Close Reading of Lincoln’s Letter to Carl Schurz (1862)

By Ryan Schutte

On November 10th, 1862, twenty-nine year old Margarethe Schurz stood in front of President Lincoln himself and pronounced, “The defeat of the Administration is the Administration’s own fault.” She then accused the President of putting the Union Army, “into the hands of its enemies” and suggested that “There is but one way in which you [Lincoln] can sustain your Administration”[1]. However, these words did not come from Margarethe. She was just the messenger. Mrs. Schurz was sent by her husband, General Carl Schurz, to read a letter containing accusations and recommendations following the 1862 midterm elections.

Schurz to Lincoln Nov. 8 1862

Schurz to Lincoln, Nov. 8, 1862- Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress


Margarethe Schurz- Courtesy of With Malice Toward None (Library of Congress)

Lincoln 1862

Courtesy of Wikipedia











After receiving a letter of this nature, especially during the political climate at the time, one would expect Lincoln’s response to be an angry one.  At first glance, the return letter may even seem that way.  However, Lincoln’s letter simply displays a disagreement between two republican leaders.  Carl Schurz was a valued asset to Lincoln as an important political and military leader.  At a time when voter support was dwindling, support from his allies became even more crucial.  Lincoln’s letter of the 10th proved the importance he put on maintaing political relationships in order to achieve his end goal: to crush the rebellion and preserve the Union, free of slavery.


Carl and Margarethe together

Carl and Margarethe, 1852, shortly after their marriage- Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Carl Schurz was born in Liblar, Germany on March 2nd, 1829. College educated at the University of Bonn, Schurz “was strongly influenced by Professor Gottfried Kinkel, a convinced German nationalist…” [2]. In his early years of adulthood, the German Revolution of 1848 was in its beginnings, and the young Carl Schurz joined his mentor in fighting for “radical democratic and republican reforms” [3].  Schurz was forced to relocate to France where he met and married Margarethe Meyer.  In 1852, the newly weds immigrated to the United States.  Margarethe was educated and trained under Friedrich Froebel to be a kindergarten teacher.  She brought these teachings to America, becoming a pioneer for the kindergarten movement with her methods “to enhance children’s learning and social development”[4]. Carl Schurz, on the other hand, immediately found his way into politics, naturally fitting into the Republican Party.  Love from the German-American population, along with his anti-slavery sentiments and reputation as an excellent speaker made Schurz a prime Republican candidate.  Carl Schurz ignited his relationship with Abraham Lincoln during the Republican National Convention, where he served as a delegate from Wisconsin.  There in support of Lincoln, Schurz “…wooed the Germans, and Lincoln was convinced that this effort made a decisive contribution to the Republican victory.  Schurz’s reward was an appointment as minister to Spain” [5]. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Schurz convinced Lincoln to give him commission in the Union Army by letter on April 11, 1861 [6].  In May of that year, Lincoln wrote to Schurz saying, “Get the German Brigade in shape, and, at their request, you shall be Brigadier General…”[7].  Despite some military success, he was often criticized and blamed for his performance in key battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Wauhatchie, in the Chattanooga Theatre, for his military failures [8].

Republican National Convention 1860

Republican National Convention 1860- Courtesy of With Malice Toward None (Library of Congress)

Lincoln proposal

Lincoln’s name proposed at convention- Courtesy of With Malice Toward None (Library of Congress)

The exchange between Lincoln and Schurz on November 10th was not the first, and was certainly not the last. One could ask why Lincoln, as President of the United States and Commander in Chief, would tolerate this kind of feedback from Schurz, a subordinate? Throughout the war, Lincoln actually appointed several generals with political goals in mind.  Many times these men, Schurz included, were politicians first, with little to no military experience. Brooks Simpson explains, “…by making such men generals, the president satisfied political constituencies whose support was critical to a successful prosecution of the Union war effort” [9].  Their support was so important to Lincoln that he actually attempted to protect them in a way.  Brooks Simpson described a scenario involving one of Lincoln’s political generals, Nathaniel P. Banks, and Grant’s demand for his removal from command.  Even though Lincoln was aware of Banks’ incompetence, he was reluctant to make a change.  It took almost a month, and a formal request from Grant until Lincoln removed Banks from command.  Simpson commented, “Partisan considerations clearly outweighed military ones in this dispute” [10].  Several debates ended in this same manner where “partisan considerations” overrode military action. According to Michael Burlingame, “Lincoln regarded [Schurz] as a kind of surrogate son” [11].   Lincoln’s sense of value in their political relationship influenced his pragmatic willingness to deal with Carl Schurz’s insubordination.

When the the war first began, Northern morale was high and it was believed it would quickly come to an end.  Over a year into the conflict, however, all hopes for a quick end were gone.  Engagements such as the first and second battles of Bull Run, Shiloh Church, “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign solidified this sentiment.  Louis P. Masur explained, “…Americans were beginning to realize just how bloody a price would be paid, not for glory but for peace” [12]. This war-weary sentiment gave Democrats an opportunity to win over votes.  Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, “…promised a quick peace and the restoration of the Union ‘as it was'”[13].  Voters were quickly persuaded by this thought of peace.  As a result, Republican outlook for the midterm elections in 1862 was poor, and if not for the Union victory at Antietam, would have been worse. Even with this key victory, the elections hit hard in opposition to the Republican party where Democrats had a net gain of twenty-eight seats in the House.  As if that wasn’t demoralizing enough for Republicans, Democrats also succeeded in the state elections where they won the state houses in New Jersey, Illinois, and Indiana, as well as the governorships of New York and New Jersey [14].  Following the midterm elections, the Boston Daily Advisor proclaimed, “The overwhelming republican majorities of two years ago have melted away…It is impossible to disguise the fact that a feeling of dissatisfaction has been spreading among the people, at the slow progress and meagre results of the war…” [15].  These results were the fuel for Carl Schurz’s letter of November 8th, where he expressed his concerns to Lincoln pronouncing, “…the results of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof to the administration…” [16].

midterm elections

NYC after electing Dem. Horatio Seymour Governor- Courtesy of Civil War Daily Gazette


