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Mercy Street’s Season Two Premiere: Radical Medical Procedures, Rebel Spies, ‘That’ Pinkerton, and the Plight of the Contrabands

Mercy Street header depicting three characters and a battle scene

Season one of PBS’s Civil War hospital drama, Mercy Street, took historical accuracy seriously, often reflecting recent historiography. Even its annoyingly inaccurate storyline involving John Wilkes Booth’s plot to blow up the hospital during a Lincoln visit was loosely based on actual events. The season ended with a cliffhanger involving the brutal stabbing of one character, and in the last moments, a fuse was snuffed out that would have blown up Lincoln and the hospital. The second season picks up where the first left off, throwing the audience back into the world of a federal hospital in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, during the summer of 1862. (Filming in Richmond, the cast and crew reportedly fell in love with Virginia’s capital city and its many historical sites and museums). The first episode is an effective concoction of romance, humor, and dramatic storylines situated within solid historical context.

Not surprisingly, medical drama is front and center. Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen writing a letter to the family of a deceased patient, and readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will recognize elements of “the good death” in how she describes the soldier’s final moments. Phinney also finds time to share a tender kiss with Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), in a contrived, but effective, romantic plot line that has been building since last season. More dramatically, last season’s stabbing victim, the despicable Silas Bullen (Wade Williams) endures two medical procedures that were radical for the time. The first requires experimentally pulling his intestines out to find and repair the damage. The other procedure is even more cutting-edge and is required after a second attempt on the patient’s life causes a rapid loss of blood. Foster recalls a doctor he met in London, James Blundell, and his draining of blood from one person into another. I’m not a medical historian, but a quick online search of reputable sources verifies the accuracy of the scene, as Blundell was one of the first to perform a successful blood transfusion. Impressively, the staging of the scene looks much like an 1829 illustration accompanying an article Blundell wrote for a medical journal.[1]

Drawing of a blood transfusion
Illustration from “Observation of Transfusion of Blood,” by James Blundell in The Lancet, June 13, 1829. Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

The wounds are the result of the plot to kill Lincoln. At the end of last season we saw Confederate sympathizer Frank Stringfellow (Jake Falahee) commit the crime because Bullen stumbled upon the conspirators in the hospital’s basement. Frank is betrothed to Emma Green (Hannah James), eldest daughter of the wealthy family that owned and ran the building as a hotel before it was transformed into a hospital by Union troops. Last season Emma tended to the facility’s Confederate wounded, but she has now decided that, despite the current lack of rebel patients, she wants to continue “to be a part of what is going on here.” This reveals that she is quickly evolving from the spoiled and defiant rebel she was in early episodes. Her character development is important; the war transformed nineteenth-century gender roles (debatably, only temporarily), especially among volunteer nurses. When Emma discovers that Frank is involved in the dastardly plot, she quickly and decisively ends their relationship despite having recently shared a carnal moment with him. Emma Green is no shrinking violet.

Meanwhile, Frank gets closer to Emma’s younger sister Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), who the war is also transforming. Determined to leave behind her comfortable southern belle life in order to support the Confederacy, she gets involved in Frank’s spy ring, helping him cover his involvement in the assassination plot. Later, she clandestinely communicates with shadowy figures and a woman (harkening to true spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow) who asks her to steal papers from a high ranking officer living in her family’s occupied mansion house. As Northern Virginia was indeed filled with female spies, this all comes across as realistic (even if Alice and Emma’s Virginia accents do not).

Hot on the trail of the conspirators, however, is a new character who could add pizazz to the show, Union Spy Chief Allan Pinkerton. (Yes, “THAT Pinkerton,” as he humorously says whenever introducing himself). Civil War enthusiasts will appreciate the character’s pomposity as portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne, and smirk at his comments about how much General McClellan relies on him. We are aware that his Confederate troop strength estimates were well off, playing a role in Little Mac’s timidity and failure. (In fairness, Pinkerton gave inflated numbers to McClellan largely because that’s what the general wanted to hear). Yet Pinkerton did successfully uncover spy rings, so he was not completely incompetent. Despite his comical arrogance, the show depicts him quickly uncovering the plot. “Someone is trying to kill him again,” he remarks, alluding to Pinkerton’s true-life thwarting of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln when he first arrived in Washington. Small details like this show that the writers did their homework.

Pinkerton dispatches his men to arrest Frank. When they do, as we might find out in episode two, the trail will lead to the Green household because of Alice’s involvement. There, the family is celebrating the return of their father (Gary Cole), who had been arrested for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. His son (Brad Koed) subsequently signed the oath to obtain his father’s release, but the patriarch’s sense of honor only causes him to become enraged at his son’s “unpardonable act.” It turns out, however, that Emma’s efforts are what actually secured the release. Her personal request to Lincoln results in an executive order (yes, one of THOSE) releasing the southern gentlemen.

Yet it is through the crime investigation that the show has one of its best opportunities to address the complexities of race relations during the period, and I hope this is highlighted in future episodes. Pinkerton often succeeded thanks to the aid of an African American community eager to help the Union cause even before the war transformed into one of liberation. He relied on interviews with runaways to glean information about rebel troop dispositions and fortifications, and to root out southern spies. Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell) a slave in the Green household, has just started working in the hospital’s kitchen. Might Pinkerton interrogate or even use her to gather evidence against the family that she is ostensibly loyal to, and in which she is beloved? If so, it would be a powerful storyline revealing much about how supposedly “loyal” slaves desired freedom, were willing to betray their owners, and helped the Union cause.

For now, the biggest new storyline involving African Americans is the contraband camp near the hospital, and the arrival of former slave Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a new character patterned after real life heroine Harriet Jacobs. Fortunately, it appears that this storyline will receive even more attention in future episodes. She has been sent to “educate, support and fortify” the contrabands, as she boldly tells Dr. Foster. The confident woman immediately finds evidence of a smallpox epidemic in the miserable conditions in the camp. Here, the show is accurately influenced by Jim Down’s seminal book, Sick from Freedom, as white characters express the belief that the illness is only a “negro disease,” and that its lethal arrival demonstrates that blacks “weren’t meant for freedom.” Jenkins rightfully insists that there’s nothing racial about the disease, it is the camp’s terrible conditions causing it to spread. Foster is skeptical and thinks the illness in the hospital itself is typhoid. His apparently cavalier attitude about the contraband camp immediately makes Phinney regret their kiss, and she claims she will not let him “beguile” her again. (I wonder if I’m the only one that instantly thought of the overlooked Clint Eastwood Civil War movie, The Beguiled?) The episode’s ending reveals that Phinney is ill, but is it typhoid or smallpox? Hopefully the writers won’t let her condition cause the epidemic storyline to stray too far from the African Americans. It is praiseworthy that Mercy Street is examining the deadly contraband camp conditions that blacks often encountered on the path to freedom.

