Review of: The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean

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 sides, perhaps another 50,000 civilians, and total casualties including those wounded and missing are said to exceed 1.5 million. We have been told that the trenches around Petersburg and Sherman’s “hard war” anticipated World War I, but Civil War casualties are dwarfed by that carnage that claimed some 20 million lives, almost evenly split between military and civilian, not including another 21 million wounded, just a half century later. China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) left 20 million dead, as well. That is not to minimize the suffering and death that characterized what was indeed America’s bloodiest war, but rather to put it in its appropriate context. Which then begs asking: why was it yet not bloodier still?

Acclaimed historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean ponders just that in his magnificent, ground-breaking work, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War [2018], 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.

George Caleb Bingham’s depiction of the execution of  General Order No. 11

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 testament to the author’s brilliance as a thinker and talents as a writer that a tome so weighty with concepts of political philosophy and legal theory never once turns to slog. In truth, I could not put it down! Moreover, it is an important work of Civil War history that manages to cut its own indelible groove in the historiography. And, finally, by highlighting how restraint was pivotal to checking the potential for even greater bloodletting, Sheehan-Dean has managed to achieve something perhaps once deemed impossible by casting a glow of unexpected optimism around the tragedy that was the American Civil War. It is no wonder that The Calculus of Violence has been selected as the book of the Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference 2024. I not only highly recommend this superb work, but I would urge it as  an essential read for any student of Civil War history.

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

I first encountered James A. Garfield in the course of my boyhood enthusiasm for philately with a colorful six-cent mint specimen, part of the 1922 series of definitive stamps dominated by images of American presidents. There was Garfield, an immense head in profile sporting a massive beard, encased in a protective mount on a decorative album page. I admired the stamp, even if I paid little mind to the figure it portrayed, just one of a number of undistinguished bearded or bewhiskered faces in the series. Except for the orange pigment of his portrait, he was otherwise colorless.

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 General Garfield in Civil War studies. And I was vaguely familiar with the fact that like Lincoln he was both born in a log cabin and murdered by an assassin, but he was in office for only a matter of months. I could recite from memory every American president in chronological order, and tell you something about each—but not very much about Garfield.

So it was that I came to President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier [2023], 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 first into Ohio’s Hiram College and then Williams College in Massachusetts, later returning in triumph to Hiram as its principal. He then entered politics as a member of the Ohio state legislature, until the outbreak of the Civil War found him with a colonel’s commission, fired by a passion for abolition to oppose the slave power. He demonstrated courage and acumen on the battlefield, and was promoted first to brigadier general, and then—after service in campaigns at Shiloh and Chickamauga—to major general. He left the army in 1863 and embarked on a career as Republican congressman that lasted almost two decades, until he won election as president of the United States. In the meantime, he also found time to practice law and publish a mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem. With a life like that, how is it that the living Garfield seems so lifeless?

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.

While faults can be found, ultimately the author redeems himself and his work. The best does lie in the final third of the volume, which because of content and style is far more fast-paced and satisfying than that which precedes it, but that earlier material nevertheless sustains the entirety. Yes, those readers less acquainted than this reviewer with the Civil War and Reconstruction will at times have a tougher hill to climb placing Garfield’s life in appropriate context, but the careful study and trenchant analysis of the forces in play in Republican politics leading up to the 1880 nomination, as well as the underscore to the significance of a brief presidency too often overlooked, without doubt distinguishes Goodyear as a fine writer, researcher, and historian. President Garfield represents an important contribution to the historiography, and likely will be seen as the definitive biography for some time to come. As stamp values plummeted, I long ago liquidated my collection for pennies on the dollar, so I no longer own that six-cent Garfield, but now, thanks to Goodyear, I can boast a deeper understanding of the man’s life and his legacy.

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

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, thousands of wretched slaves had worn out their lives in the service of merciless masters … It had originally been highly fertile and productive, and had it been properly treated, would doubtlessly have continued to yield abundant and prolific crops; but the gentlemen who became the early proprietors of this fine region, supplied themselves with slaves from Africa, cleared large plantations of many thousands of acres—cultivated tobacco—and became suddenly wealthy … they valued their lands less than their slaves, exhausted the kindly soil by unremitting crops of tobacco, declined in their circumstances, and finally grew poor, upon the very fields that had formerly made their possessors rich; abandoned one portion after another, as not worth planting any longer, and, pinched by necessity, at last sold their slaves to Georgian planters, to procure a subsistence … and when all was gone, took refuge in the wilds of Kentucky, again to act the same melancholy drama, leaving their native land to desolation and poverty … Virginia has become poor by the folly and wickedness of slavery, and dearly has she paid for the anguish and sufferings she has inflicted upon our injured, degraded, and fallen race.1

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 [2022], 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 one of the scheduled speakers for a particular presentation—“Slavery and the Environment in the American South”—that I nearly skipped because I worried it might be dull. As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong. I sat at rapt attention during the talk, then purchased the book immediately afterward.

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]

Scars on the Land is directed at a scholarly audience, yet it is so well-written that any student of the Civil War and African American history will find it both accessible and engaging. But more importantly, in a genre that now boasts an inventory of more than 60,000 works, it is no small distinction to pronounce Silkenet’s book a significant contribution to the historiography that should be a required read for everyone with an interest in the field.


