Shantytown, USA: Interview with Lisa Goff



The Harvard University Press recently published Lisa Goff’s new book Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor. There’s a chance that one of your American ancestors lived in an American shantytown. While we may not realize it now, shantytowns were a common feature of 19th century America. Goff’s book explores not only how shantytowns became a prominent feature of America’s towns and cities, but why middle class Americans eventually turned on them and their residents. Read more at

Pigs, Parks, and Power in the Antebellum City: Interview with Catherine McNeur


Two hundred years ago, instead of being littered with gleaming glass towers and skyscrapers, Manhattan was home to thousands of wandering pigs and livestock. Antebellum Manhattan bore little resemblance to modern Manhattan’s gleaming skyline. Catherine McNeur, assistant professor at Portland State University, has written a new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,  published by Harvard University Press that explores a Manhattan filled with shanty towns, farmland and domesticated animals running loose in the streets. Her book examines the battle between upper class Manhattanites and poor New Yorkers over the direction and shape of the city. While poor Manhattanites depended on farming, domesticated animals and recycling the city’s garbage for their survival, wealthier residents were deeply concerned about sanitation, the threat of fires and epidemics, and the deepening poverty of the city.  If you want to see more of her work, visit

Here is our interview:

Why did you become interested in antebellum Manhattan? What was the inspiration for the project?

As an undergrad at NYU I wrote an honors thesis about an architect who worked in antebellum Manhattan. I loved taking walks around the city, finding remnants of that era in the brick rowhouses and other buildings that are mixed in with more recent structures. The antebellum period felt both familiar and foreign and I loved that.

A few years later after I had started grad school, I was searching for a topic for a research seminar and remembered reading about the hog riots that had occurred in the 1820s. The mere idea of that was amusing to me—hogs roaming the streets of Manhattan?!—and I wanted to look into it further. As I started doing research, the topic quickly expanded to include food, parks, shantytowns, sanitation and the like. 

How would you summarize your book?

Ultimately, Taming Manhattan is a book about the dramatic physical, social, and economic changes facing the city during a period of vast urbanization. New Yorkers from all social classes found in the urban environment a means for controlling these changes, whether that involved maps, animals, parks, manure, food, or shantytowns. The progress that seems almost inevitable to us now in terms of cleaner streets, more green spaces, fewer epidemics, safer food sources, and fewer livestock blocking traffic hardly felt inevitable to the New Yorkers and other urban Americans witnessing those changes and often times the battles over those issues were highly contentious.  There were a lot of people who lost when those steps toward “progress” were won. In Taming Manhattan, I focus primarily on those environmental justice issues.


The Manhattan that you have described in your book is fundamentally different than today’s NYC. What differences do you think will shock your readers most about antebellum New York?

I think for most people who know New York, they’ll probably be surprised by just how incredibly filthy it was. People today complain about Manhattan’s smells and grime, but it’s practically sterile compared to the nineteenth century. Often times New Yorkers forgot that their streets were paved because of all the manure, garbage, mud, and general filth that had accumulated on top of it. That said, while many antebellum New Yorkers complained heartily about the filth they encountered daily, there were many who truly valued the waste on the streets, from the city government that collected and sold animal manure, to the ragpickers who gleaned reusable and salable raw materials from the piles of trash.

Today, most Americans never see hog farms, but they play a prominent role in your research. Hogs appear to have been a part of everyday life for the antebellum residents of New York City. Why did people have cows and hogs in the city? How pervasive were hogs in Manhattan?

Hogs and other livestock had been a common part of urban life for centuries in New York City and most other cities and for quite some time people of all economic classes relied on them as food sources. By the nineteenth century, they were almost exclusively the property of the poor. Before municipalities outlawed livestock (which happened mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States), it wouldn’t be uncommon to find cows, goats, pigs, or fowl roaming the streets, let alone in dedicated stables or hog farms.

Getting a true count for the number of hogs in Manhattan at any given time can be hard because many were kept illegally by the time the city or state began counting. An 1820 estimate put the number at 20,000, or roughly 1 hog for every 5 New Yorkers. From tourist descriptions, government documents, newspaper accounts, and diaries, it is clear that New York was well known to be lousy with hogs—first free-roaming, later confined in piggeries–in the antebellum period.

The subtitle of your book is “Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” but these battles were not just environmental. Were they just as much battles between the nativists vs. the immigrants and the prosperous vs. the poor?

