Essential Workers: Formerly Enslaved People and Smallpox in the age of COVID-19

Professor Jim Downs will join CWI Director Dr. Peter Carmichael and John Heckman (The Tattooed Historian) for a Facebook Live stream this Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00PM EST. Dr. Downs is the author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012). His next book, Maladies of Empire: How Slavery, Imperialism, and War Transformed Medicine will be released in January 2021 by Harvard University Press.

Downs Headshot April 2020
Dr. Jim Downs 

Dr. Downs will discuss how outbreaks of disease impacted African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The discussion will also touch on a recent piece Dr. Downs wrote for The Atlantic.   Dr. Downs has provided two primary source documents for our audience to view ahead of the livestream.

A Report of African American Illness in Charleston.


A report detailing the illness of whites in Charleston in 1865.

Does tactical history matter? A Facebook Live stream

Dr. Andrew Bledsoe (Lee University) will join Dr. Peter Carmichael (Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College) and John Heckman (The Tattooed Historian) to share some thoughts on tactical/ military history and the Civil War. The livestream will be this Thursday April 23rd at 7:00PM. The stream will concurrently take place on bot the Facebook pages of the Tattooed Historian and the Civil War Institute.

Dr. Bledsoe is the author of Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2015) and co-edited Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays On The Military History of The American Civil War. Dr. Bledsoe has graciously shared with our Compiler readers an article he wrote on the future of military history for The Journal of the Civil War Era. The article is available here.


Prison Escapes in the Civil War: A Facebook Live Stream Event

Dr. Angela Zombek, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, will join CWI Director Dr. Peter Carmichael and John Heckman (The Tattooed Historian) to discuss Civil War prison camp escapes. The livestream will take place on Monday, April 20th at 7pm EST. The livestream will happen concurrently on the Tattooed Historian’s Facebook page and the Civil War Institute’s Facebook page.

Dr. Zombek is the author of “Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War” (Kent State, 2018) and has provided a primary source that will be discussed during the livestream. This newspaper article comes from the December 5, 1863 edition of the Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio).




Speaker Interview: Soldier of Fortune: A Union Army Recruiter and His Impressment Scandal

By: Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Brian Luskey is associate professor of history at West Virginia University, where he teaches nineteenth-century American history. He is the author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York University Press, 2010), the co-editor of Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America with Wendy A. Woloson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), and the co-author of “Muster: Inspecting Material Cultures of the Civil War” with Jason Phillips, in Civil War History 63, no. 2 (June 2017). His most recent book, Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, will be published by UNC Press in spring 2020.

Luskey headshot

CWI: How does your book challenge the idea that the war was just about Union and emancipation?

Luskey: Historians agree that many northerners had come to believe, by late 1862, that the emancipation of enslaved people would help undermine the Confederate economy, society, and war effort. Republicans and even some Democrats believed that emancipation was a “military necessity” that would preserve the Union. My book suggests that we also need to appreciate the ways white northern employers framed the war aims of Union and emancipation in relation to a concept I refer to as “domestic necessity.” White northerners fought the war for Union to seize the fruits of free labor ideology that included employers’ ability to hire workers of their choice. The emancipation of enslaved people provided the northern states and northern employers access to economically vulnerable workers whom they could hire cheaply as soldiers and domestic servants. In Men Is Cheap, I examine the process through which former slaves (and others) were moved by the army and northern benevolent societies to the homes of eager Yankee employers. Northerners believed in free labor, slave emancipation, and accumulating profits because these things reinforced each other. The wartime doctrines of military and domestic necessity were linked in white northerners’ minds and illuminate what they thought the war for Union was over. In the process of winning that war, white northerners were able to assert the prerogatives of employers to amass principal through the labor of their workers as much as they realized the principle of abolition.

Recruiting tent
Recruiting tent: Recruiting for the war–scene at the recruiting tents in the park, New York. Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1864, March 19, p. 404, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


CWI: You write about underground economies. What do you mean by that phrase, and what does this tell us about the relationship between the military and the home front?

