Category: Field Dispatches

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

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

New Field Correspondent at Muster

New Field Correspondent at Muster

The Journal of the Civil War Era editorial staff and board are excited to announce a new field correspondent at Muster–please join us in welcoming Angela Esco Elder to the team! Dr. Elder will be writing dispatches on gender and women’s history topics.

Christopher Hayashida-Knight, our previous correspondent who focused on such issues, has had to leave our team due to other commitments. We wish him well, and please feel free to drop him an email or comment on one of his posts to say thanks.

Dr. Elder is an Assistant Professor of History at Converse College. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a PhD in History, she became the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her dissertation, which explored the experience of Confederate widowhood, won the Southern Historical Association’s C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize and St. George Tucker Society’s Melvin E. Bradford Dissertation Prize in 2017. She is currently revising it for publication.

In addition to book chapters, encyclopedia articles, and book reviews, Dr. Elder has published a co-edited collection, Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. She has previously written for Muster, authoring a post in December 2016 on how Confederate widows coped during the holiday season. She has also presented her research at numerous conferences, including the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Society of Civil War Historians, and Southern Association for Women Historians. Dr. Elder can be contacted at

Welcome, Angela!

The Life He Should Have Thrown Away: Ambrose Bierce and Soldiers’ Complicity

The Life He Should Have Thrown Away: Ambrose Bierce and Soldiers’ Complicity


Ambrose Bierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In “Still Life: From the Notebooks of Ambrose Bierce, 1862,” twentieth-century poet R. T. Smith presents a sketch artist who, despite being surrounded by the sights and smells and sounds of the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, chooses to draw a still life of a peach. An “Illinois corporal” peering over his shoulder can’t believe it: “Fellow, can you see all them soldiers blown apart or in pain right here? . . . Peaches, what the hell.” The artist replies, “peaches, maybe are what I need to see, what my weary heart yearns to remember . . . . I know the bloodbath we inhabit, sir against which I can offer only a fragile moment as counterpoint.” He goes on to theorize about art and death. Bierce, the mostly silent observer in the poem, thinks, “Just a witness, I held my tongue but had no more appetite for the taste of his beautifully rendered fruit.” But the corporal puts it more bluntly: “Mister, get yourself a rifle, see if you can still puke out them jackass lies.” [1]

Although written more than a century after Bierce died, “Still Life” offers the kind of hard-edged but slightly off-kilter vignette the legendary veteran, journalist, and cynic would have enjoyed. Bierce’s fiction typically undermines the “drums and bugles” narratives of battles that had dominated war literature during the last third of the nineteenth century. Almost all of his stories show men doing their duty against their better judgment, being manipulated by cowardly or glory seeking officers, or experiencing deep ambivalence about the war in which they found themselves. But a deeper reading of some of Bierce’s works betray a more nuanced attitude toward the men who fought the war.

In one of Bierce’s most famous stories, “The Coup de Grâce,” a young officer puts his horribly wounded friend out of his misery by plunging a sword through his breast. In the story, this act of harsh kindness propels a plot line revolving around misplaced compassion, duty, human cruelty, and hatred. [2] But it echoed a scene he had witnessed at the actual Battle of Shiloh, when his unit was working their way through a ravaged portion of the battlefield. They came across a man, still alive, but with the top of his head sliced open by a bullet. As his brain spilled onto the ground, he “lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts.” One of Bierce’s men asked if he should end his struggles with a bayonet. “I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.” [3]

In recreating this scene decades later—with a very different, more meaningful, and much braver ending—Bierce seems to be wishing that he’d had the courage to kill that dying man. The feelings he seems to be expressing over his failure to be that person is just one of his many complicated responses to the war, and to his having survived it. His courage had failed, and he blamed himself for being so cowardly and conventional.

In a way, this confirms something I have always thought about Bierce, that he was always on the side of the common soldier. His stories have an “us against them” quality that pits the dutiful helplessness of the mass of soldiers against the officers and politicians whose personal agendas and foibles doom hundreds of thousands of men to unnecessary deaths.

This surfaces in a few essays and fragments he wrote long after the war. For instance, one of his more elegiac short pieces, “A Bivouac of the Dead” describes his visit to an old battlefield in West Virginia, where he had fought a skirmish as a young man half-a-century before. He remarks on the well-tended graves of the Union soldiers who had fallen there, but focuses on the nearby graves of a few dozen Confederates. The graves had sunken into the ground, with only a few scattered stone markers. This inadequate remembrance galls him: “they were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime.” He slammed the “fury of the non-combatant” and the “thunder of the civilians” who, by ignoring these remote graves, are “impair[ing] the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause.” Yet, even as he suggests an admiration, or at least respect, for the dead soldiers, he describes them as having been “persuaded to . . . their doom” by “political madmen.” [4]

It struck me in re-reading this line and a few of his other non-fiction pieces that, even when Bierce seems to be completely sympathetic to his fellow soldiers, he can’t help himself from portraying them as dupes complicit in their own victimhood. This is especially salient in his famous non-fiction piece, “What I Saw of Shiloh.”

