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Editor’s Note: March 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: March 2018 Issue

As we do with each issue, below you will find the editor’s note for our forthcoming March 2018 issue. You can access these articles by subscribing to the journal, or through a Project Muse subscription.

The essays in this volume testify to the vibrancy and vitality of social history. To put it another way, social historians haven’t “lost” the Civil War, as Maris Vinovskis suggested thirty years ago; they may just be getting started. So, too, are those interested in culture. In the pages of this issue, readers will find a reassessment of the class explanation for Confederate substitution and will listen in as St. Louis washerwomen and seamstresses police wartime loyalty in their neighborhoods. Some may be surprised to see how soon after the Civil War British scholars began to rewrite the history of Anglo-American relations during the period. Others will never look at a watermelon the same way again.

Patrick Doyle extracts Confederate substitution policy from scholarship on loyalty and situates it in an evolving wartime debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—or, perhaps more accurately, the rights versus the responsibilities. Doyle uncovers persistent defenders of substitution within the Confederacy, even after Jefferson Davis’s endorsement of its repeal, who defended substitution as a contract and hence a right of citizenship. Focusing on arguments for and against substitution, Doyle’s essay traces the entrenchment of martial manhood that by war’s end covered over this debate which had once stood at the heart of Confederate nationhood.

Questions of loyalty lie at the heart of Elizabeth Belanger’s innovative essay proposing a new way of exploring the Civil War’s home fronts. Situated in St. Louis, Belanger’s work examines how, in filing complaints against their neighbors, working-class women sought to “assert political identities, to advance personal agendas, and to create ethnic boundaries.” Using geographic imaging systems, or GIS, and complaints filed with the provost marshal against disloyal neighbors, Belanger reveals how women staked out the boundaries of neighborhoods that, more than the official city wards, reflected the lived realities of their lives. Here, women came in contact and conflict with neighbors over what they said about the war, the flags they flew outside their homes, and other such evidence of loyalty and respectability—or a lack thereof.

William R. Black’s, essay, “How Watermelons Became Black,” reveals that, beyond “the court, the ballot, and the noose,” cultural tropes became powerful tools to counteract black citizenship. This essay represents cultural history at its best; in it, Black uncovers the roots of the racist watermelon trope in the immediate postwar South, as whites sought to limit the freedom of, and deny political power to, former slaves. Once shared among antebellum blacks and whites, watermelon became associated with the perceived childishness, laziness, and dependence of the free blacks who grew and sold them and deigned to enjoy them in their leisure. Once established, this powerful racist myth was hungrily consumed by northern whites—and it still persists today.

For years after the end of the Civil War, those who fought on either side of the conflict agreed on one thing—Great Britain had deceived them. This bitter memory became an obstacle in 1914, when Britain sought American support in World War I. In his essay, Nimrod Tal uncovers the British effort to revise history in order to smooth over these tense relations. From 1914 onward, a number of British authors offered explanations for elite Britons’ flirtation with the Confederacy, lukewarm reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, and rough treatment of Lincoln. The “embers of resentment” stubbornly burned on, though, and in the process of trying to explain them away, early twentieth century writers laid the foundation for modern historiography on the topic.

We wrap up this issue with Kate Jones’s survey of the rich literature on gender and Reconstruction. Since the 1990s, scholars of this period have sought to understand how—or perhaps, whether—the end of slavery shifted the gendered balance of power. Whereas one thread of scholarship has concluded that continuity, more than change, characterized the period, Jones reminds readers of the importance of keeping in mind how “women cultivated the era’s democratic potential and its exclusions.” Keeping this as the focus of scholarship means that gender scholars are not yet done with “agency” and that we are likely not headed to a new synthesis—and this seems fine to Jones.

Calls to Action: The Civil War Era Songs of Joseph R. Winters

Calls to Action: The Civil War Era Songs of Joseph R. Winters

Black History Month is currently underway. The 2018 Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) theme for this year’s celebration, “African Americans in Times of War,” offers the perfect opportunity for scholars to showcase the diverse African American experiences during the Civil War. This post examines Joseph R. Winters of Chambersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Winters’ story offers insights into how the Gettysburg Campaign prompted his attempts to document African American civilian experiences, recruit for the Union Army, and remake the postwar society through a series of songs. In a sense, his songs functioned as important calls to action among African Americans living at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Winters Historical Marker, Chambersburg, PA. Courtesy of the author.

Born free to an African American bricklayer and a Native American mother in Leesburg, Virginia, Winters relocated to Chambersburg where he became active in the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, he received a patent for an improved fire-ladder and actively participated in local politics.[1] His wartime experiences are sometimes overshadowed by the various other African Americans highlighted in the Valley of the Shadow digital humanities project and in Edward Ayers’ volumes comparing the border Pennsylvania community with Augusta County, Virginia.[2] Nevertheless, his biography represents the type of individual envisioned by Carter G. Woodson and current ASALH organizers worthy of honoring during the February celebration. Winters’ wartime songs and recruitment efforts provide a window onto the rural black Pennsylvanians who survived the Confederate invasion. These events facilitated Winters’ activism as well as contributions to local African American Civil War memory.

While Frederick Douglass urged black Philadelphians to enlist in USCT regiments, Winters and other free black residents attempted to avoid enslavement. They employed Underground Railroad locales, ingenuity, and flight to safer destinations outside of Franklin County. Many, however, were not fortunate. The enslavement of free blacks and self-emancipated individuals deeply affected black and white Franklin County residents. White diarists, local newspaper accounts, and letters written by local men serving in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment noted their terror, fear for loved ones, and disgust toward the “negro-stealers.”[3]

Winters refused to allow others to speak his truth. He penned and published “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.” He described the occupation of Chambersburg and the seizure of material goods in the third and fourth stanzas:

In Chambersburg he took a stand

And sent out the scouts to scour the land;

The railroad track he did tear up,

Likewise tore down the railroad shop.


The stores they plundered, that you know,

For that they do wherever they go;

They bought their goods with Southern trash,

And that they got by the Southern lash.[4]

Winters voiced the rage felt by survivors. These dishonorable Confederate soldiers employed force and destruction on a civilian population. He deftly dismissed the payment of goods with Confederate currency or “Southern trash.”[5] The guise of payment did not mask the destructive nature and trauma inflicted.

Winters then recounted the chaos black people experienced. Free African Americans understood the threat to their freedom posed by the Confederate raiders. Winters noted their flight and efforts at concealment in the fifth stanza:

The colored people all ran away,

Likewise the composer of this song, they say –

For if I hadn’t, I don’t know

But I’d been in the South a’working the hoe.

