Category: Muster

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

Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

Lessons in Diplomacy: Reassessing the Trent Affair

As the saber rattling and awkward gestures toward friends and foes alike continue to come from Washington, and the loose finger of the president drifts between Twitter and nuclear war with potentially Iran and North Korea, escaping to the diplomacy of the American Civil War provides a reminder that brinkmanship has its limitations. In the course of the Civil War, the United States and Great Britain engaged on a number of occasions in a violent war of words, but avoided escalation. Starting on November 8, 1861, the Lincoln administration faced its most dangerous foreign policy dilemma with the Trent affair.

Having forcibly removed two Confederate envoys from the British mail packet Trent in violation of international law, and having failed to take the vessel to a prize court for adjudication, the Union appeared on the verge of war with Great Britain in late 1861. The British government demanded the release of the envoys and a suitable apology. During Christmas cabinet meetings, Lincoln eventually agreed with his Secretary of State William Seward that the United States could not afford a war with Great Britain and must surrender the envoys.[1] The President’s and Secretary of State’s leadership are a reminder that offending ally and enemy alike are not the means to avoid conflict. However, interpretations of the Trent affair are in dire need of revision, especially the role of two of the leading figures: Secretary of State William H. Seward and British Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston.

When Lincoln made Seward his right-hand man in late 1860, Seward had quite a reputation in British political circles. In late 1840, as Governor of New York, Seward clashed for the first time with Lord Palmerston, who then was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, over an incident that took place in November. On November 12, 1840, authorities in New York arrested Alexander McLeod for murder, arson, and his participation in the Canadian raid on the U.S. ship Caroline. Canadian rebels of the 1837 uprising had used the Caroline to escape to a Niagara River island. In a raid, British forces captured the ship, killed a crewman, and sent the burning vessel down Niagara Falls. Issues quickly escalated when the court set bond for McLeod, but a local mob threatened to lynch him. The U.S. government had to explain to their British counterparts that the U.S. Secretary of State could not intervene in the legal affairs of New York. Nevertheless, Palmerston threatened that if New York executed McLeod, Britain would avenge his death. Despite Seward’s unbending attitude, the case eventually resolved with McLeod’s acquittal. However, the British remembered the impulsive and Anglophobic New Yorker.[2]

A German satirical political caricature on the Trent affair. From “Der Fischer im Trüben [Fishing in Murky Waters].” Kladderadatsch (Berlin), December 29, 1861, 8.

When the newly minted secretary talked freely at Washington parties in early 1861, threatening war with Great Britain, France, or Spain to reunite the country, the British listened. Even his recent foray into Europe did little to change attitudes; many considered Seward a loose cannon.[3] When news of Charles Wilkes’ coup arrived in the United States, the country went into a fever pitch of euphoria. Wilkes’s capture of the envoys on the Trent was a much-needed success for the Union at the end of the first year of war. Some were glad, after the perceived premature British declaration of neutrality in May, that the Union had twisted the lion’s tail and given the British some of their own medicine. Early news from Great Britain indicated that the government contemplated a military reaction for the gross violation of British neutrality, international law, and maritime practices. In the end, Seward’s calm and realist demeanor in the cabinet meeting, where he argued that not to bent to British demands was suicidal, won the day.[4] This critical assessment of Seward illustrates the secretary’s realistic understanding of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign relations, avoiding war with Britain even though his background would have made him liable to use the opportunity offered to finally fight the former mother country.

However, Civil War diplomatic history continues to present the British side as willing to engage in war. A similar reassessment of Prime Minister Palmerston is therefore in order. He is often quoted for having said, “I don’t know whether you are going to stand this, but I’ll be damned if I do!”[5] This statement indicates to many historians that Palmerston was ready for war. Similarly, the British government’s dispatch of troops to defend Canada is often seen as war preparation. However, the troops were purely defensive in nature, based on the assumption that the United States might attack vulnerable Canada.[6] Therefore, a reinterpretation of the British policies requires a better and more nuanced understanding of Palmerston. He was pragmatic and realized that the size of the country’s military often prohibited intervention. Even more, he had changed after the Crimean War, an issue largely overlooked in the historiography.

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, by Francis Cruikshank. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Born in 1784, Palmerston assumed his first cabinet role in 1830 and served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1830-1834, 1835-1841, 1846-1851), Home Secretary (1852-1855), and Prime Minister (1855-1858, 1859-1865). During his stints in the Foreign Office, Britain intervened unofficially in the Portuguese dynastic quarrel of the 1830s, opened China in the First Opium War, liberally used the Royal Navy in the Don Pacifico Affair against Greece, and, the coup de grace, fought the Crimean War against Russia and the Arrow War against China.[7] Considering the volatile state of affairs in Europe during the late 1850s and early 1860s, Palmerston was uncommonly calm. Great Britain did not become directly involved in the Civil War, the wars of German or Italian unification, the religious conflict in Lebanon-Syria, or the Polish Insurrection. Tellingly, Confederates, Poles, and Danes assumed Britain would come to their aid during their respective crisis in the 1860s. Offered many opportunities to display that Britain remained the balancing power and mediator of European difficulties, Palmerston was extremely cautious, in dramatic contrast to his pre-Crimean War persona. Historians continue to see the Crimean War Palmerston when dealing with Civil War diplomacy, but he had changed. That war, its military failures, and lack of tangible results were a wakeup call for Palmerston. His alliance in Parliament was diverse and based on compromise, and there was a growing desire to avoid the expenses of war and not repeat the unsuccessful Crimean War. These issues, deeply ingrained in the political psychology of Great Britain, cautioned British policy makers during the 1860s away from risky foreign policy adventures with unforeseeable consequences.

The Trent affair in late 1861 is often seen as a moment where the United States and Great Britain teetered on the verge of war. However, the movement of troops to British Canada was defensive in nature, since Canadians were worrying the United States might finally follow through on its threats to expand northward. Where historians have debated Seward’s agenda and character to better understand his use of foreign policy bluster for domestic gain, Palmerston still lacks such a reevaluation. The British Prime Minister, who had guided Britain through the Crimean War, was more cautious and reluctant to use violence in the 1860s. A rethinking of Palmerston carries with it the need to reconsider aspects of Civil War foreign policy. Their calm and cautious leadership prevented global war in the 1860s, and one can only hope politicians take note of the past more frequently.


[1] Civil War diplomatic histories have covered the Trent affair from diplomatic history’s inception as a field in the 1920s. The most important works advancing the story are Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997) and Gordon H. Warren, Fountain of Discontent: The Trent Affair and Freedom of the Seas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981). The most recent scholarly account comes in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[2] Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 76-80; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 77-79.

[3] Jones, 26-28.

[4] Warren, 26-43, 120-127, 177-184.

[5] Warren, 109.

[6] Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Lord John Palmerston, September 3, 1861, GC/LE/143/1-2 and Henry Pelham, Duke of Newcastle to Lord John Palmerston, May 25, 1861, GC/NE/86, Palmerston Papers, Broadlands Papers, University of Southampton, Southampton.

[7] David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012); David Brown, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002); Kenneth Bourne, Palmerston, the Early Years, 1784-1841 (New York: Macmillan, 1982).

