Politics and Crisis in the 1850s: An Interview with Rachel Shelden

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2019 CWI Conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Rachel Shelden, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), which received honorable mention for the Wiley-Silver Prize for the best first book on the Civil War and was a selection of the History book club. She is also the co-editor, with Gary W. Gallagher, of A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Dr. Shelden serves as the book review editor for the Journal of the Civil War Era. Her current book project explores the political culture of the U.S. Supreme Court in the long Civil War era, from the 1830s to the 1890s.

Rachel Shelden
Dr. Rachel Shelden

CWI: What were the major thematic undercurrents that defined the political debates of the 1850s? Who were the major players in these debates, and what roles did they play?

SHELDEN: Three of the most important themes that you can see pop up in political conversations over the course of the 1850s were anxieties about the role of slavery in American society (and especially the expansion of African American slavery into the western territories); a growing fear of immigrants and especially Catholics in many northern communities; and continuing frustration that politics – and Washington, D.C. in particular – were contaminated by corruption. These three issues interacted to create an explosive political atmosphere that helped destroy one of the major parties of the era (the Whigs), fueled increasing sectionalization (between slave and free states), and created a searing mistrust of Washington, D.C. Among the more important personalities who tried to grapple with these problems in Congress and through party politics were Stephen Douglas of Illinois, President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, William Henry Seward of New York, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, and a number of others.

CWI: Who was Dred Scott? Can you explain, in a nutshell, the major contours of the Dred Scott case and its significance to both the political debates of the 1850s and to the coming of the Civil War?

SHELDEN: Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393 (1857)) is a notoriously challenging case both in the ways it traveled through the state and federal court system and also in the contours of its decision(s). Briefly, Scott was enslaved in Missouri but sued for his freedom in St. Louis on the basis of having lived with his owner for two years in a free territory – designated as such by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1850, the St. Louis court declared him free but in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned this decision. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court under new circumstances, the majority ruled in March 1857 that Scott was still a slave, with Chief Justice Roger Taney delivering the 7-2 opinion. Taney made two pronouncements: 1) that no black person could ever be a citizen of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court; and 2) that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the territories and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The first of these pronouncements was problematic enough for a number of antislavery activists and politicians, but the second was downright provocative. The Republican Party had staked its very existence on the idea of limiting slavery in the territories – a feat they firmly believed Congress had every right to enact. The decision, therefore, enraged many Northerners, even as most white Southerners celebrated Taney’s ruling (though even some white Southerners found themselves confused by Taney’s assertions about congressional power). This decision, and the potential that the Court might go even further – invalidating northern states’ right to ban slavery – hung over much of the politics of the late 1850s as the Republican Party warned of a “slave power” conspiracy to nationalize the peculiar institution.

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Dred Scott (via Library of Congress)

CWI: How might a close analysis of the political crisis of the 1850s, as well as of the players and institutions involved, inform our understanding of our own political culture and institutions? How do the varying success and failures of the 1850s help inform our own understanding of useful contours for contemporary political debate?

SHELDEN: Using the past to explain phenomena in the present is always tricky. In particular, the ways in which Dred Scott, Taney, the Republican Party, and other critical actors of the period behaved were very much a product of their time. Still, understanding that context can remind us that our current perceptions of politics do not operate in a vacuum. In the case of Dred Scott, Taney’s ruling – and the general manner in which many of the justices operated in the mid-nineteenth century both in relationship to and outside of critical legal decisions – can remind us that current insistence that the Supreme Court is above politics or outside the political realm was never a truism, among the founding generation or the several generations beyond it.

Getting In Touch with the Civil War: An Interview with Jason Phillips

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2019 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Jason Phillips, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University. He is the author of Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future (Oxford University Press, 2018), Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (University of Georgia Press, 2007), and the editor of Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). His current research explores the material culture of Civil War America.

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Dr. Jason Phillips
CWI: What windows into the long Civil War era does material culture open for us? How can material culture complement, or challenge, the knowledge that we can mine from more traditional elements of the historical record, such as primary source documents?

PHILLIPS: Studying material culture puts us in touch with Civil War Americans and their world in unique ways. The conflict and its aftermath created, circulated, and destroyed a vast material world of possessions, resources, buildings, and other things that people cherished, stole, lost, gave, or saved, because those objects signified their lives and sacrifices. When we visit museums and gaze at Civil War artifacts, we encounter these things. Each of them has a story to tell, a narrative that can be as compelling and human as any diary or letter. Of course, things cannot speak for themselves; their stories are not as forthcoming as documents. So we ask them questions. If we’re interpreting a bowie knife for example, where and how was it made, what was its purpose and design, who owned it, was it perhaps a gift or a battle trophy, did someone pose for a picture with it and why, where was it carried, what history did it “witness,” why was it preserved, and what did it mean to its owners? Answering these questions deepens our understanding of Civil War America by teaching us how people related to their physical surroundings, how they valued personal objects, and how they used the material world to forge relationships, express ideals, and fight enemies. These insights remind us that the Civil War was more than a clash of cultures and causes. It was a physical fight over tangible things.

