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Author Interview: Nancy Bercaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GOP’s Civil War Over Trade Is Nothing New

According to the Financial Times, the Trump White House is fighting a civil war over trade.[1] Trump’s ultra-nationalist “America First” program does not sit well with Republican free traders. Why? Because the program contains a variety of protectionist weapons, including retaliatory tariffs against the country’s largest trading partners, dismantling NAFTA, withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and taking potshots at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In justifying his protectionism, Trump has harkened back to the ideas and policies of the Civil War era. “Listen to this,” Trump said last June. “The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that, quote ‘the abandonment of the protective policy by American government will produce want and ruin among our people.’ He understood it much better than our current politicians, that’s why he was Abraham Lincoln, I guess.”[2] Although it ignores the myriad ways in which the global economy has changed between then and now, Trump’s drawing upon the Republican Party’s protectionist past is illustrative of the long fight between economic cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism that helped define Civil War Era party politics and foreign relations.

Trade was a divisive issue within the GOP from its founding in the 1850s. While the party’s broad adherence to the antislavery mantra “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” at first hid this ideological conflict between economic nationalism and economic cosmopolitanism, the internal war over trade would end up reshaping and redefining the Republican Party by the early 1880s. The Republican majority, including Abraham Lincoln, was wedded to the Whig-protectionist “American System” of economic nationalism. But, overlooked until recently, the fledgling party also contained a vocal minority of free traders: a regular “who’s who” of radical northern abolitionists.[3]

This minority of Republican abolitionist free traders–most notably Joshua Leavitt, Henry Ward Beecher, Edward Atkinson, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lloyd Garrison–did not adhere to Jeffersonianism, however, which had become tied to a defense of Southern slavery. Rather, they subscribed to the mid-century, British-born free trade ideology called “Cobdenism” (aka the Manchester School), named after the Victorian British “apostle of free trade” Richard Cobden, a staunch abolitionist and leader of the mid-century international peace movement.[4] Building upon the international dimensions of David Ricardo and Adam Smith, Cobdenism entailed the belief that free trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy would lead to prosperity and peace the world over. Cobdenism was also closely associated with the Anglo-American abolitionist movement, believing “free men” and “free trade” were but two sides of the same coin.

In 1846 Cobden had led in the successful overthrow of the protectionist Corn Laws in England, ushering in nearly a century of British free trade.[5] That same year, Cobdenites on both sides of the Atlantic had further cause for celebration, when the United States also lowered its tariff (the 1846 Walker Tariff), signaling a transatlantic move toward trade liberalization that continued for another fifteen years.[6] Cobdenites claimed this shift toward freer trade had also helped avoid war with Britain over the Oregon boundary dispute. A “free trade tariff on both sides will settle the matter quickly,” William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post had predicted in late January 1846, “and give us something better to do than fighting.”[7]

This 1846 cartoon from London’s humor magazine, Punch, depicts how free trade in grain would bring a peaceful settlement to the Oregon dispute, with Sir Robert Peel [left] pelting a militant President Polk [right] with “Free Corn.” Courtesy of the author.
But this brief American flirtation with freer trade came to a halt by the time Lincoln entered the White House in 1861. In that year, Republican protectionists got what they wanted. Thanks to the secession of various Southern states in late 1860 and early 1861, the Republican Party’s economic nationalist majority suddenly found itself with the congressional numbers to push through passage of the protectionist Morrill Tariff in March 1861, to the great dismay of the GOP’s Cobdenite minority—and to the great consternation of many in Free Trade England. The close timing of Southern secession and the tariff’s passage caused many in economically cosmopolitan Britain to think at first that the protective tariff’s passage had caused secession, when in fact it had been the other way around. This initial confusion gave rise to the great Civil War lie that the Morrill Tariff had sparked secession, still erroneously touted to this day by myriad neo-Confederate advocates of the Lost Cause. The tariff’s passage thus created serious problems for Anglo-American relations in the first years of the Civil War—and further alienated the Republican Party’s free trade minority.[8]

The rift between the GOP’s protectionist majority and its Cobdenite free trade minority grew even wider after 1865, with the end of the Civil War. With the slaves now freed, the antislavery cause no longer bound together Republican protectionists and free traders. On the one hand, the party’s majority of protectionists sought to establish the party as the economic nationalist defender of the American System; as a result, slogans like “America for Americans” and “Protection for the American Workingman” increasingly peppered post-war GOP parades and conventions. On the other hand, the GOP’s minority of cosmopolitan free traders sought to overthrow the party’s fast-developing, ultra-nationalist protectionist system; for them, freeing trade was a necessary prerequisite for American peace and prosperity, as well as the next step in the emancipation of mankind.

Bearing a strong resemblance to Trump’s “globalist” conspiracy theories today, the Republican protectionist majority became ever more paranoid about the mounting Cobdenite free trade agitation in the United States.[9] Although never finding a smoking gun, the GOP’s top protectionist ideologues were prone to charging that there was a transatlantic free trade conspiracy afoot to undermine American infant industries by dismantling American high tariff walls and thereby allowing in a deluge of cheaper British manufactured goods. As Republican Cobdenite Joshua Leavitt observed in 1869, “no man of prominence in America can support even a partial relaxation of the rigours of Protection without bringing upon himself the stigma of being a partisan, and probably a pensioner, of ‘British Free Trade.’”[10]

The GOP’s internal ideological conflict over trade reached a breaking point in 1872, much like last year when free traders in the Republican National Committee contemplated running a third-party ticket once Trump appeared the likely nominee.[11] In 1872, however, the re-nomination of the corruption-laden protectionist Ulysses S. Grant broke the Republican elephant’s back. Disgusted, Republican Cobdenites decided enough was enough, and ran their own independent ticket. They named themselves the Liberal Republican Party, “liberal” in the Civil War era referring to liberal economic policies like free trade. The attempt ended in dismal failure, however, when protectionist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley hijacked the nomination proceedings, to the dismay of the splinter party’s free trade founders.[12]

