Category: Blog

Tuckered Out: Let’s Correct the Record on the History of Slavery and Abolition

Tuckered Out: Let’s Correct the Record on the History of Slavery and Abolition

Screenshot from Tucker Carlson Tonight, August 15, 2017. Courtesy of Fox News.

The contemporary moment is witnessing a disgraceful outpouring of violent racism, emboldened by an erratic President who has made the White House a bully pulpit for white supremacy. As disheartening as this is, it is occasioning an extraordinary amount of history education, as scholars and commentators work feverishly to counter the myths and lies being espoused on the streets and in the halls of power.

Amidst Donald Trump’s historical malfeasance, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson offered yet another nugget of bad history lending aid and comfort to white nationalism. His August 15 commentary argued against the removal of statues honoring slaveholding Americans, suggesting that if slaveholding is to be the standard by which historical figures are to be honored, “nobody is safe.”[1]

Carlson then went on to point out that slavery is an old institution, practiced by African tribes and American Indians, as well as figures such as Plato, Mohammed, and Simon Bolivar. If slaveholding bars us from honoring historical figures, Carlson asserts, there would be few left to honor. “If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that.” Many who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves, Carlson notes, but “does that make what they wrote illegitimate?”[2]

Personally, I don’t care for historical hero worship and am not a fan of using public spaces to make reductionist arguments about historical figures who deserve nuanced investigation. But Carlson has it all wrong. For one, it is untrue that there’s a “movement” among “Leftists” to reduce the Founders to nothing more than “racist villains,” or have slaveholding Founders such as Jefferson “purged from public memory, forever.”[3] Aside from the obvious caricature here, it is clear that statues honoring historical figures represent a mere fraction of our public memory, which is nourished in myriad realms ranging from classrooms and museums to popular literature and feature films. We are in no danger of forgetting the Founders.

Though he fears the implication of his own concerns, Carlson is right to worry that the Founders’ slaveholding throws their words into question. What does “all men are created equal” mean in a society that has constantly and systematically denied the equality of so many?  From the time those words were penned, marginal Americans have asked this question. Indeed, from the very start of the Revolutionary crisis, African Americans raised the specter of hypocrisy, as when Massachusetts slaves petitioned the colony’s legislature in 1773: “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. We cannot but wish and hope, Sir, that you will have the same grand object—we mean civil and religious liberty—in view in your next session.”[4] Questioning the country’s fidelity to its founding principles is as American as the Declaration of Independence itself, and as relevant today as in 1776. For two and a half centuries the promise of equality inherent in the Declaration has been ignored or denied. Perhaps they are empty words, platitudes useful primarily for those already secure within the civic community.

Carlson is also wrong in posing the slaveholding of men such as Thomas Jefferson as incidental to their lives rather than as a central feature. Indeed, slavery served as a crucial element in the political philosophy of all of the Founders, who could argue against colonists’ political enslavement to Britain largely because they were so familiar with the practice at home. George Washington made the connection explicit in the midst of the revolutionary crisis, writing: “We must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”[5] The morality of slavery was thus not a given in the late eighteenth century, but a subject of intense debate. Jefferson himself famously worried that his fortune and his country owed to an unjustifiable moral outrage. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he wrote, departing from his customary Deism to predict that “supernatural interference” might bring about “a revolution of the wheel of fortune”—his euphemism for a massive slave revolt. He lamented that “the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”[6]

Carlson, like many other self-professed conservatives, lauds an American history of expanding freedom. Yet that history was bequeathed to us not by the conservatives who stood against liberty—men such as John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh—but the progressive activists who sacrificed life and limb to make the nation adhere to its principles. Enslaved African Americans protested their status through the limited means available to them, while nominally free ones founded a tradition of protest that propelled white abolitionists into action. Those courageous men and women were the most radical social thinkers of their day. They spearheaded the early labor movement, campaigned for women’s rights, embraced pacifism, stood against the death penalty, and experimented with utopian communities. It is hard to imagine Tucker Carlson, were he alive in 1850, giving such people the time of day. Instead, he would prefer to take credit for progressive reforms in the past while opposing them in the present.

Carlson makes a final claim that demands refutation. It is true that slavery has been a feature of a great many societies throughout history, just as it is true that the nation-states of the modern West abolished slavery through a long and arduous process—one that in the United States uniquely required a bloody civil war that cost up to a million lives. But the slavery pioneered by the emerging nation-states of Europe assumed a distinct form.

New World slavery entailed the forced migration of over twelve million souls across the Atlantic—the largest forced migration in history—in the stinking holds of ships designed for a complex trade network dedicated to the purpose of turning people into things. It consigned millions more to be born into bondage and die from disease and overwork. It erected intricate legal systems designed to uphold the right of property in man, warped Christianity and science into ideological justifications for the otherwise unthinkable, and turned slaveholding societies into racialized police states. The key ingredient here was capitalism—a form of economic, political, and social organization in its nascence in the fifteenth century. The new values of profit and property transformed widely disparate practices of human servitude into a modern state mechanism for the ongoing exploitation and degradation of an entire people and an entire continent.[7]

Thomas Nast, “Worse Than Slavery,” Harper’s Weekly, October 24, 1874. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The end of slavery owed to the evolution of capitalism, as new forms of industrial manufacturing and labor control displaced the plantation model. But true to the liberal ideals of the age, freed slaves across the Atlantic were given “nothing but freedom” (in historian Eric Foner’s memorable phrase).[8] Released into competitive economies with nothing but negative social capital and a degraded status in both custom and law, the freedpeople foundered, at which point the liberal state quickly washed its hands of their plight. They fell victim to underdevelopment and exploitation through legal means.[9] In the United States, the white settler population around them banded together to deny their rights through vigilante violence, segregation, and later lynching.[10] It took a century, and yet another progressive movement’s sacrifice of life and limb, to secure the rights promised to the freedpeople upon their emancipation. And as contemporary crises over matters from wealth inequality to police killings of African Americans to the dismantling of statues honoring the Confederate cause demonstrate, the fight is not yet over.[11]

Conservatives like Tucker Carlson may fabricate a past they can live with, but that will not change the truth. Thoughtful readers may decide for themselves the degree to which the country should pat itself on the back for such humanity.


[1] “Tucker on Fate of Slaveholders Washington, Jefferson: ‘If That’s the Standard, Nobody is Safe,’” Fox News, accessed August 18, 2017,

[2] “Tucker Carlson Attempts to Defend America’s History of Slavery by Pointing Out the Aztecs, Africans, and Mohammed Had Slaves Too,” MediaMatters, August 15, 2017,

[3] “Tucker on Fate of Slaveholders.”

[4] “Four Petitions Against Slavery (1773-1777),” History Is A Weapon, accessed August 18, 2017,

[5] “From George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 24 August 1774,” Founders Online, accessed August 18, 2017,

[6] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII,” American Studies at the University of Virginia, accessed August 18, 2017,

[7] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 1988); Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994); Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Dale Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004); David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from African to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[8] Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

[9] Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, eds., From Slavery to Emancipation in the Atlantic World (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1999); Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebecca J. Scott, eds., Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[10] Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Business, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998); Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2008).

[11] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).

Patrick Rael

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

Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study

Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study

My great friend Kevin Lambert at California State University, Fullerton says, “Nothing is more humanistic than numbers.” They bring order and precision to our lives, offer definitive and powerful evidence for us, and determine outcomes and decisions on the most difficult and emotionally wrenching issues.

Although the work of historians is an evidence-based profession, most historians are reticent to use evidence from social sciences and sciences, especially statistics. In our quest to better understand the human condition, we draw theories from the fields of humanities, social sciences, and sciences, yet most of our evidence comes from the humanities. Too many historians are completely intimidated by numbers and refuse to embrace them, while others understandably find quantitative studies either tedious reading or insensitive to the joys, hardships, and brutality of the past. But the truth is that numbers and statistical evidence help to enrich and accentuate more humanistic evidence. The question is not only how historians can learn to embrace quantitative evidence, but also, how can we teach this to our students?

The goal in my recent article, “A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures,” published in the September 2016 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, is to expose readers to the value of combining qualitative and quantitative evidence.[1] I have certainly utilized more conventional sources, such as personal letters, diaries, and official correspondence. More importantly, I use statistics based on a kind of random sample (technically, a stratified cluster sample) to explain how the culture of the Army of Northern Virginia played an important role in its defeat and how the culture of the Army of the Potomac lay at the heart of its success. On my university webpage I have placed simple-to-follow charts in a PDF that are based on the statistical studies from the article, and also some statistical charts from my book Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee, so that individuals may use them for instruction purposes.[2] The statistical charts not only provide interesting information about military service, but they also give background information on the soldiers who constituted these armies. Such statistics can be an engaging way to help students understand the experiences of common soldiers whose lives might otherwise remain closed to us, and to help them understand aggregate trends within each army.

