historian, author, film producer

Tag: slavery (page 1 of 2)

Been Workin’ on the Railroad

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.

Eric Foner on Lincoln and American Slavery: 16th Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities

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.

Sen. James Murray Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

On a recent research trip to the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, U.K., I was working through the papers of William Schaw Lindsay, the M.P. who was the most vocal supporter of the Confederacy in Parliament. Lindsay traveled widely in the U.S. before the Civil War. Indeed, he was in America during the 1860 Presidential election and as a leading British businessman and representative he met many U.S. politicians. Lindsay corresponded with numerous Americans during the secession crisis. In 1861 he gave a speech at the North Shields Mechanic’s Institute on “America and the Americans” in which he argued that the separation of the North and South was permanent, that war was avoidable if Britain and others intervened, and that while slavery was abominable the North had no intention of eliminating or abolishing the institution. Taking Lincoln at his word, Lindsay thought slavery would not be touched in the states in which it existed. As for the future promise of America, it lay in the west. He traveled the Illinois Central Railroad in 1860 and observed first-hand “as far as the eye could see” the open lands on the prairie. This was a land of huge potential, he told his British listeners, and separation without war was preferable to a tragic national bloodbath. On his tour through America in the fall of 1860, Lindsay met Virginia’s leading U.S. senator–James M. Mason. Then, during the war he hosted Mason who as the Confederacy’s lead diplomat sought British recognition for the Confederate States.

Header from James M. Mason December 21, 1869 letter to William Schaw Lindsay from "Clarens"

William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


The story of Mason’s failed diplomatic overtures is well known. His capture aboard the R.M.S. Trent prompted an international storm over the U.S. violation of Britain’s neutral rights. But Mason’s life after the collapse of the Confederacy was lived out of the public gaze.

I was surprised to see in the Lindsay papers a letter from Mason dated December 20, 1869 from “Clarens, near Alexandria.” Because I grew up at Clarens in the 1970s, the heading on the letter jumped out and caught my eye. I knew that Mason once owned Clarens. In fact, the legend of the place was that Mason never sat on the north-facing front porch because it looked out over the Potomac at Washington, D.C., the capital city Mason despised so much. Mason told Lindsay that while Clarens was a beautiful property, “the feature that mars all is that we are but eight miles distant from Washington, that nest of serpents + which is in full view but I have no communication with them.” So part of the Clarens legend had been confirmed–Mason had no love for the nation’s capital.

Mason’s home before the war broke out was in Winchester, Virginia, and, as he explained to his friend Lindsay, it was “destroyed, or rather obliterated, by the invaders.” After the war Mason stayed in Britain into 1866, a Confederate without a country, then went to Canada, where he and his family waited. Their waiting, according to his daughter Virginia Mason’s account, was an “exile” from their homeland–the South. But Mason, like Jubal Early and the other former Confederate leaders and officials waiting in Canada, waited because they were officially not extended amnesty until July 1868.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


Deciding in 1869 to return to Virginia, Mason bought Clarens. The property adjoined that of his friend, the former Confederate General Samuel Cooper and was near the Episcopal Seminary, where other friends resided. “I gave for the whole establishment nine thousand dollars” in greenbacks, Mason told Lindsay in his letter about the purchase of Clarens. The greenbacks were his only remaining money, he confessed, and came from his wife’s family assets held in Pennsylvania through the war.

Mason described Clarens in this way: “an old residence, large + commodius home well built of brick + in good repair, ample lawns with venerable trees, and the garden (we call here the garden that which is appropriate to vegetables for the kitchen), good orchards of fruits pertaining to the South, including grapes with their trellises, The whole comprises nearly thirty acres of land. The side on the first high lands receding from the Potomac River distant two miles and of which on its summits commands a view of many miles. Our nearest town is Alexandria, one of the oldest towns on the Potomac, where there is good society and at the distance given above.”

Although he said nothing about whether he intended to rock on the front porch overlooking Washington or not, Mason did make a particular vow in his letter to Lindsay. “The poor negroes since they were manumitted are of course worthless, or rather worse than worthless,” Mason declared, “I have none of them in my service, and do not, however deeply I regret the necessity, intend to have.” Mason had brought “domestic servants (women) from Canada” and he intended to hire whites only. Negroes, he believed, were “the great curse of the country.” The fact that Reconstruction brought black voting particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the “end of the republic.”