In this cartoon, Thomas Nast mocks the New York Tribune’s editorial tactic of tying Cleveland to British free trade and Southern slavery in the lead up to the 1884 elections. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

The Republican Party’s free trade independents learned hard lessons from the debacle of 1872. So when the GOP nominated another corruption-laden protectionist candidate in 1884–the “Plumed Knight” James G. Blaine of Maine–those in favor of free trade decided instead to throw their support behind the reform-minded Democratic nominee, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who seemed amenable to lowering US tariff walls. Their party treachery earned them the moniker “Mugwumps” and helped swing some close races in the northeast for Cleveland. Their defection also allowed the GOP to become the party of protectionism through and through, an ideological position that its rank and file would maintain until the Reagan Revolution. Trump’s “anti-globalist” nostalgia for Lincoln’s economic nationalism is therefore rather apt, heralding a return to the party’s paranoid protectionist roots. If the Republican Party’s Civil War era past is any guide, Trump’s protectionism might also herald another GOP civil war over trade, and the return of the Mugwumps.

[1] “White House Civil War Breaks Out Over Trade,” Financial Times, (10 March 2017).

[2] “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Trade,” Time, (28 June 2016).

[3] Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); See also Marc-William Palen, “Free-Trade Ideology and Transatlantic Abolitionism: A Historiography” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37, no. 2 (June 2015): 291-304.

[4] See, especially, Peter Cain, “Capitalism, War, and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden” British Journal of International Studies 5 no. 3 (October 1979): 229-247; David Nicholls, “Richard Cobden and the International Peace Congress Movement, 1848-1853” Journal of British Studies 30 no. 4 (October 1991): 351-376; Martin Ceadel, “Cobden and Peace,” in Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006): 189-207.

[5] Anthony Howe, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[6] Scott C. James and David A. Lake, “The Second Face of Hegemony: Britain’s Repeal of the Corn Laws and the American Walker Tariff of 1846,” International Organization 43, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-29; Patrick J. McDonald, The Invisible Hand of Peace: Capitalism, The War Machine, and International Relations Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 141-155.

[7] New York Evening Post (12 January 1846).

[8] Marc-William Palen, “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, (5 June 2013); Palen, “Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth,” Imperial & Global Forum, (2 March 2015); Palen, “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy” Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 1 (March 2013): 35-61.

[9] “Globalism: A Far-Right Conspiracy Theory Buoyed by Trump,” New York Times, (14 November 2016).

[10] Joshua Leavitt, An Essay on the Best Way of Developing Improved Political and Commercial Relations Between Great Britain and the United States of America (London, 1869), 32-33.

[11] “Republican Party Could Split if Trump is Chosen,” BBC Radio 5, (3 April 2016); “The GOP’s Nuclear Option to Stop Donald Trump: A Third-Party Candidate,” Daily Beast, (1 April 2016).

[12] See, for instance, Andrew L. Slap, The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

Marc-William Palen

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge, 2016). He is also the editor of the history blog The Imperial & Global Forum, and co-director of History & Policy’s Global Economics and History Forum (King’s College, London). He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter @MWPalen.

Using Reacting to the Past in the Civil War Classroom

The time had come for the delegates to Kentucky’s Sovereignty Convention to decide whether or not the state should secede. One by one, the delegates responded to the roll call vote. Once the representatives from the Cumberland Plateau, Pennyroyal, and Jackson Purchase regions had spoken, the vote was tied. It was up to the Bluegrass region to determine the state’s fate. “This is so exciting!” said one of the delegates.

The year was not 1861 but 2017, and the setting was not Kentucky but a college classroom in Colorado. For the first time, I used the role-playing game “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) to teach the sectional crisis and secession in my Civil War Era class. One of my colleagues used an RTTP game to teach the Mexican Revolution, and he suggested that I try the “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation” game in my course. I have been moving away from lectures and heading towards active learning exercises in class, so I was open to his ideas. Before following his advice, though, I did as much research as I could on RTTP. The testimonials that I uncovered seemed so breathlessly enthusiastic (Mark Carnes, one of RTTP’s founders, has a book immodestly titled Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College) that I wondered if it was some sort of academic cult. Despite my reservations, I decided to drink the Kool-Aid.

In RTTP games, students take on roles based on historical figures or archetypes and re-enact events from a historical era. The games range from debates over democracy in Athens, to the shape India will take following independence in 1945.[1] In “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation,” the only RTTP game directly related to the American Civil War, students play the role of delegates to a special session of the Kentucky legislature. There are twenty-seven different characters, many of them based on actual antebellum figures. One student became Cassius Clay, another was governor Beriah Magoffin, and a third was Simon Bolivar Buckner, Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard. The “Homespun Lawyer” is based on William Lowndes Yancey while the “Arch-Unionist” represents Joseph Holt. Other characters are archetypes, like the Jacksonian Democrat who opposes additional legislative spending and wants to keep Kentucky united. Each student receives a character sheet (provided with the game materials) that explains the person’s background and views on a variety of issues. All characters have a variety of objectives to accomplish during the game, and they usually have to work with other characters to succeed. Issues ranged from reforming the state’s manumission act, to encouraging immigration into the state, to preventing the flow of military supplies through Kentucky. The game was, in a way, a cross between a historical re-enactment and the “Survivor” television show.