Oh definitely, but the larger point that I try to make in the book is that the environment can’t be separated from the battles between classes, races, and ethnicities. In fact, it’s integral for understanding those battles. For example, it would be impossible to separate the increasing privatization and inaccessibility of park space in the 1830s from the growing class disparities in that period.  Along a similar vein, the fervent nativism of the 1850s can be better understood when we look in detail at food regulation during that decade. 

Who were the biggest winners and losers as New York City sought to regulate farmland and undeveloped spaces?

The owners of the livestock and the residents of shantytowns certainly had the most to lose. In each battle, though, the tally wasn’t always clearly in favor of their opponents. The livestock owners fought back, for instance, and kept animals on the streets for decades after the city had begun attempting to enforce anti-livestock laws. Political corruption also got in the way and protected some so-called nuisance industries while eliminating others. That said, through the increased regulation of the urban environment you see increasingly privatized and controlled spaces that didn’t allow for the same kinds of informal land uses that poorer New Yorkers once relied on.

What surprised you the most during your research?


I think the part that most surprised me most was how much nineteenth-century Americans embraced recycling (though they didn’t use that term) in a way that we might consider modern today. It’s typical to look back at the nineteenth century and point fingers at the Industrial Revolution as a moment when we became much more environmentally wasteful. But many types of manufacturers in the mid-nineteenth century actively embraced recycling as a way of obtaining raw materials. So much urban waste was reused—toothbrush manufacturers, button makers, fertilizer companies, and sugar refiners all used discarded bones found in the garbage heaps to make their products, for instance. Offal boilers transformed a lot of the food waste from garbage heaps into tallow for candle makers and soap makers. Whatever was leftover was fed to pigs and converted into edible protein. Regional farmers purchased animal waste from the streets. For several decades, Americans even embraced poudrette—processed human waste—as a fertilizer. This all would come to change, of course, and it would be a mistake to completely revise the way we understand the massive production and consumption involved in the Industrial Revolution. Still, modern recyclers are often confident that what they are doing is very revolutionary, that they are breaking with the past in a major way. In reality, there are some ways that nineteenth-century Americans were doing even more to find ways to reuse their waste.

How would you recommend using your book in class? How can your book help understand environmental issues in Antebellum America? 

Ideally, this book will be useful in a range of different courses—whether they focus on the antebellum period, environmental history, urban history, city planning, public health, or the history of capitalism. 

The majority of environmental histories of America focus on the Progressive Era and beyond, so Taming Manhattan will add to our understanding about what was happening before the Civil War. Antebellum Americans were making dramatic changes to their urban environments, attempting to transform nature alongside the social conditions that seemed to be making cities unsustainable. In the process, they defined what kinds of land uses belonged in an “urban” versus a “rural” setting—definitions we often take for granted, or, alternatively, are working to revise today.

Catherine McNeur’s book Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City will be published this fall by Harvard University Press and is available for pre-order at Powell’sAmazon, and Barnes and Noble. To learn more about her teaching and research, visit

You can also check out the Bookshelf at Powell’s Bookstore.

When Tobacco Was King

Evan P. Bennett has a new book entitled When Tobacco was King. The Florida Bookshelf has brief description of his new book.

The Florida Bookshelf

WheWhen_Tobacco_Was_King_RGBn Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont

Evan P. Bennett

In When Tobacco Was King, Evan Bennett examines the agriculture of tobacco, the South’s original staple crop. Advances in technology and shifts in labor and farming policy have altered the way of life for tobacco farmers, but rather than putting an end to tobacco culture, these developments have sent it in new directions and accelerated the change that has always been part of the farmer’s life. From Emancipation to the abandonment of federal crop controls in 2004, Bennett highlights changes endured by blacks and whites, landowners and tenants to show how tobacco farmers continued to find meaning and community in their work despite drastic changes.

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The Best Books and Historians According to Pulitzer Prize Winner James M. McPherson

Recently, the New York Times published a brief interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson, The George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.  He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book Battle Cry of Freedom.  In the interview McPherson identified who he believes are America’s top historians, the best book on  the Civil War, the best military history books, the best books about African American history, most overrated history book (it’s a biggie), and the book most responsible for shaping his career.

All of the historians and books cited by McPherson are outstanding, but they are representative of his generation.  Not surprisingly, this was pointed out by several younger scholars on twitter.  It is also not shocking his preferences were predominantly from historians of either his generation or books that he read during his career.  In many ways books are like music, people like the music of their formative years better than anything that came before it or after.  His choices are certainly understandable, but open to debate.

