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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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Editors’ Note: March 2017 Issue

We are very pleased to announce the publication of our March 2017 special issue. Copies will be in your mailboxes soon, but to tide you over until then, here is the editors’ note from our guest editors, Kate Masur and Greg Downs!


One hundred and fifty years since Reconstruction, we believe now is a propitious time to take stock of the scholarly literature and public memory that shape our collective understanding of that crucial era. Almost thirty years after the publication of Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, we are in the midst of a deep, searching exploration of how to define, analyze, and narrate the crucial period that began during the Civil War and extended, arguably, until the close of the century. Given the vibrancy of the field and growing attention to the public history of the era, it seems wise not to try to pin down exactly where we stand but to take stock, advance ideas, and generate conversation and debate.

To assess past and present scholarship and open paths to future work, the Journal of the Civil War Era commissioned scholars to write on discrete topics within the broader world of Reconstruction history. The forum on the future of Reconstruction, introduced and edited by Luke E. Harlow, features brief introductory notes in these pages by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gerstle, Thomas C. Holt, Martha S. Jones, Mark A. Noll, Adrienne Petty, Lisa Tetrault, Elliott West, and Kidada E. Williams. Each short piece published here serves as an introduction to a longer, freely available essay available at the journal’s Web site.

Reconstruction historiography developed within a broader literary response to the end of the Civil War and to the ongoing transformations of the nation. In his provocative historiographical essay, law and literature scholar Brook Thomas challenges historians to revisit early Reconstruction historiography and to see it in the context of twentieth-century debates about the nature of evidence, narrative, and history itself.

Beyond historical writing, the era of Reconstruction has been difficult to publicly commemorate. Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor give us the first detailed study of an early twenty-first-century effort to create a National Park Service site devoted to the era. Beaufort, South Carolina, is at the heart of the piece, which explores the failure of a project that garnered support locally and at high levels of government. At issue here is how and where people learn about history and whom they trust to explain it.

Reconstruction remains a crucial and sometimes confusing area to teach. In her essay, Hannah Rosen discusses the approaches she and others bring to the subject in the classroom, focusing on using the period as an opportunity to teach about the history of race and racism.

Finally, in a roundtable on Reconstruction and public memory, David M. Prior moderates a discussion among four professors who have been variously involved in public history projects—Beverly Bond, Thomas J. Brown, Eric Foner, and Salamishah Tillet—along with Nancy Bercaw of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Jennifer Taylor of the Equal Justice Initiative. Their theme is the challenges and possibilities of encouraging public engagement with the era of Reconstruction.

While it is clear that certain themes will remain central to the study of the post–Civil War Era—emancipation and abolition, racial formation, labor, state building, constitutional change, and enfranchisement—the essays published here remind us of the protean nature of a period that, a century and a half later, remains open to new historical questions and dramatic reinterpretation. Our hope is that this special issue inspires further discussion and debate about where this era’s future might lie.