The preparation for the game, both for the instructor and for the student, is extensive. I had to become familiar with the 232-page Instructor’s Manual and the 190-page Game Book. The Game Book includes a historical background on the sectional crisis, the game’s rules, a description of the assignments, a description of Kentucky in 1861, primary source documents, and a bibliography. Instructors have to assign roles to students, distribute handouts, track student progress, and answer an abundance of questions. The students had to read a historical background article and an extensive list of primary texts. They were also tasked with delivering at least one speech and publishing one issue of a newspaper (complete with masthead, an editorial, and articles), both of which had to reflect their understanding of the assigned materials. Students could also run for Speaker of the House, propose legislation, debate initiatives, form militias, and jockey for political power.

The game itself proceeds through 1861, with sessions that respond to the secession of the Lower South, the Crittenden Compromise, the creation of the Confederacy, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the secession of the Upper South. It also requires an extensive investment of class time. My class runs on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule and I used two class periods to introduce the material, another five to play the game, and one more to debrief the students. Even though the two introductory sessions covered essentially the same material that I normally covered, I decided to eliminate a third introductory session and one game session. The game thus consumed about four weeks, or one-quarter of my semester. I chose to use Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh’s The American War: A History of the Civil War Era as the text that would take the place of my lectures.

When I spoke of the game during the first couple of class periods, students were dubious. Six of the forty students dropped the class, including one with the last name of Sanders, thus depriving those who remained of the fun of addressing him by the honorific title of “Colonel Sanders.” The discussions of the background reading and primary source material went well, but the game started slowly. I had a hazy understanding of how to act as “Gamemaster” and the students had not fully digested the rules.[2] By the end of the first session, though, we had vigorous debate that revealed the contradictory nature of America in 1861. As we worked our way forward in time, students became more confident to speak up in class, and many of them provided excellent distillations on topics such as the influence of the Fugitive Slave Law on secession or the political philosophy of John Calhoun. I sat off to the side of the class and did not speak much during the legislative sessions. As for Kentucky, the delegates from the Bluegrass region tipped the scales in favor of secession. I rolled a die to determine the war’s outcome and we learned that the war lasted four years and the Union government freed the slaves. In reality, of course, Kentucky did not secede, but the other two events did happen.

The game had a number of positive effects. The level of interaction among students was substantially higher. Rather than being locked into their little cell phone worlds before class began, they were politicking and working the room to secure votes. One student also noticed this change and commented that, more than any other class he was taking, he got to know his classmates. Other students said that they really enjoyed the game and found it to be a good way to learn about the contingent nature of events in 1861. They cited the high level of work that went into the assignments but said that they learned so much. Indeed, their speeches and newspapers exceeded my expectations. The class period after the re-enactment ended was one of the best that I have been a part of during my seventeen years of teaching. During our comparison of the game to actual events, an essential part of the curriculum, the majority of the class asked questions. As we continued to discuss the early part of the war, the students referred back to the knowledge they gained because of the game. I cannot credit RTTP with this passion for history, but I suspect that it has motivated my students to learn more. At least five students have stopped by my office and mentioned how much they are learning in this class.

There are several drawbacks associated with the game, though. In a larger class such as mine, it was difficult for all students to deliver their speeches and the sessions bogged down at times. Some students were simply not invested in the activity while others did not make an effort to build coalitions or trade votes. The game was also a fair degree of work for me, between grading the assignments, answering questions, and keeping up with administrative work.

As for me, I will drink the Kool-Aid again and use RTTP the next time I teach the Civil War course.

[1] A list of published games and those in development is found on RTTP’s website, (accessed March 22, 2017). Additionally, there are a number of videos on YouTube that demonstrate how the games work; this video is one example, (accessed March 22, 2017).

[2] From June 8 to 11, 2017, there will be a Faculty Institute at Barnard College to train instructors. Participants can attend workshops on twelve different games. See

Robert Gudmestad

Dr. Robert Gudmestad is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. His current research project involves using GIS to study the Union and Confederate brownwater navies and their quest for control of the Mississippi River system. He is author of A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (LSU, 2003) and Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom (LSU, 2011). He can be reached at

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

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

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

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

Keep reading on Project Muse ( The winners of the Distinguished Writer Award will be announced at the Foundation’s annual meeting on June 15.

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

The Enduring Legacy of Patsey

12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest movies about American history. Much to their credit, the filmmakers did an admirable job of capturing the life and experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After twelve long, torturous years in Louisiana, Northup was able to secure his freedom and return to his family. In 1853 he published a memoir of his ordeal, which is the basis for the movie.

Solomon Northup, from the frontispiece of his memoir. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

The figure at the emotional center of the film is a slave named Patsey, whom Northup described as a “slim and straight” twenty-three-year-old dark-skinned woman who “glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a ‘Guinea nigger,’ brought over to Cuba in a slave ship.” Patsey had “an air of loftiness in her movement,” he wrote, “that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy.” Were she not bound in servitude she “would have been chief among ten thousand of her people,” he mused, but “her intellect [was bound] in utter and everlasting darkness.” In the fields, Patsey could pick far more cotton than her fellow laborers—upwards of five hundred pounds in a day. She was the “queen of the field,” Northup wrote—a line repeated several times in the film.[1]

Northup and Patsey were owned by Edwin Epps, whom Northup described as a “large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions,” who stood six feet high with blue eyes and a light complexion. Epps, according to Northup, had “repulsive and course” manners, indicating that he’d “never enjoyed the advantages of an education.” Nor had he any sense “of kindness or of justice.” And when he was drunk he became either “a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his ‘niggers,’” or he would “lash[ ] them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.”[2]

