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Tag: "Civil War"

This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864

[ 14 ] June 17, 2017 |

On June 17, 1864, the Washington Arsenal exploded in Washington, D.C, killing around 20 workers. This tragic event highlighted the growing dangers of the American workplace and the indifference to workplace safety that proved deadly again and again in Civil War munitions factories.

Even before the Civil War, workplace safety in the American workplace was shockingly nonexistent. In a society where untimely death was pretty common, the nation largely gave a collective shrug to workplace deaths. This is how courts could rule that employers had no responsibility for workplace safety or over 1000 workers could die building the Erie Canal without causing a crisis of any kind.

During the Civil War, the industrialization of the United States grew rapidly, setting the stage for the coming Gilded Age and preparing for the growth in the American economy over the next several decades. But the Civil War certainly did not lead to any special preparations for workplace safety. In fact, the Civil War was pretty bad for northern workers. They faced rapidly rising inflation far outpacing wages, long workdays, and military intervention against early attempts to strike, particularly in factories involved in production for the war. The tiny American union movement would grow significantly during war, laying the groundwork for the resistance to capitalism that would become so striking during the 1870s.

For obvious reasons, a big growth area in the economy during the Civil War was in weapons production. With the growing wartime economy, new opportunities for women’s work arose, but these were not really opportunities so much as they were desperate choices made for sheer survival. Many of these women were working a hard, dangerous job because their husbands were among the Civil War wounded or dead. The wages were OK for average women’s wages at the time–$50-60 a month–but with inflation skyrocketing, the real wages declined over time. Those wages were also only half as much as men made. The combined average costs of rent and food was about $50 a month, forcing women to live together to save money. Young girls made up a large percentage of the workforce at armories, often Irish girls without other options except prostitution.

At the Washington Arsenal, which is now Fort McNair, near Nationals Park in Washington, dozens of women labored filling cartridges with gunpowder in what was called the choking room. They were not allowed to talk so they could focus on placing precisely 50 grams of gunpowder in each cartridge. This was dangerous labor. In 1862, an explosion at a Pittsburgh arsenal killed 78 workers. It was June in Washington so it was hot and crowded, the women wearing the heavy clothing of the era. Unbelievably, these very workers at the Washington Arsenal had just sent a $170 contribution to raise a monument for the victims in Pittsburgh just before they would die themselves.

June 17 was a particularly hot day. The arsenal made a variety of ammunition for heavy artillery, muskets, carbines, handguns, and other weaponry. It also made fireworks. With July 4 coming up, the arsenal was preparing its supply of fireworks. The superintendent, Thomas Brown, was known as a “pyrotechnist” with 20 years of experience making fireworks. He laid out some star flares to dry near the workers. They had a practical use too, as they could be used to illuminate Confederate positions, but these were to be used for the Independence Day celebrations. This was a bad idea. There were a lot of stars and he set them very close together. Around noon, something set off the flares. Probably it was because the intense heat and the sun shining on them sparked them. They started to explode near the gunpowder.

The Arsenal actually had written safety regulations. It said that there should not be more gunpowder in the choking room than necessary. As per usual in these years, no one paid attention to this. The choking room exploded thanks to all the gunpowder laying around. Some workers escaped. Those on the opposite side of the building jumped out of a second floor window and survived. But somewhere around 20 workers died that day. It was never clear given how poorly employers even kept track of their employees during these years. A few died immediately, some survived for a short time. Eight were burned beyond recognition. About twelve were sent to the hospital on site that was already filled with the wounded from the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Yet this could have been far worse. Had the fire spread to the magazines, the explosion and death toll would have been epic. As it was, it took an hour to put out the fire, which was helped by being right on the Potomac River.

That these women had to wear hoop skirts on the job in order to ensure the modesty of the women workers made the disaster worse. Not only were they heavy and made it hard to move but because the fabric was held in place, it made them quite flammable. The youngest girl who died was a 12-year old girl named Sally McElfresh. The event touched many who felt these women sacrificed for the nation. Abraham Lincoln attended the funeral. So did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. There was a long funeral procession attended by thousands.

Typical of the period, Superintendent Brown faced no consequences. There was a coroner’s jury that rebuked him for his carelessness, but that was about it. After all, it was not against the law to commit extreme negligence when it came to workers’ lives. Workers died all the time from employers’ indifference, whether accidental or not. They faced no legal consequence. The surviving families received small amounts of compensation. A statue was erected to honor the dead.

