Category: Muster

Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

During its 180-odd years of operation, Mount Vernon Barracks in south Alabama was home to thousands of people, including white soldiers, Apache prisoners, and Black psychiatric patients. It was an arsenal, a Confederate base, a U.S. Army outpost, a detention site for yellow fever victims, and a psychiatric facility. Shuttered and hastily abandoned on Halloween in 2012, its buildings are now crumbling, its edifices succumbing to vegetation, and the voices of its inhabitants largely silenced and forgotten. Yet the stories of the men, women, and children who lived and died at this place shed light on some of the most important historical phenomena of the late 19th and early 20th-century United States—many of which we don’t usually consider together: federal Indian policy, public health crises, and Jim Crow segregation. It is a place layered with meanings and resonances. Peeling back those layers can illuminate how deeply enmeshed our histories—and subfields—truly are. And it could be a phenomenal site from which to teach and learn. As philosopher Edward Casey noted, “Just as there are no places without the bodies that sustain and vivify them, so there are no lived bodies without the places they inhabit and traverse.”[1]

View of the guard tower at Mount Vernon Barracks, 1892. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

In 1886, the U.S. Army imprisoned nearly 400 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache men, women, and children, following more than two decades of resistance to the invasion of their western homelands. Congress passed legislation preventing the Apaches’ relocation to any region west of the Mississippi River and logic dictated that they be interned at a military installation, preferably in an area devoid of other Indian people who might be corrupted by their influence.[2] An Army base in Alabama, a place presumably (but not actually) emptied of Native Americans since Indian removal, emerged as a reasonable location to imprison and reform the Apaches. The prisoners of war—as they were uniformly labelled—were sent by train to the U.S. South. More prisoners, including Geronimo, joined them the following year just north of Mobile at Mount Vernon Barracks, originally constructed in the 1830s. They would be prisoners of war for twenty-seven years.

While the incarcerated families struggled to acclimate to the humidity and mosquitos of lower Alabama, Army officials sent three dozen of the Apache children to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In the 1880s, federal Indian policies were shifting away from armed conflict and towards aggressive assimilationist reforms, including the institutionalization of Indian children. Although a school was later established on site at Mount Vernon, reformers strongly advocated detaching Indian children from their parents and sending them to residential boarding schools. Carlisle was a former military base turned boarding school run by Captain Richard H. Pratt, who had formerly overseen Native prisoners of war in Florida. Pratt believed that incarcerated Indians could and should be “rehabilitated” through education and military-like discipline and he brought those techniques to the project of detribalizing Native youth. As historian Margaret Jacobs notes, “indigenous child removal” became a central part of the settler colonial project and was seen as essential to finally severing Indian ties (and claims) to their lands.[3] These policies were emotionally eviscerating. Mount Vernon post surgeon Walter Reed (yes, that Walter Reed) observed of the Apache parents: “Their grief over this compulsory separation has been genuine and unabating.”[4]

View of the guard tower at Searcy Hospital today. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020

The deportation, incarceration, and forced separation the Apaches experienced was made worse by unhealthy conditions at Mount Vernon Barracks, which were in turn exacerbated by meager rations and malnutrition. Some of the prisoners, along with many of the white soldiers stationed at the base, sought relief from their suffering in the bootlegged liquor that flowed through the piney woods surrounding the barracks. Jim Crow policies that curtailed employment opportunities for African Americans ensured that at least some of the liquor purveyors supplying Mount Vernon were Black Alabamians. Others were descendants of local Indians who had escaped removal during the 1830s and lived in the vicinity.[5] The community known today as the MOWA Choctaws was largely invisible to local whites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part because of the intersection of federal Indian policy and Jim Crow segregation. Unrecognized by the federal government as Indians, ancestors of today’s MOWAs struggled to articulate their indigeneity to outsiders. The Black-white racial binary, presumptions that all the real Indians had been removed to or were from the West (like the Apache prisoners nearby), and abject poverty meant that the Choctaws of southwest Alabama lived on several margins at once.[6]

The cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

When the Apache prisoners of war were forced from Mount Vernon to their new prison at Fort Sill in 1894, the fate of the Alabama site was unclear. State politicians debated making it a full-fledged penitentiary, an orphanage, or a reform school, institutions that bore marked similarity to one another as part of what might be called a penal-pedagogic complex.[7] Ultimately, the site became the “Mount Vernon Insane Hospital” for Blacks; the walls, guard tower, and barred gates of the former barracks remained. Like other psychiatric facilities of the era, the hospital functioned much like a prison and often much worse. The twin plagues of disease and malnutrition that had deepened the Apache sorrow during their detention also afflicted Black patients at the newly established facility. In fact, the institution (renamed Searcy Hospital in 1919) played an important role in the identification of pellagra then rampant among African Americans and poor whites across the South.[8]

After Searcy was integrated in 1969, conditions improved but it remained a locus of controversy and a site of hardship and heartache for the people who lived there. Like other mental hospitals in Alabama, it was functionally a “warehouse” for patients who received little care and lots of medication.[9] Chronically underfunded and understaffed, Searcy Hospital was a place where many were involuntarily committed through “noncriminal proceedings,” often detained on dubious pretense, denied constitutional protections, and incarcerated indefinitely. Many, many people lived until they died at Searcy. Hidden away in one heavily wooded corner of the site is a sprawl of gravesites with small stone or metal markers, engraved only with numbers, no names. No records linking the numbers of the buried to their names or identities have yet been located.

A gravesite in the cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

Mount Vernon Barracks is a place so densely laden with human experience that it fairly sags under its own historical weight. The spread of the federal military apparatus, Indian dispossession and assimilation, the growth of the carceral nation-state, disease and public health, Jim Crow segregation, race and mental illness, post-Civil Rights southern politics… all of these topics can be explored by inhabiting and traversing this site, even if only in our minds. It has inspired me to think of other such sites and how they might reanimate my teaching. Some of these, like Castillo San Marcos/Fort Marion and Alcatraz Island, share aspects of Mount Vernon’s history but are better preserved and protected. Others, like the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground once located in Washington, D.C. and now scattered along the Potomac riverside in Virginia and Maryland, are only now resurfacing in our historical consciousness.[10] As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday once wrote with characteristic grace, “The events of one’s life take place, take place.”[11] Where can those places take us?




[1] Edward S. Casey, “How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena,” in Senses of Place, ed. Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996), 24.

[2] John Anthony Turcheneske, Jr., The Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War: Fort Sill 1894-1914 (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 8-13.

[3] Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 4, 25-28. Jacobs calculates that Pratt alone “institutionalized” 4,903 Indian children at Carlisle. Nearly 500 more were taken to Hampton Institute in Virginia.

[4] Walter Reed, “Geronimo and His Warriors in Captivity,” The Illustrated American, Vol. III, No. 26, August 16, 1890 (New York: George Kirchner & Co, 1890), 235.

[5] [Letter] William Sinclair, Mount Vernon Barracks, Ala. August 8, 1887 [to] Assist. Adjutant General, Governors Island, N.Y., 69. NARA, RG 393, Pt. 3, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Records of Posts, Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama; Jacqueline Matte, They Say the Wind is Red, 77, 112; Jerry Davis notes that some prominent local whites were also involved in bootlegging and stemming the supply of liquor to the barracks (for prisoners and soldiers alike) was a major preoccupation of post commanders. Davis, “Apache Prisoners of War,” 256-257. See also Laurence, Daughter of the Regiment, 108, 172 n.1.

[6] Malinda Maynor Lowery’s study of the Lumbee experience in North Carolina during Jim Crow shows that in at least some instances, southern Indian groups strategically adopted their policies of segregation to maintain the integrity of their Native identity, adopting and adapting ideologies of white supremacy in so doing. See Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[7] Anne Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politices of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88:3 (December 2001): 850.

