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We Were Eight Years in Power: Introduction to a Muster Roundtable

We Were Eight Years in Power: Introduction to a Muster Roundtable

This week we are running a roundtable about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Our guest editor for the series, Greg Downs, offers his introduction here. Please follow along this week to hear from historians about how Coates’s work relates to our study of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In the winter of 2008, Civil War Era historians began sending each other blogposts with subject lines like “So good” or “you won’t believe it.” By some undeserved miracle, a widely circulated magazine hosted a blog for deeply serious, if not yet fully formed, arguments about the meaning of the Civil War and of slavery. Vulnerable, punishingly curious, and fixed on some point not yet visible to us, or perhaps even to himself, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates sparred with the Civil War in near-privacy even as he materialized publicly in Atlantic essays on Bill Cosby, Michelle Obama, and Malcolm X.

When Coates unfolded his ideas about slavery and the Civil War in Atlantic in his February 2012 “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” and his September 2012 “Fear of a Black President,” many historians cheered. A few wept. In a profession increasingly anxious about impact, Coates had earned the only impact that matters: He changed the way people think. While historians—including those who purport to critique capitalism—talk about impact through market metaphors and market logic, Coates garnered something more substantial than an advance or book sales or reviews (though he garnered all that). He changed how people wrote, how they talked, how they thought. Like Rilke’s archaic torso his pieces whispered: you must change your life.

Remarkably, he took us with him as he earned the MacArthur award and the National Book Award. In his essays Coates carefully named the historical acts that excluded African Americans from equal participation in the nation’s economic, social, and political life: slavery, carceral systems, the exclusion of African Americans from the most-profitable housing markets and government subsidies. He even carried our names into the world, checking dozens of scholars in his essays.[1] Coates reminded readers that the story had already been told, and could only be told again because of the work we had done.

Yet, as Coates unveiled his remarkable 2015 Between the World and Me, the emails and texts began to carry doubts. Of course the book was brilliant. Of course in many ways he was right about the present. But what about the way he treated the past? Instead of the complex, contingent events of the Civil War’s emancipations, he offered a story of The Dream that repeated itself (in shifting, creative forms) in each scene. What had happened to his view of history?

With the publication of We Were Eight Years in Power this October, we are in position to answer that question, and here we can contribute to such dialogue by offering a roundtable discussion by talented and thoughtful historians reflecting on this volume’s significance. Along with his eight landmark Atlantic essays, Coates has published an introduction (which opens with a killing quote from Reconstruction politician Thomas Miller), an epilogue, and eight slight but unbearably poignant memoirs of his own intellectual passage. After a pessimistic young adulthood, he found himself transformed, in some ways against his own better judgment, by Barack Obama’s 2008 election. “It now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime. In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body.”[2]

Even as his own trajectory shines—beginning the book at a welfare office he ends it at a BET party at the White House—his hopes fade. Reconstruction violence, as described by Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames, introduces not a contingent event but a “familiar cycle.” Coates critiques the “common theory” that “emancipation and civil rights were redemptive” or might finish “the work of ensuring freedom for all” and help the nation escape “the ghosts of history.” Watching the Tea Party response to Obama, he saw “that theory for the illusion that it was.”[3] As he studied the Civil War he “could now see history, awful and undead, reaching out from the grave. America had a biography, and in that biography, the shackling of black people—slave and free—featured prominently.”[4]

As he introduces his 2012 essay “Fear of a Black President,” Coates gently mocks his prior faith in “an arc of cosmic justice” and replaces it with his view of “tragedy.” Although Coates spends a good deal of time talking about his tragic view, he does not always talk about it in the same way. At times he suggests the familiar scholarly claim that there is no pattern to history, a way of resisting “the happy ending.”[5] At other moments it is the presence of a recurring, perhaps inescapable, pattern of plunder and destruction, a view he associates with what he calls “black atheism” and that echoes afro-pessimism. “The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.” The “answer was exactly what black people in their hearts believe it to be.”[6]

What drives history is a white supremacy that is “a crime and a lie, but it’s also a machine that generates meaning.”[7] In Coates’s hands, white supremacy is endlessly creative and endlessly shape shifting, manufacturing “niggers” out of whatever tools are at hand. Coates is careful to note the historically distinct forms that it takes in slavery and in Jim Crow and in Chicago housing and in incarceration, just as he, now famously, invokes the novelty that Donald Trump is “America’s first white president.”[8] Yet the very creativity of white supremacy lies in its ability to endlessly recreate the past in the new tools of the present. For Coates, white supremacy is neither a slogan nor a belief, as in Barbara J. Fields’ famous phrase, but a—perhaps the—engine of history.

Coates joins almost all historians in rejecting a Whiggish sense of improvement. But at times Coates frames the alternative as pessimism, if in his hands a particularly historically detailed and complex pessimism. But many historians operate, consciously or unconsciously, on an alternative Coates occasionally but not systematically acknowledges: total uncertainty about the future, a deep skepticism forged by the many contingencies and coincidences that created the present. Coates’s unsettling mix of deep historical specificity and, at times, ahistorical temporal unity—the same song on new notes—poses serious challenges to historians. His stance surely reflects not only his own brilliance but also an understandable, broadly held, cultural anxiety about the future.

Undoubtedly scholars will be grateful to see their work treated so carefully and respectfully. Perhaps they may find themselves challenged to rethink their own skepticism of arguments about continuity. Or perhaps they will feel called to explain the roots of the profession’s general, if not universal, sense of the futility of both optimism and pessimism. And to explain why historians resist turning society into a machine, or an individual body with a psychology and a will. Why we insist on breaking it down into its many pieces. Why we resist the idea of a general psychology, especially one read through particular, contingent policies or electoral outcomes. Historical pessimism is sibling to historical optimism, born of the same sense that knowing the past makes the future also knowable.

Although the initial responses to We Were Eight Years often slide into well-grooved arguments about class and race, or Hillary and Bernie, such “debates” should not be the ultimate result of such a powerful, interesting, and perhaps in some fundamental respect wrong, book. For readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era, some of those debates will likely turn upon the role of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in shaping the country’s racist past and present. Everywhere around us we see anxieties about present and future expressed in fights about the nineteenth century. More thoroughly perhaps than anyone else, Coates has explained to a mass audience why slavery, the war, and its aftermath matter so much. The wonder that many of us felt nearly a decade ago remains, even if weighed by other doubts. How will we respond to the questions he asks? How will we assess his impact upon cultural understanding of the period we study? The essays that will follow in this Muster roundtable over the next few days will, we hope, begin those conversations.


[1] In his new volume We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates actually apologizes to twentieth-century historian Beryl Satter—cited by name in his essay on reparations—for the sin of not citing her enough.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017), 37.

[3] Coates, 65.

[4] Coates, 69.

[5] Coates, 151.

[6] Coates, 113, 110, 222.

[7] Coates, 215.

[8] Coates, 244.

Greg Downs

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

Author Interview: Dale Kretz

Author Interview: Dale Kretz

Today we share an interview with Dale Kretz, who published an article in our September 2017 issue, titled “Pensions and Protest: Former Slaves and the Reconstructed American State.” The article is available for journal subscribers and also on Project Muse.

Dale is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. He received his B.A. at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. At Texas Tech, Dale teaches courses in U.S. and African American history at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He is currently revising his dissertation into a book manuscript entitled State of Health: Slavery and Pensions in the Age of Emancipation.

We are thrilled to speak with you, Dale, about your research. Can you tell us a little about how you got interested in this topic?

