Category: Field Dispatches

Long Haired Sixties Radicals

Long Haired Sixties Radicals

Louisa was fifteen when the revolution began, and her enthusiasm was undimmed when she wrote her memoirs sixty years later. She recalled the spectacle: houses illuminated with candles, bells ringing, tar barrels burning, flags waving. Most of all, she remembered the people. “I can never forget how those men used to look standing on some impromptu platform,” she wrote, “with the wild light of the bonfires on their faces, and their hair which men wore longer in those days, blown back from their faces by the wind, or the energy of their own movements.” Their vitality still thrilled her: “such light in their eyes! So much hope and so much courage.”[1]

These stirring scenes might evoke a campus protest in 1968, but they came from South Carolina in December 1860. Louisa McCord Smythe was the daughter of writer and lawyer David J. McCord and Louisa McCord, an accomplished author, fierce proslavery theorist, and ardent secessionist. Smythe’s recollection reminds us that secession was especially popular among younger southern whites.[2] It demonstrates that although secession was a defensive, reactionary move, it also inspired hope among those who saw the Confederacy as what historian Michael T. Bernath has termed a “moment of possibility” – an opportunity for change of all sorts, from improving women’s education to stemming the tide of democracy.[3]

“Edmund Rubbin [i.e., Edmund Ruffin].” Born in 1794, Edmund Ruffin was an early and vocal proponent of secession and fired one of the war’s first shots in April 1861. Although much older than many other long-haired secessionists, Ruffin’s hairstyle marked his identification with their cause. As the Confederacy collapsed around him in 1865, the luxuriantly-maned fire-eater committed suicide. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It also illuminates a largely neglected visual signature of secessionist politics, a hirsutal affirmation of everything Smythe’s neighbors were celebrating: long hair.

Trimmed, wavy hair was fashionable for white men in late antebellum America, so those with longer locks stood out.[4] Not all were fire-eating disunionists, of course, but during and after the 1860-1861 secession crisis, particularly in cities along the troubled Union-Confederate border, long hair marked the class, section, and ideology associated with secession. From Virginia to Arkansas, secessionists, many in their twenties and thirties, sent a political message just as powerful as that of a century later. In the 1960s, long hair signaled a provocative, bodily challenge to behavioral norms and political elites.[5] In the 1860s, secessionists’ long hair made a comparably defiant statement, albeit on behalf of preserving, not subverting, the South’s peculiar social and political hierarchies. Unionists and secessionists alike identified long-haired men as members of the “chivalry”: the notoriously radical and vehemently proslavery southern elite. The image became a stereotype familiar to reporters, law enforcement officers, and anyone seeking to clarify regional difference.

Northerners regularly associated long hair with southerners, especially those of elevated rank and extreme politics. In his autobiography, Bostonian Charles Francis Adams, Jr., recalled that Lucius Q.C. Lamar, a fierce secessionist congressman from Mississippi, “looked the Southern college professor – lank, tall, bearded, long-haired, and large-featured.”[6] A newspaper correspondent covering Abraham Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration described the audience as a massive crowd of “old and young, of male and female,” with “but few Southerners, judging from the lack of long haired men in the crowd.”[7] A wartime passenger on an Ohio River steamboat looked askance at a “very Southern looking young man with long hair, and an extensive display of very suspicious looking jewelry,” who was denouncing Lincoln as a racial egalitarian.[8] To a Union prisoner of war, Confederates in Charleston were “long haired secession devils.”[9] Perhaps no one epitomized the secessionist image better than Roger A. Pryor, a Virginia politician and newspaper editor who traveled to South Carolina to press for an immediate attack on Fort Sumter in hopes that this would propel his own state out of the Union. Contemporaries regarded the long-haired and heavily armed Virginian as “the very embodiment of Southern chivalry.”[10]

Roger Atkinson Pryor, 1828-1919. A generation younger than Ruffin, Roger A. Pryor was an equally ardent secessionist who worked as a newspaper editor and diplomat before serving in Congress and later in the Confederate Army. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Authors used the long-haired secessionist image to spice their narratives or vent their anger, but for Unionists who risked imprisonment or execution to ferret out information along the dangerous border, identifying friends and foes was deadly serious. Albert D. Richardson, a New York Tribune correspondent who was later captured and then escaped from a Confederate prison camp, read Kentuckians’ loyalties in their appearance – including their hair. The “sinewy, long-limbed mountaineers” passing through Louisville were likely on their way from eastern Kentucky to Indiana to enlist in the Union army, while the “pale, long-haired young men” heading the other direction were obviously Confederate recruits.[11]

Hairstyles even offered vital clues to Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who uncovered a plot to assassinate president-elect Lincoln when he passed through Baltimore en route to Washington in early 1861. Pinkerton recalled that Barnum’s Hotel was the “favorite resort” of Baltimore’s southern sympathizers, and he identified them by their hair. During the evenings, “the corridors and parlors would be thronged by the tall, lank forms of the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests.”[12]

“The rebel chivalry as the fancy of ‘My Maryland’ painted them; as ‘My Maryland’ found them.” This cartoon was printed in the pro-Union magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1862. It mocks the ostensibly exaggerated pretensions of the secessionist “chivalry” and depicts two stereotyped images: the secessionist as flowing-haired cavalier and the secessionist as mangy ruffian. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Pinkerton believed that the plot’s mastermind was Cypriano Ferrandini, a Corsican barber who worked in the hotel basement. Allegedly, Ferrandini had proclaimed that the “hireling Lincoln shall never, never be President,” and declared his readiness to die “for the rights of the South and to crush out the abolitionist.” Pinkerton depicted Ferrandini as “a fitting representative of so desperate a cause,” complete with “black eyes flashing with excitement, his sallow face pale and colorless and his long hair brushed fiercely back from his low forehead.”[13] Ferrandini was never charged with a crime, but Lincoln passed through Baltimore under cover of night to evade his long-haired would-be assassins.

From flappers’ bobbed hair to the forced haircuts inflicted at Indian boarding schools, hairstyles are closely tied to our identities and our ideals. After the Civil War, secessionists’ hairstyles were largely forgotten, though they are echoed in the southern outlaw image which, like other recent long-haired figures, emerged in the 1960s.[14] Ironically, the style of the chivalry was reborn among the rural working class.

[1] “Louisa McCord Smyth Recollection,” South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

[2] Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974); Henry James Walker, “Henry Clayton and the Secession Movement in Alabama,” Southern Studies 4, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 341-360.

[3] Michael T. Bernath, “The Confederacy as a Moment of Possibility,” Journal of Southern History 79, no. 2 (May 2013): 299-338; John F. Kvach, De Bow’s Review: The Antebellum Vision of a New South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[4] Amy D. Scarborough, “Hairstyles and Head Wear, 1820-1859,” in José Blanco F., ed., Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, 4 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016), II, 151-152.

[5] David Farber, The Sixties: From Memory to History, new ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 274-276, 281-282; Gael Graham, “Flaunting the Freak Flag: Karr v. Schmidt and the Great Hair Debate in American High Schools, 1965-1975,” Journal of American History 91, no. 2 (September 2004): 522-543.

[6] Charles Francis Adams, Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), 47.

[7] “Inauguration Ceremonies of the President Elect,” Cadiz (OH) Democratic Sentinel, March 13, 1861.

[8] Silas, “From ‘Down the River,’” Evansville (IN) Journal, December 24, 1862.

[9] Charles D. Duncan to Dear Father and Mother, March 31, 1865, in John E. Duncan, “The Correspondence of a Yankee Prisoner in Charleston,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 75, no. 4 (October 1974), 220.

[10] “Glorious Defense of Sumter!!” New York Tribune, April 19, 1861.

[11] Albert Deane Richardson, The Secret Service: The Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1865), 164.

[12] Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1884), 59.

[13] Ibid., 63-64.

[14] Kirk Hutson, “Hot ‘N’ Nasty: Black Oak Arkansas and Its Effect on Rural Southern Culture,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1995), 185-211.

Michael E. Woods

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

The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

Today we share the first Field Dispatch from our latest addition to the correspondent team, Angela Esco Elder. Angela is an Assistant Professor of History at Converse College in South Carolina. She is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate widowhood for publication; her dissertation won the SHA C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize and St. George Tucker Society’s Melvin E. Bradford Dissertation Prize. Elder recently published a co-edited collection, Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. On Muster, she will be writing on women’s history and gender history topics.

Todd Heisler, “Final Salute” series, 2008. Courtesy of the New York Times.

