Book of the Week


Defining Duty in the Civil War:
Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front

by J. Matthew Gallman

"A compelling examination of how struggling northerners defined, debated, and delineated loyal behavior during the four years of the American Civil War. At once entertaining and enlightening, Gallman’s lively survey of an impressive range of print literature yields fresh understanding of the evolving roles that patriotic Union civilians aspired to emulate."
--Joan Waugh, author of U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

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Cartoon: Not Everyone Loves a Parade, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordeal

Today’s post is the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context.  

In today’s cartoon, Summers highlights Reconstruction-era government spending in Louisiana. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, Not everybody loves a parade

“Not Everyone Loves a Parade.” Louisiana’s first Republican governor, the flamboyant Henry Clay Warmoth was unable to rein in a free-spending legislature, one of the most corrupt anywhere south of New York. Not all the spending was stealing; money to aid railroad construction and special privileges given to northern corporations that might link New Orleans with Mobile, Texas, and the North could have freed the Pelican State from the cash-crop economy, in which freedpeople’s opportunities were limited—if it had worked. It didn’t, at least not soon enough. Warmoth’s successor, Republican governor William Pitt Kellogg, came into office with a nearly bankrupt treasury and the onerous job of cutting back on the programs on which Republicans’ Gospel of Prosperity depended. He also got the blame for an economy turned sour. Even without those conditions, Kellogg would have faced serious trouble from the white-line resurgence that was out to overthrow a biracial political system. As it was, his government was doomed virtually from the start.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Cartoon: We’re looking for people who like to steal, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordealWe’re excited to kick off today a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays over the coming weeks, we will feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context. These cartoons stimulate your brain, tickle your funny bone, and bring history to life in a whole new way. 

First up in the satirical scaffold today: corrupt politicians and the businessmen who love (to bribe) them. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, Looking for People who Like to steal

“We’re looking for people who like to steal.” The postwar era has gone down among historians as “the Great Barbecue,” “the Blackout of Honest Government,” and “The Era of Good Stealings.” It was unquestionably corrupt, and among the greatest corrupters were the railroad executives, out for subsidies and advantages. Tom Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad dominated the Keystone State as completely as the Camden & Amboy did New Jersey’s. Senators took retainers from the corporations they defended, and a railroad construction firm, Credit Mobilier, passed out stock at bargain rates to congressmen who otherwise might wonder how government funds used to build America’s first transcontinental railroad actually had been spent.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

J. Matthew Gallman: Shoddy: The (Sometimes) Strange History of a Civil War Term

Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, by J. Matthew GallmanWe welcome a guest post from J. Matthew Gallman, author of Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front. The Civil War thrust Americans onto unfamiliar terrain, as two competing societies mobilized for four years of bloody conflict. Concerned Northerners turned to the print media for guidance on how to be good citizens in a war that hit close to home but was fought hundreds of miles away. Examining the breadth of Northern popular culture, Defining Duty in the Civil War offers a dramatic reconsideration of how the Union’s civilians understood the meaning of duty and citizenship in wartime.

In the following post, Gallman explores the origins and cultural evolution of the word “shoddy” in Civil War era.

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Writers have good reason to like the word “shoddy.” It is an evocative word, suggesting very much what it in fact means. Today we commonly use “shoddy” to describe poor workmanship. The carpenter who measures poorly, producing corners that are not square, has done a shoddy job. So has the painter who leaves behind paint on window panes or carpets. We might stretch the case to encompass anyone who has worked hastily and without pride in the result. Shoddy work is nothing to admire.

The word “shoddy” originated to describe a poor product and not a sloppy worker. The term, which first appeared in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, came out of the world of textile manufacturing. Shoddy was a sort of cheap cloth made by pressing together scraps of reclaimed wool. This inferior-quality material was inexpensive, but it would not stand up under heavy use. The Civil War saw the heyday of shoddy, both as a textile product and as an evocative term. And the evolving use of the word during the war years speaks volumes about how Northerners used the popular media to make sense of this terrible war.

In the first months of the Civil War, Northerners struggled to produce sufficient materiel to clothe, arm, and feed its new army of citizen-soldiers. A combination of haste, inexperience, and corruption produced some disappointing results. Before long, federal investigations had begun to uncover stories of malfeasance, and hordes of satirists, cartoonists, and poets had taken aim at the purveyors of shoddy goods. In some cases the targets were quite literally textiles that could not stand the test of hard marching. In July 1861 the cover of Vanity Fair—playing on published reports about Philadelphia contractors—showed embarrassed volunteers in dissolving uniforms “closing ranks” so that the passing ladies would not see more than they should. Other satirists expanded the definition of shoddy to include poorly made shoes, burnt coffee, and rotten meat. And whereas the term originally suggested poor products, the fraud investigations also turned up dishonest contractors who intentionally sold under-sized tents and corrupt inspectors who accepted bribes to look the other way.

