Author Interview--Amy L. Fluker (Commonwealth of Compromise)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Amy Laurel Fluker to talk about her new book Commonwealth of Compromise: Civil War Commemoration in Missouri, published by the University of Missouri Press in June 2020.

Amy Laurel Fluker received her Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi and is an Assistant Professor of U.S. history at Youngstown State University.

To start, Amy, how did you get interested in writing a book about Civil War Memory in Missouri?

ALF: Commonwealth of Compromise is the result of a lifetime absolutely immersed in Missouri history. Some of my earliest memories are of family trips to Civil War battlefields around the state. So, by the time I began contemplating this project as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, I already had a fair grasp on Missouri’s Civil War history. Living and studying in the South, however, amplified my sense of just how unique that history is. Missouri had been a border state, Mississippi had not. The differences that produced in terms of Civil War commemoration startled me. In Mississippi, I noticed the prevalence of Confederate monuments. By contrast, the ways Missourians memorialized their participation in the Civil War seemed quite different. For example, if you visited my hometown of Jefferson City, you’d inevitably find yourself on the state house grounds and you’d encounter prominent monuments to westward expansion—including monuments to Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and Lewis and Clark. You would not find a grand monument to Missouri’s Civil War soldiers like those in other capital cities. Civil War commemoration in the city is less overt—an HBCU with a striking, but unusual monument to the Black soldiers who founded it, a national cemetery containing a monument to Union soldiers massacred by guerrillas, a non-descript stone marker describing a Confederate advance against the city in 1864. In other words, you have to go looking for Civil War memorials. These personal observations became the basis for the question that drove my research: To what extent did Missouri’s history as a border state complicate the construction of Civil War memories there?

You are kind of raising the next question already yourself. We have with Matt Stanley, Zachary Garrison, and Christopher Phillips a number of new books recently on the border regions, what makes Missouri different? And how is your book different, especially with regard to Matt Stanley’s work on memory?

ALF: It’s been wonderful to see all of this work emerging on Missouri and on the Midwest. These scholars absolutely informed the direction I took with Commonwealth of Compromise. In the dissertation phase, I was really consumed with trying to establish that Missouri was a part of the West. This was important to me because it explains why Civil War commemoration in Missouri looks different even from the other border states—notably, Kentucky. By the time I began the manuscript, Phillips and Matthew Hulbert had clearly established Missouri’s unique regional identity. Commonwealth of Compromise builds on the work of both historians, but deals with a different periodization and focuses on the work of regular veterans and their female auxiliaries. These Missourians share so much in common with the Midwesterners of Stanley’s The Loyal West. Stanley doesn’t address Missouri in detail, but his analysis of the importance of both racism and regionalism in fostering reconciliation applies equally in this context. The “Western spirit” and conservative Unionism were very much alive in Missouri. Missouri’s history of slaveholding and its resident Confederate population, however, presented loyal Missourians, both Black and white, with additional challenges and frustrations in terms of commemoration.

How did Missouri manage to commemorate the war when the state was so divided during the conflict? Did Union-white, Union-black, and Confederate veterans find any base of reconciliation or did they continue to hate like so many others in the country?

ALF: Missouri’s divided loyalties, compounded by racial and ethnic divisions, made commemoration extremely difficult. So, as I mentioned before, you aren’t going to find many traditional soldier monuments on courthouse squares in Missouri. When Confederate Missourians proposed placing a monument in St. Louis, for example, Unionists fought back for the better part of a decade. As a result, Union and Confederate Missourians most often worked independently to commemorate the war. Within the ranks of Union veterans, you can also see Black and German-born Missourians working separately. Confederate veterans had their own internal tension with former guerrillas. Bitterness remained in all quarters.