Luskey: It’s not a phrase I use in the book, but it’s a concept that encompasses a number of economic transactions that Civil War Era Americans (as well as some historians) considered illicit, illegitimate, and marginal to the functioning of the economy as a whole. Actually, these “underground” economies were vital to the mainstream economy, and the project of defining them as “underground” economies was often initiated by economic actors who wanted to obscure their own misdeeds. The employment agencies I discuss were colloquially called “intelligence offices” in reference to the information about the labor market that was available within. Proprietors charged fees to workers and employers for access to that information, and both parties often felt cheated when intelligence office keepers did not find them good jobs or hard-working employees. The intelligence office keeper represented for many Americans the dangers of fraud in the labor market and the economy more generally. And yet, during the war for Union, white northerners depended upon labor brokers to assist in moving soldiers, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and substitutes for drafted men at their direction and for their benefit. The war, and the movements of armies it unleashed, made it possible for labor brokers to do their work. The ways the war forced people to move, coupled with brokers’ nefarious reputation, permitted employers to hire workers of their choice and obscure their own self-interest by casting brokers as the truly shady characters in the labor market. The work of labor brokers was indispensable for winning the war, helped move the workers necessary to add to the respectability and refinement of northern households, and shaped a cultural process through which certain economic practices came to be labeled legitimate and illegitimate.

bounty brokers
Bounty brokers: War views. No. 2042, Bounty brokers looking out for substitutes, New York : Published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., American and Foreign Stereoscopic Emporium, 501 Broadway, [between 1865 and 1869], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
CWI: You have exposed widespread fraud and coercion with the impressment of Union soldiers. How did this occur and what does this reveal to us about Northern motivations during the war?

Luskey: The title of my book comes from the lamentation of a substitute broker who was not able to clear off enough profit in the wage labor market. Substitute brokerage, as historians have shown, was a business rife with deceptive practices. The Enrollment Act passed in 1863, designed to augment the manpower of Union military forces to crush the rebellion, included a clause allowing drafted men to hire substitutes to serve in their place. Especially in the final months of the war, substitute brokers cornered this new and anonymous labor market by connecting drafted men with strangers for high fees. What made these brokers notorious was that many also skimmed hundreds and thousands of dollars from unsuspecting enlisted men. Northerners condemned the brokers for their fraud. These men had sought to profit personally in their nation’s time of need. They stood opposite the virtuous citizen-soldiery who put their lives on the line to save the Union. Yet the brokers and the bounty jumpers they often employed were not the only people looking to profit from these provisions of the Enrollment Act. Substitutes and their wives hoped to accrue capital from drafted men who were increasingly forced to pay higher and higher prices for their services. These exorbitant wages would help substitutes’ families survive in a competitive economy that limited their access to resources. The fraud of substitute brokers, like the war itself, made wage earners vulnerable to exploitation and demonstrated how the conflict unmade the promise of free labor for working people. Yet drafted men could claim that they were not to blame for the brokers’ fraud, even as they employed other men to do the work of killing and dying for them.

Speaker Interview: Northern Women at War

By Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Nina Silber is an award-winning teacher at Boston University where she teaches in both the department of history and the program in American and New England Studies. Her research and teaching have focused mainly on issues related to historical memory, gender, and the Civil War. A recipient of numerous awards – including fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard University’s Warren Center – Professor Silber has also published works that have helped to expand the scholarly horizons in the study of the Civil War. Among her most important publications are: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (1993); Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992); Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005); and, most recently, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (2019). Professor Silber has also worked in the field of public history, consulting on projects with the Gettysburg National Military Park, the History Channel, and the National Park Service.  She currently serves as president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Dr. Nina Silber (Boston University)

CWI: The crisis of the Civil War was clearly disruptive to the Northern home front when men left to join the Union armies. What were the expectations in the North for how women would factor into the war for the Union in 1861? Did these expectations shift during the course of the war? How did the war affect traditional gender roles in the North?

Silber: Unlike Confederates, who went to war to protect their homes and families, Northern men spoke explicitly about putting the fight for the country above the fight for home. Confederates, for example, said things like this: “We are fighting for matters real and tangible, our property and our homes.” In contrast, one Union soldier told his wife: “My duties to my country are of more importance now than my duty to you.” That’s a very different kind of sentiment. And I think that language reflected certain assumptions about women and gender: That Northern men expected women to fend for themselves, even doing chores (at least temporarily) that men normally carried out. One soldier from Iowa said precisely that to his wife: That she should “take hold and do for thyself and use thy own judgment about matters”. In other words, he urged her to become more self-sufficient, while Confederate men emphasized male protection and authority.

The one shift I noticed, mid-way into the war, was the way Northern men, perhaps because the war was not going well, urged women to show even greater patriotism and sacrifice than before. Women, I think, were increasingly becoming a convenient scape goat: Men were connecting their military failures to women supposedly failing to do their part, yet there’s not really any evidence to back that up. If anything, evidence points to active participation on women’s part, especially in procuring supplies for soldiers, sending aid packages to the front, and sponsoring fairs that raised significant funds for Union troops.

