Category: Field Dispatches

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.”

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. 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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).

Personal Connections with the Civil War West

Personal Connections with the Civil War West

Last year I attended the Western Historical Association meeting for the first time. While listening to the papers of my own panel, walking around the book exhibit, and attending several of the other panels, it got me thinking about being a Mexican-American woman, a historian of the Civil War era, and how I’ve related to, or at times not been able to relate to, the field that I’ve chosen to study. We as historians don’t necessarily need to feel personal connections to our research, but my struggle with that connection speaks to more than personal feeling and echoes the ways that the nation chooses to include or exclude Latinos/as voices in American history. In this post I want to talk more about one of the major benefits of widening the story of the Civil War to more fully include the West and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands: that is, by including more diverse historical voices we welcome more diverse students and scholars into the discussion of the meaning of the War and the mid-nineteenth century.

I doubt it will come as a surprise to readers when I say we are in a period of intense national debate over race, the place of immigrants in American society, and the commemoration of historical events such as the Civil War. Perhaps in response to our current political climate, many historians of the Civil War in the West and those working on transnational aspects of the war’s history call for a broadening of the field and a rethinking of the larger narratives of the nineteenth century. Recently, Erika Pani wrote an excellent blog post on Muster, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective,” in which she encouraged us as teachers to utilize a broader view of the Civil War’s fundamental questions. Pani observes (quite correctly) that while the prospect of having to incorporate multiple conflicts into the study of an already unwieldy subject—the American Civil War—can seem overwhelming, events and locations such as the West and the violent Civil War in Mexico allows Civil War educators to further complicate the central themes present in our courses.[1] In their edited volume, Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill also call on historians to consider including the experiences of those living west of the Mississippi River more fully into the field of Civil War study. The issues at stake in the war such as the end of slavery, the power of the state, ideas about race and gender, and the future of the nation are issues that bridged both sides of the United States as it broke apart in 1861, and they still connect our present with their past. As I often remind my own students, the Civil War ultimately poses more questions than it answers, and Americans continue to struggle with many of these questions.[2]

My interest in the period of the Civil War, like many other historians, dates back to childhood, but, to be honest, I don’t remember feeling as though the war’s history was a part of my identity as an American. It wasn’t until the professor of my college undergraduate Civil War course mentioned to me that Mexicans also fought in the war, that I ever felt any real connection to this part of the nation’s past. Students like me tend to spend a lot of time looking at American history from a distance, waiting to see if people who look like them pop up somewhere in their textbooks. Even if you love American history it can sometimes be difficult to see yourself reflected in it. The more I studied the nineteenth century in graduate school the more I began to think about my own family’s stories within the broader history of America.

Raphael Rios and family. Courtesy of the author.

My earliest ancestors arrived in the United States in the midst of Reconstruction in Texas. At that time there were no massive fences and no walls separating Mexico and the United States. My great-great-grandfather, Rafael Rios, appears to have migrated to central Texas from Mexico sometime in 1867. It was after the Civil War that cotton culture began to push out cattle ranching in the region south of Austin, the state’s capital. His journey remains shrouded in silence for us, but he began working on cotton farms in the area shortly after his arrival. Placing this short story within the larger history of cotton agriculture in Texas, such a migration may have been in response to white planters’ attempts to replace freedmen and white tenant farmer with Mexican day laborers. Most often the work was seasonal, and Mexicans were subjected to the same poor housing conditions and wages that freedmen experienced. By the end of the nineteenth century, we find Rafael Rios’ name in the tax rolls for the small town of Luling, Texas, having purchased a small plot of land along with his brother who was also then in the country. This migration is the first evidence I have of my family’s connection to these broader historical narratives that I have dedicated my life to studying.

The presence of my ancestors is part of the complex racial history of Texas cotton culture, but it also reflects how Latinos/as complicated the narratives of this time period in multiple ways, and it demonstrate how discussions of race were never entirely along a binary. The counties of this region south of Austin and north of San Antonio recorded high percentages of Mexicans living and working in there, especially around San Antonio where eighty two percent of the population of Mexican-born Texans lived. Mexican laborers followed the work into other parts of Texas as well as the sugarcane fields in Louisiana. Even in bayou country the Mexican migrants of the late nineteenth century were not the first; Latin American presence in Louisiana was as constant as it was for the southwest borderlands.[3] It’s these kinds of experiences that provided the basis for my scholarly interest in the connections between the Southwest borderlands, the Old South, and Latin America, which became the central focus of my scholarship.

The multi-racial experiences of people living in the tiny part of Texas where I was born is only a glimpse of a much larger tale. The silences that historians of the Civil War West uncover and the voices that we restore will not only alter the narrative of the Civil War, but also help students and educators from diverse backgrounds connect to this singular moment in U.S. history. There is power in telling stories that allow more people to claim American history as their own.


[1] Erika Pani, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective,” Muster (February 5, 2018, accessed February 13, 2018)

[2] Adam Arenson, “Introduction,” in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, eds. Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 1-15.

[3] Niel Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 26-35.

Maria Angela Diaz

Maria Angela Diaz is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. history at Utah State University. She graduated from the University of Florida with a PhD in American history in 2013. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Chambersburg he took a stand

And sent out the scouts to scour the land;

The railroad track he did tear up,

Likewise tore down the railroad shop.


The stores they plundered, that you know,

For that they do wherever they go;

They bought their goods with Southern trash,

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

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

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

The colored people all ran away,

Likewise the composer of this song, they say –

For if I hadn’t, I don’t know

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

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

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

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

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

Let white and black all shoulder a gun,

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

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

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

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

But, to be drafted, that you must;

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary N. Green

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

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha S. Jones

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

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael E. Woods

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

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

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