There are some key themes uncovered in my research that can be used in the classroom to help students reconsider myths that no longer hold true. For instance, the statistical evidence indicates that nearly half of all soldiers in the two armies (taken from my sample of 1,400 total men) were not heads of households.[3]

Personal and Family Wealth. Available on the author’s website.

Still, soldiers in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were on the whole wealthier than their peers, which may also challenge students’ previously held assumptions.[4] Although all economic classes were represented in the army, the clear evidence in Lee’s army was that it was not a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Rather, it was a wealthy and disproportionately slaveholding army. Four of every nine soldiers in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household and three of eight owned slaves themselves, or their families (with whom they lived) did.

Slaveholding by Percent. Available on the author’s website.

Discussions of desertion in the classroom can also be augmented with hard data. Statistics suggest that wealthy soldiers were far less likely to desert than poor or middle-class troops. The hardships of war weighed heavier on the poor and middle class. While the poor were least likely to have bonds to the community and therefore were more likely to desert, middle-class soldiers had worked hard to achieve that status and had much to lose. They deserted in slightly greater percentages than the poor, which reveals their concerns over losing all they had earned. The fact that so many from the middle class abandoned the army for home also indicates that it had become socially tolerable for soldiers to desert and return home.

Desertion and Economic Class. Available on the author’s website.

An examination of occupations offers our students some great insights into the development of army culture and its influence in leading to Confederate collapse and Union triumph.[5] A majority of Confederate soldiers were farmers, and nineteen of twenty lived in rural areas. Families became the centerpiece of their lives. By contrast, the Army of the Potomac was heavily working class. Three of every five soldiers was a skilled or an unskilled worker, and another 10 percent were farm hands who owned nothing. Most lived in towns or cities, often worked in groups, and were accustomed to structure, discipline, consistency, and reliability. Three in every ten were immigrants, who had endured great hardship to enjoy the civil liberty and opportunities in the United States. Median wealth for men in Lee’s army was six and a half times greater than in the Army of the Potomac. Even though the men in the Army of the Potomac had suffered defeat after defeat, they had developed an esprit de corps. They blamed their leaders and not one another. Thus, when Ulysses S. Grant took over and they suffered staggering losses in the 1864 campaign, the troops endured it. They had lost huge numbers in defeat; at least with Grant they were winning.

In light of this new information, here are some questions that might encourage classroom discussion, when used in conjunction with either my article or the charts available online:

1. How does our perspective of the Civil War change when we take into consideration new data on the comparative wealth of the two armies?

2. What new questions might we ask about decision-making in Lee’s army with this new data on slaveholding patterns?

3. How might we use qualitative data to test these new findings on middle-class desertion?

4. What other myths about the Civil War might it be worthwhile testing with the quantitative techniques discussed here?

Traditional historical evidence and statistics feed each other. They provide fresh insights, amplify the strength of each other, and help to provide a fuller portrait of the Civil War.


[1] Joseph Glatthaar, “A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 3 (September 2016): 315-46. An abstract is available at; the entire article is available through subscription only.

[2] My website is Click on “A Tale of Two Armies” to access the PDF. See also Joseph Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[3] See both the “Personal Wealth” chart in the PDF and the “Personal and Family Wealth” chart that also appears in this blog post.

[4] See the “Economic Class, Southern States and the Army of Northern Virginia” chart on my website.

[5] See the chart titled “Desertion” on my website.

Joseph Glatthaar

Dr. Joseph T. Glatthaar is Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (UNC Press, 2011) and General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (The Free Press, 2008).

Editor’s Note: September 2017 Issue

Editor’s Note: September 2017 Issue

As we do with each issue, below you will find the editor’s note for our forthcoming September 2017 issue. You can access these articles by subscribing to the journal, or through a Project Muse subscription.

The essays in this volume should inspire us to reconsider how we measure the changes wrought by the Civil War. Two essays highlight how the postwar South remained littered with traps that ensnared freed people and poor whites in poverty and dependency. Confederate widows, too, were directed to new roles that looked a good deal like the old ones–although in their case, there were benefits to accepting them. We begin with an essay that suggests a new way to mark one critical change the war set in motion.

Mark Noll uncovers a robust criticism offered by American Catholics of Protestants, whose focus on an individual relationship with and interpretation of the scriptures tore at the social fabric and propelled the country into civil war. By contrast, Catholic approach to scripture, critics insisted, offered a “surer guide for the nation’s future,” because among other things, it was nurtured and guided by proper authority. This critique, launched in the Catholic press early in the war, put church spokesmen in a good position to exploit the chorus of postwar critics who sought to condemn Protestant fanaticism for nearly destroying the nation during the war. And, Noll suggests, this may in part account for the postwar move toward religious pluralism.

While the Catholic Church engaged in the work of critiquing the causes of the war, Confederate widows were enlisted to the work of memorialization through a new type of condolence letter that came into wide usage during the war. “Notification letters,” as Ashley Mays refers to them, were distinct in form and substance from condolence letters, for whereas the latter offered instruction about how widows should grieve, the former enlisted widows to the work of caretaking their husbands’ memories. Both forms could comfort and coerce, at the same time, opening up new questions about what Drew Faust once described as a “uniformed sorority of grief.” Did loss bring Confederate women together?

Erin Mauldin’s essay examines catastrophic ecological changes underway in the postwar South and pinpoints their human causes. Mauldin argues that to understand the New South’s economic stagnation, we must look carefully at how postwar tenancy set in motion changes to the land, such as erosion and the depletion of critical nutrients from soil. These changes exacerbated the economic dislocations suffered by poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers and fed a growing tide of indebtedness and bankruptcy.   Mauldin’s essay explores the deep irony that, in seeking to negotiate the terms of their post war labor contracts, freed people unintentionally helped to set in motion ecological changes that would threaten their economic autonomy.

Dale Kretz uncovers a similar irony in his study of USCT pension files. When applying for pensions, former slaves were asked to prove that their injury or disability—to be qualified for pensions, applicants had to prove they were disabled—did not result from their time in slavery, that upon enlistment, they were in “perfect health.” This stipulation required former slaves to assist federal agents in covering up the serious health consequences of slavery, and, as Kretz suggests, undercut simultaneous efforts to pass an ambitious slavery reparations law. As USCT veterans filled out forms and stood for health examinations, then, they unwittingly participated in what Kretz calls “national reconciliation struggles writ small.”

Lorien Foote’s review essay revisits historians’ use of the term “home front,” which is often invoked as a way to underscore the blurring of lines between combatants and noncombatants but which Foote suggests reproduces the same binary it seeks to dismantle. In its place, Foote proposes a number of alternatives, including “a people’s war,” “house hold war,” or more simply, “insurrection.” The benefits of this new vocabulary are clear when Foote takes account of a number of recent studies of slave resistance and guerilla warfare. We need not choose one from the alternative list she provides, but in trying them out, Foote suggests, we might get “a more accurate picture of the kind of war southerners confronted.”


Twenty Negro or Overseer Law?: Ideas for the Classroom

Twenty Negro or Overseer Law?: Ideas for the Classroom

Application for an overseer exemption, May 1864. From Encyclopedia Virginia. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

For the Confederacy, was the Civil War a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight? College students and historians have grappled with this question as long as they have studied the Civil War. For those who answer in the affirmative, this “yes” is generally followed up by the argument that divisions between rich and poor and/or slaveholder and non-slaveholder contributed to the demise of the Confederacy.[1] Others, however, contend that the Civil War was both a rich man’s and a poor man’s fight. These historians are more apt to argue that the overwhelming power of the North (not internal Confederate divisions) led to Union victory.[2]

To support their argument, those favoring the former view have seemingly found a smoking gun in the “Twenty Negro Law.” Passed in October 1862, this amendment to the April 1862 conscription law allowed planters (those who owned twenty or more slaves) an exemption for someone to oversee their slaves. These historians often quote Mississippi Senator James Phelan’s succinct contention that “never did a law meet with universal odium.”[3] One scholar has claimed that the measure was “perhaps the most widely hated act ever imposed by the Confederacy,” and another has added that in the wake of the measure, “the War of Southern independence was, in consequence, effectively lost.”[4]

At first glance, the measure’s potential to undermine class solidarity appears irrefutable. Nevertheless the reality, as is often the case, is more complex. In the June 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, I offered my own analysis. There I argue that the October 1862 law represented a response to legitimate concerns regarding slave unrest, especially in light of Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. And, I point out that scholars have too often adopted an overly simplistic view of the measure. Many authors have disregarded the changes to the law in 1863 and 1864, conflated criticism of abuse of the law with criticism of the law itself, and ignored the fact that few men took advantage of the exemption.[5]

My argument is not that all Confederates welcomed the law or that non-slaveholders cheered this privilege extended to their planter neighbors. Instead, it is a reminder of both the complexity in history and the need to consider Civil War history from the perspective of the soldiers, politicians, and civilians of the era. There was no monolithic opinion regarding the measure, and consequently, the primary sources associated with the “Twenty Negro” or Overseer law provide a valuable opportunity to demonstrate how scholars can use the same sources and come to different conclusions.

