Category Archives: Blog

Using Reacting to the Past in the Civil War Classroom

The time had come for the delegates to Kentucky’s Sovereignty Convention to decide whether or not the state should secede. One by one, the delegates responded to the roll call vote. Once the representatives from the Cumberland Plateau, Pennyroyal, and Jackson Purchase regions had spoken, the vote was tied. It was up to the Bluegrass region to determine the state’s fate. “This is so exciting!” said one of the delegates.

The year was not 1861 but 2017, and the setting was not Kentucky but a college classroom in Colorado. For the first time, I used the role-playing game “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) to teach the sectional crisis and secession in my Civil War Era class. One of my colleagues used an RTTP game to teach the Mexican Revolution, and he suggested that I try the “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation” game in my course. I have been moving away from lectures and heading towards active learning exercises in class, so I was open to his ideas. Before following his advice, though, I did as much research as I could on RTTP. The testimonials that I uncovered seemed so breathlessly enthusiastic (Mark Carnes, one of RTTP’s founders, has a book immodestly titled Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College) that I wondered if it was some sort of academic cult. Despite my reservations, I decided to drink the Kool-Aid.

In RTTP games, students take on roles based on historical figures or archetypes and re-enact events from a historical era. The games range from debates over democracy in Athens, to the shape India will take following independence in 1945.[1] In “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation,” the only RTTP game directly related to the American Civil War, students play the role of delegates to a special session of the Kentucky legislature. There are twenty-seven different characters, many of them based on actual antebellum figures. One student became Cassius Clay, another was governor Beriah Magoffin, and a third was Simon Bolivar Buckner, Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard. The “Homespun Lawyer” is based on William Lowndes Yancey while the “Arch-Unionist” represents Joseph Holt. Other characters are archetypes, like the Jacksonian Democrat who opposes additional legislative spending and wants to keep Kentucky united. Each student receives a character sheet (provided with the game materials) that explains the person’s background and views on a variety of issues. All characters have a variety of objectives to accomplish during the game, and they usually have to work with other characters to succeed. Issues ranged from reforming the state’s manumission act, to encouraging immigration into the state, to preventing the flow of military supplies through Kentucky. The game was, in a way, a cross between a historical re-enactment and the “Survivor” television show.

The preparation for the game, both for the instructor and for the student, is extensive. I had to become familiar with the 232-page Instructor’s Manual and the 190-page Game Book. The Game Book includes a historical background on the sectional crisis, the game’s rules, a description of the assignments, a description of Kentucky in 1861, primary source documents, and a bibliography. Instructors have to assign roles to students, distribute handouts, track student progress, and answer an abundance of questions. The students had to read a historical background article and an extensive list of primary texts. They were also tasked with delivering at least one speech and publishing one issue of a newspaper (complete with masthead, an editorial, and articles), both of which had to reflect their understanding of the assigned materials. Students could also run for Speaker of the House, propose legislation, debate initiatives, form militias, and jockey for political power.

The game itself proceeds through 1861, with sessions that respond to the secession of the Lower South, the Crittenden Compromise, the creation of the Confederacy, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the secession of the Upper South. It also requires an extensive investment of class time. My class runs on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and I used two class periods to introduce the material, another five to play the game, and one more to debrief the students. Even though the two introductory sessions covered essentially the same material that I normally covered, I decided to eliminate a third introductory session and one game session. The game thus consumed about four weeks, or one-quarter of my semester. I chose to use Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh’s The American War: A History of the Civil War Era as the text that would take the place of my lectures.

When I spoke of the game during the first couple of class periods, students were dubious. Six of the forty students dropped the class, including one with the last name of Sanders, thus depriving those who remained of the fun of addressing him by the honorific title of “Colonel Sanders.” The discussions of the background reading and primary source material went well, but the game started slowly. I had a hazy understanding of how to act as “Gamemaster” and the students had not fully digested the rules.[2] By the end of the first session, though, we had vigorous debate that revealed the contradictory nature of America in 1861. As we worked our way forward in time, students became more confident to speak up in class, and many of them provided excellent distillations on topics such as the influence of the Fugitive Slave Law on secession or the political philosophy of John Calhoun. I sat off to the side of the class and did not speak much during the legislative sessions. As for Kentucky, the delegates from the Bluegrass region tipped the scales in favor of secession. I rolled a die to determine the war’s outcome and we learned that the war lasted four years and the Union government freed the slaves. In reality, of course, Kentucky did not secede, but the other two events did happen.

The game had a number of positive effects. The level of interaction among students was substantially higher. Rather than being locked into their little cell phone worlds before class began, they were politicking and working the room to secure votes. One student also noticed this change and commented that, more than any other class he was taking, he got to know his classmates. Other students said that they really enjoyed the game and found it to be a good way to learn about the contingent nature of events in 1861. They cited the high level of work that went into the assignments but said that they learned so much. Indeed, their speeches and newspapers exceeded my expectations. The class period after the re-enactment ended was one of the best that I have been a part of during my seventeen years of teaching. During our comparison of the game to actual events, an essential part of the curriculum, the majority of the class asked questions. As we continued to discuss the early part of the war, the students referred back to the knowledge they gained because of the game. I cannot credit RTTP with this passion for history, but I suspect that it has motivated my students to learn more. At least five students have stopped by my office and mentioned how much they are learning in this class.

There are several drawbacks associated with the game, though. In a larger class such as mine, it was difficult for all students to deliver their speeches and the sessions bogged down at times. Some students were simply not invested in the activity while others did not make an effort to build coalitions or trade votes. The game was also a fair degree of work for me, between grading the assignments, answering questions, and keeping up with administrative work.

As for me, I will drink the Kool-Aid again and use RTTP the next time I teach the Civil War course.

[1] A list of published games and those in development is found on RTTP’s website, https://reacting.barnard.edu/ (accessed March 22, 2017). Additionally, there are a number of videos on YouTube that demonstrate how the games work; this video is one example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U6L9ERzw0U (accessed March 22, 2017).

[2] From June 8 to 11, 2017, there will be a Faculty Institute at Barnard College to train instructors. Participants can attend workshops on twelve different games. See https://reacting.barnard.edu/ai-2017.

Robert Gudmestad

Dr. Robert Gudmestad is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. His current research project involves using GIS to study the Union and Confederate brownwater navies and their quest for control of the Mississippi River system. He is author of A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (LSU, 2003) and Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom (LSU, 2011). He can be reached at robert.gudmestad@colostate.edu.

Lorien Foote’s Article a Finalist for Army Historical Foundation Award

We are delighted to announce that Lorien Foote’s article in the March 2016 issue, titled “‘They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt’: Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy,” is a finalist for the 2016 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award. Lorien’s discussion of escaped prisoners of war in South Carolina (which she estimates at around 2,676 between September 1864 and February 1865) provides insights into the collapse of the Confederate state. As Lorien states in this excerpt, the story of these federal fugitives provides insight into the Confederacy’s final years in three ways:

First, this story uncovers the temporal and spatial dimensions of the collapse of the Confederate prison system and the movement of fugitive prisoners in the region between September 1864 and February 1865. As Edward Ayers and Scott Nesbit have pointed out, studying these dimensions allows us to find variations in experience and to make connections between events. The location and timing of three mass outbreaks—from Florence in September, from trains to Columbia and from Columbia itself in October and November, and from the railway lines that ran between Columbia and the North Carolina border in February— shaped the contours of fugitive travel in the state. Fugitive movement concentrated within four distinct travel corridors during October, November, and December, and the encounters among fugitives, slaves, and communities differed in each corridor.