While Patsey “was a joyous creature” and “a laughing, light-hearted girl” by nature, she “wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions,” remembered Northup. Her back “bore the scars of a thousand stripes”—not because she was lazy, unmindful, or rebellious, but because Epps had turned his “lustful eye” toward her. If Patsey would not succumb to his sexual demands, she would be whipped. And of course, this exploitation—perceived by Epps’s wife as favoritism—caused Patsey’s mistress to despise her. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her suffer,” wrote Northup. In addition to the whippings by Epps, her mistress physically abused her, even hurling bottles to “smite her unexpectedly in the face.” Patsey was “the enslaved victim of lust and hate” with “no comfort in her life.”[3]

“The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

After her most brutal whipping, which is painfully depicted in the film, Northup wrote that Patsey “no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step.” She also lost the “mirthful sparkle in her eyes,” and “the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth” had disappeared. Now she worked in silence with “a care-worn, pitiful expression” on her face. “If ever there was a broken heart—one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering and misfortune—it was Patsey’s.”[4]

On the day that Northup was finally rescued from bondage, Patsey ran to him and threw her arms around him, tears streaming down her face. “I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free,” she told him, “but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?” As Northup’s carriage pulled off, he looked back and saw Patsey “with drooping head, half reclining on the ground.” He would never see her again.[5]

“Scene in the Cotton Field, Solomon Delivered Up,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Northup lamented in his memoir that Patsey would always be a slave. She knew that “a land of freedom” existed somewhere, but it seemed “an immeasurable distance” away. “In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of earth,” he wrote. To be able to own her own land and cabin, and to work for herself, “was a blissful dream of Patsey’s—a dream, alas! the fulfillment of which she can never realize.”[6]

While Patsey endured many more years of cruel tyranny under Edwin Epps, Northup’s prediction did not come to pass. During the Civil War, as Union troops moved deeper into the South, they eventually made their way to Epps’s Louisiana plantation. Remarkably, several northern soldiers who had read Northup’s book in their youth still remembered the characters—and longed to meet them. And, most significantly, these soldiers learned about Patsey’s fate during the Civil War.

These sources help to answer one of the questions that has most stymied those interested in Northup’s narrative: what happened to Patsey?[7] Writing on May 11, 1863, Captain Henry Devendorf of the 110th New York Infantry told his wife, Armonella, of “a little item that will be of interest to you.” One night he met a slave named Bob who belonged to a “Master Epes.” Devendorf wrote, “Solomon Northrup [sic] immediately occurred to me, and I asked him if he ever knew a slave by the name of Platt,” which had been Northup’s name as a slave. “Oh! golly, yes, master,” Bob replied. “He raised me. I guess I does know him.” Devendorf tried to get Bob to go with him, “but he would not on account of his mother, whom, he said, he must now stay with and support.” Devendorf asked other slaves about Northup and found that he “was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true.” Perhaps most satisfying, Devendorf reported that “Patsy went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.”[8]

Private John Hall of the 8th Vermont Infantry had a similar experience, asking his wife in a letter on May 20, 1863, whether she remembered Northup’s book. “I am now very near where he used to live, many negroes on this plantation knew him, he used to fiddle here.” He continued, “If you remember about it, the book speaks of old aunt Phoebe and Patsy, who were whipped, and Bob; they were all on Epps plantation.” Aunt Phoebe was still there, Hall wrote, “but the rest have all gone with some soldiers that passed their house. I hope that it will so happen that I can see some of them before I leave this section of the country.”[9] (It appears from this letter that Bob had decided to leave the plantation after all.)

Even thirty years after the war, a Union veteran who had fought with the 24th New York Cavalry recalled meeting a number of soldiers “who told me of having read the book at the time it was published (in 1854), and who had visited the plantation of Edwin Epps. . . . They told of seeing and talking with his former slave comrades,” including Patsey.[10]

While we do not yet know what happened to Patsey past the mid-point of the war, these recent discoveries reveal that she at least survived long enough to attain freedom in the summer of 1863. Further research in digitized newspapers, soldiers’ correspondence, or federal records at the National Archives may one day reveal other details about her life.

The suffering and injustice that Patsey endured was inflicted upon many slave women and girls on countless plantations throughout the Old South. While most of their names and experiences have been lost to history, Patsey’s story survives. Northup’s graphic account impressed it deeply upon the minds of Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century—so much so that Union soldiers marching through the South remembered her name and story in vivid detail almost a decade after they’d read it. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in the film serves that same purpose, reminding new generations of Americans that we cannot ignore and ought never forget the brutal realities of slavery.

[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853), 166, 179, 186, 188.

[2] Ibid., 162-63, 183.

[3] Ibid., 188-89.

[4] Ibid., 253-59.

[5] Ibid., 308.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] A few writers have searched for Patsey’s story. See, for example, Katie Calautti, “‘What’ll Become of Me?’: Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” Vanity Fair (March 2, 2014), (accessed March 17, 2017). One of the commenters at this article posted the Mexico Independent article, which is cited below.

[8] “Letters from Capt. Devendorf,” Mexico Independent, Mexico, N.Y., June 18, 1863.

[9] “From the 8th Regiment,” Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 2, 1863.

[10] S. E. Chandler, “Bayou Boeuf, La.,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., September 27, 1894. Not all soldiers believed Northup’s account. Shortly after this article appeared, A. A. Gardner of the 93rd New York Infantry replied that one of the kidnappers told him that Northup had concocted the kidnapping scheme in order to make money but that the plan had gone awry (this defense had appeared forty years earlier when the kidnappers went to trial). He concluded that 12 Years a Slave was “ahead of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” “as a work of fiction.” See “A Slave Twelve Years,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., October 11, 1894.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. His latest book is Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Check out his website at, or follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.

