Putting the January 6, 2021 insurrection in historical context

Catherine Halley of JSTOR Daily offers some great resources. Here is a taste of her January 7 piece:

Yesterday our friends who teach sixth grade were asking: how do I talk to my students about the insurrection that just happened at the U.S. Capitol? Today on Twitter, I saw an editor from Black Perspectives urging historians of the Reconstruction to put yesterday’s events in historical perspective. Are there lessons from history? How did we get here? What was that; what language should we use to talk about it? We’re working on acquiring new content to address these questions, but in the meantime, this previously published content puts a lot of what we saw yesterday in perspective and may help foster dialogue among students of the world. As always, the stories here and the underlying scholarship are free to all readers. We’ll be updating this syllabus and welcome suggestions.

Halley’s bibliography includes scholarly essays on the voter fraud, White House transitions, the caning of Charles Sumner (1856), the election of 1800, the Confederate flag, the Confederate lost cause, the election of Abraham Lincoln, gerrymandering, terrorism, truth, impeachment, and Trumpism.

Read them all here.

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang is Associate Professor of History and Graduate Coordinator at Mississippi State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

JF: What led you to write A Contest of Civilizations?

AL: I wrote A Contest of Civilizations to recover what I consider the central theme of nineteenth-century American history: an overwhelming contemporary sense that the United States was a unique, destined, and exceptional democratic republic that lived within a rotting, oppressive monarchical world. While the concept of American exceptionalism may seem problematic to some modern audiences—and I do not attempt to validate or prove exceptionalist arguments in the book—it is important to take seriously how and why Americans of a prior era considered their nation, its founding, its Constitution, and its democracy the zenith of modern political enterprises. Only then can we fully grasp the complex reasons why Americans waged a bloody civil war over the very existence, meaning, and fate of their self-proclaimed exceptional republic.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Contest of Civilizations?

AL: A diverse cast of nineteenth-century Americans regarded the United States as the pinnacle nation within the modern world. But the commanding place of slavery within a republic of liberty imposed contested and increasingly irreconcilable understandings of American exceptionalism, contributing to the coming, conduct, and consequences of the Civil War, a conflict that tested, as Abraham Lincoln said, whether the United States would remain “the last best, hope of earth.”

JF: Why do we need to read A Contest of Civilizations?

AL: The book can be read as a meditation on the turbulent events that we face today as a national people. While I make no claim about the veracity of American exceptionalism, generations of Americans have imagined the United States as a unique republic that balances individual liberty and conceives new births of freedom. But the book also reveals that the American experience has never been so idyllic. Implementing the national mission has often been riddled with paradox, contradiction, and shortcoming. And yet, the book reminds us that the enduring ideals of universal equality and liberty establish standards for all generations to strive for a more perfect Union. It should offer a sober reminder that the United States does not, and never has, enjoyed an inevitable destiny, one immune from historical evolution. The nation’s survival instead depends on a citizenry committed to preserving the enduring principles of American life, lest those values fade from our own malevolence or neglect.

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

AL: When I enrolled in college twenty years ago, I never imagined a life as a historian. I did not even know what it meant to study history. However, the first course in which I enrolled—the American history survey from the colonial era through Reconstruction—captivated my imagination. Even as a first-year student, I did not consider majoring in history. But that course stuck with me as I dabbled in other majors. The content made sense. The questions penetrated my curious mind. And the professor—my first mentor and now a lifelong friend—inspired me with his dynamic teaching style and passion for chronicling the past. As my second year concluded, I visited with him about the prospect of majoring in history. Doing so was among the best decisions I have ever made. I knew then that I wanted to be a college professor and author. And twenty years later, I now attempt to instill in my own students the same spark that my first professor inspired in me.

JF: What is your next project?

AL: I am in the formative stages of a project that explores Abraham Lincoln’s concept of Union and his philosophy of history. Lincoln regarded the Union as a historical concept, a political/legal/perpetual concept, a social concept, a contested concept, an exceptional, contingent concept. For Lincoln, there was nothing inevitable about the Union’s enduring survival. The republic could always disappear depending on the citizenry’s shifting attitudes. The Union and its citizenry thus had to stay true to the spirit of the American founding. Ironies abound in the ways Lincoln considered the Union. He argued for the republic’s perpetual political nature while also conceding that the Union itself could accommodate radical, fundamental changes like emancipation in the service of its own perpetuity. The Union was thus a historical force, one that functioned at once in the past and in the present, both in service to the “vast future.”

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

Like Biden, Abraham Lincoln also faced the potential of violence on Inauguration Day

Here is historian Ted Widmer at The Washington Post:

Washington had been unusually angry in the weeks preceding Inauguration Day. Seven states had already left the Union; a mob had tried to attack the Capitol on the day Congress met to tabulate the electoral college vote. Fights broke out in the galleries during speeches, where spectators jeered, “Abe Lincoln will never come here!”

Over the winter, armed militias paraded through the city, and hooligans smashed Republican printing presses, as if to prevent news from flowing. Rumors swept the District that a militia was going to invade from Virginia to set up a new proslavery government. They wanted to keep all of it — the Capitol, the White House and especially the name: the United States of America. Lincoln would have had to start his presidency elsewhere.