All of these events in the first episode take place just after the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The weeks afterwards saw a major shift in federal policy, as Congress and Lincoln became convinced that the campaign’s failure revealed that they needed to deprive the South of its slave population and do more to utilize southern blacks on behalf of the Union. As a result, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of disloyal owners. This means that Green’s loyalty oath would prevent Belinda and his other slaves from becoming free. I’m anxious to see if the show gets this correct and if it becomes the catalyst that pushes her into helping Pinkerton. Further, just weeks after the campaign, Lincoln presented a version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Previews of future episodes of Mercy Street reveal this season includes an exciting battle scene (perhaps Second Manassas, which should provide the hospital with an overload of wounded), but it is how well the show handles its race and emancipation storylines that will ultimately determine its accuracy and value.

After each episode, I’ll post a short review on my blog, History Headlines ( Follow the journey!

[1] James Blundell, “Observations of Transfusion of Blood,” The Lancet, June 13, 1829.

Glenn David Brasher

Glenn David Brasher is an instructor of history at the University of Alabama, and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) which received the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter, @GlennBrasher.

New Political Histories of the Sectional Crisis: A Report from the AHA

In August 2016, Kenneth Osgood and Fredrik Logevall (fresh from winning the Pulitzer Prize for his recent book on the Vietnam War, Embers of War) co-authored an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”[1] Like so many nostalgic jeremiads, it assumes that we have stopped teaching political history (or military history, or “traditional” history, etc.), and that politics is now a marginalized field. This is a familiar complaint rising and falling with predictable regularity, and it remains a relevant discussion in Civil War and Reconstruction studies.

At an AHA panel in Denver, historians presented their work in response to this op-ed at Session 150, “Linking the Local and the National in the Politics of Sectional Conflict.” The panel was chaired by Amy Greenberg and included roundtable presentations and discussion featuring Rachel Shelden, Corey Brooks, and Joanne Freeman. Their scholarship confirmed what we were all probably thinking when we saw the Logevall/Osgood op-ed: historians of the antebellum and Civil War eras have never stopped writing or teaching political history. Yes, certainly, there are historians working on less overtly political topics, yet we recognize the many ways in which social and cultural history supplement or alter our writing and teaching about politics. As social and cultural histories become integrated into political history, New Political History emerged, and perhaps what we are all engaged in now is as I once heard Jonathan Earle ironically call label it: the New New Political History. Put whatever label you’d like to on it, but as Shelden emphasized, political history remains as urgent a field of inquiry as ever for scholars of sectionalism.

Shelden’s Washington Brotherhood (2013) exemplifies the way in which political historians have integrated social and cultural history into their studies of the deeply widening sectional conflicts between the war with Mexico and the Civil War. In her current research, Shelden plans to provide just the same new political history approach—integrating non-traditional forms of social and cultural history into her examination of how personal engagement and friendship, collegiality and rivalry, partisanship and ideology all affected the judicial outcomes of the era. Shelden maintains that compared to the Presidency and Congress, the judiciary remains understudied. There is nothing more traditionally political than giving a branch of the federal government close scrutiny, and detractors aside, political history today must be more than the traditional focus on only elite actors in official capacities. Her examination of the pre-Civil War judiciary proposes to be just the kind of scholarship that would satisfy both political and social historians, because it will take the best of both approaches and illuminate an area of the emerging political crisis of the Civil War so often overshadowed by case studies of Dred Scott.

In his book Liberty Power (2016), and at the session, Corey Brooks argues that antislavery activists and the few politicians sympathetic to their aims used Congressional debates not to win over colleagues, and therefore votes, but instead as a national lyceum. The published speeches and reprinted pamphlets provided much needed labor in building a northern consensus from the 1830s to the 1860s that slavery, if not abolished, certainly needed to be limited in the West. Through the antislavery associations and ultimately through the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party, and Republican Party, Brooks attends closely to the ways in which partisans made effective use of both Congress and the press to move public opinion in the years leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln. For Brooks, the election of Lincoln, and perhaps the Civil War itself, is best explained by studying how political antislavery activists and politicians lobbied, petitioned, and simply harangued their constituents until politicians like Lincoln could express sentiments or support for policies (policies that a generation or two before would have been inconceivably marginal). For many historians of abolition, it is the social pressure of Garrisonians and the moral weight of antislavery intellectuals like Frederick Douglass which capture our attention when writing and teaching about antislavery. Often it is our understanding of the increasing anxiety in the U.S. about how to integrate newly acquired western lands into a nation with sharply diverging sectional economic structures, or the rise of Southern nationalism, or the collapse of the Democratic party, which dominate our understanding of the rise of the Republican party in the 1850s. Brooks, like Shelden, makes the best use of social and cultural history produced over the past twenty-five years in support of his argument that antislavery third-party politics needs greater attention because its role in the politics of the 1840s and 1850s has too long been overshadowed by other explanations for why the War came.

In her classic work Affairs of Honor (2001), Joanne Freeman may well have established the model for the New New Political History by taking seriously the role that cultural traits related to honor, reputation, and violence played in the lives and careers of early national politicians. Not surprisingly, the Hamilton-Burr duel brings many readers to Freeman’s book. (Too soon to call it a classic? I will anyway.) Since its publication Freeman edited Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001) for the Library of America and has been consumed lately with interviews about the Broadway musical Hamilton (its success attests to the public’s continued interest in “traditional” political history). Her next research project carries her interest in political violence and early U.S. history into the 1830s and 1850s. For Freeman, this period experienced a noticeable shift in print culture in terms of format, content, and accessibility, which along with western expansion, led to the rise of a particular class of “fighting men” within partisan politics. Beyond “affairs of honor” such as duels, these antebellum fighting men provided election day muscle to intimidate people into voting (or not), demonstrated to voters and partisan opponents that words would and often were backed by actions, and may well have led to the escalation of violence in America’s urban centers, but also, of course, in Kansas. She suggests that Representative Preston Brooks’s vicious caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 is in need of greater political context than traditional explanations of Southern honor codes and widening sectional indecorum on the floor of Congress. So frequently in the Northern antebellum press, but also in our scholarship, political violence is attributed to either the genteel Southerner bound to defend his reputation or, alternatively, the barbaric lower classes, often immigrants, who resorted to violence rather than politics or law to settle their disputes. Despite these assumptions, Freeman has identified “fighting men” in the North and South, among Democrats and Republicans, and it may no longer be tenable to maintain that political violence operated on the margins, utilized only be those to be deplored.

