Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Mercy Street’s Season Two Premiere: Radical Medical Procedures, Rebel Spies, ‘That’ Pinkerton, and the Plight of the Contrabands

Mercy Street header depicting three characters and a battle scene

Season one of PBS’s Civil War hospital drama, Mercy Street, took historical accuracy seriously, often reflecting recent historiography. Even its annoyingly inaccurate storyline involving John Wilkes Booth’s plot to blow up the hospital during a Lincoln visit was loosely based on actual events. The season ended with a cliffhanger involving the brutal stabbing of one character, and in the last moments, a fuse was snuffed out that would have blown up Lincoln and the hospital. The second season picks up where the first left off, throwing the audience back into the world of a federal hospital in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, during the summer of 1862. (Filming in Richmond, the cast and crew reportedly fell in love with Virginia’s capital city and its many historical sites and museums). The first episode is an effective concoction of romance, humor, and dramatic storylines situated within solid historical context.

Not surprisingly, medical drama is front and center. Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen writing a letter to the family of a deceased patient, and readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will recognize elements of “the good death” in how she describes the soldier’s final moments. Phinney also finds time to share a tender kiss with Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), in a contrived, but effective, romantic plot line that has been building since last season. More dramatically, last season’s stabbing victim, the despicable Silas Bullen (Wade Williams) endures two medical procedures that were radical for the time. The first requires experimentally pulling his intestines out to find and repair the damage. The other procedure is even more cutting-edge and is required after a second attempt on the patient’s life causes a rapid loss of blood. Foster recalls a doctor he met in London, James Blundell, and his draining of blood from one person into another. I’m not a medical historian, but a quick online search of reputable sources verifies the accuracy of the scene, as Blundell was one of the first to perform a successful blood transfusion. Impressively, the staging of the scene looks much like an 1829 illustration accompanying an article Blundell wrote for a medical journal.[1]

Drawing of a blood transfusion
Illustration from “Observation of Transfusion of Blood,” by James Blundell in The Lancet, June 13, 1829. Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

The wounds are the result of the plot to kill Lincoln. At the end of last season we saw Confederate sympathizer Frank Stringfellow (Jake Falahee) commit the crime because Bullen stumbled upon the conspirators in the hospital’s basement. Frank is betrothed to Emma Green (Hannah James), eldest daughter of the wealthy family that owned and ran the building as a hotel before it was transformed into a hospital by Union troops. Last season Emma tended to the facility’s Confederate wounded, but she has now decided that, despite the current lack of rebel patients, she wants to continue “to be a part of what is going on here.” This reveals that she is quickly evolving from the spoiled and defiant rebel she was in early episodes. Her character development is important; the war transformed nineteenth-century gender roles (debatably, only temporarily), especially among volunteer nurses. When Emma discovers that Frank is involved in the dastardly plot, she quickly and decisively ends their relationship despite having recently shared a carnal moment with him. Emma Green is no shrinking violet.

Meanwhile, Frank gets closer to Emma’s younger sister Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), who the war is also transforming. Determined to leave behind her comfortable southern belle life in order to support the Confederacy, she gets involved in Frank’s spy ring, helping him cover his involvement in the assassination plot. Later, she clandestinely communicates with shadowy figures and a woman (harkening to true spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow) who asks her to steal papers from a high ranking officer living in her family’s occupied mansion house. As Northern Virginia was indeed filled with female spies, this all comes across as realistic (even if Alice and Emma’s Virginia accents do not).

Hot on the trail of the conspirators, however, is a new character who could add pizazz to the show, Union Spy Chief Allan Pinkerton. (Yes, “THAT Pinkerton,” as he humorously says whenever introducing himself). Civil War enthusiasts will appreciate the character’s pomposity as portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne, and smirk at his comments about how much General McClellan relies on him. We are aware that his Confederate troop strength estimates were well off, playing a role in Little Mac’s timidity and failure. (In fairness, Pinkerton gave inflated numbers to McClellan largely because that’s what the general wanted to hear). Yet Pinkerton did successfully uncover spy rings, so he was not completely incompetent. Despite his comical arrogance, the show depicts him quickly uncovering the plot. “Someone is trying to kill him again,” he remarks, alluding to Pinkerton’s true-life thwarting of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln when he first arrived in Washington. Small details like this show that the writers did their homework.

