REVIEWS

REVIEWS

Review by Steven Garrett

Tony Horwitz. Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. Random House, LLC, New York, 2019.  (Published with a new postscript by Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz in Penguin Books in 2020.)

This is not your typical history book as the author admits when he writes:

“This book gave me the opportunity to do what I love most, a mix of travel, journalism, history and memory.”  (pg. 421)

Mr. Horwitz is writing about Frederick Law Olmsted’s three journeys and travelogue* while attempting to follow Olmsted’s path through the south and providing a running commentary of what he found in the modern “American Divide.” Horwitz knows his Olmsted. His commentary revolves around why many in the south and the “blue” states were attracted to President Trump. Horwitz, an admitted northeast liberal with strong opinions in support of the “progressive” side of the political spectrum, brought a lifetime of reporting and travel to this project. His home in Martha’s Vineyard, and his work places in Washington D.C. and New York, place him solidly in the elite category. However, he brought a personal respect for the views and issues that other Americans face. In the postscript he noted the time he spent aboard the coal barges on the Ohio River as a real educational experience. This is deep in the “rust belt” and coal mining country, where government policy stripped away opportunity; that is, closed steel mills, manufacturing facilities, and coal mines. Tony Horwitz became aware of the rift in opportunity in the USA and the impact upon the communities along the Ohio River valley. At the same time, the coal barges were delivering coal to power plants providing electricity for the electric cars, computers, and game machines they could only dream of providing for their families. Simply put, Horwitz learned that there were few similarities between the opportunities for sons and daughters from Martha’s Vineyard and the blue-collar sons and daughters born in West Virginia, Kentucky, etc. along the Ohio River valley, and in many of the small towns and rural areas he visited while following Olmsted’s journeys.

I personally can relate. I was born and raised in north central Indiana. During the 1950’s and 60’s you could not drive in any direction without seeing vibrant auto plants. In many cases the farms were owned by families who had homesteaded them, as did my mother’s family where I was raised. Today, the factories are either abandoned or replaced by much smaller and automated facilities. The family farms have been bought up and consolidated by absentee owners who run them as agri-businesses as the markets dictate. Very few of the family farms remain. Hence, the small towns that served the family farms are also dying as businesses disappear.

All the residents want is what every person wants; opportunity for their children not too far away so they can enjoy their children and grandchildren. When opportunity is removed it is replaced by abandonment, depression, suicide, alcoholism, drugs, and despair. Why do our political and business elites believe those negatively impacted would not seek other leaders? Are they that detached?

The people in rural and small-town America are hard working and proud. Their sons and daughters are asked to serve in the military to fight our wars or to escape poverty, lack of opportunity, or prejudices against them from the political class and social elites. This is the environment Horwitz found in the small towns, the rural south, and Texas.

Frederick Law Olmsted found something quite different in the 1850’s, but away from the cities and large plantations the result was similar. The small towns and rural communities were abandoned by the political elites and cotton autocracy that ran the government in the southern states and the federal government in Washington. The cotton autocracy included many in the north; banks, insurance companies, shipping and railroad companies, cotton merchants, mill owners, and distributors. The federal government played a key role as cotton, and the tariffs collected on it, were the major source of income for the federal government. Those on rural farms in the south and north, those in small towns and in the cities where the cotton autocracy had no interest, were ignored. Opportunity was up to those communities and their citizens to create for themselves.

In the 1850’s and in 2010’s, Olmsted and Horwitz visited many people in their travels. Olmsted visited poor farmers, freedmen, men and women, plantation owners, merchants, steam boat crews, gamblers, enslaved persons, and overseers. Horwitz visited coal barge crewmen, barmaids, mud run attendees, cowboys, sheriffs, historical society members, immigrants, grandmothers in Mexico, teachers, librarians, etc. Both Olmsted and Horwitz tried to understand the people they met in their travels. Both succeeded and failed. Both were surprised, even shocked, by the diversity they found in the south and especially Texas. At both periods in history the south and Texas were not a monolith, but an amazing collection of opposites.

Critics of Olmsted, and to a lesser degree Horwitz, have followed similar paths. The critics simply did not know how to take the multiple storylines. What was the plan and story being told and what linked all of them? How do you critique a book with so many stories? More importantly, why do they seek simple answers?

In the 1850’s, and currently, we need to learn and listen to each other. The ruling elite must reconnect with all of our country without judging and dividing us by race, class, and ideology. Unfortunately, our political elites care only for party power, personal gain, and privileges. Both of our major parties have failed the American people.

Olmsted’s book is a good read. He is a smooth writer who attempts to let others speak for themselves. He sometimes succeeded, but sometimes failed, when his personal views colored his perspective. Early in his travels in West Virginia a waitress nailed him when she said:

 “Let me guess,” she said in an exaggerated drawl. “Yankee boy, spyin’ on us hillbillies?”

Mr. Horwitz admitted she was too uncomfortably close to the mark.

A difference was brought to Horwitz between Olmsted’s time and our current time. In the 1850’s, when opportunity disappeared, people took to G.T.T. (gone to Texas) representing how many chose to go west for a new start. Olmsted followed them to Texas. Where could Horwitz go to duplicate G.T.T?  He chose to follow Olmsted and missed the significance of G.T.T.

Please read this book. It provides history, travelogue, and commentary wrapped in a very readable package. Horwitz makes you think and no higher praise can be said for an author. I applaud Mr. Horwitz’s attempt to “. . . reach across the divide.”  Few are making the attempt.

Unfortunately, Tony Horwitz died shortly after the publication of this book. We will miss him as few bring his willingness to look beyond our own narratives.

 

* Frederick Law Olmsted. (John C. Inscoe, Editor.) Selections from The Cotton Kingdom. Bedford/St. Martin’s.  Boston and New York, 2015.


Review by Steven Garrett

Abbott and Ellis Spear. The 20th Maine at Fredericksburg: The Conflicting Accounts of General Joshua L. Chamberlain and General Ellis Spear. Union Publishing Company, Union, Maine, 1989. (Note: Several related articles are also referenced following this review.)

While visiting with Peter and Cindy Dalton last week, Peter gave me a copy of the above little book. It is structured as follows:
● Forward by Thomas Desjardin.
● Chapter I, by Abbott Spear (Ellis Spears’ grandson) in support of his grandfather’s arguments; excerpts from Captain Samuel T. Keene’s Diary; excerpts from Col. Stockton’s report; and excerpts from Col. Vincent’s report with commentary.
● Chapter II, Joshua Chamberlain’s article “My Story of Fredericksburg,” from Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1913.
● Chapter III, “My Story of Fredericksburg” and “Comments Thereon By One Who Was There.”
● Chapter IV, Commentary by Abbott Spear.
● Chapter V, “The Story of the Raising and Organization of a Regiment of Volunteers in 1862.” (Taken from Ellis Spear’s Recollections of the Civil War.)
● Chapter VI, “The Hoe Cake of Appomattox.” (Ellis’s presentation to MOLLUS.)
● Chapter VII, “The Element of Accident in War.”

This is a wonderful little book in which the Forward and Chapters I through IV outline the feud/difference of opinion between Joshua L. Chamberlain and Ellis Spear. Thomas Desjardin addresses the purported “feud” in the forward of this volume (and in greater detail in his article listed below).

In fairness, it is significant to note (as pointed out by Desjardin and others) that Ellis Spear’s commentary on this battle and on the Battle of Gettysburg changed as he aged. The real question is why Ellis Spear’s opinion on Chamberlain at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Petersburg changed so dramatically. As noted in Susan Natale’s website collection of “Ellis Spear vs. Ellis Spear,” Ellis even changed his reporting on Chamberlain’s Petersburg wound. (See the article from the Journal of Urology for details of his wound by doctors who have investigated the medical records and with knowledge of Civil War medical practice.)

Thomas Desjardin argues in “A Broken Bond” that Chamberlain’s articles, published and embellished by Hearst publishing in the Cosmopolitan Magazine, led to the change in Spear. We now know, as Thomas Desjardin points out in “A Broken Bond,” that Chamberlain was upset by edits and/or embellishments made by Hearst writers to the point that he banished copies from his home. The original versions of Chamberlain’s articles, as they were submitted to Cosmopolitan Magazine, have disappeared. Hence, we will never know the true extent of the embellishments that Chamberlain and Spear found so objectionable. What we do know is that William Randolph Hearst was famous for sensationalizing in his publications. We do not believe Spear had a chance to talk to Chamberlain about his objections due to Chamberlain’s failing health and subsequent death, so we will never know how a personal conversation may have impacted his opinions.

Chapters V, VI and VII are taken from Ellis Spear’s writings and speeches. Each chapter is well worth reading—especially the chapter on “The Hoe Cake of Appomattox” —that shows Spear’s dry Downeast sense of humor relative to the rations received by the soldiers in blue.

Please take the time to read this locally written and published book. Much ink has been spread and opinions established regarding the “feud” and differences of opinion between Chamberlain and Spear. Read this book, followed with the material listed below, and then make your own decision.

Thomas Desjardin. “A Broken Bond: The Little Round Top Feud Between Joshua Chamberlain and Ellis Spear.” www.HistoryNet.com. July 2017.

William J. Harmon and Charles K. McAllister, “The Lion of the Union: The Pelvic Wound of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain,” The Journal of Urology, Vol. 163, 713-716, March 2000.

www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com. “Ellis Spear vs. Ellis Spear.” Especially see “Spear’s letter to the Portland Press.”