Much of the essay is a dispassionate but highly descriptive account of the chaos and carnage he observes as he (then a lieutenant) and his company arrive after the first day’s fighting. At one point, Bierce discovers a ravine where wounded Yankees had been trapped by a fire. Bloated and discolored, the bodies still betrayed the terrible agony of their deaths. Even as Bierce accepts the tragedy of these men’s torture—“Faught! I cannot catalogue the chars of these gallant gentlemen”—he undercuts their bravery and his own sympathy in the next few words: “who had got what they enlisted for.” A little earlier he and his men had passed a ravine “in which, by some mad freak of heroic incompetence, a part of an Illinois regiment had been surrounded, and refusing to surrender was destroyed, as it very well deserved.” [5]

They “had got what they enlisted for.” These and other small phrases scattered here and there throughout his writings suggest that there is plenty of blame to go around for the stunning violence and stupidity of the war. Although Bierce always makes clear his hatred of the politicians who started the war, and the generals who sent thousands of men to cruel deaths, his musings on the Battle of Shiloh reveals that he also loathes virtually any soldier who submitted to war. He might mourn their deaths, and rue the decisions that killed them, but he basically declares that they share culpability in their own deaths.

Bierce ends “What I Saw of Shiloh” with a passage reminiscent of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s “Our hearts were touched with fire” speech. “How they come back to me,” he wrote of those years of death and courage in his youth, “dimly and brokenly but with what a magic spell.” Like Holmes, he catalogues the sights and sounds of those long ago days, and the contemporary experiences that bring them rushing back. His last sentence reads like a prayer to be young again—“Ah, Youth . . . . Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day”—until he closes with a startling finale: “and I will willingly surrender another life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.” [6]

It’s hard to avoid the notion that his contempt for the bravery of his fellow Union soldiers and their Confederate foes—the bravery that he himself displayed in years of hard and dutiful soldiering—originated in a deep regret and resentment that those men who had died, as well as those who had survived, had succumbed to cheap patriotism and empty sentiments.

Because, of course, he had succumbed with them.

[1] R. T. Smith, “Still Life: From the Notebooks of Ambrose Bierce, 1862,” Southern Review 53 (Spring 2017): 290-292.

[2] Ambrose Bierce, “The Coup de Grâce,” in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster, eds. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 136-140.

[3] Bierce, “What I Saw of Shiloh,” in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, 104.

[4] Bierce, “A Bivouac of the Dead,” in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, 340. Interestingly, Bierce submitted a de-politicized narrative of his travel through the West Virginia battlefields in a letter read at the 1904 reunion of the Ninth Indiana, his old regiment. Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Reunion of the Ninth Indiana Infantry Association (n. p., 1904), 13-18.

[5] Bierce, “What I Saw of Shiloh,” in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period, 107, 106.

[6] Ibid., 110.

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.

CLAW 2018 Conference: A Preview of “Freedoms Gained and Lost”

CLAW 2018 Conference: A Preview of “Freedoms Gained and Lost”

Reconstruction Era scholars are about to converge on Charleston, South Carolina.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention, scholars, public history practitioners, civic leaders, cultural heritage organizations, and other interested individuals will convene at the College of Charleston for the 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Conference (CLAW).

The three-day event from March 16-18 will include plenaries, panel presentations, and cultural tours of area heritage sites centered on the theme – “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World.” The timing of the conference theme is quite fitting. Recent discussions over the public and scholarly meanings of Reconstruction and the future of Reconstruction Studies has been at the fore of the sesquicentennial celebrations. Lively discussions are expected.[1]

Today, I share an interview with one of the conference organizers. Adam Domby is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston. As a Civil War, Reconstruction, and American South scholar, his research focuses on how southerners fought their neighbors during the American Civil War and examines the legacy of those local fights that civil wars inevitably create. His current book manuscript project centers on the role these conflicts played in three divided southern communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also currently has a book manuscript under review, tentatively titled The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. Why this particular theme?

For starters, we realized a need to garner attention on Reconstruction. Historians and the public spent so much time on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Then April 2015 came along and it all stopped. But 150 years ago, history didn’t stop. As we have seen with recent work by numerous historians the conflicts did not just disappear. My own dissertation was on the topic of how the war time divisions continued to influence society during Reconstruction, so I felt we needed to keep examining Reconstruction.  The fact that we were just ignoring Reconstruction, which arguably had an even greater impact on aspects of American history (for example legal history) seemed like an oversight.

Additionally, many Americans clearly have very little understanding of the time period.  Combined with President Obama’s designation of a long overdue Reconstruction Era National Monument, Charleston seemed the perfect location for such a conference. By falling on the anniversary of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention, we have paired the event with the dedication of a new state historic marker commemorating that momentous event.

