All posts by Kristen Epps

Author Interview: Nancy Bercaw

To coincide with our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, we interviewed Nancy Bercaw, curator of the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Bercaw contributed to our roundtable discussion on how Reconstruction is represented in public history contexts. In this interview she discusses the challenges, surprises, and pitfalls she encountered while preparing these exhibits, and she also provides some timely advice for those interested in pursuing museum studies.


What were some of the challenges of telling the story of Reconstruction at the Museum of African American History and Culture? How did curators address those challenges?

Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced was how to maintain the complexity of the Reconstruction era without overwhelming the visitor. From teaching, I knew that students get lost in the twists and turns of Reconstruction and drown in legal acts and proclamations. The result is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. We addressed this by using physical space to our advantage. We set the legislative acts on a wall that literally faces another wall that explores the variety of African American expressions of freedom. Then we were careful to make sure each wall referred to the other. The ungodly violence was more difficult to convey. So we made a media piece filled with voices and images from the period to give force and movement to the period.

Do you have any sense of how visitors react to the parts of the exhibits that deal with emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow? What questions do they have? What surprises them?

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many visitors is that emancipation was the result of African American thought and action. People are used to the Lincoln story or the fact that “the nation” waged a war against slavery. They see this as inevitable. So when they see the story through the African American lens they understand that the demise of slavery was far from inevitable, far from complete, and that it took thought, action, and political ingenuity. They are also taken aback that African American men held elected office after the Civil War and that so many homes, businesses, and institutions were built in this period. Jim Crow is less of a surprise.

In light of new developments like the museum, the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, and public commemorations of the Memphis Massacre, do you think it’s increasingly possible to talk about Reconstruction in public life today?

I certainly hope so. I certainly see it referred to more on social media and in the press. That being said, we have a long way to go. I think most Americans have no idea what Reconstruction was. We hope to use social media and our website to provide a public forum for debates that are largely confined to academic discussion and social activism.

Many people have drawn connections between Reconstruction and our current moment. What do you personally think is the best, most historically honest way to make those connections and tell that story? What are the stakes when we do so, and what are the potential pitfalls?

I think the pitfalls lie in telling any story that makes history seem cyclical, inevitable, or unchanging. This shapes the way I make connections between past and present. I have really appreciated using the concept of afterlives—a sedimentary vision of history—to display past and present. We can do this in a three-dimensional medium through juxtaposition and repetition. For example, when you enter our history galleries you can see down three levels with the Edisto Island slave house on the first floor and the Jim Crow railcar and the Angola prison guard tower on the second floor. You can see the passage of time but you can also see (quite literally) the past in the present.

You moved from being a history professor to being a museum curator. What are some of the biggest differences between the two jobs? How is writing history different from producing it in a museum?

What I have found so delightful and satisfying is how the two careers really work well together. At the University of Mississippi, I was responsible for teaching survey classes that were often quite large. Lectures, therefore, were inevitable. It turns out that this is quite valuable experience for putting together a museum exhibition. For one thing, you are always concerned about your audience. How can you invite them into a topic? How can you make it useful, engaging, and relevant? How can you leave spaces for them to put together the material themselves and own it? Finally, I really enjoyed surveys because you take a large and complex topic and break it down in such a way that it remains complex, but knowable. Exhibitions work the same way. You are faced with a vast array of material and stories (such as U.S. History to 1865). Then you consider your overarching goal. After you gain clarity on that, you construct “units” (or in the case of an exhibition “sections”) that deepen and challenge that thesis. You provide tools for your audience to make sense of and test your assumptions.

What kinds of work experience did you have, prior to going to the museum, that made it possible for you to get a position as a curator? What advice would you give to graduate students in history and other people interested in making a similar transition? 

My experience is very dated in many ways. There was no pathway into the museum field in the 1980s. In college, I kind of felt my way through it and studied history, art history, and literature. I kept looking for history with a life in it. Today that would be in a studies program but they really weren’t developed much in my day. So I became a history major. When I told my advisor that I wanted to work in museums, he was disappointed with me. I am not sure he took me seriously after that. But I was pretty determined so I found my own way. When I graduated from college I lived at home, worked, and saved money and then applied for an internship at the Smithsonian. Against all odds, that turned into a temporary job where I worked on the Inventory Team, then as a museum technician, and finally as a research assistant for Gary Kulik, the Chair of History and Culture. Over those three years, I got pretty restless because I wanted to be more creative and do history. But only curators could do that. And to be a curator, I was told, you had to have a PhD. So I applied to the Department of American Civilization at Penn which had a strong program for material culture and Southern history, and remarkable scholars in African American Studies. After being credentialed in this way, I again felt the pressure to conform and became a professor rather than a curator. It turns out this was great experience. I taught at Rhodes College and at the University of Mississippi, got tenure and all that and then got restless again. I was working on a book about museums and the reconstruction of race when a job came open at the Smithsonian. I jumped at the opportunity. I think my restlessness paid off in the end. Every deviation from the straight path gave me experience I could build on later.