On July 7, 2018, numerous headlines informed the public of a “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan.”[1] The statement came just days after our Facebook feeds filled with Fourth of July red, white, and blue, with videos of fireworks, coordinated family outfits, and patriotic inspiration posted in abundance. Not long before that, Memorial Day brought its share of American flag memes and quotes about soldiers’ sacrifices. Summer holidays offer a powerful reminder that American freedom is intertwined with American death. Yet, even as we offer our condolences and prayers to the families of fallen heroes, the national narrative often remains on the one who gave “the ultimate sacrifice.” We focus on the deceased soldiers. We print their stories. What about those loved ones, who are sentenced to life?

When I started graduate school, I found myself drawn to stories of loss in the Civil War, sifting through letters tucked away in archives across the South. This was not a topic I expected to fall into. I blame Stephen Berry and John Inscoe, who sent me into the University of Georgia archives to find a seminar topic. The Special Collections in Athens weren’t as fancy as they are now. Back then, the archives existed in a room tucked away in a dated corner of the library, walls overburdened with artifacts, sunlight catching the dust as it floated lazily through the air. Or perhaps that’s the nostalgia of a first archival experience speaking. Either way, in I walked, wanting to read something about women and the Civil War. I have since come up with theory-laden scholarly justifications to support this pursuit, but at the time, the honest truth was that I was just interested in it. I loved stories. I loved writing. I was curious what the war was like for women and had no idea there was already a vast amount of scholarship behind it. So, I began reading through boxes of correspondence.

At some point in that first week, I stumbled across the story of William and Rosa Delony. I had just walked past the location of their Athens home that morning, now a downtown parking lot. They had a summer wedding in 1854. When Will left to fight for the Confederacy, they had three children under the age of four. I fell into their letters, a quiet conversation of paper and ink. They bore the separation as well as they could, focusing on the future, but the couple had their challenges. On his ninth wedding anniversary, Will found himself in Gordonsville, Virginia, miles from Georgia with a “longing for home makes my army life almost insupportable.”[2] What Rosa didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize, was that I was holding one of his last letters.

Telegraph to Mrs. P. Stovall, October 6, 1863. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Archives.

I flipped the page and the next thing in the folder was a smaller slip of paper, a telegram to a neighbor with the instructions, “on account of her condition, break the news to Mrs. Deloney as best you can.” Will had received a mortal wound in his left thigh. He died in a Union hospital. Rosa was eight months pregnant with their fourth child. And then there was me, 150 years later, sitting in this uncomfortable metal chair, holding a smudged wisp of paper that changed a family’s life.

But the story didn’t end with this telegram, or with Will’s death. There was more in the box. Rosa had her baby, a girl, in November 1863, and turned her attention to bringing her husband’s body home. She wanted his remains in Georgia with her, to have a place to visit and mourn. Then, in July 1866, that final daughter, now a toddler, died of whooping cough.

Delony family plot in the Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Courtesy of the author.

Two months later, Rosa buried Will’s body beside this tiny grave. In 1863, Will had not been able to contain his excitement as he planned a trip home to Georgia for Christmas and the birth of his child. Now, he lay beside her in the Oconee Hill Cemetery. If Rosa could have chosen, she would not have planned for this chain of events. But at least now, in the midst of her uncertain future, one thing was certain. Will was finally home with his child. This was the first time I really thought about what it meant for women to live through and beyond the Civil War.

Certainly, she wasn’t the only one to live through a loss. At the Georgia Historical Society, I read a January 30, 1865, letter from a wife to her husband, who served in Company H, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops:

I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why dont you write to me and let me hear some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you…relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you…[3]

This letter was found close to a body at the site of the Battle of Natural Bridge, in Florida.

At the Kentucky Historical Society, I spent time with a letter between Lucinda Helm and her daughter-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm, dated October 21, 1863:

My son, my son, my first born, my first born, my pride, my hope – Oh this wicked war of oppression—I know he died gloriously fighting for the freedom of his country but I can not feel that…the loss of my child, my darling son, how can I out live him?[4]

Lucinda’s son died during the Battle of Chickamauga. She would live another twenty-three years without him.

At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I picked up the letter of farmer Asa V. Ladd, dated October 29, 1864:

My dear wife and children, I take my pen with trembling hand to inform you that I have to be shot between 2 and 4 o’clock this evening. I have but a few hours to remain in this unfriendly world. There is 6 of us sentenced to die in room of 6 union soldiers that was shot by Reeves men. My dear wife dont grieve after me. I want you to meet me in heaven. I want you to teach the children piety…I must bring my letter to a close leaving you in the hands of God. I send you my best love and respect in the hour of death…good-by Amy.[5]

Surrounded by several hundred spectators, Asa was tied to a post, blindfolded, and shot at 3:00 p.m. This letter serves as yet another reminder of a woman who lived through and beyond the Civil War.

Many scholars have moments like this, stories that grab them, shake them, and demand attention. We spend months and years of our lives with these characters and stories. And they change us. When I read a news bulletin about warfare or refugees or disease or famine, I now think of the women within and behind these stories. Instinctively, many historians search for the absent voices, the underrepresented voices, the voices not invited to the table. For those of us who teach, we often ask our students after lectures or readings, “Why does this matter? What is the significance of this event? What is the big picture?” I’ve heard it said that the death of a single Civil War soldier is like a stone dropped in a pond, sending out ripples. But I don’t just want to study the stone, I want the story of the pond. Throw in a handful of stones, perhaps 750,000 or so, and well, welcome to the world of Civil War studies.


[1] “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan,” BBC News, July 7, 2018, accessed July 9, 2018,

[2] William Delony to Rosa Delony, May 14, 1863, Delony Family Papers, Hargrett Special Collections, University of Georgia Archives, Athens, Georgia.

[3] C. Ann Butler to William Butler, January 30, 1865, C. Ann Butler Letter, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia.

[4] Lucinda Helm to Emilie Todd Helm, October 21, 1863, Helm Family Papers, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Asa V. Ladd (Gratiot St. Prison in St. Louis), to wife, October 29, 1864, Asa V. Ladd Papers, 1864, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Post Office, Mooresville, Alabama. The oldest post office in Alabama, this Mooresville structure dates to the early nineteenth century and exemplifies the humble but significant nodes of the postal network that connected antebellum Americans to each other – and to their government. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If your state seceded from the United States today, how would it first affect your daily life? Scholars typically study the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861 in terms of high politics, with the action unfolding in Washington and southern state capitals. For humbler residents of the seceding states, however, a distant convention did not necessarily make disunion a tangible reality. Instead, many literate white southerners first encountered the practical consequences of secession through the mail.

Historians have long noted that the Post Office was a primary connection between antebellum Americans and the federal government. “For many Americans of that time,” writes one scholar, “mail service was the only daily – or even regular – contact they had with their government. Indeed, in some of the country’s smaller settlements, the post office was the only manifestation of the federal government that people would ever come in direct contact with.”[1] One should not overstate this point: it would be difficult to convince a Cherokee survivor of the Trail of Tears, a post-1848 resident of California or New Mexico, or a fugitive slave captured after 1850, that the antebellum federal government was small and unobtrusive. But the Post Office theme does dramatize changes wrought by the Civil War, during which the federal government conscripted citizens, taxed incomes, and otherwise extended its reach. Less well-known, however, are the ways in which rituals of sending and receiving mail brought the reality of secession into routines of daily life.

Portrait of Postmaster-general John H. Reagan. John H. Reagan of Texas was the Confederacy’s first and only Postmaster-General. After fleeing from Richmond in 1865, Reagan was captured with Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials in Georgia on May 10. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

U.S. and Confederate policymakers knew that mail delivery was significant as both a public service and an expression of sovereign power. After February 1861, Confederate Postmaster-General John H. Reagan swiftly built a new postal system upon the foundation of the extant U.S. network, aided by postal clerks who brought skills – and all manner of blank forms and other bureaucratic supplies – with them from Washington. Local postmasters, route agents, and other personnel were directed to continue the work they had done under US authority. Reagan would be one of the Confederacy’s most capable cabinet-level officials.[2]

For his part, Abraham Lincoln vowed in his inaugural message to continue delivering the mail in the seceded states, unless such efforts were “repelled” by secessionist attacks.[3] This was part of Lincoln’s policy of maintaining normal relations with the seceded states so far as possible, and it was up to his Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, to execute Lincoln’s order. Anticipating trouble, however, Congress had already passed a law in February 1861 authorizing the discontinuance of service on routes where delivery was unsafe; eventually, under this authority, Blair suspended mail delivery in the seceded states (exempting the future state of West Virginia) in late May. Subsequently, mail addressed to a seceded state was routed to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, although later some carefully scrutinized letters did pass between the lines under flag of truce.[4]

The son of Francis Preston Blair, Montgomery Blair was born in Kentucky and spent much of his professional life as an attorney in Missouri and Maryland. Blair, a former Democrat, helped to organize the Republican Party in the mid-1850s and served as Lincoln’s Postmaster-General until September 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite the swift movements of Union and Confederate leaders, the situation on the ground was confusing and uncertain, particularly during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861. It was in these wrenching months that Americans first grappled with secession’s sometimes unexpected intrusions into previously mundane daily tasks.

