by Allan Branstiter

It has been twenty years since my dad received a box of magazines from a truck driver outside a plastic pipe factory in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Not every dad would accept a beaten box of glossy mags from a trucker, and even fewer would bestow said box upon their 12-year-old son. But my dad did, and in doing so kicked off what became a life-long interest in the history of the American Civil War. I remember the event vividly: Dad pulling up in his Ford Ranger just after dinner, the soft sides of a heavy cardboard box straining to contain its contents, and the colorful images of soldiers fighting and dying upon the shining covers of the innumerable issues of Civil War Times Illustrated staring back at me as I deposited them all over my bedroom floor.

Cpl. Joseph Pierce, 1862
Cpl. Joseph Pierce, 1862

Of the thousands of pages I would eventually read about the Civil War as a boy, a single page stands out in my memory more than the rest. On the final page of many issues of Civil War Times Illustrated during the early 1990s, the editors would dedicate a page to the life of individual veterans of the Civil War. One was set aside for Joseph Pierce, the adopted Chinese son of a sea captain who served in the 14th Connecticut Infantry at Gettysburg. Pierce’s image currently hangs in the Gettysburg Museum; however, few people knew about him twenty years ago. When I first discovered him, Joseph Pierce’s existence unsettled me for reasons that took me years to understand. I remember that moment clearly. Pierce’s Asian face stared up from the page at my Asian face—two brown bodies surrounded by a sea of white culture and white history.

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by Allan Branstiter

[x-Posted from Agreeing Loudly]

Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Ore., a supporter of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, walks his horse Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, near Burns, Ore. The group has said repeatedly that local people should control federal lands, but critics say the lands are already managed to help everyone from ranchers to recreationalists. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Cowboy Dwane Ehmer, of Irrigon, Ore., a supporter of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, walks his horse Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, near Burns, Ore. The group has said repeatedly that local people should control federal lands, but critics say the lands are already managed to help everyone from ranchers to recreationalists. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

David Fry, the final holdout occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, surrendered to federal authorities yesterday. Before he did so, negotiators asked him what he thought Jesus would do in his situation. With the creativity and political acumen of an Ayn Rand novel, he responded with a demand for pizza and marijuana, something about U.F.O.s, and criticism for a government condones both abortions and drone strikes. Finally, after weeks of pointless bluster, artifact-fingering, and laying down weird sumo wrestling challenges to Chris Christie, Fry ate one last cookie, muttered “Alrighty then,” and exited his tent. Ammon and Randy Bundy’s dumb revolution ended with an Ace Ventura quote.

It’s easy to make light of these sagebrush constitutional scholars because their understanding of the American legal code and its history inaccurate. The fact that the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly embraced, then rejected, then embraced, then rejected (maybe?) their cause also enhances its comedic value. As dumb as these protester lookwith their livefeeds, shipments of junk food, and Gadsden flags—as futile and pointless as LaVoy Finicum’s death for this cause appears—it has a very serious history.

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Portfolio, Reviews

by Allan Branstiter

John Charles Frémont
John C. Frémont

In the end, you leave convinced that it is impossible to understand the Civil War without considering the history of the coinciding American settler colonial project in the West. . . . Empire and Liberty reminds visitors that the events of the nineteenth century did not occur in isolation.

The day I moved to Los Angeles from Mississippi I was greeted by an image of John C. Frémont near the summit of light pole outside my new apartment. Shaggy-haired and determined, the explorer was depicted in an old engraving of him mounting the Rockies, urging bearded youths westward towards opportunity, cheap land, and freedom. In 2015, I could understand the appeal. If only a starry-eyed and heroic candidate promised my generation autonomy, cheap rent, and inexpensive tuition, we might take up the torch and follow. For now, all Frémont had to offer was an exhibition about the West and the Civil War, as well as a respite from the bustle of the city. That’d have to be enough for now.

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  • Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The Civil War has been interpreted as a period of intense change in American history.  Traditionally, the war resulted not only in the triumph of free labor over slavery, but it also transformed the United States into an industrialized country ruled by a strong centralized government.  In Mastering Wartime, J. Matthew Gallman challenges this interpretation in his social analysis of Philadelphia during the Civil War.  Gallman argues that Philadelphia’s wartime experience is more accurately characterized as a period of “adjustment” rather than “change”(327).  By exampling the city’s recruitment campaigns, public rituals, reactions to death, charitable organizations, crime statistics, and economic conditions, Gallman demonstrates that Philadelphians reacted to the Civil War by relying on existing routines while adjusting just enough to meet the requirements of their wartime efforts.