Review by Steven Garrett

Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.  William Conway and the Conway Celebration at Camden, Maine, August 30, 1906.  Lefavor-Tower Company, Portland, Maine, 1906. (This book is in the public domain.  A link to the Internet Archive is provided following this review.)

This short little book is a documentation of the events honoring one of Maine’s first heroes of the Civil War, Quartermaster William Conway, a native of Camden, Maine.  The book is divided into two sections:

“William Conway, A Forgotten Camden Hero.”

Written by Acting Master John O. Johnson, this is an introduction, telling the story of William Conway’s refusal to lower the U.S. flag as part of the surrender of the United States Navy Yard at Warrington near Pensacola, Florida, on January 12, 1861.  The yard commander was surrendering to Florida troops prior to the beginning of the Civil War, just two days after Florida had passed a resolution of secession.  He was later found guilty at his court-marshal for conduct unbecoming.  When ordered to lower the flag, Conway’s response was:

“I will not do it sir!  That is the flag of my country under which I have served many years. I love it; and will not dishonor it by hauling it down now.”

This was from an enlisted blue-jacket, risking his life or imprisonment by disobeying an order from his commanding officer.

The short version of the rest of the story is that Quartermaster William Conway was rescued from his confinement by loyal navy forces.  He was honored before the ship’s personnel, as ordered by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, when Welles’ letter of commendation was read aloud to all in attendance.  He later received a gold medal given by admirers from the State of California in front of the ship’s personnel on the frigate USS Mississippi.  He had resumed his duty on the Gulf Blockade Squadron.  His health was failing and he died in 1865 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—buried in an unmarked grave—an enlisted man forgotten to all except those who knew him.

“The Conway Celebration, Camden, August 30, 1906.”

Master John O. Johnson read a paper about William Conway at the MOLLUS Maine Commandery on December 5, 1905, in Portland, Maine.  This led the commandery to investigate how they could honor this forgotten hero.

  • Camden was to provide a “suitable boulder,” the Maine MOLLUS “would place on it a bronze tablet with an appropriate inscription.”
  • The North Atlantic Fleet was invited, including its flagship the battleship Maine.
  • The President and the Secretary of the Navy, while unable to attend, sent letters honoring William Conway.
  • A parade that included members of ships’ compliment and bands, members of the MOLLUS, and other dignitaries proceeded to the Camden Trotting Park. After local dignitaries welcomed the guests, Governor Cobb addressed the crowd. He was followed by General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who told the story of William Conway’s heroism on January 12, 1861.  Captain Johnson followed Chamberlain as the last speaker of the day.  The crowd then processed to the dedication and unveiling of the boulder on Elm Street in front of the school house.  Then the inscription on the plaque was read aloud:

 At this point the boulder and tablet were uncovered and the North Atlantic fleet fired a 21-gun salute to Camden’s native son and forgotten hero, William Conway, an honor no enlisted man had ever received.

When you travel through Camden, look for William Conway’s boulder.  It is still there, near downtown, in front of the old school house at the Corner of Elm Street (U.S. Rt. 1) and Union Street.

EDITOR’S NOTE: William Conway and the Conway Celebration at Camden, Maine, August 30, 1906, which includes many interesting photos and drawings, is available in .pdf format through the Internet Archive, at: https://ia600301.us.archive.org/21/items/williamconwaycon00mili/williamconwaycon00mili.pdf

Review by Steven Garrett

Nicholas A. Basbanes.  Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Alfred A. Knopf.  New York, 2020.

In preparation for a forthcoming presentation on Emily Dickinson and Henry W. Longfellow I was led to read and review this new biography.  It is a well written and researched book on one of America’s truly great writers who has been dismissed by many of our literature authorities in the twentieth and, to a lesser degree, the twenty-first century.  However, Longfellow still remains one of our literary treasures.  Who has not read “The Ride of Paul Revere,” “Evangeline,” or “Hiawatha?”  His quotes have become part of our language:

Into each life some rain must fall.

All things come round to him who will but wait.

Music is the universal language of mankind.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The human voice is the organ of the soul.

I hear the wind among the trees playing the celestial symphonies.

One if by land, two if by sea.

Longfellow. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-pga-07632. (Cropped for presentation.)

All of these quotes and many more were given to us by Longfellow.  But who was Longfellow?  That is the mission of this new biography and the author has used new information not available to the earlier biographers.  His family did not allow former biographers to use his personal letters, or those of his two wives.  Their view was very Victorian—private life was to remain private.  However, now that this information is part of public record and no longer under the control of family members, the full picture of Henry W. Longfellow, Mary Storer Longfellow, and Frances Appleton Longfellow can be seen.  Nicholas Basbanes has provided a great service to all who are interested in Longfellow.  He shows us behind the fog of time and misinformation to who these people were their friends and associates and what motivated them.  Basbanes’ book is a biography of Henry W. Longfellow and his family.  It is not an analysis of his writing and poetry.  Rather, it is a biography of the man and his world that revolved around his wife and family.

Some have written that he separated himself from the great event of his time, the Civil War for example.  Nothing is further from the truth when you read his and his wives’ journals and letters.  Henry’s best friend was Charles Sumner.  Yes, Senator Charles Sumner, the radical abolitionist who was caned on the senate floor.  Even when the establishment in Boston and Cambridge ostracized Charles Sumner for his radical ideas, Henry and Fanny remained his good friends.  In fact, Fanny’s father could not stand Sumner, so Fanny would ensure no family members were present when Sumner visited.  Nathan Appleton, Fanny’s father and Henry’s father-in-law, was a wealthy cotton factory owner.  Maybe Sumner’s famous quote about “the unholy alliance between the Lords of the Lash and the Lords of the Loom. . .” hit a bit too close.  For this and other comments on the “alliance” Sumner was ostracized and denied access to opportunities in Boston and Cambridge, including his ambition to become a law professor at Harvard.  But he was always welcome at Henry and Fanny’s home.

So, was Henry W. Longfellow and his wife abolitionists?  Yes indeed, but in a quiet way.  Henry learned after Poems on Slavery to keep politics quiet.  He helped finance many projects to aid enslaved people, those who escaped slavery, and to educate them after the war.

Secondly, Henry and Fanny’s oldest child, Charles, enlisted and served in the army, against his parents’ wishes.  After Charles was wounded, Henry traveled to the war zone to find Charles and brought him home to recover.  Charles’ wound was severe enough that he never returned to the war.  In fact, Army doctors thought he would be paralyzed as the wound was near his spine.

Fanny died of an accidental fire on July 10, 1861, and just a year and one-half later Charles was lying in Virginia recovering from his wound.  Henry W. Longfellow, still grieving from the loss of his life partner, was caring for his son when he heard the Christmas bells, being rung to celebrate Christmas, mingling with cannonading in the distance.  This inspired his poem written a few months later in Cambridge, “Christmas Bells.”  This poem has been made famous as a yuletide song and was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1956.  Many other recording artists have recorded the song since with most listeners unaware of its author or it’s true meaning.  Additionally, the songs omit the stanzas that indicate its true source of Longfellow’s grief for himself and the nation:

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

    And with the sound

    The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

    And made forlorn

    The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

    “For hate is strong,

    And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Longfellow was a fellow Mainer, an ambitious hard-working man, private to a fault, who found meaning in his family.  Yet he suffered from the loss of his beloved wives, Mary Storer and Frances Appleton.  Both were articulate and deeply loved by an amazingly brilliant man.  Longfellow was a professor of modern languages and literature for twenty-five years who read and wrote in twelve languages.  He translated many pieces to English, including Dante.  He became very famous and wealthy from his writing.

This is one of the best biographies I have read.  Basbanes brings an icon to life and makes him human.  Yes, he had letters and journals not available to earlier biographers, but he does make this amazing man human and unmasks this man as the loving, feeling human being who cared for those less well off or who were enslaved.  His close friendship with Charles Sumner indicated much about his beliefs on the key issue of his day, slavery.  Longfellow, I believe, would approve.

Grab this book and read it.  It will open your eyes and possibly make you want to read some Longfellow.  My recommendation is to read some of his poems from his small book of Poems on Slavery and reread “The Ride of Paul Revere.”  It was written to warn Americans what they would lose if the disunion went forward.  Longfellow was the people’s poet for a reason.  He spoke to them.

Monument to 19th Century American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine’s, Longfellow Square. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, reproduction number LC-DIG-highsm-45712.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Park Service website for the Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site (Cambridge, Massachusetts) provides interesting insights concerning Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery and related topics. https://home.nps.gov/long/learn/historyculture/longfellows-poems-on-slavery.htm

Review by Steven Garrett

Tony Horwitz. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Picador, Henry Holt and Company. New York, 2011.

In preparation for reading our History Book Club selection for February, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, I determined it would be a good approach to brush up on John Brown’s history and purchased a copy of Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. I chose this book as I’m a fan of Tony Horwitz’s writing and books.

Mr. Horwitz did not disappoint. The book is very readable and well researched. He began his journey in preparation to write this book by retracing the Captain’s march with other history buffs to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Horwitz says:

I experienced a little of the time-travel high that Civil War reenactors call “period rush.” But walking in the footsteps of history isn’t the same as being there.