Secession left southern postmasters – who in that era were political appointees, not trained professionals – in a precarious position. Customers continued to buy stamps and post letters, even as a collision between state and federal authorities seemed imminent. Rumors proliferated, and while attention fixated on federal forts (particularly Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina), there was talk of disrupted mail service, too. Knowing that this could leave them dangerously perched between competing sovereignties, postmasters sought guidance. James R. Gates, a postmaster in Mississippi, wrote to Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for counsel in mid-February. His state had seceded a month before, but he pleaded for assistance from a well-placed US senator who could offer insight into what president-elect Lincoln might do. “Let me know if the mails will be stoped [sic],” he asked, and “when it will take place.”[5]

Postal customers were similarly uneasy. Stephen W. Church, a northern-born merchant living in Charleston, wrote his uncle two weeks after South Carolina seceded to report that everything was “in a complete state of anarchy.” Exhibit A was the pending collapse of the mail system due to a shortage of postage stamps. The local supply had run out, and the Postmaster General had refused to resupply the city. “This of course is one of the least of the troubles,” Church admitted, “but it annoys me very much,” as he had struggled to find a single stamp for the letter to his uncle in New York.[6] For a displaced Yankee, life in Charleston was necessarily nerve-wracking, but the interruption of mail service threatened to isolate him entirely from sympathetic kin.

In secession’s immediate aftermath, addressing a letter sometimes brought home the magnitude of the moment. When Andrew McCollam penned a note to his wife the day after Louisiana’s state convention voted to secede, he dated it from the “Republic of Louisiana.” “From the above caption,” he solemnly reflected, “you will see and perhaps realise the fact that…you are no longer a citizen of our Glorious Republic of North America.” McCollam, a convention delegate, had tried to delay disunion but ultimately accepted that it was inevitable.[7] The gravity of his failure struck him when he first dated a letter from outside the United States.

Disunion was similarly vexing for those seeking to send mail into seceded states. In mid-November 1860, one Washington, DC, resident hastily scribbled a letter to South Carolina fire-eater William Porcher Miles, determined to mail the message before he would “be required to pay ‘foreign postage’ on a letter to Charleston.”[8]

Perhaps no one felt the disruption of mail delivery more keenly than Unionists who were also young and in love. John Wesley Halliburton, a Tennessean attending the University of North Carolina, regularly corresponded with his fiancée (and second cousin) Juliet Halliburton, who lived in Little Rock. Divided from her by distance and politics – Juliet was an avowed secessionist – John worried that disunion would halt mail delivery and permanently divide the star-crossed lovers. “No more to feel the joy which nothing but her letters or presence can inspire,” he lamented. “No more can you render me perfectly happy by telling me you love me….I among the first will suffer from the dissolution of this mighty fabric.” For the lovesick Halliburton, isolation from Juliet would likely be among the “first fruits of that disastrous course” pursued by secessionists.[9]

Envelope Showing Confederate Flag, addressed to Miss Lou Taylor, c. 1861-1865. Patriotic stationery flourished in the Union and Confederacy alike, allowing partisans on both sides to affirm their political loyalties whenever they wrote a letter. This interesting envelope bears the image of the Confederacy’s first national flag, but the recipient lived in Ohio. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In time, however, Unionists and Confederates alike soon found that the mail could also reaffirm new political identities. Hence the abundance of patriotic stationery, emblazoned with flags, slogans, martial imagery, and portraits of national heroes.[10] By using these items, partisans on both sides could express their national loyalties every time they mailed a letter. Some of these nationalistic materials crossed the lines; one can only imagine what Lou Taylor of Cincinnati thought if and when she received the envelope bearing a Confederate flag. Unless she was a displaced rebel, this letter reflects the continued desire to correspond with friends and family living on the other side of the Civil War’s bloody chasm. Thus, whether it ran smoothly or ground to a halt, the mail offered daily reminders that the hard hand of war touched every aspect of life.


[1] Bruce T. Harpham, “Postal Service, U.S.,” in The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History, ed. Christopher G. Bates, 4 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2015), III, 836. See also Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 5; Adam I. P. Smith, The American Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 5; and James McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Walter Flavius McCaleb, “The Organization of the Post-Office Department of the Confederacy,” American Historical Review 12, no. 1 (October 1906): 66-74.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address,” The American Presidency Project, accessed June 4, 2018,

[4] Report of the Postmaster General Respecting the Operations and Condition of the Post Office Department during the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1861 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861), 10; Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 107-116.

[5] James R. Gates to Stephen A. Douglas, February 19, 1861, Box 39, Folder 4, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[6] Stephen W. Church to Thomas J. Coggeshall, January 3, 1861, Stephen W. Church Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[7] Andrew McCollam to Ellen McCollam, January 27, 1861, Andrew McCollam Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[8] [?] Nelson to William Porcher Miles, November 18, 1860, William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[9] John Halliburton to Juliet Halliburton, February 12, 1861, John Wesley Halliburton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[10] See Stephen W. Berry, “When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865,” Southern Cultures 4, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63-83.

Michael E. Woods

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

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

A certain cohort of the baby boomer generation—boys born between the late 1940s and mid-1950s—spent their high school years wondering if they would be drawn into the Vietnam War. With older brothers, neighbors, and older friends anxiously awaiting their lottery numbers; with the nightly news and weekly news magazines providing images of the bloody and frustrating fighting a world away; and with no clear end in sight, most young boys spent their adolescence wondering if they would end up at the sharp end of war.

Those same forebodings or yearnings no doubt shaped the lives of Civil War-era teenagers, virtually all of whom would have had a family member or close neighbor in the army. In the Confederacy, almost complete mobilization occurred; in the United States, although the percentage of males of military age who served was closer to 40 percent, 81 percent of boys born in 1844 joined the Union army.[1]

Newark High School, c. 1860s. Courtesy of the Barringer High School Alumni Association.

A few boys—just a year or two younger than that martial cohort—attending Newark High School in New Jersey worked through their thoughts and some of their fears in the pages of the Athenaeum, a hand-written school paper published during the war. It was the second iteration of the paper. The “old Athenaeum,” as the current editors called it, had been born at the beginning of the conflict, but much had changed since then, and it was impossible for these men-in-the-making to ignore the war. At least a few of the original editors had actually gone off to war; one was an officer in the Army of the Potomac. An editorial in May 1864 remarked that the number of boys at school had dropped by half. “What makes this change[?] War! War!.” Some had joined the army but others had gone into business to replace older brothers and fathers. “They are no more,” continued the editorial in sentimental wartime rhetoric, “the vacant seats seem to proclaim.”[2]

The boys produced a few short pieces of romantic fiction, poems, and a few strained jokes (although a humorous piece on “Shaving” effectively chided fifteen and sixteen-year-olds for thinking that the “fuzz’ they managed to grow on their lips or chins earned them the right to shave every Sunday). But the bulk of the articles are painfully sincere (but also rather pompous) essays on “Perfection,” Success,” “Faithfulness,” “Home,” “Revenge,” “Perseverance,” and, somewhat improbably, “First Baby.” In the way of nineteenth century writing for young adults, most are aspirational, and they reflect both a nostalgia for childhood and a certain amount of angst about making a living in the world.[3]

At the same time, they were clearly processing their concerns about the war. Numerous pieces dealt with the war; like the juvenile magazines they seemed to be using as models of style and content, they approached the war as a source of inherently interesting news, as a fundamental threat to the nation, and as a chance to demonstrate political loyalty and masculine values. A story that could easily have been published in The Student or Schoolmate or Our Young Folks or any other juvenile magazine from the period told a typical tale of a soldier training, fighting, being captured, and escaping from Libby Prison—but this time, through a story told from the point of view of his boot![4]

A typical page from the Athenaeum. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

But a close reading of the boys’ essays reveal the fact that they are preparing themselves for the possibility of fighting. They describe hardships, but frame the war as survivable. They acknowledge the terrible sacrifices made by many soldiers but present those sacrifices as necessary for the greater good. Throughout, they balance fear with loyalty, loss with the benefit of Union, and hardship with motivation.