In the interview, McPherson often referred to an author, but failed to specify which books he preferred. In a number of cases, I have extrapolated which books he might specifically be recommending.  There are certainly other books from the authors he mentions that fit his descriptions.

Here were his answers:

Last Great Book He Read:

James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Best Books on the Civil War:

Allan Nevins eight volume set on the Civil War –

1. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852

  1. A House Dividing, 1852-1857
  2. Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859

4. Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861

5. The Improvised War, 1861–1862

  1. War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863

7. The Organized War, 1863–1864

8.The Organized War to Victory, 1864–1865


Favorite Biography of Civil War figure:

Jean Edward Smith, Grant

Best Military Histories:

John Keegan, The Face of Battle

Craig Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War

Craig Symonds, Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings

Craig Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History

Craig Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Reflections on the Civil War Era)

Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg

, Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville

Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864

, Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864

Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War

, Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War

Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers

, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Partners in command : The relationships between leaders in the Civil War

Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943

Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

Rick Atkinson, The Guns Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

Best African American History Books:

John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom

Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity : History of African-american Slaves (03 Edition)

Many Thousands Gone Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Edited by Ira Berlin, Freedom: Documentary History of Emancipation

Most Important for His Career:

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913

Book Every President Should Read:

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Most Overrated History Book:

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Penguin Classics)

Books on His Nightstand:

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life

Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

His Next Book:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton


Here is the link to McPherson’s interview – James M. McPherson: By the Book –

African American Soldiers During the Civil War: Interview with Author Bob Luke

Soldiering for Freedome

Johns Hopkins University Press recently published Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops written by Bob Luke and John David Smith.  After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, African Americans volunteered to fight for the Union.  Soldiering for Freedom seeks to explain how these men were recruited, used, treated during the Civil War.

In addition to writing Soldiering for Freedom, Luke also wrote The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball.  His co-author Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at University of North Carolina and the author of Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and”The American Negro.”

Here is our interview with Bob Luke.

What drew you initially to the story of black Union soldiers? How did you first start on this project?

The Civil War fascinated me long before I co-authored the book.  My grandfather on my father’s side, born just ten years after Appomattox, treasured his copy of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes. He bought it during the Depression with money saved from ever-declining sales at his art supplies store in Denver.  My grandmother never quite forgave him for the extravagance. I poured over Mathew Brady’s graphic photographs, read the articles, and happily accompanied my parents on trips to battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Balls Bluff. Twenty-year old Private Samuel W. Isenberg, 1st Regiment, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, (14th Reserves), my mothers’ great grandfather, saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  I watched Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War several times and attended a book signing where I got an autographed copy of his companion book. Burns included the role of “black” soldiers but as a minor theme.

When Robert J. Brugger, Senior Acquisitions Editor for Johns Hopkins University Press, for whom I’d written a book about the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro league baseball team, suggested a book summarizing the role of African American soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) as they became officially known, I saw an opportunity to delve into a Civil War topic of which I knew little.  Fortunately, I soon discovered much had been written on the subject, and that John David Smith, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, was willing to lend his expertise.

 Most historians labor in solitude, but you teamed with a partner.  What are the advantages to having a partner to work with on a book like this?

John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and author of books on African Americans in the mid to late Nineteenth century, brought instant expertise to my research findings. He quickly pointed out areas of the text that needed work, supplied quotes that enlivened the text, and brought the footnotes into acceptable form.  He saved time in the fact checking process, insured a level of credibility that may have been difficult to achieve without his involvement, and provided a comprehensive bibliography. In addition, John David supplied much appreciated companionship to what could have been a lonely task indeed.  Though we had not met and collaborated solely by e-mail, we soon fell into a simpatico rhythm of electronic back and forth.

The movie Glory about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was released back in 1989 to critical acclaim.  Were you ever concerned that you needed to address the many aspects of the movie in your book (accurate or inaccurate) or did you feel as though you could tell this story in a fairly fresh way?  

Glory deserved, in my opinion, its critical acclaim as a movie.  It graphically portrayed African Americans’ sacrifice, suffering, bravery, achievements, and white officer on black recruit cruelty. In so doing it presented not only a compelling story but brought attention to the then lesser known role of African American Union soldiers.  The movie did, however, take many liberties with the regiment’s history, and by extension, with the history of the U.S. Colored Troops. To have discussed the accurate points and tried to correct the liberties would have unnecessarily focused too much attention on one regiment and distracted the readers, many of whom are college students who may not be familiar with the movie, from the book’s main theme – the various ways in which African American soldiers were recruited, trained, and deployed.  I mentioned the movie only in passing. As a general rule, I don’t look for history at the movie theater. 

Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Once the Proclamation was issued, the Union began recruiting black troops.  Did blacks begin volunteering to serve in the military before recruiting centers were even established?  How were free blacks and former slaves recruited into army units? 

The recruitment of African American soldiers was at differing times and places legal, illegal, haphazard, voluntary, systematic, and coercive.  Prior to Lincoln’s Final Emancipation of January 1, 1863, slaves by the thousands, individually as well as families, fled farms and plantations to join the army and win freedom for themselves.  Males worked as laborers while the women cooked and laundered.  In another pre-Proclamation effort, generals and politicians, notably in the Carolinas and Kansas, unbeknownst to Lincoln, promised slaves their freedom if they would enlist. Lincoln promptly voided the promises. Immediately following the Proclamation, which gave the army authority to arm African Americans, a group of prominent abolitionists led by industrialist George Stearns and including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, and Julia Ward Howe raised funds to support a network of more than 100 black recruiters. They worked the Mississippi Valley, the northern states, Canada, and the mid-west as far as St. Louis. The recruiters, who received two dollars for every able-bodied man they delivered, made all manner of promises, most of which were never kept.  Many of these recruits formed the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries. 

As the need for Union recruits became ever more pressing, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to mount a recruiting campaign throughout the Mississippi Valley. Acting with Lincoln’s full authority, Thomas raised over 70,000 black troops. He ordered Union officers to accept all blacks who were streaming into their camps. Thomas gave speeches and set up recruiting centers. Some recruiters sought volunteers. Others visited farms and plantations often ordering the men at gun point to “volunteer,” dragging the reluctant out from under beds, and rounding up those who fled to the woods to avoid conscription.  Private citizens continued to play a major role, again in the North.  Poet, journalist, and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant led a group of prominent New York City men to form the New York Association for Colored Volunteers. The association attracted enough volunteers from throughout the state, aided by the promise of a three hundred dollar enlistment bonus, to form a regiment. Philadelphia merchant, Thomas Webster, exhorting blacks to “forget the past” and promising them the “acclaim from all for their valor,” helped recruit three regiments from that city. John Mercer Langston, a recent African American Oberlin graduate, having seen his offer to form a black regiment rebuffed in 1862 by Ohio’s Governor David Todd, spearheaded the formation of a black regiment once Todd realized he had no choice but to supply an African American regiment from the Buckeye state.

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops 1865
Company E, 4th US Colored Troops 1865

It is widely known that black soldiers were often treated poorly by fellow white soldiers and officers.  It what ways were black troops discriminated against?

When the war began most whites felt it was “a white man’s war.”  Congressmen publicly derided African Americans’ willingness and ability to fight.  The governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut spurned offers by blacks to enlist. The prospect of blacks in arms enraged and scared many whites, especially slaveholders. Blacks, free or slave, at the time were not even considered to be citizens due to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling in 1857.

Once in the army, they were confined to segregated regiments all of whose line officers were white. They received less pay than white soldiers.  Protesting the inequity cost Sergeant William Walker his life by firing squad. Until the last two years of the war most were assigned “fatigue duty”, various forms of manual labor, freeing white soldiers to do the fighting.  When they did see action they faced enslavement or execution if captured. Jefferson Davis considered captured black troops, and their white officers, to be traitors rather than prisoners of war; a status Jefferson accorded white Union soldiers. Confederate troops murdered many at the battle of Fort Pillow after they had surrendered.

The War Department often issued smooth bore muskets that lacked the accuracy of the standard issue rifle to African American soldiers.  Many were thrown into battle with little or no training.  Many who did receive training experienced pistol whippings, verbal threats, blows with the flat of a sword or fist, and being hung by the thumbs from many, but not all, white officers. Some favored the use of rewards such as a two day pass for the regiment’s most accurate rifleman or a small medal to members of a regiment’s company who performed best in drill.  White soldiers tried to scare black recruits by telling them they’d be shipped to Cuba or put on the front lines of every battle. In spite of it all, about 180,000 African Americans served in the army while about 20,000 saw service in the navy.

Troops at Dutch Gap in 1864
Troops at Dutch Gap in 1864, Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Commons

How did black units perform in combat during the war? Did their performance convince Union commanders to alter how they were utilized?