Second, tracing the escape and flight of Federal prisoners of war exposes to view spaces where the Confederacy no longer maintained control in South Carolina. Before Sherman invaded the state, officials lost the ability to defend loyal citizens from a variety of enemies who moved within and across its borders. Finally, the movement of Federal prisoners across the landscape makes explicit the role citizens took on during a state’s collapse at the end of the war. South Carolina’s experience suggests that the disintegration of Confederate and state authority facilitated a breakdown of order that left citizens largely responsible for their own security. Families and individuals, rather than Confederate officials, made decisions on the ground about what constituted loyalty and when, if, and how they would handle threats to the state. Citizens were no longer willing to contribute their manpower or their resources to a government that no longer functioned. When Confederate authorities proved unable to respond to the threat of fugitive Federals, effective control reverted to local agency.[1]

Keep reading on Project Muse (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/611880). The winners of the Distinguished Writer Award will be announced at the Foundation’s annual meeting on June 15.

[1] Lorien Foote, “‘They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt’: Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 32.

The Enduring Legacy of Patsey

12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest movies about American history. Much to their credit, the filmmakers did an admirable job of capturing the life and experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After twelve long, torturous years in Louisiana, Northup was able to secure his freedom and return to his family. In 1853 he published a memoir of his ordeal, which is the basis for the movie.

Solomon Northup, from the frontispiece of his memoir. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

The figure at the emotional center of the film is a slave named Patsey, whom Northup described as a “slim and straight” twenty-three-year-old dark-skinned woman who “glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a ‘Guinea nigger,’ brought over to Cuba in a slave ship.” Patsey had “an air of loftiness in her movement,” he wrote, “that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy.” Were she not bound in servitude she “would have been chief among ten thousand of her people,” he mused, but “her intellect [was bound] in utter and everlasting darkness.” In the fields, Patsey could pick far more cotton than her fellow laborers—upwards of five hundred pounds in a day. She was the “queen of the field,” Northup wrote—a line repeated several times in the film.[1]

Northup and Patsey were owned by Edwin Epps, whom Northup described as a “large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions,” who stood six feet high with blue eyes and a light complexion. Epps, according to Northup, had “repulsive and course” manners, indicating that he’d “never enjoyed the advantages of an education.” Nor had he any sense “of kindness or of justice.” And when he was drunk he became either “a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his ‘niggers,’” or he would “lash[ ] them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.”[2]

While Patsey “was a joyous creature” and “a laughing, light-hearted girl” by nature, she “wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions,” remembered Northup. Her back “bore the scars of a thousand stripes”—not because she was lazy, unmindful, or rebellious, but because Epps had turned his “lustful eye” toward her. If Patsey would not succumb to his sexual demands, she would be whipped. And of course, this exploitation—perceived by Epps’s wife as favoritism—caused Patsey’s mistress to despise her. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her suffer,” wrote Northup. In addition to the whippings by Epps, her mistress physically abused her, even hurling bottles to “smite her unexpectedly in the face.” Patsey was “the enslaved victim of lust and hate” with “no comfort in her life.”[3]

“The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

After her most brutal whipping, which is painfully depicted in the film, Northup wrote that Patsey “no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step.” She also lost the “mirthful sparkle in her eyes,” and “the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth” had disappeared. Now she worked in silence with “a care-worn, pitiful expression” on her face. “If ever there was a broken heart—one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering and misfortune—it was Patsey’s.”[4]

On the day that Northup was finally rescued from bondage, Patsey ran to him and threw her arms around him, tears streaming down her face. “I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free,” she told him, “but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?” As Northup’s carriage pulled off, he looked back and saw Patsey “with drooping head, half reclining on the ground.” He would never see her again.[5]

“Scene in the Cotton Field, Solomon Delivered Up,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Northup lamented in his memoir that Patsey would always be a slave. She knew that “a land of freedom” existed somewhere, but it seemed “an immeasurable distance” away. “In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of earth,” he wrote. To be able to own her own land and cabin, and to work for herself, “was a blissful dream of Patsey’s—a dream, alas! the fulfillment of which she can never realize.”[6]

While Patsey endured many more years of cruel tyranny under Edwin Epps, Northup’s prediction did not come to pass. During the Civil War, as Union troops moved deeper into the South, they eventually made their way to Epps’s Louisiana plantation. Remarkably, several northern soldiers who had read Northup’s book in their youth still remembered the characters—and longed to meet them. And, most significantly, these soldiers learned about Patsey’s fate during the Civil War.

These sources help to answer one of the questions that has most stymied those interested in Northup’s narrative: what happened to Patsey?[7] Writing on May 11, 1863, Captain Henry Devendorf of the 110th New York Infantry told his wife, Armonella, of “a little item that will be of interest to you.” One night he met a slave named Bob who belonged to a “Master Epes.” Devendorf wrote, “Solomon Northrup [sic] immediately occurred to me, and I asked him if he ever knew a slave by the name of Platt,” which had been Northup’s name as a slave. “Oh! golly, yes, master,” Bob replied. “He raised me. I guess I does know him.” Devendorf tried to get Bob to go with him, “but he would not on account of his mother, whom, he said, he must now stay with and support.” Devendorf asked other slaves about Northup and found that he “was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true.” Perhaps most satisfying, Devendorf reported that “Patsy went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.”[8]

Private John Hall of the 8th Vermont Infantry had a similar experience, asking his wife in a letter on May 20, 1863, whether she remembered Northup’s book. “I am now very near where he used to live, many negroes on this plantation knew him, he used to fiddle here.” He continued, “If you remember about it, the book speaks of old aunt Phoebe and Patsy, who were whipped, and Bob; they were all on Epps plantation.” Aunt Phoebe was still there, Hall wrote, “but the rest have all gone with some soldiers that passed their house. I hope that it will so happen that I can see some of them before I leave this section of the country.”[9] (It appears from this letter that Bob had decided to leave the plantation after all.)

Even thirty years after the war, a Union veteran who had fought with the 24th New York Cavalry recalled meeting a number of soldiers “who told me of having read the book at the time it was published (in 1854), and who had visited the plantation of Edwin Epps. . . . They told of seeing and talking with his former slave comrades,” including Patsey.[10]

While we do not yet know what happened to Patsey past the mid-point of the war, these recent discoveries reveal that she at least survived long enough to attain freedom in the summer of 1863. Further research in digitized newspapers, soldiers’ correspondence, or federal records at the National Archives may one day reveal other details about her life.

