I am looking forward to my upcoming talk on the Civil War in Alexandria, Virginia. I will be posting the materials from the talk soon, including the soldiers’ records, maps, and other records from the Hospital at Fort Williams in Alexandria. The talk is titled “Revisiting the Dead House at Fort Williams: A Story of Civil War History and Memory.”
The New York Times Opinionator Disunion series published my piece this morning “Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” This piece tells the story of Samuel Ballton, an enslaved railroad worker, who leaves slavery and joins the Union Army in the spring of 1862 during McClellan’s Virginia campaign.
For more on black railroad workers in the Civil War go to the Railroads and the Making of Modern America web site:
1. Timeline and Map of African American railroad workers incidents in the Civil War
2. The resources site for “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America”
3. Letters, maps, documents, and images about slavery and Southern railroad development.
On Wednesday evening, October 5th, over 400 patrons of the humanities gathered at the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha, Nebraska, for the 16th Annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities fundraiser. Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, gave this year’s lecture. The lecture was fantastic. Foner is one of the leading historians of 19th century America, and his book won the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes. His other works (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution) stand as some of the most influential and widely-cited books in American history.
The evening was a smash hit for the humanities. As a fundraiser for the Nebraska Humanities Council, the event exceeded its ambitious dollar goals and broke previous fundraising records. President of the University of Nebraska J. B. Milliken warmly welcomed guests and opened the evening’s program. Governor Dave Heineman introduced the speaker.
Eric Foner opened his lecture with a recent inquiry he received from a film producer asking if it were plausible to include a scene with Lincoln–pause for effect–playing the harmonica. Then there is always Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This set the tone for the evening: humor was allowed, sharp and interesting discussion would be celebrated, and serious questions about our past and the human condition would be undertaken. I had the opportunity to moderate the question and answer period after the lecture.
Several highlights from the lecture stand out to me days later. One was Eric Foner’s insistence on addressing the problem of “American” slavery. He drove home the point that much of the North was deeply complicit in the institution of slavery, that cotton’s wealth permeated, indeed underpinned, the Northern economy, and that New York City, in particular, benefitted so directly from slavery that it could hardly conceive of interfering with the institution. The breadth and reach of slavery is often missed or forgotten. Foner’s point, that slavery cannot be understood as geographically restricted to the South, has broad implications for how the American public today understands the coming of the Civil War.
At a student event earlier in the day, Eric indicated why the war was not caused by tariffs or economic policy (a common perception still) but instead caused by the problem of American slavery. The idea behind the tariff argument suggests that Lincoln was a representative of the bourgeoisie class in a battle with the South’s agrarian class, but this makes little sense. “600,000 Americans, I assure you, did not kill each other over the tariff,” Foner quipped. Both the North and the South were largely agrarian societies and both political parties and regions had bourgeois elements. The idea persists, but Foner directs our gaze to “American” slavery broadly construed, and the causes of the Civil War come into clearer focus.
A second highlight was Foner’s insistence on tracing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery to reliable sources. After Lincoln’s death, Foner points out, a whole host of recollections came forward claiming that Lincoln said this or that–that he was always against slavery, that he was born with a pen in hand to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The historian needs to evaluate each of these with great care. Direct quotes attributed to Lincoln twenty, thirty, or fifty years after the fact are common. Piecing together Lincoln’s earliest views on slavery requires detailed assessment of the source–who reported it, when, and for what audiences. History depends on evidence and on assessing the evidence rigorously and carefully; we cannot just say what we want about the past. So, the art of history, Foner tells us, is to write from the evidence and, at the same time, to interpret it faithfully and reasonably.