I was initially drawn to the pension files of former slaves after reading the late Anthony Kaye’s remarkable book, Joining Places.[1] As I began writing my dissertation on the relationship between violence and labor in the history of emancipation, I wanted to use the rich pension records of former slaves to learn more about the hardships they endured in slavery. While working through hundreds of pension records at the National Archives I noticed that very few applicants discussed the violence of slavery. Most freedmen I encountered explicitly denied having suffered any hardships until they entered the Union army. Intrigued more than frustrated, I wanted to know why. The answer turned out to be that former slaves were operating within the strictures set by the U.S. Pension Bureau, which held that pre-existing conditions before military service disqualified an individual for a disability pension. It struck me as a vexing situation for a former slave.

Can you briefly explain what the pension process looked like for a black applicant in the nineteenth century?

On paper, formerly enslaved veterans, their widows, and their dependents followed the same procedures as their white counterparts when applying for a pension. Typically they would locate a pension agent who would assist them in filing the necessary paperwork. Moreover, widows and veterans both required a “legal examination,” involving the submission of official records of marriage or military service as well as any depositions, affidavits, or special investigations testifying to the applicant’s claims. Veterans who applied directly would also have to undergo a “medical examination” before a board of three local physicians deputized by the federal government to evaluate the pension claimant’s inability to perform manual labor. Black veterans and widows underwent special investigations roughly twice as often as white claimants, resulting in a wealth of documentation on the most intimate aspects of their lives across years and even decades.

Although procedurally the same for all Union applicants, the colorblind statutes of the pension system betrayed a profound and early example of institutional racism at the federal level. The vast majority of U.S. Colored Troops, and relatives of these veterans, were former slaves—and the vast majority of former slaves remained in the South until the Great Migration. Because the Pension Bureau relied upon local physicians and agents to perform the examinations, former slaves were made to confront parties that were suspicious of their claims, even hostile to them. This was a far cry from the experiences of white Union veterans in the North, where evaluations were often performed by medical examiners who were also family physicians.

These pensions are a fascinating source for understanding the experiences of freedpeople. What questions guided your research, and what is the main argument you make in this article?

The central question guiding my research was: How should we understand the widespread participation of formerly enslaved men and women in the pension system? I was curious not only how African Americans negotiated their pension claims with federal officials but also what those negotiations tell us about the larger story of emancipation in America. I focused on ten infantry regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops: the 21st, 33d, 50th, 52d, 84th, 92d, 93d, 104th, 136th, and 138th. Most of these regiments were organized in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, or western Mississippi, and composed chiefly of former slaves.

In my article, I argue that freedpeople’s experiences with the Pension Bureau tell us a great deal about what freedom meant to them—and what it meant to the central state. Put simply, my article suggests that the Pension Bureau inadvertently worked to bracket off the slave past and reconstitute the nation-state on a free labor foundation. In so doing, the federal government absolved itself from the history and the ongoing legacy of slavery and institutional racism, which garnered surprising protest from ex-slave claimants in the Deep South.

How did these pension applicants help to reformulate the relationship between black Americans and the state? Could you elaborate further on what that relationship looked like in practice?

Many African Americans had first encountered the federal government during the Civil War, either through the Union army or the Freedmen’s Bureau. With the evaporation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the withdrawal of the Union army from the South by the early 1870s, it has been widely assumed that former slaves were left to their own devices. And while their prospects did in fact diminish considerably without tangible federal support, there remained an important access point to the federal government, one that was not available to any ex-Rebel: the U.S. Pension Bureau. Unlike the wartime federal agencies, freedpeople’s engagement with the Pension Bureau was a sustained encounter, stretching well into the twentieth century.

The face of federal authority in the post-Civil War South, however, was a peculiar one. Given the bureau’s policy of hiring locally, freedpeople in the Deep South found personnel of the old regime—slave doctors, slaveholders, and descendants of slaveholders—in their new roles as federal officials. These men now served as the arbiters of freedpeople’s claims to citizenship rights. The disaffection experienced by many ex-slave applicants offers a new glimpse at how freedpeople understood the American federal state, wherein matters of administrative justice required a full accounting of the nation’s slave past and its ongoing relevance rather than a liberal assumption of unencumbered individualism.

How does your work align with the historiography on pensions and how individuals related to the state, such as work by Theda Skocpol, Donald Shaffer, or Elizabeth Regosin?

Many scholars have done invaluable work on the Pension Bureau. Theda Skocpol’s influential 1992 book, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, characterized the bureau as a “precocious spending regime” and established its influence on the emerging American welfare state.[2] Almost most historians have chosen to focus on the pension records of white veterans and widows in the North, the pension claims of black Americans and former slaves are quickly becoming an essential source for understanding African American history. Donald Shaffer’s Beyond the Glory and Elizabeth Regosin’s Freedom’s Promise use the pension files of African Americans to great effect, detailing the contours of black life in post-Civil War America.[3] In my article, I move beyond questions of social and family relations and instead focus on how African American pensioners encountered and shaped the federal government.

Do you think knowledge of the pension process in the nineteenth century can help inform how we craft policies to benefit veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I think so. The story of Union veterans and widows in the pension system reminds us—because we need reminding—of the historic responsibility of the state to support veterans and their families. The immense difficulties faced by ex-slave veterans in particular ought to alert us to the moral costs of reducing human beings to a battery of measurements and disorders.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Dale, and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future. To learn more about Civil War pensions, please check out his article in our September 2017 issue, on Project Muse.


[1] Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[2] Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[3] Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004); Elizabeth A. Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002). These historians have also written an excellent guide to using pension files; Donald R. Shaffer and Elizabeth A. Regosin eds., Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files (New York: New York University Press, 2008).


Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work

Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work

This week we share our first Field Dispatch from Dr. Hilary Green, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. 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).

Teaching Reconstruction is hard. This is a difficult admission, especially for someone who has written about the period. Before launching into possible strategies, there are two caveats to the advice provided below. First, I teach in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. My department and often my classes are located in a postwar campus building named after Basil Manly, the minister who delivered a prayer at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration.[1] As a result, my students deeply understand his role in slavery at the university and how the memory of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction shapes both their understanding of the past and current campus experiences. Second, I do not teach the United States survey, but instead an upper-level undergraduate, nineteenth-century black history course. Some of this advice may be adaptable to different levels and programs, depending on your student population. My students are typically well versed in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality and Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crow.[2] Yet, even these more-socially aware students have difficulties with Reconstruction. The strategies I suggest have been tested and refined. I believe they work for teaching across a spectrum of students.

First, center your initial lecture on the newly emancipated. Since I am fortunate to teach Reconstruction over a series of lectures, I have developed an opening exercise that untethers students from any misconceptions and centers them on the major feature of Reconstruction–the newly emancipated African Americans. Students are divided into small groups of recently emancipated individuals who have been given twenty-four hours to decide between staying on the plantation or leaving. After selecting a last name, students address a series of considerations for survival if they decide to leave, or provisions to include in a contract with their former owner if they remain. Students have ten to fifteen minutes to complete the exercise.

“Carolina Singers,” Hovey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carte de visite, c. 1870s. Courtesy of the author.

