I doubt that there are 2,000 people in attendance, but this is still a significant turnout.  The panelists from the two morning sessions are now taking questions from the audience.  I’ve met a number of blog readers and had a chance to talk with Andrew Dupstadt (Civil War Navy Blog) who is here with a contingent from North Carolina who are organizing their sesquicentennial.  Both sessions have been informative and the verdict of the participants thus far suggests that the format is working.  A wide range of issues have been raised to give the audience a sense of the state of the Union in 1859.

No surprise that this is an overwhelmingly white audience and if I were to guess the average age is somewhere in the mid-50s.  Well, it is a workday.  The overall tone is markedly different from that of the centennial.  I had a chance to talk with David Blight about this contrast during the last break.  Panelists have analyzed its importance with a certain comfort and ease that would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.  Walter Johnson just referenced the fact that a few slaveholders were, in fact, black.  There is no celebratory tone in this hallway.  This is an audience that has come to learn about American history in all of its complexity.  Given the constant Online banter that emanate from certain quarters about disengaged scholars I can only wish that you were sitting here today.  I am looking at eight of the top scholars engaging and arena full of people.  What a treat.

I can’t think of a better way of opening Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.


Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South” (Part 2)

If you visited Richmond in 1859 you would have witnessed a great deal of change, including ships going down the James with wheat for Australia, an increasing number of railroads, and a noticeable immigrant population.  Within this, slavery played a vital role and it was being utilized in a growing number of industrial settings within the region.  [Was this the future of the South?]  Insurance policies were more and more being taken out for slaves.  Slaveowners wanted to protect their property and Richmond legislators supported it.  Enslaved population of the South was worth more than all the railroads and factories in the North.

Va’s Role in the South: 1810 there were 22 congressman and in 1859 there were 11 – on a national level Va’s influence was in decline and its population did not have the prestige they was garnered, though Va still had more representation than other southern states.  Virginians felt a sense of loss and influence of powere in the federal government.  Important to note that other southern states still looked to Va for leadership – it had the largest slave population.  Within this there was an increasing loss of power from the Upper to Lower South.  A potential regional crisis might place Virginia in an awkward position.  Richmond’s modernity was used to further the institution of slavery (especially the railroads and sales).

The panelists have done an excellent job of highlighting just how interconnected Richmond was with both the rest of the South as well as the North.  We need to move beyond these static regional distinctions that fail to acknowledge the multiple connections that Richmonders experienced on a daily basis.

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Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South”

john_brown_1859Bob Kenzer, Charles Dew, Gregg Kimball, Lauranett Lee

While the population of Virginia was expanding there were problems.  Va was a net exporter of people.  Many white Virginians had to make very difficult decisions such as Cyrus McCormick who moved to Chicago.  Important to distinguish between the many geographic sections of Virginia.  Keep in mind that the state included the present state of W. Virginia.  Free blacks lived precarious lives; at different times they were forced to leave the state.

The largest crop in Virginia in 1859 was the wheat crop though it was growing more slowly than other parts of the country such as the west.  The emerging crop was the bright leaf tobacco, which was the new cash crop.  This was one sector where Virginia was holding its own and helped to sustain the loss of the population south and west of Richmond.  Richmond was a vital exporting node for the nation in 1859 – think of it as the southern point of the northeast transportation network.  The state of Richmond in 1859 serves as a reminder that the South was not monolithic.  The city was connected to the rest of the nation as well as the broader Atlantic economy.

Slave Trade in Richmond: Weekly sales figures for Hector Davis (Richmond slave auctioneer in 1858: $1,77321 and 1859: $2,671,572).  Tredegar didn’t bring in anywhere near this amount of money, which should give us a sense of how profitable the slave trade was at the end of the 1850s.  There was no stigma of being a slave trader in Richmond in the 1850s.  Sales were held at Shockoe Bottom as well as hotels in the area (Anthony Burns was resold into slavery in this location).

Remember to send questions to me at for the panelists.  You can still send questions for the first panel.