Gallman is clear to state that Philadelphia did not emerge from the Civil War completely unchanged.  Instead, he argues that “the war’s impact was broad rather than deep” and that it affected every aspect of life in Philadelphia without dramatically altering them (299).  Two themes emerge from Gallman’s description of Philadelphia’s society during the Civil War: continuity and flexibility.  Philadelphia managed to exercise enough flexibility in order to adapt to wartime, but Gallman argues that these adaptations were rooted in the city’s antebellum traditions of local governance, kinship, and communalism.  The city’s local and private organizations were successful in maintaining peace, recruiting soldiers, limiting the effects of conscription, and sustaining its economy during the war without ceding power to the Federal Government.  Philadelphia was also able to maintain the social status quo by offering few long-term improvements to the working-class, female, and African-American participants of its war effort.

In order to order understand the Civil War’s social effects on Philadelphia, Gallman connects the home front to the battlefront by defining how citizens participated in the war effort and how they reacted to military developments.  Gallman argues that Philadelphia, after the rage militaire of 1861 had subsided, was able to limit federal intervention in local matters by consistently filling recruitment quotas and keeping the peace through local means.  Community pressure ensured that enlistments came from all sections of society, while simultaneously protecting conscientious objectors from being coerced into service.  When President Lincoln enacted the conscription acts in 1863, Philadelphia’s local organizations were able to limit the effects of the draft by providing enlistment incentives to its recruits.  These bounties encouraged men to fill the city’s enlistment quotas, thereby avoiding large-scale conscription.  Gallman compares Philadelphia’s relative peacefulness to the social tumult of New York City.  He argues that it was the aforementioned actions of Philadelphia’s local city leaders and the foresight Mayor Alexander Henry (and his “rough and ready” police force) that prevented large scale riots, quelled social tension, and ensured the continuity of antebellum social structures.

Gallman also presents an image of a quick return to normalcy in Civil War Philadelphia after the heady weeks following the fall of Ft. Sumter.  Public rituals on holidays were carried out according to tradition with a few adaptations that seemed fitting to the somberness of the war.  For example, the ladies of Philadelphia marked Independence Day with visits to wounded soldiers instead of having picnics.  City leaders also ruled out spending public money on firework displays, stating that it was more important to provide war widows with assistance.  The rituals surrounding military movements also appear to have lost some of their early pomp as crowds had less interest in watching drill maneuvers as the war dragged on.  Gallman states that military revues on holidays also have a precedent in numerous pre-war celebrations.

Philadelphia’s economic life was also remarkably resilient during the Civil War.  As a large port city in a central location on the eastern seaboard, Philadelphia’s merchants profited greatly from trade with southern cotton plantations.  When the war began, Philadelphia’s diverse economy allowed it to survive an initial lull in trade.  Cotton merchants and millers were quickly able to retool and replace southern cotton with northern wool, thereby allowing them to acquire lucrative supply contracts with the Federal Government.  The working class also profited from an increase in trade; however, they were not able to parlay short-term gains into anything permanent.

Gallman’s argument that the Civil War was not a transformative event for Philadelphia’s society and citizens is well made, but it is not flawless.  Prior to Mastering Wartime, histories of the Civil War have often neglected the home front and the common individual’s perspectives.  Gallman’s work is valuable in that he brings Philadelphians and their society to the forefront.  Once Philadelphians donned the uniform, however, they appear to fall out of Gallman’s analysis of the war’s effects.   When soldiers reappear in the narrative, Gallman glosses over the fact that these soldiers had been visibly changed by the war.  He also posits that letters and packages from the home front were enough to prevent a civil-military divide.  Gallman even states that George Fahnestock “found the young veterans ‘war worn and stern men'”(103).  These “war worn and stern men” are not substantially addressed again until an analysis of Philadelphia’s post-war crime wave, which he attributes to more police activity and the arrests of older men.  In light of the fact that Mastering Wartime was written after Gerald F. Linderman’s Embattled Courage, one would expect that any analysis of the social effects of the Civil War would address the experiences of combatants once they returned home.[1]  Despite this, Mastering Wartime is to be commended for making valuable contributions to the history of communities at war as well increasing history’s understanding of the social effects of the Civil War.

