Category: Muster

A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

The beeping of construction equipment pierced the morning air. The dull sounds of traffic and commuters interrupted by a backhoe in the middle of the park. Then, a groan and a creak, and the taut cable began its work. The column upon which John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood for more than a century then collapsed to the ground. An echoing boom not unlike the crack of artillery that once rained over Charleston almost 160 years prior.[1]

Statue on a marble column with buildings in background.
Calhoun’s monument stood silently over Marion Square for 124 years. Like the man himself, this reserved monument caused its share of conflict. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Visual reminders of Charleston’s past surround the now empty pedestal in Marion Square. Fort Sumter, where the first bellowing  shot of the Civil War was aimed, sits idly in the harbor. Less than a mile away, the towering white steeple of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands high in the skyline. Below, tour guides recount tales of the steeple being painted black during the Revolutionary War to shield it from British bombardment. The story paints a striking visual contrast to the white tower that stands today.[2]

While the sites of history are a driving force behind Charleston’s economy, its sounds have been lost to time or buried beneath the noise of a modern city. John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood over Marion Square, gazing down upon Calhoun St., towering above the greenscape it surrounds, but his memorial was silent. Silent until it fell this summer.

While the monument stood quietly over Marion Square, the public below was not so subdued in its response. In 1895, the News and Courier referred to the first statue as a “dreadful eyesore” and the African American community in Charleston immediately recognized the statue as a symbol of Jim Crow’s rise. Many critics took advantage of any opportunity to vandalize the monument, including using “the Calhoun Monument for target practice.” In 1894, an African American was even arrested for inadvertently shooting a white child while aiming at the statue.[3]

Criticism of the monument rose to new heights in 2015. A re-envisioning of public memory and memorialization was sparked first by the racially-motivated attack in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. In 2017, the Charleston Commission on History and the City Council agreed to amend the plaque at the statue, adding specific language defining Calhoun’s support of slavery. The new plaque was never installed. Controversy over public monuments and memorials continued in the coming years. The Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds in response to the Mother Emanuel shooting. Tensions then reached new heights in 2017, when right-wing protesters violently marched on Charlottesville, VA protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. The reckoning with public monuments gained new momentum in 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.[4]

The monument’s collapse in 2020 provided the perfect allegory for the man it memorialized—as silent and reserved in death as he had been in his life and political career. Just as Calhoun’s elegant, yet divisive, rhetoric was overshadowed by the chaos and destruction of war inspired by his sectional oratory; the silent, inanimate statue sowed its own divisions that were eventually punctuated by modern noise and destruction.

The Cast-Iron Man—later immortalized in stone twice in Marion Square—was not known for loud or boisterous tones. Calhoun was “resistant to either emotional pleas or divine commands” and did not rely on them in his speech.[5] He did not present a fire and brimstone lecture on sectionalism and division, even as he began secession discussions in response to the Compromise of 1850.

Handwritten cursive writing on aged document.
Calhoun was neither able to write nor deliver his final speech to the Senate. He did, however, make his own visible revisions after dictating the speech to his secretary. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In giving his most famous speech, his final statement before the Senate, on March 4, 1850, Calhoun was stone quiet. Weakened by chronically poor health, Calhoun instead relied on Virginian Senator James Murray Mason to deliver his remarks. As Mason began the address, “every senator listened with profound attention and unfeigned emotion; the galleries were hushed into the deepest silence.” This was not the scene of a Southern Fire-Eater rallying for war. Instead it carried the “impressive solemnity of a funeral ceremony.” Mason was, in a sense, delivering Calhoun’s eulogy before his own eyes and, quite possibly, eulogizing the Union at the same time.[6]

Calhoun “sat motionless in his chair, sweeping the chamber now and again with deeply luminous eyes.”[7]Silently watching over his comrades in the chamber, his own words sounded out beyond his seat, absent of his voice. He wrote that, if the North were unwilling to compromise on the addition of new territories to balance the divide between free and slave states the two sections should, “agree to separate and part in peace.” Northern “silence,” Calhoun continued via his proxy, would send a signal loud enough to the South that the Union would not and should not continue.[8]

Calhoun’s silent and feeble figure slipped out of the Senate chamber and later out of this world, passing only weeks after his final address. The 1850 Compromise passed. His quiet remarks laid the foundation for the explosion of war in Charleston.

Just over a decade after Calhoun’s death, the cacophony of war reigned over Charleston. In what the Citadel calls “first hostile shots of the Civil War,” the silence was first broken by Citadel cadets firing upon the Star of the West, a merchant vessel sent to resupply Fort Sumter. The regular noise of city life was replaced for the next four years by artillery bombardments at Fort Sumter, infantry assaults at Battery Wagner, and naval battles in the harbor.[9]

The sounds of this clash soon passed and Marion Square would return to more familiar duties. It served as a parade ground for the occupying federal troops. It hosted circuses and baseball games, including at least one game that got so out of hand that police had to disperse the rioting crowd with gunfire. The echoes of war, it seemed, again interrupted Charleston’s atmosphere.[10]

Under Calhoun’s watchful eye, Marion Square returns to its Antebellum duties, providing a parade ground for Citadel Cadets. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Calhoun’s steely gaze returned to South Carolina in 1887, 37 years after his final speech and death, as part of the Civil War culture wars. The state was reemerging from Reconstruction and the Calhoun’s monument would not only memorialize the Cast-Iron Man but also reminded the city of an era of Southern strength in national politics, instead of the federal occupation it had experienced for more than a decade after Confederate soldiers abandoned Charleston in February 1865.

The monument was installed at the center of the city, making Calhoun’s effigy the focal point of a growing and expanding Charleston. The statue set in stone the new order of the Southern government. White “Redeemers” had already set about undoing the democratic progress made during Federal Reconstruction and began systematically stripping African Americans of their newfound voting rights. Calhoun’s memorial was installed only five years after the state passed the “Box Law,” silencing African American votes “by requiring voters to place ballots in separate boxes.”[11]

When the “cannon fire and enthusiastic shouts” of the dedication ceremony fell silent, Marion Square was instead filled with the critiques of the monument and the sounds of pen knives steadily chipping away at its marble. Almost immediately, it became the subject of disdain in both the white and black communities in Charleston, albeit for entirely different reasons. White objections were predominately aesthetic. A Charleston cotton broker, Henry S. Holmes described the first monument as “a frightful sight to citizens passing over Marion Square.”[12]

For the African American community in Charleston, Calhoun’s monument was the physical embodiment of segregation.[13] In her memoir, Lemon Swamp and Other Places, Charlestonian Mamie Garvin Fields describes the African American reception to Calhoun’s first monument, writing that Calhoun’s likeness seemed to say, “you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.” Such a loud statement by the memorial was sure to cause a response and Fields and her neighbors set out to strike back, defacing the monument at any opportunity they had. “We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose.”[14]

Elevated to its new position nearly one hundred feet over Marion Square and out of harm’s way, the quiet statue stood watch for more than a century before its removal in late June 2020. Still reeling from the racially-motivated shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, the city began efforts to reconcile with its destructive past. Shortly after the vote unanimously passed to remove the monument, a thunderstorm detonated across the Charleston sky.[15] The air in Marion Square undoubtedly echoed the sounds of January 1861, when the Citadel Cadets fired upon Union merchant ships in Charleston Harbor.

The noise of its demolition that followed—first the calm and calculated removal of the stone figure, and then the fleeting collapse of the granite column—ended the city’s long history with Calhoun’s monument, while briefly reminding it of the sounds of a war he once influenced. Reporters on-site wrote that “Marion Square shook” as the steel cable pulled the column down from its now-empty pedestal. As the crashing column fell and then returned to silence, the small crowd of witnesses returned to their normal Wednesdays and the sounds of present-day life fell back over the city.[16]

His words had long since fallen beyond our ears, but his beliefs remained for generations. For decades, Calhoun’s figure silently watched over a city that struggled to grow out of the past that he once advocated. After a life in which Calhoun argued that slavery was a “good—a great good,”[17] his image watched over a city that grew and modernized. After his death, Charleston struggled with racism, and hosted countless Civil Rights demonstrations that included strikes, marches and speeches led by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. All of this under the watchful eye of his stone image.[18]

The removal of the monument may have briefly returned the sounds of destruction to Charleston’s ears but it also, as Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg so somberly stated, brought peace to the city.[19]

[1] Mikaela Porter, “In 21 Seconds, Granite Column That Held John C. Calhoun above Charleston Tumbled to Ground,” Post and Courier, September 03, 2020, Accessed September 01, 2020.  https://www.postandcourier.com/news/in-21-seconds-granite-column-that-held-john-c-calhoun-above-charleston-tumbled-to-ground/article_ea5a9238-e712-11ea-a826-03d4603d02cf.html.