Session 1: “Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859” (Part 3)

The 1859 census will show that 99% of the north is white.  Most people in the North do not wake up thinking about the South.  They are thinking about jobs, the possibility of moving west – if the Indians are taken care of.  Indians were a concern for northern whites because many of the tribes were not yet forced on reservations or eliminated.  Most of the Louisiana Purchase is still vacant – a vast interland is still Indian country (something less than 25% is still unorganized)  Nothing is settled about the future of the west.

Northern cities and industrial growth: What does it look like?  New York City is the largest city at right around 1 million.  There are also great river cities like St. Louis.  According to Walter Johnso we’ve exxagerated the industrial development in the North; most of these cities are still mercantile – England is still much further evolved.  It’s an important point because of our sharp distinctions between industrial north and slaveholding South – much more complex. 1859 census will show that production of flower and meal is the most popular product followed by cotton and low on the list is iron and other industrial products.  Most northerners farm as in the South.  There are cities in the South that look much like Northern cities.  The second biggest port in 1859 is in New Orleans.

Why is the tariff so important?  The degree of urbanization was higher in the 1840s and 50s as opposed to any other time.  Defenders of slavery return to (1837-59) the fact that it exports far more than it imports and as a result is dependent on northern banks and merchants.  South has a favorable tariff after 1857 under the Buchanan administration (rate is around 20% and is not at that moment a major issue).

Free blacks in the South: The FB population is relatively low (3-4%) thought they are living in roughly the same places that enslaved blacks were living.  There is a free black population in Richmond working in warehouses and on farms as well as skilled trades.  There lives are precarious, especially in parts of the South, because unless your status can be verified your freedom could be taken away.  Certificates of freedom were not registered.  Free blacks lived outside of society thought they were impacted directly by it.  There is an active campaign in the South (LA) to pass legislation enslaving free blacks.  There was even a law that allowed free blacks to reenslave themselves.  General population believes that the black population needs to be controlled.  This issue has split major churces such as the Baptists.

Most people did not wake up in 1859 thinking that they are fast approaching a civil war or living in the Antebellum Age.


Session 1: “Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859” (Part 2)

The importance of Cuba connected directly with representation in the Senate – few slave states and a growing number of free states.  Cuba has the potential of bringing some balance to Congress.  White southerners not only have to deal with the growing power of free states in Congress, but an active abolitionist community.  Upward mobility in the South was being threatened by this more aggressive tone in the North as well as the gradual move of slavery further south.  The southern way of life is being challenged – more and more slaves are escaping north and in many cases Canada.  The best friend of slaveholders in 1859 was the federal government and its enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The South is a friend of strong federal power; it is their friend given the role it plays in returning escaped slaves.  FSA Commissioners are paid double if they prosecute a fugitive slave case.  Federal government is not simply involved in protecting property rights of slaveholders, it is also involved in kidnapping free people of color and putting them in slavery.

Even non-abolitionists were beginning to believe in a slave-power conspiracy.  The trial and eventual return of Anthony Burns fueled these concerns.  Northerners were weary of the power of the federal government.  Somewhere around 97% of white Northerners were not abolitionists.  Who was an abolitionist?  First, it was an extraordinarly brave thing to do given that both southerners and northeners might do you serious harm.  Claiming oneself to be an abolitionist was a major risk to take.  Abolitionists did not come in one form; rather they fell on a wide spectrum.  Example: Detroit (pop. 40,000 along with a professional Afr. Am. community)  They were very active in helping escaped slaves out of KY and even hosted F. Douglass.  A meeting was held in 1859 in which they considered an offer to speak with John Brown.  “Bleeding Kansas” caused a great stir and a great deal of controversy within the black community.  [GG is in his usual rare form – hilarious]  The black community sent him away because they thought he was much too dangerous.  Important to remember that the Second Great Awakening exercised an important influence on part of the nation’s view of slavery.

Growth and the importance of the railroad: Railroad mileage has more than quadrupled in slaveholding states and tripled in the free states.  Atlantic cable was placed in 1858, which revolutionized communication: space and time are shrinking.  Two engineers are gripped by the idea of transcontinental RR: Theodore Juda and Grenville Dodge.  The big problem is the politics of the RR: Where will it go?  Whichever city gets will derive economic development.  All of this had a profound impact on Native Americans.