Lincoln began his response with an embrace of defeat declaring, “We have lost the elections…”  There was no disputing this fact, however, the president then gave his own reasons for the midterm defeats.  He began by claiming,“The Democrats were left in a majority by our friends going to the war… and determined to reinstate themselves in power…”  Even though the Southern states had seceded, many of the Democrats they elected to Congress still remained.  Lincoln’s third and final point refers to the newspapers “vilifying and disparaging the administration,” which persuaded public opinion and gave the Democrats the “weapons” to win back power.  Newspapers allowed readers around the United States to keep up to date with wartime news.  Many Republican affiliated newspapers existed such as the New York Times, who threw support for Lincoln and his administration.  On the other hand, Democratic affiliated newspapers attempted to “vilify” it.  Papers such as the New York World, The Chicago Times and the Richmond Dispatch provided plenty of fuel for the Democratic Party against the Lincoln administration.  In 1863, General Ambrose went as far as to order the suppression of The Chicago Times.  Although President Lincoln lifted the general’s ban, he later sent another order “telling Burnside he might let the suppression stand temporarily,” proving his dissatisfaction of the paper [17].  In 1864, under a similar political situation, Copperhead newspapers were still arguing “If nothing else would impress upon the people the absolute necessity of stopping the war, its utter failure to accomplish any results…would be sufficient”[18].

Even pro-Union Newspapers such as the New York Times could not hide the death and destruction resulting from the war.  Photographers such as Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and James Gibson helped make battle scenes available to the public, especially in photographs from Antietam. However, many of these photos depicted mostly Confederate dead, as these photographers were Republican-affiliated and supported the war effort. Regardless, civilians were now able to see real-life pictures of the cruelty of war. Brady in particular made an impact to the public with his gallery in New York City titled, “The Dead of Antietam.” A New York Times reporter visited and reviewed the gallery. On October 10th, the review was posted. It read:

“The dead of the battle-field come to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee….Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it….We should scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of those women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches….Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever. All of this desolation, imagination must paint[,] for broken hearts cannot be photographed” [19].

Although few actually visited the gallery, the incredibly descriptive and vivid review in the New York Times forced all readers to imagine a heart-broken widow, mother, or sister devastated over their loss. Newspaper articles like these allowed readers to recognize the destruction the war created, and helped strengthen war-weary sentiments and the desire for peace.

Confederate Dead at Antietam

Confederate Dead at Antietam- Courtesy of History 288: Civil War & Reconstruction Image Gallery


Lincoln finished his “three main causes” suggesting “…the ill-success of the war had much to do with this [defeat].”  Lincoln aimed to show that the failures of the midterm election could not be put solely on the administration.  He reaffirmed this belief in a follow up letter to Schurz saying “…we lost the late elections, and the administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful; and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it” [20].  In the opening paragraph, Lincoln admitted defeat in the elections, but also casted blame away from his administration.  His “three main causes” exemplify his attempt to shift blame away in order protect his administration’s objectives and maintain support.

In the second paragraph of the letter, Lincoln gives a list of Schurz’s accusations that he would later refute.

“You give a different set of reasons. If you had not made the following statements, I should not have suspected them to be true. “The defeat of the administration is the administrations own fault.” (opinion) “It admitted its professed opponents to its counsels” (Asserted as a fact) “It placed the Army, now a great power in this Republic, into the hands of its’ enemys” (Asserted as a fact) “In all personal questions, to be hostile to the party of the Government, seemed, to be a title to consideration.” (Asserted as a fact)…”

After each of Schurz’s quotes, Lincoln put in parentheses “opinion” or “asserted as a fact.”  These remarks convey Lincoln’s slight irritation upon hearing Schurz’s arguments.  After all, this was not the first time he had heard similar claims.  For example, congressman David D. Field sent a letter to Lincoln on the same day as Schurz containing his “Four Complaints” of the administration.  In his opening, Field said, “The elections are very significant; nobody who observes carefully can fail to understand them. The people are dissatisfied” [21].  Still, it is important to notice that Lincoln was not overly hostile in his response to Schurz.  The usage of parentheses allowed him to reveal Schurz’s lack of information in a more mild manner.

David Field Letter

David Field to Lincoln, Nov. 8, 1862- Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress


In the third and final paragraph of the letter, Lincoln gives a counter to each of Schurz’s arguments.  He started by refuting Shurz’s first asserted fact, accusing the administration of giving Democrats too many positions of power.  He stated, “The administration came into power, very largely in a minority of the popular vote.” Here, Lincoln argued that while he won the election in 1860, with 180 electoral votes, he won only 40% of the popular vote [22].  He continued, “Notwithstanding this, it distributed to it’s party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did.”  Many of the distributions to “party friends” came in the way of military appointments.  Brooks D. Simpson labeled some of these appointees as “…men who owed their stars to their prewar political prominence…”  In his essay, Simpson names Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, John McClernand, and John Frémont as some men who fit this description.  Carl Schurz could be added to this list as well.  He comments on Frémont saying he “…possessed some military experience, but his status as the first presidential nominee of the Republican party proved far more important in the decision to make him a general” [23].

Lincoln with McClernand

Lincoln with John McClernand on the right- Courtesy of mental_floss


The President went on to argue that “It was mere nonsense to suppose a minority could put down a majority in rebellion.” He pointed out that the war was against the South, consisting almost entirely of Democrats.  It would make  no sense to put down a rebellion of Southern Democrats without using the Democrats who still identified with the Union.

Lincoln then broke down Schurz’s second “asserted fact” that he had “…placed the Army…into the hands of its’ enemies.”  He addressed Schurz as “Mr Schurz (now Gen. Schurz).”  With this, Lincoln gave a reminder that he was at least one Republican in a high military office.  Lincoln continued by disproving the accusation that “…all who were not republicans, were enemies of the government, and that none of them must be appointed to to [sic] military positions.”  He noted that very few Republican leaders “…had a military education or were of the profession of arms.” On the other hand, there was an abundance of qualified Democrats.  He backed up his decisions by referring to Republican support from the Governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Lincoln added he “…received recommendations from the republican delegations in congress….”  Also, throughout Lincoln’s refutation of the second “asserted fact” he began to refer to Schurz in the third person. Examples include:

“…I do not recollect that he then considered…”, “He will correct me if I am mistaken.”, and “…our own friends (I think Mr. Schurz included) seemed to think…”

In the second paragraph of his letter, Lincoln’s counters were an attempt to remind Schurz of the facts and to remain rational in the face of the recent election defeats.

