Slavery and Race In New York

Yesterday I commented on the importance of understanding Northern antebellum attitudes regarding the anti-slavery movement by acknowledging the distinction between slavery and race.  I thought I would follow that up by mentioning the new exhibit at the New York Historical Society.  The NYHS has been working hard to explore the connection between its history and the way in which slavery both shaped race relations and fueled the state’s economy.  Their first exhibit, "Slavery in New York" surveyed the history of slavery up to its abolition in 1827.  Their most recent exhibit, "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War" explores the history of the state between Emancipation and Reconstruction.  Edward Rothstein offers an interesting review of the exhibit in the New York Times.  It looks like the exhibit does a good job of exploring the ways in which New York City and the rest of the state was both economically and culturally connected to slavery and the South:

But the commercial lure of the South must have still been phenomenal. One
gallery stresses the way New York hotels offered Southern-style hospitality to
Southern guests, and it quotes a lawyer of the period referring to New York as
“virtually an annex of the South.” What accompanied all this, the exhibition
then shows, is racial caricaturing in popular culture: in P. T. Barnum exhibits,
minstrel shows and dance clubs.

Now that I find interesting. 

The cataclysm of the Civil War approaches, but it leads to no clear
resolution. In 1861 the city’s mayor, Fernando Wood — about as far from an
abolitionist as a New Yorker could be — suggested that New York City should
declare independence from both the North and the South, and serve both. The
city’s real allegiance might seem evident: New York was becoming a center of the
Union economic and military effort; ships were built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,
uniforms were supplied by the nascent garment industry, bankers were assuming
large amounts of Union debt, and New York lost more soldiers in the Civil War
(46,434) than any other state. But there were also countervailing forces. A
featured speaker at the postwar 1868 Democratic National Convention, held in New
York, was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku
Klux Klan

You move through the exhibition’s documents and objects (including a Union
jacket made by Brooks Brothers, a store looted during the draft riots) and try
to come to clarity, but contradictions persist. On the one hand, in 1864 a black
woman whose soldier husband was killed in the war was asked to leave a railway
car in the city to sit in spaces approved for colored riders; on the other hand,
she sued the railroad company and won. On one hand, city officials refused to
allow blacks to march in Lincoln’s funeral procession; on the other hand, the
secretary of war intervened in their favor, though they were permitted only to
bring up the long, trailing rear.

The exhibit ends in a period in which the ideals of the 13th, 14th and 15th
Amendments, which sought to undo slavery’s social evils, work their halting and
stuttering effect (with New York State actually rescinding the ratification of
the 15th); meanwhile large-scale immigration and the birth of modern urban life
transform other elements in the racial equation. There is no sense of triumph
here: one knows how much is yet to come.

But it is also clear just how immense and remarkable this long conflict
against slavery and its heritage has been: a singular enterprise, quashing an
ancient evil in its singularly modern form. To feel the weight of such forces
and begin to sense the complications that gave them shape in a city like New
York, is to begin to feel the pulse of history itself, which is precisely what a
historical society might well set as its goal and which is, here, handsomely

Looks like the exhibit is well worth a visit so if you have an opportunity take advantage of it.  As I stated yesterday it is important to break down our traditional distinctions if in doing so we come to a better appreciation for the way in which slavery and race shaped the entire country in the years leading up to and through the war.

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Bob Dylan Live

Last night I went to see Bob Dylan live in northern Virginia at George
Mason University.  This was my first time seeing Bob live and I was not
disappointed.  He played for 90 minutes straight and his voice actually
got better as the evening progressed.  I can’t say that it was the most
interesting musical performance that I’ve ever seen, but I can say that
I don’t remember ever feeling satisfied simply to be in the same room
with a performer.  You have to somehow remember that Dylan is 65 and for 90 minutes, along with maintaining a strong vocal, he is playing keyboard, harmonica, and conducting his band.  I’ve only been a fan for about 2 years thanks to my friend and colleague John Amos who also went to the show. 