In order to encourage students to think critically about this law, and about what primary sources can teach us, one option for an assignment in an upper-division Civil War course is to have students write an editorial either for or against the measure, taking into consideration some relevant primary sources (see appendix). There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, but it is more important how students use the primary sources. Some questions that might guide their work would include:

  1. What were the main arguments in favor of the law?
  2. What were the main arguments against the law?
  3. How did the law change over time? Did politicians respond to the law’s critics?
  4. Does the law support the contention that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight”?

Also, when I teach this topic I encourage students to be aware of time and place in their editorial (they are allowed to choose their identity, the date they write, and the place they live). If students write in November 1862, they would be writing about a different iteration of the law than if they wrote in June 1864. And, if they write from a South Carolina county with over eighty percent of its population enslaved, they might come to a different conclusion than if they write from a piney woods county with less than ten percent of its population enslaved. And, of course, wealth, gender, proximity to the enemy, and other factors could also shape their attitude toward the law.

Overall, this assignment gives students the opportunity to consider context and contingency in history. My goal is not to get students to agree on their opinion of the measure. Historians have not reached unanimity on the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” issue in the past 150 years. And, my guess is that it will not be resolved in the next 150 years either, so there is no need for a classroom consensus. Instead, my hope is to get my students thinking in the context of the period, to address a key historiographical debate, and to use sources to make a convincing argument.


If you assign an editorial project in class, or you discuss this law in depth, I suggest the following primary sources:

A. The 1860 census:

If your university subscribes to Social Explorer (, that’s the best method to get county data. The printed records are available at and the material is also available at the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at (the easiest method used to be the University of Virginia census browser but that is no longer operating).

B. Statistics:

State Plantations Overseer Exemptions Percent of Plantations with Exemptions
Virginia 5,777 200 3.5
North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina 15,719 622 3.96
Louisiana 3,925 210 5.3

C. The laws:

  1. First law, October 1862

    “To secure the proper police of the country, one person, either as agent, owner or overseer on each plantation on which one white person is required to be kept by the laws or ordinances of any State, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to do military service, and in States having no such law, one person as agent, owner or overseer, on each plantation of twenty negroes, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to military service…are hereby exempted from military service in the armies of the Confederate States;… Provided, further, That the exemptions…shall only continue whilst the persons exempted are actually engaged in their respective pursuits or occupations. (James M. Matthews, Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the Second Session of the First Congress [Richmond: R. M. Smith, 1862], 77-79.)

  2. May 1863 Amendment, which replaced the October 1862 law

    “Sec. 2. For the police and management of slaves, there shall be exempted one person on each farm or plantation, the sole property of a minor, a person of unsound mind, a feme sole, or a person absent from home in the military or naval service of the Confederacy, on which there are twenty or more slaves: Provided, The person so exempted was employed and acting as an overseer previous to the sixteenth April [1862]…for every person exempted, as aforesaid…there shall be paid annually…the sum of five hundred dollars.

    Sec. 3 Such other persons shall be exempted as the President shall be satisfied ought to be exempted in districts of country deprived of country deprived of white or slave labor indispensable to the production of grain or provisions necessary for the support of the population remaining at home, and also on account of justice, equity, and necessity.”(James M. Matthews, The Statutes at Large of the Confederate States of America Passed at the Third Session of the First Congress [Richmond: R.M. Smith, 1863], 158-59.)

  3. February 1864 amendment

    “There shall be exempt one person as overseer…on each farm or plantation upon which there are now …fifteen able-bodies field hands…shall only be granted in cases in which there is no white male adult on the farm or plantation not liable to military service…such person shall first execute a bond…that he will deliver…one hundred pounds of bacon…and one hundred pounds of net beef…for each able bodied slave on the farm…shall further bind himself to sell the marketable surplus of provisions and grain now on hand…to the Government or to the families of soldiers at prices fixed by the commissioners of the State.” (OR, ser. 4, vol. 3: 179-80)

D. Letters/reactions (in chronological order):

  1. “Farmer” to Governor Joseph Brown, February 22, 1862, Washington County, Georgia

    “Some neighborhoods in our Co. will shortly be left entirely destitute of White men & exposed to the ravages of Negroes without any control at all. This state of things arrises from the fact of all men volunteering & leaving from our locality; & no more being willing to stay & risk being drafted. Some farms will be entirely neglected & thereby loose more to the Confederacy than the men would gain by leaving home.”“Some white men should be left in all neighborhoods to carry on the farms & raise corn for the soldiers.” (Governor’s Correspondence, Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta.)

  2. General Daniel Ruggles to General S. Cooper, Adj. Gen’l CSA, October 3, 1862, from Jackson, MS

    Voluntary enlistment plus conscription have taken “such a large proportion of the active freemen of this district, including the owners of slaves and other persons engaged in their management, that many plantations with numerous slaves are being left without the ordinary and necessary control of the white man, an daily applications are made to me to detail or to authorize the retention of proper persons to superintend them. Pernicious influences have already been manifested upon many of these plantations, and it is perhaps not without reason that fears are entertained of some serious disturbance in the sections most densely populated by the servile race, which are in most cases approachable by navigable streams…. The magnitude of this interest within this district is such that some speedy remedy and indicated line of future policy seemed to be imperatively demanded.” (OR, ser. 1, vol. 15, 821.)

  3. F.M. Holladay to Vice President Alexander Stephens, November 30, 1862 (from Mississippi)

    After his son has died in Confederate service, he wrote: “Our army is [torn paper]ing a great to do at the Exemption Law. It does look hard to exempt a man because he has 20 Negroes they say it is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” (Alexander Stephens Papers, Emory University.)

  4. Senator James Phelan to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1862

    “Never did a law meet with more universal odium than the exemption of slave-owners. Its injustice, gross injustice, is denounced even by men whose position enables them to take advantage of its privileges. Its influence on the poor is most calamitous, and has awakened a spirit of and elicited a discussion of which we may safely predicate the most unfortunate results. I believe such a provision to be unnecessary, inexpedient, and unjust. I labored to defeat it and predicted the consequences of its enactment. It has aroused a spirit of rebellion in some places, I am informed, and bodies of men have banded together to resist; whilst in the army it is said it only needs some daring man to raise the standard to develop a revolt.” (OR, ser. 1, vol. 17, 2: 790.)

  5. John Harris to Becky Harris, February 14, 1863

    “I hear that great dissatisfaction reins in our country in regard to the exemption law, and I cannot blame the people their. I mean those who are poor and have always had to work and all their lives to support their little children…. Who are the men that are detailed to stay at home and attend to the negroes. Is it not those men who before the war … employed the poor men to attend to his negroes and never himself went to the fields. Now how is it those very rich men are the best of overseers, can have more work done and keep the poor negro in better subjugation than any poor man and the poor have to leave those they love to the mercys of the rich and got out to fight the battle of the country – and who for – have not the men of property more at stake than the poor. Certainly they have and they are the ones who ought to face the canon or else when we gain our independence their effects ought to be taken and equally distributed between those who have gained for them their independence.” (John Achilles Harris Letters, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.)

  6. North Carolina Legislature

    “Whereas, the Confederate Congress in an act known as the ‘Military Exemption Bill,’ by the exemption of such persons as may be the owners of twenty or more negroes…have, in the opinion of this General Assembly, made unjust discrimination between such persons, and their less fortunate fellow-citizens, contrary to the spirit of our institutions, and in direct violation of the third section of our Bill of Rights…

    Resolved by this General Assembly, That we do not believe there exists a necessity for such distinctions, and we most respectfully ask our senators and representative in Congress to…urge a repeal of said clauses, at the earliest possible day.” (Public Laws of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly, 1862-63 [Raleigh: W. W. Holden, State Printer, 1863], 49-50.)

  7. W. Courtney to mother and sister, February 7, 1864

    “I have left the Rebbel[sic] army and I intend in a few days to seek protection in the federal lines…. I wil not be governed by a people where there is not justice among them…. They have always made laws to oppress the poor since this war commenced. first the twenty negro law was allowed. next was allowed the rich man who did not own twenty slaves the privilege to hire a substitute in fact all big men who were not exempt in some way are officers in the army then who must do the fighting…the poor who have left families with the promised they should not suffer for want…[families] have been neglected. left without food….” (Stokes Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.)

  8. Sam Watkins, Tennessee Private, in his memoirs

    “A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty or more negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.’ The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and the pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript.” (Sam Watkins, Company Aytch or a Side Show of the Big Show, M. Thomas Inge, ed. [Plume, 1999], 31-32.)

