Review of: The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Review of: The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
The term “bloody” is so frequently attached as qualifier to the American Civil War that we tend to accept it without question. But how bloody was it? According to some estimates, in excess of 620,000 soldiers died on both
Acclaimed historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean ponders just that in his magnificent, ground-breaking work, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War , an engaging and extremely well-written analysis of a long-overlooked topic hiding in plain sight. More than 60,000 books have been written about the American Civil War, and each time I crack the cover of another I cannot help but wonder if there yet exists anything new to say about it. In this case, Sheehan-Dean one-ups hopes for fresh perspective with something akin to epiphany! The very definition of war implies violence, of course, and historians have a fairly good sense of how much violence was contained in the totality of those four years of armed conflict, but what was it that set those decidedly finite parameters? Were there certain guardrails in place, and if so, why? Confronted with something so conspicuous yet so generally ignored in the literature can be startling—and highly rewarding.
In the ancient world, survival of the conquered on and off the battlefield was subject to whims of kings or commanders, and the outcome was typically grim. The Assyrians were known to be especially sanguinary, the Greeks less so, but despite his disapproving tone we know from Thucydides’ account of the siege of Melos—which ended with the Athenians putting all the men to the sword—that massacre was far more often the rule than the exception. In the contemporary world, there are a whole host of international agreements specifically structured to protect noncombatants, but look only to the streets of Ukraine or across the landscape of the Middle East to observe how meaningless these turn out to be for those casually and euphemistically dismissed as “collateral damage.” The rest of Europe was appalled when German zeppelins bombed London in 1915, but whatever may be solemnly sworn to on parchment, such tactics are today nothing less than standard operating procedure. Yet, sandwiched between these ancient and modern extremes was an era in the West when rules of engagement among warring nations were less fuzzy and more generally respected. This was the milieu that hosted the American Civil War.
Throughout history, while levels of violence in war have often been arbitrary, restraint in warfare was governed by law and custom. At the outbreak of the Civil War, what we understand today as international law was nonexistent. The behavior of belligerents was instead governed by unwritten codes that evolved over centuries of European conflicts that looked to rules of engagement on the battlefield, secured the lives of prisoners of war, and made clear distinctions between soldiers and non-combatants. Those operating on behalf of the enemy out of uniform were treated as spies or saboteurs and subject to execution. Civilians were not to be targeted. This is not to say that abuses never occurred, nor that hapless inhabitants caught up in the path of invading armies did not suffer, but these customs of war were commonly observed by those engaged in hostilities.
The United States regarded the seceded states as in rebellion and refused to recognize the Confederate States of America as a rival nation, although it was nevertheless compelled to treat it as such in certain situations, as during a truce or in a prisoner exchange. This was similar to the dynamic during the Revolutionary War, when the British came to treat captured Continentals as prisoners of war, rather than as rebels subject to hanging. Still, circumstances sometimes made for some awkward posturing by the Lincoln administration, such as when it imposed a naval blockade of southern ports, since it is impossible to blockade your own country. Foreign recognition, especially by European powers such as Great Britain and France, was a cherished hope of the Confederacy. While it was ultimately not to be, the dream never really died, which, the author emphasizes, motivated the CSA to act within the confines of established European traditions of war in order to assert their legitimacy as a member of the family of nations. For its part, the United States not only abided by these identical customs but was careful to do nothing which might strain those boundaries and provoke foreign sympathy for the Confederacy that might lead to recognition, a stumble certain to jeopardize the cause of Union. The matter was further complicated by the curious reality of adversaries each governed by representative democracies, with public opinion and the support of the electorate vital to their respective conduct of the war.
It was a mutual respect for these customs of war that defined the state of affairs as belligerency commenced, but unanticipated factors threatened to upset that uneasy balance almost from the outset. The first was when Jefferson Davis quietly sanctioned guerrilla warfare by failing to discourage it, over the objection of soldiers of the regular army such as Robert E. Lee. Historically, there was a distinction between officially organized “partisans” and gangs of guerrillas, but here lines were very blurred. Bands of raiders responsible for so much bloodshed in competing causes in the pre-war era in places like Kansas were embraced as worthy irregulars by the Confederate cause across the southern geography. These loosely organized marauders operated out of uniform to harass, sabotage, and pick off Union ranks. There was uncertainty as to what to do with these “bushwhackers” when captured. Many were executed, as the customs of war would dictate. This was branded as murder by the Confederacy, even as their protest was muted. But not every irregular captured by the north was put to death.
