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Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History by Nick Sacco

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History by Nick Sacco

The 1950 historical marker to the Colfax Massacre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Today, correspondent Nick Sacco shares his first Field Dispatch. Nick is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay and future essays are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

In a recent essay about public monuments, statues, and other iconography dedicated to the American Civil War, historian Sarah Handley-Cousins argues that such icons generally sanitize the war’s causes, context, and consequences with a large dose of artistic romanticism. For many Americans, “we love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the [humanity] of Black Americans was at the center.”[1] Rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the conflict, many monuments dedicated to people and events on both sides instead portray a war shorn of meaning beyond honoring military service in a time of war. Meanwhile questions over slavery, citizenship, westward expansion, and the very meaning of the concept of “Union” often go unasked within such spaces.

I find myself in strong agreement with such sentiments, which is why I am skeptical of calls to erect more public monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction era as a way of improving popular understandings of a greatly misunderstood period in American history. For example, political scientist Richard Valelly argues that creating monuments to “the heroes of Reconstruction” can possibly establish a “new politics of historical memory” within America’s commemorative landscape.[2] Valelly’s assertion, however, ignores numerous public memorials to Reconstruction that already exist and have failed to accomplish this goal. Additionally, his thesis hinges on the definition of who constitutes a “hero” of Reconstruction. The existing public memorials throughout the U.S. often celebrate “heroes,” but they celebrate the ones who actively worked to end Reconstruction through deadly, racialized mass violence against Black Americans.

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

New Editor Joins the Journal of the Civil War Era Team

 New Editor Joins the Journal of the Civil War Era Team

photo by Wendy Madar

The Journal of the Civil War Era is delighted to announce the appointment of Stacey Smith as Associate Editor. Dr. Smith is Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University and author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), which won the David Montgomery Prize for the best book in Labor and Working-Class History, awarded by the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA). Stacey is working with Associate Editor, Gregory Downs, to recruit in-depth historiographic review essays.

Stacey is assuming Kate Masur’s position. Dr. Masur was recruited as an Associate Editor, joining Anthony Kaye, when the journal was just getting off the ground. Kate worked alongside Greg to recruit many superb review essays for the journal. Our review essays are critically important, as they bring scholars in disparate fields in conversation with one another and point readers to new directions in the field. Review essays remain one of the most popular features of the journal, are regularly assigned in classes, and enjoy a long shelf life. The success of this feature is a testament to the great work that Kate did for the journal, for which we are deeply grateful.

Please help us welcome Stacey to our JCWE team.

Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution by Niels Eichhorn

Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution by Niels Eichhorn

John C. McRae, “Pulling Down the Statue of George III,” 1859, American Antiquarian Society. Courtesy of

Today we share the first of our new Field Dispatches, an examination of Civil War memory by Niels Eichhorn, an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. Dr. Eichhorn specializes in the history of U.S. foreign relations in the nineteenth century, and his work has appeared in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

On June 17, 2015, when white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and massacred nine parishioners, he set in motion a renewed debate about the nature of monuments honoring the Confederate States of America. Opinions have ranged widely on the subject. While some unreconstructed Southerners continue to insist that these monuments are about heritage, historians have disagreed about the advisability of their removal. A recent conversation saw James Broomall, Director of the John Tyler Moore Center for Civil War Study in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, suggest that monuments have meaning beyond the Confederate representative at their top, while Megan Kate Nelson offered the dramatic suggestion to take jackhammers to the monuments and leave the rubble as reminders of what once was.[1] In the course of the recent monuments debate in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made an interesting comparison. Half joking he said, “It would be like putting King George where the Washington Memorial is or Robert E. Lee where Lincoln is.”[2] I want to use this comment as a linchpin for two interrelated conversations that so far are absent from the removal debate: 1) the historical precedent of monument removal, and 2) the connections between the memory of the American Revolution and the Civil War.


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


Introducing a New Feature, Field Dispatches! by Kristen Epps

Beginning this month, Muster is launching an exciting new feature called Field Dispatches. We have recruited a team of talented correspondents—each with a different historical focus and perspective—who will write posts that provide fresh insight into the Civil War era. In each dispatch, correspondents will share thoughts on research, teaching, current events, pop culture, and other topics to build on the excellent discussions we already enjoy in The Journal of the Civil War Era and on the blog.

Our correspondents are: Martha S. Jones, James Marten, Maria Angela Diaz, Michael E. Woods, Hilary N. Green, Christopher Hayashida-Knight, Niels Eichhorn, and Nick Sacco. To find out more about each author, please visit our Correspondents page.

Muster will continue to publish our regular content, including author interviews, announcements about new issues, and posts that are submitted to us for consideration. We hope that readers will find in these dispatches new ways to engage in conversation, and more reasons to explore the pages of JCWE!

A federal court has ruled blood cannot determine tribal citizenship. Here’s why that matters.

The struggle over blood and belonging in American Indian communities by Alaina E. Roberts, George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center postdoctoral fellow.

The Washington Post (September 7, 2017)

On Aug. 31, the rights of descendants of African Americans formerly enslaved by Cherokee Indians were vindicated. The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that these descendants have citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation — the right to vote and to access all medical, educational and housing services provided to tribal citizens. Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said the Cherokee Nation will not appeal the decision.