E. Speeches

  1. President Jefferson Davis speech, Jackson, MS, December 26, 1862

    “I am told that [the Twenty Negro Law] has excited some discontent and that it has provoked censure, far more severe, I believe, than it deserves. It has been said that it exempts the rich from military service, and forces the poor to fight the battles of the country. The poor do, indeed, fight the battles of the country. It is the poor who save nations and make revolutions. But is it true that in this war the men of property have shrunk from the ordeal of the battle-field? Look through the army; cast your eyes upon the maimed heroes of the war whom you meet in your streets and in the hospitals; remember the martyrs of the conflict; and I am sure you will find among them more than a fair proportion drawn from the ranks of men of property. The object of that portion of the act which exempts those having charge of twenty or more negroes, was not to draw any distinction of classes, but simply to provide a force, in the nature of a police force, sufficient to keep our negroes in control. This was the sole object of the clause. Had it been otherwise, it would never have received my signature. As I have already said, we have no cause to complain of the rich. All of our people have done well; and, while the poor have nobly discharged their duties, most of the wealthiest and most distinguished families of the South have representatives in the ranks. (The Papers of Jefferson Davis, ed. Lynda Crist et al., vol. 8, 1862 [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995], 569.)

  2. Alabama Senator William Yancey Speech in Southern Recorder, February 3, 1863

    “The sole question to be considered is, is the exemption of some one competent to manage slaves, demanded by the interests of the army and the community? If it is, the law is wise in this particular…

    “Every slave holding State, that had considered the question, for many years previously…had enacted laws requiring some male adult white person to reside upon a place where as many as 6 to 20 slaves resided…

    The Exemption law is this particular, but endorsed the policy of the State law.”“The slaves, under skillful management, constitute the great and peculiar strength of the South in war.”

  3. Jefferson Davis to Congress, January 12, 1863

    “I specially recommend…some revision of the exemption law of last session. Serious complaints have reached me of the inequality of its operation from eminent and patriotic citizens, whose opinions merit great consideration, and I trust that some means will be devised for leaving at home a sufficient local police without making discriminations, always to be deprecated, between different classes of our citizens.” (OR, ser. 4, vol. 2, 348.)


[1] For just a few examples of the view that internal divisions doomed the Confederacy, see David Williams, A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (New York: New Press, 2005); Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 188; William W. Freehling The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
[2] For examples of this view, see Gary Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Free Press, 2008); William Blair, Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); “Everyman’s War: Confederate Enlistment in Civil War Virginia,” Civil War History 50 (March 2004): 5-36.
James Phelan to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1862, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880–1901), ser. 1, vol. 17, 2:790 (hereafter cited as OR).
[4] David Williams, Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998); Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage, 188.
John Sacher, “‘Twenty-Negro,’ or Overseer Law: A Reconsideration,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 2 (June 2017): 269-292.

John Sacher

John Sacher is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. His research focuses on politics and society in the nineteenth-century South, particularly during the Civil War era. His book, A Perfect War of Politics: Parties, Politicians, and Democracy in Louisiana, 1824-1861 (LSU, 2003), examines antebellum politics and secession in Louisiana. He is currently working on a book on conscription in the Confederacy. This study uses conscription as a lens to view both Confederate identity and the internal strains within the South during the Civil War.

Our New and Improved Website

Our New and Improved Website

We are thrilled to announce the launch of our new website–same address, new look. As before, you can access information on how to subscribe to the journal, see tables of contents for each issue, learn more about our awards, read forums on the future of Civil War studies and Reconstruction studies, find out how to submit your work for consideration, and you can read and subscribe to our blog, Muster.

Special thanks to Ellen Bush at the University of North Carolina Press for her hard work on the website redesign.

The South Rises Yet Again, This Time on HBO

The South Rises Yet Again, This Time on HBO

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how Americans remember the Civil War, the last few months have been something of a treasure trove. The sectional conflict has surfaced repeatedly, in a variety of ways–some hopeful, some troubling–from confrontations over the removal of Confederate monuments to the most recent, even absurd, entry into the Civil War memory landscape: the announcement by HBO that it plans to produce an alternative Civil War history television series. Confederate, created by the showrunners for Game of Thrones, aims to depict a world in which the South succeeds in its efforts to leave the Union and create “a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Spotlighting the lead-up to the “Third American Civil War,” Confederate will depict men and women on “both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone–freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”   No doubt recognizing the problematic optics in having white men produce a series about a slave society, HBO enlisted the black husband and wife team of Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman who will serve as both writers and executive producers for the show.[1]

Many commentators have already weighed in on this proposed venture, with some expressing deep concern about what it might mean to bring Game of Thrones sensibilities to bear on a television drama focused on American slavery. I have nothing to say about that; I’ve never watched GoT. But as a historian with some awareness of the long historical arc of Civil War memory, I am interested in what this new effort means in the context of the current political landscape. Others, including scholar Roxanne Gay, have taken up this theme and have voiced strong reservations about making a show like this at this unsettled and turbulent political moment.[2]

In an interview with Vulture, David Benioff, one of the white producers and a self-professed “history nerd” explains how he got the idea for the proposed series. “I remember reading a history of the Civil War,” Benioff explains, in which he learned the story of Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” before the battle of Antietam. Here, let me just note that for those interested in this hypothetical, there is a well-done essay by Civil War historian James McPherson, as yet un-credited in this HBO fantasy, speculating about this very scenario: that if never lost, then Lee’s orders would never have been discovered by a Union corporal and passed on to General McClellan who, in turn, would not have attacked the Confederate commander at Antietam. At any rate, as Benioff explains, he was interested in “what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won.”[3]

I suppose this seems straightforward enough, but here is where my concerns emerge. It troubles me that Benioff’s starting point is a “dorky” (as he puts it) military fantasy, one that countless neo-Confederates may well have indulged in, which puts their side in the victory seat. Had he mentioned, say, his interest in thinking about our long-standing legacy of racial inequality and its links to the Civil War era, I might feel differently. Even more, Benioff’s remarks show little awareness of how much a Confederate-centric narrative already holds a dominant place in American culture: how our culture has been awash with a romanticized fantasy about the Confederate war effort and whitewashed notions of slavery.

Like Benioff’s account of his artistic inspiration, Americans have long told the Civil War story strictly in military terms, paying little attention to the central problem of slavery, and even less to the drama of emancipation. And as historian Fitzhugh Brundage reminds us, even though Confederates lost the war, the economic and political power held by white Southerners allowed them to create “a landscape dense with totemic relics”. In contrast, “southern blacks could never fix their memory in public spaces in the same manner or to the same extent.” I would urge anyone who wants to imagine, in film, or fiction, or television, a Confederate “victory,” to keep that memory imbalance in mind.[4]

One example of neo-Confederate merchandising that forwards a particular perspective on Civil War history. Image courtesy of

Benioff and his collaborators enter a crowded field of Civil War counterfactuals, including websites devoted to “Alternative History” along with films, novels, and historical essays. Earlier versions of the story showed considerable interest in how a Southern victory might affect the global balance of power. Winston Churchill penned his own version of this story in 1930, following visits and conversations with Lee biographer Douglas Freeman.   In Churchill’s version, Lee wins at Gettysburg, enters Washington, and proclaims that the “victorious Confederacy would pursue no policy toward the African negroes” that conflicted with western European principles. In short, Lee, cheered on by British leader William Gladstone, freed the slaves. As Churchill saw it, this happy settlement of “the color question” represented a validation of British policies in “dealing with alien and more primitive populations.”   In 1960, noted Civil War novelist MacKinlay Kantor likewise imagined a Confederate victory with the slaves emancipated in the 1880s. Evincing little interest in the race question but considerable concern about the Cold War, Kantor’s main point was to show how the threat of Communism would eventually cause the disunited states to reunite to fight their common foe.[5]

More recently, writers and artists, attuned to the deep and ongoing power of racism in American life, have opted for a scenario in which the South wins and maintains some version of a slave system. In CSA: The Confederate States of America, African-American filmmaker Kevin Willmott imagines the successful Confederate nation and its slave-based economy by drawing on the actual popular culture, replete with racist imagery, of twentieth-century America.   Willmott, in other words, explores how much American culture as a whole bears the stamp of Confederate thinking. In Underground Airlines, the white writer Ben Winters imagines Lincoln’s assassination occurring in 1861 and Congress subsequently agreeing to the Crittenden compromise. As a result, the nation avoids civil war and keeps slavery intact in four deep South states. Like Willmott, Winters contemplates the tenuousness of abolitionist sentiments and the relative ease with which white Northerners accept the perpetuation of racial bondage and a culture of white supremacy. In Winters’ telling, Confederate sensibilities, even if there was never an actual Confederacy, resonate throughout the United States.[6]

Although the HBO series seems, in some respects, to pursue some similar themes as Willmott and Winters, I fear this effort is already moving in a problematic direction, even in the title of the new production. In a world where Confederate flags continue to fly, where many Confederate monuments remain standing, where Confederate supporters feel emboldened by President Trump and many of his policies, it is hard not to sympathize with the growing counter-movement, for people to cry “enough” at this continued emphasis on all-things-Confederate, whether in flags or monuments or television shows.

