Category: Muster

Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs’s only known formal portrait, taken in 1894 about three years before her death. Used with permission.

The popularity of the narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has only grown since historian Jean Fagan Yellin connected what some believed was a fictionalized account, with Harriet Jacobs’s authentic experiences in slavery and freedom.[1] Multiple versions of the text, and dramatic presentations based on it, abound. Award-winning author Colson Whitehead acknowledged that Jacobs inspired his depiction of his protagonist, Cora, and several scenes in his novel The Underground Railroad.[2] Most references to Jacobs focus on her enslavement and escape, including the almost seven years she spent in the attic of her grandmother’s home in North Carolina, before her family could arrange her escape north. Jacobs’s narrative Incidents ends with her legal freedom, although she continued longing for “a hearthstone of my own.”[3]

Not following Jacobs’s life after legal freedom misses her later contributions as an activist and advocate. During the Civil War, she worked as a relief agent in Alexandria, Virginia, helping thousands of people who had escaped slavery by crossing Union lines. “I want to add my testimony,” Jacobs had written to explain her reason for publishing Incidents in early 1861. Little did she know that she would not only testify about slavery’s horrors based on her own life, but she would also participate in finding solutions for other newly emancipated people.

But first, she had to find her place.

The Union Army occupied Alexandria, the closest Confederate town to Washington, for the entirety of the conflict. As in other such areas, people escaping slavery soon followed, once word circulated that the federal government considered them “contraband of war” and, thus, would not return them to the enemy, their enslavers. The Army was officially responsible for their well-being but fell far short, despite Congress’s attempts to formalize these policies with the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862.[4] Northern religious, antislavery, and other relief organizations began sending supplies and aid workers south, somewhat akin to how organizations help refugees today.

In the summer of 1862, Jacobs traveled to Washington and Alexandria for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. She bore witness to dire poverty and ill health but also reported on people’s determination to become free and self-sufficient. “Trust them, make them free, and give them the responsibility of caring for themselves, and they will soon learn to help each other,” she wrote in “Life among the Contrabands.”[5] She did more than observe and report; she pitched in to help. The trip made her recognize the role she could play if she returned.

Jacobs found her opportunity with the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends. In November 1862, several members had traveled south on a fact-finding mission. They visited Alexandria, where they met Julia Wilbur, a white former teacher sponsored by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. Although their report does not mention her, Wilbur wrote about meeting them in her diary.[6] It is possible the encounter planted the idea for the Quaker group, because as reported at the end of 1862, the “Committee concluded to accept the services of Harriet Jacobs—herself a former slave—to act as their agent at Alexandria.”[7]

On January 14, 1863, Jacobs moved to Alexandria, along with boxes of supplies collected by the group. Although she had seen the area five months earlier, mid-winter Alexandria was not welcoming. Not surprisingly, given the conditions, she fell ill. Wilbur was initially not very hospitable. No personal letters survive from her first fraught weeks, but in March she wrote abolitionist Lydia Maria Child (knowing Child would widely share the letter, which she did), “The misery I have witnessed must be seen to be believed.”[8]

The freedmen’s barracks, even when opened in early 1863, did not have enough room for the refugees coming into Alexandria. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jacobs soon adjusted, and she and Wilbur developed a bond. Their first of many battles with the Army establishment revealed they could accomplish more together than either could alone. They became allies and friends, a bond that lasted until both died in the 1890s.

The Army had built utilitarian barracks for freedmen, but shelter remained insufficient. The women learned of the Army’s solution to one aspect of the shortage: house orphans in a newly built smallpox hospital south of town. Julia Wilbur wrote to her Rochester sponsors: “Dr. B [John Bigelow, a New York physician working in Alexandria] says he means to have all the orphans taken out there & kept & the same old women & nurses that take care of the sick can take care of the children. Would you think such an idea could enter the head of a sane, Christian man wh[ich] he proposes to be?”[9] The two women didn’t need medical training to recognize the folly of exposing healthy children to this contagious disease. They protested to the military governor, a mercurial general named John Slough.

The idea that two civilian women—including an African American—went “to the top” to lodge a complaint was extraordinary. They realized it as well. “My friend, this was really a great undertaking for us; we are in such a state of nervous excitement, that we were all of a trouble, & we had such a head ache too!” Wilbur wrote back to her Rochester sponsors. “Mrs. Jacobs spoke very handsomely to him, & when pleading for these children, said she ‘I have been a slave myself.’”[10] They stopped the move. And it is doubtful that Slough had ever spoken with a black woman in this kind of meeting before.

This photograph of the Jacobs School was distributed to Northern supporters. Note the “x” under Harriet Jacobs in the group and handwritten notation “H Jacobs, an ex slave” in the right hand corner. Courtesy of the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

With experiences like this under her belt, Jacobs succeeded in achieving a powerful dream: to establish a tuition-free school for African American children, led by African Americans. At least ten schools for freed children opened in Alexandria after 1861, but they charged a fee and/or were white-led.[11] Jacobs raised funds in the North and from local blacks for a building and to pay teachers, but that proved only half the battle. Who would control the school? Several white males made the case to the school trustees (most of them enslaved until recently) that their missionary society should take charge. But Jacobs urged otherwise: “I wanted the colored men to learn the time had come when it was their privilege to have something to say,” she wrote.[12] The trustees voted that Harriet’s daughter Louisa would head the school, with another young black woman as her assistant. The Jacobs Free School opened in January 1864.

During her time in Alexandria, Jacobs did not always succeed, but she learned the power of her own voice and experience. She continued to advocate for healthcare, education, housing, and, more broadly, the human rights of freedpeople. She witnessed joy and hope as the war ended, as well as trauma after President Lincoln’s assassination.

In 1865, she wrote the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends that “the time has come when I should go where labor is more needed.”[13] She hoped to establish an orphan asylum in Savannah; despite action that included a fundraising visit to England, the realities of post-war Georgia thwarted her plan. She spent years struggling to attain the yearned-for “hearthstone” about which she wrote in 1861. Her Civil War and post-Civil War work illustrate why it is premature to stop Jacobs’s story with publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.


[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (1861; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[2] Rick Koster, “Middle Passage: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead talks to Professor of History Jim Downs about the novel The Underground Railroad,” Connecticut College Magazine, Summer 2017,

[3] Jacobs, 259.

[4] For a description of army policies and attitudes toward freedpeople, see, for example, Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

[5] Harriet Jacobs. “Life among the Contrabands,” The Liberator, September 5, 1862.

[6] Julia Wilbur, diary entry, November 26, 1862, in Julia Wilbur Papers (HC.MC-1158), Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

[7] New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, Second Report of a Committee of Representatives of New York Yearly Meeting of Friends upon the Conditions and Wants of the Colored Refugees (New York: Author, 1863), 4,

[8] Harriet Jacobs to Lydia Maria Child, March 10, 1863, in Jean Fagan Yellin, et al., The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, vols. 1 and 2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 468.

[9] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, February 27, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

[10] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, March 10, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[11] In 1831, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law to officially prohibit the education of enslaved and free blacks. After 1861, schools were established in Alexandria and other Union-occupied areas, such as Fortress Monroe, although black education remained illegal in the rest of the state, which remained under Confederate rule. For a list and short descriptions of schools for freedpeople in Alexandria during and right after the Civil War, see U.S. Bureau of Education, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools: in the District of Columbia: submitted to Senate June 1868, and to the House with addition, June 13, 1870. (Washington, DC: [publisher not identified], 1871), 283–293.

[12] Harriet Jacobs to Hannah Stevenson, March 10, 1864, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 551.

[13] Harriet Jacobs to the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, March 30, 1865, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 629. Harriet and Louisa Jacobs continued to work in Alexandria until July 1865.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose was published by Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her website and blog are at

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain II: John Lothrop Motley and the Causes of the Civil War in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain II: John Lothrop Motley and the Causes of the Civil War in The Times of London

To read Part I of my analysis of this debate, click here. Part I discusses two articles by Cassius Clay, an antislavery Kentuckian and U.S. Minister to the Russian court, and Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt.

British neutrality inspired Clay and DeLeon to present their section’s reasoning to gain British support. Sandwiched between their articles on Thursday and Friday, May 23 and 24, 1861, was a third letter by well-known historian John Lothrop Motley, the future minister of the Lincoln administration to Vienna. Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley geared his appeal to the British people and based it on his many connections in British society, so Motley’s voice should have carried much weight. Motley also hoped he could change British policy with regard to the United States. However, a number of Motley’s arguments were designed for the United States, where his editorial was eventually published in pamphlet form, and he overlooked serious British concerns with regard to the Lincoln administration’s policies. Motley’s letter illustrates how focusing on upper-class opinions could undermine arguments, and even more, the importance of understanding the desire for official statements instead of opinions by private individuals. Nevertheless, Motley’s arguments highlight the issues of importance in May 1861 for the British.