Men Go to Battle and the Civil War’s Dark Turn

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannonshot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author’s ideas that they were “concatenated without abruption.”
                                                  – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Image of Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) in Men Go to Battle. A soldier with no real reason for going to war. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

In Zachary Treitz’s 2015 film Men Go to Battle, the Civil War becomes the site of a dark comedy. The film follows in a tradition of fictional accounts of the conflict that deal with the violence of war through humor. Just as Ambrose Bierce’s short fiction made the war seem comically ironic and disorienting, the film relies on a tone of dark humor to reconcile the violence of the era with the mundane lives of its central protagonists. In so doing, the film also speaks to the current scholarly focus on the war’s dark side. This places Men Go to Battle in a cinematic tradition of film as a critique of war, but updates that tradition for a twenty-first-century audience.

The film begins with brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, who eke out a living on their Kentucky farm, until the Civil War abruptly arrives. The film opens in November, 1861, in the fictional Small’s Corner, Kentucky. Francis and Henry struggle to manage their 200-acre farm. Low on resources, Francis begins making precarious financial decisions and taking out his frustrations in a series of escalating pranks on Henry, from buying two mules in the middle of winter (“I got a great deal!”) to throwing an ax at his brother in a drunken stupor. The ax throwing incident ends in a severe injury to Henry’s hand and the need for the town doctor’s services. Finding that the entire town has turned out for a party at the home of the Smalls, the towns wealthiest, slave-owning residents, the brothers seek the doctor there. Henry receives treatment for his hand and returns to the party, determined to speak with Betsy Small, for whom he clearly has amatory feelings. Following a fumbling and failed romantic gesture, an embarrassed Henry runs off into the night.

As Francis desperately searches for Henry, the seasons change and spring dawns with no sign of the lost brother. The only noticeable change on the Mellon farm is an ever-larger pile of firewood, the product of Francis’ frustration. Finally, a letter arrives, sent by one brother to another. Francis asks Betsy Small to read the note, discovering that Henry has joined up with the Union army at Bardstown and is in Huntsville, Alabama, with the 23rd Kentucky. The film shifts to depicting Henry’s experiences of army life, filled with endless drill, marching, and singing off-color songs with his comrades around the campfire after dark (and then catching himself on fire after falling asleep too close to the flames).

The film depicts Henry experiencing what the filmmakers clearly believe to be common wartime occurrences. While on picket duty Henry encounters a Rebel soldier with whom he trades coffee for tobacco. The Confederate asks him if he will bring a newspaper the next day. As his unit prepares to go into battle, Henry writes to Francis that “this war might last longer than me.” As the din of battle draws closer, Henry tears up the letter as the other soldiers around him do the same. After collapsing in battle, Henry decides he has had enough of army life, and, shedding his soldier’s coat and cartridge box, he sets out for home on foot, avoiding Union troops along the way. He returns to find that Francis has married Betsy Small, whose rejection of his advances had caused Henry’s initial flight from home. After spending a night in his old home Henry rises early the next morning and the film cuts to black, suggesting the farmer turned soldier will not be staying.

Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney). Down-on-their-luck farmers in rural Kentucky. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

The film’s depiction of the war draws on various strands of Civil War memory, though it does not fit neatly into any interpretive category, be it the Lost Cause, Emancipation, Union, or Reconciliation causes.[1] Henry’s motivation for joining the Union army is presented as a combination of his own embarrassment and their geographic proximity to the North. If anything, the film proposes that men like Henry and Francis had no reason to care about the war at all; it was simply something else to do—something other than unproductive hardscrabble farming. The war, the film suggests, could be joined and left at will. The film uses the Civil War as the backdrop for a dark comedy, where physical and emotional violence occurs with little effect on its characters. In some ways, this humorous yet disaffected portrayal of violence means that the film fits into a new interpretive category of Civil War popular culture and memory: the so called “Dark Turn.” This term describes the new wave of scholarly studies focused on the physical and mental violence of the Civil War and the lasting effects of that violence on those who experienced it.

Defending this new Dark Turn in Civil War scholarship, Brian Matthew Jordan has argued that such studies are crucial because “Civil War Americans themselves wrestled with the war’s purpose, debated its meaning, and were preoccupied by its violence.”[2] While this interpretative trend has its scholarly detractors, it is clear in Men Go to Battle that some of its preoccupations are filtering into mainstream cultural depictions of the Civil War. While the violence of the war itself intrudes on the lives of the Mellon brothers, their day-to-day lives condition them to accept a bleak future, which the film emphasizes through its under-lit scenes and grainy texture. The war throws friends out their homes, has neighbors on edge about being killed by their slaves, and sees Francis being punched by Union soldiers in the street. The only recourse the brothers have for countering the violence is their humor.

Lieutenant A.G. Bierce, 1862. Bierce served in the 9th Indiana Volunteers until he was wounded in 1864. Courtesy of The Ambrose Bierce Site.

The Civil War produced its own dark sense of humor, a tone Men Go to Battle channels in its screenplay. No soldier captured this tone better than Ambrose Bierce, whose short stories of the war are imbued with the same sensibility. For Bierce, war and violence could serve as a point of mockery or disorienting strangeness, as Stephen B. Cushman has discussed in his analysis of Bierce’s short story “Chickamauga.”[3] A veteran of that battle, Bierce knew of what he wrote. The experiences Bierce had in the army informed much of the short fiction he later wrote. The characters that Bierce depicted in his stories were often presented as heroes. Heroes, however, who could not escape the cruel irony of war, like Carter Druse in “A Horseman in the Sky,” forced to shoot his own father; or Captain Coulter in “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” who shelled his own house and killed his family. Walt Whitman famously said in reference to the Civil War that “the real war will never get in the books.”[4] In Bierce’s stories this platitude seems painfully true.[5]

If the real war never got into the books, it might follow that it will never appear on screen. While films from the post-Vietnam period contained similar critiques of war and its violence, in recent years the focus of Civil War movies has been trained on the celebration of an emancipation narrative.[6] Men Go to Battle offers a new imagining of the war for a modern audience accustomed to films centered on the conflict that are imbued with purpose and moral righteousness. Instead, Men Go to Battle evokes a mood reminiscent of the Dark Turn in recent Civil War scholarship, with its tacit acceptance of violence as a fact of the war and nineteenth century life. It combats this violence and the hardships experienced by its characters with a tone that is both humorous and disorienting, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to laugh at the struggles of two failed farmers or feel empathy for their plight. While the film certainly does not rise to the level of Lincoln, Glory, or Gone with the Wind as a tool with which to teach interpretations of the conflict, it offers students and scholars alike a moment to reflect on how cinematic Civil War will appear on their screens in the future.