Lastly, Lincoln argued against Shurz’s third and final asserted fact that the administration had been hostile to its own party.  He claimed, “But, after all many Republicans were appointed…” in reference to the previously mentioned Banks, Frémont, McClernand, Butler, and, of course, Schurz himself.   He then commented on Schurz and other Republican appointees saying, “…I do not see that their superiority of success has been so marked as to throw great suspicion on the good faith of those who are not Republicans.”  In other words, Lincoln was saying that Republicans in military positions had not had any more success than Democrats in the same positions.

In Carl Schurz’s autobiography, he recalled the chain of letters and encounters he had with Lincoln in November of 1862.  The President’s quick response with an “…undertone of impatience, of irritation, unusual with him…” caught Schurz off guard. By Lincoln’s request, the two set up a meeting to talk. Schurz explained the encounter saying, “Then he [Lincoln] described how the criticisms coming down upon him from all sides chafed him, and how my letter…had touched him as a terse summing up of all the principal criticisms and offered him a good chance at me for a reply” [24].  This reveals that while Lincoln’s response was slightly stern, it was a result of constant criticism he was receiving from countless republican leaders.  Schurz recalled the end of their meeting saying, “I asked whether he still wished that I should write to him. ‘Why, certainly,’ he answered; ‘write me whenever the spirit moves you.’ We parted as better friends than ever” [25].

At first glance, the letter from President Lincoln to General Schurz may give the impression of a cold relationship.  After all, most of Lincoln’s letter was dedicated to the refutation of Schurz’s initial letter of the 8th.  But thats just it.  Lincoln and Schurz were simply in an argument at a time of a significant political hit.  What’s important to notice about this letter is the lack of hostility and the calm demeanor from Lincoln’s side.  From an outside view, Carl Schurz was a subordinate to Lincoln, clearly overstepping his boundaries.  In reality, however, the value of Schurz as a political ally overrode this fact.  Lincoln was willing to accept insubordination in return for political harmony at a time when support was hard to find.  Without backing from the nation’s leaders, there would be no backing for the war itself.  Schurz exemplified a strong republican leader, with constituents and common goals, whose support was crucial for the war effort.   Lincoln believed strong political support would be a major stepping stone toward his end goal: to crush the rebellion and preserve the Union, free of slavery.

Schurz Statue

Courtesy of With Malice Toward None (Library of Congress)


[1] “Carl Schurz to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday November 08, 1862 (Political and military advice).” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[2]Trefousse, Hans L. “Schurz, Carl.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

[3]Trefousse, Hans L. “Schurz, Carl.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

[4]Beatty, Barbara. “Schurz, Margarethe Meyer.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

[5]Trefousse, Hans L. “Schurz, Carl.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

[6] “Carl Schurz to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Military commission).” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[7] “Abraham Lincoln to Carl Schurz, [May 13, 1861] (Appointment as Brigadier General).” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[8]Trefousse, Hans L. “Schurz, Carl.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

[9]Simpson, Brooks D. “Lincoln and His Political Generals.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. January 1, 2000.

[10]Simpson, Brooks D. “Lincoln and His Political Generals.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. January 1, 2000.

[11] Burlingame, Michael. “I Am Not a Bold Man, But I Have the Knack of Sticking to My Promises!” In Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 3176. Vol. 2. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

[12]Masur, Louis. “1862.” The Civil War a Concise History, 118. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. 34.

[13]Von Drehle, David. “Wartime Elections: Lincoln, November 1862.” Command Posts. October 31, 2012.

[14]Masur, Louis. “1862.” The Civil War a Concise History, 118. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. 44.

[15]”It is now certain that the fall elections have resulted for the administration in the loss of the next House of Representatives.” Boston Daily Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 7 Nov. 1862: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

[16]Von Drehle, David. “Wartime Elections: Lincoln, November 1862.” Command Posts. October 31, 2012.

[17] Tenney, Craig D. “To Suppress or Not to Suppress: Abraham Lincoln and the Chicago Times.” America: History and Life Online. 46. September 1981.

[18]McPherson, James M. “No Peace without Victory, 1861-1865.” He American Historical Review 109, no. 1, 18.

[19]Masur, Louis. “1862.” The Civil War a Concise History, 118. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. 44.

[20]”Abraham Lincoln to Carl Schurz, Monday, November 24, 1862.” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[21] David D. Field to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, November 08, 1862 (Election results). The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[22] Pinsker, Matthew. “The 1860 Election and the Coming of Civil War.” History 288: Civil War and Reconstruction. .

[23]Simpson, Brooks D. “Lincoln and His Political Generals.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. January 1, 2000.

[24]”The Officers: Carl Schurz (1829-1906).” Abraham Lincoln and Friends.

[25]”The Officers: Carl Schurz (1829-1906).” Abraham Lincoln and Friends.


“Abraham Lincoln to Carl Schurz, [May 13, 1861] (Appointment as Brigadier General).” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

“Abraham Lincoln to Carl Schurz, Monday, November 24, 1862.” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Beatty, Barbara. “Schurz, Margarethe Meyer.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

Burlingame, Michael. “I Am Not a Bold Man, But I Have the Knack of Sticking to My Promises!” In Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 3176. Vol. 2. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

“Carl Schurz to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Military commission).” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

David D. Field to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, November 08, 1862 (Election results). The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

“It is now certain that the fall elections have resulted for the administration in the loss of the next House of Representatives.” Boston Daily Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 7 Nov. 1862: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Masur, Louis. “1862.” The Civil War a Concise History, 118. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

McPherson, James M. “No Peace without Victory, 1861-1865.” He American Historical Review 109, no. 1, 18.

Pinsker, Matthew. “The 1860 Election and the Coming of Civil War.” History 288: Civil War and Reconstruction. .

Simpson, Brooks D. “Lincoln and His Political Generals.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. January 1, 2000.