Following the opening exercise, I use photography to discuss how African Americans defined their new identities. Thanks to a personal collection of early African American photography, students are able to view and hold several examples and reflect on the opening exercise. In reading these historic photographs, students bear witness to the Carolina Singers, a group of newly emancipated men and women engaged in a fundraising tour for the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, South Carolina. They also grapple with the contrasting depictions of the postwar black Mississippi community through images of John Roy Lynch and an unidentified Mississippian dressed in worn clothing while his eyes beam with the joys of freedom. These visual texts give voice to the many unidentified individuals who left little to no written records but celebrated their new status and existence through photographic technology. For those without such collections, digital examples from the Library of Congress will suffice. The Black Codes, reunification, education, and political achievements also garner special attention before we launch into frank discussions over Reconstruction’s failed economic policies.

Second, engage with the era’s violence, especially when teaching students familiar with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. By centering the initial lectures on emancipated individuals, students become open to examining the second major feature of Reconstruction–violence. Newspaper reports, the Ku Klux Klan hearings, and other sources detailing the violent suppression of white and black Republicans force students to confront some uncomfortable truths about Redemption. For every revolution, there is a counter-revolution. Redemption was neither heroic nor peaceful. Perceptions of emancipation and black freedom unleashed a brutal and widespread backlash. Their previous K-12 education either removed this understanding of Reconstruction or reduced it to the actions of a few individuals. Such simplistic K-12 understandings inform these strategies for teaching Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow segregation, which overturned the era’s gains until the triumphant Civil Rights Movement.

Third, rethink the periodization. I do not teach 1877 as the ending point. Rather, I consider the long retreat from Reconstruction locally, regionally, and nationally. My students read a sampling of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, specifically United States v. Cruikshank, the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, and Plessy v. Ferguson. They learn about the Panic of 1873 and the intermittent periods of recession and depression that enabled white Americans to see the issues experienced by former enslaved people as a southern problem. The national complicity not only encouraged violence but also forced some black southerners’ adoption of an approach best articulated in Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address in a concerted effort to preserve black life and rights.[3] They also learn about the alternatives to the long national retreat, including the Readjusters and the Blair Bill.[4] By taking the long view, students are able to better contextualize the ending of the revolutionary era and the emergence of Jim Crow.

Fourth, remember the rhetoric of hope. By centering the lectures on emancipated individuals, violence, and a long retreat from Reconstruction, students are amazed by African Americans’ hopefulness for a better future. At the end of the unit on Reconstruction, I return to the opening exercise and encourage students to view the 1890s through the eyes of individuals who witness the greatest revolution in their lifetime – abolition and change in status from property to citizen. African Americans’ ability to not only assert themselves, but also have their humanity recognized, remained a powerful force. After all, Reconstruction embodied the realization of African Americans’ antebellum rhetoric of hope for abolition. This reality and the revolutionary opportunities achieved with three constitutional amendments, expansion of state and national citizenship, development of a black professional middle class, and the creation of community institutions continued to inspire individuals to persevere, fight, and create meaningful lives. They did not and could not predict the future. Again, I turn to the sources of ordinary African Americans committed to continuing their upward trajectory from chattel and quasi-free to full American citizens.

The rhetoric of hope allowed for perseverance and survival during the post-Reconstruction era. Given the existing political moment, Reconstruction offers both a framework and countless examples of men, women, and children who maintained the rhetoric of hope and preserved. Often, students need such historical examples for thinking through contemporary issues of race, citizenship, and violence directed toward marginalized communities.

These strategies will make teaching Reconstruction less difficult. Students will become better equipped to critically engage with this important period in American history and develop the necessary skills for understanding subsequent social movements past and present. Beyond these standard Student Learning Outcomes, Reconstruction enables students to appreciate the resiliency of the human condition by exploring a group who went from property and quasi-free to citizen. By devoting more time to this crucial historical era, these strategies will allow students to have a deeper understanding of how African Americans’ active participation as political actors committed to reshaping the nation helped to bring about fundamental change to notions of citizenship and American democratic ideals.


[1] A. James Fuller, “Basil Manly,” Encyclopedia of Alabama,, accessed September 25, 2017.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

[3] Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1901), 217-225, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, accessed September 25, 2017.

[4] Hilary Green, Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 157-173, 185-199.

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).

Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes

Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes

“Confederate Fortifications in Atlanta, Georgia,” 1864. The Civil War was a profoundly environmental event. Troop movements, fortification-building, and other aspects of war reshaped both the physical landscape and Americans’ interactions with it. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whenever I introduce myself in conversation as an “environmental historian,” many non-academics assume I write about environmentalism as a political movement or the history of environmental policy. It almost never helps to use the full title of my field of study by saying, “I’m an environmental historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S. South,” because inevitably the follow-up is: “Was there an environmental movement during the Civil War?” Brief explanations of the ecological impacts of the Civil War and its relation to the agricultural context of Reconstruction are usually met with nods and smiles, and then always, “But how do you do that?”

I have a lot of practice answering these questions, since this is a discussion I have with my own mother at least once a month.

While environmental history is too well established for these sorts of conversations to happen at conferences, there is still a sense of confusion about the mechanics of that field, its sources, and most importantly, its usefulness to what historians do in the classroom. Just as debates about class, race, and gender infuse our pedagogical approaches to teaching material, so too should “environment.” Whether frogs or fluorocarbons, climate or cholera, soils or sows—considering the larger context of the human experience provides fuller, more nuanced depictions of well-known events in U.S. history.

Environment is particularly salient in Civil War and Reconstruction classes, for by reminding students of the omnipresence of the natural world, we reinforce the intimacy soldiers had with the non-human environment; the effects of disease, terrain, and weather on battle outcomes and questions of military logistics; enslaved people’s necessity for the war effort on both homefront and battlefield; and of course, that issues about labor after emancipation and much of Reconstruction legislation were about labor on the land.

My own work uses an environmental lens to re-examine changes in southern agriculture during the Civil War era. Ecological shifts precipitated by the Civil War shaped the economic and agricultural choices of postwar southerners, and I think greater attention to environmental forces is needed in studies of sharecropping, the closing of the open range in the South, and the expansion of continuous cotton production, particularly as it relates to black southerners. In the September 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, I published a piece that examined the evolution of agricultural labor arrangements in the cotton-growing areas of the South after the Civil War. Looking at a range of wage labor, tenancy, and sharecropping contracts between landowners and ex-slaves, I conclude that the efforts of freedpeople to achieve a modicum of autonomy in day-to-day agricultural operations transformed land use practices in ways that ironically undermined their long-term economic security.[1]

“Plowing in South Carolina,” by James E. Taylor, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1866. Ex-slaves experienced many of the circumstances of their freedom through interaction with the land. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

My article relies on a new reading of very traditional sources—Freedmen’s Bureau records, planters’ letters, and agricultural contracts—drawing on the insights of crop science, geomorphology, ecology, and botany to reframe our understanding. Applying such an interdisciplinary research methodology to the classroom can be tricky. Few things cure students’ insomnia quicker than readings on nutritional science or epidemiology, and the scientific jargon of such papers causes students to struggle with language rather than focusing on content. But when an instructor can explain that soldiers on the march burned thousands more calories than they consumed, and often quenched their thirst with fecal-flavored water that caused them to sicken at such high rates as to jeopardize the outcomes of major battles, students awaken.[2] They see the role of the environment in the Civil War era in surprising new ways.

