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A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective by Erika Pani

Teaching the Civil War takes juggling some very broad, diverse, complex processes in the histories of slavery and freedom, of nationalism, citizenship and state building, of Indian Nations and the West, of modern warfare, of economic transformation of the economy, and of the ways in which people thought about life, death, gender, family, and personal responsibility. Adding a transnational dimension to all of this–exploring how the war reverberated outside the country and how it was affected by what went on beyond U.S. borders–seems daunting, overwhelming and perhaps not worth the bang one gets for the buck. I would nonetheless like to suggest in this post that there is much to be gained from looking at–and teaching–the Civil War from a transnational perspective. Shifting scales and angles allows students to see the war in a different light, to gauge its significance beyond U.S. history, and to rethink the nation and its narratives.

As the articles in the JCWE’s December 2017 issue show, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed profound transformations of North America. The articles describe different historical processes–peaceful and violent, protracted and ephemeral–that fractured and reconfigured the continent’s geography, refashioned its national communities, and expanded the meaning of freedom and community. Attentiveness to these broader processes and shared experiences, molded by connections and influences, marked by coincidences and contrasts, can serve as a remedy to parochialism and exceptionalism. At the very least, they remind students that nations rarely operate in a vacuum, and that what we sometimes imagine are monolithic actors–“Mexico,” the “United States”–need to be unpacked.

My article, “Law, Allegiance and Sovereignty in Civil War Mexico, 1857-1867,” focuses on how foreign invasion overlapped with domestic discord and reshuffled Mexicans’ sense of allegiance and their visions of law and politics. European military intervention in Mexico, as a response to the Juárez government’s defaulting on its foreign debt, is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the weight of transnational dynamics during the Civil War era, but they also profoundly affected the bilateral relationship between the two North American republics. Washington and Richmond both faced momentous challenges on the international arena. The Confederate government exerted itself to obtain diplomatic recognition; the Union resolutely sought to avoid this. The French intervention in Mexico added a new wrinkle to an already complex situation. Despite the Lincoln administration’s sympathy for the beleaguered republic to the south, and the Monroe Doctrine having been expressly designed to prevent something like Napoleon III’s “Mexican Adventure,” Washington’s foreign policy would remain firmly committed to preventing British and French recognition of the Confederate States of America, and avoiding alienating the French. Until the end of the war, New World republican solidarity would be limited to rhetorical saber-rattling in newspapers, meetings, and congressional debate, ably promoted by Matías Romero, the Mexican Republic’s young envoy to Washington.[1]

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

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas? by Michael E. Woods

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas? by Michael E. Woods

Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, Thirty-Fifth Congress (1859). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stephen A. Douglas’s return to the Senate in early 1859 should have been triumphant. He had just been re-elected after a tough campaign against Abraham Lincoln, and he was already anticipating a presidential bid in 1860. But after a meandering journey from Chicago through Memphis, New Orleans, Havana, New York, and Philadelphia, Douglas arrived in Washington to find himself besieged by fellow Democrats. George W. Jones of Iowa nursed an old feud over railroads. Indiana Senator Graham Fitch quarreled with Douglas over comments which Fitch willfully construed as insulting to his son. More seriously, President James Buchanan and southern Democrats had contrived to expel Douglas from his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Territories.

If that wasn’t enough, rumor had it that there was a plot to kill him.

According to an indignant article in Harper’s Weekly, the scheme went like this: Louisiana Democrat John Slidell, a veteran duelist and expert marksman, would provoke Douglas on and off the Senate floor until the Little Giant lost his temper, retaliated, and gave Slidell the pretext to challenge him. Then the Louisianan, “to whom duels are matters of course,” would dispatch his inexperienced opponent. This theory rested on several assumptions: Slidell was “doubtless” a crack shot; Douglas was “not likely” to have equal skill; there was a “suspicion” that Slidell was maneuvering Douglas into a duel. But the author closed with pious outrage: “if any noisy ranter can deprive the country of the services of such a man as Senator Douglas, by provoking him into an encounter in which he can gain nothing and may lose his life, this is not a civilized country.”[1]Denouncing duels as barbaric relics of a bloody past, the author cast Douglas as a potential victim of the Slave Power.

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

Recent PhD Kathryn Falvo Talks with Richards Center about Her Dissertation and Future Research

Recent PhD Kathryn Falvo Talks with Richards Center about Her Dissertation and Future Research

Dr. Kathryn Falvo

Kathryn Rose Falvo, who joined Penn State’s department of History and the Richards Center as a graduate student in 2011, recently defended her dissertation. She will receive her PhD officially at the university’s commencement ceremonies in May. Richards Center managing director Matt Isham (’10) recently spoke with Falvo about her dissertation and future research plans.

MI: Your dissertation examined an interesting and somewhat understudied topic in nineteenth century US history. Could you please give us an overview of your project?