Focused on legality, Motley started with a distinction between the de facto and de jure situations in the United States. De facto secession had occurred; the conflict in North America had become a war, and the United States would survive or die as the “great Republic.” However, de jure secession was illegal, according to Motley. He described the insult to the national flag at Fort Sumter and expressed fear that the same fate could happen in Washington. Motley laid out a lengthy and complicated legal argument against secession, making clear that the United States was “not a Confederation, not a compact of Sovereign States, not a copartnership, it [was] a Commonwealth” with a constitution that acted as fundamental and organic law. The United States had abandoned the state of chaos with the Constitution, an argument designed for readers in the United States and not Great Britain.[1]

John Lothrop Motley by John Sartain, engraver, and Trow and Co Leavitt, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dismissing the Articles of Confederation period where the country was a “league of petty sovereigns,” Motley noted that the Constitution “was ordained and established” by a power superior to the states: the people. He ridiculed the idea of state sovereignty as a constitutional right. Continuing to deride state power, Motley stressed that “the name of no state is mentioned in the” Constitution; rather, the states “receive commands.” He reinvigorated his point later in the letter by stressing that the president “knows nothing of states;” rather “he deals with individuals.” The power of states did not exceed those of the federal government and secession was not a state’s right. While British readers were familiar with states’ rights arguments, they likely had a mixed reaction to majority rule and democracy.

At the same time, complicating his impact in Great Britain, Motley upheld the right to revolution and the people’s obligation to rebel against oppression. He referenced Daniel Webster, who granted the right to secession as a revolutionary act but denounced the right to secede under the Constitution. According to Motley, Webster called it “an absurdity, for it supposes resistance to government under the authority of government itself; it supposes dismemberment without violating the principles of Union; . . . it supposes the total overthrow of government without revolution.” Unfortunately, Motley presented a confused response to secession. He ridiculed Southern states’ claims to a right of secession as revolution, but simultaneously called it revolution. British readers, including those concerned with recent events in 1848, might not look as favorably on the right to revolution as the New England patrician.[2]

Aware of his British audience, Motley expanded on Clay’s Scotland-England analogy. He too argued that Scotland could not secede from England. Nevertheless, he hypothesized that if Scotland seceded, seized British property and public treasure, organized an army, requested foreign recognition, and preyed on British commerce with pirates protected by the Scottish flag, would Great Britain not protect its nation’s honor? While this appeal provided a more elaborate set of similarities to the secession crisis in the United States, Motley likely fared little better than Clay.[3]

In contrast to Clay and DeLeon, Motley paid close attention to the Morrill Tariff, which significantly angered British free traders. The Morrill Tariff, passed by Congress in February 1861, doubled import duties. British politicians, especially those who stood for free trade, looked with concern at this change. John Bright and Richard Cobden, who were two of the most loyal supporters of the Union, were outraged by the new tariff.[4] Motley called the Morrill Tariff “absurd” and noted that secession had nothing to do with the tariff since the South had seceded under “the moderate tariff of 1857.” He believed that protective tariffs were unnecessary since U.S. manufacturers could prevail in the domestic market over European products. He assured British readers that modifications would soon lower the Morrill Tariff, maybe as soon as the emergency Congressional session in July, but he did not indicate how, since Republicans had solidified their majority in Congress.[5] Motley understood potential negative impacts of the Morrill Tariff, but his attempt to minimize its implications provided little solace for British free-trade thinkers.

Title page of the pamphlet version of Motley’s letters.

To convince British readers about the benefits of supporting the United States, Motley needed an appealing subject, such as British fears of Southern slavery’s expansion. He argued that a united Confederacy would turn into a “new and expensive military empire.” To raise revenue and protect an infant industry, the Southern Confederacy would charge high tariffs. Building on British fears, Motley asserted that the Confederacy might create a cotton-based Gulf empire and reestablish the African slave trade, a reminder of the many southern-sponsored filibusters. Unfortunately, Motley did not fully develop this idea, failing to strike a moral chord with the British without defying Lincoln’s domestic policy.[6]

Like Lincoln, Motley largely avoided slavery, but he argued that Southerners had seceded to prevent an attack on their lifestyle and their human property. Aware of British assumptions that slaveholders represented an aristocracy, Motley called them “a privileged oligarchy.”. Motley noted that the federal government had enacted a fugitive slave law and land purchases in the last two decades added slave territory. After insisting that the small number of abolitionists rendered the debate harmless, Motley clarified that the Republican Party’s platform only opposed slavery’s expansion into new territories, not slavery itself. For Motley, there was no compromise if slavery was extended; “compromise will no longer be offered by peace conventions, in which slavery is to be made national.”[7] Trade and slavery appealed to the British but were only a side note in Motley’s letter.

Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley explained to his British audience the causes behind secession and the war. Being well acquainted with member of the British upper strata, Motley should have been well aware of their assumption and views about the United States. However, overall, his argument was geared just as much toward a U.S. audience as a British audience. Avoiding the issue of slavery, just like the Lincoln administration, only helped to confuse British political leaders and increase their desire to await events, even turning some toward the Confederacy. Motley’s contribution during the early stages of the struggle illustrates, just as Clay and DeLeon’s did, the importance of public diplomacy. It also urges historians to be cautious since the well-connected Motley did not have the desired impact, forcing us to carefully consider both the impact of U.S. opinion makers and British attitudes about the United States.



[1] John L. Motley, The Causes of the American Civil War: A Letter to the London Times (London: Cox and Wyman, 1861), 5-7.

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

[3] Ibid., 17-19.

[4] Richard J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 21; Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century 1815-1915: A Study of Empire and Expansion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 21, 30-31, 109-110.

[5] Motley, Causes of the American Civil War, 20-21.

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 29.

Niels Eichhorn

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

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

Today we share our first post from our new correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy, an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. Her current research emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. Drop a note in the comments below and welcome her to the Muster team!

Private Peter South was part of Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, known by contemporaries as “the Indian Company.”[1] In June of 1864, Confederate soldiers captured South near Petersburg, Virginia. Six months later, South died due to scurvy while a prisoner at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia. His mother, Lucy Kamiskwasigay, applied for a pension soon after her son’s death. Other Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi) individuals tried to help Kamiskwasigay receive a pension.[2] For example, in May of 1868, Joseph Wakazoo testified in support of his late comrade’s mother: “Her son Peter, had he lived and discharged a son’s part, would have supported her in old age, but he gave his life to his country….” Wakazoo pleaded on behalf of Kamiskwasigay: “All her property—except a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department, + which she has no right to sell, or means to improve—would not sell for over fifty dollars, and that amount would not pay her debt, contracted on the sure belief that the United States Gov. would redeem its pledge by granting her, in common with others, a pension.”[3]

Wakazoo made many claims on the government in his brief deposition. He appealed, like many veterans, to the government’s “pledge” to support Union soldiers and their families. By mentioning Kamiskwasigay’s allotment—”a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department”—he also noted her Indian identity and status. Wakazoo emphasized that this Anishinaabe mother should “get her just due” from the government.[4] Kamiskwasigay was awarded a pension in 1869.[5]

Caption: Kamiskwasigay lived about two miles from the south shore of Little Traverse Bay, near Bear River (Petoskey, Michigan). Henry Francis Walling, ed., Atlas of the state of Michigan: including statistics and descriptions of its topography, hydrography, climate, natural and civil history, railways, educational institutions, material resources, etc. (Detroit, MI: R.M. & S.T. Tackabury, 1873), 51. Courtesy of Michigan County Histories and Atlases.

The pension claim of Private South’s mother tells a familiar story, illuminating how a network of South’s former comrades and community members worked to help his mother receive a pension for a dependent parent. Kamiskwasigay’s pension application also tells a story of Indigenous soldiers and their families that is not as familiar to Civil War audiences, especially undergraduate students. Peter South was one of the approximately twenty-thousand American Indians who served in Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.[6]

The experiences of Indigenous veterans and their families demonstrate intersections between the Civil War and settler colonialism in a way that is accessible to students. Susannah Ural, in her March 2019 Muster post, notes that student research on the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students gain a better understanding of complex topics and issues.[7] I encourage students to consider the concept of settler colonialism. While colonialism is often characterized by the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism requires the removal of Indigenous people in order for settlers to permanently occupy the land. The logic of settler colonialism in the nineteenth century demanded that American Indians disappear through physical removal or cultural and political assimilation.[8] My students discuss how settler colonialism applies to the history of the nineteenth-century United States and how to use it as an analytical framework for understanding primary sources.[9]

The narratives found in American Indian pension files help deconstruct the concept of settler colonialism while encouraging students to think about what settler colonialism actually meant for American Indians—individuals, families, communities, and tribes. Depositions in support of Kamiskwasigay’s pension application hint at the results of treaties. The Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, negotiated in Detroit in 1855, reserved tracts of land for the Anishinaabek and detailed a process for the allotment of Indigenous land into eighty- and forty-acre lots.[10] From the perspective of the federal and the state governments, allotment in the 1855 treaty, like the large-scale allotment of Indigenous land in the later Dawes Act, was meant to encourage American Indians, especially men, to become individual, landholding farmers. The idea behind allotment was to discourage and restrict seasonal subsistence strategies based on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture. In the logic of settler colonialism, transforming the Anishinaabek into individual landholding farmers would mean the Anishinaabek required less land, which opened the possibility that Anishinaabe land could be sold by these individual landholders in the future. Wakazoo’s 1868 testimony suggests that Kamiskwasigay had an allotment connected to the 1855 treaty. American Indian pension files underscore that some Civil War veterans and their families were dealing with multiple branches of the Department of the Interior—both the Bureau of Pensions and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Description of a mother’s pension application, 1862. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Kamiskwasigay’s story demonstrates the effects of both the Civil War and settler colonialism on her life—the loss of her son and her ability to support herself related to disputes over reserved land, the allotment process, and land title. Individual stories help students gain a better understanding of settler colonialism during the Civil War era. Through the pension application process, American Indians appealed to the federal government for resources based on their identities as veterans (or veterans’ family members), while at the same time working to remain on or near parts of their homelands.