Although efforts have been made recently to remove some prominent Confederate images, the U.S. has, historically, been awash with Confederate symbolism. In this climate, does HBO’s proposed series stoke the flames of the Confederate victory narrative? Photo by Evan Vucci, Associated Press.

The Confederate version of Civil War history has for years had more clout than a Unionist or Emancipationist account, especially in film and fiction. Think Gone With the Wind or Birth of a Nation or even, more recently, Gods and Generals. To recall how simple it is for Hollywood to erase slavery from the Civil War, think about this year’s cinematic offering, The Beguiled. Putting the word “Confederate” at the center of a prominent television series seems another way to give a discredited system yet more air-time, and not in a historical treatment but in something meant purely for entertainment. Kevin Willmott put CSA in his title, although that was in keeping with his mockumentary approach in which “CSA” was the title of a British-made educational documentary. Ben Winters may well have had the right instinct in Underground Airlines: to imagine a world where there never even was anything called the Confederacy, where there is no need to imagine a Confederate victory, but where American history has nonetheless followed a racially troubled, and all-too familiar, historical trajectory.[7]

Ultimately, perhaps the main problem with this HBO proposal is not just this reimagining of a Confederate victory, but the plan to put the Confederacy–supposedly replete with all its symbols and sensibilities–front and center at this very specific historical moment, a moment when so many people are actively engaged in diminishing the Confederacy’s power on our cultural landscape. I am certainly not calling for historical ignorance or for removing the whole Confederate experience from the history books. I would just urge a greater awareness of how much influence this treasonous movement has already exerted in American life and the increasingly sinister ways it has been and continues to be deployed.

[1] Jackson McHenry, “HBO Picks Up Game of Thrones Showrunners’ Alternate-History Civil War Drama Confederate,” Vulture, July 19, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017,; Josef Adalian, “The Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond to the Backlash and Explain Why They Wanted to Tell This Story,” Vulture, July 20, 2017, accessed July 25, 2017,

[2] Dave Itzkoff, “‘Confederate’ Poses Test Over Race for ‘Game of Thrones’ Creators and HBO,” New York Times, July 20, 2017,; Roxanne Gay, “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction,” New York Times, July 25, 2017,

[3] Benioff quoted in “Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond”; James McPherson, “If the Lost Order Hadn’t Been Lost: Robert E. Lee Humbles the Union, 1862,” in Robert Cowley, ed., What Ifs? Of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: Berkley Books, 2004).

[4] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “Woman’s Hand and Heart and Deathless Love: White Women and the Commemorative Impulse in the New South,” in Cynthia Mills and Pamela Simpson, eds., Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), 71.

[5] Winston Churchill, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 1961; reprinted from Scribner’s Magazine, December 1930), 244; MacKinlay Kantor, “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” Look Magazine (November 22, 1960), 29-62.

[6] CSA: The Confederate States of America, Dir. Kevin Willmott, Hodcarrier Films, 2004; Ben Winters, Underground Airlines (New York: Mullholland Books, 2016).

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is Professor of History at Boston University where she teaches classes on the Civil War, women and gender, and the American South. Previous publications include: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press) and Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard University Press). Her new book, Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

A Free Country for White Men: The Legacy of Frank Blair Jr. and his Statue in St. Louis

A Free Country for White Men: The Legacy of Frank Blair Jr. and his Statue in St. Louis

An 1892 picture of a St. Louis biking club at the Frank Blair statue in Forest Park. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay suggested in April 2015 that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of a Confederate monument standing in the city’s popular Forest Park, few St. Louisians knew that such a statue even existed in the area.[1] The same could be said for three other Civil War statues at Forest Park dedicated to Unionist figures. Statues of General Franz Sigel, President Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates, and politician and general Frank Blair, Jr. all stand as testaments to St. Louisians who supported and defended the United States during the Civil War. When it comes to historical memory, Blair’s 1888 statue is the most fascinating for what it celebrates and what it ignores about his legacy. His statue demonstrates how public iconography often translates historical fact into flawed memories that hide as much as they expose about the past.

The text of Frank Blair’s statue states that:

This monument is raised to commemorate the Indomitable free-soil leader of the west; the herald and standard bearer of freedom in Missouri; the creator of the first volunteer Union army in the South; the saviour of the state from secession; the patriotic citizen-soldier, who fought from the beginning to the end of the war; the magnanimous statesman, who, as soon as the war was over, breasted the torrent of proscription, to restore to citizenship the disfranchised Southern people, and finally, the incorruptible public servant.[2]

As with many expressions of historical memory, this inscription glorifies the positive aspects of Blair’s legacy and plays up concepts like patriotism and loyalty. It represents what historian John Bodnar calls an “official” expression of memory, one that “relies on . . . the restatement of reality in ideal rather than complex or ambiguous terms. It presents the past on an abstract basis of timelessness and sacredness.”[3]

Growing up in a political family intimately connected with President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, Blair first entered the political world in 1852 as a Missouri state legislator and disciple of Thomas Hart Benton, the state’s legendary first Senator. Blair was initially a defender of slavery and a slaveholder himself. Like Benton, however, he was concerned about debates over slavery’s expansion into new western territories and the loose talk of secession, disunion, and civil war that often accompanied those debates. In one speech to his fellow legislators, Blair denounced radical proslavery agitation as the work of disunionists and lamented “unpatriotic appeals to sectional prejudices, feelings [and] interests.”[4]

Blair won a seat to Congress as a Benton Democrat in 1856. He opposed slavery’s westward expansion, but shortly after the election his attitudes towards slavery changed dramatically. Blair publicly identified as an antislavery politician and became a leading advocate of colonization in Missouri. He proposed a scheme by which all remaining public lands in Missouri would be granted to the state and sold for the use of purchasing the state’s slaves and transporting them to Central America. Like his proslavery adversaries, Blair was horrified by the specter of a large free black population within the country. Only emancipation followed by colonization would ensure economic growth in Missouri and the settlement of free white families in the west. In this belief Blair argued that he was reiterating “the sentiments of Washington, of Jefferson, and the best men of olden time.”[5]

U.S. General Frank Blair during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Blair championed the causes of free labor and colonization in speeches throughout the country. “The territories should be reserved for free white men or surrendered to the slaves and their masters,” he often thundered. “Freed blacks hold a place in this country which cannot be maintained. Those who have fled to the North are most unwelcome visitors. The strong repugnance of the free white laborer to be yoked with the negro refugee, breeds an enmity between races, which must end in the expulsion of the latter.”[6] Blair’s newspaper in St. Louis, the Daily Missouri Democrat, similarly stated in 1858 that he “stood before [voters] as the champion of free labor in Missouri—superiority for the white man—and that in so doing he maintained what was Missouri’s greatest interest, that which would inevitably develop all her great resources.”[7] Finding support for his positions within the Republican Party, Blair switched parties in 1860.

Blair worked to keep Missouri in the Union after the first Southern states seceded, became a trusted confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, and served as a general during the war. Although Union victory kept Blair’s beloved country together, the legal status of four million African American freedpeople remained an open question. Alarmed by the Republican Party’s support for black citizenship and voting rights during Reconstruction, and unchanged in his racial prejudices, Blair switched back to the Democrats. He also strongly opposed Missouri’s rewritten 1865 constitution, which greatly restricted the rights of former Confederates and contained an “ironclad oath” requiring teachers, lawyers, clergy, and other professionals to promise that they had not been disloyal during the war. The disenfranchisement of a large number of white Southerners, combined with eventual enfranchisement for black men, was too much for Blair.[8]

When the Democrats selected Blair as Horatio Seymour’s Vice Presidential candidate for the 1868 presidential election, he engaged in demagoguery that made the party’s campaign one of the most racist in American history. In a national speaking tour, Blair warned that voting for Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant would lead to oppressive rule by “a semi-barbarous race of blacks who are worshipers of fetishes and polygamists.” Equally worrisome to him was the idea of politically empowered black men who would sexually “subject white women to their unbridled lust.”[9] The racism of Blair and the Democrats almost worked. Grant won the popular vote by only 300,000 votes, largely owing his victory to newly enfranchised African Americans who overwhelmingly supported him.

The front cover of a popular song during the 1868 presidential campaign. “The White Man’s Banner: Seymour and Blair’s Campaign Song” by M.F. Bigney and Thomas von la Hache. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frank Blair’s complex legacy symbolizes the difficulty in providing an accurate representation of a historical person or event through the erection of a public statue or monument. As an expression of “official” memory, the inscription on his Forest Park statue rightly celebrates his opposition to slavery, his efforts to secure Missouri for the Union, and his patriotism. But it conveniently leaves out the fact that he was a “standard bearer of freedom in Missouri” for whites only. And in celebrating his effort “to restore to citizenship the disenfranchised Southern people” during Reconstruction, the inscription ignores Blair’s simultaneous opposition to citizenship rights for black Southerners.