The questions Horwitz tried to answer was: Who was John Brown? Was he the delusional mad man portrayed by many? Was he a fanatic or was he the martyr who pursued bringing freedom to others to fulfill the dream of our Declaration of Independence? Maybe he was all or none of those things.
Horwitz structures his book into three parts:

Part One: The Road to Harpers Ferry
Part Two: Into Africa
Part Three: They Will Brown Us All

Part One is a background for understanding who John Brown was to become from his early life, family struggles, religious beliefs, early adoption of the abolitionist ideals, and his growing militancy. In addition, he came to the attention of a group of abolitionists that included the famous “Secret Six,” Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, et. al. In fact, Horwitz’s introduction to the “Secret Six” is alone worth the purchase of the book.

1. William Lloyd Garrison
2. Theodore Parker
3. Thomas Wentworth Higginson
4. Samuel Gridley Howe
5. George Luther Stearns
6. Gerrit Smith

Four of these men were Harvard graduates; one was a friend and advisor to Emily Dickinson and commander of the first black unit in the Army of the Potomac; one was a well-known and fiery minister; one was a soldier who traveled the world supporting multiple causes and married the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic; one was the creator of the first and best-known abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator;” and one was the source of the money and weapons for Brown and his followers. Most were Boston brahmins. Brown believed only one understood him—you’ll have to read the book.

Joshua Chamberlain’s wife, Frances Caroline Adams Chamberlain, attended Reverend Theodore Parker’s sermons with her biological family and wrote Lawrence about them. Brown had amazing connections for a near starving wool merchant/farmer with a large family to support from North Elba, New York. He also traveled to England to gain support for his cause. How could he manage that? Part One includes his sojourn into Kansas and his actions including the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre.

Part Two is the story of the Harpers Ferry Raid from its organization until Brown and his followers are captured or killed. It is a complete blow-by-blow description of the organization, raid, gun battle and bloody end of what was, in view of the slaughter to come, a minor affair. We know R. E. Lee, with assistance from Lieutenant J. B. Stuart, commanded the marines that ended the affair.

Part Three is the story of Brown and his six surviving followers after they are captured, tried and hanged. Horwitz goes into detail about how they were treated, their visitors, etc. The last part of this section is about the impact of John Brown’s raid. To quote Melville’s poem, “The Portent” (1859):

But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

Many people saw what Brown saw—that his death and martyrdom was the catalyst that would bring on the war that would end slavery.

This book is well written and will interest those looking for the story. It is also very well researched and detailed to appeal to the historian. It is a very good account of John Brown the individual and the raid on Harpers Ferry. This is a book you need to put on the “must read” list. You will find it well worth your time.


Review by Steven Garrett

John C. Inscoe, editor, with an introduction. Selections from THE COTTON KINGDOM by Frederick Law Olmsted. The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Bedford/St. Martin’s. Boston, New York, 2015.

This small book is an abridgement of Olmsted’s selections from his original three volumes that documented his journeys through the south. Olmsted took on this journey in the employ of the New York Daily Times and his reports from the south were printed as an ongoing travel journey. Volume 1, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, published in 1856; Volume II, A Journey Through Texas, or A Saddle Trip Through the Southwestern Frontier, published in 1857; and Volume III, A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853, published in 1860. In response to the popularity of these three volumes, Olmsted’s British publisher asked him to develop a one-volume abridgement to bring his story to a broader market just as the Civil War was beginning. It was published in 1861, titled The Cotton Kingdom. These are selections from the abridgement intended to give undergraduates an introduction to Olmsted and his observations of the lost world of the pre-Civil War American south. The volume includes a preparatory introduction for the readers and students of this edition.

Olmsted clearly had an eye for detail and the human condition as he reported from the south. Though he was not an abolitionist, he reported on how slavery impacted both the white citizens and the enslaved people. Edmund Wilson reviewed Olmsted’s Cotton Kingdom in his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, when he explained Olmsted’s methodology:

“He talked to everybody, sized up everything and wrote it all down.”

The value of his work was the rarity of honest observation of the antebellum south for the residents of America. After reading this work, or one of the other editions, one could always question his objectivity. But it is fair to say he gave an excellent attempt to be true to himself and his subjects. He did interview plantation owners, wives, merchants, farmers, enslaved persons, freedmen, and fellow travelers. He traveled by ship, river boat, stagecoach, and horseback on roads that were well traveled and those that were little more than footpaths. He stayed in nice hotels and on the floor of cabins. Olmsted pursued the real south and addressed many questions like: How did it compare to the north, or at least New York and Long Island? Who lived there and what did they think?

This is a very interesting read. The title of John Inscoe’s introduction (“A Connecticut Yankee in King Cotton’s Court”) implies that Olmsted brought his own views to his observation, but as you read this little volume of selections, he was impacted by what he saw and heard. Go to your local library or bookstore and read this volume. You may be intrigued enough to want to read at least his 600+ page abridgement.


Review by Steven Garrett

Douglas R. Egerton. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiment That Redeemed America. Basic Books. Boston, 2016.

Thunder at the Gates, recommended by Noma Petroff for our history book club, is a well-written history of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and the 5th Massachusetts Calvary. It is not a regimental history, per se, but a history of the impact of these three units on the perception of African-American troops as fighting units of the Union Army. This was understood by the officers and men of these units as they were trained, transported, and fought.

It is very difficult to read this book without comparing it to the movie Glory. The writers of Glory fictionalized the characters represented in the movie, yet the real individuals were a very interesting group. The writers also blended the characteristics of the members from the 54th and the 55th for the movie. None of this makes the story of the unit’s heroism less important, but makes it less historically accurate.

Professor Egerton’s detailed information about the individuals that made up the units and their officers makes it a valuable read. His contribution is humanizing the units through the stories of the real personalities that made up those units. Some of those individuals are Robert Gould Shaw, Edward Needles (Ned) Hallowell, and Norwood Penrose (Pen) Hallowell—all Boston Brahmin and abolitionists.  The Hallowell brothers were from a devout Quaker family. All of these men were veterans prior to signing on as the officers of the 54th Massachusetts.

Another real hero, if politicians and governors can be considered such being many miles from hearing the sing of a passing lead minié ball, was Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew. Noma would not forgive me if I did not mention that Governor Andrew was a graduate of Bowdoin College. Governor Andrew began raising black regiments soon after the Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land.  Ignoring the criticism from north and south of the Mason-Dixon, Governor Andrew forged ahead.  First to be organized was the 54th which included many freed and educated men from the north. The number of literate and freedmen made the 54th unique.

Other men who Professor Egerton follows in his narrative are: James Henry Gooding, Peter Vogelsang, Jr., Edward Hallowell, Lewis Douglass (son of Frederick Douglass), Stephen Swails, Nicholas Said, et. al. All had stories, all contributed to the fame of the 54th Massachusetts, and two became the first African Americans to be commissioned officers in the Union Army. Their individual stories, that some may find overly detailed, is the value of this particular work. Unlike the movie, we are presented with real people from various backgrounds with a singular goal—show the Union and the world that black men were willing combatants to free their race from slavery and save the Union. It was their right to fight for their race and their country in order to join as equal citizens. We know the struggle was not achieved in its full extent, but we all owe them for the example they gave us all.

This is a book that deserves your time. It is well written and, yes, very detailed, but that is its strength.  Professor Egerton presents the members of these units as individuals with individual goals and as part of a unit goal bigger than themselves. Get a copy and read this well-told story. It is well worth your time.


Review by Steven Garrett

Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis including her “Lectures on Liberation.” Open Media Series, City Lights Books. San Francisco, 2010.

This little book is the first autobiography written by Frederick Douglass. He wrote three autobiographies covering his life as he evolved from a recently-escaped enslaved person (this narrative), to a national and international representative of freedom. The narrative is preceded by two letters written by leaders of the abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. In this edition the narrative is preceded by Angela Y. Davis’s two “Lectures on Liberation,” that were preceded by an editor’s note and an introduction by Professor Angela Y. Davis.

This review only considers Frederick Douglass’s narrative and the William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips letters. Professor Davis’s lectures, her introduction, and the editor’s note are not being reviewed as they are separate from Douglass’s narrative.

This edition was developed to introduce students to Frederick Douglass, his writing about his journey to freedom, and the enslavement that he experienced. It is an amazing story that should be read. Born in Maryland, he describes how he did not know his white father. He did not know his mother well as she was sold to another plantation. She did visit him at night, but that did not last.

As a young boy Douglass was sent to Baltimore. While there he was relatively well treated and was initially encouraged to learn to read. He trained to be a ship caulker at a nearby shipyard, which gave him the ability to sell some of his labor for money. Although the majority of his earnings went to his enslaver, he learned how the system worked. In Baltimore he learned to read, learned a marketable trade, and got to know freedmen.

Later, he was sent back to his enslaver Mr. Thomas at the St. Michaels plantation where he was born. As a result of his education and experience in Baltimore, he was then sent to Mr. Covey, the local “slave breaker” where, for the first time in his life, he worked as a field hand. While there, he endured severe whippings for the first time and the long hours of a field hand. In Douglass’s own words:

I was unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me . . . I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.

But Douglass did not lose his spirit. Angered by Douglass’s attempt to flee, Covey was determined to tie him up for a whipping. Covey struck him, but Douglass fought back. Again, in Douglass’s own words:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my life as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. . . . It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.