Tenney, Craig D. “To Suppress or Not to Suppress: Abraham Lincoln and the Chicago Times.” America: History and Life Online. 46. September 1981.

“The Officers: Carl Schurz (1829-1906).” Abraham Lincoln and Friends.

Trefousse, Hans L. “Schurz, Carl.” American National Biography Online. February 1, 2000.

Von Drehle, David. “Wartime Elections: Lincoln, November 1862.” Command Posts. October 31, 2012.

Fort Sumter in 1865

US flag flying again over Fort Sumter, April 14, 1865

Exactly four years after he had surrendered Fort Sumter to the Confederates, Union officer Robert Anderson returned to Charleston to help once again raise the U.S. flag over the now-ruined harbor fortifications.  Following an emotional mid-day ceremony, hundreds of men and women, included dozens of notable figures like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, gathered on Friday afternoon, April 14, 1865 to hear the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher deliver a commemorative speech from what he memorably called, “this pulpit of broken stone.”  Beecher spoke at length about the meaning of the war, offering President Lincoln in particular his “solemn congratulations” for his “disinterested wisdom” during the long conflict and for having maintained “his life and health under the unparalleled burdens and sufferings of four bloody years.”   Yet that very night, of course, the president was shot at Ford’s Theatre.  Lincoln died the next morning at almost exactly the same time that Garrison had gone with several of the other leading abolitionists to visit the gravesite of the late secessionist John C. Calhoun.  The day before Beecher had vowed that “Slavery cannot come back.” Now, standing over Calhoun’s imposing tombstone, Garrison sternly echoed that sentiment by telling his friends: “Down into a deeper grave than this, slavery has gone, and for it there is no resurrection.”

It was yet another one of those unforgettable moments from the American Civil War, and what makes it even more compelling is that we have some amazing photographic evidence of that astonishing trip.  The War Department had sent several photographers to help capture scenes from the Sumter events and then from across the devastated city of Charleston.  These are all now in the collection of the Library of Congress. Some of these images are famous, and widely reproduced, like the ones of the four black children (in Union military garb) seated by the pillars of the city’s well known circular church:

1865-04 black children charleston

Other images from that period are less familiar, but still vital for understanding the narrative details of this critical episode.  In particular, there is one heavily damaged image, not usually reproduced, but which shows a level of crowd detail from around Beecher’s speech unprecedented in the other images from the series.

1865-04-14 Damaged Image

Yet that heavily stained image (above), yields this wonderful detail (below), which clearly shows Major General Anderson, seated on the crowded platform itself, casually holding a walking stick, just to the right (our left) of the standing Rev. Beecher, who is tightly clutching the pages of his windblown speech.

1865-04-14 Anderson, Beecher, Nicolay

Relying on this image and others from the series, we here at the House Divided Project have been busy trying to identify the rest of the notables at the event.  Most important, we are trying to figure out exactly where editor William Lloyd Garrison was seated.  His best modern biographer, the late Henry Mayer, used a detail from one of the blurrier versions of this image to claim that Garrison was probably the man in the big hat seated a few feet to Beecher’s left (our right), but the quality of this particular detail shows how unlikely that was.



1865-04-14 Garrison [?] at SumterWe think it is far more likely that Garrison was this lean, spectacled man, standing here (right) in reflective pose after the ceremony.  In part, we believe this man was Garrison, because other images from the event suggest that he was seated behind Gen. Anderson, among other leading abolitionists, such as George Thompson, from Britain (and Garrison’s close friend), and also New York antislavery editor Theodore Tilton.  White House aide John G. Nicolay, who was serving as the president’s personal emissary to the event, was also in that section of the platform. Details from some of these images are provided below.  We also have some zoomable versions at the House Divided research engine, showing preparations, and two slightly different versions of Beecher’s speech, here and here.  The bulk of the images from that journey have been digitized by the Library of Congress, more than two dozen of them are now available online.  Check them all out and decide for yourself.  If you come across anything important, please offer your insights in the comments section below.  If you can, please help us identify any other notables in the audience.  We are especially eager to find Robert Smalls, the ex-slave and wartime hero.  Newspaper accounts claimed that the ceremony was attended by a mixed race crowd and that Smalls was present and widely celebrated –but we cannot find him, nor actually much evidence of any black presence near the speaker.

Image 3 Garrison [?] standing center

Larger version of the image with Garrison standing by pole, center



This post originally appeared at Blog Divided.

Underground Railroad and Coming War

The Underground Railroad was a metaphor. Yet many textbooks treat it as an official name for a secret network that once helped escaping slaves. The more literal-minded students end up questioning whether these fixed escape routes were actually under the ground. But the phrase “Underground Railroad” is better understood as a rhetorical device that compared unlike things for the purpose of illustration. In this case, the metaphor described an array of people connected mainly by their intense desire to help other people escape from slavery. Understanding the history of the phrase changes its meaning in profound ways.

Even to begin a lesson by examining the two words “underground” and “railroad” helps provide a tighter chronological framework than usual with this topic. There could be no “underground railroad” until actual railroads became familiar to the American public–in other words, during the 1830s and 1840s. There had certainly been slave escapes before that period, but they were not described by any kind of railroad moniker. The phrase also highlights a specific geographic orientation. Antebellum railroads existed primarily in the North–home to about 70 percent of the nation’s 30,000 miles of track by 1860. Slaves fled in every direction of the compass, but the metaphor packed its greatest wallop in those communities closest to the nation’s whistle-stops.

Looking into the phrase “Underground Railroad” also suggests two essential questions: who coined the metaphor? And why would they want to compare and inextricably link a wide-ranging effort to support runaway slaves with an organized network of secret railroads?