CWI: What role has material culture played in your own personal research of the Civil War era?

PHILLIPS: My new book, Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future illuminates the material culture of Civil War America by studying things that people gathered and interpreted as portents of the coming conflict. When I started this project, I assumed visions of the future rested upon intangible fantasies or abstract fears. What could be more immaterial than the future? But as I started to research how Americans thought about the looming war, I learned that popular visions of the future relied upon material foundations. Worrying about and contending for real things, especially weapons including knives, pikes, and rifles, grounded Americans who fixated on tangible futures. Opposing sides of the sectional crisis stole and showcased their enemies’ weapons to disarm and unman the opposition and to prove their opponents’ malicious designs for the future. Diverse people coveted these weapons as omens and relics of the coming war. In the process, antebellum groups grasped these things to prove their prophecies of the looming conflict, just as postwar groups relied on historical artifacts and monuments to substantiate their memories of the past war.

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One of John Brown’s pikes (courtesy the Smithsonian)
CWI: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming conference talk on John Brown’s pikes?

PHILLIPS: John Brown brought almost a thousand pikes to Harpers Ferry, intending to circulate them to the slaves that he expected would gather and fight for his cause. When that army did not materialize and Brown’s attack failed, diverse Americans scrambled to acquire the pikes as historical artifacts, battle trophies, and portents of a looming civil war. As my research on the pikes deepened and I asked questions about them, I uncovered a much bigger story that began years before Harpers Ferry and continued long after Brown’s death. In each chapter of this larger saga, some form of the pike foretold a different kind of looming conflict—a frontier war, a class war, a race war, and a revolution—depending on who possessed it when and where. This tale contains a host of characters who encountered the pikes, some of them famous folks like J.E.B. Stuart and P.T. Barnum and others obscure but equally fascinating.

Digital-Lee Archived: An Interview with Colin Woodward

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2019 CWI Conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Colin Woodward, historian and editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War, which was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2014. He also maintains an active history and pop culture podcast entitled “Amerikan Rambler,” which is available at www.amerikanrambler.libsyn.com and on iTunes. Dr. Woodward is presently working a book called Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash.

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Dr. Colin Woodward (image courtesy Stratford Hall)
CWI: Can you explain, in a nutshell, the editorial process involved in a project such as the Robert E. Lee paper project? Who are the various individuals involved in this project, and what are their (and your) specific responsibilities? What are the long term goals for the project?

WOODWARD: The editorial process involves the transcription, editing, and annotating of letters, newspaper clippings, legal papers, and other documents for upload onto our website, www.leefamilyarchive.org. In three years, I have added more than 1,400 items to the website, which is free and open to the public. For most of that time, I have done all this work by myself, though in the summer I have help from interns from Gettysburg College, Simmons College, and elsewhere. The project was conceived with a broad scope, hoping to add letters and papers from all generations of the Lee family. To help manage the project, I have focused on the Civil War era, which means mostly concentrating on Robert E. Lee, his wife, and their children—three of whom fought in the Confederate army.

CWI: What challenges and opportunities has this editing project presented to you?

WOODWARD: One of the biggest challenges is the sheer volume of the project. The Lees left behind tens of thousands of documents. I could spend the rest of my life transcribing and editing all the papers of certain persons, whether it be Richard Henry Lee, Light Horse Harry Lee, or Robert E. Lee. The fact that the Lee papers are scattered is also a challenge. It seems that everybody wanted a piece of Robert E. Lee after the war. His papers live at various repositories across Virginia and the country. One of the daily challenges is reading handwriting from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I try not to miss a single word of any document, which can be difficult to do. Most of all, I worry about mistakes slipping through, whether because I couldn’t determine what a word or phrase is, or because I made an error between the transcription and uploading phase.

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Documents from the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall (image courtesy Stratford Hall)
CWI: How has this editing project broadened or complicated your understanding of Robert E. Lee and his family? How might this project benefit or be put to use, not only by Stratford Hall, but also by other public history sites to help interpret Lee and his legacy in a richer light?

WOODWARD: My work on the LFDA certainly has complicated my understanding of the Lees. I knew quite a bit about Robert E. Lee before starting the project. A little bit about his father Light Horse Harry, too. None of Lee’s three sons died in battle. But Robert E. Lee lost a daughter to disease. His sister, who remained loyal to the Union, also died. The Lees, in many ways, lost everything. The Union seized Arlington, and the Lees never returned there. The Lees are an important and celebrated family, but also a tragic story and a cautionary tale. With this in mind, I hope people from various disciplines can find the LFDA useful. I’ve tried to include the voices of underrepresented groups, such as women. I wanted to feature documents that provide insight into military events as well as the home front, where people faced challenges with running their daily lives, mourning the dead, and coping with wartime shortages. It’s not just about battles and leaders!