Niels Eichhorn

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

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Here we share the editor’s note for our special issue in December 2017, by guest editor William Blair. The issue includes groundbreaking and insightful work by five scholars studying continental connections across the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 2015, sixty-some scholars from at least four countries gathered in the breathtakingly beautiful town of Banff, Canada, to explore the common struggles over sovereignty that shook North America during the 1860s. Featured were the crises faced by the countries of Canada, Mexico, the United States, and the indigenous populations within them. The five articles in this special issue represent a fraction of the rich ideas offered about the struggles over which ruling and economic structures should prevail and which people should determine them. Both Mexico and the United States, of course, endured civil wars. Canadians, meanwhile— partly prompted by the disorder south of their border—in 1867 moved to create the Confederation that allowed for local autonomy under the protection of Great Britain. The outcome of these struggles affected economic, labor, and political systems around the globe.

The conference, “Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” grew out of discussions between Frank Towers at the University of Calgary and me, we think, in 2013. Frank had been looking for some way to connect the Canadian and U.S. crises with broader transitions in the world. Ever since starting the journal in 2011, I had been looking to encourage a hemispheric approach to Civil War studies. We both were convinced that the U.S. Civil War, while certainly having its unique aspects, just as certainly was not exceptional. The assumption was that we were missing interconnections that existed among the nations that constituted the Western Hemisphere and perhaps could find either commonalities or unique situations that furnished new insights into the structuring of power in the nineteenth century. While the Richards Civil War Era Center supplied seed money and staff support to make such a project possible, Frank did much of the heavy lifting of organizing the conference by presiding over the program committee and bringing into the fold as cosponsors the University of Calgary, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University. It seemed time to shift the usual way of conceiving the Civil War in international terms—primarily a story of the diplomatic relations between England and the United States.[1]

Fortunately, the field was moving in that direction, too, as witnessed by not only articles published in the Journal of the Civil War Era but also in monographs. When we launched the journal, we featured a review essay by Douglas Egerton that posited how the Atlantic World framework was applicable to the U.S. Civil War. It was an attempt to push beyond national borders and see if the approach that had enriched studies of colonial settlement and conquest could inform scholarship in the later nineteenth century. Egerton borrowed from the work of Sven Beckert to show how world cotton production shifted to India and how states developed new forms of coercion to regulate labor. Later came an essay by Patrick J. Kelly on “the American Crisis of the 1860s,” in which he explicitly argued for a hemispheric approach and for examining the influences on each other of France, Mexico, and the United States. There was, as he put it, an illiberal alliance between the Confederacy and France against sister republics of Mexico and the U.S. that had consequences for how conflicts in both nations played out. Some in the United States, in fact, did not think that their war was over until the French troops and the Emperor Maximillian had been forced out of Mexico.[2]

As mentioned, the monograph literature has been exploring similarly expansive ground. Already cited is the pioneering work of Beckert on the changes in the world cotton markets. Don H. Doyle contributed by situating the U.S. Civil War within the larger context of a fight for validity between republican and monarchical systems of government. Disorder in the United States gave European expansionists hope for gaining a toehold in the Western Hemisphere and for gaining proof for the argument that republican/democratic societies could not hold themselves together. Recently, Doyle has expanded the analysis more deeply into Latin America as he presided over a collection of essays by various scholars published on the subject this year. We should add to the list the work of Matthew Karp, who argued that southern planters cared deeply about abolition’s impact in the Caribbean and Latin America on their own peculiar system, and that of Steven Hahn, one of the scholars who gave a keynote address in Banff and whose own major study of the U.S. struggles in the broader world came out last year.[3]

Ironically, much of this work finally answers the call of a historian who advocated such an approach more than eighty years ago. In an article published in 1933, Herbert E. Bolton argued for considering a “Greater America,” by examining the transformations shared by the emerging nations in the Western Hemisphere. Bolton rejected the term “Original Thirteen” for the colonies that would constitute the United States, which ignored the fact that England had nearly thirty colonies in the islands and Atlantic seaboard. For more than three hundred years the hemisphere underwent conquest and organization as colonies. Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland all tried to establish a presence. At least five world wars were fought primarily for mercantilist domination. Then, between 1776 and 1826, came a series of ongoing revolutions that created independent, new nations, many proclaiming to be republics. Mexico abolished slavery, but the peculiar institution remained entrenched in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Most of the new, major nations displayed expansion impulses and desires to establish a presence in western lands, which sparked collisions with native populations. Common ingredients Bolton cited in this imperial advance were boundless natural resources, foreign immigration, foreign capital investments, and expanding markets.[4]

Specialists in Latin American history have engaged more with Bolton’s concept than historians of the United States, although not all of the attention has been praiseworthy. The more positive reception has come in the area of borderlands studies, where Bolton had an enormous influence, which ebbed and flowed over nearly the past century but remains important today. The hemispheric approach contained less appeal for a while, but Latin Americanists—including scholars from archeological and literary disciplines—have both adopted and questioned his basic assumptions. The most vigorous critique came in a collection of essays edited by Lewis Hanke published in 1964. Mexican historian and philosopher Edmundo O’Gorman was particularly vitriolic in an essay originally published in 1939 in which he criticized Bolton for failing to recognize the importance of culture and religion in Latin America. O’Gorman called the hemispheric approach nothing more than academic imperialism. Others have noticed Bolton’s lack of attention to racial analysis, including the perspectives of indigenous peoples in favor of broad material and governmental transformations. Despite this, his impact can be noticed in a three-volume work produced during the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and, more recently, in the work of Felipe Fernández-Armesto who has written a hemispheric history of the Americas. Although contested, Bolton’s ideas continue to inform a number of scholars of Latin America across disciplines.[5]

The articles in this issue build on the recent historiography and show the potential Bolton saw so many years ago. Phillip Buckner provides an in-depth overview of the scholarly debate over the influence of the U.S. Civil War on confederation in Canada. Between 1864 and 1873, seven colonies and an area in between, which was overseen by the Hudson’s Bay Company, became a new transcontinental nation created out of fragments of the British Empire. While not the only factor, the U.S conflict with the southern Confederacy gave additional impetus to the confederation movement as success by the northern United States left Canada and Mexico vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Meanwhile, Marise Bachand looks at the “Disunited Daughters of the Confederation” in a piece that compares the process of female Creoles in Louisiana with that of Canadians in Canada in becoming integrated in newly forming national states. Bachand argues that the comparison reveals “how the personal was the political and how conflicted were their relationships to the politics of belonging.”

Shifting to Mexico, Erika Pani does marvelous work in providing analysis and overview of the conflict that wracked the country between 1857 and 1867. The decade opened with the passage of a new, reform constitution that did not quite settle all differences within the nation. Internal strife had an impact on exposing the nation to the subsequent invasion by European powers, which was taken over by the French. With the victory by Republican armies in 1867 (the same year as Confederation in Canada), the monarchists were defeated and liberalism became a unifying myth for the country. Also looking at Mexico, Andrés Reséndez traces the prevalence of debt peonage in Mexico. This labor system was absorbed and retained as the United States conquered the Mexican lands in the Southwest, which anticipated the coerced labor systems that became more prevalent in the U.S. South after the Civil War.

Finally, Jay Sexton provides a rich empirical study of the steam revolution that transformed countries between 1850 and 1885. While focusing predominantly on the United States, Sexton’s article shows the interrelationships of Canadian railroad building and British finance with Panama. He links the developments of steamships and railroads to national formation and sovereignty, indicating that these technological advances destabilized as well as fostered nation-building projects.

