Book of the Week

The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction
by Mark Wahlgren Summers

“Effectively captures the turmoil and frustrations of the era. . . . [and] shows how economic woes affected Reconstruction’s prospects.”
--Publishers Weekly

William A. Blair: The Battle over White Suffrage after the Civil War

With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War EraWe welcome a guest blog post from William A. Blair, author of With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Few issues created greater consensus among Civil War-era northerners than the belief that the secessionists had committed treason. But as Blair shows in his engaging history, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. Citizens often moved more swiftly than federal agents in punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink legal practices and definitions. Ultimately, punishment for treason extended well beyond wartime and into the framework of Reconstruction policies, including the construction of the Fourteenth Amendment. Establishing how treason was defined not just by the Lincoln administration, Congress, and the courts but also by the general public, Blair reveals the surprising implications for North and South alike.

In today’s guest blog post, Blair discusses the aftermath of the Civil War on voter registration laws and how northerners tried to deny voting rights to former members of the Confederacy.


Today, Republicans and Democrats argue over voter registration laws, especially the need for photo identification. Democrats see this requirement as trying to limit participation by poorer people rather than to prevent fraud, as the Republicans claim. Similar issues appeared in the Civil War era, as Republicans at that time tried to prevent former rebels and traitors from exercising the franchise, with one of the experiments coming in the form of voter registration.

Registration of voters was not the norm before and during the Civil War. As scholar Richard Franklin Bensel has noted in his The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, keeping accurate lists was virtually impossible in certain places, particularly cities. The development of laws and procedures in this area took shape later in the century, but there were examples of a trial run in early Reconstruction.

The Border States, including the new state of West Virginia, featured the greatest controversy for controlling white voting because so many former rebels returned home and tried to cast ballots alongside the Unionists who had remained loyal. It irked some, for instance, that former Confederate officer Bradley Johnson of Maryland might be able to cast his ballot in a postwar election while still under indictment for treason. Many worried that the traitors who had tried to tear apart the nation would return to power too easily and limit the gains of the war.

The more traditional way of disfranchising men who were considered traitors came through loyalty oaths. keep reading →

Christian McWhirter: Bluegrass or Bust: “Divided & United” and Historical Authenticity in Civil War Music

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil WarWe welcome a guest post from Christian McWhirter, author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. Drawing on an array of published and archival sources, Christian McWhirter analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for both whites and blacks, South and North.

In today’s guest post, McWhirter shares his thoughts on the album Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and how the album holds up historically.


Generally speaking, Civil War music is now a cottage industry. Re-enactor bands and professional musicians occasionally release albums that can be found in battlefield park or museum gift shops (and on the ever-reliable Amazon) but these are usually small-scale affairs. It is rare that the mainstream music industry engages with this subgenre. During the folk revival of the mid twentieth century, some of the war’s tunes resurfaced (several artists, including Pete Seeger, released an album of Civil War tunes in 1960, and Bob Dylan has recorded a version of “Dixie”) and they’ve popped up here and there since then (Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy” is the most prominent example, and Ry Cooder’s slow rendition of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” on Boomer’s Story is excellent) but Civil War music has largely remained the property of musicologists and musical antiquarians. The only other notable exception is the 1978 country album, White Mansions, which did not use actual Civil War music but tried to tell the story of the Confederacy through original pieces. Despite a strong roster led by Waylon Jennings, the compilation was overly maudlin and steeped in the Lost Cause.

All of that cDivided & Unitedhanged recently with the release of Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War—a well-budgeted two-disc compilation of Civil War tunes interpreted by a host of well- and lesser-known country and bluegrass musicians. The track listing represents a broad sample both chronologically (some songs are from before the war, some songs came after the war) and stylistically. White, black, northern, and southern perspectives are all represented, as are the homefront and battlefront. Producer Randall Poster clearly aimed for an inclusive approach in his song selection and this pays real dividends for listeners.

Before proceeding any further, let me say that the album is musically excellent—a real pleasure. There is hardly a dud in the bunch and everyone involved sounds engaged and eager to maintain the album’s overall tone. That tone, however, can sometimes be problematic and merits further analysis. While Divided & United does a fine job entertaining listeners and sharing the Civil War’s music, academics and educators seeking to use it as a resource should proceed with caution. keep reading →

Journal of the Civil War Era Special Issue: Proclaiming Emancipation at 150

The Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 3, Number 4, December 2013New from The Journal of the Civil War Era: a special issue dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This issue draws from the “Proclaiming Emancipation” exhibit and conference at the University of Michigan Law School—a joint effort by the Program in Race, Law, and History; the William L. Clements Library; and the University of Michigan Library.