Another explosion took place at the Washington Arsenal in 1865. At least eight men died that day. Nothing seems to have changed after that event either. The Confederacy also suffered arsenal explosions in Richmond and Augusta, killing a number of women and children in both.

The image at the top of this post is a picture of the women working at the Arsenal. Many of them died that day.

This is the 229th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

…. I happen to be in Washington for a conference. So I wandered out to the Arsenal explosion monument to pay my respects.

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A Civil War Historian Responds to Trump

[ 86 ] May 3, 2017 |

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A journalist called up David Blight, one of the greatest living historians of the Civil War, and asked him what he thought of Trump’s Andrew Jackson comments. Blight clearly hadn’t heard of this yet. The spontaneous reaction is pretty great.

“He really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however they wish. This is simply a fifth-grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the president of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped even before the fifth grade. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one- or two-month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced reeducation. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an ‘ignorance relief’ period. This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. God help us.”

Trump in a reeducation camp is something we can all get behind, I hope.

Heritage, Not Hate, AmIRight?

[ 222 ] April 25, 2017 |

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The neo-Confederates are outraged that New Orleans is being meant to poor ol’ white Southerners who bask in the glory of 4 years of treason and hundreds of years of racial repression on both sides of that treason. Here’s a Republican candidate for governor from Virginia.

I wonder if I can think of anything worse? Wait, here’s something:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to “lay it on well,” an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

Here’s another, with Kevin Kruse eviscerating this person.

It’s amazing that this is still up for debate today, as all you have to do is read the secession declarations from the various southern states. Or really anything written by the white South at all between 1860 and April 1865 to know that it was entirely about slavery.

Tear ‘Em Down

[ 126 ] April 24, 2017 |

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Good on New Orleans.

New Orleans removed the first of four designated Confederate monuments Monday as workers toiled in the dark of night to bring down the Liberty Monument, which honors a white supremacist group that attempted to overthrow the city’s Reconstruction-era biracial government, NBC News reports. The workers arrived at the site at around 1:25 a.m. in the hopes of avoiding protests from the monuments’ supporters, who have even made death threats toward those working to take down the city’s most glaring Confederate symbols.

“The monuments are an aberration,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “They’re actually a denial of our history and they were done in a time when people who still controlled the Confederacy were in charge of this city and it only represents a four-year period in our 1,000-year march to where we are today.”

The city also plans to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. Landrieu called the Liberty Monument “the most offensive of the four.”

I know people will say, and not just neo-Confederates, that these are history and shouldn’t be torn down. But let’s be clear. New Orleans is a black city and was a black city in the 1890s. These monuments, among them some of the most imposing Confederate monuments erected, were placed there an overt symbol of post-Reconstruction white power. They were intended to intimidate African-Americans into submission. They are an insult to every African-American in New Orleans. We need to remember history, but we are not obligated to leave the public monuments of our racist ancestors there because of some vague appreciation of the past. These things are living, breathing symbols of white supremacy and they need to go. That this is happening in 2017 is all the more important.

Jews of the Civil War

[ 8 ] March 8, 2017 |

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The history of Jews in the Civil War isn’t nearly so secret as this essay suggests, but it’s still a good discussion of a part of the Civil War that doesn’t get so much public attention. This essay focuses on the United States over the treasonous Slave Power, who had the Civil War’s most famous Jewish person, the traitor Judah Benjamin, featured above.

Born on Christmas Day in Schlesswig-Holstein, Edward Selig Salomon came to the United States in 1855 when he was 17, and was among the first Jews, if not the first, to practice law in Chicago. When the war began, Salomon was an alderman in Chicago’s Sixth Ward and the youngest member of the city council. With the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor that ignited the war, Salomon enlisted on May 6, 1861, in Colonel Hecker’s first regiment, the 24th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Distrust between the rival German and German-speaking Hungarian militias comprising the regiment immediately manifest among the officers of the 24th Illinois, leading to the resignation of Col. Hecker and his loyal faction, including then-Major Salomon. Hecker and Salomon were reunited at the Concordia Club as the Jewish company was recruited and funded.

