I’m still writing about historical subjects, but blogging about them has taken a back seat to…life.
This isn’t an excuse, just a fact that is inescapable.
I made a self-promise that I would be more disciplined, and write monthly to get back in the game.
Yet I’m not ready to put history to paper today. Instead, I wrote a non-history something. And rather than put it somewhere else (like the depths of my recycle bin) I’m publishing it on my blog.
A poem if you will (or won’t). A loose consciousness of the will to write.
On writing after the absence of one year:
Being in a delusional amount of pain
The distance of thought and the wanting it to be so good
Streams of tension in my neck cry out for relief
The bang of the shutter so infrequent that I forget it will bang
It is quiet but there are sounds all around me
I am alone but not lonely
The ball of fuzz in the back of my mind
The weight of the task on each eyelid
Indecision numbs my legs
Constrictions in my chest are more the bra than fear
But the fear is there
Conscious of my task now I’m pushing it to be good
Trying to be witty
Wanting it to be good
This is what I hate
And what I love about writing
Love it or don’t. I wrote.
February 1866 saw the Northern states, and the Republican-led Union government, deep in the trenches of Presidential Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson’s leniency toward the former Confederate states precipitated the enactment of Black Codes that tightly proscribed the lives of former slaves; the election of former Confederates to local, regional, and national offices; and widespread maltreatment of Freedmen, Unionists, and Union officials living and working in the south.
Reconstruction was never billed in any way to be an easy process. Lincoln had not settled on a particular course of action, nor had his cabinet any miraculous insights into a resolution of the problem of rejoining the southern states to the Union. The difficulties were immense. The challenges nearly overwhelming. The dangers of Reconstruction going badly would have rippling consequences.
Arguments in the Union Congress toward the end of the war varied greatly on how best to accomplish the task of Reconstruction. There were moderate views, hard-line views, though no consensus came. Northern legislators feared the defeated South would be unrepentant toward their victors, and like a snake in the grass, strike at those that threatened them. This fear was not unfounded as the initial year post-war came to reveal. No one in the North believed that the South would simply acquiesce to terms, nor were Northern legislators so naive to think there would be no backlash to Northern occupation of the South after the war. But, the extent of the backlash and the utter vengeful quality of the Southern response shocked and angered the North. To better understand Southern rejection of Reconstruction, it helps to revisit the rhetoric of the Secession Crisis.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 sent shock-waves through the South. In response, Secession Commissioners were sent out from several of the slave states to drum up support for the creation of a Southern Confederacy. These commissioners, as Charles B. Dew describes in his book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, were a mix of radical and moderate pro-slavery voices. The commissioners identified as both Democrats and Whigs, but they had in common a consistent Southern message based on white supremacy, and the rejection of the “Black Republican” government of Lincoln based on threat of annihilation of the Southern way of life.
Stephen Hale was a Secession Commissioner from Alabama tasked with bringing Kentucky into the secession fold. Unable to meet with the Kentucky legislature, Hale drafted a letter to Kentucky’s governor Beriah Magoffin, in which he outlined the argument supporting secession. A passionate Southern-rights Whig, Hale’s letter encapsulated the Southern argument, and serves as a perfect example of why Reconstruction would have such difficulties.
…the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed not simply as a change of administration, but as the inauguration of new principles and a new theory of government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans….The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.¹
Hale’s rhetoric was the heart of the Confederate will, and no amount of Reconstruction would erase the entrenched social and cultural views on race held by Southerners, nor would it erase the antagonism toward the “Black Republicans” who forced them into a new political, economic, and social order. Political reconstruction could be possible, but social reconstruction would never be possible when the Southern heart took Hale’s words as sacrosanct.
The views that Hale proffered were generations old, and as the South contemplated its collective losses precipitated by the war, resentment and revenge smoldered in the crucible of the day. Reconstruction would not change the minds of the former slave South on questions of racial equality. Reconstruction would require those members of the Old South who wished to move beyond the war, to proclaim oaths of loyalty to the Union. But these oaths, honestly or fervently given, could not erase the deep seated animosity toward a forced acceptance of a new world order.