As far as advice to others? Make sure to study material culture and think about it seriously as a form of evidence. A PhD is helpful but not always necessary. Teaching, either formally or informally, is critical. Don’t take “no” for an answer and slough off disrespect. Jobs and job descriptions may define you and define your value, but life’s too short to let that stop you.


We really appreciate Dr. Bercaw’s willingness to chat with us. If you have questions for her, please leave them in the comments! To learn more about the future of Reconstruction studies, please check out our online forum and the rest of our March 2017 issue, available on Project Muse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habeas Corpus, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Executive Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Voss-Hubbard, 173.

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

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

[11] Morris, 10.

[12] Morris, 95.

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

Kristen Epps

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

Open Access Features in the March 2017 Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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).

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!

Abolitionism, Vigilance Associations, and the Rhetoric of “Law and Order”

In today’s heated political climate, only days away from a contentious Presidential election, Americans are no stranger to public threats of intimidation or violence as a mechanism for maintaining “law and order.” From Donald Trump’s frequent references to the need for restoring “law and order” in urban communities, to his pleas for poll watchers, to the Bundy brothers’ revolt in Oregon, and the state action against #NoDAPL protesters in North Dakota, this theme of restoring the rule of law is inescapable.[1] In many news outlets, and even in casual conversations across the nation, there is a sense that we have lost our way. In many cases, these statements are a reaction to the perceived loss of political power or social hegemony. As women, African Americans, immigrants, the LGBT community, and other groups continue to fight for equality, those who had previously enjoyed significant social privilege are left with a sense of powerlessness. Promises of restoring law and order are both a mechanism for taking back what has been lost and a strategy for silencing dissent.

Such concerns would have been quite familiar to western Missourians living in the 1850s. The strife of Bleeding Kansas had shaken their world. In April 1855, an antislavery minister named Frederick Starr documented the goings on in Platte County, Missouri, a center of pro-slavery sentiment on the Kansas-Missouri border (in what is now the Kansas City metro). He wrote in a letter that “we are in the midst of terrible times…. The ballot box is violated, the press overthrown, the church denounced, surely pro-slavery forces are making great advances and one victory crowds on the heels of another…. Glorious nation this.”[2] He referred here not only to the Kansas troubles, but also to a nearly year-long struggle between Missouri anti-slavery advocates, like himself, and their pro-slavery neighbors. In addition to the battle to populate Kansas, Platte County simultaneously encountered profound internal conflicts over the presence of free-soilers and abolitionists in their midst, men and women whose antislavery views challenged the social order.

image-1-frederick-starr
Frederick Starr, a Presbyterian minister in Platte County, Missouri. From Milton E. Bierbaum, “Frederick Starr, A Missouri Border Abolitionist: The Making of a Martyr” Missouri Historical Review 58, no. 3 (April 1964), 309.

To some extent, this was a contest between anti- and pro-slavery value systems, a battle for the future of the United States. But as abhorrent as anti-slavery views might be to slaveholding leaders, it was only once abolitionist, free-soil, or colonizationist views became public, that they became a public problem, and abolitionists became public nuisances. To protect their definition of how proper slaveholding communities should function, cracking down on dissenting views was necessary to maintain law and order. In response, dissenters like Frederick Starr presented their own interpretations of law and order, critiquing pro-slavery rhetoric and offering a counter-narrative of the community’s needs and values.

Despite the fact that Starr did not preach against slavery from the pulpit, by 1854 he had become known throughout Platte County as an opponent of slavery. Starr’s primary antagonist was an organization called the Platte County Self Defensive Association (PCSDA), which formed at a public meeting in Weston on July 20, 1854, to protect the community from abolitionist threats. These groups were often known as vigilance associations or vigilance committees. They policed any “suspicious looking persons” who emigrated to Kansas, distributed abolitionist literature, or associated with slaves and free blacks. They also styled themselves as protectors of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas who might face abuse from Northern neighbors. They eventually adopted secret passwords and badges. The association had hundreds of members at its height, including such prominent figures as David Rice Atchison and Benjamin Stringfellow.[3]

Members of the PCSDA had repeatedly asked Starr to join, and he always politely declined, on the grounds that he had no slave property to protect. However, while shopping one day in a downtown Weston business, Starr found himself accosted by a slaveholder and PCSDA member, Jack Vineyard. Vineyard was frustrated by Starr’s refusal to recognize that “every good citizen, when there were certain legal institutions and interests in the community where he lived, should do all he could to maintain harmony and quiet and to protect legal property.”[4] In response to this very public disagreement, the PCSDA staged a mock “trial” of Starr. Several hundred people attended. In his vigorous defense, Starr outlined his own, competing definition of the challenge to law and order. Those who harassed citizens based on hearsay and false accusations were the true criminals, he believed, using extra-legal means and intimidation to silence citizens. When it came to Northern transplants like himself, Southerners could expect “that he will not be a disturber of the peace of the community nor disturb the legal rights of any man…. But it [the South] has no right to expect that a man will lay aside or change his opinions and principles.”[5]

image-2-weston
An early lithograph of the Weston waterfront. From Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri, http://www.kchistory.org/u?/Montgomery,7170.

