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Maps, Topography, and Teaching Civil War Battles by Niels Eichhorn

How often have we encountered the blank stares of students when talking about a battle during the Civil War, trying to explain why the exhausted troops did not pursue their victory and deliver a finishing blow? I have had many a debate with a student on the subject, with the student embracing a counterfactual argument that if the Confederates had pushed their advantage, they could have caused a serious blow to the enemy. Understanding how a full day of fighting on difficult terrain can bring troops to the level of complete exhaustion is one of the most difficult concepts to communicate in the sterility of a classroom. Few have the ability to take students on a field trip to a battlefield and spend a full day experiencing the topography. We cannot fully replicate the difficulties soldiers would have faced, but there are other ways to illustrate to students the battlefield experience of Civil War era soldiers.

There are many stories of soldiers and entire armies too exhausted after a full day of fighting to continue. After the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate army was unable to pursue the fleeing Union army because they suffered from exhaustion, due to difficult terrain. A similar situation prevented Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s army from making a final push on the first day of Shiloh, which would have pushed Ulysses S. Grant’s army into the Tennessee River. After the Battle of Chickamauga, Confederate forces did not press their Union opponent by making a forceful assault on Snodgrass Hill and the associated ridge, nor did they push the fleeing blue clad soldiers into Chattanooga, avoiding the eventually disastrous siege. These are just a few examples of how topography and a long day of fighting influencing the outcome of a battle.

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

“Out of Pure Patriotism I Have Taken Up This Service”: Political Refugees in the American Civil War by Heléna Tóth

We are currently living through what could well be considered the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. With over sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the question arises how the history of political refugees can inform current policy-making today. Historical analogies often conceal as much as they reveal, but one lesson they impart is that decisions about asylum seekers have long-term consequences. The history of the United States offers countless examples for how refugees, if granted asylum, become part of and shape a country’s history. The participation of political refugees in the Civil War is one.

Starting in the spring of 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Although each revolution had its own local dynamic, they also shared a key characteristic: revolutionaries from the Italian states, France, the various German states, all across Central Europe, and Ireland fought for more political representation, social justice, and autonomy. The revolutionaries disagreed among themselves about the details of their goals—about the specific structure of a unified Germany, or about the extent of political and social reforms in France—but they often invoked the United States’ own revolution as a source of inspiration. Public opinion in the US welcomed the European revolutions; events across the Atlantic reminded Americans of their own history, both as a source of pride and also as standards that they should uphold.

As the revolutions were crashing across Europe, waves of political refugees fled persecution. Some stayed close to home (in England, Switzerland, France, or Belgium), others fled as far as the Ottoman Empire, or crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in search for safety and a new beginning, making political exile in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 a truly global phenomenon. Thousands of former revolutionaries, the forty-eighters as they came to be called, found asylum in the United States.

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

Health Care and the American Medical Profession, 1830-1880 by Shauna Devine

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a landmark healthcare reform law that expands opportunities for care by providing more Americans with access to affordable health insurance. The goal is to provide health insurance to all Americans not covered by their employers or other health programs. However, many Republicans have derided the law suggesting that it imposes too many costs on businesses, its premiums are too high, and it oversteps the proper domain of the federal government with their so-called intrusion upon businesses, the states, and the lives and choices of individuals. The Republican-controlled government is now well on its way to repealing and replacing Obamacare with a version of the law titled the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Some people on the Right have praised the new law, while others worry they may be one of the millions who may lose health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare.

Navigating health care has always been a challenging part of our nation’s history. There have been at various times too few physicians, inadequate care or delivery of service, and rising costs of health care all situated alongside a growing public demand for adequate medical care. These debates are personal and political and have their roots in public expectation and the social contract between the medical profession, people, and government.

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

Richards Center Hosts Second Annual Undergraduate Mentoring Program

Richards Center Hosts Second Annual Undergraduate Mentoring Program

2017 Emerging Scholars Undergraduate Mentoring Program participants

From June 25-30, the Richards Center hosted its second annual Emerging Scholars Undergraduate Mentoring Program. The program is designed to increase interest in Penn State’s graduate History program among students from historically underrepresented backgrounds and especially to expose them to Penn State’s unique dual degree programs in History and African American Studies and History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Twenty-three students applied for the program, and the 10 students who were accepted came from eight different states and the territory of Puerto Rico. They represented a variety of institutions, including Mississippi State, the University of Illinois-Chicago, the University of Arizona, Florida A & M (the only historically black institution in the Florida state university system), and the University of Puerto Rico, among others. During the week-long program they took part in panel discussions with current Penn State faculty and graduate students on such topics as writing compelling admissions statements, choosing a graduate program, and developing a successful research project. They also participated in a simulated doctoral seminar that introduced them to the practice of history at the graduate level. In their post-workshop survey, students praised the program. One commented that "the program more than met my expectations. It really helped to demystify grad school for me," while another student told us, "I can't wait to bring information about this program back to my university and encourage other students to apply."