[8] Harry Marks, “Epidemiologists Explain Pellagra: Gender, Race, and Political Economy in the Work of Edgar Sydenstricker,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58:1 (JANUARY 2003): 38.

[9] Charles S. Prigmore and Paul R. Davis, “Wyatt v. Stickney: Rights of the Committed,” Social Work 18:4 (JULY 1973): 11.

[10] Gregory S. Schneider, “A Virginia state senator found headstones on his property. It brought to light a historic injustice in D.C.,” Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2020. Accessed online:

[11] N. Scott Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 142.

Angela Pulley Hudson

Angela Pulley Hudson is professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her most recent book is Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians (2015).

Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

On January 6, 2021 a mob stormed the American Capital in Washington, D.C. to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Rioters pushed their way inside the Capital, vandalized the building and threatened to harm government officials, including the Vice President. In total, five people died.

In the following days the public struggled to make sense of what had happened and why. Social Media evidence showed that Donald J. Trump, himself, had urged his followers to protest. Those supporters who had not been at the riot argued that the insurrectionists were not representative of Republican supporters or their values. Some spread a rumor that the left wing anti-fascist group Antifa had instigated the violence to discredit Trump. Critics of the President struggled to understand why the rioters were not immediately condemned by all Americans. Social activists argued the faction responsible for storming the Capitol had been treated differently by police because they were white; African American protesters had been jailed and beaten for less. To complicate things further many of the self-proclaimed insurrectionists were known white supremacists.[1]

I too was conflicted over the events of January 6. My emotions went from fear to anger.  I wondered how, as a historian and educator, I could approach this topic with my students without offending, agitating, or encouraging the presentism that I warn them to avoid?  In this moment the past and present appeared to have blurred.  And following an already historic year, how would I validate students’ feelings without turning class into a therapy session? How would I explain to these young adults that they were now observers of a major historical event, similar to those they read about in textbooks?  Would they realize that their emails, social media accounts, and personal journals might later be used by historians as primary sources?

Figure 1: Black & Batchelder, Black, James Wallace, and Martin M Lawrence, photographer. John Brown. , ca. 1859. December 12. Photograph.

Social media reiterated my concerns as my own family members bickered with one another over who was to blame for the recent insurrection.  The conversation seemed familiar, but from a different time.  And then I realized that was because I had read commentary like this before.  When I was researching my master’s thesis on the Civil War home front, I had included a section about the northern and southern reactions to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  How will I explain a deeply polarized and racially divided country to my students? I will look to historical sources and one of the most controversial events in American History, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.[2]

John Brown was a staunchly religious man who believed God had tasked him with ending slavery. On Oct. 16, 1859 he led a group of men to the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where they planned to seize enough weaponry to arm southern slaves and emancipate them, forcefully if necessary. Unfortunately for Brown, the raid was a failure, and he was tried for murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. John Brown was found guilty on all counts and hanged.

Brown has become one of the most contentious figures of the Civil War Era. Was he a madman or a prophet? The recent miniseries on Showtime, The Good Lord Bird (based on James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name), makes arguments for both, although the show’s creators acknowledge that this depiction of Brown is fictionalized.  Brown, himself, argued that he had not intended to revolt against the United States Government. He simply wanted to free the enslaved. He was also one of the few people of this era to believe in racial equality. In his final speech before being executed, Brown asserted that he “never did intend murder, or treason, of the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.”[3] Yet Brown was not against the idea that it would take violence to end slavery.  On his way to the gallows, he slipped his jailor a note that read “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood.”[4] His prediction would become true less than 2 years later when the Civil War began.

Brown’s prediction made him a legend. During the Civil War the song “John Brown’s Body” became a marching tune for the Union Army.[5]  In his 2005 cultural biography of Brown, David S. Reynolds notes that he was admired by twentieth-century black activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X.[6] Yet for those living in the United States in 1859, it was not that simple. Abolitionists viewed Brown as a martyr. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child condemned Brown’s actions, but nonetheless expressed her sympathy toward his cause.[7]  Less than a month after Brown’s execution, residents of Concord, Massachusetts held a meeting entitled “Martyrdom of John Brown.”[8] Even decades after his death, Brown was still revered by former abolitionists as a hero. In 1881 Frederick Douglass, who had distanced himself from Brown when he learned of the plans to attack the Federal Arsenal, described Brown’s arrest as the “victory of his life.”[9] These viewpoints were not, however, universal.[10]

Figure 2: Harper’s Ferry insurrection – the battle ground – Captain Alberts’ party attacking the insurgents – view of the railroad bridge, the engine-house, and the village / from a sketch by our special artist. Harpers Ferry West Virginia, 1859. Nov. 5. Photograph. http://www/loc/gov/item/95522021/.

Many people viewed Brown as dangerous and celebrated his arrest. A Kansas woman, whose husband and two sons were killed at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre – during which John Brown and a band of followers murdered pro-slavery men– wrote to Brown that her remaining son hoped to attend the execution and might “adjust the rope around your neck.”[11] For others, Brown was one part of a larger northern threat to slavery. A man named Robert Scott wrote that Harper’s Ferry was a betrayal of southerners at the hands of northerners. The Winchester Republican published in Winchester, Virginia called Brown’s Raid “the wickedest outrage against the sovereignty of Virginia.”[12] Similarly, an article published in the Democratic newspaper the Chicago Press Tribune argued that Brown’s raid demonstrated the threat of allowing Republicans to express their “fanatical” views.”[13] The Republican Party did not, however, claim Brown. In his 1860 Cooper Union Speech Abraham Lincoln condemned the spread of slavery to western territories but denied any connection between John Brown and Republicans. Lincoln challenged the audience to prove that politicians had supported the insurrection.  Today the public as well as certain U.S. Senators also fear that politicians were behind the January 6 riot.[14]

It is impossible to make a direct comparison between John Brown’s 1859 raid and the 2021 MAGA Riots.  First, the rationale behind each insurrection were completely different. Secondly, the modern Republican Party is not the same faction as the party of Lincoln. Yet a comparison reveals that in both eras the country was polarized over politics and race. For students struggling to grapple with these events and their meaning, a political analysis of the responses to Harper’s Ferry may provide context to the ways in which the media and the public respond to violence.  A comparison the two events also reveals important facts about the trajectory of race relations in this country. By focusing on the significance of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry as an expression of antebellum politics, students may be able contextualize current political debates.

[1] Hilary N. Green, “Civil War Scholars Respond to January 6, 2021 Events and Aftermath,” Muster, January 12, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,

[2] Laura J. Ping, “Life in an Occupied City: Women in Winchester, Virginia During the Civil War, MA Thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, 21-23; The majority of primary sources consulted are from the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,

[3] John Brown, “John Brown’s Final Speech,” 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[4] John Brown, “Last Written Words of John Brown,” December 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[5] Historian Chandra Manning notes that the John Brown originally mentioned in the song was not the abolitionist, but a man by the same name.  Soldiers confused the two, however, and throughout the war “John Brown’s Body” was a homage to the abolitionist. See Chandra Manning, “‘John Brown’s Body’: Analyzing the Song,”:, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[6] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 12.

[7] Lydia Maria Child, Henry A. Wise, Maria Jefferson Carr Randolph Mason, American Anti-Slavery Society, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia . (Boston: Published by The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860, PDF, Accessed, January 26, 2021,

[8] “A Program for a Commemorative Town Hall Meeting Held in Concord, Massachusetts following John Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859,” Digital Public Library of America, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[9] David Blight, “Admiration and Ambivalence: Frederick Douglass and John Brown,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[10] For a more detailed discussion of the diverse memory of John Brown see R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality and Change (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[11] “Mahala Doyle to John Brown regarding his death penalty,” November 20, 1859, Gilder Lehrman Collection of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[12] Winchester Republican, Oct. 21, 1859, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives Room, Winchester-Frederick Historical Society, Winchester, VA.