Pinkerton dispatches his men to arrest Frank. When they do, as we might find out in episode two, the trail will lead to the Green household because of Alice’s involvement. There, the family is celebrating the return of their father (Gary Cole), who had been arrested for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. His son (Brad Koed) subsequently signed the oath to obtain his father’s release, but the patriarch’s sense of honor only causes him to become enraged at his son’s “unpardonable act.” It turns out, however, that Emma’s efforts are what actually secured the release. Her personal request to Lincoln results in an executive order (yes, one of THOSE) releasing the southern gentlemen.

Yet it is through the crime investigation that the show has one of its best opportunities to address the complexities of race relations during the period, and I hope this is highlighted in future episodes. Pinkerton often succeeded thanks to the aid of an African American community eager to help the Union cause even before the war transformed into one of liberation. He relied on interviews with runaways to glean information about rebel troop dispositions and fortifications, and to root out southern spies. Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell) a slave in the Green household, has just started working in the hospital’s kitchen. Might Pinkerton interrogate or even use her to gather evidence against the family that she is ostensibly loyal to, and in which she is beloved? If so, it would be a powerful storyline revealing much about how supposedly “loyal” slaves desired freedom, were willing to betray their owners, and helped the Union cause.

For now, the biggest new storyline involving African Americans is the contraband camp near the hospital, and the arrival of former slave Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a new character patterned after real life heroine Harriet Jacobs. Fortunately, it appears that this storyline will receive even more attention in future episodes. She has been sent to “educate, support and fortify” the contrabands, as she boldly tells Dr. Foster. The confident woman immediately finds evidence of a smallpox epidemic in the miserable conditions in the camp. Here, the show is accurately influenced by Jim Down’s seminal book, Sick from Freedom, as white characters express the belief that the illness is only a “negro disease,” and that its lethal arrival demonstrates that blacks “weren’t meant for freedom.” Jenkins rightfully insists that there’s nothing racial about the disease, it is the camp’s terrible conditions causing it to spread. Foster is skeptical and thinks the illness in the hospital itself is typhoid. His apparently cavalier attitude about the contraband camp immediately makes Phinney regret their kiss, and she claims she will not let him “beguile” her again. (I wonder if I’m the only one that instantly thought of the overlooked Clint Eastwood Civil War movie, The Beguiled?) The episode’s ending reveals that Phinney is ill, but is it typhoid or smallpox? Hopefully the writers won’t let her condition cause the epidemic storyline to stray too far from the African Americans. It is praiseworthy that Mercy Street is examining the deadly contraband camp conditions that blacks often encountered on the path to freedom.

All of these events in the first episode take place just after the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The weeks afterwards saw a major shift in federal policy, as Congress and Lincoln became convinced that the campaign’s failure revealed that they needed to deprive the South of its slave population and do more to utilize southern blacks on behalf of the Union. As a result, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of disloyal owners. This means that Green’s loyalty oath would prevent Belinda and his other slaves from becoming free. I’m anxious to see if the show gets this correct and if it becomes the catalyst that pushes her into helping Pinkerton. Further, just weeks after the campaign, Lincoln presented a version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Previews of future episodes of Mercy Street reveal this season includes an exciting battle scene (perhaps Second Manassas, which should provide the hospital with an overload of wounded), but it is how well the show handles its race and emancipation storylines that will ultimately determine its accuracy and value.

After each episode, I’ll post a short review on my blog, History Headlines (https://historyandthenews.wordpress.com). Follow the journey!

[1] James Blundell, “Observations of Transfusion of Blood,” The Lancet, June 13, 1829.

Glenn David Brasher

Glenn David Brasher is an instructor of history at the University of Alabama, and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) which received the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter, @GlennBrasher.

Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan

At this critical juncture in our history, a new American president will be sworn into office with a nation that appears very divided. Chief among the decisions weighing on Donald Trump’s mind should be how to set up an administration which will bridge that divide. In doing so, he could certainly look to history to find moments when his predecessors faced a similar task. In that regard, there may be no greater parallels than the divisiveness facing President-elect James Buchanan in 1856, and also Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The stakes for the American republican experiment were perhaps higher in 1856 than at any previous time in the history of the nation. When Buchanan took office, physical violence was occurring in Kansas over the introduction of slavery into that territory. With the votes of the solid South, he had narrowly defeated not only the new Republican party whose platform demanded there be no additional slave territory, but also had faced an anti-immigrant third party.[1] Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore accurately stated, “I tell you that we are treading upon the brink of a volcano that is liable at any moment to burst forth and overwhelm the nation.”[2] With the Republican candidate carrying New England and what today would be considered the “Rust Belt” states of the Old Northwest, and Buchanan, the Democrat, carrying all the slave states and only 45 percent of the total national popular vote, the situation begged for a unifier.