It isn’t that Reconstruction failed, or was doomed to fail, but instead that Reconstruction was a necessary process to restore former Confederate states to a functional status in a re-formed Union. The necessity of this restoration or reunification meant only that Southerners had to reject former political organization to an extent believable by the North. Southern acceptance of the new political environment would only go as far as necessary in order to provide political power, with which the South would be positioned to refuse the new economic and social organizations imposed by a Republican government it only grudgingly recognized as legitimate.
Hale’s letter is an excellent example of why Presidential Reconstruction was so fraught with insubordination to Northern victory. The Southern heart would never be swayed by political processes that destroyed the social and economic order of the Old South.
Dew argues that slavery was always at the heart of the secession crisis, and the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and further was precipitated not solely from Northern abolitionist cells, but directly as a result of Southern protectionism of the institution of slavery. Revisiting the writings and speeches of the Secession Commissioners also gives insight into the response of the South to Reconstruction, and further into the rise of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction years.
¹ S.F. Hale to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky, Frankfort, KY, 27 December 1860, in Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 90-103.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a fundraiser for the City of Fountain’s Fairview Cemetery as a living history interpreter. My background both as an historian, and as a formally trained actress, allowed me to delve into this project, and I’ve come away from it with a distinctly profound feeling of reverence for the woman I portrayed, and in particular for her sons. The deep, meaningful connection I continue to experience toward this family I’ve never met, has made me pause in reflection, to contemplate the significance of how public history affects those who view it, and those who portray it.
I am grateful when two aspects of my life can combine so seamlessly. I have always used my historian’s mind and skills to research characters, plays, and the specifics of a theatrical production, but the ability to bring my stage skills back to my academic world is a rare and cherished event. When I was asked to portray Emma Maria McCarty Eubank for The Friends of the Fountain Fairview Cemetery’s (FFFC) annual Cemetery Crawl fundraiser I jumped at it.
The fundraiser is an event that I strongly believe in. Begun by Barbara Headle, a senior history instructor and her students four years ago after the cemetery had been vandalized, it exists to help fund conservation efforts, site improvements, and purchase equipment like surveillance cameras. The cemetery holds descendants of the first settler families in the region, some of whom still have family in the area, and is both an historical treasure and spiritual repository for the community.
The theme of this year’s fundraiser, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, centered on veterans. There are approximately 175 veterans interred at Fairview, with their service spanning the Civil War to Vietnam. Six interpreters were chosen to portray veterans, or family members of veterans, whose task it was to then convey the life story of the man or woman they represented.
The day of the fundraiser was spectacular. The sunlight filtering through the trees was buttery, and the breeze barely touched the leaves. Occasionally, a dried leaf, tanned from the summer heat and curled, would fall from above, kissing the ground with a small scratch of sound. Crows spoke to each other from the tree-heights, and though traffic was near, it faded as the Veterans of Foreign War’s Color Guard began the presentation of colors. Taps rang out in the still morning air, the notes silvery and beautiful and haunting.
Each interpreter was stationed at the gravesite of the person they portrayed. I made my way to the Eubank family plot, the sixth, and last station on the tour. The still morning was peaceful as I waited for visitors. I reviewed my presentation several times in my head, going over my lines, checking dates, listing off the names of my character’s six children. I sat. And then the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. Emma Eubank was not a character. She had been a wife, a mother. I was sitting at the foot of her grave, asked to speak in her voice about her family, about two of her sons who fought in World War I. What I knew about her and her family had been gleaned from newspaper articles, census reports, draft registration cards, birth and death certificates, meticulously researched by the FFFC. I had pieced together the various bits of information into a monologue, a narrative about Emma and her family, yet in my heart the Eubanks deserved to be more than bullet points of research.