African American troops took part in 449 fights, the majority of them minor engagements and skirmishes.  In all engagements, however, small or large in scope, they demonstrated courage and ferocity in combat.  Knowledge of what awaited them if captured fueled their intensity.  Their commanders at first used them to poke holes in enemy lines.  More often than not they succeeded in breaking through enemy positions while making a dent in officers’ skepticism of their worth. One officer wrote to his wife, “I confess I am surprised at the dash and courage of these men. I have never felt sure of them before and even now I fear they would not have that steadiness under fire that many [whites] have but for a charge they cannot be beat.”

Later in the war they took part in large-scale offensives in such battles as Fort Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana; Olustee, Florida; the Battles of the Crater and New Market Heights outside of Richmond, Virginia and the Battle of Nashville.  There they proved to be steady under fire even while taking heavy losses. Following the Battle of Nashville, Colonel Rueben D. Massey said of them, “Death had known no distinction of color, nor had Valor, for the black’s were as near the enemy’s lines as were the whites.”

Were there any situations when the treatment of black soldiers improved?  If so, why?

Treatment of African American soldiers by the Union remained relatively unchanged and shoddy throughout the war.  Congress did not allow equal pay for all black soldiers until just a month before the war ended. While many attained non-commissioned officer status, none were selected as line officers for USCT regiments.  Those who protested their treatment often encountered a court martial, a jail sentence or worse. Their performance in battle, however, did change the opinion of them for the better on the part of many whites.  Eighteen African American soldiers and four seamen won a Medal of Honor. In a final tribute to their contributions toward saving the Union, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton selected the 45th USCT to be part of the honor guard for Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865.  A month later he chose the 22nd USCT to lead Lincoln’s funeral procession as it neared the U. S. Capitol.  Few whites in 1861 could have imagined those honors being accorded to African American soldiers and sailors.

How would you recommend using this book in a class?  What will students be able to take away from reading your book?

I could see the book in a class on African American history or the Civil War.  It’s a historical hors d’oeuvre, 107 pages excluding footnotes and bibliography.  Students would gain an overview of race relations in mid-nineteenth century in general and during the Civil War in particular.  The bibliography provides many avenues for more in-depth reading.

Discovering Florida

The University of Florida Press blog has a book announcement for John E. Worth book Discovering Florida: First Contact from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast. The book is a collection of documents of Spaniards who accompanied early Spanish explorers such as Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto, and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and their descriptions of indigenous peoples. As the UF Press Blog points out that these “indigenous cultures did not survive colonization.”

The Florida Bookshelf

Discovering Florida: First Contact Narratives from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast

Edited and Translated by John E. Worth

Discovering Florida compiles all the major writings of Spanish explorers who visited Florida’s lower gulf coast during the earliest stages of European conquest, between 1513 and 1566.  Including transcriptions of the original Spanish documents as well as English translations, this volume presents—in their own words—the experiences and reactions of Spaniards who came to Florida with Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto, and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. These accounts, which have never before appeared together in print, provide an astonishing glimpse into a world of indigenous cultures that did not survive colonization.

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Biography Subject, Alonzo Cushing, Wins Medal of Honor

Kent Masterson Brown’s Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander convinced the Army War Decorations Board to give 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing to award the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Cushing was killed at the battle soon after breaking Pickett’s Charge. The University of Kentucky has posted a article that reproduce’s an excerpt from Brown’s book that describes Cushing’s actions. Check out the UK Press’s blog post.

The University Press of Kentucky

Almost 150 years after his death in the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, Alonzo Cushing, first lieutenant of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, has received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States. On Monday, President Obama officially bestowed the honor on Cushing along with Command Sergeant Major Adkins and Specialist Four Donald P. Sloat who both served and distinguished themselves during the Vietnam War.

Alonzo Cushing Army First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing

According to a statement released by the White House, “Army First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself during combat operations against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863.” In Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander, Kent Masterson Brown offers an expansive view of the life and career of Lt. Cushing. Brown, author of Retreat from Gettysburg:…

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Review—Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

Emerging Civil War has a review of Robert L. O’Connell’s book Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. O’Connell’s book tries to make sense of Sherman live by compartmentalizing it in three different sections: The Military Strategist, The General and His Army, and The Man and His Families. While this structure makes the book somewhat repetitive it helps organize Grant’s somewhat chaotic story. Check out Derek D. Maxfield’s review at Emerging Civil War.

Emerging Civil War

O'Connell-coverToday we are pleased to welcome guest author Derek D. Maxfield with a review of Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (New York: Random House, 2014).