Instead of forcing students to learn the precipitation requirements of a pine tree or the sediment loads of rivers, then, I encourage undergraduates to consider the broader environmental context of the war and Reconstruction through targeted class readings and primary source assignments. Since 2010, scholars working on the Civil War have worked to elevate the conflict’s environmental context and implications, so there are a number of excellent monographs, edited collections, and articles available to generate class discussion.[3]

Carefully selected primary sources can encourage students to consider environmental change over time, and how war, emancipation, and reconciliation proved to be a watershed moment for the way Americans used land. I assign a series of primary sources—each typical to historians’ discussions of the Civil War era—but I ask students to read them in new ways and write brief responses:

Slave narratives: In the opening weeks, while surveying the sectional crisis and secession, I provide them with a selection of first-person slave narratives, and part of the response prompt asks students to consider the labor of slaves on the land, and the types of farming practices they performed. This gets at questions of the southern need for land to the West, the centrality of slaves to the profitability of many farms in the region, and begins to contextualize later rejections of certain types of labor by freedpeople.

Soldiers’ letters: The second primary response comes as I begin lecturing on the war itself. Published letter collections and memoirs of soldiers are replete with references to the environment. Troops cut down trees, foraged livestock, suffered disease, and constructed defensive works across farms and fields. I prompt students to reflect on the lived experience of war, and consider some of its longer-term consequences for the land.

Newspaper accounts: Toward the end of the war, the Confederacy faced food shortages, difficulties marshaling supplies, and a dearth of draft animals. So, the third primary source tackles newspaper reports of the war on the homefront. How do changes in agricultural policies affect the battlefield? What does a short corn harvest, or an epidemic of glanders or hog cholera mean for Confederate logistics?

Freedmen’s Bureau contracts: The transition to contract labor was an enormous part of emancipation, and the Freedmen’s Bureau oversaw contracts between farmers and ex-slaves.[4] These documents sometimes hewed very closely to the types of responsibilities seen in the slave narratives, but at other times, readers can see how farming began to change post-emancipation. This response draws on that implicit pre-war comparison, and asks students to think about the ecological implications of freedom.

Reconstruction-era legislation: Black codes, vagrancy laws, and, later on, increased penalties for larceny and carrying firearms all sought to regulate African Americans’ relationship with the land (among other things). Many secondary works discuss this legislation, although sometimes I use selected testimonies from the Joint Committee on Reconstruction rather than the laws themselves.[5] This last response has students think about ways that white planters used legal restrictions to keep black laborers dependent on the plantation both for work and for food.

Final reflection: Depending on the time frame of the class, I like to return to the idea of change over time, asking students to pull all of the narrative threads together in an essay on their final exam. Does a focus on the environmental aspects of these events change the way we view them? What are the limitations or strengths of such an approach?

Ultimately, using readings of traditional sources to see beyond first impressions exemplifies the craft of the historian. I like to think of it as the academic equivalent of the 3-D optical illusions that were popular in the 1990s. Students assume they see one image, or one “truth,” until forced to look deeper. Then they cannot help but see something else. Those “eureka” moments help students understand how history is not the regurgitation of facts, but rather the consideration or interpretation of the past from multiple perspectives.


[1] Erin Stewart Mauldin, “Freedom, Economic Autonomy, and Ecological Change in the Cotton South, 1865-1880,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 3 (September 2017): 401-424.

[2] A good example of this type of lecture is Judkin Browning, “Civil War Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles,” aired as part of Lectures in History, CSPAN-3, February 28, 2017, See minutes 21:36 through 33:14 for the section that incorporates environmental history.

[3] A brief review of the available literature includes Adam Wesley Dean, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015); Brian Allen Drake, ed., The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015); Lisa Brady, War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Jack Temple Kirby, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, The National Humanities Center, nattrans/ nattrans.htm (accessed June 1, 2017); Mark Fiege, “Gettysburg and the Organic Nature of the American Civil War,” in Edmund Russell and Richard Tucker, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of Warfare (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004), 93-109; Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), Chapter 5; Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), Chapter 6; Megan Kate Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Andrew McIlwaine Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

[4] An excellent resource is the Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, Land and Labor, edited by Steven Hahn, Steven Miller, Susan O’Donovan, John Rodrigue, and Leslie Rowland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013-2016). Two volumes have appeared—1865 and 1866-7.

[5] Steven Hahn, “Hunting, Fishing, and Foraging: Common Rights and Class Relations in the Postbellum South,” Radical History Review 26 (1982): 37-64; U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866).

Erin Stewart Mauldin

Erin Stewart Mauldin is an Assistant Professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and Book Review Editor for Agricultural History. She co-edited the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Global Environmental History, and her book, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

States’ Rights and Antislavery Activism

States’ Rights and Antislavery Activism

Michael E. Woods, associate professor of history at Marshall University, has joined our team of Muster correspondents. He is the author of two books and several articles about politics in the antebellum period. Here he offers his first Field Dispatch. Let us know what you think in the comments!

The “states’ rights!” refrain is echoing in American politics, often coming from unexpected directions. California has crafted an independent climate change policy. Dozens of states have challenged the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Prospective “sanctuary states” from New York to Nevada might limit their collaboration with federal immigration authorities. There is ample evidence supporting columnist Charles Lane’s remark that, in 2017, “liberals are learning to love states’ rights.”[1]

Is this trend significant? Definitely, although its full influence will not be known until confrontations between state and federal authorities unfold. Is it surprising, ironic, or unprecedented? No. Americans across the political spectrum have leveraged state power against federal might. States’ rights appeals, as battle cries or as blueprints for political action, are neither distinctively Southern nor intrinsically reactionary. Secessionists in the nineteenth century and segregationists in the twentieth claimed ownership states’ rights in the name of white supremacy. But other historical cases are starkly different – and quite pertinent. Take the foundational texts of many states’ rights doctrines, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Kentucky (1799) and Virginia (1798) Resolutions. They assert that a state government may interpose to protect the civil rights of its citizens against unconstitutional federal usurpation.[2] They were also written in response to federal efforts to suppress journalistic dissent and expedite the deportation of foreigners. States’ rights have been wielded both to attack and to defend the values of liberty and equality that the United States, at its best, has championed.

Among the most important, but commonly forgotten, advocates of states’ rights were the antislavery activists who launched the Republican Party in the 1850s. As I explored more thoroughly in a recent Journal of the Civil War Era article, early Republicans used states’ rights to win voter support and to challenge proslavery federal policies.[3] For Northerners who feared that federal officeholders served an insidious southern “slave power,” states’ rights offered a desperately needed basis for resistance.

Slavery’s foes deployed states’ rights with skill, most notably against the Fugitive Slave Act. Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Act was one of the nineteenth century’s boldest expansions of federal power. Designed to put teeth into the Constitution’s ambiguous provision that fugitives “be delivered up” to their masters,[4] the Fugitive Slave Act made the recovery of runaway slaves a federal priority. Federal officers were bound to help capture accused fugitives. Bystanders could be compelled to assist. Failing to cooperate, or aiding a fugitive, could be punished with fines or imprisonment. And when an alleged fugitive was hauled before a federal commissioner tasked with executing the Act, he or she had no right to legal counsel, a jury trial, or an opportunity to testify. Commissioners who ruled in favor of masters received a ten dollar fee; those who released accused fugitives earned only five dollars.[5]

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

Northern critics denounced the Act for violating civil liberties and states’ rights. They followed Jefferson and Madison’s example by linking individual freedom to the right, and duty, of a state to protect them. Antislavery Northerners, including many future Republicans, regularly joined Salmon P. Chase in denying that the federal government had authority to recover fugitive slaves. They assigned this power to the states alone.[6] Gideon Welles, who would serve with Chase in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, blasted the Fugitive Slave Act as an “invasion of the states” every bit as malicious as the Alien and Sedition Acts.[7]