Party unity was indispensable and the selection of Buchanan’s cabinet could have been a major catalyst toward the achievement of this goal. With the threat of secession looming, the future of the Union seemed to be hanging by the slim thread of a Democratic victory in upcoming presidential elections. It would not have been an impossible task to hold that party together. The situation called for firm leadership and a spirit of unity, not only within the Democratic party but within the nation itself. With Stephen A. Douglas in command of Illinois, and Buchanan’s friend Jesse Bright as the leader in Indiana, the president-elect could have forged a working coalition over the next four years. James Buchanan indicated just a few weeks after his election, “the object of my administration will be to destroy any sectional party, North or South, and harmonize all sections of the Union under a national and conservative government.”[3] The first of these aims was almost met by the time Buchanan left office, but it was not the Republicans who were in tatters—rather, it was his own Democratic party, split in an unnecessary rift with Stephen A. Douglas. The latter of these aims was not even a possibility four years later, as by that time, seven states had seceded and formed their own government.

With his cabinet selections, Buchanan was presented with substantial opportunities to not only diminish the growing sectional conflict within the nation, but to also set an example for future leaders within the Democratic party. The president-elect’s harsh campaign rhetoric toward the Republican party had fanned the flames of passion as he had repeatedly referred to them as abolitionists and infidels against the Union. Yet rather than moving to heal the divide and consider all sides in his cabinet choices, Buchanan relied upon the advice of his closest friends and advisers who were either Southerners or “dough-faces” (Northern men with Southern principles). These included Howell Cobb of Georgia, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Indiana Senator Jesse Bright (a Kentucky slaveowner), and John Slidell of Louisiana. Many of these men had also been the chief architects of Buchanan’s nomination.[4] To begin with, Buchanan quickly offered all four of these men cabinet posts themselves, but in the end, all but Cobb declined.

Buchanan, above all else, desired harmony within his cabinet, though it was to come at the expense of harmony within his party and harmony within the nation. His thoughts on this subject were revealed in advice to Franklin Pierce in 1852, when he wrote that “without unity no cabinet can be successful…I undertake to predict that whoever may be the President, if he disregards this principle in the formation of his cabinet, he will have committed a fatal mistake. He who attempts to conciliate opposing factions by placing ardent and embittered representatives of each in his cabinet, will discover that he has only infused into these factions new vigour and power for mischief.”[5] Buchanan also desired men who he felt were personally and socially compatible.[6]

When the smoke cleared in early 1857, Buchanan went to Washington with an entirely pro-Southern cabinet which consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces. In the end, Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation. The New York Tribune labeled it a cabinet controlled by slave-drivers. The paper mused, “It is well understood now that the South have got Mr. Buchanan stock and fluke. Nobody who has been intimately conversant with his political career ever doubted this would be so.”[7] There was not one Free-Soiler, not one man from a larger city, and, probably most importantly, not one popular sovereignty Democrat.

Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Buchanan and His Team of Confederates: (l-r) Jacob Thompson, Lewis Cass, John B. Floyd, President Buchanan, Howell Cobb, Isaac Toucey, Aaron V. Brown, and Jeremiah S. Black. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite assertions by many that Buchanan was the tool of his pro-Southern cabinet, that was not actually the case. They just happened to all agree because he had intended it that way from the start. He and his harmonious cabinet presided over the nation’s hastening dissolution. Buchanan indeed spent much time with his cabinet members. They convened every day in meetings, sometimes consuming four to five hours at a time. Yet Buchanan retained control and made the final decision which almost always coincided with his entrenched classical republican principles favoring the “property” rights of Southerners. Buchanan ranks today at or near the bottom of every poll of presidential effectiveness. A recent popular press book on Buchanan is titled Worst. President. Ever.[8]

In contrast with his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln selected men who were considered his political rivals for cabinet advisors, even retaining qualified men who were or had been Democrats.[9] He generally limited his cabinet meetings to twice per week on Tuesdays and Fridays, at noon in his office.[10] He was a patient listener at all times, regarding the advice of each cabinet member equally and “for what they were worth, and generally no more.”[11] Lincoln’s cabinet sessions often became contentious when members expressed disparate viewpoints. Yet Lincoln, ever respectful of all opinions, made the final decision, and is today revered for beginning the reunification process of a divided nation.

Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lincoln and His Team of Rivals: (l-r) Montgomery Blair, Caleb B. Smith, Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Buchanan, the political master, chose advisers who already agreed with him and mostly ignored their advice until the secession crisis was upon him. Lincoln, the political novice, chose advisers who held opposing viewpoints, calmly listened to their advice, and deftly managed to win a civil war hastened in many respects by Buchanan’s refusal to reach out to those who disagreed with him. History never specifically repeats itself, but there are parallels between 1856, 1860, and 2016. As we, like Buchanan and Lincoln, transition from one era in our national history to another, let us remember the only way to achieve true success requires the inclusiveness of both people and ideas.

[1] “Republican Party Platform of 1856, June 18, 1856,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29619 (accessed November 18, 2016).

[2] Statement of Millard Fillmore, Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., (1856), Appendix, 716.

[3] “Mr. Buchanan’s Inaugural,” New York Herald, December 3, 1856.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[5] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 11, 1852, James Buchanan Papers, 1783-1895, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (HSP).

[6] James Buchanan to Franklin Pierce, December 17, 1852, Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[7] “Pacific Road – Kansas A Slave State,” New York Daily Tribune, February 18, 1857.

[8] Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016).

[9] Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[10] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), I, 136-137.

[11] Ibid.

Rick Allen

Rick Allen is a history graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University. Having retired in 2016 from a career in the health insurance industry, he is now engaged in writing a thesis titled “Team of Confederates: The Political Ineptitude of James Buchanan” under the direction of Dr. Adam Criblez. Rick’s main historical interests are antebellum American politics, the sectional crisis, the history of leadership, and heritage education. He can be reached at rtallen1s@semo.edu.

A. Lincoln, Conventioneer

Abraham Lincoln was a diehard politico and devoted partisan, but he only attended one national party convention, a Whig gathering that took place in Philadelphia in 1848. He was not even an official delegate to that big event, but just elbowed his way in among thousands of attendees. Yet, like always, the determined future president made the most of his experience.

Abraham Lincoln in 1846. Image courtesy of the House Divided Project and Library of Congress.
Abraham Lincoln in 1846. Image courtesy of the House Divided Project and Library of Congress.

By that point in his career, Lincoln, age 39, was by no means an outsider. He was then a first-term congressman, the only Whig member of the seven-man Illinois House delegation. That made him a reasonably prominent figure, at least within his caucus on Capitol Hill. Democrats controlled Illinois almost from top to bottom, but the state was part of a fast-growing “Western” bloc, and thus represented a prime target for national campaigns of that era. Illinois was especially important to the prospects for General Zachary Taylor, the leading contender for the 1848 Whig nomination, and the man whose fate had driven Lincoln to show up in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was rough elbows more than fraternity, however, that motivated the Illinois politician. “In my anxiety for the result,” Lincoln admitted, “I was led to attend the Philadelphia convention.”[1]  The congressman was anxious because his party was so bitterly divided. The issues were much different than today, but the open and widespread discontent offers some curious echoes to the grumpy partisan situation in 2016. Taylor and his ruthless forces were busy hijacking the Whig Party, trying to wrench the organization out of the hands of its beloved (but aging) standard-bearer Henry Clay. Despite his long-standing admiration for the Whig Party founder, Lincoln was very much a part of this coup. He had been one of Taylor’s earliest and most effective supporters in Washington.

It had been an ugly nomination fight, conducted mostly behind-the-scenes during the first six months of 1848. Yet the cagey 71-year-old Clay, known as the “Sage of Ashland,” and some of his key media allies, like powerful New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, were still battling fiercely throughout early June for control of the party and its platform. Lincoln feared for the results.

"The Assassination of the Sage of Ashland," an 1848 political cartoon depicting supporters of Zachary Taylor plotting to attack Henry Clay. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
“The Assassination of the Sage of Ashland,” an 1848 political cartoon depicting supporters of Zachary Taylor plotting to attack Henry Clay. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The boisterous Whig convention opened on Wednesday morning, June 7th at a large exhibition hall on the corner of Ninth and Sansom streets, known locally as the “Chinese Museum,” because it had once housed a rare collection of Asian artifacts. Greeley’s Tribune described the scene in Philadelphia as a madhouse, claiming, “No city was ever so much crowded as this one is at present.” Out-of-towners were apparently trying to sleep together in groups, “even ten” to a room, according to the Tribune’s bemused correspondent. Adding to the mayhem was the presence of former U.S. senator Lewis Cass (D-MI), just recently nominated as the Democratic nominee for president, along with throngs of his own energized supporters. As the convention week unfolded, there were multiple fights as the two sides clashed in the city’s streets, sometimes with knives drawn, and after plenty of late-night drinking, singing and shouting.[2]