The threat of “a’working the hoe” guided their actions. They chose freedom. One black Mercersburg veteran recalled that they “knew what it was for them and their families to flee to the mountains or hide in cellars and garrets and caves for safety when Confederate soldiers raided the neighborhood.”[6] Those who succeeded only resurfaced when sounds of war had ceased. The song title signaled Winters’ own reemergence, occurring roughly July 14, 1863. Sold as a song sheet, Winters gave voice to the black experience unmediated by white Franklin County residents.[7]

Moreover, Winters promised a different response by black Franklin County men in the closing stanzas. They would no longer remain potential victims or passive bystanders in the fight. If Confederates troops returned, Winters proclaimed:

Now, if they come back, I’ll tell you what to do,

We’ll give them some grape, and canister too;

Let white and black all shoulder a gun,

And then, O Lord, won’t we have some fun.[8]

They would prove their manhood by fighting back and not cowering out of fear. His words were not mere bombast. T. Morris Chester, African American recruiter and wartime correspondent, found willing recruits in the various Franklin County communities. Their recent experiences and Winters’ demand to “shoulder a gun” motivated this post-Gettysburg enlistment.[9]

Even Winters fulfilled the promise made in the closing of the song. He devoted both his time and money toward military recruitment for the USCT regiments being organized at Camp William Penn outside of Philadelphia. Winters again turned to his pen and published “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War.” Similar to Frederick Douglass’s “Men of Color, to Arms” address, Winters openly questioned their manhood if they avoided the military draft:

About the Draft, you will make a heap of fuss;

But, to be drafted, that you must;

Den, if to be drafted, you don’t want to be,

Jist leab dis country and clime a tree.[10]

Debunking any excuses, he implored them to ignore Democrats’ campaigns against local black enlistment and even the violence displayed during the New York draft riots. But, the song presented eligible black Franklin County men with a choice: enlist if drafted or “git out of sight.”[11] In December 1863, his son Jacob Winters and other black Franklin County men enlisted and left for training. Black GAR members later recalled that their decision “transformed them from boyhood into sturdy manhood.”[12]

Winters remained an important voice of black Franklin County residents after the Civil War. He turned his energies to securing the franchise for black Franklin County residents and reaping civil, political, and social rights from their wartime sacrifices. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, he became a significant African American leader within the local Republican Party before switching to the Democratic Party in 1890.[13] In this capacity, he rallied black voters with a series of songs that used specific Civil War references to convince black electoral support for the 1880 Garfield-Arthur, 1896 Bryan-Stevenson, and 1904 Parker-Davis campaigns. These postwar activities reflect Winters’ efforts to transform the Gettysburg Campaign trauma he endured into advancing meaningful change, but also his disappointment with the Republican Party in achieving a more inclusive society.[14]

While scholars have discussed the occupation of central Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign, Winters remains one of the lesser known stories of the African American civilian experience. These events deeply affected Winters and other Franklin County residents who escaped seizure. Winters’ Civil War era songs voiced their trauma and how he attempted to find justice through purchasing the song sheets, recruitment efforts, military service, and postwar political engagement. Collectively, Winters’s calls to action contributed to the development of a complex Civil War memory that acknowledged individuals seized and enslaved, the civilians who remained, and the men who wore Union uniforms. These song sheets serve as important cultural artifacts for understanding these later commemorative traditions. The 2018 Black History Month ASALH theme, therefore, is the perfect opportunity to explore other lesser known black Franklin County experiences through the Valley of the Shadow digital humanities project and by reading The Thin Light of Freedom by Edward Ayers.


[1] M. L. Marotte III, “The Story of Joseph Winters, 1816-1916: Citizen, Pioneer, Inventor, Gunsmith, Machinist, Land Owner, and Born A Free Man” (Chambersburg: M.L. Marotte III, 1999), 3.

[2] See Valley of the Shadow, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA,; Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003) and The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2017).

[3] “Speech of Frederick Douglass,” Addresses of the Hon. W. D. Kelley, Miss Anna E Dickinson, and Mr. Frederick Douglass, at a Mass Meeting held at National Hall, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia; Ayers, Thin Light of Freedom, 41-56, 91-95; “The Invasion!,” Franklin Repository, July 8, 1863, 5.

[4] Joseph R. Winter, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg,” VF-Winters, Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, PA.

[5] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[6] Old Mercersburg Revisited: Civil War to Bicentennial (Mercersburg, PA: Woman’s Club of Mercersburg, 1987), 236.

[7] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[8] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[9] Winters, “About Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg.”

[10] Joseph R. Winters, “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War,” VF-Winters, Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, PA; Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, to Arms,” March 3, 1863, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. This is available online at

[11] Winters, “At the Time of the Draft for the Civil War.”

[12] Ron Gancas, Fields of Freedom: United States Colored Troops from Southwestern Pennsylvania (Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Trust, 2004), 46; Old Mercersburg Revisited, 236.

[13]They Ought to be Represented,” Valley Spirit, June 1, 1870, 2; Joseph R. Winters, “Information Wanted,” Valley Spirit, October 25, 1882, 2; “After the Election,” Valley Spirit, November 19, 1890, 6; “Colored Democratic Club,” Harrisburg Daily Independent, October 11, 1912, 16.

[14] Stella M. Fries, Janet Z. Gabler, and C. Bernard Ruffin, eds., Some Chambersburg Roots: A Black Perspective (Chambersburg, Stella Fries, 1980), 96-97; Joseph R. Winters, “Campaign Song,” 1896 and “Campaign Song,” 1904, VF-Winters.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, intellectual, and activist. Courtesy of

Marking his 200th birthday this week, I want to acknowledge the debt legal historians owe to Frederick Douglass. When Chief Justice Roger Taney denied that free black Americans were citizens of the United States in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Douglass immediately opposed him. Then, across his lifetime, Douglass never forget how Taney had used the high court to demean African Americans. From the podium and the pen, Douglass made a record that has endured and thus ensured Dred Scott will be long remembered as the lowest point in the history of race and law.[1]

We’ve no reason to think they ever met, these two nineteenth century figures with roots in Baltimore. Both Frederick Douglass and Roger Brooke Taney called that city home in 1837 and 1838. The former was an enslaved laborer on the eve of stealing his liberty, while the latter had just recently been appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. While both inhabited the nation’s third largest city, Douglass and Taney walked very different streets.

Still, Taney and Douglass knew one another, though not in the “they were acquainted” sense. They knew one another as archetypes that took part in on-going struggles over the future of those who managed to throw off slavery’s shackles, free people of color. Taney understood the lengths to which enslaved people would go to free themselves. He was, for example, party to a transaction in which an enslaved man, Cornelius Thompson, purchased his own liberty in 1832. And of course, Douglass knew how law shaped the circumstances of the enslaved. In his 1845 fugitive memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he recalled encounters with law, from detention in an Eastern Shore jail to exclusion from courtrooms that disallowed black testimony against white wrong doers.[2]

Their confrontation came in 1857, in a battle waged with pen and ink. By that year, neither called Baltimore home any longer. Taney wrote from Washington, D.C., where he had settled after the death of his wife, his ideas expressed through U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Douglass called western New York’s Rochester home, living in the heart of a radical reform culture that had also given birth to the first women’s rights conventions. There he published news and commentary in the pages of the weekly Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The two faced off over the case of Scott v. Sandford and a disagreement about the standing of black Americans before the Constitution. It was an old debate, one that had its origins in the 1820s: were black Americans citizens of the United States, or were they mere denizens without any claim to protection under the law?

Taney denied black citizenship. His March 1857 opinion concluded that at the time of nation’s founding black Americans had held no rights that white men were “bound to respect.” Taney reasoned that because they had been excluded from the Constitution’s vision of the body politic, black people, whether enslaved or free, were not citizens of the United States in 1857.[3]

Douglass took the opposite view, asserting that blackness was no bar to belonging. And in a sense, his reasoning was as stark as that of Taney. Douglass viewed his citizenship as self-evident, and he spoke out “as a man, an American, a citizen, a colored man of both Anglo-Saxon and African descent.” Taney’s ideas were, Douglass pronounced, a “perversion of the Constitution, and a brazen misstatement of the facts of history.” He relied upon the Constitution’s plain language, which made no “reference to color, or the physical peculiarities of any part of the people of the United States.” Douglass continued, asserting that no “SECRET and UNWRITTEN understanding” could be imputed to the founders because such men were not of one mind about the status of “the enslaved African race” or its future in the United States.[4]

The debate turned somewhat personal. Douglass mocked Taney as overreaching: “Judge Taney can do many things, but he cannot perform impossibilities. He cannot bail out the ocean, annihilate its firm old earth, or pluck the silvery star of liberty from our Northern sky. He may decide, and decide again…. He cannot change the essential nature of things—making evil good, and good, evil. Happily for the whole human family, their rights have been declared and decided in a court higher than the Supreme Court.”[5] Taney felt the sting as he came to understand how his decision was being discredited. He went so far as to privately pen a “supplemental” Dred Scott opinion and hoped for a chance to reargue his position.[6] It never came.

