Category: Muster

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.

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial

In early 2017, the National Park Service released an official report on its efforts to educate visitors about the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial anniversary (2011-2015). Plans to organize educational programming for the sesquicentennial started as early as 1998, when a group of Superintendents at NPS Civil War sites met to discuss ways to incorporate discussions about Civil War causation into their site interpretations. Seeking to “define a vision statement for the commemoration,” NPS leadership in 2009 explicitly called upon these sites to study and interpret the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. The agency’s theme for the initiative, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” embodied an expansive message that made a direct connection between the experiences of the country’s four million enslaved people during the war and the gains made during the Civil Rights movement 100 years later.[1]

“Civil War to Civil Rights” had its critics, particularly among some Civil War military enthusiasts who decried the entrance of “political” topics into interpretive programs at historical battlefield sites. The shift in focus towards discussions of slavery and emancipation during the Civil War era was certainly a marked change from the dominant narrative of the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), where the shared valor of white Union and Confederate soldiers and their causes were placed on center stage.[2] Nevertheless, many academic historians, NPS interpretive staff, and site visitors welcomed the opportunity to contemplate a more holistic understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, the urgency of incorporating a distinctly “political” interpretation of the Civil War era was demonstrated when perhaps the most consequential event of the entire sesquicentennial occurred not at an official public history site, but at the Charleston AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof—himself a visitor to Civil War public history sites during the sesquicentennial—horrifically massacred nine African American parishioners in June 2015. Since that tragic event, discussions about the American Civil War—not just its history but also how that history is represented in flags, monuments, and at public history sites—have only expanded and intensified.

Cover of the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Summary Report.

The Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report outlines a wide range of initiatives the NPS undertook at more than sixty units that interpreted the Civil War in some fashion. Many sites upgraded their museum exhibits, orientation films, and visitor centers. Some held commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died in the war, hosted battle reenactments, and featured speakers who discussed all facets of the war—military, political, religious, economic, cultural, and social—to interested audiences.[3]

The skepticism in some quarters that accompanied the sesquicentennial’s planning phase continued into the actual commemoration. A Wall Street Journal article reported in 2014 that “promoters of Civil War memorabilia, tourism, and reenactments across the country are fighting a losing battle against apathy for one of the most important periods in U.S. history.” The article cited lack of government funding and “public unease over the divisive racial issues that the war represents” as leading causes for this apathy.[4] Likewise, noted Civil War historian Gary Gallagher lamented in a 2013 interview with the Civil War Trust that the sesquicentennial at that point had been “anemic.” He complained about a lack of initiative on the part of individual states to commemorate the war and suggested that more discussions about slavery and emancipation could have played a role in driving some audiences away, since “you can’t talk about [the war] without talking about race,” an uneasy topic for some visitors.[5]

Measuring the true success of the sesquicentennial’s ability to raise awareness of Civil War history and promote further study of the topic is a near impossible task. This is especially the case since so much of the discussion about the war’s history and memory took place away from actual historic sites and instead occurred on the internet. One useful data point for measuring the sesquicentennial’s success can be found in NPS visitation statistics, however. While these stats cannot tell us what visitors did at NPS Civil War sites or what they took away from their visit, they offer insights on whether or not there was a notable increase in visitation to these sites during the sesquicentennial.

To see if the sesquicentennial was truly “anemic,” as Gallagher suggests, I compiled visitation data for fifty-two NPS units that participated in the Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration, which readers can view on my Google Drive. With this data I calculated average visitation to these sites during the Civil War centennial (for those that existed at the time), from the period 2006 to 2010, and during the Civil War sesquicentennial. I then analyzed percentage changes in site visitation over these three time periods to find some sort of trend in the data.[6] Overall, the numbers indicate that the majority of NPS units that participated in the sesquicentennial saw increased visitation during that time, and in that sense it was a success. Here were some of the major takeaways I gleaned from the data:

–  Of the 52 NPS units that participated in some way in the Civil War sesquicentennial, 33 experienced an increased average visitation in the period between 2011 and 2015 compared to their average visitation in 2006-2010 (63%).

–  Of the 34 NPS units that existed during the Civil War centennial (1961-1965) and that also participated in the sesquicentennial, 20 saw increased average visitation during the sesquicentennial as compared to their centennial numbers (59%).

–  The most dramatic visitation increases from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial occurred at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park (81%), Monocacy National Battlefield (73%), Clara Barton National Historic Site (58%), Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (53%), and Women’s Rights National Historical Park (52%). Other significant increases occurred at Pea Ridge National Battlefield (45%), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (43%), and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (40%).

–  Of the five major Civil War battlefields that were originally saved by the federal government in the 1890s and placed under the NPS in 1934 (Antietam, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg), only one had an increased visitation average during the sesquicentennial when compared to the centennial (Antietam, with a 77% increase). Chickamauga & Chattanooga’s average declined by 5%, Gettysburg’s by 45%, Shiloh’s by 32%, and Vicksburg’s by 36%. These numbers suggest that visitation to some of the most important Civil War battlefields in the country dipped significantly in average attendance compared to the centennial.

–  Although four of the five major Civil War battlefields saw significantly decreased visitation when comparing to the centennial, three did experience an increase in average visitation from the 2006-2010 period to the sesquicentennial: Antietam (11%), Chickamauga & Chattanooga (2%), and Shiloh (28%). Gettysburg declined by 18% and Vicksburg declined by 2%.

–  Despite several of the major Civil War battlefields experiencing average visitation decreases during the sesquicentennial, visitation to all NPS sites connected to the sesquicentennial was still strong. Moreover, the variety of sites open for visitation compared to the centennial was important, with sites dedicated to Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Maggie L. Walker, African Americans in Boston, the Sand Creek Massacre, and women’s rights presenting new interpretations and perspectives to the sesquicentennial’s educational programming. All of these aforementioned sites experienced increased visitation compared to 2006-2010.

What else do you see in the data? Leave a comment and let’s discuss further.



[1] National Park Service, “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report,” National Park Service, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017, See also John Rudy, “From Tokenism to True Partnership: The National Park Service’s Shifting Interpretation at the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial” in Kevin M. Levin, ed., Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017), 61-76.

[2] Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

[3] See appendices starting on page 90 of “NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report” for a list of each participating NPS unit’s educational initiatives undertaken during the sesquicentennial.

[4] The Wall Street Journal has since removed the original article from its website. The cited quote can be found on my personal website. Nick Sacco, “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Challenge of Measuring ‘Success’ in Free-Choice Learning Environments,” Exploring the Past, April 27, 2014, accessed December 12, 2017,

[5] “An Interview with Historian Gary Gallagher,” Civil War Trust, 2013, accessed December 14, 2017,

[6] To view visitation data for all NPS units, see National Park Service, “National Park Service Visitor Use Stats,” National Park Service, accessed December 17, 2017,

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

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Perhaps I’ve been wrong about African American citizenship.

The anniversary year of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification is upon us. 2018 marks 150 years since birthright citizenship was constitutionalized. I’ve told this story many times, even recounting it in an article for the Journal of the Civil War Era.[1]

The Fourteenth Amendment established black Americans, and indeed nearly all those born in the United States, as its citizens: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In 1868, the legal force of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which deemed all black people non-citizens, was overcome. The new Constitution removed all doubt about African American claims to belonging, even as the content and the character of their rights would remain (and continue to be) subject of debate.

I have regarded this interpretation as ironclad, approaching something like a truth. Unlike their Chinese American counterparts, after 1868 black Americans did not face state-sponsored schemes of exclusion. Nor did African Americans confront schemes for their removal or threats to their sovereignty, as had Native Americans. The long history of citizenship shows how people of color have not been on equal footing before the law.

But perhaps I’ve been wrong; perhaps black citizenship is not a sure thing after all.

For me, a seed of doubt was sown by a recent incident at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville (SIUE). A professor reported entering a classroom to find this message written on the blackboard: “NO PERSON OF AFRICAN Descent shall be Citizen of the U.S.… NOR were they ever intended to be.” Dred Scott Decision <– GOOGLE IT. What’s YOUR NATIONALITY? Million dollar ?[2]

Image of the blackboard notation at SIUE. Courtesy of the Belleville News-Democrat.