The oratorical onslaught against the Fugitive Slave Act persisted long after 1850. Individual cases, including the recapture of Anthony Burns in 1854, coupled with efforts to strengthen the law, kept the issue alive. When Southern senators backed an 1855 bill to exempt officers from state prosecution for acts committed while enforcing federal laws, Salmon Chase led the counterattack. He knew the bill’s intent was to embolden federal slave catchers, and he condemned it as “a bill for the overthrow of State rights” which would “establish a great central, consolidated, Federal Government,” and as a step “towards despotism.” He wondered how southerners who “profess State-Rights doctrines” could stomach it.[8]

Salmon P. Chase, c. 1855-1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

These rhetorical appeals helped Republicans deflect criticism. Their proslavery foes, casting themselves as defenders of liberty, denounced the young Republican Party as a cabal of budding tyrants. South Carolina’s James Chesnut accused Republicans of plotting to “prostrate the States, consolidate the Government,” and impose “a mighty and odious despotism.”[9] By pledging loyalty to states’ rights, Republicans claimed space in the mainstream of American political history and theory. Henry Wilson affirmed that his party and Jefferson’s shared more than just a name: “the Republican party of 1856, like the Republican party of 1800, is the party of State rights.”[10]

In the long run, these appeals could win votes for Republican candidates. But fugitive slaves, free blacks, and their white allies lived in the short run, under the threat of federal prosecution. To offer pragmatic resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act at the grassroots level, Republicans again relied on states’ rights.

Many Republicans turned to state legislation to defang the hated Act. Republicans spearheaded the movement for “personal liberty laws” in the mid-1850s. In the first half of the nineteenth century, some Northern states had already passed similar legislation, but after the Fugitive Slave Act and several dramatic fugitive cases, Republicans demanded more vigorous action.[11] These state measures worked on two levels. Most offered legal protections to accused runaways. Michigan’s law, for example, guaranteed defendants’ recourse to the writ of habeas corpus and the right to a jury trial. The law also required prosecuting attorneys to defend accused fugitives; required testimony from two witnesses to prove fugitive status; and made it a criminal offense to arrest free persons with intent to enslave them.[12] Other laws, like Massachusetts’s exceptionally powerful 1855 law, also sought to divorce the state from the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. State officers could not issue arrest warrants under that Act, and Massachusetts attorneys could not represent self-proclaimed masters in court.[13] As the Republican Party’s strength waxed in the 1850s, nine Northern states passed new or reinvigorated personal liberty laws. Many Republicans believed that the Fugitive Slave Act was not merely odious, but unconstitutional. State legislatures could impede its enforcement but it was state courts which attempted to nullify the law altogether.

Nowhere were the links between states’ rights and Republicans’ antislavery politics clearer than in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s showdown with the “slave power” began when antislavery activists helped fugitive Joshua Glover reach freedom in 1854.[14] Among them was Sherman Booth, an antislavery newspaper editor and future Republican, who was convicted in a federal court for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. In what one scholar deemed “the most extreme declaration of state judicial power north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Wisconsin’s state supreme court overturned Booth’s conviction, holding that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional because states reserved the power to handle fugitive cases.[15] In 1859, the U.S. Supreme Court responded by defending the Act’s constitutionality and asserting its supremacy over state courts. Undaunted, Wisconsin’s state legislature wove the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions into a defiant resolution of protest, insisting that because the states had created the federal government, they alone were competent to define its powers. Republicans cast all sixty of the votes for this states’ rights manifesto.[16]

Byron Paine, n.d. In Henry E. Legler, Wisconsin History: The Story of the State (Milwaukee: The Sentinel Company, 1898), 229.

The case reverberated through Wisconsin politics. When Republican Orasmus Cole ran for a seat on the famed state supreme court, he adopted “State Rights, State Sovereignty, and the personal liberty of all our citizens” as his slogan. This melding of civil liberties, state rights, and antislavery fervor forged a winning campaign. During the next contest for a seat on the court, Republicans boldly nominated Byron Paine, who had represented Sherman Booth. With supporters urging voters to endorse “STATE RIGHTS AND BYRON PAINE,” Paine triumphed.[17]

Given popular memory of the Civil War era, it seems ironic that antislavery Northerners were, as Paul Finkelman has argued, “the most important proponents of states’ rights in the antebellum period.”[18] But their reliance on states’ rights was predictable. With slavery’s supporters dominating all three branches of the federal government, and with proslavery politicians insisting that Republicans aspired to authoritarianism, antebellum Republicans readily used states’ rights to rally northern support, deflect southern criticism, and resist proslavery policies. They would have embraced the eulogy later given to Salmon Chase, whom one admirer described as a “States Rights man always in the interest of liberty.”[19]


[1] Charles Lane, “Liberals Are Learning to Love States’ Rights,” Washington Post, March 15, 2017, accessed September 12, 2017,

[2] “Kentucky Resolution – Alien and Sedition Acts,” The Avalon Project, accessed September 12, 2017,; “Virginia Resolution – Alien and Sedition Acts,” The Avalon Project, accessed September 12, 2017,

[3] Michael E. Woods, “‘Tell Us Something about State Rights’: Northern Republicans, States’ Rights, and the Coming of the Civil War,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 2 (June 2017): 242-268.

[4] U.S. Const. art. IV, sec. 2.

[5] Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: A History of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, completed and edited by Ward M. McAffee (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 231-232; Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1861 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 145-146; Kristen Epps, “Habeas Corpus, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Executive Authority,” Muster Blog, accessed September 12, 2017, For the text of the Act, see “Fugitive Slave Act 1850,” The Avalon Project, accessed September 7, 2017,

[6] Cong. Globe, 31st Cong., 1st Sess., appendix, 1587 (August 19, 1850).

[7] [Gideon Welles] to My Dear Sir, October 15, 1851, Gideon Welles Papers, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

[8] Cong. Globe, 33rd Cong., 2d Sess., appendix, 212 (February 23, 1855).

[9] Cong. Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. 1617 (April 9, 1860).

[10] Cong. Globe, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., appendix, 65 (December 19, 1856).

[11] Morris, Free Men All, chapters 3, 7.

[12] William McDaid, “Kinsley S. Bingham and the Republican Ideology of Antislavery, 1847-1855,” Michigan Historical Review 16, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 71.

[13] Morris, Free Men All, 168-173.

[14] H. Robert Baker, The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006).

[15] Jeffrey Schmitt, “Rethinking Ableman v. Booth and States’ Rights in Wisconsin,” Virginia Law Review 93, no. 5 (September 2007): 1315-1316.

[16] Michael J. McManus, “‘Freedom and Liberty First, and the Union Afterwards’: State Rights and the Wisconsin Republican Party, 1854-1861,” in Union & Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era, eds. David W. Blight and Brooks D. Simpson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997), 50-51.

[17] McManus, 42-43, 51.

[18] Paul Finkelman, “States’ Rights, Southern Hypocrisy, and the Crisis of the Union,” in Union & States’ Rights: A History and Interpretation of Interposition, Nullification, and Secession 150 Years After Sumter, ed. Neil H. Cogan (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2014), 68.

[19] “Salmon P. Chase,” American Law Record 15 (1886-87): 307.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Assistant 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.

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History

Today, correspondent Nick Sacco shares his first Field Dispatch. Nick 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 holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay and future essays are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

In a recent essay about public monuments, statues, and other iconography dedicated to the American Civil War, historian Sarah Handley-Cousins argues that such icons generally sanitize the war’s causes, context, and consequences with a large dose of artistic romanticism. For many Americans, “we love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the [humanity] of Black Americans was at the center.”[1] Rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the conflict, many monuments dedicated to people and events on both sides instead portray a war shorn of meaning beyond honoring military service in a time of war. Meanwhile questions over slavery, citizenship, westward expansion, and the very meaning of the concept of “Union” often go unasked within such spaces.

