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New Field Correspondent at Muster by Kristen Epps

The Journal of the Civil War Era editorial staff and board are excited to announce a new field correspondent at Muster–please join us in welcoming Angela Esco Elder to the team! Dr. Elder will be writing dispatches on gender and women’s history topics.

Christopher Hayashida-Knight, our previous correspondent who focused on such issues, has had to leave our team due to other commitments. We wish him well, and please feel free to drop him an email or comment on one of his posts to say thanks.

Dr. Elder is an Assistant Professor of History at Converse College. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a PhD in History, she became the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her dissertation, which explored the experience of Confederate widowhood, won the Southern Historical Association’s C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize and St. George Tucker Society’s Melvin E. Bradford Dissertation Prize in 2017. She is currently revising it for publication.

In addition to book chapters, encyclopedia articles, and book reviews, Dr. Elder has published a co-edited collection, Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. She has previously written for Muster, authoring a post in December 2016 on how Confederate widows coped during the holiday season. She has also presented her research at numerous conferences, including the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Society of Civil War Historians, and Southern Association for Women Historians. Dr. Elder can be contacted at angela.elder@converse.edu.

Welcome, Angela!

The Life He Should Have Thrown Away: Ambrose Bierce and Soldiers’ Complicity by James Marten

The Life He Should Have Thrown Away: Ambrose Bierce and Soldiers’ Complicity by James Marten

Ambrose Bierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In “Still Life: From the Notebooks of Ambrose Bierce, 1862,” twentieth-century poet R. T. Smith presents a sketch artist who, despite being surrounded by the sights and smells and sounds of the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, chooses to draw a still life of a peach. An “Illinois corporal” peering over his shoulder can’t believe it: “Fellow, can you see all them soldiers blown apart or in pain right here? . . . Peaches, what the hell.” The artist replies, “peaches, maybe are what I need to see, what my weary heart yearns to remember . . . . I know the bloodbath we inhabit, sir against which I can offer only a fragile moment as counterpoint.” He goes on to theorize about art and death. Bierce, the mostly silent observer in the poem, thinks, “Just a witness, I held my tongue but had no more appetite for the taste of his beautifully rendered fruit.” But the corporal puts it more bluntly: “Mister, get yourself a rifle, see if you can still puke out them jackass lies.”

Although written more than a century after Bierce died, “Still Life” offers the kind of hard-edged but slightly off-kilter vignette the legendary veteran, journalist, and cynic would have enjoyed. Bierce’s fiction typically undermines the “drums and bugles” narratives of battles that had dominated war literature during the last third of the nineteenth century. Almost all of his stories show men doing their duty against their better judgment, being manipulated by cowardly or glory seeking officers, or experiencing deep ambivalence about the war in which they found themselves. But a deeper reading of some of Bierce’s works betray a more nuanced attitude toward the men who fought the war.

In one of Bierce’s most famous stories, “The Coup de Grâce,” a young officer puts his horribly wounded friend out of his misery by plunging a sword through his breast. In the story, this act of harsh kindness propels a plot line revolving around misplaced compassion, duty, human cruelty, and hatred. But it echoed a scene he had witnessed at the actual Battle of Shiloh, when his unit was working their way through a ravaged portion of the battlefield. They came across a man, still alive, but with the top of his head sliced open by a bullet. As his brain spilled onto the ground, he “lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts.” One of Bierce’s men asked if he should end his struggles with a bayonet. “I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

CLAW 2018 Conference: A Preview of “Freedoms Gained and Lost” by Hilary N. Green

Reconstruction Era scholars are about to converge on Charleston, South Carolina.
CLAW 2018 Conference: A Preview of “Freedoms Gained and Lost” by Hilary N. Green

Adam Domby

In honor of the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention, scholars, public history practitioners, civic leaders, cultural heritage organizations, and other interested individuals will convene at the College of Charleston for the 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Conference (CLAW).

The three-day event from March 16-18 will include plenaries, panel presentations, and cultural tours of area heritage sites centered on the theme – “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World.” The timing of the conference theme is quite fitting. Recent discussions over the public and scholarly meanings of Reconstruction and the future of Reconstruction Studies has been at the fore of the sesquicentennial celebrations. Lively discussions are expected.[1]

Today, I share an interview with one of the conference organizers. Adam Domby is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston. As a Civil War, Reconstruction, and American South scholar, his research focuses on how southerners fought their neighbors during the American Civil War and examines the legacy of those local fights that civil wars inevitably create. His current book manuscript project centers on the role these conflicts played in three divided southern communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also currently has a book manuscript under review, tentatively titled The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Dr. Domby's interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Muster blog.

Congratulations to Amy Greenberg!

Congratulations to Dr. Amy Greenberg, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Women's Studies! The History Channel is devoting their Wednesday, 9 PM time slot, during the month of March, to a four-part docudrama, "The Men Who Built America: The Frontiersmen" produced by Leonardo DeCaprio and featuring Amy talking about said frontiersmen.