The second was the status of the human property that the Confederate cause held so dear. Despite loud cries to the contrary in the postwar period that still echo into today’s politics, the southern states seceded principally in order to champion human chattel slavery in their “proud slave Republic,” with hopes of one day expanding it beyond their borders. Historians distinguish between societies with slaves and slave societies; the CSA was a slave society. The labor of enslaved African Americans was a critical piece of the southern war effort that freed up a larger percentage of white southerners to fight. And we now know that tens of thousands of “camp slaves” routinely accompanied Confederate forces on campaign, providing the essential support for an army in the field performed by the typical soldier in blue on the other side. When Union armies moved onto southern soil, escaped members of the local enslaved population sought refuge behind their lines. Initially, southern masters demanded their return in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, and some northern officers complied. Others refused. Lincoln dithered at first. The northern cause was preservation of the Union; emancipation would not become a war aim until some time later. There was, too, a need for a delicate balancing act to avoid alienating the coalition of border slave states still loyal to the United States. Still, it was clearly in the north’s interest to deprive Richmond of what after all amounted to a human component of the enemy’s materiel. With that in mind, the decision was made not to return “contrabands,” which enraged the south by an act they deemed dishonorable.
But anger turned to outrage in the third instance, when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation not only declared free all the enslaved in the rebellious states but also called for recruiting black men into uniform. For the south, this was a violation of civilizational norms, which was furiously denounced and accompanied by threats to return to slavery or even execute captured black troops, and severely punish their white officers. Lincoln countered with his own warnings of reprisals, which led to an official standoff. But it was different in the field. Confederates frequently murdered black soldiers seeking surrender. There were well-publicized massacres of large numbers of United States Colored Troops (USCT) at places like Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but such atrocities on a smaller scale were more common over the course of the war than were once acknowledged. Still, as in the case of southern guerrillas who fell into the hands of Union forces, not all suffered this terrible fate; despite uncertain status, both groups ended up as well in respective prisoner of war camps. Likewise, after Fort Pillow, some African Americans, swearing revenge, summarily executed captured Confederates, but not every black soldier resorted to such measures. In the end, restraint ruled the day more often than we would expect.
The author has a lot to say about restraint, which is key to his thesis that under the circumstances we might have expected the Civil War to be far more brutal than it turned out to be. One salient aspect that generally escapes consideration is the conspicuous absence of slave insurrections during the war years: a noteworthy example of self-restraint by the enslaved population. The plantation elite long lived in terror of uprisings such as the 1831 Nat Turner revolt that saw the slaughter of whites by their chattel property, but these incidents were not only exceedingly rare in the antebellum, but despite increased vulnerabilities on the southern home front never occurred during the Civil War. More than 500,000 enslaved individuals fled to northern lines as refugees during the Civil War; very few resorted to acts of violence against their former masters. By the end of the war, USCT made up about ten percent of the Union army, where the overwhelming majority served with bravery and distinction as part of a regular uniformed fighting force. Given the inhumanity that was part and parcel of the African American experience in chattel slavery, it is indeed remarkable that episodes of retaliation against those who held them in cruel bondage were not more prevalent.
Overall, civilians fared far better in the Civil War than in most ancient or modern wars. Much has been made of northern so-called “hard war” policies that the south viewed as barbaric, but under scrutiny it seems that “Lost Cause” hyperbole has distorted historical memory. The infamous 1863 Union Army directive General Order No. 11, which banished 20,000 residents of four counties in western Missouri, is frequently cited as an especially heinous act. But this was a direct response to the slaughter of about 150 men and boys at Lawrence, Kansas at the hands of Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill and, as the author underscores, this tactic of mass relocation likely reduced the number of vigilante reprisals that might otherwise have occurred. Likewise, Sherman’s march has long been characterized as unduly harsh, although the truth is that few noncombatants were killed along the way. On the other hand, Sheehan-Dean is clear that there is no doubt that even when not targeted by bullets, civilians suffered through lack of access to food, shelter, and medical care when caught in the path of armies, and the majority of this took place on southern soil.
As for the behavior of the regular armies on both sides, the author notes that the customs of war were generally respected, and neither combatants nor civilians were subjected to the kind of unrestrained brutality that might have been visited upon Native Americans with little hesitation. This brings to mind British horror when Germans introduced machine guns to World War I battlefields, although the Brits themselves had slaughtered some 1,500 African Ndebele warriors in 1893 with similar firepower. There were supposed to be rules for how “civilized” white men waged war; these rules did not apply to those deemed the “other.” Of course, that is likely how some Confederates reconciled the murder of black troops seeking surrender. But it is also, as the author reminds us, how Union officers justified executing captured guerrillas, another group of “outsiders.” Despite this, episodes of restraint on both sides were far more common than we might expect. As Sheehan-Dean eloquently argues:
The wartime calculus created by the Civil War’s participants sanctioned episodes of grim destruction and instances where the inertia of violence weakened … Moments of charity occurred wherever Union commanders and Confederate commanders or Southern politicians negotiated surrenders—of forts, armies, and towns—without violence. They happened when soldiers surrendered on battlefields and became prisoners of war. They even happened when officers used threats of retaliation to demand an end to unjust practices. In most cases, a retaliatory order de-escalated the situation. The most pivotal moment of de-escalation was the decision by enslaved people to pursue freedom rather than revenge … [p355]
At the outset of the Civil War, the closest thing to a manual of conduct for war was a wordy treatise based upon European history and tradition by Henry Halleck, who later became Lincoln’s General-in-Chief. But, as chronicled in some detail in The Calculus of Violence, formal rules of warfare were officially established on the Union side through the Herculean efforts of German-born Francis Lieber, who based what came to be known as the Lieber Code upon a “just war” theory. This first modern codification of the laws of war has had a lasting legacy, deeply influencing the later Hague Conventions and Geneva Conventions that established the existing tenets of international law and determined what acts of war can be considered tantamount to a war crime. Of course, there’s no shortage of irony to the awful truth that civilian populations often fared far better in Lieber’s day than they have in the days since. Structured, codified, hallowed international law has done little to mitigate the harsh reality found in the mass murder of populations who happen to get in the way of belligerents.
