Category Archives: Blog

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!

Teaching the West in the Civil War Era

Most courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction venture only briefly into the American West. Textbooks and lectures often dispense quickly with the region. They make fleeting forays into the Kansas and Missouri border wars, or the military conflict over the Mississippi River, before returning to a familiar North/South narrative focused on eastern battlefields and the halls of Congress.

The articles in the December 2016 special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era suggest that elevating the West to a place of importance alongside the North and the South can transform students’ understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction in some critical ways. Expanding our courses to encompass the American West does not merely add new people and new places to the story. Grappling with the West can change how we interpret the significance of the Confederate rebellion, the power of the federal state, and the success of postwar reconstruction. At the same time, incorporating the American West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course already dense with detail, and overflowing with complex themes, poses major conceptual and practical challenges. Below, I outline some strategies for getting the West into your Civil War and Reconstruction course and helping students wrestle with the region’s significance.

Avoid Treating the Confederate Rebellion in Isolation

Rather than focusing solely on the Confederate rebellion against the U.S. federal government, treat the Confederacy as one of many regional polities across the nation that contested federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century. One effective way to do this is to frame the Civil War as a two-front conflict for the United States. At the same time that the U.S. government waged war against a southern Confederacy that defied federal authority, it also prosecuted a western war against Native peoples who disputed federal sovereignty over their homelands. In this framework, the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek (1864) become part of the same story. Students can see them as similar turning points when U.S. military might began to crush regional rebellions against federal authority.

One particularly effective strategy for helping students see these connections is to shift focus to Indian Territory, the place where the southern and western warfronts converged with each other. Complex and shifting alliances among the United States, the Confederacy, and Indian nations—most of whom had a strained relationship with the U.S. government after removal—highlight the multiple, intersecting rebellions against federal authority that bound together the West and the South. Rather than being isolated from or tangential to the “real story” of the Civil War, Native peoples’ struggle to maintain sovereignty over their western homelands becomes vital to understanding the national conflict over the boundaries of federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Focus on Moments of Federal Weakness, Not Just Federal Strength

While a standard Civil War and Reconstruction course might emphasize the rapid expansion and consolidation of federal power during and after the war, events in the American West illustrate the weak and ineffectual nature of the federal state at the borders and margins of the nation. Instructors might assign Kevin Waite’s or Megan Kate Nelson’s essays in the special issue to demonstrate the federal government’s limited power to suppress Native resistance, Confederate invasions, and proslavery imperial ambitions in the distant, isolated New Mexico and Arizona territories.[1] Similarly, Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay can help students think critically about the limited reach of the federal state in the heart of the continent where expanding Native empires often dictated the terms of diplomacy to would-be U.S. conquerors.[2]

Pushing into the postwar era, instructors can juxtapose western and southern moments when the federal government attempted to quell rebellious local polities with mixed results. One lecture might compare federal efforts to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment in the former Confederacy and New Mexico. The inability of the federal government to root out the traces of chattel slavery in the South, as well as its utter ineffectiveness in eradicating peonage in the Southwest, can lead students into a discussion about the limits of the federal state’s power to institute a regime of free wage labor across the entire nation. A comparison of failed land redistribution plans for the freedpeople with the allotment of Indian communal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 could prompt a very different class discussion. The federal state’s power (or lack thereof) to impose a liberal vision of citizenship, based on property accumulation and small landholding, varied tremendously in the former Confederacy and in Indian country.

The events of 1877 also make for a promising point of comparison. Students can consider how the end of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, the Nez Perce War, and the Great Railroad Strike signaled fundamental geographic shifts in federal power. The decline of federal authority in the southern states coincided with the federal government’s swift reconfiguration and redeployment of state power to suppress Indian and working-class rebellions.