With such convictions and with such vows, Mason lived another two years and died at Clarens in April 1871. Whether he rocked on the front porch or not, he likely did not employ any freedmen. Years later in 1906 Mason’s daughter Virginia compiled his letters into a published account of his life, and she passed on her father’s views to the next generation. She presented the plight of Southern whites as the main drama of the post war South–“their former homes reduced to ruins, and to be themselves reduced to the condition of quiet submission while ignorant and irresponsible negroes elected men to fill all the offices.” (The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason, p. 589)

James M. Mason’s strongly-held convictions about Clarens and the all-white labor force he employed there after the war set in motion a range of stories and ideas that suggested the limitations of Reconstruction and the profound resistance to change many Southern whites would exhibit in the coming years and decades. The war itself had been fought over the control of black labor–in the form of slavery. The post war South too would fight over the control of black labor. Newspapers were filled in the years after the war with urgent pleadings from the white South that it must have black labor or its entire economy would not move. It may not have occurred to James M. Mason that with their emancipation Alexandria’s blacks might share similar convictions and make similar vows as well–that they might never work for him even if he wanted them to.

An Update from London

My posts will resume this week after a few weeks off to travel to the U.K.–next installments will be on American foreign policy in the Civil War, the subject of my current research in London at the British Library and The Rothschild Archive.The global capital market expanded in the 19th century and it was especially  important in the development of the American South and Midwest. It is striking that of the nearly 30,000 miles of railroad track in the United States in 1860, over 22,000 of it were laid in the 1850s, nearly all of it in the South and Midwest. These two regions dominated the boom of the 1850s. British and European capital financed a significant amount of this expansion. Their relative experience in these years and through the Panic of 1857 shaped their identities as much as the political crisis over slavery. In the coming weeks we’ll look at these questions in more detail. 

Top Five Summer History Tours–Virginia

Where do you go to find the best history? There are so many choices! Museums, battlefields, exhibits, galleries, and walking tours. It is summertime and that means a chance to explore American history sites and tours. Sometimes, we experience the past more directly when we walk through an old house or see a historical object or stand in a historical place. This feeling is something that children experience intensely as they begin to see that they are part of a continuous flow of time and space, and they are often especially willing to be “transported” in time through history. So, take your children and visit a historic place this summer. 

This week we feature Virginia. Next we will cover New England, and then the West.

Here are my top five places or sites this summer for an encounter with history that really means something (with a brief explanation why)–Jamestown, the Moton civil rights museum, Monticello, Chancellorsville battlefield, and the Tredegar Civil War Center and Museum: 

1. Jamestown

American colonial history really begins at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony, settled in 1607 (much earlier than Plymouth). Here, on the James River in the great Chesapeake Bay, English, Indian (Algonquian), and African societies encountered one another at the edge of what some are now calling “the Atlantic World.” The place is undeniably important and you can stand right in the ruins.

Go to the Island first, the original site of the fort: what is called Jamestown Rediscovery. Begin there not the Jamestown Settlement reproduction and museum nearby. The island is owned jointly by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). The history-making archaeological dig underway at the island, led by William Kelso, has discovered the original Jamestown fort, and this work is transforming the way historians think about the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. You can tour the dig as well as the new, beautifully displayed artifacts at the “Archaearium” (that’s right). The Archaearium display is a powerful look at the work of archaeologists and features the process of what happened in the dig at Jamestown Fort.  Although the exhibit at the Archaearium downplays English-Indian conflict too much, and generally does not explain the Algonquian experience, children will be fascinated with the artifacts that Kelso and his team uncovered. The well, into which Jamestown’s first colonists seemed to have thrown everything, is a marvel.

The experience of standing in the original footprint of the fort along the James River is powerful. You can look right down the river and see where the signal posts were to guard the tiny colony from any approaching Spanish fleet. Because Spain’s military governor in Havana had sailed right into the Chesapeake in 1571 to search for a missing Jesuit mission and because Roman Catholic Spain was Protestant England’s enemy on the seas, the idea of a Spanish attack was not fanciful. The line of sight down the James River today from the fort is still remarkably unbroken by modern structures, so the effect of this view is well worth the trip. 

The Jamestown Yorktown Foundation’s site (The Settlement) and its museum and reproduction of the fort is near Jamestown Island, and its exhibits are also worth visiting. Although many visitors think this is the original site, you should bear in mind that the entire creation is a reproduction, and if you have visited the original site first you will not be confused about this. The Settlement exhibit includes a carefully reproduced Algonquian village. Living historical actors dress in Indian clothing and use Indian implements to cook, grow corn, and treat deer hides. Although children may find the site fascinating for this reason and although the huts and equipment are reproduced faithfully (largely based on the drawings by John White from 1585 and the writings of John Smith that describe Indian towns and structures in some detail), the site is placed so close to the fort that it appears as if Indians lived next door to and in feudal vassalage to the English fort’s colonists. They did not, of course. The best part of the Settlement is the reproduction ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. 

Before any tour of Jamestown you might look online at the biggest archive of Jamestown materials, The Virtual Jamestown Project. Here you can read John Smith’s accounts, letters from the period, and important original documents.