[2] “St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (U.S. National Park Service),” National Parks Service, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/places/st-michael-s-episcopal-church.htm.

[3] Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of Confederacy (New York, NY: The New Press, 2019), 109.

[4] Fleming Smith, “Sparked by Protests, Campaigns Renew to Remove Calhoun Monument from Marion Square,” Post and Courier, June 4, 2020, Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.postandcourier.com/news/sparked-by-protests-campaigns-renew-to-remove-calhoun-monument-from-marion-square/article_09fb3ae0-a66b-11ea-a37e-3742194576e3.html.

[5] Holley Ulbrich, “John C. Calhoun,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, March 06, 2003, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://uudb.org/articles/johnccalhoun.html.

[6] Hermann Von Hoist, “John C. Calhoun,” Internet Archive, January 01, 1883, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://archive.org/details/johnccalhoun04holsgoog/page/n10/mode/2up?q=1850. Digital copy of original 1883 publication. Added to the internet archive 14 April 2008.

[7] “John C. Calhoun’s Speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850, 4 March 1850,” The Library of Congress, Accessed September 04, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/mcc.009.

[8] “John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, Speaking before the Senate, March 4, 1850,” National Humanities Center, Accessed September 01, 2020, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminarsflvs/Calhoun.pdf.

[9] “War Between The States,” The Citadel, Accessed September 03, 2020, http://www.citadel.edu/citadel-history/war-deaths/war-between-the-states.html.

[10] “A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 2.” Charleston County Public Library, October 26, 2018, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/brief-history-marion-square-part-2.

[11]  Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 106.

[12] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 108.

[13] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 105.

[14] Quoted in Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso Book, 2014), 182.

[15] Victoria Hansen, “Calhoun Statue Overlooking Charleston Takes Time to Come Down,” South Carolina Public Radio, June 25, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.southcarolinapublicradio.org/post/calhoun-statue-overlooking-charleston-takes-time-come-down.

[16] Porter, “In 21 Seconds…”

[17] Ethan S. Rafuse, “John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War,” HistoryNet, May 02, 2019, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.historynet.com/john-c-calhoun-the-man-who-started-the-civil-war.htm.

Originally published in the October 2002 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

[18] Lottie Joiner, “Charleston Church Shooting and a City’s Place in Civil Rights History,” Time, June 19, 2015, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://time.com/3928713/charleston-civil-rights-movement/.

[19] Ray Rivera, Patrick Phillips, “Crews Remove John C. Calhoun Statue from Marion Square,” WTOC. June 24, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.wtoc.com/2020/06/24/live-crews-removing-john-c-calhoun-statue-charlestons-marion-square/.

 

Justin Bristol

Justin Bristol is an educator and public historian in Savannah, GA. A graduate of both the University of South Carolina and Armstrong State University's (now Georgia Southern University) History programs, Justin has sought to make Savannah's past relevant to his students and museum guests through participatory and active experiences. Inspired by his museum and classroom experience, his ongoing research seeks to grow sensory connections between our modern sites and the events and people that make them historic.

But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

But What of Union Civil War Monuments?: The Shortcomings of Northern Civil War Commemoration

As Confederate Civil War monuments continue to come under siege for their white supremacist representations of the nation’s most transformative conflict,[1] Union Civil War monuments and their inscriptions exist in an illusory realm of public approval. In fact, there is an inherent belief among many people that Union Civil War monuments––by their very nature––exemplify the antithesis of a proslavery racist South. As Thomas J. Brown points out, however, “[a]part from those that included the end of the Gettysburg Address, less than 5 percent of known Union inscriptions refer explicitly to the abolition of slavery as an achievement celebrated by the monument.”[2] By failing to acknowledge the Union victory as a long-overdue deliverance of the egalitarian principles under which the nation was founded, Northern Civil War monuments contributed to a collective historical ignorance that surrounded the war’s meaning and memory for decades. Rather than make a definitive statement on the Civil War’s emancipationist outcomes, the vast majority of Union monuments bypassed the issue of slavery altogether and instead expressed the war’s purpose in far more temperate terms.

Soldiers’ Monument, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

To be clear, Union and Confederate monuments do not offer homogeneous depictions of the Civil War. Northerners prided themselves on their victory over the South, and for the most part the public monuments honoring their sacrifices reflected that sentiment. Across the entire region, Union monuments in various constructs celebrated the preservation of the United States and the defeat of a rebellious South.[3] Still, in the frenetic postwar race to erect tangible interpretations of the war’s legacy, Northerners and Southerners found common ground. In their physical manifestations and their inscriptions, Confederate and Union memorials generally paid nondescript homage to the soldiers who had periled or lost their lives in the war. While many Northern monuments touted guardianship of the Union as the main impetus for war, and Southern monuments conversely pointed to states’ rights, the question of whether or not this was a war to abolish slavery remained unclear. In fact, anyone visiting Civil War monuments in either region was likely to get the impression that the war had nothing at all to do with emancipation.[4]

Although the past twenty plus years of Civil War scholarship has produced a significant number of memory studies, very few have focused exclusively on Union monuments and their inscriptions. Nevertheless, in the studies that do include analyses of Northern Civil War commemoration, two predominant themes have clearly emerged. In Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, Kirk Savage asserts that in order to perpetuate the nation’s ingrained framework of white supremacy, Northerners and Southerners deliberately constructed monuments that disregarded the war’s emancipationist purpose.[5] Likewise, in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight argues that in the interest of maintaining a deeply-rooted antebellum racial hierarchy, soldiers’ monuments emphasized reconciliation and neglected the war’s abolitionist aims.[6] In contrast, scholars such as Gary Gallagher and Caroline Janney maintain that Union Civil War commemoration was hardly an exercise in rapprochement, and instead argue that Northern monuments exalted the Unionist cause.[7] More recently, Thomas J. Brown’s Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America “reframes” leading reconciliationist theories to argue that by the 1930s Civil War monuments reflected the county’s transformational adoption of military principles.[8]Differing historical interpretations notwithstanding, however, one thing remains true: the overwhelming number of Northern Civil War monuments make no reference to slavery whatsoever.[9]

Perhaps a closer look at one of the few Northern monuments to candidly announce emancipation as a Civil War outcome will help further illuminate the deficiencies of the vast majority of those that did not. Erected in 1874, the Soldiers’ Monument in Fitchburg, Massachusetts represents a clear case of anti-reconciliatory monument building. Dedicated to those from Fitchburg who “SECURED THE UNITY OF THE REBUBLIC, / AND THE FREEDOM OF AN OPPRESSED RACE,” the Soldiers’ Monument announced to everyone who visited that the Civil War served the unmistakable dual purpose of safeguarding the Union and emancipating four million slaves from bondage.[10] As a small New England town with profound connections to its Revolutionary heritage, Fitchburg’s Unionist convictions were entrenched in the community. The town was also an epicenter of antislavery activism in the mid-1800s and many locals worked directly with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and a host of others. This abolitionist ideology mixed with the community’s memory of the Revolution to produce a Soldiers’ Monument that anchored Fitchburg’s Unionist and emancipationist understanding of the Civil War for decades.[11]

Soldiers’ Memorial, Worcester, Massachusetts

Just thirty miles down the road from Fitchburg in Worcester, Massachusetts, however, residents completely ignored the issue of slavery in their Civil War commemoration. This is telling as not only was Worcester a hotbed of abolitionism in the antebellum era, but fifteen African Americans from Worcester volunteered for service with the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, twenty-two served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, five joined the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts, some served with Colored regiments in Rhode Island, and still others volunteered to fight in units outside of New England. Moreover, Worcester resident and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson took command of the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry in November, 1862.[12] Yet, rather than build a monument that voiced the community’s support for emancipation and universal civil rights, Worcester’s Soldiers’ Monument was dedicated to the memory of the men who gave their lives “For the Unity of the Republic.”[13] Like all Civil War memorials, both the Fitchburg and Worcester Soldiers’ Monuments were intended to sustain a lasting memory of the community’s interpretation of the causes and consequences of the conflict. Although both communities saw the war––at least in part––as a battle for the abolition of slavery, only one of them chose to honor that objective in their monument.