Personal Connections with the Civil War West by Maria Angela Diaz

Last year I attended the Western Historical Association meeting for the first time. While listening to the papers of my own panel, walking around the book exhibit, and attending several of the other panels, it got me thinking about being a Mexican-American woman, a historian of the Civil War era, and how I’ve related to, or at times not been able to relate to, the field that I’ve chosen to study. We as historians don’t necessarily need to feel personal connections to our research, but my struggle with that connection speaks to more than personal feeling and echoes the ways that the nation chooses to include or exclude Latinos/as voices in American history. In this post I want to talk more about one of the major benefits of widening the story of the Civil War to more fully include the West and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands: that is, by including more diverse historical voices we welcome more diverse students and scholars into the discussion of the meaning of the War and the mid-nineteenth century.

I doubt it will come as a surprise to readers when I say we are in a period of intense national debate over race, the place of immigrants in American society, and the commemoration of historical events such as the Civil War. Perhaps in response to our current political climate, many historians of the Civil War in the West and those working on transnational aspects of the war’s history call for a broadening of the field and a rethinking of the larger narratives of the nineteenth century. Recently, Erika Pani wrote an excellent blog post on Muster, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective,” in which she encouraged us as teachers to utilize a broader view of the Civil War’s fundamental questions. Pani observes (quite correctly) that while the prospect of having to incorporate multiple conflicts into the study of an already unwieldy subject—the American Civil War—can seem overwhelming, events and locations such as the West and the violent Civil War in Mexico allows Civil War educators to further complicate the central themes present in our courses.[1]In their edited volume, Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill also call on historians to consider including the experiences of those living west of the Mississippi River more fully into the field of Civil War study. The issues at stake in the war such as the end of slavery, the power of the state, ideas about race and gender, and the future of the nation are issues that bridged both sides of the United States as it broke apart in 1861, and they still connect our present with their past. As I often remind my own students, the Civil War ultimately poses more questions than it answers, and Americans continue to struggle with many of these questions.[2]

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

JCWE Editor’s Note: March 2018 Issue by Judy Giesberg

As we do with each issue, below you will find the editor’s note for our forthcoming March 2018 issue. You can access these articles by subscribing to the journal, or through a Project Muse subscription.


The essays in this volume testify to the vibrancy and vitality of social history. To put it another way, social historians haven’t “lost” the Civil War, as Maris Vinovskis suggested thirty years ago; they may just be getting started. So, too, are those interested in culture. In the pages of this issue, readers will find a reassessment of the class explanation for Confederate substitution and will listen in as St. Louis washerwomen and seamstresses police wartime loyalty in their neighborhoods. Some may be surprised to see how soon after the Civil War British scholars began to rewrite the history of Anglo-American relations during the period. Others will never look at a watermelon the same way again.

Patrick Doyle extracts Confederate substitution policy from scholarship on loyalty and situates it in an evolving wartime debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—or, perhaps more accurately, the rights versus the responsibilities. Doyle uncovers persistent defenders of substitution within the Confederacy, even after Jefferson Davis’s endorsement of its repeal, who defended substitution as a contract and hence a right of citizenship. Focusing on arguments for and against substitution, Doyle’s essay traces the entrenchment of martial manhood that by war’s end covered over this debate which had once stood at the heart of Confederate nationhood.

Questions of loyalty lie at the heart of Elizabeth Belanger’s innovative essay proposing a new way of exploring the Civil War’s home fronts. Situated in St. Louis, Belanger’s work examines how, in filing complaints against their neighbors, working-class women sought to “assert political identities, to advance personal agendas, and to create ethnic boundaries.” Using geographic imaging systems, or GIS, and complaints filed with the provost marshal against disloyal neighbors, Belanger reveals how women staked out the boundaries of neighborhoods that, more than the official city wards, reflected the lived realities of their lives. Here, women came in contact and conflict with neighbors over what they said about the war, the flags they flew outside their homes, and other such evidence of loyalty and respectability—or a lack thereof.

William R. Black’s, essay, “How Watermelons Became Black,” reveals that, beyond “the court, the ballot, and the noose,” cultural tropes became powerful tools to counteract black citizenship. This essay represents cultural history at its best; in it, Black uncovers the roots of the racist watermelon trope in the immediate postwar South, as whites sought to limit the freedom of, and deny political power to, former slaves. Once shared among antebellum blacks and whites, watermelon became associated with the perceived childishness, laziness, and dependence of the free blacks who grew and sold them and deigned to enjoy them in their leisure. Once established, this powerful racist myth was hungrily consumed by northern whites—and it still persists today.

For years after the end of the Civil War, those who fought on either side of the conflict agreed on one thing—Great Britain had deceived them. This bitter memory became an obstacle in 1914, when Britain sought American support in World War I. In his essay, Nimrod Tal uncovers the British effort to revise history in order to smooth over these tense relations. From 1914 onward, a number of British authors offered explanations for elite Britons’ flirtation with the Confederacy, lukewarm reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, and rough treatment of Lincoln. The “embers of resentment” stubbornly burned on, though, and in the process of trying to explain them away, early twentieth century writers laid the foundation for modern historiography on the topic.

We wrap up this issue with Kate Jones’s survey of the rich literature on gender and Reconstruction. Since the 1990s, scholars of this period have sought to understand how—or perhaps, whether—the end of slavery shifted the gendered balance of power. Whereas one thread of scholarship has concluded that continuity, more than change, characterized the period, Jones reminds readers of the importance of keeping in mind how “women cultivated the era’s democratic potential and its exclusions.” Keeping this as the focus of scholarship means that gender scholars are not yet done with “agency” and that we are likely not headed to a new synthesis—and this seems fine to Jones.