Category: Muster

The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

The Grave and the Gay: The Civil War on the Gilded Age Lecture Circuit

This is our final field dispatch from correspondent James Marten. We have greatly enjoyed his contributions to Muster and it has been such a pleasure having him on our team. We will be announcing his replacement in 2019, so stay tuned!

For decades before and after the Civil War, thousands of lecturers, “elocutionists,” ventriloquists, and other performers toured the country, entertaining audiences in churches, fraternal lodges, opera houses, auditoriums, and countless other venues in towns large and small. Some of the best-known figures of the Civil War era traveled this circuit, often making hundreds of dollars per lecture. They included Frederick Douglass and Blanche K. Bruce, Anna Dickinson and William Herndon, Mary Livermore and John S. Mosby. In the 1880s and 1890s, these lectures provided one important thread of memory for the military history of the Civil War.

A notice of a Livingston appearance in Brooklyn in 1885. “Both Sides of Army Life,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 3, 1885.

Although he was not one of the “star” speakers on the circuit in the late 1880s, Rev. E. Livingston Allen, unlike most of his more famous colleagues, left a complete version of his lecture, which he self-published as Both Sides of Army Life: The Grave and the Gay. It provides a sense of what many of the military-oriented lectures would have been like. It is filled with rhetorical flourishes and alliteration, cadences that work far better when heard than when read silently, and italicized and capitalized passages marking important thematic and emotional points. One can almost imagine the red marks, underlines, and circles on the script from which Allen would deliver his public lectures. Taken as a whole, Both Sides of Army Life checks several “boxes” in what had become a common veteran’s memory of the war, focusing on the patriotism of the volunteers, memorable battle scenes, oddball soldiers providing comic relief, and reconciliation between the sections. Although it’s hard to know how often he gave the lecture, he did present it several times in New York and Brooklyn in 1885.[1]

Allen, a long-time Methodist minister in New Jersey and New York, was also active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). At the age of eighteen he quit studying for the ministry to enlist in the Thirteenth New Jersey, serving as a corporal in Company K until the last few months of war, when he was promoted to sergeant. Although the regiment did not suffer heavy casualties–Allen himself was wounded three times–it did serve with distinction, fighting at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the March to the Sea.[2]

Allen’s talk began with several paragraphs on past wars and on Fourth of July orators who inculcated ardent patriotism and emotional attachment to the American flag: “All this with reference to the flag and eagle was sentiment; but it educated Young America patriotically.” Once the flag was attacked, “this sentiment was to become crystallized into the solid steel of military activity, and was to be proven the VERY EMBODIMENT OF INVINCIBLE FORCE!”[3]

Allen briefly described the assembling of “the boys” into the regiment and their rush to the Maryland front, where incredibly, they first loaded their guns as they went into battle at Antietam. Allen peppered his talk with military terminology, and with phrases that are a little jarring to read but which must have drawn audiences in with his dramatic use of repetition and alliteration: “As the gray dawn was pushing back the blackness of night, revealing the blue of day, we were ordered by the gray-haired Mansfield to push back the grey of treason and show the enemy the pure blue of loyalty.” The battle scene that followed was both particular to his experience yet also generic—similar scenes appeared in virtually every first-person account of combat. As the Thirteenth pressed forward, they passed a young soldier from the 107th New York, “with both limbs broken by a solid shot; and he, in his agony, knowing death must soon come, was calling, Mother! MOTHER! MOTHER! Brave hearts trembled–strong men wept–indescribable emotions swept over mind and heart–Forward! FORWARD! the command rose higher, and on we went.”[4] Most of the battle scenes offered similar drama and effects—his description of Chancellorsville captures perfectly the confusion on the Union right flank.

The monument to the Thirteenth New Jersey at Gettysburg. Courtesy of Stone Sentinels.

Allen’s talk featured a number of iconic facets of military reminiscences: rich, often funny characters, a no-hard-feelings approach to the enemy, and a few references to humorous incidents occurring at the height of battles–including a moment during a battle in Georgia when the regimental color guard (which included Allen) takes cover behind a rock and spends part of the battle eating blueberries. One fellow member of Company K, Sam C. Davis, who the “boys” inevitably nicknamed “Jeff,” was a “cross, crabbed, cranky, crusty, cantankerous” fellow–again, with the alliteration–who seemed most upset in the middle of crucial battle when a bullet ruined the fry pan crammed into his knapsack. Another of Allen’s stock characters, a German named John Icke, offered a little ethnic humor when Icke remarked on the quantity of rations provided in winter quarters in early 1863: “See vat Hooker feeds us mit: he is fattenen us up fur de schlauter-house.” Later in the war, the company gets a recruit named Young–nicknamed, of course, “Brigham”–whose uniform is ill-fitting and whose cap is worn at an awkward angle, and whose feet were so large that they kept the fire from warming him. Always hungry, he became the camp thief, stealing provisions from company stores at every opportunity, until he was caught, court-martialed, and fined.[5]

The reconciliationist impulse of the Gilded Age allowed Union soldiers to admire the bravery of their erstwhile enemies, which Allen does on several occasions. At Chancellorsville, in the face of concentrated rifle and artillery fire, the Confederates advanced “without flinching . . . close up the gaps made in their ranks, and, with their eyes, and hearts, and purposes fixed on the batteries, they reach the guns as the artillerymen fire the last shot, while the horses are being attached to take them away.”[6]

Allen’s narrative is shot full of striking images. There was the soldier who wills himself to make his escape by climbing onto a departing cannon despite two broken limbs; he’s found after the retreat finally stops, dead, but still clinging to the cannon. There is the soldier fined $10 a month for fleeing during a battle, who was convinced the bullets were singing “Where is he? Where is he?” while the shells called “That’s him! That’s him!” There is the sentry who sets off a commotion when he fires into the dark at what turns out to be an army mule, rather than an enemy patrol. Allen also includes set piece incidents that appear in many other narratives, included soldiers bravely rescuing wounded comrades and moments when survivors were powerless to help wounded men caught between the lines crying for help and water. And there is the obligatory scene of encountering a young slave, who ends up the butt of a soldier’s joke.[7]

After describing a few more oddball soldiers, Allen spends the bulk of the last few pages of the lecture on more serious subjects that captured the pathos of sacrifice by Union troops, the tragedy of the contraband refugees who followed Sherman’s army through Georgia, and the relief and pride the army felt when the war finally ended with the rebellion crushed. He finishes with a narrative of the regiment’s mustering out and welcome home, a report on the charitable and educational activities of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a tribute to the men and women who had supported the troops on the home front.

Allen lived into the twentieth century, although his date of death is unknown. He was reported to be in ill-health in 1892–he was only forty-eight, and it’s not clear if his health problems were related to his war-time injuries–but he was ministering to Methodists in Cape May Courthouse as late as 1902.[8] Although the pastor had spent a long life serving God, he, like many other Civil War veterans, had never forgotten the two or three years he had spent serving his country.


[1] Brooklyn Eagle, October 3, 1885; New York Times, October 18, 1885.

[2] Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Trenton, NJ: John L. Murphy, 1876), 658.

[3] Rev. E. Livingston Allen, Descriptive Lecture: Both Sides of Army Life, the Grave and the Gay (np: The Author, 1885), 1. Interestingly, James “Corporal” Tanner, a much more famous lecturer—and a non-commissioned officer who, like Allen, enlisted at the age of eighteen—used an almost identical title for his most popular talk.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 3, 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Minutes of the Fifty-Sixth Session of the New Jersey Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Camden: Gazette Printing House, 1892), 59; Churches of Salem County, New Jersey (Salem: Salem County Clerk’s Office, 2015), 100.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Writing home from Alabama in November 1863, an Ohio cavalryman celebrated the overthrow of the Southern aristocracy: “The mud sills of the North roam at will over the plantations, burn rails, forage on the country, and the negroes flock into our camps, leaving their lordly masters helpless and dependent,” he rejoiced. “Alas! for the pride and boasting of the chivalrous subjects of King cotton!”[1] He described not one, but two intertwined revolutions unleashed as slavery collapsed and elite pretensions crumbled. Especially illuminating was his triumphant reference to “mud sills,” a loaded term which connected wartime upheaval to antebellum politics.

