Category: Blog

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

“I am with my youngest son George compelled for the love of our Beloved country to take up arms in defense of that liberty that our for Fathers fought to establish. May Heaven grant a speedy restoration of the hapy [sic] days once enjoyed & a safe return to our beloved ones at home.” So wrote Alva Cleveland on his birthday, a few months after he followed his twelve-year-old son George into the First Wisconsin, where George served as a drummer and Alva as a nurse. He was nearly sixty years old and a master painter. He and George lived in Racine, Wisconsin, with their wife and mother, Mary, an older brother, and two older sisters (another young woman and two young children also lived with them).[1]

This poor photograph of Alva and George Cleveland, apparently taken shortly after their enlistment, is the only surviving image of either. In Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

This rather unusual situation says a lot about the ways that Civil War-era Americans thought about parental duty, military service—and childhood.

A modern version of childhood had begun to emerge a couple of decades before the war started. It envisioned an extended, nurtured childhood free of economic responsibility. This was beyond the reach of most families, and older traditions of work prevailed for most children. Young boys had for centuries been expected to begin working as apprentices, as farm laborers, or as helpers to their fathers when they were nine or ten years old; by the nineteenth century, the decline of the apprenticeship system and the rise of the factory system led to more boys working in mills and mines. (Girls, of course, dominated the child and youth labor markets in many factory systems.) During the Gilded Age, as many as one quarter to one half of all industrial workers were teenagers, and boys and girls as young as twelve or thirteen worked in mines or with dangerous machinery. And those statistics did not include the millions of boys and girls who performed sometimes dangerous work with livestock and machinery on farms and ranches.[2]

As with so many facets of American life in the nineteenth century, the Civil War brought the tension between old and new constructions of childhood into high relief. The Clevelands provide a micro-study of those contradictions, as George and Alva performed certain parts of an idealized childhood even as they did their duty as soldiers.

Shortly after the Clevelands joined the First Wisconsin—originally raised for three months early in the war, it was re-organized as a three-year regiment in the fall of 1861—the unit headed south, traveling through Chicago, Indianapolis, and on to Kentucky. As a nurse, Alva generally rode in an ambulance or supply wagon, while George marched with his company. Alva tried to keep track of where George might be on the route of march. There’s a hint of pride when he estimated that his son “must have been one of the first to step upon shore” from the Ohio River into Kentucky. As often as possible, especially during their first few weeks on the march, Alva and George found one another for meals and at night. That often meant that George enjoyed better rations than other drummers and it certainly meant that Alva could get George out of the elements on rainy, cold nights.[3]

Inevitably, and only a couple of weeks after they enlisted, George fell ill, giving Alva a chance to combine his duties as an army nurse and as a father. George staggered into the hospital “pretty well tuckered out complaining of head ache with Simptoms [sic] of camp rash.” About midnight he was hallucinating about “all sorts of things” and needed a dose of medicine to go back to sleep. He recovered in a couple of days, which allowed Alva to show off his young soldier to a local woman who he apparently knew.[4]

Thomas Nast’s “The Drummer Boy” offered readers scenes that became part of the stereotypical narrative of drummer boys’ experiences. Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863.

Alva and George got together as often as possible to read letters from Mary Cleveland; one evening a few weeks after leaving Milwaukee Alva reported that they had “Rec’d a letter from home a welcome visitor read with pleasure by me & George.” Within a month of leaving Alva proudly remarked that George had written his first letter ever. And two weeks before Christmas he could happily report that George had managed perhaps his longest march yet—twelve miles.[5]

Alva seemed to get used to George’s situation, going several days without reporting on George’s whereabouts or health. Yet it must have given him pause to know that George was surrounded by the same unhealthy and rowdy conditions that he reported in his diary (and which certainly violated the notion of a nurtured childhood): bad weather; constant illness, with a number of Alva’s patients dying during the miserable winter months; accidents ranging from incidents on the march to accidental shootings in camp; drunken, violent men threatening to kill their officers; rumors of big battles fought elsewhere (Shiloh, for instance) that reminded Alva of the potential jeopardy facing George. During the months covered by the diary, the only Cleveland to get close to the shooting war was George, whose company served on the picket line a number of times and went into a line of battle at least once. He went forward with his company in mid-December—although his captain made him move back from the firing line. Alva seemed to accept George’s eagerness to get into the battle when he reported that “George and one of the other young drummers “thought it was hard that they could not go as they came to fight as well as any of them.”[6]

Alva hated being separated from George. In early April, as it seemed possible that the army would be drawn into the fighting predicted near Corinth, Alva fell far behind. “The distance between Geo & me is getting to great & I cannot stand it,” he wrote. “I wish to be there or in the Neighborhood to see & hear & have Geo. With me to know & share his hardships.” Relieved about being back together; he’d been left behind about two weeks, “a long lonesome time Geo & me had not been separated before & it seemed longer than it realy [sic] was.” Once they were reunited, “he told me all the news he could think of” before they went to sleep together in George’s tent.[7]

The First Wisconsin spent several months marching and countermarching, rebuilding burned bridges, and preparing for battles they never fought. Its first major fight came at Perryville in early October 1862, although Cleveland’s diary ends before the battle. A month later, they were both discharged due to disability; apparently Alva’s injury had come from being thrown from an ambulance, although nothing is known of George’s condition. After living for a time in Milwaukee, the Clevelands moved to Kansas, where George was killed while working as a brakeman for a railroad in the mid-1880s.[8]

Alva Cleveland had never heard of a “new construction” of childhood, but he tried to live it in his care for young George in the middle of a military campaign. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, it’s entirely possible he joined the army for the express purpose of watching out for his patriotic, adventure-seeking son; it’s unclear why else a man three times older than most soldiers would take so many unnecessary risks. Yet it is also true that most boys George’s age were already out of school, and that many only slightly older boys were already working in the famously dangerous factories and mines of the era. As a result, it might not seem so shocking that American society would so readily accept youngsters’ eager enlistments as inspiring examples of patriotic duty rather than alarming instances of putting young boys in harm’s way. The military service of George and Alva Cleveland offers a glimpse at one father-son team as they (probably quite unconsciously) worked through these competing ideas about boyhood.[9]


[1] March 13, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Ms2009-113, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia; Racine Ward 5, Racine, Wisconsin, 1860 Federal Census, Roll M653_1427,, 587. The Cleveland diary has survived in two segments: a transcription of Alva’s first few months is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while the manuscript of several months in 1862 owned by Virginia Tech.

[2] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 74-93, 132.

[3] E.B. Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin (Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866), 428-430; Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin, November 28, 1861.

[4] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 5 and 7, 1861.

[5] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 11 and 24, 1861.

[6] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” December 18, 1861.

[7] April 11 and 12, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

[8] Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin, 428-430; Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Madison: Democrat Printing Co. 1886), 1: 326; Milwaukee City Directory, pl 85,, accessed November 24, 2017; U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Provo, UT, USA:, 2011, accessed November 24, 2017; Kansas, Enrollment of Civil War Veterans, 1889, Provo, UT, USA:, 2013, accessed November 24, 2017; “Introduction,” in Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862.”

[9] Emmy E. Werner’s Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998) includes a number of stories of drummer boys and underage soldiers.


James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

On this first day of December, we share our first Field Dispatch from Martha S. Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Her most recent work is Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press.

“Remember the blood on the page.” I have heard this admonition from Ariela Gross, the historian of slavery and race, during more than one conference or workshop. Gross credits this provocative insistence to historian Nell Painter, who has always set a high bar for us as interpreters of the African American past. The intervention is a corrective, inserted into discussions when they veer too close to the romantic, the technical, the abstract, or the antiquarian. It is an insistence that we attend to the human experience that underlies our analyses.

For me, taking account of the blood on the page has sometimes been difficult. Still, it is always important. I am among those historians who took the cultural-legal turn first identified by Gross in her 2001 article ”Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery.”[1] I pore through docket books, petitions, and other ephemera of law’s administration. There, one document may differ from another only in the smallest detail. My archives are often ministerial in quality: rote formulations penned by scribes whose conventions were self-consciously bloodless.

I learn the lesson of the blood over and again. In recent months, I’ve been at work on a new book and in a new archive. Freedom papers of those held as slaves in Frederick, Maryland, survive as small half-sheets of paper, carelessly penned by court clerks.[2] At first glance, they are strikingly similar in content: pursuant to state law, an enslaved person is deemed free by will, deed, or other act of an owner, and affirmed so by the sworn statement of a white person with knowledge. The clerk formalizes such with his signature and a seal. These come to us as a series of routine transactions, and for historians they are often said to reveal some mix of heroism and benevolence, though the proportions differ depending upon who recounts the tale.

My interest in these archives is in understanding the scope and character of manumissions in early-nineteenth-century western Maryland. Among those said to have freed slaves in this particular jurisdiction is U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Some historians have held out Taney’s manumission of slaves as evidence of his anti-slavery sentiments, at least as a young man.[3] I hypothesize that Taney was neither exceptional nor benevolent in having released those men and women who were bound to him by law. But that’s a story for another time. Just now, I’ve come to these archives to extract dates, frequency, and the circumstances of manumission. But it is difficult to remain on task.

There is too much blood in the details.