By including stories like Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s in discussions of Civil War veterans and their families, we gain a better understanding of the ramifications of the Civil War for multiple groups of people. The pension process, seen from the perspective of American Indian veterans, demonstrates a need to consider the effects of settler colonialism. In general, veterans complained of skeptical bureaucrats who orchestrated invasive questions and medical exams during the application process, especially if a special examiner was sent to question neighbors and the pension applicant.[11] For Indigenous veterans, invasive questioning seemed threatening due to multiple circumstances. In reports concerning two Company K veterans, for instance, the special examiner noted that many of the Anishinaabek he tried to interview refused ”to talk to a stranger because they have been so persistently and shamefully defrauded by the whites that they think any time a white stranger enters into conversation with them it is for the purpose of gaining information that will bring them trouble or deprive them of their property in future.”[12] Pension examinations coincided with Anishinaabe struggles to gain clear title to their lands, as well as land fraud committed by speculators who obtained deeds through deception. The Anishinaabek were wary of strangers, questions, and paperwork. Their wariness, compared to their white comrades, had an additional layer determined by their Anishinaabe identities and dealings with white government officials.

Pension cases that introduce students to the post-war experiences of American Indian veterans are also important to consider in comparison to other veterans’ experiences. Considering African American and American Indian pension files in juxtaposition can help students understand how constructed racial hierarchies and nineteenth-century conceptions of “savagery” and “civilization” affected veterans’ experiences and the pension application process. Furthermore, pension files are replete with stories of white settlers. Considering American Indian veterans next to their Euro-American counterparts, and reading pension files through the analytical framework of settler colonialism, helps students understand Euro-American pension files in new ways. In addition, Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s pension application is a reminder that, while the majority of Indigenous peoples lived west of the Mississippi River after the Civil War, there were also Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi who were negotiating settler colonial policies.


[1] “The Michigan Sharpshooters,” Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, September 5, 1864, 4.

[2] Louis Miskoguon, September 1, 1865, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay (mother of Peter South), RG 15, National Archives, Washington D.C., and Compiled Service Record of Peter South, Civil War, Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, RG 94, National Archives.

[3] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa [Augustus Ottawa], May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[4] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa, May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[5] Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay. Kamiskwasigay is also discussed in Michelle Cassidy, “‘Both the Honor and the Profit’: Anishinaabe Warriors, Soldiers, and Veterans from Pontiac’s War through the Civil War,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2016), 285-286.

[6] Laurence M. Hauptman, “Introduction,” in American Indians and the Civil War, ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013), 11.

[7] Susannah Ural, “Teaching the American Civil War through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans,” Muster, March 26, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[8] For definitions of settler colonialism, see, for example, Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4-6; Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, and Legacies (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 2-4, and Nancy Shoemaker, “A Typology of Colonialism,” Perspectives of History (October 2015), 29-30.

[9] For more teaching ideas related to settler colonialism and the Civil War, see Cate Denial, “A Different View of the U.S. Civil War” Cate Denial Blog, May 23, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[10] Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, 1855, in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties vol. II, ed. Charles J. Kappler (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 725-731.

[11] Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014), 151-169.

[12] Special Examiner R.P. Fletcher to the Commissioner of Pensions, May 1887, Civil War Pension File of Leon Otashquabono, NARA.

Michelle Cassidy

Michelle Cassidy is assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current project emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. She has presented her research at numerous conferences and has published an article in the Michigan Historical Review.

Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Our author interview for the June 2019 issue is with William S. Kiser, author of “‘We Must Have Chihuahua and Sonora’: Civil War Diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.” He is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where he teaches courses in U.S. history and the American West. Born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Arizona State University.  He is the author of four books: Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (Oklahoma, 2018); Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Pennsylvania, 2017); Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861 (Oklahoma, 2013), and Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865 (Texas A&M, 2011).

Thank you for joining us in conversation, Billy! Your article expands the geographic scope of Civil War diplomatic history to incorporate the story of our southern neighbors. What inspired you to undertake this research project?

This research project evolved from a topic that I briefly addressed in my latest book, Coast-to-Coast Empire. In that book, I devoted only about two-three pages to the subject of Civil War diplomacy in northwestern Mexico, but it occurred to me at one point that it would be a suitable topic for an article-length study. Much of my previous work involved the Civil War era in the Southwest, but I had yet to pursue a transnational study that looked at the effects of the Civil War on the Mexican side of the border. In fact, this JCWE article has developed into a full-length book project that will cover Civil War diplomacy along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, from Tamaulipas to Baja California.

Some of our readers may have read your article, but for those who have not, can you please summarize your topic? And what is the main point you want to drive home?

This article focuses on Union and Confederate diplomacy in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora between 1861 and 1863. It highlights several unsanctioned diplomatic expeditions during that short time frame, in which U.S. military officers traveled into Mexico to meet with the governors of those two states in an attempt to broker special wartime alliances. This occurred within the context of the Civil War and the French Intervention, two simultaneous conflicts that prevented national authorities from effectively managing affairs on their isolated frontiers. One of the main points is that Unionists and Rebels used acts of irregular diplomacy and intrigue in an attempt to buttress their war efforts by enlisting the support of foreign governors along the international border.

This idea of “irregular diplomacy” strikes me as an important contribution to the field, and that leads nicely into my next question! Early in the article you state that these diplomatic relationships were messy, with the United States, Confederate States, Mexico, and also Indigenous nations, all as major players. How did you, as a historian, tackle these complications?

The most difficult aspect of these messy diplomatic interactions is the role of Apaches and Yaquis. This is partially due to the fact that we have no firsthand accounts of these incidents from their perspectives, and thus it is more difficult to ascertain their motivations and goals. Furthermore, Indians took no active part in the actual diplomatic discussions between Mexicans and Americans that I discuss in this article. I had to tease out their indirect role (primarily as unknowing pawns during negotiations for trans-national military alliances to fight a common enemy) using documentary evidence from governors and army officers.

There were some rather fun examples of spy craft, such as when two U.S. agents snuck into Manuel Escalante’s office to transcribe some documents pertaining to Confederate diplomatic discussions. What are some of the other interesting anecdotes you came across, that didn’t make it into the article?

One of my favorite stories on this topic occurred in northeastern Mexico and South Texas, beyond the scope of the article. In 1862, Governor Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo León took advantage of Confederate dependency on Mexico as a corridor for exporting cotton around the Union naval blockade of the Southern coastline. Vidaurri slyly raised his tariff rate (itself an act of irregular borderlands diplomacy, because tariffs are supposed to be handled at the national, rather than the state, level) on cotton exports from one cent per pound to two cents per pound in retaliation for Texas Confederates aiding the banditry of his political enemy, José María de Jesus Carvajal. To assuage the governor, Rebel officers fought and defeated Vidaurri’s enemy for him, whereupon Vidaurri lowered the cotton tariff back to one cent per pound.

It sounds like the Confederates and Governor Vidaurri eventually fashioned a mutually beneficial relationship, which speaks to your greater point about the importance of these informal, unsanctioned alliances. So, moving back to the article itself, what conclusions can we draw from this story? In other words, what is the biggest takeaway from your research?

There are two big takeaways from my research on this topic. First, Civil War diplomacy was not limited to the conventional state-level actors in London, Paris, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. but instead took on some very unusual dimensions in regions where national leaders exercised minimal control. The diplomatic conniving that occurred along the border demonstrates that Confederate and Union officials believed Mexico could become an important actor in the American Civil War, and they behaved accordingly in their attempts to formulate regional alliances with state governors. Second, these unconventional diplomatic techniques tell us a lot about the ways in which contested borders and borderlands give rise to complicated and confusing political relationships that undermine national authority. We need look no further than the nightly news to see the ways in which the ongoing porosity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to confound national leaders in both countries.

Thank you again for participating! Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Keep an eye out for my book-length project on Civil War diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press sometime in 2021 or 2022.

To learn more about Confederate attempts to gain support from Mexico, be sure to check out Billy’s article, available through subscription and via ProjectMuse.

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria announced Great Britain’s neutrality in the Civil War, which raised Southern hopes of recognition and Northern fears of the same. The Queen’s proclamation and public reaction to the outbreak of hostilities were the result of long-standing assumptions about the sectional division in the United States.[1] Aware of British attitudes about the political system, slavery and abolition, and the geographic differences in the United States, private individuals determined to explain to British readers the causes of the rebellion, attract British sympathy and support, and hopefully alter the course of the war in their section’s favor.

One week after the announcement of British neutrality, in London’s newspaper The Times, northern and southern writers debated the reasons for secession and war and laid out arguments for why Great Britain should support their section. On Monday, May 20, 1861, The Times published a letter by the anti-slavery Kentuckian and new U.S. Minister to the Russian court, Cassius M. Clay, and on Saturday, May 25, 1861, Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt, provided a southern counterargument. Clay and DeLeon eloquently defended their respective sections with arguments designed for a British audience and to solicit British support. They utilized arguments to fit their audience’s expectations and perceptions. These two installments of the debate in The Times (a future post will deal with the third one by John L. Motley) illustrate how public diplomacy played out in the British newspapers as individuals from the two belligerents tried to win European support.