There was far more to the visceral opposition to Lincoln than just his views on slavery. He had won with less than 40 percent of the vote, and entrenched interests feared the loss of easy access to Washington’s gilded corridors. Although they were not as gilded as they might have been — one reason it was taking so long to renovate the Capitol was that the guards hired to protect it from looting were stripping its treasures for themselves, down to the paint.

It seemed as though everyone was on the take. Certainly, the proslavery interests had owned Washington for as long as anyone could remember, capturing an overwhelming preponderance of the nation’s House speakers, committee chairs, sergeants-at-arms and Supreme Court justices. Lobbyists flourished in this climate, buying and selling access from local watering holes.

Read the entire piece here.

Will Trumpism endure?

Yale Historian David Blight argues that “Trumpism has already become a lethal Lost Cause.” Here is a taste of his piece at The New York Times:

If, as many Civil War scholars have suggested, the Confederate Lost Cause was born in the imagery of Lee’s manly and noble surrender to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, perhaps the Trump Lost Cause has been born in the indelible imagery of the rioters scaling and assaulting the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. Their story, however fraught with lies and misguided beliefs, has tremendous traction among a majority of sitting Republicans in Congress, in the constellation of right-wing media and now in their thousands of veterans of the march on the Capitol. They may soon need a new high priest with much better political talent; there is no lack of candidates awaiting their chance.

Mr. Trump lost, but he and his minions may yet find ways, if they keep their deep foothold in the Republican Party, to manufacture a dreamlike story of future victory for their unstable coalition of an unhindered ruling class, Christian nationalism and the aggrieved white working class. Whether Trumpism can ever attain the staying power of the Confederate Lost Cause is unclear. It may flame out in a few years like the bad TV show it has always been. But the shock of Trumpists’ inevitable attack on the American experiment on Wednesday, Jan. 6, hit like a thunderbolt. They will be back. It will surely take great political skill and moral imagination across American culture, from the Biden administration to every teacher in the land, to fight this new Lost Cause ideology. The country needs healing and unity, but it needs justice and better storytelling of its history more.

Read the entire piece here. In Fall 2021, Blight will deliver Messiah University’s annual American democracy lecture.

Civil War historians remind us that anti-democratic violence has “deep roots” in the United States

Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur edit The Journal of the Civil War Era. In a recent piece at The Washington Post, they remind us that what we saw on January 6, 2021 was, in one sense, very American.

Here is a taste of “Yes, Wednesday’s attempted insurrection is who we are“:

It is tempting to consider Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol an exception in U.S. history, but the presence of Confederate flags and Sen. Ted Cruz’s ill-founded reliance on the 1876-1877 election crisis to justify baseless challenges to the 2020 electoral results remind us that anti-democratic violence has deep roots here, especially in the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Public invocations of American ideals of democracy and the peaceful transition of power serve some good purposes. Yet our country also has a long history of authoritarianism, white supremacy and political violence, one that cannot be ignored without misunderstanding the depth and endurance of the problems we face as a nation and the breadth of the solutions these problems require.

The shocking scenes Wednesday at the Capitol remind us that there have always been Americans who have little regard for procedures established by the Constitution. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, political leaders in South Carolina refused to accept the result, fearing that a Lincoln presidency would lead to the weakening of Southern political power and ultimately to the elimination of slavery. Ten other Southern states eventually joined in rejecting the election’s outcome and declaring that they intended to form a nation of their own.

Read the rest here.

When 20th-century students memorized “Dixie” and “long lists of forgettable governors”

Over at The Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman reports on the treatment of the Confederacy in Southern history textbooks:

For much of the 20th century, southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.

Teachers taught students to sing Dixie and memorize long lists of forgettable governors. Civil War battles got described in detail. Textbooks celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically-elected, multiracial governments. Lynching went unmentioned. The evils of slavery got cursory acknowledgments — and quick dismissals. 

“It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” a 1961 Alabama history textbook said, falsely

The same forces that took over public spaces to erect monuments to the Confederacy and its white supremacist tenets also kept a tight grip on the history taught to Southern pupils. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spent decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which glorified the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and was used to justify segregation and authoritarian Jim Crow governance. 

Read the rest here.