Fitchburg’s adjoining town of Leominster, Massachusetts illustrates a slowly evolving change in the way that one Northern community dealt with the issue of slavery in regards to Civil War monument construction. Erected in 1866, just one year after the war ended, the Soldiers’ Monument in Leominster made no mention of either slavery or union. Instead of declaring any specific cause or outcome of the Civil War, the monument was simply dedicated in “HONOR TO THE BRAVE.” In 1998, however, the people of Leominster redefined the community’s understanding of the Civil War with a monument that commemorated the service of Oliver E. Hazzard, an African American resident who fought with the 54thMassachusetts Infantry. The monument not only features a sculpture of Hazard in his uniform, but it is also inscribed with language that clearly contextualizes the Civil War in emancipationist tones: “THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED / TO HONORING THE MEMORY OF / ALL LEOMINSTER SOLDIERS / WHO SERVED WITH COURAGE / FOR FREEDOM AND JUSTICE. / WE MUST WE CAN AND WE WILL BE FREE.”[14]

Oilver Hazard Monument, Leominster, Massachusetts

Although Leominster was a place that fostered antislavery activity and often collaborated with abolitionists from Fitchburg and Worcester, the town did not imbue their Civil War monument with any emancipationist significance.[15]Rather, they chose to commemorate a generic version of wartime valor only. The timing of the 1998 Hazard Monument, moreover, is likely an outgrowth of the unyielding efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. This long delay in Leominster’s recognition of the abolition of slavery as a direct consequence of the Civil War demonstrates the glacial pace at which most Northern communities shifted their viewpoints, and further highlights the progressive mindset of the people of Fitchburg in the mid-nineteenth century.

This very limited examination of Northern Civil War monuments in central Massachusetts reveals three very different approaches to the question of slavery and how it was remembered within the context of the war. Because the Fitchburg Soldiers’ Monument represents an anomaly of Union Civil War commemoration, it also exposes an intentional forgetting in the great majority of all other Northern monuments. Over time, the abandonment of the Civil War’s emancipationist implications helped muddle the war’s true meaning. By emphasizing the preservation of the Union and ignoring the issue of slavery, most Northern monuments helped engrave an obscured memory of the war in both the landscape and minds of the nation. This deliberate erasure also hindered the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States. As such, a concerted effort by modern historians to determine why exactly so many Northern monuments disregarded the war’s fundamental issue of slavery will add considerably to our understanding of Civil War memory. In fact, studies that spotlight the shortcomings of Northern Civil War monuments will likely reveal as much––if not more––about the Civil War and its aftermath as those that focus entirely on their notorious Lost Cause counterparts.

 

[1] Alisha Ebrahimji, Lauren M. Johnson, and Artemis Moshtaghian, “Confederate Statues Continue to Come Down: Here’s What We Know,” CNN.com, last modified July 1, 2020, accessed August 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/09/us/confederate-statues-removed-george-floyd-trnd/index.html.

[2] Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 37.

[3] Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 106.

[4] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 35-39.

[5] Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[6] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 199.

[7] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 156-159; Janney, Remembering the Civil War, 106-107.

[8] Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 9.

[9] Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, 37.

[10] Report of the Soldiers’ Monument Committee, of the City of Fitchburg (Fitchburg, MA: Printed at the Office of Henry F. Piper, 1874).

[11] On Fitchburg’s involvement in the American Revolution see, Rufus C. Torrey, History of the Town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts (Fitchburg, MA: J. Garfield, Printer, 1836), 63-85; J.F.D. Garfield, “Fitchburg’s Response to the Lexington Alarm,” April, 18, 1892, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Vol. I. (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, Sentinel Printing Company, 1895), 113-122; Doris Kirkpatrick, The City and the River (Fitchburg, MA: Fitchburg Historical Society, 1971), 105-113. On Fitchburg’s deep engagement with abolitionism and the antislavery movement see, Martha Snow Wallace, My Father’s House (Boston, MA: George H. Ellis Co., 1915); Martha E. Crocker, “The Fugitive Slave Law and its Workings,” June 18, 1894, in Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 220-228; Kirkpatrick, The City and the River, 193, 235, 238, 259-271.

[12] Abijah P. Marvin, History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester, MA: Published by the author, 1870), 397-398.

[13] George Crompton, E. B. Stoddard, Charles A. Chase, Dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument at Worcester, Massachusetts, July 15, A. D. 1874 (Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1874), 10.

[14] Thomas K. Hazzard, Diane M. Sanabria, Robert Cormier, Images of America: Leominster (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999), 80. The author of this Blog post has verified in person the inscriptions on the Leominster Soldiers’ Monument and the Oliver E. Hazard Monument.

[15] Michael Bennett, Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 20; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), 132.

Darren Barry

Darren Barry is an independent scholar and United States history teacher at Montachusett Regional High School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He has published works in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts and African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs. Barry is currently working on a manuscript that explores the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their history, public image, and identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Extending the Civil War Day of Action

Extending the Civil War Day of Action

I had conflicted feelings when the controversy over the Confederate battle flag and statues commemorating Confederate traitors recently flared up once again. On the one hand, I was ecstatic this summer when I saw the spontaneous, collective work of art that activists created on the base of Robert E. Lee’s statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. This artistic embellishment offered a vibrant rebuke to the false historical narrative in which the statue trafficked, and made the monuments a foil for critical conversations about racism and inequality.  On the other hand, I can’t shake the words of my great aunt, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, who, in her late 80s, faced off against rebel-flag-waving Ku Klux Klan members from a lawn chair, but was indifferent about the rush to remove the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the South Carolina State House during the 1980s: “Leave the damn rag up there,” she said. “I’d rather see the Klan in sheets than in suits. As long as that flag flies above the State House, you know what’s in the hearts and minds of those inside.”[1] Toppling statues and yanking down flags feels inconsequential when fundamental problems persist. Even as I rejoiced when the flag was removed in 2015 after the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I recognized that it didn’t signal a commitment to addressing the persistent poverty, and social and economic hardships that many South Carolinians face. Like many scholars and activists, I have often viewed such efforts as distractions from more pressing political action.[2]

The Journal of the Civil War Era’s Call to Action and the opinions of other historians helped me reconcile myself to the fact that erasing silences from the public memorial landscape and from museums is critically important political work.[3] Broadening the public’s store of accurate historical knowledge and prompting critical thought contributes to a more informed citizenry and has the potential to inspire a healthy reimagining of our politics and institutions. The JCWE’s call for “more history” took on greater urgency last week, when President Trump announced plans to promote patriotic history. It should come as no surprise that he wished to elide the history of slavery to promote his racist political agenda; history has often been manipulated for political ends. Myths about American history have propped up and legitimized policies and ways of thinking that perpetuate some of our country’s most entrenched problems. That’s why a fuller accounting of our nation’s past matters if we have any hope of bringing about social justice and strengthening our frail democracy.

Modjeska Monteith Simkins House and historical marker, Columbia, SC

Academic and public historians have an important role to play in focusing on what’s missing from the memorial and historic landscape, bringing evidence-based history to the public. I had the opportunity to participate in such work at the recently renovated in Columbia, South Carolina, which, public health permitting, is tentatively set to open next month. Simkins, known as “the Matriarch of Civil Rights activists of South Carolina,” served as state secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. As both a family member and as a historian, I met several times with my cousin, Henrie Treadwell Monteith, and with Robin Waites and Katharine Allan, two wonderful public historians at Historic Columbia, to contribute my own research and to make suggestions about the new exhibits.[4]

Now, more than ever, academic historians and public historians should step up our collaborations. Rebecca Capobianco Toy, a Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary and a National Park Service (NPS) intern, shared several ideas with me about how academic historians can assist Park Service administrators, in particular.

First: Share your research

Because the NPS has moved away from hiring professional historians at national parks, academic historians have an important role to play. “Find out if there are stories that site administrators would like to know more about, but don’t have the time to look into,” she said. “In many cases, parks are dependent on a knowledge pool that was developed when the NPS still hired historians, but in a vastly different historiographical era.  What can you do to help expand that knowledge pool?” Swamped by day-to-day operations, Park Service employees often lack the time to conduct extensive research projects, and also lack the level of access to databases that academic historians have, Toy said.

Second: Have a community mindset

We can make our contributions longer lasting, and build trust with members of the public, by becoming a more consistent partners at historic sites.  “Academic historians can help by volunteering, whether that’s in a visitor center once a month where they interact with the public, or offering to help research new programs,” Toy said.

Third: Make parks your classroom and create opportunities for students

Toy also suggests building relationships with staff members at local public history sites by taking our students on field trips, developing research projects in which students spend a semester doing research that would benefit a local site. There is also room for colleges and universities to support public history by funding internship opportunities at historical parks, as Gettysburg College and West Virginia University do, so that students gain work as summer seasonal employees, and so that the parks and other sites have people freshly immersed in the latest historical knowledge who can, in turn, inform the public. I would add that our profession and the universities where many of us teach should incentivize and reward this work.

By extending the JCWE’s call to action, we have the opportunity to expose the public to long ignored stories that help people make sense of competing narratives about the past. Coming to terms with a more expansive and honest understanding of American history promises to encourage the public to think critically, but no less optimistically, about fighting for our democracy and achieving something concrete.