The Chinese Museum, the site of the 1848 Whig Convention. Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The Chinese Museum, the site of the 1848 Whig Convention. Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Congressman Lincoln did not drink alcohol, nor was he much for street brawling, but he proved quite busy that week in Philadelphia, working the convention hall and the various social gatherings on behalf of the Taylor campaign. Lincoln wrote about some of those conversations shortly afterwards in ways that now help illustrate his maturing political style.

He observed to his wife Mary, for example, that although he felt lost at first, among the “multitude of strange faces,” he still managed to find his way. He told her how he had met up with a delegate from Arkansas named Thomas W. Newton, who actually knew Mary since his local law partner (Robert Crittenden) was the son of a prominent Kentucky family (like the Todds). Lincoln joked that the loose convention rules had allowed Newton to cast three ballots on behalf of his missing state delegation, making the former southern congressman, “a sort of Trinity.”[3]

 This was also the moment when Lincoln first encountered the ever-memorable Thaddeus Stevens. At the time, the cantankerous future Radical leader was merely a shrewd attorney from Lancaster, Pennsylvania struggling, like Lincoln, to make the social rounds. Yet somehow these two rising nineteenth-century political titans found each other, and Lincoln later made sure that they stayed in contact. “You may possibly remember seeing me at the Philadelphia Convention,” wrote the Illinois networker in early September, “introduced to you as the lone whig star of Illinois.” Still anxious about the fate of Taylor’s chances (now as the party’s formal nominee), Lincoln claimed he was looking for the “undisguised opinion of some experienced and sagacious Pennsylvania politician” on how the Keystone State would turn out in the fall. “In casting about for such a man,” Lincoln wrote smoothly, “I have settled upon you.” Stevens proved equally charming in reply, offering guarded optimism about Pennsylvania, though only if the Whigs managed to co-opt the state’s powerful anti-immigrant “natives” (a force apparently still to be reckoned with). Stevens also asked Lincoln for insight about the perennial swing states of Ohio and Indiana, since “your means of information are much better than mine.”[4]

Thaddeus Stevens. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the House Divided Project.
Thaddeus Stevens. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the House Divided Project.

All of this suggests some revealing ways that Lincoln was starting to emerge as a major national partisan figure, a full decade before the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Yet perhaps no bit of evidence from the Philadelphia convention evokes as much about Lincoln’s future as a recently discovered fragment from the very moment of Taylor’s nomination.

The Whigs nominated Taylor on Friday morning, June 9th at about 10:30 a.m., after four hotly contested ballots. Lincoln was thrilled and soon rushed out of the Chinese Museum, in order to share the news with his fellow party activists back in Illinois. He drafted a message for a nearby telegraph operator that was to be sent to his hometown Whig newspaper, the Illinois Journal. “General TAYLOR has received the nomination of the Convention for President of the U. States. A. Lincoln,” read his urgent dispatch, sent at exactly 11:15 a.m. and received in Springfield by noon.[5] It was only 17 words, but this marks the first known example of Lincoln actually using the telegraph. That telling milestone, however, slipped out of general notice and has only just recently been rediscovered and posted online by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project.

The telegraph was a new phenomenon back then, unveiled only four years earlier, by Samuel F. B. Morse, during the 1844 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. By the time of the Whig convention in Philadelphia, American newspapers had only just started to rely on telegraphic correspondence for their national political reporting. This explains the birth at that time of the Associated Press. It also helps explain Lincoln’s haste. He was not merely excited about the results of the balloting or the prospect of using the newfangled technology. Lincoln was also clearly intent on helping out his close friends and allies Simeon Francis and Alfred T. Bledsoe, Whig editors of the Illinois Journal, who had been touting their telegraphic access for months to skeptical prairie readers. This was presumably a break out moment for their big investment.