Although the presumption underlying these studies is that there were common challenges facing the nations that took shape in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are of course unique elements. Canada, for instance, was perhaps the only country in the hemisphere not to have a revolutionary past. Tensions inside Mexico featured Catholic clergy who, despite having their political power constricted by the Constitution of 1857, nonetheless played prominent roles in encouraging the monarchists against the Juaristas. The United States, as others have observed else- where, underwent a violent revolution that ended slavery, similar to the upheaval in Haiti. But these articles do reveal new ways of seeing connections among these countries. They are not necessarily a final word, but they provide examples of fruitful new ways to think about connections among the crises facing the countries in the hemisphere.

[1] The conference website is Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, accessed May 27, 2017,

[2] Douglas R. Egerton, “Rethinking Atlantic Historiography in a Postcolonial Era: The Civil War in a Global Perspective,” Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (March 2011): 79–95; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton; A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014); Patrick Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (September 2012): 337–68.

[3] Don Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Don H. Doyle, ed., American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910 (New York: Viking, 2016).

[4] Herbert E. Bolton, “The Epic of Greater America,” American Historical Review 38 (April 1933): 448–74. Bolton also was a pioneer in establishing the concept of borderlands.

[5] For borderlands, see John Francis Bannon, ed., Bolton and the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964). For various assessments of Bolton’s work, see Lewis Hanke, ed., Do the Americas Have a Common History? A Critique of the Bolton Theory (New York: Knopf, 1964); Antonio Barrenechea, “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor: Boltonian Americanism and Hemispheric Studies,” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 3 (2009): 231–43; Light Cummins, “Getting beyond Bolton: Columbian Consequences and the Spanish Borderland, A Review Essay,” New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 70 (April 1995): 201–15. For his continued influence, see David Hurst Thomas, Columbian Consequences, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989–91); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Americas: A Hemispheric History (New York: Modern Library, 2003).


William Blair

William Blair is the Ferree Professor of Middle American History at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Richards Civil War Era Center. He is also the founding editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. His research focuses primarily on the home front and political culture in the middle nineteenth century. His current research project concerns the atrocities in the post-Civil War South compiled by the Freedmen's Bureau in a collection called Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.

The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

This week, we share our first Field Dispatch by Maria Angela Diaz, an assistant professor of history at Utah State University. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

When we think about Confederates and the Civil War we do not often think about the Southwest. We certainly never think about the Mexican border. However, the Civil War era was an incredibly important time in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and how Confederates imagined the border during the war pointed the way toward how Americans conducted themselves in that region after the war. Understanding how people in places like Civil War Texas thought about the border provides us with additional historical context that connects the Civil War to modern-day issues confronting those that live along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as those who seek to impose their own ideas and policies on borderland communities. Historians’ recent emphasis on exploring the Civil War in the West, as well as its transnational context, gives us new ways to examine the conflict and learn even more about its long term effects. Then, as now, news media, politicians, and public figures used border violence to invoke nightmarish images of the people and places that made up the borderlands all the while willing to use the Mexican border’s porous nature to their benefit. Confederates were only one in a series of groups who did this. Before 1861 white southerners primarily viewed the border with fear, but the Civil War and the French invasion of Mexico made the border appealing to them in ways not entirely anticipated at the start of the conflict.[1]

Juan Cortina, a Mexican ranchero, politician, military leader, and voice for the disenfranchised on the U.S.-Mexico border. Courtesy of

Confederate Texans’ ideas about the border were grounded in the encounters between whites and Mexicans prior to the war. By 1859 the border began to solidify as the dividing line between two nations, yet outbreaks of violence along the Rio Grande still shaped how the region was depicted in public discourse. Events such as the Cortina War of 1859, in which a ranchero named Juan Cortina led Mexicans along the border in a fight against Anglos who had encroached on their lands and political rights, lingered in the minds of Texans the way that the Haitian Revolution stuck out in the minds of slaveholding Southerners throughout the Southern states. Anglo Texans viewed the U.S.-Mexico border as a hostile place filled with enemies who could use the border’s permeability and the perceived Mexican opposition to slavery as a way to infiltrate the cotton belt.

What was essentially border security popped up in Texas’ declaration of the causes of secession. Indeed the protection of slavery went hand-in-hand with asserting control of the border. The declaration of causes stated that the “Federal Government, while but partially under the control of these our unnatural and sectional enemies [the northern states], has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico.” While it did not point directly to Juan Cortina by name he remained active in the borderlands, eventually invading Texas yet again later that year, ensuring that he remained a symbol of the “chaos” that an upending racial hierarchy might cause.[2]

Once the war commenced Confederates began to see the Rio Grande border as providing a host of possibilities that might actually help their cause rather than hinder it. The presence of the French in Mexico triggered a kind of reimagining of the border, and the small bordertown of Bagdad became a lifeline through which Confederates smuggled out cotton. Elites within the border region (both Mexican and Anglo) profited from the traffic in war cotton making its way across the border. Texas’s other borders became equally important as slaveowners, desperate to hold onto their slaves, forced them on marches that ended in the Lone Star State. For Confederate soldiers wearied by the war in West Texas the possibility of escape from the tedium and terror turned into desertion. In 1863, the Texas Almanac noted, with frustration, that the conscription act had caused many soldiers to opt for desertion and escape to Mexico rather than continue to fight. In the same year Captain W.W. Reynolds toured Texas’s frontier to assess its state, and proclaimed that the “most perfect anarchy prevails.” By 1864 roughly a quarter to half of the men serving in Texas Ranger units deserted. While it is not certain how many hid out in Mexico, the temptation was there.[3]

“Panorama of the Seat of War: Bird’s Eye View of Texas and Part of Mexico,” 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, white Southerners viewed the border as both a means of escape from what might be a vengeful Union, and as a space of continued upheaval. Similar to the ways that their slaves had once used it to gain freedom, they too rode for the Rio Grande, seeking safety in Mexico, which had been under French control since 1862. Anglos’ ideas about Mexico and Mexicans in places like Texas were also key to the Confederacy’s support of the French invasion of Mexico. Stretching back before the war, Anglos constructed images of Mexicans as enfeebled people due to the history of racial mixing within Mexico. With Benito Juarez, a brown-skinned, dark-haired man who took office as president of the Mexican nation in 1861 as the other option, the idea of an essentially white European-dominated empire was a palatable and even encouraging idea. Texas newspapers referred to Maximilian I, the emperor installed by Napoleon III, as presiding over a “mongrel race,” and the Houston Telegraph asserted that if Mexico was “left to her own people, alone, they will not be able to perpetuate the republic.”[4] Yet, with war continuing in Mexico between the forces of MaximilianI, and those loyal to Juarez, and with Confederate soldiers slipping across the river, the border continued to be defined by chaos for a United States now wanting to regain control of the borderlands.

In the past historians often divided the Civil War from these massive shifts in power on the continent and, more specifically, in the southwest borderlands. As more recent historians have observed, the path toward the war began in the various borderlands of the American South and southwest. In order to further recontextualize the origins of the war, its stakes, how it was fought, and how it ended we must continue to understand the impact of the borderlands on the American Civil War and vice versa. The fear and suspicion of the border and what lay beyond it has persisted into our own time, as has the necessity of a porous boundary. These ideas are directly connected to the trials and tribulations that borderland communities faced during the Civil War, and how Confederates imagined them.