The answers can be found in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, or those who agitated for the immediate destruction of slavery, wanted to publicize, and perhaps even exaggerate, the number of slave escapes and the extent of the network that existed to support those fugitives. According to the pioneering work of historian Larry Gara, abolitionist newspapers and orators were the ones who first used the term “Underground Railroad” during the early 1840s, and they did so to taunt slaveholders.[1] To some participants this seemed a dangerous game. Frederick Douglass, for instance, claimed to be appalled. “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad,” he wrote in his Narrative in 1845, warning that “by their open declarations” these mostly Ohio-based (“western”) abolitionists were creating an “upperground railroad.[2]

Publicity about escapes and open defiance of federal law only spread in the years that followed, especially after the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Anxious fugitives and their allies now fought back with greater ferocity. Douglass himself became more militant. In September 1851, he helped a former slave named William Parker escape to Canada after Parker had spearheaded a resistance in Christiana, Pennsylvania, that left a Maryland slaveholder dead and federal authorities in disarray. The next year in a fiery speech at Pittsburgh, the famous orator stepped up the rhetorical attack, vowing, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers”.[3] This level of defiance was not uncommon in the anti-slavery North and soon imperiled both federal statute and national union. Between 1850 and 1861, there were only about 350 fugitive slave cases prosecuted under the notoriously tough law, and none in the abolitionist-friendly New England states after 1854.[4] White southerners complained bitterly while abolitionists grew more emboldened.

Students often seem to imagine runaway slaves cowering in the shadows while ingenious “conductors” and “stationmasters” devised elaborate secret hiding places and coded messages to help spirit fugitives to freedom. They make few distinctions between North and South, often imagining that slave patrollers and their barking dogs chased terrified runaways from Mississippi to Maine. Instead, the Underground Railroad deserves to be explained in terms of sectional differences and the coming of the Civil War.

One way to grasp the Underground Railroad in its full political complexity is to look closely at the rise of abolitionism and the spread of free black vigilance committees during the 1830s. Nineteenth-century American communities employed extra-legal “vigilance” groups whenever they felt threatened. During the mid-1830s, free black residents first in New York and then across other northern cities began organizing vigilant associations to help them guard against kidnappers. Almost immediately, however, these groups extended their protective services to runaway slaves. They also soon allied themselves with the new abolitionist organizations, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. The most active vigilance committees were in Boston, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia led by now largely forgotten figures such as Lewis Hayden, George DeBaptiste, David Ruggles, and William Still.[5] Black men typically dominated these groups, but membership also included whites, such as some surprisingly feisty Quakers and at least a few women. These vigilance groups constituted the organized core of what soon became known as the Underground Railroad. Smaller communities organized too, but did not necessarily invoke the “vigilance” label, nor integrate as easily across racial, religious, and gender lines. Nonetheless, during the 1840s when William Parker formed a “mutual protection” society in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or when John Brown created his League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts, they emulated this vigilance model.

These committees functioned more or less like committees anywhere—electing officers, holding meetings, keeping records, and raising funds. They guarded their secrets, but these were not covert operatives in the manner of the French Resistance. In New York, the vigilance committee published an annual report. Detroit vigilance agents filled newspaper columns with reports about their monthly traffic. Several committees released the addresses of their officers. One enterprising figure circulated a business card that read, “Underground Railroad Agent”.[6] Even sensitive material often got recorded somewhere. A surprising amount of this secret evidence is also available for classroom use. One can explore letters detailing Harriet Tubman’s comings and goings, and even a reimbursement request for her worn-out shoes, by using William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872), available online in a dozen different places, and which presents the fascinating materials he collected as head of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Anyone curious about how much it cost to help runaways can access the site where social studies teacher Dean Eastman and his students at Beverly High School have transcribed and posted the account books of the Boston vigilance committee. And the list of accessible Underground Railroad material grows steadily.

But how did these northern vigilance groups get away with such impudence? How could they publicize their existence and risk imprisonment by keeping records that detailed illegal activities? The answer helps move the story into the 1840s and 1850s and offers a fresh way for teachers to explore the legal and political history of the sectional crisis with students. Those aiding fugitives often benefited from the protection of state personal liberty laws and from a general reluctance across the North to encourage federal intervention or reward southern power. In other words, it was all about states’ rights—northern states’ rights. As early as the 1820s, northern states led by Pennsylvania had been experimenting with personal liberty or anti-kidnapping statutes designed to protect free black residents from kidnapping, but which also had the effect of frustrating enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws (1793 and 1850). In two landmark cases—Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Ableman v. Booth (1859)—the Supreme Court threw out these northern personal liberty protections as unconstitutional.

Students accustomed to equating states’ rights with South Carolina may be stunned to learn that it was the Wisconsin supreme court asserting the nullification doctrine in the mid-1850s. They may also be shocked to discover that a federal jury in Philadelphia had acquitted the lead defendant in the Christiana treason trial within about fifteen minutes. These northern legislatures and juries were, for the most part, indifferent to black civil rights, but they were quite adamant about asserting their own states’ rights during the years before the Civil War. This was the popular sentiment exploited by northern vigilance committees that helped sustain their controversial work on behalf of fugitives.

That is also why practically none of the Underground Railroad agents in the North experienced arrest, conviction, or physical violence. No prominent Underground Railroad operative ever got killed or spent significant time in jail for helping fugitives once they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line or the Ohio River. Instead, it was agents operating across the South who endured the notorious late-night arrests, long jail sentences, torture, and sometimes even lynching that made the underground work so dangerous. In 1844, for example, a federal marshal in Florida ordered the branding of Jonathan Walker, a sea captain who had been convicted of smuggling runaways, with the mark “S.S.” (“slave-stealer”) on his hand. That kind of barbaric punishment simply did not happen in the North.

What did happen, however, was growing rhetorical violence. The war of words spread. Threats escalated. Metaphors hardened. The results then shaped the responses the led to war. By reading and analyzing the various Southern secession documents from the winter of 1860–1861, one will find that nearly all invoke the crisis over fugitives.[7] The battle over fugitives and those who aided them was a primary instigator for the national conflict over slavery. Years afterward, Frederick Douglass dismissed the impact of the Underground Railroad in terms of the larger fight against slavery, comparing it to “an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon”.[8] But Douglass had always been cool to the public value of the metaphor. Measured in words, however—through the antebellum newspaper articles, sermons, speeches, and resolutions generated by the crisis over fugitives—the “Underground Railroad” proved to be quite literally a metaphor that helped launch the Civil War.

