The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

David Blight: “And the many need government”

FDR 2

One of our finest American historians, Yale’s David Blight, reminds us that Americans have always relied on the government in times of crisis.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

In August 1861, several months after the secession of 11 southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared that “nations seldom listen to advice from individuals, however reasonable. They are taught less by theories than by facts and events.”

The United States is currently being educated by facts and events. And, as in other times of crisis—war, economic collapse, natural disasters—even those who do not like government are realizing that they need it. Government can protect them; it might save their life and livelihood. Irony will not die in the time of the coronavirus; even many of those who believe the federal government should not intervene in society except for national defense, and would happily privatize most elements of public life, are now straining to have government save society. With this issue, we have a long history.

The times that “try men’s souls,” in Thomas Paine’s phrase, are usually those that test our fundamental ideas and values, or challenge the nations and societies by which we organize ourselves. The coronavirus pandemic is challenging America’s political leaders at all levels, and advocates are pressing them to use their powers in ways that have little recent precedent. It also poses broader questions: What do the people of this republic owe their governments, and what do governments owe their people? For 230 years this has been one of the most significant and fiercely contested questions in our polity. We are now asking it during every waking hour.

It may seem quaint, but for answers, we could take time to read some history. Some events, usually unanticipated, cause seismic breaks in time. Two such prior crises, when leaders were challenged to preserve and reimagine the America they had inherited, offer particularly relevant lessons. In 1854, the year Abraham Lincoln burst out of political quietude to oppose the expansion of slavery, he said this: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.” That Lincoln quote became a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, as he moved toward a bold and experimental use of government to save the American economy in the 1930s.

Read the entire piece here.

When Government Inaction or Delay Shaped the Course of Infectious Disease

Alexandria

A Civil War field hospital in Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress; Photo by James Gibson)

Over at The Atlantic, Jim Downs, professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, writes about “the epidemics America got wrong.”  A taste:

By late March 1863, hundreds had died in Alexandria, Virginia. The mortality rate had almost doubled in just one night, and even quadrupled in other parts of the country. Three thousand people were dead in less than a month in North and South Carolina. The numbers in Louisiana, Georgia, and parts of Mississippi were equally as high. As a smallpox epidemic tore through the country, more than 49,000 people died from June 1865 to December 1867, the years an official count was kept.

Smallpox exploded at this time not because of a lack of protocols or knowledge—a vaccine even existed—but because political leaders simply didn’t care about the group that was getting sick. Government inaction or delay—due to racial discrimination, homophobia, stigma, and apathy—have shaped the course of many epidemics in our country. In the 1980s, for example, HIV spread as the government barely acknowledged its existence.

Now the United States is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, the threat a disease poses has been magnified by the slow speed with which the government has reacted. And although this disease is not concentrated within any one community, it is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities. The lesson of past outbreaks of infectious diseases is that public officials must take them seriously, communicate honestly, and tend to the most vulnerable. If the United States has not always lived up to that standard, we now have the perfect opportunity to apply the lessons of our past mistakes.

Downs concludes:

History has shown us time and time again that epidemics worsen when the federal and state leaders with the power to implement preventive efforts fail to take it seriously. In the past few years, public-health and national-security officials have issued warnings that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, but the government failed to act then. Now the coronavirus is in all 50 states. In the 1860s and in the 1980s, communities had to find a way to help themselves. Today the government has a chance to not make the same mistake again.

Read the entire piece here. And let’s keep learning from the past in these troubled times.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Domby

the false causeAdam H. Domby is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. This interview is based on his new book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The False Cause?

AD: Honestly, I didn’t intend to write this book. Originally, I was just going to write a couple of articles before revising my dissertation for publication. I had found the Julian Carr speech that he gave at UNC while a graduate student. In the speech, Carr brags about whipping “a negro wench” during Reconstruction. I thought it was a neat source to use to discuss monuments and teach about Jim Crow. However, after a letter to the editor I wrote was published in 2011, activists mobilized my research, and really shifted public opinion about “Silent Sam.” In time, this made me realize that these speeches had an important power worthy of looking at more closely.

Meanwhile, I also stumbled upon evidence of pension fraud at the NC State archives. At first I thought I would just write an article about the extent of pension fraud. As I dug deeper it became clear to me that all of the increasing number of fabrications I was finding were not just about remembering the past in a positive fashion but about controlling contemporary politics. And I came to realize the stories told during monument dedication speeches were tied to the acceptance of fraudulent pensioners as legitimate. These were not separate side projects. I had started considering making it a second book project when then the election of Donald Trump occurred and I thought, a book about lies and white supremacy might be timely. Indeed, it became increasingly clear as I wrote that Americans were struggling to understand how lies, often lies that were obvious to everyone–even those who accepted them–functioned to erode democracy today. The creation and evolution of of the Lost Cause in North Carolina provides numerous parallels in examining how democracy is harmed by lies and how lies function to support white supremacist ideologies. So I put aside my dissertation based book on divided communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction (which I will one day return to) and set out to write this one.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The False Cause?