Nineteen members of SIUE’s Philosophy faculty issued a denunciation in an open letter to the SIUE community: “What was written on the board, which referred to the Dred Scott case, expressed white supremacist propaganda that is intellectually dishonest.”[3] Here, they suggested that intellectual dishonesty lies not in the characterization of the decision in Dred Scott, which did indeed draw into serious question the citizenship of black Americans. The dishonestly lies in the failure to add that Dred Scott was rendered inoperable by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright provision. It is intellectually dishonest to draw into question the citizenship of black Americans.

Or is it? This is the question that underlies the “Space Traders” story, penned by the late legal scholar Derrick Bell in 1992.[4] If you’re not familiar with Bell’s story, it is a must read. But I’ll summarize it here. Aliens arrive on the shore of the United States, eager to strike a bargain. They offer the nation wealth, a clean environment, and safe energy in exchange for one thing: all black Americans. Bell goes on to explore how the nation responds, from the halls of Congress to the streets.

I’ll let you discover the ending for yourself. But for my concern about black citizenship, Bell is on point. His story is intended to test our contemporary thinking about black belonging. Are black Americans equal and unassailable citizens of the United States, such that the Space Traders’ bargain must be rejected? Or are black people mere sojourners to be traded away en masse for the good of the nation with citizenship revoked or reconfigured?

Back to that blackboard comment at SIUE that so unsettled me. Bell’s story affirms my sense of unease. How confident should we be in the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment? In Bell’s story, in the face of the Space Traders proposal, a national consensus emerges such that Congress swiftly amends the Constitution. A national service requirement is adopted, one to which black Americans are subjected in short order. His lesson? There is nothing unassailable about law. There is nothing in the Constitution not subject to amendment if the political winds blow in a new direction.

No writing on a classroom blackboard signals a Constitutional sea change. Still, it is a reminder that my analysis must always allow for the contingencies. It’s unlikely that Space Traders will visit our shores anytime soon. But the terms of their bargain remain nonetheless relevant today. Did the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee the citizenship of black Americans born in the United States? Yes, at least until ideas scrawled on mid-western walls make their way to the nation’s main stage.



[1] Martha S. Jones, “Birthright Citizenship and Reconstruction’s Unfinished Revolution,” in Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (March 2017): 10.

[2] Nassim Benchaabane, “Racist Message Left on SIUE Blackboard Under Investigation,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1, 2017, The university denounced the “racist comment” and initiated an investigation. An investigation confirmed that the comment was not part of a class lesson, but there are no reports that its author has been identified. Elizabeth Donald, “Racist Message on SIUE Blackboard Wasn’t Part of a Class, Officials Say,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 8, 2017,

[3] Department of Philosophy, “An Open Letter to the SIUE Community,” accessed January 2, 2018,

[4] Derrick Bell, “The Space Traders,” in Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 158-195.

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_.

Author Interview: Marise Bachand

Author Interview: Marise Bachand

Today we share an interview with Marise Bachand, who published an article in our December 2017 special issue, titled “Disunited Daughters of the Confederations: Creoles and Canadians at the Intersection of Nations, States, and Empires.” Marise is an associate professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. An Americanist trained in Canada, she holds an M.A. from Université du Québec à Montréal and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario. She is completing a book manuscript on the urban lives of plantation women based on her dissertation and she is researching two projects—one on white Creole women and the Americanization of Louisiana, and one on the Whig intellectual circle of Madame Le Vert from Mobile, Alabama.

Thank you so much, Marise, for talking with us. I’d like to start by hearing a little bit about how you got interested in this topic. What inspired you to undertake this project?

It started with the Creoles. In my dissertation, I included a number of francophone sugar planting women to add nuance to my study. I was puzzled to discover how little historians had written about these white women, although they were fascinated by Creole women of color. This historiographical silence, I realized, was not so much the result of some language barrier, but of the exotic and colonial place Louisiana occupies in the American imagination. I thus decided that my postdoctoral project would be dedicated to document these women’s lives as they Americanized.

Then the Canadians came in. When I was hired at UQTR in 2011, a research university with a strong tradition in Quebec studies, I was asked to develop comparative projects. I was intrigued by the fact that women were almost excluded from the Canadian political narrative of the nineteenth century, while so much work had been done in the United States to integrate them. As a feminist historian, I advocate alternative chronologies, yet I feel that there are many stories to be told within the traditional chronological framework. This project also stems from a personal experience, as is often the case with women’s history. How would my daughter, born of the marriage of a French Canadian and an English Canadian, self-identify as she grew up?

In what ways is women’s history reshaping Civil War studies? As you note, there is still much to be done, especially work of a comparative nature. How can studying these elite French-speaking women shed new light on the hemispheric connections between Creoles and French Canadians? Is there another American city, other than New Orleans, that you think might work for a similar study?

Women’s history has long been reshaping Civil War studies, I believe, by linking the battlefront to the homefront. When I first discovered Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades (1966) on a university bookshelf in the late 1990s, I realized that historians like George Rable, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Leslie Schwalm were already revisionists.[1] The number of articles and books has literally exploded since. Although women and gender history remains a niche in a field dominated by military and political history, it is a very dynamic niche.

Still, we don’t know much about the impact of the war on ethnic women, especially women of French America. People of the nineteenth century, starting with Grace King and Lord Durham, believed that Creoles and Canadians were connected in many ways. Yet those connections have been lost because the collective identities of those francophones do not fit well within our current pluralist paradigms. Ethnic nationalism has a bad reputation today, often rightly so since it tends to feed intolerance and racism. And yet, I needed to study how nation and other collective identities shaped gender to understand why so many French-speaking women willingly embraced very conservative political cultures at both end of the continent at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many towns and cities could be compared and connected across the border for similar studies, starting with places that sheltered fugitive slaves. Montreal and Toronto were havens for Confederates during and after the Civil War. They were connected to cities like Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston. Before and after the war, elite Canadians, both English and French, wintered in Savannah and summered in Saratoga, while Americans came to Niagara. Philadelphia, New York and Boston were linked to Quebec City, notably through their Catholic convents, etc.

What questions guided your research into these two regional identities, and what is the main point that you hope to communicate through your research? 

At the outset, I wanted to understand how the political crises of the period (1830s-1870s) impacted women of French America. What roles were they asked to play in politics of belonging as their collectivities were minoritized in Louisiana and Canada? How did it change their everyday life? What did it mean in terms of gender relations to be colonized colonizers? I also wanted to understand why “race” was such an important concept to describe these French-speaking people at the time.

What my article argues, ultimately, is that both Créoles and Canadiennes experienced these political crises and the collective refashionings that followed quite differently from the men of their family. There was a fundamental contradiction between their roles as mothers of a French race in North America and the fact that they were not sovereign.

The Journal of the Civil War Era focuses on the period between about 1820 and 1880, which is the period at the heart of your project. Where do you see connections between the American Civil War and the developments that you discuss in your article? In other words, what role did the American Civil War play in refashioning Creole and French Canadian identities?

Before writing this article, I never realized how crucial the Civil War was to the transformation of these communities. In Louisiana, that’s when Creolism merged with Confederate nationalism, when white Creoles lost the economic means that allowed them to exist as a prosperous minority with some political leverage. In Canada, the Civil War accelerated the creation of Confederation, a new state that recognized in its constitution the existence of French as a political language. It is the turning point. Creoles became Americans. Canadians became French Canadians.

Do you have any advice for scholars who are looking to conduct transnational, comparative studies such as this, particularly ones that relate to Canada?

Follow the people (or whatever you are studying) —not the national or imperial boundaries, nor the historiographical paradigms.

That segues quite nicely into our next question! Transnational and comparative history has really come into its own as a subfield of Civil War history. What do you envision as the future of this field–thinking in terms of methodology, topics, etc.?