[1] Dawn Hinshaw, “KKK March to State House Greeted by Throng of Counterdemonstrators,” The State, July 4, 1988, 2B, NewsBank; Becci Robbins, Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary (Columbia: South Carolina Progressive Network, 2014), 35. Simkins shared her views with activist Brett Bursey. See SC Progressive Network, “Modjeska Simkins on the Confederate Flag,” March 15, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqjqqu0l0VM&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2wQVvvlrWBvc5MQlwh8ktm85wI7cY5uMIv_IoTLEGo1RCWhE8MoUOls-U, accessed September 27, 2020. The rebel flag was removed from the dome of the state house in 2000 and moved to the grounds, where it remained aloft and unfurled until 2015.

[2] For example, see Miranda Baines, “Local NAACP leader says controversy surrounding symbols a distraction from the ‘real work’ that’s needed,” Gazette-Virginian, June 8, 2020, http://www.yourgv.com/news/local_news/local-naacp-leader-says-controversy-surrounding-symbols-a-distraction-from-the-real-work-that-s/article_2d6ea82a-a8fc-11ea-9eb9-871a9c1b80e9.html, accessed September 27, 2020.

[3] Robert Greene II, “It’s Time for New Monuments,” Current Affairs, January/February 2020, https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/06/its-time-for-new-monuments, accessed September 26, 2020.

[4] Adrienne Monteith Petty, “The Town and Country Roots of Modjeska Monteith Simkins’s Activism,” Agricultural History 93, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 452-476.

A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

Confederate flags are coming down, statues are being toppled, Lady Antebellum has lost the “Antebellum,” and the Dixie Chicks have lost the “Dixie.” But the reckoning that’s been sweeping the United States in recent months has left one Civil War monument strangely untouched: the Ken Burns documentary. When it was first broadcast on PBS, thirty years ago this September, The Civil War was an unprecedented cultural event: a history documentary that not only won Emmys and Grammys, but was mentioned on Twin Peaks, parodied on Saturday Night Live, and immortalized in New Yorker cartoons. To this day, it’s enshrined as the definitive story of the American Civil War. There’s just one problem: the war depicted in these nine episodes never happened.

Ken Burns presents a Civil War caused not by slavery, but by a failure to compromise. A war in which the Confederacy fought for a noble cause, and whose heroes include not only Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, but Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1996, Robert Toplin published Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, a collection of nine critical essays about the documentary. Scholars compared it to everything from Homer’s Iliad, to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and many historians signalled their dismay with Burns’s simplistic treatment of the war.[1] These debates, however, have had little effect on the popular consensus, and most viewers continue to accept Ken Burns’s version of the war uncritically. But The Civil War is long overdue for a reckoning – and a remake. In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.

The trouble begins with the documentary’s star: Shelby Foote is a southern novelist with a down-home drawl, a gift for storytelling, and a very troubling version of the events of 1861 to 1865. Foote’s account of the Civil War has very little to do with slavery. He argues the war began “because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” and that southerners were merely fighting to defend themselves against the northern aggressor. Foote’s unabashed admiration for the men who led the Confederacy is clear: Robert E. Lee is a “warm, outgoing man” who “always had time for any private soldier’s complaint,” Confederacy president Jefferson Davis “an outgoing, friendly man; a great family man, loved his wife and children; an infinite store of compassion.”[2]

Foote speaks of the men who fought for the South as if they were not historical figures, but old friends – a method that made him a fan favorite upon the documentary’s release. It’s also what made him so dangerous as a historical source. This cozy brand of storytelling allows Foote to create deeply sympathetic portraits of men who fought to preserve slavery. In one of his most alarming assertions, Foote proclaims that “the war produced two authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.[3] The former slave-trader Forrest oversaw the infamous massacre at Fort Pillow, in which Confederate troops murdered an estimated 200 Black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender.[4] Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact Foote neglects to mention when he thrills at the memory of once twirling the general’s sword over his head.

And Foote wasn’t done yet. In a 1999 interview with the Paris Review, he stated that he would certainly have fought for the southern cause had he been alive during the Civil War. “What’s more,” he added, “I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar.”[5] In an interview for the 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic, Foote told author Tony Horwitz that he was dismayed by “the behavior of blacks,” who “are fulfilling every dire prophecy the Ku Klux Klan made. It’s no longer safe to be on the streets in black neighborhoods. They are acting as if the utter lie about blacks being somewhere between ape and man were true.”[6] Everything that Ken Burns gets right in this documentary – the music, the imagery, the storytelling – is powerfully overshadowed by everything that Shelby Foote gets wrong.

Shelby Foote’s views on the war, and race, stand in sharp contrast to that of the documentary’s other principal source, an eminent Civil War historian who gets a mere fraction of Foote’s screen time. Barbara Fields, the first Black woman awarded tenure at Columbia University, clearly identifies slavery as the foremost cause of the war, and is emphatic about the war’s devastating racial legacy. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Fields says, “The Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and, regrettably, it can still be lost.” As Keri Leigh Merritt notes in her essay, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Barbara Fields is granted fewer than nine minutes of screen time. Shelby Foote gets forty-five.[7]

Foote’s presence points to a larger problem with the documentary: its embrace of the Lost Cause. This mythology appears throughout all nine episodes, beginning minutes into the first. The war, the viewer learns, “began as a bitter dispute over union and state’s rights.” Missing from this statement is the fact that the southern states seceded over a very particular state’s right – the right to own slaves. The documentary also buys into the classic Lost Cause tenet that the Confederacy was doomed to fail from the outset of the Civil War, never standing a chance against the vast industrial might of the North, but fighting nobly to the end.

Perhaps the film’s most troubling adherence to Lost Cause lore is its idolatry of Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general is introduced as “the courtly, unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of secession and slavery, yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.” Lee’s greatness, Burns suggests, was evident from his early days at the military academy West Point, where he did not earn a single demerit. “Classmates called him ‘The Marble Model’ – but liked him in spite of his perfection.”[8] The Robert E. Lee celebrated in this documentary is valiant, tragic, and brave. The real Robert E. Lee was something else entirely.

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes in “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” Lee was not only a slave owner, but a ruthless one. He separated slave families and brutally beat those who disobeyed him.[9] Wesley Morris, an enslaved man who tried to escape from Lee’s plantation with his sister, recalled what happened when they were recaptured: “Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh,” he recollected, “Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”[10] The image of Lee as a noble man who personally despised slavery – but fought for it out of loyalty to his beloved Virginia – is one of the most persistent myths of the Lost Cause. Yet instead of reckoning with any of this, Ken Burns introduces the courtly Marble Man of Perfection to new generations of history students.

The Lost Cause shares screen time with another troubling Civil War narrative: reunion. The Civil War memory historian David Blight notes that although reconciliation is a “noble and essential human impulse” after a convulsive Civil War, reunion came at a devastating cost, as civil and political freedom for Black Americans became “sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion.”[11] But reunion is a theme Ken Burns is unable to resist. Poignant scenes of reconciliation tug at the heartstrings as the series draws to an end. The final episode takes viewers to the 50th and 75th Blue-Gray reunions in Gettysburg, PA, with photos and grainy film footage dating back to 1913 and 1938. Frail, elderly Union and Confederate soldiers embrace one another, laughing and shaking hands on the very battlefield where they had fought against each other a lifetime ago. As the historian Eric Foner notes, “Faced with a choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia.”[12] Foner’s critique points to a curious fact about the series: historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction have long been troubled by many aspects of Ken Burns’s brand of storytelling – a concern that has never quite reached the rapt mainstream audience, likely because The Civil War is a documentary.

The historian Robert Rosenstone writes that people are generally more trusting of documentaries than they are of feature films. But this is a “mistaken form of trust.” Rosenstone argues that, like feature films, documentaries also dramatize scenes and impose certain storytelling conventions – often constructing a narrative that begins with a conflict and ends with a resolution. Unlike the Hollywood film, however, the documentary implies that “what you are seeing onscreen is somehow a direct representation of what happened in the past.”[13] Professor of education Jeremy Stoddard refers to this as “The History Channel Effect,” and suggests that documentaries are “often treated with the same reverence given to primary historical sources.”[14]

And few documentaries are treated with the reverence lavished on this one. For three decades , teachers have used The Civil War as a teaching tool. Just last year, PBS launched Ken Burns in the Classroom, offering teaching resources and lesson plans as companion material for The Civil War and other Burns documentaries. But The Civil War has been teaching lessons for years. In 2017, former White House chief of staff John Kelly ignited controversy when he stated that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him: “I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.”[15] Ken Burns was swift to respond on twitter, getting it right thirty years too late: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”[16]

The year 2020 has brought a profound reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy – and it is long past time that reckoning reached Ken Burns. His beloved documentary invites viewers to revel in the drama and emotion of the war without ever acknowledging its legacy of white supremacy. Echoing Keri Leigh Merritt and others, it’s time for a new Civil War documentary: one that honors Barbara Fields’s observation that the Civil War isn’t over – and can still be lost. Every Confederate monument can be toppled, but as long as Ken Burns’s The Civil War is seen as the definitive telling of the story, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest will remain on their pedestals.