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Some women took up new jobs outside the home to assist the Union war effort and supplement their household income. Such jobs included the dangerous task of working with munitions and filling black powder cartridges, as depicted in this image of female employees at the U.S. Arsenal in Watertown, MA. (Image courtesy Library of Congress)

CWI: How did Northern women respond to these changes? Were women more willing, or even eager, to push these boundaries and move out of their traditional domestic sphere? Did their responses to wartime changes depend on certain external factors, such as their geographic region; socioeconomic status; or the type of work they took on?

Silber: Women often had no choice but to assert the kind of self-sufficiency that some Union soldiers expected. They often did take on new responsibilities – from going to work in factories to doing men’s jobs on farms (e.g., chopping wood; harvesting crops; bringing produce to market). Some moved in with other family members (their own or their in-laws) to relieve some of the financial and physical burdens. Still, I don’t think women usually did these new chores with a sense of liberation. Indeed, many were often frustrated when they discovered how little they knew of the work men did: Debts that may have been owed or even the overall state of the family’s finances. Additionally, I think many simply felt overwhelmed by how much was expected of them during the war. Many couldn’t wait until their husbands came home so they could turn those “male” responsibilities back to them.

One exception to this may have been the kind of pride and ownership many women demonstrated when it came to their heightened political involvement: They became invested in partisan struggles, supported specific candidates, and learned as much as they could about the political and military struggles of the moment. Recognizing how critical women’s input was to the challenges at hand, one Connecticut woman wrote a letter to her husband in which she asked “why don’t they let the soldiers’ wives vote” while the soldiers are away.

Working class women faced added difficulties in losing the regular income of husbands and fathers. Some of those women found jobs – for example sewing uniforms or making other military supplies – but because they often worked for sub-contractors, not directly for the US government, their pay was exceedingly low.   In some towns and cities, officials pledged relief money for struggling families, although women often had to wade through a considerable bureaucratic apparatus to procure this assistance. Increasing numbers of families, having no other means of support, found themselves turning to almshouses in these years.

The U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. hired increasing numbers of women to help produce currency and serve as clerks over the course of the Civil War—a trend that continued even after the war years through the end of the 19th century. (Image courtesy U.S. Treasury Department)

CWI: Did the impact of wartime changes on gender roles extend beyond the war? What happened to the women who became wage earners or participants in politics or nurses? Did their engagement in wartime activism end when the conflict ended? Where do most Northern women find themselves in the late 1860s?

Silber: Some things changed, and others did not. Many women who went to work in factories lost those jobs when the war ended; there simply wasn’t the need for the kinds of factory jobs women had occupied– in arsenals or in workshops that made uniforms or blankets or tents. In the nursing field, there was a growing acknowledgement of nursing as a profession, something which required precise and scientific training. Nursing schools – which admitted women – opened up in the postwar years.

Other women, those who had been politically active for causes like abolitionism and women’s suffrage, continued the campaign for suffrage and also for protecting the rights of freed people after the war ended. There was, however, considerable disagreement about how to prioritize those campaigns with some, including many African American women, ranking the struggle for black men’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans as more important than winning votes for all women. Other women’s rights activists chose a different path: Refusing to support the fifteenth amendment – which granted black men the right to vote – they sought to build a new campaign focused solely on gaining the vote for women, a campaign that increasingly put white women at the center.

“They Brought in Their Dead and Wounded on Hay Wagons.” Public mourning became an all-too-common ritual for many women during the Civil War whose personal grief became synonymous with patriotic suffering and sacrifice. (Image courtesy Library of Virginia)




Twilight of the Blue and Gray: Gettysburg College and the 1938 Reunion

By: Cameron Sauers

CWI Fellow Cameron Sauers ’21 recently interviewed Chief of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park Chris Gwinn about the tour that Ranger Gwinn will lead at this summer’s conference. Ranger Gwinn’s tour is entitled “Twilight of the Blue and Gray: Gettysburg College and the 1938 Reunion” and will explore the site of the “Great Camp” at Gettysburg College, where 1,485 former Union and Confederate soldiers gathered for the final reunion of surviving Civil War veterans. Discover the stories of the veterans that attended and explore the history behind one of the most mythologized events in Gettysburg’s history.


For more information on the 2020 Civil War Institute Summer Conference, or to register, see our website! 