What a big question! The Civil War was a transnational crisis that touched all kind of people as this special issue of the JCWE clearly shows: Canadians, Mexicans, British, French, and even Chinese. It created nations and shook empires. Almost any topic can be studied through the transnational lens, which is congenial to the micro and the macro, the qualitative and the quantitative. Comparative history is a little trickier, often criticized on technical grounds. Yet it is a wonderful tool to revise historical narratives, to put things in perspective. We need more courageous historians to practice this challenging form of history.

We are so grateful that Marise was able to chat with us during this busy time of the academic year, and we hope that you have enjoyed her article (and the special issue) as much as we have. As the issue’s guest editor, Bill Blair noted, all of these essays illustrate the myriad ways that scholars of the Civil War era can make connections with other crises of sovereignty in the nineteenth century.



[1] Mary Elizabeth Massey, Bonnet Brigades (New York,: Knopf, 1966); George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

Kristen Epps

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

Reconstruction Scholars’ Public Engagement: Why It Matters

Reconstruction Scholars’ Public Engagement: Why It Matters

The recent Alabama senatorial race raised the specter of historians’ role in public debates. After suggesting antebellum slavery as a period of American’s greatness, one candidate dismissed the Reconstruction-era amendments and other amendments designed to create “a more perfect union” (except for the Bill of Rights).[1] Post-election demographic analyses revealed the effect of these statements and the impact of grassroots organizing among black women.[2] This special Alabama senatorial election should provide ample evidence for the role of Reconstruction historians in public debates. Media coverage revealed significant gaps in public understandings of Reconstruction. Recent scholarship has yet to reach the non-academic public who accept narratives regarding Redemption and the failures of emancipation. Simply put, Reconstruction scholars need to enter the fray.

My recent book Educational Reconstruction offers a new public narrative for understanding the historical period. An in-depth study of African American public schools in the period between 1865 and 1890 reveals that the questions, concerns, and issues raised in 1865 were not settled at the end of the Freedmen’s School period. Instead, it would take another two decades to resolve issues of freedom, citizenship, and the status of the African American schoolhouse in the postwar landscape. By extending the traditional Reconstruction chronology, this work and subsequent public talks argue that these events signaled the real closure of the post-emancipation moment and the opening of another that continued until the Second Reconstruction. In this narrative, a Congressional vote determined black southerners’ lives and educational affairs.[3] This broadening of Reconstruction’s temporal scope is also evident in recent scholarship showcased in the March 2017 special issue of the Journal of Civil War Era. As Luke Harlow reminds us in his introduction, the future of the field rests in “unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground,” but public engagement is an essential component.[4]

In terms of education, the Blair Education Bill and not the creation of the state-funded public schools is an appropriate ending point to Reconstruction. Influenced by postwar African American educational developments, Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire embarked on a multi-year fight for “the creation of a permanent, uniform, national, public school system in America supported with federal funds.”[5] The Blair Education Bill not only required shifting public school operations from the states to the federal government, but it also attempted to complete the postwar vision of black southerners and their white allies. With roughly 75 percent of federal funds designated for southern public schools, the federal legislation would have eliminated the financial difficulties endured by black southerners in their quest for quality public schools. Their respective state and local government partners would have been able to fully fund the educational systems created in the Reconstruction-era constitutions without difficulty and fulfill their obligation to citizens, white and black. Most importantly, federal oversight would have prevented any distribution irregularities and ensure a degree of protection similar to the initial Freedmen’s Bureau school era.[6]

By 1890, Blair, black urban southerners, and other educational proponents felt that the Fifty-First Congress, better known as the Billion Dollar Congress, was their last best chance. The political demographics of Washington, D.C. changed as a consequence of the 1888 elections. Republicans now controlled the House of Representatives, Senate, and the White House. Most significantly, the 1890 Congressional agenda centered on questions of race, the status of southern African Americans, and race relations with debates on the Butler Emigration Bill and Federal Elections Bill. Unlike previous attempts, Blair and his proponents had every reason to believe that the Fifty-First Congress would ensure its passage.[7]

The March 20th vote revealed otherwise. In a thirty-one to thirty-seven vote, African American public schools simply failed to unite Congress and the nation, as they had in 1865 and after the departure of the Freedmen’s Bureau.[8] The African American press reflected the range of emotions experienced. The Huntsville Gazette offered gratitude to Senator Blair for “his able and manly fight in behalf of Education,” but offered no real recourse other than hope for the revival attempts and perseverance.[9] After a brief hiatus, the Richmond Planet pressed readers into preventing the Republican majority from failing them again with the national election bill while simultaneously urging readers to remain hopeful for a Blair Bill revival in July 1890.[10] By November, black southerners realized that they could no longer rely on the federal government to intervene on behalf of African American education. The Fifty-First Congress and the party of Lincoln had betrayed them.[11]

In addition, new obstacles emerged. Booker T. Washington and his industrial education model provided individuals with an alternative model in the wake of the Blair Education Bill. Following the 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, Washington and his educational model represented the future. Longstanding white partners of African American public schools abandoned their previous black proponents for Washington. By switching focus, the Peabody Educational Fund and other philanthropists could maintain their commitment to African American education without any guilt.[12] Even Henry Blair openly courted Washington’s support instead of his previous African American allies for a modified Blair Bill.[13] Non-aligned black southerners found themselves excluded from the national educational debate in which the tenets of Washingtonian industrial education model dominated. Coupled with the Blair Bill defeat, the consequences of this shift ultimately closed the door on the revolutionary moment in African American education.

Building upon a rich legacy, African Americans, especially urban southerners, responded to these new setbacks by shifting strategies. Since Confederate defeat, they had used education as a means to position themselves as leaders who could uplift the race but also the post-Civil War nation. As race relations worsened, individuals educated in the Reconstruction-era schools were essential in preparing a new generation for future challenges and access to social mobility, and promoting a vision of freedom, citizenship, and equality. They refined older strategies, adopted new tactics, and sought new partners. They maintained an unwavering support of interracial cooperation, the transformative nature of education, and their non-slave status.

Myths and assumptions regarding Reconstruction and the initial African-American public schools not only influenced the recent election but also current educational policy decisions, voter suppression measures, and economic realities affecting black Alabamians who responded at the ballot box. It is important to change the public debate about Reconstruction and its legacy. This twenty-five-year period does not represent a mistake, as one Alabama Senator candidate hopeful deemed this postbellum change. Rather, it is a continuation of African Americans’ firm belief in the transformative power of education in distancing themselves from their slave past. In the recent election, grassroots efforts applied these Reconstruction-era lessons as well as ones learned from its Jim Crow and desegregation pasts. Education, the power of knowledge and historical understanding of the African American experience remains essential for affecting real social change. Therefore, Reconstruction scholars must reconsider their role in current debates over public education, voter suppression, and misuse of history for electoral gains. Does Doug Jones’s election represent a Third Reconstruction or a post-Blair Education Bill retrenchment?[14] It is unclear, but the issues that galvanized black and white Alabamian voters remain. I, as a Reconstruction scholar living in Alabama, will neither stop being engaged in enriching public understandings of Reconstruction and its legacy, nor will I forgo the constitutional rights afforded me by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.


[1] Andrew Kaczynski, “Roy Moore in 2011: Getting Rid of Amendments After 10th Would ‘Eliminate Many Problems’,”, Updated December 11, 2017,

[2] “Exit Poll Results: How Different Groups Voted in Alabama,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2017,; Eddie Glaude Jr., “Black Voters Just Sent a Strong Message to Democrats by Electing Doug Jones,” Time, December 13, 2017,

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

[4] Luke E. Harlow, “Introduction: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Journal of Civil War Era 7 (March 2017): 4-5.

[5] Thomas Upchurch, Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004), 47.

[6] Daniel W. Crofts, “The Black Response to the Blair Education Bill,” Journal of Southern History 37 (February 1971): 42.

[7] Upchurch, Legislating Racism, 2-3, 48.

[8] Gordon B. McKinney, Henry W. Blair’s Campaign to Reform America: From the Civil War to the U.S. Senate (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013), 129; Upchurch, Legislating Racism, 64-65; Crofts, “The Black Response,” 59-63.

