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The Freedmen’s Bureau  

Joseph P. Reidy

On March 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress granted the bureau control over affairs relating to the formerly enslaved people in the Confederate States and also charged it with administering relief to war refugees and managing the confiscated and abandoned land in federal possession. In theory, its agents would transform the habits and beliefs associated with slavery into those that prevailed in the free states of the North. Practical challenges abounded, and the original view that the intervention would be brief proved to be naïve. Complicating matters, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, viewed the bureau as a bone of contention in his dispute with Congressional Republicans over which branch of government would control Reconstruction, the process of returning the seceded states to full standing in national affairs. Overriding Johnson’s vetoes, Congress extended the bureau’s mandate, first to 1868 and eventually to 1872. From the beginning, Southern critics accused the bureau of creating labor strife and stirring hatred between the races, a characterization that formed a central plank in later Lost Cause mythology regarding the evils of Reconstruction. Only decades into the 20th century did historians succeed in rehabilitating the reputation of this pioneering federal agency and its important contributions to restoring stability to the Southern economy and assisting formerly enslaved Southerners in asserting their rights as free and equal citizens of the republic.

Article

Business in the Civil War: Trade, Markets, and Industry  

Mark R. Wilson

The Civil War disrupted domestic and international trade. Union strategy included a considerable focus on economic warfare, especially in the form of a naval blockade of Southern ports. Because the war lasted four years, its outcome was affected deeply by the success or failure of Union and Confederate economic mobilizations of capital, industry, and labor. On the home fronts, many businesses, large and small, confronted new challenges to their normal operations and supply chains. Generally speaking, businesses in the South suffered more than their Northern counterparts. Forced to deal with the consequences of the blockade, high inflation, and Union advances, many Southern farmers, merchants, and manufacturers struggled to keep afloat, especially after 1862. In the North, there was more wartime prosperity, thanks to a smoother economic mobilization and the Union’s ability to continue internal and international trade. But there was no single uniform experience: at the levels of specific industries and individual firms, the impact of the war varied widely. Clearly, the single biggest economic change—and political and social change, as well—was the end of slavery. Beyond that, the Civil War’s effects on long-run economic and industrial development were more complex and uncertain. The conflict’s heavy costs in blood and treasure harmed the North as well as the South, but many industries came out of the war in a strong enough position to allow the United States to continue on its path to becoming the world’s largest and most prosperous national economy by the end of the 19th century.

Article

William McKinley Jr.  

Aroop Mukharji

Born in 1843 as the seventh of nine children to a Methodist family in Niles, Ohio, William McKinley was not destined for political greatness. Much like his politics, his rise was steady and incremental, his ambition as patient as it was large. After four years serving the Union in the Civil War, McKinley returned to Ohio to start a local law practice. Following a short stint as a county prosecutor, he married, started a family, and then met with his life’s greatest tragedy: the deaths of both of his young daughters within two years of each other. Amid this immense personal turmoil, McKinley ran for Congress. He served seven terms until a Democratic challenger unseated him, enabled by gerrymandered district lines. Within a matter of months, McKinley turned around to win Ohio’s governorship twice, before becoming the nation’s twenty-fifth president in 1897. However faded he has become in historical memory, at the time of his assassination in 1901, just six months into his second presidential term, McKinley was a towering figure in US politics. He led the United States in three wars spanning two continents and was only the third US president in almost seven decades to win two consecutive terms. In foreign policy, where he left his greatest mark, McKinley changed the trajectory of US history by consolidating US control over the Caribbean, defeating a European power in war, and irreversibly expanding the US military to sustain an empire that stretched 7,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The costs were significant: hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead, millions colonized under American rule, and new strategic commitments too distant to reasonably protect. It is therefore one of the greatest ironies of US presidential history that so much about McKinley’s life remains shrouded in mystery or, worse, forgotten.

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Irregular and Guerrilla Warfare during the Civil War  

Matthew M. Stith

Irregular and guerrilla warfare decisively shaped the course, consequences, and nature of the American Civil War. As Confederate irregular efforts intensified, so deepened the level and tenacity of the US war against increasingly large portions of the Confederate South. While never fully committed, supported, or thorough, the Confederacy waged an irregular war in pockets of the South that ultimately backfired. The irregular war forced a harder, and, in some places, total war upon the Confederate civilian population, which brought the war to an end faster and indelibly shaped the nature of the larger conflict. Supporters of the United States—Unionists—lived throughout the South, and they formed something of a fourth theater of war by foisting upon the Confederacy their own internal civil war from Texas to North Carolina, one that was intricately connected to the larger irregular war. Civilians rapidly became a significant focus of the guerrilla war, and those living in the wartime South found themselves in a years-long fight for survival. In a manner of speaking, they became combatants. In the end, the irregular war alone might not have decided the Civil War’s outcome, but it helped redefine the course and consequences of the larger conflict.

