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‘The Passions of the People’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection

Posted on 11/22/2016

Exercises illustration 4.jpgThe November 2016 release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a personal history of a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church who spent three post-war years in Virginia attempting to reunite the Southern breakaway church with the Northern communion, an account of the erection of a monument to the Union’s first hero of the war, and the observations of people and events witnessed by a telegraph operator in the Department of War.

Virginia After the War: An Account of Three Years’ Experience in Reorganizing the Methodist Episcopal Church in Virginia at the Close of the Civil War by Rev. S. L. M. Conser (1891)

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Rev. Solomon L.M. Conser (1812- ?) was a cleric in the Episcopal Methodist Church for 30 years. Prior to the Civil War he had served as a circuit preacher in southern Virginia. During the war he was a chaplain in the Union Army for two years. 

In 1844 wealthy planters and slaveholders established a breakaway Episcopal Methodist Church, South in reaction to the previously united church's opposition to the “peculiar institution.” At the conclusion of the war the church in the North was determined to bring the Southern churches back into a single and united church. This decision was a reflection of the hard line being taken by the Methodist Ministers Association of Boston which following Lincoln’s assassination declared there should be “no compromise with rebels” and that “all the civil and military leaders of the rebellion” should be tried and executed.

It is in this climate of post-war recrimination that Conser began his hard task of reconciliation. He recounts his train journey from Baltimore to the James River area in Virginia. As he travelled he noted the devastation of the war.

“All aboard!” and away we roll through a dismal country toward Gordonsville. The army-worm had left its trail over the impoverished country. The people, if ever there had been any, had left it. But few shanties and still fewer houses could be seen, and these were for the most part occupied by ex-slaves, and were rudely furnished with superannuated camp utensils. Dogs and chickens were occasionally seen, but no cattle. All fences were gone and all landmarks eliminated. How a whip-poor-will could live in that country was a mystery. A few buzzards soared around, subsisting on the remains of defunct army horses.

In the Charlottesville area he observed that the few people visible “appeared surly and sad. The virus of treason and the mortification of military defeat had cast a wet blanket of sorrow and sadness over all.” In Staunton, where he met his Presiding Elder he observed that…

…though nature bloomed, nature’s children mourned. The dark pall of treason cast dark shadows all around. Alas! the “lost cause!!” Alas! Alas! Treason’s dark flag was furled, nor dare to flaunt its venom the stars and stripes triumphantly floated; and well might the deluded dupes sing “The warrior’s flag departs, to meet the warrior’s soul.”

Conser reaches the region of his assignment where he had previously been a circuit preacher and seeks now to reestablish relations with his former parishioners. It is a formidable challenge. He encounters bitterness and recrimination. He recounts the arguments he engaged in and the resistance to reconciliation. Still, he meets with some generosity and is able to embark on his mission. With some of his hosts he is able to reminisce and seek information about people to whom he once ministered although many of their fate are woeful. When asking after one family the response is:

“Well, yes. You remember Walter? Well he went into the army, and, they say he deserted. His mother went crazy, and the old man killed himself, and all the family are scattered ‘round. A Yankee has got the old place, and cheated the heirs out of their shares of the money.

He remained in the region for three years and describes at length the defeats and successes which he met with. Most particularly he recreates several conversations he held with prominent local people who were determined to stop him and the threats made against him. He was threatened with a ducking if he presumed to preach.

The next I heard was that a company of sixty or more of the so-called “Southern Chivalry” had formed themselves into a company to duck me in the river if I attempted to preach at Piny [sic] Grove. A company of sixty to duck one poor little Yankee preacher!

It did not happen. Rather, he received support from some unlikely quarters and on the fateful day, certain that he would be ducked or worse, he arrived at the church to find it full and receptive. This illustrates the conflicting forces with which he contended throughout his mission. Conser is an engaging narrator who is sometime witty and insightful. He acts with patience and determination and in his narrative provides a history of one important aspect of the arduous process of post-war reconciliation. But, to put his mission into perspective, it was not until 1939 that the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South were finally merged again.

Exercises Connected with the Unveiling of the Ellsworth Monument, at Mechanicville May 27, 1874 (1875)

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Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837-1861) is remembered as the first officer killed in the Civil War although there had been earlier casualties in Baltimore when the riots broke out. He became a hero, and this imprint is an account of the work done by his fellow citizens in Mechanicville, Saratoga County in New York to erect a suitable monument to him.

While Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth was stationed at Washington with his regiment of Fire Zouaves, in the spring of 1861, Willard’s Hotel took fire. The Fire Zouaves were of great service in putting an end to the conflagration. In testimony of his gratitude, Mr. Willard presented Col. Ellsworth with $500; Col. Ellsworth sent it to the New York fire committee, under whose auspices the regiment had been raised, to be devoted to providing medals for such members of the regiment as should survive. On the death of Col. Ellsworth the committee voted to appropriate the money to the erection of a monument to his memory.

