“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War

We are currently living through what could well be considered the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. With over sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the question arises how the history of political refugees can inform current policy-making today. Historical analogies often conceal as much as they reveal, but one lesson they impart is that decisions about asylum seekers have long-term consequences. The history of the United States offers countless examples for how refugees, if granted asylum, become part of and shape a country’s history. The participation of political refugees in the Civil War is one.

Starting in the spring of 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Although each revolution had its own local dynamic, they also shared a key characteristic: revolutionaries from the Italian states, France, the various German states, all across Central Europe, and Ireland fought for more political representation, social justice, and autonomy. The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the details of their goals—about the specific structure of a unified Germany, or about the extent of political and social reforms in France—but they often invoked the United States’ own revolution as a source of inspiration. Public opinion in the US welcomed the European revolutions; events across the Atlantic reminded Americans of their own history, both as a source of pride and also as standards that they should uphold.

As the revolutions were crashing across Europe, waves of political refugees fled persecution. Some stayed close to home (in England, Switzerland, France, or Belgium), others fled as far as the Ottoman Empire, or crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in search for safety and a new beginning, making political exile in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 a truly global phenomenon. Thousands of former revolutionaries, the forty-eighters as they came to be called, found asylum in the United States.

Political refugees arriving in the United States were a diverse group comprised of various nationalities. They came from diverse professional groups (lawyers, scholars but also artisans and soldiers), different faiths (Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and free-thinkers), and held various political persuasions, ranging from radical socialism to moderate liberalism. Former revolutionaries from France, the German states, and the Kingdom of Hungary, as well as members of the Young Irelanders and Polish revolutionaries who fought against Prussian occupation, hardly added up to a homogenous composite. Their common denominator was the experience of revolution and exile. While political refugees accounted for a comparatively small section of the immigrants reaching the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, they often rose to prominence in the following decades as a result of their continued political and social engagement.

Forty-eighters, especially those who became active in public life in antebellum America, remained committed to the causes they had fought for in the Old World. As Mischa Hoeneck has shown, this often led to alliances with abolitionists, but they were always rooted in specific local conditions.[1] In fact, the attitude of forty-eighters to chattel slavery was as diverse as the refugees themselves. When Lajos Kossuth, a key figure in the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence visited the United States in 1851 and 1852, American abolitionists expected Kossuth, the “William Lloyd Garrison of Hungarian liberty” as one contemporary newspaper dubbed him, to speak out against slavery.[2] Yet Kossuth, who wrote and spoke passionately about liberty, remained silent on this subject. His goal was to secure American political support or at least financial assistance for a new Hungarian revolution, and he was therefore wary of alienating the Southern states. Kossuth’s lecture tour did not produce either the financial or the political results he had been hoping for.[3] His example, which, considering his mission and the publicity his lecture tour received, was in many ways exceptional, sheds light on the complexity of the attitudes of political refugees towards slavery, nonetheless.

Even if they had been divided on the issue of slavery, the rhetoric of nation-building and national unity constituted familiar territory for former European revolutionaries and goals they readily identified with.[4] The outbreak of the Civil War saw political exiles join the ranks in great numbers, the overwhelming majority serving in the Union army. There were many reasons for political refugees to join the army, ranging from the practical to the ideological. For one, the Civil War offered the professional soldiers among the refugees who, after arriving in America had to find civilian occupations, an opportunity to return to their original vocations. General Franz Sigel, for example, had attended military academy in Baden (a German state) and had extensive command experience but worked as a teacher in America in the decades preceding the war. Similarly, Sándor Asboth, a refugee from the Kingdom of Hungary with military training and experience as a civil engineer, worked as a mining and landscape engineer before joining the Union army. Although few political refugees had as much military training as Sigel and Asboth, most of them had participated in armed conflicts in Europe as army recruits or members of a militia.

Image of Franz Sigel on horseback, facing right, with troops lined up behind him
Lithograph of Major General Franz Sigel on horseback, c. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Regardless of their military experience or professional trajectories, for most political exiles participation in the Civil War was inextricably linked with a sense of loyalty to their new home. As one émigré from Hungary, a military officer, put it: “out of pure patriotism, I have taken up this service.” Another officer wrote of himself as a “friend of the long-oppressed.”[5] For political refugees living in Southern states, the Civil War presented a clash between their values and loyalty to their new homes. A letter by Dr. Hermann Nagel shows this inner conflict. Nagel settled in Texas after fleeing Europe for political reasons briefly before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848. In a letter to his brother, he wrote in 1861:

I will be sad to leave Texas, a beautiful country that has offered me such happiness and satisfaction for so long, but I will have to. I will never be able to reconcile myself with the belief that slavery is the actual foundation of the state, that the continued existence of slavery is not merely a temporary necessity but the true essence and basic principle of the state, without which civilized society cannot exist.[6]

In addition to building on their military experience, political refugees also fulfilled the role of cultural brokers. Exiles often rose to prominence in immigrant communities or were able to draw on their experiences from the European revolutions to mobilize their constituencies: Franz Sigel played a key role in gathering German-speaking recruits, while Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, a Polish nobleman who fled to the United States after a failed Polish uprising against Prussia, organized a “Polish Legion.”[7] Several units consisted primarily of immigrant recruits, who answered the call to arms in disproportionate numbers. The influence of political refugees within the army was not limited to their own ethnic communities, however. Historian István Kornél Vida showed, for example, that at least ten Hungarian refugees military officers served in the United States Colored Troops.[8] Scores of refugee physicians and engineers also offered their services to the army.

Recruitment poster aimed at German-speaking Americans (including political refugees and immigrants). The main text reads: “Citizens! Our Country is in danger! To the weapons! To the weapons!” Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

Most political refugees joined the Union army. This reflected in part their political affinity; many forty-eighters supported Lincoln and the Republican Party. Also most political refugees, like most immigrants in general, settled in the North, where they could integrate easier and where they found work. That said, we find immigrants and also few political refugees among the ranks of the Confederate army, though in incomparably smaller numbers.[9]

The Civil War was a formative experience for many forty-eighters who settled in the United States. Looking back at his life in 1911, Julian (Gyula) Kuné, a political refugee from Hungary reminisced about his involvement in the Civil War. When the war broke out “it took but a moment for my decision (to join the Union Army).” Kuné then proceeds to draw a direct line between revolutionary Europe and the American Civil War, writing that “never before, unless I except my early experience during the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was history made so fast as it was during the winter of 1860-61.”[10] Such direct connections between the moral and the military aspect of the European revolutions in the distant and more recent past and the Civil War were a common trope at the time and also in émigré memoirs.[11] It had more than symbolic significance that one army unit consisting primarily of European immigrants was even named after the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.[12]

Drawing direct connections in émigré biographies between the revolutions in Europe and the Civil War in America is challenging, given the different contexts. Such direct connections can obscure the wide spectrum of the meaning of such terms as “freedom“ or “liberty,” terms that forty-eighters often used when they described their motivations for joining the Union army. At the same time, these direct lines connecting émigrés’ revolutionary experience in Europe with their participation in the Civil War in America reveal that émigrés refocused their life stories. Through the Civil War émigrés turned the experience of political exile from a traumatic rupture into a basis for biographical continuity or, to quote Kuné again, into a story of a “heart and soul…always devoted to the cause of liberty.”[13]

[1] Mischa Hoeneck, We Are the Revolutionists: German-speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[2] Donald S. Spencer, Louis Kossuth and Young America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1977), 67.

[3] Sabine Freitag, “‘The Begging Bowl of Revolution:’ The Fund-raising Tours of German and Hungarian Exiles to North America, 1851-1852,” in Sabine Freitag, ed., Exiles from European Revolutions. Refugees in Mid-Victorian England (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003), 164-186. Timothy Mason Roberts, Distant Revolutions. 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 146-168. A dated but detailed overview of Kossuth’s visit in the United States is John H. Komlos, Louis Kossuth in America, 1851-1852 (Buffalo, NY: East European Institute, 1973).