Freed people are described with a specificity that renders these documents anything but rote. Each has a name, most often two names, a first and a last. Height, complexion, and age are accounted for. But the truest distinctions suggest how those who secured liberty were nonetheless indelibly marked by servitude. “Nelly…a small scar on the left cheek near the corner of the mouth and one on the back of her neck and the little finger on the left hand a little crooked.” “Nancy…a mark just above her lip under the right nostril and several marks on her right arm occasioned by burns, and a scar on her head near the crown.” “Charles…a mark or scar on the thumb of the left hand occasioned by a cut with a knife, and a scar on the right leg between the ankle and knee.” “John…a scar on his right wrist produced by a burn.” Rare is someone like “Bryan” who is described as having “no perceivable mark.”[4]

Freedom Certificate of Nelly Shorter, August 13, 1810. Courtesy of Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761, p. 21.

Court clerks narrate arresting glimpses into the conditions of enslaved people’s labor in the grain fields. “Sarah…a mark on her left arm said to have been produced by the cut of a sickle.” “Philip…a small scar on his forehead, and one likewise on his right foot which scar upon the foot was occasioned by the cut of a reap hook.” “Joshua…a scar on the inner side of his left arm below the elbow, about an inch and a quarter long, occasioned by the cut of a scythe.” “Tom…the little fourth finger of the left hand crooked in the first joint and the nail split occasioned by the cut of a sickle, a small scar on the left side of the left eye.” “Ben…a small scar near the palm of the right hand and a scar occasioned by the cut of a sickle on the palm of the left hand.” “Lydia…two small scars on the little finger of the left hand occasioned by the cut of a sickle.”[5] I pause to read into the technology of grain production, now that I see its cost on the bodies of former slaves.

I am hardly the first historian to contemplate the violence evidenced on these pages. But in these days I have encountered it anew. I am reminded how when reading the fugitive advertisements published in nineteenth century Brazil, Gilberto Freyre saw many classes of violence: disease, malnutrition, overwork, along with the dangerous circumstances of labor.[6] Jean Hébrard adds that, as we read the bodies of former slaves, we can understand the ubiquity of violence and hazard in the lives of many nineteenth-century subjects, be they in the household, the factory, or the field.

To these observations, I would add how sexual violence is also apparent. For every freed person, like “Nero,” who is described as “very black,” there are many others whose bodies tell stories that the clerk leaves us to narrate for ourselves. “Jonny…not very black.” “Levy…of a yellowish complexion.” “John…[a] mulatto man…light complexion.” “Ben…middling black.” “Ann…high yellowish complexion.” “Nelly…a dark mulatto.” “Hannah…light colored.” As clerks ascribed color and complexion, they were also revealing unspoken or, better put, unspeakable intimacies. The certificate of “Nancy Carr a bright mulatto woman” admits that which so many others did not. Her light skin (and free status) were established by parentage; Nancy was “the daughter of Polly Lucas, a white woman.” Some sexual encounters across the color line were narrated on the pages of freedom certificates, but too many others were not.

To recognize the blood on the page requires attention to absences, that which the clerk does not tell. Where are the marks “occasioned” by punishment? Perhaps shirts and shifts covered backs and buttocks such that those scars were not “perceivable” by the clerk’s terms. Perhaps. Then I arrive upon the freedom certificate for “Juliet” with “a cut on the left side of chin, occasioned by a cow hide.” Here, an artifact of the lash that gave Juliet, in the clerk’s terms, a unique, legally cognizable visage. Freedom relied upon such violence, nearly demanded it, as a means by which people held as property were transformed into particularized individuals possessing legal personhood.

Recognizing the blood on the page, understanding its signs, I turn back the microfilm to frame one and begin again.


[1] Ariela J. Gross, “Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery,” Columbia Law Review 101 (April 2001): 640-82.

[2] The freedom papers referenced here are part of the Maryland State Archives Collection,  Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[3] Timothy S. Heubner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond-and before-Dred Scott,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (June 2010): 17-38.

[4] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[5] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[6] Gilberto Freyre, O escravo nos anúncios de jornais brasileiros do século XIX: tentativa de interpretação antropológica, através de anúncios de jornais, de característicos de personalidade e de deformações de corpo de negros ou mestiços, fugidos ou expostos à venda, como escravos, no Brasil do século passado (Recife: Imprensa Universitária, 1963).

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.

The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

Aside from his truncated term as Confederate president, Jefferson Davis might best be known for his camel experiment: the importation of some seventy-five camels for military testing in Texas and the southwest in the late 1850s. He launched the offbeat operation while serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, an exceptionally creative period in Davis’s life. Among other efforts, Secretary Davis ordered surveys for a transcontinental railroad, organized new cavalry regiments, and purchased the camels. The Army’s camel trials, which included surveying expeditions in Texas’s Big Bend region and along the 35th parallel to California, went well until the Civil War cut them short. By 1866, the surviving animals had been sold to circuses and mining companies or simply turned loose to fend for themselves.

Standing portrait of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (c. 1858-1860), a few years after completing his term as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The camels marched into western folklore. Camel sightings persisted into the twentieth century, nourishing hopes that descendants of Davis’s camels might remain. Army camel handlers, including “Hi Jolly,” a Greek-Syrian Muslim, became local legends. Hollywood dramatized the trials in Southwestern Passage (1954) and Hawmps! (1976). As a colorful southwestern tale, or proof of Davis’s innovative leadership, the camel experiment seems like a whimsical prologue to a cataclysmic war.

But the camel story has a dark underbelly which underscores the breadth and significance of antebellum slaveholders’ tremendous political power. Through a series of twists and turns, the experiment became entangled with the illicit African slave trade. Davis did not foresee this development, but neither did he condemn it. Texas, where the Old South met the Wild West, was the crucible in which camel research melded with human trafficking.

Henry C. Wayne (undated). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There were actually multiple camel experiments because the Army’s public trials inspired several private spinoffs, particularly in the South. The link between public and private sector camel research was Major Henry Constantine Wayne. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Wayne was, like Davis, a West Point graduate and veteran of the U.S.-Mexican War. While serving in the Quartermaster Corps, Wayne studied the military uses of camels and was a logical choice to lead the Army’s camel purchasing expedition to the eastern Mediterranean in 1855. He also oversaw the early trials in Texas.[1] But he made his deepest mark as a publicist. In November 1858, Wayne wrote to the influential National Intelligencer, extolling camels’ potential in private enterprises. Self-identifying as “a Southern man, from a cotton, corn, and rice growing section,” Wayne envisioned camels performing varied plantation chores; compared them favorably to horses and mules in terms of strength, cost effectiveness, and hardiness; and speculated that enslaved laborers could manage them successfully.[2]

Widely reprinted in Southern periodicals, Wayne’s letter ignited a camel craze. Southern journalists had monitored the Army experiment, offering tantalizing anecdotes about camels’ capacity to haul cotton and corn.[3] After Wayne went public, interest in camels soared. Within two months, a Georgia planter had written to the Southern Cultivator asking how he could purchase a camel.[4] By spring 1859, camel trials were afoot in Alabama and camel exhibitions drew crowds at the state fair in November.[5] Dallas County planter Benjamin C. Woolsey wrote glowingly of his own camel experiment: the animals pulled plows and carried massive burdens with ease, at a fraction of the expense required for mules.[6]

This exuberance veiled a sinister connection to the African slave trade. The importation of slaves from overseas had been banned since 1808 but illicit trading never ended; indeed, it increased in the late 1850s as cotton prices skyrocketed. Some southern leaders demanded the repeal of the slave trade prohibition, forging a new rallying point for proslavery extremists.[7] Conceptually, the link between camel and slave imports was clear. As one letter to the Southern Cultivator crudely put it, cotton planters needed cheap labor and cheap work animals, and West Africa offered both: “Let ‘Cuffy’ come and his appropriate co-laborers the Camel…. [L]et us have the Camels right off, and then defy the world to prevent our getting as many of the wool bearing bipids [sic] as we may need.”[8] At the zenith of their power, cotton growers moved easily from camel tests to brazen demands for African captives.

The camel/slave connection was more than theoretical. Established slave smugglers had both means and motive to enter the camel business. After all, they had contacts with West African merchants and the ability to transport living beings across the Atlantic. They also needed alibis. British warships patrolling the African coast identified slave ships by tell-tale characteristics like large water tanks, overabundant food supplies, and the stench of excrement. Slavers tried to hide or justify these giveaways by posing as palm oil merchants or whalers (hence the large casks of liquid), concealing food stores below false decks, and using chloride of lime or controlled burns to eliminate foul odors. Some carried legitimate wares, such as palm oil, alongside human cargoes.[9]

“Arabian Dromedary.” From “The Ship of the Desert,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 89, vol. 15 (October 1857), 583.

Camels offered the perfect cover for slaving operations: they were available in West Africa, consumed large quantities of food and water and produced copious waste, and could be sold through familiar channels to southern buyers. This often meant using entry points along the Texas coast. Texas was, of course, closely associated with the Army’s camel experiment. The Army’s first camel cohort disembarked in Indianola, marched through San Antonio, and operated out of Camp Verde and, later, Fort Davis. The state’s vast coastline had also long sheltered slave traders. In the 1810s, the pirate Jean Laffite had sold slaves into Galveston. The booming demand for slave labor that accompanied Anglo-American settlement tempted speculators like Jim Bowie to follow suit.[10] By the 1850s, Texas planters scrambled to acquire slave labor. With domestic slave prices running to $1500, enslaved Africans who sold for $150-300 were a bargain.[11] Predictably, Texans were among the most outspoken advocates of repealing the 1808 ban. “If you agree to slavery,” thundered the Galveston Weekly News, “you must agree to the trade, for they are one…. Those who deny slavery and the slave-trade are enemies of the South.”[12] Jefferson Davis, now back in the Senate, deemed African imports unnecessary for Mississippi but a potential boon for Texas.[13]

By 1858, Texas was where the burgeoning cotton kingdom met the West’s pioneering military-ungulate complex. On October 16, the schooner Thomas Watson, escorting a smaller ship named Lucerne, docked in Galveston and unloaded eighty-nine camels.[14] The British consul smelled foul play in the ship’s nauseating stench. Convinced that the Thomas Watson was a slaver which had used the Lucerne to ferry human captives to shore before reaching port, he urged US officials to investigate. Federal authorities admitted that the Thomas Watson was probably a slave ship, but claimed they could do nothing without direct evidence. Meanwhile, the camels, turned loose in the city streets, had become a nuisance. Some were slaughtered and eaten; Lieutenant Governor Francis Lubbock, an advocate of the Atlantic slave trade, gave the others sanctuary on his ranch. The Thomas Watson departed, leaving Galvestonians with colorful anecdotes engrained in living memory into the 1930s.