All of that said, however, what really struck me as I began my research was the extent of cooperation between white Union and Confederate veterans in Missouri. They took several unprecedented steps towards reconciliation which I detail in Chapter 5. Most remarkably, Missouri became the first state to fund both Union and Confederate veterans’ homes. Totally fascinating stuff! And, I argue, a part of what made this all possible was the veterans’ shared sense of identity as Missourians. They felt they understood the divisiveness of the war better than any other Americans and that they therefore had a responsibility to take the lead in national reconciliation. The stakes were really clear to them—they had to cooperate if they wanted their state to prosper. And they thought if Missourians could find ways to work around their differences, so could everybody else.

I want to go back to African Americans and Emancipation Day for the next question, but you raise an interesting point about the unique situation in Missouri. You also seem to infer that some of the reconciliation spirit was economically based. Even in general terms, how much was reconciliation genuine vs. simply economically beneficial?

ALF: It’s a great question and, of course, it’s hard to say. Reconciliation was certainly limited. I found no evidence of reconciliation between women or between former Confederates and African Americans. White veterans, on the other hand, demonstrated reconciliation at least to the extent that they agreed to disagree. They didn’t concede anything to one another, except recognition that they had all survived a horrific ordeal. For some of these white men, there was definitely an economic motivation to reconciliation. The St. Louis Veterans of the Blue and Gray serves as a great example of this. This society was founded in 1896 by a group of influential businessmen; several of them were even neighbors in the city’s affluent central west end. They stated very clearly that their objective was to bridge wartime divisions with business partnerships. They explained that clinging to wartime hostilities worked against the interests of the city’s professional class. For them, reconciliation meant mutual prosperity.

Speaking of prosperity, one aspect that struck me was how much Emancipation Day events were increasingly commercial affairs. How much were African Americans integrated into the remembrance and reconciliation efforts? Considering Missouri was excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation, how did slavery and racism complicate remembrance? Were African American veterans allowed into veterans homes?

ALF: Missouri’s status as a slaveholding Union state unquestionably complicated its position in terms of remembrance and reconciliation. It’s the primary reason white Unionist Missourians seemed to feel their Northern comrades considered them to be more Southern than not. Even though they manifested a strong commitment to the Union, their reluctance to support immediate emancipation and the prevalence of guerrilla violence in the state cast a lot of doubt about Missouri’s loyalty to the Union Cause.

White veterans supported some equal rights measures for Black Missourians as a consequence of the war—and some of those measures were significant. Black and white veterans cooperated to establish Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, the only institution of higher learning in the country that was founded by Civil War veterans.

That said, commemoration efforts remained largely segregated. There were Black members of both the Department of Missouri Grand Army of the Republic and the Woman’s Relief Corps, but I didn’t find much evidence of interracial cooperation in that context. In fact, at the 1887 National GAR Encampment in St. Louis, Black Missourians coordinated a protest against racial discrimination in the GAR. 

Emancipation Day was the occasion where you’d be most likely to find Black and white Missourians commemorating this significant outcome of the war together. These celebrations often had hundreds—even thousands—of people in attendance. It was also not uncommon for white attendees to outnumber Black attendees. As a result, white businesses certainly saw this as an opportunity to advertise and so donated money for the events. Emancipation Day absolutely called attention to Black history, especially the horrors of slavery, and to Black achievement, but it was often couched in accommodationist rhetoric a la Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. This likely made Emancipation Day observances more palatable to white Missourians.

So, Emancipation Day blurred the color line a bit—but it was really starkly drawn at Missouri’s veterans homes. Unlike the National Homes for veterans, Missouri’s state-funded Federal Soldiers Home was not integrated. There was nothing in state law mandating that it had to be segregated, but Black veterans simply weren’t admitted. A state committee looked into this in 1921 (the Home was established in 1896) and the administrators simply said they didn’t have the space to accommodate Black residents. In one of my more surprising archival discoveries, I found a complaint from a resident that the KKK operated inside the Home.

And I think this really gets to one of the larger points Commonwealth of Compromise illustrates—Unionism and racism coexisted in the hearts of many white Missourians. It didn’t make them more sympathetic the Lost Cause.