[4] For a broader contextualization of the Civil War in a transatlantic framework, see Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations. An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

[5]Cited by István Kornél Vida, “ ‘A rég elnyomottak barátai:’ Magyar katonák az észak-amerikai polgárháború néger ezredeiben” [“‘Friends of the long-oppressed:’ Hungarian Soldiers in the Colored Regiments in the North American Civil War.”] Aetas (2008 XXIII: 2), 68-81.

[6] Letter from Dr. Hermann Nagel addressed to his brother, dated Milheim, April 28, 1861, published in Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, eds., Germans in the Civil War: The Letters they Wrote Home (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[7] Teofil Lachowicz and Albert Juszczak, Polish Freedom Fighters on American Soil: Polish Veterans in America from the Revolutionary War to 1939 (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2011).

[8] For an overview of the participation of Hungarian political refugees in the Civil War: Vida Istváb Kornél, Hungarian Émigrés in the American Civil War: A History and Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[9] In general on immigrants in the Confederate army, see the classic work of Ella Lonn and William A. Blair, Foreigners in the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[10] Julian (Gyula) Kune, Reminescences of an Octogenarian Hungarian Exile (Chicago: Published by the author, 1911), 94.

[11] These connections were not limited to the Civil War, however. As Lajos (Louis) Schlesinger, a forty-eighter from Hungary put it already in 1852: “We refugee soldiers of Hungary are in peculiar position, rendering attractive to us any military adventure, honorable in its spirit and object. Any cause of liberty, of popular rising against despotism, was already half our own cause, on whatever particular spot of the globe the battle was to be fought.” In Louis Schlesinger, “Personal Narrative of Louis Schlesinger of Adventures in Cuba and Ceuta.” Democratic Review (September 1852): 211. For an analysis of the participation of forty-eighters in military conflicts prior to the Civil War see Michael L. Miller, “From Central Europe to Central America: Forty-eighters in the Filibuster Wars of the Mid-nineteenth Century,” in Charlotte A. Lerg and Heléna Tóth, eds., Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861 (Boston: Brill, 2017), forthcoming.

[12] Frank W. Alduino, David J. Coles, “‘Ye come from many a far off clime; And speak in many a tongue:’ The Garibaldi Guard and Italian-American Service in the Civil War,” Italian Americana (January 2004): 47-63.

[13] Kune, Reminescences, 88.

Health Care and the American Medical Profession, 1830-1880

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a landmark healthcare reform law that expands opportunities for care by providing more Americans with access to affordable health insurance. The goal is to provide health insurance to all Americans not covered by their employers or other health programs. However, many Republicans have derided the law suggesting that it imposes too many costs on businesses, its premiums are too high, and it oversteps the proper domain of the federal government with their so-called intrusion upon businesses, the states, and the lives and choices of individuals. The Republican-controlled government is now well on its way to repealing and replacing Obamacare with a version of the law titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Some people on the Right have praised the new law, while others worry they may be one of the millions who may lose health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare.

Navigating health care has always been a challenging part of our nation’s history. There have been at various times too few physicians, inadequate care or delivery of service, and rising costs of health care all situated alongside a growing public demand for adequate medical care. These debates are personal and political and have their roots in public expectation and the social contract between the medical profession, people, and government.

In the nineteenth century there was very little that physicians could do to treat many conditions or diseases. It was not until what Michael Bliss has described as “the coming age of modern medicine between 1885 and 1922”– a period which saw the growth of medical technology, the rise of academic medicine, new organizational standards, government support in the form of licensing regulations and anatomy acts and the acceptance of the germ theory–that medical care was transformed.[1] In the wake of these broader changes, and as the medical profession matured and secured a new authority as elite, scientific practicing physicians, consumer demand and social expectation combined with an appreciation of what medical science might be able to offer, created new demands for medical care. The Civil War years were an important period for the training and professionalization of American physicians.

Before 1820, the apprenticeship system served as the principal mode of medical training. Just after the War of 1812 proprietary medical schools emerged in the United States, supplementing the informal apprenticeship system. These schools were not attached to a university or hospital but operated independently. Most proprietary medical schools consisted of two, four-month terms of lectures, with the second set of lectures identical to the first. Because very few of these schools were associated with or had access to hospitals, the chief method of teaching and learning was through didactic lecture. In the 1830s and 1840s the penalties for practicing without a medical license were ignored or removed, coinciding with the withdrawal of state recognition for medical societies. This led to the formation of an unregulated medical marketplace and intensified the competition between orthodox and unorthodox physicians and elite and rank and file orthodox physicians.[2]

Efforts to address the problems compounded by the growth of medical schools took shape in 1847 and 1848 with the formation of the American Medical Association. By the 1850s the elite of American medicine pressed for stricter standards, the regulation of medical practice, and the reform of medical school curricula along more scientific lines. Many of these elite physicians had studied abroad in the medical schools in Europe and saw there the possibilities of science-based practice. The medicine of the Paris Clinical school, which emphasized pathological anatomy and localized pathology to specific disease conditions, reshaped traditional ideas about disease and the body and the practice of medicine.[3]

Yet, although these physicians published widely and made a strong case for the reform of American medicine, by 1860 the use of pathological anatomy remained remote from most areas of practical medicine. The war years would challenge traditional ideas about disease and the body. Rank and file physicians were exposed to ideas learned overseas as the elite of American medicine, who had long championed pathological anatomy and experimental medicine, moved from the periphery to the center of wartime medicine. The opportunity to reshape medical practice to their standards, with the support of the government, and the concomitant advances in industry and infrastructure in the Northern and Midwestern cities, set the stage for the medical modernization that followed the war.[4]

On the eve of the Civil War there were 55,000 practicing physicians in the country and more than 16,000 of these physicians came to the colors (many others doctored in non-official capacities).[5] After a reorganization of the medical department after the first year of the war, William Hammond was appointed Surgeon General of the Union Army. Hammond inherited a medical force reflecting the diversity of the American medical profession. The majority were orthodox physicians educated in the traditional doctrines in which the physician used physiologically derived medications and procedures to treat diseases. Others were part of alternative medical sects including homeopaths, botanics, and eclectics, who were popular with different segments of the patient community. However, since Hammond was a scientifically oriented teacher of physiology and pathophysiology, sectarian practitioners were excluded from military service, which helped raise the status of orthodox physicians. His immediate task was to train all physicians, regular and volunteer, into an effective therapeutic and prophylactic cadre, keeping the soldier healthy and when injured returned to duty as rapidly as practical. This assured citizens that those who went into harm’s way for the Republic were receiving the best care available.

Joseph Leidy, as required, submitted the results of his post mortem exams to the new medical museum. Courtesy of the National Archives and Record Administration, Washington D.C.

But Hammond also had a vision for the larger reform of American medicine: every physician was part scientist and would themselves be motivated to contribute to the advance of military medical practice by sharing their experiences one with another. He reorganized his staff and established the new Army Medical Museum, which would house medical and surgical specimens collected and submitted from the field and hospitals. He promised the contributions would be acknowledged in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. Yet many practitioners had no dissection experience and or limited practical anatomical training. In recognition of these limits he prepared and circulated instructions and he commissioned staff from his office, the USSC and others on an ad hoc basis to visit the posts and camps to provide practical guidance. Thousands of American physicians had their first practical anatomical training in such a setting. Hammond and his staff along with other elite physicians supported other avenues for growth including the dissemination of new forms of medical knowledge (especially related to disease causation, surgical techniques, and hospital construction), he supported experimental practice and the inauguration of specialty hospitals, which reshaped the medical and institutional landscape of the country.[6]

Prior to the Civil War physicians and lay people alike worried little about day to day infection; the community practitioner visited his patients at home to treat cases of illness and midwives still birthed most babies. It was not until the movement of large bodies of troops, which seemed to transport communicable diseases with them, did both war physicians and the public become more alarmed about disease transmission. These changing ideas supported the rapid expansion of public health boards, new research projects into the study of infectious diseases and clinical teaching in the hospitals wards. Germ theory researchers would spend the next few decades perfecting experimental methods that would provide unassailable laboratory evidence of disease causation (and which would later translate into vaccination programs, antibiotics, and better diagnostic techniques.) In the meantime, former Civil War surgeons went home to begin new medical practices or resume old ones. But these physicians took with them a vast practical education. Whether a physician had practiced in the temporary or general hospitals or in the field, they were required to submit case reports and medical and surgical specimens to the new medical museum; and perform autopsies and difficult surgeries. They administered new therapeutics like bromine and even learned the importance of using these drugs prophylactically to prevent diseases in the hospitals.[7]

Photo from Gettysburg, showing how physicians taught and learned from each other during the war. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

As the political, institutional, intellectual and technical landscape of medicine was transformed during and after the war, public expectation and demand for efficacious medical care grew. Physicians routinely used political contacts and relationships to effect legislation (such as licensing laws) and they joined with national and local leaders to secure government action (the continued funding of the medical museum as one example). States slowly began passing new anatomy laws or strengthening old ones, and the American Medical Association, state licensing boards, local medical societies, and new specialist associations began to define or redefine the larger goals of the profession in the context of their own associations. New laboratory procedures were widely heralded in medical journals and the elite touted the possibilities of antiseptic surgery.

