A friend (@notrohe) connected me to a Twitter inquiry from Evan Kutzler (@EvanKutzler) about teaching the Civil War through material culture, looking for things that were evocative or that tell big stories. I would offer the following:
- Slave Whip: This should be an obvious starting point. The war was about slavery. Arguments that it was about politics, economics, or culture either deflate immediately under scrutiny or lead directly to slavery being the real cause. The war was about defending the system of agricultural production that had entrenched itself on the foundation of an enslaved African-American class. While not all Southern whites were slaveowners, the existence of enslaved African Americans created a social hierarchy that remains with us, has had a HUGE role in American (not just Southern) history since. There are many tangible traces of our slave-owning past around us (check out the Slave Dwelling Project here), and several museums retain items associated with that period. I’ll point to this whip, housed at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, as one concrete link to that time.
We live in a time when over 20 states, including most of the former Confederate ones, have Stand Your Ground laws, which say you can kill those who threaten you with death, bodily harm, rape, or other serious violence. This whip bespeaks a fundamentally different time, when a white person could take this whip in hand and, with little expectation of reprisal, whip a fellow human being. These could range from a few strokes to over a hundred. People died from such beatings. People had literal salt rubbed into their wounds afterwards. The life of unceasing labor aside, the constant threat of torture from devices such as this were a terror to those who endured it. The war was fought to defend or destroy that system.
- Stonewall Jackson: This may seem a little weird to follow up with, but let’s get into it a bit. Note that I did not write this as “Stonewall Jackson” but “Stonewall Jackson,” a book title. This was Markinfield Addey’s biography Stonewall Jackson: The Life and Military Career of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army (because 19th century book titles HATED brevity). The interesting thing about this book, to me, is that it went to press in 1863, the same year that Jackson died, accidentally shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. That’s really fast for writing and publishing (and, yes, the book covers Jackson’s death). But the story gets a little deeper. The following Spring, William McPheeters, a surgeon serving out here in Arkansas, mentions reading Addey’s book in camp. That’s kind of notable in that Arkansas and the rest of the states this side of the Mississippi are thought to have been basically cut off from the rest of the Confederacy by that point in the war, after the conquest of Vicksburg by the U.S. Army and the blockading of southern ports in Louisiana and Texas. Also, internal trade in the Trans-Mississippi was just terrible, so getting something as mundane as a book out here was a chore.
But wait, there’s more!
The book was published in New York City. So, this book points to the Trans-Mississippi being not only not-cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, but actually had some level of commerce in non-essentials (feels weird for this academic to suggest that books are non-essentials, but you get my point… they’re not food) with the Northern states. Trade and commerce between and within the Confederate states during the war, particularly out here in the West, is really not that well understood.
- Elongated Ball, .58 caliber, Impacted: Simple, dead common, and iconic for the war. The .58 caliber elongated ball, often referred to as a “Minié Ball” (and corrupted into “Minnie ball”… learn to read French accent marks, folks) is a mark of both the technological advancement and backwardness of the time. It was the perfect mix to kill tens of thousands of human beings.
The U.S. Army adopted the elongated ball for its main shoulder arm in the mid-1850s. This was the first such weapon designed around a rifled bullet, supplanting the M1842 Springfield, a .69 caliber smoothbore. The smaller elongated ball was fitted with a cone in the base that would allow the muzzle-loading projectile to expand and be twisted by the rifling inside the barrel when the gun was fired. It was a system elegant in its simplicity and sophisticated for the result it produced. Soldiers previously could only really expect to do damage at about 80 yards, after that the smoothbore rounds they fired were too inaccurate. Some of the smoothbore arms actually lacked a rear site, and what is taken to be a front site was more properly a lug to fix the bayonet to. Such weapons were pointed more than aimed at an enemy. Now, though, a soldier could aim at and expect to hit his target at 200 yards or more, depending on visibility conditions, their eyesight, etc.
There were two problems with this. First, the way that men were trained to go into battle did not change fast enough to keep up with technology. Tactics still focused on massed lines of men surging at one another, an approach that had worked well enough when you could get within 80 yards before your men started to die in significant numbers. At that range, you only had to withstand a volley or two before you could close with an enemy and push them away. Now, though, your men started dying almost 3 times farther out, and the shocking casualties at Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, and too many other battlefields bore this out. All because a little hunk of lead with a cone in one end and a cone on the other.
The other big problem with them was that they were not jacketed. Modern military ammunition is required by the Geneva Convention to be cased in a full metal jacket of copper alloy or some other material. This is so that the bullet, when it strikes an enemy, doesn’t do what Civil War bullets did… namely mash out to the size of a quarter or larger. Having that massive chunk of metal pushing its way through the body inflicted unimaginable suffering on those who experienced it, pulverizing bone and killing men who might have survived wounds from jacketed rounds (which were not a common thing at the time). This is also why FMJ bullets are not allowed for deer hunting, too likely to wound the animal instead of kill it.
- Wilder’s Worm Syrup: OK, we’re going to get away from the battlefield for a moment with this one. This is a broken glass bottle for Edward Wilder’s Mother’s Worm Syrup, a patent medicine produced before, during, and after the war. We found this bottle in a wartime house at the village of Dooley’s Ferry, in Hempstead County, Arkansas.
It was the 19th Century South, so worms of various kinds were part of life. Roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and more were such a pervasive aspect of Southern life that the effects they produced in the human body were sometimes taken to be physical marks of Southern identity. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that public health officials started pushing for changes, like wearing shoes in the summertime, that had great impact on this situation. People knew they were there (it’s kind of hard to miss a tapeworm when its excreted…) and parents knew that their children suffered from regular infestations.
Wartime cures for these included both folk and scientific medicine. Folk medicines revolved around pinkroot, wormwood, and other botanicals that were either native to the United States (and knowledge of which came from Native Americans) or Europe. Scientific cures were purchased medicines, which in the days before the Pure Food and Drug Act meant both efficacious medicines and various patent medicines of at-best dubious effect.
The point here in not to debate what Wilder’s tonic did (it was a patent medicine, so we don’t know… it probably had some wormwood in it [absinthe is made from wormwood, BTW, so the side effects might have been weird]), but that finding it in a wartime context in Arkansas suggests that the family that bought it paid out their hard-earned cash to acquire a modern, scientific cure to a significant health situation. They were putting their trust for their child’s health (or their own) into the medical establishment, hoping that modern science would provide the relief they sought. This is not a backwards-looking, anti-advancement, tradition-oriented thing to do.
- Bacon’s Castle, Virginia: OK, hang on, this is going to get a little broad. Bacon’s Castle is NOT some local version of Stuckey’s, but it is a brick house south of the James River that was occupied by Nathaniel Bacon during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676… almost two hundred years before the Civil War. I’m listing it here as a Civil War thing because the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion saw the first legal distinctions made between African-Americans and European-Americans as leaders in Virginia sought to split the working class to diffuse tensions aimed at elites. The creation of that social schism had a massive impact on the idea of race in the United States and the way that violence would be used differently towards different groups to both maintain that separation and to keep non-whites and whites at different spots in our social hierarchy. I think the Civil War is seen most clearly as a particularly violent period in a much longer conflict about the social order in this country, one that roots in the first arrival of trafficked Africans in 1619 and continues through the intense summer of 2020. From then till now, there has been significant progress. African Americans are legally people, citizens, and voters (all things that were not true for too much of this country’s history), and the further advancements made in the past fifty years has gone a long way towards making the gulf between the beautiful idea of America and its historical reality much, much smaller. God willing, it will continue to become more itself.