Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Union is Dissolved!

Today we have another Civil War post from Luci Petlack, graduate student in the History department at U.C. Davis

Here is an image of South Carolina’s ordinance of secession from December 20, 1860 – the first action initiating the America Civil War (1861-1865). South Carolina was the first state to secede of those who eventually comprised the Confederate States of America. In early November 1860 Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. Lincoln’s election was really the final straw for Southerners upset with the divergence in politics and economics between the North and South. The election of a Republican candidate opposed to the expansion of slavery whose name did not even appear on ballots in Southern states, scared white Americans of the South. Southerners wondered, “How much control did northerners have over the political stage of the country?” In their minds, the only way to check the power of the North was to secede.

The paragraph at the bottom of the document claims that the Constitution of the United States was effectively dissolved from this point forward in the eyes of South Carolina“That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention, on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the Untied States of America was ratified, and also, all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ”The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.”

This was a very bold statement. The ordinance bluntly put states’ rights above federal rule by removing the state and its inhabitants from this binding contract. In the next thirty-six days, five states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana) followed in South Carolina’s steps issuing their own ordinances of secession. The country began to split at the seams following the issuance of this document. It is amazing that a pronouncement of so few words would have such a lasting legacy on our country and indeed our world’s history.

This is a good document to use in teaching the Civil War, either on its own or in conjunction with other documents. The source sparks questions of why southern states seceded and if the words printed seem to illustrate that its authors understood the consequences of their actions. Would they have written such bold words had they known the four years of bloody warfare and eventual defeat to come? Also, in being so sparse in their wording, what were the authors not saying? The vague wording left the future of the South and the Confederate States of America wide open for interpretation.

Luci Petlack is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include black American history, race relations and the American Civil War. Her dissertation, “A Dilemma of Civil Liberties: Blacks under Union Military Control, 1861-1866,” looks at the effects of military occupation and martial law on black communities during the Civil War in Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana and Cincinnati, Ohio.

19th-Century Advertising & Anti-Chinese Sentiments

"No more Chinese cheap labor," exclusionist, c. 1880


Today’s post comes to us from Wendy Rouse who teaches United States history at San Jose State University.  Her book “Children of Chinatown: Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920” examines the unique experiences of Chinese immigrant children living in San Francisco during the exclusion era.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in large numbers following the discovery of gold in California in 1848.  After work in the mines dwindled, many Chinese immigrants found employment for the railroads, in agriculture or in factories.  Others opened their own businesses operating laundries, restaurants, and stores. Economic depression and nativist sentiment created hostility toward foreigners in the 1870s.  White laborers worried that a cheap Chinese labor force represented a threat to their own jobs.   Hostility often led to violent attempts to oust the Chinese from cities and towns in the West. Anti-Chinese politicians and labor leaders gained political power especially in places like California.  These groups successfully lobbied for the passage of legislation that would restrict the number of Chinese who could immigrate into the country.  In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively banned Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States.

The above advertisement for celluloid collars was created during this era of intense anti-Chinese sentiment and is especially useful in helping students understand the intensity of the hostility toward Chinese immigrants.  The Chinese laundryman in the image is visibly upset about the potential of losing his business as a result of the invention of “celluloid cuffs, collars & bosoms” which required less starching and washing than traditional collars and would therefore eliminate the need for services offered by Chinese laundries. A happy Uncle Sam looks on as Columbia points to the writing on the wall which indicates that the invention means “no more Chinese cheap labor.”  The caption “Othello’s Occupation’s Gone” suggests identification between Shakespeare’s character Othello and the Chinese immigrant.  This advertisement reflects the popular attitude of the era that the “Chinese must go.”  In this case, however, it is not exclusion laws or violence that drives the Chinese out, but invention and therefore the advance of industrialization and modern civilization which is driving out the Chinese immigrant.

For more on this topic see Roland Marchand’s documentary source problem “THE CHINESE MUST GO!!!–The debate over the California Constitutional Convention available for university, high school and middle school classrooms.


Draft Riots of 1863 Reveal Class Tensions & Opposition to War

Luci Petlack, graduate student in the History department at U.C. Davis, shares her thoughts about “Draft Riots on Lexington Avenue, New York City,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newsletter.

This image depicts a scene during the July 1863 New York City Draft Riots where white rioters attacked the homes of abolitionists, set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum and brutally assaulted black individuals. These rioters targeted symbols of Republican Party rule who they viewed as the instigators of the war. Numbers vary, but scholars estimate about 500 deaths (mostly rioters) and well over $1 million property damage.

