civil War era, was planned as a gathering of several scholars who have been taking this field in new and exciting directions: Judy Giesberg, Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Stephanie McCurry, and Fay Yarbrough. The panel presented a great opportunity for taking stock of a field–one that has shaped my own career for the last thirty years–and to see the remarkable ways it has developed, perhaps most notably from a field that often, by default, thought of Civil War women as white to a field that more fully acknowledges how much women’s antebellum and Civil War experience was shaped by race. I was also very much looking forward to the opening plenary on “The Civil War in Poetry and History” with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Having recently taught Trethewey’s extremely moving Civil War poems in my own class, I saw how poetry could both acknowledge and illuminate certain silences we encounter in the history books, especially regarding our inability to know the inner lives of so many enslaved and freed people during this period. Trethewey, I thought, seemed to be taking up something Ta-Nehisi Coates had written about so effectively in his essay, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War.” She was using her poems to write the black experience into Civil War history and even, like Coates, reclaiming the idea of what it might mean to become a “Civil War buff.” Her poems also made me feel anew the indignities associated with Confederate memorialization. In her attention to Civil War memory, she spotlights the insidious nature of the “Lost Cause,” the way it has seeped into so much of our culture and how it has built up something holy and glorious while covering over silences about those without the resources to get their stories into the history books. I urge you to look at some of her poems, especially those in her Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, Native Guard, a book that combines Trethewey’s personal reflections about growing up in a biracial family in Mississippi with historical reflections on the black soldiers from Mississippi who served the Union. You can read one of the poems from that collection here.

Finally, in planning for this conference, our program committee was particularly attentive to highlighting the work of graduate students in our field. Several panels showcased their research. We also had plans for a first-ever “lightning round” comprised of ten short presentations of several projects: it seemed like a valuable way to get grad students to hone their “elevator pitch” and to generate good discussion between faculty and PhD students. I know this current crisis has been particularly taxing on our students so I hope all of us can find ways, going forward, to support their work.

All of this makes me hopeful that we will, indeed, be able to recreate this conference, or at least a significant portion of it, in June 2021. The program committee did an amazing job and I hope we will be able to honor their efforts a year from now. Keep your eye out, too, for future posts on Muster: the editors will be working with scholars scheduled to present at the conference to provide an outlet where they can share their work.

I look forward to seeing you in June 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Nina Silber

President, Society of Civil War Historians

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 (UNC Press, 1993), Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard, 2005) and This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (UNC Press, 2018).

Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Let’s start with a quiz.

1: What are zygomatic arches?

2: Who, exactly, was Amunoph IV?

3: What are the key similarities and differences between the Esquimaux Dog (C. familiaris, Desm.) and the Hare-Indian Dog (C. familiaris lagopus)?

These questions are drawn from references made in one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous books: Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854). Regularly cited as a crucial contribution to American proslavery ideology, Types of Mankind promoted the doctrine of polygenism, which held that people of different races are descended from separately created original pairs, and thus belong to different species.[1] Although rightly remembered as an insidious blend of pseudoscience and proslavery propaganda, Types of Mankind is dense and often dull. It sprawls across some seven hundred pages. It brims with specialized scientific and archaeological jargon. It cost five dollars at a time when laborers might earn one dollar per day. Perhaps Nott and Gliddon’s book was more important as an intellectual milestone than as a direct influencer of popular culture and mass politics. If so, we have much to learn about precisely how the era’s increasingly rigid racist doctrines spread from academic halls and affluent parlors into humbler homes.

Figure 107 from Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854), 171. Much of the book’s argument rested on selective analysis of Egyptological sources, including images of human figures rendered in ancient carvings and paintings such as these.

To trace this process, we need to shift our focus away from the inventors of these perfidious doctrines and toward the popular writers and publishers who promulgated them. Among the latter, arguably none was more widely influential than John H. Van Evrie. Born in Canada, educated as a physician, and active for a quarter century in America’s publishing capital, New York City, Van Evrie turned scientific racism and proslavery politics into a highly marketable product that he peddled to white Americans of all regions and classes. As the author of two books and a pile of pamphlets, the editor of a widely read newspaper, and the publisher of dozens of racist treatises, Van Evrie repackaged scientific racism for popular consumption.

Title page of J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853). Van Evrie’s innovations lay not in his ideas, but in how he marketed and distributed them, including by packaging them in cheap pamphlets such as this, his first.

Van Evrie’s first publication, a pamphlet entitled Negroes and Negro “Slavery, reveals his approach to the work of the propagandist. Published in 1853 and reprinted widely for the next several years, Negroes and Negro “Slavery” offered few new ideas to the country’s escalating debate over slavery. Its two-part thesis is simple: first, polygenism proved that nature intended whites to be masters and African Americans to be slaves. “The negro,” insisted Van Evrie, was “a DIFFERENT AND INFERIOR SPECIES OF MAN,” created by God for servitude. Second, he warned that abolitionism was a British plot concocted to divide and destroy the United States.[2]

By 1853, these ideas were old hat. Van Evrie’s arguments about polygenism copied the work of previous authors like Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott, who had been pontificating about separate creations for more than a decade. His Anglophobic anti-abolitionism echoed politicians like John C. Calhoun. His references to contented slaves and beneficent masters rehashed standard tropes of proslavery literature. Yet Van Evrie’s significance was not as an original thinker, but as a marketer and popularizer. Like the rest of his work, his first pamphlet mattered less for what he said, than for how he said it—and to whom.