Although a few essays employed humor, most were dead serious. A piece on “Courage” equated moral courage with the kind of courage that “enable[d] men to encounter difficulties and dangers with firmness or without fear,” while a Christmas editorial acknowledged the joys of the season—including a welcome break from school—but urged readers not to forget “the poor soldiers . . . fighting the enemies of our country and enduring hardships to save our much-loved Union and secure freedom to all.” A reflection on “The Soldier” acknowledged that life in the army inevitably led to dissolution and sin, but also deserved our sympathy and gratitude.[5]

In a piece called “Blighted Hopes,” the boys indicated they understood the personal stake each American had in the conflict. “Thousands have died on the field of carnage,” it began. “Thousands in whose bosoms have been kindled some high some noble flame aspiring to some great object of which the power of their imagination has enabled them almost to obtain a sweet fore-sight rising up before them like some luminous orb in the far off future.” They died doing their duty, which could be a “hard master.” Some men survive the “leaden hail of the enemy” and return to happy homes, where family members wept tears of joy. But in other homes, where loved ones have failed to return safely, “vacant chairs seem to proclaim to us in loud accents, ‘Blighted Hopes.’” Widows and orphans mourn fallen husbands and fathers’ “war is indeed dashing down the anticipations of many.”[6]

The editors featured sentimental domesticity in a number of articles and a few drawings. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

A poem published in May 1864 tried to imagine the war ending, when, even as the last victims of the war were being buried and their widows began to mourn them, surviving soldiers march home: “The soldiers are coming,/from carnage and gore./They come to their homes,/to be happy once more./They have tasted the hardships,/and dangers of war;/they have learned to know well,/what soldiers are for.” A few months earlier, another poem, “The Dying Soldier,” captured with unusual poignancy—if little literary flair—the conflict between the individual tragedies of soldiers’ deaths and the necessity of those deaths in winning the war. The poem features the thoughts of a dying soldier, who understands that news of his death would break many hearts but understands that it really didn’t matter: “He thought of the tears,/Twould be shed ‘ore his fate,/he thought of the hearts,/that for him would await./It mattered but little,/he was but one./One soldier was naught;/Victory was won.”[7]

The somewhat war-weary and knowing tone of many of the essays and poems in the Athenaeum show teenaged boys, assuming—fearing—that they would eventually play their parts in the war that had been raging for most of their adolescence. They sought to create credibility, to begin to prepare for something they may have instinctively known they could never prepare themselves for, to understand the causes and reasons that the war had to be fought, to talk themselves into thinking that they would be ready when the call came.


[1] Dora L. Costa, The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198.

[2] Newark High School Athenaeum, October 1863; May 1864, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ.

[3] Athenaeum, April 1864. For a short overview of children’s magazines, see James Marten, “For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Northern Children’s Magazines and the Civil War,” Civil War History 41 (March 1995): 57-75.

[4] Athenaeum, April 1864.

[5] Athenaeum, October 1863; December 1863; April 1864.

[6] Athenaeum, June 1864.

[7] Athenaeum, May 1864; December 1863.

James Marten

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

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

In one of his final acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama utilized the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Reconstruction Era National Monument (REER) in Beaufort, South Carolina, as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) on January 12, 2017. Like many historians of the Civil War era, I was thrilled to hear that the NPS would finally have a site dedicated to interpreting the Reconstruction era on its own terms. For public history, no longer would Reconstruction exist only as a brief interpretive footnote or be simply ignored at a Civil War history site. Finally, Americans from all backgrounds would get to see a tangible representation of a greatly misunderstood era in this country’s history; a time in which dynamic changes to America’s political, social, and economic life transformed the country after the Civil War.[1]

The Old Beaufort Fire House will function as the Visitor Center for Reconstruction Era National Monument when it opens to the public. Courtesy of the Reconstruction Era National Monument, National Park Service.

Given the significance of this event for the future of Civil War era history, it came as a great surprise and a high honor when I was asked in April 2017 to manage REER’s social media accounts. Over the next year I created more than 250 Facebook and Twitter posts dedicated to interpreting Reconstruction. With these posts I aimed to discuss significant events and people from the era, the historiography of Reconstruction, and why Beaufort is a remarkable symbol of Reconstruction’s enduring significance. I tried to move beyond common stories of allegedly corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags towards posts about African Americans, women, Native American Indians, and others. My overarching goal was to portray Reconstruction as a fluid, dynamic era that was in some ways the country’s first civil rights movement.[2]

It is hard to determine the true success of these social media posts. Counting the number of likes, retweets, and reactions is one way to measure success, but it is tough to determine if those reacting to the posts actually do anything beyond the act of tapping their phone screen. Do they mention REER to a friend in polite conversation, go to the library to read about Reconstruction, or make plans to travel to South Carolina to learn about the Civil War era?[3] What I do know is that by the end of my experience this past April, REER’s Facebook page had more than 1,100 followers and its Twitter page had more than 700 followers.

In the course of my work I learned a lot about interpreting history on social media. I believe some of the strategies I developed for REER’s social media posts can be relevant for others looking to create compelling social media posts about the history of the Civil War era. What follows are three takeaways for interpreting the past on social media.

Build alliances with like-minded historical sites: When I began working for REER I received valuable assistance from Chris Barr and Emmanuel Dabney, two talented public historians working at NPS Civil War battlefields. They helped REER during its early months and started using the #ParkSpotlight hashtag to highlight other NPS units with connections to the Reconstruction era. I found this to be a useful strategy in a number of ways. For one, it gives credit to and celebrates the work of other NPS units working to interpret the Civil War era. Equally important, by tagging these sites in our posts, we made them aware of REER’s social media presence. For instance, I highlighted places like Nicodemus National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, and Appomattox National Historical Park while working for REER.

Know your platform and always share interesting photos and links: One of the most important realizations I made during this experience is that one cannot assume that all social media platforms have the same user base. Facebook is most heavily used by millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers; young people under twenty-one are much more likely to use Instagram and/or Twitter on a regular basis than Facebook. Conversely, Twitter is fun for emojis and GIF-based tweets, but it can be awkward to use those tools when creating Facebook posts.

No one wants to read a dissertation-length post on Facebook. Brevity is a virtue on social media. I found, however, that one- or two-paragraph FB posts received positive reactions from users.[4] A good example of a well-received post is the one below about Congressman Joseph Rainey.

Screenshot of Facebook post about Congressman Joseph Rainey for Reconstruction Era National Monument. Courtesy of the author.

In my opinion, there are three crucial keys to a good post, regardless of platform:

1.  An attractive picture that draws attention to the post.
2. Clear, concise text that is not overwhelming for readers.
3. When possible, provide clickable links for users to learn more. Whenever there exists a good article on a historical topic, direct readers to that article rather than trying to tell the whole story yourself. I am not an expert on all things Reconstruction; sometimes it’s best to highlight other historians and resources that can do an effective job of discussing a particular topic for users.

Establish a cohesive theme for your posts: About halfway through my experience I talked with historian Kate Masur—a leader in the effort to establish REER—about what I could do to improve my posts. She recommended that I develop a monthly theme to help guide the direction of my interpretations. It was a valuable idea that did much to boost the reach of my posts.

The most notable example occurred this past February. To celebrate Black History Month, I decided to highlight the experiences of fourteen African American men and women who were politically active in South Carolina during Reconstruction. On Facebook I wrote short descriptions for each individual that were posted throughout the month, while on Twitter I created a tweet thread that I periodically updated (you can see the thread here). Several individuals and organizations sent me messages saying how exciting it was to check their social media every morning to learn a new tidbit about the Reconstruction era.

A screenshot from Reconstruction Era National Monument’s Twitter page. Courtesy of the author.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War sesquicentennial was the use of social media as a medium for conversations about the Civil War’s legacy. No longer confined solely to the classroom or historical site, the stuff of the past is shared on the internet by historians and lay audiences alike on a literal minute-by-minute basis. Social media is already and will continue to be an active medium for the creation of historical knowledge and memories, but also for misinformation and myths. As historian and educator Kevin M. Levin points out, “the ease with which we can access and contribute to the web makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse. The internet is both a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion.”[5]

The work of managing social media at a Civil War era historic site may not be considered a top priority by a site’s leaders. Conducting historical research, crafting clear and concise language, and interpreting complex history in a roughly 100-word post is very time consuming. For public historians trying to balance on-site educational programming with social media outreach, establishing a consistent presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms can be difficult. But social media managers at these sites can play an important role in the sharing of accurate, fascinating, and even inspiring historical content if they make it a priority in their daily work.