[13] “The Cloud in the Distance No Bigger than a Man’s Hand – The First Battle of the ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’” Chicago Press and Tribune, October 20, 1859. American Experience, Accessed January 26, 2021,

[14] Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, et. al. to Senate Committee on Ethics, “Investigating Request for Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, January 21, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,; Dan Barry and Sheera Frenkel, “’Be There. Will Be Wild!’: Trump All But Circled the Date,” The New York Times, January 6, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021,

Laura Ping

Laura J. Ping is an adjunct assistant professor with the Pace University-Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History MA Program in American History and at Queens College, City University of New York. Ping is the author of “‘He May Sneer at the Course We are Pursuing to Gain Justice': Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, The Sibyl and Corresponding about Women's Suffrage,” (New York History Journal 2017) as well as the coauthor of the forthcoming book Catharine Beecher: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Nineteenth Century. Ping is also completing a monograph on the cultural and political impact of the dress reform movement on the nineteenth-century woman’s movement in the United States.

Editors’ Note for March 2021 JCWE

Editors’ Note for March 2021 JCWE

It is fitting that James Brooks will introduce this special issue and its contents, since this and the parallel volume in the Western Historical Quarterly represent his hands-on editing and his wide-ranging view of intertwined histories. We thank him, WHQ editor Anne Hyde, former JCWE editor Judith Giesberg, and former JCWE associate editor Stacey Smith for bringing the two journals—and more importantly the two fields—together.

It is also fitting that we mark an important anniversary for this publication. Ten years ago, in March 2011, the Journal of the Civil War Era appeared for the first time. In the introductory note, founding editor William A. Blair noted the propitious timing for the journal’s launch as the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Civil War coincided with a resurgence in creative scholarship on the era. “It is a delight to consider how much we have to discover,” Blair wrote. “It is a good time to be a newborn.”

Ten years later, the Journal of the Civil War Era is no longer a newborn but is now a valued and respected and (we hope) eagerly awaited part of our scholarly landscape, with roughly 120 research articles, dozens of review essays, and many hundreds of book reviews behind it. In its decade of existence, the journal has fulfilled much of its original mandate to offer a “fresh perspective to the sectional crisis, war, Reconstruction, and memory of the conflict, while tying the struggles that defined the period to the broader course of American history and to a wider world” and to provide a place where scholars from many nineteenth-century subfields “can engage with each other.”

The journal’s survival through its infancy and its growth through its early years is attributable to a group of dedicated historians and staff. First, of course, Blair as founding editor provided guidance, direction, inspiration, and counsel for the journal’s first five years, aided by associate editors Judith Giesberg, Anthony Kaye, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean and later ourselves.

Starting in March 2016, Judith Giesberg succeeded Blair as the journal’s editor, and she expanded the journal’s reach with special issues on the West, Reconstruction, the continental history of the era, abolition, and veterans, while continuing to publish pathbreaking research articles, broad-ranging review essays, and fair-minded and thoughtful book reviews. During her tenure, Giesberg, along with her graduate students, launched the journal’s blog, Muster. She then recruited Kristen Epps to be the digital  editor, joining new review essays editors Stacey Smith and Luke Harlow, and book review editor Rachel Shelden.

Beginning with the September 2019 issue, Shelden, Smith, and Harlow shepherded the journal through a shared interim editorship while continuing in their respective associate editor positions and—in Smith’s case—playing a crucial role in bringing this special issue to fruition. With the September 2020 issue, we succeeded them as coeditors, and we have been delighted to welcome Hilary Green as the new digital editor and Kathryn Shively as the new book review editor.

Throughout the last decade, the journal has benefitted from institutional support from the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, now directed by Rachel Shelden, and from its affiliation with the Society of Civil War Historians. The journal has also depended on extraordinary work by professional staff, especially the indispensable managing editor Matthew Isham and a series of fine assistants: William Bryan, William Cossen, Tyler Sperrazza, Cecily Zander, and Megan Hildebrand. At the University of North Carolina Press, David Perry, editor, supported the journal from the beginning, and since his retirement, Mark Simpson-Vos has been a crucial sounding board and advocate. Among the many dedicated press employees who have ensured that the journal sees the light of day is Suzi Waters, the press’s journals manager, who retired last fall.

Since becoming editors, we’ve come to see with new clarity the tremendous work peer reviewers perform. Whatever may be said on social media about “Reviewer #2,” we observe in our reviewers an extraordinary commitment to their fields, to professionalism, and to the value of balancing support and encouragement with thoughtful critique as they evaluate articles. Individual peer reviewers are ephemeral parts of this enterprise, but as a collective, they make the journal possible, and we owe them—and many of them are also you, our readers—our deep gratitude.

We congratulate the Journal of the Civil War Era—and all who have helped to make it—on a successful first decade and feel fortunate that we are here to help launch it into its teen years. We believe the journal has a crucial role to play in a moment of deep public engagement with the nation’s history of slavery and emancipation and Civil War. We’re delighted by how much we have yet to discover, and we look forward to continuing its work in this productive and vital field.

The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

Citizens were divided. Violence threatened the stability of the nation. After the violence ended, calls rose for unity. This pattern played out recently with calls to move past and forgive insurrectionists in the name of national unity following the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Such a pattern is not unique to the Capitol riot, however, nor new in history. Similar patterns of division, violence, and calls for unity played out in the wake of the American Civil War. In particular, former Confederates, perhaps unexpectedly, demanded national unity in the months and years following their defeat. In making their case for national unity, former Confederates argued that they, too, were not the first to seek national unity in the wake of national violence. Drawing on the rich contemporary nineteenth century history of largely defeated nationalist movements in Europe, Confederates used comparisons between the defeated Confederacy and defeated nations in Europe to push for national unity – and, more specifically, for their own particular vision of national unity – in the aftermath of Confederate defeat.

Unity, of course, had been at the heart of the Civil War itself, as white southerners had rejected unity with the North and pursued independent nationhood instead, while the United States had fought to preserve national unity. Now, in the wake of four years of violence, bloodshed, and warfare, as former Confederates suddenly faced the consequences of their actions, even former Confederates found appeal in the idea of unity. They, however, held a very different vision of unity than did the Union during the war, or the Republicans during Reconstruction. For former Confederates, embracing unity was not an admission of culpability for the destruction of secession and the Civil War, nor an indication of true desire to unite with the North in reconstructing the postwar nation. Instead, for defeated Confederates, calling for unity was a means of forcing the Reconstruction to occur on their terms. They demanded that the nation could only be reconstructed through full forgiveness and restoration of power for former Confederates, with no punishment, accountability, or even alterations to the social, economic, and political system of white supremacy.

International comparisons proved particularly useful for former Confederates seeking to claim that unity could only come through forgiveness. In particular, defeated Confederates used international comparisons to argue that unity could only be achieved through pacification. These international examples taught that the only way to move forward was to forgo punishment or consequences, and instead restore full power to the same defeated Confederates who initiated the war in the first place.

Macon Telegraph published “A Lesson from Italy,” declaring that the king of the new nation of Italy provided an example of virtue and democracy in the wake of war that the world, especially the US, would be wise to follow, and contrasted this approach with the US’s supposed course of using the excuse of war to limit white southerners’ democratic rights.[1] Turning to the enemy of aspiring nations in Europe, the New Orleans Picayune asserted that “the Radical [Republican] policy, indeed, rejecting as it does the most approved lessons of history… would seem to… copy from Russia, nothing but the harsh outlines of a gigantic, unreasoning, unforgiving, pitiless despotism.”[2] The Richmond Whig concurred as it praised President Andrew Johnson, infamous for his leniency toward former Confederates, for enabling unity by “appeal[ing] to [former Confederates’] highest and noblest impulses.” Johnson’s policies, according to the Whig, allowed the nation to “bury the past and to look only to the future.” In contrast, the writer for the Whig declared, Radical Republicans sought “mistrust, military domination, and physical power,” and advanced policies that would “make of the South a province in which shall be smothered the condensed malignity and passionate hatred of Poland, Ireland, and Venetia.”[3] To former Confederates, any policy other than forgiveness would destroy hopes for national unity by recreating the oppression found in tyrannical European empires.