[1] Robert Brent Toplin, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] Ken Burns, The Civil War (PBS, 1990).

[3] Burns, The Civil War.

[4] DeNeen L. Brown, “The Civil War Massacre That Left Nearly 200 Black Soldiers ‘Murdered,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/10/28/civil-war-massacre-that-left-nearly-black-soldiers-murdered.

[5] Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, no. 151, Summer 1999.

[6] Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 152.

[7] Burns, The Civil War; Keri Leigh Merritt, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2019.

[8] Burns, The Civil War.

[9] Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic, June 4, 2017.

[10] Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.”

[11] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 139.

[12] Eric Foner, “Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion,” in Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, ed. Robert Brent Toplin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 112.

[13] Robert A. Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 2012). 80.

[14] Jeremy D. Stoddard, “The History Channel Effect,” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 4 (2010), 80.

[15] Rebecca Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’,” The Hill, October 31, 2017.

[16] Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’.”

 

Ella Starkman-Hynes

Ella Starkman-Hynes is an independent author and graduate of McGill University. Her research focuses primarily on the depiction of the Civil War in popular culture, and she is currently working on a project examining northern memory of the war through twentieth-century literature. She will be starting her Master's in history at Yale in Fall 2021.

Upcoming JCWE Webinars

Upcoming JCWE Webinars

The Journal of the Civil War Era is sponsoring three webinars with historians in coming weeks. For each event, JCWE editors Greg Downs and Kate Masur will interview the featured historian(s) and take questions from participants. Recordings will be posted on the JCWE’s YouTube channnel. Please see below for more information and to register for these free events.

 FALL WEBINARS

Thurs. Oct. 8, 4:00 PM ET

Dr. Aston Gonzalez, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century

The fight for racial equality in the nineteenth century played out not only in marches and political conventions but also in the print and visual culture created and disseminated throughout the United States by African Americans. African American activists seized on advances in visual technologies–daguerreotypes, lithographs, cartes de visite, and steam printing presses–to produce images that advanced campaigns for black rights. Aston Gonzalez will talk about how African American visual artists helped build the world they envisioned and how they employed networks of transatlantic patronage and travels to Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa to address the pressing concerns of Black people in the Atlantic world.

Register for the webinar here.

 

Fri. Oct. 30, 4:00 PM ET

Nineteenth-Century Governors’ Papers: A Roundtable

Nineteenth-century governors’ papers are a treasure-trove of everyday experiences because Americans of all backgrounds regularly contacted their governors with complaints and requests. This roundtable includes representatives for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK), the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM), and the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Alabama (CWRGA) projects. They will share insights their collections offer historians and discuss how the collections are challenging historiographical norms. The presenters will also address the public history nature of the projects and seek feedback from audience members regarding new questions the teams might investigate.

Register for the webinar here.

 

Thurs. Dec. 3, 4:00 PM ET

Dr. Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade

Alexandra Finley’s recently published An Intimate Economy adds crucial new dimensions to the boisterous debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism by placing women’s labor at the center of the antebellum slave trade, focusing particularly on slave traders’ ability to profit from enslaved women’s domestic, reproductive, and sexual labor. She will speak with the JCWE editors about how women’s work was necessary to the functioning of the slave trade and its spread and how slavery reached into the most personal spaces of the household, the body, and the self.

Register for the webinar here.

 

PAST WEBINARS

Thurs. July 23

Dr. Nicole Myers Turner, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia

How did African Americans develop religious institutions in the wake of slavery? How did Black churches connect with electoral politics? In this highly original study, Dr. Turner focuses on the Southside region of Virginia and uses digital humanities methods. A digital version of her book, with enhanced maps and charts, is available here.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

 

Thurs. Aug. 13

Dr. Stephanie McCurry: The Confederate States of America 

What was the Confederacy and what did it stand for? These are important questions in both history classrooms and public debate. Dr. McCurry will discuss what Confederate leaders believed they were doing; the challenges they faced both from within the South and outside it; the experiences of Black and white women in the Confederacy; and the role of women in the history of war.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

 

Wed. Aug. 19

Dr. Thomas J. Brown: Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America 

The many Civil War monuments that dot the American landscape continue to incite controversy. Dr. Brown will explain who built these monuments and why; what Civil War monuments tell us about American culture; and how the monuments’ meanings have changed over time.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

 

Wed. Aug. 26

Dr. Tera Hunter: Emancipation During the Civil War 

This year, amid renewed discussion and celebration of Juneteenth, many people have questions about slavery’s destruction during the Civil War. Dr. Hunter will discuss how enslaved people fought for their own freedom and that of their families; the relationship of the Emancipation Proclamation to Juneteenth; why there were so many emancipations; and the importance of gender and the family in the experience of emancipation.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

 

Wed. Sep. 9

Dr. Scott Hancock: Civil War History: A Call to Action

This spring and summer have seen renewed protests against monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders. We believe historians can play an important role in the ongoing, broad-based conversation about the history and memory of the Civil War Era. Dr. Hancock will discuss how historians can engage the public at national and state parks and other public history sites to demonstrate good history.

A recording of this webinar is available here.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

If every person who declined to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election wore a “Did Not Vote” sticker, the total would number more than 100 million people, or four out of every ten Americans.[1] As we approach another election in 2020, a moment should be taken to remember the 15th Amendment, which banned racial discrimination at the polls and was ratified 150 years ago during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. For Black Missourians who had fought for voting rights for several years without success, the 15th Amendment signaled a possible pathway towards better political representation and racial equality in that state.

When Congress placed ten former Confederate states under military rule in 1867, it required that these states guarantee black male voting rights as a condition for readmission into the Union. This would not be the case in Missouri, a former slave state that was badly divided but had ultimately remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Instead, Missouri’s political leaders managed their own affairs without federal interference. As such, most delegates at the convention opposed black voting rights when a state constitutional convention was held shortly after the end of the war. Even convention leader Charles Drake and other like-minded Radical Republicans feared that such a provision would lead to the constitution’s rejection by voters. When voters ratified the new state constitution with a narrow 1,800 margin in July 1865, former Confederates and African Americans in Missouri were both excluded from the ballot box.[2]

In response to these developments, the Missouri Equal Rights League was formed in the fall of 1865. Dedicating themselves to the cause of black voting rights and equality before the law, the organization was composed of several noteworthy Black Missourians. The Reverend Moses Dickson was an abolitionist who aided enslaved runaways on the Underground Railroad and was a co-founder of Lincoln University, the first black college in the state. Blanche K. Bruce established a school for black children in Hannibal during the Civil War and later went on to become the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate for the state of Mississippi. James Milton Turner served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools under Governor Thomas Fletcher and worked to establish Black schools throughout Missouri. President Grant later appointed him to become the nation’s Minister to Liberia in 1871. These men were joined by prominent national leaders who agreed to assist the Missouri Equal Rights League. John Mercer Langston was an established African American lawyer who had attended the Oberlin Institute with Turner before the Civil War, and George Downing was a wealthy restaurateur with establishments in New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.[3]

James Milton Turner in his later years, circa 1910s.

The group held its first public meeting in St. Louis on October 3, 1865. Several speakers cited the service of black soldiers who had served in United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments during the Civil War. Four such regiments had been organized in St. Louis at Benton Barracks during the conflict, including the 62nd USCT regiment, which contributed funds to the establishment of Lincoln University. In a statement published by the Missouri Democrat, the Missouri Equal Rights League argued that the right to vote “rightfully and logically belong[s] to us as freedmen, and as those [of us] who have never deserted the flag of our common country in the hour of its darkest peril.” Furthermore, they asserted that they would only support the re-enfranchisement of former Confederates until they agreed to guarantee a “universal right to the ballot box.”[4]

The October meeting was representative of a common strategy used by Black political leaders throughout the United States. Starting around the 1830s in the North but expanding to the rest of the country during Reconstruction, African Americans held public conventions—often referred to as “Colored Conventions”—to publicly declare their support for voting rights, education, labor rights, and equal treatment before the law. By hosting a large public meeting in the state’s largest city, Missouri’s Black political leadership tapped into a tradition of creating what the Colored Conventions Project describes as “opportunities for free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to organize and strategize for racial justice.”[5]

Shortly after the meeting, leaders in the Missouri Equal Rights League wrote and distributed the group’s manifesto, Address to the Friends of Equal Rights. The Address invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence and highlighted the notion that fair legislation in a republic came from the “consent of the governed.” Preventing black Missourians from exercising the right to vote was the same as being taxed without representation and having no say in the creation of laws. The Address again reinforced the sacrifice of black troops during the Civil War, who “bared their breasts to the remorseless storm of treason, and by hundreds went down to death in the conflict.” The ultimate reward for military service, the Address argued, was the right to vote.  “We ask only that privilege which is now given to the very poorest and meanest of white men who come to the ballot box.”[6]