Cassius Clay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the first letter, Clay addressed the causes of secession, explaining that the Union fought for its national integrity and the principle of liberty. He wrote that “the so-called ‘Confederate States of America’ rebel against us—against our nationality and against all the principles of its structure.”[2] According to Clay, secession violently split the nation into separate independent entities and was treason. Based on the Constitution, Clay dismissed the Southern claim to state sovereignty. He reminded his readers that the Constitution had taken independence away from the states and bestowed sovereignty in the people. He directly tackled states’ rights in order to undermine secessionist arguments and address British assumptions about the United States.

Aware of British perceptions of the sectional tensions in the United States, Clay contended that the Southern states could “no more ‘secede’ from the Union than Scotland or Ireland can secede from England.” Despite potential shortfalls, Clay’s analogy was a well-intended device to illustrate the conflict’s dilemma to the British public. Even more, Clay felt the need to remind the British public about the southern slaveholding aristocracy.

Shifting to slavery as an issue, Clay accused slaveholder of a “despotic rule” aimed at subjugating the “white races of all nations.” Slaveholders favored restricting the freedom of speech and press to protect their own interests and used the “terrorism of ‘Lynch law’” to accomplish their goals. In addition, Clay argued that slaveholders saw only one solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and that was for capital to own labor, an implicit appeal to the British working classes.

However, Clay was not only interested in explaining causation; he wanted to obtain British support and asked “Where should British honour place her in this contest?” He reminded his readers that the North was Great Britain’s honest friend as the two protected democracy, Great Britain in Europe and the Union in North America. Furthermore, he wondered whether Confederate independence would indicate that Great Britain was wrong about abolishing slavery, getting to the very heart of Britain’s moral foreign policy. Finally, Clay reminded readers that the United States was Great Britain best customer, downplaying the impact of the highly controversial, recently passed Morrill Tariff.

In his effort to gain British support, Clay not only appealed to public sentiment, but he also unnecessarily threatened the possibility of a future war if Great Britain did not support the Union. Clay explained that the Union would easily subdue but not subjugate the revolting states. With 20 million “homogeneous people” against the South’s 8,907,894 whites and about 4 million slaves, Clay assumed the war would be over after one year. He warned at the end of his letter, pointing to the rapid growth in population, correctly estimating that it would reach 100 million in the next fifty years, “Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge in all our future!” He concluded that Great Britain would be wise to join forces with its natural ally, the North. Clay presented an argument based on his personal experiences and commonly held opinions; however, he geared his arguments toward a British audience to appeal to their understanding of the United States in order to gain support.

Edwin DeLeon in Thomas Cooper DeLeon, Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the 60’s (New York G. W. Dillingham Company, 1909), 411.

Countering the Kentuckian’s argument, DeLeon laid out his own case using his understanding of British opinions. First, DeLeon accused Clay of drawing “upon his imagination for his facts and figures,”[3] claiming that another three states (the border states) would soon join the eleven seceded states. In contrast to Clay, De Leon claimed that the seceded states contain a homogeneous population without a large Unionist element. Even more, the firing on Fort Sumter had increased southern resilience. He played directly into British assumptions that ethnic cohesion existed in the southern section of the country.

Aware of Clay’s England-Scotland analogy, DeLeon dismissively called it “absurd.” In contrast to the hypothetical departure of Scotland, sovereign states had seceded from a federal union. DeLeon corrected that the people in the Southern states “through States’ Conventions specially called for the purpose, have initiated and adopted the ordinances of secession” just like states had ratified the constitution originally. DeLeon’s legal defense of secession illustrated a nuanced understanding of U.S. history and appeal to British audiences.

Angry with Clay turning against his native home, DeLeon wrote, “Mr. Clay should know that we regard as ‘doubly traitors’ those who, born and bred on Southern soil, not only desert but defame their Southern brethren, in arms against a worse than Austrian despotism.” With that, the Southern internal debate had crossed the Atlantic and was verbally continued in The Times.

DeLeon probably knew that such accusations would not help him convince his European audience; therefore, he needed to remind the British about their hatred for U.S. expansionism. Using Clay’s language, DeLeon argued that such words would fit “the taste of North-western stump speakers.” However, it would not do with people in Great Britain as it would cause them “to smile at such a specimen of ‘Spread Eagle-ism,’” which was a direct reference to expansionism. By stressing both Clay’s vulgarity and expansionism, DeLeon raised concerns about the future of British imperial and commercial interests.

After dismissing slavery as a cause of secession and denying the North’s right to subdue the South, DeLeon arose long-standing British fears of popular revolution, especially the French Revolution. Reminding the British of the French Revolution and the upheaval and despotism it caused, DeLeon drew a parallel to the events in the United States:

The old watchword of the Jacobins in France’s darkest day of blood and tears, ‘Fraternité, ou la mort’ (‘Be my brother, or I will kill you!’), is now the rallying cry of the ‘free North,’ not of the South, who stands with drawn sword beside her own altars, is that a watchword to enlist the sympathies or stir the pulses of free-born Englishmen when a new reign of terror is sought to be inaugurated, once more under the desecrated name of liberty, over the smiling and happy homes of the sunny South?

Playing on the fear of a reign of terror may have helped DeLeon scare British readers who preferred stability over chaos. Having dismissed all of Clay’s arguments, DeLeon contended that the British government should extend recognition to the Confederate States.

The discussion between Clay and DeLeon in The Times in May 1861 provided British readers an insight into the emerging conflict in the United States. However, the two authors geared their arguments to address British assumptions about the United States, including sectional division, slavery, and politics. Besides explaining the reasons for the conflict in a way understandable to their British audience, Clay and DeLeon used their letters to also ask for support. Both authors engaged in public diplomacy, but made an effort to understand British assumptions and shroud their appeal in understandable language. They failed to recognize Britain’s uncertainty about the causes of the conflict based on the official statements coming from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The two letters offer a glimpse into the importance of understanding both the unofficial diplomatic efforts by private individuals and the need to understand British public opinions about the United States, to understand why Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict.

Part II of this post has now been published here.


[1] Peter Connor, American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[2] Cassius M. Clay, “To the Editor of the Times,” Times (London), May 20, 1861.

[3] Edwin De Leon, “The Civil War in America,” Times (London), May 25, 1861.

Niels Eichhorn

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

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

The cry echoed throughout the crisis which followed Abraham Lincoln’s election: “Oh, for an hour of Jackson!” It crossed party and even sectional lines, linking dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans, and indignant northerners to anxious southern dissenters. As they scorned lame-duck James Buchanan and awaited his untested successor, many Unionists recalled Andrew Jackson’s unbending defense of federal authority during the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833) and pined for his return.[1]

Appeals to Jackson came from all quarters, as diverse Americans claimed Old Hickory as their own.[2] Buchanan cited Jackson’s example in his December 3, 1860, message to Congress, in which he denied that states could secede and then insisted that the federal government could not stop them.[3] Frustrated by Buchanan’s timidity, northern Democrats swore that Jackson would have nipped secession in the bud. “O! that we had such a man as Jackson at the helm of state,” one lamented to Stephen A. Douglas. “Then the dangerous rock of secession would have been foreseen afar off–and completely avoided.”[4] Republicans also lauded Jackson, notwithstanding his partisan affiliation, and urged Lincoln to take a Jacksonian stand against secession.[5] Lincoln heeded their advice, studying Jackson’s anti-Nullification proclamation of December 1832, and promising an anxious visitor that he would not “yield an inch” in the coming showdown.[6]

These sentiments required little prompting. Jackson loomed in living memory long after his passing in 1845, not least because Democrats celebrated his victory at the Battle of New Orleans every January. The parallels between Nullification and secession, moreover, were obvious to critics who blamed both problems on South Carolina planters’ determination to rule the country or ruin it. A closer look at invocations of Jackson, however, suggests that contemporary scholarship primed Americans to find Jacksonian precedents for their own tumultuous times. The first professional biography of Jackson serendipitously appeared in print amid the escalating crisis of 1860, providing readers and pundits with a historical lens through which to view current events. Historians, take note: a well-written and well-timed piece of scholarship can influence popular opinion.