Three new books on the underground railroad

Over at The New Republic historian Eric Herschthal reviews:

Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War; John Harris, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage; and Alice Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

South to Freedom does far more than establish numbers. It is primarily concerned with understanding why the U.S. failed to stop slavery’s expansion, why Mexico did, and using that knowledge to cast the coming of the Civil War in a new light. Baumgartner argues that Mexico’s anti-slavery policies led the South to try to conquer the nation, partly achieving that goal through the U.S.-Mexican War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. But the South miscalculated. It hoped to reestablish slavery in the territory it acquired from Mexico after the war (what became California, Utah, and the Southwest) but instead fueled an anti-slavery backlash. The Republican Party, established in 1854, refused to allow slavery to expand into Western territories, especially where it had already been abolished—including those seized from Mexico. In this way, Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republican Party, and the abolitionist war it ultimately fought, was partly an outgrowth of Mexican emancipation policies enacted decades earlier.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1860 election led to Civil War, but it was decided fairly

Here is historian Ted Widmer at The New York Times:

On Nov. 6, Lincoln was duly elected. But his percentage of the popular vote was very small (39.8 percent) — below even Herbert Hoover’s in 1932, when Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. That led to a new kind of challenge, to build legitimacy, as Washington seethed over the result and pro-slavery thugs promised to prevent Lincoln’s arrival. Some threatened to turn the Capitol into “a heap of ashes.” In Southern cities, gun-toting militias quickly formed, some parading under the Gadsden Flag and its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Many feared that the District of Columbia would be overrun by private armies, as a former Virginia governor, Henry Wise, threatened. It was whispered that James Buchanan might be kidnapped, so that his vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, could be installed — a clean way to reverse the election result. Breckinridge had run as the South’s candidate, coming in second, with 72 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 180. (Two other candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Bell, had divided the vote further.)

Another plot feared by Lincoln supporters was a disruption of the electoral vote count, in Congress, on Feb. 13, 1861. Remarkably, the electoral certificates were delivered to Breckinridge, as the president of the Senate. He might easily have “lost” them, but to his eternal credit, this future Confederate presided over an honest count. Another brave Southerner, Winfield Scott, organized the military defense of the capital, just so Lincoln could have a chance.

It still took some doing to launch the Lincoln administration, and the president-elect had to survive a serious assassination conspiracy on his way to Washington. Even on the day of his inauguration, there were government sharpshooters positioned on top of buildings near the Capitol, with rumors sweeping the crowd that a last attempt would be made to nip his presidency in the bud. But he stood up to his full height as he took the oath of office, and a fever seemed to pass.

Lincoln will remain our greatest president, for his own reasons — the bold actions and the calming words. But he also sits atop our pantheon because this champion of democracy came along at the exact moment when it was most endangered and reminded Americans that a higher standard was possible. That survival, in a moment even more fraught than our own, helped democracy spread far and wide in the 20th century, as Lincoln hoped it would.

It all began with the simplest of democratic ideas: a legitimate election and a fair count.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Kenneth Noe

Kenneth Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Howling Storm?

KN: Growing up in the Virginia mountains, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on our farm. Weather forecasts were vital, as we had to know if it was time to get the animals in the barn before a snow storm, or if we needed to bale newly-mown hay and store it in the loft before rain set in. Once I planted a field of corn only to watch it die in a drought. So I grew up in a household where weather was central. Yet I never really made the connection between weather and the Civil War until years later when I agreed to write a history of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Weather—in this case a devastating late summer droughtsoon became as important a character as Braxton Bragg. Soldiers arrived at the field dehydrated and sick from drinking mud and bacterial puddles, and the fighting itself began over possession of a spring. Working on that book left me attuned to other moments in the war that were shaped by weather, such as the flooding that characterized Fort Henry, Shiloh, and the Peninsula Campaign earlier in 1862. More and more I included information about weather when I taught, and I told my students for years that “someone needs to write a book about Civil War weather.” When no one did, I abruptly decided one morning a decade ago to give it a try myself.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Howling Storm?

KN: We will not fully understand the Civil War—on the battlefield or on the home frontuntil we take the war back outside and immerse it in wartime weather and the physical environment. Those weather conditions generally favored a Union cause more industrially and intellectually able to cope with it while undermining Confederate agriculture and arms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Howling Storm?

KN: I’ve read about the Civil War since I was a boy, and I’ve studied it professionally for thirty-five years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Yet researching and writing this book has forever altered how I understand the war. I never knew that it took place in an unusual weather environment, for one thing, shaped by both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Heavy late winter rains and summer droughts in the Confederacy in 1862 and 1863, as well as in Virginia in 1864, created serious food shortages that forced the government in Richmond to prioritize feeding soldiers or civilians. Civil War historians talk all the time about the internal issues that conceivably doomed the Confederacy without understanding that the foundation of all those divisive policies such as impressment and the tax-in-kind are to be found in bad weather and stunted crops. At the same time, northern agriculture faced problems after 1862 due to early frosts in 1863 and drought that year as well as in 1864. Good or bad weather played major roles in the outcomes of battles and campaigns, more than I ever grasped. Once I added weather to the equation, I began to alter my opinions of the leaders too. Abraham Lincoln was a magisterial president in so many ways, but he also could be the prototype of the worst kind of snarky armchair general, unable or unwilling to grasp what it took to move 100,000 men through muddy red clay. And I also marveled at the suffering that common soldiers endured. We think about them dying in battle or in hospitals, but not regularly alongside roads due to heat exhaustion, drowning in floods, freezing to death on picket, or being struck by lightning. I hope that taking the war back outside into the environment, away from our air conditioners and the tired clichés we grew up with, will have the same effect on readers.