What I admire most about Dylan is that he continues to make quality music.  Nobody really wants to hear groups like the Rolling Stones, Chicago or the Eagles play new music.  What the fans want are the classics.  Dylan played a number of songs from the new CD and the fan reaction was enthusiastic.  I am convinced that he could have played every song from the new CD and that would have been just fine.  The most interesting moment came at the end following the encore.  The lights dimmed and then all you see is white light with Dylan standing in front of his band just staring out at the audience.  It looked like something out of a Western movie.  If you have a chance to see him do so.  You won’t be disappointed.  Here is the set list from last night:

1. Cat’s In The Well
2. Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
3. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
4. Boots Of Spanish Leather
5. Cold Irons Bound
6. When The Deal Goes Down 
7. High Water (For Charley Patton)
8. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
9. Masters Of War 
10. Spirit On The Water 
11. Tangled Up In Blue
12. Nettie Moore
13. Highway 61 Revisited 
14. Love Sick
15. Thunder On The Mountain
16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. All Along The Watchtower
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Distinctions That Matter

This past week my AP classes focused on the Mexican-American War and the first half of the 1850’s.  Our discussions have centered on trying to better understand how the issue of slavery and the territories emerged as the most important question on the national stage.  It’s hard to draw a connection with an issue today which approaches the extent to which slavery had evolved to divide the nation.  After all, while Americans today debate stem cells, same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq none of these issues divides the nation along strict geographical lines.

Just about every year that I’ve taught the survey course in American history I’ve eventually had the discussion that tears down their neat distinction between the virtuous North and evil South.  I assume that these students were taught at some point in middle school or perhaps earlier to think along these lines.  No surprise given that history must be watered down at an early age owing to the student’s cognitive capacity.  By the time they get to their junior year in high school, however, it’s time to expand those boundaries. 

The specific challenge is in getting my students to a point where they can distinguish between race and slavery in reference to white Northerners.  Most of my students start off with the assumption that what it meant to be anti-slavery meant that you subscribed to the "radical" position of William L. Garrison.  We talk in great detail about the American Colonization Society’s plan to remove black Americans and why they believed this to be necessary.  As I understand it, the ACS did not believe that the races could co-exist and northerners specifically worried about the influx of former slaves into northern territory following the abolition of slavery.  I ask students to keep this in mind as they follow race relations into the twentieth century.

The Free-Soil Party and Republican Party argued against slavery and the spread of slavery into the western territories as a means to protect the future of free labor for white Americans.  Keep in mind that Know-Nothings (nativism) migrated into the new Republican Party.  Republicans maintained that part of the problem with slavery in the South was that it denied opportunity to poorer whites.  More importantly, keeping slavery out of the territories would benefit white Americans and the opportunity to engage in free labor.  Luckily, Eric Foner does a great job of highlighting this distinction:

The defining quality of northern society, Republicans declared, was the opportunity it offered each laborer to move up to  the status of landowning farmer of independent craftsmen, thus achieving the economic independence essential to freedom.  Slavery, by contrast, spawned a social order consisting of degraded slaves, poor whites with no hope of advancement, and idle aristocrats.  The struggle over the territories was a contest about which of two antagonistic labor systems would dominate the West and, by implication, the nation’s future.  If slavery were to spread into the West, northern free laborers would be barred, and their chances for social advancement severely diminished.  Slavery, Republicans insisted, must be kept out of the territories so that free labor could flourish. (p. 421, Give Me Liberty)

In saying all of this I am not denying that some Republicans did indeed focus on the issue of black civil rights as did Charles Sumner and others.  However, concentration on that group does not reflect the opinions of the general public. Without an appreciation of this important distinction between slavery and race it is impossible to understand wartime debates over emancipation, questions surrounding the federal government’s responsibilities during Reconstruction, and finally, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges related to black migration North and school integration in such cities as Boston following the Brown decision. 


What Constitutes A “Gaping Hole” In The Literature?

The other day Eric Wittenberg commented on what he sees as a "gaping hole" in the literature on the Gettysburg Campaign.  The specific hole in question has to do with the amount and quality of the coverage of the Second Battle of Winchester which took place between June 12 -15, 1863.  According to Eric, the two studies currently available to readers differ in overall quality; one of the two is a White Mane book, which is no doubt of little use.  The one book that is given some credit is part of the Battles and Leader series published by Howard Press:

The books in the Battles and Leaders Series are especially hit and miss. Some of
them are quite good. Some are simply atrocious. The book on Second Winchester is
solid, but its battle narrative is only about 85 pages long, meaning that
there’s not a great deal of depth there. 