The war years were an important period of professionalization for American physicians. Physicians increasingly coalesced around a new professional model that promised specialized knowledge, service to others, morality, competence, working in partnership with patients and being accountable. This contract serves as the basis for expectations of both medicine and society. Today, with significant advances in applied medical technology, surgery, biochemistry and therapeutics, medicine can provide more comfort and extend the longevity of a person’s life. But not all American citizens have equal access to health care. Physicians have recently expressed concern about certain parts of the AHCA (and now the BCRA) including the phasing out of Medicaid expansion and the elimination of subsidies for low-income Americans which could result in the loss of coverage for millions of people.[8] It is important to remember in the midst of today’s political bickering and partisan posturing that at the root of these debates are patients in all stages of health and sickness and doctors that want to meet patient expectations. Doctors deserve regulatory procedures that are reasonable and validated, and adequate resources to practice and research. But above all, doctors deserve a health care system that promotes (and does not subvert) those values which society wishes in its healers–caring, altruism, courtesy, and competence.

[1] Michael Bliss, The Making of The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1. See also, Rosemary Stevens, American Medicine and the Public Interest: A History of Specialization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); John Burnham, Health Care in America: A History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

[2] William, Rothstein, American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Thomas N. Bonner, Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Britain, France, Germany and the United States, 1750-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[3] John Harley Warner, Against the Spirit of the System: The French Impulse in Nineteenth-Century American Medicine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

[4] Shauna Devine, Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[5] Burnham, Health Care in America, 116; Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 22-29.

[6] Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 16-18, 21, 29-49.

[7] Devine, Learning from the Wounded, 129-131; Margaret Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), especially chapter 11.

[8] As one example, see David Leonhardt, “Doctors, in Their Own Voices,” The New York Times, June 26, 2017, accessed June 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/opinion/ahca-health-care-obamacare.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share.

Author Interview: Sarah Gronningsater

In our June 2017 issue, Dr. Sarah Gronningsater published an article titled “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis.” She is an assistant professor of history at CalTech in Pasadena, California, with an expertise in legal, political, and constitutional history, focusing particularly on slavery and abolition. Later this summer, she will join the history faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here, we share some of her thoughts about her article and legal history more broadly. To access her article, please visit Project Muse or subscribe to the journal.


Thanks so much, Sarah, for participating in this interview. How did you come across this topic?

In 2011, I presented a paper titled “Thwarting the ‘Slave Empire’: The Lemmon Slave CaseTerritorial Expansion, and Everyday Legal Protest” at a University of Oxford graduate conference on the theme of “Building an American Empire, 1783-1861.” The truth is, before writing the paper, I hadn’t thought much about the Lemmon case. I was in the early days of writing my dissertation, which focused on black children’s legal, political, and social experiences during the era of northern gradual emancipation. I wanted to figure out how their childhood experiences shaped their adult involvement in antislavery law and politics, as well as their generational consciousness. It turned out—in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I started writing the paper—that the Lemmon case connected deeply to my dissertation research. Louis Napoleon, the black New Yorker who instigated the Lemmon case by petitioning for the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the eight slaves from Virginia, was in fact just the sort of person I’d been thinking about in my research. He was born around 1800 in New York, right after the state passed its 1799 gradual emancipation law. He was a “child of gradual emancipation” who grew up to be an antislavery agitator. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about him.

In short, because I really wanted to attend this conference at Oxford, I wrote a paper with an “American Empire” theme, the Lemmon case fit the theme, and because Napoleon was a crucial figure in the Lemmon case, I started looking for every shred of archival evidence I could find. So, thank you to former Oxford graduate students, David Sim and Huw David, who organized the 2011 conference!

The Lemmon case is a fascinating example of resistance to the Slave Power. Can you share a little background on the case itself, as well as provide some context for how the black community in New York City was instrumental in this legal battle?

In 1810, the New York State legislature passed a law declaring that visiting slave masters could bring their slaves into the state for only nine months at a time. In 1827, by virtue of an 1817 state law, New York abolished slavery—but the nine-month exception remained on the books. Although black New Yorkers were certainly pleased with state abolition, they also wanted the legislature to repeal the “nine-month rule.” They knew that forbidding southern masters from bringing slaves into the state was one way to strike a political and symbolic blow against national slavery. In the 1830s, black New Yorkers and their white partners began petitioning the legislature to repeal the nine-month rule. In 1841, Governor William H. Seward signed the repeal law. Technically, New York was now free soil.

Fast-forward a decade. In 1852, a Virginia couple named Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon traveled by sea to New York with their children and their eight slaves. The Lemmons, who were moving to Texas, planned to make a quick ship connection in New York City. When the Lemmons arrived in port, a black steward sent word to Louis Napoleon that there were eight slaves on board who wanted their freedom. Napoleon successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus from a local judge on behalf the slaves. John Jay, a well-known antislavery lawyer, agreed to represent them. In a dramatic turn of events, the New York City Superior Court emancipated the eight Lemmon slaves; in the court’s view, the 1841 repeal law meant that masters could not hold slaves anywhere within New York’s borders, even if they were in transit to somewhere else.

The Lemmon decision caused a national uproar. Virginia’s legislature agreed to fund an appeal in New York’s courts. In 1857, the First District of New York’s Supreme Court ruled against the Lemmons. The U.S. Supreme Court had just handed down the Dred Scott decision. Both cases involved, in part, the right of masters to travel wherever they wanted with their slaves. Virginia appealed the Lemmon decision once again, to New York State’s highest court.

In 1858, Louis Napoleon signed a petition, written by John Jay, to the Republican governor of New York asking for help getting the Lemmon appeal dismissed by New York’s Court of Appeals. The petition is a fascinating document. In it, we hear Napoleon speak of what the Dred Scott case meant to him as a black man. Contrary to Jay and Napoleon’s desires, however, both the governor and the legislature decided to support the Lemmon appeal because they wanted to send the message that New York would stand firm in defending its sovereignty and its antislavery state laws.

Ultimately, I argue that Louis Napoleon and black New Yorkers of his generation proved crucial in creating the legal and political circumstances that gave rise to important state and national conversations about slavery, territorial expansion, and the rights of slaveholders in the lead-up to the Civil War.

One theme in your article, and also in Michael Woods’s article in this same issue, is that Northerners sometimes appealed to states’ rights arguments—this strategy was not confined to Southerners. How did New Yorkers conceptualize federalism and the appropriate authority of the federal government?

This is a great question, which I began to answer in my previous response. By the late 1850s, Republicans in New York State were quite adamant that New York had the right to determine the status of people on their soil (although the majority also conceded that they had a constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves to their owners).These Republicans, as your question suggests, stood behind the antislavery principles of the Lemmon case on their own version of “states’ rights” grounds. Some New York Democrats agreed with them on this issue.