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

KN: My grandfather was a great storyteller, and history was always my favorite class in school, right through college. And growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the Civil War. When I was five, for example, we all went to the Manassas battlefield and my father illegally hoisted me on top of the Stonewall Jackson statue. To be honest, though, I got pretty tired of the war. I gravitated toward European history in college, and my MA thesis actually is about the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But during the year after I graduated, as I tried to find a job and ended up cutting timber on the farm, I started thinking about the history of our land, and of my home town. Then I ran across a paperback copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, and there I was, intellectually back in Southwest Virginia in the nineteenth century. Eventually that led me back to grad school.

JF: What is your next project?

KN: In the short term, surviving a year of Zoom teaching. After that? Ten years of working on The Howling Storm—which turned into quite a thick book—and I should be done with Civil War weather. Yet I keep musing about issues that I had to leave out due to length, such as the wartime experience in coastal forts, where weather often was the main foe. I’m also an Appalachian scholar, and I also have an unfinished, long-term project on the identity of Appalachian Civil War bushwhackers that a few folks really want to me to finish finally once I can get back to Washington.

JF: Thanks, Kenneth!

When the United States held an election during a civil war

Here is Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University:

With President Trump’s illness disrupting his campaigning and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic afflicting Americans across the country, some commentators have wondered whether the 2020 election should be postponed. But the election of 1864 and President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that it be held, even amid civil war, provides a resounding answer: No. Indeed, Lincoln believed that holding a fair election under even the most challenging circumstances was needed if self-government was to survive.

From the very beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln insisted that he was willing to fight to ensure the survival of republican government. “Our popular Government has often been called an experiment,” he told Congress in a special message on July 4, 1861. It was now for the American people “to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets.” Once ballots had “fairly and constitutionally decided” a contest, resorting to anything “except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections” could not stand. This, Lincoln wrote, “will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Louis DeCaro, Jr.

Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.

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

LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.

JF: What is your next project?

LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.

JF: Thanks, Louis!

Historians gather at Civil War sites to tell the full story

Civil War historians gathered at historical sites on Saturday “in an effort to highlight distortions, omissions and the erasure of Black contributions.” The event was sponsored by The Journal of the Civil War Era as part of an initiative called “A Call to Action.”

Participants included Scott Hancock, Gregory Downs, Kate Masur, LeeAnna Keith, and Hilary Green.

Here is Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times:

On Saturday, a group of about 30 mustered under drizzly skies at the edge of the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. The site of one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg has seen its share of clashes over the memory of the war in recent years. But this group was there to make a stand of a different kind.

They carried signs with quotations from 19th-century newspapers, passages from the Confederacy’s constitution extolling slavery, and facts (some of them footnoted) about Robert E. Lee’s treatment of his human property. Some in the group wore T-shirts emblazoned with a social media-ready battle cry: #wewantmorehistory.

Scott Hancock, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, urged the group to be “polite” to anyone who challenged them and reminded them they were not at a protest — or not exactly.

“Our job is to do something a bit more constructive by telling a fuller story,” he said.

The group was part of a “Call to Action” organized by the Journal of the Civil War Era, a scholarly publication. For two hours on Saturday, at about a dozen Civil War-related sites across the country, from New York to Nashville to St. Louis, historians simultaneously gathered with signs highlighting distortions in existing plaques and memorials, or things that simply weren’t being spoken of at all.

Read the rest here.

How Abraham Lincoln challenged the power of the Supreme Court

How did Abraham Lincoln challenged a Supreme Court dominated by pro-slavery ideologues? Princeton historian Matthew Karp answers this question in his latest piece at Jacobin. Here is a taste:

Across the late 1850s, Lincoln argued that “the American people,” not the Supreme Court, were the true arbiters of the Constitution, and that the only way to defeat the proslavery judiciary was through mass political struggle. And after Lincoln and Hamlin were elected in 1860, the new president’s inaugural address articulated this view in perhaps the strongest language he ever used:

[I]f the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made . . . the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

Once in power, Lincoln and congressional Republicans “reorganized” the federal judiciary and “packed” the court, adding an additional justice in 1863. More fundamentally, though, they simply ignored the proslavery precedents established in the 1850s. In June 1862, for instance, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a bill banning slavery from the federal territories — a direct violation of the majority ruling in Dred Scott. The court meekly acquiesced, recognizing that its political power was long since broken.

As the legal historian Charles Warren later lamented, Republicans’ popular assault on the court crippled the institution for more than a decade: “During neither the Civil War nor the period of Reconstruction,” Warren wrote, “did the Supreme Court play anything like its due role of supervision, with the result that during one period the military powers of the President underwent undue expansion, and during the other the legislative powers of Congress. The Court itself was conscious of its weakness. . . . The loss of confidence in the Court was due not merely to the Court’s decision but to the false and malignant criticisms and portrayals of the Court which were spread widely through the North by influential newspapers . . . .”

Warren’s point, in other words, is that the greatest democratic expansion in US political history — the era of emancipation and Reconstruction — demanded a direct political attack on the power of the Supreme Court. Nor is it a coincidence that the court, as it began to recover its strength in the 1870s, led the reactionary attack on this democratic project.