“The Africans of the slave bark ‘Wildfire’ – The slave deck of the bark ‘Wildfire,’ brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In fact, they had glimpsed a sliver of a scheme to smuggle human captives under the cover of camels. The Thomas Watson was owned by John A. Machado, a Portuguese-American slave trader. From his New York City headquarters, Machado orchestrated licit and illicit commerce between West Africa and the Americas, dealing in palm oil as well as slaves. (Only a Lincoln administration crackdown brought Machado under serious scrutiny. After repeated arrests in 1861 and 1862, he was indicted in early 1863 and released on bail; there is no further record.)[15] Among his agents was Mary Jane Watson, who operated the Thomas Watson (a converted whaler ostensibly named for her husband) and legally owned the eighty-nine camels. An elegant, mysterious woman, Watson was likely the widow of a New York publisher, and may have been romantically involved with Machado, though she often claimed to be an English lady or the widow of a sea captain. She later met a dismal end, reputedly drinking herself to death in Spain in 1862. But after recovering the surviving camels from Lubbock, Watson charmed her way through New Orleans and Mobile – and introduced camels into Alabama, including those sold to Benjamin Woolsey.[16] At least one eyewitness later recalled that Watson had secretly unloaded human cargo before arriving in Galveston, though the captives’ fate is unknown.[17] But contemporary newspapers took the bait, eagerly tracing the camels from Texas to Alabama.[18]

Davis and Wayne did not envision this scheme when they commenced the camel experiment. But it illustrates the power of unintended consequences and the potent influence of antebellum slaveholders. Davis triggered a chain of events that linked Army officers, planters, and slave traders in unexpected ways. The camel caper therefore offers a fresh perspective on the “Slave Power”–the slaveholding cabal which, according to many antebellum northerners, dominated the federal government.[19] Rather than a finely-tuned conspiracy, the Slave Power was a network of public officials and private citizens who shared a stake in slavery’s preservation and profitability. It was therefore less monolithic, but perhaps more insidious, than sometimes imagined. Davis did not collude with Machado and Watson, but his pet project promoted the extension and intensification of plantation slavery.


[1] Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 24-25.

[2] Henry C. Wayne to the Editors of the National Intelligencer, reprinted as “The Camel – His Nature, Habits, and Uses,” Southern Cultivator 17, vol. 1 (January 1859), 29.

[3] For a typical example, see “Frosts and Famine in Texas,” (Raleigh) Weekly North Carolina Standard, April 29, 1857.

[4] G.W.T., “Who’s Got a Camel for Sale?” Southern Cultivator 17, 3 (March 1859), 81.

[5] “A Novel Sight,” (Okalona, MS) Prairie News, May 12, 1859; Ripley (MS) Advertiser, January 18, 1860; Linda Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” Alabama Heritage 112 (Spring 2014): 28-35.

[6] “Camels in Alabama,” Ohio Cultivator 15 (1859), 215; “Camels in Dallas County,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, May 28, 1859.

[7] Ernest Obadele-Starks, Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007); Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York: The Free Press, 1971).

[8] R.G.J., “The Camel and ‘Cuffy,’” Southern Cultivator 17, no. 3 (March 1859), 81.

[9] Edward Manning, Six Months on a Slaver: A True Narrative (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1879), 21-24, 40, 125-126; Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 2-3; Leonardo Marques, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 196-197; Sylviane A. Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31, 42, 51.

[10] Eugene C. Barker, “The African Slave Trade in Texas,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 6, no. 2 (October 1902): 145-158; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 12; Sean Kelley, “Blackbirders and Bozales: African-Born Slaves on the Lower Brazos River of Texas in the Nineteenth Century,” Civil War History 54, no. 4 (December 2008): 406-423; Fred Lee McGhee, “The Black Crop: Slavery and Slave Trading in Nineteenth Century Texas” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2000); Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 42-45.

[11] Earl Wesley Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), viii-ix.

[12] Galveston Weekly News, March 3, 1857, quoted in Takaki, Pro-Slavery Crusade, 79.

[13] “Speech of Jefferson Davis before the Democratic State Convention at Jackson, Miss., July 6, 1859,” in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), IV, 69-70.

[14] My account of this infamous episode relies primarily on three excellent studies: Fornell, Galveston Era, 251-259; McGhee, “Black Crop,” 228-231; and Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35.

[15] Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 50-51, 234.

[16] Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35; Marques, United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 253; “The Slave-Trade in New York: Rearrest of John A. Machado,” New York Times, September 21, 1862.

[17] Chris Emmett, Texas Camel Tales: Incidents Growing up around an Attempt by the War Department of the United States to Foster an Uninterrupted Flow of Commerce Through Texas by the Use of Camels (San Antonio: Naylor Printing Company, 1932), 129-130.

[18] See, for instance: Washington Union, January 7, 1859; “Curious Enterprise of a Pretty Widow,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, November 19, 1859.

[19] Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

The Duty of a True Patriot

The Duty of a True Patriot

Today, Christopher Hayashida-Knight shares his first Field Dispatch on Muster. Chris completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, in addition to working at a nonprofit. His research centers on African American women in the post-Civil War period. He will be contributing pieces that reflect on gender and women’s history in the Civil War era.

Monday-morning quarterbacking used to have a far more literal meaning, but recently events occurring before kickoff have sparked far more heated debate than Tom Brady’s passing game. What began as Colin Kaepernick’s quiet, personal response to repeated and unpunished deaths of black citizens at the hands of police became a national protest phenomenon.

Drawing broad praise from racial justice activists and quick condemnation from those who like to keep their football and politics separate, President Trump lamented the NFL’s delayed decision to allow the act as “total disrespect for our great country!”[1] Though athletes’ free expression has been erroneously framed as an “anthem protest” by opponents, their kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner is a powerful statement of alarm from one of the biggest soap boxes in the public sphere.[2]

Scholars have rightly pointed to the respectful custom of kneeling for the anthem in times of crisis, as well as the barely-concealed white supremacist undertones of the “shut up and play” crowd. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson, arguably the most famous black athlete of the twentieth century, wrote during the Vietnam era, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”[3]

Young African American woman, c. 1870 to 1900. African American women in the Civil War-era North worked for equitable educational opportunities for black children and the desegregation of public transportation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Professional sports are only a more public setting for a theme that has animated African American history since the founding. In 1847, Frederick Douglass explained to a crowd in Syracuse that honoring the nation means holding it to its own highest standards: “He is a lover of his country,” Douglass argued, “who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”[4]

This critical patriotism was not exclusive to men in public, either. Black women in the Civil War-era North also defended their love of country while decrying their countrywomen’s racism. When the upper class white women of Philadelphia were canvassing the city’s twenty-eight wards to raise funds in 1873 for the upcoming Centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence, Women’s Committee member Mary Rose Smith took it upon herself to invite the city’s African American women to participate in the patriotic fundraising effort. Her plan was for black women to constitute a “colored” auxiliary to the Women’s Committee, which would not breach norms by approaching white homes, but only be allowed to solicit donations from other black Philadelphians.[5]

Whether the gesture was an earnest offer of patriotic racial unity, a cynical ploy for donations without having to comingle with black people, or something in between is not entirely clear. When Dr. Rebecca J. Cole, one of the nation’s first black female surgeons, informed Mrs. Smith that she and her three dozen colleagues would be happy to join the work, but on equal terms with the white women, Smith hit the roof. Cole and others told a reporter that Smith called the invitation “only a courtesy extended towards us, and that the celebration was not a matter that concerns our color, but only white people.” Smith “even went so far as to speak of ‘remanding’ us to Africa if we were not satisfied with the laws of the land,” a comment that turned a respectful negotiation of fundraising protocols into a debate over the right of black Americans to even exist within the boundaries of the nation. Eventually, Committee Chairwoman (and great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin) Elizabeth Duane Gillespie got involved and offered apologies to Cole and her fellow volunteers for Smith’s behavior. Gillespie and a deputy assured the women that they did not intend to offend them; indeed, the Committee “did not recognize the word ‘color’ in its customary application to the human races”— an early deployment of the “color blind” defense.[6]

Centennial Photographic Company, Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,”c. 1876. The Centennial World’s Fair was the first in U.S. history, and boosters hoped to demonstrate American ingenuity, industrial strength, and unity after the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cole and some of her volunteers decided to accept the apology, going on to raise funds with the Women’s Committee as equal members. Their protest resulted in changed behavior on a local scale and they embraced the chance to help celebrate their nation’s hundredth birthday. Others refused, preferring to publicize the offense to build awareness of persistent racism, and found their own ways to honor the anniversary of independence. When public school teacher Caroline LeCount, told a local reporter what her rejection of the apology meant to her, she described a sense of belonging to the American nation that overrode the racism of other Americans. LeCount pointed to “the sacrifices and sufferings of true Americans” in which black women “participated, not to the exclusion of Mrs. Smith and her ‘Women of America,’ but to the common inheritance of all.” Describing a nation that was broad enough to include people of different colors, and complex enough to hold ideals it could not yet measure up to, LeCount echoed the ideas of her contemporary, Frederick Douglass, who promised to “hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot.”[7]

Though Cole and LeCount chose different responses to white women’s racism, both expressed a patriotism that critiqued America’s faults while honoring its potential. These women had not only their own reputations in Black Philadelphia to consider, but the reputation of black people throughout the nation; they understood that their actions in Philadelphia were important on the national scale as white Americans adjusted to the legal reality of black citizenship under the recently passed Reconstruction amendments. Black Americans’ displays of patriotism had to represent to the country—and the world—not only the present dignity of “the race,” but the undefeated aspirations of African Americans for the future.[8]

Some proponents of kneeling during the anthem have argued it has nothing at all to do with the flag or the anthem, but is only about the heinous acts of police officers who should be guarding black men’s safety like everyone else’s. In another important sense, however, kneeling has everything to do with love of country: it is an expression of critical patriotism like that of Cole, LeCount, and Douglass, who believed that the United States is capable of greatness—that the idea of real human equality is worth fighting for, even when your fellow Americans refuse to acknowledge yours.