Black New Yorkers like Napoleon, as well as the hundreds of other ordinary black New Yorkers who petitioned the legislature for antislavery laws and frequented court rooms to ensure the laws were followed, likewise believed that it was New York State’s right to determine the status of people on its soil. In addition, they were determined to thwart federal fugitive slave laws in whatever ways they could. In the famous 1850 case of the alleged runaway James Hamlet, for example, black New Yorkers raised money to buy Hamlet back from his Maryland owner after Hamlet was captured in New York City. In general, black New Yorkers both supported New York’s states’ rights when there were useful antislavery laws on the books, but also refused to comply with federal laws like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which they found unjust.

I hope that JCWE readers will find it interesting to see Woods’s article and my article in conversation with each other on this theme of northern states’ rights.

What is the most important lesson we can learn from this story, especially regarding the role of Northern blacks in legal activism?

There are two key take-aways from this story. The first is that we need to pay far more attention to what ordinary black northerners were doing in the early nineteenth-century legal and political system. If we dig deeply into local archival sources, we start finding “everyday” black northerners all over the place. And their actions made a big difference in the political and legal events of their day. The second is that involvement in formal law and politics matters. As a historian of the antislavery movement, I am interested in all of the ways that antislavery citizens and slaves advanced their cause outside of legislatures and courts, but at the time same time, I am very keen to keep discovering the ways that ordinary people used state and legal institutions on a daily basis in order to create changes that mattered to them. These small moments of advocacy and protest could lead to big moments—like the Lemmon case.

Do you have any recommendations for the best secondary sources on nineteenth century legal history? For beginners who are seeking to learn more about the antebellum legal system, where should they start?

Oh my, there are a number of great sources! Paul Finkelman’s An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity, William Wiecek’s The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, Thomas Morris’s Free Men All, and Edlie Wong’s Neither Fugitive nor Free are fruitful places to start for those interested in the specific subjects of my article. The Fall 2006 Law and History Review forum on the Somerset case is also great, as is the Fall 2011 Law and History Review special issue on Law, Slavery, and Justice. Ariela Gross, Lea VanderVelde, and Al Brophy, among others, have written important books on southern legal history and slavery. Laura Edwards’s The People and Their Peace is particularly wonderful for demonstrating how historians can use local records to explore the legal experiences of ordinary people. Christopher Tomlins and Michael Grossberg’s edited Cambridge History of American Law is a goldmine of informative, expert chapters on a variety of legal history topics. Frederick Kempin Jr.’s Historical Introduction to Anglo-American Law is a useful primer for those who want to learn more about the rules and procedures of the early republican legal system.

Both Kate Masur and Martha Jones have books coming out on antebellum legal history that promise to be illuminating—I was lucky enough to see them present some of their new work at conferences. Lastly, I feel fortunate to be among a cohort of junior scholars who are doing exciting nineteenth-century legal history work—Allison Gorsuch, Gautham Rao, Michael Schoeppner, Kelly Kennington, Anne Twitty, Kimberly Welch, Nic Wood, Corey Brooks, Scott Heerman, Aaron Hall, Rabia Belt, Jessica Lowe, Jim Gigantino, Honor Sachs, and Greg Ablavsky form an incomplete list. All of these young historians have recently published work on legal history and American slavery.

For readers who want to learn more about Louis Napoleon and the Underground Railroad, I heartily recommend Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad and Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives.

I am already embarrassed in advance that I am leaving out important titles, but I hope this provides a helpful start for anyone looking to read more in this area!

Beauvoir, The Last Home of Jefferson Davis

The quote from George Orwell’s novel 1984, “who controls the present controls the past” is unfortunately especially poignant under the Trump administration.[1] The threats posed to education and Americans’ understanding of their own history, thanks to his endorsement of “alternative facts,” have already received widespread attention. Indeed, journalist David Graham astutely states that, “when presidents play historian, it almost always says more about them than it does with history.”[2]

Trump’s relationship to the historic site at Beauvoir illustrates the need for historians to increase their public history outreach. Even prior to his presidency, Trump’s endorsement of historical figures prominent in American history has consistently reflected either an ignorance of the facts or a historiographical interpretation that is no longer taught at mainstream universities. Take, for instance, his interest in donating money to help renovate Beauvoir. Beauvoir, the home and presidential library where ex-president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis retired, is near Biloxi. This coastal region of Mississippi, and Beauvoir specifically, were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To the credit of the Mississippi locals, they have rebuilt this stunning coastal area. Beauvoir possesses beautifully well-kept grounds, the historic house has been exquisitely restored whilst being surrounded by washed up oyster shells, and the museum stands as an imposing building in the Greek revival style.

The Greek revival style of the museum, run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A statue of Jefferson Davis stands outside the museum near the sign for the house tours. Photo by author.

Davis bought the antebellum home of Beauvoir in 1879 and it remained his home for the last decade of his life.[3] Since 1903, Beauvoir has been owned and operated by the Mississippi division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.[4] The museum reflects how the Sons of the Confederate Veterans actively question Civil War and Reconstruction historiography influenced by the Civil Rights movement. There is a seeming avoidance of discussion of the Civil War, apart from one exhibit room in the small museum that displays some Civil War weaponry. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have disputed that slavery was ever a cause of the Civil War, and instead of seeing the Civil War as an inevitable conflict, they would likely endorse the president’s perspective that the Civil War could have been avoided had it not been for a “blundering generation” of politicians.[5] The museum contains a description of one of Davis’s “loyal slaves,” a historiographical trope that is still pervasive at many historic sites, even those not administered by a heritage organization like the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

The large and imposing museum building on the grounds of Beauvoir. Photo by author.

As a historic site in the Deep South, the museum at Beauvoir exemplifies the pro-Confederate Lost Cause ideology of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, historian William J. Cooper Jr. states in his biography of Davis that, “when Davis settled at Beauvoir, his main goal was to prepare his memoirs.”[6] Davis was motivated by a keen desire for his memoirs to provide vindication of “the cause” of the Confederacy.[7] Through the museum’s portrayal of the life and times of Davis, Beauvoir has perpetuated his legacy apparent in his wish for vindication.

A paternal statue of Jefferson Davis on the grounds of Beauvoir. Photo by author.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Donald Trump donated money toward Beauvoir’s restoration. This is a fact that was proudly stressed by the tour guide of the Davis home, who made a comment about the irony of a New Yorker donating to restore the home of a fire-eating secessionist Confederate Southerner. The Confederate Gazette, a publication of a Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, proudly ran on the front page of their March 2006 issue that, “Trump Gives $25k To Beauvoir.”[8] Somehow this fact that provides insight into both Trump’s past donations and his understanding of history, was missed during the presidential campaign. In 2011, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote on the blog ThinkProgress that, “To be fair to the Donald, he apparently made the donation at the recommendation of Richard Moe, then the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”[9] However, considering that the historical controversy and significance of Jefferson Davis and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans is relatively common knowledge, it is difficult to exonerate Trump of ignorance.

Beauvoir also offers opportunities for gender analysis, since the museum contains a row of Barbie dolls dressed in the style of the Old South, made at the end of the twentieth century. In glorifying a mythic ideal of the genteel Southern woman, they arguably do not reflect our twenty-first century American values. Mattel, the company that produces Barbie dolls, certainly has attempted to reflect this change with their “Imagine The Possibilities” ad campaign released last year that emphasizes gender equality.[10] The display at Beauvoir encourages a conservative, traditional feminine ideal, something that President Trump would likely endorse. The museum provides no explanation as to the relevance of the Barbie doll display, so a visitor is left with the conclusion that this image and understanding of the Old South, which ignores the vital role of women in society to instead privilege a modern obsession with physical appearances, lives on and continues to haunt us.

Made available in April 1992, a Barbie doll representing a vision of the Old South and femininity. Photo by author.