[1] Don H. Doyle, The Cause of all Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 8-10, 299-304; Patrick J. Kelly, “The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Transnational Turn in Civil War History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 3 (September 2014): 431-443; Gregory P. Downs, “The Three Faces of Sovereignty: Governing Confederate, Mexican, and Indian Civil War Era Texas,” in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States ed. Adam Arenson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 118-138.

[2] “Texas Items,” Houston Weekly Telegraph, January 4, 1860; Jerry D. Thompson, Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 150-152.

[3] George T. Diaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (Austin: University of Texas, 2015), 30-33; Texas Almanac, May 23, 1863; Glen Sample Ely, “Gone From Texas and Trading with the Enemy: New Perspectives on Civil War West,” The Southwestern Quarterly 110, no. 4 (April 2007): 438, 443, 450-453.

[4] The Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, May 24, 1865; Doyle, Cause of All Nations, 301-306; Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (November 2012): 337-368.

Maria Angela Diaz

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

All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

All Brave Men Are True Comrades: Union Veterans and Confederate Memorials

Today James Marten, professor of history at Marquette University, shares his first Field Dispatch. The author or editor of fifteen books, Marten was the 2010 winner of MU’s Lawrence G. Haggerty Award for Excellence in Research. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Georgia, 2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (UNC Press, 2011).

The events of the past summer were just the most recent reminder that even stone and brass memorials can be reshaped—at least metaphorically—to meet the political and cultural needs of the present. That was also the case in the fall of 1912, when a prominent Union veteran gave a memorable speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

President William McKinley helped pave the way for this unlikely monument when he decided in 1898 that the federal government should take over the maintenance of the graves of 30,000 Confederates who had died in Union prisons or hospitals. Another major step came when the Confederate veterans in the cemetery were reinterred in a separate section. President Taft granted the United Daughters of the Confederacy permission to build the monument in 1906. The cornerstone was laid in 1912 and the monument was finally completed in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson made the main speech at the dedication held on Jefferson Davis’s birthday.[1]

A number of Union veterans attended that ceremony, although a couple of decades earlier some had protested the erection in 1890 of Richmond’s huge statue to Robert E. Lee. But Union veterans seemed more put out by the most overt symbol of reconciliation: the campaign by some Grand Army of the Republic leaders and state politicians to return Confederate battle flags to southern states.

One Union veteran who initially opposed the return of Confederate flags was James “Corporal” Tanner, who had lost the lower third of both of his legs at Second Manassas, and from the 1870s on, was one of the most visible advocates for veterans’ interests. He was also a popular public speaker and a peripatetic promoter of the GAR and the Republican Party. He often spoke warmly of reconciliation to northern and southern crowds alike, including the 1896 national encampment of the United Confederate Veterans. He was particularly moved by the plight of Confederates who had died in northern prison camps. As state commander of the New York GAR in the 1870s, he made sure that the graves of Confederates who had died in Union prisons were decorated on Memorial Day. He claimed that he offered a little salute whenever he passed the obelisk erected in the old City Cemetery in Chicago near the graves of Confederates who had perished in Chicago’s Camp Douglas.[2]

Despite Tanner’s sincere devotion to reconciliation, he got himself into a bit of trouble in 1906 when, while national commander of the GAR, he harshly criticized the Georgia UDC when they floated the idea of erecting a statue in honor of Capt. Henry Wirz, the executed commander of Andersonville. Tanner declared that, “When the accursed soul of Captain Wirz floated into the corridors of hell, the devil recognized . . . his only competitor.” The UDC and all of their supporters were accordingly insulted.[3]

James Tanner as commander of the National GAR. From Roll of the 40th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (Philadelphia: Town Printing Co., 1906).

But the estrangement between the Corporal and the South, though sharp, was brief, and no one was surprised when organizers invited Tanner to the laying of the Confederate Memorial’s cornerstone in 1912. It was a pleasant, late fall day, and the crowded program featured hymns, prayers, a cornet solo, and a listing all of the items that were going into the cornerstone’s time capsule. To ensure that everyone in attendance knew that honoring Confederates did not clash with loyalty to the United States, they sang not only “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but also “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The U.S. Fifteenth Cavalry’s band provided the music, and William Jennings Bryan delivered the main speech.

Tanner came to Arlington that day believing he would play a very small role. But on impulse, the master of ceremonies, Col. Hilary A Herbert (he had commanded the 8th Alabama during the war and afterwards was a long-time congressmen and Secretary of the Navy) asked Tanner to offer a few words at the end of the program. Tanner began by gently chiding “my friend, Herbert,” for not giving him more time to prepare, but he had given thousands of speeches during his long career and he rose to the occasion. An inveterate name-dropper, Tanner mentioned the day in 1900 when President William McKinley had asked his opinion about the bill then before Congress authorizing the permanent internment of Confederates in Arlington. “I answered him that he and I served and fought and that we did not make war upon dead men nor bear animosity toward them.” If he were president, he told McKinley, he would sign the bill. The President, claimed Tanner, grasped his hand and said, “I am glad to hear you talk like that, Tanner. I shall sign it as soon as it reaches my desk.” [4]

Tanner admitted he had nothing new to say on this occasion, but he did recall the time years before when he had come out in support of the Camp Douglas monument. When a fellow Union veteran demanded that he oppose the idea, Tanner had rebuked him, writing that he could not oppose a monument to men who “battle[d] for a cause.” Tanner then recalled the most treasured volume in his library, a small book written by John W. Daniel, the disabled Confederate veteran, U. S. Congressmen, and Lost Cause apologist from Virginia. Tanner had a special feeling for the book, not only because he and the author shared a disability, but also because Daniels had inscribed Tanner’s copy with a touching sentiment: “All brave men are true comrades.” The two old soldiers, Tanner said, were equally committed to “the speedy restoration of unity, good feeling, and perfect peace between the hitherto discordant sections of our country.”[5]

But the Corporal sought to do more than look backward. His brief remarks at Arlington, delivered over fifty years after the Civil War, concluded with a call to the young men in the audience: “We of both sides, as we were aligned of old, want you young men—the men of today—to bear in mind that we old fellows met these issues in the long ago and we fought them out; we settled them for all time. . . . We have brought to you a great united nation, a republic founded on principles that shall carry it along ‘til the end of time.”[6] The Confederate Memorial did not represent a lost cause to Tanner, although it probably did to many in his audience. Rather, he used this ultimate expression of Confederate pride and tragedy to illustrate his view of the war’s meaning.

Reconciliation formed much of Tanner’s identity. He drew self-esteem and worth from his role as one of the nation’s leading proponents of the movement, but there was more to his attitude than that. He and other reconciliationists used Confederate Memorials to posit a very specific worldview that transcended the simple desire to let bygones be bygones. Tanner made the point on that fall day in 1912, and on a number of other occasions, that the Civil War had not simply settled ancient conflicts but had unleashed American potential and power. The nation was a better place because of the war. Tanner accepted former Confederates’ efforts to honor their heroes, but added a much more expansive, forward-looking meaning to the Confederates’ nostalgic, backward-looking monuments. Getting Americans in both sections to understand this simple fact would make Tanner’s sacrifices relevant not only to America’s past, but also to its future.