Depiction of battle between Nez Perce and the U.S. Army
“The Nez Perce War,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 3, 1877, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Use Biography to Connect North, South, and West

Finally, a powerful way to integrate the West into the familiar North/South story is to track the transcontinental journeys of familiar figures across the Civil War era. Remind students that nineteenth-century Americans did not live in sharply defined regional boxes. They traversed geographic boundaries in fluid ways that demonstrate the interconnectedness of regional histories. Instead of just examining William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts to suppress rebellion against the federal government in the heart of the Confederacy during the early 1860s, place his Civil War military career into the context of his decades-long relationship with the American West. Sherman spent much of the 1850s in California. He worked as a gold rush banker and sought to incorporate the new Pacific territories into the U.S. commercial economy. He had his first experience suppressing civil rebellion when Gov. J. Neely Johnson appointed him as a major-general in the California militia and charged him with breaking up San Francisco’s 1856 Committee of Vigilance, which had overthrown the municipal government. After the war, Sherman took the lessons of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas back to the West. He advocated scorched earth warfare against resistant Native people of the Great Plains that was reminiscent of his policy toward Confederate civilians. Sherman’s wartime promise of forty acres and a mule to southern freedpeople also presaged the kind of property redistribution and emphasis on small-scale agrarianism that the federal government tried to install on Native lands with the Dawes Act. Sherman’s experiences in the West both transformed and were transformed by his experiences in the Confederate South.

Six Union officers sitting outside a wood frame building
Ely S. Parker (seated, second from the right) at Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia, 1865, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Seneca General Ely S. Parker provides students with an example of how Native people also lived lives that do not fit neatly into North/South narratives. Parker advocated for Seneca sovereignty and land rights in New York before becoming General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal military secretary during the Civil War. He recorded the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865 that ended the Confederate rebellion. In the postwar years, as the United States embarked on the project of southern reconstruction, Parker oversaw the reconstruction of Indian country. He served as the first indigenous U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs and worked to make treaties with western Indian peoples that would facilitate their incorporation and assimilation into the United States. In Parker, students can see the intersection of southern and western civil wars and reconstructions, and the ways that Native lives transcended binary North/South conceptions of nineteenth-century history.[3]

Embrace Gradual Experimentation

Incorporating the West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course will necessarily require some trial and error. Rather than attempting to overhaul an entire course in one semester or quarter, consider gradually reworking a handful of lectures to include more western material, or insert a few additional western readings into the mix at critical points. Repeat the process every time you teach the class. After just a few iterations, the West will become a robust and natural part of the class content. The familiar North/South axis that once stood at the heart of the course will gradually give way to a national, continental, narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

[1] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (2016): 536 – 65; Megan Kate Nelson, “The Civil War from Apache Pass,” in ibid., 510 – 35.

[2] Pekka Hämäläinen, “Reconstructing the Great Plains: The Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent,” in ibid., 481 – 509.

[3] I recommend assigning C. Joseph-Genetin Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), which analyzes Parker’s critical role in postwar Indian affairs.

Stacey L. Smith

Stacey L. Smith is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (UNC Press, 2013) which won the inaugural David Montgomery Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She is currently completing a book on African American civil rights activists who migrated to the Pacific Coast of North America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

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 (https://historyandthenews.wordpress.com). 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?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/opinion/why-did-we-stop-teaching-political-history.html (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 nicholas.cox@hccs.edu.

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, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/obama-names-five-new-national-monuments-including-southern-civil-rights-sites/2017/01/12/7f5ce78c-d907-11e6-9a36-1d296534b31e_story.html?utm_term=.ce3df8461239 (accessed January 12, 2017).

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument Dedicated to Reconstruction,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/arts/president-obama-designates-national-monuments-to-civil-rights-history.html (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, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/04/james-buchanan-why-is-he-considered-americas-worst-president/ (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst. President. Ever.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-worst-president-james-buchanan-214252 (accessed December 19, 2016); “Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/worst-president-ever-the-ignominy-of-james-buchanan/ (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, http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/12/harmony-amidst-division-cabinet-james-buchanan/ (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 mlandis@tarleton.edu 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 kkepps@uca.edu.

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, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/getting-through-the-fog-of-grief-during-the-holidays_us_5846caf2e4b0707e4c81724b (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, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045706/1861-12-25/ed-1/seq-3/ (accessed December 18, 2016); Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, January 24, 1865, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045450/1865-01-24/ed-1/seq-2/ (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 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1865-12-23/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed December 18, 2016); Rhonda O’Neill, “The Fog of Grief During the Holidays,” HuffingtonPost, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/getting-through-the-fog-of-grief-during-the-holidays_us_5846caf2e4b0707e4c81724b (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.