[9] “Untitled,” Huntsville Gazette, March 22, 1890, 2; “The Race Problem Solving Itself!,” Huntsville Gazette, May 17, 1890, 2.

[10] “Washington Letter; The Lodge Federal Election Bill,” Richmond Planet, July 5, 1890, 2.

[11] Crofts, “The Black Response,” 59-63.

[12] James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 245-247.

[13] Henry William Blair to Booker T. Washington, February 21, 1896 in The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Louis R. Harlan, vol. 4, 1895-98 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 120.

[14] Manisha Sinha, “Alabama Makes a Noble Historical Turn, as It Has Many Times Throughout its History,” New York Daily News, December 14, 2017,

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).

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

“I am with my youngest son George compelled for the love of our Beloved country to take up arms in defense of that liberty that our for Fathers fought to establish. May Heaven grant a speedy restoration of the hapy [sic] days once enjoyed & a safe return to our beloved ones at home.” So wrote Alva Cleveland on his birthday, a few months after he followed his twelve-year-old son George into the First Wisconsin, where George served as a drummer and Alva as a nurse. He was nearly sixty years old and a master painter. He and George lived in Racine, Wisconsin, with their wife and mother, Mary, an older brother, and two older sisters (another young woman and two young children also lived with them).[1]

This poor photograph of Alva and George Cleveland, apparently taken shortly after their enlistment, is the only surviving image of either. In Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

This rather unusual situation says a lot about the ways that Civil War-era Americans thought about parental duty, military service—and childhood.

A modern version of childhood had begun to emerge a couple of decades before the war started. It envisioned an extended, nurtured childhood free of economic responsibility. This was beyond the reach of most families, and older traditions of work prevailed for most children. Young boys had for centuries been expected to begin working as apprentices, as farm laborers, or as helpers to their fathers when they were nine or ten years old; by the nineteenth century, the decline of the apprenticeship system and the rise of the factory system led to more boys working in mills and mines. (Girls, of course, dominated the child and youth labor markets in many factory systems.) During the Gilded Age, as many as one quarter to one half of all industrial workers were teenagers, and boys and girls as young as twelve or thirteen worked in mines or with dangerous machinery. And those statistics did not include the millions of boys and girls who performed sometimes dangerous work with livestock and machinery on farms and ranches.[2]

As with so many facets of American life in the nineteenth century, the Civil War brought the tension between old and new constructions of childhood into high relief. The Clevelands provide a micro-study of those contradictions, as George and Alva performed certain parts of an idealized childhood even as they did their duty as soldiers.

Shortly after the Clevelands joined the First Wisconsin—originally raised for three months early in the war, it was re-organized as a three-year regiment in the fall of 1861—the unit headed south, traveling through Chicago, Indianapolis, and on to Kentucky. As a nurse, Alva generally rode in an ambulance or supply wagon, while George marched with his company. Alva tried to keep track of where George might be on the route of march. There’s a hint of pride when he estimated that his son “must have been one of the first to step upon shore” from the Ohio River into Kentucky. As often as possible, especially during their first few weeks on the march, Alva and George found one another for meals and at night. That often meant that George enjoyed better rations than other drummers and it certainly meant that Alva could get George out of the elements on rainy, cold nights.[3]

Inevitably, and only a couple of weeks after they enlisted, George fell ill, giving Alva a chance to combine his duties as an army nurse and as a father. George staggered into the hospital “pretty well tuckered out complaining of head ache with Simptoms [sic] of camp rash.” About midnight he was hallucinating about “all sorts of things” and needed a dose of medicine to go back to sleep. He recovered in a couple of days, which allowed Alva to show off his young soldier to a local woman who he apparently knew.[4]

Thomas Nast’s “The Drummer Boy” offered readers scenes that became part of the stereotypical narrative of drummer boys’ experiences. Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863.

Alva and George got together as often as possible to read letters from Mary Cleveland; one evening a few weeks after leaving Milwaukee Alva reported that they had “Rec’d a letter from home a welcome visitor read with pleasure by me & George.” Within a month of leaving Alva proudly remarked that George had written his first letter ever. And two weeks before Christmas he could happily report that George had managed perhaps his longest march yet—twelve miles.[5]

Alva seemed to get used to George’s situation, going several days without reporting on George’s whereabouts or health. Yet it must have given him pause to know that George was surrounded by the same unhealthy and rowdy conditions that he reported in his diary (and which certainly violated the notion of a nurtured childhood): bad weather; constant illness, with a number of Alva’s patients dying during the miserable winter months; accidents ranging from incidents on the march to accidental shootings in camp; drunken, violent men threatening to kill their officers; rumors of big battles fought elsewhere (Shiloh, for instance) that reminded Alva of the potential jeopardy facing George. During the months covered by the diary, the only Cleveland to get close to the shooting war was George, whose company served on the picket line a number of times and went into a line of battle at least once. He went forward with his company in mid-December—although his captain made him move back from the firing line. Alva seemed to accept George’s eagerness to get into the battle when he reported that “George and one of the other young drummers “thought it was hard that they could not go as they came to fight as well as any of them.”[6]

Alva hated being separated from George. In early April, as it seemed possible that the army would be drawn into the fighting predicted near Corinth, Alva fell far behind. “The distance between Geo & me is getting to great & I cannot stand it,” he wrote. “I wish to be there or in the Neighborhood to see & hear & have Geo. With me to know & share his hardships.” Relieved about being back together; he’d been left behind about two weeks, “a long lonesome time Geo & me had not been separated before & it seemed longer than it realy [sic] was.” Once they were reunited, “he told me all the news he could think of” before they went to sleep together in George’s tent.[7]

The First Wisconsin spent several months marching and countermarching, rebuilding burned bridges, and preparing for battles they never fought. Its first major fight came at Perryville in early October 1862, although Cleveland’s diary ends before the battle. A month later, they were both discharged due to disability; apparently Alva’s injury had come from being thrown from an ambulance, although nothing is known of George’s condition. After living for a time in Milwaukee, the Clevelands moved to Kansas, where George was killed while working as a brakeman for a railroad in the mid-1880s.[8]

Alva Cleveland had never heard of a “new construction” of childhood, but he tried to live it in his care for young George in the middle of a military campaign. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, it’s entirely possible he joined the army for the express purpose of watching out for his patriotic, adventure-seeking son; it’s unclear why else a man three times older than most soldiers would take so many unnecessary risks. Yet it is also true that most boys George’s age were already out of school, and that many only slightly older boys were already working in the famously dangerous factories and mines of the era. As a result, it might not seem so shocking that American society would so readily accept youngsters’ eager enlistments as inspiring examples of patriotic duty rather than alarming instances of putting young boys in harm’s way. The military service of George and Alva Cleveland offers a glimpse at one father-son team as they (probably quite unconsciously) worked through these competing ideas about boyhood.[9]


[1] March 13, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Ms2009-113, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia; Racine Ward 5, Racine, Wisconsin, 1860 Federal Census, Roll M653_1427,, 587. The Cleveland diary has survived in two segments: a transcription of Alva’s first few months is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while the manuscript of several months in 1862 owned by Virginia Tech.

[2] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 74-93, 132.

[3] E.B. Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin (Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866), 428-430; Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin, November 28, 1861.

[4] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 5 and 7, 1861.

[5] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 11 and 24, 1861.

[6] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” December 18, 1861.

[7] April 11 and 12, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

[8] Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin, 428-430; Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Madison: Democrat Printing Co. 1886), 1: 326; Milwaukee City Directory, pl 85,, accessed November 24, 2017; U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Provo, UT, USA:, 2011, accessed November 24, 2017; Kansas, Enrollment of Civil War Veterans, 1889, Provo, UT, USA:, 2013, accessed November 24, 2017; “Introduction,” in Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862.”

[9] Emmy E. Werner’s Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998) includes a number of stories of drummer boys and underage soldiers.


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.

The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

On this first day of December, we share our first Field Dispatch from Martha S. Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Her most recent work is Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press.