This clash of views persisted into the Civil War era. One position took black exclusion to be the historic if not the natural order of law and politics. The other perspective understood black citizenship to be self-evident, a natural right derived from birthright and serving as the gateway to political and civil rights. Taney would die in 1864, still on the Supreme Court, and thus he did not live to see the debate settled. For Douglass, the 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment constitutionalized his view. He, and all black Americans, became birthright citizens.

Despite this, Taney’s reasoning in Dred Scott enjoyed a long life. And it was Douglass who helped ensure that the case was not forgotten. Taney’s views might have been relegated to history’s dustbin, once the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. But Douglass, in his years of post Civil War activism, frequently referred to the Chief Justice’s view of black Americans as those without rights. He insisted that the case be remembered–variously as a low bar, a touchstone, and a cautionary tale. Dred Scott was then, and remains today, an essential lesson our history of race and rights, and how courts can work against reason, history, and justice.[7] We have Frederick Douglass to thank for that.


[1] Thanks to the Frederick Douglass Papers Project and their digital edition for making a broad range of Douglass’s thought on Dred Scott available at

[2] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

[3] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857).

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Colored Men’s Rights in this Republic” (May 14, 1857,) and “The Dred Scott Decision” (May 1857,) in The Frederick Douglass Papers, eds., John Blassingame, et al., vol. 3, 143-150; 163-183.

[5] Douglass, “Colored Men’s Rights,” and “The Dred Scott Decision.”

[6] Roger Brooke Taney, “Supplement to the Dred Scott Opinion” (1858), in Samuel Tyler, Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney, LL.D., Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1876).

[7] “Citizenship in the Spirit of Caste” (May 21, 1858,) vol. 3, 208-212: 210; “Eulogy of William Jay” (May 12, 1859,) vol. 3, 249-276: 275; “Slavery and the limits of Nonintervention” (December 7, 1859,) 276-288: 279; “Progress and Divisions of Anti-Slavery (February 14, 1860,) vol. 3, 323-333: 329; “Slavery and the Irrepressible Conflict” (August 1, 1860,) vol. 3, 366-387; “The Day of Jubilee Comes” (December 28, 1862,) vol. 3, 543-546, 544; “We are Not Yet Quite Free” (August 3, 1869,) vol. 4, 220-240: 229; “Our Destiny is Largely in Our Own Hands” (April 16, 1863,) vol. 5, 59-80; “Great Britain’s Example) (August 6, 1885,) vol. 5, 192-212: 203; “Lessons of the Hour” (January 9, 1894,) vol. 5, 575-607: 591, 607. All from The Frederick Douglass Papers.

Martha S. Jones

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

New Members of the Editorial Board

New Members of the Editorial Board

The Journal of the Civil War Era is pleased to announce the addition of five new members to the editorial board. The talented historians joining us in 2018 are Tera Hunter, Fitzhugh Brundage, Laura Edwards, Pekka Hämäläinen, and Susannah Ural.

And we extend our deepest thanks to those who have served as board members and who are cycling off: Tiya Miles, Stephen Berry, Gary Gallagher, Seth Rockman, and Nina Silber. Thank you for your dedication to the journal and to the study of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Each board member has provided a short biography below. Please join us in welcoming them to the JCWE team!

Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has written on lynching, utopian socialism, and historical memory in the American South. His forthcoming book, Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, is a history of torture and debates over torture from the Age of Contact to the War on Terror.

Laura F. Edwards is the Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke University and works on the nineteenth-century United States with a focus on law, gender, and race. Her books include A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights; The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South, which was recognized by the American Historical Association with the Littleton-Griswold book prize and the Southern Historical Association with Charles Sydnor book prize; Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era; and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. She is now working on a new book project, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth Century United States.

Pekka Hämäläinen is the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University and a Fellow of St. Catherine’s College. He is the author of The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), and co-author with John M. Murrin, Paul E. Johnson, Denver Brunsman, James M. McPherson, Alice Fahs, Gary Gerstle, Emily S. Rosenberg, and Norman L. Rosenberg of Liberty, Equality, Power: History of the American People (Cengage, 2014). He is currently finishing a book Iktómi’s People: The Lakota Age in America (Yale University Press).

Tera W. Hunter is Professor of History and African-American Studies at Princeton University. Her first book, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, focuses on the experiences of working-class women, especially domestic workers, in Atlanta and other southern cities from Reconstruction through the 1920s. Her most recent book is: Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), which is a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

Susannah J. Ural is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military history of U.S. Civil War era. Her latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). She is also editing a Texas Brigade family’s correspondence for a project titled, This Murderous Storm: A Confederate Family at War. 

A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

Teaching the Civil War takes juggling some very broad, diverse, complex processes in the histories of slavery and freedom, of nationalism, citizenship and state building, of Indian Nations and the West, of modern warfare, of economic transformation of the economy, and of the ways in which people thought about life, death, gender, family, and personal responsibility. Adding a transnational dimension to all of this–exploring how the war reverberated outside the country and how it was affected by what went on beyond U.S. borders–seems daunting, overwhelming and perhaps not worth the bang one gets for the buck. I would nonetheless like to suggest in this post that there is much to be gained from looking at–and teaching–the Civil War from a transnational perspective. Shifting scales and angles allows students to see the war in a different light, to gauge its significance beyond U.S. history, and to rethink the nation and its narratives.

As the articles in the JCWE’s December 2017 issue show, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed profound transformations of North America. The articles describe different historical processes–peaceful and violent, protracted and ephemeral–that fractured and reconfigured the continent’s geography, refashioned its national communities, and expanded the meaning of freedom and community. Attentiveness to these broader processes and shared experiences, molded by connections and influences, marked by coincidences and contrasts, can serve as a remedy to parochialism and exceptionalism. At the very least, they remind students that nations rarely operate in a vacuum, and that what we sometimes imagine are monolithic actors–“Mexico,” the “United States”–need to be unpacked.

My article, “Law, Allegiance and Sovereignty in Civil War Mexico, 1857-1867,” focuses on how foreign invasion overlapped with domestic discord and reshuffled Mexicans’ sense of allegiance and their visions of law and politics. European military intervention in Mexico, as a response to the Juárez government’s defaulting on its foreign debt, is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the weight of transnational dynamics during the Civil War era, but they also profoundly affected the bilateral relationship between the two North American republics. Washington and Richmond both faced momentous challenges on the international arena. The Confederate government exerted itself to obtain diplomatic recognition; the Union resolutely sought to avoid this. The French intervention in Mexico added a new wrinkle to an already complex situation. Despite the Lincoln administration’s sympathy for the beleaguered republic to the south, and the Monroe Doctrine having been expressly designed to prevent something like Napoleon III’s “Mexican Adventure,” Washington’s foreign policy would remain firmly committed to preventing British and French recognition of the Confederate States of America, and avoiding alienating the French. Until the end of the war, New World republican solidarity would be limited to rhetorical saber-rattling in newspapers, meetings, and congressional debate, ably promoted by Matías Romero, the Mexican Republic’s young envoy to Washington.[1]

Victor Hugo, considered France’s greatest literary figure at the time, condemned American slavery and Napoleon III’s Mexican Expedition. Courtesy of Etienne Carjat.