No review, no matter how detailed, could possibly do justice to the breadth and depth of ideas explored in this book, but it is a
More information on the Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference 2024 can be found here: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024
Review of: President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, by C.W. Goodyear
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
I first encountered James A. Garfield in the course of my boyhood
As I grew older, American history became a passion and presidential biographies a favored genre, but Garfield eluded me. Nor did I pursue him. I did occasionally stumble upon
So it was that I came to President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier , a detailed, skillfully executed, well-written, if uneven full-length biography by historian C.W. Goodyear. The Garfield that emerges in this treatment is capable, intellectual, modest, steadfast, and genial—but also dull … almost painfully dull. So much so that it is only the author’s talent with a pen that keeps the reader engaged. But even Goodyear’s literary skills—and these are manifest—threaten to be inadequate to the task of maintaining interest in his subject after a while.
That Garfield comes off so lackluster is strikingly incongruous to his actual life story, which at least partly seems plucked from a Dickens tale. Born in 1831 to a hardscrabble struggle in the Ohio backwoods that intensified when he lost his father at a very young age, he was raised by his strong-willed, religious mother who favored him over his siblings and encouraged his brilliant mind. He grew up tall, powerfully built, and handsome, with an unusually large head that was much remarked upon by observers in his lifetime. Like Lincoln, he was a voracious reader and autodidact. After a short-lived stint prodding mules as a canal towpath driver in his teens, his mother helped secure for him an avenue to formal education at a seminary, where he met his future wife Lucretia, whom he called “Crete.” Employed variously as a teacher, carpenter, preacher, and janitor, he worked his way
Part of it is that in this account he seems nearly devoid of emotion. He makes few close friends. His relationship with Crete is conspicuous in the absence of genuine affection, and their early marriage marked by long separations that are agonizing for her but in Garfield provoke little but indifference; he eventually admits he does not really love her. A fleeting affair and the sudden loss of a cherished child finally bring them together, but in the throes of emotional turmoil he yet strikes as more calculating than crushed. If there is one constant to his temperament, it is a desire to navigate a middle path in every arena, ever chasing compromise, while quietly trying to have it both ways. In his first years of marriage, he demonstrates a determination to be husband and father without actually being physically present in either role. Likewise, this trait marks a tendency to moderate his convictions by convenience. The prewar period finds him a fervent proponent of abolition, but willing to temper that when it menaces harmony in his circles. Later, he is just as passionate for African American civil rights—that is, until that proves inelegant to consensus.
The book’s subtitle, From Radical to Unifier, more specifically speaks to Garfield’s shift from one of the “Radical Republicans” who advanced black equality and clashed with Andrew Johnson, to a congressman who could work across interparty enmity to achieve balance amid ongoing factional feuding. But “from radical to unifier” can also be taken as a larger metaphor of a trajectory for Garfield that smacks less of an evolution than a tightly wound tension that ever attempted to have that cake and eat it too. And since it is impossible to simultaneously be both “radical” and “unifier,” there is a hint that Garfield was always more bureaucrat than believer. But was he? Truthfully, it is difficult to know what to make of him much of the time. And it is not clear whether the blame for that should be laid upon his biographer or upon a subject so enigmatic he defies analysis.
Garfield indeed proves elusive; he hardly could have achieved so much success without an engine of ambition, but that drive remained mostly out of sight. As a major general in the midpoint of the Civil War, he stridently resisted calls to shed his uniform for Congress, but yet finally went to Washington. Almost two decades later, he stood equally adamant against efforts to recruit him as nominee for president, but ultimately ran and won the White House. Was he really so self-effacing, or simply expert at disguising his intentions? And what of his integrity? Garfield was implicated in the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal, but it did not stick. In an era marked by rampant political corruption, Garfield was no crook, but neither was he an innocent, trading certain favors for rewards when it suited him. Was he honest? Here we are reminded of what Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film Chinatown, replied when asked that about a detective on the case: “As far as it goes. He has to swim in the same water we all do.”
For me, presidential biographies shine the brightest when they employ the central protagonist to serve as a focal point for relating the grander narrative of the historical period that hosted them. Think John Meacham, in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Or Robert Caro, in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Or, in perhaps its most extreme manifestation, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Sidney Blumenthal, where Lincoln himself is at times reduced to a series of bit parts. What those magnificent biographies have in common is their ability to brilliantly interpret not simply the lives that are spotlighted but also the landscape that each trod upon in the days they walked the earth. Unfortunately, this element is curiously absent in much of Goodyear’s President Garfield.