Van Evrie used several strategies to amplify his hateful message. Note, for instance, how he burnished his credentials. The “M.D.” placed conspicuously after his name asserted intellectual authority. This was reinforced by the endorsements printed on the pamphlet’s inside covers: enthusiastic blurbs from slave-state politicians provided a southern stamp of approval, while one from a New York senator added regional balance and another from proslavery physician Samuel Cartwright affirmed Van Evrie’s scientific rigor. Together, these marketing techniques promised that Van Evrie would provide a scholarly and objective appraisal of a controversial topic.[3]

Van Evrie also aimed his words at an audience far broader than the comparatively affluent customers who provided much of the market for books. He carefully limited his page count, condensing his message into a widely marketable pamphlet. Heeding the advice of friends who cautioned against immediately publishing a book-length polygenist text, Van Evrie issued his work in monthly installments, a strategy ironically reminiscent of the recent serial publication of the antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Thus, he offered Negroes and Negro “Slavery” as a concise, accessible introduction to a larger projected work that was eventually completed in 1861. He also used simple, jargon-free prose. Although not written in the crude, demagogic style of his later newspaper editorials, the pamphlet did not require the scientific vocabulary and prior knowledge demanded by Nott and Gliddon’s work. Finally, Van Evrie offered the pamphlet at the rock-bottom price of twenty-five cents—and in some cases apparently gave it away. According to one account, Van Evrie’s supporters raised a subscription fund to finance the pamphlet’s free distribution.[4] Van Evrie discounted his publications for the rest of his career, marketing his newspaper as the “World’s Cheapest” and selling his polygenist book for just one dollar.[5]

W. G. Jackman, Portrait of John H. Van Evrie, c. 1860-1869. Emblazoned with Van Evrie’s signature and the slogan “The White Republic against the World,” this lithograph was distributed as part of a marketing campaign for Van Evrie’s numerous publications. William G. Jackman was a prolific engraver who produced lithographic portraits of many prominent Civil War-era figures, including Nathan B. Forrest, Fernando Wood, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Amid the mountains of cheap texts that circulated in the mid-1850s, Van Evrie’s managed to stand out, attracting the attention—and provoking the controversy—on which his career would thrive. Sympathizers quickly identified him as a rising star. Samuel Morse, famous for his pioneering work in telegraphy but also a strident proslavery ideologue, exulted that Van Evrie’s arguments were “founded on God’s truth” and ordered copies of the pamphlet directly from the publisher.[6] Critics, meanwhile, provided additional publicity for Van Evrie’s ideas, even as they debunked them. Frederick Douglass devoted several columns to refuting Van Evrie’s “shallow” reasoning and mocking his “pompous” style.[7] Yet he and other abolitionists worried that Van Evrie was winning converts, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. One correspondent reported that even in the abolitionist hotbed of western New York, Van Evrie’s pamphlet had “circulated considerably” and persuaded some readers to “believe its sophistries.”[8] Negroes and Negro “Slavery” laid the foundation for a career that lasted until 1879.

Historians of proslavery and racist ideologies have paid comparatively little attention to Van Evrie because of his lack of originality. But racism has a political history, a communications history, and a business history as well as an intellectual history, and in these realms, Van Evrie’s labors are instructive: he took the nefarious doctrine of polygenism and sold it to a wide audience, exposing thousands of lay readers to popularized versions of sometimes rather arcane theories. His career is a reminder that new communications technologies are only as enlightening as the content they carry and the people who use them.


Quiz Answers:

1: Formed by parts of the zygomatic bone (commonly called the cheekbone) and the temporal bone, the zygomatic arch connects the cheekbone to the upper jawbone and is an important base for muscles used in chewing.

2: Eventually called Akhenaten, Amunoph (or Amenhotep, in the more common modern spelling) IV was an Egyptian pharaoh, the tenth ruler of the eighteenth dynasty. He is best known for introducing Atenism, the worship of Aten, the disc of the sun.

3: According to the naturalists cited in Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (p. 383), the Esquimaux Dog closely resembles the gray wolf in both color and size, while the Hare-Indian dog more closely resembles the prairie wolf, or coyote. The two animals are closely related but the coyote is smaller, has taller and more pointed ears, and has a narrower snout.


[1] Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854).

[2] J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853), 2.

[3] Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery, title page and inside front and back covers.

[4] “Pillicoddle,” “Correspondence of the Boston Post,” Boston Post, December 20, 1853.

[5] See the large advertisement for the book in American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette 7, no. 5 (February 2, 1861), 54.

[6] Samuel F.B. Morse to N.R. Stimson, October 6, 1855, in Rushmore G. Horton Papers, New York Public Library.

[7] “Is the Negro a White Man?—Dr. Van Evrie and the New York Day-Book,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, September 14, 1855.

[8] “W,” “Notes by the Way,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 28, 1854.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).