Two years into a war that Americans, North and South, thought would end in a few months, the Union government turned to the draft to enlist more men in their army. The Conscription Act that began the draft allowed individuals to pay a $300 bounty for a replacement. For members of the working class, $300 was about one year’s salary making the bounty out of their reach. The draft itself upset many people, but riots exploded in the summer of 1863 because of the class tensions the bounty exacerbated. Workers, many of them immigrants, felt the rich men of the North, namely Republicans, were using the lives of the poor to fight the war. Newspapers around the country covered these draft riots with the same interest as many of the battles during the war.

This image is great for learning and teaching about the American Civil War for a few reasons. The Civil War immediately brings battlefields and generals to mind. This image shows the oft-neglected home front. Interestingly, it wasn’t just on the fields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg that violence emerged because of the war. By this point in the war, violence had become the norm, regardless of an individual’s status as soldier or civilian. The whole country was truly involved. Second, this image shows that there were northerners opposed to the war. Oftentimes students create a dichotomy between the slave-owning South and the abolitionist North – a split that never existed. It is important for students and teachers to understand the complicated tapestry of sentiments during the war.

Further Reading:

  • Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). Bernstein argues that the riots were an effort of working-class individuals to assert their power against their competition (black laborers) and against members of the higher classes.
  • Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863, (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1974). Cook portrays the insurrection as an outburst by the lower classes against government control.
  • James McCague. The Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. (New York: Dial Press, 1968). McCague believes that Irish struck out at rich whites and blacks with a comparable hatred, expressing their dissatisfaction with labor opportunities and chances for success.
  • Jack Tager, Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence (Northeastern University Press, 2001), 133-139. This short section provides details of the draft riots in Boston.

Luci Petlack is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include black American history, race relations and the American Civil War. Her dissertation, “A Dilemma of Civil Liberties: Blacks under Union Military Control, 1861-1866,” looks at the effects of military occupation and martial law on black communities during the Civil War in Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana and Cincinnati, Ohio.

What's Missing

Today’s post comes to us from Jed Larsen who teaches at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento  and was the Gilder Lehrman Teacher of the Year for California in 2011. 

If music can be considered as the spaces between notes, then historical investigation can, at times, be the search for what’s missing in primary sources. In his book, Facing East from Indian Country, Daniel K. Richter attempts to reconstruct the history of colonial settlement in North America from the Native American point of view with, as he admits, a limited amount of authentic Native American primary sources that clearly express what the Native Americans thought. Thus follows an intriguing though conjectured history.

As a teacher of 5th graders, I don’t have the facility to attempt such a daunting task with my students (nor they the content knowledge needed to take part in the discussion), but I often find that examining primary sources for what they are missing, or how they challenge the common narrative of history, makes for a compelling investigation. Below are 3 such sources from the fantastic Marchand Image Collection:

1. European World Map of 1489 –  by Henricus Martellus, influenced by Ptolemy; rediscovered in 1960. This intricate map of the world is one of 6 used to investigate the question, “Why weren’t the Americas discovered until 1492?” Wonderful for what it does show (detailed locations of coastal cities, the southern tip of Africa, a modestly accurate portrayal of Europe), its omissions hammer the point home: Europeans are unaware the Americas exist. Couple this with significant inaccuracies that make the map more symbolic than utilitarian, and it underscores why boats rarely left sight of the coast.

2. American prisoners of war on the British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor, 1779-83.
The Battles of Yorktown, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, as well as Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to ambush British soldiers, are famous for being turning points in the American Revolution. The lives of all American soldiers lost in these battles, and all other Revolutionary War battles combined, still amount to less than those lost on the British prisoner-of-war ship Jersey, a perfect storm of starvation, overcrowding, disease, and neglect. This illustration provides a somewhat antiseptic version of those conditions, as well as a path to investigating the dangers posed to soldiers during the war, challenging the assumed narrative that most soldiers who die in a war die from wounds sustained in battle.

3. The Boston Massacre, 1770
Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre, disseminated throughout the colonies, persuaded many to question the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. The document’s relevance lies in its power of persuasion, not its accuracy. With a quote below the engraving describing the “guiltless Gore”, one could assume the massacre of innocents was just that. A trial of the soldiers and officer involved ended with seven acquittals and two manslaughter verdicts. This source allows students to weigh the credibility of primary sources and encourages further examination of other sources and perspectives to flesh history out.