The war delayed all plans for the monument, and it was not until 1872 that the scheme was undertaken in seriousness. Committees were formed, solicitations were sought, and designs submitted. The monument was completed in late 1873, but owing to weather, the dedication was delayed until May of the next year.

“Beautiful for situation,” like Mount Zion, is the Ellsworth monument. It stands in the picturesque cemetery lately named the Ellsworth cemetery, situated upon the brow of the hill a little south-west of the village. It is located in the Ellsworth family lot near the center of the cemetery and is by far the most commanding object in it. Seen from the village, and a large section of the surrounding country, the monument is a beautiful and prominent object.

The author includes a laudatory account of Ellsworth’s early struggles to find his way in the world.

His constitution, never enfeebled by excesses, enabled him to endure privations that ordinary men would have fallen under. He knew no wrong. His faith in the future was great; his abstinence gave his brain the bright look into the future that comes from frugality, a clear mind and heart. He was at once a dreamer of practical day dreams and an active worker.

Ellsworth believed that Mexico should be annexed and would become one of the most prominent states.

He would erect upon the fallen empire of the Montezumas, by and through the industry and labors of the Anglo Saxon race, a state that should have no peer, wrested by toil from the hand of semi-barbarism.

The account of Ellsworth’s life and accomplishments continues at length following him from his days in Chicago organizing and training the Zouave Cadets of Chicago, his developing friendship with Abraham Lincoln whom he accompanied to Washington, and his heroic conduct in the early days of the war. A description of his appearance is borne out by a photograph of him which appears ahead of the text.

His form though slight was of the size of the elder Napoleon, the head, poised like that of a statue, covered by curling black hair, dark eyes, bright and serene, a nose like that you see on Roman medals, a light moustache just shading the lips that were continually curving into sunny smiles. His voice deep but musical, his address soldierly, sincere and courteous, his dress tasty and faultless, the fascination to gather friends and keep them, a cavalier of the days of romance, stainless, loyal and brave.

A Few Acts and Actors in the Tragedy of the Civil War in the United States. By William Bender Wilson, Military Telegrapher in War Times (1892)

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William B. Wilson (1839-1919) served as a telegrapher for the Union during the war. Subsequently, he authored a number of books including a history of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This imprint is a recollection of his experiences and intimate interactions with significant people throughout the war. One of his earliest encounters occurs in June 1859 at the railroad station in Harrisburg:

…I saw John Brown as he stepped on board a train on the Cumberland Valley Railroad preparatory to his going to Harper’s Ferry and his fate. I had seen him before, but little dreamed as I looked upon him that day that he was taking a step that was only the initiative to a tremendous fraternal strife so soon to follow….

John Brown sprung from the humblest walks of life, passed through scenes of bloodshed, attracted the eye and commanded the attention of the world.

There was an air of nobleness and dignity about his person. He was grand and majestic in proclaiming what he esteemed the truth, and strong and mighty in execution of its behests. As free as the air of his native Connecticut, he was outspoken in according the same freedom to others and dauntless in aiding them to maintain it.

Wilson describe a journey he took through part of the South on the eve of the war, the result of which was to form his conviction that the impetus for secession was Southern leaders’ dreams of imperialism.

The leaders, however, of public sentiment, the able and cultivated men who ruled by force of intellect, wanted revolution. To attain their desire they cultivated the passions of the people by coloring and exaggerating the foolish harangues of Northern fanatics and the unfriendly enactments of Northern legislatures, The Republic, as a democracy, they despised and in consequence were ever in readiness to conspire to change its form of government into a National aristocracy.

Nature had been lavish of her gifts to the semi-tropical States whose shore lines were washed by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The territory covered by then seemed to these leaders to be peculiarly adapted for the foundation of an Empire, while to the south and west, just beyond the Rio Grande, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, lay the land of the Aztecs.

In Wilson’s opinion, Mexico was the most esteemed prize for the Southern imperialists and its acquisition the primary impetus for resisting any attempts for finding reconciliation with the North.

When the war broke out, Wilson was at the heart of events. As Pennsylvania prepared to send troops to Washington by way of tumultuous Baltimore, he was on hand in service to the Governor.

On the afternoon of the 17th I ran telegraph wires into the Executive Chamber, and there, with a key and a relay, established on a window sill the first electric telegraph office for military purposes on this continent.

Wilson’ final chapter is a sketch of Lincoln based on his frequent contacts with him in his role of military telegrapher in the Department of War. He sometimes saw him several times a day.

He was always on terms of easy familiarity with the operators, and it was through that familiarity that my acquaintance with him was formed….

I soon saw before me with a kind heart and charitable disposition, who had a duty to perform that he intended performing with a conscientious exactitude.

Wilson admired Lincoln deeply but did not deify him. In this sketch he provides the reader with several particular instances when he was able to observe the president closely in times of crisis. It is an intimate account.

For more information about The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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