Category: Muster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at

New Field Correspondent at Muster

New Field Correspondent at Muster

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

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

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

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

Welcome, Angela!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because, of course, he had succumbed with them.

James Marten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in Charleston!



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

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

[3] For the 2019 CLAW Conference CFP, see

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

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

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

Hilary N. Green

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

Personal Connections with the Civil War West

Personal Connections with the Civil War West

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

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

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

Raphael Rios and family. Courtesy of the author.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Maria Angela Diaz

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

Editor’s Note: March 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: March 2018 Issue

As we do with each issue, below you will find the editor’s note for our forthcoming March 2018 issue. You can access these articles by subscribing to the journal, or through a Project Muse subscription.

The essays in this volume testify to the vibrancy and vitality of social history. To put it another way, social historians haven’t “lost” the Civil War, as Maris Vinovskis suggested thirty years ago; they may just be getting started. So, too, are those interested in culture. In the pages of this issue, readers will find a reassessment of the class explanation for Confederate substitution and will listen in as St. Louis washerwomen and seamstresses police wartime loyalty in their neighborhoods. Some may be surprised to see how soon after the Civil War British scholars began to rewrite the history of Anglo-American relations during the period. Others will never look at a watermelon the same way again.

Patrick Doyle extracts Confederate substitution policy from scholarship on loyalty and situates it in an evolving wartime debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—or, perhaps more accurately, the rights versus the responsibilities. Doyle uncovers persistent defenders of substitution within the Confederacy, even after Jefferson Davis’s endorsement of its repeal, who defended substitution as a contract and hence a right of citizenship. Focusing on arguments for and against substitution, Doyle’s essay traces the entrenchment of martial manhood that by war’s end covered over this debate which had once stood at the heart of Confederate nationhood.

Questions of loyalty lie at the heart of Elizabeth Belanger’s innovative essay proposing a new way of exploring the Civil War’s home fronts. Situated in St. Louis, Belanger’s work examines how, in filing complaints against their neighbors, working-class women sought to “assert political identities, to advance personal agendas, and to create ethnic boundaries.” Using geographic imaging systems, or GIS, and complaints filed with the provost marshal against disloyal neighbors, Belanger reveals how women staked out the boundaries of neighborhoods that, more than the official city wards, reflected the lived realities of their lives. Here, women came in contact and conflict with neighbors over what they said about the war, the flags they flew outside their homes, and other such evidence of loyalty and respectability—or a lack thereof.

William R. Black’s, essay, “How Watermelons Became Black,” reveals that, beyond “the court, the ballot, and the noose,” cultural tropes became powerful tools to counteract black citizenship. This essay represents cultural history at its best; in it, Black uncovers the roots of the racist watermelon trope in the immediate postwar South, as whites sought to limit the freedom of, and deny political power to, former slaves. Once shared among antebellum blacks and whites, watermelon became associated with the perceived childishness, laziness, and dependence of the free blacks who grew and sold them and deigned to enjoy them in their leisure. Once established, this powerful racist myth was hungrily consumed by northern whites—and it still persists today.

For years after the end of the Civil War, those who fought on either side of the conflict agreed on one thing—Great Britain had deceived them. This bitter memory became an obstacle in 1914, when Britain sought American support in World War I. In his essay, Nimrod Tal uncovers the British effort to revise history in order to smooth over these tense relations. From 1914 onward, a number of British authors offered explanations for elite Britons’ flirtation with the Confederacy, lukewarm reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, and rough treatment of Lincoln. The “embers of resentment” stubbornly burned on, though, and in the process of trying to explain them away, early twentieth century writers laid the foundation for modern historiography on the topic.

We wrap up this issue with Kate Jones’s survey of the rich literature on gender and Reconstruction. Since the 1990s, scholars of this period have sought to understand how—or perhaps, whether—the end of slavery shifted the gendered balance of power. Whereas one thread of scholarship has concluded that continuity, more than change, characterized the period, Jones reminds readers of the importance of keeping in mind how “women cultivated the era’s democratic potential and its exclusions.” Keeping this as the focus of scholarship means that gender scholars are not yet done with “agency” and that we are likely not headed to a new synthesis—and this seems fine to Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Chambersburg he took a stand

And sent out the scouts to scour the land;

The railroad track he did tear up,

Likewise tore down the railroad shop.


The stores they plundered, that you know,

For that they do wherever they go;

They bought their goods with Southern trash,

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

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

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

The colored people all ran away,

Likewise the composer of this song, they say –

For if I hadn’t, I don’t know

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

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

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

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

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

Let white and black all shoulder a gun,

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

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

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

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

But, to be drafted, that you must;

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary N. Green

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

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

Legal History’s Debt to Frederick Douglass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha S. Jones

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

New Members of the Editorial Board

New Members of the Editorial Board

The Journal of the Civil War Era is pleased to announce the addition of five new members to the editorial board. The talented historians joining us in 2018 are Tera Hunter, Fitzhugh Brundage, Laura Edwards, Pekka Hämäläinen, and Susannah Ural.