“Remember the blood on the page.” I have heard this admonition from Ariela Gross, the historian of slavery and race, during more than one conference or workshop. Gross credits this provocative insistence to historian Nell Painter, who has always set a high bar for us as interpreters of the African American past. The intervention is a corrective, inserted into discussions when they veer too close to the romantic, the technical, the abstract, or the antiquarian. It is an insistence that we attend to the human experience that underlies our analyses.

For me, taking account of the blood on the page has sometimes been difficult. Still, it is always important. I am among those historians who took the cultural-legal turn first identified by Gross in her 2001 article ”Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery.”[1] I pore through docket books, petitions, and other ephemera of law’s administration. There, one document may differ from another only in the smallest detail. My archives are often ministerial in quality: rote formulations penned by scribes whose conventions were self-consciously bloodless.

I learn the lesson of the blood over and again. In recent months, I’ve been at work on a new book and in a new archive. Freedom papers of those held as slaves in Frederick, Maryland, survive as small half-sheets of paper, carelessly penned by court clerks.[2] At first glance, they are strikingly similar in content: pursuant to state law, an enslaved person is deemed free by will, deed, or other act of an owner, and affirmed so by the sworn statement of a white person with knowledge. The clerk formalizes such with his signature and a seal. These come to us as a series of routine transactions, and for historians they are often said to reveal some mix of heroism and benevolence, though the proportions differ depending upon who recounts the tale.

My interest in these archives is in understanding the scope and character of manumissions in early-nineteenth-century western Maryland. Among those said to have freed slaves in this particular jurisdiction is U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Some historians have held out Taney’s manumission of slaves as evidence of his anti-slavery sentiments, at least as a young man.[3] I hypothesize that Taney was neither exceptional nor benevolent in having released those men and women who were bound to him by law. But that’s a story for another time. Just now, I’ve come to these archives to extract dates, frequency, and the circumstances of manumission. But it is difficult to remain on task.

There is too much blood in the details.

Freed people are described with a specificity that renders these documents anything but rote. Each has a name, most often two names, a first and a last. Height, complexion, and age are accounted for. But the truest distinctions suggest how those who secured liberty were nonetheless indelibly marked by servitude. “Nelly…a small scar on the left cheek near the corner of the mouth and one on the back of her neck and the little finger on the left hand a little crooked.” “Nancy…a mark just above her lip under the right nostril and several marks on her right arm occasioned by burns, and a scar on her head near the crown.” “Charles…a mark or scar on the thumb of the left hand occasioned by a cut with a knife, and a scar on the right leg between the ankle and knee.” “John…a scar on his right wrist produced by a burn.” Rare is someone like “Bryan” who is described as having “no perceivable mark.”[4]

Freedom Certificate of Nelly Shorter, August 13, 1810. Courtesy of Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761, p. 21.

Court clerks narrate arresting glimpses into the conditions of enslaved people’s labor in the grain fields. “Sarah…a mark on her left arm said to have been produced by the cut of a sickle.” “Philip…a small scar on his forehead, and one likewise on his right foot which scar upon the foot was occasioned by the cut of a reap hook.” “Joshua…a scar on the inner side of his left arm below the elbow, about an inch and a quarter long, occasioned by the cut of a scythe.” “Tom…the little fourth finger of the left hand crooked in the first joint and the nail split occasioned by the cut of a sickle, a small scar on the left side of the left eye.” “Ben…a small scar near the palm of the right hand and a scar occasioned by the cut of a sickle on the palm of the left hand.” “Lydia…two small scars on the little finger of the left hand occasioned by the cut of a sickle.”[5] I pause to read into the technology of grain production, now that I see its cost on the bodies of former slaves.

I am hardly the first historian to contemplate the violence evidenced on these pages. But in these days I have encountered it anew. I am reminded how when reading the fugitive advertisements published in nineteenth century Brazil, Gilberto Freyre saw many classes of violence: disease, malnutrition, overwork, along with the dangerous circumstances of labor.[6] Jean Hébrard adds that, as we read the bodies of former slaves, we can understand the ubiquity of violence and hazard in the lives of many nineteenth-century subjects, be they in the household, the factory, or the field.

To these observations, I would add how sexual violence is also apparent. For every freed person, like “Nero,” who is described as “very black,” there are many others whose bodies tell stories that the clerk leaves us to narrate for ourselves. “Jonny…not very black.” “Levy…of a yellowish complexion.” “John…[a] mulatto man…light complexion.” “Ben…middling black.” “Ann…high yellowish complexion.” “Nelly…a dark mulatto.” “Hannah…light colored.” As clerks ascribed color and complexion, they were also revealing unspoken or, better put, unspeakable intimacies. The certificate of “Nancy Carr a bright mulatto woman” admits that which so many others did not. Her light skin (and free status) were established by parentage; Nancy was “the daughter of Polly Lucas, a white woman.” Some sexual encounters across the color line were narrated on the pages of freedom certificates, but too many others were not.

To recognize the blood on the page requires attention to absences, that which the clerk does not tell. Where are the marks “occasioned” by punishment? Perhaps shirts and shifts covered backs and buttocks such that those scars were not “perceivable” by the clerk’s terms. Perhaps. Then I arrive upon the freedom certificate for “Juliet” with “a cut on the left side of chin, occasioned by a cow hide.” Here, an artifact of the lash that gave Juliet, in the clerk’s terms, a unique, legally cognizable visage. Freedom relied upon such violence, nearly demanded it, as a means by which people held as property were transformed into particularized individuals possessing legal personhood.

Recognizing the blood on the page, understanding its signs, I turn back the microfilm to frame one and begin again.


[1] Ariela J. Gross, “Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery,” Columbia Law Review 101 (April 2001): 640-82.

[2] The freedom papers referenced here are part of the Maryland State Archives Collection,  Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[3] Timothy S. Heubner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond-and before-Dred Scott,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (June 2010): 17-38.

[4] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[5] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[6] Gilberto Freyre, O escravo nos anúncios de jornais brasileiros do século XIX: tentativa de interpretação antropológica, através de anúncios de jornais, de característicos de personalidade e de deformações de corpo de negros ou mestiços, fugidos ou expostos à venda, como escravos, no Brasil do século passado (Recife: Imprensa Universitária, 1963).

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_.

The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

Aside from his truncated term as Confederate president, Jefferson Davis might best be known for his camel experiment: the importation of some seventy-five camels for military testing in Texas and the southwest in the late 1850s. He launched the offbeat operation while serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, an exceptionally creative period in Davis’s life. Among other efforts, Secretary Davis ordered surveys for a transcontinental railroad, organized new cavalry regiments, and purchased the camels. The Army’s camel trials, which included surveying expeditions in Texas’s Big Bend region and along the 35th parallel to California, went well until the Civil War cut them short. By 1866, the surviving animals had been sold to circuses and mining companies or simply turned loose to fend for themselves.

Standing portrait of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (c. 1858-1860), a few years after completing his term as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The camels marched into western folklore. Camel sightings persisted into the twentieth century, nourishing hopes that descendants of Davis’s camels might remain. Army camel handlers, including “Hi Jolly,” a Greek-Syrian Muslim, became local legends. Hollywood dramatized the trials in Southwestern Passage (1954) and Hawmps! (1976). As a colorful southwestern tale, or proof of Davis’s innovative leadership, the camel experiment seems like a whimsical prologue to a cataclysmic war.

But the camel story has a dark underbelly which underscores the breadth and significance of antebellum slaveholders’ tremendous political power. Through a series of twists and turns, the experiment became entangled with the illicit African slave trade. Davis did not foresee this development, but neither did he condemn it. Texas, where the Old South met the Wild West, was the crucible in which camel research melded with human trafficking.