AD: That is hard but here goes: The book argues that the Lost Cause narrative of the past was not only shaped by lies, but that these lies served to uphold white supremacy and to justify the establishment of Jim Crow. Additionally, the book shows how these lies still influence how the public, and even some historians, remember the Civil War today, and still serve to uphold white supremacist world views.

JF: Why do we need to read The False Cause?

AD: I think it depends on who you are but most people will find something in this book of use. We live in a time when lies are being used to erode democracy and empower white supremacists. North Carolina in the 1890s-1900s can teach us a lot about white supremacists. Additionally, the Lost Cause remains a robust mythology that many Americans still believe to be an accurate reflection of the past. These narratives continue to uphold racist ideologies today. The evolution and creation of these narratives of history need to be better understood. If you believe the Confederacy fought for states’s rights and slavery had nothing to do with it, then you need to read this to understand why you were taught a false narrative. For historians of the Civil War the book makes the argument that historical memory and the study of fraud can also teach us about events during the war as well as the memory of the conflict. Historians of memory may find my methodology of focusing on lies and fabrication innovative (I hope). Political historians will hopefully find the analysis of how historical memory was used in North Carolina politics new and exciting. Commentators on contemporary race relations may gain a better understanding of how ideologies of white supremacy depend on false narratives of the past. If you are interested in Confederate monuments and flags The False Cause explains how they are tied to white supremacy. I like to think the book has something for everyone. I think every professor of American historian needs to be able to discuss many of the aforementioned issues with their students. This book provides the tools needed to talk about why lies, white supremacy, and rewriting the past are so relevant today. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AD: When I got to college, I was a math major. That lasted one semester. I’d always been interested in history but had not considered it as a career. Some early classes, which I thought at the time would be electives, made me realize I loved research. You can blame Aaron SachsBob MorrisseyJohn Demos, and David Blight for me ending up a historian. I highlight those four because early on they took the time to teach me about doing my own research and showed me I could enjoy writing. They also made me realize how important the past was to the present. We don’t always realize how important a good teacher is in shaping where we go in life. Still, even as I graduated college, I was convinced I was going to be a Park Ranger and would never return to school. Only after a stint in politics did I return to graduate school and start to consider myself “a historian.” 

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I have a variety of projects. I will return to the book based on my dissertation eventually. That examines how divided communities were fractured during the Civil War, and their legacies long after Appomattox. It has arguments about both the Civil War and the postwar period. But first I am finishing a bunch of smaller projects. I have two coauthored projects; one on a rabbi who was also a conman and one on how public historians can better incorporate the experience of prisoners of war into the interpretive framework at historic sites. I have a smaller article project about the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery in the works that I am researching currently. Finally, I have been working with a graduate student of mine to create a geographic database of over 5,000 Confederate pay rolls that detail the impressment of enslaved people during the Civil War. We hope to have that available for scholars to use by year’s end. I like to keep myself busy.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

 

Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

Civil War dead

Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

rebel richmondStephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.

I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books  I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.

The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebel Richmond?

SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.

In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.

Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.

JF: What is your next project?

SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (sash@utk.edu).

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Exposing Slavery?

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Carl Guarneri

Lincoln.jpgCarl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College of California. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: Why did you decide to write Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: I hatched plans for Lincoln’s Informer many years ago when I learned that Charles Dana, whose experience at the Brook Farm commune I had covered in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991), moved on to a fascinating—and virtually unstudied—Civil War career. My interest was piqued when I learned that Dana’s war memoirs, published in 1898, were actually ghostwritten by the muckraker Ida Tarbell and, I discovered, riddled with mistakes. I took the absence of a trove of personal Dana papers as a research dare, along with the several thousand wartime telegrams sent by him that are recorded on microfilms at the National Archives. Although the Civil War had not previously been my scholarly focus, I had been teaching it for three decades, which stimulated my desire to do some original scholarship in the field. Several other book projects clamored for my attention first. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the long delay because it enabled me, once I returned to the Dana project, to benefit from so much fine Civil War scholarship that appeared in the intervening years.