Perhaps the “lightning scorn of moral indignation” will produce a moment of discomfort before the big game, but drawing attention to the work Americans must still do to provide liberty and justice for all is not an affront to patriotism. It is a discomforting job African Americans have had to take up for generations— “the duty of a true patriot.”


[1] Ken Belson and Kevin Draper, “Trump Criticizes N.F.L. for Not Penalizing Anthem Kneeling,” New York Times, October 17, 2017,

[2] Janice Williams, “Unlike the President, Most Americans Know NFL Kneelers Aren’t Protesting the Flag,” Newsweek, October 14, 2017,

[3] Louis Jacobson, “A Short History of the National Anthem, Protests and the NFL,” Politifact, September 25, 2017,

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” in A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 202-203.

[5] Francis A. Walker, Ninth Census—Vol. I, The Statistics of the Population of the United States (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872); Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder, Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 111; J.S. Ingram, The Centennial Exhibition Described and Illustrated… (Philadelphia: Hubbard Bros., 1876), 47.

[6] “Another Branch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1873; The Press (Philadelphia), April 17 and 18, 1873.

[7] “Color Prejudice,” New National Era, May 22, 1873; “Amicable Adjustment,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1873; Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” 202-203.

[8] Fully 20 percent of Americans visited the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia. About 5 percent tuned in for 2017’s first primetime NFL game. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of American Empire at International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3-5; NFL Communications, “Season Premiere of Thursday Night Football Draws an Audience of 15.7 Million Viewers Across All Platforms,” accessed November 11, 2017,; United States Census Bureau, “Population and Housing Unit Estimates,” accessed November 11, 2017, The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in the case of incarceration; the 14th Amendment established birthright citizenship and equal protection under federal law regardless of color or creed; and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of male citizens to vote regardless of color. “America’s Founding Documents,” National Archives, accessed November 8, 2017,

Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

Christopher Hayashida-Knight completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, as well as working in the nonprofit sector. He serves on the board of directors of the Chico Peace & Justice Center. His research considers the social construction of African American women’s national identity in the period between the Civil War and World War I.

Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

When the motion picture film The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, most veterans of the American Civil War were in their seventies and eighties. Membership in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the largest fraternal organization of Union veterans in the country—had declined by that time to 160,000 members, less than half of its peak size in 1890.[1] The war had ended fifty years ago. For many Americans too young to experience it firsthand, their understanding of the Civil War era was a recipe cooked with history textbooks, monuments, literature, stories from veterans, and imagination. The Birth of a Nation soon became a central ingredient in this dish. With its dramatic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic redeemer of the defeated South against the evils of “carpetbag and negro misrule” during Reconstruction, white Americans throughout the country praised the film’s accuracy and artistry. These sentiments were so commonplace that historian David Blight famously argued in 2001 that the country’s collective memory of the Civil War and its aftermath “rested on a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections while whites and blacks divided and struggled mightily even to know one another.”[2]

Newspaper ads and positive film reviews like those published in The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Indiana) promoted The Birth of a Nation as a work of scholarship “rich in historical value.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Numerous historians have since challenged Blight’s claim with regards to the memories of Civil War veterans on both sides. Barbara Gannon, Caroline Janney, and M. Keith Harris have convincingly demonstrated that a good number of GAR veterans—both black and white—remembered the war as a fight for Union and emancipation. They continued to harbor bitter resentments against former Confederates after the war and conditioned sectional reconciliation upon a recognition of their “Won Cause.”[3] But what did the organization’s aging veterans have to say about The Birth of a Nation and its representation of the Civil War era?

The GAR met as an organization in annual national and state conventions. The national “encampments” in 1915 and 1916 avoided making a statement about The Birth of a Nation, suggesting that the organization’s leaders may have wanted to avoid making any politicized statements about the film one way or the other. At least four local encampments during this time, however, protested the film’s showing and the messages it conveyed to viewers.

In Iowa, the Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Union Veterans complained to a large crowd of GAR members that the film was unpatriotic. A.E.B. Stephens praised the states of Kansas and Ohio for banning the film and argued that it “tells the wrong story; it teaches the wrong history.” The meeting’s official recorder noted that Iowa GAR members loudly applauded Stephens.[4] In Indiana, GAR member Milton Garrigus argued that the film was “written by a prejudiced Southerner.” The Birth of a Nation taught “false history” and justified the “horrid acts” of the KKK. As the head of the Indiana GAR’s Department of Public Instruction, Garrigus warned that the film “poisons the mind, especially the children.” Instead of taking the family to the theater, he recommended that “all who want to know the truth about the Ku-Klux Klan” should read A Fool’s Errand by Albion Tourgée, a Union veteran who moved south and fought the KKK as the 7th District Superior Court Judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction.[5]

Black and white members of the GAR Department of the Potomac (Washington, D.C.) expressed horror at the thought of The Birth of a Nation showing in the nation’s capital. Veteran Arthur Hendricks read out a resolution to the encampment during their 1916 meeting. The resolution expressed “firm and unalterable opposition to the public sentiment” of local residents in support of the film (perhaps including President Woodrow Wilson), which the GAR believed would “debauch” the city. “The Birth of a Nation distorts all history, holds up to praise men guilty of the cruelest and most cowardly persecution of the lately enfranchised race, and slanders men and leaders who saved the Nation’s life at infinite cost to themselves,” it proclaimed. Overall, “The play is exceedingly dangerous in every respect, since its tendency is to pervert the mind of the young into glorification of a shameful persecution of the colored race; of glorifying men who resorted to cowardly midnight raids, and it slanders outrageously the loyal men who fought for the Union,” both black and white, North and South. This remarkable resolution was adopted unanimously by the Department’s members after Hendricks’s reading.[6]

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic at the 1915 National Encampment in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of The Birth of a Nation was George Raab of Flint, Michigan. A native of Germany and veteran of the 4th Michigan Cavalry that helped capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Raab stood before his fellow GAR members in 1915 and asked if they had seen The Birth of a Nation.[7] When another member stated that he thought the film was “fine,” Raab demanded that the Michigan GAR issue a resolution against it. “It is historically misleading, and an absolute insult to everyone of us here.” Sensing that the country’s collective memory of the war was changing, Raab argued that “thirty years ago it would have never been shown in the north.” Now it was actively being celebrated, especially by those too young to have lived throughout the period. Equally important to Raab, “the colored men went with us shoulder to shoulder and helped to put down the rebellion, and those southerners, after the war, maltreated them worse than dogs. Why should we soldiers of the north eulogize the play and spread broadcast that it is a wonderful thing?”[8]

Raab’s speech prompted impassioned support. Another comrade argued that a resolution was needed “to protect the youth and the old soldiers of the north . . . there are several things in it which are misleading in so far as the colored soldiers are concerned and also history is grossly misrepresented.” Raab responded by asserting that Radical Republican “Thaddeus Stevens [was] one of the greatest statesmen the country ever knew . . . he was in favor of reconstructing the south along patriotic lines.” Raab was encouraged by his comrades to write the resolution himself. He announced it to the membership the next day:

Whereas, the photoplay called The Birth of a Nation is misleading even in name and falsifies events following the War of the Rebellion, and is an insult to some of the statesmen of those stirring days, a slander on the colored race of this country, and an insult to all loyal Union Soldiers who participated in the war of the rebellion.

Therefore, Be It Resolved by the Department of Michigan, in convention assembled, That we protest against the presentation of this infamous play in the State of Michigan, and earnestly request all our friends to refrain from patronizing this commercialized travesty of truth and justice.[9]

These comments complicate not just the ways historians understand how Union veterans remembered the Civil War, but also the Reconstruction era. It suggests that at least some GAR veterans believed that expanding civil and voting rights for African Americans during Reconstruction had been necessary and proper, and that their persecution by racist terrorist groups was wrong. Blacks and whites had fought alongside each other to defend the country and were now entitled to the same rights. For them, The Birth of a Nation distorted history and justified the “shameful persecution” of African Americans in the present. It also promoted a “both sides were right” interpretation of the war that many members found insulting. The children and grandchildren of the country’s Union Civil War veterans who watched The Birth of a Nation often failed to consider the protests of their elders and accepted its narrative as historical truth. The oppressive forces of racism, disenfranchisement, and political violence would become all the more entrenched in twentieth-century American governance.