The Forging of Freedom: Slave Refugee Camps in the Civil War: An Interview Amy Murrell Taylor

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2019 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Amy Murrell Taylor, Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (UNC Press, 2018), as well as The Divided Family in Civil War America (UNC Press, 2005). Her research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. Taylor has also served as a consultant for public history sites and is currently an editorial advisor for the Civil War Monitor magazine.

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Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor

CWI: When did the first refugee camps emerge during the Civil War era? Where were they located, who managed them, and what were conditions like for those who fled to them? How did refugee camps vary by region and evolve over the course of the war?

TAYLOR: The very first slave refugee camps emerged in the war’s opening days, because it was just after Fort Sumter that enslaved people across the South began acting on their belief that this was the moment they had been waiting for their entire lives. The locations of the camps then followed the movement of enslaved people and tended to be located in the places where they found Union army commanders most friendly to their cause. That is why the coast of Virginia, especially in and around Fort Monroe, was the site of the earliest camps, in large part because of General Benjamin Butler and his decision in late May 1861 to see the Confederacy’s enslaved people as “contraband” of war – a pivotal moment that gave other sympathetic army commanders a rationale for allowing refugees from slavery inside Union lines.

It is difficult to generalize about the camps from that point on, because they constantly came and went, and they took many forms (large and small, urban and rural, collections of tents and semi-permanent villages). Sometimes the conditions were wretched and disease spread rapidly, as other historians, such as Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Thavolia Glymph have documented very well. Other times, though, the camps offered something closer to the beginning of a stable new life they had long envisioned, with schools, churches, stores, and most importantly, family reunited in shared spaces they had designed and built for themselves.

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A refugee camp located in Washington, DC during the war (via Library of Congress)
All of the camps were overseen by the Union army, which created a new bureaucracy for this purpose, with a “Superintendent of Contrabands” appointed in some places, or an entirely new “Department of Negro Affairs” created in others. The army, in theory, took responsibility for the provision of shelter and food rations, leaving clothing, schooling, and religion to the thousands of northern missionaries who began flowing into the South and into the camps. But nobody provided more for their survival than the refugees themselves, who not only found the relief offered by the army and the missionaries wanting, but who also had different ideas and visions of freedom that sometimes clashed with those of the white northerners. They preferred to grow their own food and sew their own clothes, for example, rather than have these things handed to them by paternalistic white officers. I was continually struck by all the ways in which these men, women, and children coming straight out of slavery managed to forge new lives for themselves in ways large and small – by setting up businesses and independent churches, by cultivating gardens, by pooling their money and purchasing land wherever they could. Theirs is a pretty stunning account of persistence and survival in the face of some of the most overwhelming odds.

But why was there such a variance in the conditions of the camps themselves? This is one important way in which the story of the refugee camps is inextricably linked to the military war: In regions that were relatively isolated from active combat, more permanent settlements could emerge; but in regions embroiled in military conflict these camps sometimes lasted only for a few weeks before being evacuated and destroyed altogether. The region where camps were most transient was the Mississippi Valley, not only because of the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863, but largely because of the persistent guerrilla warfare that continued in the years afterward. Some of the most harrowing accounts of a camp’s demise involved Confederate guerrillas, who targeted these embodiments of black freedom for some of their most savage violence. It was a preview of the racial violence would escalate in the postwar years.

CWI: How does your research into refugee camps challenge or enrich our understanding of emancipation and African Americans’ experiences during the Civil War? What sources have you mined throughout the research process?

TAYLOR: My research enriches one overarching finding shared by other scholars (although it needs amplification more broadly): That freedom did not come overnight to enslaved people and, in fact, it did not really “come” to them at all–they had to find it and seize it and make it their own. And this unleashed a process that did not end by the end of the Civil War but continued for decades thereafter. My research exposes this extended process of seeking freedom by shifting our vantage point out of Washington, D.C.—where so many studies focused on the emergence of the Emancipation Proclamation are centered—and into the plantation districts and cities of the South where enslaved people actually lived and made their first steps out of slavery. That ground-level view offers a striking window into the everydayness of seeking freedom, of simply trying to live and eat and keep one’s children safe, none of which was a given in a time of war.

And that is where my book offers a challenge, too. We have some wonderful scholarly work out there examining Emancipation as a political process, involving the formation of freedmen’s conventions and the push for suffrage; we are learning a lot more about the ways that newly freed people viewed citizenship and the duties and rights it entailed (Chandra Manning’s Troubled Refuge does an excellent job of that). But in the war years, in this earliest stage of the Emancipation process, I argue, physical survival was foremost in the minds of freedom-seeking people. In this respect I echo the work of those who have studied illness and death but turn additional attention to how most refugees from slavery managed to get out of the war alive. How did they eat? How did they sleep? Clothe themselves? Shelter themselves and their families? Those are the very basic social history questions that I ask in my book, and to answer them, I focus on the material world—on spaces, things, and structures. The methods of environmental historians, as well as cultural geographers and material culture specialists, proved instrumental in helping me probe this aspect of their lives. How they lived and how they moved forward from one day to the next is my focus.