When the program was launched in 2016, Crystal Sanders, Associate Professor in the Departments of History and African American Studies and one of the summer initiative coordinators, remarked that the Richards Center's program will not only diversify Penn State, but also, the academy: “The center's commitment to increasing the number of PhDs from underrepresented minority groups is exciting and commendable. Diversity among both students and faculty in the classroom fosters excellence and ensures that higher education reflects the demographics of our world.” The undergraduate mentoring curriculum already is bearing fruit. One of the participants in last year's inaugural event will enroll in the History department's PhD program in August.

Author Interview: Sarah Gronningsater

In our June 2017 issue, Dr. Sarah Gronningsater published an article titled “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis.” She is an assistant professor of history at CalTech in Pasadena, California, with an expertise in legal, political, and constitutional history, focusing particularly on slavery and abolition. Later this summer, she will join the history faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here, we share some of her thoughts about her article and legal history more broadly. To access her article, please visit Project Muse or subscribe to the journal.

Thanks so much, Sarah, for participating in this interview. How did you come across this topic?

In 2011, I presented a paper titled “Thwarting the ‘Slave Empire’: The Lemmon Slave CaseTerritorial Expansion, and Everyday Legal Protest” at a University of Oxford graduate conference on the theme of “Building an American Empire, 1783-1861.” The truth is, before writing the paper, I hadn’t thought much about the Lemmon case. I was in the early days of writing my dissertation, which focused on black children’s legal, political, and social experiences during the era of northern gradual emancipation. I wanted to figure out how their childhood experiences shaped their adult involvement in antislavery law and politics, as well as their generational consciousness. It turned out—in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I started writing the paper—that the Lemmon case connected deeply to my dissertation research. Louis Napoleon, the black New Yorker who instigated the Lemmon case by petitioning for the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the eight slaves from Virginia, was in fact just the sort of person I’d been thinking about in my research. He was born around 1800 in New York, right after the state passed its 1799 gradual emancipation law. He was a “child of gradual emancipation” who grew up to be an antislavery agitator. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about him.

In short, because I really wanted to attend this conference at Oxford, I wrote a paper with an “American Empire” theme, the Lemmon case fit the theme, and because Napoleon was a crucial figure in the Lemmon case, I started looking for every shred of archival evidence I could find. So, thank you to former Oxford graduate students, David Sim and Huw David, who organized the 2011 conference!

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

William Blair explains the origins of Juneteenth and the tradition of Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the United States

Today, the UNC Press blog explains the origins of Juneteenth and the tradition of Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the United States with contributions from William A. Blair, author of Cities of the Dead and With Malice toward Some and editor of Lincoln’s Proclamation


What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, given by President Abraham Lincoln, that declared freedom for all slaves in states still in rebellion. Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam on September 22, 1862, as a warning to the Confederacy, and the official order went into effect on January 1, 1863.  

Why June 19?

There are several dates that could celebrate the Emancipation, such as January 1 or September 22 or even February 1 (National Freedom Day,) but Juneteenth has become the most popular. June 19, 1865, commemorates the day when slaves in the Galveston, Texas, area heard a proclamation of freedom read by Union General Granger. 

When did other regions celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?

Celebrations often occurred around when black people in a particular region won their liberation. These were often tied either to the appearance of the Union army or the defeat of the Confederate military. For example, Richmond residents marked April 3 when Lee’s army fled the capital, while others preferred April 9, when that army surrendered at Appomattox. Beginning with the issuing of the proclamation in 1863, African Americans in the Union-occupied Sea Islands near South Carolina and Georgia gathered in ceremonial events to mark what they hoped was the destruction of slavery. 

Who celebrates it now?

Juneteenth had been only a regional observance until its revival in the last several decades of the twentieth century. Before then, it was remembered primarily by residents of Texas and the Southwest. Now it is celebrated nationwide with many states holding formal celebrations and festivals. 

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Wherever African Americans constituted significant proportions of the population, business (at least black-owned ones) stopped for the day as African Americans conducted a parade. They listened to orations from prominent members of the community. A central ritual was the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a duty considered as a special honor by the reader. Orators used these occasions to highlight the contribution of black people to American civic life and, consequently, press the case for the advancement and protection of their rights. Celebrations today look similar with picnics, festivals, and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. 


William A. Blair, the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of American History at the Pennsylvania State University, serves as director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and is the founding editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era