Col. Hecker was wounded in the regiment’s first action at the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May, 1863, while Lt. Colonel Salomon recovered from illness in time to rejoin the new Hecker Regiment shortly thereafter, and as General Robert E. Lee moved his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac toward Pennsylvania. Neither General Lee nor the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, had planned to fight a battle at Gettysburg, as Salomon would later write, “but events shaped themselves, and Gettysburg, which, up to the 1st of July, 1863, had been an obscure little hamlet in Pennsylvania, old fashioned and sedate, in a beautiful and peaceful valley, became a place of great historic importance, the place where the great forces of a great but divided people were to decide forever the question, whether or not a government of the people for the people and by the people should endure…” (Salomon, p. 6). After confused and frantic street fighting to cover the retreat through the city of Gettysburg on the first day of the battle, and as the regiment under his command reached the higher ground of Cemetery Hill, Salomon had his first of two horses shot out from under him at Gettysburg. The rest of Lee’s and Meade’s armies would arrive at Gettysburg by the following afternoon, Thursday, July 2.

During an artillery duel on the second day of the battle, Salomon had his second horse shot out from under him by a ricocheting round of solid shot. Meanwhile, Confederate sharpshooters had taken positions in several nearby houses, “from where they picked off our cannoniers and officers at a rapid rate,” Salomon wrote. General Oliver O. Howard ordered the colonel to call up volunteers to clear the houses of the sharpshooters. Salomon selected about forty men from among those who volunteered, and requested that Captain Joseph B. Greenhut lead the mission.

Joseph B. Greenhut was born in Austria and brought to Chicago by his parents in 1852 when he was nine years old. Greenhut was among the first to volunteer for service, rising quickly to the rank of sergeant. But early in the war his arm was wounded badly enough during the capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, that he was mustered out of the army. Greenhut reenlisted upon his recovery and was appointed captain of Company K in the Hecker Regiment, as the Concordia Guards were being recruited in Chicago.

I don’t have too much to add, but figured this would be of significant interest to readers.

The Confederate Con and Today’s NeoConfederate Con

[ 201 ] March 8, 2017 |

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I really like this essay by a white southerner who grew up around Ku Klux Klan relatives and who now realizes the Confederacy was a rich man’s con job on the South’s white working class, much as conservatism is a rich man’s con job on the South’s white working class today.

How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.

Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

For example, a map of states that didn’t expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.

Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes material harm the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites that lasts even to this day.

One can love the South without flying the battle flag. But it won’t help to get rid of an old symbol if we can’t also rid ourselves of the self-destructive beliefs that go with it. Only by shedding those too, will Southern whites finally catch up to the rest of the country in wages, health and education.

The comment section on the other hand…..well, you’d better like mangoes.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 71

[ 54 ] February 19, 2017 |

This is the grave of Edward Everett.

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Born in 1794 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Everett quickly rose into the ranks of the Boston elite. He was admitted to Harvard at the age of 13 and graduated as valedictorian at 17. He became a Unitarian minister and had his own church by 1813. He became known for his florid speeches, which some loved and some hated. He only lasted a year though before taking a job as a professor Greek literature at Harvard, a job which included a 2-year stint traveling around Europe. Unfortunately, professor jobs don’t come with such perks today. He spent a lot of that time in Germany, becoming one of the first Americans to want to transform American education on German lines, a trend that would continue until World War I made Germans the greatest enemies to civilization in known human history about three seconds after they were the heroes of men like Theodore Roosevelt. Anyway, Everett returned to the U.S. in 1819 and taught at Harvard. He also went on a lot of public speaking tours. He became close friends with Daniel Webster and they shared similar class and political interests.

In 1824, Everett moved into politics. He was elected to Congress as a National Republican associated with John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Harvard fired him when they found out he was elected to Congress. He served in Congress until 1835, where he was involved in the formation of the Whig Party and worked on foreign affairs. He had the typical political beliefs of a man like this–supportive of the national bank and high tariffs, opposed to Indian removal. However, in 1826, he gave a three-hour speech that digressed into justifying slavery. Many would never forgive him.

Still, in 1835, he was elected to be governor of Massachusetts. There he founded the state board of education, worked on expanding railroads and other industry, and played an active role in settling the boundary dispute between Maine and New Brunswick. However, he lost reelection in 1838 due to a combination of the Liberty Party drawing third party votes away from the Whigs and throwing the election to the Democrats (gee, I wonder if third party advocates learned from this?) and new temperance bill angering the public. Everett was named Ambassador to Britain after William Henry Harrison won the presidency in 1840. He stayed in the job until Polk took the Oval Office in 1845.