The visitors sometimes came to my station in groups, some singly. I told them Emma’s story. With each telling I felt more, and more protective of the family. Between visitors I read the grave markers in the family plot: Robert, William, Jane, Florence (four of Emma’s six children); WT McCarty (her brother); Fred (her husband) and Emma who shared a marker together. All six markers, nine members of the family (including the girls’ husbands) together in that beautiful, shaded, peaceful ground. It was profoundly moving.
I told Emma’s tale to many visitors that day, as honestly as I could. I came to realize that public history, living history, done in the right way, can connect both historians and the general public to a deeper understanding of our past. I’ve always had great respect and appreciation for the ordinary people who don’t often make it into history books, searching for the voices who traditionally are silent in the larger narratives we tell. But the act of translating facts, data, into a voice, has reminded me how much I love being an historian, and the enormous responsibility I have to properly, ethically, and diligently, pursue the discipline.
Public history provides an open doorway that many will comfortably step through. It is a more accessible, and less intimidating medium for many who would never wish to pick up a history book, to engage with the past. My first experience with living history has inspired and humbled me, and has given me a deeper connection to the people I represent as an historian, and those who come to view the history.
Thank you Emma.
It is easy to forget that historians divide the past into arbitrary packets, either by time or event (or both), in order to make our work more manageable. These packets have become so entrenched in the way history is taught and learned that we never question the nature of these temporal constructs. Such is the case with the study of Reconstruction. Though many textbooks begin the discussion of Reconstruction after the surrender at Appomattox, Reconstruction and the restoration of the Union was of uppermost concern from the first day of secession for Lincoln and the federal government.
Lincoln’s vow to preserve the Union (from the day he was elected) indicated his firm commitment to policies geared toward the reconstruction of the United States. Though Lincoln (to our knowledge) never outlined a specific postbellum plan for the political restoration of the former Confederate states, he did trial runs in states like Louisiana where Reconstruction-like practices were implemented, in order to assess potential solutions to the most vexing problem of the American crisis.
As our discussion of Reconstruction ramps up, it is important to remember that Reconstruction was a process not an event. The day South Carolina seceded the process began. As Union forces moved south, and began to occupy rebel states, the process of reconstruction continued. When the first slave escaped to Union lines the process of reconstruction was occurring. The more formalized transition of the south from a slave society to a free labor society, and the inherent incorporation of freed blacks into the political landscape of this society was a process of reconstruction.
Temporal constructs aside, the monumental task of bringing former rebel states back into the Union as functioning entities, whose constitutions and citizens upheld the civil rights of all Americans within their borders, was not a decade-long process but one which encompassed the years from 1860 through the 1960s.
Much attention has been given to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now winding down as April has passed, the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox reverently marked by historians and the public. But Americans are now entering the first year of a far more important series of 150th commemorations, those encompassing the Reconstruction years that followed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Reconstruction…the term either rings familiarly or not, or with some vague recollection of Carpetbaggers and Scalawags culled from the recesses of memory of a long-forgotten high-school history class. Often misunderstood when it is recognized at all, Reconstruction was a significant and tumultuous time in which the very fabric of the nation was not only resewn, but repatterned, recut, and stitched anew. Presidential and Congressional powers were tested, stretched, and pushed to the limits; individual and collective rights were being defined and redefined; the social world had been torn asunder, challenging the way race and gender were considered; industrialization rapidly stratified society; and the fate of nearly four million lives was caught in the crossfire.
The collective American conclusion that the Civil War ended in April 1865 is mistaken. Reconstruction was filled with as many skirmishes and full-fledged battles as during official hostilities; sometimes fought with weapons, sometimes with words. But the battle of ideals never enjoyed a cease-fire, nor did either side accept surrender. Reconstruction was a different kind of war, but an extension of the same ferocious ideologies that sent millions of men to arms.
The bloody battles of Gettysburg and Antietam certainly capture the imagination, and there is no denying the formidable achievements obtained during the war itself. It is a forgone conclusion that the Union prevailing militarily over the Confederacy changed the lives of millions, but the years following the war, and the momentous events that transpired (the good and the bad) during Reconstruction are worthy of the same attention. Numerous scholars have researched and published fantastic work on the Reconstruction era; it is high time the general public took more notice.