Speaker Interview: The Civil War in the West

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Her new book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West, will be published by Scribner in February 2020. This project was the recipient of a 2017 NEH Public Scholar Award and a Filson Historical Society Fellowship. Nelson is the author of two previous books: Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Georgia, 2012) and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (2005). She has also written about the Civil War, the U.S. West, and American culture for The New York Times, Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Preservation Magazine, and Civil War Times. Her column on Civil War popular culture, “Stereoscope,” appears regularly in the Civil War Monitor

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Dr. Megan Kate Nelson

CWI: Your new book, The Three-Cornered War, is about the Civil War in the West, but you are not writing about what we traditionally think of as the Western Theater. So can you explain how do you define “the West” in your new book, and can you tell us why this “West” is important for understanding the American Civil War?

Nelson: As all CWI attendees know, the term “the West” is most often used to describe the Trans-Mississippi theater (engagements in Missouri, Arkansas, western Tennessee, Louisiana, eastern Texas, and Indian Territory). For this reason, most maps included in Civil War history books extend only as far west as central Texas, erasing roughly 40% of the nation’s landmass. Because what could be west of “the West”? What could have happened in a place that’s not even on the map?

In The Three-Cornered War, I redraw that map of the Civil War, extending it to the Pacific Ocean and including in it not only states and U.S. territories west of the 100th meridian but also the boundaries of Native homelands.

Most of the action in The Three-Cornered War takes place in Colorado, Texas, southern California, New Mexico, and the territory that became Arizona during the war. This region (the Southwest) was a gateway to the larger West in 1861. The Confederacy wanted to seize New Mexico to gain access to California’s gold mines and Pacific ports, and to establish a base for launching additional campaigns for the states and territories of the larger West.

Henry Hopkins Sibley, a career U.S. Army man who resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, had these goals in mind when he invaded New Mexico Territory with a brigade of 3,000 Texans in the winter of 1861-62. Union colonel E.R.S. Canby brought together an army of regulars and Anglo and Hispano volunteers to defend New Mexico against this incursion.

In their subsequent clashes, both armies marched and fought through Native homelands. These communities—Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches and Navajos, in particular—exploited this fight between the Union and the Confederacy early in the war, siphoning animals from army wagon trains and camps and retaking territories they had lost to American military and civilian settlement in the 1850s.

Once the Union defeated the Confederates and drove them back to Texas in the summer of 1862, federal troops under James Carleton turned their attention to defeating Apaches and Navajos. In order to fully win the West during the Civil War, the Union had to wrest its lands from indigenous peoples. The second half of The Three-Cornered War tracks these events through the experiences of Navajos, Chiricahua Apaches, and 1st New Mexico and 1st California soldiers who engaged in these fights.

Approaching the history of the Civil War from this often overlooked (and sometimes dismissed) vantage point reveals surprising elements of the conflict, among them that:

  • The future of the West remained a contentious issue throughout the war, just as it had been in the 1850s
  • The battles here shaped several political and economic decisions in the East, and impacted military strategies
  • The Civil War West’s battles were fought by the war’s first multiracial armies: Anglos, Hispanos, and indigenous peoples from multiple communities

It is my hope that The Three-Cornered War will encourage students and scholars of the Civil War to think more broadly about its history—and that we will start referring to the theater from the Pacific to the 100th meridian as “the West”, and to the Trans-Mississippi as, well, “the Trans-Mississippi.”

CWI: You tell the story of the Civil War in the West through nine major characters. What drew you to this methodological approach? How did the variety and accessibility of source material affect your decision? What did you learn from creating a narrative in this way?

Nelson: When I started to research the Civil War West and realized how many different campaigns there were and how many communities were involved, I faced a narrative challenge. I wanted to make sure that readers would understand the complexity of all of their actions and motivations, but I also wanted to give readers a more personal connection to the people engaged in the battles in this theater in the 1860s.

I was reading a lot of fiction at the time, and had noticed a new trend in storytelling: the multi-perspective narrative in which the reader sees events occurring from several different viewpoints.

I wondered if I could take this narrative strategy from fiction, and use historical sources to shape it. It took a while to find all 9 of the people whose stories I tell in The Three-Cornered War. I chose people whose experiences during the war were representative of their communities. But they were all also somewhat exceptional, in that they either wrote enough about their experiences to help me paint a full picture of them, or they were well-known enough that other people wrote about them.

James Carleton (the Union brigadier-general in command of the Department of New Mexico after 1862) for example, produced the most material of any of the people whose stories I tell in the book. He wrote sheaves of letters, reports, and orders every day, and the local newspaper often wrote about him, his policies, the parties he went to, and the trips he took.