Henry C. Wayne (undated). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There were actually multiple camel experiments because the Army’s public trials inspired several private spinoffs, particularly in the South. The link between public and private sector camel research was Major Henry Constantine Wayne. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Wayne was, like Davis, a West Point graduate and veteran of the U.S.-Mexican War. While serving in the Quartermaster Corps, Wayne studied the military uses of camels and was a logical choice to lead the Army’s camel purchasing expedition to the eastern Mediterranean in 1855. He also oversaw the early trials in Texas.[1] But he made his deepest mark as a publicist. In November 1858, Wayne wrote to the influential National Intelligencer, extolling camels’ potential in private enterprises. Self-identifying as “a Southern man, from a cotton, corn, and rice growing section,” Wayne envisioned camels performing varied plantation chores; compared them favorably to horses and mules in terms of strength, cost effectiveness, and hardiness; and speculated that enslaved laborers could manage them successfully.[2]

Widely reprinted in Southern periodicals, Wayne’s letter ignited a camel craze. Southern journalists had monitored the Army experiment, offering tantalizing anecdotes about camels’ capacity to haul cotton and corn.[3] After Wayne went public, interest in camels soared. Within two months, a Georgia planter had written to the Southern Cultivator asking how he could purchase a camel.[4] By spring 1859, camel trials were afoot in Alabama and camel exhibitions drew crowds at the state fair in November.[5] Dallas County planter Benjamin C. Woolsey wrote glowingly of his own camel experiment: the animals pulled plows and carried massive burdens with ease, at a fraction of the expense required for mules.[6]

This exuberance veiled a sinister connection to the African slave trade. The importation of slaves from overseas had been banned since 1808 but illicit trading never ended; indeed, it increased in the late 1850s as cotton prices skyrocketed. Some southern leaders demanded the repeal of the slave trade prohibition, forging a new rallying point for proslavery extremists.[7] Conceptually, the link between camel and slave imports was clear. As one letter to the Southern Cultivator crudely put it, cotton planters needed cheap labor and cheap work animals, and West Africa offered both: “Let ‘Cuffy’ come and his appropriate co-laborers the Camel…. [L]et us have the Camels right off, and then defy the world to prevent our getting as many of the wool bearing bipids [sic] as we may need.”[8] At the zenith of their power, cotton growers moved easily from camel tests to brazen demands for African captives.

The camel/slave connection was more than theoretical. Established slave smugglers had both means and motive to enter the camel business. After all, they had contacts with West African merchants and the ability to transport living beings across the Atlantic. They also needed alibis. British warships patrolling the African coast identified slave ships by tell-tale characteristics like large water tanks, overabundant food supplies, and the stench of excrement. Slavers tried to hide or justify these giveaways by posing as palm oil merchants or whalers (hence the large casks of liquid), concealing food stores below false decks, and using chloride of lime or controlled burns to eliminate foul odors. Some carried legitimate wares, such as palm oil, alongside human cargoes.[9]

“Arabian Dromedary.” From “The Ship of the Desert,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 89, vol. 15 (October 1857), 583.

Camels offered the perfect cover for slaving operations: they were available in West Africa, consumed large quantities of food and water and produced copious waste, and could be sold through familiar channels to southern buyers. This often meant using entry points along the Texas coast. Texas was, of course, closely associated with the Army’s camel experiment. The Army’s first camel cohort disembarked in Indianola, marched through San Antonio, and operated out of Camp Verde and, later, Fort Davis. The state’s vast coastline had also long sheltered slave traders. In the 1810s, the pirate Jean Laffite had sold slaves into Galveston. The booming demand for slave labor that accompanied Anglo-American settlement tempted speculators like Jim Bowie to follow suit.[10] By the 1850s, Texas planters scrambled to acquire slave labor. With domestic slave prices running to $1500, enslaved Africans who sold for $150-300 were a bargain.[11] Predictably, Texans were among the most outspoken advocates of repealing the 1808 ban. “If you agree to slavery,” thundered the Galveston Weekly News, “you must agree to the trade, for they are one…. Those who deny slavery and the slave-trade are enemies of the South.”[12] Jefferson Davis, now back in the Senate, deemed African imports unnecessary for Mississippi but a potential boon for Texas.[13]

By 1858, Texas was where the burgeoning cotton kingdom met the West’s pioneering military-ungulate complex. On October 16, the schooner Thomas Watson, escorting a smaller ship named Lucerne, docked in Galveston and unloaded eighty-nine camels.[14] The British consul smelled foul play in the ship’s nauseating stench. Convinced that the Thomas Watson was a slaver which had used the Lucerne to ferry human captives to shore before reaching port, he urged US officials to investigate. Federal authorities admitted that the Thomas Watson was probably a slave ship, but claimed they could do nothing without direct evidence. Meanwhile, the camels, turned loose in the city streets, had become a nuisance. Some were slaughtered and eaten; Lieutenant Governor Francis Lubbock, an advocate of the Atlantic slave trade, gave the others sanctuary on his ranch. The Thomas Watson departed, leaving Galvestonians with colorful anecdotes engrained in living memory into the 1930s.

“The Africans of the slave bark ‘Wildfire’ – The slave deck of the bark ‘Wildfire,’ brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In fact, they had glimpsed a sliver of a scheme to smuggle human captives under the cover of camels. The Thomas Watson was owned by John A. Machado, a Portuguese-American slave trader. From his New York City headquarters, Machado orchestrated licit and illicit commerce between West Africa and the Americas, dealing in palm oil as well as slaves. (Only a Lincoln administration crackdown brought Machado under serious scrutiny. After repeated arrests in 1861 and 1862, he was indicted in early 1863 and released on bail; there is no further record.)[15] Among his agents was Mary Jane Watson, who operated the Thomas Watson (a converted whaler ostensibly named for her husband) and legally owned the eighty-nine camels. An elegant, mysterious woman, Watson was likely the widow of a New York publisher, and may have been romantically involved with Machado, though she often claimed to be an English lady or the widow of a sea captain. She later met a dismal end, reputedly drinking herself to death in Spain in 1862. But after recovering the surviving camels from Lubbock, Watson charmed her way through New Orleans and Mobile – and introduced camels into Alabama, including those sold to Benjamin Woolsey.[16] At least one eyewitness later recalled that Watson had secretly unloaded human cargo before arriving in Galveston, though the captives’ fate is unknown.[17] But contemporary newspapers took the bait, eagerly tracing the camels from Texas to Alabama.[18]

Davis and Wayne did not envision this scheme when they commenced the camel experiment. But it illustrates the power of unintended consequences and the potent influence of antebellum slaveholders. Davis triggered a chain of events that linked Army officers, planters, and slave traders in unexpected ways. The camel caper therefore offers a fresh perspective on the “Slave Power”–the slaveholding cabal which, according to many antebellum northerners, dominated the federal government.[19] Rather than a finely-tuned conspiracy, the Slave Power was a network of public officials and private citizens who shared a stake in slavery’s preservation and profitability. It was therefore less monolithic, but perhaps more insidious, than sometimes imagined. Davis did not collude with Machado and Watson, but his pet project promoted the extension and intensification of plantation slavery.


[1] Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 24-25.

[2] Henry C. Wayne to the Editors of the National Intelligencer, reprinted as “The Camel – His Nature, Habits, and Uses,” Southern Cultivator 17, vol. 1 (January 1859), 29.

[3] For a typical example, see “Frosts and Famine in Texas,” (Raleigh) Weekly North Carolina Standard, April 29, 1857.

[4] G.W.T., “Who’s Got a Camel for Sale?” Southern Cultivator 17, 3 (March 1859), 81.

[5] “A Novel Sight,” (Okalona, MS) Prairie News, May 12, 1859; Ripley (MS) Advertiser, January 18, 1860; Linda Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” Alabama Heritage 112 (Spring 2014): 28-35.

[6] “Camels in Alabama,” Ohio Cultivator 15 (1859), 215; “Camels in Dallas County,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, May 28, 1859.

[7] Ernest Obadele-Starks, Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007); Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York: The Free Press, 1971).

[8] R.G.J., “The Camel and ‘Cuffy,’” Southern Cultivator 17, no. 3 (March 1859), 81.

[9] Edward Manning, Six Months on a Slaver: A True Narrative (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1879), 21-24, 40, 125-126; Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 2-3; Leonardo Marques, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 196-197; Sylviane A. Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31, 42, 51.