The transnational dimension of the 1860s in North America is not the discovery of lucid, postmodern historians. What we can describe as a transnational consciousness was central to the way people conceived and understood the world they lived in.[2] The U.S. Civil War, the resurgence of European expansionism and the rebirth of monarchy in the Americas were seen as episodes in the larger struggle for civilization, as part of a universal confrontation between freedom and tyranny. When, in 1867, the Mexican Republic defeated the French sponsored imperial regime, Victor Hugo wrote to president Benito Juárez that America had “two heroes, John Brown and you. Brown, through whom slavery died, and you, who made liberty live.”[3] The New World was imagined as the stage in which the fate of humanity would be played out.

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Capt. Felix Salm Salm, a Prussian officer who served in the U.S. army during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On both sides of the Atlantic, men and women agonized over events in North America. Some crossed oceans and borders to join the fray: Argentinian Edelmiro Mayer and Prussian Felix Salm Salm both joined the Union army. When the U.S. Civil War ended, the South American officer enlisted in Mexico’s republican army. Years later, he would fight against the indigenous people of Patagonia in the Argentinian government’s “Conquest of the Desert.” The German aristocrat served Maximilian as his empire crumbled. Tennessee-born William M. Gwin promoted the colonization and development of America’s frontiers as a member of the U.S. Congress, representing Mississippi (1841-1843) and California (1850-1855), and then, in the mid-1860s, as an imperial official and freshly minted duke in Mexican Sonora.[4] These men went far from home to defend their version of liberty and progress, and to build a better world–and a better life for themselves. Their colorful life stories translate into human experience the contradictions, dilemmas and rifts brought on by the Civil War era. They throw light on the artificial and unstable nature of patriotism, on the multiplicity of reasons why people fight in wars, and on the complex relationship between ideals and interests.

Lt. Colonel Edelmiro Mayer, an Argentinian soldier and statesman who fought for the United States during the war. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Others did not fight, but they observed, debated, and wrote. Their letters (public and private), articles, and pamphlets, can draw students into the emotional and ideological underpinnings of the era’s impassioned transnational politics. Because they were often written for readers who were not familiar with the issues, these documents present provocative, stark, morally charged explanations of what was at stake in these conflicts. Students can read Karl Marx’s description of Abraham Lincoln as a “plebeian, […] without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance,” and debate why this is held up as evidence that, in America, “ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world.”[5] They can also contrast Lincoln’s vision of the Civil War as a struggle to preserve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with Lord Acton’s conviction that the Confederate States of America represented history’s greatest effort “made by Republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government.” Had the Confederates, argued the British Liberal, “called on the negroes to be partners with them in the perils of war and in the fruits of victory, that generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable blessings on the human race.”[6]

These vivid testimonies paint a world that was messy, densely connected, and fraught with both danger and opportunity. Because of this, they can be particularly useful in the classroom. Having students read them and discuss them critically helps us decenter and destabilize familiar narratives of the past. They often upend the binary, anachronistic, logic we impose on political ideology to reveal its complexities. They clue us into the way some of the key concepts that structured the era’s contentious conflicts –slavery, sovereignty, democracy— were understood, debated, and transformed. Ideally, they resurrect a past that is unpredictable and relevant.


[1] For insights into transnational perspectives, I suggest these readings for students: Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,”Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (September 2012): 337-368 and Jay Sexton, “Civil Wars,” in The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), 123-158. For Romero’s misión, see Thomas Schoonover, ed., A Mexican View of America in the 1860s. A Foreign Diplomat Describes the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 1991).

[2] Donald H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[3] Victor Hugo, Lettre de Victor Hugo à Juárez, président de la République mexicaine (Brussels: J.H. Briard, 1867), 3.

[4] Rachel Saint John, “The Unpredictable America of William Gwin: Expansion, Secession, and the Unstable Borders of Nineteenth-century North America,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 56-84; Edelmiro Mayer, Campaña y guarnición. Escenas de la vida militar (Buenos Aires: Jacobo Peuser, 1892); Felix of Salm Salm, My Diary in Mexico, Including the Last Days of Emperor Maximilian (London: Richard Bently, 1868); Agnes Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life (London: Ruchard, Bentley and Sons, 1876).

[5] “Comments on the North American Events,” Die Presse, October 12, 1862, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), vol. XIX, 248.

[6] “The Civil War in America. Its Place in History,” in John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), accessed January 29, 2018,


Erika Pani

Erika Pani is Research Professor at El Colegio de México’s Centro de Estudios Históricos. She has published Para mexicanizar el Segundo Imperio. El imaginario político de los imperialistas (2001), on the political projects of Maximilian’s Mexican collaborators. She has also published Para pertenecer a la gran familia mexicana: Procesos de naturalización en el siglo XIX (2015), on naturalization laws and practices in the nineteenth century.

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, Thirty-Fifth Congress (1859). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stephen A. Douglas’s return to the Senate in early 1859 should have been triumphant. He had just been re-elected after a tough campaign against Abraham Lincoln, and he was already anticipating a presidential bid in 1860. But after a meandering journey from Chicago through Memphis, New Orleans, Havana, New York, and Philadelphia, Douglas arrived in Washington to find himself besieged by fellow Democrats. George W. Jones of Iowa nursed an old feud over railroads. Indiana Senator Graham Fitch quarreled with Douglas over comments which Fitch willfully construed as insulting to his son. More seriously, President James Buchanan and southern Democrats had contrived to expel Douglas from his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Territories.

If that wasn’t enough, rumor had it that there was a plot to kill him.

According to an indignant article in Harper’s Weekly, the scheme went like this: Louisiana Democrat John Slidell, a veteran duelist and expert marksman, would provoke Douglas on and off the Senate floor until the Little Giant lost his temper, retaliated, and gave Slidell the pretext to challenge him. Then the Louisianan, “to whom duels are matters of course,” would dispatch his inexperienced opponent. This theory rested on several assumptions: Slidell was “doubtless” a crack shot; Douglas was “not likely” to have equal skill; there was a “suspicion” that Slidell was maneuvering Douglas into a duel. But the author closed with pious outrage: “if any noisy ranter can deprive the country of the services of such a man as Senator Douglas, by provoking him into an encounter in which he can gain nothing and may lose his life, this is not a civilized country.”[1] Denouncing duels as barbaric relics of a bloody past, the author cast Douglas as a potential victim of the Slave Power.