Public iconography can (but does not always) raise awareness of historical people and events that are worth honoring today. And as Frank Blair’s story suggests, many historic figures who engaged in honorable actions are also full of their own contradictions, prejudices, and shortcomings. Removing Frank Blair’s statue is not necessarily the best course of action moving forward, but iconography alone will not enhance a society’s understanding of history or make them care about the past. A revised text inscription could help, but ultimately the effort to educate Americans about figures like Frank Blair must start in the classroom and the museum, not the public square.

[1] Francis G. Slay, “The Confederate Monument in Forest Park: It’s Time for a Reappraisal,” Slay, April 21, 2015, accessed July 7, 2017, Current Mayor Lyda Krewson followed Slay’s suggestion and expressed her wish that the monument be removed. The city then recently struck a compromise agreement with the Missouri Civil War Museum to relocate the statue to that museum until a suitable location can be found. But with the Confederate monument now removed. See Sarah Fenske, “Confederate Monument Will Go to Civil War Museum,” Riverfront Times, June 26, 2017, accessed July 7, 2017,

[2] “The Francis P. Blair, Jr., Statue in Forest Park,” The Civil War Muse, accessed July 6, 2017,

[3] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 13-14.

[4] Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Missouri, at the Extra Session of the Seventeenth General Assembly (Jefferson City: James Lusk, Public Printer, 1852), 519-521; William E. Parrish, Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 47-51; Louis Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 56-58.

[5] Parrish, Frank Blair, 68; “The Canvas,” Daily Missouri Democrat, July 5, 1858.

[6] Parrish, Frank Blair, 71.

[7] “Public Speaking at Laclede Station,” Daily Missouri Democrat, July 2, 1858.

[8] “Constitution of 1865 – Drake Constitution,” The Civil War in Missouri, accessed July 8, 2017,

[9] Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938), 23.

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

Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles

Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles

How often have we encountered the blank stares of students when talking about a battle during the Civil War, trying to explain why the exhausted troops did not pursue their victory and deliver a finishing blow? I have had many a debate with a student on the subject, with the student embracing a counterfactual argument that if the Confederates had pushed their advantage, they could have caused a serious blow to the enemy. Understanding how a full day of fighting on difficult terrain can bring troops to the level of complete exhaustion is one of the most difficult concepts to communicate in the sterility of a classroom. Few have the ability to take students on a field trip to a battlefield and spend a full day experiencing the topography. We cannot fully replicate the difficulties soldiers would have faced, but there are other ways to illustrate to students the battlefield experience of Civil War era soldiers.

There are many stories of soldiers and entire armies too exhausted after a full day of fighting to continue. After the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate army was unable to pursue the fleeing Union army because they suffered from exhaustion, due to difficult terrain. A similar situation prevented Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s army from making a final push on the first day of Shiloh, which would have pushed Ulysses S. Grant’s army into the Tennessee River. After the Battle of Chickamauga, Confederate forces did not press their Union opponent by making a forceful assault on Snodgrass Hill and the associated ridge, nor did they push the fleeing blue clad soldiers into Chattanooga, avoiding the eventually disastrous siege. These are just a few examples of how topography and a long day of fighting influencing the outcome of a battle.

Thayer’s Approach at Vicksburg. The approach was mowed in this image, with the concrete drain visible. Photo courtesy of the author.

Obviously, there is nothing better than being on the battlefield itself. As an example, during a travel program, I took students to Vicksburg and determined to walk part of the battlefield with them. At Vicksburg, the National Park Service has done much to restore parts of the park to its 1863 appearance, which included clear cutting the area between the Union and Confederate lines. The clearing of the terrain shows the rough landscape usually hidden under dense tree cover. The most impressive point is Thayer’s Approach. Brigade General John M. Thayer’s men had charged up the incline on May 19 and May 22, 1863 without success. After their failures, the soldiers settled down to dig a trench up the steep side of the ridge. They eventually reached to within yards of the Confederate line.[1]

I insisted that we walk up Thayer’s Approach so students could get a feeling for what Union soldiers faced in the course of the siege operations and assault. The vegetation was at least six feet tall, but there was a concrete drainage system that offered an alley. After an exhausting climb, we reached the top and some students, exhausted and sweating, sat down in front of the marker indicating the closest Union troops came to the Confederate lines. The hike was an eye-opening experience for them. Many commented that the incline had not looked as difficult, long, and steep from below. I reminded the students that we were wearing summer clothing and were not carrying any equipment—imagining the climb in wool uniforms, carrying a musket or rifle, with constant fire from above, is a completely different story. However, this important learning experience dramatically alters students’ perceptions about the soldiers’ suffering. How then, can we translate such an eye-opening experience into a classroom, when visiting a battlefield is not feasible?

Pictures in conjunction with maps are one means to illustrate the topographical difficulties. Battlefield maps often lack one crucial piece: topographical features. For example, the maps in Battle Cry of Freedom only include small dashes to indicate terrain, This Terrible War has similar maps, and the Civil War Trust’s maps include topographical lines to indicate elevation and steepness of elevation, but without reference points, none provides a good illustration of the difficulties faced.[2] Obviously the authors of these great works are not at fault here; there are limitations in how a three dimensional environment can be represented in one dimension.

Topographical Map of Vicksburg area, from These maps are now freely available as PDFs.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to overcome these difficulties is to use the many internet tools available. For example, Google offers a topographical map feature, which illustrates the elevation of terrain. However, based on GIS (geographic information system) data and topographic lines, the terrain can be slightly misleading. Google Earth offers some better views, but they can have the feeling of looking at a horrible gaming graphic. The image below is a screen shot of Thayer’s approach from the valley looking toward the Confederate line. Google Earth does not place the viewer fully at the bottom of the valley and does not adequately present the river crossing before heading up toward the line. Still, moving up gives a good impression of the difficult terrain soldiers had to overcome as they made their way under fire toward Confederate troops.

Screenshot of Google Earth’s view of Thayer’s Approach in Vicksburg. Courtesy of the author.

Even more, maybe here is a great opportunity to reach out on our campuses to the departments dealing with computer technology, graphic design, and 3D printmaking. For example, Sightline Maps has made an effort to make topographical maps available for educational purposes and help produce 3D prints of those images. My university does not have access to a 3D printer, but it would be interesting to see if the maps and prints would provide a good illustration of the terrain of Civil War battlefields, just as good as their promotion images of the Grand Canyon and Mount St. Helens.[3]

Screenshot of a Sightline 3D image of Thayer’s Approach. Courtesy of the author.

While the process of generating an .STL file with all the data of a topographic region and then printing it sounds intimidating, the results look rather promising even if they remain small in scale.[4] As map data improves and the size of items one can print grows, this might be a great means to illustrate to students the topographical challenges present on battlefields. It might be cumbersome to carry around 3D maps, just like some of our colleagues still carry the old maps, but the advantages should outweigh those issues. Even more, once generated, there is always the possibility to use the digital and not the printed map. With advancing new technology, there should be an ever-increasing array of possibilities and improvements to showcase battlefield terrain to our students when field trips to the battlefields themselves remain impractical.


[1] Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 331.

[2] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Michael Fellman, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland, This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2015); The Civil War Trust, accessed March 30, 2017,

[3] Sightline Maps, accessed March 30, 2017,; “Sightline Maps: See the World in a New Way!” Kickstarter, accessed March 30, 2017,

[4] “Terrain2STL Lets Users 3D Print Topographic Maps from Google Maps Data,” 3DPrint, accessed March 30, 2017,; “#D Perspective Views with 3DEM,” Free Geography Tools, accessed March 30, 2017,

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.

“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War

“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War

We are currently living through what could well be considered the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. With over sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the question arises how the history of political refugees can inform current policy-making today. Historical analogies often conceal as much as they reveal, but one lesson they impart is that decisions about asylum seekers have long-term consequences. The history of the United States offers countless examples for how refugees, if granted asylum, become part of and shape a country’s history. The participation of political refugees in the Civil War is one.

Starting in the spring of 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Although each revolution had its own local dynamic, they also shared a key characteristic: revolutionaries from the Italian states, France, the various German states, all across Central Europe, and Ireland fought for more political representation, social justice, and autonomy. The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the details of their goals—about the specific structure of a unified Germany, or about the extent of political and social reforms in France—but they often invoked the United States’ own revolution as a source of inspiration. Public opinion in the US welcomed the European revolutions; events across the Atlantic reminded Americans of their own history, both as a source of pride and also as standards that they should uphold.

As the revolutions were crashing across Europe, waves of political refugees fled persecution. Some stayed close to home (in England, Switzerland, France, or Belgium), others fled as far as the Ottoman Empire, or crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in search for safety and a new beginning, making political exile in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 a truly global phenomenon. Thousands of former revolutionaries, the forty-eighters as they came to be called, found asylum in the United States.

Political refugees arriving in the United States were a diverse group comprised of various nationalities. They came from diverse professional groups (lawyers, scholars but also artisans and soldiers), different faiths (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and free-thinkers), and held various political persuasions, ranging from radical socialism to moderate liberalism. Former revolutionaries from France, the German states, and the Kingdom of Hungary, as well as members of the Young Irelanders and Polish revolutionaries who fought against Prussian occupation, hardly added up to a homogenous composite. Their common denominator was the experience of revolution and exile. While political refugees accounted for a comparatively small section of the immigrants reaching the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, they often rose to prominence in the following decades as a result of their continued political and social engagement.