Everett then briefly became president of Harvard, hated it, and jumped at the chance to take over as Secretary of State after Daniel Webster’s death in 1852. It was only the last months of the Fillmore administration, but it was still a feather in his cap. He then was elected to the Senate in 1853. When he missed a critical vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, antislavery forces in Massachusetts were disgusted and Everett resigned in 1854.

Everett spent the rest of his life traveling around the country, giving his long-winded speeches. He was named the vice-presidential candidate of Constitutional Union candidate John Bell in 1860, but he basically didn’t care and didn’t do anything to campaign. Remaining a conservative Whig, he was deeply involved in the attempt to create the Crittenden Compromise, which Lincoln completely rejected.

Of course, what Everett is really known for his going on like Texas in the ceremony to commemorate the Gettysburg battlefield. In a 2-hour speech, he made all sorts of comparisons to ancient history and called for reconciliation. Then Abraham Lincoln walked up and blew him off the stage in 2 minutes. Everett himself was not bitter about this, knowing the greatness of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and he served as an elector for Lincoln in 1864. Everett died in 1865 after catching a cold giving yet another speech, not resting, and then testifying for 3 hours in a lawsuit about his property.

Everett has been portrayed in movies and TV more than you would think. He was played by Gordon Hart in a 1939 short called Lincoln in the White House. José Ferrer portrayed him in the 1991 TV movie about the Gettysburg Address titled The Perfect Tribute. David Francis played him in a 1999 TV movie about P.T. Barnum. In Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, a 2012 work of transcendent art, he was played by David Alexander. And Ed Asner was the voice of Everett in a new documentary on the Gettysburg Address that appeared last year.

Edward Everett is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This Day in Labor History: November 7, 1861

[ 19 ] November 7, 2016 |

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On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina sea islands. Suddenly having to deal with the existence of thousands of slaves with no masters, the military engaged in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. This precursor to Reconstruction is an important moment in American history, one that proved to skeptical whites that blacks would work without slavery and one that demonstrated the very real limits even for abolitionists in thinking about the post-slavery future in the South.

It’s a little hard to imagine the debates about black work in 1861. The idea that African-Americans were inherently lesser than whites was so ingrained, it was a real and open question in the North whether black people would work without white supervision. In part, this is what the Port Royal Experiment was about. What would black people do on the cotton farms without their masters? Moreover, the North really needed the cotton. It’s own textile factories had suddenly lost their raw supplies when the Civil War began and the U.S. had lost one of its leading export products to Britain, which Lincoln desperately hoped to keep out of the war. So a series of factors came together in South Carolina to create the need to figure out what a post-slave economy might look like.

By January 1862, the military was working with the black population to grow cotton for the army instead of for the slaveholders. General Thomas Sherman sent a request to the north for teachers to come and work with the slaves. The official beginning of the Port Royal Experiment was that April, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward Pierce to organize a relief effort and training program for the slaves that would include hospitals and schools and programs to allow the slaves to buy land and farm for themselves. By May, 53 missionaries and educators were on their way to South Carolina. The ex-slaves were employed in growing cotton for the wage of $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested. Edward Philbrick led the labor plan. He ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. Ultimately, men like Philbrick wanted to implement the free labor ideology at the heart of the Republican Party in the South and teach it to the ex-slaves. As the government took over more plantations during the war, it began to implement Philbrick’s plan through its confiscated lands.

In 1863, President Lincoln built on this program by allowing for the limited confiscation of Confederate plantations and the division of the land among the slaves. Limited to 40,000 acres of abandoned plantations, most of the impact took place in the sea islands. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Although most African-Americans could not afford anything near this price, local freed slaves bought about 2000 acres of land with the money they could scrape together. Northern whites could also buy the land and did so, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. The freed slaves also founded their first free town in South Carolina, Mitchelville, on Hilton Head Island. By 1865, it had 1500 residents. Largely these residents wanted to live away from white people, whether from the North or the South. They wanted freedom, autonomy, and independence to make their own decisions about life and work.