The harsh military policies of Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, commander of the Department of New Mexico, toward native peoples set the tone for much of the U.S. government’s future treatment of Native Americans in its quest to expand white settlement and control of western lands. (Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Juanita, on the other hand, was a Navajo woman who left no written words behind to describe her life. But she did leave the textiles she wove, and descendants to tell her story. She was also married to Manuelito, a prominent Navajo headman, and I was able to pinpoint her movements during the Civil War through the Union Army’s attention to his whereabouts in their records.

Interweaving all of these narratives together was demanding – but it was also really, really fun. I have written two previous books (Trembling Earth (Georgia, 2005) and Ruin Nation (Georgia, 2012), both traditional scholarly books with argument-driven, thematic structures.

In The Three-Cornered War I needed to let the plot drive the narrative, and integrate my arguments seamlessly into both specific and larger stories. Ultimately, my hope is that The Three-Cornered War gives readers the fullest possible sense of the Civil War in this region, while also giving them a really good read.

What I have learned in this process is that writing history is always an act of imagination, even if you are writing in a more traditional way. Historians take the materials that we have to generate a sense of the past for ourselves and for our readers, and that is, fundamentally, a creative act.

CWI: You write about Hispanic civilians and soldiers as well as Native American Indians. How do their relationships with Union and Confederate authorities and issues of race and ethnicity affect military operations in the West?

Nelson: This is one of the other meanings of the title of my book: a California soldier used the phrase “three-cornered war” to describe the battles between the Union, the Confederacy, and Native peoples. The title also refers to a war involving the North, the South, and the West, and to a series of battles fought by Anglos, Native peoples, and Hispanos.

The Union’s Army of New Mexico was the first multiracial army in the Civil War. Hispano volunteers fought in the 1st New Mexico as well as in militias. They marched and camped and fought alongside Anglo volunteers and Army regulars, and Native scouts from several different communities (Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, and Mescalero Apaches). They fought in engagements against the Confederate Texans at Valverde in February 1862, and against Chiricahua Apaches, Mescalero Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and Navajos in campaigns in 1863-1864.

Many Hispanos volunteered for the Union army to defend their towns, ranches, and families from invading Texans. Those who stayed on after the Texans retreated did so to join campaigns against Apaches and Navajos, whom they had been fighting in a longstanding cycle of raiding and warfare for generations before Americans’ arrival in the region.

It is important to remember that Hispano New Mexicans’ engagements with Union and Confederate forces were not monolithic. Neither were the actions of indigenous peoples.

Many Native communities in the region traded with the Anglos in their midst and made peace treaties when it suited them. They raided military forts, corrals, and wagon trains when the opportunity arose. Some, as I have noted above, worked as scouts in Union Army campaigns, mostly in fights against other indigenous peoples who were their traditional enemies. They did all of this to express and secure their sovereignty as a people, and (re)gain control over their homelands.

In the Southwest, Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos were the communities who engaged most in warfare with Union troops, because it was their territories that the Union Army most wanted to control in New Mexico and Arizona.  They were important thoroughfares for trade and American settlement in the Southwest. They also provided access to mountain gulches and streams that could be panned for gold. In the summer of 1863, after gold was discovered in the mountains of the newly created Union Territory of Arizona, American and Mexican miners flooded into the region.  James Carleton subsequently tapped Joseph Rodman West to drive the Chiricahua Apaches from the Butterfield route, and Kit Carson to lead a hard war campaign against the Navajos to clear the way for miners heading west from Albuquerque.

Attention to the West leads us to rethink the Union government’s plans for the future. The Army’s Indian policy under James Carleton was to forego the treaty process and to make war upon Native peoples in order to force their capitulation and removal to reservations. Navajos and Mescalero Apaches became prisoners-of-war in this context, incarcerated on reservations that were far from their homelands. So while the Union Army was fighting for black emancipation in the East, they were fighting to force the migration and imprisonment of Native peoples in the West.

Considering the Hispano and Native dimensions of the Civil War, then, complicates our understanding of the Union Army’s “just war,” and illuminates the multiple and often contradictory elements of “the Union Cause.”

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Apache Canyon bridge, Glorieta Pass, NM. The March, 1862 battle of Glorieta Pass resulted in the retreat of Confederate forces from the New Mexico territory back into Arizona and Texas. (Image Courtesy of National Park Service)

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 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, 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!