 By his refusal to be whipped, Douglass realized that Mr. Covey needed his reputation as the local “slave breaker” more than he needed to whip Frederick Douglass. They silently acknowledged a truce until his term with Mr. Covey ended on December 31, 1833. Frederick Douglass was sent to live and serve Mr. Freeland, whose farm was a few miles from St. Michael’s. Douglass respected Mr. Freeland for being open and frank and for not having any religion. Why was that so important? Douglass goes into detail about how society used religion to justify slavery, which he found especially repugnant.

Later, knowing that local enslaved persons wanted to learn to read, Douglass began a sabbath school. Douglass’s desire for knowledge awakened a desire for freedom. Only in freedom could he work to destroy slavery as an institution. He and a small number of enslaved people began planning their escape. Their plans were shattered when one of the accomplices informed on them and they were arrested and jailed. Eventually, their enslavers came and took all of the accomplices back to their plantations, but left Douglass jailed.

To Douglass’s surprise, he was sent back to Baltimore where he resumed working in the shipyards. His work continued until he was involved in a fight with four white apprentices and many white workers who beat him severely. His enslavers nursed him back to health and took him to the shipyard where his enslaver was foreman. He excelled as a ship caulker. He was driven by a desire for freedom and resented having to turn over his earnings to his enslaver. He had earned all of his wages―they were rightfully his.

Frederick Douglass again planned an escape, this time successfully. He arrived in New York City on September 3, 1838.

How I did so, – what means I adopted, – what direction I travelled, and by what mode of conveyance, – I leave unexplained, for the reasons before mentioned.

He would not, or could not, put others in harm’s way. His motto after arriving in New York was: “To Trust No Man!” However, he soon met someone he could trust, Mr. David Ruggles. Ruggles assisted him with a place to live and, after his soon-to-be wife reached New York, helped him to get to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he secured employment in the shipyards. Douglass was soon involved in the abolition movement, an activity that gave him purpose.

This narrative is an amazing tale of the triumph of human spirit. Born a slave, forced to work under various enslavers, and brutalized by a “slave breaker,” he conquered the system to become a counselor to a president. No story could be more inspiring.

The William Lloyd Garrison & Wendell Phillip’s letters:

The Garrison and Phillips letters were included to introduce Frederick Douglass to his readers.

William Lloyd Garrison described how he was impacted by Douglass. It was one thing to talk about your beliefs and principles about the evils of human slavery, but another thing to have an articulate, escaped enslaved person describe what he had survived. Garrison was especially impressed with Douglass’s ability to describe his feelings and thoughts about his condition as an enslaved person. William Lloyd Garrison clearly described the beliefs of a white New England abolitionist. This letter is important to begin to understand that small number of abolition activists in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Wendell Phillips’ letter is different. He describes the dangers still present in “Old Massachusetts” for enslaved persons who were on the run. He referred to the discussions that led to the “Fugitive Slave Act.” While that law was not passed until 1850, it was a major political discussion as “slave catchers” tracked enslaved people north. Again, Wendell Phillips’s letter opens our eyes to what the abolitionist movement was fighting.

It is well to remember that the cotton industry was a big business. Southern plantations supported northern banking interests, shipping companies, and textile mills. Cotton tariffs were the largest source of income for the government. In short, the abolitionist movement was fighting the biggest money maker in the country and the political power behind it.


Review by Steven Garrett

Ronald C. White Jr. Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, 2002.

President Abraham Lincoln considered his Second Inaugural Address his best speech. Frederick Douglass said: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” Both were correct. Ronald C. White has provided what James McPherson described as: “In lucid prose, White explores each level and places the Second Inaugural in a broad historical and theological context.”

The speech was given on a rainy and muddy day, March 4, 1865. A crowd was waiting for Lincoln to give a speech about the army’s recent successes, triumphs, and the final demise of the Confederacy. They expected to hear about the forthcoming “reconstruction” and how the formerly enslaved people would be integrated into society.

The crowd included many veterans from hospitals in Washington, ex-Confederate soldiers who had fled the defeated army, African-American soldiers from the USCT units stationed around Washington, politicians, supporters, bureaucrats, their family members, Frederick Douglass, and John Wilkes Booth. Today, the speech is engraved in Indiana limestone opposite the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial.

Abraham Lincoln wrote the Second Inaugural Address without editing by any other individual. It can be read as a summary of his ideas about the war and the future. Lincoln begins the address with:

“. . . at this second appearing, to take the oath of the presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.”

Lincoln’s first inaugural address was a closely reasoned argument about how he would go forward. Lincoln now says that sort of address was not required. He went on to say that there have been many:

“. . . public declarations . . . on every point and phase of the great contest . . . The progress of our arms . . . is as well known to the public as to myself . . . With high hope for the future no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

Lincoln began by telling his audience what the speech is not about. It was not about public declarations or progress of our arms and he offered no predictions. Lincoln then moved on to the second and third paragraphs of the speech. The second paragraph described the history of the coming war. In the third paragraph, the core of the speech, Lincoln described the cause of the war:

“One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

Lincoln indicated the cause of the war (above) and the fact that no one wanted the war, but all were willing to fight the war. He used the term “powerful interest” specifically to indicate that all of those interests were not located in the South. Slavery was a sin that stained all of America. Northern banks, shipping companies, ship outfitters and builders, mill owners, and many others—including the U.S. government—profited from the labor of enslaved people. Everyone understood that slavery, it’s proposed expansion and it’s continuing in the south, was the cause of the war. “All knew” whether they wished to acknowledge it or not.

Now that Lincoln had shown what caused the war, he moved to the faulty argument that the Bible justified the war, North and South:

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God . . .”

There are multiple meanings in this seemingly simple sentence. Lincoln had little patience with those who swore they knew God’s intent. White goes on to describe Lincoln’s theological views and those that influenced him. Here Lincoln argued that if God is a living God and had his own goal:

“The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.”

And:

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces . . .”

Lincoln included a famous quote from the Bible (Matthew 7:1):

“. . . judge not that we be not judged.”

In other words, slavery was a national sin, not of sin of the South or not just a sin of those that profited, but of all Americans. All citizens that did not pursue the elimination of slavery to ensure the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal . . .” and are responsible.

Lincoln’s third paragraph went on:

“The Almighty has His own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offenses . . . If we shall suppose the American slavery is one of those offences . . . He wills to remove and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him.”

Again, Lincoln argued against man knowing God’s plan. He went further in acknowledging that slavery was an American sin. It was not just a sin of the South. What would be the punishment?

“. . . every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword
. . .”

This terrible war was punishment brought upon America for the 250 years of offence—slavery—and would not end according to man’s plan, but when a just punishment had been delivered, North and South. Lincoln’s reference as the final words of the key third paragraph were significant:

“. . . the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

These were not Lincoln’s final words as he moved on to the future, beginning with the most famous quotation from the second inaugural:

“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

This was Lincoln’s vision for the future. Slavery was a sin by America, not just the South as noted above. Lincoln was aware of the major tasks before the country. He had said that this was not a task easily accomplished, but would take many more years than the four years of war. This included how we treated the defeated, the formerly enslaved people, the veterans and their widows and orphans, and each other. We ought not be looking for retribution, but look to “charity.”

Professor White provides a service in his thorough review and explanation of Lincoln’s development of the Second Inaugural Address. He captures the meanings of the language as understood in Lincoln’s time. This is not a normal book review as I focused on the speech, or subject of the book, as opposed to the delivery by the author, Ronald C. White Jr. His book is a presentation of Lincoln’s final great speech that was, in Lincoln’s own view, his best.

Go out and get this book. Read the speech aloud and ponder the old question, what if Lincoln had survived?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The complete text of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (including an audio presentation) is located at the National Park Service Lincoln Memorial website at:
https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-second-inaugural.htm

Review by Steven Garrett

Jennifer L. Weber. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

We are all familiar with dissent as part of our daily dose of news these last few years. If you are as old as this reviewer, you remember the anti-war dissent during the Vietnam War. Many in my generation were in the military and knew many in the anti-war movement, including veterans, or participated in the movement after being discharged. Anti-war movements have been part of the history of every war in which the U.S. has been involved. Professor Weber’s book, based on her dissertation, is a well-documented and written thesis of the northern Democratic party’s “Copperheads,” also known as “Peace Democrats,” during the Civil War.

Prior to Professor Weber’s book, the recognized expert on the Copperhead movement was Frank L. Clement. Clement’s three books argued that the “fire in the rear” was a fiction of Lincoln’s supporters. In other words, the opposition party’s argument against the president and party in office. After all, many in the Democrat Party supported the war—the so-called “War Democrats.” Professor Weber’s task is to provide an argument to displace this long-held view. The book is broken into three sections. Ms. Weber does not explicitly define these sections, but they become apparent as you read along with her:

• The development of the “Peace Democrat Movement.”
• The height of their influence.
• Their fall.

Who were these opponents of the war and what did they believe? Many were convinced that the war was unnecessary, at least initially for some and, for others, throughout the war. They believed that Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy would gladly return to the “Union” if given a chance. They argued to keep the constitution “as it is and the country as it was.” Hence, leave slavery alone where it exists. They argued that Lincoln and his abolitionist supporters were not fighting for the “Union,” but for freeing the slaves to destroy the institution of slavery. This argument was based on a racist view that the Peace Democrats played on fears—job losses to formerly enslaved people, mixing of the races, and violence against whites. The following became arguments against the war and Lincoln’s actions:

• The financial and human cost of the war.
• The suspension of habeas corpus.
• The presence of the draft.
• The fact that the war had become a war for emancipation.
• Lincoln was a tyrant who had contempt for the constitution.