Hungary, which had risen up and demanded national independence from the Austrian Empire in 1848, only to be defeated, featured heavily in such international comparisons of the necessity of pacification for national unity. The Houston Telegraph, for example, wrote in July of 1865 that the model of Hungary and Austria instructed that national reconciliation could only be achieved by granting full political equality to defeated secessionists. To this journalist, former Confederates had already conceded “their cherished hope of a Southern Confederacy,” had “submitted to… emancipation,” and had “made up their minds to take the oath of allegiance.” To require more would constitute “private malice or revenge,” and would result in similar protracted difficulties as Austria faced by denying Hungarians not only independence, but legislative reform.[4] Similarly, the Richmond Whig declared that Radical Republican policy was “that subjugation and conquest had worked the forfeiture of the constitutional rights of the South,” a policy “more exacting and implacable” than Austrian treatment of Hungary.[5] In Hungary, former Confederates saw a fellow defeated nation. They did not hesitate to use the perception of continued oppression of Hungarians to call for their own appeasement and political power in the name of national unity.

As the emphasis on restoration of former Confederates’ political rights indicates, former Confederates found international comparisons particularly useful in seeking to avoid punishment or even consequences for their actions. Restriction of former Confederates’ rights, however temporary, was one such consequence that former Confederates used international comparisons to declare contrary to national unity, as had the writer in the Richmond Whig comparing Republican policies to those of Austria toward Hungary. Expansion of political rights to freedmen was another action that former Confederates interpreted as punishment, and therefore equated with tyrannical actions abroad. The Macon Telegraph declared, for example, that it had tried to demonstrate former Confederates’ willingness to unite with the North, but that Radicals rejected such peace offerings by insisting on racial equality. In the process, Republicans supposedly recreated Russia’s much-maligned oppression of Poland on American soil.[6] Explicit punishment was even more beyond the bounds of acceptable national reconciliation, according to former Confederates. John Mitchel, an exiled Irish nationalist and Confederate supporter, explained that the prosecution of Jefferson Davis “is not a new idea… it has been tried in Poland, in Ireland, in Venetia and elsewhere,” but he reasoned that it failed as a “method of reconciling the bleeding, disaffected communities with the dominant ones.”[7]

To former Confederates, defeat must be followed by appeasement, and any punishment or even consequences would destroy any possibility of national unity. International comparisons, drawing on examples of defeated and oppressed nations – and therefore of failure of national unity – abroad, aided former Confederates in making their case. Indeed, by developing international comparisons, former Confederates sought to draw boundaries of acceptable action on the part of the victorious North, beyond which defeated Confederates would refuse to accede to national unity and reunion. Former Confederates’ cries for unity, then, were not good faith calls for actual national unity. Rather, as their international comparisons show, former Confederates’ calls for unity were an attempt to escape accountability, and to retain full political power and dominance, despite their defeat.[8]

The nation’s subsequent decision to acquiesce to former Confederates’ vision of unity had tragic consequences. It allowed former Confederates to reclaim full and exclusive control of southern politics and to maintain white supremacy through violence and through restriction of political rights to freedmen. As Reconstruction fell, and, with it, rights and hopes for equality for freedpeople, former Confederates achieved their vision of national unity, at the cost of true equality for black southerners, and true democracy for the nation.

[1] “A Lesson from Italy,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 4, 1866.

[2] “Moral Difficulties of Restoration,” New Orleans Picayune, Oct 19, 1866.

[3] “How to Conquer,” Richmond Whig, Sep 29, 1865.

[4] Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Jul 21, 1865.

[5] “The People of Hungary – The People of the Southern States,” Richmond Whig, Mar 27, 1866.

[6] “Can’t Go It,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 14, 1867.

[7] “John Mitchel’s Opinion,” Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, Jun 21, 1866.

[8] For more analysis of former Confederates’ use of international comparisons to shape a pro-Confederate Reconstruction, please see my chapter “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’:  Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars:  Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon (Routledge Press, 2018).

Ann Tucker

Ann L. Tucker is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia. She earned her PhD at the University of South Carolina, and is the author of Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (UVa Press, 2020). She studies the US South and Civil War Era through a transnational perspective. You can find her at her website,, or on twitter @annltucker.

Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

When teaching the history of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), students often ask how we can find historical records from these historically marginalized people? Since many of the soldiers were working poor and formerly enslaved, they did not have (for various reasons) the time, resources, or (in some cases) literacy to document their lives. Additionally, it also depended on whether there was an audience that was willing to both listen and document the lives of USCT veterans and/or their kin. However, it does not mean that their lived experiences are non-existent. It also does not suggest that the families and communities connected to their soldiers are lost. Many of their stories exist within an often examined and cited primary source—Civil War pension records. From these documents, it is possible to rediscover the lives of Black Americans connected to the Civil War over extended periods of time. Using pension records allows us to analyze and discuss the lives of USCT veterans, their kin, familial dynamics, and battles with the federal government over issues of race, gender, and the public memory of the war. For instance, the pension records of Third United States Colored Infantry (USCI) George K. Buck and Patience Buck, his wife, provide a window to exploring how the war for equality and hopes of receiving social welfare from the Bureau of Pensions occurred years after the Civil War ended.

Many scholars recognize and argue that pension records are invaluable sources that extensively detail USCT soldiers’ lives at various points from the antebellum era to the early-twentieth-century. Military service affected the lives of over 178,000 USCT soldiers and their families during and long after the Civil War. Black families were critical to USCT soldiering. Historians Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland, for instance, state that the decision to enroll was a family decision “since it entailed profound consequences for those who remained at home as well as for those who marched off to war.”[1] A new wave of scholars have re-examined pension records with a critical eye for families’ stories, including veterans’ relatives and adopted individuals who cared for the men throughout their lives and not isolated moments. Collectively, these scholars demonstrate that we need to recognize the impact and prominent role that families played in the lives of Civil War soldiers. Therefore, when discussing the various aspects of military service—enlistment, training, combat, disabilities, pay, military disobedience, veteranhood, and other issues—their families are critical to understanding the Civil War and its lasting impact. Even after the war ended, the hardships (such as economic) for many USCT veterans and their kin chose to apply for a Civil War pension, which brought complications and oversight into their private lives.[2]

The highly bureaucratic system influenced USCT veterans’ decision to apply for a pension through the Bureau of Pensions. The lengthy and honestly daunting process involved numerous individuals listed on the application—invalid (veterans deemed, depending on the enacted pension law at a specific time, as disabled or elderly, and unable to resume working) and dependents (widow, mother, minor, sister, or father). Witnesses (including family members, employers, community members, and other veterans) were critical participants who could potentially substantiate vital information on the personal lives of an applicant. While not all applicants used lawyers, these hired individuals advocated on behalf of their client and facilitated conversations with pension agents. In the case of invalid (or veteran) cases, medical examinations could either prove or refute a veteran’s visible disability or disabilities that the veteran claimed, prior to the 1890 pension law, made him pension-eligible. All applications required extensive documentation. White male pension agents scrutinized the materials and intrusively probed into the claims of the applicants, listed dependents, and witnesses. Many applicants had to provide information on their employment history, relationship to the veteran, medical ailments, dates of births, financial standing, character assessment by community members and agents, and sometimes sexual history as part of the process, which could take years, if not decades.[3]

While many USCT veterans did not apply for pensions, some did. The number of USCT pensions explodes exponentially when investigating various dependent pensions—mothers, fathers, widows, and minors. As a result, it is possible to trace the familial dynamics of USCT soldiers and their multi-generational kin over an extended period. For instance, Patience Buck’s widow’s pension offers valuable insight into the role of Black familial persistence in their demands to have their wartime sacrifices and its lasting effects on their male-kin recognized by the federal government.