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An unnamed contraband community (via Library of Congress)
To get at this story I looked at many familiar sources—army records, missionary records, census and vital records—but looked at them in different ways. I paid close attention to the most bureaucratic of military papers, such as lists of who received rations; I took seriously an otherwise bland order related to the issuance of lumber; and I lingered a long time over lists of provost marshal arrests. I have to thank, as any historian of Emancipation should, the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, which first opened my eyes to the vast potential of military records for exposing the everyday lives of freedom-seeking people. Do these sources get at the thoughts and words of enslaved people, I am often asked? Sometimes. Most of the time, though, the perspective of refugees comes filtered through the pen of the clerk taking dictation or summarizing their experiences. So this required reading the sources carefully, between the lines (or “against the archival grain”), to discern the motives and ambitions and cares of the refugee men and women themselves. That was a challenge, but exactly the sort of archival challenge to which I am drawn.

CWI: What light does your research shed on the influence of refugee camp experiences (material, political, cultural, social) upon Reconstruction and the postwar years? How might your research findings change the way academic historians and public historians interpret the Civil War? How might it reshape public memory of the long Civil War era?

TAYLOR: Many years ago, the historian Willie Lee Rose wrote a now-classic work on wartime Emancipation called Rehearsal for Reconstruction – and this title remains apt. The connections between what happened during the war and what happened in the period we call Reconstruction are so clear that they defy any clear demarcation of the end of one period, or the beginning of the other (as Greg Downs has effectively argued in After Appomattox).

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A contraband camp located at the site of a former seminary (public domain)
In the specific case of the slave refugee camps, we can see the origins of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the army’s supervision of refugee affairs. But we can also get a new perspective on how one of the elements of the bureau’s work—land reform, or the provision of “40 acres and a mule”—utterly failed. The vast majority of the land on which these refugee camps emerged was land abandoned by the Confederates and seized by the Union army; in the year or two after the war the Union gave most of that land back to the ex-Confederates. That story is well known. But what is not well known is how this process evicted tens of thousands of men, women, and children from the spot of land on which they had begun building new lives in freedom. In a process that stretched from 1865-1866, the bureau and the army fanned out across the South and tore down the refugee camps, sometimes torching houses to make sure the people left. What this meant for the people is a story I tell in the book; at the very least, it’s a story of how the failure of land reform was not just a failure of a promise, or a dream denied, as it is so often described. It represented the actual loss of something very concrete and tangible that newly freed people believed they possessed. It was a loss of housing, of gardens, of possessions, of crops; at the very moment of Union victory and thus victory for abolition, refugees from slavery experienced profound losses that would plague them for years to come.

In addition to making that story clear, I hope my book will help reshape the public memory of the Civil War in other ways: By reminding Americans of the central position of slavery (because it cannot be reminded enough); by making it clear that slavery was not just a political issue that brought on this war—it was not just an abstraction—but instead a system that propelled hundreds of thousands of African American people into the Union army’s orbit, where they had an enormous impact on the war and the Union’s war effort; and by demonstrating that the military history of the war was therefore in no way separate from the process of Emancipation, but instead there was an interdependency between the two that started in the war’s opening days and persisted long after Appomattox.

Lee and His Lieutenants: An Interview with Keith Bohannon

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Keith Bohannon, Professor of History at the University of West Georgia, where he teaches courses on the

Keith Bohannon. Image courtesy of the University of West Georgia.

Civil War and Reconstruction, the Old South, and Georgia history.  He is the co-editor, with Randall Allen, of Campaigning with Old Stonewall in Virginia: The Letters of Ujanirtus Allen, Company F, 21st Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry (LSU Press, 1998), and is the author of numerous essays, book reviews, and scholarly journal articles. Prior to his appointment to the faculty at West Georgia, Dr. Bohannon worked as an historian, interpreter, and living historian with the National Park Service at multiple Civil War sites.  He is currently editing for publication the Civil War and Reconstruction memoirs of a Confederate Army officer and Klan leader from Georgia named John C. Reed. 

Continue reading “Lee and His Lieutenants: An Interview with Keith Bohannon”

Under the Enemy Flag: Prisoner of War Experiences: An Interview with Angela Zombek and Michael Gray

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Angie Zombek, Assistant Professor of History at St. Petersburg College. Dr. Zombek is the author of

Angie Zombek. Image courtesy of Angie Zombek

numerous articles and essays, including “Paternalism and Imprisonment at Castle Thunder: Reinforcing Gender Norms in the Confederate Capital,” which appeared in the scholarly journal, Civil War History in September of 2017; “Citizenship – Compulsory or Convenient: Federal Officials, Confederate Prisoners, and the Oath of Allegiance,” in Paul J. Quigley’s edited volume, The American Civil War and the Transformation of Citizenship, (LSU Press, forthcoming, Summer 2018); and “Catholics in Captivity: Priests, Prisoners, and the Living Faith in Civil War Military Prisons,” in Michael P. Gray’s edited volume, Civil War Prisons II, (forthcoming from Kent State University Press).  Her first book, Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War, is forthcoming from Kent State University Press in June, 2018.  Dr. Zombek’s current research focuses on the Civil War’s impact on the Florida Gulf Coast and Key West. She has presented some of her research on Unionism in Civil War Era Tampa Bay, and is currently researching prisoners of war at Fort Taylor (Key West), and Key West under martial law. 