Frontispiece to James Parton, Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1872). Born in England and raised primarily in the United States, James Parton was among the leading biographers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Life of Andrew Jackson, published in three volumes by Mason Brothers of New York City in 1859 and 1860, was written by James Parton. Born in England in 1822, Parton moved to the United States in 1827, a year before Jackson’s election to the presidency. Parton’s endeavors ranged widely, from teaching to editing, but he made his mark as a pioneering biographer. His lives of Horace Greeley and Aaron Burr appeared in the mid-1850s to widespread acclaim, and he would later publish books on Benjamin Butler, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. He is best known, however, for his three hefty tomes on Andrew Jackson. Parton commenced the project in 1857, scouring bookstores and libraries for several years before embarking on a long tour of Washington, D.C., and the South in 1859, during which he interviewed Francis P. Blair, Roger Taney, and others who had been close to the seventh president. Working at a remarkable pace, Parton finished the first volume in late 1859 and churned out the second and third the following year.[7]

The sprawling study was widely hailed as a masterpiece. “Seldom has a biography been able to excite a furore,” remarked a Tennessee editor, who appreciated the first volume’s appeal to learned and popular audiences alike. Marveling at Parton’s meticulous research and vivid style, many reviewers quoted the New York Home Journal’s appraisal: “It is as romantic as a mediaeval romance, and yet has the advantage of being true.”[8] Initially, these endorsements came from all corners of the divided country. Readers from Mississippi to New York lauded the first two volumes with equal enthusiasm, and editors nationwide eagerly reprinted extracts recounting colorful episodes of Jackson’s life, including his duel with Charles Dickinson and his triumph at New Orleans.[9]

When the third volume appeared in fall 1860, however, Unionists embraced it as a political weapon. Escalating tension over the presidential contest and secession shaped their reception of the final installment, which covered Jackson’s presidency and included three chapters on Nullification. Parton invited such a reading when he reflected on Jackson’s acceptance of the compromise tariff bill which ended the standoff with South Carolina: “The time may come,” he mused, “when the people of the United States will wish he had vetoed it, and thus brought to an issue, and settled finally, a question which, at some future day, may assume more awkward dimensions, and the country have no Jackson to meet it.”[10] For Unionists, the lesson was clear: another national hero must finish what Old Hickory had started.

Reviewers and advertisers promoted Parton’s work by explicitly connecting it to current events. Writing one week before South Carolina seceded, a Washington editor commended Parton’s coverage of “President Jackson’s war upon the nullifiers,” opining that it provided “much good reading for the present day.”[11] A month later, an English reviewer predicted that recent developments would boost Parton’s readership, since “Andrew Jackson is the only President who has ever had to deal with a crisis” comparable to “that which is now straining the powers of President Buchanan.”[12]

Advertisement from (Washington, D.C.) National Republican, January 25, 1861. With war on the horizon, readers eagerly snapped up tactical manuals and other volumes on military science. Tellingly, booksellers regarded Parton’s Life of Jackson as another likely top seller during the escalating crisis. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Parton’s account of Jackson’s unbending defense of national unity and federal authority, coupled with his commentary on the issues left unsettled in 1833, armed opinion-makers with potent arguments. Unionists who were tired of Buchanan’s vacillations and hoped that Lincoln would stand firm cited Parton’s analysis of the Nullification crisis. A widely reprinted article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, quoted Parton at length to show that secession was “incompatible with the fundamental idea and main object of the Constitution.”[13] Scenes from Jackson’s final weeks thrilled Unionists, who readily quoted Jackson’s deathbed declaration that he would have hanged the Nullifiers as “high as Haman” if they had not given way.[14]

It was an advertisement, however, which most pointedly exhibited the value of Parton’s work for Unionists in 1861. That January, booksellers French & Richstein in Washington, D.C. announced that their store at 278 Pennsylvania Avenue carried a number of important “Books for the Times.” Aware that Unionists were girding for war, they had stocked up on Hardee’s Tactics, Jomini’s Art of War, the Military Laws of the United States, and other martial tomes. Listed at the head of this militaristic catalogue was Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, a must-read for Unionists steeling themselves for a showdown with Carolina hotspurs.

The Civil War soon swelled to such cataclysmic proportions that the Nullification Crisis now appears as a mere prelude. But in the uncertain and anxious days of late 1860 and early 1861, as Americans scrambled to find historical precedents for their turbulent times, James Parton’s study of Andrew Jackson fortified Unionists for the great task that lay before them.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 249 (quotation); Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 126-129.

[2] Aaron Scott Crawford, “Patriot Slaveholder: Andrew Jackson and the Winter of Secession,” Journal of East Tennessee History 82 (2010): 10-32.

[3] James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” American Presidency Project, accessed April 18, 2019,

[4] Mills S. Reeves to Stephen A. Douglas, February 18, 1861, Box 39, Folder 3, in Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[5] Robert J. Cook, “The Shadow of the Past: Collective Memory and the Coming of the American Civil War,” in Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 82-84.

[6] Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 256.

[7] Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1951).

[8] “Life of Andrew Jackson,” Clarksville (TN) Chronicle, January 6, 1860.

[9] “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” Ripley (MS) Advertiser, February 22, 1860; “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” New York Daily Tribune, January 25, 1860; “General Jackson’s Duel with Dickinson,” Shasta (CA) Courier, April 14, 1860; “Gen. Jackson at New Orleans,” Emporia (KS) News, May 19, 1860.

[10] James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859-1860), III, 481-482.

[11] (Washington, DC) Evening Star, December 13, 1860.

[12] “Literature,” The Athenaeum, no. 1734 (January 19, 1861), 75.

[13] Reprinted as “Secession in 1832,” Sunbury (PA) American, December 1, 1860.

[14] “Jackson and the Nullifiers,” (Marysville, CA) Daily National Democrat, January 4, 1861.

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 Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The Contested Memories of General Nathaniel Lyon in St. Louis

The removal of a Confederate monument from its original dedication spot in Forest Park almost two years ago aroused a great deal of controversy among St. Louis residents. Like the debates taking place in other cities that have Confederate iconography, supporters praised the removal of a monument they considered to be offensive and historically inaccurate. Meanwhile, protestors claimed that the removal constituted an erasure of history. If anything, they saw this action as a precursor to the erasure of other historic figures honored in the city, such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Lindbergh.[1] What many commentators missed in the discussion, however, was that the “Memorial to the Confederate Dead” was not the first public monument in St. Louis to be removed from its original dedication spot. That distinction belongs to a monument honoring Union General Nathaniel Lyon that was relocated in 1960. Analyzing why this monument aroused so much controversy can lead to important insights not just about Civil War memory in St. Louis, but also the fungible nature of public commemoration.

The Nathaniel Lyon statue is currently located at Lyon Park. Notice that the monument’s text has been removed. Courtesy of the author.

In February 1861, the U.S. Army sent Nathaniel Lyon to St. Louis amid a growing session crisis in the city. Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was sympathetic to the Confederacy and tried to find a covert way to take the state out of the Union. Claiming his authority as Governor, Jackson sent a force of Missouri State Militia under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Frost to the federal arsenal at St. Louis. They established an encampment named “Camp Jackson.” Fearing that the State Militia would confiscate the arsenal and take Missouri into the Confederacy, Lyon led a force of U.S. troops to Camp Jackson to arrest Frost and his soldiers. As Frost’s men were led through the streets of St. Louis on their way to be paroled, shots fired out between protestors and Lyon’s troops. Amid the chaos, more than two dozen people died in what has since been called the “Camp Jackson Massacre.” A little over a month later, Lyon and Congressman Frank Blair met with Governor Jackson and former Governor Sterling Price at the popular Planter’s House Hotel to discuss Missouri’s future. Lyon reportedly said during the meeting that “rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and every man, woman, and child in the State, dead and buried. This means war.” When Lyon became the first U.S. General to be killed while leading troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, he became a martyr for the Unionist cause and was seen by supporters as the savior of St. Louis.[2]

Union Civil War veterans in the city who were active in the Grand Army of the Republic began calling for a monument honoring General Lyon in 1927. Over the next two years they raised 15,000 dollars and hired the Swiss-born sculptor Erhardt Siebert to design the monument, which would be located at the original Camp Jackson site at Grand and Pine streets. Siebert, however, faced criticism even before the official unveiling on December 22, 1929. Numerous artists who saw the monument criticized several aspects of the overall design. Lyon’s horse looked small, weak, and sick; Lyon himself appeared to be falling off the monument, and perhaps worst of all, Lyon’s first name was incorrectly spelled as “Nathanial.” Edmund H. Wuerpel, Director of Fine Arts at Washington University—St. Louis, declared that “it would be a kindness to the city and its inhabitants if this latest creation should be withdrawn permanently from the public gaze.” Mayor Victor Miller asserted defensively that nobody was forcing residents to look at the monument. The criticism was so strong, however, that Miller agreed to establish a city art commission to review future proposals for public monuments.[3]

For the next twenty-five years, St. Louis residents debated the merits of keeping what was by all accounts an ugly monument. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pleaded for a wealthy philanthropist to purchase and remove the monument as an act of kindness to the city. They also sarcastically argued that the space would be better suited to function as a parking lot. When President Franklin Roosevelt suggested in 1942 that some historical monuments should be turned into scrap metal to support the U.S. military effort in World War II, the paper eagerly volunteered the Lyon statue for destruction. The monument remained untouched, but Parks Commissioner Palmer Baumes offered a lukewarm defense of the monument and said he would have allowed for its removal if city leaders had wanted it.[4]

Students at Saint Louis University made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when they raised a Confederate flag near the Nathaniel Lyon statue in 1952. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