Garfield’s life was mostly centered upon the tumultuous times of Civil War and Reconstruction, but those who came to this volume with little familiarity of the era would learn almost nothing of it from Goodyear except how events or individuals touched Garfield directly. The war hardly exists beyond Garfield’s service in it. So too what follows in the struggle for equality for the formerly enslaved against the fierce resistance of Andrew Johnson, culminating in the battle over impeachment. Remarkably, Ulysses S. Grant, second to Lincoln arguably the most significant figure of the Civil War and its aftermath, makes only brief appearances, and then merely as a vague creature of Garfield’s disdain. And there is just a rough sketch of the disputed election that makes Rutherford B. Hayes president and brings an end to Reconstruction. Goodyear’s Garfield is actually the opposite of Blumenthal’s Lincoln: this time it is all Garfield and history is relegated to the cameo.
And then suddenly, unexpectedly, Goodyear rescues the narrative and the reader—and even poor Garfield—with a dramatic shift that stuns an unsuspecting audience and not only succeeds, but succeeds splendidly! It seems as if we have finally reached the moment the author has been eagerly anticipating. Garfield has little more than fifteen months to live, but no matter: this now is clearly the book Goodyear had long set out to write. Part of the reader’s reward for sticking it out is the deep dive into history denied in prior chapters.
Only fifteen years had passed since Appomattox, and the two-party system was in flux, reinventing itself for another era. The Democrats—the party of secession—were slowly clawing their way back to relevance, but Republicans remained the dominant national political force, often by waving the “bloody shirt.” Since the failed attempt to remove Johnson, the party had cooled in their commitment to civil rights, a reflection of a public that had grown weary of the plight of freedmen and longed for reconciliation. Fostering economic growth was the prime directive for Republicans, but so too was jealously guarding their power and privilege, as well as the entrenched spoils system that had begotten.
Party members had few policy differences, but yet fell into fierce factions that characterized what came to be a deadlocked Republican National Convention in 1880. The “Stalwarts” were led by flamboyant kingmaker Roscoe Conkling, who had long been locked in a bitter personal and political rivalry with James G. Blaine of the “Half-Breeds,” who sought the nomination for president. Garfield and the latter were on friendly terms, and had worked closely together in the House when Blaine had been Speaker, although Garfield was identified with neither faction. Conkling and the Stalwarts were Grant loyalists, and dreamed instead of his return to the White House. There were also reformers who coalesced around former Senator John Sherman. Garfield delivered the nominating speech for Sherman, but then—after thirty-five ballots failed to select a candidate—he himself ended up as the consensus “Dark Horse” improbably (and reluctantly) drafted as the Republican Party nominee! The ticket was rounded out with Chester A. Arthur, a Conkling crony, for vice president. Goodyear’s treatment of the drawn-out convention crisis and Garfield’s unlikely selection is truly superlative!
So too is the author’s coverage of Garfield’s brief presidency, as well as the theatrical foreshadowing of his death, as he was stalked by the unhinged jobseeker Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield prevailed in a close election against the Democrat, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Once in office, Garfield refused to go along with Conkling’s picks for financially lucrative appointments, which sparked an extended stand-off that surprisingly climaxed with the Senate resignation of Conkling and his close ally Thomas “Easy Boss” Platt, asserting Garfield’s executive prerogative, striking a blow for reform, and upending Conkling’s legendary control over spoils. Meanwhile, homeless conman Guiteau, who imagined himself somehow personally responsible for Garfield’s election, grew enraged at his failure to be named to the Paris consulship, which he fantasized was his due, and plotted instead to kill the president. Guiteau proved both insane and incompetent; his bullets fired at point-blank range missed Garfield’s spine and all major organs.
Odds are that Garfield might have recovered, but the exploratory insertion of unwashed fingers into the site of the wound—more than once, by multiple doctors—likely introduced the aggressive infection that was to leave him in the lingering, excruciating pain he bore heroically until he succumbed seventy-nine days later. The reader fully experiences his suffering. It seems that Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods, adopted across much of Europe, were scoffed at by the American medical community, which ridiculed the notion of invisible germs. For weeks, doctors continued to probe in an attempt to locate the bullet lodged within. In a fascinating subplot, a young Alexander Graham Bell elbowed his way in with a promising new invention that although unsuccessful in this case became prototype for the first metal detector. The nation grew fixated on daily updates to the president’s condition until the moment he was gone. He had been president for little more than six months, nearly half of it spent incapacitated, dying of his injuries. The tragedy of Garfield is mitigated somewhat by the saga of his successor: President Arthur astonished everyone when an unlikely letter stirred his conscience to abandon Conkling and embark on a reformist crusade.
Note: This edition came to me through an early reviewers’ program.