The suffering and injustice that Patsey endured was inflicted upon many slave women and girls on countless plantations throughout the Old South. While most of their names and experiences have been lost to history, Patsey’s story survives. Northup’s graphic account impressed it deeply upon the minds of Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century—so much so that Union soldiers marching through the South remembered her name and story in vivid detail almost a decade after they’d read it. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in the film serves that same purpose, reminding new generations of Americans that we cannot ignore and ought never forget the brutal realities of slavery.

[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853), 166, 179, 186, 188.

[2] Ibid., 162-63, 183.

[3] Ibid., 188-89.

[4] Ibid., 253-59.

[5] Ibid., 308.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] A few writers have searched for Patsey’s story. See, for example, Katie Calautti, “‘What’ll Become of Me?’: Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” Vanity Fair (March 2, 2014), www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/03/patsey-12-years-a-slave (accessed March 17, 2017). One of the commenters at this article posted the Mexico Independent article, which is cited below.

[8] “Letters from Capt. Devendorf,” Mexico Independent, Mexico, N.Y., June 18, 1863.

[9] “From the 8th Regiment,” Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 2, 1863.

[10] S. E. Chandler, “Bayou Boeuf, La.,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., September 27, 1894. Not all soldiers believed Northup’s account. Shortly after this article appeared, A. A. Gardner of the 93rd New York Infantry replied that one of the kidnappers told him that Northup had concocted the kidnapping scheme in order to make money but that the plan had gone awry (this defense had appeared forty years earlier when the kidnappers went to trial). He concluded that 12 Years a Slave was “ahead of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” “as a work of fiction.” See “A Slave Twelve Years,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., October 11, 1894.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. His latest book is Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Check out his website at www.jonathanwhite.org, or follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.

Men Go to Battle and the Civil War’s Dark Turn

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannonshot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author’s ideas that they were “concatenated without abruption.”
                                                  – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Image of Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) in Men Go to Battle. A soldier with no real reason for going to war. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

In Zachary Treitz’s 2015 film Men Go to Battle, the Civil War becomes the site of a dark comedy. The film follows in a tradition of fictional accounts of the conflict that deal with the violence of war through humor. Just as Ambrose Bierce’s short fiction made the war seem comically ironic and disorienting, the film relies on a tone of dark humor to reconcile the violence of the era with the mundane lives of its central protagonists. In so doing, the film also speaks to the current scholarly focus on the war’s dark side. This places Men Go to Battle in a cinematic tradition of film as a critique of war, but updates that tradition for a twenty-first-century audience.

The film begins with brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, who eke out a living on their Kentucky farm, until the Civil War abruptly arrives. The film opens in November, 1861, in the fictional Small’s Corner, Kentucky. Francis and Henry struggle to manage their 200-acre farm. Low on resources, Francis begins making precarious financial decisions and taking out his frustrations in a series of escalating pranks on Henry, from buying two mules in the middle of winter (“I got a great deal!”) to throwing an ax at his brother in a drunken stupor. The ax throwing incident ends in a severe injury to Henry’s hand and the need for the town doctor’s services. Finding that the entire town has turned out for a party at the home of the Smalls, the towns wealthiest, slave-owning residents, the brothers seek the doctor there. Henry receives treatment for his hand and returns to the party, determined to speak with Betsy Small, for whom he clearly has amatory feelings. Following a fumbling and failed romantic gesture, an embarrassed Henry runs off into the night.

As Francis desperately searches for Henry, the seasons change and spring dawns with no sign of the lost brother. The only noticeable change on the Mellon farm is an ever-larger pile of firewood, the product of Francis’ frustration. Finally, a letter arrives, sent by one brother to another. Francis asks Betsy Small to read the note, discovering that Henry has joined up with the Union army at Bardstown and is in Huntsville, Alabama, with the 23rd Kentucky. The film shifts to depicting Henry’s experiences of army life, filled with endless drill, marching, and singing off-color songs with his comrades around the campfire after dark (and then catching himself on fire after falling asleep too close to the flames).

The film depicts Henry experiencing what the filmmakers clearly believe to be common wartime occurrences. While on picket duty Henry encounters a Rebel soldier with whom he trades coffee for tobacco. The Confederate asks him if he will bring a newspaper the next day. As his unit prepares to go into battle, Henry writes to Francis that “this war might last longer than me.” As the din of battle draws closer, Henry tears up the letter as the other soldiers around him do the same. After collapsing in battle, Henry decides he has had enough of army life, and, shedding his soldier’s coat and cartridge box, he sets out for home on foot, avoiding Union troops along the way. He returns to find that Francis has married Betsy Small, whose rejection of his advances had caused Henry’s initial flight from home. After spending a night in his old home Henry rises early the next morning and the film cuts to black, suggesting the farmer turned soldier will not be staying.

Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney). Down-on-their-luck farmers in rural Kentucky. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

The film’s depiction of the war draws on various strands of Civil War memory, though it does not fit neatly into any interpretive category, be it the Lost Cause, Emancipation, Union, or Reconciliation causes.[1] Henry’s motivation for joining the Union army is presented as a combination of his own embarrassment and their geographic proximity to the North. If anything, the film proposes that men like Henry and Francis had no reason to care about the war at all; it was simply something else to do—something other than unproductive hardscrabble farming. The war, the film suggests, could be joined and left at will. The film uses the Civil War as the backdrop for a dark comedy, where physical and emotional violence occurs with little effect on its characters. In some ways, this humorous yet disaffected portrayal of violence means that the film fits into a new interpretive category of Civil War popular culture and memory: the so called “Dark Turn.” This term describes the new wave of scholarly studies focused on the physical and mental violence of the Civil War and the lasting effects of that violence on those who experienced it.

Defending this new Dark Turn in Civil War scholarship, Brian Matthew Jordan has argued that such studies are crucial because “Civil War Americans themselves wrestled with the war’s purpose, debated its meaning, and were preoccupied by its violence.”[2] While this interpretative trend has its scholarly detractors, it is clear in Men Go to Battle that some of its preoccupations are filtering into mainstream cultural depictions of the Civil War. While the violence of the war itself intrudes on the lives of the Mellon brothers, their day-to-day lives condition them to accept a bleak future, which the film emphasizes through its under-lit scenes and grainy texture. The war throws friends out their homes, has neighbors on edge about being killed by their slaves, and sees Francis being punched by Union soldiers in the street. The only recourse the brothers have for countering the violence is their humor.

Lieutenant A.G. Bierce, 1862. Bierce served in the 9th Indiana Volunteers until he was wounded in 1864. Courtesy of The Ambrose Bierce Site.