While many of these critiques centered around the monument’s poor aesthetics, Lyon’s presence as a figure within the St. Louis commemorative landscape was always contested. Residents who were sympathetic to the actions of Jackson and Frost considered Lyon an overzealous fanatic. He was, as one biographer describes it, a “Damn Yankee” who represented the worst dictatorial impulses of the Lincoln administration. Perhaps most notably, a group of students at nearby Saint Louis University (SLU) briefly hung a Confederate flag near the Lyon statue in 1952.[5] And as historian Joan Stack argues, Lyon’s presence in the commemorative landscape of the entire state was already under siege. A painting of Lyon by George Caleb Bingham that hung at the Missouri State Capitol was destroyed by fire in 1911. When a new painting by N.C. Wyeth was unveiled in 1920, it portrayed a distinctly Southern celebration of Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, leaving Lyon entirely out of the painting. Stack also points out that Lyon’s “this means war” proclamation has been uncritically accepted by both Missourians and historians as a factual statement, even though the claim was made by Confederate aide Thomas Snead in 1886 and no contemporary documents verifying the statement exist. “The widespread public acceptance of Snead’s quote reflects the extraordinary effectiveness of Southern apologists in recasting Lyon as a war-mongering zealot rather than an assertive patriot,” argues Stack.[6]

The key turning point in the Lyon monument’s future was not popular protest or a terrible world war. Instead, it was the actions of Harriet Frost Fordyce, a wealthy St. Louis philanthropist who also happened to be the youngest child of Confederate General Daniel Frost. An honorary president of the Missouri United Daughters of the Confederacy and a devout Catholic, Fordyce agreed to donate more than one million dollars to help renovate and expand SLU’s campus on the condition that Lyon’s statue be removed from its original dedication spot. SLU, in partnership with the city government, promptly worked to secure legislation authorizing the monument’s relocation to Lyon Park, a small ten-acre site near the Anheuser-Busch headquarters that had been established by Congress in 1869 (the land had been part of the city’s federal arsenal). Four months before dying at the age of 85, Fordyce and the city of St. Louis watched as the Lyon monument was relocated in June 1960. As an added bonus, SLU renamed its main campus the “Frost Campus” in honor of General Frost.[7]

The Nathaniel Lyon statue was removed from its original dedication spot and relocated to Lyon Park in 1960. Courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.

This episode reminds us that while the current debate over Confederate monuments has captured the nation’s attention with an intensity not previously seen, public monuments have always been contested spaces of protest and controversy. With the Lyon monument, almost no one complained that removing the monument was an act of “erasing history.” Instead, protests centered around the need to develop a better system for assessing public art and to think anew about the impermanent nature of public iconography. For example, art critic George McCue argued that city residents took their public monuments for granted, making them essentially “invisible.” He suggested that a process of “periodic critical evaluation” of the relevance and usefulness of public monuments would place them back into the public eye and lead to larger discussions about the city’s values. “We remove old houses that have become eyesores, but we cherish old statues no matter how dubious they are as art, nor how inappropriate as memorials,” he complained.[8]

Post-Dispatch journalist Bill McClellan suggested in 1998 that Lyon’s victory at Camp Jackson was ultimately “transitory.” His monument had become an impediment to urban renewal in the city. SLU needed funds for a new campus and the city government sought to revitalize the surrounding area with new urban housing and amenities. Fordyce’s role as a privileged, wealthy philanthropist allowed SLU to become “the salvation of the midtown area.”[9] In the end, Lyon’s legacy as Civil War General was overwhelmed by dreams of civic “progress” that required a subtle celebration of the city’s Confederate heritage in order to be achieved. General Lyon’s heavily criticized monument ultimately lasted barely thirty years in its original dedication spot, but remains today at Lyon Park in a quiet space rarely seen by most city residents.


[1] Yaseem Serhan, “St. Louis to Remove its Confederate Monument,” The Atlantic, June 26, 2017, accessed May 7, 2019,

[2] Louis Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001), 78-125; Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 19-35.

[3] “$50,000 Memorial to Gen. Lyon Projected,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1927; “Gen. Lyon Statue Unveiled, Sponsor Raps its Critics,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 23, 1929; “Urges Removal of Lyon Statue as ‘Unesthetic’,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1929; “‘If People Don’t Like Lyon Statue, They Needn’t Look at It’, Mayor Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1929; “Art Commission Revived, But Mustn’t Meddle with Lyon Statue,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 18, 1929.

[4] [Untitled Editorial], St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 1930; “That Red Alabaster Adam and Old Gen. Lyon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 7, 1939; “City Demurs at Scrapping Statue Unless Metal is Vital to Victory,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 1942; “More Sources of Scrap Metal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1942.

[5] Christopher Phillips, Damn Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); “Confederate Flag Flies Briefly Atop Main Pole at St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1952.

[6] Joan Stack, “The Rise and Fall of General Nathaniel Lyon in the Missouri State Capitol,” Gateway (2013), 60-67. See also Kristen Pawlak, “Major Horace A. Conant and the Planter’s House Hotel Meeting,” Missouri’s Civil War Blog, January 10, 2019, accessed May 7, 2019,

[7] “Missouri Division of UDC Elects Officers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 1957; “Lyon Park Home for Lyon Statue Provided in Bill,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Statue Spared, Will Be Moved to Lyon Park,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1959; “Mrs. Fordyce Gives Million to St. Louis U.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 16, 1959; “Gen. Lyon Rides Again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 7, 1960.

[8] George McCue, “Our Invisible Public Monuments,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 1959.

[9] Bill McClellan, “Statue of Civil War General Loses Battle to SLU’s Growth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1998.

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: June 2019 Issue

Editor’s Note: June 2019 Issue

Today we share a preview of our June 2019 issue, reprinting here the editor’s note by Judy Giesberg. To access these articles, you can purchase a copy of the issue or subscribe to the journal. It will also be available (in June) on Project Muse.

Readers of this issue will find essays that align over questions about border diplomacy and Civil War-era American expansionism, with an opening essay weighing in on when and why the war ended as it did and a review essay that reflects on the future of military history. In between there are spies, rogue diplomats, and double agents.

We begin with Andrew Lang’s Thomas Watson Brown Book Prize talk, “Union Demobilization and the Boundaries of War and Peace,” which joins the work of scholars like Gary Gallagher and Mark Wahlgren Summers in arguing that Civil War Americans did not bemoan the war’s civil rights shortfalls as much as recent scholars do. In the essay, as in his book In the Wake of War, Lang argues that because regular army men “viewed the momentous collapse of the Confederate state as the signal feat of national purpose,” they had little patience or stomach for serving as the agents of federal Reconstruction policy, the boots on the ground charged with administering the postwar era’s civil rights legislation and protecting freedmen from white insurgents. Their mission accomplished, these men in blue were concerned that a prolonged occupation would threaten democracy, or worse, destroy it. So, the postwar army quickly shrank, before regular army men’s fears for the nation’s democratic institutions could be realized and just as the democratic aspirations of black volunteers had been.

William S. Kiser’s essay, “‘We Must Have Chihuahua and Sonora’: Civil War Diplomacy in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands,” explores the tangled diplomacy of agents representing the United States; the Confederacy; and two northwestern Mexican states bordering New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. At issue were Confederate interest in opening up a supply line from Mexico that could sustain their invasion of New Mexico and, later, U.S. aspirations for a naval station in Mexico, but in the background, too, Apaches and an invading French army moving northward toward the border posed continued threats. This is a story of how “powerful nineteenth-century nations attempted to manipulate and reshape tenuous systems of political power in their weaker neighbors.” Expecting to easily lure local authorities into deals that violated official Mexican neutrality, Confederate and U.S. military men and self-appointed diplomats discovered, instead, that they came to the diplomatic table from a point of weakness as Mexican authorities played Americans off of each other and remained resolutely out of the war along Mexico’s northern border. It was a diplomatic miscalculation to think that local Mexican officials, facing a threat to their south, would abandon their national loyalties and seek to cut a deal with their neighbors to the north.

Patrick Kelly’s essay picks up this story where Kiser’s leaves off. Whereas U.S. diplomatic efforts in Mexico came to naught early in 1863, by June, French emperor Napoleon III’s army was in Mexico City, the Mexican national government was in exile, and the Confederacy anticipated reaping the rewards of a forthcoming alliance with France. The survival of the republics of Mexico and the United States hung in the balance as monarchy seemed posed to make a comeback in the Americas. These concerns weighed heavily on Lincoln as he sent troops to south Texas in October and were evident in the words he chose in the speech he delivered that November at Gettysburg. Lincoln opened that speech with words hearkening back to when the founders “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Kelly reads these words as evidence of Lincoln’s continentalism. It was no accident, Kelly says, that “continent” appeared in the first line, for it reflected a “a powerful, if short-lived, moment of solidarity between the United States and the hemisphere’s Spanish-speaking republics articulated on both sides of the Rio Grande within the discourse of a politically united American continent.” In “The Lost Continent of Abraham Lincoln,” Kelly locates the Gettysburg Address in that moment, when liberal nationalists imagined a future in which new world nations stood in solidarity against the old and in defense of new world ideals of democracy, constitutionalism, and, importantly, antislavery. Having issued the Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year, Lincoln helped usher the United States into that league of nations. That this solidarity did not outlast the immediate threat that made it seem possible takes nothing away from the moment in which these sentiments were first expressed—it adds something.