Drawing direct lessons from the past is a fool’s errand, but this history should remind us that judicial power — however grandly it may be imagined by friends and foes alike — is critically dependent on political currents.

Read the entire piece here. I am not a Lincoln scholar, but there seems little in Karp’s piece about the role the Civil War played in Lincoln’s ability to challenge the pro-slavery court.

What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Gettysburg Confederate monuments to get new panels to offer more historical context

Lee at Gettysburg

Here is Nolan Simmons at Penn Live:

Panels will soon be installed near each of 12 Confederate state monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park to offer visitors more context to understand when and under what circumstances they were erected.

The National Park Service expects the panels to be added by September. They will be located near the Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenessee, Texas and Virginia state monuments.

This move is partially a response by the park service to the recent national conversations about what should be done with Confederate monuments across the country, said acting spokesman Jason Martz.

A fake social media post, advertising plans by Antifa to burn flags at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on July 4, drew dozens of armed people to the battlefield with the intention of thwarting any such protest. The initial post was later revealed to be a hoax.

While that incident bolstered the conversation, the decision to install the contextual panels has been in the works since earlier in the summer, Martz said — since calls for racial equality spurred by the death of George Floyd came to encompass a discussion about monuments that glorify those who fought in support of slavery.

Scott Hancock, a professor of Africana Studies at Gettysburg College who lives near the battlefield, has argued that the monuments tell a one-sided story that ignores the flaws of those memorialized, and the historical context in which they were erected.

The panels are a sort of middle-ground solution for the park.

Read the entire piece here.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what Trump says there”: Trump may accept the GOP nomination at Gettysburg

monument-gettysburg-P

Civil War historians get ready.

Here is Lauren Gambino at The Guardian:

Donald Trump said on Monday that he is considering accepting the Republican presidential nomination later this month with a speech at the civil war battlefield of Gettysburg, one of the most hallowed spots in American history.

The move prompted almost instant condemnation from critics. Gettysburg is the site of the bloodiest battle of the US civil war and viewed historically as a turning point for the Union army against the Confederate army defending the slave-owning rebel south. There, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech carved into the walls of his presidential memorial on the Washington Mall.

The prospect of Trump delivering his own speech on the battlefield, after repeatedly defending the use of Confederate symbols and monuments during a period of civil unrest linked to racial justice protests, was met with derision from his critics.

Trump speaking at Gettysburg?”  tweeted Bill Kristol, a Republican critic of Trump. “The good news: 1. The prospect is more ludicrous than sickening. 2. The presumptuousness of the choice of location will backfire. 3. The world will little note, nor long remember what Trump says there.”

Presidential candidates traditionally deliver their remarks on the final night of a weeks-long nominating convention, in front of a raucous crowd of thousands of the party faithful. Plans for this year’s party conventions have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing both candidates to reimagine these events without the usual pomp and circumstance.

Trump said he was mulling two options: Gettysburg and the White House.

Read the rest here.

When the United States held elections in the middle of a Civil War

1864_US_election_poster

As historian Calvin Schermerhorn writes, the “1864 elections went on during the Civil War–even though Lincoln thought it would be a disaster for himself and the Republican Party.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

The outlook was not promising in 1864 for President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed, wounded or displaced in a civil war with no end in sight. Lincoln was unpopular. Radical Republicans in his own party doubted his commitment to Black civil rights and condemned his friendliness to ex-rebels.

Momentum was building to replace him on the ballot with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. A pamphlet went viral arguing that “Lincoln cannot be re-elected to the Presidency,” warning that “The people have lost all confidence in his ability to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union.” An embarrassed Chase offered Lincoln his resignation, which the president declined.

The fact remained that no president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson, 32 years and nine presidents earlier. And no country had held elections in the midst of civil war.

Read the rest here.

Court evangelical James Dobson invokes the Civil War in a letter to followers on the November elections

Dobson and Trump

Read the entire letter here.

Let’s break it down:

Dobson:

As I write this newsletter, voters across this nation are only a few short months away from the next general election. What an ominous time this is for our 244-year-old republic. Its future hangs in the balance. The choices we make on November 3rd will send this nation down one of two dramatically different paths. The wrong decision will be catastrophic. I agree with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who said recently that the next election will be “the most important since 1860.” He also warned that if we appease or ignore the violence and anarchy occurring in the streets, it might be the end of civilization as we have known it. Those are sobering words coming from a man who has stood at the pinnacle of national power.

This is standard Christian Right rhetoric. Dobson quotes Gingrich’s claim that this coming election is the most importance election since 1860. Gingrich has been using this line (or something similar) for a long time. He said the exact same thing about the 2016 election (go to the 1:55 mark of this video). And before that he said the exact same thing about the 2012 election. In 2008, he said the outcome of the election “will change the entire rest of our lives.” In 1994, he said that the midterm elections “were the most consequential nonpresidential election of the 20th century.” Every election is consequential. How long are we going to listen to Gingrich before we call this what it is: fear-mongering.