James Tanner died in 1927 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The old amphitheater near his grave, built in the 1870s, was renamed in his honor in 2014. Both are a fifteen-minute walk away from the Confederate Memorial.


[1] Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 260-264. Janney’s book is the most useful account of the creation and response to this and many other symbols of the Lost Cause.

[2] James Marten, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 76-79; Confederate Veteran, April 1895.

[3] J. R. Gibbons, “The Monument to Captain Henry Wirz,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 36 (Richmond: Southern Historical Society, 1908), 226.

[4] Hilary A. Herbert, History of the Arlington Confederate Monument (United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1914), 38.

[5] Herbert, 38.

[6] Herbert, 39.

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 Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

The Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

Today we conclude our roundtable on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power with a post by Greg Downs. Downs is this roundtable’s guest editor and an associate editor at the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is a professor of history at University of California–Davis.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here, herehere, and here. Thank you so much for following along with us as we explore how Coates’s work relates to our study of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

In December 2008, while walking in midtown Manhattan, I passed a young man wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m already disillusioned.” Around me, several people on the sidewalk went silent, in a kind of wonder and also of respect. Not all that long afterwards, at the Warsaw Ballroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the aging punk band The Dead Milkmen stopped playing to berate the crowd for expecting Obama to be anything other than an imperialist, capitalist tool. Already, back in late November, Adolph Reed Jr. had brought a few cheers and some catcalls when he warned a crowd at the CUNY Graduate Center not to be taken in by the charms of a neoliberal.

It is easy now to forget how pervasive this skepticism was. At the AHA in New York in January 2009, I had lunch with the late, greatly missed, Stephanie Camp. Inauguration was still weeks away, and already she was fed up with the disillusionment. Why couldn’t there be a time to celebrate, she asked, before our critical, even cynical, lenses overtook us? It was easy in early 2009, as the Obama administration named a cohort of Wall Street luminaries, to think that the hope and change he promised had already evaporated into neoliberal technocracy.

That feeling now seems quaint. The Tea Party summer of 2010, mid-term losses for the Democrats, congressional obstruction, the strange inability of President Obama to translate his general popularity into Democratic successes in 2012 and 2014 congressional races, the 2016 presidential race, and, finally, the shocking first months of the Trump Administration all made Obama’s first months in office seem lovely in retrospect. Obama’s unceasing rationality, calmness, deep-spirited decency, and—let us also admit it—relative powerlessness have made him a less ambiguous figure than he had seemed to many of us upon his election.

One way to write in 2017 is with a kind of wonder that such decency was so poorly rewarded, with a false but almost inevitable nostalgia for a moment of hope in 2008 that in fact may not have existed. And also perhaps in a general amnesia about Obama’s actual policy decisions in those heady days, in forgetfulness that a bail out of homeowners, not the banks that foreclosed on them, or the passage of a comprehensive or at least comprehensible health plan might not have led the administration toward precisely the same grief.

Perhaps no work demands so convincingly that we wrestle with the history of the present built into our histories of the past as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. Its significance is reflected in the seriousness that each of the participants in our forum has brought to quite distinct questions. In many ways Ta-Nehisi Coates writes from this history of the present: shrouding his disillusionment of 2008 and 2009 in nostalgia that is at once empirically unconvincing and yet emotionally true. Part of what seems to animate Coates’ book is a desire to tell his younger self to smarten up, to save other younger selves from being taken in by hope. In this it resembles perhaps nothing so much as noir. Seeming innocence is revealed over and over again to be corruption. Wise up, kids.

The Muster essays on Eight Years help begin historians’ necessary reckoning with the book. In adept, distinct ways, Brandon Byrd, Kelly Houston Jones, and Scott Hancock ask big questions: How should we reconcile broad political narratives with personal feelings of despair, or human lives that seem to plug on without much regard to political maneuverings in capital cities? Are we so sure, as Brandon Byrd asks, about the leap Coates (and many of us) make from the “me” into the “we” when we talk about the centrality of politics to the way we live and understand our lives? How might historians of the deep or recent past deal with subjects like Frankie Goole who seem at times to discount the impact of politics altogether? Historians, like journalists, can greatly overestimate how much attention other people pay to politics.

Kelly Houston Jones takes us inside the intimate aspects of these subjects’ lives by asking us to ponder the spaces that Coates describes. How does our understanding of political orders and ideologies change as we examine particular places and spaces—Chicago’s South Shore homes and West Side apartment buildings, Natchez slave neighborhoods, southeastern slave cabins? What does the changing terrain of struggle tell us about the continuities and disruptures of that struggle?

Most of all, these essays wrestle, especially in Scott Hancock’s piece, with the question of narrative as we describe a “good” “historic day” that was also an “illusory day.” Should the country’s story be captured by its alleged aspirations, what Hancock characterizes as President Obama’s “faith” in the “long-term trends of the United States?” Or should it be a narrative of “legal change” that nevertheless continuously serves “the dominant white interests.” By examining both legal history and Critical Race Theory, Hancock asks us to consider what a future history of the country might look like if told through the lens of plunder. If historians rethink their own emphasis on ideological and legal pluralism and instead center “the singular original intent, voice, and methodology of white supremacy,” how will we recount the time of the Civil War Era, or American history more broadly? Playing his own beginning of “it was a good day” off of Ice Cube’s 1992 “It Was a Good Day,” Hancock asks us to imagine a future United States in which the government-issued “guns pointed at Ice Cube, as he walked into his home at the end of his day” might be pointed not just, as they already are, at Black Americans, but also at historians “for speaking our mind.”

Hancock’s essay asks us to reflect upon our contemporary moment and our justified disillusionment. Taking the liberty of extending (I hope fairly) the questions he asks, we might ponder: Should we write to extinguish the naïvete that allegedly blinded us in 2008? Should we arm our future selves, and our readers, to expect the worst no matter how pleasant any momentary horizon? Or were we actually not quite as naïve as we seem in retrospect? Maybe the kids were alright?

Whatever Coates’s book teaches us, we cannot shrink from two closely related lessons: His popularity suggests a great cultural appetite for deep skepticism, even cynicism. This thirst will not disappear upon contact with historians’ methods. It grows from fundamental doubts about the future of the country and of the democratic form and even of the species. We ourselves are hardly immune to those doubts. Nor should we be.

Coates’s sure-footed treatment of important historical eras and his, by my lights, sometimes attenuated way of connecting them might lead us to gnaw with beaverly industry at his weak points until they give. This, I think, would be a mistake. For the great challenge that Coates poses for us is not his interpretation of any given moment but his (correct) insistence that narrative matters and cannot be subsumed into craft. The stories we tell create the interpretations we consciously and unconsciously reach for. Many of us, including me, may be writing in a state of tension between our narratives and the interpretations we claim. Look at the way a particular story of 2017 leads Coates, and many of us, to need to tell a nostalgic story about 2008 and 2009 that is not always literally true even as it serves a crucial purpose. What can we learn from the way Coates’ narrative, and for many of us our own, create a demand for a re-interpretation or re-creation of our own recent pasts?

Having begun this essay with one of the dearly departed, I will end with another person who won’t be able to tell me what he thinks about this book. My friend Tony Kaye, a former editor of JCWE, used to say that historians remained terrified, even decades later, by Hayden White. White threatened our ability to write in cheerful ignorance of the choices we were making, of the interpretative moves embedded in our seemingly unchosen choice of genre.

