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Civil War History: Archive

March 2015, Volume 61, No. 1

Dec 12th, 2014

CWH 61.1 Hopefully this one works


The Meaning of a Union Soldier’s Racial Joke
By Michael D. Pierson

The essay explores the broad context of a joke made by a Vermont soldier serving in Louisiana in 1862. The joke opens a long, comic letter written by Lt. Stephen Spalding (UVM, class of 1860) to James Peck, who had been his college roommate. Using Spalding’s comic anecdote as a jumping off point, the essay analyzes the racial attitudes and interactions of a largely Democratic regiment as it plunged into the half-black, half-white world of war-time Louisiana. As witnesses and creators of social changes that blended threads of self-emancipation and government sponsored freedom, Spalding and his conservative comrades reacted in many ways to what they saw around them. Ultimately an exploration of the racial conservatives at war with change, the essay seeks to understand the roots of racial joking and how humor served to mask frustrations with their loss of power in formal politics.


The Slaves’ Election: Frémont, Freedom, and the Slave Conspiracies of 1856
By Douglas R. Egerton

During the fall 1856 presidential campaign season, slave conspiracies, or white paranoia, or both, shook the southern states. From east Texas and Arkansas in the West to Charles County, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, in the East, vigilantes arrested, beat, and sometimes executed bondmen for allegedly believing “that Col. Fremont was at the head of a large army, and was only waiting for them” to rise in rebellion.” Terrified whites called out patrols and arrested slaves in Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Although precise numbers are hard to verify given the prevalence of vigilante violence and the frequent absence of extant county court records, Arkansas mobs hanged two slaves, shot one white man, and lynched another. Texans executed or whipped to death five more, and along the Tennessee and Kentucky border the death toll was higher still. Masters in Perry, Tennessee, may have murdered as many as fifteen of their own slaves, while authorities in Dover, Tennessee, hanged somewhere between three and nineteen slaves and whipped a white man to death. If the newspaper estimates were correct, as many as thirty-three bondmen swung from gallows and tree branches, a greater number than those who died in Virginia in 1800 for conspiring with Gabriel or even those who were executed in 1831 for their complicity with Nat Turner.
     Despite this, the hangings of 1856 have attracted very little attention from modern scholars. No modern biographer of any of the three candidates in 1856 even mentions the unrest in passing. Although the scant evidence will probably never resolve this question with certainty—and what little documentation does exist, apart from William Webb’s postwar memoir, all but silences black voices—skilled bondmen in several adjacent Tennessee and Kentucky counties quite possibly did conspire along the lines later remembered by Webb. Few of these politically-aware slaves, surely, actually believed that Frémont intended to lead them into freedom, but most knew of the election and correctly believed that the republic was on the verge of splitting asunder. Ironically, in the vast majority of cases where servile conspiracies were thought to exist, the counties were home to Democratic majorities. Although the unrest and white fears of rebellion did not change many votes or cost the new Republican Party support in formerly Whig strongholds, black discontent was far more acute in pro-Buchanan and pro-slavery counties. There, Democratic orators were the most inclined to denounce their northern free soil opponents as militant abolitionists determined to liberate southern slaves. As a good number of contemporaneous voices observed, if Webb was telling the truth and black conspiracies did exist in 1856, Democratic editors and speakers had only themselves to blame.


Douglas R. Egerton is professor of history at Le Moyne College and Merrill Visiting Professor at Cornell University. His books include Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, and The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era.

Michael D. Pierson is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His previous works include Free Hearts and Free Homes: Gender and American Antislavery Politics and Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans. He is currently working on a biography of Stephen Spalding.

Emory M. Thomas is Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. His most recent book is The Dogs of War: 1861.


Blair, William A. With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Reviewed by Lorien Foote.

Varon, Elizabeth R. Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. Reviewed by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz.

Ural, Susannah J. Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It. Reviewed by Giselle Roberts.

Meier, Kathryn Shively. Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in the 1862 Virginia. Reviewed by Leah Richier.

Emberton, Carole. Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War; Stephen V. Ash. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War. Reviewed by Paul E. Teed.

Venet, Wendy Hamand. A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta. Reviewed by Elizabeth R. Varon.

Quist, John W. and Michael J. Birkner, eds. James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War; Harold Holzer and Sarah Vaugh Gabbard, eds. Lincoln’s Pivotal Year. Reviewed by Daniel Elkin.

Guterl, Matthew Pratt. American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation. Reviewed by J. Brent Morris.

Wesley, Timothy L. The Politics of Faith during the Civil War. Reviewed by Daniel K. Thomson.

Conroy, James B. Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865. Reviewed by Kristopher Allen.

Gleeson, David T. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. Reviewed by Brian K. Fennessy.

Aley, Ginette and J. L. Anderson, eds. Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War. Reviewed by Michael Burns.

Ramold, Steven J. Across the Divide: Union Soldiers View the Northern Home Front. Reviewed by Krista Kinslow.

Barnickel, Linda. Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory. Reviewed by Ed Bradley.

Keehn, David C. Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War. Reviewed by Adam Koeth.

Serrano, Richard A. Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War. G. David Schieffler.