In the short term, the Missouri Equal Rights League’s efforts failed. Black voting rights never gained widespread acceptance in Missouri and the State Legislature never passed legislation to that effect. Many white Missourians supported the views of Congressman Frank Blair, who represented much of St. Louis and actively campaigned against Black voting rights. When he was nominated as the Democrat Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1868, Blair argued that electing Grant as president would lead to a race war and that Black men would sexually “subject white women to their unbridled lust.” Nevertheless the 15th Amendment’s ratification in 1870 made black men around the country eligible voters by stating that citizens could not be prevented from voting on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” President Grant declared shortly after its ratification that the “fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.”[7]

The success of the 15th Amendment was fleeting, however. Because the Amendment did not guarantee a universal right to vote, “race-neutral” loopholes such as poll taxes and literacy tests were exploited by Southern state governments—including Missouri—that were anxious to keep blacks from voting. The spirit of equality during the Reconstruction Era was replaced with the spirit of Jim Crow. And women were still prevented from exercising the right to vote (whether the Missouri Equal Rights League supported women’s suffrage was left unstated). Even with the ratification of the 19thAmendment in 1920, which prevents voter discrimination on the basis of sex, Black women under the force of the Jim Crow South would not gain access to the ballot until the 1960s.

As we assess political candidates for the 2020 presidential election, some potential voters will ultimately choose not to vote. Indeed, one could argue that non-voting is a form of protest in its own way. But the ability to choose not to vote is a rare privilege. Let us remember that throughout most of our country’s history, a majority of U.S. citizens never possessed a right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

[1] “2016 November General Election Turnout Rates,” United States Election Project, September 5, 2018, accessed September 10, 2020. http://www.electproject.org/2016g

[2] William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri, Volume III: 1860 to 1875 [2nd Edition] Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990, 120-124, 143-150; the 1865 Constitution is available online at Missouri Digital Heritage, “Missouri Constitution, 1865,” Missouri Secretary of State, Missouri Digital Heritage, 2020, accessed September 20, 2020. http://cdm16795.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16795coll1/id/114/rec/3.

[3] William P. O’Brien, “Moses Dickson (1824-1901),” BlackPast, January 18, 2007, accessed September 12, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dickson-moses-1824-1901/; “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” United States House of Representatives, 2020, accessed September 12, 2020. https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10029; Gary R. Kremer, James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Black Leader (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991).

[4] Missouri Democrat, October 16, 1865; Kremer, 18-24.

[5] See “Colored Conventions Project,” University of Delaware, accessed September 20, 2020. https://coloredconventions.org/; “Colored Conventions: National Affiliate Library Research Guides, Penn State University Libraries, accessed September 20, 2020. https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/ColoredConventions.

[6] Missouri Democrat, January 15, 1867.

[7] Nick Sacco, “A Free Country for White Men: Frank Blair and His Statue in St. Louis,” Muster (Journal of the Civil War Era), July 28, 2017, accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2017/07/free-country-white-men-legacy-frank-blair-jr-statue-st-louis/; “Ulysses S. Grant & the 15th Amendment,” National Park Service, 2020, accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/ulysses-s-grant-the-15th-amendment.htm

Nick Sacco

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

Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

Civil War Day of Action: Filling Historical Silences

On the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action. I am planning to join my former colleagues and community members in Elizabeth City, NC. Together, we are shedding light on the silenced diverse Civil War experiences, specifically freedpeople, USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic comrades.

The Civil War Era history of northeastern North Carolina is rich but sorely absent from the commemorative landscape.  When I joined the faculty at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), I was struck by the absence of public presentation of diverse Civil War experiences. African Americans served in the USCT regiments, Quakers abstained from the struggle, white men served in the Federal Army and Navy, and some white people engaged in guerrilla violence following the fall of Elizabeth City, but the only story told was of Confederates. The silenced African American experience was especially noticeable.[1]

This diversity of experience informed Civil War memory and shaped the uses of the downtown area from the time of the war to the 1911 placement of a Confederate Monument by the D. H. Hill chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.[2] African Americans regularly held emancipation day parades through the downtown streets and heard celebratory speeches from the Courthouse lawn.

Newspaper print text
The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888.

At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the celebration featured a speech by Hugh Cale. Born enslaved in Perquimans County, Cale became active in post-emancipation Elizabeth City politics and served as a county commissioner and state legislator. In 1891, three years after the 25th anniversary, Cale introduced House Bill 383 in the state legislature and laid the groundwork for the founding of present-day ECSU. While emancipation day parades ended in the twentieth century, ECSU has continued the tradition established by freedpeople, USCT veterans, and Reconstruction era leaders by claiming the downtown streets for its annual homecoming parades. As an HBCU, they continue to carry on the legacy of the emancipationist Civil War tradition by educating underserved communities and occupying the space defined by the Civil War era parade routes.[3]

The African American Civil War veteran experience is another history to be told. USCT veterans and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) comrades are interred at several local cemeteries. Their graves continue to be adorned with flowers and flags during major holidays. The history of the Fletcher Post, an African American GAR post, is better known but remains largely absent from the current commemorative landscape, except for their headstones in the Oak Grove Cemetery. The 1898 encampment of the Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic is not widely known. Months before the Wilmington Massacre, white and black comrades celebrated at the Court House and received the shown printed program.[4]

GAR program cover
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Moreover, the Elizabeth City veterans continued to celebrate their Civil War experiences. As their numbers dwindled, they often joined the brethren in the Hamptons Road area for reunions, including a Norfolk, Virginia reunion captured in a photograph available at a University of Virginia archive. These men remained active in local and regional activities and celebrations even if meant riding in wagons and early automobiles or turning over the event planning to Spanish American and World War I veterans.[5]

Few markers exist. Many do not include this above history. On September 26, I plan to tell this history and amplify these voices. Using Canva, a free graphic design website, I have designed three posters that highlight research materials from an in-progress book on African American memory of the Civil War. I am excited to talk about the emancipation parades, the activities of USCT veterans, and even the 1898 GAR reunion held in a community where I lived, taught, and worked with Museum of the Albemarle and other community activists for several years. But, I will do so in collaboration with individuals who are doing important public history work on the ground.

ECSU faculty are and have been actively involved in eliminating the historical silences in the landscape. They are engaged with the Museum of the Albemarle, a local museum, on designing special exhibits, sustaining student internships programs, serving on its Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle group, and participating in public events. Glen Bowman and Melissa Stuckey regularly write history columns for the Daily Advance and the Virginian-Pilot. With their Digital and Public History concentration, Charles Reed and Latif Tarik are actively preparing students to use digital tools to make this history more visible. In the process, students are learning to appreciate their own institution’s role in African American education. Through several external grants secured by Melissa Stuckey, faculty, students and other campus stakeholders are currently preserving the campus Rosenwald school and developing the site into a public museum. As such, I have continued to work with them on their various public history initiatives from my current institutional home.

Since my sabbatical brings me to North Carolina, I will make the drive. By filling a void, we will tell and amplify the underappreciated history of the African American Civil War era experience and its legacy in northeastern North Carolina. Viking pride will be fully displayed on September 26, 2020.

Follow us at #wewantmorehistory.

 

[1] For an overview of the diverse Civil War experience of Elizabeth City, see Alex Christopher Meekins, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007).

[2] “Unveiled Amid Inspiring Scenes,” Tar Heel, May 12, 1911, 1; “Pasquotank County Confederate Monument, Elizabeth City,” Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina,  https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/515/;

[3] “Local Briefs,” The North Carolinian, January 7, 1874, 3; “Untitled,” The North Carolinian, January 4, 1888, 3; “Our History,” Elizabeth City State University, https://www.ecsu.edu/about/history/; “Emancipation Day,” The Weekly Economist(Elizabeth City), January 4, 1901, 3.

[4] Department of Virginia and North Carolina Grand Army of the Republic, Twenty Seventh Annual Encampment Held in The Court House Elizabeth City, North Carolina, April 27, 1898. Records of 1897 and Journal of 1898.  (Hampton, VA. N. S. Press, Printer and Binders, 1898).

[5] Photograph of Grand Army of the Republic Reunion of African-Americans ca. 1910, Accession #11436, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; “Negro Veterans of Two Wars Appear in Parade,” Independent (Elizabeth City), January 2, 1920, 1.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Civil War Day of Action: Leading a Reading Group

Civil War Day of Action: Leading a Reading Group

As protests for social justice began to spread across the United States this summer, I contemplated my options for participation and for making an impact. I read articles posted on social media daily that reviewed the organizations accepting donations, the candidates to support, the marches to attend, the books to read, the webinars to join, and lists of ways to best become an ally. At the height of this wave of activism, I did many of these things. It did not feel like enough.