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The Draft in U.S. History  

Megan Threlkeld

The issue of compulsory military service has been contested in the United States since before its founding. In a nation characterized by both liberalism and republicanism, there is an inherent tension between the idea that individuals should be able to determine their own destiny and the idea that all citizens have a duty to serve their country. Prior to the 20th century, conscription occurred mainly on the level of local militias, first in the British colonies and later in individual states. It was during the Civil War that the first federal drafts were instituted, both in the Union and the Confederacy. In the North, the draft was unpopular and largely ineffective. Congress revived national conscription when the United States entered World War I and established the Selective Service System to oversee the process. That draft ended when U.S. belligerency ended in 1918. The first peacetime draft was implemented in 1940; with the exception of one year, it remained in effect until 1973. Its most controversial days came during the Vietnam War, when thousands of people across the country demonstrated against it and, in some cases, outright refused to be inducted. The draft stopped with the end of the war, but in 1980, Congress reinstated compulsory Selective Service registration. More than two decades into the 21st century, male citizens and immigrant noncitizens are still required to register within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday. The very idea of “selective service” is ambiguous. It is selective because not everyone is conscripted, but it is compulsory because one can be prosecuted for failing to register or to comply with orders of draft boards. Especially during the Cold War, one of the system’s main functions was not to procure soldiers but to identify and exempt from service those men best suited for other endeavors framed as national service: higher education, careers in science and engineering, and even supporting families. That fact, combined with the decentralized nature of the Selective Service System itself, left the process vulnerable to the prejudices of local draft boards and meant that those most likely to be drafted were poor and nonwhite.

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The Violence of the Civil War in Comparative Perspective  

Aaron Sheehan-Dean

The US Civil War was the deadliest event in American history, but not the bloodiest civil war or even the worst conflict of the 19th century. Generations of writing about the Civil War from a domestic perspective have generated false impressions about which aspects of the conflict were unique and which more commonplace. The American conflict was one of a number of national struggles in the mid-19th century. Some of these—the wars for Italian and German unification, for instance—are well known but are rarely considered alongside the US experience. Other conflicts—the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Polish Uprising of 1863, or the Taiping Rebellion—occurred concurrently with the Civil War but because of their imperial context are usually treated separately. Americans, and people around the world, consumed news about all these conflicts. They compared, contrasted, and evaluated behavior based on what they saw, seeking both internal reassurance about their own ways of war-making and external validation in the form of allies and material support. Historians gain a better understanding of which Civil War participants experienced lethal violence and why by contextualizing those actions as the participants themselves did—within a global framework.

Article

United States Colored Troops  

Holly Pinheiro

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.

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Jews in the US Armed Forces  

Jessica Cooperman

Jewish service in the American military parallels that of many other Americans. Jews have served in colonial militias, in the American Revolution, and in all American military conflicts since the establishment of the country. In the United States’ early years, the total number of Jewish military personnel, like the Jewish population of the country as a whole, was very small. As the size of the American Jewish population grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, so did the number of Jews who served in the American Armed Forces. Jews responded to the country’s calls to arms alongside other Americans, even as they faced challenges that differentiated them from their compatriots. Like other racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, Jews had to struggle against prejudices in the military, and like other immigrant communities, they have sometimes had to balance patriotism against transnational ties. Jews in the United States, however, always understood military service as part of the bargain of modern citizenship. They volunteered for service and responded to calls for conscription in order to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, and they used military service both to express their commitment to the United States and to assert their rights as equal members of American society.

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The Jewish Experience in the American South  

Josh Parshall

Jews began to arrive in the present-day South during the late 17th century and established community institutions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, in the colonial era. These communities, along with Richmond, Virginia, accounted for a sizable minority of American Jews during the early 19th century. As Jewish migration to the United States increased, northern urban centers surpassed southern cities as national centers of Jewish life, although a minority of American Jews continued to make their way to southern market hubs in the mid-19th century. From Reconstruction through the “New South” era, Jews played a visible role in the development of the region’s commercial economy, and they organized Jewish institutions wherever they settled in sufficient numbers. In many respects, Jewish experiences in the South mirrored national trends. Jewish life developed similarly in small towns, whether in Georgia, Wisconsin, or California. Likewise, relationships between acculturated Jews and east European newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played out according to similar dynamics regardless of region. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Jewish life in the South resulted from Jewish encounters with the region’s particular history of race and racism. The “classical” era of the Civil Rights movement highlights this fact, as southern Jews faced both heightened scrutiny from southern segregationists and frustration from northern coreligionists who supported the movement. Since the 1970s, overall trends in southern history have once again led to changes in the landscape of southern Jewry. Among other factors, the continued migration from rural to urban areas undermined the customer base for once-ubiquitous small-town Jewish retail businesses, and growing urban centers have attracted younger generations of Jewish professionals from both inside and outside the region. Consequently, the 21st-century Jewish South features fewer of the small-town communities that once typified the region, and its larger Jewish centers are not as identifiably “southern” as they once were.

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White Workers and the American Civil War  

David A. Zonderman

From the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the Confederacy surrendered in the spring of 1865, workers—North and South—labored long hours under often trying conditions at wages that rarely kept pace with wartime inflation. Though many workers initially voiced skepticism of plans for sundering the nation, once Southern states seceded most workers rallied round their rival flags and pledged to support their respective war efforts. The growing demand for war material opened employment opportunities for women and men, girls and boys, across the Union and Confederacy. Yet workers were not always satisfied with a job and appeals to back the boys in blue and gray without question. They often resisted changes pressed on them in the workplace—new technology, military discipline, unskilled newcomers—as well as wages that always lagged behind rising prices. Protests and strikes began in 1861 and increased in number and intensity from 1863 to the war’s conclusion. Labor unions, in decline since the depression of 1857, sprung back to life, especially in the war’s later years. Employers sometimes countered their employees’ increasing organization and resistance with industry associations that tried to break strikes and blacklist those who walked off their jobs. While worker discontent and resentment of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” were common across the sectional divide, Northern workers exercised greater coordination of their resistance through citywide trade assemblies, national trade unions, traveling organizers, and labor newspapers. Southern workers tended to fight their labor battles in isolation from shop to shop and town to town, so they rarely built a broader labor movement that could survive the hardships of the postwar era.