“Mudsill” became a political catchword in 1858 thanks to an infamous speech by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina. A separate southern nation, he proclaimed, would thrive, thanks to its control over cotton production and its stable social order. According to Hammond, every civilization needed a class of manual workers: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” he proclaimed. “It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.” Northerners consigned whites to this degraded status, but the South had “found a race adapted to that purpose” and built a society on the bedrock of black labor. “We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves….I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.[2]

Northerners, convinced that proslavery ideologues threatened the dignity and liberty of all working people, were outraged. Workers appropriated the mudsill label, transforming an insulting epithet into a badge of pride. Across the North, “high-spirited mechanics and laborers” organized “Mud-Sill Clubs” and urged workingmen to vote Republican in the 1858 midterm elections. A banner hoisted at one of Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas read: “Small-Fisted Farmers, Mud Sills of Society, Greasy Mechanics, for A. Lincoln.”[3] As Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson recalled, Hammond “opened the eyes of [northern] men to the spirit, aims, and purposes of the Slave Power as perhaps no previous demonstration had been able to effect.”[4]

This “demonstration” shaped popular understandings of the crisis that followed A. Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860. Northerners readily attributed secession to the same elite class that espoused the mudsill doctrine. One Illinois soldier commenced his wartime diary by writing that the “slave olagarchy of the southern states…having lost their former political control of the government and not being minded to submit to the humiliation of sharing that control with the mud sills of the north…determined to suceed from the federal union and form a confederacy of their own based on the foundation rock of slavery.”[5]

E. Bowers and G.L.J., “Mudsills Are Coming: A New Army Song” (Boston: Russell & Patee, 1862). Songs like “Mudsills Are Coming” reminded northerners of the insulting implications of proslavery ideology and sustained their enthusiasm for the war. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Hammond’s epithet also spurred northern workingmen to enlist. “‘I am a mud-sill’ is now a common expression of the Soldiers who fight for liberty,” reported the New York Tribune in June 1861.[6] Patriotic songs and poems amplified this theme. The song “Northmen, Come Out!” encouraged recruits to come “Out in your strength and let them know/How Working Men to Work can go./Out in your might and let them feel/How Mudsills strike when edged with steel.”[7] The poem “March of the Mud-Sills” exhorted northern workers to vanquish southern oligarchs and reconstruct a truly democratic Union, so that “the class that built the nation, from their energy and skill/Shall be free to mould its progress by the edict of their will.”[8]

Northern recruits itched to prove themselves in combat. While idling on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, one soldier wrote that all his comrades wanted was a chance to “teach the rebel scoundrels a lesson which will convince them that the ‘mud sills’ of the north are fully equal to any chivalry the F F V’s [First Families of Virginia] can produce.”[9] Battlefield victories were especially sweet for Union soldiers like Charles Harvey Brewster who relished seeing the “chivalry and the cream of everything in the United States…break and run like sheep before the Mudsills” at the Battle of Malvern Hill.[10]

Mudsill-related resentments also shaped Union soldiers’ interactions with southern civilians. They inspired some soldiers to assist fugitive slaves, not least because they savored opportunities to humiliate lordly masters. A New York artilleryman reported on a Virginia planter who boarded his transport ship in search of runaway slaves: blue-collar soldiers seized the “fine Virginia gentleman” and tossed him overboard. Imagine, the soldier wrote to his parents, “a F[irst] [F]amily [of] V[irginia] being tossed fifteen feet in the air, three times, by Union solders – Northern mudsills.”[11]

“The Pending Contest.” Published in 1864, this political cartoon depicts the Civil War as a battle between secession and popular rule. The caption throws the mudsill epithet back at the humbled secessionist, who laments: “I will kill him if I can, and yet, this Mudsill, whom I have despised as a mercenary coward, insulted, and would have trodden under foot, has proved to be a very giant in courage and resources.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Similar sentiments also goaded Union soldiers to target wealthy households for pillage and destruction. While campaigning in Mississippi, a group of Illinois volunteers spared the home of an impoverished Unionist and raided a larger estate owned by a Confederate matron who denounced them as “mudsills” and “Lincoln hirelings.” To the Illinoisans who emptied her larder, she was triply implicated by her wealth, allegiance, and conceit.[12]

Union vengeance against South Carolina aristocrats was especially severe. As William T. Sherman’s legions prepared to march into the Palmetto State in early 1865, Union General Henry W. Slocum mused that Sherman “will soon introduce his mud-sills of the north to the cream of southern aristocracy.” “The meanest private soldier,” Slocum added, “knows the history of this contest and the part played by South Carolina. She will pay a fearful penalty.”[13] Slocum was right. Weeks later, a Massachusetts officer surveyed with satisfaction the ruined homes of “rich, aristocratic, chivalrous, slaveholding” Carolinians who had started the war to “gratify their aristocratic aspirations…and to indulge in their insane hatred for us Yankee mud-sills.”[14]

Unionists expected that mudsill ingenuity would rebuild the South on a foundation of freedom and progress. “The South will yet blossom like the rose over the grave of slavery,” wrote one eager editor in 1864, “and ‘Northern mudsills, greasy mechanics, and small fisted farmers’ be the media through which her regeneration shall be accomplished.”[15] Some called for dividing plantations into small farms worked by northern mudsills and emancipated slaves.[16]

Reconstruction did not fulfill these hopes, but attention to mudsill rhetoric reminds us that words matter. Intending to celebrate southern strength, Hammond provoked a storm of northern fury that raged until much of the South lay in ruins. A generation later, an Indianan remembered Hammond’s speech as a turning point:

It is hardly possible to estimate the power which may be concentrated in a word, or a phrase. In March, 1858, in the Senate of the United States, the haughty J.H. Hammond christened the laboring men of the Free States as “Mudsills,” and the sneering and insulting epithet burned the quick sensibilities of the mechanics, the artisans, the farmers and the laborers of the nation, as molten lava might burn their physical frames, and they never forgot nor forgave the atrocious and cowardly insult, until they lit their pathway through South Carolina by the light of blazing homes and burning palaces.[17]

Living in a digital age in which we are bombarded by ephemeral text, it is worth remembering that words can stick, and ideas can take hold – and have consequences far into the future.


[1] “B” to Dear Harper, November 12, 1863, Gallipolis Journal, November 26, 1863.

[2] Cong. Globe, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., appendix, 71.

[3] Eugene Fitch Ware, The Lyon Campaign in Missouri: Being a History of the First Iowa Infantry (Topeka: Crane & Company, 1907), 33-34; “The Ground Tier Moved!” Lewisburg (PA) Chronicle, August 20, 1858; Bangor (ME) Whig, reprinted in the Randolph County (IN) Journal, August 19, 1858; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 196-198.

[4] Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), II, 550.

[5] William Wiley, entry for August 1862, in The Civil War Diary of a Common Soldier: William Wiley of the 77th Illinois Infantry, ed. Terrence J. Winschel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 1.

[6] “Mud-Sills,” New York Tribune, reprinted in (Findlay, OH) Hancock Jeffersonian, June 14, 1861.

[7] “Northmen, Come Out!” Vanity Fair 3 (May 4, 1861), 215.

[8] [G.P. Stevens] “The March of the Mud-Sills,” Harvard Magazine 8, no. 68 (October 1861): 59-61.

[9] Charlie to My own darling wife, May 3, 1862, in Dear Friends at Home: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, First Battalion, 1861-1864, ed. Edward K. Cassedy (Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 2001), 82.

[10] Charles Harvey Brewster to [?], ca. July 4, 1862, in Charles H. Brewster, When This Cruel War Is Over: The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster, ed. David W. Blight (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 343.

[11] Edmund Evarts to My Dear Parents, September 9, 1863, in Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battle-Field and Prison, ed. Lydia Minturn Post (New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1865), 191-192.

[12] Daniel O. Root, War Time Stories: An Illinois Soldier’s Civil War Experiences, ed. Richard A. Chrisman (n.p.: Trafford Publishing, 2011), 59-62.

[13] Quoted in Brian C. Melton, Sherman’s Forgotten General: Henry W. Slocum (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 193.

[14] Charles Fessenden Morse to [?], January 31, 1865, in Letters Written During the Civil War 1861-1865 (n.p.: Privately Printed, 1898), 210-212.

[15] “The Demand for Men,” Daily Union, reprinted in (Brattleboro) Vermont Phoenix, April 22, 1864.

[16] “Rewarding the Army,” Continental Monthly 2, no. 2 (August 1862): 161-165; Daniel M. Holt to My dear Wife, February 7, 1864, in A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., ed. James M. Greiner, Janet L. Coryell, and James R. Smithier (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994), 171-172.

[17] Corydon E. Fuller, Reminiscences of James A. Garfield with Notes Preliminary and Collateral (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1887), 309.

Michael E. Woods

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

The Electoral Politics of “Migrant Caravans”

The Electoral Politics of “Migrant Caravans”

Images of the “migrant caravans” heading north from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico and toward the United States, are now familiar to us all. There have been other “migrant caravans” from Central America in the past, but none have registered in American media and politics quite like the one that began in October 2018.