[1] For an explanation of these categories and examples of pre-2008 Civil War popular culture in each interpretive vein, see Gary W. Gallagher, Cause Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Scholarly work on Civil War memory such as Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) has discussed the paradoxes of the memory of the conflict in the popular imagination—including the denial of the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause and the more modern emphasis on the Union armies fighting a war to end slavery (see Janney, 309).

[2] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016 <>.

[3] Stephen B. Cushman, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 115-145.

[4] Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892: Specimen Days, ed. by Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 116.

[5] For a sense of Bierce’s fiction the edited collection Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, ed. William McCann (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1956) is an excellent starting point.

[6] As noted by Gallagher, “throughout the 1990s and beyond, Emancipation has achieved dominance, with Reconciliation maintaining a steady but secondary presence in a number of films.” [Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, 92.]

Cecily N. Zander

Cecily N. Zander is a PhD student studying the Civil War and nineteenth century U.S. History at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Her current work focuses on the intersection of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Broadly, her work seeks to explore how the West figured in the military and political policy-making of the United States throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Postscript to “Reconstructing Memory”

The March 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era includes the article “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina the National Park’s First Reconstruction Unit.” It addresses a vigorous effort at the national and local level that began in December of 2000 and aimed to establish a new National Park to interpret the Reconstruction era through Congressional action; this initial action failed. The white supremacist interpretation of Reconstruction, flamed by controversies over removing the Confederate flag from the top of the state house in the 1990s and 2000, still had a strong hold on South Carolina. More than a decade later, and in the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, historians and preservationists embraced a new strategy to bypass Congress that finally succeeded.

During Obama’s last two years in office, advocates of a Reconstruction site realized that Congressional gridlock left a Presidential action as the only way forward. Many of the key players who had rallied around the cause in 2000 were pivotal in 2017 in pulling all the pieces together to make this designation possible. On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving office, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County.[1] The act identified four properties that would be part of the monument: Brick Baptist Church; Darrah Hall, on the Penn Campus; the firehouse on Craven Street in Beaufort, which is within walking distance of over fifty relevant sites; and the site of Camp Saxton, on the Naval Hospital grounds and where thousands freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered to hear it read on January 1, 1863.

Darrah Hall, on the grounds of Penn Center, is one of the four buildings designated by President Obama’s act to be part of a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

For decades the National Park Service (NPS) had been aware of a gaping hole in its telling of the story of Reconstruction. Beginning with the 2000 initiative, the NPS has maintained communication and provided support to individuals in Beaufort working toward a Reconstruction Monument. Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the NPS, had long held that too many Americans continued to think of the Reconstruction era as “a disaster” instead of seeing it as a time when big questions about democracy, race, education, war, and region were being played out.[2]

In 2015 the NPS completed four years of programing, seminars, and special events to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The time had arrived to move forward on the difficult Reconstruction era, a period that ended slavery and brought great hope, but also frustrations and disappointments. In April 2015, NPS commissioned Associate Professors Kate Masur of Northwestern University and Gregory Downs of the University of California–Davis to prepare a National Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction that would explore potential places for telling the story. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the fall of 2016, the two historians wrote, “we found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and the richness of interpretive possibility.”[3]

Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior, and Eric Foner, the foremost historian of the Reconstruction Era, came to Beaufort in 2000 to explore possibilities of a Reconstruction monument. Both continued to play crucial roles both behind the scenes and in public settings after the 2003 attempt failed. Babbitt acted as the broker between the local efforts and the Obama administration. In 2009 he helped found the Conservation Lands Foundation, an organization headquartered in Colorado that quietly worked to protect the nation’s significant landscapes.[4] Following up on extensive conversations with the Department of Interior, Congressional leaders, and Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Babbitt visited Beaufort County in April 2015 to discuss specific sites for a possible Reconstruction Monument. Foner, an ever strong and steady champion for the project, frequently emphasized that Beaufort County was the best place in the country for a new unit of NPS to tell the Reconstruction story. The urgency for Foner rested in his belief that “for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.” Furthermore, he often stressed how relevant the Reconstruction era is to current discussions of the definition of citizenship, the rights that citizens should enjoy, the relative powers of the federal government, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.[5]

On the Congressional front, on May 26, 2016, Representative James Clyburn introduced H.R. 5358, the Penn School Reconstruction Era National Monument Act. Representative Mark Sanford, Beaufort County’s Representative, joined as a cosponsor. Representatives Clyburn and Sanford were well aware that most monuments designated under the Antiquities Act had first been proposed for some sort of protective designation in legislation.[6]

Local supporters included some of those present in 2000; however, an effective new leader on the scene was Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. He served as the central point of communication between Babbitt, the NPS, Congressional leaders, and local property owners of land or sites that could possibly be a part of the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. After securing passage of a resolution by the Beaufort City Council in October 2016 to support a monument, he coordinated with other local mayors and community leaders for a wide array of organizations to pass similar resolutions.