Exhibit co-curator and journal guest editor Martha S. Jones explained: “We really had two goals for the conference and exhibit. On the one hand, we wanted to dispel the myths and misconceptions about the Emancipation Proclamation. The dominant myth being that Lincoln freed the slaves with the stroke of a pen. But on the other end of the spectrum, we wanted to showcase the cutting-edge scholarship focused around this one point on a complicated timeline of emancipation. Through the journal, we are able to give what we did on campus a life beyond a moment or a day.”

The publication of the special issue of the journal rounds out a great set of print and online resources. An online version of the 2012 exhibit is available through the Clements Library, and videos from the conference are available on YouTube (see a sample below). Inside the journal, here’s what you’ll find:

The Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 3, Number 4





Martha S. Jones, Guest Editor
“History and Commemoration: The Emancipation Proclamation at 150″

James Oakes
“Reluctant to Emancipate? Another Look at the First Confiscation Act”

Stephen Sawyer & William J. Novak
“Emancipation and the Creation of Modern Liberal States in America and France”

Thavolia Glymph
“Rose’s War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War”

Martha S. Jones
“Emancipation’s Encounters: The Meaning of Freedom from the Pages of Civil War Sketchbooks”

Michael Vorenberg
“Spielberg’s Lincoln: The Great Emancipator Returns”

Book Reviews

Books Received

Notes on Contributors

The Journal of the Civil War Era is the official publication of the Society of Civil War Historians. Subscription information is available at

The following video features some of the great archival material available at the Michigan library.

Combining visual and written material from the time of emancipation with critical analysis from top-notch scholars, this suite of print and digital resources makes for an invaluable set of educational tools.

Glenn David Brasher: Top 10 Events in Civil War History, 2013

Today we welcome a great year-end roundup of Civil War history-related events, compiled by Glenn David Brasher, author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.


A year’s end always brings multiple “Top Ten” lists. The community of Civil War enthusiasts is not immune to the practice, usually creating lists of the best books. For fun, I humbly offer my own rankings, but they are not limited to books. Here in descending order are my top ten “events” in Civil War history for 2013.

Lincoln film poster

10. Spielberg’s Lincoln released on home video

This blockbuster 2012 movie generated much debate, as many historians criticized it for not providing a more thorough depiction of the events that led to slavery’s destruction. Most agreed, however, that Daniel Day-Lewis’s characterization of Lincoln was spell-bindingly good and historically solid. Furthermore, the film created a “teachable moment” for historians to engage in a public conversation about emancipation. With the release of the movie on home video, the film can now make its way into the classroom. I’ve already successfully used it to stir discussion with my own students. keep reading →

Kathryn Shively Meier: Civil War Soldier Trauma in Unexpected Places

Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, by Kathryn Shively Meier[This article is crossposted at]

We welcome a guest post from Kathryn Shively Meier, author of Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions—strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat—which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy: nature.

In the following post, Meier explains that soldiers reported traumas from unexpected sources.


Since World War I, the language available to describe mental afflictions as a result of military service, as well as diagnostics and treatments, has expanded exponentially. The year 1980 saw the introduction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Lately, the news has been awash with reports linking physical brain injuries to the symptoms of PTSD, further enhancing our ability to understand and treat the mental repercussions of battle in our armed forces. Yet modern conceptions of soldier mental health do not necessarily translate to clearer understandings of soldier mental trauma in the past. Union and Confederate soldiers described a great deal of their mental suffering as incurred outside of combat. In fact, most Civil War soldiers looked forward to combat as a sporadic and exciting break from the taxing and monotonous day-to-day soldiering that wore down their resolve.

Understanding the mental experience of Civil War soldiers requires entering into an era when physicians lacked sophisticated understandings of the human brain and the contemporary lexicon offered few words to characterize mental health. This is not to say that Civil War soldiers did not provide ample evidence of their states of mind while serving. Soldiers used such terms as “the blues,” loneliness, and homesickness to explain their reasons for devolving into alcoholism, defying direct orders, straggling or deserting, and occasionally ending their lives. They relied upon correspondence with those at home to prevent mental decline, often beginning or ending their own letters with a desperate plea for increased communication with loved ones. Civil War surgeons, responsible for maintaining the overall health of regiments, possessed only a few terms for describing mental disorders, excluding all but the most severe cases. Specifically, U.S. surgeons provided official reports on insanity or “nostalgia,” a potentially fatal case of homesickness with the associated physical problems of fever, stomach ailments, and even death, while Confederate surgeons recorded only nostalgia or mania. All other mental ailments fell through the cracks of official reporting and therefore official care.

Civil War soldiers were quite clear about what burdened their minds, though their descriptions may surprise modern Americans. keep reading →