The Civil War produced its own dark sense of humor, a tone Men Go to Battle channels in its screenplay. No soldier captured this tone better than Ambrose Bierce, whose short stories of the war are imbued with the same sensibility. For Bierce, war and violence could serve as a point of mockery or disorienting strangeness, as Stephen B. Cushman has discussed in his analysis of Bierce’s short story “Chickamauga.”[3] A veteran of that battle, Bierce knew of what he wrote. The experiences Bierce had in the army informed much of the short fiction he later wrote. The characters that Bierce depicted in his stories were often presented as heroes. Heroes, however, who could not escape the cruel irony of war, like Carter Druse in “A Horseman in the Sky,” forced to shoot his own father; or Captain Coulter in “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” who shelled his own house and killed his family. Walt Whitman famously said in reference to the Civil War that “the real war will never get in the books.”[4] In Bierce’s stories this platitude seems painfully true.[5]

If the real war never got into the books, it might follow that it will never appear on screen. While films from the post-Vietnam period contained similar critiques of war and its violence, in recent years the focus of Civil War movies has been trained on the celebration of an emancipation narrative.[6] Men Go to Battle offers a new imagining of the war for a modern audience accustomed to films centered on the conflict that are imbued with purpose and moral righteousness. Instead, Men Go to Battle evokes a mood reminiscent of the Dark Turn in recent Civil War scholarship, with its tacit acceptance of violence as a fact of the war and nineteenth century life. It combats this violence and the hardships experienced by its characters with a tone that is both humorous and disorienting, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to laugh at the struggles of two failed farmers or feel empathy for their plight. While the film certainly does not rise to the level of Lincoln, Glory, or Gone with the Wind as a tool with which to teach interpretations of the conflict, it offers students and scholars alike a moment to reflect on how cinematic Civil War will appear on their screens in the future.

[1] For an explanation of these categories and examples of pre-2008 Civil War popular culture in each interpretive vein, see Gary W. Gallagher, Cause Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Scholarly work on Civil War memory such as Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) has discussed the paradoxes of the memory of the conflict in the popular imagination—including the denial of the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause and the more modern emphasis on the Union armies fighting a war to end slavery (see Janney, 309).

[2] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016 < https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/>.

[3] Stephen B. Cushman, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 115-145.

[4] Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892: Specimen Days, ed. by Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 116.

[5] For a sense of Bierce’s fiction the edited collection Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, ed. William McCann (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1956) is an excellent starting point.

[6] As noted by Gallagher, “throughout the 1990s and beyond, Emancipation has achieved dominance, with Reconciliation maintaining a steady but secondary presence in a number of films.” [Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, 92.]

Cecily N. Zander

Cecily N. Zander is a PhD student studying the Civil War and nineteenth century U.S. History at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Her current work focuses on the intersection of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Broadly, her work seeks to explore how the West figured in the military and political policy-making of the United States throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Postscript to “Reconstructing Memory”

The March 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era includes the article “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina the National Park’s First Reconstruction Unit.” It addresses a vigorous effort at the national and local level that began in December of 2000 and aimed to establish a new National Park to interpret the Reconstruction era through Congressional action; this initial action failed. The white supremacist interpretation of Reconstruction, flamed by controversies over removing the Confederate flag from the top of the state house in the 1990s and 2000, still had a strong hold on South Carolina. More than a decade later, and in the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, historians and preservationists embraced a new strategy to bypass Congress that finally succeeded.

During Obama’s last two years in office, advocates of a Reconstruction site realized that Congressional gridlock left a Presidential action as the only way forward. Many of the key players who had rallied around the cause in 2000 were pivotal in 2017 in pulling all the pieces together to make this designation possible. On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving office, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County.[1] The act identified four properties that would be part of the monument: Brick Baptist Church; Darrah Hall, on the Penn Campus; the firehouse on Craven Street in Beaufort, which is within walking distance of over fifty relevant sites; and the site of Camp Saxton, on the Naval Hospital grounds and where thousands freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered to hear it read on January 1, 1863.

Darrah Hall, on the grounds of Penn Center, is one of the four buildings designated by President Obama’s act to be part of a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

For decades the National Park Service (NPS) had been aware of a gaping hole in its telling of the story of Reconstruction. Beginning with the 2000 initiative, the NPS has maintained communication and provided support to individuals in Beaufort working toward a Reconstruction Monument. Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the NPS, had long held that too many Americans continued to think of the Reconstruction era as “a disaster” instead of seeing it as a time when big questions about democracy, race, education, war, and region were being played out.[2]

In 2015 the NPS completed four years of programing, seminars, and special events to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The time had arrived to move forward on the difficult Reconstruction era, a period that ended slavery and brought great hope, but also frustrations and disappointments. In April 2015, NPS commissioned Associate Professors Kate Masur of Northwestern University and Gregory Downs of the University of California–Davis to prepare a National Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction that would explore potential places for telling the story. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the fall of 2016, the two historians wrote, “we found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and the richness of interpretive possibility.”[3]

Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior, and Eric Foner, the foremost historian of the Reconstruction Era, came to Beaufort in 2000 to explore possibilities of a Reconstruction monument. Both continued to play crucial roles both behind the scenes and in public settings after the 2003 attempt failed. Babbitt acted as the broker between the local efforts and the Obama administration. In 2009 he helped found the Conservation Lands Foundation, an organization headquartered in Colorado that quietly worked to protect the nation’s significant landscapes.[4] Following up on extensive conversations with the Department of Interior, Congressional leaders, and Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Babbitt visited Beaufort County in April 2015 to discuss specific sites for a possible Reconstruction Monument. Foner, an ever strong and steady champion for the project, frequently emphasized that Beaufort County was the best place in the country for a new unit of NPS to tell the Reconstruction story. The urgency for Foner rested in his belief that “for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.” Furthermore, he often stressed how relevant the Reconstruction era is to current discussions of the definition of citizenship, the rights that citizens should enjoy, the relative powers of the federal government, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.[5]

On the Congressional front, on May 26, 2016, Representative James Clyburn introduced H.R. 5358, the Penn School Reconstruction Era National Monument Act. Representative Mark Sanford, Beaufort County’s Representative, joined as a cosponsor. Representatives Clyburn and Sanford were well aware that most monuments designated under the Antiquities Act had first been proposed for some sort of protective designation in legislation.[6]

Local supporters included some of those present in 2000; however, an effective new leader on the scene was Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. He served as the central point of communication between Babbitt, the NPS, Congressional leaders, and local property owners of land or sites that could possibly be a part of the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. After securing passage of a resolution by the Beaufort City Council in October 2016 to support a monument, he coordinated with other local mayors and community leaders for a wide array of organizations to pass similar resolutions.

The most difficult steps in the process were the negotiations between Department of Interior staff and those in Beaufort County who wished to make their property a part of the Reconstruction Monument. Many phone calls and meetings occurred to work through the tedious language on boundaries and easements that had to be hammered out in precise language. For example, Penn Center was deeding only Darrah Hall to the NPS but there needed to be wording about easements for the driveway to access the property as well as shared use of nearby bathroom facilities.[7]

To gauge local support for the Reconstruction Monument, the Director of the NPS, Jonathan Jarvis, and Congressman Clyburn brought delegations from Washington on December 16, 2016, to hold a public hearing. Expressing a ground swell of support, enthusiastic allies filled Brick Church on St. Helena Island. It was standing room only in the space where Penn Center held the first classes for formerly enslaved people in 1862. Over forty people–elected officials, middle school students, historians, leaders of non-profit organizations, and residents who traced their families back to the early days of the Penn Center–all spoke in moving ways about the importance of finally telling the Reconstruction story. Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said the new monument at Saxton Camp provided “the opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation . . . that brings to life the Reconstruction story.” The Mayor of Hilton Head, David Bennett, supported the effort but asked that Mitchelville, the site of the first self-governed freedmen’s community on Hilton Head, be included among the designated sites. Clyburn responded that the recommended properties were just a beginning and that the effort did not need to be limited. No voice of opposition was heard. Director Jarvis, who said he had attended many public hearings, was clearly moved by the outpouring of support and the heart felt words expressed. Michael Boulware Moore, Robert Smalls’s great-great grandson, echoed a frequent message that “now is the time.”[8]

Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and Representative James Clyburn confer during a visit on December 15, 2016, to the site of Saxton Camp where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time on January 1, 1863 to those freed by it. Photograph courtesy of Page Miller.