I find myself in strong agreement with such sentiments, which is why I am skeptical of calls to erect more public monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction era as a way of improving popular understandings of a greatly misunderstood period in American history. For example, political scientist Richard Valelly argues that creating monuments to “the heroes of Reconstruction” can possibly establish a “new politics of historical memory” within America’s commemorative landscape.[2] Valelly’s assertion, however, ignores numerous public memorials to Reconstruction that already exist and have failed to accomplish this goal. Additionally, his thesis hinges on the definition of who constitutes a “hero” of Reconstruction. The existing public memorials throughout the U.S. often celebrate “heroes,” but they celebrate the ones who actively worked to end Reconstruction through deadly, racialized mass violence against Black Americans.

The 1950 historical marker to the Colfax Massacre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The most extreme examples of such commemorative markers are in Louisiana. To commemorate the Colfax Massacre of 1873 in which more than one hundred African Americans were killed, the state erected a statue in 1950 that openly celebrated “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” In this telling the victims were actually the oppressors, and the oppressors were heroes restoring the “natural” social order of society. A nearby obelisk previously erected in 1921 honors three white mobsters who died “fighting for White Supremacy” that day.[3]

The Battle of Liberty Place monument in 1932. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, up until a few months ago a different monument to another white supremacist group in Louisiana—the White League—stood in New Orleans until Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered its removal. Here, too, the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place is commemorated as a space where “usurpers” who had attempted to establish biracial governance and political equality in Louisiana were guilty of disrupting the social order. The White League simply aimed to return the state’s white prewar political elites to power through extralegal means. When federal troops were ordered out of the state after the 1876 presidential election, the federal government, according to the monument’s text, “recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.”[4] More than once in my own work as a public historian I have interacted with a visitor who was adamant that all public monuments in America should stay up, but are then shocked when they learn that a monument had been erected to celebrate the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected state government.

To be sure, some work has been done in recent years to revise the historical record. The state of Florida erected a marker in 1989 to African American Congressman Josiah T. Walls in Gainsville; Alabama erected a marker in 2011 in Montgomery listing all African Americans who served in the state legislature during Reconstruction; Georgia erected a marker in 2009 celebrating the life of John Wesley Moore, an African American farmer in Madison who became an independently successful landowner. In Memphis the National Park Service and the NAACP teamed up to erect a marker on the 150th anniversary of the 1866 Memphis massacre, honoring the victims of that deadly event.[5]

While alterations to America’s commemorative efforts for Reconstruction are necessary, that work alone will do little to change the situation. The work of teaching audiences about the era must start in the classroom and the museum. Former President Barack Obama’s establishment of Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina, was a major victory in this regard, becoming the first National Park Service site to make Reconstruction a centerpiece of interpretation. NPS officials and academic historians promoted this effort for a number of years (including some at the Journal of the Civil War Era), but it was started and sustained through a grassroots effort by the local community in Beaufort, particularly its African American population.[6]

Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the staff has embarked on two important initiatives to interpret and increase awareness of the Reconstruction era. Since the beginning of the year we have hosted several interactive workshops for history teachers in the St. Louis area. These workshops include an immersive visit through the park’s facilities, a collection of more than fifty primary source documents from the Reconstruction era (including speeches, letters, and political cartoons) that are distributed to the teachers, and time to brainstorm ideas for designing classroom activities in a collaborative setting.

The teaching of Reconstruction in middle and high school settings is generally unbalanced. Some teachers do not have time in their curriculum to teach it, while others admit that their knowledge is limited and that they are heavily reliant on textbooks—some of which are badly outdated—to teach the material. One teacher stated that his high school spent two weeks reenacting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. These workshops, however, work to provide documentation, context, guiding questions, and techniques for interpreting Reconstruction. Specifically, the park aims to interpret Reconstruction as a period that was in some ways “a forerunner of the modern civil rights movement,” in the words of historian Eric Foner.[7]

The other initiative consists of utilizing the park’s museum exhibits on Reconstruction and facilitated dialogue techniques to foster conversations with students about universal concepts like freedom, liberty, and justice. One dialogue we use—”The Many Meanings of Justice”—aims to educate students about the power and ambiguity of the concept of “justice” in American society. We discuss the effort to restore the Union after the Civil War and how Americans had competing versions of what would be fair and just moving forward. Would the country’s political system return to the way it was before the war except without slavery, or would other changes occur? Who in society would be considered an American citizen? Who could run for office and vote? How do societies promote political and social equality? What civil rights issues are students concerned with today?

Academic historians have produced an impressive array of scholarship on the Reconstruction era in recent years, but the work of interpreting and commemorating this period must be complimented with the stories we tell to millions of American students and museum-goers every day. Disseminating this scholarship and providing resources for teachers and students is a centerpiece of my work as a public historian, and I relish every opportunity I get to advance this important goal.


[1] Sarah Handley-Cousins, “Falling Out of Love with the Civil War,” Nursing Clio, August 21, 2017, accessed September 3, 2017,

[2] Richard Valelly, “How About Erecting Monuments to the Heroes of Reconstruction?” The American Prospect, August 23, 2017, accessed September 2, 2017,

[3] Matt LaRoche, “Tributes to Terror: The Mis-Monumentation of the Colfax Massacre,” The Gettysburg Compiler, March 27, 2015, accessed September 2, 2017,

[4] Rebecca Solnit, “The Monument Wars,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2017, accessed September 3, 2017,

[5] “Josiah T. Walls,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; “Black Members of the Alabama Legislature Who Served During the Reconstruction Period of 1868=1879,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; “Reconstruction Property Rights,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; Christopher Blank, “Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis?” NPR, May 2, 2016, accessed August 30, 2017,

[6] Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller, “The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina, The National Park Service’s First Reconstruction Unit” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (March 2017): 39-66; Kritika Agarwal, “Monumental Effort: Historians and the Creation of the National Monument to Reconstruction,” AHA Today, January 24, 2017, accessed September 4, 2017,

[7] David M. Prior, et al., “Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion,” Journal of the Civil War Era, May 2016, accessed September 2, 2017, This forum first appeared appeared in the March 2016 issue of the journal.

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

New Editor Joins the JCWE Team

New Editor Joins the JCWE Team

Photo by Wendy Madar.

The Journal of the Civil War Era is delighted to announce the appointment of Stacey Smith as Associate Editor. Dr. Smith is Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University and author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), which won the David Montgomery Prize for the best book in Labor and Working-Class History, awarded by the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA). Stacey is working with Associate Editor, Gregory Downs, to recruit in-depth historiographic review essays.

Stacey is assuming Kate Masur’s position. Dr. Masur was recruited as an Associate Editor, joining Anthony Kaye, when the journal was just getting off the ground. Kate worked alongside Greg to recruit many superb review essays for the journal. Our review essays are critically important, as they bring scholars in disparate fields in conversation with one another and point readers to new directions in the field. Review essays remain one of the most popular features of the journal, are regularly assigned in classes, and enjoy a long shelf life. The success of this feature is a testament to the great work that Kate did for the journal, for which we are deeply grateful.

Please help us welcome Stacey to our JCWE team.

Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution

Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution

Today we share the first of our new Field Dispatches, an examination of Civil War memory by Niels Eichhorn, an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. Dr. Eichhorn specializes in the history of U.S. foreign relations in the nineteenth century, and his work has appeared in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

On June 17, 2015, when white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and massacred nine parishioners, he set in motion a renewed debate about the nature of monuments honoring the Confederate States of America. Opinions have ranged widely on the subject. While some unreconstructed Southerners continue to insist that these monuments are about heritage, historians have disagreed about the advisability of their removal. A recent conversation saw James Broomall, Director of the John Tyler Moore Center for Civil War Study in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, suggest that monuments have meaning beyond the Confederate representative at their top, while Megan Kate Nelson offered the dramatic suggestion to take jackhammers to the monuments and leave the rubble as reminders of what once was.[1] In the course of the recent monuments debate in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made an interesting comparison. Half joking he said, “It would be like putting King George where the Washington Memorial is or Robert E. Lee where Lincoln is.”[2] I want to use this comment as a linchpin for two interrelated conversations that so far are absent from the removal debate: 1) the historical precedent of monument removal, and 2) the connections between the memory of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

John C. McRae, “Pulling Down the Statue of George III,” 1859, American Antiquarian Society. Courtesy of

Reading newspaper articles on the subject of removal, especially in their anonymous comment sections, one gets the feeling that for some white Southerners the removal of these monuments represents the end of the history. However, we should remember that statues have never been safe in the United States. On July 9, 1776, just after the people of New York City heard about the Declaration of Independence, they determined figuratively and literally to break their relationship with the British crown. They tore down King George III’s statue. A memorial to Prime Minister William Pitt also fell victim.[3] In Charleston, a sculpture to William Pitt, erected at the corner of Broad and Meeting Street in 1770, was removed by the city in 1794 for having caused “traffic accidents.” The statue remained at the Charleston Orphan House until 1881, before being moved to a park behind City Hall.[4] Some residents in the newly minted United States fought the symbols of the British Empire. It is an interesting juxtaposition to think about the removal of symbols of British power and the removal of symbols of Confederate power. Maybe Mitch Landrieu should have asked, why there are no statues to George III in the United States?

However, the American Revolution can offer more than just insight into the removal of statues. Where Civil War memory has provided many new insights into reunions, monuments, and battlefield preservation in recent years, the memory of our other defining national conflict has received very little attention. Considering its importance for the country’s history, the American Revolution has scarcely any literature devoted to its memory. It is in this absence where Civil War memory and the American Revolution should interact. In the 1960s, segregationist leaders in Georgia perceived of Cherokee removal as a safe subject to talk about and commemorate, since the Cherokee were no longer present,[5] so too did many people in the country find the American Revolution a safe and unifying topic to commemorate in the aftermath of bloody sectional strife. After all, during the Revolution, North and South had stood united.

Victory Monument at Yorktown, Virginia. Courtesy of the author.

There were initial thoughts about commemorating the American Revolution, but lack of money and Congressional interest prevented the erection of monuments. After the Civil War, in the word of Guilford Courthouse historian Thomas E. Baker, “Patriotism and nationalism were on the ascendant in this period and widespread public support developed for the establishment of memorials to George Washington, the Revolutionary War generation and the principles for which they fought; principles that were the common heritage of both North and South.”[6] It was at the very end of Reconstruction that Congress allocated money to the erection of monuments at Yorktown, Bennington, Saratoga, Newburgh, Cowpens, Monmouth, Groton, and Oriskany. However, Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse had to wait until the next decade. The Congressional effort built on a public campaign that had started in the 1850s to collect private money for monuments.

Just like with early Civil War era battlefields, groups only purchased a small piece of land on a Revolutionary battlefield to place their marker. The battlefields themselves often were not preserved for another century. For the 1880 centennial celebration at Kings Mountain, a committee organized, purchased the land where most of the fighting took place, and erected a twenty-nine foot high obelisk.[7] Similarly, although debates over its construction began in 1781, Yorktown finally received its Victory Monument in 1881.

There is one monument in particular that speaks to the use of the Revolution as a commemoration of healing. Dedicated in 1903 at Guildford Courthouse, No North, No South, marks an attempt to look beyond sectional difficulties. On its eastern face is written, “No North/Washington” and on the western face is engraved “No South/Greene.” The choice is deliberate. George Washington was a Southerner who fought largely in the Northern states during the Revolutionary War, whereas the commander of the U.S. forces at Guildford, Nathaniel Greene was from the North. Thus, if these men had no sectional issues, why should people in 1903?

The two faces of the No North, No South monument at Guilford Courthouse. Courtesy of the author.

What does this say about the Civil War? Most importantly, there are two stories of memory that Civil War historians should put into conversation–the American Revolution and the Civil War. It was no coincidence that during and after Reconstruction, monuments to the American Revolution appeared beyond the centennial celebrations. Even more, the dedication and removal of monuments are intricate moments of collective memory. The removal of the William Pitt or George III statues served to the community as a whole a similar purpose as today the removal of Confederate monuments: the symbolic ending of an era of oppression, real or perceived. Reality, as we all know and understand, is that neither the removal of George III in 1776 in New York nor the removal of Robert E. Lee in 2017 in New Orleans fundamentally alter (in the short term) the problems that have caused their removal. However, long term, they can help create a new collective memory. And in the case of the American Revolution that collective memory during Reconstruction may have helped with the healing process, incomplete perhaps, but it still could have offered a commemoration beyond sectional differences.


[1] “Empty Pedestals: What should be done with Civic Monuments to the Confederacy and Its Leaders?” History Net, accessed July 23, 2017,

[2] Jonathan Capehart, “Fighting the Removal of Confederate Monuments is the Real ‘Lost Cause,’” Washington Post, April 27, 2017, accessed July 23, 2017,

[3] Karen A. Franck, “As Prop and Symbol: Engaging with Works of Art in Public Space,” in Uses of Art in Public Space, ed. Julia Lossau and Quentin Stevens (New York: Routledge, 2015), 195.

[4] Carl R. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 45.

[5] Andrew Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[6] Thomas E. Baker, Redeemed from Oblivion: An Administrative History of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (National Parks Service, March 1995), 2.

[7] Gregory De Van Massey, An Administrative History of Kings Mountain National Military Park (National Parks Service, 1965), 11.

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.

Introducing a New Feature, Field Dispatches!

Introducing a New Feature, Field Dispatches!

Beginning this month, Muster is launching an exciting new feature called Field Dispatches. We have recruited a team of talented correspondents—each with a different historical focus and perspective—who will write posts that provide fresh insight into the Civil War era. In each dispatch, correspondents will share thoughts on research, teaching, current events, pop culture, and other topics to build on the excellent discussions we already enjoy in The Journal of the Civil War Era and on the blog.

Our correspondents are: Martha S. Jones, James Marten, Maria Angela Diaz, Michael E. Woods, Hilary N. Green, Christopher Hayashida-Knight, Niels Eichhorn, and Nick Sacco. To find out more about each author, please visit our Correspondents page.

Muster will continue to publish our regular content, including author interviews, announcements about new issues, and posts that are submitted to us for consideration. We hope that readers will find in these dispatches new ways to engage in conversation, and more reasons to explore the pages of JCWE!

By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would Be a No-Brainer

By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would Be a No-Brainer

A President came to office under a cloud, to help govern a badly divided nation. But he squabbled with his own party, which controlled both houses in Congress, and abused the pardon power in ways that emboldened white supremacists and vigilante terrorists operating outside the law. To avoid accountability for his actions, he dismissed a critical figure in the executive branch, and this proved to be the final move that led Congress to impeach him.