An activist recently told me that the work historians do is vitally important to their success. Activists read our books, magazine essays, and op-eds. They learn from experience and from keeping their ear to the ground, but they also formulate their arguments based on the evidence that historians frame and interpret for them. We are knowledge-makers. Our intellectual contributions serve as one crucial column in the structure of activism.

This conversation shaped my engagement in this moment. I decided to use my professional background as a reader, interpreter, and leader of discussions about the written word to move the needle toward social justice. Leading a reading group would utilize my skills and allow me to help others expand their own understanding of this aspect of American history.

On this national Day of Action, called and organized by Civil War historians to highlight places of misinformation and silence in the landscape of our national narrative, forming a reading group is one effective way to make your own contribution. It is socially-distanced. It does not require a specific location related to the Civil War. More importantly, it creates meaningful conversation.

Here are four tips for linking your reading group to the goals of the Day of Action:

1. Select book.  Choose a book that is readable for a general audience. This is important because most people are unfamiliar with the writing style of an academic monograph. They will still ask you about the number of pages and will shrink from hefty tomes. Remember that not everyone reads voraciously or at all. Some people might hesitate because they fear they do not have the background knowledge to participate or because they are not sure that their perspective will be welcome. It is important to dispel both of these concerns as much as possible and make it clear that this is a group where everyone is welcome.

It is also important to choose a book that sheds light on the moment. Academic historians might be tempted to select a book whose topic is tangential to the current calls for social justice in society because we understand the connections. Resist this temptation. Stick to the books that will allow your participants to contribute to the conversations that they are having around the water cooler and around the Thanksgiving table. You want them to gain additional talking points when they are trying to hold their own against silence or vocal racism.

Book Cover with two hands gripping barsI started with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.[1]While not a Civil War book specifically, Alexander begins with the formation of racial slavery during the early colonial period and discusses the political, social, legal, and economic implications of the rise and fall of slavery as a system of bondage in the United States. Civil War historians can help readers understand the long history of Jim Crow and its relationship to the current racial caste system maintained through the sentencing, prison, and post-prison policies of our country.

2. Gather your group.  In June, I posted on Facebook a link to the book and asked if anyone wanted to join me in discussion. I reposted the invite twice more over the course of two weeks. I hoped to get a handful of volunteers and was excited when eighteen raised their hand. I created a private Facebook group in which participants could introduce themselves and we could keep track of meeting details. They quickly started to use the page to react to the book as they were reading it and to share related information that they came across in the news.

3. Set the stage.  Each discussion lasted 90 minutes. I began by explaining why I had to turned to book discussion as my form of contribution and then I read a paragraph from page 15 of the book. Alexander writes, “A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action. This book is an attempt to ensure that the conversation does not end with nervous laughter.” This was the call that articulated my purpose and reinforced my original belief that this form of engagement could make a meaningful contribution. I opened with a broad question about the reaction to the book in terms of what had been happening this summer in our communities and then led the discussion from there. I rarely used my prepared questions verbatim or in order, but instead responded to where the group took the conversation and to which topics seemed most important to them to discuss.

4. Call to action. In the last 20-30 minutes, I brought the discussion to conclusion by asking each person to talk about what they will do next toward social justice, whether related to or inspired by the book. This part of the conversation was often very personal, ranging from an acknowledgement that the most work had to begin within to the identification of specific aspects of the incarceration problem upon which to focus time and energy.

In the end, I learned as much through these discussions as I had hoped to impart. We talked about how Alexander presented the knowledge as layers that we had to sift through and considered the adaptability of racism that makes it persistent over time and what we can do to call it out when we see it. We wondered about the possible impact of education – as one person said “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and we discussed how to talk with family and friends about these difficult topics. Alexander writes on page 257 that whites “should make the first move” and “be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege.” Our discussions of what this meant and could look like led us down multiple paths that I am still contemplating.

Civil War historians can play a pivotal role in helping the public understand the causes and consequences of racial oppression and social injustice. We know the history that has led to this moment. For this Call to Action, consider how you might use your time and talent to engage others in the knowledge that has been hidden in plain sight. We can use books for this purpose, just as we do in the classroom, and our efforts can cause a few more people to know how to assess information critically and to gain insight into what they might do as individuals to make a difference in their communities.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).

Julie Mujic

Julie Mujic is a historian of the American Civil War who writes about the Midwestern home front. She recently published an essay in Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought The Civil War by the University of Georgia Press. Julie also teaches in the Global Commerce program at Denison University and owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC.

Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Who would guess that progressive, self-regarding New York City would fail to mark the scenes of the 1863 Draft Riot? The riot was the most destructive urban uprising in US History and featured a virulent days-long assault on the city’s Black community.  Yet not a single plaque or marker notes the sites of lynchings or heroic acts of rescue, the mob’s destruction of buildings and entire city blocks, or the reconquest of the city by police, firefighters, and U.S. Army units borrowed from the Civil War.[1] On September 26, 2020, a group including local historians, teachers, students, and representatives of public history organizations will seek to redress this long neglect, staging demonstrations as part of the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action.

There are many potential sites we could recognize. To present the origins of the unrest, we could select 280 Broadway, the still-standing Marble Palace where department-store magnate A. T. Stewart sold a shawl in wartime to Kate Chase, the daughter of a Lincoln administration official, for $3,000 — the price of ten draft deferments for men whose lives were at stake.  We could visit the disappeared Democratic Party headquarters from which Governor Horatio Seymour, days before the outbreak of the violence, denounced the draft as unconstitutional and emancipation as an outrage.[2]

Too many locations were home to dramatic murders, beatings, and battles with police between July 13 and July 16, 1863, though none was more central than the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police — a state-run agency imposed on the Democratic city by the Republican-dominated state government — formerly at 300 Mulberry Street.  On its doorstep crowds deposited the bloodied body of the Superintendent of Police, and during the worst of the crisis more than 3,000 victims and first responders crowded inside.[3]

Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Perhaps the best choice would be to stage our remembrances at 520 Fifth Avenue, just north of the Public Library, where a set of plaques once commemorated the site of the Colored Orphans Asylum.  The plight of the orphans and the heroism of John C. Decker, Chief Engineer of the New York City Fire Department, who personally saved hundreds of children but could not contain the fire that burned the building to the ground, inspired sympathetic New Yorkers to fund the rapid new construction of facilities to serve the city’s Black community. Some of the  benevolent societies that formed in those days are documented in a New-York Historical Society collection and persist as part of today’s Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services.[4]

The orphanage site is today one of the city’s most conspicuous vacant lots, the object of a $275 million sale in 2015. Despite midtown congestion, diminished now by the phenomenon of working at home, the sidewalk shed enclosing the lot is a logical place for a display of posters on Good History Day.

My own participation hinges on my ability to enlist my high school students in the process, September being no month for starting independent scholarly ventures.  I am fortunate to be teaching Civil War & Reconstruction history for the first time ever as a semester elective.  The remembrance project provides a great opportunity to show how history matters, while also directing my students’ attention to concrete examples of the historian’s craft.

Given time, the ideal lesson plan in support of the Call to Action would urge students to explore the best sites for understanding Civil War era in the city, selecting among options that include the Union League Club in East Midtown, where the first Black regiments recruited in New York City initiated their march to the front on March 5, 1864, or the Brooklyn shipyard from which the Monitor gunship made its debut. Taking into account the short run-up to September 29 after Labor Day — complicated by the need to make introductions and pitch the project to local historians and agencies for the first time — I chose the Draft Riots in advance of the beginning of classes.

I intend to steer students toward research into discrete elements of the 1863 crisis: the draft, the Metropolitan Police Department, Democratic Party politics, the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, the fire department and chief engineer, and the African American businesses and cultural institutions that came under assault.  My students are fortunate to have access to specialized databases, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s digital archive, Proquest, Newsbank, and Newspapers.com, copyright-friendly images and film, and Google Books, that great democratizer of 19th-century historical studies.  Having formed teams and committed to collaboration, my twelve high school juniors and seniors will develop profiles and short texts suitable for use in our demonstrations.  They will agree on a format and prepare digital files for posters as part of a graded interim assignment.  The posters will be printed at school expense — wheat-paste thin ones if we obtain permission to display them on the sidewalk shed, and paper backed with cardboard if we have to improvise a more ephemeral display.

