Race and Reunion

In the final class session for History 117, students will discuss how historians such as David Blight and James Oakes portray Frederick Douglass’s evolution after the end of the Civil War. Blight wrote an article that offers a vivid portrait of an aging and angry Douglass fighting to preserve what he believed was the central legacy of the Civil War –the promise of emancipation.  Oakes concludes his notable joint study of Lincoln and Douglass by deftly examining how Douglass’s evolving views about Lincoln actually reflect a great deal about his own evolving sense of self.   Both scholars analyzewhy Douglass was distraught but still defiant over what he considered the betrayals of the “new birth of freedom” that occurred during Reconstruction.  Students should be able to explain how the great orator attempted to use the 1876 dedication of a Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln to forge what Blight described as a place for blacks within the national identity.  They should also be able to explain what was at stake for figures such as Douglass in the partisan the contest over defining the war’s legacy, especially over the movement known as “The Lost Cause”?  Less than a year before he died, at the age of 76, Douglass sounded an especially poignant note in what became one of his famous Dedication Day speeches.  “I shall never forget the difference,” he said, “between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”  His frustration was palpable and remains understandable but students should ask themselves how other Americans from that period, even those sympathetic to Douglass, might have reacted to such divisive commentary.  For those interested in finding out more about Douglass, please check out a new virtual tour of his life in Baltimore, available in a special Google Map created by the House Divided Project.

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Emancipation and Its Consequences

There might be no image more appropriate for understanding the revolutionary meaning of the Civil War than the one above.  The original is located at the Library of Congress, but the photograph (Men of Company E, 4th US Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln, Washington DC, circa 1865) is now ubiquitous. Students in History 117 should examine the image carefully, and try to find out more about it, beginning perhaps with the record in House Divided, but also after consulting a fascinating blog post by Andy Hall at Dead Confederates.  Try to imagine yourself as one of the soldiers depicted in this detail.  What was he thinking about? Then they should reflect on the meaning of this image in light of what they have read this week in James Oakes’s monograph on Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  How did these two men differ on the question of black soldiers?  Where did they agree?  The question of black troops, just like the issues of emancipation or civil rights, forced radicals and moderates to struggle mightily over tactics.  Students should explain how Lincoln and Douglass approached these issues at pivotal moments, such as in the summer of 1862 before Lincoln announced his plans for emancipation, or in the summer of 1864, when they met for the second time in the dismal period in August when it appeared that Lincoln might lose reelection.  Those who need additional background on the subject of black troops, should consult this web page from the National Archives.  Those seeking extra material on the war itself, should consult this page from the Digital History textbook, and this particular page for information on emancipation.

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Southern Women and Civil War

Augusta Jane Evans

In her article,”Altars of Sacrifice,” Drew Faust, a leading historian and current president of Harvard University, concludes with a startling judgment:  “It may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War.”  Students should be able to explain what Faust meant by this observation.  After all, southerners during the Civil War and in years since have extolled the virtues and sacrifices of the southern homefront.  Even Faust describes how white southern women sacrificed for the cause, especially during the first years of the war.  But Faust departs from the traditional narrative by documenting ways that southern women because increasingly disenchanted by the conflict and demonstrated their discontent.  Students should consider the examples that Faust describes and decide for themselves if southern women actually contributed to to the fall of the Confederacy.  Students should also take special note of Faust’s description of the popular wartime novel, Macaria by Augusta Jane Evans.  What does Irene, the protagonist of the novel, represent, according to Faust?  What does the popularity of the novel suggest about the evolving nature of southern (and American) society in the middle of the nineteenth-century?

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Civil War Strategy

In this week’s History 117 reading assignment, James McPherson asks a question that often gets overlooked in discussions of the Civil War –what caused it to end?  This approach reverses the usual emphasis on the war’s origins.  Instead of focusing on whether slavery or states’ rights caused the outbreak of war, McPherson suggests that studying the repeated failure to end the war reveal its true nature.  His article, “No Peace Without Victory,” documents the various failed efforts to negotiate settlements of the conflict. Students should be able to identify and explain the incompatible war aims of each side.  What prevented them from ending the fight, especially once it became clear that it would be so destructive of life and treasure?  Students should also be able to summarize the various stages of these failed negotiations.  Finally, they should also be able to consider the map above and reflect on what it might suggest about the competing challenges that faced both Union and Confederate strategists.