Forty-eighters, especially those who became active in public life in antebellum America, remained committed to the causes they had fought for in the Old World. As Mischa Hoeneck has shown, this often led to alliances with abolitionists, but they were always rooted in specific local conditions.[1] In fact, the attitude of forty-eighters to chattel slavery was as diverse as the refugees themselves. When Lajos Kossuth, a key figure in the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence visited the United States in 1851 and 1852, American abolitionists expected Kossuth, the “William Lloyd Garrison of Hungarian liberty” as one contemporary newspaper dubbed him, to speak out against slavery.[2] Yet Kossuth, who wrote and spoke passionately about liberty, remained silent on this subject. His goal was to secure American political support or at least financial assistance for a new Hungarian revolution, and he was therefore wary of alienating the Southern states. Kossuth’s lecture tour did not produce either the financial or the political results he had been hoping for.[3] His example, which, considering his mission and the publicity his lecture tour received, was in many ways exceptional, sheds light on the complexity of the attitudes of political refugees towards slavery, nonetheless.

Image of Franz Sigel on horseback, facing right, with troops lined up behind him
Lithograph of Major General Franz Sigel on horseback, c. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Even if they had been divided on the issue of slavery, the rhetoric of nation-building and national unity constituted familiar territory for former European revolutionaries and goals they readily identified with.[4] The outbreak of the Civil War saw political exiles join the ranks in great numbers, the overwhelming majority serving in the Union army. There were many reasons for political refugees to join the army, ranging from the practical to the ideological. For one, the Civil War offered the professional soldiers among the refugees who, after arriving in America had to find civilian occupations, an opportunity to return to their original vocations. General Franz Sigel, for example, had attended military academy in Baden (a German state) and had extensive command experience but worked as a teacher in America in the decades preceding the war. Similarly, Sándor Asboth, a refugee from the Kingdom of Hungary with military training and experience as a civil engineer, worked as a mining and landscape engineer before joining the Union army. Although few political refugees had as much military training as Sigel and Asboth, most of them had participated in armed conflicts in Europe as army recruits or members of a militia.

Regardless of their military experience or professional trajectories, for most political exiles participation in the Civil War was inextricably linked with a sense of loyalty to their new home. As one émigré from Hungary, a military officer, put it: “out of pure patriotism, I have taken up this service.” Another officer wrote of himself as a “friend of the long-oppressed.”[5] For political refugees living in Southern states, the Civil War presented a clash between their values and loyalty to their new homes. A letter by Dr. Hermann Nagel shows this inner conflict. Nagel settled in Texas after fleeing Europe for political reasons briefly before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848. In a letter to his brother, he wrote in 1861:

I will be sad to leave Texas, a beautiful country that has offered me such happiness and satisfaction for so long, but I will have to. I will never be able to reconcile myself with the belief that slavery is the actual foundation of the state, that the continued existence of slavery is not merely a temporary necessity but the true essence and basic principle of the state, without which civilized society cannot exist.[6]

In addition to building on their military experience, political refugees also fulfilled the role of cultural brokers. Exiles often rose to prominence in immigrant communities or were able to draw on their experiences from the European revolutions to mobilize their constituencies: Franz Sigel played a key role in gathering German-speaking recruits, while Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, a Polish nobleman who fled to the United States after a failed Polish uprising against Prussia, organized a “Polish Legion.”[7] Several units consisted primarily of immigrant recruits, who answered the call to arms in disproportionate numbers. The influence of political refugees within the army was not limited to their own ethnic communities, however. Historian István Kornél Vida showed, for example, that at least ten Hungarian refugees military officers served in the United States Colored Troops.[8] Scores of refugee physicians and engineers also offered their services to the army.

Recruitment poster aimed at German-speaking Americans (including political refugees and immigrants). The main text reads: “Citizens! Our Country is in danger! To the weapons! To the weapons!” Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

Most political refugees joined the Union army. This reflected in part their political affinity; many forty-eighters supported Lincoln and the Republican Party. Also most political refugees, like most immigrants in general, settled in the North, where they could integrate easier and where they found work. That said, we find immigrants and also few political refugees among the ranks of the Confederate army, though in incomparably smaller numbers.[9]

The Civil War was a formative experience for many forty-eighters who settled in the United States. Looking back at his life in 1911, Julian (Gyula) Kuné, a political refugee from Hungary reminisced about his involvement in the Civil War. When the war broke out “it took but a moment for my decision (to join the Union Army).” Kuné then proceeds to draw a direct line between revolutionary Europe and the American Civil War, writing that “never before, unless I except my early experience during the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was history made so fast as it was during the winter of 1860-61.”[10] Such direct connections between the moral and the military aspect of the European revolutions in the distant and more recent past and the Civil War were a common trope at the time and also in émigré memoirs.[11] It had more than symbolic significance that one army unit consisting primarily of European immigrants was even named after the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.[12]

Drawing direct connections in émigré biographies between the revolutions in Europe and the Civil War in America is challenging, given the different contexts. Such direct connections can obscure the wide spectrum of the meaning of such terms as “freedom“ or “liberty,” terms that forty-eighters often used when they described their motivations for joining the Union army. At the same time, these direct lines connecting émigrés’ revolutionary experience in Europe with their participation in the Civil War in America reveal that émigrés refocused their life stories. Through the Civil War émigrés turned the experience of political exile from a traumatic rupture into a basis for biographical continuity or, to quote Kuné again, into a story of a “heart and soul…always devoted to the cause of liberty.”[13]


[1] Mischa Hoeneck, We Are the Revolutionists: German-speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[2] Donald S. Spencer, Louis Kossuth and Young America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1977), 67.

[3] Sabine Freitag, “‘The Begging Bowl of Revolution:’ The Fund-raising Tours of German and Hungarian Exiles to North America, 1851-1852,” in Sabine Freitag, ed., Exiles from European Revolutions. Refugees in Mid-Victorian England (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003), 164-186. Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions. 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 146-168. A dated but detailed overview of Kossuth’s visit in the United States is John H. Komlos, Louis Kossuth in America, 1851-1852 (Buffalo, NY: East European Institute, 1973).

[4] For a broader contextualization of the Civil War in a transatlantic framework, see Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations. An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

[5]Cited by István Kornél Vida, “ ‘A rég elnyomottak barátai:’ Magyar katonák az észak-amerikai polgárháború néger ezredeiben” [“‘Friends of the long-oppressed:’ Hungarian Soldiers in the Colored Regiments in the North American Civil War.”] Aetas (2008 XXIII: 2), 68-81.

[6] Letter from Dr. Hermann Nagel addressed to his brother, dated Milheim, April 28, 1861, published in Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, eds., Germans in the Civil War: The Letters they Wrote Home (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[7] Teofil Lachowicz and Albert Juszczak, Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil: Polish Veterans in America from the Revolutionary War to 1939 (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2011).

[8] For an overview of the participation of Hungarian political refugees in the Civil War: Vida Istváb Kornél, Hungarian Émigrés in the American Civil War: A History and Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[9] In general on immigrants in the Confederate army, see the classic work of Ella Lonn and William A. Blair, Foreigners in the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[10] Julian (Gyula) Kune, Reminescences of an Octogenarian Hungarian Exile (Chicago: Published by the author, 1911), 94.

[11] These connections were not limited to the Civil War, however. As Lajos (Louis) Schlesinger, a forty-eighter from Hungary put it already in 1852: “We refugee soldiers of Hungary are in peculiar position, rendering attractive to us any military adventure, honorable in its spirit and object. Any cause of liberty, of popular rising against despotism, was already half our own cause, on whatever particular spot of the globe the battle was to be fought.” In Louis Schlesinger, “Personal Narrative of Louis Schlesinger of Adventures in Cuba and Ceuta.” Democratic Review (September 1852): 211. For an analysis of the participation of forty-eighters in military conflicts prior to the Civil War see Michael L. Miller, “From Central Europe to Central America: Forty-eighters in the Filibuster Wars of the Mid-nineteenth Century,” in Charlotte A. Lerg and Heléna Tóth, eds., Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861 (Boston: Brill, 2017), forthcoming.

[12] Frank W. Alduino, David J. Coles, “‘Ye come from many a far off clime; And speak in many a tongue:’ The Garibaldi Guard and Italian-American Service in the Civil War,” Italian Americana (January 2004): 47-63.

[13] Kune, Reminescences, 88.

Heléna Tóth

Heléna Tóth, Ph.D. (2008) Harvard University, is Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Otto Friedrich University, Bamberg, Germany. She is author of An Exiled Generation: German and Hungarian Refugees of Revolution, 1848-1871 (Cambridge, 2014). She has published widely on the history of political exile in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and the cultural history of socialism.