[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument to Reconstruction,” New York Times, January 12, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018,; Sarah Jones Weicksel, “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction,” AHA Today, March 8, 2018, accessed May 29, 2018,

[2] In addition to standard overviews of Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Douglas Egerton, Eric Foner, and Heather Cox Richardson, I read the following books on Reconstruction in South Carolina: Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: Norton, 1973); Willie Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964); Lou Faulkner Williams, The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

[3] Reconstruction Era National Monument is not yet open to the public, reinforcing the importance of having a strong social media presence to provide contact info and assistance to those wanting to learn more about the site.

[4] Not all NPS social media managers agree with me, and I did receive some criticism for occasionally making my posts too long.

[5] Kevin M. Levin, “The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 6, 2016, accessed June 9, 2018,

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

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

The 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference is in the books. Reconstruction-era scholars, museum professionals, and non-academics converged on the city of Charleston for an insightful and productive conference. Though the chronology debate remains unresolved, the 2018 CLAW conference was one of the most important conferences on Reconstruction in recent memory. With so many panels, plenaries, and public history events, I share a few highlights below.

Plenaries and roundtables served as generative spaces for discussing the issues, challenges, and opportunities for Reconstruction Studies. After the wonderful dedication of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 marker, the plenary on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction provided the opening salvo for the rest of the conference. Brian Kelley considered the work as the starting point for future directions of Reconstruction Studies. Heather Cox Richardson characterized the massive tome as a political document and a meditation. On the other hand, Thavolia Glymph offered the text as a call to action, indictment, and a monument to African Americans. Following this stimulating opening roundtable, Bruce Baker asked that we grapple with the major question of “Who was Reconstruction For?” in his keynote address. The Saturday plenary brought together Eric Foner, Kate Masur, Michael Allen, and other key individuals involved with the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. The remarks of Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort, South Carolina, drove home the site’s importance. It allows local residents, white and black, to “know the truth,” use history as a vehicle for reconciliation, and answer “why has Reconstruction been muted?”

Two intriguing panels explored the possibilities yielded from an international perspective of Reconstruction in the Atlantic World. These panels demonstrated some of the benefits of moving toward an international history of Reconstruction, to borrow from Don Doyle’s wonderful paper title. Comparative frameworks of slavery have been instructive for understanding the institutions, motivations of enslavers, modes of resistance, and even the experiences of the diverse enslaved communities. Can Reconstruction provide an appropriate comparative framework? Or does a Reconstruction framework have any utility for understanding its legacy within a global African Diaspora, as suggested by Alison McLetchie? Does an international perspective simply provide unintentional fodder to individuals desiring the overturn of current Reconstruction Studies toward a Neo-Dunning School? While I am not sure what this direction will do for the overall field of Reconstruction Studies, I know that these scholars are actively addressing this aspect of Luke Harlow’s introduction to the JCWE’s “Future of Reconstructions Studies” forum.[1]

After spending time with these non-academics throughout the 2018 CLAW conference, I renew my call to Reconstruction scholars to enter the fray of public engagement as we contemplate the future of Reconstruction Studies. Multi-disciplinary and intersectional narratives demonstrate our relevance to popular audiences. Public schools remain an important site in the struggle for creating a better society. Yet, our work does not reach the predominantly black and brown communities educated within the system. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates are addressing the needs of individuals who are seeking to correct their K-12 education and/or the misinformation circulating on the internet (i.e. Black Confederates and most recently, Kanye West). AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Muster blog, Twitter crowdsourced syllabi, digital humanities projects, and even the new Reconstruction Era National Monument are solid attempts to reach these audiences through accessible scholarship, advisory roles in exhibitions, documentaries and textbooks, public lectures, and writing the occasional op-ed. To echo Kidada Williams, the field of Reconstruction Studies requires “more narrative histories of African Americans in the whirlwinds of freedom” that span time and the “geographic divides while covering a variety of subjects for African Americans across the nation and world.”[3]

We, as Reconstruction scholars, must be intentional in our chronologies, audiences, and scholarship. The conference demonstrates the need as well as the rewards of historical consulting on museum exhibitions, public lectures outside of the ivory walls of the academy, and writing accessible scholarship. It is hard work. It is, however, necessary. The important question that must guides our reflection on the future of Reconstruction Studies is “whether or not we are ready and willing to come through.”[4]

Thanks to Adam Domby and other CLAW organizers for providing a space for new scholarship, approaches, and essential conversations for addressing the scope, content, and future directions of Reconstruction Studies. I am excited to see how these conversations turn into action whether its public engagement or engaging scholarship. In short, the Reconstruction confab in Charleston was a resounding success.

Now, the real work begins.


[1] Luke Harlow, “Introduction to Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, This forum also appeared in the March 2017 issue.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291.

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018,

[4] Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom.”


Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate 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).

Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

With the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession crisis escalated into bloody conflict. Weeks of work to mend sectional relations in Congress and with the Peace Conference had failed; Secretary of State William H. Seward’s conversations with the southern peace commissioners had similarly lead to nothing when President Abraham Lincoln determined to make a stand at Fort Sumter. Seward had been a driving force trying to prevent sectional war, but the outbreak of hostilities meant he fell in line and supported the administration’s war effort. Meanwhile, Rudolph Schleiden, the representative of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, had closely watched Seward’s belligerent attitude leading up to Inauguration Day, sharing the Secretary of State’s hope for a peaceful reunion of the country.[1] Even by late April, Seward had not given up on his assumption that peace was still a possibility, if Unionists got sufficient time to reassert their influence in the seceded states.

In April 1861, Seward supported Bremen’s Minister Resident Rudolph Schleiden’s visit to the soon-to-be enemy capital Richmond, but Seward did not explicitly send the minister to meet with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.[2] The meeting, which did occur, came to nothing because of the mutual distrust between the two sections. However, Seward’s support for Schleiden’s peace initiative indicates the continued perception that Unionists eventually could regain power in the seceded states and prevent further hostilities. Schleiden’s often overlooked trip to Richmond indicates how even a month into the war, the Union government continued its search for a peaceful solution, but not at any price.

Even after the first shots at Fort Sumter and the violence in Baltimore, Seward remained interested in preserving the Union and Bremen’s Rudolph Schleiden offered him an opportunity to do so. The violence in Baltimore had a deep impact on Schleiden, who had a humanitarian, even pacifist, streak in him.[3] In response to the foreseeable bloodshed, he contemplated mediating a truce between the two belligerents. As a former revolutionary, Schleiden approved of the right to revolution but like many Forty-Eighters, Schleiden did not grant the South that right. He believed that southerners had acted preemptively, or as he often termed it, on “sudden impulses.”[4] Furthermore, Schleiden knew from his experience how difficult it was for a state to survive against a larger, more powerful foe if the international situation was against that state.

Secretary of State William Seward and a Delegation of Diplomats at Trenton Falls, New York, 1863. 1. William H. Seward, Secretary of State; 4. Lord Lyons, British Minister; 5. M. Mercier, French Minister; 6. M. Schleiden, Hanseatic Minister. Taken by W. J. Baker, Utica, New York. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The idea of the diplomatic corps mediating was not new. In early January, Edward Everett approached the British minister Lord Lyons to inquire whether Great Britain, France, or Russia could mediate the sectional differences. Nothing came of the idea.[5] In March and April, foreign representatives in Washington were active trying to find some reconciliation between the two sides.[6] Schleiden’s attempt to mediate a truce was only one of many ideas that circulated in the diplomatic corps.

On the morning of April 24, 1861, Schleiden heard that Vice President Alexander Stephens was in Richmond. Knowing Stephens from his time in Congress when the two had resided in the same house, Schleiden secretly broached his idea to mediate a truce to both Salmon P. Chase and Seward. Where Chase refused to make any comment, Seward responded favorably, but with reservations. Schleiden’s concern to prevent bloodshed received Seward’s support and he reassured the minister that making contact with Stephens would not be held against Schleiden. However, Seward cautioned that the president and the government could not authorize such negotiations or provide specific terms. Nevertheless, Seward suggested that Schleiden talk with President Lincoln.[7]

That afternoon, Seward and Schleiden met Lincoln. The president thanked Schleiden for his willingness to help prevent bloodshed. He expressed a certain regret that he could no longer claim ignorance and wished that Schleiden had just gone to Richmond on his own. Schleiden countered that it would have been wrong for him to do so and would have exposed him to accusations of conspiring with the enemy against the only legitimate government.[8] Schleiden was painfully aware of why he was in the United States and not at home in Schleswig-Holstein. His role as an insurgent had made him an outcast once, but there was no need to become one for a cause Schleiden did not believe in.