Courtney Buchkoski’s essay, “‘Luke-Warm Abolitionists’: Eli Thayer and the Contest for Civil War Memory, 1853–1899,” explores the career of a lesser-known figure in the history of American abolition, a man who during the Kansas crisis briefly made something of a name for himself as founder of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, before he was eclipsed by the likes of Garrison and others. Espousing reform through colonization, Eli Thayer’s New England Emigrant Aid Company sought to effect emancipation gradually, by colonizing Kansas with right-thinking people. Convinced of the model first tried in Kansas, Thayer promoted it as a way to end slavery in Virginia and Texas and to prevent its spread to Central America; colonization could also solve the problem of polygamy in Utah and resistance to federal authority in the Reconstruction South. When he wasn’t endorsing American expansion as policy, he was cultivating it in archives, historical societies, and historic publications. For the rest of his life, Thayer remained an enthusiastic proponent of American expansion, “connecting the moral imperative of emancipation with the rise of American imperialism”; as such his is an important case study in considering the links between the Civil War era and the era of American expansion that followed. Whereas Thayer’s name did not survive into the twentieth century, his influence did.

Rounding out this issue, Andrew Bledsoe’s review essay gets to a question central to the field of Civil War studies, that is, the place of military history in it. In our pages and elsewhere, a number of historians have called out to scholars to recommit themselves to studying and writing about traditional military subjects and defended military history’s relevancy against detractors, real and often more imagined, in the field. This can be a tough sell as long as the field is associated with an obsession with “minutiae, military pageantry, (and) tragic-heroic-triumphalism.” In his review essay, “Beyond the Chessboard of War: Contingency, Command, and Generalship in Civil War Military History,” Bledsoe offers a two-pronged solution, focused on bringing back the “men on horseback,” the military commanders. To be sure, this is not a call for a new round of finding blame with or giving credit to the right generals; instead Bledsoe calls for a fresh round of empathy for men who, under extraordinary pressure, “could not always overcome the difficulties and obstacles they faced.” And by focusing on contingency, scholars can underscore that these men on horseback were just as often responsible for “command decisions [that] create[d] cascades of contingency” as they were responding to contingencies created by the decisions and actions of myriad others. In this way, Bledsoe imagines a military history that is fully and holistically integrated into our thinking and writing about the period.

As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

On April 26, 2019, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (UMC) upheld the core components of a plan reaffirming and strengthening the church’s formal ban on the ordination of LGBTQ ministers and on the recognition of same-sex marriage.[1] This “Traditional Plan” was adopted at a special session of the General Conference the previous month, held in response to a decades-long internal dispute over acceptable expressions of human sexuality within the Methodist Church. Many delegates had hoped the church would remove the prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, allowing individual jurisdictions and churches to determine their stance on these issues. Now the denomination has entered a showdown phase: will conservatives remain within the UMC, as liberals exit en masse? Or will the liberal contingent of the church resist and drive the traditionalists away? Whichever scenario prevails, few disagree that some sort of denominational division looms on the horizon. Observers wonder what this denominational dispute foretells for a divided nation.

Commenters on the current controversy frequently draw parallels to events that took place 175 years ago in the Methodist Episcopal Church: a denominational schism over slavery. As in the present case, social changes outside the church (then a hardening of proslavery politics in the South and the rise of antislavery in the North, now a decades-long movement for gay rights) led to a fracture over the denomination’s formal stance on a controversial question. In both instances, factions within the denomination came to prefer schism to compromise over a moral and political issue. And then, as now, outsiders seek to find within the schism clues about the future of a divided nation.

The conflict over slavery had been brewing for decades. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, America’s evangelical denominations rapidly expanded, becoming the “principle subculture in American society,” but also facing growing pains as members from across the nation sparred over slavery.[2] Methodist abolitionists pushed their national General Conference to denounce slavery as a sin—to purify the church and “cleanse the skirts of her garment from ‘blood guiltiness!’”[3] At the same time, pro-slavery Methodists sought a definitive statement that slavery was not a sin, and specifically, that slaveholding clergy could continue to serve the church. Denominational moderates adopted what they hoped would prove a conciliatory strategy, condemning abolitionism, but also declining to directly assert that slavery was not a sin. This middle road did nothing to appease abolitionists and slaveholders within the church.

James Osgood Andrew, slaveowner and Methodist bishop. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Moderates anxiously condemned abolitionists for “intermeddling” with slavery, hoping they would back down to avoid schism.[4] But by the early 1840s, abolitionist Methodists—thwarted in their attempts at reform from within—chose the purity of their theological convictions over the unity of the church and withdrew from the General Conference. Their departure did not restore hoped-for harmony.[5] The proslavery contingent wanted assurance that the Methodist Episcopal Church was not “tainted with the bloodied principles of Abolition” and did not view slave ownership as a sin.[6] They found an ideal test in the appointment of a slaveholding bishop.

Bishop James Andrew of Georgia owned at least fourteen slaves.[7] As delegates gathered for the 1844 General Conference, they prepared for a showdown over his controversial appointment. Northerners encouraged Andrew to resign, citing the interests of peace and unity. But southerners urged him to remain firm. They argued that his resignation would set a dangerous anti-slavery precedent. Ultimately, the General Conference voted that Bishop Andrew should resign from his office. The decision severed the increasingly tenuous bonds of the Methodist Church. Southern Methodist leaders, rejecting any threat to slavery, met in Louisville, Kentucky, in May of 1845 to organize a separate, pro-slavery, Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The First Secession? Title page of a Northern Methodist history of the 1845 schism over slavery. Courtesy of Google Books.

As the Methodists worked out the terms of their division, slavery debates generated similar acrimony in the Baptist Missionary Boards. Baptists in the South feared that abolitionists had swayed the Boards against slaveholders, and the Georgia Baptist Convention tested the Foreign Mission Board in 1844 by requesting the appointment of a slaveholding missionary. Alabama Baptists quickly followed up, demanding that the General Board affirm that slaveholders were moral equals who had the right to “receive any agency, mission, or other appointment.”[8] When the Board declared that it could not appoint a slaveholder, Baptists in the South swiftly organized their own meeting. The result was a schism among American Baptists and the formation of the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention.[9]

Americans watched with anxiety as both the Methodist and Baptist churches divided. The schism seemed fearful symbols of a deep and unsolvable problem in American culture. They brought up deep-rooted fears about the stability of American democracy and national institutions. They appeared to be an ominous warning of what unresolvable conflict would mean and also seemed to propel the nation toward the disaster of secession.

Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster feared That schism foretold secession. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a frequently re-printed exchange from Congressional debates over the Compromise of 1850, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun both drew on the recent schism to forecast the future. For each man, the divisions offered a lesson Americans ignored at their peril. South Carolina senator Calhoun explained that “the great religious denominations… originally embraced the whole Union” and that “the strong ties which hold each denomination together formed a strong cord to hold the whole Union together.” He saw the disintegration of the churches as both an alarming gauge of the state of the union and a powerful warning against attempts to end or limit slavery. Calhoun warned that political institutions would be the next to fracture. For his part, Webster, from Massachusetts, saw the division as a dire warning about the dangers of inflexibility and failure to tolerate the inevitable diversity that arose in a church that spanned the entire nation. He blamed the schism (and, by extension, the threat of secession) on men “with whom everything is absolute—absolutely wrong or absolutely right.” The exchange between Calhoun and Webster cemented the evangelical schisms in popular memory as at least partly responsible for the disintegration of sectional ties nationwide.[10] Certainly that was how both men viewed it. The Methodist and Baptist churches seemed to lead the nation toward a terrifying conclusion to the crisis over slavery: compromise abandoned and national institutions torn apart. The idea persisted through the Civil War. In 1864, one chronicler noted, “men in all classes of society freely lay the blame of this Rebellion at the door of the Church.”[11]

Implicit in the comparison of the current controversy in the Methodist church to the events of the 1840s is the suggestion that this potential schism is also hastening us along a path to a national cataclysm like the Civil War. Just as they did 175 years ago, Americans attempt to parse the controversy for clues to America’s future. But then, as now, the conflict in the church is a symptom of changes in the nation (and the world), not a cause. Divided churches did not divide the nation in 1861—both collapsed under the weight of the slavery controversy. Methodists fracture along different lines now—they are a global church with members around the world, many of whom oppose changes to the denomination’s stance on gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.[12] The conflict in the church today does not foretell another civil war, but it does suggest that, as in the 1840s, Methodist responses to moral and political disputes may be growing too divergent for one church to contain.


[1] Jeremy Steele, “United Methodist Court Keeps Core of New LGBT Legislation,” Christianity Today, accessed May 10, 2019,

[2] Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 1.

[3] Orange Scott, “Address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church by the Rev. O. Scott,” 1836, in Emory S. Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism (New York: Abington Press, 1974), 30.

[4] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[5] Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism, 39-47, 84. See also Ira Ford McLeister and Roy Stephenson Nicholson, History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (Marian, Ind.: Wesleyan Methodist Publishing Association, 1959).

[6] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[7] Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). Charles Elliott, History of the History of the Great Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church (Cincinnati: Swormstedt & Poe, 1855), 295.

[8] John Stevens, Brief Historical Sketch of the Western Baptist Theological Institute (Cincinnati: D. Anderson, 1850), 33.

[9] Benjamin Franklin Riley, A History of the Baptists in the Southern States East of the Mississippi (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1898), 207.