Why this particular migration received such attention has everything to do with timing and politics—and with a president heading into midterm elections who saw an advantage to be had and pounced with all his Twitter fury. Raising many familiar racialized tropes when it comes to immigration—crime! lost jobs!—this latest Central American migration was ultimately the Democrats’ fault, the president contended, and a vote for Republicans would be a vote to stop this approaching menace.[1]

Scenes like this at Fort Monroe prompted General Dix to appeal to northern governors to open their borders to black refugees. “Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia—Their Arrival at Fortress Monroe,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What happened in the fall of 2018 should be familiar to any historian of immigration in American history—the positioning of nativist attacks on migrants and refugees as a wedge issue in electoral politics—and examples of it stretch back into the nineteenth century (think: Know Nothing Party). But less familiar to historians of the Civil War era, perhaps, was a similar moment in the 1860s, when an attempted migration was also turned back right before a contested midterm election. This time, though, it involved tens of thousands of formerly enslaved men, women, and children from the American South looking northward to freedom.

It happened in the fall of 1862. Abraham Lincoln had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation publicly in late September, which decisively aligned the Union, and the Republican Party, with emancipation. By that time, many thousands of formerly enslaved men, women, and children, were congregating in refugee camps inside Union lines in the South, largely along the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas but increasingly in the Mississippi Valley and farther west into Kansas too. In the eyes of military commanders in these regions, Lincoln’s proclamation seemed to acknowledge the reality of what was happening around them but offered little of the concrete assistance they needed. A humanitarian crisis was escalating in their midst, which, depending on the officials’ sympathies, either distressed or annoyed them. All were searching for an answer to the same (and often-asked) question: What should we do with the people?

At Fort Monroe, Virginia, the commanding general, John A. Dix, thought he found an answer in the northern states. An anti-abolitionist Democrat with little sympathy for these refugees from slavery, Dix was most concerned with ridding his command of what he termed “a very great source of embarrassment” and returning his focus to what he believed were strictly military needs. Sending black refugees to the North would get them out of his way. So with the consent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Dix identified nine northern governors whom he thought would be receptive and wrote first to the one he deemed most sympathetic—Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts. Andrew was not only an antislavery Republican but also the president of the Educational Commission for Freedmen. It seemed logical that he would open his state’s borders to the South’s refugees from slavery.[2]

Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts (left) and General John A. Dix (right). Courtesy of Wikipedia and the Library of Congress.

But Andrew thought differently. “I do not concur in any way or to any degree in the plan proposed,” Governor Andrew replied to Dix in mid-October. He argued that in the South they would be better positioned to fight on behalf of the Union (something he would later promote while organizing the 54th Massachusetts regiment). “If you are attacked,” he wrote Dix, “let the blacks fight to preserve their freedom!” Andrew went on to argue that “humanity” should compel the general to keep black people in the South. “The Northern states are, of all places, the worst possible to select for an asylum,” he argued, since ex-slaves are “inhabitants of a Southern climate,” with a “physical constitution” that would not be able to withstand “the rigors of our Northern sky.” He claimed to reject Dix’s plan “precisely because I do not wish the Negroes to suffer.”[3]

Andrew’s reasoning called on longstanding racist beliefs that people of African descent were better suited to hot climates—an assumption shared, notably, by proslavery ideologues too. Andrew was not alone among abolitionists in making such statements. A year before, as the first enslaved people made their way into Union lines, the Liberator quoted Henry Ward Beecher, among others, reassuring northern audiences that “Many people fear that if the slaves should gain their freedom, they would swarm at the North. Don’t you believe it. . . . the North Pole is not suited to the skin of the blacks.”[4] Never mind that enslaved people had for decades sought out cold, harsh climates—northern free states and Canada—in their pursuit of freedom. Andrew’s and Beecher’s statements instead made emancipation seem more palatable and the exclusion of black migrants seem natural, even divinely ordained—a reassuring sentiment for white northerners who long feared what would follow from the end of slavery. Competition for jobs? Miscegenation?

Yet such arguments also obscured the political calculations at the heart of Andrew’s position. Andrew, and other Republicans, knew full well that the midterm election coming in November 1862 could be a referendum on the Union’s emancipation policy. And he also knew full well that their opponents, the Democrats, would seize on any plan to ship refugees north as evidence that the worst fears of the white northern public were about to come true.[5] It was in large part to undercut Democratic fear mongering—to defuse black migration as a potent electoral issue—that Andrew rejected Dix’s plan and refused to open Massachusetts’s borders.

Secretary Stanton, under the same political pressures that fall, suspended other ongoing efforts to ship refugees north from the lower Mississippi Valley. And individual states ranging from Minnesota to Pennsylvania either enforced or proposed new wartime exclusion laws barring the migration of black people.[6] General Dix had little choice but to drop the issue. The official, northern resettlement of refugees by the federal government thus ended at this point, although some private organizations did undertake this work in the years ahead, and individual refugees did find ways of securing passes from military commanders—who remained, of all Union officials, the most friendly to their northern migration. Republicans, meanwhile, ended up losing congressional seats in the 1862 elections, though it is impossible to know to what extent the defense of northern borders stopped the party from losing more.

From that point forward, white antislavery northerners proved far more enthusiastic about a reversal of flows: rather than welcome black people to the North, they shipped, by the tens of thousands, barrels of used clothing, shoes, bedding, and garden seeds from the North to the South. Organizations ranging from Andrew’s Educational Commission for Freedmen, to the Friends Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia and the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, raised enormous amounts of money for this purpose, with the expressed purpose of relieving the “immediate physical wants of the suffering and destitute.”[7]

But if refugee crises around the globe in the twenty-first century are any guide, then this flow of relief also played a role in limiting the movements of newly freed people—and supporting the political and legal work of excluding them from the North. As geographer Jennifer Hyndman has observed, destitute refugees tend to “become less mobile as humanitarian aid is able to cross borders more quickly.”[8] In the case of the Civil War, if the refugees could be helped in the South, would they need (or want) to move to the North? “Let them be protected in freedom in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama,” the Friends Review explained in 1862, and “those now there will remain there.”[9]

Humanitarian relief was thus an investment in containing black refugees in the South in the 1860s. But that is where this story departs from the electoral politics of 2018, as the current president, likewise determined to keep migrants in their home countries, has threatened the reverse: to cut off—rather than increase—foreign aid to places like Honduras and Guatemala. Either way, both moments tell a sobering story of how the movement of people of color, especially those without U.S. citizenship, has remained at the mercy of white politicians and their electoral ambitions across time.


[1] “ ‘It’s an Exodus,’” New York Times, October 26, 2018,

[2] This incident is described in more detail in Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 94-96; see also Jacque Voegeli, “A Rejected Alternative: Union Policy and the Relocation of Southern ‘Contrabands’ at the Dawn of Emancipation,” Journal of Southern History 69 (November 2003): 765-790.

[3] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 95.

[4] “Henry Ward Beecher on the War and Negro Catching,” Liberator, July 19, 1861.

[5] On the emancipation politics surrounding the 1862 election, see Louis P. Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 150-168.

[6] Leslie A. Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 102-104; Voegeli, “A Rejected Alternative,” 773, 777-778, 786; “The Rights of Colored Citizens,” Friends Review, March 7, 1863.

[7] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 157-178; Minutes of the Western Yearly Meeting of Friends (1865), 41, Friends Collection and College Archives, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

[8] Jennifer Hyndman, Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 58-59.

[9] “Emancipation and Immigration,” Friends Review, September 6, 1862.

Amy Murrell Taylor

Amy Murrell Taylor is Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the History Department at the University of Kentucky. Her most recent book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps, was published by UNC Press in November 2018. She is also the author of The Divided Family in Civil War America (UNC Press, 2005), and co-editor, with Michael Perman, of Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cengage, 2010).