As an Assistant Secretary lodged in Washington’s corridors of power and a special agent sent by Lincoln and Stanton to the front to file confidential reports, Dana, I sensed, was a wonderful source for telling the inside story of the Union war. My friends kept pointing out that he bore a resemblance to a fictional character (like Forrest Gump) who just happened to be present in the middle of a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His reports helped to make Union generals like Grant and break others, such as McClernand and Rosecrans. Meanwhile, at Washington he supervised Union spies, lobbied legislators for Lincoln, and helped police the contentious Union home front. My research brings out Dana’s important behind-the-scenes role, while the book’s sideways approach allows me to take the measure of Union leaders like Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant without adding to the leaning-tower pile of their published biographies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: This is not primarily a thesis-driven book but a dramatic and (I hope) colorful narrative that clarifies along the way many controversies about Civil War battles, generals, and events, and offers a fresh look at Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, and Union leaders. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial contributions to Union victory, and, more generally, the indispensable role that people most readers have never heard of–special agents and bureau chiefs in the War Department–played in organizing and sustaining the Union’s massive war effort.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: Scholars and history buffs who can’t get enough of the Civil War will, I trust, not require strenuous convincing! For them, and for students and other readers, Lincoln’s Informer addresses important and perennially fascinating Civil War questions (Why did northerners reject secession? Who freed the slaves, and why? How did Lincoln finally find the right generals? Did the President’s use of patronage help or hinder the war effort? Was there a Confederate conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln?), but it does so from a fresh angle by excavating the actions and views of a little-known confidant of Union war leaders, an administration insider with surprising influence. The book’s narrative suggests some “revisionist” answers to these questions. Equally important in my view, as Lincoln’s Informer tells its story in detail it gives a feel for the way the Civil War’s momentous events unfolded day-by-day in the eyes of key participants.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CG: In retrospect, our autobiographical paths always seem clearer, even predestined. As a curious kid in a home-bound, working-class Italian-American family, I found escape in the vicarious travel of poring over maps and collecting stamps, and in the backward time-travel of historical fiction. I had the benefit of encountering inspiring history teachers in high school and college, too. But the truth is that I studied economics and art history as an undergraduate, and only in approaching graduate studies did I turn—or return—to history. It was a professor of French history who urged me to focus on the United States—which I had not studied in college—and to examine its transatlantic and global connections. It turned out that studying US history this way satisfied my curiosity about other times and places while also illuminating our own. Since then I have veered between “ballooning”—assessing the US in global perspective—and “burrowing”—digging deeply into specific events and primary sources, rejoicing that practicing history allows me to do both.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: Deconstructing Charles Dana’s ersatz memoirs has whetted my appetite for exploring issues raised by Civil War memoirs as problematic historical sources, which can be mined—always with caution— for information about wartime events, but can also be examined as explorations in the workings of memory, as survivors’ attempts to fix historical legacies, and as interventions in ongoing military and political controversies. I’m hoping to pursue this further. Meanwhile, in keeping with my interest in transatlantic history, I am preparing an edition of Dana’s newspaper reportage of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.

JF: Thanks, Carl!

The Author’s Corner with Niels Eichhorn

liberty and slaveryNiels Eichhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Liberty and Slavery?

NE: The project started in my freshman year in college when I took a Civil War history class (senior-level class), where I became interested in German-U.S. relations. I was especially curious about Rudolph Schleiden, Bremen’s diplomatic representative in the United States. Schleiden, a former 1848 revolutionary, who had tried in April 1861 with a visit to Alexander Stephens in Richmond to stop the war, seemed to have a unique story to tell. I wanted to know more about him. As I continued in graduate school, I expanded to include other Schleswig-Holstein revolutionaries of 1848 and how they translated their experiences from Europe to the United States. Aware that this was still a narrow subject matter, I went even larger and decided to also include Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, who shared a similar set of arguments about political and national oppression with the U.S. South. All four of these migrant groups had important leaders involved politically or militarily in the U.S. Civil War. Born was Liberty and Slavery, European revolutionaries facing southern secession.

JF: In three sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Liberty and Slavery illustrates that separatism was a universal experience across the Atlantic World during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the various movements intellectually and personally influenced each other. European separatists who had feared political or national enslavement in Europe frequently looked to a southern minority forcing its will on, enslaving, the United States, whereas the vast majority of European migrants supported the Union against an aristocratic-looking minority intend on destroying or at least dominating the United States, eliminating the beacon many European separatists had looked to for help and inspiration during their own rebellions. Their European background and interpretation of the sectional struggle influenced their decision to side with Union or Confederacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Because it is a really important book … humor aside, Liberty and Slavery illustrates that residence alone did not determine allegiance. Only because Hungarians resided in the North did not mean they automatically sympathized with the United States. The book aims to illustrate the complexities of the ideological baggage migrants brought with them to the United States, especially revolutionaries, and their difficulty of translating their arguments and experiences into the United States. Furthermore, while the Irish are a relatively well-known group fighting in the Civil War, the Hungarians and Polish are much less familiar. The book has a heavy dose of European history in the first two chapters because scholarship of 1848 revolutionaries in the United States often overlooks the background these revolutionary migrants bring with them, their language and experiences, creating the perception that they are Union-loving, liberty-embracing anti-slavery advocates when they get off the boat. It was not that simple. Liberty and Slavery illustrates the complexities of nationalism and the construction of identity, especially when in a foreign country.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