Generally, when anyone bewails the decline of the study of traditional forms of history, I tend to shrug because I know that they are wrong. Traditional history is just fine, and I also find the ongoing inquiry into less traditional topics to be both interesting in its own right, but also so obviously useful to political historians like those who participated in this AHA panel. For models of scholarship that integrate social and cultural history into political history on the coming of the Civil War, you could do little better than reading or teaching these panelists.

[1] Fredrick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” (accessed January 17, 2017).

Nicholas Cox

Nicholas P. Cox is currently the Program Coordinator for the History Department of Houston Community College. He is currently writing a political biography of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, as well as instructional supplements for OUP’s Texas history textbook, Gone to Texas. He has given presentations on his research and teaching at the AHA, SHEAR, TXSHA, ETHA, and HASH; referees article submissions for the Journal of South Texas; and reviews books for a number of journals. You can easily find him on Twitter @npcox or by email at

First National Monument to Reconstruction Will Become a Reality

On January 12, 2017, President Obama signed an executive order designating five sites near Beaufort, South Carolina, as a National Parks Service monument. This will be the first NPS site to commemorate Reconstruction, and it comes after many years of work. Throughout his presidency, Obama has supported the creation of a more inclusive National Parks system, and Civil War historians have lent their expertise and guidance throughout this process.[1]

This site’s significance cannot be overstated. Public memory of Reconstruction is often fraught with inaccuracies and biases, and a historic site that draws on federal resources has the potential to help all Americans learn more about this pivotal—yet understudied—period of our history. As Kate Masur has noted, “the new Reconstruction Era National Monument can help Americans grapple with difficult aspects of the nation’s history, including slavery, emancipation, racism, and violence.” Greg Downs concurs, stating that this is “a long overdue moment, and one of the most significant expansions of the National Park Service since its founding.”[2]

Please join us in celebrating this groundbreaking accomplishment. We extend special congratulations to our associate editors, Greg Downs and Kate Masur, who played a key role in this lobbying effort! They have also edited a special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era for March 2017 that addresses the future of Reconstruction studies, and which includes an article on Beaufort by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller. We look forward to seeing this research in print, and we hope you will find it to be a valuable resource.

[1] Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, “Obama Names Five New National Monuments, Including Southern Civil Rights Sites,” Washington Post, (accessed January 12, 2017).

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument Dedicated to Reconstruction,” New York Times, (accessed January 12, 2017).

In “Defense” of James Buchanan

Journalists, pundits, the public, and even some scholars love to celebrate James Polk as a “man of destiny,” successful president, “a political chess master,” and an “expansionist leader” with a “republican vision” who, through “extraordinary diligence,” worked to “spread the blessings of American democracy.”[1] James Buchanan, on the other hand, is roundly condemned as the “worst” president and an example of “political ineptitude,” most recently in a post on Muster.[2] These judgments, I believe, are misleading and inaccurate. Polk was indeed successful in achieving the majority of his goals as chief executive, but so was Buchanan. The fact that secession occurred during his administration should not cloud our assessment of his political skills and ability to accomplish his aims. If we judge him a failure because his actions led directly to the Civil War, then we must judge Polk likewise, as his invasion of Mexico was arguably the match that set the house aflame. Consider this blog post, then, a ‘defense’ of Buchanan’s political acumen and success (though certainly not an endorsement of his distasteful policies).

Before we can even get to his administration, we need to appreciate the fact that Buchanan and his operatives wrested the 1856 Democratic nomination from the hands of Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Appeasement of 1850, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the most widely-admired Northern Democrat of the decade. Such a feat was no accident. Months ahead of the Democratic national nominating convention in Cincinnati, Buchanan worked to maintain the allegiance of the slave states, alienate Douglas from partisan leaders, and directed state-level operations to guarantee that key Northern states, such as Indiana, would hold strong for “Old Buck” despite large pro-Douglas majorities. At the convention, Buchanan operated through his top advisers Jesse Bright of Indiana and John Slidell of Louisiana to ensure that critical committees were dominated by “Buchaneers,” that the traditional Two-Thirds Rule (which benefitted the staunchly pro-slavery Buchanan) was renewed, and that states with divided delegations, like New York, remained inert. Douglas, despite his popularity, did not really stand a chance. Buchanan was many things, but politically inept was not one of them.

Portrait of James Buchanan
President James Buchanan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As president-elect, Buchanan moved quickly to assemble a cabinet that suited his needs and leadership style. In order for us to judge the effectiveness of his cabinet, we must consider his desires and designs. Yes, Buchanan’s cabinet was lackluster, full of pro-slavery cronies and mediocre minds. But that is exactly what the confident Buchanan wanted. He had spent a lifetime in public service, and he knew from experience how to run an administration and deal with Congress. He also knew exactly which policies he wanted to pursue. Thus, he did not want a “team of rivals” (as the inexperienced Lincoln needed) or an assemblage of great intellects (as Monroe had preferred). Buchanan’s selection of the incapacitated Lewis Cass for the State Department was especially deft, since the president-elect had extensive foreign policy experience and clear diplomatic goals. Instead of assembling capable administrators and trusted advisers, Old Buck, the tough partisan warrior and seasoned public servant, chose to use his cabinet appointments for patronage purposes. He sought to use his appointive power to heal the internal party divisions wrought by his predecessor Pierce (who bungled appointments so badly that he had a partisan revolt on his hands before he even took office). These were Buchanan’s priorities, and we historians must respect them as such.[3]

While he selected his cabinet, President-Elect Buchanan also worked behind the scenes to achieve a long-held personal and partisan goal: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against black Americans and against Congressional authority over slavery. Buchanan, ever the skilled wire-puller, achieved exactly that with the infamous Dred Scott decision. Originally, Supreme Court justices were not inclined to issue a broad ruling on the legal status of the enslaved Missourian Dred Scott, but Buchanan, who had close personal and professional connections to several of the justices, exerted pressure of dubious legality and convinced the court to turn the Missouri case into a national edict on slavery and federal power. It was a major victory for the Slave Power, and an epic accomplishment for a man not yet even inaugurated.[4]