[1] “The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies. National Encampments: Bibliography,” Library of Congress, accessed October 9, 2017,

[2] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 397.

[3] Barbara Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); M. Keith Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2014).

[4] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Iowa, Journal of the Forty-Second Annual Encampment, Department of Iowa Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marshalltown, Iowa, June 20-21-22, 1916 (Des Moines: Gordon L. Elliott, 1916), 60.

[5] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, Proceedings of Thirty-Sixth Annual Session of the Department of Indiana, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marion, Indiana, May 26,27,28, 1915 (Indianapolis: Sentinel Printing Co., 1915), 105; Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand. By One of the Fools (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1880).

[6] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of the Potomac, Journal of Proceedings of the Forty-Eighth Annual Encampment of the Department of the Potomac, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Washington, D.C., February 9th, 14th, and 19th, 1916 (Washington, D.C.: R. Beresford, Printer, 1916), 20, 76-77.

[7] “George Jacob Raab,” Find a Grave, accessed October 11, 2017,; “History of SC-134-90” (History of the 4th Michigan Cavalry Regiment), Michigan State Capitol, accessed October 11, 2017,

[8] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, Department of Michigan Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 16, 17, 18, 1915 (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenback Crawford Co., 1915), 97-99, 104.

[9] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, 97-99, 104.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at

Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

As the saber rattling and awkward gestures toward friends and foes alike continue to come from Washington, and the loose finger of the president drifts between Twitter and nuclear war with potentially Iran and North Korea, escaping to the diplomacy of the American Civil War provides a reminder that brinkmanship has its limitations. In the course of the Civil War, the United States and Great Britain engaged on a number of occasions in a violent war of words, but avoided escalation. Starting on November 8, 1861, the Lincoln administration faced its most dangerous foreign policy dilemma with the Trent affair.

Having forcibly removed two Confederate envoys from the British mail packet Trent in violation of international law, and having failed to take the vessel to a prize court for adjudication, the Union appeared on the verge of war with Great Britain in late 1861. The British government demanded the release of the envoys and a suitable apology. During Christmas cabinet meetings, Lincoln eventually agreed with his Secretary of State William Seward that the United States could not afford a war with Great Britain and must surrender the envoys.[1] The President’s and Secretary of State’s leadership are a reminder that offending ally and enemy alike are not the means to avoid conflict. However, interpretations of the Trent affair are in dire need of revision, especially the role of two of the leading figures: Secretary of State William H. Seward and British Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston.

When Lincoln made Seward his right-hand man in late 1860, Seward had quite a reputation in British political circles. In late 1840, as Governor of New York, Seward clashed for the first time with Lord Palmerston, who then was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, over an incident that took place in November. On November 12, 1840, authorities in New York arrested Alexander McLeod for murder, arson, and his participation in the Canadian raid on the U.S. ship Caroline. Canadian rebels of the 1837 uprising had used the Caroline to escape to a Niagara River island. In a raid, British forces captured the ship, killed a crewman, and sent the burning vessel down Niagara Falls. Issues quickly escalated when the court set bond for McLeod, but a local mob threatened to lynch him. The U.S. government had to explain to their British counterparts that the U.S. Secretary of State could not intervene in the legal affairs of New York. Nevertheless, Palmerston threatened that if New York executed McLeod, Britain would avenge his death. Despite Seward’s unbending attitude, the case eventually resolved with McLeod’s acquittal. However, the British remembered the impulsive and Anglophobic New Yorker.[2]

A German satirical political caricature on the Trent affair. From “Der Fischer im Trüben [Fishing in Murky Waters].” Kladderadatsch (Berlin), December 29, 1861, 8.

When the newly minted secretary talked freely at Washington parties in early 1861, threatening war with Great Britain, France, or Spain to reunite the country, the British listened. Even his recent foray into Europe did little to change attitudes; many considered Seward a loose cannon.[3] When news of Charles Wilkes’ coup arrived in the United States, the country went into a fever pitch of euphoria. Wilkes’s capture of the envoys on the Trent was a much-needed success for the Union at the end of the first year of war. Some were glad, after the perceived premature British declaration of neutrality in May, that the Union had twisted the lion’s tail and given the British some of their own medicine. Early news from Great Britain indicated that the government contemplated a military reaction for the gross violation of British neutrality, international law, and maritime practices. In the end, Seward’s calm and realist demeanor in the cabinet meeting, where he argued that not to bent to British demands was suicidal, won the day.[4] This critical assessment of Seward illustrates the secretary’s realistic understanding of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign relations, avoiding war with Britain even though his background would have made him liable to use the opportunity offered to finally fight the former mother country.

However, Civil War diplomatic history continues to present the British side as willing to engage in war. A similar reassessment of Prime Minister Palmerston is therefore in order. He is often quoted for having said, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!”[5] This statement indicates to many historians that Palmerston was ready for war. Similarly, the British government’s dispatch of troops to defend Canada is often seen as war preparation. However, the troops were purely defensive in nature, based on the assumption that the United States might attack vulnerable Canada.[6] Therefore, a reinterpretation of the British policies requires a better and more nuanced understanding of Palmerston. He was pragmatic and realized that the size of the country’s military often prohibited intervention. Even more, he had changed after the Crimean War, an issue largely overlooked in the historiography.

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, by Francis Cruikshank. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Born in 1784, Palmerston assumed his first cabinet role in 1830 and served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1830-1834, 1835-1841, 1846-1851), Home Secretary (1852-1855), and Prime Minister (1855-1858, 1859-1865). During his stints in the Foreign Office, Britain intervened unofficially in the Portuguese dynastic quarrel of the 1830s, opened China in the First Opium War, liberally used the Royal Navy in the Don Pacifico Affair against Greece, and, the coup de grace, fought the Crimean War against Russia and the Arrow War against China.[7] Considering the volatile state of affairs in Europe during the late 1850s and early 1860s, Palmerston was uncommonly calm. Great Britain did not become directly involved in the Civil War, the wars of German or Italian unification, the religious conflict in Lebanon-Syria, or the Polish Insurrection. Tellingly, Confederates, Poles, and Danes assumed Britain would come to their aid during their respective crisis in the 1860s. Offered many opportunities to display that Britain remained the balancing power and mediator of European difficulties, Palmerston was extremely cautious, in dramatic contrast to his pre-Crimean War persona. Historians continue to see the Crimean War Palmerston when dealing with Civil War diplomacy, but he had changed. That war, its military failures, and lack of tangible results were a wakeup call for Palmerston. His alliance in Parliament was diverse and based on compromise, and there was a growing desire to avoid the expenses of war and not repeat the unsuccessful Crimean War. These issues, deeply ingrained in the political psychology of Great Britain, cautioned British policy makers during the 1860s away from risky foreign policy adventures with unforeseeable consequences.

The Trent affair in late 1861 is often seen as a moment where the United States and Great Britain teetered on the verge of war. However, the movement of troops to British Canada was defensive in nature, since Canadians were worrying the United States might finally follow through on its threats to expand northward. Where historians have debated Seward’s agenda and character to better understand his use of foreign policy bluster for domestic gain, Palmerston still lacks such a reevaluation. The British Prime Minister, who had guided Britain through the Crimean War, was more cautious and reluctant to use violence in the 1860s. A rethinking of Palmerston carries with it the need to reconsider aspects of Civil War foreign policy. Their calm and cautious leadership prevented global war in the 1860s, and one can only hope politicians take note of the past more frequently.


[1] Civil War diplomatic histories have covered the Trent affair from diplomatic history’s inception as a field in the 1920s. The most important works advancing the story are Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997) and Gordon H. Warren, Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981). The most recent scholarly account comes in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[2] Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 76-80; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 77-79.

[3] Jones, 26-28.

[4] Warren, 26-43, 120-127, 177-184.

[5] Warren, 109.

[6] Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Lord John Palmerston, September 3, 1861, GC/LE/143/1-2 and Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle to Lord John Palmerston, May 25, 1861, GC/NE/86, Palmerston Papers, Broadlands Papers, University of Southampton, Southampton.

[7] David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012); David Brown, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002); Kenneth Bourne, Palmerston, the Early Years, 1784-1841 (New York: Macmillan, 1982).

Niels Eichhorn

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

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Here we share the editor’s note for our special issue in December 2017, by guest editor William Blair. The issue includes groundbreaking and insightful work by five scholars studying continental connections across the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 2015, sixty-some scholars from at least four countries gathered in the breathtakingly beautiful town of Banff, Canada, to explore the common struggles over sovereignty that shook North America during the 1860s. Featured were the crises faced by the countries of Canada, Mexico, the United States, and the indigenous populations within them. The five articles in this special issue represent a fraction of the rich ideas offered about the struggles over which ruling and economic structures should prevail and which people should determine them. Both Mexico and the United States, of course, endured civil wars. Canadians, meanwhile— partly prompted by the disorder south of their border—in 1867 moved to create the Confederation that allowed for local autonomy under the protection of Great Britain. The outcome of these struggles affected economic, labor, and political systems around the globe.

