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Editor’s Note: June 2017 Issue

The essays in this issue seek to reopen debates on topics central to our understanding of Civil War causes and the administration of the war, namely, tariffs, states’ rights, and Confederate draft exemption. Another essay revisits an important freedom suit that stood ominously in the background as the Dred Scott case was argued. In each, the author pays careful attention to the words and actions of legislators—and litigators—as they sought to respond to local needs while navigating a national crisis. There are all sorts of surprises here.

The issue opens with Earl Hess’s Tom Watson Brown acceptance speech. Hess issues a call to action for scholars to continue to find ways to revitalize military history by refusing to limit ourselves to four years and by continuing to internationalize the field. Hess also encourages scholars to take on the smallest aspects of military history, for in them we can illuminate larger issues in the history of war—something that Hess did with great effect in his Watson Brown Prize–winning book, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness.

Daniel Peart’s essay reveals the fierce politicking at work as Congress deliberated the 1846 tariff. Rather than following their party, congressmen operated on a diverse set of interests, including the demands of their constituents and their personal principles. Peart reminds us of the importance of paying attention to agency and contingency within the party system as he charts the tariff’s unlikely passage, in a Democratic Senate, after an eleventh-hour resignation of a principled Democrat. Peart shows us that the period’s interminable tariff debates need not be narcolepsy-inducing but rather can offer historians a fresh perspective on antebellum politics.

Sarah Gronningsater tells the story of the freedom suit that, had it arrived at the Taney court, had the potential of bringing slavery into states that had long ago prohibited it. The case hinged on whether a Virginia couple—Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon—retained ownership of their slaves when they arrived in New York, where they prepared to board a steamer to New Orleans. Once there, a local black activist—Louis Napoleon—launched a freedom suit on the slaves’ behalf, one that, in the wake of Dred Scott, had the potential of receiving a ruling sympathetic to slave owners demanding an absolute right of safe transit for their slave property. Revisiting the 1852 Lemmon case allows Gronningsater to explore how black laborers used the legal process in the North to force the nation to debate the legal limits of slavery.

States’ rights, Michael E. Woods tells us, was an issue that northern Republicans felt keenly. Indeed, he argues that in the 1850s Republicans rediscovered and claimed “an alternate states’ rights tradition” and refined it into a powerful antislavery weapon, criticizing federal slavery policy. Republicans, Woods insists, were the real antebellum proponents of states’ rights, adhering closely to eighteenth-century precedents intended to protect civil liberties.

John Sacher reconsiders the controversial Confederate draft exemption called the “twenty-negro” law.” Popular resentment of the law, he argues, often focused on those who abused it, and, in any case, very few men were exempted for this reason. Stressing popular demands for protection from slave rebellion, Sacher refers to the law as an “overseer law” and examines how Confederate congressmen revised it in response to criticism. Sacher argues that rather than a regressive measure that fell heavily on the shoulders of the poor, the law was shaped to respond to their needs.

William Carrigan’s review essay on lynching rounds out this issue. Carrigan surveys recent scholarship expanding our perspective on lynching to include understudied groups—such as Native Americans and Chinese, Italian, and other immigrants—and new approaches, such as global and transnational perspectives. He finds that the Civil War era was a critical turning point in the history of American lynching, a point that has been missed in the scholarship that focuses on the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Historians have much to learn by situating the study of lynching in the history of mob violence, beginning in the antebellum period.

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Lorien Foote’s Article a Finalist for Army Historical Foundation Award

We are delighted to announce that Lorien Foote’s article in the March 2016 issue, titled “‘They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt’: Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy,” is a finalist for the 2016 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award. Lorien’s discussion of escaped prisoners of war in South Carolina (which she estimates at around 2,676 between September 1864 and February 1865) provides insights into the collapse of the Confederate state. As Lorien states in this excerpt, the story of these federal fugitives provides insight into the Confederacy’s final years in three ways:

First, this story uncovers the temporal and spatial dimensions of the collapse of the Confederate prison system and the movement of fugitive prisoners in the region between September 1864 and February 1865. As Edward Ayers and Scott Nesbit have pointed out, studying these dimensions allows us to find variations in experience and to make connections between events. The location and timing of three mass outbreaks—from Florence in September, from trains to Columbia and from Columbia itself in October and November, and from the railway lines that ran between Columbia and the North Carolina border in February— shaped the contours of fugitive travel in the state. Fugitive movement concentrated within four distinct travel corridors during October, November, and December, and the encounters among fugitives, slaves, and communities differed in each corridor.

Second, tracing the escape and flight of Federal prisoners of war exposes to view spaces where the Confederacy no longer maintained control in South Carolina. Before Sherman invaded the state, officials lost the ability to defend loyal citizens from a variety of enemies who moved within and across its borders. Finally, the movement of Federal prisoners across the landscape makes explicit the role citizens took on during a state’s collapse at the end of the war. South Carolina’s experience suggests that the disintegration of Confederate and state authority facilitated a breakdown of order that left citizens largely responsible for their own security. Families and individuals, rather than Confederate officials, made decisions on the ground about what constituted loyalty and when, if, and how they would handle threats to the state. Citizens were no longer willing to contribute their manpower or their resources to a government that no longer functioned. When Confederate authorities proved unable to respond to the threat of fugitive Federals, effective control reverted to local agency.[1]

Keep reading on Project Muse (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/611880). The winners of the Distinguished Writer Award will be announced at the Foundation’s annual meeting on June 15.

[1] Lorien Foote, “‘They Cover the Land Like the Locusts of Egypt’: Fugitive Federal Prisoners of War and the Collapse of the Confederacy,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 1 (March 2016): 32.