‘Powerful, beautiful, mind-expanding’ essay on black Civil War soldiers by UB historian named ‘best article’ in journal of the Civil War era

Carole Emberton.

Carole Emberton has received the Richards Prize for her article in the 2012 edition of the Journal of the Civil War Era.

Release Date: January 31, 2013


BUFFALO, N.Y. – Carole Emberton, assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo, is the recipient of the Richards Prize for the best article published in the 2012 edition of the Journal of the Civil War Era, the official journal of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The prize is presented by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, an initiative of the Penn State Department of History, considered a unique resource for interpreting and reflecting upon life in 19th-century America. 

In presenting the award the selection committee praised Emberton’s piece as “powerful, beautiful, mind-expanding, almost philosophical…a model not merely of Civil War scholarship but of what historians can do when they are working at the top of their game.”

The winning essay, “Only Murder Makes Men: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience,” is a detailed and gripping exploration of how and why Civil War military service reconfigured black masculinity from that of slave to that of a free man.

Emberton argues that while the experiences of nearly 200,000 black Union soldiers paved the way for important civil rights reform, such as the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave them the right to vote, the process helped create a hyper-masculine martial political culture that would have deadly consequences for freed slaves in the Reconstruction South.

The article appeared in the journal’s September, 2012 issue and is online at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_civil_war_era/v002/2.3.emberton.html.

The essay’s title is taken from an observation by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal study of emancipation: “The slave pleaded, he was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man…How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.”

Journal editor William Blair says the award committee was “unanimous and enthusiastic in its endorsement of Emberton's article” and that the group repeated a frequently quoted comment by Frederick Douglass: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

“We all quote Douglass,” the committee wrote. “We all unreflectively nod in assent.  No one examines how disturbing it is that we all so easily equate the sine qua non of citizenship with committing murder in the name of the state.”

“No one,” they said, “except Carole Emberton.”

Emberton’s research focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, and in particular, how the discourse of emancipation became entangled with justifications for violence, both during the war and after, and is echoed in today’s heated debate on gun ownership.

Her first book, “Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), explores how meanings of citizenship, manhood, and freedom emerged from and enlarged cultures of violence in the Civil War Era.

Emberton’s current work traces how movements for social reform in the 19th century, specifically anti-slavery and Reconstruction-era efforts to remake the former Confederacy and extend civil rights to freed people, co-mingled with violent imperialist politics in the American West and abroad in the last half of the century.

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