Vanity Fair cover, July 6, 1861

This Vanity Fair cover is commenting on the recently published reports of shoddy uniforms having been produced by the Girard House contractors in Philadelphia. The uniforms are in such tatters that they are no longer suitable for the company of ladies, forcing the men to “close up” to maintain their dignity. Vanity Fair, July 6, 1861, cover. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

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William Marvel: Sacrificing General Sherman

marvel_lincolnsWe welcome to the blog a guest post by William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869), one of the nineteenth century’s most impressive legal and political minds, wielded enormous influence and power as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War and under Johnson during the early years of Reconstruction. In the first full biography of Stanton in more than fifty years, Marvel offers a detailed reexamination of Stanton’s life, career, and legacy. Marvel argues that while Stanton was a formidable advocate and politician, his character was hardly benign. Climbing from a difficult youth to the pinnacle of power, Stanton used his authority–and the public coffers–to pursue political vendettas, and he exercised sweeping wartime powers with a cavalier disregard for civil liberties.

In a previous post, Marvel questioned the eulogy allegedly given by Edwin Stanton at President Lincoln’s deathbed. In today’s post, Marvel relates the conflict between General Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death that injured the general’s reputation.

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As stern and formidable an opponent as Confederate soldiers and civilians found William Tecumseh Sherman, the general always insisted that he would accept them as fellow countrymen as soon as they submitted to federal authority. He proved as good as his word, especially after hearing President Lincoln’s conciliatory instructions at their City Point conference, late in March of 1865. When he cornered Joe Johnston in North Carolina, less than three weeks later, the two negotiated a complicated surrender agreement that essentially established terms for peace and reunion.

It seems odd that neither recognized how far they had exceeded their authority, but both probably considered their proposal justifiable because their political leaders would have the opportunity to accept or reject it. Even Lincoln would surely have disapproved it, because it involved subjects over which he claimed sole authority, such as the restoration of political rights, amnesty, and the fate of state governments. He would, however, never have responded with the wrath shown by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Lincoln was dead by the time the document started for Washington. General Grant received it first, and immediately asked Stanton to call an emergency cabinet meeting, at which everyone concurred that the convention was unacceptable. Stanton vehemently condemned not only the agreement but Sherman himself, and he wrote an order for Grant to go to North Carolina and supervise the operations of Sherman’s troops. He also issued a public rebuke through a press release, in which he accused Sherman of violating an express order against such negotiations—although Sherman had never seen that order. Adding insult to injury, he inaccurately blamed Sherman’s cease-fire for allowing Jefferson Davis to escape, and insinuated that the general might have made a bargain that allowed the rebel leaders to get away with the Confederate treasury. Stanton also published Henry Halleck’s order directing Sherman’s subordinates to ignore their commander’s instructions, which Halleck had based on Stanton’s jaundiced information.

Grant declined to take over Sherman’s command, but he delivered the rejection of the proposal and Johnston promptly surrendered on terms similar to those Lee had accepted at Appomattox. When Sherman learned how Stanton had publicly humiliated him he grew understandably furious, but he confined his retaliation to a legendary snub at the Grand Review, where he left Stanton’s proffered hand dangling in the air. keep reading →

William Marvel: Now He Belongs to the Ages?

marvel_lincolnsWe welcome to the blog a guest post by William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869), one of the nineteenth century’s most impressive legal and political minds, wielded enormous influence and power as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War and under Johnson during the early years of Reconstruction. In the first full biography of Stanton in more than fifty years, Marvel offers a detailed reexamination of Stanton’s life, career, and legacy. Marvel argues that while Stanton was a formidable advocate and politician, his character was hardly benign. Climbing from a difficult youth to the pinnacle of power, Stanton used his authority–and the public coffers–to pursue political vendettas, and he exercised sweeping wartime powers with a cavalier disregard for civil liberties.

Marking the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln, in the following post Marvel weighs the validity of the eulogy allegedly spoken by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Lincoln’s deathbed.

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One of the more touching moments in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination came when a surgeon announced that the president was dead, whereupon the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, broke the silence. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton ostensibly observed, with a poetic spontaneity for which he was not known.

Numerous people recount some form of the quote, but none of them recorded their memory of the phrase until a generation later, after it appeared in the multi-volume Lincoln biography by his former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Nicolay was not in Washington that night; Hay is often depicted at the bedside, although the room was not big enough to accommodate all who have subsequently been placed around it at the moment of the president’s death.

Hay was an especially talented stylist who would have appreciated such eloquence. He was also a prolific writer, but he apparently only put Stanton’s words in print for the biography of 1890. Charles Taft, one of the surgeons attending the dying president, published his own recollection of the scene three years after the Nicolay and Hay biography appeared, claiming that Stanton actually said “He now belongs to the ages.”

Forty years after the assassination, James Tanner, a Veteran Reserve Corps stenographer who was taking testimony in another room, corroborated the Nicolay and Hay quote more closely. A decade after that, a former provost marshal insisted that he was the only one who stood near enough to hear what Stanton said: he remembered it as “Now he belongs to history,” but that rendition enjoyed little circulation or credence.

Had Stanton uttered so memorable a eulogy, it is strange that no one publicized it for a quarter of a century, or conveyed it to the newspaper reporters who swarmed outside the Peterson house, gleaning every detail they could from those passing in and out. If the quote appears in any earlier publication, I have not seen it, and the recitation of such evocative remarks decades later, even by accredited eyewitnesses, is no guarantee of accuracy. The continual retelling of such landmark events can impregnate the minds of actual witnesses with recollections founded less on memory than on external suggestion—besides attracting deliberately fraudulent accounts. keep reading →