We are also speaking with Michael P. Gray, Professor of History at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania where he teaches courses on U.S. History to 1877, the Civil War, Interpreting Civil War Sites & Memory, U.S. Military History, and War and Society.  He is

Michael Gray. Image courtesy of East Stroudsburg University

currently developing a “special topics” course on Civil War prisons and the Home Front.  His first book, The Business of Captivity: Elmira and its Civil War Prison (Kent State University Press, 2001), was a finalist for the Seaborg Award, and a chapter of that work, first published in Civil War History, earned “Honorable Mention” for the Eastern National Award. In addition to penning the new introduction to Ovid L. Futch’s classic History of Andersonville Prison in 2011, Gray is the author of “Captivating Captives: An Excursion to Johnson’s Island Prison,” an essay published in Ginette Aley and Joseph Anderson’s edited collection, Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front During the Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).  He is currently finishing an edited volume entitled Crossing the Deadline: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered and is progressing on a full-length treatment on the Johnson’s Island Prison. Gray currently serves as the series editor for the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War, which has produced more than 50 primary source volumes related to the conflict. Publicly recognized as a noted historian of Civil War prisons, Gray has discussed his scholarship on CNN and was recently featured on an episode of The Learning Channel’s nationally acclaimed series, “Who Do You Think You Are” with actress Jessica Biel, in which he assisted in uncovering the history of Biel’s lost ancestor who was incarcerated at a Civil War prison. Gray is the recipient of several internal and external grants relating to Civil War prisons, including the 2011 “Civil War Prison Archeology: Team Teaching Public History on Johnson’s Island” grant, as well as the 2014 “National Prisoner of War Grant,” for Andersonville, Georgia.  He has also received multiple awards from ESU faculty and students for excellence in teaching.

CWI:  How are Civil War prisons usually perceived or represented in historical memory?  What popular conceptions of Civil War prisons are accurate, and which conceptions are perhaps misleading?

GRAY:  Civil War prisons are often associated with the dire suffering of captured soldiers that many times led to death.  This was certainly true at some prisons, especially during the latter part of the war, but the general public assumes this was the case at every confine.  In reality, a much wider array of prison experiences existed. Instead of immediately thinking of Andersonville, a deeper macro perspective into other Civil War prisons, or even a look at the inmate socio-economic variances within the stockade walls provides a much fuller and more accurate picture.  Suffering is indeed a vital piece to the prison narrative, but historians must do their best in wading through biased testimony and corroborating previous claims with unpublished primary sources.  There are far too many generalizations that all Civil War prisons were like the notorious Andersonville or even the Union prison at Elmira; in fact, there were more than 150 confines, each with a unique history and set of circumstances.  There were also different “classifications” of prisons, including former training depots converted into prisons, open stockades, coastal fortifications prisons, warehouse prisons, and confines that were used as jails.  Additionally, there were different classifications of captives, from enlisted men, to officers, to political prisoners (which included women), among others.

Since prisons were extremely diverse places, and even though there may have been suffering, one’s carceral experience depended on class standing, social networking and who a prisoner might befriend while in prison (including guards and fellow captives), and the opportunities available for improving one’s lifestyle with funds procured through paid work within the prison. Moreover, Civil War prisoner experiences also varied according to the aforementioned physical structures in which prisoners were incarcerated.  For example, a political prisoner in Boston’s Fort Warren would have had a very different, and most likely more positive, experience compared to that of an enlisted captive on Belle Isle.  Some prisons also had the distinction of being considered officers’ prisons, such as the Confederacy’s Libby Prison or the Union’s Johnson’s Island Prison, while others housed enlisted men.  Although the general public might consider all prisons terrible places, it should come as no surprise that Johnson’s Island had a death rate of less than 2% while the enlisted men’s Elmira Prison in the North reached about 24.4%. Variances in the apportioning of food, shelter, medicine, and other amenities, as well as differences in punishment and the amount of individual liberties granted to inmates are just some of the reasons for the disparity in death rates.

Andersonville POW camp, GA, August, 1864.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI: How did the Union’s prison system differ from the Confederacy’s?  Were there shared conceptions about “proper” treatment of prisoners in both the North and the South?  How did each side perceive and represent the POW experience of its own men, as well as of enemy POWs?