1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

Mary Lincoln, 1846 or 1847. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Just over two hundred years ago today, on December 13, 1818, Mary Ann Todd came into the world screaming. Or at least, we assume she came into this world screaming, as most babies do. It was a rainy Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky. Mary’s mother Eliza likely sent for the midwife. Together, the women would have laughed, cried, and worked through the labor in a female experience, a female world not yet dominated by male doctors. The midwife would have encouraged Eliza, and perhaps offered some mulled liquor, until the big moment of Mary’s arrival.[1]

When she married Abraham Lincoln, she dropped the Todd, and would sign her name Mary Lincoln for the rest of her life. Her life and legacy would be haunted by thousands of interpretations and misinterpretations. Mary the sane, Mary the insane, Mary the devoted wife, Mary the calculating manipulator. She shopped too much, cried too much, complained too much. After losing two sons, she turned to spiritualism, holding as many as eight seances in the White House. Then her third son passed, and later, her fourth would send her to an Illinois asylum. She later deemed it a “cruel persecution by a bad son” and to obtain her release, she secured the services of Myra Bradwell, one of the few female lawyers of the time.[2]

Lincoln Family in 1861, painted by F. B. Carpenter, engraved by J. C. Buttre, 1873. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But to her core, she cared about family. A family she loved, a family she lost, a family that lay shattered around her. We can imagine the movie of her life, with scenes flickering by – Mary in 1842, courting a tall and talented backwoods lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. In 1860, the wife whose husband reportedly ran home yelling “Mary, Mary, we are elected!” after he learned that he had won the presidential election. In 1862, a mother, miserably consoling her eleven-year-old son Willie, as he lay dying of typhoid fever. And on April 14, 1865, that fateful night she held her husband’s hand as he laughed at a line in the theatre, unaware of the gun to his head.[3]

Mary had five Confederate sisters – a source of joy, grief, embarrassment, and anger throughout the war.  Through a study of Mary Lincoln and two of her Confederate sisters, we can see how gendered tensions of the war played out within a household.  After all, Mary was many things, but before she became a Lincoln, she was a Todd.

Emilie Todd Helm. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society Collections.

During the war, Mary dropped a newspaper in the midst of reading bad news and said, “Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me.  I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South.”  Emilie, an adored little sister of Mary, had a husband who had just died defending the Confederacy. Even so, the Lincolns welcomed her into the White House, as family.  Political alliances prevented them from speaking as freely as Emilie would like, but she felt for Mary and wrote, “we weep over our dead together and express through our clasped hands the sympathy we feel for each other in our mutual grief.”[4]

But not everyone who encountered Emilie would put aside their alliances. Emilie was, after all, a widow of the enemy. “Well, we whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits,” jabbed Senator Ira Harris of New York when he visited the White House. Answering “with a choking throat,” Emilie retorted, “It was an example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.” After a failed attempt to get a rise from Mary, Harris returned to prodding Emilie and informed her “if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels.” Forgetting where she was but not her Confederate loyalties, Emilie responded, “And if I had twenty sons, Senator Harris, they should all be opposing yours.” When the incident was relayed to Abe, he chuckled that “the child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”[5]

Longing for home and believing “my being here is more or less an embarrassment,” Emilie decided it was time to return to Kentucky. Emilie left, with an invitation for her to return and a pass to do so. She took advantage of this in 1864 when she needed a license to sell six hundred bales of cotton. Lincoln refused. Emilie, after all, still had not signed an oath of loyalty and remained an outspoken Confederate. Pledging her loyalty, Emilie believed, would bring dishonor to her dead husband’s memory. So she angrily returned to Kentucky and penned a searing letter. Mary would never see or write her again.[6]

In the fall of 1861, another Todd sister, Elodie, lamented, “Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact situation of ours and I hope will never be [another] so unfortunate to be surrounded by trials so numerous.” Elodie was living in Selma, Alabama, and was engaged to be married to a Confederate officer, Nathaniel Dawson.[7]

Elodie Breck Todd. Courtesy of the Kentucky Digital Library.

In a letter to Nathaniel, Elodie describes Mary’s reaction to the engagement. Mary “receives the news seriously and writes me a long letter on the subject of matrimony and adjoins me that I am a great deal better off as I am. She ought to know as she committed the fatal step years ago, and I believe another such letter would almost make me abandon the idea.”[8]

Despite her sister’s objections, Elodie would ultimately say yes. “How singular that I should be engaged to the sister of Mrs. Lincoln,” Nathaniel wrote, “I wish you would write her to that effect so that in case of being taken prisoner I will not be too severely dealt with.” For Elodie, the Todd family drama is not a singular oddity but a tragedy. Though clearly committed to the Confederacy, she refused to let anyone speak ill of the Lincolns in her presence and admitted reflection on her family’s situation sometimes left her unable to get out of bed.[9]

But even as Elodie defended Mary and her husband, she also expressed private dismay and frustration over Mary’s wartime actions. After reading a newspaper that claimed Mary spoke poorly about her brother David, Elodie wrote to her fiancé, saying, “I do not believe she ever said it and if she did and meant it she is no longer a sister of mine nor deserves to be called a woman of nobleness and truth…What would she do to me, do you suppose? I have as much to answer for.” Nathaniel responded, “I do not believe that Mrs. Lincoln ever expressed herself as you state about your brother David. If she did, it is in very bad taste and in worse temper and unlike all the representations I have seen of her character…How deplorable is this fratricidal war. Two brothers met in the battle of Manassas on opposite sides and are now here in the hospital, both wounded.”[10]

We often talk of this war as brother vs. brother, but what of sister vs. sister? We often study the reconciliation efforts of soldiers at battlefield commemorations after the war, but what of the women whose fierce sectional hatred burned for more than four years? Exploring sisterhoods reminds us, if nothing else, that women experienced war in a variety of ways. By delving in and allowing these women their individualities, we broaden and deepen our understanding of the female world. If we grant, as we now do, that women did critical cultural work in prosecuting the war and interpreting its meaning, we must pay greater attention to the way they went about their work, including how they resolved disputes. Indeed, we should consider the way the war continued on as a conflict between women and within households. After all, this was a situation that Mary knew so well.


[1] I presented a version of this post at the Mary Todd Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium, hosted by the Mary Todd Lincoln House and University of Kentucky in November 2018. Other participants included Catherine Clinton and Jennifer Fleischner–conversations with both strengthened this piece, for which I am grateful.

[2] As quoted in Jean H. Baker’s 2008 preface, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008).

[3] Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), 46.

[4] Katherine Helm, The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1928), 224-233; John L. Helm, Frankfort, Kentucky, to Emily Todd Helm, January 20, 1864, Emilie Todd Helm Papers, 1855-1943, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, September 1, 1861, in Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, ed. Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 183.

[8] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, May 26, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 69.

[9] Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, May 16, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 46.

[10] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, July 23, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 139; Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, August 3, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 157.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

On March 29, 1859, Ulysses S. Grant went to the St. Louis Courthouse to attend to a pressing legal matter. That day Grant signed a manumission paper freeing William Jones, an enslaved African American man that he had previously acquired from his father-in-law, “Colonel” Frederick F. Dent. Described as being “of Mullatto [sic] complexion,” five foot seven in height, and aged about thirty-five years, Jones now faced an exciting, but arduous life journey in freedom.[1] As fate would have it, William Jones would become the last enslaved person ever owned by a U.S. president, while Ulysses S. Grant holds the strange distinction of being the last of twelve presidents in U.S. history to have been a slaveholder.

The manumission of William Jones written in Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting on March 29, 1859. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

From 1854 to 1859, Grant struggled to support his family as a hardscrabble farmer in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time he grew fruits, vegetables, grains, and oats at White Haven, an 850-acre plantation that was the childhood home of his wife, Julia Dent Grant, and owned by his father-in-law. Enslaved labor did most of the work at White Haven, and at some point Grant acquired ownership of William Jones.[2] Beyond these basic facts, the relationship between Grant and Jones is riddled with ambiguity. When did Grant acquire Jones? Did he pay money for Jones, or was he a “gift” from his father-in-law? Why did Grant feel the need to acquire a slave in the first place? Why did he free him? What sort of work did Jones do for Grant and his family? What was the relationship between the two men like? Unfortunately the single primary source document for historians to analyze—the manumission paper written in Grant’s own hand—fails to convey reliable answers to these questions. Further complicating matters, Grant never mentioned Jones again in any of his existing papers or in his famed Personal Memoirs. And perhaps the biggest question looming over the entire discussion is “what happened to William Jones after he was freed?”

As an interpreter at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, I face visitor questions about William Jones on a daily basis. While I often struggle to give satisfactory answers to these questions, I have taken a great interest in trying to provide some sort of answer to the last one. After all, Jones should not exist simply as a footnote in Ulysses S. Grant’s life story (as he is so often depicted in popular Grant biographies) but as an individual with his own thoughts, experiences, and struggles both in slavery and in freedom. To that end I have endeavored over the past year to research what may have happened to Jones after his manumission. In the course of my work I have made two important, but very tenuous, discoveries about William Jones.

The first concerns where Jones may have settled once he became free. In a time before the invention of the telephone, major cities throughout the United States published city directories that listed residents’ names, home addresses, and occupation. In the course of looking through the 1860 St. Louis city directory online I found a listing for “Jones William (Col’d)” in the directory. His listing states that he worked as a horse driver and was living at rear 100 Myrtle Street, which was very close to the St. Louis riverfront and is now part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. (“Rear” refers to an outbuilding or small home in a back alley.) Further research in the directory found that Jones was living with five other free people of color in the same house, while a man named Herman Charles who worked in the furniture business was living at the main home. He was most likely renting out the rear home to Jones and his cohorts.[3]

A screenshot of the William Jones listing in the 1860 St. Louis City Directory. Photo Courtesy of Rollanet.