Arguably the depiction of the Lost Cause ideology displayed in the museum is both Beauvoir’s greatest fallacy and perhaps its greatest potential. A video shown at Beauvoir focuses on Confederate memorial events and celebrations that occurred on the grounds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fact that Beauvoir was not utilized as a plantation has provided a convenient veil of the museum’s use of the Lost Cause narrative by disassociating the home with slavery and the tumultuous race relations that defined the South in the second half of the nineteenth century. The benefit of focusing on competing memories is that it provides a clear representation of the contested meanings of the Confederacy. A compelling approach would be to show visitors these Lost Cause narratives alongside more historically sound stories about the true meaning of the war. As Davis’s retirement home, the museum at Beauvoir would better serve public history by describing the evolution of the Lost Cause and its inaccurate portrayal of American history, rather than perpetuating pro-Confederate ideology.

These contested meanings retain their relevance as Americans continue to grapple with their understanding of race in American history, apparent through the ongoing controversy over the use of the Confederate flag and the removal of Confederate monuments that recently occurred in New Orleans. Notably, the Crescent City possesses a unique history as a comparably progressive Southern urban center that provided antebellum free persons of color opportunity to gain wealth. This unique history further exemplifies the geographical differences in the contested meanings of the Confederacy as analysts ponder whether other Southern states will follow suit.[11]

Under the Trump administration, historians must make more of an effort at public history outreach to ensure that those with a bully pulpit get their facts straight. Beauvoir’s interpretation, and its administration by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, exemplifies this need. Historians possess the utmost responsibility as defenders of free speech and educators of young Americans. Trump cannot be permitted to become the person, “who controls the present controls the past.” There are no “alternative facts” in history. There are simply facts and informed interpretations that are constantly being revised and updated by ongoing research. The profession of history stands as a bulwark against ignorance and no single person should be permitted to control the past.

[1] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1950 [1949]), 34.

[2] David A. Graham, “Trump’s Peculiar Understanding of the Civil War,” The Atlantic, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/trump-magna-cum-laude-from-the-dunning-school/524892/.

[3] William J. Cooper Jr., Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 677.

[4] “Beauvoir,” accessed May 21, 2017, http://www.visitbeauvoir.org.

[5] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Trump on the Civil War: ‘Why Could That One Not Have Been Worked Out?” New York Times, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/us/politics/trump-andrew-jackson-fact-check.html?_r=1 .

[6] Cooper, 660.

[7] Cooper, 660.

[8] John C. Perry, “Trump Gives $25k to Beauvoir,” Ancestry, accessed May 21, 2017, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tx1250/gazette/scv18-10.pdf .

[9] Alyssa Rosenberg, “Donald Trump Loves Jefferson Davis,” ThinkProgress, accessed May 21, 2017, https://thinkprogress.org/donald-trump-loves-jefferson-davis-cd34f23d62c8 .

[10] “Imagine The Possibilities,” YouTube, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1vnsqbnAkk .

[11] “New Orleans took down its Confederate monuments. Will the rest of the South?” The Washington Post, accessed May 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/new-orleans-took-down-its-confederate-monuments-will-the-rest-of-the-south/2017/05/21/b2ac662c-3cd9-11e7-a058-ddbb23c75d82_story.html?utm_term=.67f09f0f16ad .

Let Us Not Forget the Living: The Complicated Lives of Union Veterans

Ambiguity shaped the lives of Civil War veterans. Publicly honored and respected, many never managed to fit back into their old lives, or to build new ones. This is a familiar story to modern Americans, of course. Although the stereotypical troubled veteran in popular culture has tended to be a victim of the Vietnam War, adjustment problems have plagued veterans of all wars. Indeed, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to competing narratives of heroism and honor versus physical disability, addiction, and the failure of veterans’ health care systems.

The storylines that followed Civil War veterans into their postwar years were equally complex. This was certainly true of the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Milwaukee (NHDVS), which was one of the three original soldiers’ homes established by Congress in 1865. The branch was unique in that its funding came partly from the $100,000 raised at a Soldiers’ Home Fair organized by the women of Milwaukee during the summer after the war. The women, who had cared for hundreds of soldiers at a downtown facility during the war, had intended to open a bigger home for extended postwar care, but were convinced to donate their money by a group of men angling to get a federal home at Milwaukee. The Northwestern Branch opened in May 1867 on a four hundred-acre site west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By the 1890s, over two thousand men lived at the home.[1]

Postcard of the main building of the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers around 1900. Author’s collection.

Like all Civil War soldiers’ homes, the Milwaukee home foreshadowed the “living memorial” movement following the Second World War (indeed, almost a century later, Milwaukee’s War Memorial Center would house not only veterans’ groups, but also the city’s art museum). In Milwaukee, and elsewhere, they also became public recreation areas, combining a “city beautiful” aesthetic with the parks movement that would begin later in the century. This was certainly true of the Northwestern Branch. Well-kept parkways wound through forests and past several small lakes, where families of swans added a touch of elegance. The stately main building, perched on a hill that dominated the surrounding countryside, was soon joined by an attractive village of barracks, hospitals, and housing for staff and administrators, as well as a theater, library, and beer hall. As many as sixty thousand tourists visited the grounds every year; they could buy a guidebook and take tours led by veterans themselves. The Milwaukee home also hosted the city’s July Fourth celebration, which featured patriotic illuminations, dancing, boat rides, and fireworks.[2]

Postcard of one of the lakes on the Home grounds. Author’s collection.

The homes represented an unprecedented effort to care for men who could not care for themselves, and their beauty, expense, and popularity in some ways celebrated the heroes who lived in them. But they also led to an exaggerated isolation of veterans from the rest of society for the men who lived there. One can almost literally imagine tourists stepping over and around the old soldiers who, according to a woman who had grown up on the grounds, littered the grass.[3]

But the isolation went beyond the discomfort that non-veterans displayed in the presence of the aging saviors of the Union. Much of the problem stemmed from the inevitable proliferation of bars and brothels at the northern and southern entrances of the Home. By the 1890s, over thirty had been established, many crowded into “The Line,” a two-block stretch of National Avenue (named after the Home). Similar areas popped up near other branches of the NHDVS and state homes, as well. The bars were always crowded, and veterans were often swindled by shady characters, arrested for disturbing the peace, or, on occasion, killed by trains while drunkenly walking the tracks back to the Home or freezing to death when they passed out in snow banks.[4]

An 1883 Milwaukee Sentinel article articulated the public perception that Home residents had a collective drinking problem. “If we are correctly informed [they]…are too much in the habit of over-indulgence in drink. If they are frequently seen intoxicated in the city, they will surely create the impression that rather strict discipline is needed at the Home…. Every man of them who gets drunk brings disrepute upon associates.”[5]

Worse were the veterans who had been discharged from the Home, or left of their own volition. They wondered the streets, or ended up in the county workhouse or city jail. Those who were ill sought refuge in the county infirmary, putting stress on the small institution’s limited resources. Although most of them claimed to have been dismissed unfairly from the Home, one investigator suggested most of them were “hard cases.” Townspeople resented the presence of the drunken or hungover men on their streets, the chaos of the National Avenue dives, and the refusal of National Home officials to take them back in. The superintendent of the county farm, where more than a dozen outcasts had taken shelter for the winter, complained that such men should never be “turned loose as a tramping disgrace to the old Union army.”[6]

Those were hard words, and some veterans seemed to have internalized them, expressing their sense of isolation and rejection. One resident testified before a Congressional committee that the men with whom he lived “are all dissatisfied, every one of them…. We are not comfortable. We are unhappy. I would venture to say—in fact, I know it to be the case—that this petty persecution has caused men to commit suicide. I know this to be a fact, because I know my own feelings, and I can judge others by those. Often I wish I was in the penitentiary; that I was hanged or dead, or in some other place.”[7]

A few old soldiers outside a barracks at the Northwestern Branch, NHDVS. From National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Northwestern Branch (New York: A. Wittemann, 1894).