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Secession and War

Historian James Oakes argues that the crisis over secession illustrated the radical fire within Abraham Lincoln’s political exterior.  Both as president-elect and then as president, Lincoln refused to compromise with secessionists or even with moderates who hoped to avoid the bloodbath of civil war.   Often modern historical accounts emphasize the cautious nature of Lincoln’s union-first policy, especially during 1861 and 1862.  Yet Oakes sees the story moving in more radical fashion. What provides Oakes with his most persuasive evidence that Lincoln was actually converging quite quickly with radicals such as Frederick Douglass once the Civil War began?  And in which areas according to Oakes did Douglass and Lincoln still disagree as the war unfolded?  The 1860 political cartoon above bears the title, “The Political Quadrille, Music by Dred Scott.”  Students in History 117 should be able to identify and explain the figures and sarcastic symbols in such a cartoon.  They should also see the connections between the antebellum issues raised by this image and their lingering effects on Union policies during the Civil War itself.

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John Brown’s War

The point of James Oakes’s book, The Radical and the Republican (2007) is to show how Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln converged in their efforts to destroy slavery, both in terms of their policies and their style.  That is why John Brown (pictured right) represents such a challenge for Oakes’s narrative.  Brown was a hero to Douglass and mocked by Lincoln.  Nothing served to drive them further apart than their starkly different reactions to Brown’s notorious (celebrated?) raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain what Brown did and why and dissect the various responses to his actions.  Was Brown a revolutionary in the tradition of the nation’s founding revolutionaries, men such as Samuel Adams or even George Washington?  Or did Brown’s particular brand of messianic violence represent a departure from American political culture?  Brown was also unique in his strict egalitarianism –one of the reasons why Douglass so admired him.  Oakes does a superb job in this chapter of tackling the complicated question of racism in the 1850s.  Was Lincoln a racist?  What standards should students of history use to answer such a question?  For those seeking more background and direct access to primary sources about Brown, see the Major Topics section of the House Divided research engine on the Harpers Ferry raid (or click the Brown photo above).

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Rise of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is now the best known American in history, but until he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 he was a comparatively obscure political leader and attorney from Springfield, Illinois.  Yet James Oakes argues in the second chapter of his book, The Radical and the Republican (2007) that if Lincoln was little known, he was nonetheless entirely representative of an emerging antislavery consensus that was increasingly binding together the opponents of slavery on the basis of free soil principles.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain Lincoln’s antebellum views about slavery and why both the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857) proved to be so pivotal in shaping his antislavery positions.  Students should also use this opportunity before the field trip on Saturday to explore the House Divided website “Lincoln Douglas Debates Digital Classroom” which offers an array of tools for understanding Lincoln as a politician in the 1850s.

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In the first chapter of his book, The Radical and the Republican (2007), James Oakes explains how Frederick Douglass became a radical.  A runaway slave, Douglass joined the abolitionist movement spearheaded by editor William Lloyd Garrison but before too long, he found himself conflicted over the best means to end slavery.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain how anti-slavery radicals argued over the meaning of the Constitution and the best ways to promote the destruction of slavery in America.   For students who might benefit from a quick primer on the period, please consult the online textbook from Digital History –see especially chapters on abolitionism and colonization here and Jacksonian Era politics here.  Students should also explore the Underground Railroad Digital Classroom (click on Douglass image above or consult syllabus) for an array of tools about the fight to end slavery.

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Rough and Tumble Fighting

"Hands of Celebrated Gougers"

In his fascinating article, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch”: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” historian Elliott Gorn introduces students to the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting in early America.  What was gouging?  How should one interpret images such as the one to the right?  Why would Americans, especially white men in the southern backcountry, engage in such behavior and what does it suggest about the culture?  How does the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting compare to the social dynamics of Chesapeake horse-racing that Tim Breen described earlier in the semester?  Students should also consider how Gorn weaves the story of the southern backcountry into the narrative of the coming of the Civil War.  Does he offer a persuasive interpretation of male behavior for that era, or any era in American history?


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The Duel

Burr-Hamilton dueling pistols, Courtesy of NY Historical Assoc.

In 1804, the Vice-President of the United States killed the former Secretary of Treasury in the most infamous duel in American history.  Joanne Freeman uses this incident as the starting point for a sophisticated analysis of politics in the early republic.  She provides a new way to understand the behavior of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, both as by-products of their age but also as men striving to demonstrate their independence from convention.  Students in History 117 should read Freeman’s article carefully and be prepared to summarize how she describes the nature and history of dueling in America.  They should also be able to explain what chain of events and circumstances led to the Burr-Hamilton duel and why Hamilton, in particular, was conflicted over the proper course of action.  Finally, students should ask questions about the way the article characterizes the principle of honor in early nineteenth-century America.  Students may want to consult a helpful website from PBS on “The Duel.”  See especially a good timeline, helpful summaries of key people and events, and excerpts from the Code Duello.  The New York State Historical Association has posted the entire Burr-Hamilton duel correspondence here.

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