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  • Editors’ Overview

The two essays that begin the sixty-first volume of Civil War History may depart from distinct analytical ports, but each shares an interest in reading the silences surrounding race’s impact in the American past. “The Meaning of a Union Soldier’s Racial Joke” by Michael D. Pierson utilizes a close, almost anthropological, reading of a solitary letter from a Vermont officer to establish not only “just how vibrant” the “racist culture” of conservative northerners could be but also to illustrate how the war’s upheaval could unseat old hierarchies. While this lieutenant could rhetorically (if not literally) use a mixture of cruelty and humor to underscore the foibles of his African American manservant, in the end, as Pierson points out, humor proved to be the bastion of the powerless. In this particular case, the very presence of the 8th Vermont in Louisiana brought inexorable change, regardless of its soldiers’ racial sentiments, leaving disaffected soldiers to assuage their feelings through a style of humor that helped them “minimize the extent of social change and his own complicity in it.”

In contrast, Douglas R. Egerton’s “The Slaves’ Election: Frémont, Freedom, and the Slave Conspiracies of 1856” provides a sweeping study of white southern fears of slave uprisings expected to follow in the wake of the Republican Party’s 1856 presidential campaign. Ironically, the repressive mixture of arrests, expulsions, and executions employed by white southerners to preserve social order actually exposed a world torn asunder. While source limitations prevent a final accounting of conspiracies during the 1856 campaign, Egerton argues that white hysteria stemmed from the altogether proper conclusion that most slaves were politically savvy, “knew of the election … [,] correctly believed that the republic was on the verge of splitting asunder,” and were well aware that the emerging Republican Party might prove valuable allies. Moreover, if antebellum southerners wanted to pin the blame for the politicization of slaves on external forces, they might as well have dispensed with preconceived worries about northern agitators and started with themselves. Egerton’s research reveals that white fears were “far more acute in pro-Buchanan and pro-slavery counties” because politicians in those areas were especially likely to issue ringing denunciations of the “abolitionist” Republican agenda in public addresses attended by slaves. [End Page 5] As Egerton concludes, “overheated Democratic rhetoric convinced defiant bondmen in parts of the South that 1856 was a moment of opportunity, and … these pockets of rebelliousness in turn terrified whites into conjuring up imaginary conspiracies across the South, which then dampened Republican votes in the lower North.”

This issue also includes a thoughtful and personal tribute by Emory M. Thomas to Italian historian Raimondo Luraghi, who passed away in 2012 at the age of ninety-one. Several ambitious and provocative studies serve as the lynchpin of our review section, including Susannah Ural’s compelling study of ordinary Americans during the war, Elizabeth Varon’s new account of the memory of Appomattox in the postwar era, and Kathryn Meier’s pathbreaking analysis of soldiers’ impact on Virginia’s environment. And, as usual, Book Review Editor Brian Craig Miller has allocated the reviews to an impressive cross-section of new and old voices within the field. [End Page 6]



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pp. 5-6
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