You mention the Lost Cause, which has seen a phenomenal increase in the literature the last ten to twenty years, how do you see your book add to, complicate, or challenge Lost Cause/Memory scholarship?

ALF: The Lost Cause has definitely been a popular and incredibly relevant part of the scholarship on Civil War memory. Although there has been some excellent work on how the Lost Cause took shape in the border states, notably Anne Marshall’s Creating a Confederate Kentucky, it struck me that Missouri’s relationship to the Confederacy and to the Lost Cause was quite unique. As I see it, there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, the guerrilla war. Missouri’s Confederate record was mixed at best. Despite their determination to preserve slavery, white Missourians overwhelmingly opposed secession. The state also succumbed to federal occupation pretty quickly. Opposition to that occupation was mostly mounted by guerrillas, whose commitment to the Confederacy was often secondary to their private grievances with federal authorities and local Unionists. Some, like Quantrill, sought the recognition of the Confederate government as partisans but that never came. 

After the war, as historians Jeremy Neely and Matthew Hulbert have demonstrated, guerrillas sought to manipulate Civil War memory into order cast themselves as legitimate defenders of the Lost Cause. I argue, however, that they remained on its periphery. Veterans of the regular Confederate armies were not receptive to guerrillas because they threatened the ideal of Confederate soldiers as the most honorable of men. Even though guerrillas worked their way into spaces with regulars, including into the Missouri Confederate Home, they did so by exploiting technicalities. They could not claim status as Confederate veterans on the basis of guerrilla service alone.

Second, Missouri’s relationship to the Lost Cause was strained because it was not a Southern state. While some Missourians identified as Southerners and may have thought of particular regions of the state as more “Southern,” whenever Missourians described their state as a whole they called it Western. As a result, some Missourians thought monuments to the Lost Cause were totally out of place in the state. In the course of a debate over whether to place a Confederate monument in St. Louis’ Forest Park, for example, one Missourian said it would make as much sense as putting such a monument in Boston or Chicago.

The final thing I would say in respect to Missouri’s regional identity is that there were far more Missourians—both natives and many post-war migrants—who upheld the Union Cause. The Department of Missouri GAR claimed several thousand more members than the Missouri Division United Confederate Veterans. In other words, Unionists in Missouri had the strength to oppose and challenge the Lost Cause. And they took advantage of that.

This is how I see Commonwealth of Compromise contributing to the study of the Lost Cause. It shows the obstacles Missouri’s Confederates faced as they tried to disentangle themselves from the guerrilla war and make the Lost Cause applicable to the West. It accentuates the regional peculiarities of the Lost Cause. Most importantly, I think, Missouri’s case shows that the Lost Cause was never uncontested.

To close, what are your plans moving forward? Are you going to tackle a more local topic in Ohio history or do you plan to stay in the Civil War era?

ALF: It feels odd to say it because it’s been such an important part of my life and work thus far, but I’ve nearly finished with my research on Missouri. I have an article and a book chapter in progress that expand on the themes of Civil War memory in Missouri found in my book. I’m especially enjoying working on the chapter because it deals with “Missouri Artist” George Caleb Bingham’s Civil War painting Order No. 11 (1867), which I actually started researching as an undergraduate. The ways the painting has been interpreted and misinterpreted over the years illustrate many of the ideas I explored in Commonwealth of Compromise—particularly the difficulties Missouri’s conservative Unionists had relating to the broader tenets of the Union Cause in the context of Civil War commemoration.

Moving forward, I have a second book project in progress that I’m tremendously excited about. It’s a project I’m completing on behalf of my late advisor, John R. Neff. It’s another work on Civil War memory, but takes an unusual and far more interdisciplinary approach to the subject. John had been working on it for several years and I’m honored to pick up where he left off.

So, I have plenty of projects to keep me busy! But I will continue to focus on the Civil War era and pursue projects in local history. Now that I’m settled in Ohio, I look forward to diving into the history of Civil War commemoration here on the other side of the Midwest.