That may sound like a description of the near future, but it is actually the story of Andrew Johnson, the first President in American history to face impeachment. There are crucial differences, though, in the scenarios of 1868 and 2017. For all of his numerous faults, Johnson inherited a nation in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems intent on fomenting his own.

Trump’s actions are hastening the prospects of impeachment because they pose the same two questions that Johnson’s did: who can the President fire, and who can he pardon? Trump lurched toward potential impeachment charges in May, when he fired James Comey, the FBI Director investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Since then, Trump has left open the possibility of firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel continuing this investigation in the wake of Comey’s firing. Pundits have been spending considerable time weighing the legality of such a move and its likelihood of sparking impeachment.[1]

Trump’s potential use of the pardon has also been implicated in calls for his impeachment. In July, Trump asked his attorneys about his pardon powers, concluding that “the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon.” He exercised that power on August 25, pardoning the unrepentant Joe Arpaio, the convicted Arizona sheriff notorious for racial profiling and violating the civil rights of jailed citizens. Trump announced the unusual move by tweet under the cover of a hurricane, having failed to conduct the Department of Justice review typical of Presidential pardons.

To his critics, Trump’s actions not only embolden the white supremacists and nativists who view Arpaio as a hero, but they also reinforce an impression of Trump’s weak commitment to the rule of law. If the President is willing to pardon Arpaio out of affinity with his contempt for legal process, they say, why would Trump hesitate to pardon members of his inner circle, his family, or himself?[2] Does the President understand and respect the limits of his office? In short, the argument runs, Trump’s potential abuse of the pardon power for corrupt purposes portends a true constitutional crisis. Trump may have the legal power to pardon indiscriminately, but, say some legal scholars, he may still be impeached for abusing it.[3]

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment raised these issues as well. In the months after becoming President in April 1865, Johnson issued a proclamation granting widespread amnesty to those who had taken up arms against the Union. Though he initially excluded Confederate leaders and large slaveholders, he pardoned thousands upon request, including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, respectively the President and Vice President of the late Confederacy. By permitting Confederate leaders back into office but denying the franchise to African Americans, Johnson aided the defeated planter class, which used violence and law to reduce freedpeople to an exploited agricultural proletariat.

Johnson also ran afoul of his fellow Republicans in Congress by firing a leading figure in the executive branch. Edwin M. Stanton, the pro-Congress Secretary of War, believed Johnson acted too leniently toward former Confederates. Republican legislators, mistrusting the President, had passed the Tenure of Office Act precisely to compel Johnson to heed the “advice and consent” Congress. Johnson defied it. He sought to replace Stanton with General Ulysses S. Grant, who he offered to pardon should Congress take exception (Grant refused). The move launched the impeachment effort, which ended when the Senate failed to convict Johnson in May 1868.

Thomas Nast, “Andy’s Trip,” Harper’s Weekly, October 27, 1866, 680-81.

President Johnson’s abrasive personality added vastly to his woes. “The truth is, he is a slave to his passions and resentments,” wrote Ohio Senator John Sherman.[4] Stubborn, self-righteous, and defiant, Johnson offered little grist for his eulogizers’ mills. One conceded that he was “too often swayed by fierce passion and prejudice. . . . His great mistake was that he believed Andrew Johnson to be infallible, and opposition embittered and rendered him obstinate and vindictive.”[5] Even the sympathetic Woodrow Wilson, who was a prominent history professor before becoming President, conceded that Johnson “stopped neither to understand nor to persuade other men, but struck forward with crude, uncompromising force for his object, attempting mastery without wisdom or moderation.”[6]

Yet while Johnson is justly deemed one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history, he did face a formidable challenge. He took up the White House by tragic happenstance rather than design — the first to succeed an assassinated predecessor. And he faced the nearly insurmountable charge of quickly reconstructing a nation torn apart by a horrendous war. There was no playbook for such a moment, for the Framers of the Constitution had never planned for it, and this put him constantly at odds with his legislature. “It is time it was settled who is master of the question of reconstruction of the rebel States, the President or Congress,” asked one confused Congressman in 1867.[7] Alas, the Constitution had no answer. Deprived of that referee, Congress and President became inimical forces, struggling tooth-and-nail for control of policy.

The magnanimous Abraham Lincoln had been unable to avoid quarrels with Congress, so it was unlikely the self-pitying Johnson would. “Who has suffered more than I?” he asked a Cleveland crowd, and then proceeded to label the Republicans who had “traduced and assaulted” him a “common gang of cormorants and bloodsuckers.”[8] The conflict between White House and Capitol Hill over control of Reconstruction dramatically magnified his character weaknesses and increased his likelihood of impeachment.

At the same time, the shaky constitutional foundations of his impeachment have always given Johnson’s defenders a potent source of lasting criticism. Republicans in Congress “determined to remove him by means of trumped-up charges, as disgraceful in origin as in substance,” wrote one.[9] Another praised Johnson for contesting the Radical Republicans’ plan to “Africanize the South” by enfranchising freedpeople.[10] Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905) summarized the popular conservative view: “the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson would mark either the lowest tide-mud of degradation to which the Republic could sink, or its end.”[11]

The current President’s words echo Johnson’s with eerie precision. If Donald Trump is impeached, though, he will not have Andrew Johnson’s excuse. In 1868, two forces—the President’s volatile personality and a constitutional crisis over Reconstruction—combined to create the possibility of impeachment. Trump, however, inherited no constitutional crisis from his predecessor. Instead, his critics charge that he is fomenting his own—by challenging the legitimacy of the electoral process, by impeding legitimate investigations into his own malfeasance, and by undermining public accountability for his administration.

In 2017, only matters of character—an incapacity to admit wrong, consistently tell the truth, respect the mechanisms of constitutionalism, or maintain the high standards of the office—seems likely to doom the present administration. Should it be necessary to thus remove the current President, we can at least feel assured that history has seen something like this before. As fierce as our political divides may be, we are blessedly far from the discord of Reconstruction. We can feel confident that as rare and difficult as impeachment is, it may indeed still serve its intended function, as a remedy of last resort to secure the nation against an unfit executive.


[1] Laura Jarrett, “Can Trump Stop Mueller?” CNN Politics, accessed August 31, 2017,; Conor Friedersdorf, “The Case for Impeaching Trump If He Fires Robert Mueller,” The Atlantic, accessed August 31, 2017,

[2] Philip Bump, “If He’ll Pardon Arpaio, Why Wouldn’t Trump Pardon Those Who Ignore Robert Mueller?” Washington Post, accessed August 31, 2017,

[3] Frank Bowman, “Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio Is an Impeachable Offense,” Slate, accessed August 31, 2017,

[4] John Sherman’s Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate, and Cabinet, vol. 1 (Chicago: Werner Co., 1895), 423.

[5] “Death Notice,” Portland (Maine) Daily Press (August 2, 1875), 1.

[6] Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People, vol. 5 (New York: Harper and Bros., 1903), 1.

[7] “Speech of Hon. E.C. Ingersoll of Illinois,” February 7, 1867, Congressional Globe, 39 Cong., 2d Sess. (House), Appendix, 90.

[8] “Andrew Johnson, Cleveland Speech, September 3, 1866,” in Great Issues in American History, vol. 1, ed. Richard Hofstadter, Clarence Lester Ver Steeg, and Beatrice K. Hofstadter (New York: Vintage, 1958), 28-29.

[9] “Andrew Johnson and Impeachment,” Little Rock Arkansas Gazette (June 27, 1885), 4.

[10] Robert W. Winston, Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1928), 386.

[11] Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1905), 165.

Patrick Rael

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