Does this listing represent the same William Jones that was freed by Ulysses S. Grant? Unfortunately, there is no listing in the 1860 federal census for a William Jones of African American descent living in downtown St. Louis. On the one hand, it was common—both then and now—for census-takers to miss residents during the surveying process.[4] Moreover, it is entirely plausible that Jones would have opted to stay in St. Louis. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by 1860, and a small but thriving community of 1,500 free blacks lived and worked in St. Louis as barbers, blacksmiths, cooks, dockworkers, hotel and restaurant workers, and laborers.[5] Where else would Jones have been able to quickly settle and start working, especially if he had any other family to support? St. Louis may have been his best option at the time. On the other hand, a census listing would have confirmed the age of the William Jones listed in the directory and helped confirm if he was the same person previously owned by Grant. That “William Jones” is such a common name further complicates matters. Without a census record the city directory listing is therefore compelling but inconclusive.

A map of St. Louis in 1857. The red square notes where 100 Myrtle Street was located at the time. Today it is part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. Photo courtesy of the author.

The second insight concerns court records from the St. Louis Courthouse. On May 6, 1861, the court records indicate that a “William Jones (Col’d)” was arrested with several other free blacks for not having their freedom papers. Like other slave states throughout the South, Missouri law assumed that African Americans were enslaved unless proven otherwise. When African Americans received their freedom in Missouri, they were required to apply for a “freedom license,” post a bond between 100 dollars and 1,000 dollars, and demonstrate to the court that they were “of good character and behavior, and capable of supporting [themselves] by lawful employment.”[6] Sometimes a benevolent slaveholder would pay the bond, but often the person being freed was held responsible. Grant’s financial troubles while living in St. Louis would have most likely prevented him from posting Jones’s bond in 1859. In any case, the William Jones arrested in 1861 was publicly whipped on the steps of the courthouse for his indiscretion and ordered to leave Missouri within three days. Gateway Arch National Park Historian Bob Moore originally found this court record and stated in an email to staff at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that he believes it was the same William Jones that was freed by Grant, but nevertheless staff at both sites recognize that the evidence once again cannot fully corroborate the claim one way or the other.[7]

Other research I conducted proved frustrating and led to dead ends. I looked at the military records of more than 250 black soldiers named “William Jones” who served in United States Colored Infantry units during the Civil War without finding one who matched the description for height, complexion, and age listed in the 1859 manumission paper. Likewise, while there are multiple listings for “William Jones (Col’d)” in St. Louis City Directories from 1861 to 1865, it is nearly impossible to confirm if they are the same one previously listed in 1860. Furthermore, there is no William Jones of African American descent listed in the 1870 federal census for St. Louis. My research continues in earnest, but like many enslaved African Americans, the story of William Jones’s life in freedom is shrouded in mystery. As Fredrick Douglass once stated, “genealogical tress [sic] do not flourish among slaves.”[8]

Where else should I look for information on William Jones? What research have you done on enslaved African Americans and their transition to freedom? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.



[1] The original manumission paper is housed at the Missouri Historical Society. A transcription of the document is located in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1:1837-1861 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 347.

[2] National Park Service, “Slavery at White Haven,” Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, April 2, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018,

[3] “Kennedy’s 1860 St. Louis City Directory,” Rollanet, 2007, accessed October 24, 2018,

[4] Pew Research Center, “Imputation: Adding People to the Census,” Pew Research Center, May 4, 2011, accessed October 20, 2018,

[5] National Park Service, “African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018,; Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).

[6] The mention of William Jones is in the St. Louis County Record Book 10, “May 6, 1861,” 333, Gateway Arch National Park Archives, St. Louis; Ebony Jenkins, “Freedom Licenses in St. Louis City and County, 1835-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2008, accessed October 26, 2018,; 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).

[7] Robert Moore, email to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Staff, November 10, 2017.

[8] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1855), 34.

Nick Sacco

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

Editor’s Note: December 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: December 2018 Issue

We are pleased to present the editor’s note for our December 2018 issue, chock full of fascinating articles. To subscribe, please visit our subscriptions page.

This issue features essays on the political and social contexts of the sectional crisis, looking carefully at what Americans read and how they voted—and for whom and why—and situates the crisis squarely in a transatlantic context. Readers will find essays that push us to think again about the Civil War’s outcome, with an essay that uncovers the science of racial difference as it was being made in U.S. Army hospitals and another that nudges us to reconsider how we tell the story of the end of slavery.

Timothy Williams examines the reading habits of young men and women of the American South, finding that elite white southerners who came of age during the war turned to reading as escape, as a way to express their autonomy, and both as a means of self-expression and marking their group identity. In their diaries and letters, young southerners kept track of their reading, recommended good books and regretted time spent reading others, thought about what their reading meant to their senses of themselves as men and women, and established habits that defined them less, perhaps, as uniquely southern but as members of a generation. Once established, these reading habits proved hard to break; young readers carried them through the war and beyond.

Where Williams’s subjects read books Joshua Lynn’s read bodies—the body of presidential candidate, James Buchanan, in particular. Lynn shows how Democrats turned Buchanan’s bachelorhood into an asset. Pitted against the marital state of Jesse Frémont’s husband in the 1856 election, Buchanan’s bachelorhood became very much a political issue, with Republicans questioning his credentials and disparaging his manhood. Democrats touted Buchanan as a candidate who could temper northern radicalism like he controlled his sexual urges; his “portly” sixty-five-year-old frame embodied principles northern and southern men could embrace. As a “manly dough face,” candidate Buchanan had a body that was round, pure, and adroitly intersectional. President Buchanan’s liminality caused problems among his former defenders, who found their man naïve or, worse, dangerously unprincipled.

Joseph Murphy’s essay traces the history of an “antislavery nationalism” in the North. Exploring the critical period from Britain’s 1833 Emancipation Act to the 1842 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Murphy notes how American jurists sought to reconcile American law, based on the law of nations, with the dramatic and abrupt changes wrought to the latter by Britain’s “war on slavery.” The debate about how to adjust to this new global reality took place in courtrooms where lawyers argued a number of cases involving American slave trading ships captured–or diverted due to rebellion–in national and international waters; each case raised questions about the security of “slave property” on the high seas and in the Constitution. For those seeking to draw a straight line from the Prigg decision that nullified states’ personal liberty laws to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Murphy’s essay challenges us to see in the decision’s denial of “a constitutional right to slave property” the seeds of an antislavery nationalism, nurtured in the transatlantic crosswinds during this crucial decade. Among the legacies of this antislavery nationalism, Murphy contends, are the principles of equality enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Among the legacies of the United States Sanitary Commission was scientific racism. Although historians have rendered the story of the Commission as one of progress—progress toward medical modernity, progress toward gender equality, et cetera—they have not examined the commission’s role in advancing the science of race and racism. Leslie Schwalm’s essay indicates that the commission’s purposes were never limited to providing supplies and medical care to injured and ill U.S. Army soldiers. Guided by leaders such as Henry Bellows and Frederick Law Olmsted, the Commission aimed to amass “a body of ‘truly scientific work’” that would “document the belief that people of African descent constituted an indisputably inferior race.” Commission doctors turned their unprecedented access to black bodies—the men of the U. S. Colored Troops—into an opportunity to gather data that could be used to document and perpetuate their racial views. Perhaps Schwalm’s most devastating conclusion is that hundreds of thousands of USCT soldiers who enlisted in a war to end slavery, once measured, weighed, and examined by Commission doctors, were drafted to “a massive effort to ensure that racial ideologies would endure slavery’s destruction.”  This essay will change the way we think about the Commission and its “humanitarian” work.

Erik Mathisen rounds out this issue with a review essay that identifies the key points of overlap in the scholarship on slavery and capitalism and on “the second slavery,” a term associated with the nineteenth-century expansion of slavery, and to point out the questions that remain. This scholarship has established slavery’s role in the development of capitalism—and vice versa—and has helped scholars of the U.S. Civil War explain the coming of the war. Scholars of second slavery have focused far less attention on the war and its aftermath. And, importantly, because this scholarship links the prerogatives of capitalism to a continuum of coerced labor, “emancipation in the United States looks less like a turning point and more like a moment of consolidation in the broader Atlantic history of labor.” In this flattened out account of the nineteenth century, what, Mathisen asks, is left of the effort to tell the history of emancipation as the result of human agency?