[10] Eugene C. Barker, “The African Slave Trade in Texas,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 6, no. 2 (October 1902): 145-158; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 12; Sean Kelley, “Blackbirders and Bozales: African-Born Slaves on the Lower Brazos River of Texas in the Nineteenth Century,” Civil War History 54, no. 4 (December 2008): 406-423; Fred Lee McGhee, “The Black Crop: Slavery and Slave Trading in Nineteenth Century Texas” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2000); Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 42-45.

[11] Earl Wesley Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), viii-ix.

[12] Galveston Weekly News, March 3, 1857, quoted in Takaki, Pro-Slavery Crusade, 79.

[13] “Speech of Jefferson Davis before the Democratic State Convention at Jackson, Miss., July 6, 1859,” in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), IV, 69-70.

[14] My account of this infamous episode relies primarily on three excellent studies: Fornell, Galveston Era, 251-259; McGhee, “Black Crop,” 228-231; and Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35.

[15] Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 50-51, 234.

[16] Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35; Marques, United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 253; “The Slave-Trade in New York: Rearrest of John A. Machado,” New York Times, September 21, 1862.

[17] Chris Emmett, Texas Camel Tales: Incidents Growing up around an Attempt by the War Department of the United States to Foster an Uninterrupted Flow of Commerce Through Texas by the Use of Camels (San Antonio: Naylor Printing Company, 1932), 129-130.

[18] See, for instance: Washington Union, January 7, 1859; “Curious Enterprise of a Pretty Widow,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, November 19, 1859.

[19] Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

Michael E. Woods

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

The Duty of a True Patriot

The Duty of a True Patriot

Today, Christopher Hayashida-Knight shares his first Field Dispatch on Muster. Chris 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, in addition to working at a nonprofit. His research centers on African American women in the post-Civil War period. He will be contributing pieces that reflect on gender and women’s history in the Civil War era.

Monday-morning quarterbacking used to have a far more literal meaning, but recently events occurring before kickoff have sparked far more heated debate than Tom Brady’s passing game. What began as Colin Kaepernick’s quiet, personal response to repeated and unpunished deaths of black citizens at the hands of police became a national protest phenomenon.

Drawing broad praise from racial justice activists and quick condemnation from those who like to keep their football and politics separate, President Trump lamented the NFL’s delayed decision to allow the act as “total disrespect for our great country!”[1] Though athletes’ free expression has been erroneously framed as an “anthem protest” by opponents, their kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner is a powerful statement of alarm from one of the biggest soap boxes in the public sphere.[2]

Scholars have rightly pointed to the respectful custom of kneeling for the anthem in times of crisis, as well as the barely-concealed white supremacist undertones of the “shut up and play” crowd. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson, arguably the most famous black athlete of the twentieth century, wrote during the Vietnam era, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”[3]

Young African American woman, c. 1870 to 1900. African American women in the Civil War-era North worked for equitable educational opportunities for black children and the desegregation of public transportation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Professional sports are only a more public setting for a theme that has animated African American history since the founding. In 1847, Frederick Douglass explained to a crowd in Syracuse that honoring the nation means holding it to its own highest standards: “He is a lover of his country,” Douglass argued, “who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”[4]

This critical patriotism was not exclusive to men in public, either. Black women in the Civil War-era North also defended their love of country while decrying their countrywomen’s racism. When the upper class white women of Philadelphia were canvassing the city’s twenty-eight wards to raise funds in 1873 for the upcoming Centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence, Women’s Committee member Mary Rose Smith took it upon herself to invite the city’s African American women to participate in the patriotic fundraising effort. Her plan was for black women to constitute a “colored” auxiliary to the Women’s Committee, which would not breach norms by approaching white homes, but only be allowed to solicit donations from other black Philadelphians.[5]

Whether the gesture was an earnest offer of patriotic racial unity, a cynical ploy for donations without having to comingle with black people, or something in between is not entirely clear. When Dr. Rebecca J. Cole, one of the nation’s first black female surgeons, informed Mrs. Smith that she and her three dozen colleagues would be happy to join the work, but on equal terms with the white women, Smith hit the roof. Cole and others told a reporter that Smith called the invitation “only a courtesy extended towards us, and that the celebration was not a matter that concerns our color, but only white people.” Smith “even went so far as to speak of ‘remanding’ us to Africa if we were not satisfied with the laws of the land,” a comment that turned a respectful negotiation of fundraising protocols into a debate over the right of black Americans to even exist within the boundaries of the nation. Eventually, Committee Chairwoman (and great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin) Elizabeth Duane Gillespie got involved and offered apologies to Cole and her fellow volunteers for Smith’s behavior. Gillespie and a deputy assured the women that they did not intend to offend them; indeed, the Committee “did not recognize the word ‘color’ in its customary application to the human races”— an early deployment of the “color blind” defense.[6]

Centennial Photographic Company, Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,”c. 1876. The Centennial World’s Fair was the first in U.S. history, and boosters hoped to demonstrate American ingenuity, industrial strength, and unity after the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cole and some of her volunteers decided to accept the apology, going on to raise funds with the Women’s Committee as equal members. Their protest resulted in changed behavior on a local scale and they embraced the chance to help celebrate their nation’s hundredth birthday. Others refused, preferring to publicize the offense to build awareness of persistent racism, and found their own ways to honor the anniversary of independence. When public school teacher Caroline LeCount, told a local reporter what her rejection of the apology meant to her, she described a sense of belonging to the American nation that overrode the racism of other Americans. LeCount pointed to “the sacrifices and sufferings of true Americans” in which black women “participated, not to the exclusion of Mrs. Smith and her ‘Women of America,’ but to the common inheritance of all.” Describing a nation that was broad enough to include people of different colors, and complex enough to hold ideals it could not yet measure up to, LeCount echoed the ideas of her contemporary, Frederick Douglass, who promised to “hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot.”[7]

Though Cole and LeCount chose different responses to white women’s racism, both expressed a patriotism that critiqued America’s faults while honoring its potential. These women had not only their own reputations in Black Philadelphia to consider, but the reputation of black people throughout the nation; they understood that their actions in Philadelphia were important on the national scale as white Americans adjusted to the legal reality of black citizenship under the recently passed Reconstruction amendments. Black Americans’ displays of patriotism had to represent to the country—and the world—not only the present dignity of “the race,” but the undefeated aspirations of African Americans for the future.[8]

Some proponents of kneeling during the anthem have argued it has nothing at all to do with the flag or the anthem, but is only about the heinous acts of police officers who should be guarding black men’s safety like everyone else’s. In another important sense, however, kneeling has everything to do with love of country: it is an expression of critical patriotism like that of Cole, LeCount, and Douglass, who believed that the United States is capable of greatness—that the idea of real human equality is worth fighting for, even when your fellow Americans refuse to acknowledge yours.

Perhaps the “lightning scorn of moral indignation” will produce a moment of discomfort before the big game, but drawing attention to the work Americans must still do to provide liberty and justice for all is not an affront to patriotism. It is a discomforting job African Americans have had to take up for generations— “the duty of a true patriot.”


[1] Ken Belson and Kevin Draper, “Trump Criticizes N.F.L. for Not Penalizing Anthem Kneeling,” New York Times, October 17, 2017,

[2] Janice Williams, “Unlike the President, Most Americans Know NFL Kneelers Aren’t Protesting the Flag,” Newsweek, October 14, 2017,

[3] Louis Jacobson, “A Short History of the National Anthem, Protests and the NFL,” Politifact, September 25, 2017,

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” in A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 202-203.

[5] Francis A. Walker, Ninth Census—Vol. I, The Statistics of the Population of the United States (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872); Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder, Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 111; J.S. Ingram, The Centennial Exhibition Described and Illustrated… (Philadelphia: Hubbard Bros., 1876), 47.

[6] “Another Branch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1873; The Press (Philadelphia), April 17 and 18, 1873.

[7] “Color Prejudice,” New National Era, May 22, 1873; “Amicable Adjustment,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1873; Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” 202-203.