Worried about the press misinterpreting his intentions, Lincoln insisted that the conversation be kept confidential. Despite his unwillingness to authorize negotiations, Lincoln promised that he would consider “with equal respect and care” all propositions that he would receive. Schleiden left the meeting with the impression that Seward and Lincoln wished for him, without official authorization, to consult with Stephens.[9] His official report and journal do not support the claim that Seward sent Schleiden.

On the way to Richmond, Schleiden noticed that his mission was unlikely to succeed. Throngs of young men filled the railroad stations eager to fight. The newspapers contained a belligerent tone. Richmond itself resembled an army camp. In the lobby of Richmond’s Spotwood Hotel, Schleiden found Senator Hunter and a few other prominent Virginians anxious to inquire about the reason for the journey.[10]

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, c. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Schleiden immediately contacted Stephens and the two had a three-hour long conversation. Favorable inclined, Stephens doubted the prospects for success. Reminding Schleiden of the treatment the Southern commissioners had received in Washington, Stephens argued that Seward’s peacefulness could be easily discredited.

Recent developments increased Southern mistrust, according to Stephens. To him, Maryland had seceded by the actions of the mob in Baltimore and the Confederacy was honor bound to come to the state’s assistance if requested, which made the Potomac as a boundary unacceptable. Thus one aspect of the ceasefire had to be either Maryland’s inclusion in the Confederacy or the end of troop movements thought the state. In addition, the government could not risk demoralizing the people with a ceasefire. Finally, Stephens had no authority to negotiate. Nevertheless, Stephens decided to think about the offer. Schleiden requested a formal written statement.[11]

In the statement, Stephens regretted the “threatening prospect of a general war,” stressing that it was not the intention of the Confederacy to provoke a war. However, peace without independence was not acceptable. Stephens stressed his lack of authority, but provided some suggestions. The main point, which Lincoln would never accept, was to abstain from waging “a war for the recapture of former possessions . . . and subjugation of the people of the Confederate States to their former dominion.” Stephens asked the Lincoln government to make an authoritative proposal for consideration.[12]

With the formal statement as basis, Stephens and Schleiden debated for another two hours during which Schleiden impressed upon Stephens the need to modify passages of Stephens’s initial proposal. Schleiden told Stephens, “a significant amount of mistrust shined through the letter coupled with . . . a substantial amount of misplaced honor which threatened the impact of the letter because in Washington the letter would meet a similar mistrust and false, misplaced honor.” At the end of their conversation, both agreed to keep their talks confidential. Schleiden had lost faith and did not even record his second conversation with Stephens in his diary.[13]

After the final conversation, Schleiden returned to Washington on April 27. He immediately copied the proposal and correspondence, and added a cover letter, which he personally delivered to Seward. Seward listened attentively to the verbal report. Seward answered in Lincoln’s stead, thanking Schleiden for his effort. Seward confirmed that the Union was supreme and that restoration of the Union was the primary goal of the government. Lincoln saw no use to pursue the matter any further. Schleiden informed Stephens of the failure.[14]

The trip to Richmond shows Seward’s continued interest in using any means at his disposal to stall hostilities and allow Unionists time to regain control in the Southern states. Even by late April 1861, Seward was still under the assumption of strong Unionist sentiment in the South. However, there is no evidence that Seward was the instigator or that he directly provided Schleiden with terms and conditions to present to the Confederate Vice-President. Schleiden, as a former secessionist revolutionary, knew all too well how a civil war could tear a country apart and what violence and bloodshed that entailed. He brought his personal experiences along to Richmond. If anything, Schleiden’s trip in late April, one month into the war, illustrate the continued desire to find a peaceful solution. To some, the war, despite the firing on Fort Sumter, was not yet inevitable.


[1] Niels Eichhorn, “William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, March 23, 2018,

[2] Ralph H. Lutz, “Rudolph Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1917): 207-16.

[3] Rudolph M. Schleiden, Schleswig-Holsteins erste Erhebung, 1848-1849 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Verlag von J. F. Bergmann, 1891), 352-360.

[4] Rudolf Schleiden to Syndicus Dr. Theodor Curtius, January 2, 1863, No. 8, US 27, Archiv der Hansestadt Lübeck.

[5] Lyons to Russell, February 4, 1861, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, Private and Confidential: Letters from British Ministers in Washington to the Foreign Secretaries in London, 1844-67 (Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press, 1993), 240.

[6] Albert A. Woldman, Lincoln and the Russians (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1952), 56-59.

[7] May 4, 1858, 159, Book 18, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), Box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, morning letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[8] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[9] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[10] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[11] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[12] Stephens to Schleiden, April 28, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[13] April 27, 1861, 237-38, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[14] April 27, 1861, 238, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Seward to Schleiden, April 29, 1861, Schleiden to Stephens, April 30, 1861, Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

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.

Politics of the English Language: Views from 1850

Politics of the English Language: Views from 1850

As a practical tool and a badge of belonging, language is central to our sense of self. The United States has no official language, but the status of its dominant tongue shapes many contemporary conflicts over immigration and national identity. In the name of unity and assimilation, supporters of the English-only movement seek federal legislation to make English the national language and end bilingual education. Many of their opponents, in contrast, support an “English Plus” approach which would facilitate English language training while rejecting its enshrinement as the sole national language. Some argue that the English-only position cannot be divorced from nativism and racism, pointing to historical cases like Indian boarding schools, in which linguistic nationalism was entwined with white supremacy.

This discussion will not end soon; nor are many of its elements particularly new. In 1850, U.S. senators held a brief but fascinating debate over language which revealed intriguing patterns in partisanship, regionalism, and notions of belonging. Their arguments reveal that language has always been controversial in a nation seeking to balance “pluribus” and “unum.”

Clipping from “President’s Message,” (Ottumwa, IA) Des Moines Courier, December 13, 1850. Given the limits of technology – and the longstanding tradition of delivering annual presidential messages by the written rather than spoken word – President Fillmore’s 1850 message to Congress was disseminated among citizens through newspapers like this one. Courtesy of the Chronicling America Historic American Newspapers Project, Library of Congress.

President Millard Fillmore unwittingly triggered the debate when he sent his annual message to Congress in December 1850. Today, the State of the Union Address is a media event, delivered in person and broadcast live. In 1850, Fillmore followed then-standard protocol and simply wrote the message for clerks to read to Congress. Later, it was distributed nationwide through pamphlets and newspapers.

Fillmore presided over a rapidly-changing country. Massive immigration from Germany and Ireland, mostly into the North, had swelled the foreign-born population to 9.7% of the total by 1850.[1] Backlash came swiftly, as nativists assailed the newcomers, especially Irish Catholics, as cultural, political, and economic threats.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Mexican War had redrawn the country’s borders and expanded its citizenry. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded California and most of the modern-day Southwest – some 500,000 square miles – to the United States. The treaty also brought tens of thousands of Mexican citizens under the U.S. flag; they had one year to decide whether to remain, and accept U.S. citizenship, or depart for Mexico. Most, including around ten thousand people in California, opted to stay. After a fierce congressional struggle, California gained statehood as part of the Compromise of 1850. That December, two California senators – William M. Gwin and John C. Frémont – took their seats in Washington.[2]

“Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico” [1847]. Printed just before the U.S. conquest of California and New Mexico in 1848, this map shows the Mexican territories of Alta California (light pink) and Nuevo Mexico (green) as they appeared in 1847. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 12, Gwin proposed that the Senate commission and print two thousand copies of a Spanish translation of Fillmore’s message.[3] Undoubtedly, he wanted to send the translated document back to his constituents, particularly Spanish-speaking Californios, some of whom owned vast sheep and cattle ranches and participated actively in politics.