Page image of Lincoln's first telegram, announcing Zachary Taylor's nomination. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Page image of Lincoln’s first telegram, announcing Zachary Taylor’s nomination. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

It was also a breakout moment for Abraham Lincoln. He followed up on his first national convention with his first national speaking tour, delivering pro-Taylor campaign speeches as far North as Massachusetts. He soon established himself as the leader of the Illinois Whig Party. But, of course, the Whigs were a dying movement, and Taylor proved to be a short-lived occupant of the White House. Lincoln would need to reinvent himself in the 1850s as a Republican and reconnect with Eastern contacts in order to gain his own nomination for president from the 1860 Chicago convention. That was a happy result, by the way that he heard on the streets of Springfield, reported to him from the nation’s now-ubiquitous telegraph wire.

[1] Abraham Lincoln Richard S. Thomas, June 13, 1848, Collected Works, 1: 477-8.

[2] New-York Daily Tribune, “The Convention –Arrival of General Cass –Loco-Foco Disturbances,” June 8, 1848, p. 2: 1.

[3] Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, July 2, 1848, Collected Works, 1: 495.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Thaddeus Stevens, September 3, 1848, Collected Works, 2: 1 (via Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition). Thaddeus Stevens to Abraham Lincoln, September 7, 1848, in Beverly Wilson Palmer and Holly Byers Ochoa, eds., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens: Volume 1, January 1814 – March 1865 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 1: 102-3.

[5] Abraham Lincoln to Simeon Francis, June 9, 1848, in (Springfield) Illinois Journal, June 15, 1848, p. 2:4, Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

Matthew Pinsker

Matthew Pinsker holds the Brian Pohanka Chair for Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he also serves as director of the House Divided Project, a multi-media effort designed to provide engaging instructional resources on the Civil War era for K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. He has written widely about Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War era and the history of American politics. His next book, tentatively entitled, Boss Lincoln: Understanding Abraham Lincoln’s Partisan Leadership is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co.

An Interview with Dr. William Blair, Founding Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era

Dr. William Blair, History Professor at Penn State University, is the founding editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. Muster asked Dr. Blair about the Journal, Civil War memory, and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Screenshot 2016-02-15 at 10.32.03 AM
The Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume I, Number I, March 2011.

You were the editor of Civil War History for ten years before founding and editing The Journal of the Civil War Era. Did you have a vision for JCWE that differed from CWH?

Actually, the vision did not vary that much. I was very proud of what we accomplished during my ten years with Kent State University Press. The editorial team and publisher stayed faithful to the idea that the journal embraced what used to be called “The Middle Period,” of nineteenth-century U.S. history. We eventually dropped the subtitle that contained that term from the journal’s cover and masthead because it had passed out of the lexicon of the profession. But the journal under John T. Hubbell always focused on more than four years of warfare.

Several things came together, however, at the ten-year mark of my tenure. I began to have a sense that I had done all that I could do and I feared I was getting stale. Second was the notion that I still wasn’t pulling everyone into the journal whom I believed belonged there. I can’t tell you how many times I heard authors tell me that they didn’t see their work as a Civil War study when, in fact, I did. Or at least as I have conceived of the Era. Third, I learned that the University of North Carolina Press was interested in starting a journal for this period of history. Coupled with the resources we had accumulated through the Richards Civil War Era Center, events had come together to create the possibility of a new journal. We put “Era” in the title and came out of the gate with the strong message that we desired to reach out to colleagues who did not realize they were doing the kind of work that we thought should be within our pages.

To me, the most important sentence in our vision statement was this: “The journal offers a unique space where scholars across the many subfields that animate nineteenth-century history can enter into conversation with each other.” My colleague, Tony Kaye who served as an Associate Editor, helped me craft that sentence and it became my mantra. I owe Tony a lot for assisting me in finding the journal’s voice.

During your five years as editor of JCWE, did you notice any trends in Civil War era scholarship that you found particularly surprising or intriguing?

Actually there were a number of things. I had put energy into founding the JCWE because I had this sense that an area that had once been a leader for new questions and methodologies was no longer viewed as a center of what was captivating the profession. When I was in graduate school, studies of slavery and abolition, for instance, offered some of the most provocative debates for scholarship, as did issues of national identity in the Civil War. The study of collective memory arguably gained some of its greatest traction in the Civil War era, especially through work on the Lost Cause. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed as if the bottom dropped out and the Civil War era had lost its luster as a place where excitement was happening.