[8] Fully 20 percent of Americans visited the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia. About 5 percent tuned in for 2017’s first primetime NFL game. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of American Empire at International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3-5; NFL Communications, “Season Premiere of Thursday Night Football Draws an Audience of 15.7 Million Viewers Across All Platforms,” accessed November 11, 2017,; United States Census Bureau, “Population and Housing Unit Estimates,” accessed November 11, 2017, The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in the case of incarceration; the 14th Amendment established birthright citizenship and equal protection under federal law regardless of color or creed; and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of male citizens to vote regardless of color. “America’s Founding Documents,” National Archives, accessed November 8, 2017,

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.

Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

When the motion picture film The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, most veterans of the American Civil War were in their seventies and eighties. Membership in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the largest fraternal organization of Union veterans in the country—had declined by that time to 160,000 members, less than half of its peak size in 1890.[1] The war had ended fifty years ago. For many Americans too young to experience it firsthand, their understanding of the Civil War era was a recipe cooked with history textbooks, monuments, literature, stories from veterans, and imagination. The Birth of a Nation soon became a central ingredient in this dish. With its dramatic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic redeemer of the defeated South against the evils of “carpetbag and negro misrule” during Reconstruction, white Americans throughout the country praised the film’s accuracy and artistry. These sentiments were so commonplace that historian David Blight famously argued in 2001 that the country’s collective memory of the Civil War and its aftermath “rested on a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections while whites and blacks divided and struggled mightily even to know one another.”[2]

Newspaper ads and positive film reviews like those published in The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Indiana) promoted The Birth of a Nation as a work of scholarship “rich in historical value.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Numerous historians have since challenged Blight’s claim with regards to the memories of Civil War veterans on both sides. Barbara Gannon, Caroline Janney, and M. Keith Harris have convincingly demonstrated that a good number of GAR veterans—both black and white—remembered the war as a fight for Union and emancipation. They continued to harbor bitter resentments against former Confederates after the war and conditioned sectional reconciliation upon a recognition of their “Won Cause.”[3] But what did the organization’s aging veterans have to say about The Birth of a Nation and its representation of the Civil War era?

The GAR met as an organization in annual national and state conventions. The national “encampments” in 1915 and 1916 avoided making a statement about The Birth of a Nation, suggesting that the organization’s leaders may have wanted to avoid making any politicized statements about the film one way or the other. At least four local encampments during this time, however, protested the film’s showing and the messages it conveyed to viewers.

In Iowa, the Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Union Veterans complained to a large crowd of GAR members that the film was unpatriotic. A.E.B. Stephens praised the states of Kansas and Ohio for banning the film and argued that it “tells the wrong story; it teaches the wrong history.” The meeting’s official recorder noted that Iowa GAR members loudly applauded Stephens.[4] In Indiana, GAR member Milton Garrigus argued that the film was “written by a prejudiced Southerner.” The Birth of a Nation taught “false history” and justified the “horrid acts” of the KKK. As the head of the Indiana GAR’s Department of Public Instruction, Garrigus warned that the film “poisons the mind, especially the children.” Instead of taking the family to the theater, he recommended that “all who want to know the truth about the Ku-Klux Klan” should read A Fool’s Errand by Albion Tourgée, a Union veteran who moved south and fought the KKK as the 7th District Superior Court Judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction.[5]

Black and white members of the GAR Department of the Potomac (Washington, D.C.) expressed horror at the thought of The Birth of a Nation showing in the nation’s capital. Veteran Arthur Hendricks read out a resolution to the encampment during their 1916 meeting. The resolution expressed “firm and unalterable opposition to the public sentiment” of local residents in support of the film (perhaps including President Woodrow Wilson), which the GAR believed would “debauch” the city. “The Birth of a Nation distorts all history, holds up to praise men guilty of the cruelest and most cowardly persecution of the lately enfranchised race, and slanders men and leaders who saved the Nation’s life at infinite cost to themselves,” it proclaimed. Overall, “The play is exceedingly dangerous in every respect, since its tendency is to pervert the mind of the young into glorification of a shameful persecution of the colored race; of glorifying men who resorted to cowardly midnight raids, and it slanders outrageously the loyal men who fought for the Union,” both black and white, North and South. This remarkable resolution was adopted unanimously by the Department’s members after Hendricks’s reading.[6]

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic at the 1915 National Encampment in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of The Birth of a Nation was George Raab of Flint, Michigan. A native of Germany and veteran of the 4th Michigan Cavalry that helped capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Raab stood before his fellow GAR members in 1915 and asked if they had seen The Birth of a Nation.[7] When another member stated that he thought the film was “fine,” Raab demanded that the Michigan GAR issue a resolution against it. “It is historically misleading, and an absolute insult to everyone of us here.” Sensing that the country’s collective memory of the war was changing, Raab argued that “thirty years ago it would have never been shown in the north.” Now it was actively being celebrated, especially by those too young to have lived throughout the period. Equally important to Raab, “the colored men went with us shoulder to shoulder and helped to put down the rebellion, and those southerners, after the war, maltreated them worse than dogs. Why should we soldiers of the north eulogize the play and spread broadcast that it is a wonderful thing?”[8]

Raab’s speech prompted impassioned support. Another comrade argued that a resolution was needed “to protect the youth and the old soldiers of the north . . . there are several things in it which are misleading in so far as the colored soldiers are concerned and also history is grossly misrepresented.” Raab responded by asserting that Radical Republican “Thaddeus Stevens [was] one of the greatest statesmen the country ever knew . . . he was in favor of reconstructing the south along patriotic lines.” Raab was encouraged by his comrades to write the resolution himself. He announced it to the membership the next day:

Whereas, the photoplay called The Birth of a Nation is misleading even in name and falsifies events following the War of the Rebellion, and is an insult to some of the statesmen of those stirring days, a slander on the colored race of this country, and an insult to all loyal Union Soldiers who participated in the war of the rebellion.

Therefore, Be It Resolved by the Department of Michigan, in convention assembled, That we protest against the presentation of this infamous play in the State of Michigan, and earnestly request all our friends to refrain from patronizing this commercialized travesty of truth and justice.[9]

These comments complicate not just the ways historians understand how Union veterans remembered the Civil War, but also the Reconstruction era. It suggests that at least some GAR veterans believed that expanding civil and voting rights for African Americans during Reconstruction had been necessary and proper, and that their persecution by racist terrorist groups was wrong. Blacks and whites had fought alongside each other to defend the country and were now entitled to the same rights. For them, The Birth of a Nation distorted history and justified the “shameful persecution” of African Americans in the present. It also promoted a “both sides were right” interpretation of the war that many members found insulting. The children and grandchildren of the country’s Union Civil War veterans who watched The Birth of a Nation often failed to consider the protests of their elders and accepted its narrative as historical truth. The oppressive forces of racism, disenfranchisement, and political violence would become all the more entrenched in twentieth-century American governance.


[1] “The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies. National Encampments: Bibliography,” Library of Congress, accessed October 9, 2017,

[2] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 397.

[3] Barbara Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); M. Keith Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2014).

[4] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Iowa, Journal of the Forty-Second Annual Encampment, Department of Iowa Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marshalltown, Iowa, June 20-21-22, 1916 (Des Moines: Gordon L. Elliott, 1916), 60.

[5] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, Proceedings of Thirty-Sixth Annual Session of the Department of Indiana, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Marion, Indiana, May 26,27,28, 1915 (Indianapolis: Sentinel Printing Co., 1915), 105; Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand. By One of the Fools (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1880).

[6] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of the Potomac, Journal of Proceedings of the Forty-Eighth Annual Encampment of the Department of the Potomac, Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Washington, D.C., February 9th, 14th, and 19th, 1916 (Washington, D.C.: R. Beresford, Printer, 1916), 20, 76-77.

[7] “George Jacob Raab,” Find a Grave, accessed October 11, 2017,; “History of SC-134-90” (History of the 4th Michigan Cavalry Regiment), Michigan State Capitol, accessed October 11, 2017,

[8] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, Department of Michigan Grand Army of the Republic, Held at Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 16, 17, 18, 1915 (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenback Crawford Co., 1915), 97-99, 104.

[9] Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Michigan, Journal of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Encampment, 97-99, 104.

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