The most difficult steps in the process were the negotiations between Department of Interior staff and those in Beaufort County who wished to make their property a part of the Reconstruction Monument. Many phone calls and meetings occurred to work through the tedious language on boundaries and easements that had to be hammered out in precise language. For example, Penn Center was deeding only Darrah Hall to the NPS but there needed to be wording about easements for the driveway to access the property as well as shared use of nearby bathroom facilities.[7]

To gauge local support for the Reconstruction Monument, the Director of the NPS, Jonathan Jarvis, and Congressman Clyburn brought delegations from Washington on December 16, 2016, to hold a public hearing. Expressing a ground swell of support, enthusiastic allies filled Brick Church on St. Helena Island. It was standing room only in the space where Penn Center held the first classes for formerly enslaved people in 1862. Over forty people–elected officials, middle school students, historians, leaders of non-profit organizations, and residents who traced their families back to the early days of the Penn Center–all spoke in moving ways about the importance of finally telling the Reconstruction story. Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said the new monument at Saxton Camp provided “the opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation . . . that brings to life the Reconstruction story.” The Mayor of Hilton Head, David Bennett, supported the effort but asked that Mitchelville, the site of the first self-governed freedmen’s community on Hilton Head, be included among the designated sites. Clyburn responded that the recommended properties were just a beginning and that the effort did not need to be limited. No voice of opposition was heard. Director Jarvis, who said he had attended many public hearings, was clearly moved by the outpouring of support and the heart felt words expressed. Michael Boulware Moore, Robert Smalls’s great-great grandson, echoed a frequent message that “now is the time.”[8]

Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and Representative James Clyburn confer during a visit on December 15, 2016, to the site of Saxton Camp where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time on January 1, 1863 to those freed by it. Photograph courtesy of Page Miller.

In Mayor Keyserling’s internet newsletter on February 28, 2017, he noted that local parties and NPS representatives were making progress at establishing the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. The NPS hopes to have an interim superintendent in place in a few months and plans are underway for a grand celebration in mid to late March to celebrate this new unit.[9]

For all the key players–Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Eric Foner, the NPS, Congressional leaders and Beaufortonians, all who had long known there was something very special about these historic sites and properties–the designation of a Reconstruction Monument brought forth a sigh of relief and a shout of joy. It will be three years before this new monument is fully up and running. Then the National Park Service will finally have the opportunities to tell the story of Reconstruction that has been either ignored or distorted for so long.

[1] Emma Dumain, “Just Under the Wire, Obama Establishes National Monument to Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County,” Post and Courier, January 12, 2017,

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015,; Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2016), 5.

[3] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “The Perfect Spot for a Reckoning with Reconstruction,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016, sec. Opinions,

[4] Jonathan Romeo, “Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Presses Conservation Values,” The Durango Herald, November 12, 2015,

[5] Eric Foner, “Struggle and Progress,” Jacobin, no. 18 (Summer 2015),; Bill Rauch, “Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2016,

[6] Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, H.R. 5358, 114th Cong. (2016),; Carol Hardy Vincent, “National Monuments and the Antiquities Act” (Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2016),

[7] These details were discussed in a conversation between Page Putnam Miller and Billy Keyserling on December 15, 2016.

[8] Page Putnam Miller was in attendance and spoke at the meeting. Stephen Fastenau, “Clyburn, Park Service Hear Overwhelming Support for Reconstruction Monument,” Beaufort Gazette, December 15, 2016.

[9] Billy Keyserling, “Update: Reconstruction Era Monument,” Live Work Stay with Billy K, February 28, 2017,

Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Page Putnam Miller received her PhD in 1979 from the University of Maryland. From 1980 to 2000, she served as executive director of a Washington advocacy organization, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation "Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction." She will begin a position as assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University in the fall.

Caring for Veterans: The Civil War and the Present

In recent history, the state of veteran healthcare has received negative media coverage. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs suffered immense scrutiny for the deaths of at least forty United States veterans who died awaiting assistance. The deaths of these veterans prompted investigations and the eventual dismissal of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in May 2014 because these veterans did not receive the timely access to medical staff they required.[1] In December 2016, shocking reports about maggots being found in the wounds of a veteran surfaced.[2] Just recently, federal authorities announced that they were ramping up investigations regarding the increase in opioid theft and unauthorized drug use by VA employees.[3] The U.S. Accountability Office provided a harsh critique of the VA’s handling of patient claims in 2014, and a year later the Center for Effective Government gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the grade of “D”. [4] The concern for the care of veterans among public officials, soldiers, and citizenry is prevalent. While there are current criticisms regarding the management of Veterans Affairs, and demands to provide better care for veterans is widespread, this is far from the first time that healthcare for veterans has concerned the public and initiated Federal action.

The Civil War produced unparalleled casualties as well as an incomparable number of veterans. Prior to the Civil War, an estimated 80,000 veterans from previous conflicts lived in the United States. Soldiers’ homes were organized in the 1810s and later the 1850s, had a board of commissioners, and existed under federal regulations. Yet, the system was not prepared for the mass of troops that would eventually need medical assistance. The Union had 1.9 million veterans after the war’s conclusion, and Congress began to take steps towards providing care for soldiers who would require care and places of rest.[5]

Civil War veterans receive medical treatment at the Bath Branch of the National Soldiers Home in Bath, New York. Courtesy of VHA Historical Photo.

In October 1862, Congress passed The General Pension Act of 1862 which provided disability payments based on rank and degree of disability. Furthermore, the act provided compensation for diseases incurred during service.[6] This proved significant. Tuberculosis, rheumatism, chronic dysentery, and other ailments plagued Civil War veterans for years after their discharge. The Lincoln administration, however, realized that medical care for veterans—particularly the disabled—was still undermanned and staff were often inept to handle the forthcoming medicinal needs of former soldiers. Civil War casualties superseded well over 600,000 men, and tens of thousands of survivors required long-term care for wounds both mental and physical.