John Slidell, Senator from Louisiana, Thirty-Fifth Congress (1859). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There were compelling reasons to believe this story. Slidell, a devoted supporter of President Buchanan, had been shadowing the Illinoisan for months. Furious over Douglas’s opposition to the admission of Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, Slidell had collaborated with anti-Douglas forces in the 1858 Senate election. He urged leading Democrats, including Senator James S. Green of Missouri, to come out against Douglas’s candidacy.[2] Anti-Douglas Illinois Democrats, known as Danites, asked Slidell to help finance their effort to elect Sidney Breese (the often-forgotten third candidate in the “Lincoln-Douglas” race) in Douglas’s place.[3] And in July, Slidell had visited Chicago to coordinate with local Danites, including Buchanan-appointed postmasters who could control the flow of campaign materials and information through the city. After Slidell departed Chicago, he reported to Buchanan that he remained doubtful about the Danites’ success in 1858, but was cautiously optimistic that shrewd use of the patronage power – replacement of Douglas partisans with Buchanan loyalists – could turn Illinois against Douglas by 1860.[4] Douglas’s friends resented this meddling by the “corrupt tamperer” from Louisiana; one claimed that Slidell had brazenly declared his hope that Lincoln would defeat the Little Giant.[5] After Douglas prevailed, observers noted Slidell’s leading role in Douglas’s ouster from his committee chair.[6]

Most provocative were Slidell’s alleged attempts to sway the 1858 election by spreading rumors about the mistreatment of enslaved people on the Mississippi cotton plantation that Douglas managed for his two sons. The boys had inherited the land along with a labor force of more than 140 enslaved people through their mother, née Martha Martin, daughter of a wealthy planter from North Carolina. After Martha died in 1853, Douglas held the estate in trust. He knew that this could alienate Illinois voters and tried to keep his entanglement with slavery out of the press. Periodically, rivals had used the plantation against him. Illinois Whigs, for instance, deplored Douglas’s endorsement of the Compromise of 1850 as a product of his investment in slavery.[7]

Slidell recognized that the plantation was a political Achilles’ heel, and in the summer of 1858, he struck. According to Horace White, a Chicago Tribune reporter who covered the Lincoln-Douglas campaign from the lanky Republican’s side, Slidell planted the story while in Chicago. He told Dr. Daniel Brainard, a Buchanan Democrat and surgeon of the U.S. Marine Hospital on Clarendon Avenue, that the slaves on Douglas’s plantation lacked food and clothing. The rumor spread rapidly and was widely reprinted in the Republican press, including the Chicago Tribune. When pro-Douglas papers demanded the source, the Tribune revealed both Brainard and Slidell’s names. Douglas’s secretary, James B. Sheridan, retaliated with a public letter calling Slidell a liar. In his reply, Slidell denied that he had told Brainard the story (thus leaving the doctor hanging out to dry) and slammed Douglas for approving Sheridan’s attack.[8]

The flurry of charges and countercharges looked like a duel in the making, and in January 1859, the question on headlines around the nation was, as an Indiana paper put it, “Will Douglas Fight?”[9] As Slidell and Douglas traded barbed remarks, and as theories about Slidell’s murderous intentions proliferated, many of Douglas’s supporters worried that he would stumble into the trap. Douglas received letters from across the North (and from a few supporters in the South) begging him to remain calm and shun the dueling-ground. An Ohioan prayed that Douglas would bear the “petty persecution of the Senate” with “Christian resignation.”[10] William W. Wick of Indiana urged Douglas to “take no offense at anything Slidell…or any other thief or murderer may say – and if cornered, have the courage to decline any call to Combat.”[11] From Memphis came the sound advice to “keep cool” and “disappoint your enemies.”[12]

Douglas heeded these entreaties and the Slidell affair fizzled out. After Douglas publicly denied authorizing Sheridan to write his scathing rebuttal and Sheridan concurred, Slidell let the matter drop. The simultaneous quarrel with Fitch escalated when Douglas recruited the assistance of Tom Hawkins, a notorious Kentucky duelist, to serve as his intermediary and perhaps bodyguard. But that squabble soon cooled down as well.[13] By late February, Douglas was still sparring with southern Democrats over a federal slave code for the territories, but talk of duels and death had subsided.

“Progressive Democracy – Prospect of a Smash Up” (1860). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If Slidell’s purported conspiracy dissolved without harming Douglas’s person, the same could not be said of Douglas’s party. The maelstrom of rumors and fears exacerbated the sectional estrangement that was tearing the Democratic Party apart. In 1860, southern Democrats bolted the party convention rather than accept Douglas’s nomination for president. But already in early 1859, northern Democrats were growing alienated from their erstwhile southern allies, and becoming increasingly inclined to view them in terms which resembled Republican criticisms of the Slave Power. Amid the Slidell-Douglas controversy, Samuel S. Marshall, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, lamented the “malignant influence” wielded by Buchanan and his southern allies, including Slidell, over the party and the government. He was “outraged almost beyond endurance” by their apparent desire to destroy Douglas by any means necessary.[14] Similar frustrations echoed outside of Congress. None was more emphatic than an Illinois Douglasite who condemned Buchanan as a “corrupt and vindictive old dotard” and blasted his southern “attendants” for attacking Douglas. He resolved to see Douglas nominated in 1860 and vowed that “if a factious southern minority” should “secede” from the convention, northern Democrats would carry the party banner to victory.[15]

Was there a plot to kill Stephen A. Douglas? The evidence is circumstantial. But the evidence of a concerted effort by proslavery Democrats to destroy his career is compelling, and together, the plots primed northern Democrats to stand firm for Douglas in 1860. If southerners refused to support Douglas, wrote Indiana Democrat A.M. Puett, then they would have to face the consequences of an inevitable Republican victory. “I and thousands more will stand off,” Puett swore, “and let the Hell hounds…pitch into them.”[16]


[1] “The Duello,” Harper’s Weekly 3, no. 106 (January 8, 1859), 18.

[2] James S. Green to Samuel Treat, September 29, 1858 (box 2), Samuel Treat Papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri.

[3] Henry S. Fitch to William Bigler, September 22, 1858 (box 9, folder 27) William Bigler Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (hereafter cited as HSP).

[4] John Slidell to James Buchanan, August 8, 1858, reel 35, James Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[5] Henry S. Foote, Casket of Reminiscences (Washington: Chronicle Publishing Company, 1874), 135.

[6] W.C. Templeton to Stephen A. Douglas, December 20, 1858 (box 22, folder 20), Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (hereafter cited as SAD Papers).

[7] Anita Watkins Clinton, “Stephen Arnold Douglas – His Mississippi Experience,” Journal of Mississippi History 50, no. 2 (June 1988): 56-88; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 208-209, 211, 299-300, 337-338.

[8] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1909), II, 127-128; James W. Sheahan, The Life of Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860), 439-442; Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 689.

[9] “‘Will Douglas Fight?’ – That’s the Question,” (Terre Haute, IN) Wabash Express, January 5, 1859.

[10] James B. Steadman to Stephen A. Douglas, January 5, 1859 (box 23, folder 1), SAD Papers.

[11] W.W. Wick to Stephen A. Douglas, December 30, 1858 (box 22, folder 24), SAD Papers.

[12] J. Knox Walker to Stephen A. Douglas, January 1, 1859 (box 22, folder 25), SAD Papers.

[13] Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 689-690; Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 168.

[14] S.S. Marshall to Charles H. Lanphier, December 9, 1858 (box 1, folder 7), Charles H. Lanphier Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois.

[15] James Singleton to Stephen A. Douglas, February 20, 1859 (box 24, folder 9), SAD Papers.

[16] Quoted in John T. Hubbell, “The Douglas Democrats and the Election of 1860,” Mid-America 55, no. 2 (April 1973), 109.

Michael E. Woods

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

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War

Today, a simple click and mere seconds separate the writer and reader of a message; they communicate instantaneously with one another across vast distances. In the middle of the nineteenth century, weeks could pass before a letter reached its recipient on the other side of the ocean. Civil War armies benefited from the use of telegraphs, which were still slow by modern standards, but oceans presented significant barriers.[1] By the time of the Civil War, steam power had conquered time and space on iron rails and made an impact on the high seas. Boosters and merchants in port cities along the eastern seaboard increasingly desired to enhance trade and communication by attracting regular, direct trade lines. Some Civil War era officials foresaw the potential of steamships as agents of empire. Direct communications with other countries in the Americas could offer an opportunity to outmaneuver European rivals and establish an informal U.S. empire. The Civil War witnessed a continuation of the promotion of trade links and foreshadowed the imperial connections of the decades following the war.