Note: I reviewed the Blumenthal Lincoln biography here: Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal
Review of: Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
For several days we traversed a region, which had been deserted by the occupants—being no longer worth culture—and immense thickets of young red cedars, now occupied the fields, in digging of which,
Those are the recollections of Charles Ball, an enslaved man in his mid-twenties from Maryland who was sold away from his wife and child and—wearing an iron collar shackled to a coffle with other unfortunates—was driven on foot to his new owner in Georgia in 1805. As he was marched through Virginia, the perspicacious Ball observed not only the ruin of what had once been fertile lands, but the practices that had brought these to devastation. Ball serves as a prominent witness in the extraordinary, ground-breaking work, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South , by David Silkenat, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, which probes yet one more critical yet largely ignored component of Civil War studies.
Excerpts like this one from Ball’s memoir—an invaluable primary source written many years later once he had won his freedom—also well articulate the triple themes that combine to form the thesis of Silkenet’s book: southern planters perceived land as a disposable resource and had little regard for it beyond its potential for short-term profitability; slave labor directed on a colossal scale across the wider geography dramatically and permanently altered every environment it touched; and, the masses of the enslaved were far better attuned and adapted to their respective ecosystems, which they frequently turned to for privacy, nourishment, survival—and even escape. And there is too a darker ingredient that clings to all of these themes, and that was the almost unimaginable cruelty that defined the lives of the enslaved.
The men who force-marched Ball’s coffle as if they were cattle no doubt viewed him with contempt, yet though held as chattel, the African American Charles Ball was more familiar with the past, present, and likely future of the ground he trod upon than most of his white oppressors. Frequently condemned to a lifetime of hard labor in unforgiving environments, often sustaining conditions little better than that afforded to livestock, this sophisticated intimacy of their natural surroundings could for the enslaved prove to be the only alternative to a cruel death in otherwise harsh elements. And, sometimes, it could—always at great risk—also translate into liberty.
Those who claimed ownership over their darker-complected fellow human beings were not entirely ignorant of the precarious balance of nature in the land they exploited, but they paid that little heed. Land was, after all, not only cheap but appeared to be limitless. As the Indigenous fell victim in greater numbers to European diseases, as militias drove the survivors deeper into the wilderness, as the British loss in the American Revolution removed the final barriers to westward expansion, the Chesapeake elite counted their wealth not in acreage but in human chattel. Deforestation was widespread, fostering erosion. First tobacco and later wheat sapped nutrients and strained the soil’s capacity to sustain bountiful yields over time. Well-known practices such as crop rotation, rigorously applied in the north, were largely scorned by the planter aristocracy. The land, as Ball had discerned, was rapidly used up.
Already in Jefferson’s time, “breeding” the enslaved for sale to the lower south was growing far more profitable than agriculture in the upper south. And demand increased exponentially with the introduction of the “cotton gin” and the subsequent boom in cotton production, as well as the end of the African slave trade that was to follow. Human beings became the most reliable “cash crop.” Charles Ball’s transport south was part of a trickle that grew to a multitude later dubbed the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Maryland to Louisiana and saw the involuntary migration of about a million enslaved souls in the five decades prior to the Civil War. Many, like Ball, were forced to cope with new environments unlike anything they had experienced before their forced resettlement. What did not change, apparently, was the utter disregard for these various environments by their new owners.
For those who imagined the enslaved limited to working cotton or sugar plantations, Silkenet’s book will be something of an eye-opener. In a region of the United States that with only some exceptions stubbornly remained pre-industrial, large forces of slave labor were enlisted to tame—and put to ruin—a wide variety of landscapes through extensive overexploitation that included forestry, mining, levee-building, and turpentine extraction, usually in extremely perilous conditions.
The enslaved already had to cope with an oppressive collection of unhealthy circumstances that included exposure to extreme heat, exhaustion, insects, a range of diseases including chronic ringworm, inadequate clothing, and an insufficient diet—as well as an ongoing unsanitary lifestyle that even kept them from washing their hands except on infrequent occasions. All this was further exacerbated by the demands inherent in certain kinds of more specialized work.
Enslaved “dippers” extracted turpentine from pine trees which left their “hands and clothing … smeared with the gum, which was almost impossible to remove. Dippers accumulated layers of dried sap and dirt on their skin and clothes, an accumulation that they could only effectively remove in November when the harvest ended. They also suffered from the toxic cumulative effect of inhaling turpentine fumes, which left them dizzy and their throats raw.” [p70] Mining for gold was an especially dangerous endeavor that had the additional hazard in the use of “mercury to cause gold to amalgamate … leaving concentrated amounts of the toxin in the spoil piles and mountain streams. Mercury mixed with the sulfuric acid created when deep earth soils came into contact with oxygen poisoned the watershed … Enslaved miners suffered from mercury poisoning, both from working with the liquid form with their bare hands and from inhaling fumes during distillation. Such exposure had both short- and long-term consequences, including skin irritation, numbness in the hands and feet, kidney problems, memory loss, and impaired speech, hearing, and sight.” [p24] There were dangers too for lumberjacks and levee-builders. Strangely perhaps, despite the increased risks many of the enslaved preferred to be working the mines and forests because of opportunities for limited periods of autonomy in wilder locales that would be impossible in plantation life.