Patience Buck, the widow of USCT veteran George K. Buck, discovered that her hope of receiving a pension after George’s death would only occur after an invasive federal government investigation into her personal life and George’s passing. George, a native Philadelphian and Third USCI Infantry veteran, married Patience after relocating to Camden, Georgia in 1867. Together, they had two children. The family later moved to Florida, where George found work as a ferryman. A lingering Civil War wound, however, shaped the family. George suffered from mental health issues as a result of a cannon shell fragment permanently lodged inside his head after the siege at Fort Wagner in Morris Island, South Carolina. Joshua James, a fellow USCT veteran and childhood friend, testified that the injury left Buck “completely insane.”[4] George’s physical and mental disability eventually led to a work-related drowning in 1871. Eight years later, Patience submitted a widow’s pension application. Multiple USCT veterans confirmed George’s injury and resulting problems as a consequence inside and out of the military. The officiant who oversaw the couple’s marriage attested to the validity of their union. In 1883, the Bureau of Pensions rejected her application by stating that George’s death was not due to an injury he received while serving.

By not accepting the rejection, Patience remained resolute in her desire to get a pension. She again applied in 1890 when she received eight dollars monthly, primarily due to the 1890 Dependent and Disability pension law.[5] Patience’s eleven-year journey to receive a widow’s pension was challenging. The process also put her personal life under the microscope of the federal government. Where many Black families received rejections or abandoned their applications, Patience Buck persevered and forced the federal government to remember George’s service during the Jim Crow era when the Lost (False) Cause solidified across the nation.[6]

Patience’s widow application, similar to many other Black women, reveals additional scrutiny on the interior lives of widows of USCT veterans. Unfortunately, she spent her youth in bondage and had three different enslavers before acquiring her freedom in Florida during the Civil War. As a freedwoman, she found employment by washing and ironing clothes within her community. Some locals, possibly because male clients, entered and exited Patience’s residence, began claiming that she kept a “lewd house.” The rumors even led to her arrest on multiple occasions. These rumors only surfaced after George’s death. Numerous neighbors refuted the claims as baseless lies from people that, for undisclosed reasons, did not like Patience. Even though Patience successfully became a pensioner in 1890, the gossip of her intimate life caught the attention of the Bureau of Pensions, which resulted in a five-year-long examination into her personal life, sexual activity, and character. In the end, the pension agent eventually removed Patience from the pension role for violating an 1882 Act of Congress that stated widows known to be engaging in adultery automatically forfeited their pensions. The pension agent even noted that Patience was a “public prostitute.”[7]

In the end, pension records are valuable primary sources that provide depth on Black life—military and personal. The records undoubtedly have abundant information on the Civil War. But it can also yield a plethora of information on the familial dynamics, civilian occupations, government and public assessment on the private lives of Blacks, and the politics of race and gender that many of my students have found fascinating as it complicates their understanding of USCT soldiers and their kin.

[1] Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era, eds. Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland (New York: The New Press, 1997), 79.

[2] Please refer to the following studies for insight on USCT families and their connections to Civil War pensions: Elizabeth Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002); Brandi Clay Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[3] Donald Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004); Larry M. Logue and Peter Blanck, Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War American (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] On December 9, 1879, the Deposition of Joshua James in George H. Buck, Third USCI pension file. National Archives Records and Administration—Washington, D.C.

[5] Ibid., Undated Pension slip.

[6] Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[7] Ibid., 1895 Special Examiner’s Notes.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

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

Civil War Macon

Civil War Macon

On July 31, 1864, Mary Ann Lamar Cobb, the wife of the local rebel commander, Howell Cobb, wrote her mother: “A bomb fell behind the Ocmulgee Hospital right across the street and a ball or a bomb one or the other struck the in front of Mr. Holt’s house and rebounded or ricocheted went through one of the posts or pillars and the window smashing the upper part of the window sash and shattering the window panes.”[1] This letter became, to usurp Alexander Stephen’s language, the cornerstone of what is locally known today in Macon, Georgia, as the “Cannonball House.”

Like so many southern communities, the United Daughters of the Confederacy played a role in perpetuating the story of the “Cannonball House,” or as it should be known, the Asa Holt House. Today, the local tourist visitor center, TripAdvisor, and Vacation Ideas, all include the “Cannonball House” as a must-see attraction in the city.[2] While Cobb’s story is fundamentally correct, the events that fateful July 30, 1864 and subsequent mythmaking sheds light on the larger regional trends of Lost Cause culture over the past 100 years.

The Asa Holt House, Photograph by Author

My first exposure to the Asa Holt House story came when I asked students to write papers on local historic sites. As part of their assignment, students toured these locations and it quickly became apparent that the Asa Holt House staff embraced problematic language regarding enslaved people as “Servants.” One student also suggested that it should not be the “Cannonball House” but the “Hotchkiss Shell House” since it was a shell and not a cannon ball that struck the house during the raid by George Stoneman from Atlanta into the Macon area in July 1864. Far more interesting, however, as I research my new book, The Civil War Battles of Macon, I found it striking that the local paper did not cover the Asa Holt House incident. A paper in Columbus, GA did. It also was unclear how the Columbus paper knew of the story. The local Macon Daily Telegraph only reported how a rebel shell had hit a house near the U.S. cannon emplacement on Dunlap Ridge and forced the owner to evacuate her home.[3] More so, the story of the Asa Holt House seemed to have been forgotten or at least not become part of local legend in the years after the war.

By the 1930, as car travel literature advertised point of interest in Macon, neither the Blue Book guide nor the Federal Writers Project mention the Asa Holt House.[4]

However, there was an interesting coincidence in the 1920s. In 1928, Mary Callaway Jones, a member of the local Sidney Lanier Chapter of the UDC, published a small piece in the Macon Telegraph about the shell hitting the Asa Holt House. Her article discussed in some detail the facts of the shelling. Interestingly, when Callaway referred to the house, she called it Asa Holt House and not “Cannonball House.” The name “Cannonball House” was nowhere to be seen in her article.[5] However, the article served as a reminder to old and young about the event in July 1864 and may have triggered the memory of one resident.

Two years later, William Sims Payne recounted the events of that day in a written statement treasured today by the UDC and Asa Holt House owners. The 74-year-old Payne described an event that he had seen as an eight-year-old boy. Based on the topography of the location where he was at the time, he did not see the projectile hit the ground or the building. Payne’s account read:

A short time after the above happened, I was sitting on some steps in front of our home on New St., listening to the cannon firing of Stoneman’s men, when over my head I heard a curious noise as of something flattering through the air. I was hard to locate, but I knew it was a shell. In a split second I heard it hit the ground and ricochet, crashing through a big column in the front of Mr. Asa Holt’s house on Mulberry St. passing through the house, it fell in one of the back rooms, unexploded.[6]

Whether Callaway’s article jogged Payne’s memory about that July day in 1864, we will sadly never know, but it is certainly possible. Despite Payne’s account hardly being an eyewitness report, Margaret Duncan brazenly stated that a small boy playing on the sidewalk nearby watched the shell hit the house no longer referred to as the Asa Holt House but had morphed into the “Cannonball House” in the UDC Magazine.[7] Never troubled much by facts, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Macon had within only a few decades turned the forgotten Asa Holt House into the Lost Cause-supporting “Cannonball House.”