Shaping Public Remembrances of Abolition and Emancipation: Memory in the Post-Emancipation Era at the 2018 SHA

Shaping Public Remembrances of Abolition and Emancipation: Memory in the Post-Emancipation Era at the 2018 SHA

Today we share the last of our conference reports on the November 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, held in Birmingham. Thank you for following along with us as these four reporters shared details about these fascinating and thought-provoking panels.

When one attempts to explain to non-historians that their high school knowledge about the American Civil War and Reconstruction was not a simple recounting of facts, but instead the product of subsequent eras of remembrance and silencing shaped by political exigencies, one comes to appreciate in a very real way the compelling power of myth and memory. My audience is not usually undergraduates. As an historian of institutional history, it is more often administrators, board members, and alumni who themselves are shaping a contemporary political narrative in intentional and unintentional ways.

A panel on “Memories and Commemorations of Abolition in the Post-Emancipation Era” at the 2018 Southern Historical Association annual meeting offered some new perspectives on how myths and historical narratives serve the time in which they are invoked, politically and personally. The three panelists focused on events some fifty years after Civil War and Reconstruction. Whether it was disagreements in Richmond over the meaning of emancipation, stories that ex-Confederate soldiers used to justify a pension application, or comparisons to the end of serfdom in Russia–a nearly contemporaneous event–these papers offered a glimpse into the moment of public debate and the contest over popular memory between the races and between generations.

In “The Greatest Exposition Ever: Black Richmonders and the 1915 Emancipation Exposition,” Hilary Green, associate professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, focused on how African Americans remembered and commemorated the American Civil War and its legacy. In 1915, the city of Richmond prepared to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation with a Great Exposition that would showcase the city’s progress in uplift and racial relations. The planning committee chair, Giles B. Jackson, had been born enslaved and was a proponent of Booker T. Washington’s ideals of racial uplift. Jackson was determined to demonstrate the successes of his race and to challenge the increasingly pervasive Lost Cause myth of white supremacy. The exposition ultimately failed, despite Jackson’s ability to secure the endorsements of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Virginia governor Henry Stuart.

Part of the opposition to Jackson’s plans, Green told the audience, came from a younger generation of African Americans. With no direct experience of slavery or emancipation, they found more appeal in the work of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson and the Association’s other co-founders shaped a different narrative of emancipation, one that placed it within a greater history of African achievements through centuries, and which foregrounded the agency of African Americans.

Conflicts over identity played out in other arenas as well. Once former Confederates had regained political power in North Carolina in 1901, they carried out a campaign promise to loosen the requirements for pensions for Confederate veterans. In “The Lying Cause: Falsehoods, Exaggerations, and White Supremacy in Lost Cause Memory,” Adam Domby, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, focused on the stories told by pension applicants. Domby’s deep research into the pension narratives and additional records revealed that men sometimes exaggerated and lied about their wartime service in order to be approved. Some applicants asserted that they had served throughout the war, for example, when in fact they had deserted after a few months. Some claimed to have been fervent Confederates when they had been active Unionists, erasing the memory of that past to present a face of united loyalty to the state. Some men, who deserted the Confederate cause and later fought on the Union side, applied for both pensions. Financial need aside, Domby argues that other motivations for this behavior included the desire to be seen as a loyal Confederate in a society that increasingly embraced the Lost Cause narrative. This assertion is reinforced by the fact that pension applications that challenged this myth were often rejected. In erasing and rewriting their own history, Domby observed, pensioners inadvertently reinforced the Lost Cause myth, erasing the history of internal dissension over the war.

At the same time as Americans re-wrote and re-remembered their own history of abolition and emancipation, they compared themselves to a similar narrative–that of the abolition of serfdom in Russia. In “Commemorations of American Slavery and Russian Serfdom on the Fiftieth Anniversaries of Abolition,” Amanda Brickell Bellows, adjunct assistant professor at the New School, shared some of the parallels and contrasts between the two moments in 1911 and 1913, respectively. Despite the differences between the two events, both nations remembered parallels–the subsequent assassination of both leaders, the impulse to see both as progress towards modernization, and the disagreement over the relative success of each endeavor. Bellows explained that Vladimir Lenin depicted the end of serfdom as a failed revolution, one that had not gone far enough and had only succeeded in enslaving serfs in a new kind of forced labor. The parallels to the United States and the failure of Reconstruction, Bellows argued, was in the ways that African Americans at the same time contested the meaning of emancipation and the Lost Cause narrative, likewise pointing out the lack of advancement toward full equal rights.

Barbara Gannon, associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, introduced the topic and the panelists. Comments came from Karen Cox, professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Ethan Kytle, professor of history at California State University-Fresno. Drawing on their own scholarship in memory and popular culture, they provided useful observations and challenging questions for the panelists.

Cox asked Bellows to consider how, despite the commonalities between the American and Russian narratives, if it was possible that one was more about class and the other more about race. For Domby’s pensioners, she posed the question of the accuracy of memory some fifty years after the fact, and suggested he consider the possibility that the popular narrative had reshaped personal memories, so that these narratives do not so much shape memory as reflect it. Green’s generational divide among African Americans, Cox posited, might have also showed a tension between northern and southern black experiences and political interests.

Kytle (in comments read by his colleague Blain Roberts, professor of history at California State University-Fresno) noted that Domby’s work with pension narratives offers fresh insight, but wondered if narratives were publicly available at the time. Domby noted that pension stories were published in obituaries and other newspaper accounts, and that family and neighbors would been familiar with them. In Green’s description of the conflicts over planning the 1915 Exposition, Kytle saw the limits of the emancipationist tradition and how Woodson’s emerging narrative offered a broader way for African Americans to think about a shared cultural past. For Bellows’s paper, he asked the author to consider more differences between the two ways of commemoration.

Kytle, Gannon, and Cox all emphasized the importance of this work. There is much to learn about Civil War memory and the panelists’ scholarship shows the interest in and dynamism of the field of memory studies. All of these papers are based on forthcoming books. The panelists are informed by the rich body of scholarship that precedes them, including the work of Gannon, Cox, Kytle, and Roberts. Their work is also timely in real ways. What I wish for when I talk with administrators and alumni is for them to understand that the Lost Cause myth was never settled, always contested, and is often revised to fit the moment. Sometimes, great myths serve to justify great injustices. Within the field, scholars continue to debate and explore critical questions of remembrance, public commemoration, and political power. As was shown by the attendance for this panel, their work will continue to attract the attention of multiple audiences.





Cecelia Moore

Cecelia Moore is University Historian and Project Manager for the Chancellor’s Task Force on University History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Federal Theatre Project in the American South: The Carolina Playmakers and the Quest for American Drama (Lexington Books, 2017), and co-author of UNC A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina Press, expected 2019).

Defining Defeat and Redefining the Lost Cause: An SHA Panel Recap

Defining Defeat and Redefining the Lost Cause: An SHA Panel Recap

Today, the Lost Cause is rarely far from historians’ minds. Headlines of Confederate monuments coming down compete for space with stories of southern lawmakers proposing monuments to black Confederates. States are finally rewriting their curriculum to address slavery’s central role in the causation of the Civil War, while reality TV stars are vowing to plant Confederate flags in all fifty states. Many scholars find it daunting to combat such a firmly entrenched version of the past—especially one that celebrates a heroic South defending individual freedoms and states’ rights against great odds. Others have boldly taken to social media and the written word to correct these mistruths. Amidst such valiant efforts a question emerges: are we oversimplifying things by casting ex-Confederates as a monolithic group?

In truth, the Lost Cause manifested itself in numerous ways—as several stalwart scholars learned when they woke up early on a Sunday morning to hear one of the final Civil War era panels at the SHA. Collectively, the papers of “Defining Defeat: Three Approaches to Making Sense of Loss and the Confederate Experience,” revealed that there was no single iteration of the Lost Cause. Instead, they suggested—as chair and commentator Anne Sarah Rubin (University of Maryland- Baltimore County) clarified—that when the war ended and the guns silenced, few Confederates considered themselves defeated. The former rebels found a variety of political, social, and cultural ways to cope with their loss, give meaning to their resentment, and highlight their resistance to Reconstruction. In this way, the Lost Cause was malleable and a reflection of “reactionary pragmatism,” according to fellow commentator Peter S. Carmichael (Gettysburg College).