In the end, mining and deforestation left the land useless for anything else. Levees, originally constructed to forestall flooding to enable rice agriculture, ended up increasing flooding, a problem that today’s New Orleans inherited from the antebellum. All these pursuits tended to lay waste to respective ecosystems, leaving just the “scars on the land” of the book’s title, but of course they also left lasting physical and psychological scars upon a workforce recruited against their will.
What was common to each and every milieu was the mutual abuse of the earth as well as those coerced to work it. Ball mused that the quotient for cruelty towards those who toiled the land seemed roughly similar to the degree that the land was ravaged. Indeed, cruelty abounds: the inhumanity that actually defines the otherwise euphemistically rendered “peculiar institution” stands stark throughout the narrative, supported by a wide range of accounts of those too often condemned to lives beset by a quotidian catalog of horrors as chattel property in a system marked by nearly inconceivable brutality.
Beatings and whippings were standard fare. Runaways, even those who intended to absent themselves only temporarily, were treated with singular harshness. Sallie Smith, a fourteen-year-old girl who went truant in the woods to avoid repeated abuse, was apprehended and “brutally tortured: suspended by ropes in a smoke house so that her toes barely touched the ground and then rolled across the plantation inside a nail-studded barrel, leaving her scarred and bruised.” [p78]
Slaveowners also commonly employed savage hunting dogs or bloodhounds that were specially trained to track runaways, which sometimes led to the maiming or even death of the enslaved:
“One enraged slave owner ‘hunted and caught’ a fugitive ‘with bloodhounds, and allowed the dogs to kill him. Then he cut his body up and fed the fragments to the hounds.’ Most slave owners sought to capture their runaway slaves alive; but unleashed bloodhounds could inflict serious wounds in minutes … Some masters saw the violence done by dogs as part of the punishment due to rebellious slaves. Over the course of ten weeks in 1845, Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary three occasions when bloodhounds attacked runaway slaves. First, they caught a runaway named Ginny Jerry, who sought refuge in the branches before the ‘negro hunters … made the dogs pull him out of the tree, Bit him very badly’ … Second, a few weeks later, while pursuing another truant, Barrow ‘came across Williams runaway,’ who found himself cornered by bloodhounds, and the ‘Dogs nearly et his legs off—near killing him.’ Finally, an unnamed third runaway managed to elude the hounds for half a mile before the ‘dogs soon tore him naked.’ When he returned to the plantation, Barrow ‘made the dogs give him another overhauling’ in front of the assembled enslaved community as a deterrent. Although Barrow may have taken unusual pleasure in watching dogs attack runaway slaves, his diary reveals that slave owners used dogs to track fugitives and torture them.” [p52-53]
That such practices were treated as unremarkable by white contemporaries finds a later echo in the routine bureaucracy of atrocities that the Nazis inflicted on Jews sent to forced labor camps. For his part, Silkenat reports episodes like these dispassionately, in what appears to be a deliberate effort on the author’s part to sidestep sensationalism. This technique is effective: hyperbolic editorial is unnecessary—the horror speaks for itself—and those well-read in the field are aware that such barbarity was hardly uncommon. Moreover, it serves as a robust rebuke to today’s “Lost Cause” enthusiasts who would cast slavery as benign or even benevolent, as well as to those promoting recent disturbing trends to reshape school curricula to minimize and even sugarcoat the awful realities that history reveals. (Sidenote to Florida’s Board of Education: exactly which skills did Sallie Smith in her nail-studded barrel, or those disfigured by ferocious dogs, develop that later could be used for their “personal benefit?”)
I first encountered the author and his book quite by accident. I was attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College2, and David Silkenat was
Silkenet’s lecture took an especially compelling turn when he spoke at length of maroon communities of runaways who sought sanctuary in isolated locations that could be far too hostile to foster recapture even by slave hunters with vicious dogs. One popular refuge was the swamp, especially unwholesome but yet out of reach of the lash, another underscore by the author that enslaved blacks by virtue of necessity grew capable of living off the land—every kind of land, no matter how harsh—with a kind of adaptation out of reach to their white oppressors. Swamps tended to be inhospitable, given to fetid water populated with invisible pathogens, masses of biting and stinging insects, poisonous snakes, alligators, and even creatures such as panthers and bears that that had gone extinct elsewhere. But for the desperate it meant freedom.
A number of maroon communities appeared in secluded geographies that were populated by escapees mostly on the margins of settled areas, with inhabitants eking out a living by hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming, supplemented by surreptitious trading with the outside world. The largest was in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, where thousands managed to thrive over multiple generations.
