Images of the “migrant caravans” heading north from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico and toward the United States, are now familiar to us all. There have been other “migrant caravans” from Central America in the past, but none have registered in American media and politics quite like the one that began in October 2018.

Why this particular migration received such attention has everything to do with timing and politics—and with a president heading into midterm elections who saw an advantage to be had and pounced with all his Twitter fury. Raising many familiar racialized tropes when it comes to immigration—crime! lost jobs!—this latest Central American migration was ultimately the Democrats’ fault, the president contended, and a vote for Republicans would be a vote to stop this approaching menace.[1]

Scenes like this at Fort Monroe prompted General Dix to appeal to northern governors to open their borders to black refugees. “Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia—Their Arrival at Fortress Monroe,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What happened in the fall of 2018 should be familiar to any historian of immigration in American history—the positioning of nativist attacks on migrants and refugees as a wedge issue in electoral politics—and examples of it stretch back into the nineteenth century (think: Know Nothing Party). But less familiar to historians of the Civil War era, perhaps, was a similar moment in the 1860s, when an attempted migration was also turned back right before a contested midterm election. This time, though, it involved tens of thousands of formerly enslaved men, women, and children from the American South looking northward to freedom.

The entire article can be viewed on The Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.


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