The government’s role in redistributing the land and taking care of the ex-slaves was, like much in the Civil War, deeply contradictory and filled with bureaucratic chaos. The soldiers under Sherman and the civilians sent down by Chase clashed constantly. The soldiers routinely beat and raped the slaves, stealing their food and their land. All of this outraged the missionaries and of course the freed slaves, but little was done, despite the official complaints. Congress never clarified what exactly should happen in the sea islands. Chase’s military men cared about getting the cotton in any way possible while his civilians wanted to teach citizenship to the ex-slaves. No cohesive plan ever developed and thus the success of the experiment was compromised from the beginning. The cotton did come, but not to the extent that it had before the war, in no small part because a lot of the ex-slaves did not want to grow cotton. A boll weevil epidemic also took a major toll on the crop. Philbrick himself believed the experiment a failure because the ex-slaves did not do precisely as he wanted them to do. He ended up selling off the plantation he had bought to the residents in small plots.

The Port Royal Experiment was tremendously successful in one way–it demonstrated to skeptical northerners that black people would work for themselves. Again, I recognize that this seems obviously self-evident but that was not the case in the early 1860s. Unfortunately by 1865, support for the redistribution of Confederate land to the ex-slaves had become very low throughout the North. Even among most Republicans and abolitionists, the sanctity of private property would be more important than economic redistribution. The suffrage became the key for abolitionists to lock in black rights, despite the fact that the first thing the ex-slaves wanted was access to land.

As for the land already redistributed in 1863, Andrew Johnson ordered it given back to the original white landowners in 1865, even after William Tecumseh Sherman had extended it through Field Order No. 15. The Port Royal Experiment came to a sad end. But not all of the land was claimed by the ex-owners and black landowning remained significant in the area well into the 20th century.

In the late 1930s, Sam Mitchell, one of the last remaining living people who lived through this told a Federal Writers Project interviewer, “I think slavery is just a murdering of the people. I think freedom been a great gift. I like my master and I guess he was as good to his slave as he could be, but I rather be free.”

The most complete historical discussion of the Port Royal Experiment is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, which I recommend.

This is the 198th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Treason in Defense of Abolitionism?

[ 131 ] November 1, 2016 |

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Richard Kreitner brings up the odd 1857 abolitionist convention in Worcester threatening secession as an avenue to asking tough questions of modern voters about the rhetoric of extremism running through American society. I hesitate to suggest this story has too much value for us today. First, the headline vastly overstates it. Even in 1857, hard core abolitionists like Garrison and Phillips were basically freaks that most people in the North still eschewed. William Lloyd Garrison had no political power to help move Massachusetts toward secession from the Slave Power. Second, it’s pushing the historical analogy envelope really far to create meaningful connections between this and Bernie or Bust rhetoric.

It is however worth remembering two points related to this. First, it’s remarkable just how shaky the entire existence of the nation was in the late 1850s and that the 1860-61 secession of the South was hardly the only moment where this was a serious consideration in the decade prior. Second, American political rhetoric and extremism is now more heated than it has been since the Civil War and that’s pretty scary. This is hardly the only time since then that radicalism has influenced American politics, as any student of American communism knows well. But those communists were actually pretty good Democratic Party voters in the Popular Front era, and we know that third parties never lead to anything in the United States. Never since the Civil War has the idea of even living under the regime of the other party been so distasteful on either side and certainly not since the Civil War has one party simply seen the other as inherently illegitimate to the point of creating a Constitutional crisis in order to stop opposition rule.

Not sure how we get through this. But I hope it happens with less violence than the last time.

What Do Trump Advisors Think About the Civil War?

[ 134 ] September 23, 2016 |

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OK, this is like shooting fish in a barrel. But still….

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is planning to the restrict the display of Confederate flags by “amend[ing] our policy to make clear that Confederate flags will not be displayed from any permanently fixed flagpole in a national cemetery at any time.”

As expressed in a letter written by Roger Walters, interim undersecretary for memorial affairs, “We are aware of the concerns of those who wish to see Confederate flags removed from public venues because they are perceived by many as a symbol of racial intolerance.”

Great! But this might not fit Trumpism:

But a recent vote indicated a majority of House Republicans oppose the VA’s attempt to restrict where and when the Stars and Bars can be displayed. So does Sid Miller, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner who was recently tapped to be Donald Trump’s national co-chairman of his agriculture advisory team.

In a Facebook post published Thursday, Miller suggests the Civil War was first and foremost about protecting free speech — not slavery. He also strikes a skeptical note about whether Confederates who fought against the United States behaved treasonously.

Responding to a Washington Post column supportive of the VA’s move, Miller writes that the piece “makes my blood boil” and says the Post isn’t “entitled to… attempt to read the minds of my long-dead Confederate ancestors and determine that their actions and motivations during that awful war were treasonous.”

