July 1st through 3rd, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. There were an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 visitors to the national park, including as many as 10,000 reenactors. The Civil War sesquicentennial was commemorated from the very beginning, and ended with a reenactment in Appomattox that saw over 6,000 people visit to re-live the end of the American Civil War. On April 9th, bells across the nation, including at Gettysburg College, tolled for 4 minutes to honor the four years the war raged on. Plans were started for the anniversary almost a decade in advance and millions of Americans in commemorating of the war that cost 600,000 Americans their lives. A collective narrative of the war began forming before the surrender was even signed, and while each side had a different memory directly after Appomattox, the settled upon collective narrative still exists today.
As I write this, I think of a different time, a different war, and a different April. On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, joining France, Great Britain, and Russia to fight in the World War I. The United States’ entry into the war was controversial; President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2nd, and after four days of debate the Senate passed the declaration 82-6 and the House of Representative passed it 373-50. During the war, 116,516 American Servicemen lost their lives to battle deaths and disease. The Great War, as it came to be known, had a significant impact on the United States domestically and internationally. Entrance to war marked a significant change in America’s traditionally isolationist policy. The end of the war brought an economic boom to the States and a role in international politics it had not seen before. A spot at the table at Versailles, the League of Nations, and an increasingly globalized economy illustrated that the United States was not just a nation across the Atlantic anymore. It had begun establishing itself as a world power whose presence continues to define international politics today. Continue reading “The Conflicting Conflict: Memorialization and Memory of the Great War”
Texit and Calexit—catchy names that have been trending lately over states deciding they don’t want to be a part of the United States. Secession movements are not unique to today. The most famous act of secession involved the eleven states that would form the Confederate States of America, but even at the founding of the United States there were rumors that some states were going to secede and the country would become four different regional confederacies.
The legality of secession has been debated since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When the United States was still under the Articles of Confederation, there were rumors that the United States would break up into multiple confederacies that could govern with more sovereignty than Congress could under the Articles. The move from the Articles to the Constitution was hotly debated. Some, like Judge St. George Tucker in 1803, argued that abandoning the Articles was the same as seceding from them. Therefore, according to Tucker, there was legal precedent for future secession.
Editors note: We recommend reading this article from the African American Intellectual History Society about the impact of the 13th Amendment on mass incarceration. This post by Danielle Jones was written before the AAIHS article was published and is part of a larger conversation about the 13th Amendment, and we encourage our readers to engage in productive and civil dialogue in the comments.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery illegal in the United States. Or so it seemed. The second line of the Amendment, and the most oft unknown, states that slavery can still be used as a form of punishment for crimes, and this practice became widely used as a part of southern backlash to Reconstruction Era policies. After the end of the Civil War, many southern states struggled with rebuilding their infrastructures and government systems. In order to avoid falling into more debt, many of these states turned towards the convict lease system, which claimed that the state prison could lease out its convicts to local companies, usually in industries such as mining, lumbering, and railroad building, to not only house prisoners inexpensively but also regain the means of labor they had with slavery before the Civil War. By adopting the convict lease system, southern states were able to earn revenue and control the suddenly free black population of the South, and with the development of black codes, these states were able to legally disenfranchise African Americans up until the 1930s when Alabama became the last state to abolish the convict lease program.
Many historians and history textbooks will say that the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery. While this sentiment is true, there is more behind the reasoning than traditionally taught. Many in Congress believed that slavery was detrimental to white laborers in the South because slaves were seen as a long term investment, and white laborers were unable to make advancements because slavery was less expensive in the long run. Therefore, by abolishing slavery, they would even out the playing field, and whites would have more opportunities. For southern elites, the abolition of slavery meant the loss of a major working force, and because racism had not ended with the end of the Civil War, southern states looked to create a system that would enable them to maintain a steady work force as they began rebuilding and industrializing their states. The states turned to convict leasing, an idea that was not unique to the period after the Civil War but grew exponentially in the Reconstruction Era.
On September 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was opened to the public after almost two decades of planning and more than a century of fighting for a memorial for African Americans. Starting in 1915, when a group of United States Colored Troops sought a memorial for their fallen soldiers, African Americans have worked to have their history remembered on a national scale. A congressional commission for a museum dedicated to African Americans was signed in 1929 by Calvin Coolidge, but the stock market crash in October prevented the museum from being built. The memorial was pushed to the back burner until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized the need for a museum again. In 1986, a joint resolution proposed by Representatives Mickey Leland of Texas and John Lewis of Georgia as well as Senator Paul Simon of Illinois marked the beginning of the modern fight for a museum dedicated solely to African Americans.
The representatives faced strong opposition from Congress about the museum. Perhaps the strongest opposition came from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) who argued in 1996 that “once Congress gives the go ahead for African Americans, how can Congress then say no to Hispanics, and the next group, and the group after that?” Helms even went as far as stating that as long as he was in the United States Congress, there would be no museum. Despite this uphill struggle, in 2001 President George W. Bush signed House Resolution 3442, establishing a commission to develop a plan of action for the creation of the museum. In 2006, the location of the museum was finalized, and in 2009 the architectural group Feelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was announced as the winner of the design competition held in January of that year. On February 22, 2012 the ground breaking ceremony for NMAAHC was held.
Hollywood’s Civil War narrative is one that transports its viewers back to the golden age of hoop skirts, mint juleps, and a group of people who just wanted to be left alone with their way of life. Many people trace this ideology of the Civil War in literature and film to the 1930s, but the for-profit Civil War existed long before Scarlett O’Hara fled Atlanta. During the war, buying your way out of service, scamming your way into a government contract, and selling souvenirs of the aftermath of battles were just a few ways people could make a profit off of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, widows suddenly had to find new ways of supporting themselves and their children after the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Belle Boyd was one of these women.
Belle’s story is unique; she had married a Union Naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, in England in 1864. She returned to the United States in 1866 and began travelling across the country, telling the story of her experiences during the Civil War. She performed on the stage until her death in 1900 of a heart attack. Her story intrigued audiences across the country because she served as one of the most influential female spies of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But was she? While there is plenty of evidence that supports her claims of being a Confederate spy, including jail records and mentions of her service in letters from various Confederate soldiers and officers, the true extent of her influence has been put under scrutiny.