In Mayor Keyserling’s internet newsletter on February 28, 2017, he noted that local parties and NPS representatives were making progress at establishing the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. The NPS hopes to have an interim superintendent in place in a few months and plans are underway for a grand celebration in mid to late March to celebrate this new unit.[9]

For all the key players–Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Eric Foner, the NPS, Congressional leaders and Beaufortonians, all who had long known there was something very special about these historic sites and properties–the designation of a Reconstruction Monument brought forth a sigh of relief and a shout of joy. It will be three years before this new monument is fully up and running. Then the National Park Service will finally have the opportunities to tell the story of Reconstruction that has been either ignored or distorted for so long.

[1] Emma Dumain, “Just Under the Wire, Obama Establishes National Monument to Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County,” Post and Courier, January 12, 2017, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/just-under-the-wire-obama-establishes-national-monument-to-reconstruction/article_cb26b062-d91b-11e6-bf8b-7fd195453416.html.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/arts/park-service-project-would-address-the-reconstruction-era.html?ref=arts; Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2016), 5.

[3] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “The Perfect Spot for a Reckoning with Reconstruction,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016, sec. Opinions, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-perfect-spot-for-a-reckoning-with-reconstruction/2016/10/07/b884c1c0-7f60-11e6-9070-5c4905bf40dc_story.html?utm_term=.fcac7e29844c.

[4] Jonathan Romeo, “Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Presses Conservation Values,” The Durango Herald, November 12, 2015, https://durangoherald.com/articles/97805-former-interior-secretary-bruce-babbitt-presses-conservation-values.

[5] Eric Foner, “Struggle and Progress,” Jacobin, no. 18 (Summer 2015), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/eric-foner-reconstruction-abolitionism-republican-party-lincoln-emancipation/; Bill Rauch, “Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/can-the-south-make-room-for-reconstruction/500189/.

[6] Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, H.R. 5358, 114th Cong. (2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5358/text; Carol Hardy Vincent, “National Monuments and the Antiquities Act” (Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41330.pdf.

[7] These details were discussed in a conversation between Page Putnam Miller and Billy Keyserling on December 15, 2016.

[8] Page Putnam Miller was in attendance and spoke at the meeting. Stephen Fastenau, “Clyburn, Park Service Hear Overwhelming Support for Reconstruction Monument,” Beaufort Gazette, December 15, 2016.

[9] Billy Keyserling, “Update: Reconstruction Era Monument,” Live Work Stay with Billy K, February 28, 2017, http://www.liveworkstaybeaufort.com/update-reconstruction-era-monument/.

Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Page Putnam Miller received her PhD in 1979 from the University of Maryland. From 1980 to 2000, she served as executive director of a Washington advocacy organization, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation "Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction." She will begin a position as assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University in the fall.

Caring for Veterans: The Civil War and the Present

In recent history, the state of veteran healthcare has received negative media coverage. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs suffered immense scrutiny for the deaths of at least forty United States veterans who died awaiting assistance. The deaths of these veterans prompted investigations and the eventual dismissal of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in May 2014 because these veterans did not receive the timely access to medical staff they required.[1] In December 2016, shocking reports about maggots being found in the wounds of a veteran surfaced.[2] Just recently, federal authorities announced that they were ramping up investigations regarding the increase in opioid theft and unauthorized drug use by VA employees.[3] The U.S. Accountability Office provided a harsh critique of the VA’s handling of patient claims in 2014, and a year later the Center for Effective Government gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the grade of “D”. [4] The concern for the care of veterans among public officials, soldiers, and citizenry is prevalent. While there are current criticisms regarding the management of Veterans Affairs, and demands to provide better care for veterans is widespread, this is far from the first time that healthcare for veterans has concerned the public and initiated Federal action.

The Civil War produced unparalleled casualties as well as an incomparable number of veterans. Prior to the Civil War, an estimated 80,000 veterans from previous conflicts lived in the United States. Soldiers’ homes were organized in the 1810s and later the 1850s, had a board of commissioners, and existed under federal regulations. Yet, the system was not prepared for the mass of troops that would eventually need medical assistance. The Union had 1.9 million veterans after the war’s conclusion, and Congress began to take steps towards providing care for soldiers who would require care and places of rest.[5]

Civil War veterans receive medical treatment at the Bath Branch of the National Soldiers Home in Bath, New York. Courtesy of VHA Historical Photo.

In October 1862, Congress passed The General Pension Act of 1862 which provided disability payments based on rank and degree of disability. Furthermore, the act provided compensation for diseases incurred during service.[6] This proved significant. Tuberculosis, rheumatism, chronic dysentery, and other ailments plagued Civil War veterans for years after their discharge. The Lincoln administration, however, realized that medical care for veterans—particularly the disabled—was still undermanned and staff were often inept to handle the forthcoming medicinal needs of former soldiers. Civil War casualties superseded well over 600,000 men, and tens of thousands of survivors required long-term care for wounds both mental and physical.

Concern regarding medical care of veterans was paramount enough to work its way into President Lincoln’s second inaugural address with the phrase, “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”[7] Fulfilling this need, and with rousing public support, President Lincoln signed congressional legislation which created the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in March 1865. This national institution to care for veterans was the precursor to the modern-day U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Hundreds of thousands of Union veterans now had an opportunity to receive treatment for their injuries and assistance with their disabilities. The National Asylum ultimately expanded to eleven homes for veterans. Quickly, the government dropped the term “asylum” because they did not wish to characterize the men receiving care at these institutions as being mentally unstable.[8]

A detail of the Eastern Branch of the National Soldiers Home in Togus, Maine. The home today is the Togus VA Medical Center. Courtesy of VHA Historical Photo.

The first branch opened in Togus, Maine, and soon the system grew to accommodate veterans from the Civil War, survivors from earlier wars, and those from subsequent military actions. By 1873, the United States Congress approved significant changes to veteran pension acts, cemetery construction, and care. As a part of these acts, Congress started an aid program in which disabled veterans received funds to hire a nurse to care for their medical issues and a housekeeper to help disabled veterans with chores and duties. The number of veterans also led to Congress authorizing further action in the 1880s to accommodate more veterans needing assistance. Many Civil War veterans lived into the twentieth century, and with the United States’ involvement in World War I, medical care for a new batch of veterans brought forth changes. In the 1920s, medical care at the homes had transformed. With veterans requesting increased benefits, each major soldiers’ home soon operated as a complete medical center with amenities matching that of hospitals at the time.[9]

Interestingly, but perhaps understandably, Confederate soldiers did not receive any federal benefits and former foes of the Union relied on other means. Thus, federal efforts to provide care for Civil War veterans did not include hundreds of thousands of individuals who experienced the pitch of battle and endured lasting complications from time spent in the military. Not until 1958, ninety-three years after the last shots of the Civil War, did Congress pardon Confederate soldiers and offer them every benefit Union soldiers had enjoyed since March 1865.[10] In 1958, Congress extended benefits to Walter Washington Green Williams, considered the last surviving soldier from the Confederacy.[11] Williams died the following year. Historians consider the validity of his service controversial; reports argued he never served the Confederacy in any capacity.[12] The last verifiable veteran who fought for the Confederacy, Pleasant Riggs Crump of St. Clair County, Alabama, had died in December 1951. Thus, it is reasonable to assert that no portion of federal aid ever went to the care of a single Confederate veteran.