As president, Buchanan continued to achieve his goals: he reduced U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic anti-slavery naval squadron; forced Nicaragua to grant transit rights across the isthmus; bullied Mexico into accepting U.S. occupation during times of civil disturbance; sent nineteen warships with 200 guns to Paraguay to force acceptance of U.S. economic interests; purged his Democratic Party of any lingering anti-slavery elements or moderate “Softs”; prevented any federal action during the Panic of 1857; and forced the defiant Mormon community at the Great Salt Lake to recognize and accept U.S. authority. More famously, Buchanan, in an unprecedented exertion of executive influence, was able to push the fraudulent, pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of Kansas through an uncooperative Congress full of anti-slavery Republicans and anti-Buchanan supporters of Stephen Douglas. Like the Dred Scott ruling, it was an epic accomplishment, though, unlike Dred Scott, one largely misunderstood or underappreciated by scholars. The president employed all manner of carrots and sticks to achieve his greatest victory, everything from cash bribes to patronage promises to political assassination to turning wives against their Congressional husbands. The fact that the constitution was quickly rejected by Kansans does not in any way diminish the magnitude of Buchanan’s achievement.[5]

Buchanan did not expect or plan on the “secession winter” of 1860 to 1861, and his failure to act in defense of the Union is rightly condemned by most historians. That should not change, however, how we see the rest of his administration, a single term in which he achieved monumental political victories and proved himself a wily politico, skilled strategist, and powerful executive. He and his supporters were enormously proud of their accomplishments, and Buchanan even penned an 1866 monograph vigorously defending and celebrating his actions.[6] Like Polk, he achieved most of his goals, served only one term, presided over a dramatic party split, and watched Democrats fail in the next presidential contest. If we are to judge the success or failure of an administration based solely on achievement of executive goals, then Buchanan should rank alongside Polk. If, however, we want to judge a president on the morality of their policies and their long-term impact on the health of the nation, then both Polk and Buchanan must be deemed rotten failures. We cannot have it both ways: Polk judged on his accomplishments, while Buchanan measured by morality. Similarly, we must recognize that the designation “worst” president is a moral, anachronistic one, and does not accurately reflect his achievements (no matter how distasteful they may be to us today).

[1] Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 1-2, 224; Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987), 51; Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (New York: Pearson, 2005), 211; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 579.

[2] “James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president?” Constitution Daily, (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst. President. Ever.” Politico. (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan.” CBS News. (accessed December 19, 2016); Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016); Garry Boulard, The Worst President – The Story of James Buchanan (iUniverse, 2015); Rick Allen, “Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan,” Muster, (accessed December 19, 2016).

[3] For more on Buchanan’s cabinet, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995).

[4] For more on Buchanan’s role in the Dred Scott decision, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995); Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[5] For more on Buchanan’s role in the passage of the Lecompton Constitution, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).

[6] James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866).

Michael Todd Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of history at Tarleton State University (member of the Texas A&M System) and author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014). He is also a board member of Historians Against Slavery and edits the HAS Blog. He is currently working on Georgia in the Civil War era. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @DrMichaelLandis.

New Year, New Look!

As 2017 begins, the editorial staff at The Journal of the Civil War Era wishes you a Happy New Year! If you are interested in submitting work to the journal, please check out our submissions page for more details.  

Here at Muster, we are excited about our plans for this year, including the unveiling of our new header design (see above).  It depicts the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, later designated the 5th U.S. Colored Infantry, which served at various places in the Eastern theater, including at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. This image was taken in Delaware, Ohio, probably in 1863.

We are also looking for post submissions and welcome work that addresses the intersections between the Civil War era and the present day, as well as posts on Civil War pedagogy and reflections on public history resources. Posts are normally 1,000-1,200 words, cited in the Chicago style, with a few relevant images. If you have an idea to pitch, please use either the “submit a pitch” feature, or you can email the digital media editor, Kristen Epps, at

If you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter (@JCWE1) and like our Facebook page. We would love to hear from you.

Happy reading and researching!

Christmas Mourning, Confederate Widows, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

“I have now spent ten difficult holidays without my late husband…so, why am I still surprised a decade later, when my mostly healed heart, breaks back open during the holidays like clockwork? Just what is it about the holidays that brings the pain of our loss back to the forefront of our hearts?” asked Rhonda O’Neill, author of The Other Side of Complicated Grief, in The Huffington Post this month.[1] For many like O’Neill, the onset of the holiday season brings bittersweet memories of holidays past. An old song, a cracked ornament, a smudged family recipe is often all it takes to transport a person back to an earlier time, when a parent was young, a child was new, or a loved one laughed alongside us. The absence of loved ones is particularly acute during the holiday season, a time when families are supposed to be together. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, as we work our way through Christmas present, we are often visited by the ghosts of Christmas past…and we realize that Christmas future will never be quite the same.[2]

Nineteenth century Americans also experienced these pressures of past, present, and future weighing heavily on them during the holiday season of the Civil War. Approximately 750,000 men died in the war. We know this number, know that it earns the distinction of being the bloodiest American war, but often we do not think about what this number meant, in terms of families changed, sons killed, women wearing black, buildings draped in crepe. For war wives and widows, the holidays were an especially emotional time, as women dealt with the absence of loved ones, whether temporarily or permanently, as a result of the war. Confederate widows, who struggled with armies marching through their towns, scarcity, and ultimately, losing a husband to a war that would also be lost, found the holidays to be particularly painful.[3]

“Christmas Eve,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
“Christmas Eve,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Southern newspapers of the period broadcasted reminders of holiday loss. “This day, Christmas, again greets us and our readers. We could wish them, one and all a merry Christmas, but we are reminded that many a home in the state is deserted by the strong and the young men, who are off on the battle field,” printed one North Carolina editorial in 1861, continuing, “Were our people to indulge in the usual festivities, they might in the midst of their gaiety, receive the unwelcome tidings that a father, a son, or a brother were weltering in gore on the bloody field.” As time passed, holiday greetings grew even bleaker, as the same paper noted in January 1865, “whilst we write, the warm blood from the heart of many a strong man and bright eyed boy no doubt reddens the soil. The whole nation is a vast house of mourning. Christmas, once so merry and joyous, now finds the widow and her little ones clustered together in grief. Carnage, blood, fiendish malignity, devilish hate, ail the horrors of hell, seem to rise uppermost and turn the land into a vast slaughter-pen!”[4]

Even before the finality of death, couples missed one another during the war. In December 1861, William Gaston Delony, a Confederate officer, wished “a merry Christmas to all my treasures at home.” His wife responded, “I cannot wish you a Merry Christmas…I pray God that this day in the coming year will find us reunited.” “I hope the poor little things will enjoy Christmas,” she wrote of her children, but “I cannot feel ‘merry’ such times, [but] will kill my only turkey and dispose of a slice or so in consideration of the day, but that’s all. A long and rainy spell has begun.” William planned to be home for future Christmases, as his wife wished, but neither plans nor wishes came true. William died just after his 9th wedding anniversary in the fall of 1863, leaving behind three children and his pregnant wife for an even rainier holiday season.[5]

Families anticipated the difficulties of widows’ grief, especially during the holidays. In 1863, a soldier wrote his sister, Louisa, “I hope you may enjoy yourself this day and have a merry Christmas, but no doubt you could enjoy your self much more if dear Jimmy was alive.” Louisa was a recent war widow, celebrating her first Christmas without her husband. “My dear wife,” James Nixon had written back in August, “this is to inform you that my wound is still improving slowly…hope to be able to start home in a few days.” That was his last letter. Instead of being home for Christmas, James would leave a widow with four sons under the age of ten.[6]

“The Effect of the Rebellion on the Homes of Virginia,” Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1864. Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens.
“The Effect of the Rebellion on the Homes of Virginia,” Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1864. Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens.