Dobson:

Mr. Gingrich referred to the significance of 1860 because that was the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president. I’m sure the Speaker would agree that the following election of 1864 was also critical to the future of the nation. Lincoln and his opponent, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, were in a hotly contested campaign for the White House that could have gone either way. The “war between the states,” as it was called, had been raging for three ghastly years, and the entire nation was staggered by reports from the bloody battlefield.

Lincoln was running for a second term, and he campaigned on the promise of finishing the war and preserving the Union. These were momentous times for the young nation. During the first week of January 1863, the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.

Democrats and their presidential candidate, Maj. Gen. McClellan, initially campaigned on a “peace platform,” pledging to end the war and send soldiers home. As the election approached, he talked more about negotiating to let the South establish a separate government whose cornerstone would be slavery. If McClellan had been elected, there would have been no foreseeable end to the inherent evil of buying and selling human beings and treating them like cattle. Thus, the Civil War was a struggle for the soul of America.

Dobson then mentions why he spent so much time on the Civil War in this newsletter:

Why have I recounted our Civil War history and the election of 1864 at this time in our history? It is for two reasons. The first is to consider some striking similarities between then and now. Our nation is divided like no time since the Civil War. Lawlessness and anarchy stalk the cities as angry mobs riot, burn, loot, rob, and kill innocent bystanders. Cultural monuments are being destroyed. Scores of people have been shot. Our courageous police officers are being brutally attacked by the same people they have vowed to protect. A man and his son stopped to ask for directions, and he was gunned down on the spot. A one-year-old baby was shot in the stomach while he sat in his stroller. The child died at the hospital.

What began as a justified and lawful protest in response to George Floyd’s senseless murder by a rogue police officer has morphed into violence for the sake of violence. Hatred flows in the streets, including vitriol directed at the President of the United States or anyone who dares to support him or his policies. Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religious liberty are being trampled. There is also widespread belief that violence and anarchy are being organized and funded by powerful forces that are maneuvering America toward a socialist dictatorship. There is always a kingmaker behind such lawlessness. Most disturbing is open talk of another civil war. It is troubling to even utter those words. The last time Americans faced off against each other, 600,000 soldiers died. May God forbid it from happening again.

Please don’t tell me that I am wrong about the role fear plays in the Christian Right view of politics.

What is happening in our country right now is disconcerting to many of us. But it pales in comparison with what the country faced during the lead-up to the Civil War and the war itself. There is no chance that an actual civil war will erupt in this country. Dobson is using the past to scare people. But this is what culture warriors do. These kinds of historical analogies are not helpful.

Instead of scaring people by referencing “600,000” lost lives, Dobson should spend more time critiquing the president for his handling of the coronavirus. If he really cares about families he will condemn Trump’s failure of leadership, his ambivalent rhetoric on masks, his treatment of Anthony Fauci, and his appeal to doctors who believe the virus comes from demon sperm. Nearly 155,000 Americans have died of this virus and the number is growing every day. Perhaps these are the deaths Dobson should be worrying about right now.

Dobson goes on:

During the revolution of the 1960s, I recall a ubiquitous bumper sticker that read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” It was a catchy phrase that made sense to those who opposed the Vietnam War. But my reaction to it then and now is “What if they gave a war and only one side came?” That question keeps me awake at night. There are multiple millions of passive Americans out there today, many of them Christians, who are clueless about what is happening to their homeland. They are losing something precious and irreplaceable. Do they not understand that their children and those who are yet to be born will live in tyranny if we fail them on our watch? Countless young men and women have laid down their lives on battlefields around the world to protect liberty and our way of life. Now, what they purchased for us with their blood is slipping away. Disengaged people won’t lift a finger to preserve this great land. They won’t take even a few minutes to go to their polling places to vote. There are also thousands of pastors who won’t allow voting registration tables in the lobbies of their churches. Don’t they know or care that America is on the ropes? Hordes of angry anarchists are salivating over the next election, hoping to push America over a cliff. If they succeed, as Newt Gingrich said, Western civilization will never recover. Is there anyone left who believes some things are worth dying for? Aren’t there patriots out there such as Patrick Henry who said in defiance of British tyranny, “Give me liberty or give me death!”? That was the spirit during his day. The Declaration of Independence closed with these words endorsed by the signers, “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” They knew they would be hanged if they lost the war. Why did they do it? Because they loved their country enough to die for it.

Dobson has been watching too much Fox News. The average American family is worried about their jobs, whether to send their kids to school, and keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. They are less concerned about the “hordes of angry anarchists…salivating.” In one speech on July 22, 2020, Biden showed more empathy and concern for American families than Donald Trump has shown in his entire presidency thus far.

By the way, kudos to all those pastors who refuse to bring electoral politics into their churches.

Dobson invokes Patrick Henry. But where is his acknowledgement of men like John Lewis, a man whose entire life was defined by the phrase “give me liberty or give me death?” Lewis loved his country and was willing to die to defend its promise. Perhaps he should watch Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at Lewis’s funeral. (I doubt that will happen).