Five days later, the Senate debated Gwin’s proposal. Gwin opened with an ingenious argument: aware of the rising nativist tide, he asserted that immigrants from abroad “ought to be prepared to read these documents” in English. But this case, Gwin contended, was different because Spanish speakers in California and New Mexico were not immigrants; they had simply remained in their homes, and translating the annual message would have “a favorable effect” upon them. Gwin tried to deflect the discussion away from the contentious issue of immigration and onto a question of fairness toward his unique constituents.[4]

The subsequent debate covered rather familiar ground. George E. Badger of North Carolina agreed that this case was exceptional. The Californios had been made American citizens “almost against their consent,” and while he hoped they would learn English, complete assimilation would take time. Since they had no access to Spanish-language sources of information about U.S. politics, providing the translation would hasten, not delay, cultural and political adjustment. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi expressed mortification that anyone would object to Gwin’s plan, since it would educate Spanish speakers in American citizenship.[5]

Opponents were unconvinced. Augustus C. Dodge, an Iowan, reversed Gwin’s argument and proclaimed that he would rather translate the message for immigrants who deliberately chose to relocate, than for a conquered people. Other critics noted that nothing comparable had been done when the U.S. acquired Louisiana or Florida, areas with significant French- and Spanish-speaking populations. William L. Dayton (New Jersey) and James W. Bradbury (Maine) raised a classic slippery-slope objection, warning that the Senate would be asked to print in every language spoken nationwide. Isaac P. Walker (Wisconsin) proposed amending the resolution to print translations in German and Norwegian; his purpose, he readily admitted, was to torpedo Gwin’s efforts. Wisconsin’s 90,000 Germans and Norwegians, he insisted, spoke no English but did not request translations. Foote retorted that Gwin’s constituents wanted the translation because they lacked newspapers which could print public documents in their native tongue, whereas Germans could read Fillmore’s message in the thriving German-language press.[6]

William McKendree Gwin c. 1844-1860. Born in Tennessee, Gwin began his political career in Mississippi before moving to California in 1849; shortly thereafter, the Democrat was elected as one of the new state’s first U.S. senators. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Gwin’s proposal ultimately failed when the Senate voted 27-16 in favor of Bradbury’s motion to table the resolution; thus, an ‘aye’ vote signaled opposition to providing a Spanish translation. Broken down by party and region, the vote reveals trends not visible in the brief debate and reveals how partisan and ideological concerns shaped senators’ decisions.[7]

Both major parties were split, with Democrats more likely to oppose Gwin’s resolution than Whigs: 68% of Democrats voted to table, compared with 59% of Whigs. The lone Free Soil senator, Salmon Chase of Ohio, voted against tabling.

Northerners and southerners were similarly divided over Gwin’s proposal, with southerners (68% voted to table) somewhat more inclined to oppose the translation than northerners (58% voted to table). When broken into eastern (east of Ohio and Alabama) and western subregions, the geographic distinction is clearer: southwestern and northeastern senators were strongly against Gwin’s proposal, with 75% of each group voting to table, while southeasterners were somewhat less opposed (57% for tabling) and northwesterners were actually in favor of the translation (only 42% supported tabling).

Combining regional and party affiliations exposes interesting patterns: Northeastern and southeastern Democrats unanimously opposed translation, perhaps because they saw it as a bid to spread the message of a Whig president in the far West, and because they faced a rising wave of nativism back home, particularly in northeastern cities. Thus, they had several motives to oppose Gwin. Southwestern Democrats were next most likely to support tabling, followed by northeastern Whigs. For the former, opposition was probably driven by partisanship, while for the latter, regional rivalries and nativist sentiments were probably paramount.

Northwestern Democrats were evenly split. Most were critical of nativism and courted immigrant voters, although partisanship may have dampened their enthusiasm for translating a Whiggish speech. Interestingly, the only two states whose senators united in favor of Gwin’s measure were in the northwest: Ohio and Illinois.

Most southeastern Whigs opposed tabling Gwin’s resolution; under less nativist pressure than their northeastern counterparts, they had less reason to oppose spreading the Whig message by translating Fillmore’s words. Finally, northwestern Whigs (and the only Free Soiler, a northwesterner) unanimously opposed tabling the resolution. With partisan incentives to support translation and less nativist pressure upon them than their northeastern colleagues, northwestern Whigs emerged as Gwin’s staunchest allies. Since Gwin was a southern-born Democrat, the vote reminds us that politics always make strange bedfellows.

Gwin’s resolution has been overshadowed by the Compromise of 1850 which preceded it and the ethnic and sectional strife which followed throughout the 1850s. But the debate and vote on Gwin’s proposal demonstrate the complexity of conflicts over language and belonging. Amid an era of mounting sectionalism, other influences, including partisanship, nativism, and nationalism, clearly shaped the discussion and vote prompted by Gwin’s proposal. In unsettled political times, success clearly depends on building coalitions, no matter how unlikely they may seem.


[1] Paul Schor, Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation, trans. Lys Ann Weiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 140.

[2] Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 62-86; William Henry Ellison, A Self-Governing Dominion: California, 1849-1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), 78-101.

[3] Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 2 Sess., 35 (December 12, 1850).

[4] Ibid., 66 (December 17, 1850).

[5] Ibid., 66-67 (December 17, 1850).

[6] Ibid., 66-68 (December 17, 1850).

[7] The votes that are discussed in the following paragraphs are listed on ibid., 69 (December 17, 1850).

Michael E. Woods

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

William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered

William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered

As William H. Seward allegedly stated in 1861, “if the Lord would only give the United States an excuse for a war with England, France, or Spain, that would be the best means of reestablishing internal peace.” This is probably one of the most famous and most widely quoted sentences in Civil War diplomatic history.[1] The quote often serves to illustrate Seward’s attempt to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War by instigating a foreign war. The quote, along with Seward’s infamous April Fools Day Memoranda to President Abraham Lincoln, has provided the basis of what has become known as Seward’s “Foreign War Panacea.” Seward’s plan was to provoke a conflict with a European colonial power over an outstanding issue in the Americas as a way to remind Southerners of their duty to defend the United States, thus ending the secession crisis short of war and restoring the Union.[2]

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward, Brady National Photographic Art Gallery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However this quotation, often credited to Seward and recorded by the representative of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, Rudolph Schleiden, has never been properly verified in the Schleiden Papers. While the quote is Schleiden’s words, the sentiment captures Seward’s attitudes in the first months of 1861 rather well. Properly attributing this famous sentence serves as a reminder of how important consulting the original sources is, especially non-English source material. Furthermore, with the recent scholarly debate surrounding the secession crisis, revisiting the Foreign War Panacea illustrates the complexity of Seward’s character and his political designs during secession winter.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory, seven southern states seceded from the Union by early February, plunging the country into crisis, and the president-elect made his first cabinet appointment: New York Senator William H. Seward as Secretary of State. As Daniel Croft has eloquently shown, Washington was abuzz trying to find a compromise solution until hours before Lincoln’s inaugural, including an amendment protecting slavery.[3] For most of the first few months of 1861, Seward operated under the assumption that there was a substantial Unionist population in the South, which needed time to regain political influence. A foreign war as a means to unify the country could help Southern Unionists overcome secessionist opposition and end the crisis short of domestic conflict. Seward closely connected domestic and foreign politics.

Seward had a long-standing interest in foreign relations and had used anti-British sentiments for his own political advancement. As Senator, he had frequently met with diplomatic representatives in Washington and developed friendships with, for example, Rudolph M. Schleiden, who was one of three German diplomats in Washington. Born in the Duchy of Holstein, Schleiden had participated in the 1848 uprising of his home region, after which he successfully lobbied for Bremen’s new Minister Residency in Washington. His two German colleagues were the Prussian minister, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt, and the Austrian minister, Georg Ritter von Hülsemann. Recent Civil War diplomatic history has relegated Schleiden to the undeserved status of “a foreign emissary,” without his name ever appearing.[4] Even German scholars have deemphasized Schleiden in favor of Freiherr von Gerolt who, Enno Eimers for example claimed, occupied a more influential position in Washington. These scholars read German Unification back into the Civil War era, prematurely granting the Prussian minister a role he would occupy later in the decade.[5] Despite this fall from favor, Schleiden remains an important diplomat; he was much better connected than von Gerolt and rivaled only by the British Minister, Richard Bickerton Pemell, Lord Lyons, when it came to trade and maritime law questions.

Rudolph Schleiden, c.1835. Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesbibliothek, Kiel, Germany.

Since coming to the United States in 1853, Schleiden had befriended many influential politicians, among them Seward and his political nemesis, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Schleiden was well aware of Seward’s political-motivated animosity towards Great Britain, which was no secret in Washington’s diplomatic corps. Already in December, well before South Carolina seceded, the British minister had reported to Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell, “My own view of the matter is that it is extremely important that no pretext should be afforded to either one side or the other for asserting that Great Britain has any disposition to interfere in the domestic quarrel. There are no wanting grave statesmen in this country who hold that a Foreign War is the only remedy for the internal dissensions of the Confederation. A contest with England, dangerous and unprovoked as it might be, would be the only means, in the opinion of many, of producing an adequate excitement.” [6] Lyons’s fear soon materialized in many off-handed statements by Seward at Washington dinner parties.