2. The Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia, Prince Edward County

This site is a historic place in the Civil Rights Movement, and the little museum is a gem. In 1951 students at the segregated, black Robert Russa Moton High School staged a strike to demand that the school board build a new black high school. The leader of the student strike, Barbara Johns, organized the student body to walk out of school down to the county building and make their demands known. The students did not go back to school for several weeks as they sat out “on strike.” The event prompted civil rights attorney Oliver Hill to visit the community, and he and the NAACP eventually took on the case. The case became one of the five included in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In reaction to the landmark Brown decision striking down segregated schools, local white leaders in Prince Edward County shut off all funding for public schools and closed the schools rather than integrate them. The schools remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. These circumstances make the site especially important and dramatic. You can stand in the small, cramped auditorium where Barbara Johns rallied the students for the strike and see the “tar paper shacks” that the school erected because it had no funds. The effects of segregated schools become instantly clear and the improbable effects of the student strike of 1951 intensely felt.

You should contact the Moton Museum before going to make sure of its hours. You can walk from the museum on the same roads that the students took when they walked en masse in May 1951 down to the county office building. This one mile walk past the historic black church where NAACP meetings were held gives you an important view of the early beginnings of the civil rights movement. I encountered this story through the work on original films from local television stations–you can see these films too and look at the Prince Edward situation at: http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/civilrightstv.

3. Monticello

There are few places like this in the United States. Any summer history tour should visit the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. His epigraph says it all, or at least all he wanted to say about himself: “author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Founder of the University of Virginia.” President for two terms, Secretary of State, Envoy to France, Governor of Virginia, and political party founder, Jefferson could claim much more on his tombstone. He valued liberty, religious freedom, and learning above all. Of course, he designed his home at Monticello in the middle of all of this, and it is an exquisite statement of his values and aspirations for the nation.

Monticello has firmly placed slavery in the story of Jefferson and his life. The site includes tours of the slave living and working sites, and the team of archaeologists and historians are continually uncovering new evidence about this experience. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings is clearly explained and affirmed in the tours. Slavery, freedom, and the political basis of the American republic were at the heart of Jefferson’s life and experiences. Jefferson’s wrestling with all three are on display in the design of Monticello and the material objects found there. Jefferson had great faith in us, the generations to come after him in the American republic. And it is humbling to be reminded just how much faith he had and how much trust he placed in our democracy.

4. Chancellorsville Battlefield

No summer history tour is complete without a Civil War battlefield experience. There are, sadly, many to choose from. The war tore through the heart of America and killed hundreds of thousands. It is far too easy to forget the consequences of war and to glorify set-piece battles as if they were played like a game. But when you visit a battlefield and see the ground on which armies fought, the war and its destruction take on a new meaning.

The great battlefields include Gettysburg, Petersburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Manassas, and of course Chancellorsville. All are run by the National Park Service and have extensive, high quality historical interpretation. You will find expert park rangers and historians at all of them.

I chose Chancellorsville for several reasons. First, the battlefield landscape is rapidly changing, as housing developments, golf courses, and commercial strip malls have taken the place of farms, fields, and barns. It is increasingly difficult to see the battlefield, so go now.

Second, the battle was huge, extending over dozens of square miles and had tremendous importance in the flow of the war, giving the Confederacy vitality and energy at a key turning point. The best tour is to begin at Zoar Baptist Church where Stonewall Jackson’s troops first encountered Hooker’s Federal forces and in the first hours of the engagement changed the dynamic of the battle with an aggressive attack. Then, you can follow Jackson’s long march route around the Federal right flank and his surprise attack on the 11th Corps. You can do this in a car, but on bike is also fun. And if you take a car, stop along the way and get out to walk the route because the Wilderness effect is still there. Another good walk to do is the short distance from the Hazel Grove to the Chancellor House ruins. The high ground of the Hazel Grove and the open sight lines to the House give you a sense of the desperate stakes in the artillery battle there.

5. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar

Tredegar Iron Works cast iron before the Civil War for railroads and during the war supplied the Confederacy with much of its cannon and other armaments and ammunition. The works were extensive and have been preserved in downtown Richmond. Few sites give a feel for the work of nineteenth-century industry and how it operated. Tredegar holds added importance because so many slaves were employed in heavy industry here. The Civil War center has been dedicated to explain the experiences of Confederate, Union, and African-American soldiers and civilians in the Civil War. Few museums attempt such an interwoven set of exhibits. And few treat the experience of the U.S. Colored Troops with any degree of completeness, but Tredegar has made that effort its main mission. Although the exhibits are useful, informative, and interesting, the grounds, buildings, and equipment at Tredegar offer visitors a window into the nineteenth century and into the machinery that was at the heart of the Civil War and its destructiveness. You will not be disappointed.

So, enjoy these great sites. Next, we take a tour of New England and then the West for the best summer sites to visit.