The Georgia Historical Commission Marker for the Asa Holt House, Photograph by Author

The work of the Georgia Historical Commission and historic building surveys illustrate the effectiveness of the UDC’s work to alter the name of the house during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, the Georgia Historical Commission placed markers across the state to commemorate events and places of historic importance. They placed one in front of the Asa Holt House, which at the time was the residence of the widow of Charles Canning. The marker tells the story of the shell hitting the house without using the term “Cannonball House.” In the next decade and a half, the UDC eradicated the Asa Holt House and replaced it with the “Cannonball House.” The Washington Memorial Library in Macon houses the Historic Macon Building Survey, which includes the changed language. When the Sidney Lanier chapter of the UDC filed the paperwork to add the Asa Holt House to the National Register of Historic Places, they purposefully used “Cannonball House.” However, a historic building survey of an unknown date used “Asa Holt-Canning House.” Only the UDC submitted documents used the language “Cannonball House.”[8] And, today, the Lost Cause language is the norm in Macon.

As students of the Civil War era and its memory, nobody reading this is probably surprised that the UDC was able to change the commemorative language in a southern town. However, if the Asa Holt House story was some form of a cruel joke, there is a punchline as well. While today, Maconites, especially white residents, are at least vaguely familiar with the Cannonball story, they have not just forgotten that it was the Asa Holt House. They also have forgotten that a rebel shell forced the residence of Dunlap Farm to evacuate their home. Even the Historic Structure Report of the Dunlap Farm house done in 2011 does not mention the shot hitting the building.[9]

In the book, I ask readers to think about what it says when a Neo-Confederate organization is able to tell a story of white southern civilians suffering at the hands of cruel “Yankee Invaders” shelling their home, intentionally change the names to tell that story, and allow residents to forget that so-called gallant rebel soldiers whose shelling of a civilian’s home forced them to flee the house. In many regards, this is a quintessential aspect of Civil War Memory, the selective remembering and intentional forgetting of the events surrounding the War of the Rebellion.


[1] Mary Ann Lamar Cobb to mother, July 31, 1864, Box 57, Folder 18, Howell Cobb Family Papers, Hargrett Manuscripts, University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, GA.


[3] “Raid on Macon,” Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, GA), August 2, 1864.

[4] George, G. Leckie, Georgia: A Guide to Its Towns and Countryside (Atlanta, GA: Tupper and Love Book, 1954), 111-116.

[5] Mary Callaway Jones, “Asa Holt Home Was Gun Target During Civil War,” Macon Telegraph (Macon, GA), May 20, 1928.

[6] “Federal Cannonball Fell On Macon Century Ago,” Macon Telegraph and News (Macon, GA), July 30, 1964.

[7] Margaret H. Duncan, “The Old Cannon Ball House and Macon Confederate Museum,” UDC Magazine 49:2 (February 1986), 28.

[8] Historic Macon Building Survey, Volume XIV, 3242 – 3271.

[9] Tommy H. Jones and Steven Bare, Ocmulgee National Monument: Dunlap House: Historic Structure Report (Atlanta, GA: National Park Service Southeast Region, 2011).







Niels Eichhorn

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

Introducing Ann Tucker to the Muster Team

Introducing Ann Tucker to the Muster Team

Muster is proud to introduce Ann Tucker as a regular contributor.

Ann Tucker. Assistant Professor. Areas of Expertise: U.S. history, southern history, Civil War era, transnational history, nationalism.

Ann L. Tucker is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia.  She earned her BA at Wake Forest University and MA and PhD the University of South Carolina.  Dr. Tucker’s areas of expertise include the US Civil War era and US South, which she examines through a transnational perspective.  Her research analyzes the influence of European nationalist movements and the age of nationalist revolutions on the development of the Confederacy and southern nationalism.

She is the author of Newest Born of Nations:  European Nationalist Movements and the Creation of the Confederacy, published by the University of Virginia Press (June 2020).  In Newest Born of Nations, Tucker argues that elite white southerners used their analysis of European nationalist movements to refine their vision of what a nation should be, to develop a sense that the South differed from North on issues of nationhood, and to legitimize their visions of southern nationhood during secession and the Civil War.

Her in-progress second project will extend her analysis into the Reconstruction era to examine how former Confederates’ international perspective on nationhood helped them remake their own sense of nationhood in the post-Civil War era.  The first portion of this research was published as “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’:  Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon (Routledge, 2018).

We are excited to have Ann join our team. We are looking forward to her insights on Reconstruction and the international perspectives of the post-Civil War era as well as other topics.

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).

“It is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong”: Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant on Reconciliation and Its Pitfalls

“It is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong”: Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant on Reconciliation and Its Pitfalls

Speaking in New York City in 1878, Frederick Douglass had a warning for white northerners about how they remembered the Civil War. “Good, wise, and generous men at the North,” Douglass observed, “would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves.” A group of white veterans had invited Douglass to speak at a ceremony commemorating Decoration Day—the holiday, later known as Memorial Day, for remembrance of the Civil War’s Union dead. In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Union Square, Douglass invoked Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as he tried to arrest the drift of northern opinion and national politics. “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget,” Douglass declared. “[W]hile to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”[1]

Douglass’s words will resonate with many Americans today, after the divisive 2020 election and especially the trauma of the January 6 insurrection. We too hear invocations of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and calls for healing, unity, and reconciliation. At the same time, we hear worries that those appeals—sometimes made sincerely, but often cynically—will forestall a reckoning with the divisions and wrongs that landed us here. The post-Civil War years teach us the perils of heeding calls for reconciliation while ignoring those for justice. It also provides us, in Douglass’s 1878 speech, a powerful example of how to combine them

Matthew Brady, “Frederick Douglass,” Library of Congress

The backdrop for Douglass’s speech was another contested presidential election that has been in the news of late: the protracted 1876-77 electoral crisis. It ended with the installation of Rutherford B. Hayes as president and the ouster of the last Republican state governments in the South, amidst waves of terrorism and fraud. In Reconstruction’s twilight, Douglass struggled to recall white northerners to the Civil War’s emancipationist legacy of eradicating slavery and its traces in American life. But doing so brought the charge—shades of 2021—that he was an agent of division and disunity. “I am not here to fan the flame of sectional animosity, to revive old issues, or to stir up strife between races,” he declared, “but no candid man, looking at the political situation of the hour, can fail to see that we are still afflicted by the painful sequences both of slavery and of the late rebellion.”[2]

Douglass made his case not by rejecting reconciliation, but by echoing and recasting two of its most famous expressions from the Civil War era. One, noted above, came from the closing line of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Another is less well known today but was immediately familiar to Americans in 1878. “Let us have peace” was the closing line of Ulysses S. Grant’s letter accepting the 1868 Republican nomination for president and became a motto for his campaign. Douglass put it to his own use:

In the language of our greatest soldier, twice honored with the Presidency of the nation, “Let us have peace.” Yes, let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first. Let us have the Constitution, with its thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, fairly interpreted, faithfully executed, and cheerfully obeyed in the fullness of their spirit and the completeness of their letter.