The conference, “Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” grew out of discussions between Frank Towers at the University of Calgary and me, we think, in 2013. Frank had been looking for some way to connect the Canadian and U.S. crises with broader transitions in the world. Ever since starting the journal in 2011, I had been looking to encourage a hemispheric approach to Civil War studies. We both were convinced that the U.S. Civil War, while certainly having its unique aspects, just as certainly was not exceptional. The assumption was that we were missing interconnections that existed among the nations that constituted the Western Hemisphere and perhaps could find either commonalities or unique situations that furnished new insights into the structuring of power in the nineteenth century. While the Richards Civil War Era Center supplied seed money and staff support to make such a project possible, Frank did much of the heavy lifting of organizing the conference by presiding over the program committee and bringing into the fold as cosponsors the University of Calgary, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University. It seemed time to shift the usual way of conceiving the Civil War in international terms—primarily a story of the diplomatic relations between England and the United States.[1]

Fortunately, the field was moving in that direction, too, as witnessed by not only articles published in the Journal of the Civil War Era but also in monographs. When we launched the journal, we featured a review essay by Douglas Egerton that posited how the Atlantic World framework was applicable to the U.S. Civil War. It was an attempt to push beyond national borders and see if the approach that had enriched studies of colonial settlement and conquest could inform scholarship in the later nineteenth century. Egerton borrowed from the work of Sven Beckert to show how world cotton production shifted to India and how states developed new forms of coercion to regulate labor. Later came an essay by Patrick J. Kelly on “the American Crisis of the 1860s,” in which he explicitly argued for a hemispheric approach and for examining the influences on each other of France, Mexico, and the United States. There was, as he put it, an illiberal alliance between the Confederacy and France against sister republics of Mexico and the U.S. that had consequences for how conflicts in both nations played out. Some in the United States, in fact, did not think that their war was over until the French troops and the Emperor Maximillian had been forced out of Mexico.[2]

As mentioned, the monograph literature has been exploring similarly expansive ground. Already cited is the pioneering work of Beckert on the changes in the world cotton markets. Don H. Doyle contributed by situating the U.S. Civil War within the larger context of a fight for validity between republican and monarchical systems of government. Disorder in the United States gave European expansionists hope for gaining a toehold in the Western Hemisphere and for gaining proof for the argument that republican/democratic societies could not hold themselves together. Recently, Doyle has expanded the analysis more deeply into Latin America as he presided over a collection of essays by various scholars published on the subject this year. We should add to the list the work of Matthew Karp, who argued that southern planters cared deeply about abolition’s impact in the Caribbean and Latin America on their own peculiar system, and that of Steven Hahn, one of the scholars who gave a keynote address in Banff and whose own major study of the U.S. struggles in the broader world came out last year.[3]

Ironically, much of this work finally answers the call of a historian who advocated such an approach more than eighty years ago. In an article published in 1933, Herbert E. Bolton argued for considering a “Greater America,” by examining the transformations shared by the emerging nations in the Western Hemisphere. Bolton rejected the term “Original Thirteen” for the colonies that would constitute the United States, which ignored the fact that England had nearly thirty colonies in the islands and Atlantic seaboard. For more than three hundred years the hemisphere underwent conquest and organization as colonies. Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland all tried to establish a presence. At least five world wars were fought primarily for mercantilist domination. Then, between 1776 and 1826, came a series of ongoing revolutions that created independent, new nations, many proclaiming to be republics. Mexico abolished slavery, but the peculiar institution remained entrenched in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Most of the new, major nations displayed expansion impulses and desires to establish a presence in western lands, which sparked collisions with native populations. Common ingredients Bolton cited in this imperial advance were boundless natural resources, foreign immigration, foreign capital investments, and expanding markets.[4]

Specialists in Latin American history have engaged more with Bolton’s concept than historians of the United States, although not all of the attention has been praiseworthy. The more positive reception has come in the area of borderlands studies, where Bolton had an enormous influence, which ebbed and flowed over nearly the past century but remains important today. The hemispheric approach contained less appeal for a while, but Latin Americanists—including scholars from archeological and literary disciplines—have both adopted and questioned his basic assumptions. The most vigorous critique came in a collection of essays edited by Lewis Hanke published in 1964. Mexican historian and philosopher Edmundo O’Gorman was particularly vitriolic in an essay originally published in 1939 in which he criticized Bolton for failing to recognize the importance of culture and religion in Latin America. O’Gorman called the hemispheric approach nothing more than academic imperialism. Others have noticed Bolton’s lack of attention to racial analysis, including the perspectives of indigenous peoples in favor of broad material and governmental transformations. Despite this, his impact can be noticed in a three-volume work produced during the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and, more recently, in the work of Felipe Fernández-Armesto who has written a hemispheric history of the Americas. Although contested, Bolton’s ideas continue to inform a number of scholars of Latin America across disciplines.[5]

The articles in this issue build on the recent historiography and show the potential Bolton saw so many years ago. Phillip Buckner provides an in-depth overview of the scholarly debate over the influence of the U.S. Civil War on confederation in Canada. Between 1864 and 1873, seven colonies and an area in between, which was overseen by the Hudson’s Bay Company, became a new transcontinental nation created out of fragments of the British Empire. While not the only factor, the U.S conflict with the southern Confederacy gave additional impetus to the confederation movement as success by the northern United States left Canada and Mexico vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Meanwhile, Marise Bachand looks at the “Disunited Daughters of the Confederation” in a piece that compares the process of female Creoles in Louisiana with that of Canadians in Canada in becoming integrated in newly forming national states. Bachand argues that the comparison reveals “how the personal was the political and how conflicted were their relationships to the politics of belonging.”

Shifting to Mexico, Erika Pani does marvelous work in providing analysis and overview of the conflict that wracked the country between 1857 and 1867. The decade opened with the passage of a new, reform constitution that did not quite settle all differences within the nation. Internal strife had an impact on exposing the nation to the subsequent invasion by European powers, which was taken over by the French. With the victory by Republican armies in 1867 (the same year as Confederation in Canada), the monarchists were defeated and liberalism became a unifying myth for the country. Also looking at Mexico, Andrés Reséndez traces the prevalence of debt peonage in Mexico. This labor system was absorbed and retained as the United States conquered the Mexican lands in the Southwest, which anticipated the coerced labor systems that became more prevalent in the U.S. South after the Civil War.

Finally, Jay Sexton provides a rich empirical study of the steam revolution that transformed countries between 1850 and 1885. While focusing predominantly on the United States, Sexton’s article shows the interrelationships of Canadian railroad building and British finance with Panama. He links the developments of steamships and railroads to national formation and sovereignty, indicating that these technological advances destabilized as well as fostered nation-building projects.

Although the presumption underlying these studies is that there were common challenges facing the nations that took shape in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are of course unique elements. Canada, for instance, was perhaps the only country in the hemisphere not to have a revolutionary past. Tensions inside Mexico featured Catholic clergy who, despite having their political power constricted by the Constitution of 1857, nonetheless played prominent roles in encouraging the monarchists against the Juaristas. The United States, as others have observed else- where, underwent a violent revolution that ended slavery, similar to the upheaval in Haiti. But these articles do reveal new ways of seeing connections among these countries. They are not necessarily a final word, but they provide examples of fruitful new ways to think about connections among the crises facing the countries in the hemisphere.

[1] The conference website is Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, accessed May 27, 2017,

[2] Douglas R. Egerton, “Rethinking Atlantic Historiography in a Postcolonial Era: The Civil War in a Global Perspective,” Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (March 2011): 79–95; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton; A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014); Patrick Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (September 2012): 337–68.

[3] Don Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Don H. Doyle, ed., American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910 (New York: Viking, 2016).

[4] Herbert E. Bolton, “The Epic of Greater America,” American Historical Review 38 (April 1933): 448–74. Bolton also was a pioneer in establishing the concept of borderlands.

[5] For borderlands, see John Francis Bannon, ed., Bolton and the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964). For various assessments of Bolton’s work, see Lewis Hanke, ed., Do the Americas Have a Common History? A Critique of the Bolton Theory (New York: Knopf, 1964); Antonio Barrenechea, “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor: Boltonian Americanism and Hemispheric Studies,” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 3 (2009): 231–43; Light Cummins, “Getting beyond Bolton: Columbian Consequences and the Spanish Borderland, A Review Essay,” New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 70 (April 1995): 201–15. For his continued influence, see David Hurst Thomas, Columbian Consequences, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989–91); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Americas: A Hemispheric History (New York: Modern Library, 2003).


William Blair

William Blair is the Ferree Professor of Middle American History at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Richards Civil War Era Center. He is also the founding editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. His research focuses primarily on the home front and political culture in the middle nineteenth century. His current research project concerns the atrocities in the post-Civil War South compiled by the Freedmen's Bureau in a collection called Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.

The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

This week, we share our first Field Dispatch by Maria Angela Diaz, an assistant professor of history at Utah State University. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

When we think about Confederates and the Civil War we do not often think about the Southwest. We certainly never think about the Mexican border. However, the Civil War era was an incredibly important time in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and how Confederates imagined the border during the war pointed the way toward how Americans conducted themselves in that region after the war. Understanding how people in places like Civil War Texas thought about the border provides us with additional historical context that connects the Civil War to modern-day issues confronting those that live along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as those who seek to impose their own ideas and policies on borderland communities. Historians’ recent emphasis on exploring the Civil War in the West, as well as its transnational context, gives us new ways to examine the conflict and learn even more about its long term effects. Then, as now, news media, politicians, and public figures used border violence to invoke nightmarish images of the people and places that made up the borderlands all the while willing to use the Mexican border’s porous nature to their benefit. Confederates were only one in a series of groups who did this. Before 1861 white southerners primarily viewed the border with fear, but the Civil War and the French invasion of Mexico made the border appealing to them in ways not entirely anticipated at the start of the conflict.[1]

Juan Cortina, a Mexican ranchero, politician, military leader, and voice for the disenfranchised on the U.S.-Mexico border. Courtesy of

Confederate Texans’ ideas about the border were grounded in the encounters between whites and Mexicans prior to the war. By 1859 the border began to solidify as the dividing line between two nations, yet outbreaks of violence along the Rio Grande still shaped how the region was depicted in public discourse. Events such as the Cortina War of 1859, in which a ranchero named Juan Cortina led Mexicans along the border in a fight against Anglos who had encroached on their lands and political rights, lingered in the minds of Texans the way that the Haitian Revolution stuck out in the minds of slaveholding Southerners throughout the Southern states. Anglo Texans viewed the U.S.-Mexico border as a hostile place filled with enemies who could use the border’s permeability and the perceived Mexican opposition to slavery as a way to infiltrate the cotton belt.