[1] Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961; Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 143–144.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 101 (

[3] Frederick Douglass, “The Fugitive Slave Law: Speech to the National Free Soil Convention in Pittsburgh,” August 11, 1852 (

[4] See the appendix in Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law: 1850–1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), 199–207.

[5] Out of these four notable black leaders, only David Ruggles has an adult biography available in print. See Graham Russell Gao Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[6] Jermain Loguen of Syracuse, New York. See Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 410.

[7] See secession documents online at The Avalon Project from Yale Law School (

[8] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881), 272 (

This essay was reposted from History Now (Winter 2010), an online magazine of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Lincoln’s Fremont Problem

General John C. Fremont

According to historian Louis Masur, Abraham Lincoln was “upset” by Union General John Fremont’s decision on August 30, 1861 to announce from his headquarters in St. Louis the general emancipation of rebel-owned slaves in Missouri (p. 28).  Yet, in his first letter to Fremont requesting changes in this proclamation, which he sent by special messenger from Washington just a few days later, Lincoln doesn’t sound so upset.  He claimed only that two points in the fiery August 30 directive (which had also declared martial law) had given him “some anxiety.”  The president dealt with the first matter regarding the shooting of people under the terms of Fremont’s martial law in blunt fashion, saying effectively, don’t do it without my approval, but then addressed the second matter concerning emancipation in a more subtle fashion.  He asked Fremont to modify this part of the order “as of your own motion,” so that it would “conform” to the recent Confiscation Act (August 6, 1861) and claimed explicitly that he was making these confidential requests “in a spirit of caution, and not of censure.”

Now this is a  good example of how historians have to interpret evidence and how these interpretations actually matter.  Masur believes Lincoln was upset because he thinks the Great Emancipator was still adamant in the summer of 1861 that the war was being fought over union and not slavery.  That is why Masur claims that Lincoln found the Fremont proclamation so upsetting and “objectionable,” mainly because, as he puts it in The Civil War: A Concise History (2011), the order “violated the terms of the Crittenden-Johnson resolution, adopted by Congress on July 25, which reaffirmed the position that the war was not being fought to overthrow or interfere with established institutions” (28).  Yet, Lincoln never mentioned that important (and very conservative-sounding) resolution in either of his two letters to Fremont.  Nor did he use the word “objectionable” in his initial communication with Fremont, which Masur does not quote from in his short book.

Jesse Benton Fremont

Jesse Benton Fremont

Yet even in Lincoln’s second letter to Fremont, the one which Masur quotes from, the tone is not necessarily “upset.” Written in response to the general’s September 8th reply to his “private and confidential” September 2d telegram, the president still remained at least outwardly calm despite the fact that the general was stubbornly refusing to do what he had suggested.  Fremont had actually sent his wife, Jesse Benton Fremont, an experienced politico herself, to deliver his response to the White House.  She did so apparently around midnight on September 10, 1861. There was some kind of dramatic confrontation between Mrs. Fremont and President Lincoln that evening at the White House although its nature has been disputed.  Two years later, the president recalled, according to the wartime diary of a close aide, that she “taxed me violently” during their conversation, although much of their argument by his recollection concerned rumors of Fremont’s administrative incompetence and factional politics in Missouri and not either martial law or emancipation (John Hay diary, December 9, 1863).  This claim of the president’s is supported by a private memo from another White House aide (John Nicolay) produced just a week after the confrontation which asserted that the “matter of the Proclamation … did not enter into the trouble with the Gen” (September 17, 1861).  Years later, Jesse Fremont remembered it much differently, claiming in 1891 that Lincoln was focused almost solely on the dangers of emancipation and had told her: “the General should never have dragged the Negro into the war.”  This is not a very credible recollection, but it has appeared in various forms in many secondary sources and presumably helped inform Masur’s outlook.  Regardless, what resulted from this unusual collision was a second presidential note, this time for public consumption, in which Lincoln claimed that while there was “no general objection” to Fremont’s August 30th order, on the particular matter of the “liberation of slaves,” there was something “objectionable” about its “non-conformity” with the Confiscation Act.  So, Lincoln decreed, since the general wanted an “an open order for the modification” from the Commander-in-Chief himself, that he was “very cheerfully” willing to do so.  Hence, the president publicly ordered on September 11, 1861, that Fremont’s proclamation was to be “modified” so as not to “transcend” the government’s official confiscation policy regarding the seizure of Rebel-employed slaves.

And there’s the rub.  Some historians, like Masur, consider the official Union policy regarding slavery in the summer of 1861 to have remained what Lincoln had stated (or technically re-stated) in his March inaugural address.  In his brief passage on Fremont’s controversial order, Masur writes, “The proclamation itself violated Lincoln’s assurance that he had no intentions of interfering with slavery where it existed” (28-29).  Yet for other historians, such as James Oakes, that policy on non-interference had already  changed –and had been changing since spring 1861.  The August 6th Confiscation Act merely culminated a new wartime policy by Union authorities allowing them to interfere with slavery whenever it was necessary for military reasons.  In particular, runaways or “contrabands” were generally supposed to be “discharged” from enslavement, because as the fourth section of the new statute delicately put it, any slaveholder who required or allowed “any person claimed to be held to labor or service” (i.e. his slaves) to either “take up arms” against the United States or to be employed by the Rebel military was to “forfeit his claim to such labor.”  It’s not clear from the plain language of the statute that these ex-slaves were to be freed, but that was the practical effect in many cases.  This new precarious freedom also applied indirectly to runaways who had nothing to do with the war effort.  The War Department had begun issuing orders to field commanders as early as May 30, 1861 allowing them to protect so-called “contrabands” or fugitives from the demands of slaveholders, and on August 8, 1861, the Secretary of War (Simon Cameron) provided a clear directive based on the new law authorizing commanders to protect and discharge not only Rebel-employed slaves, but also runaways whose masters were loyal.  Cameron’s letter informed field commanders (in this case, specifically General Benjamin Butler) that they should simply keep records of everyone freed so that later (“Upon the return of peace”), Congress could provide for “just compensation” to any loyal masters whose slaves had been “discharged” incorrectly.  Not every Union commander followed this directive in the subsequent months, but more than a few did.  The result was real freedom for many ex-slaves.  At the end of the year, President Lincoln, in his first annual message, described the policy shift as one that had “thus liberated” an unspecified “numbers” of black people in 1861.