Concern regarding medical care of veterans was paramount enough to work its way into President Lincoln’s second inaugural address with the phrase, “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”[7] Fulfilling this need, and with rousing public support, President Lincoln signed congressional legislation which created the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in March 1865. This national institution to care for veterans was the precursor to the modern-day U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Hundreds of thousands of Union veterans now had an opportunity to receive treatment for their injuries and assistance with their disabilities. The National Asylum ultimately expanded to eleven homes for veterans. Quickly, the government dropped the term “asylum” because they did not wish to characterize the men receiving care at these institutions as being mentally unstable.[8]

A detail of the Eastern Branch of the National Soldiers Home in Togus, Maine. The home today is the Togus VA Medical Center. Courtesy of VHA Historical Photo.

The first branch opened in Togus, Maine, and soon the system grew to accommodate veterans from the Civil War, survivors from earlier wars, and those from subsequent military actions. By 1873, the United States Congress approved significant changes to veteran pension acts, cemetery construction, and care. As a part of these acts, Congress started an aid program in which disabled veterans received funds to hire a nurse to care for their medical issues and a housekeeper to help disabled veterans with chores and duties. The number of veterans also led to Congress authorizing further action in the 1880s to accommodate more veterans needing assistance. Many Civil War veterans lived into the twentieth century, and with the United States’ involvement in World War I, medical care for a new batch of veterans brought forth changes. In the 1920s, medical care at the homes had transformed. With veterans requesting increased benefits, each major soldiers’ home soon operated as a complete medical center with amenities matching that of hospitals at the time.[9]

Interestingly, but perhaps understandably, Confederate soldiers did not receive any federal benefits and former foes of the Union relied on other means. Thus, federal efforts to provide care for Civil War veterans did not include hundreds of thousands of individuals who experienced the pitch of battle and endured lasting complications from time spent in the military. Not until 1958, ninety-three years after the last shots of the Civil War, did Congress pardon Confederate soldiers and offer them every benefit Union soldiers had enjoyed since March 1865.[10] In 1958, Congress extended benefits to Walter Washington Green Williams, considered the last surviving soldier from the Confederacy.[11] Williams died the following year. Historians consider the validity of his service controversial; reports argued he never served the Confederacy in any capacity.[12] The last verifiable veteran who fought for the Confederacy, Pleasant Riggs Crump of St. Clair County, Alabama, had died in December 1951. Thus, it is reasonable to assert that no portion of federal aid ever went to the care of a single Confederate veteran.

The climate of the 1860s and the Civil War is different from that of today. Nevertheless, the concern and necessity for quality care for veterans remains a significant issue. The public recognizes the need to take care of those who served in the military. The challenges are different, but the importance remains. Following the Civil War, the federal government had to create a system to accommodate unprecedented numbers of veterans—many requiring care for physical and mental wounds. The task was momentous. In contrast, the contemporary system to care for veterans has its own daunting challenges. The challenges are not in creating a system or setting the course to establish homes and hospitals but rather ensure that those institutions are running properly, effectively, and devoid of corruption. Currently, the new administration is seeking to rectify the paltry condition of the VA and claims that it will do a far superior job than the previous one. Will they? Possibly, but it is an unknown. Nonetheless, every administration bears a responsibility to care for veterans of the United States. It is a task that was of paramount importance immediately after the Civil War and remains the same to this day.

[1] “Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki resigns after report,” BBC News, (accessed February 22, 2017).

[2] “Oklahoma veteran dies with maggots crawling in wound; 4 resign from VA center,” Fox 59, (accessed February 23, 2017).

[3] “Opioid Theft, Missing Prescriptions Prompts Investigation of VA Hospitals Staff,” NBC News, (accessed February 24, 2017).

[4] “Making the Grade,” Center for Effective Government, (accessed February 23, 2017).

[5] “VA History in Brief,” Department of Veterans Affairs, (accessed February 24, 2017), 4.

[6] “VA History in Brief,” Department of Veterans Affairs, 4.

[7] “Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, March 4, 1865,” Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library: The Avalon Project, (accessed February 23, 2017).

[8] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veteran’s Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, (accessed February 24, 2017).

[9] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veteran’s Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[10] “The Civil War: The Origins of Veterans Health Care,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[11] There is no confirmation that Williams accepted any aid.

[12] “Walter Williams: Last Civil War Veteran or Hazy Memory?” Dakota Beach Morning Journal, September 4, 1959,,512182&dq=walter+williams+last+civil+war+veteran+national+archives&hl=en (accessed February 24, 2017).

Michael Megelsh

Michael Megelsh is a doctoral student at Auburn University. He studies the American Civil War and Reconstruction as well as the American West. His specific interests within those fields include the rise of young generals in the Union army and U.S.-Native American conflict during the 1860s.

Habeas Corpus, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Executive Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Brooke Seipel, “Refugees Detailed at US Airports After Trump Exec Order,” The Hill, (accessed January 28, 2017). This writ is available at (accessed January 29, 2017).

[2] Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Kulish, “Trump’s Order Blocks Immigrants at Airports, Stoking Fear Around Globe,” The New York Times, (accessed January 28, 2017).

[3] “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, (accessed April 20, 2016).

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

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

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

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

[8] Voss-Hubbard, 173.

[9] Prigg v. Pennsylvania 41 U.S. 539 (1842), (accessed February 8, 2017).

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

[11] Morris, 10.

[12] Morris, 95.

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

Kristen Epps

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

Open Access Features in the March 2017 Issue

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

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

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

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

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