Even those who had not lost husbands recognized the heaviness of the wartime holiday season. In 1861, Sallie Brock Putnam of Virginia reflected, “never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us,” for “the friendly congratulations of the seasons were followed by anxious inquiries for dear boys in the fields, or husbands or fathers.” By Christmas 1864, those uncertain inquiries were replaced by certain deaths. Sallie believed the sacrifices for the Confederacy “could all have been borne bravely, cheerfully, heroically – it is almost too trifling to notice, had not the vacant place recalled the memory of one or more, whose bones were bleaching somewhere on the field made red with the mingled blood of friend and foe.”[7]

Most widows never forgot that “vacant place” Sallie referenced. Though Tivie Stephens’ marriage lasted just four years, she mourned her husband’s death for the rest of her life. In her journal, she systematically reminded herself of her losses. On the anniversaries of significant dates until her death in 1908, she noted the absence of her husband, an absence that tinged holidays with grief. Christmas 1864 was “a sad instead of a merry one.” Christmas 1866 was also “a quiet and sad one to me, though the children happy.” For some families, the wartime holiday season was not simply marked with death, but it permanently altered the future.[8]

Unidentified woman, in mourning dress and brooch showing a Confederate soldier, holding a young boy wearing a kepi. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Unidentified woman, in mourning dress and brooch showing a Confederate soldier, holding a young boy wearing a kepi. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The war, of course, would ultimately end with the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, and finally, for the first time in four years, Americans would experience a Christmas without war. But even after the formal conclusion of the war, many white Southerners continued to struggle with the celebration of Christmas. In December 1865, a book reading took place in Virginia. “Not during the war, nor since the war, have we seen such an audience assembled at Liberty Hall, last night, to hear Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” reported the local paper. Charles Dickens’ words were “a fitting preface to the holiday season,” enjoyed late into the night. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who had just woken from a terrible series of nightmares to a new morning, many Americans also woke to new possibilities in 1865. But for widows, across time and generation, Christmas mourning is not nearly so bright. As Rhonda O’Neill wrote a couple weeks ago, “I am finally coming to the conclusion that the holidays will always be difficult, whether one year, ten years, or two decades after my loved ones died. This is the reality we must learn to live with. We will always miss them.”[9]

[1] Rhonda O’Neill, “The Fog of Grief During the Holidays,” HuffingtonPost, (last modified December 6, 2016).

[2] Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), grew in popularity over the decades, rising to greatest fame in America after the war. Even so, Americans were familiar with the book before the war; for example, the New Orleans Daily Crescent newspaper published the text within their newspaper on December 25, 1852.

[3] Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 136-137; J. David Hacker argues that approximately 750,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War, and that if 28% of the men who died in the war were married, 200,000 widows would be created. J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead” Civil War History 57, no. 4 (2011): 311.

[4] “Christmas,” Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, December 25, 1861, (accessed December 18, 2016); Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, January 24, 1865, (accessed December 18, 2016).

[5] Will Delony to Rosa Delony, December 20, 1861; Rosa to Will Delony, December 21, 1861; Rosa to Will Delony, December 22, 1861; all from William Gaston Deloney Family Papers, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.

[6] Dallas Wood to Louisa A. Nixon, December 25, 1863; James J. Nixon to Louisa A. Nixon, August 8, 1863, both from James J. Nixon Letters, 1861-1863, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville (GSL-UF).

[7] Sallie Brock Putnam, Richmond during the War: Four Years of Personal Observation, ed. Virginia Scharff (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 89, 267-9.

[8] Octavia Stephens Diary, December 25, 1864, December 25, 1866, Stephens-Bryant Family Papers, GSL-UF.

[9] “The Reading Last Night,” Alexandria Gazette, Alexandria, Virginia, December 23, 1865, accessed via (accessed December 18, 2016); Rhonda O’Neill, “The Fog of Grief During the Holidays,” HuffingtonPost, (last modified December 6, 2016).

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is also the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, forthcoming with the University of Georgia Press in summer 2017.

Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan

At this critical juncture in our history, a new American president will be sworn into office with a nation that appears very divided. Chief among the decisions weighing on Donald Trump’s mind should be how to set up an administration which will bridge that divide. In doing so, he could certainly look to history to find moments when his predecessors faced a similar task. In that regard, there may be no greater parallels than the divisiveness facing President-elect James Buchanan in 1856, and also Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The stakes for the American republican experiment were perhaps higher in 1856 than at any previous time in the history of the nation. When Buchanan took office, physical violence was occurring in Kansas over the introduction of slavery into that territory. With the votes of the solid South, he had narrowly defeated not only the new Republican party whose platform demanded there be no additional slave territory, but also had faced an anti-immigrant third party.[1] Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore accurately stated, “I tell you that we are treading upon the brink of a volcano that is liable at any moment to burst forth and overwhelm the nation.”[2] With the Republican candidate carrying New England and what today would be considered the “Rust Belt” states of the Old Northwest, and Buchanan, the Democrat, carrying all the slave states and only 45 percent of the total national popular vote, the situation begged for a unifier.

Party unity was indispensable and the selection of Buchanan’s cabinet could have been a major catalyst toward the achievement of this goal. With the threat of secession looming, the future of the Union seemed to be hanging by the slim thread of a Democratic victory in upcoming presidential elections. It would not have been an impossible task to hold that party together. The situation called for firm leadership and a spirit of unity, not only within the Democratic party but within the nation itself. With Stephen A. Douglas in command of Illinois, and Buchanan’s friend Jesse Bright as the leader in Indiana, the president-elect could have forged a working coalition over the next four years. James Buchanan indicated just a few weeks after his election, “the object of my administration will be to destroy any sectional party, North or South, and harmonize all sections of the Union under a national and conservative government.”[3] The first of these aims was almost met by the time Buchanan left office, but it was not the Republicans who were in tatters—rather, it was his own Democratic party, split in an unnecessary rift with Stephen A. Douglas. The latter of these aims was not even a possibility four years later, as by that time, seven states had seceded and formed their own government.