NE: Well, there are some out there who have openly wondered if I am actually a U.S. historian, I do think so, even if my approach is rather unique. The first spark came when my VHS recorder gave out on the last hour of Gettysburg–I had school the next day and could not stay up until midnight. It was incredibly tough finding any literature about the U.S. Civil War in German bookstores. That is where I started to read about U.S. history, mostly books brought home from vacations in the United States. The decision to pursue history professionally, came in my freshmen history class when I realized that German-U.S. relations had no literature. Thus I went from military history-interested to diplomatic history to transnational history.

JF: What is your next project?

NE: The difficulty here is that Liberty and Slavery has two concurrent projects. While working on this book, I have also been working with my friend and colleague Duncan Campbell at National University in San Diego on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, the first-ever study placing the Civil War in a global context. I also have forthcoming later this year The Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century (Palgrave), which takes a broad look at the Atlantic region and how people, ideas, commodities, and money continued to crisscross the Atlantic during the nineteenth century and how that helped to create a coherent and vibrant Atlantic community. These three were concurrent projects. About two months ago, I asked myself the same question you asked, what next. I am/was torn between two projects that really interest me going forward: a nineteenth-century history of the South to illustrate continuities within the region or my long thought about work on Civil War diplomacy. I have opted for the latter for the moment since I have most of the research in hand, but as I am going through the thousands of microfilm scans and archival-material photographs, I am not sure where this project will lead yet.

JF: Thanks, Niels!

My Piece Today at Religion News Service: “Trump’s evangelicals bewail a ‘civil war’ while still profiting from the last one”

Trump Jeffress

Here is a taste:

But Jeffress also seemed to forget another important point about American civic life in his civil war comment. The United States, after all, had a real Civil War, in which over 600,000 lives were lost.

Did the country heal after this war?

The United States still exists, implying that some healing certainly took place. But the war also left us with some open wounds. The war brought an end to slavery, but it did not bring an end to the racism upon which slavery was built.

These wounds are still open and Jeffress’ own First Baptist Dallas, with its long history of segregation, has contributed to keeping them open. His congregation was built upon a Civil War fracture that has not yet healed. Under his leadership, it has failed to confront its long-standing commitment to racial injustice in any meaningful way.

We don’t need to fear a new civil war. Instead, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, we still need to bind the wounds of the old one. The impeachment and removal of Trump will be a step toward the ongoing work Lincoln called us to do.

Read the entire piece here.

When Trump Tweets about “Civil War”

jeffress

Donald Trump recently tweeted court evangelical Robert Jeffress’s remarks about impeachment:

As historian Nicole Hemmer writes today at CNN, it is one thing for loud-mouth apocalyptic preachers like Jeffress to invoke civil war, and quite another thing for the President of the United States to do so.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Trump has continued to encourage violence during his presidency, as when he spoke before police officers in 2017 and told them “please don’t be too nice” to the “thugs” they arrest.

Trump’s exhortations to violence are not new, but they are almost certain to increase in the weeks and months ahead as the impeachment inquiry advances. Painted into a corner, his presidency under threat, Donald Trump will do what he has done in the past: double-down on appeals to his base and attacks on his enemies. And since those attacks are targeted and specific, they are especially dangerous.

In recent days, he has appeared obsessed with treason and spying. He charged the whistleblower in the Ukraine case with both, and Monday morning, suggested that Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, should be arrested for treason.

That is not a neutral statement coming from the President of the United States. It is alarming on its own, given the seriousness of a treason charge. But it also does not exist in a bubble. Last week at a private event, Trump intimated that anyone who shared information with the whistleblower was a treasonous spy and alluded darkly to consequences: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now.”

We used to execute them.

President Trump may not explicitly be calling for the murder of his political enemies, but he has stepped right up to the line.

Read the entire piece here.

Battle of Gettysburg Reenactments Are Placed on Hold

150th_Gettysburg_Reenactment_2013_(9181355856)

Here is a taste of Priscilla Liguori‘s article at ABC 27 News (Harrisburg):

The future of Gettysburg battle reenactments is uncertain. The committee that has put together the event for 25 years says it isn’t happening next year.

Organizers say they’re putting a pause on the reenactments as they reevaluate and decide what to do next.