Coates’s embrace of stasis—of a cynicism constantly rewarded—challenges our complacency about narratives and interpretation. By taking his choice of narrative (and Hancock’s suggestions of alternatives) seriously, we might ponder the genres of tragedy (in the way Coates describes it and the rather different way that David Blight used it in American Oracle), or the much-invoked but now rarely practiced irony, or horror (the genre that may quietly define much contemporary historical writing), or (the rarely acknowledged but often practiced) romance, or comedy, or even fantasy.

In selecting and shaping the stories we tell about the Civil War era, we are making interpretive choices, both when we acknowledge it and when we don’t. Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power reminds us of the range of available options. Some may be tempted to follow him. Others may be moved to steer readers away from Coates’s choices and toward other, by their lights, more meaningful genres. Few, I suspect, will be able to (or will want to) write exactly as we did before Eight Years, exactly as we did before the eight years it so eloquently and bleakly portrays.

Greg Downs

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

It Was a Good Day: White Supremacy and Legal History

It Was a Good Day: White Supremacy and Legal History

Today we share the final installment of our roundtable on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power. Scott Hancock is associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College, with expertise in Black northerners’ engagement with the law.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here, here, and here. We will also share a concluding post tomorrow, from our roundtable’s editor and associate editor of the JCWE, Greg Downs.

It was a good day. It was a historic day, the first day when we were in power. Sitting in my house with the windows open late on a November evening in Gettysburg, during the mildest election day weather since 1956, I could hear Gettysburg College students—usually not the most politically rambunctious group—cheering and chanting on campus a half mile away. It was a good day that arrived in part, we thought, via the persistent though erratic progress of a nation whose king, as Thomas Paine declared, was the law. The law, governed by a sovereign people, had enabled us to elect a black President.

But it was an illusory day. And we Black Americans, of all people, should have seen through the veil. Barack Obama’s faith that the long-term trends of the United States move toward freedom and equality—an optimism rooted to some extent in what historians call a constitutional culture—was infectious. Historians are well aware of the law’s proclivity for what Obama described to Ta-Nehisi Coates as the “zigs and zags” of progress. But the paradigm infecting American legal history is that, despite setbacks, the law has moved toward freedom more than away from it, evinced by the Civil War era perhaps more than any other, except for the Civil Rights era.

The Civil War era is both an obvious and contradictory example. It’s obvious because of emancipation. It’s contradictory because of what comes after, when states and the Supreme Court assaulted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and installed state-sanctioned segregation through Jim Crow. The supposed retreat of the post-Reconstruction era is often perceived as either bad law or immoral law, later rectified by decisions putting law and country back on the correct path.

If, however, historians see the law not as establishing the conditions of freedom but the conditions of plunder, and doing so for white Americans, then the law at virtually every point has consistently fulfilled its purpose. If the law of the people themselves is understood as the law of white people themselves, then everything from Marbury v. Madison to Brown v. Board fits easily within Derrick Bell’s thesis: legal change serves dominant white interests.[1]

This is clearly how Coates reads history. And he’s reading the history that we—and by this “we” I mean we academic historians and legal scholars—have written. But he sees the law as plunder because it has had one unitary, enduring purpose: not just maintenance, but enhancement of white supremacy.

You might counter that law has dismantled significant structures of white supremacy. Exhibit number one is, naturally, emancipation. And that mattered: a law stating your daughter or brother could not be stolen away any longer is an exercise of constitutional power that cannot be overstated. But seeing the law’s utility for loosening tyranny and seeing the law’s central purpose of enhancing white supremacy are not necessarily conflicting visions. In fact, the former has rarely—maybe never—seriously threatened the latter.

You might also counter that like American history in general, legal history cannot take a reductionist view like Coates’s. Many external and internal forces shape and are shaped by the law. Class, gender, economics, the Atlantic world, judicial review…there are a myriad of variables to consider. Why reduce the lenses through which we analyze law to primarily just one?

There was a day, not a good day, when historians and most of American society said something similar about the connection of slavery and the Civil War. There was a day when W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction was radical in its argument that yes, the Civil War was all about slavery and African Americans. Historians have for quite some time now concurred with Du Bois. And yet, as Coates says about the country as a whole, the idea “that emancipation and civil rights were redemptive” infects our scholarship. Just as Coates describes black alienation from Civil War history as “produced by American design” and the “result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other,” the law is a product of design that has not struggled, even inconsistently, to resolve the problem of inequity for black people, but has instead consistently worked to treat black people as a problem to resolve for the purposes of white supremacy. Will a day arrive when the consensus regarding Civil War era law is that it, too, was fundamentally about white supremacy?[2]

If so, what would this history look like? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. But here is what it would not look like: it would not be replete with unchallenged assumptions like “the Constitution thus privileged no one ideological perspective,” or “the Founders did not speak with a single voice on most constitutional questions,” or that at times judges “have worked… ‘against the grain of the Court’s defense of liberty interests.” While we would not reify or legitimize the bad history of Reagan era political debates that popularized the unsupportable “notion of a single original intent and the idea that constitutional methodology was frozen at the Founding,” we would no longer so unthinkingly discount the singular original intent, voice, and methodology of white supremacy.[3] We would not presume that “the grain” of the Court was in the interest of liberty. We might then write histories with the premise that there was no real divergence of viewpoints among the Founders and subsequent enforcers, Lincoln included, about the role of the law and the Constitution. Instead of seeing decisions that blatantly reinforced white supremacy, such as those defeating Dred Scott and Homer Plessy, as the law not conforming to its core ideals, we’d see these decisions as conforming with and confirming of an unfaltering ideal of white supremacy from 1787 to 1863 to 1965.

This new history would see the law and conditions of freedom for Black Americans in the Civil War era as contingent upon the extent to which freedom for white citizens were threatened, limited, or expanded. The law and conditions of freedom were determined by the law of plunder: how the law enabled or hindered white political and economic progress. Exhibit number one: Thaddeus Stevens’s H.R. 29 in 1867, proposing to confiscate and redistribute well-to-do slaveowners’ lands to now free African Americans and kick start their prosperity, was tabled for nine months in Congress, and then not even debated. In a nation where the law was supposedly king and the people, now including black people, were sovereign, the king would not best the sovereignty of white supremacy.

Understanding Civil War era law as a law of white plunder, a law not moving in zigs and zags but in circles, may be too much for the legal history field. It may require what every historian of the law should already have, a thorough grounding in Critical Race Theory. And we need more histories of Civil War era law from the perspective of black people—both those writing it now, and from those who lived through it then. These wouldn’t be histories that simply complement mainstream narratives, but rather be primary drivers of understanding how law worked from the cotton field to the justice of the peace to the statehouse to the Supreme Court. We need more Thavolia Glymphs and Gloria Browne-Marshalls and Ariela Grosses and Dylan Penningroths at the heart of the legal canon.[4] Otherwise, our field falls into the same trap that Coates busts apart in ownership of being The Atlantic’s “Black Writer”: work that is “premised on the notion that the foundational crimes of the country are mostly irrelevant to its existence.”[5]

Regardless, the law of plunder will not change in our lifetimes. The good day we had has ended like all other days—just like Ice Cube’s day ended in his video of the 1992 song “It was a good day”—with white supremacy making clear it will use the law to ensure its power. On very the day I write this, President Donald Trump is threatening to revoke the licenses of major media networks that report negative news about him. We—and by this ‘we’ I mean both Black Americans and historians—may think that surely the guns pointed at Ice Cube, as he walked into his home at the end of his day, won’t come out against us just for speaking our mind. Well…many of us also thought that mild November election day was a good day.