The human cost argument followed the failures and successes of the Union Army and the increasing loss of life. The financial cost to the country included the federal government printing “greenbacks” and the introduction of new taxes to support the war. A separate part of this argument was directed at the economy of the northwest (the old mid-west economy), farms, and banks, due to the closing of the Mississippi River and the government’s removal of railroad rolling stock to support the military.

The suspension of habeas corpus argument was that Lincoln unlawfully and unconstitutionally used the suspension. Even after Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled the suspension was unconstitutional, Lincoln simply ignored him. Also, Lincoln used the power of arrest against leaders of the “Peace Democrats” movement, including newspapers and political leaders.

The draft was viewed as another unconstitutional expansion of the federal government. The Copperheads used this argument to encourage non-compliance to the draft and violence against those enforcing the draft law.

The war had become, as the Peace Democrat’s had warned, not a war for the Union, but a war for emancipation and the elimination of slavery. This argument used racial hatred and existing racial views to undermine the war effort.

Finally, the Peace Democrats argued that Lincoln was a tyrant who had contempt for the constitution. Actually, this argument was a catch-all for Lincoln’s sins against the constitution “as is.”

Why did the “Peace Democrats” / “Copperheads” fail?

• They tied their influence to the success and failures of the army, thereby alienating soldiers and sailors.
• They greatly underestimated Lincoln.
• They misread what Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy wanted. Davis said over and over the goal was independence, but the Copperheads never recognized that goal.
• They chose General George McClellan as a presidential candidate. McClellan was worse as a presidential candidate than he was as a general. (As a general he was a good trainer and organizer.)
• They overestimated their influence at the 1864 party convention by forcing the party platform and V.P. candidate, George H. Pendleton, on General McClellan. The party platform called for reconciliation with the south which offended the soldiers and sailors and turned them into republican supporters of President Lincoln.

This is a very good and important book on an overlooked part of our Civil War history. I highly recommend this book, particularly the last chapter. It is excellent and explains the Copperheads’ failures and the lack of any plan to implement their ideas other than criticism of Lincoln.


Review by Steven Garrett

Paul Kahan. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War Legacy. Westholme Publishing, LLC. Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2018.

Paul Kahan has spoken at the Joshua L. Chamberlain Civil War Round Table, sharing his story on General Grant. His book has received praise as a balanced view of U.S. Grant and his presidency. Many histories of the Grant presidency concentrate on the corruption and scandals that were a part of the administration, especially those influenced or part of the “Lost Cause” mythology. After all, the “honor” of the south had to be preserved as opposed to the butcher, General Grant. Professor Kahan presents a more factual view of Grant and the accomplishments of his administration. First, let’s look at the structure of this book; that is, the Introduction and the chapters:

Introduction: “Mistakes Have Been Made”

Chapter 1: “There Are but Two Parties Now, Traitors and Patriots”

Chapter 2: “Whatever May Be the Orders of My Superiors, and Law, I Will Execute”

Chapter 3: “A Great Soldier Might Be a Baby Politician”

Chapter 4: “When I Said ‘Let Us Have Peace,’ I Meant It”

Chapter 5: “The Man and the Fanatic”

Chapter 6: “Nations, Like Individuals, Are Punished for Their Transgressions”

Chapter 7: “The Northern Mind . . . Runs Away from the Past”

Conclusion

Professor Kahan begins his book in the first sentence of the Preface by asking:

“With the recent outpouring of books about Ulysses S. Grant, you are forgiven if you wonder whether we really need another one. . . . However, each in its own way gives short shrift to Grant’s presidency.”

Professor Kahan goes on to describe the goal for his book:

“This short volume focuses on the unique political, economic, and cultural forces unleashed by the Civil War . . . and is designed to provide an overview of Grant’s tumultuous terms as President of the United States.”

 “. . . The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy is an evaluation of the Grant administration’s frequently overlooked successes and undeniable failures . . .”

In his eighth and final message to congress, Ulysses S. Grant said: “Mistakes have been made.” While that was true, he probably overstated it as there were many successes as well. Some of those were:

  • Reconstruction and use of the army to administer law and order to protect the freedmen.
  • Destruction of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Creation of the Justice Department to secure the freedmen’s rights.
  • Appointment of the first black man and first Native American to positions within his administration.
  • Laying the foundation for Britain’s and America’s special relationship.
  • Avoiding war with Spain over Cuba.
  • Support of women’s suffrage.
  • Creation of the nation’s first national park.
  • Creation of the surgeon general’s office.
  • Creation of the predecessor to the National Weather Service.
  • And many more.

In addition, Grant faced many great obstacles:

  • Fractured congress that wanted the non-politician Grant simply to follow their orders.
  • The economy shifted from a war-time economy to a non-war time economy.
  • Violence in the south.
  • Indian issues in the west.
  • Worst depression in the nation’s history. Arguably worse than the “Great Depression.”
  • His corrupt appointees.
  • Congress, congress and congress . . .

Therefore, this book is about President Grant’s successes and failures, but it focuses on the successes. He tried to balance all the forces that wanted to see him as failing, in the south and the north.

This is a very good read that places Ulysses S. Grant much higher in the list of our presidents relative to their impact upon our national evolution and our successes. Professor Kahan quotes Senator John Sherman and Congressman James G. Blaine who recognized that Grant faced many, many issues. It was not reasonable to expect any administration to be successful with all those issues. The question ought to be: “Who could have accomplished as much?” Get a copy from your local library, bookstore, or download a copy and consider Professor Paul Kahan’s treatise. It will be worth your time.


Review by Steven Garrett

David W. Blight. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.

Professor Blight’s book is an important, well researched, well written book linking the present with the Civil War by focusing on our memory of the war. His argument is that the real reason for the war, the elimination of slavery from the United States, was pushed aside and all but forgotten. The forces of the “Lost Cause” histories, both popular and professional, and the drive for reconciliation and reunification of the country, eliminated our memory of the real achievements of the Civil War and the achievements of African Americans during and after the war.

There is very little doubt that the general memory of the Civil War has been written by the forces of the “Lost Cause.” This is true for “mainstream” popular histories and most history textbooks. Some historians have acknowledged that the U.S. Civil War is the only war whose history and memory was written by the defeated. Nonetheless, there was plenty of evidence that the “Lost Cause” narrative lacked factual support. Since the early 1960’s, this narrative has been challenged. The real question of why this was allowed to happen is Professor Blight’s task.

Professor Blight argues that white Americans had amnesia about why the war was fought. The “Lost Cause” narrative argued that it was an issue of “states’ rights” rather than slavery. This was accepted either openly or subjectively, not considering whether it was a false narrative. In general, the “Lost Cause” was the dominant ideological view of the cause if you accept the view of popular histories, novels, most professional histories, movies (for example, The Birth of a Nation), etc. However, the African-American scholars, W.E.B. DuBois and others, have a much different view of the war’s cause and its memory. I would add other works by some, but not all, abolitionists, Quakers, and some church leaders. Additionally, if you visit Civil War monuments that dot many Maine small towns, you will find that the veterans clearly knew that they fought to eliminate slavery. Blight goes so far as to say that all Civil War veteran monuments are “… not truthful to the real cause of the Civil War, slavery.” This blanket statement is simply not true. There are many that do point to slavery as the cause.

Blight is especially harsh concerning the period that began soon after the war until just after WWI, and rightfully so. The movement to bring the prior Confederate States back into the union came at the price of the freedoms won during the war for the formerly enslaved peoples. Most of this was to sacrifice black Americans’ rights for political power. The result was the elimination of the enforcement of those rights by the army, the elimination of the first civil rights law by the southern democrat led supreme court, the introduction of “Jim Crow” laws, turning a blind eye to racial violence by the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations, the enactment of state laws that segregated the races and, eventually, segregating the federal government under the first southern democratic president since the Civil War, and on and on. All of this was based on the false narrative, state’s rights, and the pursuit of political power.

How do I view Professor Blight’s book? Professor Blight has accomplished a necessary service by focusing on our memory of the Civil War. In some cases, I believe he takes his arguments too far. For example, the argument that historians, popular and professional, focus on battlefield experience as an effort to obliterate the role of African Americans and the promises made to them. Also, his statement about all Civil War veterans’ monuments. I do believe that his arguments are necessary to refocus our memory on the real cause of the war; slavery and the corresponding loss of control of the federal government with Lincoln’s election. This book is an important addition to any Civil War library. Like all good books, it forces the reader to think about what he or she knows about the Civil War and how the reason it was fought was lost.


Review by Steven Garrett

Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. New York, 2000.

This is an unusual book, a book about quilts and their possible use to communicate with enslaved peoples who had escaped, but a valuable addition to anyone interested in answering the question:

“How did the escaped slaves know where to go when they sought freedom and the underground railroad?”

This is a very interesting tale as well as history. Jacqueline Tobin was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1994 to study the sweet grass baskets created in Charleston by African-American women, much as their ancestors had created. As Ms. Tobin walked through the market she found herself in front of a stall piled high with quilts of all colors. As she stood there remembering the quilts her grandmother made, an elderly African American walked slowly toward her and said:

“Did you know that quilts were used by slaves to communicate on the underground railroad?”

Ms. Tobin was not sure why this elderly woman was telling her this story, but she purchased a hand-made quilt from her. A number of months later, while looking at her quilt, she found the card the quilter had given her. She decided to call Mrs. Ozella McDaniel Williams to see if she would tell her more. Mrs. Williams told her she could not talk to her now, but she would tell her the story:

“…when you are ready.”