He also denounces “politically correct bureaucrats” pushing for the Stars and Bars to be banned.

“With all that is going on around our world and the serious threats that exist to our country and our constitiional [sic] freedoms by those who carry black flags with Arabic writing upon them, I would think that those in our national government would simply leave alone the flags marking the burial grounds of our Confederate dead,” Miller writes. “Unfortunately, I fear that is just wishful thinking on my part and highlights why the outcome of the upcoming election is so very,very important.”

Boy, I wonder how we could determine the thoughts of those who committed treason to defend slavery?

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union

In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Truly, no one can read the minds of long-dead Confederates.

And hey, the Civil War was actually about free speech! That’s why conservatives should totally secede from the nation if those big government PC liberals dare to criticize them. After all, saying mean things when Sarah Palin or Donald Trump say something dumb is the ultimate restriction of free speech! And this is just outstanding.

In the lead up to the aforementioned House vote on Confederate flags, a staffer for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) circulated an email making a case for preserving the Confederate flag that’s similar to Miller’s. The staffer, Pete Sanborn, wrote, “You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL. Don’t be like ISIL. I urge you to vote NO.” He signed the email, “Yours in freedom from the PC police.”

Don’t be like ISIL, those liberals!

Book Notes

[ 7 ] July 5, 2016 |

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As I am desperately trying to write the draft of my book on strikes, one of the things I’ve had to sacrifice is writing book reviews here. They take too long to do well. But I did want to note a few relatively recently published books I’ve read recently that could be of interest to you.

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

This book got a lot of press, mostly for good reasons. Katznelson’s point that FDR had to rely on the South if he wanted to get any of his legislation passed and therefore had to compromise on all of it to preserve the racial order is highly useful, especially given the purity politics of the contemporary left that complains about incrementalism and then cites incredibly flawed and compromised New Deal legislation as counterexamples. So this is an invaluable point, richly detailed and also useful to show that many southern legislators could be quite economically progressive if the only beneficiaries were white people. But the half of the book on World War II really doesn’t add much to the story or the historical debate. And I’m really confused as to why, after a whole book on the Democratic Party needing to please the South, Katznelson does not discuss Truman’s decision to integrate the military in 1948.

Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia

Despite this book reinforcing my usual frustration with anthropological methodology (I get why people wouldn’t want their names used in a study like this. But if you are going to write “the largest coal producing county in West Virginia,” just name the damn county), this book asks a really vital question. We have lots of books on why people become activists. But isn’t the more useful question why don’t people become activists? Exploring the fight over mountaintop removal in West Virginia and the loyalty of West Virginians to coal despite what it does to their health and their land without actually providing many jobs, Bell helps answer this question. Very useful book. Highly recommended to those who take activism seriously.

Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South

Levine doesn’t exactly break new ground here, but this is a very good overview of the Civil War era, told with a focus on Southern planters watching their world fall apart around them. Reading the schadenfreude is not only interesting and insightful, but amusing too. Pretty good book. General readers will enjoy this.

Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers

This is a very good overview of the complexities of sex-specific labor laws in the twentieth century. Did they protect women or do they hurt women by being paternalistic and cutting them out of jobs? Mostly, as Woloch demonstrates, they proved useful as wedges to creating broader labor law that covered both sexes. Unfortunately, people like Alice Paul and the National Labor Party saw it the other way and turned politically conservative, fighting not only sex-specific labor law, but all labor law. Woloch extends the book to the cases of the 1970s and 1980s where companies tried to exclude women workers by not allowing them to labor in hazardous jobs.

Civil War Battles, Portrayed by Cats

[ 24 ] June 1, 2016 |

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Our national need for a Civil War museum consisting of battle reproduction scenes with cat figurine soldiers has finally been fulfilled.

In September, in the shadow of the historic battlefield here, twins Rebecca and Ruth Brown opened Civil War Tails, possibly America’s most whimsical war museum.

Their collection of scale-model battle dioramas includes Fort Sumter, the Battle of the Ironclads and their masterpiece, four years in the making, Pickett’s Charge, 1,900 cat soldiers in all.

Yes, cats, an inch or smaller, each one lovingly sculpted in clay by the 32-year-old sisters, then baked in a 225-degree oven. The choice of figurine was born of necessity more than devotion, although the sisters like cats plenty. “We just don’t make clay people as well as cats,” Rebecca says.

Personally, I look forward to the cat figurine scene of Sherman’s march to the sea.

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