By the fall of 1854, the Self Defensives’ posturing had tested the Weston community’s patience.[6] On September 1, 1854, citizens of Weston who opposed the use of violence (by either faction), and who were “favorable to law and order,” met in protest.[7] Their published pamphlet referenced the community’s need for stability and protection, stating that “our rights and privileges, as citizens of Weston, Platte county, Mo., have been disregarded, infringed upon, and grievously violated within the last few weeks, by certain members of the ‘Platte County Self-Defensive Association.’” Indeed, these actions had disrupted “the domestic quiet to our families, the sacred honor of our sons and daughters, the safety of our property, the security of our living and persons, the ‘good name’ our fathers left us, [and] the ‘good name’ of us all.”[8]

What mattered above all else, for those of either orientation, was stability. For slaveholders and their supporters, abolitionists were treasonous, cowardly, deceitful rabble-rousers who disrupted the peaceful workings of these Platte County communities. In response, anti-slavery residents, whether self-identified abolitionists or not, forwarded their own definition of law and order, decrying the PCSDA’s extra-legal maneuvers aimed at white dissenters and free blacks, their embrace of violence, and their attempts to constrain the freedoms of speech and press.

We find ourselves in a much different political context today, but Platte Countians’ internal war can provide some powerful lessons. The varying definitions of “law and order” that Republicans and Democrats adopt today—and that anti-slavery and pro-slavery partisans adopted in the 1850s—illustrate how divisive politics can be, particularly when it appears to threaten the normal, predictable workings of our society. This rhetoric of “law and order” speaks to our need for consistency and structure, and our human desire for a society that fundamentally makes sense. But claims (made by anyone) to restore law and order usually hearken to the need for extra-legal resistance as a mechanism to restore that law and order; Trump’s poll watchers and the PCSDA both serve as a perfect example of such cognitive dissonance. Such assumptions also liken the rule of law to justice, a dangerous false equivalency (as we learned from Nixon’s rhetoric in the 1970s, which led to an epidemic of mass incarceration). The American right to protest, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, gives the lie to the idea that law and order is the answer to injustice, or that restoring some mythic past will generate stability. Indeed, much of today’s rhetoric in this regard seeks to silence those who speak out against injustice, or to limit the rights of minority communities. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, this rhetoric carries weight, and those who engage in such language must bear the burden of that rhetoric if—or when—it leads to violence.


[1] For some examples, please consult “We Have to Bring Back Law and Order,” CNN Politics, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2016/09/27/clinton-trump-debate-hofstra-stop-and-frisk-sot-five.cnn; Trip Gabriel, “Donald Trump’s Call to Monitor Polls Raises Fears of Intimidation,” The New York Times, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/19/us/politics/donald-trump-voting-election-rigging.html?_r=0; Maxine Bernstein, “Jury finds all Oregon standoff defendants not guilty of federal conspiracy, gun charges,” The Oregonian, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-standoff/2016/10/oregon_standoff_verdicts_annou.html; Sam Levin and Nicky Woolf, “Protesters pushed back after mass arrests at North Dakota pipeline site—as it happened,” The Guardian, accessed October 30, 2016,  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2016/oct/27/north-dakota-access-pipeline-police-protesters-live-updates.

[2] Frederick Starr to Unknown, April 1855, Frederick Starr Papers, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.

[3] History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri (St. Louis: National Historical Company, 1885), 634-635.

[4] Frederick Starr to Dear Father and All, October 30, 1854, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[5] Frederick Starr to Dear Father, January 15, 1855, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[6] Lester B. Baltimore, “Benjamin F. Stringfellow: The Fight for Slavery on the Missouri Border,” Missouri Historical Review 62, no. 1 (October 1967): 18.

[7] At least four members of the committee appointed to draft their resolutions, George T. Hulse, Elijah Cody, A. B. Hathaway, and J. V. Parrott, were slaveholders according to the 1850 census.

[8] “Citizens Meeting,” Starr Papers, WHMC. This was published as a broadside that Starr included in his personal papers.

Kristen Epps

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