[1] Derrick Bell, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review 93 (January 1980): 518-34; Derrick Bell, We Are Not Saved: the Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1987). The “people themselves” references Larry D. Kramer, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World Publishing, 2017), 64, 72.

[3] Timothy Huebner, Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), 7; Saul Cornell, “The Bourn Ultimatum: Popular Constitutionalism and Ratification Reconsidered,” Reviews in American History 40, no. 3 (September 2012): 395; Eric Rauchway, “In Retrospect: Landmark Cases in American Society,” Reviews in American History 35, no. 1 (March 2007): 159.

[4] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Gloria Browne-Marshall, Race, Law, and American Society, 1607 to Present (New York, 2007); Ariela Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Dylan C. Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

[5] Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 114.

Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post.

The Long Struggle of African American Placemaking

The Long Struggle of African American Placemaking

Continuing our roundtable on We We Eight Years in Power, today we share a post by Kelly Houston Jones, an assistant professor of history at Austin Peay State University. Her research focuses on slavery, agriculture, and the environment in the trans-Mississippi South.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here and here.

The power of space and place persists in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new compilation, We Were Eight Years in Power. The importance of black homes and neighborhoods looms large in Coates’ reflections on white supremacy’s plundering of black families and futures. Much of that discussion, especially in “The Case for Reparations,” focuses on housing in the twentieth century. Discriminatory laws and practices directed white families to purchase homes that would increase in value and secure buyers’ financial futures, while African American prospective homeowners in and around cities like Chicago were cheated out of ownership by contract scams and relegated to redlined neighborhoods that only depreciated in value. Home ownership, a powerful symbol of the American dream, represented not only economic independence, but autonomy in space—a place where black families could love, nurture, and grow, away from the piercing eyes of white America. Simultaneously, the spaces of homes and neighborhoods served as sites of respectability (the politics of respectability admittedly frustrates Coates), displaying “middle class” values of neatness and hard work that countless black families have leveraged in the attempt to gain respect from whites over generations. It is no wonder, then, that neighborhoods became a battleground. The power of space and place is also evident in Coates’ other mentions of places like Black Wall Street, a sector of prosperous black businesses in Tulsa Oklahoma, which whites torched in 1921. That space harbored and cultivated the black entrepreneurial spirit and offered a contradiction to white supremacy.

Those complicated threads connecting space and place with autonomy, oppression, and resistance reach back to slavery, an institution that Coates refers to time and again in order to drive home the bracing fact that America’s roots are bondage and white supremacy. Reading Coates’ reflections on homes, neighborhoods and families immediately brought to my mind the influential work of the late Tony Kaye. Joining Places shows neighborhoods as the most important “terrain of struggle” for African Americans in bondage. Adjoining farms and plantations created the world in which black men and women forged family ties and a sense of community amid the horrors of bondage. The neighborhood was “the domain of all the bonds that constituted their daily routine” and it was created by enslaved people’s own sense of place—the hills, streams, and bottomlands that they paced as they move through their own social lives, not the gridded surveys that whites used to cut up acreage into fiber factories. This sense of neighborhood was always under construction, however, as slaveholders repeatedly severed ties between family and friends via moves and sales. Place making, then, remained a constant struggle.[1]

The cabins in which enslaved people dwelt also represented ongoing efforts to carve meaning and power out of space. Stephanie Camp explained the quarters as “extensions of two worlds.” Those structures made up a portion of the “public life of the plantation” as spaces to house those who labored over the cash crop and as spaces in which the next generation of laborers were conceived and born. Thus, the quarters remained part of the reproduction of labor. At the same time, those modest cabins incubated the family and community life of those held in bondage, serving as “essential elements in the rival geography.” Camp described enslaved people’s homes as political sites as well, where they contemplated freedom, and where at least a few women displayed abolitionist prints on the walls. Perhaps a far cry from the homebuyers’ activist groups that Coates describes as a pushback against the predatory contract sellers in the twentieth century, but the work of Camp and others reminds us that the story of the politics of black domestic spaces is a long one.

These slave quarters and homes are where African American families resisted the “plundering” that Coates emphasizes throughout his references to slavery and early black America. Parents nourished and instructed their children in the quarters, passing down traditions and creating new ones. Their housing could also serve as the repositories of enslaved people’s gains in hunting, fishing, or clandestinely trading. For some, the small plots surrounding their cabins might yield produce to augment diets, or, for the very fortunate, a space to grow a bit of the cash crop for sale.[2]

The Civil War changed the terrain of struggle, and the fight for the meaning of space and place took on even higher stakes. Formerly enslaved people immediately identified land ownership as central to their meaning of freedom and argued their “right to the soil,” as Coates quotes in the opening to “The Case for Reparations.” Not only had they earned it with their generations of toil, but freedpeople also understood landholding as the best hope for their economic survival and successful entrance into equal citizenship. Long before home ownership in suburbia symbolized the American dream and afforded the most obvious investment route to economic self-sufficiency, it was the ownership over one’s own farm acreage that signaled economic independence, citizenship, and autonomy for black southerners. As many Reconstruction scholars have shown, however, whites snuffed out the opportunity at landholding and rolled back black-owned acreage in the decades after the Civil War.[3] Readers might look into Pete Daniel’s Dispossession for that trend’s continuity in the mid-twentieth century, which occurred simultaneous to the northern housing discrimination crisis Coates chronicles.[4]

Space and place as theorized by historians of the Civil War era create a thread connecting much of Coates’ musings and arguments. Families carved meaningful spaces out of the sites of their bondage, ached with disappointment when blocked from the freedom and independence of land ownership in the aftermath of the great struggle with chattel slavery. While their grandchildren may have been able to flee their stagnant status in the South to pursue the promises of urban, worldly, sites up North, place making remained a dangerous struggle.


[1] Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 4.

[2] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 93.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017), 164. An invaluable source of freedpeoples’ voices on this and other subjects is Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, Land and Labor, edited by Steven Hahn, Steven Miller, Susan O’Donovan, John Rodrigue, and Leslie Rowland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013-2016).

[4] Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Readers might also be interested in Debra Reid’s Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families since Reconstruction (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012).

Kelly Houston Jones

Kelly Houston Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her research interests include the connections between black life, agriculture, and the environment under slavery, usually focusing on the Trans-Mississippi South. Jones is currently at work on a manuscript about slave life on the ground in Arkansas. Readers can find her work in Agricultural History and the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, as well as in several edited volumes, such as Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas, edited by John A. Kirk, and, most recently, Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas from Slavery through the 1930s, edited by Guy Lancaster.

Reconstruction, Power, and the Personal

Reconstruction, Power, and the Personal

This is the first post in our roundtable on We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Today’s post comes from Brandon R. Byrd, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the intellectual history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, looking specifically at African American history and the African Diaspora.


We were eight years in power.

–Thomas Miller, 1895

Cain’ member nothin’ ‘bout re’struction.