[1] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1987).


[Xpost from a Clarion-Ledger article originally posted on March 1, 2014]

by Jerry Mitchell

Evalina Seastrunk was 29 when she entered the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum.

The Copiah County woman was the 635th patient — and the first one listed in the still existing Registry of Admissions. She was admitted Jan. 10, 1857, for mania.

Her date of discharge came 35 years, three months and 25 days later — on May 3, 1890.

The reason given? Death.

Hers is among the bodies of mental patients, now numbered at more than 2,000, that are buried on the grounds that today houses the state’s only teaching hospital. Forgotten in their lives and in death, they are known of now because their remains are on the site of a planned expansion by the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

So what will the medical school do?

That’s what UMMC officials are trying to determine. “We recognize the historic nature, and we recognize there is a direct link to living people,” said spokesman Jack Mazurak. “At the same time, the projects we have are extremely important.”

Underground tests that have found an estimated 2,000 bodies east of the dental school are expected to lead to the relocation of three projects: a parking garage, the $11 million American Cancer Society Hope Lodge and the Children’s Justice Center.

Marie Daniels of Forest would like to see a state historical marker erected to remember the mental patients buried here a century ago, including her great-grandmother, Epsie Seals — “just to acknowledge the lives they’ve lived.”

Mazurak said medical center officials are discussing the best way to recognize these patients as well as what should be done with the property.

Dorothea Dix, a Boston schoolteacher who became a mental health reformer, rallied support among Mississippi lawmakers to fund construction of the $175,000 asylum, completed in 1855.

During the 1800s, treatment of the mentally ill was inhumane, said Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health, who has written about the history. “People were chained up in jails and attics.”

Lampton called the creation of the asylum “one of Mississippi’s finest accomplishments as a young state. This was an act of enlightenment, in a violent period, to care and provide refuge for God’s smitten, as they termed the insane.”

Constructed on an old penal colony, the original institution held up to 150 white patients, many of them children.

By its second year, the facility began to include slaves and free persons of color — segregated from the whites.

By 1877, the asylum had taken in a total of 39 children under 15 and 104 young people between the ages of 15 and 20.

Of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one in five died. Among those who died: 44 from “unknown” causes, 30 from “softening of the brain,” 24 from dysentery, 17 from “nervous exhaustion,” 10 from dropsy, nine from pneumonia and eight from “chronic diarrhea.”

While illnesses topped the asylum’s “assumed causes of insanity,” other causes listed included “domestic trouble,” “religion,” “masturbation,” “pregnancy,” “disappointed in love” and “in the sun exposure.”

Lampton said these kinds of “causes” were often “wrongly blamed as the inducers of psychiatric illness rather than understanding them as simply expressions of bipolar depression and mania, schizophrenia, postpartum depression or neurosyphilis.”

In 1858, Dix successfully lobbied lawmakers to expand the overflowing asylum. “I am happy, at all seasons, to apply my time and best energies in aid of the insane in Mississippi, no less than in Massachusetts in Carolina or in Missouri,” she said. “My life, sir, belongs to the cause — through this to my whole country.”

In 1863, Union troops took over the asylum and used it as a signaling station until Confederate troops returned fire.

The asylum superintendent walked all the patients outside, waving a white flag. The shooting stopped.

After the Civil War ended, the asylum also became a home for some veterans, widows and families.

The neighborhood included houses, a school and a church for former slaves, Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

Asylum Hill, as it became known, had several cemeteries: one for asylum patients, one for Missionary Baptist church members and one for paupers. Bodies from the Civil War and disease outbreaks also may be buried there.

“In the early years, the Jackson asylum survived fires, tornadoes, yellow fever epidemics and shifting Yazoo clay,” according to the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

So many died from yellow fever epidemics that bodies were reportedly found on sidewalks and in parks.

In 1870, Gov. James Alcorn appointed Dr. William Compton to serve as superintendent of the asylum. Compton, who had become nationally known for his surgical techniques in the Civil War, served in the state Legislature.

He worked to modernize mental health care, reducing the use of patient restraints.

After he took over, the asylum added two more wings, doubling the room. Other wings followed, according to the encyclopedia. “The main building, with six marble columns and a classic front, crowned with a cupola, had wing after wing added onto its sides and sprawled out like a prehistoric bird on the outskirts of early Jackson.”