Mrs. Williams had added an element of intrigue and Ms. Tobin was hooked. She began researching how quilts were used to communicate. She looked for help from a respected expert, Professor Raymond Dobard, an art history professor at Howard University, who specialized in African-American quilts and their potential use on the underground railroad. Ms. Tobin tried to have Professor Dobard take over the project as she is white and was not sure if the African-American community would trust her enough to tell what they knew. Professor Dobard said “no” as Mrs. Williams had chosen her to tell the story and she should continue.

After three years of research, Ms. Tobin returned to Charleston and the marketplace, without informing Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was sitting in her stall when Ms. Tobin first saw her among her quilts. When Mrs. Williams saw Ms. Tobin, she told her to bring some quilts, make herself comfortable, and:

“…write this down!”

Thus began the real oral history of how quilts were used by enslaved peoples seeking freedom to communicate on the underground railroad. What Ms. Tobin had found was something quilt researchers had sought for years:

“…an underground railroad code.”

This book goes on to trace the history of African cultural communication art and how enslaved people used this cultural oral memory and adapted it with other American influences to create secret forms of communication; for example, with quilts. Key to following this argument is an acceptance that the enslaved peoples brought the memory of their lost culture—art linked to secret social organizations common to the western African societies where they were captured. The book also traces the quilters’ use of Euro-American symbols to direct enslaved peoples through the underground railroad and on to the promised land in the north. The patterns and needed information had to be taught, shared, and memorized by those trusted enough to lead escapes.

The book includes a chapter on other communication forms such as, spirituals, singing, and dance. There is also a chapter about the different routes used in the network we call the underground railroad. Did you know that Frederick Douglas escaped by sea? African-American free men and sailors helped many escape as they could blend in as sailors on commercial ships serving southern ports. The primary routes, however, followed the Appalachian Mountains north to Cleveland or Detroit, where the enslaved people could get a ride across Lake Erie or cross the river to Ontario and freedom. After the “Fugitive Slave Law,” the enslaved peoples had to go to Canada to be safe.

Pick up this book for an enjoyable and intriguing read. There is an amazing amount of detail in this study. What it offers is oral history, passed down from great grandmother, with details of the secrets that were hidden in plain view. This is truly a unique and educational read. Read this book and enjoy.


Review by Steven Garrett

Kerck Kelsey. Israel Washburn Jr: Maine’s Little-Known Giant of the Civil War. Picton Press. Rockport, Maine, 2004.

After Kerck’s untimely death, I thought it would be a tribute to him to read and provide a review of one of his books as he was a long-time member and presenter for the Joshua L. Chamberlain Civil War Round Table. Like many, I have visited the Washburn home in Livermore, Maine and conducted a presentation there without considering Kerck’s involvement with that museum, the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center. Kerck’s work evolved from his master’s thesis and gives those of us interested in the key actors in the drama of Maine’s involvement in the American Civil War an introduction to one of the major forces behind Maine’s preparation and support of the U.S. Government’s conduct of the war.

Israel Washburn Jr. was a Whig, and later Republican, who rose through the ranks of politics to become governor just prior to the start of the war. Known as honest and hard working, his law office was in Orono. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a district that had never elected a Whig. As a Whig, a party always in the minority, Israel spoke on their behalf on many occasions. He also saw the demise of the Whig party and led the political movement that established the Republican Party in Maine. This, as well as his reputation for hard work and honesty, served to promote his career in a time when self promotion was not considered proper.

Hon. Israel Washburn. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Brady-Handy Collection, reproduction no. LC-DIG-cwpbh-02123.

Israel Washburn Jr. became governor as Lincoln was elected and southern states began to secede. It fell to Israel to organize Maine to a war footing; to recruit, train, and provide state troops for the defense of Washington City; and to furnish the army with the men it needed. He remained at his post for the first two years of the war, successfully organizing Maine’s resources to support the Union and ultimately removing slavery from the U.S.

In 1863, Israel accepted the post as Customs Collector for the Port of Portland, a post that he held until 1877. He was replaced by Lot Morrill. Washburn, like Joshua Chamberlain, had clashed with James G. Blaine and suffered the political consequences as both lost their bids to be U. S. Senator because they were not viewed by Blaine as loyal enough.

Washburn was, however, a leading citizen in Portland. He was a founder of the Portland Public Library, President and Trustee of the Maine Historical Society, Vice President of the Board of Trade, a Trustee of the Maine General Hospital, and active in the Universalist Church. He also was a longtime board member at Tufts College (that offered him its presidency a number of times, which he declined) and a board member of Westbrook Seminary.

In addition to his social activities, he became involved in a number of businesses, real estate, and railroads in Maine. As a popular and respected war governor, he was asked to give speeches regularly. His most famous speech was on July 4th in Cherryfield as part of the dedication to the town’s Civil War monument. He no longer tried to win voters and used the occasion to praise the changes won during the war, but warned of the centralization of too much power in the central government and the corruption therein. Perhaps he was thinking of James G. Blaine? Israel Washburn Jr. died of Bright’s Disease on May12, 1883, and is buried with his wife in Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor.

Kerck’s biography is well written and thorough. It provides a biography of a lesser known, but very influential player in Maine’s history. If you wish to know more about Maine history from the 1840’s to the 1870’s and this key player, read this biography. After this read, take a trip to the Washburn-Norland’s Living History Center and consider how a family from an isolated farm on the edge of the wilderness managed to provide such leaders.


Review by Steven Garrett

Howard Bahr. The Year of Jubilo: A Novel of the Civil War. Picador USA: Henry Holt and Company. New York, 2000.

I always enjoy a good novel written about the Civil War and believe the genre can provide a picture that history books miss. Facts, dates, even biographies do not often tell the human story.

The New York Times Book Review describes this book as a “sweeping, cinematic story of rebellion, loyalty, revenge, and reawakened romance” set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The Year of Jubilo is a story staged in the period just after the Confederate surrender and prior to the beginning of reconstruction, told from the viewpoints of the many characters in Cumberland, Mississippi. The lead character is Gawain Harper, a former teacher of literature and veteran of the CSA infantry who fought in many battles. He is walking home after receiving his parole and signing his allegiance to the U.S. Government. He has no idea what he will find at home, especially how he will find Morgan Rhea, the woman he left behind, whose locket and photo he carried during his service. He is worried as he knows what he has done and seen has changed him. Near Cumberland he meets Captain Harry Stribling, a returning CSA cavalryman. Their mutual situation quickly leads to a friendship.

The story is about our two returning veterans and the world they discover. A town destroyed by war, families trying to survive, Gawain and Morgan’s relationship, an officer of irregular Confederate troops planning to renew the rebellion, and on and on. The primary characters are:

• Gawain Harper
• Harry Stribling
• Morgan Rhea
• Judge Nathaniel Rhea (Morgan’s father)
• Aunt Vassar Bishop (Gawain’s aunt and my favorite character)
• Alex Rhea (Morgan’s younger brother)
• Uncle Priam (elderly former slave in the Harper family)
• King Solomon Gault (leader of the local irregulars)
• Old Hundred-and-eleven (town character and prophet so he says)
• Malachi Fish (Former slave chaser and local outcast)
• Lieut. Colonel Michael Burbuck (Commander of the Union troops stationed in Cumberland)
• Lieut. Rolfe von Armin (Commander of local Union provost)
• Sgt. Rafe Deaton
• L. W. Thompson (former Confederate spy, owner of the local tavern, former actor playing role of unionist)
• Xenophon, “Zeke.” (Harry’s horse)

The author writes well and paints a landscape of real characters trying to escape the war, its destruction, and their past. His style is very poetic, but in my opinion, his best asset is character development.

First, let’s look at the story. The first two chapters introduce us to the two themes. Chapter 1 introduces Gawain, a teacher at the local “Female Academy” who had no relationship to secession or fighting for slavery. He is, however, involved with Morgan Rhea whose father, Judge Nathaniel Rhea, will not bless Gawain’s relationship with his daughter if he does not join the fight to preserve their society. He joins the fight for love. Later, Morgan recognizes what her father did, what Gawain did, and is guilt ridden because of it.

Chapter 2 tells us about the King Solomon Gault, leader of the local irregulars, arriving at the home of Morgan Rhea’s sisters (they were vocal Unionists) in 1863 and killing both as an act of vengeance. Introducing us to the violence is always just below the surface.

The story evolves into a story of the renewing relationship between Gawain and Morgan, Gawain’s relationship with his Aunt Vassar, the new relationship with Morgan’s father, Gawain’s relationship with his former neighbors and fellow veterans, the town’s relationship with the Union troops stationed there, and the violence below the surface, represented by Solomon Gault and Captain Harry Stribling. While Gawain seeks to avoid violence and killing, he has seen too much of both, the violence is ever present. This violence was brought to the attention of everyone when, under orders from Solomon Gault, two Union troopers were killed by one of the irregulars. Everyone in town knew the source, but tried not to acknowledge it, except Aunt Vassar. Solomon was trying to force an over-reaction from the Union troops leading to a renewal of the war. When this fails, he travels to the Rhea home to kill the judge with whom he has an old grudge. Key to the story is Harry Stribling, but I cannot give everything away.