[10] Church Topics in Congress,” Louisville Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, July 10, 1850. Some historians have also argued that the disintegration of the churches hastened disunion. See C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985) and Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[11] Robert L. Stanton, The Church and the Rebellion: A Consideration of the Rebellion Against the Government of the United States; and the Agency of the Church, North and South in Relation Thereto (New York: Derby and Miller, 1864), vi.

[12] Emily McFarlan Miller, “Why United Methodists Are Watching the Results of a Denominational Court Meeting,” Religious News Service, accessed May 10, 2019,

April Holm

April Holm is an Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Her first book, A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era was published by Louisiana State University Press in the fall of 2017. Currently, she is researching a project on provost marshals and civilians in the occupied border region. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part II

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part II

Poster for “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” held at the University of Connecticut, April 19-20, 2019.

Day two of the 2019 Draper Conference brought four more panels, including a plenary session that concluded the proceedings. For my review of day one of the conference, see my previous post on Muster.

A panel on the topic of “Racial Terror and Violence” started off the morning block and questioned common assumptions about scholarly framings and documentary evidence from Reconstruction. Gregory Downs began with a provocative argument that challenged Eric Foner’s framing of Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution,” namely that historians ought to consider the revolution finished in constitutional and military terms. Crystal Feimster turned attention to the experience of freedpeople in Louisiana—where Lincoln invested the greatest hopes and suffered the worst disappointment—and traced the complicated intersections of mutiny by black soldiers (as a form of self-defense) and of rape of black women by white soldiers (as a weapon of revenge). LeeAnna Keith explored how “Alabama fever,” specifically the use of violence by Democrats toward Republicans in Barbour County, was a central part of the political “redemption” of the state in 1874. Kidada Williams deployed the lens of critical trauma studies to question how we attribute “agency” to freedpeople. She highlighted how African Americans’ testimony during the 1870s congressional hearings about the Ku Klux Klan could “transcend historical context.” This panel pushed both historiographical and methodological boundaries and represents some of the most interesting interdisciplinary work happening in the field of Reconstruction studies.

The second morning panel on “Political Economy” brought together transnational strands in the study of Reconstruction with those centered on material and agricultural concerns. Ana Lucia Araujo considered the case of emancipation in Brazil, noting how arguments over reparations centered on land redistribution, offering a comparison to the U.S. experience. Sven Beckert conceptualized “Global Reconstruction” as part of a century-long process of post-slave societies around the world, pitting rural cultivators against industrial capitalists from the United States to India to England to Brazil. Kathleen Hilliard presented the petition of freedman Frank Spruill to obtain a tax exemption as part of a radical reimagining of economic life in the Reconstruction South. Ariel Ron explored the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a broader federal engagement with rural farmers in the Reconstruction South, reminding us that Abraham Lincoln once used scientific agriculture to dispute the pernicious mudsill theory of enslaved labor.[1] This panel effectively widened Reconstruction beyond the United States and raised contemporary, namely that of reparations for African Americans (more on this below).

Following lunch, the conference resumed with a panel titled “Grassroots Reconstruction: Gender, Education, and Black Politics.” Justin Behrend examined how a continued discourse of re-enslavement reflected the great progress made in black political mobilization by the middle 1870s. Hilary Green took on Eric Foner’s “Twilight Zone” of Reconstruction (i.e., the 1880s) as a period during which African Americans’ gains in Richmond public schools, as reflected in the biracial Readjuster Party, promised social mobility, economic justice, and educational uplift. Christopher Hager asked how the illiterate understood texts and followed how particular phrases (e.g., “illiterate Negroes”) revealed widespread literacy among African Americans by 1900. Tera Hunter raised again the question of reparations and considered how the family unit, as constituted through marriage, could be a double-edged sword for African American women, since it insisted upon traditional nuclear families and reinscribed patriarchy. This penultimate panel, like those before it, moved the chronological reach of Reconstruction beyond 1877, insisted upon the continued relevance of discourses around education and especially literacy, and placed women at the center of major narratives of the era.[2]

The plenary session, titled simply “Reconstruction,” provided a chance for senior scholars in the field to reflect upon the meaning of the conference theme. Amy Dru Stanley noted the “strange legacies of Reconstruction” by investigating how the commerce clause of the Constitution empowered Congress to safeguard African Americans from violence. She traced how sex as a legal category disappeared from the Reconstruction Amendment, which presupposed an automatic willingness of wives to engage in sexual relations with their husbands: sex had become, in this rendering, a “commodity fiction.” Steven Hahn gave a paper on the transnational connections of Reconstruction, comparing the American experience to Britain, France, and Brazil. Following the argument in A Nation Without Borders, he found Reconstruction was central to American capitalist development well through the Progressive Era. Charles Postel figured Reconstruction as a dilemma of equality and noted how the process demanded a solidarity based on exclusion. His study of the Granger movement demonstrated a twin opposition to railroads and Reconstruction, which suggests how democratic impulses from below presaged a pullback from racial equality in the West. The plenary session thus concluded the “Greater Reconstruction” conference.[3]

Audience and participants at the Draper Conference. Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Araujo.

The scholarship of an older generation of historians loomed large in the final session and across the conference as a whole. For starters, the phrase, “the Greater Reconstruction” deserves its historiographic context. In The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s grand synthesis, the author notes that he “took the idea of the Greater Reconstruction” from Elliott West’s article “Reconstructing Race” (2003). West periodized the Reconstruction process as taking place over the years from 1846 to 1877 (incidentally, White framed the event only from the Civil War years until the middle 1870s). A question might be posed, then, whether this longer view of the Civil War Era disrupts other such historically significant moments (namely, those of the Gilded Age, the era of Jim Crow, or the New South). As the many papers of the conference have argued, placing African Americans at the center of the story of Reconstruction necessarily requires a reframing of the years that constituted the historical moment. Constructing narratives centered on the freedpeople themselves breaks new ground both in historical and historiographic terms. Yet, might these same reframings decenter African Americans from other historically significant moments in American history?[4]

Building upon past studies, historians should look to the most recent scholarship to understand the future of the study of Reconstruction. As noted in the previous post, the “Greater Reconstruction” framework can widen the story beyond the South, a project already well underway in the field. Scholarly works that could profitably contribute to this “Greater Reconstruction” approach, especially those about Native Americans, African Americans in the West, and African Americans in the North, would round out the story. In addition to those of several presenters at this conference, recent books by Heather Cox Richardson, Claudio Saunt, Lisa G. Materson, Kendra T. Field, and Millington Bergeson-Lockwood all point in this direction. As Eric Foner said in an afterword to another recently edited volume on Reconstruction, the “promise of reconceptualizing Reconstruction” beckons. If the “Greater Reconstruction” conference did not quite achieve the full extent of this promise, it made as good a start as any of which of I am aware.[5]

However, the happy truth of the historical profession is that no one conference can serve as the be all and end all of scholarship. History, Peter Geyl once quipped, is nothing if not “argument without end.” Indeed, the 2019 Draper Conference left me wondering: had the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Reconstruction years yielded other such gatherings of historians? The answer is a resounding yes. In 2017, the Advanced Research Collaborative of the CUNY Graduate Center and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies sponsored “Emancipations, Reconstructions, and Revolutions: African American Politics and U.S. History in the Long 19th Century,” which once more challenged chronology as an organizing principle for Reconstruction. In 2018, the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference, “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World,” honored the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitution by assembling a similar cadre of scholars to discuss the legacies of the Reconstruction. One month prior to the Draper Conference, the Duke Center on Law, Race, and Politics, and the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project at the University of Michigan organized a conference, titled simply “Reconstruction,” that took a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic.

The recent PBS documentaries, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War and Boss: The Black Experience in Business, likewise debuted concurrently with the 2019 Draper Conference. Several popular histories of Reconstruction have also appeared in the past few years.[6] Thus, in both academic and public forums, the topic of Reconstruction has not been ignored; if anything, the era is poised for a resurgence in scholarly publications and the popular imagination alike.

Like many others, I left the 2019 Draper Conference wondering what a history of a truly “Greater Reconstruction” would look like. If we yet lack this elusive volume of American history, several recent edited collections, forums, and roundtables have offered numerous possible routes to exploring the idea further. [7] In my own view, the proceedings of this conference cohered sufficiently to warrant publishing an edited volume around the most provocative, ground-breaking of the papers. Until then, we wait with anticipation to see the many scholars at the “Greater Reconstruction” conference bring their work to full fruition.



[1] For a definition of “mudsill,” see Michael E. Woods, “Mudsills v. Chivalry,“ Muster (blog), Journal of the Civil War Era,

[2] For Foner’s “Twilight Zone” comment, see Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 3, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] For more on these arguments, see Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in the Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016); and the forthcoming books by Amy Dru Stanley, The Antislavery Ethic and the Spirit of Commerce: An American History of Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming); and Charles Postel, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, forthcoming).

[4] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 873; Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 6-26.

[5] Eric Foner, “Afterword,” in After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, eds. Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014), 222. For the studies mentioned, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of the American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Kendra T. Field, Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); and Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[6] For just one example of a popular history that engages the period of Reconstruction, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017).

[7] For edited collections that have raised similar concerns, see Thomas J. Brown, ed., Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014); Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017); the Journal of the Civil War Era’s forum, “Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” 2017,; and “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9-14, 2018,

Thomas Balcerski

Thomas J. Balcerski is assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter at @tbalcerski.