True reconciliation, for Douglass, required a clear-eyed reckoning with the causes of division and a firm commitment to remedy them. Both Lincoln and Grant had met that test. In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln meditated on the national sin of slavery as the cause of the war and pledged to pursue a “just, and lasting peace.” The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were the war’s settlement written into the Constitution, and Grant, as president, had used the U.S. Army to enforce them.[3]

Douglass’s vision of reconciliation was rooted in his Christian faith and found expression in his personal life as well as his politics. The abolitionist had attended the 1865 inauguration and immediately pronounced Lincoln’s address, with its reflections on God’s will and the meaning of the Civil War, a “sacred effort”—a phrase Douglass did not use lightly or loosely. The year before Douglass’s New York City speech, his impulse towards charity and forgiveness led him to visit his former enslaver Thomas Auld, now elderly and bedridden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Although some critics, as Douglass later acknowledged, viewed that meeting as a “weakening” of his “life-long testimony against slavery,” he had not forgotten the wrongs he suffered from one who “made property of my body and soul.” But with slavery ended and Auld “stepping into his grave,” Douglass wished to meet “upon equal ground” for “a sort of final settlement of past differences.”[4]

Speaking at Union Square, Douglass recalled that visit and offered it as evidence that “there is in my heart no taint of malice toward the ex-slaveholders.” If formerly enslaved people lacked confidence in “the old master-class,” it was “due to the conduct of that class … since the war and since [their] emancipation.” And here was the rub. While he did not fault Hayes for “stepping to the verge of his constitutional powers to conciliate and pacify the old master class,” Douglass demanded that “some steps by way of conciliation should come from the other side.” Instead, “freedom of speech and of the ballot have for the present fallen before the shot-guns of the South.” The primary obstacle to reconciliation, in other words, was not wrongs that slaveholders and Confederates had committed in the past but wrongs that ex-slaveholders and ex-Confederates continued to commit in the present.[5]

“Portraits of presidents Lincoln, Washington, and Grant” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Half a world away, Ulysses S. Grant was having similar thoughts. When his presidency ended, Grant happily left its problems behind to embark on a 2-1/2 year long tour circumnavigating the globe. Accompanying him was New York Herald reporter John Russell Young, who interviewed the ex-president on their long voyages and published the results in a book entitled Around the World with General Grant. Like Douglass, Grant readily acknowledged reconciliation’s appeal, though for reasons less grounded in Christianity than in practical politics. Grant spoke from experience when he declared that the desire to “make everybody friendly, to have all the world happy” was an “emotion natural to the office” of the presidency. “There has never been a moment since Lee surrendered that I would not have gone more than half-way to meet the Southern people in a spirit of conciliation,” Grant declared.[6]

There was only one problem. Ex-Confederates never reciprocated with a willingness to respect African Americans’ rights or to conduct fair elections. “They have never responded to it,” Grant said. “They have not forgotten the war.” To be sure, a “few shrewd leaders like Mr. Lamar and others have talked conciliation,” Grant acknowledged, referring to U.S. Senator L. Q. C. Lamar. “[B]ut any one who knows Mr. Lamar knows that he meant this for effect, and that at least he was as much in favor of the old regime as Jefferson Davis.” A former Confederate and the author of Mississippi’s ordinance of secession, Lamar had indeed established a reputation for reconciliationist oratory, including an 1874 eulogy for Charles Sumner delivered in the U.S. House (a speech that helped win him a chapter in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage). But when Sumner’s Civil Rights Act—whose passage had been his dying wish—later came to the floor, Lamar voted against it (a fact that escaped JFK’s mention). Speaking at the dedication of Charleston’s John C. Calhoun monument in 1887, Lamar defended secession and Calhoun’s views on slavery. A year later, Grover Cleveland named him to the U.S. Supreme Court.[7]

Americans today—including the new president—can learn a number of things from this history. In his inaugural address, Joe Biden talked much of unity, and also of righting past wrongs. He did not, however, reflect on the relationship between those impulses towards reconciliation and justice, and how they can sometimes be in tension. Biden, a devout Catholic, might fight instructive here the example of Frederick Douglass. A man of faith whose conscience inclined towards forgiveness, Douglass knew from experience in public life how a call for unity could become an excuse to forget. His 1878 Decoration Day speech shows how to combine an appeal for reconciliation with a call to justice. Grant likewise understood that a “policy of conciliation” that was “all on one side” was doomed to fail. One other lesson, from the 18th president for the 46th: beware “shrewd leaders” on the other side who talk conciliation only “for effect.”[8]

[1] Frederick Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” in Frederick Douglass Papers: ser. 1, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, ed. John Blassingame et al., 5 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979–92), 4:480-92; a typescript is also available in the Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, online at: See also the reports in the New York Times, New York Tribune, New York Herald, May 31, 1878. On Civil War memory, see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[2] Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 485.

[3] Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 485; Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, online at:; U. S. Grant to Joseph R. Hawley, May 29, 1868, in Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 32 vols., ed. John Y. Simon (Southern Illinois University, 1967-2009), 18:263-64, online at:  On the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, see Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: Norton, 2019).

[4] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (Hartford, Connecticut: Park Publishing, 1881), 445-49, online at:; David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 593-95.

[5] Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 486-87.

[6] John Russell Young, Around the World with General Grant, 2 vols. (New York: American News Company, 1879–80), 2:359-60, online at:  For more on Grant and the memory of Reconstruction, see my piece in the December 2020 issue of the JCWE: “Remembering Reconstruction in Its Twilight: Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine on the Origins of Black Suffrage,” online at

[7] Young, Around the World, 2: 360.

[8] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Inaugural Address, January 20, 2021, online at:; Young, Around the World, 2: 359-60.






Stephen West

Stephen A. West is associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America. He is author of From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1850–1915 (2008) and coeditor of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, ser. 3, vol. 2, Land and Labor, 1866–67(2013).

Responding to the Call: Engaging the Public in Conversations about African American Civil War Participation

Responding to the Call: Engaging the Public in Conversations about African American Civil War Participation

Located at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, refuge to runaway slaves for over two centuries of American slavery, and connected to North Carolina’s coastline by a complex series of waterways, Elizabeth City and its surrounding rural counties present a verdant landscape filled with unknown, unspoken, or unwritten African American histories. In response to the Journal of Civil War Era’s (JCWE) “call to action” to shine light on the “histories of African Americans, emancipation, and Reconstruction” that are too often neglected in the public sphere, Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) history faculty and students and Elizabeth City community members  gathered on September 26, 2020 to fill that gap with education and conversation about African American Civil War participation in northeastern North Carolina.[1]

“Sergt. Bob” was Sgt. Frank Roberts, an Elizabeth City native and member of the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers, which was later renamed the 35th USCI. Drawing from the Fred W. Smith, Jr. Civil War Sketch Book, courtesy of the Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens Collection, New Bern, NC.

Elizabeth City State University stakeholders were apt leaders for such a movement in North Carolina. Established in 1891 as the State Colored Normal School, ECSU is one of five public HBCUs in North Carolina and the only public university in the region. As a scholar whose research focuses on Black towns and institutions, I was drawn to ECSU in 2017 because its long history of service to a rural and majority Black region of North Carolina. Since arriving here, I have worked with my colleagues to establish space on campus dedicated to the study of the region’s rich African American history. We have recently won over half a million dollars from the National Park Service and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to rehabilitate a historic Rosenwald school building on campus for this purpose. On a personal level, ECSU’s location allows me to live and work on the North Carolina side of the swamp that piqued my interest in history and constantly inspired my imagination as teenager living near its Virginia border. Organizing and executing the “call to action” with my colleagues, Dr. Chas Reed (ECSU) and Dr. Hilary Green (University of Alabama and formerly of ECSU), provided an opportunity to dive deeply into the region’s Civil War era history, connect it to the landscape, and engage with the public about questions of memory and erasure.