“Due to logistical issues and costs, they needed to postpone next year’s programming and hopefully it’ll be back over the next couple of years,” said Jason Martz, of Gettysburg National Military Park.

The event isn’t put on by the park but by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee.

Organizers took to Facebook to make the announcement and sent us a statement saying, in part, “doing non-five-year events which are much smaller, increasingly varied visitor interests, a decreasing reenactor base, the risks of totally outdoor weather-related events, and a staff that has done this for 25 years are all factors in the decision.” 

Read the entire article here.

The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Kreiser

KreiserLawrence Kreiser is Associate Professor of History at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This interview is based on his book Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKA billboard in Alabama proclaiming a nationally distributed soft drink as a “Southern Original,” caused me, indirectly, to write a book on newspaper advertising and the Civil War.  I wondered whether the sign had increased sales in Tuscaloosa, where I teach?  Did it even run on the West Coast, or in the Northeast?  Did I, who grew up in the Midwest, and refer to soda as “pop,” somehow gain identity as a southerner if I purchased a two-liter

Those questions turned into a research project when I realized that one might ask similar questions about advertising and the Civil War.  Although historians make use of contemporary newspaper headlines and editorials to write many excellent studies on the Union and Confederacy, they all but ignore the advertisements.  Yet, between 1861 and 1865, merchants took advantage of the wide readership of newspapers to pitch everything from war bonds to biographies on military and political leaders, and from patent medicines that promised to cure any battlefield wound to “secession bonnets” and “Fort Sumter” cockades.  My book is the first full-length study on Union and Confederate newspaper advertising, and it’s a project that I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKThe book argues that commercialism and patriotism became increasingly intertwined as Union and Confederate war aims evolved, with Yankees and Rebels believing that buying decisions were an important expression of their civic pride.  The notices also helped to expand American democracy by allowing their diverse readership to participate in almost every aspect of the Civil War, with readers perusing notices for, among others, the capture of deserters, the reunion of former slaves with their families, and the embalming, and transporting home, of family members and friends killed in battle. 

JF: Why do we need to read Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LK: Americans continue to debate the role of advertising and society.  Do words and images from clothing companies, restaurants, and political lobbying groups, to name just a few examples, exert too much influence?  My research helps to provide insight into the debate by exploring advertising while still in its early stages.

Still, although we live in a commercialized age, my study avoids using the nineteenth century to anticipate the twenty-first century. There are parallels between sales notices then and now, especially with lofty appeals mixed with low gimmickry; and a better life balanced against greater appetites. But throughout the book, my focus remains on how advertisements provide an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as a people and a nation modernizing even while they passed through a period of great peril and suffering. To view these notices as an idle curiosity would mean missing a window into how advertisers influenced their readers’ lives and society during the most turbulent domestic event in the nation’s history.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LK: Great question!  The short answer is on the fourth-grade flag football fields, when I realized that I had not one iota of the athletic talent to become the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, my hometown team!  The more serious answer is that history claimed me.  I have been very fortunate to do what I love—working with great students and colleagues at Stillman College and researching, to my mind, the pivotal moment in American history.  I know that it sounds cliché, but sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do.  I hope that all of my students go onto careers where they have such rewarding opportunities and wonderful experiences.

JF: What is your next project?

LKI’m researching the role of newspaper and magazine advertising in national reconciliation during the late nineteenth century.  Almost as soon as the guns had fallen silent in 1865, publishing companies marketed their war-themed histories and memoirs as “objective” and “factual,” even though these works often were highly partisan.  Patent medicine dealers pitched their pills and potions as having saved the lives of almost countless numbers of soldiers, whether they had worn the blue or the gray.

While national advertisers attempted to find a profit in downplaying the results and causes of the war, local merchants pursued a different marketing strategy.  In the former Confederate states, store owners encouraged potential customers to “buy southern” to help the region regain its former economic clout.  In the black-owned press, salesmen encouraged readers to patronize their businesses as a blow for self-sufficiency and, ultimately, civil rights.  Whether in the North or South, veterans formed a new commercial market.  Merchants pitched their material wares and services based on why these men had fought and how they transitioned to peacetime.  The advertising pages offer a treasure trove of primary source materials on the memory and meaning of the Civil War during the Gilded Age.

As a closing note, and veering slightly off topic, thanks, John, for maintaining the “Way of Improvement” blog.  I find it fascinating, and appreciate the time you spend on its upkeep.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

Allen Guelzo Asks: “Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?”

Robert E. Lee

Allen Guelzo is writing a biography of Robert E. Lee.  This is the first thing I have seen him publish on the topic.  Here are the main points of Guelzo’s argument in “Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?” at Athenaeum Review:

  1.  “The Constitution’s definition of treason is a very narrow one
  2.   “Lee would have to be tried in the jurisdiction where the treason occurred
  3.  “The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, would not co-operate”
  4.  “Lee’s own self defense.”