The all-female panel commenced with Amy Fluker’s (Youngstown State University) “‘We Too Bear the Confederate Name’: The Lost Cause and Missouri’s Contested Civil War Memory,” a preview of her forthcoming book Commonwealth of Compromise: Missouri, the West, and Civil War Memory under contract with University of Missouri Press. Fluker opened with a scene from a September 1889 GAR reunion in Cassville, Missouri, where Union veterans “distastefully” sang “John Brown’s Body,” including its verse about hanging Jefferson Davis from a sour apple tree, for local Confederate veterans they had invited to attend. Such events reflected the complicated and competing commemorative narratives of post-war Missouri. There, former Confederate sympathizers faced unique hardships in their efforts to reconcile their defeat. Because of their divided loyalties and the ineligibility of state guard members and guerrillas to join the United Confederate Veterans, Missourians proved not Confederate enough for most Lost Cause champions. Missourians, therefore, cast themselves as martyrs: their failure to secede was due to uncontrollable circumstances and their commitment to the rebel cause never wavered. They reminded their eastern counterparts that Missouri blood had flowed like water and many Missourians bore the title of Confederate veteran. Ultimately, Fluker reminded us that the geography of the Lost Cause was not limited to the eleven states of the Confederacy, since Missouri actively participated in the contested commemorative terrain of the Lost Cause.

While Fluker’s study explored the complicated local landscape of the Lost Cause, Ann L. Tucker (University of North Georgia) broadened her focus to the international perspective. Her paper “Internationalizing Loss: Former Confederates’ International Perspectives on Defeat”—an initial stab at a new project—continues the global focus of her first book, Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of Southern Nationhood, 1820-1865, forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. According to Tucker, former Confederates contextualized their defeat by looking at the experiences, failed attempts, and political subjugation of Ireland, Hungary, and Poland. In this way, they simultaneously redefined themselves while anticipating the oppression that the United States was sure to inflict on them during Reconstruction. Southern nationalism may have failed but the former Confederates did not consider themselves reunited Americans. Instead, they found solace in their defeat by comparing their suffering to other nations and knowing that they were not exceptional in their failures. This prompted ex-Confederates to shift the blame for the war’s cause to the Union, adopt the Lost Cause, cast the Republican government as despotic, and articulate specific oppressions they anticipated enduring: loss of self-government, loss of suffrage, and loss of white supremacy. Ultimately, former Confederates absolved themselves of culpability and cast themselves as victims; they lost the war because the other civilized nations of the world had abandoned them and their virtuous cause.

The panel ended on a humorous note when Sarah K. Bowman (Columbus State University) explored the South’s comedic coping mechanism against perceived and real oppressions. Her piece, “The Pleasures of Satire: A New Perspective on the Emotion of Defeat,” explained how the defeated South rejected the changes of Reconstruction via hostility and satire— casting the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen as villains, carnival attractions, or comic characters that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Incorporating entertaining anecdotes from poems, plays, visual culture, balls, and political events, Bowman recounted the racist mockery that former Confederates embraced as they lampooned black politicians, satirized the new Republican governments, and recast Reconstruction as a grand farce. The timing of such satire was important as the South sought to get the last linguistic laugh. According to Bowman, Southern humor reached its pinnacle just as the Reconstruction Conventions were meeting to reinstate the former Confederate states and invite African Americans to full political participation. Interestingly, some convention delegates attended the very plays and balls that undermined their efforts and cast them as circus animals. In this context, humor became an effective way to mask fears allowing the South to denigrate change, delegitimize Reconstruction, and ultimately seek revenge against their oppressors. In this way, the former Confederacy rejected their defeat and victimization by reasserting their dominance, affirming their masculinity, and claiming victory over the reconstruction process.

Taken together, these three excellent papers offer nuanced insight into the complicated construction of the Lost Cause. Whether understood locally or internationally, former Confederates utilized a variety of tactics to cope with, interpret, and explain away their defeat. Through humor, global comparisons, and self-constructed narratives, white Southerners crafted the Lost Cause to dig themselves out of the dark hole of Reconstruction. In the process, they crafted a multifaceted and adaptive Lost Cause that we are still unpacking today.



Laura June Davis

Laura June Davis is an Assistant Professor of History at Southern Utah University. She earned masters degrees from George Mason University and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi before receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2016. Her research and teaching focus on 19th century gender, military, naval, and African American history. She is currently working on a manuscript about Confederate boat burners, sabotage, and naval guerrilla warfare on the Mississippi River. A preview of her work can be found in The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts During the Civil War edited by Brian D. McKnight Barton A. Myers (LSU Press, 2017).

Spatial Roots, Lawsuits, and Leisurely Pursuits: A SHA 2018 Recap

Spatial Roots, Lawsuits, and Leisurely Pursuits: A SHA 2018 Recap

Morning panels on the last day of conferences can be difficult. But a Sunday morning panel at the SHA 2018 Annual Meeting offered refreshing perspectives on Reconstruction Studies scholarship. The three panelists of “Emancipationist Memory and Radical Dreams of Freedom: New Directions in African American History of the Reconstruction Era” epitomized the benefits of closing out a wonderful conference. With the sesquicentennial celebration underway, Nicole Myers Turner (Virginia Commonwealth University), Giuliana Perrone (UC-Santa Barbara), and Caitlin Verboon (Virginia Tech) demonstrate that Reconstruction Studies as a field offers critical questions and insights for the current political moment. This post attempts to answer the broad questions raised during Carol Emberton’s comments–where does their work fit in the current historiography? Which specific conversations are the authors entering?

Nicole Myers Turner’s paper explores the role of black Baptist networks in shaping African American political identity in Virginia. Her paper enters the scholarly conversations defined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, James M. Washington, and others for understanding postwar African American religious developments, and it extends the Reconstruction-era chronological frame by including the Readjusters as defined by Jane Dailey and others.[1]

By digitally mapping black Baptist networks in Virginia, Turner renders visible the spatial roots of African American Baptists’ political influence. This fresh perspective reveals how religious networks converged with political gains. She cites the petition of Virginia students who despite attending Howard University, expected William Mahone, former Confederate general and Readjuster political leader, to provide a patronage position to their African American professor as a condition of their electoral support. By 1883, these African American Baptists held political sway and applied their networks accordingly for the extension of Reconstruction-era patronage.

Prof. John Mercer Langston, Howard University. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Though not fully appreciating the breadth and depth of these spatial roots, Mahone tapped into Baptist networks by using a circular to canvass for their support. Here, Turner’s use of digital mapping reveals that the robust African American religious networks replicated the political networks necessary for Readjuster success. Mahone’s lack of appreciation of these networks was exposed during John Mercer Langston’s 1888 campaign to become U.S. House representative of the Virginia Congressional Fourth district. Although initially losing to Edward Venable, Langston successfully contested the election and was seated in 1889. His success revealed the strength of black churches and political networks in drawing on older efforts.

The combination of the Howard University students’ petition, Mahone’s canvas circular, and Langston’s successful U.S. House campaign convincingly shows that the “Black Baptist Church held the soul of the nation.” Based on this brief paper, her forthcoming larger work on black Baptist education, and political and religious networks, will definitely be a valuable addition to Reconstruction Studies.

Giuliana Perrone’s “Claiming Freedom: Black Litigants in Post-Emancipation Southern Courts” enters the conversation recently shaped by Sharon Romeo, Melissa Milewski, and Martha Jones.[2] She differs from these legal scholars by seeing judicial opinions as evidence of the preservation and stretching of jurisprudence and not as a revolutionary Reconstruction-era gain. Rather, Perrone emphasizes the role of judges and the burden placed on African American litigants by examining three specific cases of apprenticeship, marriage, and child legitimacy.

As noted by Wilma King and Catherine Jones, former Confederate states employed its apprenticeship laws for restricting African American parental claims and often directly affecting the most vulnerable members of their families.[3] The 1867 Ambrose v. Russel ruling eviscerated portions but not all of North Carolina apprenticeship laws. Perone contends that the ruling merely stretched–without radically dismantling–antebellum jurisprudence. In other words, the Reconstruction Era judiciary extended due process previously afforded to free black North Carolinians to include newly freed African Americans. This is a novel interpretation but one that needs further clarification as suggested by Emberton’s insightful question–“what would a revolutionary judicial opinion look like in this specific example?” Since judicial opinions did not exist in a vacuum, her paper, even if not intentionally, raises another question for future interrogation: what was the lived consequences of jurisprudence on post-emancipation African American children whose lives remained bound to adult decisions, whether their parents, former enslavers, lawyers, and/or appellate judges? Here Perrone’s larger work has the opportunity to bridge legal studies and childhood studies in this example.