He is perhaps the most eccentric general of the Civil War. With his red hair, piercing eyes, and fidgety manner, William Tecumseh Sherman has been called a prophet by some and madman by others. But whatever the label, Sherman was one of the reasons the Union was preserved.

The latest brave soul to try to get to know Sherman is Robert L. O’Connell. His new book, Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, is aptly titled and well done. O’Connell seeks to come to terms with the general topically, instead of the standard chronological approach. The book is divided into three main sections: “The Military Strategist,” “The General and His Army,” and “The Man and His…

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Re-evaluating the Albany Civil Rights Movement – Interview with Lee Formwalt

LF photo by AEJenkins
Lee Formwalt (photo by A.E. Jenkins)

Lee Formwalt has recently written a book entitled Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Southwest Georgia Freedom Struggle – 1814-2014.  It explores the long fight for basic civil rights in Albany, Georgia.  Even though local leaders had been pushing for civil rights for years, in 1961-62 the eyes of the nation focused on Albany, Georgia.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descended on the small city in an effort to end segregation at the local Trailways bus depot. Unlike other battles of the civil rights movement, this one was notable because it was initially unsuccessful and forced leaders within the civil rights movement to reevaluate their strategies.  Formwalt’s book takes a much longer look at the civil rights movement than just this one year period in Albany and tries to understand the long struggle for civil rights.  The book is being co-published by the Georgia Humanities Council and Albany Civil Rights Institute.

 Lee W. Formwalt was a professor of history at Albany (GA) State University for 22 years (1977-1999) and served his last 2 years there as Dean of the Graduate School. Founder and editor of The Journal of Southwest Georgia History, he has written numerous scholarly articles and essays, and a book on southwest Georgia history, focusing largely on the African American experience. From 1999 to 2009, he was executive director of the Organization of American Historians, the world’s largest professional association and learned society devoted to the study of United States history. In 2009, he returned to Albany, GA, to become executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute.  He retired in 2011 and lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is currently working on a memoir and a collection of his essays and articles on southwest Georgia history.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

What was the genesis of this book?

I have been researching and writing about various aspects of southwest Georgia history for the last 35 years, ever since I moved to that region in the late 1970s to teach at Albany State College. In 1985-1986, I received an NEH fellowship to write a book on the socioeconomic history of 19th-century Dougherty County, the buckle of the southwest Georgia Black Belt.  A heavy teaching load made me realize that the book would be a long time coming, so I cranked out a series of articles for a number of scholarly journals instead. In addition, I wrote occasional columns on my research for a wider audience in the local press. Beginning in the late 1990s, administrative appointments, including Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), significantly reduced my historical writing on southwest Georgia.  In addition, in the 1990s I was a founder and heavily involved in the establishment of the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum at Old Mt. Zion Church (ACRMM), thus beginning my foray into the 20th-century history of the region. 

While I was at OAH, the ACRMM built a $4 million expansion that opened in 2008.  Upon retiring from OAH in 2009 I accepted an invitation to serve as executive director of the rechristened Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI). One of the first things I did in my new leadership position was to walk around with visitors as docents led them through the new museum. I heard a number of factual errors and I realized that I needed to write a docent’s script and train the tour guides to deliver an accurate account of the events leading up to the Albany Movement as well as the movement itself.  That script later served as the outline for Looking Back, Moving Forward

I retired after serving two years at ACRI.  Last fall the Institute came calling with another invitation—this time to write a souvenir book on the history of the Albany Movement to be published by ACRI and then sold in its gift shop to visitors.  I agreed to write the 30,000-word book in four months as it was already outlined in the docent’s script I had compiled earlier.  That, plus the fact I had been researching and writing about southwest Georgia African American history for 35 years, made the writing go pretty quickly. In a sense, it seemed like the book practically wrote itself. The book grew to almost 40,000 words and the Georgia Humanities Council signed on as a copublisher.

  Why did you want to tell this story?

I had been telling bits and pieces of the story in my earlier writing in the 1980s and 1990s.  Composing the docent’s script allowed me to put the whole story together from the acquisition of Creek Indian lands in 1814 through the Albany Movement of 1961-1962.  Writing the book allowed me to tell the rest of the story from SNCC’s activities in 1963-1966 on up to the present—a full two centuries from 1814.  This story of African American resistance to white oppression in one of the darkest corners of the Deep South is not well-known.  So, in a sense, I felt compelled to tell it, especially what happened before 1961 and after 1962.