Most veterans living in or out of soldiers’ homes did not articulate their despair so plainly. But a veterans’ newspaper published a letter from a veteran recognizing the irony that Americans could express their gratitude so easily and publicly to the dead, with speeches and monuments and beautiful cemeteries, while they seemed unable to notice or appreciate the needy veterans all around them. Commemorate the dead, wrote the correspondent, but “let us also remember him who shared in the soldier’s toils, and lived, perhaps to eke out a life of hardship bereft of limb, perhaps of sight, and, maybe, reason…. [I]n heaven’s name, while we remember the dead let us not forget the living.”[8]

Many residents of soldiers’ homes felt they had been forgotten. At the very least, they had come to be seen as charity cases dependent on the public’s good will, rather than as heroes deserving of the country’s gratitude. And that was probably the most difficult ambiguity for Union veterans to face.

[1] “Brief History,” National Soldiers’ Home District, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, accessed May 1, 2017, http://historicmilwaukeeva.org/Brief_History.html.

[2] Russell Bowman, “An Introduction to the Milwaukee Art Museum—Past and Future,” in Building a Masterpiece: Milwaukee Art Museum, ed. Franz Schulze (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 2001), 11; James Marten, “A Place of Great Beauty, Improved by Man: The Soldiers’ Home and Victorian Milwaukee,” Milwaukee History 22 (Spring 1999): 2-15.

[3] Elizabeth Corbett, Out at the Soldiers’ Home: A Memory Book (New York: Appleton-Century, 1941), 38.

[4] James Marten, “Nomads in Blue: Disabled Veterans and Alcohol at the National Home,” in Disabled Veterans in History, ed. David A. Gerber (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 275-294.

[5] Milwaukee Sentinel, September 28, 1883.

[6i] Investigation of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, H.R. Rep. No. 2676, 48th Congress, 2d Sess., 134-135; Milwaukee Sentinel, February 25, 1889.

[7] Ibid, 264.

[8] Soldier’s Friend, July 25, 1868.

The World Has Lost Another Giant: Michael Morrison, 1948-2017

Michael A. Morrison passed away on Sunday, May 14, 2017, at his residence in Lafayette, Indiana. A professor at Purdue University for twenty-five years, Mike was a cherished colleague, scholar, teacher, and friend.

After serving in the United States Air Force as a Sergeant during the Vietnam War era, Mike attended college in his home state of Michigan before taking up graduate study at the University of Michigan under J. Mills Thornton. It was there that he met his future wife, historian Nancy Gabin, whom he married in 1984.

From 1991 to 2016, Mike served as a professor in the Department of History at Purdue University. To say that he was a beloved teacher is beyond an understatement. Students were partial to his U.S. history survey, often warning others about the prospects of sitting in the front row. Doing so made one likely to be bumped into or jostled as he launched into one of his meandering walks in the midst of explaining the sectional crisis or some other crucial period. If they enjoyed the survey and his Jacksonian America class, they lined up in droves to take his signature course–Society, Culture, and Rock & Roll. Generations of Boilermakers who had never heard of Bob Dylan or knew anything about British punk instantly became cooler and hipper–not to mention steeped in the rich social, political, and cultural context of the mid-twentieth century. In addition to his regular teaching load, he nearly always had at least one–if not more–history honors student or freshman scholar each semester. Mike’s classroom accolades were not confined to his students. He rightfully earned nearly every teaching award possible. He was the recipient of the College of Liberal Arts Teaching Excellence Award and Purdue University’s Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award–the highest honor for teaching at the university. In 1998, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named him Indiana Professor of the Year. In 2003, Mike was inducted into Purdue’s Book of Great Teachers. The list goes on and on–but you get the picture. Students adored him, and more importantly, came to appreciate the larger world around them.

If Mike often taught about rock and roll or punk rock, his peers in the field knew him for his specialization in 19th century U. S. political history. In 1997, he published Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press). The debate over slavery in the territories, he argued, proved the central catalyst for the war. Tracing the origins of the sectional fissure from the annexation of Texas through the secession winter of 1860-61, he deftly demonstrated the ways in which politicians throughout the nation continued to harken back to the Revolution for legitimacy. Sectionalism did not flourish because of a clash of cultures, he insisted in an argument that has become a mainstay of the historiography, but rather North and South disagreed about slavery.

While Mike had one foot in the Civil War era, the other was solidly situated in the Early Republic. In 1989, he became an assistant editor of the Journal of the Early Republic before joining John L. Larson as a co-editor in 1994. For a decade, the two steered the course of field’s top journal, bringing their expertise to bear on a generation of scholars. In recognition of his contributions and stature in the field, last year Mike was named president-elect of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). No doubt he will be deeply missed at this year’s conference in July.

Ever the teacher, Mike’s reach extended well beyond the banks of the Wabash River. He regularly served as a faculty member in summer leadership programs, and along with John Larson, directed an NEH summer seminar for university and college professors on the Early Republic at the Library Company on several occasions. He edited numerous collections on the Early Republic and contributed pieces on the Mexican War and Manifest Destiny to projects such as Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum project.

Although I was familiar with his work as a graduate student, I first met Mike more than eleven years ago during my AHA interview for Purdue. I remember well walking into that hotel suite in Philadelphia where I was greeted by Mike, his wife Nancy Gabin, and Robert May. It was obvious this was going to be a congenial committee, but Mike instantly set the tone: serious and professional with just enough levity to make even an AHA interview enjoyable. As we began, he offered me a bottle of water. Surely it was my nerves that made me quip something about how at the University of Richmond their bottled water was labeled “Spider Water,” but Mike ran with it, suggesting that they dared not attempt such labels at Purdue, as it would have to be called “Purdue Pee.” The ever-gracious Nancy smiled and rolled her eyes just a bit at her colleague/husband, reassuring me that I would find Mike’s humor a staple in the department. And I did. We all did.

When my husband and I arrived in Indiana later that year, Mike and Nancy proved to be the welcoming colleagues that the interview had suggested. I often stopped by his office my first few years, where he shared musings on the field or teaching, providing me with copies of his syllabi and suggestions on assignments. When I once asked about his success in teaching the U.S. survey, he quipped that it was “attributable to volume and animation.” As the Director of Undergraduate Studies (for more years than I’m sure he cared to remember), he fielded more than his share of questions from me. More often, he imparted stories about his kids, both Natty and Katie of whom he was incredibly proud, as well as his four-legged children. Both Nancy and Mike lavished love on the cats, and they graciously agreed to open their home to one of the kittens my mother had found in our barn back in Virginia. We brought the tiny gray tabby back to Indiana, and Mike quickly became devoted to Dill – short for Dylan. Not so awfully long ago, I received an email from Mike recounting some of Dill’s antics in his usual droll manner.

Perhaps it’s Mike’s emails that I, and likely many of my colleagues, will miss most. He was wont to send YouTube videos on topics such as cannibalism at Jamestown as well as long diatribes on the insanity that can be academia. But he always ended his missives with his initials. “MAM.” He was a generous and compassionate soul. MAM is already deeply missed.

Remembering Tony Kaye

The world is quieter now that Tony Kaye is no longer part of it. Anthony E. Kaye passed away May 14 after a brave struggle against cancer. Among Tony’s many scholarly accomplishments was his role in the founding of the Journal of the Civil War Era, for which he served as Associate Editor and which he helped shape through his curiosity, passion, and integrity. Given Tony’s many contributions to the journal, we think it fitting to begin to offer remembrances of him here. This is not a formal obituary but an invitation for others among his many, many friends and admirers to share their own memories of him, in the comments here or on the Facebook page, or via email to us. In lieu of flowers, his family has asked friends to consider donating to the National Humanities Center or the UNC Cancer Center.

With his broad mind, broad shoulders, and booming voice, Tony was a substantial presence in the field and in almost every room—literal and intellectual—he inhabited. After working in journalism—a field he loved both to follow and to critique—Tony turned to history, studying at Columbia University’s fabled department with Barbara J. Fields and Eric Foner, among others. Afterwards, he worked at the equally fabled Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, where he helped edit Series 3, Volume 2, Land and Labor, 1866-1867, of Freedom: A Documentary Series. From there he joined the Pennsylvania State University’s History Department.