And now Dobson is calling us to vote for a man–Donald J. Trump– who knows nothing about true patriotism, Christian faith, or the promise of America.  Dobson’s president couldn’t pull himself away from his Twitter feed long enough to pay his respects to Lewis. This Christian Right culture warrior has a lot of nerve dropping this fundraising newsletter during a week that we remember a true American hero.

More Dobson:

How I pray for the emergence of silent, intimidated Americans who will come out of their hiding places to let their voices be heard on Election Day 2020. There must be tens of thousands of ministers in our midst who, like the Black Robed Regiment of the Revolutionary War, will strip off their clerical garb and fight valiantly for religious liberty. If these men and women of faith and conviction don’t come to the rescue of their country, it is doomed.

Dobson doesn’t realize that the violence in the streets propagated by 18th-century patriotic ministers–the so-called “Black Robed Regiment”–makes what is happening in Portland right now look like a county fair.

Dobson closes his letter with “seven critical issues”:

1. The Next Generation

There is a fierce battle being waged now in the nation’s classrooms for the hearts and souls of our children and grandchildren. Those of us who are passionately committed to the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs are losing our kids right before our eyes. They are being force-fed a radical curriculum that is godless, anti-American, and sexually perverse. Make no mistake, the left and secular culture are manipulating the minds of your sons and daughters every day of the year. I urge you to be extremely careful about those whom you set in power over your children. Protect them with your very lives.

Let’s remember that Dobson founded an organization called “Focus on the Family.” What does it say about the state of the white evangelical middle class family if its kids are incapable of navigating our current cultural waters from the perspective of Christian faith? Perhaps Dobson should be asking this question. If white evangelicals and their churches were doing their jobs in educating young people how to engage the spirit of the age, there would be nothing for them to fear in the public schools.

2. The Sanctity of Human Life

All life is sacred and is a gift from Almighty God. But as you know, America has the blood of innocents on its hands. Since 1973, more than 60 million babies have been murdered through abortion and countless lives have ended by euthanasia. This is the most tragic holocaust in the history of the world! Some states have even passed laws allowing wounded and suffering infants to lie alone on porcelain trays after somehow surviving unsuccessful abortions. They will die without the comfort of their mothers’ breasts. If that doesn’t touch your heart, you are without compassion. I hope you will not cast a single vote for any politician who supports such wickedness.

Neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden can stop abortion in America. Trump’s Supreme Court justices might one day overturn Roe v. Wade, but this will merely send the issue back to the states. Does anyone expect California, New York, and other so-called “Blue” states to make abortion illegal? If you care about abortion, why not vote for a candidate with a plan to address poverty and racial injustice? Such a focus will keep abortions in America on a steady downward trajectory. Dobson needs a new political playbook.

Abortion rates

3. Marriage and Family

The family is God’s original building block for society. Marriage continues to serve as the foundation for every dimension of human life. Everything of value rests on it, including procreation and the care and training of children. If that ground floor is weakened or undermined, the entire superstructure of civil society will come crashing down. But listen carefully: powerful and highly funded forces, including LGBTQ and other leftist entities, are determined to destroy the family as an institution. It is already on its knees, and its future is grim. Before you vote, find out what position the candidates have taken on this issue. Then vote accordingly.

This emphasis on the family comes from a man who said little or nothing when Trump separated families at the border, put children in cages, and threatened to deport DACA recipients. Parents shield their kids from this president because they don’t want to expose them to his lies, tweets, vulgarity, and general manner of treating people. Trump has brought pornography into the mainstream of our culture and has made a mockery of the civic virtues we try to teach our kids. Please, Dr. Dobson, consider that the man you support undermines everything you have spent your life defending. Your support of him is dripping with hypocrisy.

4. Religious Liberty

The first item listed in the Bill of Rights addresses the issue of religious liberty. All the other enumerated rights flow from that fundamental freedom. That is why it is alarming to recognize that this right to worship and honor God as we choose is under vicious attack today. The courts have done the greatest damage, but now an entire sub-culture is trying to bring down the Christian faith. Whether it has invaded your private world or not, it is at your front door. It was this primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War in 1776. We can’t compromise one jot or tittle within that fundamental right. Fight for it with every ounce of your strength and determination. Don’t let the government close the doors of your church or tell you when you can sing praises to the Lord Almighty. They have a devious agenda, and it is dangerous. Be ready to go to the mat in defense of what you believe. And let this passion influence how you cast your ballot in November. Here I stand. Will you join me?

This paragraph is wrong on so many levels. While real threats to religious liberty do exist, especially for faith-based schools, hospitals, and other institutions, this kind of rhetoric does little to help the country reach a genuine pluralism. (Here is a more thoughtful approach to the matter).

First, let’s be clear about the meaning of the American Revolution. An attack on Christian faith and religious liberty was not the primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

Second, the rights of Christians to worship when such gatherings might lead to the illness and death of other people is not a very Christian approach to public life. Does Dobson really think that governors trying to protect the health of all of the people in their state are operating with some kind of “devious agenda” to extirpate Christianity from the land? This is absurd. One could even make an argument that the care these governors are taking to protect citizens from COVID-19 is actually more Christian in character than this selfish appeal to individual rights.