In those days, running the asylum resembled running an estate, with Mount Vernon-like buildings sprawling across the 3,500 acres.

Patients helped farm half the acres, which included a fruit orchard, a dairy and a garden, where in one year, they gathered more than $14,000 (more than $311,000 today) in bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, okra, field peas, watermelons, cabbage and other vegetables.

The asylum welcomed high society to “lunatic balls,” said Allan Branstiter, a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi who wrote his master’s thesis on Compton.

At the time, there was some belief that patients benefited from dancing, he said.

A newspaper correspondent attending one such ball in Jackson, Branstiter said, talked of seeing “a lady dancing with wild eyes. I found out that was the superintendent’s wife.”

She was, in fact, addicted to opiates, Branstiter said. The correspondent, he said, also spotted a bald-headed man with beady eyes, who turned out to be Compton.

While heading the asylum, Compton became president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, a member of the first state Board of Health and a member of the International Medical Congress.

He continued to gain national acclaim for his work in mental health even as secrets threatened his career.

The asylum’s former matron accused Compton of having an affair with a female staff worker, but he denied the claim and so did 18 asylum employees.

Another doctor, who was similarly accused, left the asylum.

Compton’s mother became the next matron.

The board of the lunatic asylum concluded the evidence was “not sufficient to convict Dr. Compton of any criminal act — at the same time, they regret that a sense of this duty as guarding of a most delicate public trust compels them to say that enough is shown by the testimony to convince them that great irregularity, impropriety and want of dignity has been suffered to go on at the asylum with the superintendent, former assistant physician and some of the attendants were calculated to lead to improper remarks.”

The board’s sole action was to bar the purchase of wines “except for strictly medicine purposes.”

Compton came under public criticism when he called for better mental health care for African Americans and was called a “race traitor” after he reportedly gave shelter to a black man during a riot.

The irony was Compton had started a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Marshall County after the Civil War, Branstiter said. “He’s an enigmatic figure.”

With Reconstruction ending, political forces pushed out Compton, who decided to start a private asylum on his property near Holly Springs.

A yellow fever epidemic led him to send his children away. He stayed and died of the disease, just two months before his private asylum would have opened.

His death came just a year after the asylum superintendent had declared nationally that Mississippi was the healthiest state in the Union.

The asylum population continued to grow, and in 1918, a House committee investigated rumors after then-Gov. Theodore Bilbo replaced the asylum superintendent with a friend, Dr. R.M. Butler, later accused of being “too free and intimate with the young female nurses,” according to the 1951 book, “Revolt of the Rednecks.”

A House committee investigating that matter found the patients had no heat and could only bathe once a week because of a defective hot-water system and that male and female nurses were getting drunk on whiskey and spending the night together. Several nurses became pregnant, and at least one reportedly had an abortion performed there.

Butler resigned, and Bilbo declared he was guilty of no wrongdoing, even as rumors swirled that he had joined the parties.

By 1921, Bilbo had left office, and the asylum had retreated from the headlines, even as the population swelled past 2,000.

In 1935, mental health officials, concerned the old asylum had become a firetrap, relocated patients to a new facility in Rankin County. Two decades later, the University Medical Center was built on the same hill, which continued to serve as a cemetery.

Jimmie Robinson Sr., 80, of Jackson recalled helping bury a body for Cook Funeral Home in the area in 1959 or so.

“There were very few markers then,” he said. “I can remember backing the hearse up. Most of the graves were not very well kept.”

Today, the land west of the dental school represents a prime place for the growing medical center to expand, but relocating and reburying the 2,000 bodies would cost officials $6 million.

Robinson would like to see the patients honored. “That would please a lot of people to put up a historical sign,” he said.

Jackson area consultant Pam Johnson said she dreams of a small park with pathways in memory of the patients, a “peaceful and beautiful place for the living to enjoy.”

Lampton said the thousands of patients buried on what was once Asylum Hill have been “forgotten twice — when they were originally sent there for treatment and after they were buried there.”

A historical marker would “remember these twice-forgotten patients,” he said, “as well as the noble work of the doctors and nurses who cared for this vulnerable population for so long.”

To contact Jerry Mitchell, call (601) 961-7064 or follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.