And Guelzo concludes:

In the end, one has to say, purely on the merits, that Lee did indeed commit treason, as defined by the Constitution. But the plausibility of his defense introduces hesitations and mitigations which no jury in 1865—even Underwood’s “packed jury”—could brush by easily. That, combined with the reluctance of Ulysses Grant and Salmon Chase to countenance a treason trial for Lee, makes it extremely unlikely that a guilty verdict would ever have been reached. But the jury which might have tried him was never called into being, and without a trial by a jury of his peers, not even the most acute of historical observers is really free to pass judgment on the crime of Robert E. Lee. Yet the question remains far from academic. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of global communications and cultural fluidity, the notion of treason has acquired an antique feel, not unlike medieval notions of honor or feudal loyalty. To the extent that global communications, mass migration, and instant universal commerce render national boundaries more and more meaningless, can modern individuals be held to the standard of absolute loyalty to a single political entity? “Citizenship does not free a man from the burdens of moral reasoning,” writes legal philosopher A. John Simmons. “The citizen’s job” is not to absorb obligations to the nation-state and “to blithely discharge it in his haste to avoid the responsibility of weighing it against competing moral claims on his action. For surely a nation composed of such ‘dutiful citizens’ would be the cruellest sort of trap for the poor, the oppressed, and the alienated.” Moreover, the assertion of the existence of international standards of human rights runs in direct conflict with how states regard, and are allowed to regard, the disloyal behavior of their nationals. Nor is this merely an exercise of left-internationalism; for many libertarians, treason loses the taint of moral betrayal and becomes a mechanism by which an all-powerful State prevents “dangers to its own contentment.” As it is, the Constitutional definition itself is so narrow that convictions for what might be considered treasonable offenses are prosecuted instead under the 1917 Espionage Act. But to deny that treason can occur, or that citizens can be held culpable for it, is to deny that communities can suffer betrayal to the point where their very existence is jeopardized.

Read the entire piece here.

When Lincoln Gave Reparations to Slaveholders

Slaveholders

Tera Hunter, Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton, calls our attention to a bill signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 that paid up to $300 for every enslaved person freed in the District of Columbia.  Here is a taste of her piece at The New York Times:

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people in Washington, the end of a long struggle. But to ease slaveowners’ pain, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act paid those loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

That’s right, slaveowners got reparations. Enslaved African-Americans got nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.

The compensation clause is not likely to be celebrated today. But as the debate about reparations for slavery intensifies, it is important to remember that slaveowners, far more than enslaved people, were always the primary beneficiaries of public largess.

The act is notable because it was the first time that the federal government authorized abolition of slavery, which hastened its demise in Virginia and Maryland as runaways from these states fled to Washington. It offered concrete proof to enslaved people and their allies that the federal government might facilitate the destruction of slavery everywhere. And it confirmed the worst fears of their foes about an interloping tyrannical president.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with David Silkenat

Raising the White FlagDavid Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer of American History at the University of Edinburgh. This interview is based on his new book, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Raising the White Flag?

DS: Growing up, I constantly heard that “Americans never surrender” – every president and major political figure since JFK has uttered some version of this claim. Yet, during the Civil War, armies and individual soldiers surrendered all the time. Trying to make sense of why they surrendered so often was the motivating impulse behind the research.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Raising the White Flag?

DS: It argues that American ideas about surrender at the beginning of the Civil War grew out of inherited notions that surrender helped to distinguish civilized warfare from barbarism, but evolved over the course of the war as demands for “unconditional” surrender, the enlistment of black men into the Union Army, the proliferation of guerrilla warfare, and what some historians have termed “hard” warfare all challenged the meaning of surrender. In the final phase of the war, when Confederate defeat became inevitable, surrender became the route to peace, albeit a difficult and perilous one.

JF: Why do we need to read Raising the White Flag?