The next two examples demonstrate the promise of Perrone’s larger work. The second example explored a legitimacy case between an African American widow and her white husband’s extended family in a Shreveport, Louisiana estate dispute. Despite taking precautions of a postwar Catholic Church marriage and baptism of children born before emancipation, her husband’s extended family contested her and her children’s inheritance rights. The judicial opinion cited the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Louisiana law sanctioning interracial marriage as eliminating previous disabilities. Thus, the judge applied both federal and state law evenly and not in a revolutionary act. In this regard, Perrone agrees with Mileweski who emphasizes the role of judges in shaping the courts, which now included former enslaved individuals as both litigants and appellants for the defining of postwar citizenship rights. Her last example explored a Kentucky ruling where Julia Martin’s child was ruled as illegitimate because her marriage did not survive the transition into freedom. This continuing disability affected both mother and child and placed an incredible burden on the Martin household. Overall, Perrone’s paper demonstrates the need for further contemplation over the radical (or not) of the Reconstruction-era judiciary.

“The Grand Lay-Out,” c. 1874. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Lastly, Caitlin Verboon explores the circus and leisure activities as tools for defining and redefining notions of race, freedom, and citizenship in “Public Leisure: Black and White Social Life in the Reconstruction-Era South.” Circuses were open to all crowds, including vice along the edges. She shows how “pleasure was political” and deepens the work of David Goldberg and Victoria Wolcott.[4]

The circus functioned as an important site for making and remaking postwar society. Some southern newspapers criticized African Americans for their lack of thrift by spending money at the circus and therefore demonstrating their unfitness for freedom. Some white southerners even employed African Americans’ enjoyment of the circus as justification for denying them the right to participate in state militias. Simply put, the circus allowed for the advancement of white supremacy. In contrast, African Americans actively defended going to the circus as a right of citizenship. Here, they claimed the circus as an emancipatory space and in turn, leisure as a right of citizenship. Some even appealed directly to the Freedmen’s Bureau when their admission was denied. Foretelling later African American struggles for leisurely pursuits, Verboon is astute in her analysis.

Verboon concludes with a discussion of racial incident at a Baton Rouge circus show to demonstrate the competing arguments for and against a racially-inclusive democratic society. By focusing on one racial incident depicted in three different accounts, she sheds light onto how vice occurring at the edges, and how the murder of a circus performer galvanized opposition toward the social-leveling possibilities found at the circus. After taking panel attendees to the circus, her paper raises questions about which other sites of leisure provided similar opportunities and even the role of African Americans’ politics of respectability in either advancing or stifling leisure as a right of citizenship during and after Reconstruction.

By exploring spatial roots, lawsuits, and leisurely pursuits, these three papers demonstrate the rewards of expanding the temporal, spatial, and intersectional boundaries of Reconstruction Studies as a field. Turner, Perrone, and Verboon not only engage with “unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground,” but in so doing, remind us that the legacy of the Reconstruction Era matters politically, legally, and socially in the present moment.[5] These forthcoming larger projects will add both vitality and depth of the current field.


[1] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1986); Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[2] Sharon Romeo, Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri (Athens: University of Georgia, 2016); Melissa Milewski, Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[3] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteen Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Catherine A. Jones, Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

[4] David E. Goldberg, The Retreats of Reconstruction: Race, Leisure, and the Politics of Segregation at the New Jersey Shore, 1865-1920 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017); Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[5] Luke E. Harlow, “Introduction: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Journal of Civil War Era 7 (March 2017): 4-5.

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).

War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion

War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion

Today we share the first in our series of panel reports on the recent Southern Historical Association annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. There were a number of timely Civil War era panels that we are excited to share with readers. Follow along the rest of this week!

As Diane Miller Sommerville (SUNY-Binghamton) pointed out in her opening remarks, Americans today all have some familiarity with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the idea that traumatic events can have lasting effects on the people who experience them. In the historical profession, more scholars are researching the effects of the Civil War on those who fought or experienced it, in the context of veterans’ studies, medical history, or soldier experience. Set in a roundtable format, these roundtable panelists at the Southern Historical Association’s 2018 meeting in Birmingham fostered for a meaningful discussion on this scholarship, the opportunities present, and the challenges of pursuing this type of research.

At the outset of the session, each panelist had about five minutes to present remarks to open the discussion. Dillon Carroll (Independent Scholar) introduced a brief historiography of the topic of Civil War trauma studies and how recent scholarship is moving toward what some historians call the “dark turn.” He acknowledged the pushback that these studies have sometimes received, with claims that historians are imposing modern views on the past and interpreting history in a way vastly different than the historical actors would have. To move past that dilemma, Carroll offered some thoughts to open the discussion: Are there alternative ways to interpret trauma in Civil War veterans, such as recurring dreams, that we can use to make connections to our understandings of trauma? How did Civil War veterans themselves see and cope with this trauma? How was the African-American experience of trauma similar to or different from other soldiers?

Matthew Hulbert (Texas A&M University—Kingsville) approached the topic from the angle of irregular or guerrilla warfare, asking how different types of violence created different types of trauma and if that trauma manifested in similar or different ways. He also asked how violence that was considered legitimate versus illegitimate might affect the ways men coped with their experiences; for example, the presence of women and children in the spaces where guerrilla fighting occurred, or the inability to separate the homefront from the warfront, since guerrilla violence occurred within communities. Hulbert also asked questions about the point of transition from when men needed certain skills to survive in war to when those skills became “symptoms” in civilian life. His last question was how the element of trust affected the transition from warfront to homefront; in war, soldiers build relationships of trust with comrades to cope and survive, but when returning home, family is suddenly not in that circle of trust.

Angela Riotto (Army University Press) invited the audience to look past questions of how trauma manifested or how men coped, to look at trauma as an experience in itself. Based on her research about Civil War POWs, Riotto suggested looking at how veterans used their trauma as a marker of their experience and in comparison to the experiences of other soldiers. In her research she saw veterans compare their experiences to one another, ranking their trauma. Historians need to focus on what the sources and historical actors tell us, and in her research the veterans could not find the precise words to describe their trauma. They simply wanted that trauma to be recognized as part of their sacrifice for their nation. She invited historians to look past arguments of terminology and look at how the soldiers and veterans themselves utilized their traumatic experiences to claim a place in the wider story of the war.

Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh (United States Naval Academy) was the dissenting voice on the panel, pushing back on the idea of seeing psychological trauma in the past. He argued that much of our modern understanding of psychological trauma is based on the idea that humans do not want to kill one another, and that when they are forced into an environment of war, this causes trauma. Hsieh said that there is little historical evidence to prove that people did not want to kill, and psychology is problematic to apply to our own time, let alone applying it to the past. He also pointed out that many psychological categories are based on power structures and ideas about proper social behavior which can affect our understanding of trauma.

The discussion that followed these opening remarks was a mixture of questions to further the field of inquiry, and support or opposition to the use of trauma as a lens of study. A few audience members offered thoughts that questioned the use of trauma to study Civil War experiences. One offered the examples of a few studies on Vietnam that suggested PTSD rates were much lower in those soldiers than previously assumed. He asked about overblowing the rate of trauma in the Civil War and suggested the dangers of presentism. Another historian asked about the idea that rates of trauma were under reported in the contemporary records of soldiers; his point being that we cannot know the rates are under reported if there is no data for comparison. This echoed the previous question about overestimating the rates of trauma. A third comment challenged the idea that nineteenth-century brains were the same physically as our modern brains (and thus we cannot use how modern brains experience trauma or cope as comparison) and warned against the practice of diagnosing backwards in history. These were in line with the opinions of Hsieh, who acknowledged the suffering of soldiers, but did not like applying the term “trauma” to their experiences.

Some members of the audience countered Hsieh’s opinions. Lesley Gordon asked him to offer historical examples of men who liked killing and challenged the idea that studying trauma is presentism. Anne Rubin noted that these experiences were not binary—you either had trauma or did not—and that historians can note and support the idea that war changed people, even those who kept their lives together as veterans. Megan Kate Nelson said that she was tired of the presentism argument against this type of research because it suggests that historians either do not have a sense of change over time or that they have some sort of agenda. Historians study what happens in history, but we also want to know why things happened; why should we limit our analytical tools, if modern knowledge can help us?

Besides the back-and-forth about the validity and challenges of the topic, a few audience questions offered ideas for ways this research can expand our understanding of the Civil War experience. One historian asked how previous experiences with death, blood, or conflict impacted a soldier’s response to the traumatic experiences of war, and another asked about the use of alcohol among soldiers and veterans as a coping mechanism. Another question was how those in civilian communities recognized the effects of war or trauma on the soldiers and how social organizations set up to help veterans defined this change or tried to help. Similarly, there was a question on whether civilians who experienced aspects of the war might also show manifestations of trauma. A final comparative question asked how the Civil War affected its soldiers in comparison to other conflicts. These questions offer additional routes of scholarship to look at the idea of trauma in the Civil War, and in their final comments the panelists suggested ways to advance this research while also taking the necessary caution to avoid presentism.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War.