The first freedom fighters in southwest Georgia were those enslaved African Americans who ran away from their owners before emancipation in 1865. During Reconstruction, African Americans organized politically, voted, and were elected to the state legislature.  In the 75 years of Jim Crow when more than 120 African Americans were lynched in southwest Georgia, other citizens of color organized NAACP chapters in several towns and UNIA (Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa movement) divisions in rural counties. Few people are aware that after 1962, SNCC continued its efforts to organize and desegregate communities throughout southwest Georgia.  Even the cause célèbre cases of the Americus Four, the Albany Nine, and the Dawson Five have largely been forgotten.  The classic phase of the Albany Movement (fall 1961-summer 1962) is better understood when told in the context of the century and a half of resistance that preceded it and the half-century of struggle that followed it right up to today.

What is the Albany Movement and how did it start?

The first thing we need to do is clarify the difference between the Albany Movement as the civil rights movement in Albany and the Albany Movement as an official organization founded on November 17, 1961.  In both cases we’re talking about the classic stage of the Albany Movement characterized by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement.  Historian Michael Chalfen traces the movement’s beginnings to the founding of Albany’s NAACP chapter in the wake of World War I.  In Looking Back, Moving Forward, I trace the movement’s origins back through Reconstruction to the resistance of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum era.  Similarly, Chalfen extends the movement in Albany into the 1970s and I bring it into the 21st century.  Thus, depending on your interpretation, the Albany Movement or southwest Georgia freedom struggle began before the Civil War, in 1918, or in 1961, and ended in 1962, the 1970s, or continues right up to today.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1961-1962, the Albany Movement had among its goals increased voter registration and unprecedented communitywide desegregation.  Most accounts of the classic stage of the Albany Movement begin with the arrival of SNCC field secretaries Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon in October 1961 to begin a southwest Georgia voter registration campaign. The young SNCC leaders met with college, high school, and junior high students teaching them freedom songs and nonviolent tactics.  African American adults in Albany recognized the need to organize themselves if they—and not these outsiders from SNCC—were going to lead the growing student movement.

On November 17, 1961 the leaders of SNCC, the NAACP Youth Council, the NAACP, the Criterion Club, the Voters League, the Federated Women’s Club, and the Ministerial Alliance established a formal organization, The Albany Movement, and elected black osteopath William G. Anderson president. This version of events suggests that SNCC came and started a student movement that within weeks led the adults to create the Albany Movement. Historian Racquel Henry and former Albany State College students Annette Jones White and Bernice Johnson Reagon, however, have more recently shown that ASC student activism had begun years before Sherrod and Reagon showed up in Albany which made it easier for them to organize the students.

Students were the first to be arrested for trying to integrate the Trailways Bus Station in November 1961.  When SNCC Freedom Riders were arrested in December, mass protests by students and adults resulted in over 750 arrests, including that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Another 750 arrests were made in the next 18 months for a total of 1500 in 20 months.  King’s involvement in Albany accelerated the national press coverage the movement began to experience.

Why has the Albany Movement been overshadowed by other civil rights actions?  Why have we forgotten about this important piece of the civil rights movement?

When King left Albany in the waning days of summer 1962 after having been jailed three times, the city was as segregated as it ever had been.  King admitted that he had failed in Albany, but that he learned some important lessons there that he applied in Birmingham in 1963.  In many accounts of the civil rights movement, the victories in Montgomery (1955-1956), Birmingham (1963), and the March from Selma to Montgomery (1965) get most of the attention and Albany is noted as the place where King made mistakes and failed.  The problem with this perspective is that it is King-centric, implying that Albany was significant only when King was involved.  It sees Albany as a part of the national civil rights movement sandwiched between the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the Birmingham protests and March on Washington of 1963 and fails to take it on its own terms as a local movement.

The Albany Movement began before King arrived and persisted long after King’s departure in defeat. Its history is not one of failure simply because King failed in southwest Georgia, but one of persistence and ultimately some success.  Often forgotten is that the Albany Movement was the first mass movement of the modern civil rights era to have as its goal the desegregation of an entire community.  Mass meetings, protest marches and arrests continued in Albany in 1963.  Sherrod and his integrated teams of SNCC workers expanded their efforts beyond Albany into the rural counties of Terrell, Lee, Sumter, Baker, and the rest of southwest Georgia, where they faced some of the worst white racist terrorism in the South.  SNCC workers were beaten by law officers, shot at and wounded by night riders, and churches associated with their voter registration efforts were firebombed.  What I have tried to do in this book, for the first time, is to tell the whole story of the movement—the southwest Georgia freedom struggle—in one place, and not just that part of the story that got national and international attention when King was involved.