Join me as I commemorate the sesquicentennial years of Reconstruction. It is my intent to illuminate the Reconstruction era for a new generation of Americans, a generation for whom time has graciously provided historical perspective. I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who have worked tirelessly to inform and enlighten us on the topic: Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, Douglas Egerton, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Bruce Levine, Nina Silber, Bruce Baker, David Brion Davis, Edward Blum, Paul Harvey, and the many other fine historians who bring the story of Reconstruction to the forefront of scholarly discourse.
“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.” ― Marcel Duchamp
Elizabeth R. Varon’s 2008 book, Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, explores the non-partisan use of the term “disunion,” and delves into the layered meanings of the word in the political and social landscape of antebellum America. She argues that use of the term “disunion” was a significant cause of tensions that led to the Civil War. A chronologically organized work, Varon mines a multitude of primary sources to “…reframe the issue of Civil War causality.”1 Moreover, Varon’s work seeks to answer why “…Americans [could] not debate the fate of slavery without also conjuring up the notion of disunion?”2 More than a theoretical debate on the power of language or of its various inflectional interpretations, Varon’s argument centers on the pervasive fear held by antebellum Americans that the Union was potentially “contingent—and even fatally flawed.”3 Used as a rhetorical catch-phrase in the North and the South, Varon encapsulates “disunion” into five categorical “registers:” prophecy, threat, accusation, process, and program. Her delineated categorical approach helps to organize what is a plethora of material on the subject.
Varon clearly states that “disunion” is not interchangeable with “secession,” that as secession was a clear political and legal process, disunion was a “sublimely adaptable concept and thus could be put to a stunning range of uses.”4 As an answer to the challenge of fellow historian Edward Ayers to revisit the causes of sectionalism, Varon’s attempt is a successful one, not only for her approach to her subject matter, but also for the sheer professionalism of her scholarship.
Varon follows an accepted course of scholarship in her attention to the large issues that are fundamentally cited as catalysts of sectionalism: the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionist movements, and political partisanship, among others. She definitively argues that it was slavery that made the war an inevitable event, but that specter of disunion, “suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed…bred disillusionment with part politics; mistrust of compromise; and…the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all.”5
Forcefully argued and well-supported, Varon cogently weaves an intricate narrative that is an important contribution to existing pre-Civil War scholarship. She successfully illustrates how the use of disunion as a rhetorical device contributed to intense sectionalism, and stands as a trail-blazer for other scholars as they continue to ask new questions of existing sources of antebellum America. An example of Varon’s willingness to tread new ground is her disagreement with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and his analysis of the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Varon states clearly that Holzer missed the “striking departure [of] Lincoln’s June speech…from the Lecompton congressional debates of 1857-58.” By asking readers to re-analyze old material, Varon is keeping the scholarship of the Civil War moving forward.
Civil War scholarship is a challenging historical genre in that the existing framework of the political conditions that existed prior to 1860, to many scholars, is not only the focal point of causation, but also the only legitimate answer to causation. Varon boldly attacks the preexisting scholarly consensus by presenting the argument that an ephemeral concept (language) could be as divisive as an Act of Congress. Yet her work is not blind to the integrated aspect of political action and rhetorical process, as her argument illustrates.
Varon weaves numerous social and cultural gems into her male dominated, politically focused argument, providing readers additional layers of historical analysis. With nuance, she points out other conventions of language (i.e. “morbid,” and “sickly,”) to show how Victorian gender roles used language as a “weapon.” This is significant to her overall argument as the “distinct meaning in Victorian discourse” had deeper implications than our twenty-first century perception of the words alone would imply.
I find it intriguing that Varon ended her discussion in 1859, with John Brown. Brown is a powerful representation of the verbosity with which the antebellum era is rife; his violent response to slavery shows the power of language to provoke, and he is widely thought of as the cause, the match to the torch of secession. Varon’s analysis of language in pre-Civil War America to engender sectionalism shows a masterful understanding of both the intricacies of human discourse, and the repercussions of it.