Fortunately, I found out that I wasn’t totally right in my perception. For instance, one of the areas that I had thought had passed by Civil War era studies by was transnationalism. When we launched the journal, we were fortunate to have Douglas R. Egerton publish a review essay on the Civil War in a global perspective. This seemed to be an area that needed encouragement so we hoped to open up a dialogue here. My biggest surprise came in the number of articles that subsequently came into us that dealt with either the global dimensions of the conflict or trans-national issues. Scholars obviously either had been thinking about this or working on various aspects of this methodology and the journal provided a welcome home at just the right time to capture this new work. We even ran an entire special issue on “New Approaches to Internationalizing the History of the Civil War Era” in June 2012 and had an extended forum in March 2015 on teaching international aspects of the war. And there were many, many more pieces that demonstrated the efficacy of placing the war and the era within a broader context.
There were also surprises in the reverse. It has been difficult to consistently publish good work in both military and political/constitutional history. We have had some great pieces, including a special issue on military history in December 2014 that created interest. But both areas have shown the impact of a decline in training in these areas within the academy. As I say this, I don’t mean to disparage the fine work that’s being done and I realize that some of this assessment may lie in what the beholder determines to be military or political history. I’ve only become aware that by publishing what some call “war and society” may not be satisfying to scholars hoping for operational or other forms of military history. On another subject, we’ve had a more difficult time recruiting work in the area of antebellum history. Again, we’ve published some fine pieces, but we do not see a consistent pattern of submissions here. I hope that will change.

As for the future, I started to see new developments that showed considerable promise but have remained in formation. Probably the first of these concerns the Civil War and the West. A number of scholars have begun to explore connections between the Civil War East and the West beyond the Mississippi. I’m not sure that we have cemented these connections yet but I see potentially worthwhile pieces coming down the pike. We’ll be trying to help the cause with a special issue guest edited by Ari Kelman in December 2016. Additionally, I have become more aware of the possibilities of looking at the Civil War era from a hemispheric perspective. This would bring Canada into the picture with the U.S. and Mexico, showing stresses that were shared and not shared. A conference the Richards Center co-sponsored with the University of Calgary last summer began to explore these possibilities and we’re hopeful to show some of the pieces in a future issue of the journal. I do think there are some new historiographies emerging that will push us in new directions.

What do you think were the biggest takeaways from the Sesquicentennial? Why has the Civil War maintained such a popular place, not only in academic scholarship, but in public culture and memory?

The biggest takeway for me was the difference in the attitudes concerning slavery and the coming of the war. During the Centennial, few public commemorations admitted this and there was very little discussion about African American contributions to the war. The Centennial, in fact, opened with a controversy over segregation in Charleston, SC. Black people tried with little success to spark national commemoration of emancipation. But in 2011, national media made sure that the 150th anniversary acknowledged the role of slavery in the coming of the conflict. I had the ability to show my class on the Civil War Today a clip from Stephen Colbert, who ridiculed the people who tried to claim otherwise. And I know of re-enactments of events involving black soldiers. So in one sense, it was heartening to see the change in attitudes.

But I suppose I’m not as optimistic in response to the question about the Civil War maintaining a strong popular place for the public. That’s true to an extent, but it seems to me to be an increasingly graying population that continues to show the greatest interest. I do see young people on battlefields, and Civil War courses remain popular at Penn State, but something feels different now. Once the sesquicentennial of Gettysburg passed, it was harder to see concerted efforts to sustain discussion of the war and its consequences. Virginia was an exception, with the University of Virginia as a leader. And there probably were other pockets of commemorations that I’m not aware of. But there was no national commission, and attempts to highlight the 150th anniversary in Pennsylvania enjoyed mixed success, losing steam as budgetary support dwindled. Still, it could be my own personal perception; and it could be a wrong one. I truly hope so.

But I am confident in saying that I’m likely to be disappointed in the lack of interest in celebrating the anniversary of Reconstruction. There are people out there who are trying hard not to let this moment pass: National Park Service personnel especially in the Sea Islands and historians like Greg Downs and Kate Masur who are pulling together a future issue in the journal on the subject. And next year’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College looks like it will do a terrific service in educating the public on this important part of history. But I think it will be slow going to get public enthusiasm and the national media behind commemorations of Reconstruction. Once again, I hope I’m wrong. But if I’m right, that will be a shame, because while the Civil War saved the nation, Reconstruction made the nation.

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“Heywood Shepherd Monument at Harpers Ferry.” Image courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

You have written about the politics and divisiveness of Civil War memory, particularly in its immediate aftermath. Recently, debates have sprung up about the nature of that memory, particularly in the form of the continued use of the Confederate flag and Southern monuments to Confederate leaders. What is your take on these debates and efforts to reshape the Civil War memorial landscape?