The uninitiated may wonder why this was a necessary legal battle. After all, the United States extended citizenship to the former slaves of their white citizens following emancipation. Why would indigenous nations who owned slaves — and who freed their slaves the year after the Civil War as a result of new treaties with the United States — not do the same?

The answer lies in the tangled definitions of identity and race in Indian country. Disagreement over whether degree of ancestry or strength of community affiliation should determine one’s citizenship has led to years of lawsuits and tribal strife. As American politicians debate who warrants access to the benefits of American citizenship — for instance, will protections for “dreamers,” brought to the United States as children, actually be terminated in six months? — and white supremacists deride people of color as un-American, the Cherokees serve as a cautionary tale that demonstrates the danger of a nation disenfranchising those deemed noncitizens by a sufficient portion of their constituency.

The Cherokees were one of five Southeastern tribes who owned slaves of African descent from the late 18th century to 1866. Before European contact, indigenous peoples throughout North America established involuntary labor and captive-taking practices, but unlike the system of enslavement that would emerge under British settlement, this bondage was neither passed from parent to child nor permanent.

As Euro-Americans became more involved in the African transatlantic slave trade, the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations adopted their heritable, race-based slavery, as well as the racial hierarchy that sustained it. A fraction of tribal citizens possessed large numbers of enslaved people whose agricultural labor made them wealthy. Most other tribal citizens owned a few slaves or none — just as in the neighboring United States.

During the Civil War, these tribes were divided over whether to support the Confederacy or the Union, so members fought on both sides. After the war’s end, the U.S. government leveraged the tribes’ involvement with the Confederacy to force them to sign new treaties — despite the fact that it was the slaveholding minorities within the tribes that were the primary supporters of the Confederacy. The Treaties of 1866 served both as the Five Tribes’ terms of surrender as well as the outline for how their nations would be overhauled postwar.

The treaties’ terms included the cession of land to the United States and mandated emancipation and enfranchisement of the black slaves of each Indian nation. The Chickasaws did not comply in adopting their former slaves as citizens, and the Choctaws only did grudgingly. But in the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations, these black former slaves, or freedpeople, received and exercised the right to vote, and while they faced some prejudice, were largely accepted as tribal members with the rights inherent to this status.

Twenty-two years later, the freedpeople of the Five Tribes also received 40-acre land allotments through the enactment of the Dawes Act. This law was designed to break down the traditional communal land ownership practices of Indian tribes throughout the United States. It divided commonly-held land into allotments assigned to individual, nuclear families and dismembered tribal governments, allowing Native Americans to then be absorbed into the United States as American citizens — a measure many politicians, religious zealots and intellectuals believed would convert indigenous peoples into “docile believers in American progress.”

The Dawes Act also created a problematic definition of identity. The enrollment process that documented the Indian citizens and freedpeople eligible for land parcels involved the creation of two distinct rolls — the Freedmen Roll for former slaves and the “Blood Roll” for Indians.

These two rolls conferred distinctly different rights. Freedpeople were given less land (40 acres compared with 60), and each nation eventually made presence on the Blood Roll necessary for tribal citizenship. Ideas about race determined which roll a person wound up on. Whereas those listed on the Blood Roll could have varying “degrees” of Indian and white ancestry, most people who had black and indigenous ancestry were automatically put onto or transferred to the Freedmen Roll.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee nations extended citizenship to both those on the Freedmen and Blood rolls. But in the late 20th and early 21st century, all four tribes stripped the descendants of freedpeople of the ability to exercise their rights as citizens.

When questioned about these developments, tribal leaders pointed to the fact that these people were listed as Freedmen, not Indians, by blood. But there were several problems with this response. First, it ignored that the Freedmen Rolls, when they were created in the 19th century, relied on the “one-drop rule.” Enshrined in the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the one-drop rule meant that people of mixed-race descent could legally still be considered solely black. This effectively erased the Native ancestry of most people on the Freedmen Roll: even if they and their ancestors had possessed Native ancestry, there was no official record of it.

Second, this response disavowed indigenous peoples’ long histories of basing citizenship on kinship: acting as a community member, facing hardships together and adopting family members informally. Kin-based citizenship has a far longer history than citizenship based on nebulous ideas of “blood quantum,” wherein ancestry is determined by phenotype and ancestral math. (For example, if your father is one-half Cherokee and your mother is not Cherokee, you are one-fourth Cherokee.)

As the descendants of these freedpeople had been citizens, friends and neighbors for decades, the kinship definition surely applied to them. So why the change? As historians Tiya Miles, Barbara Krauthamer and Celia Naylor have persuasively argued, this strategic disenfranchisement was less about ancestry than about veiled prejudice — no citizens of white and Native ancestry were disenfranchised — and the consolidation of recent economic gains from tribal casinos, natural resources and other ventures.

With this recent ruling, Cherokee freedpeople have won a battle waged for some 30 odd years, reclaiming not only the right to access the practical benefits of citizenship in the Cherokee Nation, but also their right to claim ownership of the nation their ancestors’ labor helped to build.

Congratulations to Chris Hayashida-Knight!

Congratulations to Christopher Hayashida-Knight on successfully defending his dissertation, “Sacrifices and Sufferings of True Americans: Black Women’s Nationalism and Activism in Philadelphia, 1863-1901”!