Lincoln and Browning, courtesy of Ana Kean

Lincoln and Browning, courtesy of Ana Kean

The interpretative stakes are quite high here.  Masur (and many others) explicitly describe the Civil War as one that “began as a limited war to restore the country” (xi) before becoming in late 1862 and early 1863 a more revolutionary struggle for freedom.  Yet if Lincoln was not so “upset” by Fremont’s 1861 emancipation decree, but rather more concerned over exactly how to emancipate slaves, then this emphasis on limited war seems misplaced.  There was certainly plenty of limited, cautious rhetoric on the Union side, especially from President Lincoln, but the policies on the ground seem far more radical, almost right from the beginning.  Yet it is complicated.  On September 22, 1861, Lincoln defended his actions in regard to General Fremont in a remarkably candid private letter to his old friend, Orville Browning, now a U.S. senator from Illinois (he had recently taken the seat following the death of Stephen A. Douglas).  Lincoln labeled Fremont’s emancipation edict “purely political” and

Copy of Lincoln's 1861 letter to Browning

Copy of Lincoln’s 1861 letter to Browning

denied forcefully that either “a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation.” That sounds quite limited as a policy statement, and yet a smart Civil War student might well ask, isn’t that also exactly what the Great Emancipator himself did just one year later, when he revealed his own emancipation policy on September 22, 1862?  With presidential emancipation, he made “permanent rules of property by proclamation.” In his letter to Browning –a must-read for any serious student– Lincoln denied that he had been or would be “inconsistent” and carefully explained to his longtime friend and political colleague the difference between “principle” and “policy” and why some things had to be done in private while others had to be managed in public.  It’s a masterful document and one that holds perhaps the key to understanding Lincoln as a wartime political leader.

Update on Lincoln’s Neighbors

This post provides new material to an issue raised by an earlier short essay on the Lincoln household in 1860.

The 1860 census noted the “Dinker” family household (near Eighth and Edwards streets) in Springfield, headed by Barbara with Phillip (15), George (13), Mary (11), and (presumably) grandpareDinkel 1860 censusnts, John (80) and Margaret (62) Merguthole (sic).  The census taker listed Barbara and her parents as natives of Wurtenberg [Germany] and her three children as Illinois natives.  This appears to be the same Philip Dinkel listed by the census taker as a 15-year-old male living nearby at the Lincoln household (Eighth and Jackson)

A death notice for a “Philip Dinkel” appeared in the Illinois State Journal, Friday. October 27, 1865.  The notice lists his mother as “Mrs. Barber Dinkel,” but the connection to the First Baptist (later Central Baptist) Church in SpringDinkel death noticefield makes it obvious that this must have been the eldest child of widow Barbara Philip Dinkel Service RecordDinkel.  Philip had apparently abandoned his plans to become a minister (just about a week before his brother George wrote President Lincoln in 1864) and had enlisted in the Union army in May 1864 for 100 days (providing his occupation as a “student”).  His muster in report listed him as 5’6″ with brown hair, gray eyes and a fair complexion. One of his descendants has posted his service record at  Philip Dinkel served in Company G of the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and mustered out in Chicago on October 25, 1864.  How he contracted and then died from consumption remains unknown.  This was also apparently his second short tour of duty in the Union army.  Records indicate that Philip Dinkel also served with Company F of the 70th Illinois Infantry from July 4, 1862 until October 23, 1862.  During that period, the regiment was stationed at Camp Butler, near Springfield, and assisted with guard duty for Confederate POWs, many of whom had been sent there in spring 1862 after the Union capture of Fort Donelson in Tennessee.


George J. Dinkel signatureFor more on George J. Dinkel (or Dinkle)’s service in the 114th Illinois Infantry, see this link.  And here is also a detail of the image of his signature from his 1864 letter to Abraham Lincoln (now available from the Lincoln Papers at Library of Congress).

George J. Dinkel

George J. Dinkel

It turns out that George Dinkel survived the war and married a daughter of Sullivan Conant, one of Springfield’s early settlers.  Lydia Jane Conant and George J. Dinkel married in Sangamon County in 1868.  By the 1880s, they were living in Las Vegas, New Mexico (east of Santa Fe), where Dinkel had become a prominent local businessman.  When Sullivan Conant became ill and then died in 1886, the Las Vegas newspapers reported on his demise and his daughter’s concern (available now via Chronicling America).  She died herself later that year.  Eventually, Lydia Conant Dinkel was re-buried and now rests in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.  The couple apparently never had any children. George did later remarry, however, and relocated to Delton, Michigan (Barry Township, not too far from Kalamazoo).  Dinkel’s descendants have posted a photo of him at the family tree in


Barbara Dinkle death noticeIn 1903, the Springfield Illinois State Journal noted the death of “an old resident of Springfield,” in Delton, Michigan (Sunday, February 22, 1903). The newspaper listed her as Mrs. Barbara Dinkle, but according to Find-A-Grave records, this was Christina Barbara (Mergenthaler) Dinkel, the mother of Philip, George and Mary, an originally a native of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, now buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, not too far from the Lincoln family tomb. Here is what you will find online at Find-A-Grave from a record added in 2008 by Charles W. Brown, appended to a transcript of Barbara Dinkel’s 1903 death notice:

Aged 78 years; on cemetery records and in obituary as Barbara Dinkle.  Barbara married Valentine Dinkel August 3, 1844. Mother of Phillip Dinkel, George J Dinkel, and Mary Alice Dinkel.

A quick check of the 1900 census confirms that 75-year-old Barbara Dinkel (mother) was living in Barry County, Michigan with her 53-year-old son George (b. Dec. 1846 in Illinois), his much younger second wife Emily (born in Michigan) and their three small children.  According to the census, George J. Dinkel was then a dry goods merchant in town.  There is also a death record from 1909 for a “George S. Dinkel” from Barry, Michigan transcribed in Ancestry that lists his birth year as 1846 and his father as Philip Dinkel.  He is buried in nearby Riverside Cemetery in KalamaGeorge Dinkel obituaryzoo, Michigan as George J. Dinkel.  Find-A-Grave has even posted an image of his headstone.  The local newspaper in Springfield did provide a prominent obituary for Dinkel in July 1909.  Apparently, Dinkel had not only served in the war, but also had endured the Andersonville prison camp –sometime following his unanswered May 1864 letter from President Lincoln.  See the article pasted at the left from the Illinois State Journal, July 21, 1909.