5. Capitalism v. Socialism

It is difficult to believe that for the first time in American history, our nation appears to be thinking about trading our democratic way of life for the tyranny of socialism. I can hardly catch my breath. Could we really consider abandoning the beloved system of government that was designed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people? Is it true that up to 40 percent of millennials and others are prepared to surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state? Democracy and capitalism have made ours the most powerful and successful nation in the history of the world. Are we really considering scuttling the system that has served us for 244 years in exchange for what some people call “free stuff?” I pray not! But that option awaits you in the polling booth.

Joe Biden is not a socialist. Joe Biden believes in democracy. (By the way, I am not sure Trump believes in democracy). I don’t know of anyone who is willing to “surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state.” Another scare tactic.

6. The Judicial System

Given recent rulings, we know that judicial overreach has almost ruined this great nation. Justices and judges are constitutionally charged to interpret the law, not make law. But again, and again, they have overstepped their authority and brought us atrocities such as abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and the so-called “separation of church and state,” which doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Most recently, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most egregious rulings since Roe v. Wade. It is the case of Bostock v. Clayton County. This decision was not based on constitutional law but on the whims of six justices. It created a new legal definition of sex out of thin air. Lawyers tell us that this ruling will affect every dimension of culture and haunt the nation as long as it endures. Please don’t vote for politicians who will expand, rather than limit, the power of the judiciary.

When the Supreme Court rules in Dobson’s favor he loves it. When it does not rule in his favor, he says they have “overstepped their authority.” If the Supreme Court suddenly decided to make gay marriage illegal, overturn precedent in Roe v. Wade, or pass an Amendment declaring the United States to be a “Christian nation,” Dobson would cheer such judicial activism.

7. The Nation of Israel

Scripture tells that those who bless Israel will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Our prayer is that the next Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. will continue to promote and cultivate a vibrant bond of friendship with the nation of Israel, which is our only ally in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism and all forms of racial discrimination are inherently evil, and we condemn them categorically. We are a nation that is dedicated to “freedom and justice for all” (The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance).

Is Dobson willing to extend “freedom and justice for all” to all Americans? Does he give his highest loyalty to Israel or to fellow Christian believers–members of the worldwide body of Christ–in Palestine? It is possible for Christians to reject anti-Semitism and still find solidarity with fellow believers. Dobson’s binary thinking does not allow for such a position.

I have written about this here before, but as I read Dobson’s newsletter, and saw the big orange “DONATE” button on the top of the web page, I was reminded of what Moral Majority veterans Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (no relation) wrote about the Christian Right fundraising formula in their 1999 book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or to impose their morality on the rest of the country. Third, the letter assures the reader that something will be done…Fourth, to get this job done, please send money.”

The Author’s Corner with Lauren Thompson

book cover (1)Lauren Thompson is  Assistant Professor of History at McKendree University. This interview is based on her new book, Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Friendly Enemies?

LT: In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. I kept trying to wrap my head around such strange interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and fraternize with the enemy?

I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere–at different campaigns and between men in different armies. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Their accounts revealed that anytime soldiers opposed one another for extended periods of time, they fraternized. Their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco, too. Many times, it was in the form of newspaper exchanges, and, most importantly, the negotiation of ceasefires to limit bloodshed. It was at this point I realized these interactions meant something much greater to these soldiers than I had originally thought. I set out to answer where, why, and how fraternization happened.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Friendly Enemies?

LT: When citizen soldiers experienced unthinkable hardships, they coped with warfare by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve, and survival. Fraternization highlights soldiers’ ability to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.

JF: Why do we need to read Friendly Enemies?

LT: An in-depth analysis of fraternization demonstrates how Union and Confederate soldiers worked together to limit bloodshed amidst the bloodiest war in American History. It is incredible that enemies traded during the siege of Chattanooga on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and had “swimming parties” in the Chattahoochee after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Fraternization, thus, demonstrates a critical nuance in scholarship on the common soldier. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courageous v. coward, steadfast v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers–men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards–-in fact, many of them received promotions and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end.

This study also helps us understand postwar race relations. While fraternizing, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. Fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war–one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and promoted white male supremacy.

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

LT: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My mom loved history and took my brother and I to historical sites in the region–Gettysburg & Antietam–when were in grade school. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn everything about the Civil War. We’d read books, watch documentaries, and go to reenactments. Upon majoring in History in college, I realized there was so much more to learn about the Civil War Era and US History as a whole. It was at that time my advisor encouraged me to pursue my PhD–I wanted to keep learning history and most of all, I wanted to teach it. For any event in history, there are multiple perspectives. I like to uncover and tell the stories we rarely hear about.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: My next project is going to shift gears and jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. I now live and teach in St. Louis, Missouri. I teach African-American History and have become involved in local social justice groups. And, I also really enjoy learning about Sports History. Sports and recreation can be a lens to investigate race, class, and gender. I am researching race relations and recreation in St. Louis, particularly in public parks, youth sports, and high school athletics during the Civil Rights Era.

JF: Thanks, Lauren!