In 1860, cargo and people still travelled on slow sailing vessels, but the role of steamships was growing in importance. For example, in 1860, merchants and ship owners in the British Empire operated 2,337 steamships; in addition, there were 36,164 sailing vessels.[2] Lucrative mail routes and mail packet routes attracted steamers. Representatives negotiated postal agreements that not only included low postage rates but also stipulated transportation on board steamships, usually in direct communications between New York and the signatory country. For example, when the Hanseatic City of Bremen dispatched Rudolph M. Schleiden to the United States in 1853, his first task was to negotiate a postal agreement, setting postage rates at a lower price and thus hopefully drawing all German post through Bremen. The eventual result was in 1860 the emergence of Bremen’s Norddeutscher Lloyd (Lloyd), following in the footsteps of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG). Both used steamers for the transportation of mail and passengers between the North German port cities and New York.[3] Just like on other transatlantic routes, U.S.-owned business were not competitive.[4]

Painting by Fritz Müller of the Bremen, reproduced in Johannes Lachs, Schiffe aus Bremen: Bilder und Modelle im Focke-Museum (Bremen, Germany: Hauschild Temmen, 1994). Courtesy of

However, without reliable and safe service, customers might not patronize these new steamlines. Schleiden emphasized that the German steamship companies needed to provide reliable service and rent replacement ships if their own vessels suffered engine trouble, or worse.[5] During the Congressional debates surrounding passage of these agreements, Southern representatives voiced their desire for Southern states to also receive direct service to Europe.[6] Their requests assumed new urgency with secession.

Secession severed not only the political ties between North and South, but also their trade links. The vast majority of vessels and trade arrived in Northern ports, but many ships left Southern ports with valuable cargos. To foster trade links between Europe and the seceded states, consuls in Southern ports communicated home the urgent desire for direct links. Before even the formation of the Confederates States of America, Hamburg’s merchant-consul Johannes Nicolaus Hudtwalcker in Savannah asked the Staatsyndicus (equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of State) Carl Hermann Merck to consider the growing trade between the two cities and promote a line between Hamburg and Savannah. The consul pointed out that the lack of a direct connection between the two forced all commerce to travel through other ports. Hudtwalcker suggested the creation of a direct line, claiming such traffic would yield significant profits. He pointed to the excellent connections with the hinterland in Hamburg to illustrate the city’s ability to transship transport commodities from Savannah to other German states.[7] Hudtwalcker was not alone in this request for a direct connection between a port in the seceded states and Europe. Such an inquiry shortly after secession signals that many merchants-consuls, like other contemporaries, did not consider war likely, instead seeing peaceful separation as a distinct possibility. However, regardless of secession’s outcome, they needed to plan how maintain their trade relations.

James Watson Webb to William Henry Seward, October 8, 1863, M121, Despatches From U.S. Ministers To Brazil, 1809-1906, National Archives, Washington, DC.

The dialog about connecting southern ports with the world did not stop with the outbreak of war. Conversations about enhancing trade and communications were not restricted to European countries. In October 1863, the U.S. Minister to Brazil, James W. Webb, informed the State Department about Brazil’s intention to open a subsidized steamship line to New York, which would also stop in Charleston. Well aware of Secretary of State William Seward’s hemispheric vision, Webb presented the proposal in a hemispheric perspective, aiming to establish an “American Policy.” As the most powerful country on the continent, the United States could not tolerate communications with South America to happen by way of Europe, since in time of war, Europe could prevent any interaction between North and South America. Ironically, Webb’s Europhobic attitude clouded his judgment. He suggested that the constitutional governments of the Americas needed to work together against Europe’s oppressive monarchies, overlooking the fact that Brazil was a European-style monarchy. Nevertheless, even the leader of Argentina voiced the perception of “neglect of the Government of South America by the Government of Washington, in not furnishing a direct Steam Mail communication with Brazil.” Harshly criticizing British policy and shipping as piratical, due to the supposed support the British had granted to the Confederacy, Webb noted that U.S. neglect had allowed Great Britain to turn the region into an economic dependent. Besides the trade benefits of a steamship line, Webb pointed out that mail steamers were self-sufficient. Webb concluded that “looking at this question solely in a National and Political point of view, and in connexion with our future relations with the Government of this Continent, I am of opinion, that it would be wise, and sound statesmanship, to pay a million of Dollars per annum for two Mails per month to and from Brazil, even if they would insure no immediate increase of commerce, and even if I did not believe, as I most assuredly do, that the proposed Steamers will not only be self-remunerating, but would within the term of the proposed contract, directly and indirectly benefit our Country more than a hundred fold.”[8] Interestingly, Webb did not explain why he wanted the Lincoln administration to support a shipping line that apparently connected New York to Charleston before heading into the Caribbean and South America.

Where Webb saw the steamship as a tool against Great Britain and an agent of empire for the United States, the ships would have also docked in Confederate ports, fostering what Hudtwalcker had suggested to Hamburg in early 1861. Steamships could increase trade and speed-up communications, but at the same time, they could also project power. When the Civil War started, merchants and ship owners continued to seek economic growth opportunities. Hudtwalcker and Webb’s arguments confirm Jay Sexton’s recent argument that steam transportation and imperial expansion went hand in hand. Viewing the Civil War era’s international communication discussions as part of long-term trends illustrates that regardless of the war, trade continued to grow and politicians in the United States considered the imperial future of their country.


[1] The transatlantic cable was laid in 1858 but was operational for only one month. It was not until 1866 that they were successful in establishing transatlantic telegraph capabilities.

[2] United Kingdom, Annual Statement of the Trade and Navigation of the United Kingdom (London, UK: George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1861), 50.

[3] Ludwig Beutin, Bremen und Amerika: Zur Geschichte der Weltwirtschaft und der Beziehungen Deutschlands zu den Vereinigten Staaten (Bremen, Germany: Schünemann, 1953), 117.

[4] Jay Sexton, “Steam Transport, Sovereignty, and Empire in North America, 1850-1885,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 4 (December 2017): 629.

[5] Schleiden to Senats-Commission für die auswärtigen Angelegenheiten, July 29, 1858, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.b.II, Staatsarchiv Bremen.

[6] Schleiden to Senats-Commission für die auswärtigen Angelegenheiten, March 6, 1857, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.b.I, Staatsarchiv Bremen.

[7] Johannes Nicolaus Hudtwalcker to Carl Hermann Merck, January 31, 1861, CL VI, no 16p, Vol 4b, Fasc 13c, 111-1 Senat, Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg.

[8] James Watson Webb to William Henry Seward, October 8, 1863, M121, Despatches From U.S. Ministers To Brazil, 1809-1906, National Archives, Washington, DC. For the financial benefits of a subsidized steam ship line, see Sexton’s discussion of the Pacific Mail/Panama Railroad. Sexton, “Steam Transport, Sovereignty, and Empire in North America,” 631-635.

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.

Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

We live in weird times. Our president delivers policy statements by midnight tweet, and the opposing political party seems poised, at least this week, to recruit their own TV star to run against him in the next election. Recreational marijuana use is now at least partly legal in twenty-nine states, including the largest by population, and yet the federal government is reversing its prior reversal of strict prohibition. Foundational tenets of the republic like birthright citizenship suddenly seem up for discussion again, 150 years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Perhaps our relatively stable postbellum political sphere is merely beginning to show its age. After all, whatever one might say about the Red Scare, the Cold War, 1968, or the War on Terror, Americans have avoided a second civil war. Nuclear warmongers and “doomsday preppers” aside, there are still thoughtful people out there willing to find political solutions to big problems. I think.

