Exploring Mississippi Experiences during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., University of Southern Mississippi

In the summer of 1865, W. T. Rowland of Tippah County, Mississippi, contacted his governor with a complaint. “At the Commencement of the late rebelion [sic], a few of us remained true to the Old Government . . . [and] went to the Federal lines where we enlisted in different Regts,” Rowland explained. Despite serving three years in the 11th Illinois Cavalry, Tippah County authorities were requiring this Union Army veteran to take an Amnesty Oath, a promise of loyalty to the U.S. government and a pledge to defend it. It “Seams [sic] Strang [sic] that we Should have to undergo the Same process that a Rebel Soldier does to become a loyal citizen of our native State and country,” he fumed to Gov. William Sharkey. Just what does it take “to constitute a loyal citizen,” Rowland asked?

Rowland’s letter reminds us of historical issues that readers often forget when studying the Civil War era, though they were commonly known to the wartime generation. These include the fact that some home fronts were as divided as the nation during the Civil War, and in states like Mississippi, over 17,000 men fought for the Union. To be clear, the vast majority of Mississippi men served the Confederacy, but 17,000 is no small number. Most of those men were African-American volunteers, some of whom served at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in June 1863. It was here that newly recruited U.S. Colored Troops fought with such determination that they convinced doubtful whites that African-Americans could make excellent soldiers — and note that this took place a month before the 54th Massachusetts is credited with proving the same at Fort Wagner. Also overlooked in Civil War Mississippi history is the number of white men like Rowland who fought for the Union. Historians estimate that number at about 500 volunteers. A search for Mississippi Union veterans in the 1890 Veteran Census, however, indicates that this number could actually be in the thousands.

The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) is a digital project dedicated to expanding our understanding of this complex era. Our work is grounded in a partnership between the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL), and the USM History program, including the Dale Center. Over the next decade, this team will place online the nearly 20,000 documents that comprise the records of Mississippi’s governors’ offices from the late secession crisis through the war, Reconstruction, and the beginning of the New South (specifically covering 1859-1882).

In the nineteenth century, it was common for everyday people to contact their governor about complaints and concerns, and they wrote about everything from the extreme to the seemingly mundane. As a result, governors’ collections let us hear from everyday Mississippians — who rarely left behind traditional historical sources like letters and diaries — during one of the most revolutionary eras in U.S. history. Thanks to the preservation efforts of MDAH, these records are still available, and thanks to modern technology and generous grant funding, CWRGM will make them freely available online.

We’re still at the beginning of the project, but the CWRGM team recently launched a website featuring about 80 sample documents from the collection. As director of this project, I wanted users to see what collections like these hold and what they offer scholars, educators, students, and the public. These sample documents are divided into four themes:

When you explore the site, be sure to check out the essays at the beginning of each theme that provide historical context and talk about some of the items in that section. These include, for example, two letters from April and September 1862 from Mary Jones, a soldier’s widow who was desperate for help to support herself and her children. You can also hear from Sarah Neece, the wife of a Confederate soldier, as she protested Confederates who seized her horse for military needs. Check out, too, telegrams like this one from Nov. 1863 that indicate how CWRGM will let us explore military campaigns as they unfolded in the state. You can view W. T. Rowland’s letter here, too, along with a telegram from Confederate President Jefferson Davis discussing the Union recruitment of African-American volunteers in Mississippi in 1863, both of which speak to that issue of determined Unionist support in the state. If you’re an educator or interested in using these resources in a learning environment, you’ll want to explore the lesson plans crafted by talented Mississippi educators to help teachers utilize these sources in secondary classrooms.

Coming in June 2021, we’ll launch our official home for the project with the release of the first 4,000 documents, which is almost all of Gov. John J. Pettus’s Letters and Correspondence (1859-1863). These will include digitized images of the original records, with metadata, full transcriptions, and annotations. Site users will be able to search for key events by date or date range, for any place name or individual’s name, to click on terms that will connect them to related documents at the site, and to browse the collection by box and folder arrangement (simulating research in the archives, including the availability of finding aids). If you follow CWRGM on Facebook and Twitter, you can receive word of this launch and our ongoing efforts (including our podcast coming in Spring 2021).

Dr. Susannah J. Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society as the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865, Don’t Hurry Me Down To Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived it, and Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, as well as the edited collection Civil War Citizens. Ural is writes numerous articles, editorials, blog posts, and columns that share cutting-edge historical ideas and research with scholars, educators, and the public. Ural has taught university students about the U.S. Civil War era, U.S. military history, and American history in general for nearly 25 years, and also educates the public through televised talks on C-Span, educational podcasts, and presentations to community groups. Her latest project involves her role as director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project (CWRGM).

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
This entry was posted in African American soldiers, Black veterans, U.S. Civil War, Union Army, veterans, war and society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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