Reporting from the OAH: The Future of Civil War Scholarship Outside US Borders

Civil War scholarship has often looked backwards from secession in 1860, focusing on a trajectory of slavery and anti-slavery that frames western expansion as instrumental to the rising regional tension that led to war. We also often focus on the narrow geographic boundaries of the states involved militarily in the conflict. Recent scholarship starts to reimagine the boundaries of Civil War scholarship in continental or international terms and reexamines the role of the West in both the antebellum and wartime periods. The opportunities of this new scholarship were evident in two panels presented at the Organization of American Historians conference in April 2018.

The first panel was titled “Economics and Politics: Civil War-Era Latin American Relations with the Southern U.S.” The two papers most related to the subject of Civil War history were presented by Darryl Brock (City University of New York) and Evan Rothera (Pennsylvania State University). Brock’s paper, “A Cuban Diplomat in the Confederacy: José Agustín Quintero and the Mexican Cotton Trade,” examined diplomatic and economic relations between the Confederate States and Mexico during the war. Communication between the two secured economic aid for the Confederacy in the form of war supplies that assisted the South in bypassing the Union blockade and particularly benefited the Trans-Mississippi region. The South traded cotton in exchange for supplies such as lead, copper, saltpeter, guns, and gunpowder. There was even a suggestion—one that the Confederacy decided not to pursue—that states in northern Mexico secede and join the Confederacy. Most of this work was orchestrated by Confederate diplomat José Agustín Quintero, who Brock argued was the South’s most successful diplomat.

Rothera’s paper, “‘Genls Price & Shelby & Hindman & Magruder & Judge Perkins—Govs Harris & Reynolds are all here employed in some Kind of work & all doing well’: Southern Exiles in Mexico after 1865,” looked at southern migration to Mexico after the war. While there has been a focus on Confederate exiles in Brazil, Southerners scattered to many places after the war. Mexico attracted Southern refugees due to its proximity to the South and Maximillian allowing them to bring slaves with them. There was even a colonization office until 1866 to encourage Southern settlement into Mexico and assist these refugees in their transition. However, Mexico was experiencing its own difficulties at the time and some Southerners became involved in Mexico’s struggle against Maximilian and the French. As Rothera pointed out, some of these refugees filtered back into the United States over time due to President Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies, but the exile experience started to change these southerners’ perspectives on Mexico.

The second panel where these scholarship opportunities were present was a roundtable session, “The Old South in the New West: Southern Expansionism and Empire Building in the American Borderlands.” William Deverell (University of Southern California) served as chair alongside panelists Stacey Smith (Oregon State University), Andrew Torget (University of North Texas), Maria Angela Diaz (Utah State University), and Kevin Waite (Durham University). Since this followed a roundtable format, each panelist gave a brief presentation of their research and questions for the field before the chair opened the conversation to the room.

Andrew Torget’s research examines southern expansion into Mexico in the 1820s and 1830s as part of the western expansion of slavery and the international expansion of the cotton economy. As southern slaveholders moved into Mexican territory they had to explain the system of cotton and slavery to a new regime and their presence sparked a debate over the place of slavery in the newly independent nation. This debate helped cause the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Texas Republic, which Torget argued was everything the Confederacy wanted to be a couple decades later. The cotton and slave society set up in Texas ultimately failed, however, due to low international support and the collapse of the one-crop economy in the Panic of 1837, leading to its necessary annexation into the United States.

While Torget framed his research as more of an economic opportunity rather than a chance at imperialism, Angela Diaz situated her scholarship more squarely in the discussion of empire. She argued that communities such as Pensacola, Florida saw themselves as staging grounds for further colonization and questioned what happened to these southern communities when they reached out to conquer the west and Latin America. She also questioned the place of race in this southern expansion. While the American South had a binary white-black system where race was part of socio-economic status, that binary breaks down in more diverse areas such as territory taken from Mexico, cities like New Orleans, or countries in Latin and South America. When expanding west and south, Southerners had to put their structure against places that were racially and culturally very different than their own.

In his presentation, Kevin Waite posed questions about what southerners saw and expected when they looked west. There is a tendency to interpret this western expansion as an attempt to simply create space for plantation agriculture, but that type of system was not feasible in areas of the west and Latin America. He argued that even where plantation agriculture and chattel slavery could not take root, slaveholders expanded their political structure and preserved systems of unfree labor. Southerners had to recalibrate their ideas as they moved into the west, but they still upheld paternalism, unfree labor, and what they considered the natural order of society to preserve their political power and support their southern system of slavery.

Stacey Smith raised similar questions with her research on Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont who credited herself with saving California from slavery during her search for good domestic help. A slaveholder offered her an enslaved woman, which she refused due to her free soil stance, and this action, she claimed, encouraged others to vote anti-slavery in California. Like Waite, Smith argued that even where the cotton economy could not flourish the institution of slavery could have still expanded to perform other labor in the west. In locations such as California, slavery would have been part of a patchwork of coercive labor and Smith raised questions about the racial and regional diversity of slavery as well as the opportunity to research the role of white women in these debates.

As a conclusion to the roundtable presentations, William Deverell asked what opportunities were missed in studying the west or Latin America in scholarship that looks only at the expansion of slavery in the South and abolition in the North. One common thread in the panelists’ answers was that they did not see a single slave conspiracy of expansion, a fear that northerners held in the lead up to secession. Instead, they saw smaller schemes or actions to spread slavery that add up to make it appear like a larger conspiracy to expand the slave power.

The presentations and comments in both sessions revealed plenty of opportunity for new scholarship on the institution of American slavery, the trajectory of westward expansion, and placing American history into continental and international context. As these scholars demonstrated, looking west and south asks historians to rethink the narrative of expansion, secession, and slavery. And, as Patrick Kelly (University of Texas at San Antonio) stated in his comments to the first panel it encourages historians to also look from south to north. Historians should also expand research to look at the Civil War Era from outside the U.S. perspective, looking from locations such as Mexico into the US instead of just looking from the U.S. out. This reanalysis of southern expansionism adds new complexity to the narrative of American history and will hopefully lead to rich new scholarship.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.