The political strife we face today in the American public sphere is similar, in some ways, to the debates in that past era of sectional and ideological strife that resulted in war over slavery. The issues are different, but lives remain at stake for many immigrants, for the abused, for young black men, and for poor and sick Americans of any age. Abolitionism won in the end. It might behoove us, left or right, to consider the ethos of a winning cause.

As enslaved people and abolitionists stoked the urgency of their cause with resistance, organizing, and electioneering in the 1850s, they saw that white Americans would have to look past their prejudices, at least far enough to respect the basic right of black people to live free. One of the ways abolitionists had always pressed their case was through “moral suasion”—a strategy that radical activists believed was too slow and inefficient a response to the terrors of human slavery. But this approach, drawn in part from the ideas of Quaker communities that sprouted many early white abolitionists, remained a key ingredient in the struggle to the end because it addressed a human need that political progress continues to demand: empathy. Abolitionists argued that white people needed to understand how it felt to be black—to have a “black heart.”

Mathew B. Brady, carte de visite of Susan B. Anthony, c. 1870. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Women’s rights, abolition, and temperance advocate Susan B. Anthony preached this message of radical empathy to white Americans in an effort to help them understand and feel what their complicity in slavery was doing to black people. In an 1859 speech, Anthony began by reminding her audience of the “four millions of thinking, acting, conscious beings, like ourselves, driven to unpaid toil” under “the sanction of this professedly Christian, Republican Government,” but quickly left figures behind as she described the lived experiences of enslaved people.

“Let us, my friends, … make the slave’s case our own,” she asked. “Let us feel that it is our own children, that are ruthlessly torn from our yearning mother hearts, and driven into the ‘coffle gang,’ … to be sold on the auction block to the highest bidder.” Anthony framed the problem of slavery in personal terms—narrative instead of numbers—that might help white people creatively imagine themselves in the place of their fellow human beings with different colored skin.

“Make the slave’s case our own,” c. 1859, Susan B. Anthony Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of American Memory

“Were we, ourselves, the victims of this vilest oppression the sun ever shone upon,” she continued, “no appeal to the Bible or Constitution, no regard for peace and harmony in our religious or political associations … could for a moment quiet our consciences, silence our voices, or stay our action.” Reminding her audience members of their own desires for freedom and liberty, Anthony pointed to the hypocrisy of Americans whose respect for “law and order,” property rights, and political decorum would quickly crumble if they were the ones being victimized.

Recent debates over federal health care policy, tax rules, and spending priorities have demonstrated precisely the kind of “blind reverence” for the rules and preservation of our “political associations” that Anthony warned would fall apart the moment privileged folks experience the harsh realities their policies prescribe for others. Congress’s continued failure to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program would surely be remedied if their own children were dependent on it. And how might immigration policy or climate change action have unfolded differently in the past twenty years if loyalty to party had not trumped the lives of DREAMers and citizens of tiny island nations?

Empathy is at least a part of the answer, and Anthony made a case that thoughtful white Americans could not in good conscience deny, though many still chose to do so.

Anthony and her white abolitionist colleagues were not themselves without moral taint, as recent scholarship has explained. After the war, white women’s rights advocates could not agree on the prioritization of black male or white female suffrage, causing an ugly rift that would take a generation to heal. Stanton aimed her own racism at immigrants in the later nineteenth century. Studies have rightly pointed out how abolitionists’ fetishization of black bodies in pain reinforced old tropes, tropes of which western culture has still not fully divested itself. We may still learn from the successes and shortcomings of “moral suasion,” nonetheless.

As in the 1850s, much of the responsibility falls on white people to engage in radical empathy to address our political logjam. Wealth, gender identity, citizenship, sexuality, religion, and many other factors determine who has the power to make change. As Americans work toward their ideal of “all people created equal”–by abolishing racism, sexism, poverty, and all inequitable treatment of human beings–we will likely find like Americans long before us that tweet-storms and self-righteous tirades of all stripes do little to persuade others who are, fundamentally, just like us.

Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

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

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

In early 2017, the National Park Service released an official report on its efforts to educate visitors about the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial anniversary (2011-2015). Plans to organize educational programming for the sesquicentennial started as early as 1998, when a group of Superintendents at NPS Civil War sites met to discuss ways to incorporate discussions about Civil War causation into their site interpretations. Seeking to “define a vision statement for the commemoration,” NPS leadership in 2009 explicitly called upon these sites to study and interpret the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. The agency’s theme for the initiative, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” embodied an expansive message that made a direct connection between the experiences of the country’s four million enslaved people during the war and the gains made during the Civil Rights movement 100 years later.[1]

“Civil War to Civil Rights” had its critics, particularly among some Civil War military enthusiasts who decried the entrance of “political” topics into interpretive programs at historical battlefield sites. The shift in focus towards discussions of slavery and emancipation during the Civil War era was certainly a marked change from the dominant narrative of the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), where the shared valor of white Union and Confederate soldiers and their causes were placed on center stage.[2] Nevertheless, many academic historians, NPS interpretive staff, and site visitors welcomed the opportunity to contemplate a more holistic understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, the urgency of incorporating a distinctly “political” interpretation of the Civil War era was demonstrated when perhaps the most consequential event of the entire sesquicentennial occurred not at an official public history site, but at the Charleston AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof—himself a visitor to Civil War public history sites during the sesquicentennial—horrifically massacred nine African American parishioners in June 2015. Since that tragic event, discussions about the American Civil War—not just its history but also how that history is represented in flags, monuments, and at public history sites—have only expanded and intensified.

Cover of the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Summary Report.

The Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report outlines a wide range of initiatives the NPS undertook at more than sixty units that interpreted the Civil War in some fashion. Many sites upgraded their museum exhibits, orientation films, and visitor centers. Some held commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died in the war, hosted battle reenactments, and featured speakers who discussed all facets of the war—military, political, religious, economic, cultural, and social—to interested audiences.[3]

The skepticism in some quarters that accompanied the sesquicentennial’s planning phase continued into the actual commemoration. A Wall Street Journal article reported in 2014 that “promoters of Civil War memorabilia, tourism, and reenactments across the country are fighting a losing battle against apathy for one of the most important periods in U.S. history.” The article cited lack of government funding and “public unease over the divisive racial issues that the war represents” as leading causes for this apathy.[4] Likewise, noted Civil War historian Gary Gallagher lamented in a 2013 interview with the Civil War Trust that the sesquicentennial at that point had been “anemic.” He complained about a lack of initiative on the part of individual states to commemorate the war and suggested that more discussions about slavery and emancipation could have played a role in driving some audiences away, since “you can’t talk about [the war] without talking about race,” an uneasy topic for some visitors.[5]

Measuring the true success of the sesquicentennial’s ability to raise awareness of Civil War history and promote further study of the topic is a near impossible task. This is especially the case since so much of the discussion about the war’s history and memory took place away from actual historic sites and instead occurred on the internet. One useful data point for measuring the sesquicentennial’s success can be found in NPS visitation statistics, however. While these stats cannot tell us what visitors did at NPS Civil War sites or what they took away from their visit, they offer insights on whether or not there was a notable increase in visitation to these sites during the sesquicentennial.