GRAY: At first, the Union’s prison system was more centralized and included a plan for housing prisoners.  The Union was committed to having one person (Prison Commissary General William Hoffman) in charge of overseeing a prison system, which was more efficient than the Confederacy’s POW plan.  Eventually, the Confederacy caught up.  Unfortunately for prisoners, both sides were still shortsighted from the onset, from their expectations of the war’s length, to the number of soldiers they captured, to their administration of the prisons themselves.  Administrative woes only increased with the abrupt end to the prisoner exchange system and the big battles of 1863 that led to the proliferation of prisons and captives.

Both sides relied on incarceration standards from previous wars, especially the War of 1812. They parlayed with an exchange system that dated from that war, but when the system collapsed due to various reasons, including the controversy over the exchange of African-American prisoners, it did not bode well for Civil War captives.  Standards of treatment versus actual practices were incongruent from the start. To better standardize prison conditions, the Union enlisted Francis Lieber to more clearly define the manner in which to treat its prisoners. Lieber’s Code, which was based off General Order 100, attempted to set standards for both sides to follow regarding treatment of captives.  However, my latest research shows that much of Lieber’s hard work was ignored.  For instance, I have found that more than a few Civil War prisons regressed into becoming “Dark Tourist destinations” for home-front civilians to frequent:  Civilians literally paid an admission price to view the prisoners from high observation towers, or civilians took steamship excursions that anchored near stockade walls so prisoners might be viewed.  Such practices directly violated the Lieber Code, which called for prisoners not to be “humiliated” or “disgraced” inhumanely.  Finally, perceptions of captivity only made the situation worse, especially toward the end of the war.  Charges of negligence and cruelty against Confederates and their purported improper treatment of Yankee prisoners set a quid pro quo that was instituted in the North, including a reduction in prisoners’ rations.  Ultimately, each side did not trust the other.  The dismal prison conditions were exacerbated by the prioritization of soldiers and resources for the battlefront over home-front POWs, and by the stripping of administrative prison personnel to other jobs and departments that were considered more important to the prosecution of the war.

Elmira Confederate POW camp, NY. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI: How much did prisons and POW camps vary with regard to size, condition, prisoner treatment, etc. within each region? In what ways did prison life and the treatment of POWs evolve over the course of the war, and why?  How does the story of Civil War prisons and POWs tie into other aspects of the Civil War, such as military policy, the politics of waging war, and moral debates about “just warfare?”

ZOMBEK: Union and Confederate officials had to figure out how to handle the wartime prisoner crisis as the war progressed and the number of captives increased, since the United States was largely immune from military crises throughout the 19th century, with the exceptions of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In each instance, military officials improvised and used existing structures, such as hulks, existing jails, and penitentiaries, to address the POW crisis. Union and Confederate officials behaved similarly during the Civil War, and also constructed open-air stockades/barracks or commandeered existing structures, like warehouses and factories, to house prisoners. The size and capacity of the military prisons varied, and the total number of prisoners held ranged. Lonnie Speer recorded 117 total Confederate and 106 Union military prisons. Of the known population totals, Speer listed one Confederate and eight Union prisons holding under 100 inmates; twenty-two Confederate and twenty-five Union prisons holding from 100 to 999 prisoners; six Confederate and five Union prisons holding 1,000-1,999 inmates; one Confederate and three Union prisons holding from 2,000-2,999 captives; three Confederate and three Union prisons holding from 3,000-3,999 prisoners; and three Confederate and one Union prison(s) holding from 4,000-4,999 inmates. The number of military prisons holding over 5,000 prisoners was nominal, and extremely large prisons that held over 10,000 were few. They include Camp Douglas (Chicago) at 12,082, Fort Delaware (Delaware) at 12,600, Point Lookout (Maryland) at 22,000, Belle Isle (Richmond) at 10,000, Salisbury (North Carolina) at 10,321 and Andersonville (Georgia) at 32,899.[1]

Given the establishment of long-term imprisonment as punishment with the penitentiary program in the antebellum period, which emphasized just punishment and Christian treatment of inmates, and in light of the Lieber Code’s dictate (Article 76) that prisoners of war be treated with humanity, both Northern and Southern civilians expected that prisoners of war be afforded decent treatment and suffer no intentional maltreatment, cruelty, mutilation, or death (Art. 56). But the Lieber code also stated that all POWs were liable to the infliction of retaliatory measures (Art. 59) and could be made to work for the benefit of the captor’s government (Art. 76). Instances of prisoners of war working for their captors either in prison or on the public works, both as punishment and in order to cut costs, occurred at Camp Chase, Johnson’s Island, Salisbury, Andersonville, Old Capitol Prison, and Castle Thunder, among other prisons.