Photographs are an important part of this book.  Where did you find these photos and what do they add to this story?

From the beginning we planned on making photographs a key part of the book.  The opening chapter is illustrated with newspaper ads for runaway slaves and slave sales.  I have seen the shock on the faces of nonhistorian friends who saw for the first time an advertisement for “150 Negroes for Sale at public out-cry in the City of Albany.” Such images can really drive home what slavery was all about.  In the chapter on the origins of Jim Crow, I used photographs made by A. Radclyffe Dugmore for W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1901 World’s Work article, “The Negro As He Really Is.”  Dugmore, a 30-year old Englishman on the verge of a career as a well-known photographer and filmmaker, met Du Bois in Albany in March 1901 for the photo shoot. Nineteen of Dugmore’s photographs of African Americans and their homes, stores, and work illustrate Du Bois’s article which the author later revised into two chapters in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

Most of the photographs from the heyday of the movement were taken by Benjamin F. Cochran, the official Albany Movement photographer, and by SNCC photographer Danny Lyon.  When Cochran retired he sold his studio and movement photographs to Albany cameraman Adrian Jenkins.  Lyon started his career making photographs of the movement in Cairo, IL, and Albany, GA, and became SNCC’s official photographer.  One of his most iconic pictures, among the first he took in Albany—the white and “colored” water fountains in the Dougherty County Courthouse—dominates the cover of Looking Back, Moving Forward.  Words cannot capture the essence of Jim Crow the way that one photograph does.  Lyon went on to become a renowned photographer and published a number of his civil rights photographs in his book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (1992/2010).  Contemporary photography of ACRI, Old Mt. Zion and Shiloh Baptist churches was shot by Todd Stone in 2010 and 2014.

How does the story of the Albany Movement add to our understanding of the broader civil rights movement?

The Albany Movement illustrates how the national civil rights movement was much more complicated than it is often portrayed.  It’s easier to tell a linear story beginning with the 1954 Brown decision followed by the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King’s emergence as a national civil rights leader.  Then comes the 1957 Little Rock crisis, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, Birmingham, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the emergence of Black Power and the end of the movement with King’s assassination in 1968.  But the story of the movement is not a linear tale.  It was a hodgepodge of many local movements, each with its own beginning and its moment in the sun of national media attention.  There are many threads connecting these movements besides the involvement of Martin Luther King.

For example, SNCC leaders who came to work in Albany brought with them their movement experiences in southwest Mississippi, South Carolina, and on the Freedom Rides.  SNCC workers in southwest Georgia moved on to other places, including Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Music was another connection linking the movements all over the South.  One of the first things SNCC workers did when they arrived in a community was to teach freedom songs to local folk.  Albany became famous for its freedom songs many of which came out of the a capella rural southwest Georgia black Baptist church tradition.  The original SNCC Freedom Singers group originated in Albany and went on a fundraising tour spreading the movement music nationwide.  Like Albany, each community movement in the South made its unique contribution to the broader civil rights movement shaped by its particular history. 

Who is your intended audience for this book?  Who do you hope finds this book?

This book was written for a broad general audience, initially for visitors to the Albany Civil Rights Institute, who wanted to take away with them a history of the movement that they just experienced in the ACRI permanent exhibit.  The Georgia Humanities Council recognized that Looking Back, Moving Forward was more than just a souvenir book—that it was an important contribution to civil rights scholarship. The Council began promoting the book, became copublisher with ACRI, and Council President Jamil Zainaldin wrote the foreword. Considering the broad general audience we made the decision to include many illustrations and no footnotes.  At the end of the book is a list of more than two dozen books and articles for further reading, all of which I used in writing the book.  Because this is the first book devoted solely to the Albany Movement and southwest Georgia freedom struggle from the time of white settlement to the present, I realized that some of my scholarly colleagues might also be interested in this work.  So I kept a footnoted version of the book and I am currently exploring ways to make the documented manuscript available online. 

How can our readers get a copy of this book?

Books are currently on sale at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, 326 Whitney Ave., Albany, GA 31701 and at the Georgia Humanities Council, 50 Hurt Plaza, S.E., Suite 595, Atlanta, GA 30303.  The easiest way to order the book is to send a check for $22 (includes postage and handling) to ACRI, P.O. Box 6036, Albany, GA 31706-6036.  The entire cost of publishing the book was raised from four sponsors, so all proceeds from sales go directly to ACRI to help the Institute continue to tell the story of the southwest Georgia freedom struggle.