KF: My dissertation examined vegetarianism in the United States from 1817 to 1860. Far from a fringe movement, this original crusade against meat eating in America engaged a wide range of reformers, including abolitionists, medical practitioners, temperance advocates, evangelists, and women’s rights activists. These adherents saw controlling the American diet as a solution to the most pressing concerns of nineteenth century society. Calling vegetarianism “ultra temperance,” they understood diet as the best way to define, clarify, and control the human body. Through their work, they altered how Americans perceived the body and its relationship to political life. Ultimately, I argue that their dietary prescriptions spoke to a fear of the fluent nature of the American political body in Jacksonian America. As women’s rights advocates and abolitionists sought to expand the definition of the rights-bearing human, these vegetarian reformers sought to limit it.

MI: I like the way you describe vegetarian reformers' dietary prescriptions as an expression of "fear of the fluent nature of the American political body in Jacksonian America." Does this mean that racial and gender politics influenced reformers’ vision of proper dietary practice?

KF: Absolutely, yes. A lot of their works spoke to dietary practices in other countries and pointed to a desire to form an "American" system of eating that was superior to other countries’ eating habits. Other nations, vegetarian or not, were called barbaric. So "flesh-eating" "Tartars" were called barbarians, and vegetarian "Hindoos" were also barbarians. It was a matter of articulating whiteness through diet. This is important historiographically, because other historians of vegetarianism have pointed to the ties between the movement and anti-slavery. Those ties certainly existed – Theodore Weld, the Grimke Sisters, and William Lloyd Garrison were all ardent vegetarians. But these ties do not mean that the movement was not racist. So part of what my work does is try to explain how the ideology could be racist, while simultaneously appealing to people who were working for race reform. I do this by talking about body politics in early America. Vegetarian reformers were thus the first reformers to inculcate Americans with the idea that “we are what we eat,” a logic that, while it certainly has its flaws, remains deeply compelling.

MI: What do you hope readers will take away from your dissertation and the eventual book that will come out of this research?

KF: When I began looking at vegetarianism in the nineteenth century, I expected to find a group of people I was familiar with – people like modern vegetarians, people who used food to challenge social norms, who sought morality in eating, and who had a radical vision for society. This assumption reflects how I falsely assumed modern vegetarians are homogeneous. I certainly expected to find a sympathy for animals, which I thought was at the root of most modern vegetarian practice. But what I found was the opposite – 19th century vegetarians thought so poorly of the animal body that they wanted to draw humans in opposition to it, to reject the animal body in order to define what it meant to be a person in America. I think the difference is critical, and certainly worth exploring!

I was also shocked at the fact that I found people who used food and eating practices to propagate racism, to enforce hierarchy, and to deny the reality of people’s lives. The story that I wanted to tell, then, was about how food politics can be used both for progressive and reactionary aims, and often simultaneously. So what I want people to take away from my work, if nothing else, is that food is a tool that can be used both to challenge and support power structures. Often, it can do both at the same time. This is something we need to be aware of as we approach food reform in the modern movement.

MI: Can you tell us what drew you to such an interesting topic?

KF: My research interests come out of a deep personal commitment to both animal rights and food politics. I am an avid reader of Peter Singer, who teaches that the boundary we draw between humans and animals is arbitrary and unsustainable. In my research I found a group of people who were dedicated to defining and enforcing that arbitrary boundary. That made me wonder how food and medicine have interacted, throughout American history, to normalize hierarchy between humans and animals. And I felt it was important to trace out what the consequences of that hierarchy might mean for human relationships.

MI: Having completed your dissertation on the nineteenth century vegetarian movement, what is your next research project?

KF: One potential project I am considering looks at the role of women in food industrialization processes of the late nineteenth century. Most historians of this era see the “industrialization” of food in the late nineteenth century as a process dominated by men. In my research, I have found significant evidence that women viewed “scientific cookery” as a woman’s domain, dictated by the ideals of progressivism. In my next project, I will trace women’s complicity in (indeed initiation of) the industrialization and mass marketing of food. Most food activists in the modern movement consider this to be an inherently “bad” thing, a move away from nature and towards environmental destruction. I am interested in the reasons why, at the turn of the century, many American women saw it as their ticket to social salvation. I use the word "salvation" here to reflect the religious beliefs prominent among progressive-era women. Following in the tradition of earlier dietary reformers, they were swayed by the belief that if Americans could just eat properly, they could be rescued – not just from ill health, but from individual and social immorality. Women saw it as their responsibility (much like it was their responsibility to morally educate their families) to provide proper diet.

MI: That sounds like a very fruitful topic, following this dissertation. Thank you for talking with me today, Dr. Falvo, and congratulations on completing the PhD!

KF: Thanks for reaching out! I absolutely loved writing the dissertation. I think, it seems, I'm a food historian through and through.

Kathryn Falvo tweets about food politics from the nineteenth century to the present at @krosefalvo.