Health Care and the American Medical Profession, 1830-1880

Health Care and the American Medical Profession, 1830-1880

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a landmark healthcare reform law that expands opportunities for care by providing more Americans with access to affordable health insurance. The goal is to provide health insurance to all Americans not covered by their employers or other health programs. However, many Republicans have derided the law suggesting that it imposes too many costs on businesses, its premiums are too high, and it oversteps the proper domain of the federal government with their so-called intrusion upon businesses, the states, and the lives and choices of individuals. The Republican-controlled government is now well on its way to repealing and replacing Obamacare with a version of the law titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Some people on the Right have praised the new law, while others worry they may be one of the millions who may lose health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare.

Navigating health care has always been a challenging part of our nation’s history. There have been at various times too few physicians, inadequate care or delivery of service, and rising costs of health care all situated alongside a growing public demand for adequate medical care. These debates are personal and political and have their roots in public expectation and the social contract between the medical profession, people, and government.

In the nineteenth century there was very little that physicians could do to treat many conditions or diseases. It was not until what Michael Bliss has described as “the coming age of modern medicine between 1885 and 1922”– a period which saw the growth of medical technology, the rise of academic medicine, new organizational standards, government support in the form of licensing regulations and anatomy acts and the acceptance of the germ theory–that medical care was transformed.[1] In the wake of these broader changes, and as the medical profession matured and secured a new authority as elite, scientific practicing physicians, consumer demand and social expectation combined with an appreciation of what medical science might be able to offer, created new demands for medical care. The Civil War years were an important period for the training and professionalization of American physicians.

Before 1820, the apprenticeship system served as the principal mode of medical training. Just after the War of 1812 proprietary medical schools emerged in the United States, supplementing the informal apprenticeship system. These schools were not attached to a university or hospital but operated independently. Most proprietary medical schools consisted of two, four-month terms of lectures, with the second set of lectures identical to the first. Because very few of these schools were associated with or had access to hospitals, the chief method of teaching and learning was through didactic lecture. In the 1830s and 1840s the penalties for practicing without a medical license were ignored or removed, coinciding with the withdrawal of state recognition for medical societies. This led to the formation of an unregulated medical marketplace and intensified the competition between orthodox and unorthodox physicians and elite and rank and file orthodox physicians.[2]

Efforts to address the problems compounded by the growth of medical schools took shape in 1847 and 1848 with the formation of the American Medical Association. By the 1850s the elite of American medicine pressed for stricter standards, the regulation of medical practice, and the reform of medical school curricula along more scientific lines. Many of these elite physicians had studied abroad in the medical schools in Europe and saw there the possibilities of science-based practice. The medicine of the Paris Clinical school, which emphasized pathological anatomy and localized pathology to specific disease conditions, reshaped traditional ideas about disease and the body and the practice of medicine.[3]

Yet, although these physicians published widely and made a strong case for the reform of American medicine, by 1860 the use of pathological anatomy remained remote from most areas of practical medicine. The war years would challenge traditional ideas about disease and the body. Rank and file physicians were exposed to ideas learned overseas as the elite of American medicine, who had long championed pathological anatomy and experimental medicine, moved from the periphery to the center of wartime medicine. The opportunity to reshape medical practice to their standards, with the support of the government, and the concomitant advances in industry and infrastructure in the Northern and Midwestern cities, set the stage for the medical modernization that followed the war.[4]

Joseph Leidy, as required, submitted the results of his post mortem exams to the new medical museum. Courtesy of the National Archives and Record Administration, Washington D.C.

On the eve of the Civil War there were 55,000 practicing physicians in the country and more than 16,000 of these physicians came to the colors (many others doctored in non-official capacities).[5] After a reorganization of the medical department after the first year of the war, William Hammond was appointed Surgeon General of the Union Army. Hammond inherited a medical force reflecting the diversity of the American medical profession. The majority were orthodox physicians educated in the traditional doctrines in which the physician used physiologically derived medications and procedures to treat diseases. Others were part of alternative medical sects including homeopaths, botanics, and eclectics, who were popular with different segments of the patient community. However, since Hammond was a scientifically oriented teacher of physiology and pathophysiology, sectarian practitioners were excluded from military service, which helped raise the status of orthodox physicians. His immediate task was to train all physicians, regular and volunteer, into an effective therapeutic and prophylactic cadre, keeping the soldier healthy and when injured returned to duty as rapidly as practical. This assured citizens that those who went into harm’s way for the Republic were receiving the best care available.

But Hammond also had a vision for the larger reform of American medicine: every physician was part scientist and would themselves be motivated to contribute to the advance of military medical practice by sharing their experiences one with another. He reorganized his staff and established the new Army Medical Museum, which would house medical and surgical specimens collected and submitted from the field and hospitals. He promised the contributions would be acknowledged in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. Yet many practitioners had no dissection experience and or limited practical anatomical training. In recognition of these limits he prepared and circulated instructions and he commissioned staff from his office, the USSC and others on an ad hoc basis to visit the posts and camps to provide practical guidance. Thousands of American physicians had their first practical anatomical training in such a setting. Hammond and his staff along with other elite physicians supported other avenues for growth including the dissemination of new forms of medical knowledge (especially related to disease causation, surgical techniques, and hospital construction), he supported experimental practice and the inauguration of specialty hospitals, which reshaped the medical and institutional landscape of the country.[6]

Prior to the Civil War physicians and lay people alike worried little about day to day infection; the community practitioner visited his patients at home to treat cases of illness and midwives still birthed most babies. It was not until the movement of large bodies of troops, which seemed to transport communicable diseases with them, did both war physicians and the public become more alarmed about disease transmission. These changing ideas supported the rapid expansion of public health boards, new research projects into the study of infectious diseases and clinical teaching in the hospitals wards. Germ theory researchers would spend the next few decades perfecting experimental methods that would provide unassailable laboratory evidence of disease causation (and which would later translate into vaccination programs, antibiotics, and better diagnostic techniques.) In the meantime, former Civil War surgeons went home to begin new medical practices or resume old ones. But these physicians took with them a vast practical education. Whether a physician had practiced in the temporary or general hospitals or in the field, they were required to submit case reports and medical and surgical specimens to the new medical museum; and perform autopsies and difficult surgeries. They administered new therapeutics like bromine and even learned the importance of using these drugs prophylactically to prevent diseases in the hospitals.[7]

Photo from Gettysburg, showing how physicians taught and learned from each other during the war. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

As the political, institutional, intellectual and technical landscape of medicine was transformed during and after the war, public expectation and demand for efficacious medical care grew. Physicians routinely used political contacts and relationships to effect legislation (such as licensing laws) and they joined with national and local leaders to secure government action (the continued funding of the medical museum as one example). States slowly began passing new anatomy laws or strengthening old ones, and the American Medical Association, state licensing boards, local medical societies, and new specialist associations began to define or redefine the larger goals of the profession in the context of their own associations. New laboratory procedures were widely heralded in medical journals and the elite touted the possibilities of antiseptic surgery.

The war years were an important period of professionalization for American physicians. Physicians increasingly coalesced around a new professional model that promised specialized knowledge, service to others, morality, competence, working in partnership with patients and being accountable. This contract serves as the basis for expectations of both medicine and society. Today, with significant advances in applied medical technology, surgery, biochemistry and therapeutics, medicine can provide more comfort and extend the longevity of a person’s life. But not all American citizens have equal access to health care. Physicians have recently expressed concern about certain parts of the AHCA (and now the BCRA) including the phasing out of Medicaid expansion and the elimination of subsidies for low-income Americans which could result in the loss of coverage for millions of people.[8] It is important to remember in the midst of today’s political bickering and partisan posturing that at the root of these debates are patients in all stages of health and sickness and doctors that want to meet patient expectations. Doctors deserve regulatory procedures that are reasonable and validated, and adequate resources to practice and research. But above all, doctors deserve a health care system that promotes (and does not subvert) those values which society wishes in its healers–caring, altruism, courtesy, and competence.


[1] Michael Bliss, The Making of The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1. See also, Rosemary Stevens, American Medicine and the Public Interest: A History of Specialization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); John Burnham, Health Care in America: A History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

[2] William Rothstein, American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Thomas N. Bonner, Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Britain, France, Germany and the United States, 1750-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[3] John Harley Warner, Against the Spirit of the System: The French Impulse in Nineteenth-Century American Medicine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

[4] Shauna Devine, Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[5] Burnham, Health Care in America, 116; Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 22-29.

[6] Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 16-18, 21, 29-49.

[7] Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 129-131; Margaret Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), especially chapter 11.

[8] As one example, see David Leonhardt, “Doctors, in Their Own Voices,” The New York Times, June 26, 2017, accessed June 26, 2017,

Shauna Devine

Dr. Shauna Devine is an Assistant Professor in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and an Associate Research Professor in the Department of History, both at Western University, Ontario. Her first book, winner of the Tom Watson Brown Award, was Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).