Following the guidelines put forth by JCWE, we scouted locations, crafted signs, prepared short presentations, curated a list of lesser-known facts under the headlining question, “Did you know,” and prepared an accompanying social media campaign to document and share the day with a wider community. My preparation began with reading and assessing current scholarship on African Americans and the Civil War in the area and utilizing it along with public history and genealogical media to determine the locations for our action and create most of the materials that we would use at the event and on Twitter. My reading list included: Barton Myers, The Execution of Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (2009); Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (2007); Richard Reid, “Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (1993); Richard Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War (2012); Edwin S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (1992) and websites like the National Park Service Civil War Database; and North Carolina GenWeb’s “U.S. Colored Troops Formed in North Carolina” webpage.[2]

Based on this research, we chose two locations in Elizabeth City for our action. We started the day near the intersection of North Poindexter and Burgess Streets. Today the site of Mid-Atlantic Christian University (MACU), this waterfront location served as the encampment for African American soldiers of the 1st United States Colored Infantry Regiment who were deployed there to build fortifications in August 1863. As it did wherever they went, the presence of Union troops attracted slaves seeking freedom and protection from their former masters. The majority of these escapees were sent by boat to Roanoke Island, a Union stronghold on the North Carolina coast. The able-bodied men, however, were either recruited to the USCT or employed as workers for the army. Before departing to Morehead City, NC, the troops took part in a raid against Confederate guerilla fighters in Chowan County twenty-eight miles south of Elizabeth City. A Civil War Trails marker, located in front of MACU and one of six in Elizabeth City, engages the public with this history.[3]

Our second location of the day was Mariner’s Wharf, one of several small public parks located along Elizabeth City’s waterfront. The busy wharf was the site of much Civil War activity. Black troops, free Black Elizabeth City residents, and those escaping slavery would certainly have comingled here both in August 1863 and again in December 1863 when a brigade of Black soldiers returned to Elizabeth City under the command of Brigadier General Edward Augustus Wild. In a three-week-long expedition known as Wild’s Raid, this brigade freed most of the remaining enslaved people in Elizabeth City and the surrounding counties, some 2,500 people in total. After the war, the wharf was one of many downtown locations from which one could view the annual Emancipation Day parade organized by Elizabeth City’s Black community from the end of the war through at least the 1930s. These parades, which took place in early January to mark the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, were attended by Black and white Elizabeth City residents alike. They celebrated Black freedom, honored African American Civil War veterans, and showcased African American achievements since the war’s end. A marker commemorating Wild’s Raid was approved for placement in Mariner’s Wharf Park by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in December 2019.[4]

My collaborators and I divided the work of executing the day’s activities amongst ourselves. I led the presentation and discussion at MACU in front of the former USCT encampment. Together we looked for and found glimpses of the past, like old waterfront warehouse buildings, in the much-changed landscape. Using the refrains “Did you know?” and “We want more history,” ECSU students and local community members also read aloud from index cards I prepared containing pertinent facts about African American participation in the Civil War in North Carolina. At Mariner’s Wharf, Dr. Green took the lead and began by discussing Black Civil War veterans and Memorial Day and Emancipation Day parades filling the public space in the heart of Elizabeth City’s downtown during the height of the Jim Crow Era. This discussion segued into one about Civil War monuments, including a Confederate monument by the court house erected in 1911, decades after the commencement of Emancipation Day parades in the city. Dr. Reed, who could not attend in person, managed our Twitter communications throughout the day. He posted images, the text of the index cards, and boosted the day’s actions by using the official hashtag, “#WeWantMoreHistory.” His efforts ensured that our participation in this national event was chronicled and visible.

African American Civil War veterans from the 35th USCI and family members gather in Plymouth, NC, 1905. Plymouth is located about 50 miles south of Elizabeth City. Photo from North Carolina State Archives courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Our preparation and outreach for the day demonstrate the importance of communitywide collaboration in ensuring that the roles African Americans played in the Civil War are widely known and part of the public discourse. We connected staff at MACU, the Elizabeth City Department of Parks and Recreation, and archivists at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC. We also connected with both the Civil War Trail Markers organization in Williamsburg, VA and local people in Elizabeth City who worked with this organization and the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Tourism Development Authority to get Civil War Trail markers placed in town. The event also allowed us to strengthen our existing relationships with regional collaborators like the Museum of the Albemarle. Twitter allowed us to connect with other historians, activists, local and national organizations, and interested individuals across the nation. Overall, the September 2020 event was a resounding success and one that will lead to future collaborations among North Carolinians who “want more history.”

[1] Kate Masur and Greg Downs, “Civil War History: A Call to Action,” Muster, published August 25, 2020, accessed December 28, 2020,

[2] “The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database,” National Park Service, last updated May 14, 2015, accessed December 24, 2020, and “U.S. Colored Troops Formed in North Carolina,” last updated October 28, 2020, accessed on December 24, 2020,

[3] Barton Myers, The Execution of Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 68; Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (Charleston: The History Press, 2007), 87-88.

[4] Myers, 2, 4, 5, 77-81, 87, 162-163, n.4; Meekins, 104-114; The North Carolinian, Elizabeth City, NC, January 4, 1888; The Independent, Elizabeth City, NC, December 28, 1934; Jeff Hampton, “Civil War raid of black troops into North Carolina still stirs emotions,” The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Virginia, last updated February 16, 2020, accessed December 24, 2020,; “Recently approved markers,”North Carolina Department of Transportation, last accessed January 8, 2021, and “A-93: Wild’s Raid,” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, accessed December 28, 2020,

Melissa Stuckey

Dr. Melissa N. Stuckey is assistant professor of African American history at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina where she is leading a National Park Service- and Institute for Museum and Library Service-funded project to rehabilitate an historic Rosenwald school building located on campus. Stuckey is author of “Boley, Indian Territory: Exercising Freedom in the All Black Town,” (Journal of African American History, 2017) and “Freedom on Her Own Terms: California M. Taylor and Black Womanhood in Boley, Oklahoma” forthcoming in This Land is Herland: Gendered Activism in Oklahoma, 1870s to 2010s (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). She is currently completing a monograph about the Black freedom struggle as manifested in Boley, Oklahoma.

Civil War Era Scholars Respond to January 6, 2021 Events and Aftermath

Civil War Era Scholars Respond to January 6, 2021 Events and Aftermath

January 6, 2021 was a historic day in the nation’s history.

Images of armed white men and women storming the Capitol Building carrying Confederate battle flags and other emblems flooded social media and television screens. Resulting in the death of two Capitol police officers, this twenty-first century contestation over Civil War history and memory has stunned the nation and the world. Within twenty-four hours, Civil War and Reconstruction era scholars have cogently and ably responded through a series of op-eds.

While not an exhaustive list, below are some recent publications offering context, teaching resources and clarity for seeking understanding on the events of January 6, 2021.


JCWE editors Kate Masur and Greg Downs “Yes, Wednesday’s Attempted Insurrection is Who We Are,” Washington Post, January 8, 2021.

Megan Kate Nelson, “1871 Provides a Roadmap for Addressing the Pro-Trump Attempted Insurrection,” Washington Post, January 7, 2021.

Keri Leigh Merritt and Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,”, January 7, 2021.

Clint Smith, “The Whole Story in a Single Photo,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2021.

Karen L. Cox, “What Trump Shares With the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy,” New York Times, January 8, 2021.

Jelani Cobb, “Georgia, Trump’s Insurrectionists, and Lost Causes,” The New Yorker, January 8, 2021.

Eric Foner, “The Capitol Riot Reveals the Dangers From the Enemy Within,” The Nation, January 8, 2021.

Kellie Carter Jackson, “The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by Design,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2021.

Rachel Hartigan, “Was the Assault on the Capitol Really ‘Unprecendented’?: Historians Weigh In,” National Geographic, January 8, 2021.

Joshua Rothman, “Mobs of White Citizens Rioting Have Been Commonplace in the United States for Centuries,” The Hechinger Report, January 8, 2021.

David Blight, “How Trumpism May Endure,” New York Times, January 9, 2021.

Melissa DeVelvis and DJ Polite, “The Attempted Insurrection Was Only Part of the Right’s Anti-Democratic Playbook,” Washington Post, January 10, 2021.

Over the next few weeks, Muster will feature posts for understanding and teaching January 6, 2021 and its aftermath. If you are interested in contributing a piece for this Muster series, please consider pitching us an idea.

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).