What was essentially border security popped up in Texas’ declaration of the causes of secession. Indeed the protection of slavery went hand-in-hand with asserting control of the border. The declaration of causes stated that the “Federal Government, while but partially under the control of these our unnatural and sectional enemies [the northern states], has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico.” While it did not point directly to Juan Cortina by name he remained active in the borderlands, eventually invading Texas yet again later that year, ensuring that he remained a symbol of the “chaos” that an upending racial hierarchy might cause.[2]

Once the war commenced Confederates began to see the Rio Grande border as providing a host of possibilities that might actually help their cause rather than hinder it. The presence of the French in Mexico triggered a kind of reimagining of the border, and the small bordertown of Bagdad became a lifeline through which Confederates smuggled out cotton. Elites within the border region (both Mexican and Anglo) profited from the traffic in war cotton making its way across the border. Texas’s other borders became equally important as slaveowners, desperate to hold onto their slaves, forced them on marches that ended in the Lone Star State. For Confederate soldiers wearied by the war in West Texas the possibility of escape from the tedium and terror turned into desertion. In 1863, the Texas Almanac noted, with frustration, that the conscription act had caused many soldiers to opt for desertion and escape to Mexico rather than continue to fight. In the same year Captain W.W. Reynolds toured Texas’s frontier to assess its state, and proclaimed that the “most perfect anarchy prevails.” By 1864 roughly a quarter to half of the men serving in Texas Ranger units deserted. While it is not certain how many hid out in Mexico, the temptation was there.[3]

“Panorama of the Seat of War: Bird’s Eye View of Texas and Part of Mexico,” 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, white Southerners viewed the border as both a means of escape from what might be a vengeful Union, and as a space of continued upheaval. Similar to the ways that their slaves had once used it to gain freedom, they too rode for the Rio Grande, seeking safety in Mexico, which had been under French control since 1862. Anglos’ ideas about Mexico and Mexicans in places like Texas were also key to the Confederacy’s support of the French invasion of Mexico. Stretching back before the war, Anglos constructed images of Mexicans as enfeebled people due to the history of racial mixing within Mexico. With Benito Juarez, a brown-skinned, dark-haired man who took office as president of the Mexican nation in 1861 as the other option, the idea of an essentially white European-dominated empire was a palatable and even encouraging idea. Texas newspapers referred to Maximilian I, the emperor installed by Napoleon III, as presiding over a “mongrel race,” and the Houston Telegraph asserted that if Mexico was “left to her own people, alone, they will not be able to perpetuate the republic.”[4] Yet, with war continuing in Mexico between the forces of MaximilianI, and those loyal to Juarez, and with Confederate soldiers slipping across the river, the border continued to be defined by chaos for a United States now wanting to regain control of the borderlands.

In the past historians often divided the Civil War from these massive shifts in power on the continent and, more specifically, in the southwest borderlands. As more recent historians have observed, the path toward the war began in the various borderlands of the American South and southwest. In order to further recontextualize the origins of the war, its stakes, how it was fought, and how it ended we must continue to understand the impact of the borderlands on the American Civil War and vice versa. The fear and suspicion of the border and what lay beyond it has persisted into our own time, as has the necessity of a porous boundary. These ideas are directly connected to the trials and tribulations that borderland communities faced during the Civil War, and how Confederates imagined them.


[1] Don H. Doyle, The Cause of all Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 8-10, 299-304; Patrick J. Kelly, “The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Transnational Turn in Civil War History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 3 (September 2014): 431-443; Gregory P. Downs, “The Three Faces of Sovereignty: Governing Confederate, Mexican, and Indian Civil War Era Texas,” in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States ed. Adam Arenson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 118-138.

[2] “Texas Items,” Houston Weekly Telegraph, January 4, 1860; Jerry D. Thompson, Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 150-152.

[3] George T. Diaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (Austin: University of Texas, 2015), 30-33; Texas Almanac, May 23, 1863; Glen Sample Ely, “Gone From Texas and Trading with the Enemy: New Perspectives on Civil War West,” The Southwestern Quarterly 110, no. 4 (April 2007): 438, 443, 450-453.

[4] The Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, May 24, 1865; Doyle, Cause of All Nations, 301-306; Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (November 2012): 337-368.

Maria Angela Diaz

Maria Angela Diaz is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. history at Utah State University. She graduated from the University of Florida with a PhD in American history in 2013. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

Today James Marten, professor of history at Marquette University, shares his first Field Dispatch. The author or editor of fifteen books, Marten was the 2010 winner of MU’s Lawrence G. Haggerty Award for Excellence in Research. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Georgia, 2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (UNC Press, 2011).

The events of the past summer were just the most recent reminder that even stone and brass memorials can be reshaped—at least metaphorically—to meet the political and cultural needs of the present. That was also the case in the fall of 1912, when a prominent Union veteran gave a memorable speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

President William McKinley helped pave the way for this unlikely monument when he decided in 1898 that the federal government should take over the maintenance of the graves of 30,000 Confederates who had died in Union prisons or hospitals. Another major step came when the Confederate veterans in the cemetery were reinterred in a separate section. President Taft granted the United Daughters of the Confederacy permission to build the monument in 1906. The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and the monument was finally completed in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson made the main speech at the dedication held on Jefferson Davis’s birthday.[1]

A number of Union veterans attended that ceremony, although a couple of decades earlier some had protested the erection in 1890 of Richmond’s huge statue to Robert E. Lee. But Union veterans seemed more put out by the most overt symbol of reconciliation: the campaign by some Grand Army of the Republic leaders and state politicians to return Confederate battle flags to southern states.

One Union veteran who initially opposed the return of Confederate flags was James “Corporal” Tanner, who had lost the lower third of both of his legs at Second Manassas, and from the 1870s on, was one of the most visible advocates for veterans’ interests. He was also a popular public speaker and a peripatetic promoter of the GAR and the Republican Party. He often spoke warmly of reconciliation to northern and southern crowds alike, including the 1896 national encampment of the United Confederate Veterans. He was particularly moved by the plight of Confederates who had died in northern prison camps. As state commander of the New York GAR in the 1870s, he made sure that the graves of Confederates who had died in Union prisons were decorated on Memorial Day. He claimed that he offered a little salute whenever he passed the obelisk erected in the old City Cemetery in Chicago near the graves of Confederates who had perished in Chicago’s Camp Douglas.[2]

Despite Tanner’s sincere devotion to reconciliation, he got himself into a bit of trouble in 1906 when, while national commander of the GAR, he harshly criticized the Georgia UDC when they floated the idea of erecting a statue in honor of Capt. Henry Wirz, the executed commander of Andersonville. Tanner declared that, “When the accursed soul of Captain Wirz floated into the corridors of hell, the devil recognized . . . his only competitor.” The UDC and all of their supporters were accordingly insulted.[3]

James Tanner as commander of the National GAR. From Roll of the 40th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (Philadelphia: Town Printing Co., 1906).

But the estrangement between the Corporal and the South, though sharp, was brief, and no one was surprised when organizers invited Tanner to the laying of the Confederate Memorial’s cornerstone in 1912. It was a pleasant, late fall day, and the crowded program featured hymns, prayers, a cornet solo, and a listing all of the items that were going into the cornerstone’s time capsule. To ensure that everyone in attendance knew that honoring Confederates did not clash with loyalty to the United States, they sang not only “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but also “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The U.S. Fifteenth Cavalry’s band provided the music, and William Jennings Bryan delivered the main speech.

Tanner came to Arlington that day believing he would play a very small role. But on impulse, the master of ceremonies, Col. Hilary A Herbert (he had commanded the 8th Alabama during the war and afterwards was a long-time congressmen and Secretary of the Navy) asked Tanner to offer a few words at the end of the program. Tanner began by gently chiding “my friend, Herbert,” for not giving him more time to prepare, but he had given thousands of speeches during his long career and he rose to the occasion. An inveterate name-dropper, Tanner mentioned the day in 1900 when President William McKinley had asked his opinion about the bill then before Congress authorizing the permanent internment of Confederates in Arlington. “I answered him that he and I served and fought and that we did not make war upon dead men nor bear animosity toward them.” If he were president, he told McKinley, he would sign the bill. The President, claimed Tanner, grasped his hand and said, “I am glad to hear you talk like that, Tanner. I shall sign it as soon as it reaches my desk.” [4]

Tanner admitted he had nothing new to say on this occasion, but he did recall the time years before when he had come out in support of the Camp Douglas monument. When a fellow Union veteran demanded that he oppose the idea, Tanner had rebuked him, writing that he could not oppose a monument to men who “battle[d] for a cause.” Tanner then recalled the most treasured volume in his library, a small book written by John W. Daniel, the disabled Confederate veteran, U. S. Congressmen, and Lost Cause apologist from Virginia. Tanner had a special feeling for the book, not only because he and the author shared a disability, but also because Daniels had inscribed Tanner’s copy with a touching sentiment: “All brave men are true comrades.” The two old soldiers, Tanner said, were equally committed to “the speedy restoration of unity, good feeling, and perfect peace between the hitherto discordant sections of our country.”[5]

But the Corporal sought to do more than look backward. His brief remarks at Arlington, delivered over fifty years after the Civil War, concluded with a call to the young men in the audience: “We of both sides, as we were aligned of old, want you young men—the men of today—to bear in mind that we old fellows met these issues in the long ago and we fought them out; we settled them for all time. . . . We have brought to you a great united nation, a republic founded on principles that shall carry it along ‘til the end of time.”[6] The Confederate Memorial did not represent a lost cause to Tanner, although it probably did to many in his audience. Rather, he used this ultimate expression of Confederate pride and tragedy to illustrate his view of the war’s meaning.