DS: The American Civil War began with a surrender at Fort Sumter and ended with a series of surrenders, most famously at Appomattox Courthouse, with dozens of surrenders in between (Ft. Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, etc.). One out of every four Civil War soldiers surrendered – either individually on the battlefield or as part of one of the large surrenders. Looking at the Civil War through the lens of surrender opens up new questions about the plight of prisoners of war, Confederate guerrillas, Southern Unionists, and African American soldiers, the culture of honor, the experience of combat, and the laws of war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DS: I first really fell in love with American history in high school because of some great teachers. In college, I had my first experience with archival research and I was hooked. I taught high school for several years before going to graduate school, and it wasn’t really until graduate school that I knew I wanted to be an academic historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m currently writing an environmental history of American slavery.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Chris Mortenson

politician in uniform

Chris Mortenson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Ouachita Baptist University. This interview is based on his new book, Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Lew Wallace is famous for the popular and enduring novel, Ben-Hur, as well as his negotiations with Billy “the Kid” during the Lincoln County Wars of 1878-81 in New Mexico Territory. However, he was also a controversial Civil War general.  I wanted to write a Civil War biography, and it is often easier to complete the work when the subject is interesting to the author. Wallace was a complicated fellow; he could be very effective as an officer, in certain circumstances, but then botch the next assignment. He desired acknowledgement as a professional soldier, but also disdained the culture of West Pointers with whom he worked. In fact, his conception of manhood differed in ways from that of West Point graduates and other professionals, causing him to not get along with superiors.

Along with all of the above, Wallace served at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Monocacy (sometimes performing well, and sometimes not). On the other hand, his administrative and recruiting assignments may have offered a greater contribution to the Union, making for an interesting Civil War career.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Despite creating problems for himself, such as a number of mistakes and his recurrent unwillingness to give speeches and recruit soldiers for the Union, Wallace concluded his Civil War service having contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort. His service as a volunteer general demonstrated how a politician in uniform should be evaluated differently than most professionally trained officers.

JF: Why do we need to read Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Anyone interested in the Civil War, US Army politics, or generalship would hopefully enjoy the book. While the work focuses on questions asked by professional military historians about the qualities of good officers and the relationships between professional and political generals, the lay public will also enjoy a story about an interesting man whose temperamental nature often led to troubles that hurt his career–only to become very famous for other accomplishments later in life.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CM: I benefited from three excellent academic advisers: M. Philip Lucas of Cornell College (Iowa), Vernon L. Volpe of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Joseph G. Dawson III of Texas A&M University.  Lucas’ undergraduate course on the Civil War hooked me, and I never turned back, as Volpe and Dawson continued to encourage progress. While battles and leaders initially drew me to history, I increasingly find myself interested in the lives of soldiers.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: A colleague and I are currently finishing a project; it is titled Daily Life of U.S. Soldiers: From the American Revolution to the Iraq War, and should be released in June or July. This project is a 3-volume reference work which will explore the lives of average soldiers from the American Revolution through the 21st-century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each chapter (on an American war) with address topics such as recruitment, training, uniforms, weaponry, compensation, combat, the homefront, and the myriad issues that veterans have dealt with over the years. This work will also examine the role of minorities and women in each conflict, which will shed light on their long and difficult path in the U.S. military. Paul J. Springer (Air Command and Staff College) and I edited the volumes, and also wrote a couple of the chapters.

JF: Thanks, Chris!

The Author’s Corner with Hampton Newsome

The fight for the old north state

Hampton Newsome is an independent historian and co-editor of Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans. This interview is based on his new book, The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864 (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: I was drawn to this project by the intriguing mix of military and political issues involved with the battles in eastern North Carolina during the first half of 1864. These events, which included Confederate attacks on New Bern and Plymouth, form a compelling story complete with battles on land, naval combat between ironclads and wooden gunboats, Unionist resistance to the Confederacy, and a crucial state election.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: In attacking key Union positions in North Carolina during the first months of 1864, Confederate leaders sought to secure vital supplies for Robert E. Lee’s army and to dampen a growing peace movement that threatened to pull the state out of the war. These military operations, particularly the capture of the Federal garrison at Plymouth in April, helped achieve these goals for the rebellion.

JF: Why do we need to read The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: This book provides an in-depth look into a compelling chapter of the war that has received limited attention in the past. It covers George Pickett’s New Bern expedition, Robert Hoke’s assault on Plymouth, the fall of “Little” Washington, and Hoke’s final approach on New Bern in May. Although the study focuses on specific military engagements, it also sets these events in a broader context. It delves into the gubernatorial contest between Governor Zebulon Vance and William Holden, emancipation in the state, the activities of North Carolina Unionists including those recruited into Federal units, the construction of Confederate ironclads, and Union strategy for coastal North Carolina.

JF: When and why did you become an American historian?

HN: Though I’m not a historian by profession, I have a long-standing interest in the Civil War. I’ve always been drawn to learning about battles and campaigns as well as the broader political and social picture behind those events.

JF: What is your next project?

HN:  I’m gathering research on several Union raids in Virginia and North Carolina in 1863.

JF: Thanks, Hampton!

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Amy Taylor

embattled freedom

Amy Taylor is an Associate Professor of History along with Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. This interview is based on her new book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Embattled Freedom?