To be continued…. [Send me question at and I will forward them to the moderator.


Session 1: “Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859”

aboutcommission2Christy Coleman, Gary Gallagher, Joan Waugh, Walter Johnson, Edward L. Ayers

Panelists are going to paint a broad panorama of what the nation looked like in 1859.

EA: What will leep out of the 1859 census?

GG: Growth of the nation and expansion of information network.  Dominant theme: growth and energy.

JW: Two largest immigrant groups in the north – Germans and Irish.  Looked at St. Louis, MO: Is it a northern or western state…it’s all three.  Pop. 160,000 with large immigrant population.  Anti-slavery mayor elected in that city.  Very few slaves lived in the city.

CC: Immigrations shaped the social enviroment.  Particularly among the Irish they were small farmers looking for work in poor working conditions and were beginning to be “pitted” against African Americans.  Great deal of conflict between these two groups.

GG: Important to note that there were pockets of immigrants all over the nation.

WG: Massive relocation of slaves from the Upper to Lower South, which had a devastating impact on slave families.  Slave prices were booming, which had implications for southern whites.  Increased slave prices made it difficult for non-slaveholders to become slaveholders.  This led to tenstions within the South.  The loss of slaves from Upper South caused great concern for the future of slavery in that region.

GG: Colorado is close to becoming a state after a gold strike.  This development promised to follow the story of California.

EA: Economy is doing well?

GG: Mixed picture

JW: South did better out of the 1857 recession.  The cotton economy continued to expand and produce wealth

WJ: The next state might be Cuba.  People in the MI Valley are hoping to expand a cotton empire into the Carribean – official policy (Ostend Manifesto) of the United States.  The linchpin of joining Mississippi economy with the broader Atlantic economy.

To be continued… I am going to refrain from keepin track of individual speakers.  Additional posts will try to provide a more cohesive narrative.

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Opening Remarks

Edward L. Ayers

The goal of today’s panels is to understand how Americans viewed their world in 1859 without the knowledge of what was to come.  From this perspective, Lincoln was a successful lawyer and Jefferson Davis still a senator.  If we do not understand the years leading to secession and war than we cannot understand four years of bloody conflict.

Governor Tim Kaine

Two crucial events in American history: Civil War forged our national identity and WWII secured the nation’s place on the world stage.  Comments on placement of Arthur Ashe, statue of Lincoln, etc.  All created controversy owing to the divisive nature of the war.  We are still wrestling with it as a commonwealth and as a country.  Not only did the war end slavery, but it enabled civil government to evolve in its responsibilities.  Mentioned that he read a biography of Andrew Jackson and learned that regional disputes have a rich history.  Hmmm…could it have been Mechum’s new biography.  Without the war and reunion the nation would not have become a player on the world stage.  Kaine is committing the state to battlefield preservation over the next few years.  We are here to learn from our past so we can come together in better understanding.


A Short Chat With Professor Charles Dew

Good morning and welcome to the University of Richmond for the first major event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The Robbins Center is beginning to fill up and there is certain excitement in the air.  As I mentioned we are expecting over 2,000 people today; keep in mind that this is a weekday.  I just finished talking with Professor Charles Dew of Williams College.  I asked him about the significance of beginning Virginia’s commemoration with 1859 as opposed to the Civil War Centennial which began with the firing on Fort Sumter.  Professor Dew believes that this will highlight the issue of slavery as the sectional conflict – the one issue that ultimately could not be dealt with within the political framework.  He believes that the integration of race and slavery is long overdue in our popular understanding of the war.  Ultimately, he hopes that this renewed focus will bring African Americans back into our national discussion of the war.

As for the format of this conference, Professor Dew couldn’t be more pleased.  He noted that historians have a tendency to talk shop and in a way that alienates the general public.  The lack of formal presenations will hopefully make for some interesting give and take between panelists and, ultimately, the audience.  We shall see.  Stay tuned.

[Note: Please keep in mind that these posts are being written on the fly.  There may be serious spelling and other grammatical issues.]