Frankie Goole, 1936

In the fall of 1895, Thomas E. Miller stood before the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. The free-born attorney, college graduate, and former U.S. congressman was one of six black delegates to the convention called by U.S. Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman and his political allies. He was also one of its most vocal dissidents. Miller knew the convention was supposed to disfranchise black voters and discard the state constitution drafted in 1868. He also understood the propaganda meant to justify the purge. Tillman, Miller told the convention, condemned Reconstruction-era political corruption but had “not found voice eloquent enough, nor pen exact enough to mention those imperishable gifts bestowed upon South Carolina . . . by Negro legislators.” “We were eight years in power,” Miller continued. “We had built school houses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and court houses . . . In short, we had reconstructed the State.”[1]

Harper’s Weekly cartoon sympathizing with the plight of black people in the Reconstruction-era South. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Power. Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, with Miller’s claim to it before deploying it in much the same way. For Coates, the black politician wields power. Possesses power. Is power. He, and in this rendering it is implicitly a he, is Miller’s cherished memory of “Good Negro Government” and Tillman’s haunting specter of “Negro Rule.” He is both inspiration and threat, symbolic and real.

But power is personal, too. Although Coates writes that “the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government . . . often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat,” the common thread in the eight notes that precede each chapter is not white backlash to black governance, then or now.[2] Rather, it is his experience of Barack Obama’s power. Coates invites readers to feel his improving sense of financial security as publishers assigned more value to black writers who covered race, increasing pessimism as America’s experiment in multi-racial democracy seemed to unravel with every officer-involved shooting, growing anxiousness about his professional relationship with Obama, and creeping resignation as Donald J. Trump came closer and closer to entering the White House. He, through these reflections on the past eight years, implies that the “we” in his book’s title includes “me.”

This matters a great deal, not just for those trying to understand current issues of race and politics but also for historians writing about Reconstruction. As Kidada E. Williams writes, we still need “audacious scholarship that connects the history we know to the more obscure inner lives of African Americans experiencing a world remade by the crucibles of war, emancipation, citizenship rights and new forms of governance, and the backlash of Redemption and Jim Crow.”[3] That scholarship would ask what power meant to poor and disabled black people who needed the charitable institutions that Miller saw as crowning achievements of Reconstruction. It would explore how black people imprisoned at the South Carolina Penitentiary, not just the black politicians who fought for its establishment, experienced power. It, in short, would find the personal meanings and memories applied to (presumably) collective black empowerment.

Of course, historians have worked hard to build on the pioneering work of W.E.B. Du Bois and, to quote Williams, “capture the full kaleidoscope of African American life.”[4] Still, there is a need to push further, to consider and reconsider the interior lives of black people like Frankie Goole. Born enslaved in middle Tennessee, Goole was about eighty-five years old and living in Nashville when she gave an interview to an elderly white woman working for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).[5] It begins with Goole’s assertion that:

Mah ole Missis wuz named Sallie, en mah Marster wuz George Waters. Mah mammy’s name wuz Lucindia, she wuz sold fum me w’en I wuz six weeks ole, en mah Missis raised me. I allus slept wid her. Mah Missis wuz good ter me, but (her son) mah Marster whup’d me.

Goole follows that disclosure about early separation from her biological mother and forced intimacy with white slaveowners who might also have been kin with the claim that “[I] Dunno ob any ex-slaves votin’ er holdin’ office ob any kin.” In fact, she reiterates later in the interview, “I nebber voted en dunno nothin’ ‘bout hit. Hab nebber had any frens in office. Cain’ member nothin’ ‘bout re’struction. I hab bin sick en still don’ feel right. Sumtimes I feels krazy.”[6]

What should we make of this? What can we make of this? On the one hand, Goole tells her interviewer, a white southerner who looked and sounded like those who once enslaved her, that she could hardly recognize the era that Miller remembered and Coates reimagined. Tennessee was the first of the former Confederate states to enfranchise black men but she claims no friends in office. Republicans had controlled Tennessee for two years but she pleads ignorance of Reconstruction. Instead, she dissociates from power.[7]

At the same time, though, Goole provides a wealth of details about what Gregory Downs and Kate Masur call the “postwar era.”[8] She recalls the yellow fever epidemic that devastated Tennessee in the early 1870s and the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes conflating those postwar terrorists with the antebellum “Pat-a-rollers.” She remembers caring for her biological mother, attending Fisk University, and buying her first pair of shoes, “high tops . . . called bootees.”[9] She connects, narratively, her unfamiliarity with the electoral politics and periodization of Reconstruction to her chronic feelings of illness and her occasional bouts of insanity. She steers the interview inward, away from what her interviewer hoped to learn about politics and power.

Julia Ann Jackson, a participant in the WPA ex-slave interviews conducted in Arkansas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The imperative, then, is that we follow. Although mediated, Goole’s interview, like others given by formerly enslaved people in Tennessee, acknowledges the question of black political participation but defies Miller’s invocation of power.[10] It withdraws, too, from Coates’s investment in collective black empowerment. Rather than encouraging further assessment of “Good Negro Government,” her testimony demands more attention to emancipation’s local variances, black mental illness, and the uses of forgetting and denial.[11] It calls for an accounting of the interiorities that the assumption of power has sometimes influenced but often obscured.


[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” The American Historical Review 15, no. 4 (1910): 794-795.

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

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in The Age of Freedom,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, accessed October 12, 2017, This essay also appeared in the March 2017 issue of the JCWE.

[4] Williams, 15. On Du Bois’s groundbreaking effort to recover the interior lives of enslaved and free(d) black people, see especially Thomas Holt, “‘A Story of Ordinary Human Beings’: The Sources of Du Bois’s Historical Imagination in Black Reconstruction,South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 419-435. Foundational texts that employ Du Bois’s methodology include Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Tera C. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); and Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[5] The WPA slave narratives are the subject of a debate that exceeds the space granted here. Carole Emberton puts them to excellent use in “The Freedwoman’s Tale: Reconstruction Remembers in the Federal Writers’ Project Ex-Slave Narratives,” in Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles Over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[6] Interview with Frankie Goole, in Nashville, Tennessee, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938: Tennessee Narratives, Vol. 15,

[7] William E. Hardy, “‘Fare well to all Radicals’: Redeeming Tennessee, 1869-1870,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2013).

[8] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[9] Interview with Frankie Goole.

[10] Of the twenty-six informants interviewed in Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee, only seven stated that they had voted, campaigned, had friends in political office, or had knowledge of black voting. Of course, more needs to be done to contextualize and analyze these responses. How, for instance, would formerly enslaved people have interpreted a question about whether they had “friends” in political office? A good starting place for the postemancipation history of Nashville is Bobby Lovett, The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemma (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1999).

[11] The topic of mental illness is closely connected to trauma, particularly the concept of “soul murder” that Nell Irvin Painter explores in “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” in Nell Irvin Painter, ed., Southern History Across the Color Line (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002). The work on the national memory of Reconstruction is quite robust; that on ordinary black peoples’ troubled recollections of that process, less so. Emberton and Baker’s Remembering Reconstruction thus provides a necessary intervention.

Brandon R. Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and an intellectual historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States with specializations in African Americans and the African Diaspora. He is completing his first book, The Black Republic: African Americans, Haiti, and the Rise of Radical Black Internationalism, and has publications in outlets including Slavery and Abolition and Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. He also co-edits the Vanderbilt University Press’s Black Lives and Liberation series and writes for Black Perspectives, the online publication of the African American Intellectual History Society.