The climate of the 1860s and the Civil War is different from that of today. Nevertheless, the concern and necessity for quality care for veterans remains a significant issue. The public recognizes the need to take care of those who served in the military. The challenges are different, but the importance remains. Following the Civil War, the federal government had to create a system to accommodate unprecedented numbers of veterans—many requiring care for physical and mental wounds. The task was momentous. In contrast, the contemporary system to care for veterans has its own daunting challenges. The challenges are not in creating a system or setting the course to establish homes and hospitals but rather ensure that those institutions are running properly, effectively, and devoid of corruption. Currently, the new administration is seeking to rectify the paltry condition of the VA and claims that it will do a far superior job than the previous one. Will they? Possibly, but it is an unknown. Nonetheless, every administration bears a responsibility to care for veterans of the United States. It is a task that was of paramount importance immediately after the Civil War and remains the same to this day.

[1] “Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki resigns after report,” BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27640375 (accessed February 22, 2017).

[2] “Oklahoma veteran dies with maggots crawling in wound; 4 resign from VA center,” Fox 59, http://fox59.com/2016/12/05/oklahoma-veteran-dies-with-maggots-crawling-in-wound-4-resign-from-va-center/ (accessed February 23, 2017).

[3] “Opioid Theft, Missing Prescriptions Prompts Investigation of VA Hospitals Staff,” NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/va-hospital-scandal/opioid-theft-missing-prescriptions-prompts-investigation-va-hospitals-staff-n723291 (accessed February 24, 2017).

[4] “Making the Grade,” Center for Effective Government, http://www.foreffectivegov.org/access-to-information-scorecard-2015/ (accessed February 23, 2017).

[5] “VA History in Brief,” Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/archives/docs/history_in_brief.pdf (accessed February 24, 2017), 4.

[6] “VA History in Brief,” Department of Veterans Affairs, 4.

[7] “Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, March 4, 1865,” Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library: The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp (accessed February 23, 2017).

[8] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veteran’s Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.va.gov/health/newsfeatures/20110413a.asp (accessed February 24, 2017).

[9] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veteran’s Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[10] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veterans Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[11] There is no confirmation that Williams accepted any aid.

[12] “Walter Williams: Last Civil War Veteran or Hazy Memory?” Dakota Beach Morning Journal, September 4, 1959, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Z1crAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8JwFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6005,512182&dq=walter+williams+last+civil+war+veteran+national+archives&hl=en (accessed February 24, 2017).

Michael Megelsh

Michael Megelsh is a doctoral student at Auburn University. He studies the American Civil War and Reconstruction as well as the American West. His specific interests within those fields include the rise of young generals in the Union army and U.S.-Native American conflict during the 1860s.

Habeas Corpus, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Executive Authority

Last month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order prohibiting the entry of refugees or visa holders from seven Middle Eastern nations. It went into effect while some foreign nationals were in transit, thus they arrived in a different America than the one they had expected. Among these were two Iraqis, detained at Kennedy Airport on January 27, 2017. Their lawyers filed writs of habeas corpus the following morning, hoping to have their clients released.[1] They were not alone. According to the director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, Becca Heller, “we’ve gotten reports of people being detained all over the country…. They’re literally pouring in by the minute.”[2] This executive order has raised, for many Americans, concerns about the role of executive power in a political system that reveres checks and balances, how this will affect refugees from war torn regions, and about our nation’s core identity as a country of immigrants.

Although our twenty-first century context is much different, the implementation of habeas corpus to rescue a detainee from state or federal custody harkens back to the enslaved people who were detained under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law was intended to protect slaveholders’ property interests and reinforce a pro-slavery interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. It mandated that in fugitive slave cases where the alleged fugitive was taken into custody in a free state, normal judicial processes were not in force—there was no opportunity for appeal, no jury was present, the alleged owner (i.e. “slave claimant”) was not required to have a warrant, and the appointed slave commissioner had significant leeway in determining what constituted adequate evidence of enslavement. Even more controversially, the act stated that the commissioner was entitled to a ten-dollar fee if he found for the claimant, and only a five-dollar fee if he found for the alleged fugitive. It was a system that encouraged corruption.[3]

Like President Trump’s executive order, the Fugitive Slave Law unleashed a torrent of controversy. Blacks across the nation, whether free or enslaved, knew that this legislation would make it more difficult for fugitives to remain safe in the North, and it would also make it easier for kidnappers to abduct free Northern blacks and sell them into slavery. Proslavery Americans were ecstatic about its passage, since it marshaled the power of the federal government to protect slaveholders’ property rights. Many white Northerners were appalled by the fact that what they believed to be normal judicial processes could simply be swept away. Lewis Tappan noted that “the heart of every antislavery individual will deeply sympathize with the panting fugitive…. In every way in which it can be viewed, it is a disgrace to the nation, an act of extreme cruelty, and can be viewed as an experiment on the part of the Slave Power to see how much the Free States will bear.”[4] In Massachusetts, a group of citizens stated that “the foundations of our government are shaken, and unless the work of destruction shall be stayed, we may soon see that great union, our honor and safety abroad and at home, broken into weak, discordant and shattered fragments.”[5] Much like recent conversations about executive authority, and our obligation to refugees and legal immigrants, the Fugitive Slave Law had a polarizing effect on political discourse.

Political cartoon illustrating a woman being taken into custody
“Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law,” E. C. del., 1851. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Although the use of habeas corpus has evolved over the past 160 years, it remains an example of our shared conviction that all persons are born free and cannot be deprived of that freedom without due process. Then, as now, a writ of habeas corpus was used to uncover why a person was being restrained or incarcerated; in the antebellum period, “upon the presentation of a prima facie case for issuing the writ, it would be directed to the person detaining another, commanding him to bring the person detained before the judge and to state the reasons for depriving him of his freedom.”[6] Counsel could request a writ, but it was issued by a judge who directed it to the state official responsible for the alleged fugitive’s arrest. Due process is a right enshrined in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and habeas corpus was one mechanism for protecting this right.