Students may or may not participate in person, depending on whether schedules and pandemic conditions allow. In the end, it may fall to the adult participants to engage in on-site dialogue on September 26.  But students will certainly participate digitally. They may amplify the event on social media, perhaps by the creation of class-specific circulars and accounts.  We will also explore the possibility of creating or contributing to a Clio historical tour using the Clio Foundation’s digital mapping app.  We will seek out partners in the great public history institutions that surround us, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the New-York Historical Society, the Tamiment Library, and the Museum of the City of New York, among others.  To anchor our effort in the spirit of 2020 activism, moreover, students in my class will make use of the City of New York’s public process for recommending the placement of historical markers that give Draft Riot sites their due.

I hope my students will come to  share my reverence for the New Yorkers of the Civil War past who embodied the spirit of resilience and determination so recently on display in the Covid emergency.  May they recognize their kindred spirits!  For myself I am galvanized to be in community with scholars and activists in this national initiative.  Next year, it will be even better.

[1] David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016.  See also “Lynchings During the New York Draft Riot,” Clio: A Guide to the History and Culture Around You, https://www.theclio.com/entry/12837 and “New York City Draft Riot, 1863,” Clio: A Guide to History and Culture Around You, https://www.theclio.com/entry/4614.

[2] Betty Boyles Ellison, The True Mary Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2014), 174; “Gov. Seymour’s Speech,” New York Times, July 6, 2020.

[3] David M. Barnes, The Metropolitan Police: Their Services During Riot Week (New York: Baker & Godwin, Printers & Publishers, 1863), 9, 12.

[4] Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 268; David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016; “Colored Orphan Asylum,” Mapping the African American Past, https://maap.columbia.edu/place/35.html; Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records 1836-1972, MS 24, New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

LeeAnna Keith

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School. She is the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

On September 22, 1862, a week after the devastating Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Delivered by the lawyer-turned-politician, Lincoln emphasized the reunification of the country, but also set new precedents for the emancipation process. Wartime emancipation proclamations were not unusual. When the gaze moves beyond the U.S. borders, Peru offers a good comparison for showing how these declarations could embrace a high moral tone and simultaneously endorse compensated emancipation without reparations for the emancipated. Furthermore, the Peruvian example is a good reminder that slavery persisted after the Independence of Spanish-America and abolition resulted from domestic rebellion in many countries. However, as in the United States, these wartime emancipation proclamations rarely considered the plight and future of the formerly enslaved.

By the time of the American Civil War, emancipation was hardly a novel idea. The Age of Revolutions (c.1760-c.1825) witnessed the abolition of slavery in Vermont and the institution’s violent overthrow with the racial conflict in the French colony Saint-Domingue. The precedent of Saint-Domingue raised fears of race war, economic desolation, and political uncertainty. By the 1830s, the British Empire provided an alternate model by issuing a parliamentary decree to end slavery and helped to established additional precedents for other nations. In the aftermath of abolition, enslaved people gained their freedom, but without an economic redistribution and rearrangement of labor practices on the sugar islands, the freedmen lacked political power in a society that required property for voting. At the same time, planters received a significant direct and indirect compensation for their lost property.[1] Future abolitions in the Danish, French, and Dutch colonies continued with compensation for masters. In that regard, Lincoln dramatically broke with precedent by signaling an uncompensated emancipation.

Where readers are well-aware of the causation of the American Civil War and its evolution to emancipation, the conflict in Peru needs a brief introduction. Despite common assumptions, Peru had not abolished slavery immediately after independence. At the time of independence, Peru had an enslaved population of about 50,400, about 3.8% of the population. By the mid-1850, there were still 25,505 enslaved people, or less than 1% of the population.[2] A far cry from the almost 13% of the U.S. population that suffered enslavement. However, both countries ended the institution in very similar but also markedly different ways.

Ramon Castilla

Peru had suffered from significant political instability since independence. Only five of the first twenty-three presidents served two or more years in office. The 1850s and 1860s were a period of great volatility in Peruvian politics. Civil unrest was frequent. In April 1851, José Rufino Echenique succeeded Ramón Castilla y Marquesado as president, but there were domestic political rivals who accused the government of corruption and violations of the law. In August 1853, Domingo Elías unsuccessfully challenged the government, but a few months later the rebellious hotbed of Arequipa once again erupted in opposition to the government. At this point, Ramón Castilla entered the fray and accused Echenique of “tyranny, theft, and immorality.” With both leaders needing supporters, especially soldiers, they decreed measures to improve their popularity, including emancipation.[3] While the rebellion in the United States was initially about union and independence, the civil war in Peru was about political power and the presidency. As the respective civil wars dragged on, slavery became a tool to bring about a swifter end to the fighting.

President Lincoln made a far-reaching change in September 1862.[4] Lincoln opened his declaration with his well-known invocation of his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, an authority he continued to use in the official declaration three months later, and that “the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.” A statement many detractors of the decision pointed to, showing that it was still a war for union. Lincoln abandoned this specific statement in his official declaration in January where the reunification of the country was nowhere to be found.

In contrast, on December 3, 1854, Ramón Castilla, trying to win the presidency and oust his political opponent from office, immediately invoked a high moral cause. He claimed, “That is due to justice to restore to man his freedom: that one of the chief objects of the revolution of 1854 was to recognize and guarantee the rights of humanity, oppressed, denied, and scorned by the tribute of the Indian, and Slavery of the negro.” Therefore, Castilla promised the end of slavery and all Native tribute payments. Of course, for his proclamation to become the law of the land, he still had to win this civil war. However, this was a dramatic step to bring an end of suffering for enslaved and indigenous Peruvians, especially when one considers that Lincoln was just three months away from allowing the largest mass execution in U.S. History with the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota people at the same time that he considered emancipation.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s emancipation, at least as conceived in the preliminary proclamation and continued in the official proclamation, was extremely limited with the president only offering to free slaves in territories in rebellion on January 1, 1863, leaving critics to wonder if he even had the authority to do so. While Lincoln did not mention explicitly the idea of compensation for slaveholders, he did cautiously still suggest the colonization of freed people. A door he bolted shut in January with the official emancipation proclamation. While there was no reference to colonization, Lincoln suggested formerly enslaved individuals should seek labor contracts and if they so desired, don the uniform and fight in the war. He also broke dramatically with the precedent set by Great Britain in that there would be no compensation for slave owners.[5]

Castilla started his proclamation with some high moral assumptions. While the end of slavery was immediate, Castilla, just like Lincoln, still had to win the civil war for the proclamation to reach all corners of Peru. The Peruvian freed all individuals held in bondage immediately without consideration whether their owners were loyal or disloyal. He demanded, “The men and women held until the present time in Peru as slaves, or serving-freedmen, whether in that condition by sale or birth, and in whichever mode held in servitude, perpetual or temporary—all, without distinction of age, are from this day wholly and for ever free.” There was no geographical restriction in Peru. Castilla, however, was a man of his era. He was not ready to just take property away from people without providing adequate compensation. He decided, “that fair prices shall be paid the owners of slaves and patrons of serving-freedmen, on the following terms.” A decision that would dramatically increase the Peruvian government’s financial obligations and open the door for future political conflicts in the country.

Importantly, formerly enslaved people in neither the British Empire, the United States, nor Peru received reparations for overcoming the wrongs done to them for centuries. Racist attitudes remained prevalent. In September 1855, the U.S. Minister in Peru, John Randolph Clay, wrote with grave worry that the government had acted “without preparation and almost without notice.” Even worse, from Clay’s perspective, “The ‘Haciendados,’ or planters found themselves suddenly deprived of laborers to cultivate their Estates, as the negroes, in many instances, abandoned them; to come to Lima or move about the country in idleness.” The result was the ruin of landowners and a revolutionary environment.[6]

The two emancipation proclamations in Peru and the United States provide a reminder regarding the complexities of emancipation resulting from domestic conflicts. Reading Lincoln and Castilla’s emancipation proclamations in tandem is a study of contrast, similarities, and precedents. While Lincoln’s address reads like a legal document that sets a new precedent, Castilla’s sounds like a powerful humanist document that does not dare to go too far. Lincoln abandoned compensated emancipation, but dramatically limited the scope of his emancipation decree. At the same time, Castilla’s high moral tone favoring freedom to indigenous and enslaved Peruvians was curtailed by his desire to compensate masters. Both men were too conservative to embrace a massive social reorganization. At the same time, it was domestic wars that made these emancipation decrees possible. As a region ravished by domestic civil conflicts, Latin America has much to offer Civil War historians interested in comparative studies.

 

[1] Edward B. Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

[2] Peter Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Books, 1992).

[3] Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru, 190-192.

[4] All quotes from Peru’s declaration drawn from: “Emancipation Declared in Peru,” Anti-Slavery Reporter, July 2, 1855, 157. All quotes from Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals_iv/sections/transcript_preliminary_emancipation.html, accessed August 24, 2020. All quotes from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34&page=transcript, accessed September 10, 2020.

[5] Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 182-183.

[6] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, September 10, 1855, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856.

Niels Eichhorn

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