With his cabinet selections, Buchanan was presented with substantial opportunities to not only diminish the growing sectional conflict within the nation, but to also set an example for future leaders within the Democratic party. The president-elect’s harsh campaign rhetoric toward the Republican party had fanned the flames of passion as he had repeatedly referred to them as abolitionists and infidels against the Union. Yet rather than moving to heal the divide and consider all sides in his cabinet choices, Buchanan relied upon the advice of his closest friends and advisers who were either Southerners or “dough-faces” (Northern men with Southern principles). These included Howell Cobb of Georgia, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Indiana Senator Jesse Bright (a Kentucky slaveowner), and John Slidell of Louisiana. Many of these men had also been the chief architects of Buchanan’s nomination.[4] To begin with, Buchanan quickly offered all four of these men cabinet posts themselves, but in the end, all but Cobb declined.

Buchanan, above all else, desired harmony within his cabinet, though it was to come at the expense of harmony within his party and harmony within the nation. His thoughts on this subject were revealed in advice to Franklin Pierce in 1852, when he wrote that “without unity no cabinet can be successful…I undertake to predict that whoever may be the President, if he disregards this principle in the formation of his cabinet, he will have committed a fatal mistake. He who attempts to conciliate opposing factions by placing ardent and embittered representatives of each in his cabinet, will discover that he has only infused into these factions new vigour and power for mischief.”[5] Buchanan also desired men who he felt were personally and socially compatible.[6]

When the smoke cleared in early 1857, Buchanan went to Washington with an entirely pro-Southern cabinet which consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces. In the end, Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation. The New York Tribune labeled it a cabinet controlled by slave-drivers. The paper mused, “It is well understood now that the South have got Mr. Buchanan stock and fluke. Nobody who has been intimately conversant with his political career ever doubted this would be so.”[7] There was not one Free-Soiler, not one man from a larger city, and, probably most importantly, not one popular sovereignty Democrat.

Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite assertions by many that Buchanan was the tool of his pro-Southern cabinet, that was not actually the case. They just happened to all agree because he had intended it that way from the start. He and his harmonious cabinet presided over the nation’s hastening dissolution. Buchanan indeed spent much time with his cabinet members. They convened every day in meetings, sometimes consuming four to five hours at a time. Yet Buchanan retained control and made the final decision which almost always coincided with his entrenched classical republican principles favoring the “property” rights of Southerners. Buchanan ranks today at or near the bottom of every poll of presidential effectiveness. A recent popular press book on Buchanan is titled Worst. President. Ever.[8]

In contrast with his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln selected men who were considered his political rivals for cabinet advisors, even retaining qualified men who were or had been Democrats.[9] He generally limited his cabinet meetings to twice per week on Tuesdays and Fridays, at noon in his office.[10] He was a patient listener at all times, regarding the advice of each cabinet member equally and “for what they were worth, and generally no more.”[11] Lincoln’s cabinet sessions often became contentious when members expressed disparate viewpoints. Yet Lincoln, ever respectful of all opinions, made the final decision, and is today revered for beginning the reunification process of a divided nation.

Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Buchanan, the political master, chose advisers who already agreed with him and mostly ignored their advice until the secession crisis was upon him. Lincoln, the political novice, chose advisers who held opposing viewpoints, calmly listened to their advice, and deftly managed to win a civil war hastened in many respects by Buchanan’s refusal to reach out to those who disagreed with him. History never specifically repeats itself, but there are parallels between 1856, 1860, and 2016. As we, like Buchanan and Lincoln, transition from one era in our national history to another, let us remember the only way to achieve true success requires the inclusiveness of both people and ideas.

[1] “Republican Party Platform of 1856, June 18, 1856,” The American Presidency Project, (accessed November 18, 2016).

[2] Statement of Millard Fillmore, Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., (1856), Appendix, 716.

[3] “Mr. Buchanan’s Inaugural,” New York Herald, December 3, 1856.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[5] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 11, 1852, James Buchanan Papers, 1783-1895, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (HSP).

[6] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 17, 1852, Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[7] “Pacific Road – Kansas A Slave State,” New York Daily Tribune, February 18, 1857.

[8] Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016).

[9] Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[10] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), I, 136-137.

[11] Ibid.

Rick Allen

Rick Allen is a history graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University. Having retired in 2016 from a career in the health insurance industry, he is now engaged in writing a thesis titled “Team of Confederates: The Political Ineptitude of James Buchanan” under the direction of Dr. Adam Criblez. Rick’s main historical interests are antebellum American politics, the sectional crisis, the history of leadership, and heritage education. He can be reached at

Did Disenfranchisement Give the South an Electoral Advantage?

There has been much recent discussion of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which boosted slaveholding states’ representation in the Electoral College by including for apportionment a population that received no benefits from government. Scholars have debated how this influenced national politics under slavery, but this conversation applies to the post-emancipation world as well.[1]

Let us start in 1860. With the three-fifths clause operating, the slaveholding states controlled 120 of 303 electoral votes (EV), or 40 percent. The free states desired a “0/5″ scenario, in which slaveholding states received no representation benefit for the enslaved population. In this case, the South would have controlled only 35 percent of all EV. In 1860, the three-fifths clause thus gave the South a substantial 5 percent bump.[2]

Under the South’s desired “5/5″ scenario — the one in which all slaves counted for representation — the South would have controlled 42 percent of all EV. That is a more modest bump of 2 percent (about 7 EV) over what it actually enjoyed under the 3/5 ratio.

Emancipation enhanced the South’s share of national power by propelling 3.9 million former slaves into the ranks of the population used as a basis for apportionment. With slavery gone, each former bondsperson would now be counted as a whole person rather than three-fifths of one. In principle, this was a “5/5″ scenario, in which all people (former slaves among them) were considered for purposes of representation.

In the 1872 election cycle, which was the first to rely on post-emancipation census figures, the South controlled 138 of 366 (38 percent) EV. Had former slaves not been included (a “0/5″ scenario), the South would have controlled only 90 of 319 (29 percent) EV. The emancipated freedpeople thus gave the South a 9 percent bump in representation in the Electoral College.