To see if the sesquicentennial was truly “anemic,” as Gallagher suggests, I compiled visitation data for fifty-two NPS units that participated in the Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration, which readers can view on my Google Drive. With this data I calculated average visitation to these sites during the Civil War centennial (for those that existed at the time), from the period 2006 to 2010, and during the Civil War sesquicentennial. I then analyzed percentage changes in site visitation over these three time periods to find some sort of trend in the data.[6] Overall, the numbers indicate that the majority of NPS units that participated in the sesquicentennial saw increased visitation during that time, and in that sense it was a success. Here were some of the major takeaways I gleaned from the data:

–  Of the 52 NPS units that participated in some way in the Civil War sesquicentennial, 33 experienced an increased average visitation in the period between 2011 and 2015 compared to their average visitation in 2006-2010 (63%).

–  Of the 34 NPS units that existed during the Civil War centennial (1961-1965) and that also participated in the sesquicentennial, 20 saw increased average visitation during the sesquicentennial as compared to their centennial numbers (59%).

–  The most dramatic visitation increases from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial occurred at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park (81%), Monocacy National Battlefield (73%), Clara Barton National Historic Site (58%), Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (53%), and Women’s Rights National Historical Park (52%). Other significant increases occurred at Pea Ridge National Battlefield (45%), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (43%), and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (40%).

–  Of the five major Civil War battlefields that were originally saved by the federal government in the 1890s and placed under the NPS in 1934 (Antietam, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg), only one had an increased visitation average during the sesquicentennial when compared to the centennial (Antietam, with a 77% increase). Chickamauga & Chattanooga’s average declined by 5%, Gettysburg’s by 45%, Shiloh’s by 32%, and Vicksburg’s by 36%. These numbers suggest that visitation to some of the most important Civil War battlefields in the country dipped significantly in average attendance compared to the centennial.

–  Although four of the five major Civil War battlefields saw significantly decreased visitation when comparing to the centennial, three did experience an increase in average visitation from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial: Antietam (11%), Chickamauga & Chattanooga (2%), and Shiloh (28%). Gettysburg declined by 18% and Vicksburg declined by 2%.

–  Despite several of the major Civil War battlefields experiencing average visitation decreases during the sesquicentennial, visitation to all NPS sites connected to the sesquicentennial was still strong. Moreover, the variety of sites open for visitation compared to the centennial was important, with sites dedicated to Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Maggie L. Walker, African Americans in Boston, the Sand Creek Massacre, and women’s rights presenting new interpretations and perspectives to the sesquicentennial’s educational programming. All of these aforementioned sites experienced increased visitation compared to 2006-2010.

What else do you see in the data? Leave a comment and let’s discuss further.



[1] National Park Service, “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report,” National Park Service, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017, See also John Rudy, “From Tokenism to True Partnership: The National Park Service’s Shifting Interpretation at the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial” in Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017), 61-76.

[2] Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

[3] See appendices starting on page 90 of “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report” for a list of each participating NPS unit’s educational initiatives undertaken during the sesquicentennial.

[4] The Wall Street Journal has since removed the original article from its website. The cited quote can be found on my personal website. Nick Sacco, “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Challenge of Measuring ‘Success’ in Free-Choice Learning Environments,” Exploring the Past, April 27, 2014, accessed December 12, 2017,

[5] “An Interview with Historian Gary Gallagher,” Civil War Trust, 2013, accessed December 14, 2017,

[6] To view visitation data for all NPS units, see National Park Service, “National Park Service Visitor Use Stats,” National Park Service, accessed December 17, 2017,

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

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Perhaps I’ve been wrong about African American citizenship.

The anniversary year of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification is upon us. 2018 marks 150 years since birthright citizenship was constitutionalized. I’ve told this story many times, even recounting it in an article for the Journal of the Civil War Era.[1]

The Fourteenth Amendment established black Americans, and indeed nearly all those born in the United States, as its citizens: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In 1868, the legal force of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which deemed all black people non-citizens, was overcome. The new Constitution removed all doubt about African American claims to belonging, even as the content and the character of their rights would remain (and continue to be) subject of debate.

I have regarded this interpretation as ironclad, approaching something like a truth. Unlike their Chinese American counterparts, after 1868 black Americans did not face state-sponsored schemes of exclusion. Nor did African Americans confront schemes for their removal or threats to their sovereignty, as had Native Americans. The long history of citizenship shows how people of color have not been on equal footing before the law.

But perhaps I’ve been wrong; perhaps black citizenship is not a sure thing after all.

For me, a seed of doubt was sown by a recent incident at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville (SIUE). A professor reported entering a classroom to find this message written on the blackboard: “NO PERSON OF AFRICAN Descent shall be Citizen of the U.S.… NOR were they ever intended to be.” Dred Scott Decision <– GOOGLE IT. What’s YOUR NATIONALITY? Million dollar ?[2]

Image of the blackboard notation at SIUE. Courtesy of the Belleville News-Democrat.

Nineteen members of SIUE’s Philosophy faculty issued a denunciation in an open letter to the SIUE community: “What was written on the board, which referred to the Dred Scott case, expressed white supremacist propaganda that is intellectually dishonest.”[3] Here, they suggested that intellectual dishonesty lies not in the characterization of the decision in Dred Scott, which did indeed draw into serious question the citizenship of black Americans. The dishonestly lies in the failure to add that Dred Scott was rendered inoperable by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright provision. It is intellectually dishonest to draw into question the citizenship of black Americans.

Or is it? This is the question that underlies the “Space Traders” story, penned by the late legal scholar Derrick Bell in 1992.[4] If you’re not familiar with Bell’s story, it is a must read. But I’ll summarize it here. Aliens arrive on the shore of the United States, eager to strike a bargain. They offer the nation wealth, a clean environment, and safe energy in exchange for one thing: all black Americans. Bell goes on to explore how the nation responds, from the halls of Congress to the streets.

I’ll let you discover the ending for yourself. But for my concern about black citizenship, Bell is on point. His story is intended to test our contemporary thinking about black belonging. Are black Americans equal and unassailable citizens of the United States, such that the Space Traders’ bargain must be rejected? Or are black people mere sojourners to be traded away en masse for the good of the nation with citizenship revoked or reconfigured?

Back to that blackboard comment at SIUE that so unsettled me. Bell’s story affirms my sense of unease. How confident should we be in the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment? In Bell’s story, in the face of the Space Traders proposal, a national consensus emerges such that Congress swiftly amends the Constitution. A national service requirement is adopted, one to which black Americans are subjected in short order. His lesson? There is nothing unassailable about law. There is nothing in the Constitution not subject to amendment if the political winds blow in a new direction.

No writing on a classroom blackboard signals a Constitutional sea change. Still, it is a reminder that my analysis must always allow for the contingencies. It’s unlikely that Space Traders will visit our shores anytime soon. But the terms of their bargain remain nonetheless relevant today. Did the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee the citizenship of black Americans born in the United States? Yes, at least until ideas scrawled on mid-western walls make their way to the nation’s main stage.



[1] Martha S. Jones, “Birthright Citizenship and Reconstruction’s Unfinished Revolution,” in Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (March 2017): 10.

[2] Nassim Benchaabane, “Racist Message Left on SIUE Blackboard Under Investigation,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1, 2017, The university denounced the “racist comment” and initiated an investigation. An investigation confirmed that the comment was not part of a class lesson, but there are no reports that its author has been identified. Elizabeth Donald, “Racist Message on SIUE Blackboard Wasn’t Part of a Class, Officials Say,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 8, 2017,

[3] Department of Philosophy, “An Open Letter to the SIUE Community,” accessed January 2, 2018,

[4] Derrick Bell, “The Space Traders,” in Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 158-195.

Martha S. Jones

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