Emerging Scholar Ben Davidson

Davidson, BenAs part of our partnership with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and Civil War Monitor, we’re pleased to introduce the next of our “Emerging Scholars,” Ben Davidson. Ben will be presenting his work at the museum’s Grand Opening May 4.

In 1864, Georgiana Tillotson wrote to her father, a Union soldier away at war. In her letter, as Georgiana told her father about the strawberries she had been eating, she described how she wished he could be at home with her. Letters from soldiers to their children are relatively common, as fathers wrote to their sons and daughters, urging them to behave themselves and to study hard in school. Letters like Georgiana’s are rarer; such a document would have had to be kept by her father and carried with him, at least until he returned home. Clearly the letter meant a great deal to George Tillotson, and also to the family who chose to keep it as a testament to the war experience.

Those who grew up during the war made connections to the conflict based on their family situations, and their memories of the war were shaped by decisions about which objects and stories they held onto. These choices deeply influenced, in turn, their political positions.

While in some cases a young child like Georgiana Tillotson might have been more interested in the next time she would eat strawberries with her father than in the nuances of battle and legal fights, other children actively participated during the 1860s in debates over the meanings of the war. Formerly enslaved children, attending schools for the first time, challenged beliefs about race by exploring their greater freedom to engage in everyday practices like reading, writing, singing, and playing. A group of young people from Concord, Massachusetts, made their anti-slavery stances clear by sending a petition to Abraham Lincoln. Black and white children in a wide range of northern cities attended rallies and speeches. Young men falsified their ages to join the military. Children sewed clothes for their brothers and fathers, and children in the North participated in Sanitary Fairs to raise money for the Union army. White southern children read Confederate textbooks that extolled the virtues of the South and the necessity of slavery, while northern children read about the importance of the Union cause. They wrote in the margins of these books and sometimes passed them on to their own children later in life.

Adults, predictably, wished to indoctrinate children into the point of view that they held about whichever side they were on, and they employed various forms of literature to do so. Confederate textbooks are a perfect example of this use of the written word, while anti-slavery publications also directed efforts at bringing children into a particular fold. Wartime stories for children circulated widely, and prominent authors participated in these efforts: Harriet Beecher Stowe produced special editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for young people, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott wrote a story entitled “Nelly’s Hospital,” in which a young girl’s understanding of the war is expressed through a metaphoric world of animals. In Alcott’s story, a black fly stands in for a freedperson, and a wounded gray snake is a Confederate whom Nelly must decide whether or not to treat. “Nelly’s Hospital” was printed by both the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the popular magazine Our Young Folks.

Children do not wholeheartedly accept the lessons adults wish to teach them, and young people often act decidedly contrary to the wishes of their parents. In my research, I ask how the lessons adults wished to teach children about slavery and freedom during the war affected this generation’s lives, and how they carried these lessons into adulthood. Materials produced in the later years of the nineteenth century by adults who had been children during the war reveal how ideas about freedom were learned, reshaped, and then mobilized in various political contexts over time.

By studying the important generation that grew up during the war, we can ask new questions about who makes history, and how the meanings of the past change over time. Though nineteenth-century children, often faced with enormous trauma during the war, had limited control over their lives, they struggled to learn and make meaning out of an enormous variety of circumstances, and this struggle shaped both their wartime lives and their understandings of adult worlds later on. Children participated in many of the crucial moments in our past, and they continue to do so today.

It is therefore important to ask how public institutions and policies succeed and fail in responding to children’s experiences and participation over time. The legacies of slavery and emancipation continue to be passed from one generation to the next, and we can only reckon with these legacies when we consider how young people made meaning out their experiences during the Civil War era.

I look forward to sharing some of these young people’s stories at the American Civil War Museum in May.

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About Ben Davidson:

Ben Davidson is a James Smithson Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He recently completed his PhD in United States history at New York University. His book manuscript, Freedom’s Generation: Coming of Age in the Era of Emancipation, traces the lives of the generation of black and white children, in the North, South, and West, who grew up during the Civil War era. This project explores how young people across the nation learned persistent lessons, carried into adulthood, about complexities inherent in ideas and experiences of emancipation, assessing and interpreting how these lessons were transformed in memory well into the twentieth century.

Davidson has received long-term fellowships from the U.S. Department of Education and New York University, and short-term fellowships from institutions including the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Virginia Historical Society. He has taught high school English, worked as a researcher for a children’s book publisher, and taught History 101 at NYU, among other courses.

He traces his interest in the Civil War era back to a course he took in college on Slavery in the American South, and to the experience of driving around Virginia and North Carolina doing research for a senior thesis. Going further back, researching and writing a paper about Ulysses S. Grant in fifth grade was his first taste of being a Civil War historian.

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Citations:

Georgiana Tillotson to George Tillotson, Greene, N.Y., June 28, 1864, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, N.Y, GLC04558.145.01.

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