All of these records fill out an amazing family story, but they also raise questions.  It appears possible that Valentine Dinkel immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young man in the 1840s with his parents.  This 1891 obituary of Mary (Dinkel) Schilling (b. 1830) suggests that perhaps she was Valentine’s sister; that their father’s name was Philip, and that the  family arrived in Springfield in the 1840s.  However, her obituary also puts her parents arriving in the U.S. in 1846, and yet Valentine Dinkel and Barbara Mergenthaler married in Sangamon County in 1844.  That might be just a small discrepancy rooted in slightly faulty recollections. However, it is also conceivable that there were two sets of entirely different Dinkel families in Springfield –both from Baden-Wurttenberg. The death notice for Mary Dinkel Schilling that appeared in the Illinois State Register, 6/28/1891 matches some, but not all, of the biographical records for widow Barbara Mergenthaler Dinkel and her children from her marriage with Valentine.  Almost anything is possible, including multiple Dinkels. There is, for example, a Phillip (2 l’s) Dinkel (1848-1930) buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, near Springfield, who served in the Union army (10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, Company G) and whose wife’s name was actually Mary.  Yet obviously, these are not the Philip and Mary Dinkel from Springfield whom we have been researching.

There is a marriage record transcribed in Acestry for Valentine Dinkel and Barbara “Mexican Dollar” (presumably, Mergenthaler) for August 3, 1844 in Sangamon County.  There is also a marriage record transcribed in for a Barbara Dinkel and a “Gerd Gerdes Dose” in Sangamon County, January 22, 1877.  Still working on that one…

There is a Dinkel family tree posted at by “rideca,” but it doesn’t yet answer all of these questions.  Noted Lincoln scholar Wayne Temple has completed an article related to the Dinkels that accomplishes a great deal, but it’s clear that definitive answers even to some of these relatively minor genealogical questions remain elusive.

William Still

New York Times, July 15, 1902

New York Times, July 15, 1902

Who was abolitionist William Still and what did the New York Times say about him in his obituary?  It turns out that Still was a leader in the fight against slavery.  The Times coverage of his death, from July 15, 1902, actually called him the “Father of the Underground Railroad.”  Yet today he is almost totally obscure.  Students seeking out information about Still can pretty easily discover information about his life with any typical Google search, but actually obtaining an image of the obituary itself would normally require using a subscription database, either direct from the New York Times or from a service such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers (available via the Dickinson College Library databases).  However, the House Divided Project has posted a transcript of the obituary for anyone to see.

Still was important for many reasons, but foremost among them was his collection of records from the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.  Nobody in the history of the Underground Railroad preserved more documents and better information about the operations of the fugitive aid network than William Still.  That’s why some people in his lifetime considered him the “Father of the Underground Railroad.”  Here are some digital links to his incredible documentary legacy:


Meade’s Description of “Round Top Ridge”

 Find a copy of General Meade’s official description of the fighting on Little Round Top during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

How does a modern-day student accomplish this in the most efficient way possible?  Searching combined key words like “Meade” “Round Top” and “Gettysburg” in Google yields almost countless website entries, starting with Wikipedia.  Using “Meade” and “official description” helps, but still doesn’t provide a clear and quick result.

Instead, this question forces the digitally savvy student to think about how evidence was organized in a pre-digital age.  A quick study of Civil War military research will yield the information that following the conflict, the War Department organized a massive compilation of official military correspondence and after-action reports filed by both sides. This collection, known as the OR, was formally published in 128 volumes over twenty years between 1881 and 1901, under the title: The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  

Meade's OR accountThere are numerous full-text searchable copies of the OR scattered across the Internet and in various digital subscription services.  One of the best ways to access the OR material is through the Making of America / Cornell site.  Another good way to access the full-text OR online is through Ohio State University.  Choosing the volume covering the Gettysburg campaign (Series 1, Volume 27, chapter 39) and the entering Part 1 “Reports” section will enable a student to search the text.  Enter a term like “Round Top” and the results will quickly lead to Meade’s official report on the Battle of Gettysburg filed on October 1, 1863.  On p. 116, you can read the general’s terse description of the “desperate but unsuccessful efforts” of the “enemy” to secure what Meade only referred to as “Round Top Ridge.”  This was his version of the events now made famous by recollections from figures such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, novels such as The Killer Angels and movies such as “Gettysburg.”

NOTE:  There is a separate OR series for the Union and Confederate navies.  You can access a full-text copy of all thirty volumes (1894-1922) once again from the Making of America / Cornell University library.

Confederates or Rebels?

Which usage was more common during the Civil War itself: Confederates or Rebels?  Which usage is more appropriate today?  The answer to those questions require some careful thinking about evidence and perspective.

One way to test that proposition is by using an online tool from Google known as the Ngram Viewer.  This resource allows users to chart the appearance of words in over 15 million printed books and pamphlets that have appeared since the 16th century.  If you narrow the search to the period 1861-1865 and enter the terms Confederates and Rebels (case sensitive) separated by a comma (and with the smoothing function reduced to zero), you might get a sense of one possible answer (see image below).

Or you might try searching the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln to see how he used the terms.  During the war, his writings included 160 references to “rebels” and only about twenty references to “confederates.”

Perhaps the most fruitful way to answer this question would be to create a series of visualizations from various digitized historical newspapers.  Of course, that idea is quite ambitious.  It appears for now at least that nobody has yet attempted to do this.  However, the New York Times Disunion series contains an excellent post from a professor and student at Gettysburg College that addresses an aspect of this issue in a thought-provoking way.  Professor Scott Hancock and undergraduate student Alexandra Milano wrote about the “Real Rebels of the Civil War” in October 2013.  Their post is worth reading for anyone interested in how the use of words can dramatically affect the interpretations of actions.