The breakdown of prisoner exchanges under the Dix-Hill Cartel in the summer of 1863 is often attributed to General Ulysses S. Grant and his alleged desire to capitalize on the North’s numerical superiority, but this interpretation is inaccurate. The Cartel, authorized in July 1862, called for equal exchanges of captured soldiers, with the remaining men to be paroled under pledge not to take up arms against the enemy until formally exchanged. Once the Lieber Code was issued in April 1863, the US government demanded that black soldiers be treated equally. This demand was in response to the Confederate government’s formal statement in May 1863 that neither black soldiers nor their white officers would be exchanged. President Lincoln consequently suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel on July 30, 1863 (General Order 252), only to be resumed if the Confederates agreed to afford white and black soldiers equal treatment, which they refused. Exchanges were effectively ended in August 1863, prior to Lincoln’s appointment of Grant to overall command. From that point forward, prisoner populations climbed and exchanges were never resumed despite the Confederacy’s conceding to demands regarding the treatment of black prisoners over a year after the Cartel was stopped.

Libby Prison, Union POW camp, Richmond, VA.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI: How was the POW experience of African-American soldiers different from that of white soldiers?  In what ways were prisons for spies, traitors, deserters, and dissidents similar to or different from traditional soldiers’ prisons?

ZOMBEK: African-Americans appear in prison records in a few instances. I’ve found that Confederate soldiers held at Camp Chase, for a time, were allowed to keep their slaves in prison. Columbus’s civilians got word of this and complained to the federal government, and eventually the practice stopped. At Andersonville, Confederate authorities often demanded that black inmates participate in work details outside of the stockade, which incensed some white POWs since the laborers got reprieve from the prison’s horrid conditions. They perhaps, however, failed to realize that this labor relegated black inmates to a position that was akin to slavery.

Despite Union and Confederate officials’ attempts to classify inmates, spies, traitors, and deserters often wound up incarcerated with prisoners of war. One distinction was that, prior to incarceration, deserters faced court martials which, given the stigma of imprisonment, often stripped soldiers of their title and/or rank prior to incarcerating them, a punishment most commonly reserved for criminals. Many Union deserters found themselves sentenced to the D.C. Penitentiary prior to its closure in September 1862. Some prisons, like those in St. Louis, primarily held Union deserters, Southern sympathizers, and political prisoners but, according to the Lieber Code, prisoners of war were defined broadly and included public enemies, soldiers, and citizens ranging from sutlers, to editors, to journalists, and contractors (Art. 49 & 50). Union and Confederate authorities often tried to segregate prisoners according to their offenses within each individual prison and, if they could, recorded prisoners’ offenses upon intake, but the classification scheme was difficult to uphold given the magnitude of the wartime crisis of incarceration and given the Lieber Code’s broad definition of prisoners of war.

IA exch
Commissioned officers of the 19th Iowa Infantry after their exchange as prisoners of war, New Orleans.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI: We often tend to focus on the horrors surrounding soldiers who died in Civil War prisons.  But, how did so many soldiers, North and South, survive Civil War prison life, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?  What new sources—and resources—are being used to uncover, document, and interpret the experiences of Civil War POWs and prison workers?

ZOMBEK: The first survival method that POWs used was to hope against hope. Examples of this are common in prisoners’ diaries, which reveal that many men maintained hope up until their death. While their time on earth may have ended in prison, prisoners’ clinging to hope prepared them for freedom in heaven, which can be considered a form of survival. On the other hand, prisoners who fell into despair often, in a way, predicted and sometimes seemed to even hasten their own death.

Prisoners also clung to relationships with their loved ones at home to survive. Through written correspondence, prisoners either were satisfied with hearing from home and the normal daily routines, or urged family members to use social or political connections to attempt to hasten their release from captivity. Some succeeded, but others, by continuously directing family members regarding who to contact and how to plea for release, kept their minds and their idle time occupied, which aided survival regardless of the outcome.

The most common way that POWs withstood captivity was to place their hope in God and seek out religious instruction. Prisoners clung to and read (and re-read) their Bibles. They also often shared scriptural passages that were filled with hope with their family members in letters. Other prisoners held their own religious services in the absence of chaplains, took time to observe the Sabbath and meditated on how the day was playing out at home, or sought religious instruction, penance, Sunday services, and religious consul from visiting clergymen and women. Many prisoners believed that imprisonment was a temporary trial that God had willed for them, but believed that with His help, they could eventually make it back to their families.

Photograph of drawing by James E. Taylor showing prisoners at Andersonville Prison surrounding a Confederate officer and exchanging a button for a pepper as other prisoners behind the officer cut buttons from his uniform.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

GRAY: Prisoners’ survival depended on the background and the creativity of the individual inmate. Some found jobs with prison administrators and served as hospital stewards, clerks, or public works employees.  The more entrepreneurial inmates worked inside their respective camps, becoming a part of the prison marketplace and selling their services or wares to comrades. Writing home was also a survival mechanism, as having a network of family and friends who could mail extra provisions to the prisoners certainly improved the inmates’ living situation.  Emotionally, having contact with home, as well as friendships created inside prison walls boosted prisoners’ spirits and could facilitate the sharing of resources.  Various primary sources, including letters, diaries, prison rolls, and quartermaster payrolls indicate such social networks.