It was good that emancipation boosted Southern political power so long as those added to the apportionment population had access to the political process through the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship to African Americans, and the franchise to black men. But under the conditions of complete disfranchisement, which southern states came close to meeting around the turn of the 20th century, no African Americans received direct representation in Congress.[3] At that point, emancipation’s boost in Southern power worked (some might say ironically) against African Americans, who struggled against racist state regimes whose disproportionate strength in national government blacks’ presence was artificially inflating. Imagine trying to get federal anti-lynching legislation passed against Southern states that had worked to remove blacks from the voting population, and were stronger than they should have been because of it.

By 1900, African Americans were being largely expelled from the political process. Their concerns went unrepresented, and yet their numbers still boosted Southern representation in the Electoral College. Effectively, the country ran on the “5/5″ principle even though the reality was that close to “0/5″ of blacks could vote for their own representatives.

In slavery, this desire had resulted in the diminishment of Southern power. At the constitutional convention in 1787, representatives from northern states had bargained the South down to counting only 3/5 of each slave for representation. After the war, Republicans had sought to carry this principle into freedom by Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which provided for the diminishment of a state’s enumerated population in proportion to the proportion of voters it disenfranchised. That failed, though, as did the 15th Amendment’s voting protections, when the Supreme Court began (from the 1870s on) permitting ostensibly race-neutral but intentionally race-specific disfranchisement measures. This gave white supremacists the best of both worlds — they received the enhanced political power that went with a larger population, without the obligation to serve that population.

The numbers for 1900 bear this out. In the “5/5″ reality, the states that had held slaves in 1860 (“the South”) had 159 EV, or 35 percent of the total. Under a “0/5″ scenario, in which the South would lose representation for the blacks it refused to enfranchise, the South would have had only 112 EV, or 28 percent of a smaller House of Representatives.

Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The South thus gained a lot from disenfranchisement. At the turn of the century, its largely disenfranchised African Americans gave it a 7 percent bump in the Electoral College, which was even larger than the 4-5 percent bump the three-fifths clause usually gave under slavery. And, as before the war, this was a population included only to boost representation, for it could make virtually no claim on the political process at all.

The Electoral College has always provided the rule set for selecting the President of the United States. The framers of the Constitution hoped that this membrane between the voters and the office of President would insulate the electoral process from the “heats and ferments” of public opinion, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 68.[4] But the cost has been high, for anti-democratic politicians have always been willing to game the system. One might have thought that ending slavery would have ended the compromise embodied in the three-fifths clause — a system that John Quincy Adams came to call “morally and politically vicious.”[5] It was not to be. Of the many paradoxes to the “freedom” that followed slavery, one of the most neglected may be this: in the era of Jim Crow, ending slavery only made the white South stronger.

[1] “The Three-Fifths Clause,” PBS, (accessed December 9, 2016). For recent discussion of the Electoral College, see for example, “Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College,” AAIHS, (accessed November 14, 2016); “Is slavery the reason for the Electoral College?”, (accessed November 22, 2016); “Yes, The Electoral College Really Is A Vestige Of Slavery. It’s Time To Get Rid Of It.” WGBH News, (accessed December 6, 2016).

[2] All figures based on my analysis of data from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); “Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: the United States, 1790-1970 (ICPSR 3),” [Computer file] (Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 197?). A note of caution: there are many ways of building counterfactual scenarios with these numbers. I have made some plausible but not airtight assumptions, such as that the apportionment basis for each cycle would not change despite having fewer people in the apportionment population. Bottom line: republish these numbers at your own risk.

[3] Absolute disfranchisement was the goal, but it was rarely complete. I make no claims here about how many were actually disenfranchised. This is about hypothetical extremes.

[4] “Federalist No. 68,” The Avalon Project, (accessed December 9, 2016).

[5] Josiah Quincy, Memoir of the Life of John Quincy Adams (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Co., 1860), 108-9.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

Editor’s Note: December 2016 Issue

We are very pleased to announce the publication of our December 2016 issue. To our subscribers, you should find your copy in your mailbox soon, but here is the editor’s note previewing the exciting work being done in Civil War studies!

The essays in this issue are devoted to exploring the Civil War in the West, or, perhaps more aptly, they treat the war and Reconstruction as part of a long project of American empire building that resulted in a number of military conflicts, including the U.S.-Mexican War, Civil War, and Indian Wars. The perspectives and directions laid out here expand the war’s geography and its periodization in exciting ways, and they consider war and reconstruction as simultaneous processes.

Moving decidedly away from a narrative of declension, Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay explores how, for more than twenty years, Great Plains Native Americans—the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche, to name a few—exploited weakness to resist and obstruct American state designs and to score diplomatic and military victories against the state. This essay continues a conversation that Steven Hahn initiated in JCWE when he referred to the period of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction as the “Wars of the Rebellions” and described the war over slavery and the Indian Wars as part of an extended “crisis of sovereignty.” Hämäläinen tells a compelling and convincing story of “indigenous resilience in the midst of an expanding American state.”

Megan Kate Nelson takes this point up again in her essay, which considers the Civil War in Apache Pass, a disputed region of New Mexico and Arizona, where the U.S. and Confederate armies fought each other, and the Apaches, seeking their own advantage, fought them both. Nelson’s piece underscores the significance of belligerents seeking environmental advantages, as the Apache controlled access to the region’s scarce water supplies and pushed this vantage against both armies. So does this essay remind us of the importance of roads that convey men and materiél, something that connects the Civil War in the West with the one in the East.

American Indian resistance not only confounded American nation-building but had the power to move railroads. As both Nelson and Kevin Waite remind us, the Apache determined to rout the southern route of the transcontinental railroad, the one Jefferson Davis, as U.S. senator and secretary of war, promoted tirelessly as part of what Waite describes as his dreams of a proslavery empire in the West. In his essay, Waite identifies Davis and other southern railroad boosters as forgotten conquistadors, for theirs was an ambitious proslavery vision to be built in the Far West. Waite’s forgotten conquistadors include U.S. Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown, who was responsible for the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, whose wagon ruts Nelson explores in her essay that begins with the ruins of U.S. and Confederate empire-building in the West.

Stacey Smith’s review essay surveys the literature on the Civil War in the West from its rebirth, with Elliott West’s idea of a “Greater Reconstruction,” which he dated from the origins of the U.S.-Mexican War (1846) to the Dawes Act (1887). In the last ten years this work has taken Civil War scholarship in new directions; even so, Smith identifies some holes—surprisingly, the shortage of work on African Americans in the Far West, for instance. Smith leaves readers with some questions to consider about whether we can go too far—too far west, that is—but she is surely right when she points out that the crises in sovereignty explored here haunted American expansion into the Pacific after the war.