And we extend our deepest thanks to those who have served as board members and who are cycling off: Tiya Miles, Stephen Berry, Gary Gallagher, Seth Rockman, and Nina Silber. Thank you for your dedication to the journal and to the study of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Each board member has provided a short biography below. Please join us in welcoming them to the JCWE team!

Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has written on lynching, utopian socialism, and historical memory in the American South. His forthcoming book, Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, is a history of torture and debates over torture from the Age of Contact to the War on Terror.

Laura F. Edwards is the Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke University and works on the nineteenth-century United States with a focus on law, gender, and race. Her books include A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights; The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South, which was recognized by the American Historical Association with the Littleton-Griswold book prize and the Southern Historical Association with Charles Sydnor book prize; Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era; and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. She is now working on a new book project, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth Century United States.

Pekka Hämäläinen is the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University and a Fellow of St. Catherine’s College. He is the author of The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), and co-author with John M. Murrin, Paul E. Johnson, Denver Brunsman, James M. McPherson, Alice Fahs, Gary Gerstle, Emily S. Rosenberg, and Norman L. Rosenberg of Liberty, Equality, Power: History of the American People (Cengage, 2014). He is currently finishing a book Iktómi’s People: The Lakota Age in America (Yale University Press).

Tera W. Hunter is Professor of History and African-American Studies at Princeton University. Her first book, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, focuses on the experiences of working-class women, especially domestic workers, in Atlanta and other southern cities from Reconstruction through the 1920s. Her most recent book is: Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), which is a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

Susannah J. Ural is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military history of U.S. Civil War era. Her latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). She is also editing a Texas Brigade family’s correspondence for a project titled, This Murderous Storm: A Confederate Family at War. 

A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective

Teaching the Civil War takes juggling some very broad, diverse, complex processes in the histories of slavery and freedom, of nationalism, citizenship and state building, of Indian Nations and the West, of modern warfare, of economic transformation of the economy, and of the ways in which people thought about life, death, gender, family, and personal responsibility. Adding a transnational dimension to all of this–exploring how the war reverberated outside the country and how it was affected by what went on beyond U.S. borders–seems daunting, overwhelming and perhaps not worth the bang one gets for the buck. I would nonetheless like to suggest in this post that there is much to be gained from looking at–and teaching–the Civil War from a transnational perspective. Shifting scales and angles allows students to see the war in a different light, to gauge its significance beyond U.S. history, and to rethink the nation and its narratives.

As the articles in the JCWE’s December 2017 issue show, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed profound transformations of North America. The articles describe different historical processes–peaceful and violent, protracted and ephemeral–that fractured and reconfigured the continent’s geography, refashioned its national communities, and expanded the meaning of freedom and community. Attentiveness to these broader processes and shared experiences, molded by connections and influences, marked by coincidences and contrasts, can serve as a remedy to parochialism and exceptionalism. At the very least, they remind students that nations rarely operate in a vacuum, and that what we sometimes imagine are monolithic actors–“Mexico,” the “United States”–need to be unpacked.

My article, “Law, Allegiance and Sovereignty in Civil War Mexico, 1857-1867,” focuses on how foreign invasion overlapped with domestic discord and reshuffled Mexicans’ sense of allegiance and their visions of law and politics. European military intervention in Mexico, as a response to the Juárez government’s defaulting on its foreign debt, is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the weight of transnational dynamics during the Civil War era, but they also profoundly affected the bilateral relationship between the two North American republics. Washington and Richmond both faced momentous challenges on the international arena. The Confederate government exerted itself to obtain diplomatic recognition; the Union resolutely sought to avoid this. The French intervention in Mexico added a new wrinkle to an already complex situation. Despite the Lincoln administration’s sympathy for the beleaguered republic to the south, and the Monroe Doctrine having been expressly designed to prevent something like Napoleon III’s “Mexican Adventure,” Washington’s foreign policy would remain firmly committed to preventing British and French recognition of the Confederate States of America, and avoiding alienating the French. Until the end of the war, New World republican solidarity would be limited to rhetorical saber-rattling in newspapers, meetings, and congressional debate, ably promoted by Matías Romero, the Mexican Republic’s young envoy to Washington.[1]

Victor Hugo, considered France’s greatest literary figure at the time, condemned American slavery and Napoleon III’s Mexican Expedition. Courtesy of Etienne Carjat.