His 2007 book, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (UNC Press, 2007) was a Finalist for the 2008 Frederick Douglass Prize given by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, and recast arguments about resistance and community in the slave South. By paying careful attention to the material conditions of slave plantations in the Natchez region, as well as the way ex-slaves talked about their lives in reports and claims submitted after the Civil War, Tony argued that slaves had developed distinctive conceptual geographies rooted in their own relatively constrained worlds. These geographies helped construct the way that slaves saw themselves, their fellow slaves, and their place in the world. Rather than an abstract slave community, Tony sketched powerful but geographically specific slave communities that could serve both to generate common feeling among slaves in particular neighborhoods and to exclude slaves who were strangers. From these parochial views, slaves constructed a rich and meaningful imaginative politics during slavery that in turn shaped their entry into formal politics after the war. It was (with Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom) a part of the spatial turn in slavery, and (with Dylan Penningroth’s Claims of Kinfolk) of the rethinking of slave communities, and (with Steven Hahn’s Nation Under Our Feet) of the reconceptualization of slave politics.

As a graduate student, I read Tony’s book with wonder at the depth of his research and the careful nature of his claims. And, like every graduate student who has lived, I read it with some critique. In my first book, Declarations of Dependence, I drew heavily upon Tony’s view of the imaginative impact of a personalistic, geographically constrained politics and also nudged against his assumption that this view was distinctive to slaves but argued instead that similar imaginative modes shaped black and white Southern visions of politics.

Our friendship—like many of his friendships–was born in argument. We originally met when he asked me shortly after the journal’s founding to submit something (a request I declined!). And at conference bars I enjoyed watching him hold forth on the follies of historians, especially in his riffs on the “Comment and a Question” club. But we became friends when he read my footnotes. Meaningful disagreements fascinated him, not so much for the potential of resolution but for the potential of exploration.

More than any person I have ever known, Tony loved to connect historiography to broader theories of politics. He was fascinated by the New York Intellectuals and by the Old Left—I never remembered seeing him more joyful than when he discussed the Left with Andrew Zimmerman—and could talk for hours about the ways that older theories of social change and the state crept into the historiography, establishing the commonsensical (but not always carefully thought out) associations that shape much of our work. How did the anti-statism of the New Left inspire histories that frequently (but not always coherently) invoked the state at moments of decline or collapse? For Tony thinking our way out of our historiographical impasses required thinking our way through their genealogies, not to get right with any abstract standard—he was too open-minded for that—or even to pay homage, but to understand why we repeated ourselves so often, why our books followed a set of unconscious forms. Because I have published fiction, he wanted me to write about narrative forms, Hayden White, and Reconstruction historiography, and I promised to do so but I never did.

The great lucky break of my intellectual life was a gift of Tony’s love of argument. One day he called and asked me to set up a conference on Reconstruction at the Penn State Richards Civil War Era Center, a conference that aimed to open up historiographic debate in a field that at once burgeoned with good work and also felt tied to frameworks from Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, a book he feared was becoming more admired than engaged with. He thought it would be a good idea if I shared the duties with someone who could keep me intellectually honest. He had someone in mind, and I knew whom he was thinking about before he answered: our mutual friend Kate Masur. And so with his sometimes-gentle, sometimes-pointed prodding, Kate and I put together a conference that became our co-edited book The World the Civil War Made, a book that was a product of and tribute to his faith that historiographic inquiry mattered, that we demonstrate our interest in grand works like Foner’s not by paying homage but by paying attention. And Tony, with his eye for people, brought me and Kate together with Bill Blair, who has become a dear friend and mentor and patron to both of us.

The last night of the conference, exhausted and triumphant behind the Nittany Lion Inn, we shared his bourbon after last call, talking about historiography and novelists, about Edward P. Jones and Madison Smartt Bell, and about the way that history and fiction developed in tension and in tandem, acting upon similar, often unacknowledged cultural impulses but denying their common origins, forms, and influences. The next morning, Melissa asked him what he was doing at the conference, and he replied, “Having conversations I could not have anywhere else in the world.” After that, my memories of Tony blur: the two of us sneaking away from the SCWH in Baltimore to go to dinner alone in a restaurant that he announced “would be ruinously expensive,” talking novels and film again in his living room on a different visit to Penn State, chatting about Methodism on the ski lift at Banff in summer 2015. There was always too much talking, and there was never enough time for talking.

In the late spring of 2016, he told me about his condition. We talked and emailed about Cuba, his beloved daughters and his beloved Melissa, California, North Carolina, and about the elephant in the room.

And we talked a great deal about his book. After publishing Joining Places, Tony published a crucial Journal of Southern History essay about Second Slavery, a set of ideas developed by Dale Tomich and Michael Zeuske and others that connected 19th century slavery in Cuba and Brazil to a shifting Atlantic economy and that differentiated it from prior slaveries in terms of capital investment, labor organization, technological development, and financial flows. They understood U.S. slavery as a part of this transformed world, but Tony tied the pieces together in a way no one else had. Since then several U.S. historians of slavery and capitalism have followed these connections, and Tony might well have written a book that contributed to that developing field.

But he had his eyes set on Nat Turner. For years, as he toiled through archives and plotted places on maps, I understood Tony’s Nat Turner project as an extension of Joining Places, as a study of the way that the material and imaginative constructions of neighborhood in Virginia (enslaved and white) shaped Turner’s uprising. Unless I misremember, Tony thought so, too.

In the last year, however, I had the privilege to see chapters and notes from Tony’s manuscript that showed me his mind in motion. He had arrived at an extraordinarily different, and difficult, view of the history, and he had become inflamed with its possibilities. Tony, a secular Jew, had become obsessed with Turner’s Methodism. Turner, seeing himself a prophet, had behaved under a prophetic logic that History ill prepared us to understand but that had shaped the world we study. Instead of looking for secular explanations, Tony wondered what it would mean to place Turner among the prophets, to read other prophets’ lives into the gaps in Turner’s self-narration. In the process Tony read deeply in Methodist practices, theological debates, Biblical accounts of warfare, and the lives of the prophets.

In the process Tony sketched a different Turner, a fearful man as much as a firebrand, a man who tested God, a man who saw his revolt less as an ideological revolution than as a battle, a man who hoped to see a promise of his future and lived with the awareness that he would never see such a promise. A man who doubted and who yet acted. It is, I believe, a new portrait of Turner. And perhaps even a new way of writing historical causation, or of avoiding certain errors in writing historical causation.

Last fall, as his prospects faded, Tony asked if I would take on the work of guiding his raw chapters and notes to completion. Since then, we met in New York and in North Carolina and talked about his hopes for the book and for History. Many people have offered to help, and I plan to take you all up on those offers in the years to come. I consider it an honor to be part of a work of true imagination and depth.

And a pleasure to have heard his voice, reduced in volume but still electric with humor, alive to the possibility in each of our sentences. In my last email to him, I copied out a part of James Dickey’s “The Bee.” “Dead coaches live in the air, son   live/In the ear/Like fathers and urge and urge. They want you better/Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream/ When something must be saved.”

Though silenced, Tony’s voice lives. We look forward to hearing your memories of a man we will miss, now and always.

Andrew Jackson Was Dead, But the Democrats Still Mattered to Civil War Causation

We hope this short blog series reflecting on past issues of the journal has been a useful reminder of the excellent scholarship being produced on the causes and background of the Civil War. Today we end the series with a post by Nicole Etcheson, but the conversation over these questions can (and will) continue on social media. To access past issues, please visit Project Muse. And, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter (@JCWE1) and like our Facebook page.


In remarks to the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump compared his campaign to Andrew Jackson’s and concluded by wondering, “the Civil War, you think about it, why?”[1] The President thus linked Jackson’s Democratic party, and the Second Party System, to the Civil War.