For his hard work recruiting and nurturing these essays along, I would like to thank guest editor Ari Kelman, whose own work has helped shift Civil War history from the East to the West.

To subscribe to The Journal of the Civil War Era, please visit 

The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History

Plantation tours offer an abundance of learning opportunities, but they can also offer a stereotypical, even anachronistic, portrayal of slavery and life in the Old South. For instance, a tour guide at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site near Brunswick, Georgia, stated during a tour that “in the holiday season, one of our volunteers comes dressed as Vivian Leigh.”[1] Such a statement may come as no surprise, since readers familiar with Representations of Slavery know that plantations continue to ignore and literally whitewash the story surrounding their properties.[2] However, some plantations have made a significant effort to incorporate the story of slavery into their tours. Regardless whether a plantation does or does not cover slavery, they provide an interesting mechanism to teach about the institutions of the Old South, collective memory, and public history. For this post, I will focus on visits to a series of plantations that happened in the course of my College on the Move-Living History Tour program, which takes students for roughly two-week trips to explore historic sites.

Picture of Latta Plantation’s big house. A rebuilt cabin resembling a slave cabin sits in the very back corner of the property next to a pig pen. Photo by author.

Besides the above-mentioned experience at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, the tour guide said not a single word about the institution of slavery or the slaves who worked the nearby rice fields. Such a state of affairs is certainly discouraging since many plantations continue to outright refuse, even when asked, to engage slavery. During our first tour in 2015, we visited the Alexander H. Stephens State Historic Site in Georgia. Here, the tour guide continuously referred to the slaves as servants, because they were like family to Stephens.[3] At Latta Plantation, near Charlotte, North Carolina, during our 2016 tour, students inquired toward the end of the tour about the slaves who had worked on the plantations, since the tour guide had not mentioned anything on the subject. The tour guide asked the students to wait until the African-American family, who had been on the tour, left, at which point, he answered in vague and circumscribed terms.

While morally and ethically unacceptable in today’s world, the refusal to talk about slavery offers a great teaching opportunity. A central avenue for addressing slavery’s presentation at such sites is in seeking to understand the role of stakeholders. Public history, as a field, prides itself on listening to stakeholders and their desires when putting together exhibits.[4] However, what happens when your stakeholders at the time of creation were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (as in the case of the Alexander Stephens home), or when you have an overwhelmingly white, potentially neo-Confederate audience? How can historians balance historic accuracy and stakeholders’ desires?

Thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule and some plantations have made extraordinary efforts to incorporate the story of slaves. While Whitney Plantation in Louisiana has received extensive media attention, the plantation remains a work in progress.[5] The visitor experience depends heavily on the capability of the tour guide, which unfortunately did not work out favorably for my group. It also relies on the eradication of some errors, such as the 1868 iron box on display to give a perception of slave pens (see below) and the occasional spelling error on signage. Considering the plantation relies heavily on the narratives compiled by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, and its memorial walls lack context, there are an abundance of teaching opportunities regarding slavery, memory, public history presentations, and oral history. How can curators deal with memories collected seventy years after slavery? Should they display objects of the era, or replicas?

The 1868, Pennsylvania-made jail at Whitney Plantation, which the signage explains as: “The flat steel bars on the doors are typical of the bars that appeared on doors of slave pens in the large auction houses during slavery.” Photo by author.

Just to the north of Whitney Plantation lies the fabled Oak Alley Plantation, which frequently serves as the popular image of the U.S. South. Aware of a negative reputation, according to the slavery tour guide, Oak Alley determined to change and include slavery in the house tour, but also to offer specialized slavery tours. The guide tells many stories about the enslaved people on the plantation, making a conscious effort to tell the story of their plantation’s slaves and avoid generalizations. The guide explicitly avoided talking about material that they had no evidence for at Oak Alley.

Three of the reconstructed slave cabins at Oak Alley Plantation. The first cabin on the right contains a sharecropper furnishing, while the other two contain an exhibit space on plantation slavery. Photo by author.

In order to present the physical element of slavery, the plantation reconstructed six slave cabins to go along with their new emphasis. Two of the cabins are furnished to represent slave homes, with a frame bed for the house slave and a mattress on the floor for the field hands. The other two cabins illustrate the post-emancipation residences of freed people. The final two cabins contain an exhibit, including a polished wood piece acknowledging the names of all the slaves on the plantation; there are shackles, farm tools, clothing replicas, and text panels explaining the institution. Oak Alley is an excellent teaching example where external pressures, reputation, and the growing diversity of visitors and stakeholders required a different story, unable to embrace a big house, planter narrative. Even more, by complicating the plantation narrative with the inclusion of slavery, these locations have to face the question of what happened after slavery.

Besides the two Louisiana plantations, on the East Coast another jewel has recently emerged: McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston. The plantation features an empty big house and the tour does not even set foot into this building. Instead, extremely well-trained tour guides, equipped with iPads for pictures, lead tours literally around the outside of the house to the six remaining, original slave cabins.

The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.
The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.

The guide personalizes the story of slave suffering, including their work and day-to-day life. The slave cabins not only tell the story of the slaves, but also their descendants. Most impressive about McLeod Plantation is the fact that descendants continued to reside here well into the 1990s, despite the lack of running water and innumerable building code violations. The story of freedmen, freedwomen, and post-emancipation suffering within Southern society during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era are impressively illustrated by the home firebombed in 1954. The charring is still visible on the floor.

Obviously most of us do not reside anywhere near these plantations to take students on a regular tour. However, we might have plantations around our own home institutions or we can utilize the web to digitally visit these locations with students. Plantations provide an opportunity to tackle not only the Old South’s social, economic, and political situation, but also to explore issues of post-emancipation social and economic change, class distinctions, the adjustments from slave to free society, and finally memory, tourism, and public history. Considering most people, including our students on future vacations, will get their history during plantation tours, it is crucial to illustrate the complex history of these sites and how slavery continues to be an overlooked subject in the public mind.

[1] Statement made during a visit in March 2015 at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, Brunswick, Georgia.

[2] Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002); James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: New Press, 2006).

[3] This is in part confirmed in Thomas Edwin Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 65-66, which calls Stephens a benevolent slaveholder.

[4] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 15-38.

[5] David Amsden, “Building the First Slavery Museum in America,” New York Times Magazine, (February 26, 2015); Debbie Elliott, “New Museum Depicts ‘The Life Of A Slave From Cradle To The Tomb,’” All Things Considered, (February 27, 2015); Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Smithsonian, (April 4, 2016).

Niels Eichhorn

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