First of all, I think much of this is healthy and indicative of a change in who can shape public interpretations of history. We would not have had these discussions twenty years ago—at least not effectively. The Confederate flag is an easy one for me. It should come down. It does not belong on a public building supported by tax dollars. And it went up in South Carolina during a period of resistance to desegregation. It was past time to take it down. Another easy decision for me is to take down public monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest. He has three strikes against him: important antebellum slave trader, massacre of black people at Fort Pillow, and one of the founders of the KKK. Praise for his military exploits, which actually were quite modest in the grand scheme of things, does not overcome these detriments.

But should we take down all monuments to the Confederacy? In general, I suppose I’m in favor of adding rather than subtracting. Monument Avenue in Richmond, for instance, saw the addition of a statue to Arthur Ashe—an action that made quite a beneficial commentary. Richmond in general has done a good job by creating a Slave Trail commemoration and erecting a Reconciliation Statue that linked the city with Liverpool and West Africa, which were important cornerstones of the African slave trade. It was unveiled in 2007 with a commitment to honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Richmond residents also are restoring a jail that held slaves for sale. At Harpers Ferry, a monument put up in the 1930s celebrates faithful slaves in a rather bizarre way. The Park Service has added a wayside sign explaining the context and I’ve used that monument as a teaching moment for students about the creation of amnesia about the past. In other words, I think it’s better to make an honest confession about the past and what the Confederacy stood for as we find ways to remember the stories that few white people had wanted to tell for so long. And we need to keep finding ways to embody these stories in new public statuary and commemorations.

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William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

In your years of archival research, what is the most interesting document or story/anecdote you have uncovered?

This is easy for me. I have a document that I found in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society while researching Cities of the Dead. It is the closest thing to a smoking gun that I’ve personally seen. It’s a letter written by Charles Blackford to a political crony that talks about the strategy for the 1889 state elections. Virginia had recently beaten back the Readjuster Movement, which was a white-black coalition that had effected progressive changes. Blackford declared: “I am glad that the issue is square upon the color line. It is the only one by which we can win.” He added: “The negroes must understand that we will give them perfect equality before the law, and treat them with justness and fairness and liberality, but that they are not fit to rule us, and that we will die before they shall do so. The election must be carried peaceable if we can, but by force if necessary.” Then he showed Democratic elites calculating how to break the white-black coalition that had fueled the Readjuster Movement. “You cannot keep the lower class of white men in line unless they distinctly understand that they are to make their selection between the negro on the oneside [sic] and the white race on the other. Once get that clearly before the people as an issue and we are safe, otherwise the tariff and other matters which are perfectly immaterial in comparison, will beat us.”

I have rarely seen such naked plotting and clear-eyed strategy that exposes the means that fueled the maintenance of white supremacy. Sometimes students wonder: are we as scholars pushing it too hard to mention the calculation behind eventual segregation, rather than portraying racism as a visceral response rather than an intellectual one? It was both. The letter is a chilling reminder that political struggles continued beyond the so-called ending of Reconstruction in 1877, and black people remained active and effective in certain pockets of the South. They were a concern for the white power structure. Blackford and his cronies didn’t need to use the race card if they thought they had the election won. Codified segregation came because Democrats thought they needed it and they crafted the strategy to make it happen. And if we don’t remember this, we demean the struggles of African Americans who did not go quietly into that horrible night.

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“Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd.” Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Productions, 2012.

Who was the best Abraham Lincoln: Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), or Will Ferrell (Drunk History)?

I don’t have much of a basis for comparison. I haven’t seen the vampire hunter film. I have seen snippets of Drunk History and while I enjoyed the comedy a lot I don’t see Will Ferrell as much of a Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis wins my vote. I thought the movie was very good and especially liked the hard-edged politics that were featured. I also appreciated the scenes between Lincoln and Mary Todd, which had the feel of a real married couple. The parts to me that were over the top were the opening scene in which Lincoln talks with the black soldiers and the cabinet meeting in which he proclaims himself a president clothed in immense power. The first scene was obviously a convention for storytelling and bringing the public up to speed. The second just didn’t sound like Lincoln. But for the most part I thought the portrayal was believable. Like many of my colleagues I wished the director would have ended the film with Lincoln walking down the corridor of the White House on his way to Ford’s Theater. We know what happened at the play.

William A. Blair is the Acting Head for the Department of History, Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Middle American History, and Director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. He is the author of Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), and most recently, With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Michael Johnson is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University. He can be reached at mfjohnson@gwu.edu.