Moreover, contracts and prison sutlers’ records indicate that prison work resulted in payment, and in turn the opportunity to supplement an inmate’s lifestyle.  The archaeological record has also helped to enrich our working knowledge of prisoner life, with recent discoveries highlighting the diverse living conditions within various prison communities.  Excavations at sites such as Johnson’s Island, Camp Lawton, Camp Douglas, and Elmira have produced a rich record of material culture, especially from features such as prison latrines, that has been critical to better understanding how Union and Confederate POWs lived, worked, and died in Civil War prisons.

[1] All statistics from this and the preceding paragraph from Speer, Portals to Hell, 323-340.

“Give them liberty or give me death”: The Unionist Espionage of Elizabeth Van Lew: An Interview with Elizabeth Varon

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Elizabeth Varon,

Elizabeth Varon. Image courtesy of the University of Virginia.

Associate Director of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History and Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia.  A specialist in the Civil War era and 19th-century South, Varon is the author of We Mean to be Counted:  White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (UNC Press, 1998); Southern Lady, Yankee Spy:  The True Story of  Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent  in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003); Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (UNC Press, 2008); and Appomattox:  Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013).  Southern Lady, Yankee Spy won three book awards and was named one of the “Five Best” books on the “Civil War away from the battlefield” in the Wall Street Journal.  Appomattox won the 2014 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction, the 2014 Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize for Civil War History from the Austin Civil War Roundtable, and the 2014 Eugene Feit Award in Civil War Studies from the New York Military Affairs Symposium.  Appomattox was also named one of Civil War Monitor’s “Best Books of 2014” and one of National Public Radio’s “Six Civil War Books to Read Now.”  Varon’s public presentations include book talks at the Lincoln Bicentennial in Springfield, at Gettysburg’s Civil War Institute, and on C-Span’s Book TV. Her next book, Armies of Deliverance:  A New History of the Civil War, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2018.
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Debacle at Petersburg: The Battle of the Crater: An Interview with A. Wilson Greene

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with A. Wilson Greene.  Mr.

A. Wilson Greene. Image courtesy of PetersburgArea.org

Greene recently retired from a 44-year career in public history.  He spent sixteen years in the National Park Service, served as the first director of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Trust), and was the founding director of Pamplin Historical Park & the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, where he worked for 22 years.  Greene holds a Masters degree in History.  He is the author of numerous articles in scholarly and popular publications and six books, including his latest: A Campaign of Giants: The Battles for Petersburg, Volume 1, From the Crossing of the James to the Battle of the Crater (UNC Press, forthcoming).

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Meade at Gettysburg: An Interview with Kent Masterson Brown

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Kent Masterson Brown.  Mr. Brown is a Lexington, Kentucky-based historian and attorney who has

Kent Masterson Brown. Image courtesy of Centre College.

practiced law for forty-three years. He was the creator and first editor of the national magazine, The Civil War, and is author of many books, including Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander (University Press of Kentucky, 1998); The Civil War in Kentucky: Battle for the Bluegrass State (Savas Publishing Company, 2000); Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics and the Pennsylvania Campaign (UNC Press, 2005); One of Morgan’s Men: The Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry (University Press of Kentucky, 2011); and The Confederacy’s First Battle Flag (Pelican Publishing, 2014).  Most of Kent’s books have been featured selections of the History Book Club and Military Book Club; Cushing of Gettysburg, Retreat From Gettysburg, and One of Morgan’s Men have also received numerous national awards. His current book project, George Gordon Meade and the Gettysburg Campaign, will go to press in early 2018.  Kent is also President and Content Developer for Witnessing History, LLC.  He has written, hosted, and produced numerous award-winning documentary films for public and cable television, including: “Long Road Back to Kentucky”; “Retreat From Gettysburg”; “Bourbon and Kentucky: A History Distilled; Henry Clay and the Struggle for the Union”; “The Southern Cross; Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War”; “Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West”; and “ ‘I Remember The Old Home Very Well’: The Lincolns in Kentucky” (all of which were Telly Award recipients).  “Unsung Hero” was also nominated for an Emmy Award.  Kent was the first chairman of the Gettysburg National Military Park Advisory Commission and the first chairman of the Perryville (Kentucky) Battlefield Commission, a seat he held for eleven years while overseeing the expansion of the Perryville Battlefield.  He currently serves as a director of the Gettysburg Foundation.

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Inside The Civil War Defenses of Washington: An Interview with Steve T. Phan

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming

Phan cropped
Steve Phan.  Image courtesy of Steve Phan

2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Steve T. Phan, a Park Ranger and historian at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Prior to his arrival at CWDW, Steve worked as an intern and park guide at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Rock Creek Park. A military history scholar of the Civil War era, Steve’s research focuses on military occupation, operational command, fortifications, and the Western Theater during the Civil War.  He is the author of several articles about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War and is currently writing a guide book for the Civil War Defenses of Washington.  Steve is also continuing his work on an extended research project about the Union Army First Corps and the life of General John F. Reynolds.  He holds a Masters degree in American History, with a concentration in Public History. 

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