Reconciliation formed much of Tanner’s identity. He drew self-esteem and worth from his role as one of the nation’s leading proponents of the movement, but there was more to his attitude than that. He and other reconciliationists used Confederate Memorials to posit a very specific worldview that transcended the simple desire to let bygones be bygones. Tanner made the point on that fall day in 1912, and on a number of other occasions, that the Civil War had not simply settled ancient conflicts but had unleashed American potential and power. The nation was a better place because of the war. Tanner accepted former Confederates’ efforts to honor their heroes, but added a much more expansive, forward-looking meaning to the Confederates’ nostalgic, backward-looking monuments. Getting Americans in both sections to understand this simple fact would make Tanner’s sacrifices relevant not only to America’s past, but also to its future.

James Tanner died in 1927 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The old amphitheater near his grave, built in the 1870s, was renamed in his honor in 2014. Both are a fifteen-minute walk away from the Confederate Memorial.


[1] Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 260-264. Janney’s book is the most useful account of the creation and response to this and many other symbols of the Lost Cause.

[2] James Marten, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 76-79; Confederate Veteran, April 1895.

[3] J. R. Gibbons, “The Monument to Captain Henry Wirz,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 36 (Richmond: Southern Historical Society, 1908), 226.

[4] Hilary A. Herbert, History of the Arlington Confederate Monument (United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1914), 38.

[5] Herbert, 38.

[6] Herbert, 39.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

The Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

Today we conclude our roundtable on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power with a post by Greg Downs. Downs is this roundtable’s guest editor and an associate editor at the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is a professor of history at University of California–Davis.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here, herehere, and here. Thank you so much for following along with us as we explore how Coates’s work relates to our study of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

In December 2008, while walking in midtown Manhattan, I passed a young man wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m already disillusioned.” Around me, several people on the sidewalk went silent, in a kind of wonder and also of respect. Not all that long afterwards, at the Warsaw Ballroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the aging punk band The Dead Milkmen stopped playing to berate the crowd for expecting Obama to be anything other than an imperialist, capitalist tool. Already, back in late November, Adolph Reed Jr. had brought a few cheers and some catcalls when he warned a crowd at the CUNY Graduate Center not to be taken in by the charms of a neoliberal.

It is easy now to forget how pervasive this skepticism was. At the AHA in New York in January 2009, I had lunch with the late, greatly missed, Stephanie Camp. Inauguration was still weeks away, and already she was fed up with the disillusionment. Why couldn’t there be a time to celebrate, she asked, before our critical, even cynical, lenses overtook us? It was easy in early 2009, as the Obama administration named a cohort of Wall Street luminaries, to think that the hope and change he promised had already evaporated into neoliberal technocracy.

That feeling now seems quaint. The Tea Party summer of 2010, mid-term losses for the Democrats, congressional obstruction, the strange inability of President Obama to translate his general popularity into Democratic successes in 2012 and 2014 congressional races, the 2016 presidential race, and, finally, the shocking first months of the Trump Administration all made Obama’s first months in office seem lovely in retrospect. Obama’s unceasing rationality, calmness, deep-spirited decency, and—let us also admit it—relative powerlessness have made him a less ambiguous figure than he had seemed to many of us upon his election.

One way to write in 2017 is with a kind of wonder that such decency was so poorly rewarded, with a false but almost inevitable nostalgia for a moment of hope in 2008 that in fact may not have existed. And also perhaps in a general amnesia about Obama’s actual policy decisions in those heady days, in forgetfulness that a bail out of homeowners, not the banks that foreclosed on them, or the passage of a comprehensive or at least comprehensible health plan might not have led the administration toward precisely the same grief.

Perhaps no work demands so convincingly that we wrestle with the history of the present built into our histories of the past as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. Its significance is reflected in the seriousness that each of the participants in our forum has brought to quite distinct questions. In many ways Ta-Nehisi Coates writes from this history of the present: shrouding his disillusionment of 2008 and 2009 in nostalgia that is at once empirically unconvincing and yet emotionally true. Part of what seems to animate Coates’ book is a desire to tell his younger self to smarten up, to save other younger selves from being taken in by hope. In this it resembles perhaps nothing so much as noir. Seeming innocence is revealed over and over again to be corruption. Wise up, kids.

The Muster essays on Eight Years help begin historians’ necessary reckoning with the book. In adept, distinct ways, Brandon Byrd, Kelly Houston Jones, and Scott Hancock ask big questions: How should we reconcile broad political narratives with personal feelings of despair, or human lives that seem to plug on without much regard to political maneuverings in capital cities? Are we so sure, as Brandon Byrd asks, about the leap Coates (and many of us) make from the “me” into the “we” when we talk about the centrality of politics to the way we live and understand our lives? How might historians of the deep or recent past deal with subjects like Frankie Goole who seem at times to discount the impact of politics altogether? Historians, like journalists, can greatly overestimate how much attention other people pay to politics.

Kelly Houston Jones takes us inside the intimate aspects of these subjects’ lives by asking us to ponder the spaces that Coates describes. How does our understanding of political orders and ideologies change as we examine particular places and spaces—Chicago’s South Shore homes and West Side apartment buildings, Natchez slave neighborhoods, southeastern slave cabins? What does the changing terrain of struggle tell us about the continuities and disruptures of that struggle?

Most of all, these essays wrestle, especially in Scott Hancock’s piece, with the question of narrative as we describe a “good” “historic day” that was also an “illusory day.” Should the country’s story be captured by its alleged aspirations, what Hancock characterizes as President Obama’s “faith” in the “long-term trends of the United States?” Or should it be a narrative of “legal change” that nevertheless continuously serves “the dominant white interests.” By examining both legal history and Critical Race Theory, Hancock asks us to consider what a future history of the country might look like if told through the lens of plunder. If historians rethink their own emphasis on ideological and legal pluralism and instead center “the singular original intent, voice, and methodology of white supremacy,” how will we recount the time of the Civil War Era, or American history more broadly? Playing his own beginning of “it was a good day” off of Ice Cube’s 1992 “It Was a Good Day,” Hancock asks us to imagine a future United States in which the government-issued “guns pointed at Ice Cube, as he walked into his home at the end of his day” might be pointed not just, as they already are, at Black Americans, but also at historians “for speaking our mind.”

Hancock’s essay asks us to reflect upon our contemporary moment and our justified disillusionment. Taking the liberty of extending (I hope fairly) the questions he asks, we might ponder: Should we write to extinguish the naïvete that allegedly blinded us in 2008? Should we arm our future selves, and our readers, to expect the worst no matter how pleasant any momentary horizon? Or were we actually not quite as naïve as we seem in retrospect? Maybe the kids were alright?

Whatever Coates’s book teaches us, we cannot shrink from two closely related lessons: His popularity suggests a great cultural appetite for deep skepticism, even cynicism. This thirst will not disappear upon contact with historians’ methods. It grows from fundamental doubts about the future of the country and of the democratic form and even of the species. We ourselves are hardly immune to those doubts. Nor should we be.

Coates’s sure-footed treatment of important historical eras and his, by my lights, sometimes attenuated way of connecting them might lead us to gnaw with beaverly industry at his weak points until they give. This, I think, would be a mistake. For the great challenge that Coates poses for us is not his interpretation of any given moment but his (correct) insistence that narrative matters and cannot be subsumed into craft. The stories we tell create the interpretations we consciously and unconsciously reach for. Many of us, including me, may be writing in a state of tension between our narratives and the interpretations we claim. Look at the way a particular story of 2017 leads Coates, and many of us, to need to tell a nostalgic story about 2008 and 2009 that is not always literally true even as it serves a crucial purpose. What can we learn from the way Coates’ narrative, and for many of us our own, create a demand for a re-interpretation or re-creation of our own recent pasts?

Having begun this essay with one of the dearly departed, I will end with another person who won’t be able to tell me what he thinks about this book. My friend Tony Kaye, a former editor of JCWE, used to say that historians remained terrified, even decades later, by Hayden White. White threatened our ability to write in cheerful ignorance of the choices we were making, of the interpretative moves embedded in our seemingly unchosen choice of genre.

Coates’s embrace of stasis—of a cynicism constantly rewarded—challenges our complacency about narratives and interpretation. By taking his choice of narrative (and Hancock’s suggestions of alternatives) seriously, we might ponder the genres of tragedy (in the way Coates describes it and the rather different way that David Blight used it in American Oracle), or the much-invoked but now rarely practiced irony, or horror (the genre that may quietly define much contemporary historical writing), or (the rarely acknowledged but often practiced) romance, or comedy, or even fantasy.

In selecting and shaping the stories we tell about the Civil War era, we are making interpretive choices, both when we acknowledge it and when we don’t. Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power reminds us of the range of available options. Some may be tempted to follow him. Others may be moved to steer readers away from Coates’s choices and toward other, by their lights, more meaningful genres. Few, I suspect, will be able to (or will want to) write exactly as we did before Eight Years, exactly as we did before the eight years it so eloquently and bleakly portrays.

Greg Downs

Greg Downs is a Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.