A final question of the evening asked Eric Foner to explain what we can learn from Lincoln’s political development, from his capacity to grow. Here, Foner’s study of Lincoln holds up the importance of understanding as clearly as we can how politics, the human experience, and history broadly are intertwined. Lincoln, he said, had principles and convictions–most prominently against the institution of slavery–but he negotiated these in everyday encounters as he met with people, listened to them carefully, and reconsidered his positions. Intellectually curious and attuned to the subtle changes in public opinion, Lincoln’s capacity to grow came, Foner tells us, from his willingness to take seriously the views of his opponents, to adjust to and shape public opinion, and yet to hold fast to principles. Foner shows us in detail how politics operates in a democratic society, how an especially astute political leader changes over time and in relation to events and people around him or her. It is an inspiring and humbling lesson.
The Nebraska Humanities Council lecture turned into a major celebration this year, affirming just how many people value and support the humanities. And showing how much history and the humanities have to teach us today.
Google Lab’s Ngram viewer allows anyone to comb through over 5 million books for patterns and word trends in history. When Jean Baptiste Michel, et al., published their findings in “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” they used as an example the trend for the word “slavery” with its peak in the 1850s and again in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Last week, Robert K. Nelson in the New York Times Opinionator on “Of Monsters, Men — and Topic Modeling,” used the Richmond Daily Dispatch corpus from the Civil War to suggest the power of words to influence human ideas and events.
According to Nelson, “No historian has yet to display the patience and attention to detail to read through the more than 100,000 articles and nearly 24 million words of the wartime Dispatch, let alone conduct the sophisticated statistical analysis necessary to draw conclusions from the data.” Nelson proposes “an innovative text-mining technique called ‘topic modeling’ allows us to understand in far greater detail the arguments and appeals that were used throughout the war.”
Nelson is right, of course, that the scale of the problem for historians is significant and growing more so it seems with each passing day. Just taking the Richmond Daily Dispatch, my colleagues and I have discovered over 8,300 unique place names in the 4 years of the Civil War newspaper. These places names were mentioned over 292,000 times in that four-year span. Analyzing the geography of the war through even a single newspaper becomes impossible without computational tools. (We will release our geocoded Daily Dispatch next week at the National Endowment for the Humanities Digging into Data conference.)
Now, Google Labs Ngram viewer allows us to crawl through millions of printed books, journals, and materials. A simple search in Google on the following terms turned up some surprising results:
slavery, bank, battle, railroad, cotton, secession, and Nebraska.
“Secession” appeared like a comet, flaming out in the course of the Confederate States of America. “Battle,” surprisingly, became more prevalent but only marginally. “Bank,” the subject of intense controversy in American politics from the 1830s, appears to have been remarkably steady in its frequency. “Nebraska,” a proxy for western expansion into the territories, spiked in the 1850s, unsurprisingly.
“Railroad” as a concept in American culture, society, economy, and politics, however, clearly spiked in period between 1850 and 1865. Despite researching and writing about the relationship between railroads and the coming and fighting of the Civil War, I was surprised (and pleased) at the sharpness, the apparent clarity of this result. Another aspect of NGram Viewer, it should be pointed out, is the anticipation we experience in waiting for the graph, and how the precision of its interface affects researchers. When a scholar has worked in the archives for years and then types in “railroad” or “cotton” into the box, he or she naturally experiences a sort of “uber-search” rush of adrenaline.
It is difficult to be sure exactly what these terms mean in the larger corpus of works in Google Books, but “slavery” and “railroad” and the Civil War were perhaps more deeply interconnected than historians have previously considered.
In April 2011 we will be 150 years from the secession of Virginia and the upper South from the United States to join the just formed Confederate States of America. Led by South Carolina in December 1860, seven “deep South” or “cotton” states formally withdrew from the Union in the winter of 1860-1861. But when the upper South states left in April 1861, the Civil War followed quickly as both the U.S. and the Confederate States battled over national supremacy. As we mark the anniversaries of these key events, secession and civil war, we should look more than ever at what the participants said and wrote.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on The South’s Secession Commemoration on Thursday of this week does just that in a satirical review of whether slavery had anything to do with secession.
Slavery was at the core of secession, of course–see also the Making of Modern America blog post on Why Did Virginia Secede? which takes up this question.