The End of Reconstruction and the Arrival of the Exodusters

For African-Americans in the former slave states, the promise of the 15th Amendment quickly proved hollow. As the searing experience of the Civil War receded, white America began to focus on reconciliation. This slow and difficult process required a shared narrative of the heroism—white heroism—that had strengthened the bonds of the Union.  The newly freed […]

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Citizens at Last: Winning the Fifteenth Amendment

Nobody “gave” African-Americans the right to vote.  They won it for themselves, largely through the tireless advocacy of the black veterans who had helped to win the Civil War for the Union. This is the central argument of Christian Samito’s book, Becoming Americans Under Fire.  Samito traces their slow progress towards full citizenship, and the […]

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A Community Out of Chaos

Martha Bettis Cooper was a survivor.  In spite of the chaos and destruction around it, the city of Leavenworth prospered during the Civil War, and Martha and her family prospered along with it. By November of 1860, about a year after she and her son Drew arrived, she had bought a house lot worth $120. […]

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Life at the Edge of the War

On the Missouri-Kansas border, the official outbreak of the Civil War merely resurrected the savage conflict over “Bleeding Kansas”  that had paused only briefly a year or two before.  As in other parts of the West, the two regular armies had few troops to spare for remote border struggles.  The inhabitants were left to settle […]

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Leaving Arkansas: Martha Bettis Cooper

When Arkansas’ free people of color were forced to leave the state in 1859, Martha Bettis Cooper  and her son Drew Bettis sold the properties they had acquired in Jacksonport and boarded a steamboat heading north.  With them came a 10-year-old named John Bettis, who was probably a nephew.  They traveled up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers […]

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From Nation to Wasteland: The Cherokees in the Civil War

The Cherokee Nation, like several others in Indian Territory, was plagued by deep divisions, between mixed-bloods and full-bloods, between those who had accepted removal and those who had resisted till the end. In the case of the Cherokees, the antagonists were, on one hand, those who had accepted the Treaty of New Echota, many of […]

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What Chaos Looks Like: Arkansas Civilians in the Civil War

From the beginning of the conflict, Arkansas’ experience in the Civil War was fated to be one of drawn-out agony. Until the moment that Fort Sumter was attacked, the state was roughly evenly divided between those who favored secession and the Unionists or “cooperationists,” most of whom hoped to preserve their slave-based society while remaining […]

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Unionists in the Hills: The Arkansas Peace Society

In the large majority of seceding Confederate states, there were pockets of Unionist resistance.  In general, these dissenting enclaves developed in the hilly backwoods areas, where farms were small, slaves few, and citizens fiercely independent.  Some of their inhabitants were against slavery for moral reasons, some were deserters disillusioned with the Confederate Army’s habit of […]

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Imagining Cinderella Bettis Drew

The story told here is only partly imagined.  Something very much like it actually happened, a century later.  The coffee drinker was Saidee’s daughter—my grandmother, Margaret Bennett Barringer— whose life paralleled Cinderella’s in a number of respects. It is 1858. In the dining room of the rented house in Fort Smith, Cinderella and her daughter […]

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Slave or Free? The Saga of the Beams Family

The declining status of free people of color during the 19th century, and the increasing precariousness of their lives, can be seen in dramatic relief in Indian Territory.  Attitudes towards African-Americans, free or enslaved, varied considerably among the “five civilized tribes”— Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Cherokees—but as the Civil War drew nearer, the attitudes […]

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