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about this battle beyond what I’ve read in a number of books covering the Gettysburg Campaign.  I’ve always thought that I understood enough to make sense of how the battle fits into the campaign and specifically in connection to the movements of the two armies north towards Pennsylvania.  What I don’t understand is how a more detailed study would constitute the filling of a gaping hole.  What is it about the 85 pages that is insufficient?  Is it simply a matter of knowing much more detail about the movement of soldiers or will it allow us to see something new about the campaign?  I am skeptical.  In other words, why can’t we just say that here is an engagement that can be fleshed out in more detail on the tactical level.  However, we wouldn’t be missing much if no one ever got around to writing it. 

Seems to me that a study which fills a "gaping hole" must help us understand something in a new way.  It’s not that we simply end up knowing more about the subject but that we know it better.  For example, Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North provides us with the first detailed study of the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party.  It’s important because it reminds us that as Union armies struggled through the summer of 1864 the North continued to struggle with deep political divisions.  Now this book fills a gaping hole.

In the comments section to Eric’s post Art Bergeron suggested that the individual battles that constituted the Petersburg Campaign can be classified as gaping holes.  Now, I actually agree with this assessment.  In agreeing, however, I want to be clear as to why.  As many of you know I’ve been working on a book-length study of the Crater.  The first chapter of the book is an overview of the battle, but it is not a detailed tactical study.  And I should say that there is only one reliable book-length military study which was authored by William Marvel and Michael Cavanaugh back in 1989.  It is part of the Howard Series and is 120 pages in length (minus the tables and references).  I guess there is room for a more detailed study, but it seems to me that this wouldn’t add much to our understanding of the battle.  In my overview I concentrate on how Confederates evaluated the battle and connect their accounts to the broader issues of morale, nationalism, and race. 

My point is that the Petersburg Campaign constitutes a gaping hole because there are important questions that need to be answered beyond the tactical and strategic facts on the ground.  More detailed and proper analysis of the military will help us answer important questions.  Given that our tendency is to see the war in terms of an inevitable Confederate decline following Gettysburg we need to know much more about how soldiers viewed the progress of the war on both sides.  How confident were Union soldiers compared with Confederates as they made the best of life in the trenches?  How poorly off were Confederates in terms of supplies?  What did morale look like and were there continued signs of Confederate nationalism?  And of course we need to know much more about the interconnectedness of the battlefield and the home front and politics.  I’ve read through most of Jason Phillips’s article "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence" which appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Southern History.  Phillips does an excellent job of analyzing how Confederates perceived the war and how they generated rumors to assuage their concerns about the progress of the war throughout the final year.  Phillips provides a great deal of coverage of the war in Virginia.  We clearly know more about this period from the Confederate perspective, but we still need to look more carefully at the Union war machine in Virginia.  I am thinking of something equivalent to J. Tracy Power’s brilliant study of Lee’s army

I am not trying to nitpick with Eric’s preferred choice of study.  What I am suggesting is that lack of coverage or too few pages does not constitute a sufficient condition for historical study or a gaping hole in the literature.


Stepping Out

I’ve spent the past few weeks looking into other ways that I might be able to share my passion for teaching, serious scholarship, and critical thinking with a broader audience.  It’s not that I am losing interest in the classroom, but a matter of wanting a new challenge.  If I had it all to do over again I would work towards a degree in public history and try to land a job in a museum, archive, historical society or other historical site and do educational outreach.  Going back to school is not really an option for me.  At this point I have both an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Maryland at College Park (1995) and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond (2005).  How many more degrees do I need? 

Luckily for me working at a well-known and well-respected private school in Charlottesville has put me in touch with a number of people who work in various institutions.  I’ve made a few phone calls and have met with a few of these people to pick their brains as to how I might proceed.  Yesterday I met with a curator up at Monticello and before I knew it I was asked to join in on setting up an exhibit for their new Visitors Center.  I couldn’t be more excited about this exciting opportunity.  Perhaps hands-on experience will begin to open some doors.  The exhibit will be interactive and will allow visitors to explore the broad range of Jefferson’s ideas through his own words, images, and legacy. 

This is just what the doctor ordered.