On January 29, Schleiden included the aforementioned sentence in his report to the government in Bremen. At the start of the paragraph, Schleiden explained that Seward still assumed that preservation of the Union was a distinct possibility. Schleiden editorialized that such an outcome was unlikely. Seward supposedly saw secession just as another form of party conflict that had become more violent than normal, but that a foreign war would bring the country back together after inaugural day. Following this summary of the conversation with the senator, Schleiden mentions the infamous sentence. There are no quotation marks, which indicates that not Seward but Schleiden is speaking, and that the words placed in Seward’s mouth are actually those of Bremen’s minister resident.[7] When it came to official correspondence, Schleiden was a meticulous reporter; he would not have forgotten quotation marks if the words were directly from Seward, which he shows on a number of occasions in other letters. The statement is likely Schleiden’s, but this does not negate Seward’s interest in starting a foreign war to bring the two sections together again. Seward made further comments of that nature to Schleiden in mid-February.[8]

Image of part of Schleiden’s January 29 letter. The fateful sentence is at the end of the paragraph.

Seward’s desire to end the secession crisis and prevent war by precipitating a foreign war continued even after Lincoln’s inaugural. On April 1, almost a month after assuming office, Seward sent a brief missive to Lincoln with policy suggestions, commonly known as his April Fools Day Memoranda. Prominent among the suggestions was to demand explanations from France and Spain, seek support from Great Britain, Russia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries, and potentially declare war against France or Spain. Seward hoped such a conflict could unify the country, even as the country was less than two weeks from the first shots of war.[9] Seward was still under the illusion that Unionist sentiments were strong throughout the South and Southern Unionists could still preserve the Union.

Even though it is clear that the central quote supporting the existence of Seward’s Foreign War Panacea actually originated with Schleiden, this knowledge does not detract from Seward’s thinking about a foreign war. The Foreign War Panacea was an outgrowth of Seward’s desire to prevent a civil war and it reflects his overestimation of Southern Unionist support. However, even after the first shot on Fort Sumter, Seward remained interested in a peaceful reunification of the Union, and Schleiden offered him a tool to do so again in April. If nothing else, the above elaboration should remind historians about the importance of consulting the original archival material, instead of relying on the summaries of others.


[1] Howard Jones, Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 41.

[2] Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 9-12; Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1997), 11-16; Ralph H. Lutz, “Rudolph Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1917), 207-16.

[3] Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[4] Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 21.

[5] Enno Eimers, Preussen und die USA, 1850 bis 1867: Transatlantische Wechselwirkungen (Berlin, Germany: Duncker und Humblot, 2004).

[6] Lyons to Russell, December 4, 1860, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, The American Civil War through British Eyes: Dispatches from British Diplomats (Kent, OH: Kent University Press, 2005), 1:5-8.

[7] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, January 29, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Staatsarchiv, Bremen.

[8] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, February 12, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Staatsarchiv, Bremen.

[9] William H. Seward to Abraham Lincoln, April 1, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers: Series 1, General Correspondence, 1833 to 1916, Library of Congress.

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.

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

When I was a graduate student living in Indiana, I made a point of visiting historical sites connected to the Civil War throughout the state. One of my favorites was the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville. Situated in a quiet neighborhood in northwest Indiana, the site preserves and interprets the study where Wallace maintained his personal library. Built between 1895 and 1898, the $30,000 structure was constructed from royalties Wallace earned through his 1880 book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, one of the most popular works of Christian literature since its release and the subject of a famous 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Visitors to the site learn about Wallace’s life as a Civil War general in the United States Army, his stint as Governor of New Mexico territory, and his talents as a writer.[1]

Two Confederate kepis for sale at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in 2014. Photo courtesy of the author.

During my most recent visit to the site a few years ago, something struck me while going through the museum gift shop. As I peered through a selection of books and other assorted items, I saw two Civil War kepis with Confederate flag stickers stuck onto the front of the hats. Even stranger, the label on top of the hats described them as “enlisted” hats, and not a single item associated with the United States military—the one Wallace actually fought for—could be found in the gift shop. What were these items doing at the museum of a U.S. General? More specifically, what did mean to see these hats at a museum dedicated to General Wallace, whose efforts at the battle of Monocacy delayed Confederate General Jubal Early’s unsuccessful march to Fort Stevens, a mere five miles from the nation’s capital?[2]

Perhaps these items reinforce Wallace’s desire for sectional reconciliation, a theme he frequently discussed as a popular speaker at Civil War veteran commemorations. Through these speeches he popularized a common belief that battlefields and blue-gray reunions were places for discussing military strategy, not politics. At the dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Battlefield National Military Park in 1895, for example, Wallace complained that “I am truly unable to understand the Northern soldier who would persecute a soldier of the Confederacy. If there is one such in this assemblage, this is the place above all other for introspection . . . Remembrance! Of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it invoked.”[3]

Whatever may have been the motivation for placing Confederate kepis at the museum of a Union General, the sight provoked within me a number of thoughts about the role of gift shops at Civil War historic sites and what they can tell us about the ways people remember the past.

For one, memory scholars have utterly neglected the role of gift shops and commercialized kitsch in shaping memories of the Civil War. Countless books in recent years have studied postwar reminisces from veterans, public iconography, historical marker texts, museum exhibits, ghost tours, and interpretive programs at historic sites, but almost nothing on gift shops.[4] What is particularly curious about this omission lies in the quantity and prevalence of the items sold in these spaces. Gift shop items ranging from teddy bears, postcards, clothing, posters, toy guns, magnets, replicas of historic documents, and books are sold at these places. They often represent the only tangible item countless millions of people take home from their visit to a historic site. As museum professional and exhibit designer Margaret Middleton persuasively argues, the gift shop represents the values of a museum just as much as its exhibits. The leaders of these institutions, however, often separate the two:

The offerings in the exhibits reflect the museum’s values, which educators and exhibit developers take very seriously. However, when it comes to offerings in the gift shop, a lot of museums will defer culpability. Our gift shop is run by an external vender, they shrug. We don’t pick what gets sold or how it’s displayed. Maybe true, but do you really have no say? What about that time you demanded that the cafe (also run by an external vendor) take peanuts off the menu? . . . Our values are only as strong as our demonstrations of those values. The museum’s mission shouldn’t stop at the gift shop door.[5]

These points lead to my second thought: what meanings do these material artifacts evoke within historic site visitors? How do those meanings interact with visitor experiences at other places within the historic site? For example, how might an interpretive program depicting the horrors of war convey a different message from the one conveyed in a gift shop where toy guns are sold? How might a program on the history of American slavery be compromised when there are no books on the topic that are sold in the gift shop? The National Park Service announced shortly after the Charleston AME Massacre in June 2015 that they would be pulling all Confederate flag standalone items from their gift shops, but what were they doing there in the first place? What did it mean to have those items on display while promoting the Civil War Sesquicentennial’s theme of “Civil War to Civil Rights”?[6] For scholars of Civil War memory and memory scholars in general, there is a treasure trove of research material waiting at historic site gift shops throughout the country.

A typical gift shop at a Civil War historic site. Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

History teachers and professors can also use gift shops to teach their students about historical memory. The next time your class visits a Civil War historic site, design an activity that includes a tour of the gift shop. Using the above questions or ones of your own creation, have your students consider the messages the gift shop conveys and contemplate how those messages interact with other learning materials at the historic site and in their classroom. Just like the exhibits, artifacts, and marker texts displayed at a historic site, the gift shop can offer a significant learning experience for students in and of itself.

I do not mean to suggest that all Civil War historic sites should sell the same items in their gift shops or that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the questions I raise. But a critical appraisal of the content in these gift shops by scholars, teachers, and public history professionals is desperately needed. Hopefully this essay can be a starting point for such discussions in the future.


[1] The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum’s website is, highlighting the strong emphasis on Wallace’s literary talents as a central theme of the historic site. To learn more, see “General Lew Wallace Study & Museum,” General Lew Wallace Study & Museum, 2018, accessed February 8, 2018.

[2] Gail Stephens, Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2010).

[3] Henry V. Boyton, ed., Dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, September 18-20, 1895 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896), 274-279. See also Nick Sacco, “‘This Will Be Our History and Our Glory’: Civil War Memories and the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.” Paper presented at Indiana Association of Historians Conference, Anderson, Indiana, March 8, 2014, accessed February 17, 2018.

[4] Two studies that very briefly explore Civil War gift shops are Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) and Megan A. Conrad, “From Tragedy to Tourism: The Battle of Gettysburg and Consumerism.” Master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, 2015, accessed February 16, 2018.

[5] Margaret Middleton, “It’s Time for Sexism to Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Medium, December 4, 2017, accessed February 15, 2018,

[6] Doug Stanglin, “National Park Service Pulls Confederate Flag Items from Gift Shops,” USAToday, June 25, 2015, accessed February 16, 2018,

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