But not all flourished. In Scars on the Land, Silkenat repeats Ball’s tragic tale of coming upon a naked and dirty fugitive named Paul, an African survivor of the Middle Passage who had fled a beating to the swamp. On his neck, he wore a heavy iron collar that was fastened with bells to help discourage escape. Ball assisted him as best he could clandestinely, but could not remove the collar. When he returned a week later to offer additional assistance, his nostrils traced a rancid smell to the hapless Paul, a suicide, hanging by his neck from a tree, crows pecking at his eyes. 3 [p124]
1Charles Ball. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War. (NY: John S. Taylor, 1837) Slavery in the United States
2 For more about the CWI Summer Conference at Gettysburg College see: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024
3The illustration of Paul hanging from a tree appears alongside Ball’s narrative in this publication: Nathaniel Southard, ed. The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838, Vol I, Nr 3, The American Anti-Slavery Society, (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 13, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838
Note: I reviewed this book about a well-known maroon community here: Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin
Review of: Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Most people only know of Harpers Ferry as the town in present day West Virginia where John Brown, a zealous if mercurial abolitionist, set out to launch an ill-fated slave insurrection by seizing the national armory located
Those in the know will also point out that the man in overall command when they took Brown down was Colonel Robert E. Lee, and that his aide-de-camp was J. E. B. Stuart. And perhaps to underscore the outrageous twists of fate history is known to fashion for us, they might add that present for Brown’s later execution were Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, and even Edmund Ruffin, the notable Fire-eater who was among the first to fire actual rather than metaphorical shots at Sumter in 1861. You can’t make this stuff up.
But it turns out that John Brown’s Raid in 1859 represents only a small portion of the Civil War history that clings to Harpers Ferry, perhaps the most quintessential border town of the day, which changed hands no less than eight times between 1861 and 1865. Both sides took turns destroying the successively rebuilt Baltimore & Ohio bridge—the only railroad bridge connecting northern and southern states across the Potomac. Harpers Ferry was integral to Lee’s invasion of Maryland that ended at Antietam, and had a supporting role at the outskirts of the Gettysburg campaign, as well as in Jubal Early’s aborted march on Washington. There’s much more, and perhaps the finest source for the best immersion in the big picture would be Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War , by the award-winning retired National Park Service Historian Dennis E. Frye, who spent some three decades of his career at Harpers Ferry National Park. Frye is a talented writer, the narrative is fascinating, and this volume is further enhanced by lavish illustrations, period photographs, and maps. Even better, while the book is clearly aimed towards a popular audience, it rigorously adheres to strict standards of scholarship in presentation, interpretation, and analysis.
West Virginia has the distinction of being the only state to secede from another state, as its Unionist sympathies took issue with Virginia’s secession from the United States. But it had been a long time coming. The hardscrabble farmers in the west had little in common with the wealthy elite slaveholding planter aristocracy that dominated the state’s government. This is not to say those to the west of Richmond were any less racist than the rest of the south, or much of the antislavery north for that matter; it was a nation then firmly based upon principles of white supremacy. For Virginia and its southern allies, the conflict hinged on their perceived right to spread slavery to the vast territories seized from Mexico in recent years. For the north, it was about free soil for white men and for Union. West Virginia went with Union. But back then, when John Brown took his crusade to free the enslaved to Harpers Ferry, it was still part of Virginia, and while some residents might have feared for the worst, most Americans could not have dreamed of the scale of bloodletting that was just around the corner, nor that the cause of emancipation—John Brown’s cause—would one day also become inextricably entwined with the preservation of the Union.
Harpers Ferry is most notable for its dramatic topography, which has nothing to do with its armory and arsenal—the object of Brown’s raid—but everything to do with its persistent pain at the very edge of Civil War. Strategically situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where today the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet, the town proper is surrounded on three sides by the high grounds at Bolivar Heights to the west, Loudoun Heights to the south, and Maryland Heights to the east that define its geography and the challenges facing both attackers and defenders. It is immediately clear to even the most amateur tactician that the town is indefensible without control of the heights.
I was drawn to Harpers Ferry Under Fire by design. I had already registered for the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and selected Harpers Ferry National Historic Park as one of my battlefield tours. While I have visited Antietam and Gettysburg on multiple occasions, somehow I had never made it to Harpers Ferry. These CWI conference tours are typically quite competitive, so I was pleased when I learned that I had won a seat on the bus. And not only that—the tour guide was to be none other than Dennis Frye himself! I have met Dennis before, at other Civil War events, including a weekend at Chambersburg some years ago with the late, legendary Ed Bearss. Like Ed, Dennis is very sharp, with an encyclopedic knowledge of people and events. I assigned myself his book as homework.
The original itinerary was scheduled to include a morning tour of the town, designated as the Harpers Ferry Historic District—which hosts John Brown’s Fort as well as many restored nineteenth century buildings that have been converted into museums—and an afternoon tour focused on the battles and the heights. Inclement weather threatened, so Dennis mixed it up and had us visit the heights first. In retrospect, in my opinion, this turned out to have been the better approach anyway, because when you stand on the heights and look down upon the town proper below, you understand instantly the strategic implications from a military standpoint. Later, walking the streets of the hamlet and looking up at those heights, you can fully imagine the terror of the citizens there during the war years, completely at the mercy of whatever side controlled that higher ground.