Trump’s connection is not a new one. Nineteenth-century Northerners remembered that President Jackson had stood up to the South Carolina nullifiers and, well aware that Jackson was dead, they longed for their politicians to show similar resolution. Abraham Lincoln hung a portrait of Jackson in his White House office. Until recently, however, historians had emphasized the emergence of the Republican party rather than the collapse of the Democratic one. James L. Huston, in “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” (in the December 2011 issue) challenges received wisdom about the realignment that destroyed the Second Party System and created President Trump’s party, the Republicans, by returning historians’ attention to the Democrats.[2]

Huston focuses on Illinois, one of the politically crucial Midwestern states of the antebellum era (the Midwest was also important to Trump’s 2016 election). He reminds historians of the need for quantitative analysis. He assesses the reigning interpretations of the realignment that produced the third party system: the slavery extension issue, the importance of ethnocultural issues such as religion and temperance to party choice, and the nativity of voters—the hypothesis that Illinoians of New England ancestry voted Whig/Republican and those of Southern ancestry voted Democratic.[3]

Huston argues that ethnocultural ties and birthplace prove poor predictors of Democrats’ votes. Instead Illinois Democrats moved to the Republicans or chose not to vote based on their fear that the territories would be closed to non-slaveowning settlers. Moreover, Huston argues that historians need to widen their chronological scope, focusing not solely on the 1850s but on voting patterns from the 1840s to the Civil War’s outbreak to capture realignment’s ebb and flow.[4]

Modern commentators on the 2016 election have weighed some of these same factors, including religion and ethnicity or race. Huston reminds us that issues are crucial to political change. Realignments occur over a long period, not just one or two election cycles.

To paraphrase President Trump’s comments on health care, “Now, I have to tell you, Civil War causation is an unbelievably complex subject.”[5] But while no one evidently knew how complicated health care is, Jim Huston knows about the complications that brought on the Civil War. Revisiting his essay renews our attention to the difficulties of understanding causation and the necessity of paying attention to all the actors involved in an historic event.

[1] “Trump Quotes about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War,” New York Times, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/05/01/us/politics/ap-us-trump-andrew-jackson-quotes.html?_r=0.

[2] James L. Huston, “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 4 (December 2011): 506-535.

[3] Huston, 507. For some of the major works on Civil War causation, see David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper, 1976); Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978); William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[4] Huston, 512, 519-27.

[5] Kevin Liptak, “Trump: ‘Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated,” Accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/trump-health-care-complicated/.

Civil War Causation and Antiwar Sentimentalism: Why I Read, and Re-Read, Yael A. Sternhell on the New Revisionism

Earlier this week, the President of the United States made an appalling blunder: Andrew Jackson, declared President Trump, “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.”[1] Pundits fumed. Historians took to the Twittersphere to “fact check” the POTUS. Others denounced the President’s intellect. The venerable biographer Jon Meacham, in an interview with MSNBC, likened the President’s brain and its erratic intellectual activity to a pinball machine.[2]

Central to the excitement surrounding President Trump’s miscue is an enduring sentiment that surfaces with some frequency in conversations of Civil War causation. Why? Why nearly 800,000 killed? The short answer, of course, is slavery. Only a historically illiterate person, or the most unrepentant Lost Cause adherent, fails to recognize this. As Gary Gallagher has noted, the decades since 1960 have produced a vibrant literature that has placed African Americans and emancipation squarely at the center of Civil War scholarship. Yet despite a near consensus on the centrality of slavery to Civil War causation, some historians have lamented, and recently, that a divided America needed to fight that war. The sentiment is more established than many realize. In his meta-narrative revision to the Neoabolitionist school, David Goldfield, an Avery Craven associate in his days at the University of Maryland, declared that the Civil War remains America’s “greatest failure.” The conflict deemed irrepressible, writes Goldfield, was not inevitable after all. Other means might have ended the heinous institution.[3] William J. Cooper, a dean of Southern history, revitalizes a similar interpretation in We Have the War Upon Us.[4] How can historians make sense of these divergent historiographical traditions – orthodox Neoabolitionism and throwback Revisionism – and view them as a coherent whole?

Enter the New Revisionism, which Yael A. Sternhell traces skillfully in her historiographical essay “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship” (in the June 2013 issue), which uniquely balances these historiographies.[5] In her assessment of the literature, Sternhell suggests that American military misadventures in Vietnam and the Middle East have effected a greater cynicism among academics who assess the character of the Civil War. New Revisionists, she notes, inspired by the late Michael Fellman and led by such scholars as Stephen Berry, Brian Craig Miller, and Megan Kate Nelson, fixate on the less savory dimensions of war. Practitioners dwell on dark tales of terrorism, torture, and ruin. Heroes emerge as villains. [6] But in an important contradistinction, the New Revisionism has channeled earlier Revisionists’ aversions to violence even as it has dismantled the needless war myth. Sternhell characterizes the essence of Dark Turn literature as an “emphasis on process.” New Revisionists do not question the good of emancipation. Instead, she writes, their works stress how belligerents participated in the war. In a fitting conclusion, she counsels historians to “approach the Civil War with all the uncertainty, skepticism, and realism with which we treat other wars and historical events.”[7] This is helpful advice.

I remember reading Sternhell’s essay for the first time in my favorite coffee shop near the Lake Michigan shore. It is an essay I return to frequently, for it is a model of clear and deep historical thinking. In a field that increasingly stresses specialization, “Revisionism Reinvented?” encourages readers to take long views. Historians must remember to assess the complementarity and divergence of historiographical interpretations, and to mark their fluidity and development over time. The New Revisionism shows no signs of disappearing. And in light of President Trump’s recent comments, Yael Sternhell’s thoughtful essay on the meaning and significance of the New Revisionism – which allows historians at once to count the horrific costs of the war and maintain its necessity – remains as relevant now as when it first appeared.

[1] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Trump on the Civil War: ‘Why Could That One Not Have Been Worked Out?’” New York Times, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/us/politics/trump-andrew-jackson-fact-check.html.

[2] “Andrew Jackson biographer fact checks Trump’s Civil War remarks,” MSNBC, accessed May 1, 2017, http://www.msnbc.com/brian-williams/watch/andrew-jackson-biographer-fact-checks-trump-s-civil-war-remarks-934252611806.

[3] See David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[4] See William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

[5] Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 2 (June 2013): 239-256.

[6] See Stephen Berry, ed., Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[7] Sternhell, 250, 252.

Reinterpreting the Civil War, South by Southwest

Today we begin a brief blog series where, in light of recent public discussions regarding the Civil War, historians reflect on scholarship published in The Journal of the Civil War Era, highlighting some of the excellent research being done today. Our first entry, from Christopher Phillips, is below. If there is an article in the JCWE that you have found particularly meaningful, please let us know!


Donald J. Trump’s latest public statements about U.S. history have him suggesting that Americans have never contemplated the causes of the Civil War. More than a century of scholarship – and scholars – attest to his ignorance, but recent trends have many historians feeling somewhat ignorant about the subject they long believed they knew well.

Most histories of the Civil War era portray the war as a conflict exclusively over slavery, fought between North against South as a struggle over free labor against slave labor and local sovereignty against federal power. I believe Stacey L. Smith’s thoughtful JCWE essay in the December 2016 issue, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction” is among the most needed assessments of the new wave of Civil War revisionism. “Written out of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” she notes, “the West stands as an isolated, even exceptional, region with a history largely disconnected from the crisis over slavery, freedom, and federal authority that tore apart the North and the South.”[1]

More than simply accede this incongruity, Professor Smith argues trenchantly that we need to reframe the debate over the coming of the war from one exclusively over slavery into one intersecting with broader regional, national, and even continental conflicts associated with expansion. The West offers a perfect interpretive proving ground. “Violent conflict in the West anticipated, paralleled, and helped determine the course of federal state-building during the Civil War era,” she concludes. “[W]estern historians, long attuned to the region’s critical role in nineteenth-century state-building, are lighting the way by making explicit the connections between southern and western resistance to federal control…[l]oosening the Civil War from its North-South moorings.”[2]

Professor Smith’s essay anticipates Steven Hahn’s excellent new synthesis, Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, which integrates the exceptionalist narrative of slavery and freedom with the decidedly unexceptional narrative of American imperialism in the long nineteenth century. Like Hahn, Smith reminds us that the same ideal of the West that inspired Americans to undertake its greatest period of national expansion also drove them to commit its greatest national tragedy in the form of a fratricidal civil war.

[1] Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-67.

[2] Ibid.