This is a good novel. It is well written, even poetic in its descriptions of the everyday scenes and relationships. While this is not about heroic charges or brave battle scenes, it describes the human response of returning and rebuilding the relationships that have been altered by war, violence, and the triumph of that which is human.

If you’re a reader of Civil War historical novels put this at the top of your list. It will not disappoint.


Review by Steven Garrett

Brian F. Swartz. Maine at War. Volume I: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. Maine Origins Publications, An Imprint of Epic Page Publishing. Brewer, Maine, 2018.

Brian Swartz has been writing on Maine in the Civil War since beginning a column in the Bangor Daily News where he was a reporter and news editor for 27 years. His interest was natural as he was raised in Brewer. In his words:

“. . . we had to travel on that street (Chamberlain Street) at least a short distance no matter where we were headed.”

His interest began early and he was interested in pursuing more about Mainers:

“. . . a certain general, a certain regiment and a certain Pennsylvania hill . . . and I disparage neither the general or the regiment.”

This work began as a column in the Bangor Daily News in 2011, evolved into an online blog in 2012, and continues to this day with a weekly offering. Therefore, if you are interested in Maine history as it relates to the Civil War, Brian’s blog and its resultant publication in book form is required reading. His work evolved from his early columns and his blog. Volume I has 50 chapters, each a separate story about a Mainer. Some were famous and some were not, but they all had a story. Hence, you may open this book almost anywhere and find a very interesting story.

Let me provide a few examples as Brian is, above all else, a storyteller:

Chapter 1: “First Blood at Bladensburg: I Know My Wound Has Been A Severe One.” Brian’s book begins with a story about Congressman Jonathan Cilley. On February 24, 1834, Cilley lost his life in a duel with a southern defender of slavery. Many believed the duel was rigged to ensure Cilley’s death. It’s impact upon his son, Jonathan Prince Cilley, an officer in the 1st Maine Cavalry, fed his thirst for the blood of those wearing gray. Maine’s defense of the Union began long before Fort Sumter was fired upon.

Chapter 17: “All Ashore Who Are Going Ashore: My Sick Soldiers Were Scattered Everywhere.” This story is about Sarah Sampson who followed her husband, Lt. Col. Charles A. L. Sampson of the 3rd Maine Volunteer Infantry, to the front. Sarah adopted the Maine boys, nursing them through sickness and wounds.

Chapter 20: “The Inquiry About the Missing: I Almost Regret That I Did Not Die With the Brave Fellows.” This story is about the 1st Maine Cavalry at Middletown and Winchester. Middletown is where some of the 1st Maine’s companies were shattered and Winchester, where the 1st Maine earned its reputation as a fighting unit not to be messed with. The after-action report from the 2nd Maine Infantry and the 1st Maine Cavalry indicated losses that shocked the governor into sending investigators to inquire about what happened. The inquiry ended with the following quote from General Hatch, Chief of Cavalry, “. . . tells me that the conduct and coolness of Col. Doughty, his officers and men . . . and their steadiness under fire were equal to any veterans in the service.”

Chapter 25: “Balloon Handlers: we Keep the Balloon Anchored Down With 36 Bags of Sand.” This is the story about the 4th Maine Infantry boys who were reassigned to the Union Army Balloon Corps and Professor Thaddeus Lowe. Their task was to play out the ropes that secured the balloon, fill the balloon with hydrogen, and retrieve the balloon after it reported what the Confederate troops were doing. Second Lt. Arthur Libby and 28 members of the 4th Maine were reassigned to the Balloon Corps in April 1862. Since they moved the balloon (called an “air-craft” by the Balloon Corps) with all of its equipment by a converted coal barge, you could argue they were on the USA’s first air-craft carrier.

These are only a few samples of the stories within Maine At War, Volume I: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. This is a wonderful book of stories about Mainers’ involvement in the Civil War and a great introduction to our shared history. These are great stories about real people. I am anticipating Volume II. Go to your library, or purchase this book. It is well worth your time. If you want to stay current go to the blog at maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.


Review by Steven Garrett

A Very Good Movie

Pharaoh’s Army

There are many good movies and documentaries based upon the Civil War. I’m sure you each have your favorite. Some of these movies followed the prevailing ideology of the time. The “Lost Cause” had Gone with the Wind. The “Just Cause” had Gettysburg and Glory. And there are the many excellent documentaries lead by Ken Burn’s Civil War.

Pharaoh’s Army was not written to support an ideology but, as a base, uses an old folk story about a Kentucky boy who shoots a Union soldier and buries him in a sinkhole. The movie develops into a story about the Civil War in rural southeastern Kentucky where neighbors often supported opposite sides. In other words, it presents the Civil War in its most brutal and inhuman side.

The movie begins as Sarah Anders is bringing her young daughter’s body home for reburial after Union-supporting neighbors dug up her body—they wanted no Confederates in their community graveyard. Next, a group of Union cavalry, led by Captain John Abston, arrives at the Anders remote farm looking for provisions from the enemy. The experienced bummers find most of the hidden provisions and are preparing to leave when the youngest of the Union soldiers falls from the hayloft onto a pitchfork. He is too seriously injured to be moved. Captain Abston orders his rebel-hating troopers to settle in until the injured trooper is well enough to travel. This is the real beginning of Robbie Henson’s story: what happens when a poor Yankee-hating Confederate soldier’s wife and son must cohabitate with equally Rebel-hating Union troopers.

This is not a grand sweeping movie like Gettysburg or Gone with the Wind, but a story of real human suffering during the Civil War. It shows the cost of war, especially a civil war, to those caught up in it on a personal level.

This is the kind of movie one needs to see to balance the other movies made to sell tickets. This was a limited-released movie and became better known after its release on CD. The acting is very good. The setting, in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, is haunting as a background to the stories of the human suffering on both sides. It speaks to the struggle to remain human when the events about you force responses you would never consider otherwise.

Rent or buy this CD and view this well written, directed, and acted movie. There are no great and sweeping battle scenes, no flamboyant generals leading charges, but it is a real story that gets at war in its brutal reality.


Review by Steven Garrett

Philip Gerard. Cape Fear Rising. John F. Blair, Publisher. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1994.

This is a historical novel about the violent events in Wilmington, N.C. in November 1898. As the author notes:

This novel was inspired by events that actually happened. Some of the characters are based on historical persons. In taking dramatic liberties with the action, the author has tried to remain true to the spirit of the facts. But this is fiction—only a storyteller’s history.

I enjoy a good historical novel as a form to teach history and to get to the real impact of historical events. This is true of Cape Fear Rising. The story is told through the eyes of a fictitious struggling reporter, Sam Jenks, and his school-teacher wife Gray Ellen Jenks. Most of the characters were real people who participated in the events described in the novel. Sam and Gray Ellen relocate to Wilmington, North Carolina, at the invitation of Sam’s cousin, for a new start in their lives and are instantly thrust into the complex issues evolving in Wilmington.

Wilmington had become a Mecca for middle-class blacks who had opened businesses, established a paper, and participated in the local government as elected officials and voters. But this did not please the old guard. The white old guard that proudly traced its influence back to the antebellum aristocracy and the pre-Civil War period culture. Secondly, the existing and newly elected government in Wilmington was “Fusionist.” A combination of Republicans, blacks, and white citizens willing to leave the past behind and work to move Wilmington forward as a marketing and seaport centered economy for everyone. Many of these new whites were former “Yankees.”

The old guard, using the local newspaper, worked to build a narrative that all good citizens were threatened by forthcoming black on white violence and the take-over of many jobs by blacks, leaving white unemployment rising.

Key characters in this drama in addition to Sam and Gray Ellen Jenks are:

● Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell–Civil War veteran with visions to return Wilmington back to its pre-Civil War glory. A time where everything was dominated by the elite Anglo-Saxons. He is an old-fashioned stump speaker who grabbed his time during the chaos created by the secret societies. He became the mayor after the events.
● Ivanhoe Grant–a firebrand black minister who pushes the black community towards fighting for their rights and place in society. He was, however, expecting the violence and pushed for it expecting federal intervention.
● Harry Calabash–Sam’s boss at the Wilmington newspaper who tries to teach Sam about all the plots and sub-plots evolving around them, who knows the truth and buries what he knows in bourbon.
● Alex Manly–Editor and publisher of the “black newspaper” who was the target of the white elites’ violence, but escaped to Philadelphia.
● Hugh MacRae–Leader of the secret society of elites who planned and instigated the chaos that quickly turned uncontrollable and violent.

The story revolves around Sam and Gray Ellen’s experiences while trying to understand the culture and events as the plots and counter-plots unfold around them. Both meet people they cannot understand as locals speak in code to these outsiders. Sam’s stories are edited to the point he cannot recognize his own stories and Gray Ellen, being a Yankee, cannot get a teaching job until a black administrator hires her to teach in a black school. This fact makes them a “persona non-grata” to the white elites. Both Sam and Gray Ellen struggled to understand, but fail until the events unfold around them.

Meanwhile, the “secret nine” organized by Hugh MacRae was meeting to plan the removal of the elected “Fusionist” government, to replace it with selected loyal candidates, to close Alex Manley’s newspaper, and to hire unemployed whites to replace blacks. All without significant violence.

This was going on as Sam and Gray Ellen arrived. Harry Calabash and others accustomed to the culture were able to determine what was about to happen. And Harry knew that once the take-over began violence would be hard to control. The violence began with the burning of the newspaper building where Alex Manley’s paper was housed, but it was relocated into the black part of town. This violence and its failure to stop the newspaper quickly got out of control leading to the killing of many leaders in the black community. Families fled to the cemetery and swamps to hide from the violence and killing.