The most famous example of that was when, during Lee’s Antietam campaign, he sought to protect his supply line by splitting his forces and
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the Fort, where John Brown’s raid ended in disaster, ten of his men killed, including two of his sons, and the badly wounded Brown captured, along with a handful of survivors. The original structure, which served as the Armory’s fire engine and guard house, was later dismantled, moved out of state and rebuilt, then dismantled again and eventually re-erected not far from the location where Brown and his men sought refuge that day, before it was stormed by the militia. It is open to the public. Walking around and within it today, there is an omnipresent eerie feeling. Whatever Brown’s personal flaws—and those were manifold—he went to Harpers Ferry on a sort of holy quest and was martyred for it. The final words he scribbled down in his prison cell—”I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”—rang in my ears as I trod upon that sacred ground.
If you are a Civil War buff, you must visit Harpers Ferry. Frye himself is retired, but if you can somehow arrange to get a tour of the park with this man, jump on the chance. Failing that, read Harpers Ferry Under Fire, for it will enhance your understanding of what occurred there, and through the text the authoritative voice of Dennis Frye will speak to you.
A link to Harpers Ferry National Park is here: Harpers Ferry National Park
More on the CWI Summer Conference is here: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024
NOTE: Except for the cover art, all photos featured here were taken by Stan Prager
Review of: The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, by Katharine Hepburn
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
One of my favorite small venues for an intimate, unique concert experience is The Kate—short for The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center—in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a 285-seat theater with outstanding acoustics that
Hepburn was a little girl when she first stayed at her affluent family’s summer home in the tony Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, just a year after the opening of the then newly constructed Town Hall that today bears her name. She later dubbed the area “paradise,”
Now, full disclosure: I am a huge Bogie fan (my wife less so!). I recently read and reviewed the thick biography Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax, and in the process screened twenty of his films in roughly chronological order. My wife sat in on some of these, including The African Queen, certainly her favorite of the bunch. If I had to pick five of the finest Bogie films of all time, that would certainly make the list. Often denied the recognition that was his due, he won his sole Oscar for his role here. A magnificent performer, in this case Bogart benefited not only from his repeat collaboration with the immensely talented director John Huston, but also by starring opposite the inimitable Kate Hepburn.
Hepburn’s book, The Making of the African Queen, showed up under the tree last Christmas morning—the original hardcover first edition, for that matter—and I basically inhaled it over the next couple of days. It’s an easy read. Hepburn gets the byline but it’s clear pretty early on that the “narrative” is actually comprised of excerpts from interviews she sat for, strung together to give the appearance of a book-length chronicle. But no matter. Those familiar with Kate’s distinctive voice and the cadence of her signature Transatlantic accent will start to hear her pronouncing each syllable of the text in your head as you go along. That quality is comforting. But it is nevertheless plagued by features that should make you crazy: it’s anecdotal, it’s uneven, it’s conversational, it’s meandering, and maddingly it reveals only what Hepburn is willing to share. In short, if this were any other book about any other subject related by any other person, you would grow not only annoyed but fully exasperated. But somehow, unexpectedly, it turns out to be nothing less than a delight!
If The African Queen is a cinema adventure, aspects of the film production were a real-life one. Unusual for its time, bulky Technicolor cameras were transported to on-location shoots in Uganda and Congo, nations today that then were still under colonial rule. The heat was oppressive, and danger seemed to lurk everywhere, but fears of lions and crocodiles were trumped by smaller but fiercer army ants and mosquitoes, a host of water-borne pathogens, as well as an existential horror of leeches. Tough guy Bogie was miserable from start to finish, but Hepburn reveled in the moment, savoring the exotic flora and fauna, and bursting with excitement. Still, almost everyone—including Kate—fell terribly ill at least some of the time with dysentery and a variety of other jungle maladies. At one point Hepburn was vomiting between takes into a bucket placed off-screen. The running joke was that the only two who never got sick were Bogie and director Huston, because they eschewed the local water and only drank Scotch!
Huston went to Africa hoping to “out-Hemingway” Hemingway in big game hunting, but his safari chasing herds of elephants turned into a lone antelope instead. He seemed to do better with Kate. The book does not openly admit to an affair, but the intimacy between them leaps off the page. Hepburn proves affable through every paragraph, although sometimes less than heroic. Readers will wince when upon first arrival in Africa she instantly flies into a fit of rage that has her evict a staff member from an assigned hotel room that to her mind rightly should belong to a VIP of her caliber! And while she is especially kind, almost to a fault, to every African recruited to serve her in various capacities, there is a patronizing tone in her recollections that can’t help but make us a bit uncomfortable today. Still, you cannot detect even a hint of racism. You get the feeling that she genuinely liked people of all stations of life, but could be unrepentantly condescending towards those who did not, like her, walk among the stars. Yet, warts and all—and these are certainly apparent—Kate comes off today, long after her passing, as likeable as she did to those who knew her in her times. And what times those must have been!
A link to The Kate: The Kate
A link to the The African Queen on IMDB: IMDB: The African Queen
My review of the Bogart bio: Review of: Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax
NOTE: My top five Bogie films: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny—but there are so many, it’s difficult to choose…