In the antebellum South, however, there was no presumption that all persons were born free, and indeed African Americans were presumed to be slaves unless they could prove otherwise. Northern states, however, began to pass personal liberty laws in the early nineteenth century, as a way to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks. No federal anti-kidnapping law existed, so this power remained with the states. Personal liberty laws became even more significant after 1850. For instance, in 1855 the Massachusetts legislature passed a stringent personal liberty law that not only guaranteed the alleged fugitive a writ of habeas corpus and the right to a jury trial, but also promised serious punishment for anyone who took into custody a free person. The slave claimant could not seek counsel from local citizens. Although the Fugitive Slave Law allowed a mere affidavit by the claimant, at the commissioner’s discretion, this state law went further to require “at least two credible witnesses.”[7] Its passage initiated a prolonged struggle in the Massachusetts statehouse between conservatives and moderates, each jockeying for power to either repeal the law altogether or amend it to ease the burden on slaveholders. In March 1858 the law was amended, but the right to the writ remained.[8]

Similar situations played out in other Northern states, particularly in New England and the mid-Atlantic, which saw a number of high profile fugitive slave cases during the 1850s, and some prior to the new law’s passage, such as the Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842).[9] There are also less well-known cases where a writ was applied, such as that of Archy Lee in San Francisco in 1858 and Charley Fisher in Kansas in 1859.[10] The courts were caught between the property rights of slaveholders and a guarantee of due process for those who might be legally free. Antislavery resistance to an unjust law came, in these situations, through legal means.

Advertisement Seeking Assistance for Lee’s Legal Fees, c. 1858. Courtesy of Blackpast.org.

Before the Civil War, states could issue writs to rescue fugitives from federal custody, and national courts could not intervene at the state level.[11] This was, much to the chagrin of white Southerners, a states’ rights argument that contravened slavery instead of supporting the peculiar institution (the irony of this should not be lost on us today). From the antislavery perspective, free states should be able “to legislate on this subject for the preservation of their own peace and the protection of their own soil from insult and aggression,” to quote two attorneys who argued the Prigg v. Pennsylvania case.[12] This contest between federal and state power continued in other fugitive cases, including the prominent case of Joshua Glover in Wisconsin, where the territorial Supreme Court ignored a writ of error from the U.S. Supreme Court and even ruled that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. Their decision was overturned in Ableman v. Booth (1859), when Chief Justice Roger Taney asserted that state courts did not have authority over federal courts.[13] States may have had the right to protect their citizens, but Congress and the Supreme Court also had responsibilities to slaveholders. Therein lay the rub.

The world of the 1850s is strikingly different from the world of 2017. Today we face challenges that would be unfamiliar to antebellum Americans who did not experience the 9/11 terrorist attack, nor had they seen their nation survive two world wars. The current administration’s immigration restrictions are predicated on the argument that they will protect us from terrorism, a justification decidedly unlike the property-rights argument used to justify the Fugitive Slave Law. Still, both then and now, those seeking to help detainees turned first to habeas corpus. Today we ask ourselves many of the same questions our nineteenth-century counterparts did. What are the limits of federal power? How freely should we accept immigrants and refugees, whether they be escaping slavery, or escaping war and persecution? What do we owe our allegiance to, human law or a higher law? Americans do not agree on the answers to these questions, nor did they in the 1850s. There is no doubt that the judicial system—and its defense of the Constitution—will play a central role in shaping the outcome.

[1] Brooke Seipel, “Refugees Detailed at US Airports After Trump Exec Order,” The Hill, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/316656-refugees-detained-at-us-airports-following-refugee-ban (accessed January 28, 2017). This writ is available at https://www.scribd.com/document/337777796/1-Complaint?content=10079&campaign=Skimbit%2C+Ltd.&ad_group=&keyword=ft500noi&source=impactradius&medium=affiliate&irgwc=1 (accessed January 29, 2017).

[2] Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Kulish, “Trump’s Order Blocks Immigrants at Airports, Stoking Fear Around Globe,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/us/refugees-detained-at-us-airports-prompting-legal-challenges-to-trumps-immigration-order.html?smid=tw-share (accessed January 28, 2017).

[3] “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp (accessed April 20, 2016).

[4] Lewis Tappan, The Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality; With an Account of the Seizure and Enslavement of James Hamlet, and His Subsequent Restoration to Liberty (New York: William Harned, 1850), preface, https://www.loc.gov/resource/llst.076 (accessed February 11, 2017).

[5] To the Citizens of Massachusetts; The Undersigned Are Moved by an Imperative Sense of Duty to Address their fellow-citizens of the State of Massachusetts, Concerning the Portentous Condition of Our Public Affairs (1850), 1, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.06501000/ (accessed February 11, 2017).

[6] Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1861 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 9.

[7] Mark Voss-Hubbard, “The Political Culture of Emancipation: Morality, Politics, and the State in Garrisonian Abolitionism, 1853-1863” Journal of American Studies 29 (August 1995): 172.

[8] Voss-Hubbard, 173.

[9] Prigg v. Pennsylvania 41 U.S. 539 (1842), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/41/539/case.html (accessed February 8, 2017).

[10] Samuel May, The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1861), 97-98, 111-112.

[11] Morris, 10.

[12] Morris, 95.

[13] Early Maltz, “Slavery, Federalism, and the Constitution: Ableman v. Booth and the Struggle over Fugitive Slaves” Cleveland State Law Review 83 (2008): 92.

Kristen Epps

Dr. Kristen Epps is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Georgia, 2016). Her research focuses on slavery, abolition, and the sectional crisis. She can be reached at kkepps@uca.edu.

Open Access Features in the March 2017 Issue

Last week Muster published the editors’ note for our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, but we are also excited to announce some open access features from the issue. The first of these is a forum on the future of Reconstruction studies. As Luke Harlow notes:

Nine leading scholars were asked to assess the state of the field of Reconstruction studies on significant topics—some of them as old as the field itself, some of them having emerged since Foner—African Americans, labor and capitalism, law, religion, politics, the South, the state, the West, and women…. Collectively, these essays call for an expansion of the boundaries of the field of Reconstruction studies and for this expansion in four ways, all of which are growing areas of inquiry in the field: wider geography, broader chronology, deepened interdisciplinarity, and fuller engagement with the general public.

The journal has also made available a roundtable, “Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial,” with commentary and discussion by Beverly Bond, Eric Foner, Nancy Bercaw, Thomas J. Brown, Jennifer Taylor, and Salamishah Tillet (moderated by David M. Prior).

Both of these features are available for free, and we are hoping that they encourage stimulating discussion, both in the comments section of each feature and elsewhere.

To subscribe to the journal and read the other academic articles in this issue, please visit our subscription page.

Editors’ Note: March 2017 Issue

We are very pleased to announce the publication of our March 2017 special issue. Copies will be in your mailboxes soon, but to tide you over until then, here is the editors’ note from our guest editors, Kate Masur and Greg Downs!


One hundred and fifty years since Reconstruction, we believe now is a propitious time to take stock of the scholarly literature and public memory that shape our collective understanding of that crucial era. Almost thirty years after the publication of Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, we are in the midst of a deep, searching exploration of how to define, analyze, and narrate the crucial period that began during the Civil War and extended, arguably, until the close of the century. Given the vibrancy of the field and growing attention to the public history of the era, it seems wise not to try to pin down exactly where we stand but to take stock, advance ideas, and generate conversation and debate.