It was clear that within the plan was a desire to remove black and Fusionists leaders from Wilmington. Many thinking they were on the “kill” list fled, leaving Wilmington to return to rule by the elites. Sam and Gray Ellen, and many others, were put on a train and instructed they were not to return as they were “undesirables.” Sam, who had submitted his story of the violence prior to their departure, seeing that it would never be published in Wilmington, rewrote their story. It was published in numerous northern papers guaranteeing his career. The sad truth of the events of November 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, became public.

This is obviously a story reflecting some of America’s saddest historical events. These events are difficult to confront and it is not easy to follow all the plots and counter-plots. But it is a good presentation of the saddest of events—nothing less than a coup—illustrating the complexities of the southern culture during reconstruction in a city that was seen up to that point as a success story.

I recommend this read.


Review by Steven Garrett

Lorien Foote. The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016. (Kindle Edition)

There are some books that you become mesmerized by when reading. While this may not be everyone’s “cup of tea,” it grabbed me. This book covers a part of the Civil War experience I have not seen get this well-deserved treatment. What did the escaped Union prisoners experience getting back to Union lines and how they and others were impacted by the “collapse of the Confederacy?”

The author begins telling us about the Confederate response to advancing Union troops in relationship to relocating Union prisoners of war away from that advance. These relocations, and the guards assigned to guard the prisoners, were far from first-rate. Often the guards were interested in gaining distance away from the advancing Union troops and away from Confederate authority. Also, the Confederate command authority was confusing to the commanders and all those dependent upon them for direction. State authorities and the central government were not working together. Finally, there were local vigilante groups with uncertain allegiances.

Imagine you are trying to avoid capture where you do not know whose side anyone is on. Who do you trust? How do you gain food, shelter, and especially direction to safety? How to identify unionists and/or anyone opposing the Confederacy who will not turn you into the Confederate authorities? Also, imagine you are suffering from multiple diseases, undernourished, filthy, and disoriented? One of the Union escapees was a Bowdoin graduate!

Two groups stand out as helpers to the escaped Yankees, slaves, and white unionists. Both groups helped the escapees gain food, shelter, and avoid Confederate patrols, etc. Both groups put themselves in danger to help them. This is the untold story of escapees making their way to safety against many obstacles in an area of extreme chaos and the brave men, women, and children who helped them along their way.

This book raises many questions. Was the Confederacy’s collapse a real fact or did it ever have control within its borders? Did this chaos allow or encourage the evolution into violence, the KKK, and other similar groups?

In this reviewer’s opinion, this is a book you should read. It opens to debate the Civil War’s results in the south—race against race, neighbor against neighbor, relative against a relative. It destroyed all cultural standards; good or bad, and left chaos.

Get a copy or download this book to your Kindle. This is a worthwhile read that questions what happened in the south after the war.


Review by Steven Garrett

Benson Bobrick. Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2009.

General George H. Thomas was acknowledged as one of the best generals in the Civil War by both sides of that conflict. One outstanding question is: Why is he not as well known or acknowledged by historians as other successful Union generals? Benson Bobrick’s biography attempts to address this question.

Bobrick argues it is partly due to his personality—he was not a self promoter. Also, there was his heritage of being from Virginia and, lastly, his style of generalship. He prepared to have as many advantages as possible to restrict his casualties, for which his troops loved him.

George H. Thomas was a general who saw his task as much more than gallantly leading during combat. Taking care of his men; that is, being well trained, well fed, well clothed, well supplied, and well lead were all important. Coordinating the various branches of the army was also important to Thomas. Knowledge of the ground, supply routes, and knowing the leaders you faced were also important. Bobrick argues that Thomas knew and valued all aspects of being a general. He served his country before, during, and after the Civil War, until his untimely death.

There were reasons for his lack of fame:

● His early death may have contributed to his not gaining the respect and fame given to other Civil War generals, but he was not forgotten by those that served under his command.
● Thomas asked his wife to destroy his Civil War correspondence in the event of his death and she did. This left far fewer documents for future historians to ponder.
● Thomas did not approve of self promotion. Many generals had political support (for example, General Sherman’s brother, Senator Sherman or Senator Washburne’s support for General Grant).
● Thomas did not write an autobiography, perhaps because of his early death.
● Being a Virginian by birth might have been held against him.

Clearly, the “Rock of Chickamauga” was a leader and, as he proved at Chattanooga, was an outstanding general. He and his army destroyed General Hood’s army. No other Union general can claim that they destroyed their opponent as thoroughly as Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland.

But why did Grant issue orders, not delivered, to have him relieved? Bobrick argues that many of the politically motivated generals were jealous or fearful of Thomas’s growing fame. Their own desires for the future drove them to withhold support for Thomas. These arguments are the weakness of Bobrick’s biography. General Thomas did not need to tear down other generals to be recognized as one of the great Civil War generals. His actions accomplished his greatness.

Add this book to your shelf, but take Bobrick’s attacks on Grant, Sherman and others as misplaced and completely unneeded.



November  2019
Review by Steven Garrett

LeeAnna Keith. The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction. Oxford University Press. New York, 2008.

The Colfax Massacre is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who is interested in the reconstruction period or who wants to better understand the difficulties of those responsible for the effort to bring freed men and women into American society. LeeAnna Keith uses one tragic event to highlight the issues and difficulties facing the federal government and its efforts to support the rights of citizenship for freed slaves in the south and, specifically, northern Louisiana.

Ms. Keith develops her narrative by introducing us to Henry Shreve, the removal of the “great raft” of the Red River (a hundred-mile long tangle of trees and debris) that opened the Red River area to development, and to the Calhoun family’s role in the Red River sugar and cotton plantation economy. Initially, Merrill Calhoun, and later his son William ‘Willie’ Calhoun, are key players in this tragic narrative. Merrill Calhoun became the example for Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s well-known novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Willie then became the key player. After the Civil War, he supported the freed slaves by opening schools and providing a place of safety for them on the family plantations. He also married a woman of color. These acts placed him in direct opposition to the other plantation owners and the population of the area. Merrill Calhoun’s wealth allowed him to live apart from the source of his wealth—the slave-based sugar and cotton plantations. Willie, an invalid all his life due to a tragic accident, did not inherit the opinion that slaves were a separate species of humans. Whether due to his time in France or his ties to the Creole social circle, Willie was different than his neighbors. He openly supported the Union and, after the war, supported the efforts of reconstruction. Due to his father’s wealth, he was one of the few planters with the credit and financing to continue running the plantation. He also opened a store to supplement the business. Additionally, Willie entered politics supporting causes such as public education and other activities of the Freedman’s Bureau. These positions did not endear him to his neighbors. Willie’s wealth and position protected him, but not others involved in supporting the education and promotion of the freedmen.

Willie’s activities paralleled the return to power of the old power elites in Louisiana. Violence became a method to subdue the radical republicans and black voters. President Johnson’s support of the local and state governments, and the return to power of many influential former Confederates, brought the conflict to a head. U. S. Grant, as commander-in-chief of the army, sent General Sheridan to Louisiana as head of the military district. Sheridan dismissed the old-guard governor (Wells) and replaced him with a Republican. These actions further inflamed the old-guard power elites, especially as Sheridan used the power of the army to enforce voter registration, after which the black registered voters outnumbered the whites.

The Grant & Colfax Republican ticket further enraged the old guard. The emergence of the Klu Klux Klan, the White Camellia, the Southern Cross, the Seymour and Blair societies, suppressed the Republicans and black voters. Murder, hangings and general terrorizing of all opponents spread. These activities restricted the voters for the Republican ticket and, in addition to fraudulent vote counting, swung the election in Louisiana. Attacks against schools, supporting newspapers, and black businesses began next. Again, murder, hanging, and terror were used.

The freedmen and their white supporters did not sit still while all of this violence was occurring. Many had been soldiers during the Civil War and they quietly formed militia units, with veterans as leaders, acquired weapons, and began drilling. During the election of 1872, these militias escorted black and other Republican voters to the polls. As a result, dual governments and authorities for law enforcement were created.

After the infamous 1873 Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, the dual governments’ issue came to a violent end at the Colfax parish courthouse. The black militia, finding the courthouse deserted, took over the building for the radical Republican and black government. Knowing trouble was on its way, the building was fortified.

A white-based band raided black homes on their way to Colfax. Each group patrolled to discover the strength and location of the other. The battle at Colfax parish courthouse occurred on Easter Sunday, 1873. Approximately 150 black militiamen defending the courthouse were surrounded and slain. The wounded were killed and some of the prisoners were hanged. For many years, the only monument to these brave men were the memories of their families. The old guard, many participants in the attack on the black militia and killing of the wounded, later raised a monument to the two whites who were killed and placed a plaque on the tree where the militia leaders were hanged. This event eliminated the black and Republican government in Louisiana. President Grant attempted to gain justice, but the newly seated representatives from the former Confederate States, and their party representatives in the north, stood in his way, as did the evolving recession and the effort in congress to reconcile with the south. The country moved on, but the Colfax Massacre was not forgotten.

This is a story we must reconcile with the results of the Civil War—soon the black code laws, Jim Crow laws, and segregation were in place. This is a book you should read. It is an interesting exploration of a low point in our history.

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