AT: For a number of years, while working on other projects, I kept coming across references to the hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children who fled slavery during the Civil War and forged new lives for themselves behind the lines of the Union army. But these were only fleeting references—a few sentences in a book, or a widely circulated Harper’s Weekly image, for example. So eventually I wondered: why don’t I know more? How could a mass migration of people that effectively destroyed slavery have taken place during this (abundantly studied) Civil War, and we still don’t know much about it?

The answer, of course, had to do with deliberate neglect — and the failure of white Americans, in particular, to reckon with the Civil War’s slavery history for so long. It should be noted that some black scholars, most notably W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, did write about this history decades ago and tried to turn more attention to the story. But it has only been recently, in the last decade, that the subject is finally getting its due — in addition to my book, there are important books and articles by Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Chandra Manning as well. All of this work is in sync with present-day politics, as we begin 2019 with Confederate monuments coming down and new commemorations of slavery and black Civil War history going up.

I also wrote this book because of a more general and abiding interest in telling the stories of people who have not had their stories told. I am a social historian at heart and believe that everyone has a story that can tell us something about the world in which they lived. I am also an aspiring detective. So I was drawn to the challenge of digging up even the smallest scraps of information about individual refugees from slavery, and then piecing together their movements to try to understand their perspectives on the momentous events that shook the nation in the 1860s.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Embattled Freedom?

AT: My book rests on the premise that the Civil War represented a distinctly militarized period in the decades-long process of destroying slavery in the United States (the “long Emancipation,” as some have called it). Embattled Freedom zeroes in on that period and argues that the way in which freedom-seeking people navigated—and survived—the culture, bureaucracy, and dangers of military life was an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Embattled Freedom?

AT: Because Embattled Freedom is deeply resonant with so much of what is going on in our lives today. First, it uncovers a key piece of the deeply buried slavery past with which we are only now beginning to reckon. As more and more Americans are tearing down romanticized myths and monuments and talking more honestly about this history, I believe it is the historian’s role to provide ample research that can make an open and constructive dialogue possible. My hope is that Embattled Freedom will help inform that conversation.

Second, the book also tells the story of one of the United States’ earliest refugee crises. As we consider our obligations to displaced people throughout the world—as Americans debate the meaning of its borders and how “open” the country should be—I think it behooves us to consider the longer history of how Americans have defined citizenship and belonging throughout the nation’s history. The parallels between what happened in the Civil War and what is happening today are striking and sometimes surprising: how many people know, for example, that northern politicians tried to build a metaphoric “wall” across the United States during the Civil War, when they refused the migration of refugees from slavery into northern states? That is just one example of how my book sheds light on the deep history of our present-day lives.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AT: I graduated from college thinking I would pursue a career in politics. So I went to Capitol Hill within months of obtaining my history degree and began working for a congressman. But I soon found myself sneaking into the Library of Congress during the workday to browse around and flip through the card catalog (which tells you how long ago that was). I was looking for materials related to the senior honors thesis on Confederate women that I had just completed before graduating. And I soon admitted to myself that I would rather hunt down leads on an already-completed history project than brush up on NASA policy and draft talking points for my boss (though I liked and respected him).

I decided I wanted to think for myself, rather than for my boss, and that I needed to pick up the intellectual work that I had left behind with my history degree. So I began applying to graduate programs and landed at the University of Virginia for my MA and PhD degrees. Why exactly I was drawn to history is something I do not fully understand yet—maybe with age I’ll gain more perspective. But I think it has something to do with my nagging interest in comprehending human behavior, which is why I sometimes say that if not a historian, I would be a journalist, a detective, or a psychologist.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: I have two. The first is a short book that will tell the story of the last effort by the federal government to colonize people of African descent beyond the nation’s borders. In 1863, just months after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln approved and supported the migration of over 400 people from the coast of Virginia to Île a Vàche (Haiti). The people, already suffering in refugee camps in and around Fort Monroe, were willing to listen to big promises of employment, housing, and stable new lives that would greet them in Haiti. The expedition failed to live up to those promises, however, and amid disease, death, and unpaid wages, the group petitioned Lincoln to bring them back to the United States—which he did.

My other project explores the U.S. government’s effort to count newly freed people in the 1860s. During the Civil War, in particular, federal agents made numerous attempts to conduct a census of the formerly enslaved population. All of these attempts proved incomplete and haphazard; all, however, were advancements on the decennial federal census, which had long counted this population but never by name or by any other identifying information except for gender, “color,” and age. That changed during the war, as federal agents identified the people by name, family relationships, military service, and more. My interest is in exploring the meaning of this data-gathering in the context of Emancipation: what was behind the federal government’s impulse to count, sort, and classify this population, and what role did it play in imagining and building a postwar racial order?

JF: Thanks, Amy!