To assess past and present scholarship and open paths to future work, the Journal of the Civil War Era commissioned scholars to write on discrete topics within the broader world of Reconstruction history. The forum on the future of Reconstruction, introduced and edited by Luke E. Harlow, features brief introductory notes in these pages by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gerstle, Thomas C. Holt, Martha S. Jones, Mark A. Noll, Adrienne Petty, Lisa Tetrault, Elliott West, and Kidada E. Williams. Each short piece published here serves as an introduction to a longer, freely available essay available at the journal’s Web site.

Reconstruction historiography developed within a broader literary response to the end of the Civil War and to the ongoing transformations of the nation. In his provocative historiographical essay, law and literature scholar Brook Thomas challenges historians to revisit early Reconstruction historiography and to see it in the context of twentieth-century debates about the nature of evidence, narrative, and history itself.

Beyond historical writing, the era of Reconstruction has been difficult to publicly commemorate. Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor give us the first detailed study of an early twenty-first-century effort to create a National Park Service site devoted to the era. Beaufort, South Carolina, is at the heart of the piece, which explores the failure of a project that garnered support locally and at high levels of government. At issue here is how and where people learn about history and whom they trust to explain it.

Reconstruction remains a crucial and sometimes confusing area to teach. In her essay, Hannah Rosen discusses the approaches she and others bring to the subject in the classroom, focusing on using the period as an opportunity to teach about the history of race and racism.

Finally, in a roundtable on Reconstruction and public memory, David M. Prior moderates a discussion among four professors who have been variously involved in public history projects—Beverly Bond, Thomas J. Brown, Eric Foner, and Salamishah Tillet—along with Nancy Bercaw of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Jennifer Taylor of the Equal Justice Initiative. Their theme is the challenges and possibilities of encouraging public engagement with the era of Reconstruction.

While it is clear that certain themes will remain central to the study of the post–Civil War Era—emancipation and abolition, racial formation, labor, state building, constitutional change, and enfranchisement—the essays published here remind us of the protean nature of a period that, a century and a half later, remains open to new historical questions and dramatic reinterpretation. Our hope is that this special issue inspires further discussion and debate about where this era’s future might lie.

Author Interview: Kevin Waite

Here at Muster, we are fostering more opportunities for readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era to engage with our talented authors. Thus, in 2017 we will begin providing short author interviews to jump-start some stimulating discussions. Our first interview is with Kevin Waite, whose article “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West” appeared in the December 2016 special issue on the Civil War West. Kevin earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2016 and currently teaches at Durham University in the U.K. His research focuses on Southern visions of empire in the Pacific world and the extension of a proslavery political order across the Far Southwest during the Civil War era. He has also published on violence and masculinity in Napoleonic-era English public schools. His short-form writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the History News NetworkWe’re HistorySlateRaw Story, and TIME.


Thanks for participating in this, Kevin. How did you get interested in the history of the Civil War West?

I was born in what you could call the far western outpost of the slave South: Pasadena, California. As a kid, I knew nothing about the slaveholding southerners who owned the land that would become my hometown. And I had no clue that they had transformed Los Angeles County into a bastion of proslavery politics before and during the Civil War. But when I began my PhD at Penn in 2011, under the mentorship of Steve Hahn, I gradually began to connect the dots. After learning more about California’s (largely overlooked) proslavery past, I started searching for the slave South in other, unexpected places. In the end, I came to argue that we should understand the antebellum South in more capacious terms. In fact, there’s a compelling reason to view the entire Far Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and to a certain extent Utah – as an appendage of the slave South.

Much of this article comes from research I did as a first-year in graduate school, when I was trying to trace the scope of this proslavery sphere of influence in the antebellum West.

Can you give us a brief description of what your recent JCWE article discusses, and why you think this story matters?

It’s about how slaveholders – and Jefferson Davis in particular – used their influence at the federal level to dictate the course of development in the antebellum Far Southwest. We know, of course, that the controversy over slavery in the West was a driving – perhaps the driving – force in the road to disunion. But somewhat surprisingly, antebellum political historians tend to lose interest in the Far West after 1850. I suppose the assumption is that slaveholders surrendered their claims on the region once California became a free state. My article is, in part, an attempt to show otherwise – that southerners retained a keen interest in the fate of the Far West, and they were largely successful in imposing their policies on the region.

Central to this whole southern campaign were plans for a transcontinental railroad through slave country and into California. Of course, no Pacific railroad was constructed during the antebellum period. But through their efforts, southerners scored some important corollary victories – the Gadsden Purchase and the construction of an overland mail road across the southern corridor of the continent – that helped transform the Southwest into a political satellite of the plantation South.

Why do you think that proslavery expansionism has been such an understudied topic?

I actually think there’s quite a bit of excellent work on the subject. And I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering scholarship of Robert May, who really kicked off this growing interest in slaveholding imperialism. But much of the scholarly focus has been on the dramatic (and often bloody) attempts to carve out additional slave territory for the South. These were undoubtedly important episodes in the grand scheme of antebellum politics. But I think they may distract from the more enduring, if subtler, victories that slaveholders achieved across the Far West. Unlike rogue filibusters in the Caribbean, commercial expansionists like Jefferson Davis controlled the levers of power in Washington, and his vision for slavery’s future was grander and ultimately more attainable than those of would-be conquistadors like William Walker.

So the argument here is, in part, that slaveholding expansion took several forms. And the seizure of more territory for plantation agriculture may not have been the primary aim of all southern expansionists. Slaveholders like Davis sought to extend the commercial and political reach of the slave South through infrastructural development. And to a large extent, he achieved this expansion of proslavery interests.

Whether or not this sort of expansion should be understood as properly imperial, I’m still trying to work out. Matt Karp’s excellent new book, This Vast Southern Empire, has been particularly helpful as my thoughts on the subject develop.

What do you see as the next iteration of regional history? In other words, where do we go from here?

In short, we go bigger. The transnational turn in history is helping us reframe familiar narratives by expanding our geographic optic. I see the forthcoming work on the Civil War in the West as part of a larger historiographic development that seeks to understand how transregional and globally integrated forces gave shape to key historical moments. Of course, the war itself was ultimately won and lost in the major military theaters of the East. But the political transformations of the Civil War era reached far beyond the free North and slave South.

Can you recommend for readers some useful texts on the Civil War in the West?

 There’s so much good stuff coming out these days, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I suppose I should begin with where I, myself, really began: the amazing work of Stacey Smith. Her book, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction is, in my opinion, one of the most important works on the Civil War-era West. And of course, everything Elliott West writes helps reframe the way we think about the West during this period. Another good place to start would be the articles by Megan Kate Nelson and Pekka Hamalainen that appear in this issue. And everyone should read the work of this issue’s guest editor, Ari Kelman, especially A Misplaced Massacre. Far more than a sense of personal loyalty leads me to recommend Steve Hahn’s recent A Nation Without Borders. Then, for new books that challenge our understanding of slaveholding expansion more generally, I’d point to Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire and, again, Matt Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, to be sure, but there’s still plenty of room for new perspectives.


Many thanks to Kevin Waite for participating in this interview. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and we can continue the conversation!