The transnational dimension of the 1860s in North America is not the discovery of lucid, postmodern historians. What we can describe as a transnational consciousness was central to the way people conceived and understood the world they lived in.[2] The U.S. Civil War, the resurgence of European expansionism and the rebirth of monarchy in the Americas were seen as episodes in the larger struggle for civilization, as part of a universal confrontation between freedom and tyranny. When, in 1867, the Mexican Republic defeated the French sponsored imperial regime, Victor Hugo wrote to president Benito Juárez that America had “two heroes, John Brown and you. Brown, through whom slavery died, and you, who made liberty live.”[3] The New World was imagined as the stage in which the fate of humanity would be played out.

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Capt. Felix Salm Salm, a Prussian officer who served in the U.S. army during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On both sides of the Atlantic, men and women agonized over events in North America. Some crossed oceans and borders to join the fray: Argentinian Edelmiro Mayer and Prussian Felix Salm Salm both joined the Union army. When the U.S. Civil War ended, the South American officer enlisted in Mexico’s republican army. Years later, he would fight against the indigenous people of Patagonia in the Argentinian government’s “Conquest of the Desert.” The German aristocrat served Maximilian as his empire crumbled. Tennessee-born William M. Gwin promoted the colonization and development of America’s frontiers as a member of the U.S. Congress, representing Mississippi (1841-1843) and California (1850-1855), and then, in the mid-1860s, as an imperial official and freshly minted duke in Mexican Sonora.[4] These men went far from home to defend their version of liberty and progress, and to build a better world–and a better life for themselves. Their colorful life stories translate into human experience the contradictions, dilemmas and rifts brought on by the Civil War era. They throw light on the artificial and unstable nature of patriotism, on the multiplicity of reasons why people fight in wars, and on the complex relationship between ideals and interests.

Lt. Colonel Edelmiro Mayer, an Argentinian soldier and statesman who fought for the United States during the war. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Others did not fight, but they observed, debated, and wrote. Their letters (public and private), articles, and pamphlets, can draw students into the emotional and ideological underpinnings of the era’s impassioned transnational politics. Because they were often written for readers who were not familiar with the issues, these documents present provocative, stark, morally charged explanations of what was at stake in these conflicts. Students can read Karl Marx’s description of Abraham Lincoln as a “plebeian, […] without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance,” and debate why this is held up as evidence that, in America, “ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world.”[5] They can also contrast Lincoln’s vision of the Civil War as a struggle to preserve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with Lord Acton’s conviction that the Confederate States of America represented history’s greatest effort “made by Republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government.” Had the Confederates, argued the British Liberal, “called on the negroes to be partners with them in the perils of war and in the fruits of victory, that generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable blessings on the human race.”[6]

These vivid testimonies paint a world that was messy, densely connected, and fraught with both danger and opportunity. Because of this, they can be particularly useful in the classroom. Having students read them and discuss them critically helps us decenter and destabilize familiar narratives of the past. They often upend the binary, anachronistic, logic we impose on political ideology to reveal its complexities. They clue us into the way some of the key concepts that structured the era’s contentious conflicts –slavery, sovereignty, democracy— were understood, debated, and transformed. Ideally, they resurrect a past that is unpredictable and relevant.


[1] For insights into transnational perspectives, I suggest these readings for students: Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,”Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (September 2012): 337-368 and Jay Sexton, “Civil Wars,” in The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), 123-158. For Romero’s misión, see Thomas Schoonover, ed., A Mexican View of America in the 1860s. A Foreign Diplomat Describes the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 1991).

[2] Donald H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[3] Victor Hugo, Lettre de Victor Hugo à Juárez, président de la République mexicaine (Brussels: J.H. Briard, 1867), 3.

[4] Rachel Saint John, “The Unpredictable America of William Gwin: Expansion, Secession, and the Unstable Borders of Nineteenth-century North America,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 56-84; Edelmiro Mayer, Campaña y guarnición. Escenas de la vida militar (Buenos Aires: Jacobo Peuser, 1892); Felix of Salm Salm, My Diary in Mexico, Including the Last Days of Emperor Maximilian (London: Richard Bently, 1868); Agnes Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life (London: Ruchard, Bentley and Sons, 1876).

[5] “Comments on the North American Events,” Die Presse, October 12, 1862, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), vol. XIX, 248.

[6] “The Civil War in America. Its Place in History,” in John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), accessed January 29, 2018,


Erika Pani

Erika Pani is Research Professor at El Colegio de México’s Centro de Estudios Históricos. She has published Para mexicanizar el Segundo Imperio. El imaginario político de los imperialistas (2001), on the political projects of Maximilian’s Mexican collaborators. She has also published Para pertenecer a la gran familia mexicana: Procesos de naturalización en el siglo XIX (2015), on naturalization laws and practices in the nineteenth century.