Back when I was an undergraduate David Blight said something that really stuck with me: Reconstruction was “was one long, ten, eleven year agonizing referendum on the meaning of the war.  What had the war meant?”[2] How could we, as a society, spend four years celebrating a bloody war and skip the era when we find out what the war was for. The ongoing debates about Confederate monument are in many ways also a debate about the legacy of Reconstruction as they are about the war.  As for the actual theme of “Freedoms Gained and Lost,” many of the crucial political, social, cultural, and legal disputes of the period, especially the ones that are still impacting society today, largely revolved around the meaning of freedom, and who was entitled to which freedoms.

Most years CLAW hosts a conference with a unique theme. For example, in 2019 the College of Charleston and CLAW will be hosting one on “The Vesey Conspiracy at 200: Black Antislavery and the Atlantic World.” The call for papers is open until February 28, 2018 for anyone wanting an excuse to visit Charleston.[3] At the 2011 conference was on the Civil War as a Global Conflict, there were numerous discussions about how the war did not end really end at Appomattox, and so since then CLAW had planned to hold one on Reconstruction.[4]

The conference has attracted an impressive slate of Reconstruction-Era scholars. Are there any panels, papers, and/or addresses that you are most excited for attendees to see?

I am actually saddened I can’t attend every panel. There are so many good papers that it is hard to pick out just a few. When we saw how many people had applied, we realized how much this conference was needed and actually added a day to our original schedule to accommodate additional speakers but still had to turn down a lot of great proposals.  Clearly people were excited for an opportunity to bring Reconstruction scholars together. Normally, Reconstruction is just crammed into Civil War conferences, but this time the focus will be on Reconstruction.

A few highlights of the conference include an opening plenary on W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, Bruce Baker’s keynote on “Who was Reconstruction for?”, and fascinating panels on memory, new approaches to Reconstruction violence, and one on education. I am sure many people will be excited to watch the plenary featuring Eric Foner, Kate Masur, and many of the key individuals involved with the creation of Reconstruction Era National Monument.

I think one of the most exciting aspects is the international component. All too often historians see the story of Reconstruction as a story of the South. Recently, historians have been pushing us to look westward and northward.[5] Allen Guelzo declared “It is time to bring Reconstruction home to us all, not as a Southern event or even the shadow of a European one, but as a uniquely American one, on an American landscape.”[6] While I appreciated his call for more attention to Reconstruction, this conference will challenge that assumption that Reconstruction is just an American story. We have so many panels that include international and transatlantic elements of Reconstruction. Papers will touch on how Ireland, Benin, Mexico, Spain, France, Ghana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and even Australia, just to name a few, were either influenced by Reconstruction or had their own similar experiences that provide a comparative lens to understand America’s experiences.

I am excited for the concluding conference event. What do you hope that people gain from going to Reconstruction Era National Monument, especially with recent discussions of the historian’s role in pubic engagement?

I hope that along with a potential field trip to see Reconstruction Era National Monument the conference will both inspire scholars and give them the tools necessary for more public engagement.  Reconstruction is so often an overlooked period of history; so historians have an opportunity to help reach the public. On the first day of the conference, we will be dedicating a historic marker in downtown Charleston along a main carriage tour route. The second day includes a plenary on Reconstruction Era National monument, and the final day will have a panel on future plans for interpreting Reconstruction in South Carolina, followed by a trip to Beaufort. Reconstruction is not just a South Carolina story, though. I hope the dedication, panels, and trip will help historians bring Reconstruction history to their local communities.

Any information that you would like to share for participants and possible attendees?  

Scholars, both junior and senior, should consider attending!  This is probably the biggest conference devoted to Reconstruction in years. This is a great opportunity to see the latest cutting-edge Reconstruction research. We have kept the registration fees low. Papers are being pre-circulated so register early.  If anyone has questions, they can email Simon Lewis and I at Hope to see everyone in March! Also we hope to publish as edited volume, so be on the lookout.

Thank you Adam and other CLAW organizers for providing a space for new scholarship, approaches, and essential conversations for addressing the scope, content, and directions of Reconstruction Studies and public engagement. My next post will reflect on the conference and early scholarly attempts to address the future directions of the field. For current schedule and registration information, see

See you in Charleston!



[1] Luke Harlow, “Introduction to Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, Journal of the Civil War Era,; Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, “When the South Was the Most Progressive Region in America,” The Atlantic, January 17, 2018,

[2]David Blight, “Lecture 21 – Andrew Johnson and the Radicals: A Contest over the Meaning of Reconstruction,” HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, Open Yale Courses,

[3] For the 2019 CLAW Conference CFP, see

[4] The volume from that conference is David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis, eds., Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014).

[5] Elliott West, “Reconstruction in the West,” Online Forum: Future of Reconstruction Studies, Journal of the Civil War Era,, One excellent example is Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[6] Allen Guelzo, “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase,” History News Network, February 4, 2018,

Hilary N. Green

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