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War by Niels Eichhorn

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War by Niels Eichhorn

Painting by Fritz Müller of the Bremen, reproduced in Johannes Lachs, Schiffe aus Bremen: Bilder und Modelle im Focke-Museum (Bremen, Germany: Hauschild Temmen, 1994). Courtesy of

Today, a simple click and mere seconds separate the writer and reader of a message; they communicate instantaneously with one another across vast distances. In the middle of the nineteenth century, weeks could pass before a letter reached its recipient on the other side of the ocean. Civil War armies benefited from the use of telegraphs, which were still slow by modern standards, but oceans presented significant barriers.[1] By the time of the Civil War, steam power had conquered time and space on iron rails and made an impact on the high seas. Boosters and merchants in port cities along the eastern seaboard increasingly desired to enhance trade and communication by attracting regular, direct trade lines. Some Civil War era officials foresaw the potential of steamships as agents of empire. Direct communications with other countries in the Americas could offer an opportunity to outmaneuver European rivals and establish an informal U.S. empire. The Civil War witnessed a continuation of the promotion of trade links and foreshadowed the imperial connections of the decades following the war.

In 1860, cargo and people still travelled on slow sailing vessels, but the role of steamships was growing in importance. For example, in 1860, merchants and ship owners in the British Empire operated 2,337 steamships; in addition, there were 36,164 sailing vessels.[2] Lucrative mail routes and mail packet routes attracted steamers. Representatives negotiated postal agreements that not only included low postage rates but also stipulated transportation on board steamships, usually in direct communications between New York and the signatory country. For example, when the Hanseatic City of Bremen dispatched Rudolph M. Schleiden to the United States in 1853, his first task was to negotiate a postal agreement, setting postage rates at a lower price and thus hopefully drawing all German post through Bremen. The eventual result was in 1860 the emergence of Bremen’s Norddeutscher Lloyd (Lloyd), following in the footsteps of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG). Both used steamers for the transportation of mail and passengers between the North German port cities and New York.[3] Just like on other transatlantic routes, U.S.-owned business were not competitive.[4]

However, without reliable and safe service, customers might not patronize these new steamlines. Schleiden emphasized that the German steamship companies needed to provide reliable service and rent replacement ships if their own vessels suffered engine trouble, or worse.[5] During the Congressional debates surrounding passage of these agreements, Southern representatives voiced their desire for Southern states to also receive direct service to Europe.[6] Their requests assumed new urgency with secession.

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

Christopher Hayashida-Knight Considers How the Abolition Movement Can Inform Contemporary Political Conflicts

Christopher Hayashida-Knight Considers How the Abolition Movement Can Inform Contemporary Political Conflicts

Dr. Christopher Hayashida-Knight

In a blog post for Muster on the Journal of the Civil War Era's website, Dr. Christopher Hayashida-Knight considers how antebellum abolitionists' practice of "radical empathy" might be applied to today's divisive political conflicts. Hayashida-Knight received his PhD in December, under the direction of Center Director William Blair. His dissertation examined the abolition and post-Civil War civil rights activities of black women activists in Philadelphia. In his blog post, Hayashida-Knight notes that abolitionist women urged their audiences to practice "radical empathy" in order to bridge the racial divide and to urge the immediate abolition of slavery in the Civil War era. Follow this link to the Muster site to read entire post.

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial by Nick Sacco

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial by Nick Sacco

Cover of the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Summary Report.

In early 2017, the National Park Service released an official report on its efforts to educate visitors about the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial anniversary (2011-2015). Plans to organize educational programming for the sesquicentennial started as early as 1998, when a group of Superintendents at NPS Civil War sites met to discuss ways to incorporate discussions about Civil War causation into their site interpretations. Seeking to “define a vision statement for the commemoration,” NPS leadership in 2009 explicitly called upon these sites to study and interpret the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. The agency’s theme for the initiative, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” embodied an expansive message that made a direct connection between the experiences of the country’s four million enslaved people during the war and the gains made during the Civil Rights movement 100 years later.[1]

“Civil War to Civil Rights” had its critics, particularly among some Civil War military enthusiasts who decried the entrance of “political” topics into interpretive programs at historical battlefield sites. The shift in focus towards discussions of slavery and emancipation during the Civil War era was certainly a marked change from the dominant narrative of the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), where the shared valor of white Union and Confederate soldiers and their causes were placed on center stage.[2] Nevertheless, many academic historians, NPS interpretive staff, and site visitors welcomed the opportunity to contemplate a more holistic understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, the urgency of incorporating a distinctly “political” interpretation of the Civil War era was demonstrated when perhaps the most consequential event of the entire sesquicentennial occurred not at an official public history site, but at the Charleston AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof—himself a visitor to Civil War public history sites during the sesquicentennial—horrifically massacred nine African American parishioners in June 2015. Since that tragic event, discussions about the American Civil War—not just its history but also how that history is represented in flags, monuments, and at public history sites—have only expanded and intensified.

The Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report outlines a wide range of initiatives the NPS undertook at more than sixty units that interpreted the Civil War in some fashion. Many sites upgraded their museum exhibits, orientation films, and visitor centers. Some held commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died in the war, hosted battle reenactments, and featured speakers who discussed all facets of the war—military, political, religious, economic, cultural, and social—to interested audiences.[3]


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