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

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 there, an attempt which was completely crushed, sending John Brown to the gallows and his body “a-mouldering” in the grave shortly thereafter. Those more familiar with the antebellum are aware that many historians consider that event to be the opening salvo of the Civil War, as hyper-paranoid southern planters—who no longer as in Jefferson’s day bemoaned the burden and the guilt of their “peculiar institution,” but instead championed human chattel slavery as the most perfect system ever ordained by the Almighty—imagined the mostly anti-slavery north as a hostile belligerency intent to deprive them of their property rights and to actively incite the enslaved to murder them in their sleep. Brown was hanged seventeen months prior to the assault on Fort Sumter, but some have suggested that first cannonball was loosed at his ghost.

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 [2012], 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 sending Stonewall Jackson to seize Harpers Ferry. Jackson’s victory there proved brilliant and decisive, a devastating federal capitulation that turned more than twelve thousand Union troops over to the rebels—the largest surrender of United States military personnel until the Battle of Bataan eighty years afterward! This event is covered in depth in Harpers Ferry Under Fire, but given Dennis Frye’s passion for history, the story proved to be a great deal more compelling when gathered with a group of fellow Civil War afficionados on Bolivar Heights, spectacular views of the Potomac River and the Cumberland Gap before us, while Dennis rocked on his heels, pumped his arms in the air, and let his voice boom with the drama and excitement of those events so very long past. While Dennis lectured, gesturing wildly, I think all of us, if only for an instant, were transported back to 1862, gazing down from the heights at the tiny town below through the eyes of a common soldier, garbed in blue or gray. The remainder of the day’s tour, including John Brown’s Fort and the town’s environs, was a superlative experience, but it was that stirring moment on Bolivar Heights that will remain with me for many years to come.

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

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 hosts multi-genre entertainment in a historic building dating back to 1911 that once served as both theater and Town Hall. In 2013, my wife and I had the great pleasure of seeing Jefferson Airplane alum Marty Balin rock out at The Kate. More recently, we swayed in our seats to the cool Delta blues of Tab Benoit. On each occasion, prior to the show, we explored the photographs and memorabilia on display in the Katharine Hepburn Museum on the lower level, dedicated to the life and achievements of an iconic individual who was certainly one of greatest actors of her generation.

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,” returning frequently over the course of her long life and eventually retiring to her mansion in Fenwick overlooking the water, where she spent her final years until her death at 96 in 2003. The newly restored performing arts center named in her honor opened six years later, with the blessings of the Hepburn family and her estate.

One of the eye-catching attractions in the museum includes an exhibit behind glass showcasing Hepburn’s performance with co-star Humphrey Bogart in the celebrated 1951 film, The African Queen, that features a copy of the 1987 memoir credited to her whimsically entitled The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind. I turned to my wife and asked her to add this book to my Christmas list.

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.

For those who are unfamiliar with the film (what planet are you from?), The African Queen, based on the C. S. Forester novel of the same name, is the story of the unlikely alliance and later romantic relationship between the staid, puritanical British missionary and “spinster” (a term suitable to the times) Rose Sayers (Hepburn) and the gin-soaked Canadian Charlie Allnut (Bogart), skipper of the riverboat African Queen, set in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) at the outbreak of World War I. After aggression by German forces leaves Rose stranded, she is taken onboard by Allnut. In a classic journey motif that brilliantly courts elements of drama, adventure, comedy, and romance, the film follows this mismatched duo as they conspire to arm the African Queen with explosives and pilot it on a mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Those who watch the movie for the first time will be especially struck by the superlative performances of both Bogie and Hepburn, two middle-aged stars who not only complement one another beautifully but turn out an unexpected on-screen chemistry that has the audience emotionally involved, rooting for their romance and their cause. It is a tribute to their mutual talents that the two successfully communicated palpable on-screen passion to audiences of the time who must have been struck by the stark disparity between the movie posters depicting Bogie as a muscular he-man and Hepburn as a kind of Rita Hayworth twin—something neither the scrawny Bogart nor the aging Hepburn live up to in the Technicolor print. But even more so because those same 1951 audiences were well acquainted with the real-life 51-year-old Bogart’s marriage to the beautiful 27-year-old starlet Lauren (real name Betty) Bacall, born of an on-set romance when she was just 19.

Katharine Hepburn had a long career in Hollywood marked by dramatic ebbs and flows. While she was nominated for an Academy Award twelve times and set a record for winning the Best Actress Oscar four times, more than once her star power waned, and at one point she was even widely considered “box office poison.” Her offscreen persona was both unconventional and eccentric. She defied contemporary expectations of how a woman and a movie star should behave: shunning celebrity, sparring with the press, expressing unpopular political opinions, wearing trousers at a time that was unacceptable for ladies, fiercely guarding her privacy, and stubbornly clinging to an independent lifestyle. She was pilloried as boyish, and accused of lesbianism at a time when that was a vicious expletive, but she evolved into a twentieth century cultural icon. Divorced at a young age, she once dated Howard Hughes, but spent nearly three decades in a relationship with the married, alcoholic Spencer Tracy, with whom she costarred in nine films. Rumors of liaisons with other women still linger. Perhaps no other female figure cut a groove in Hollywood as deep as Kate Hepburn did.

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!This book is pure entertainment, with the added bonus of forty-five wonderful behind-the-scenes photographs that readers may linger upon far longer than the pages of text. For those who loved the film as I do, the candid moments that are captured of Bogie, Hepburn, and Huston are precious relics of classic Hollywood that stir the heart and the soul. If you are a fan, carve out the time and read The Making of the African Queen. But more importantly, screen The African Queen again. Then you will truly know what I mean.

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…

Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin

In yet another fortuitous connection to my attendance at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, I sat in on an enlightening presentation by the historian David Silkenat1 on the environmental history of slavery in the American south that turned to a discussion of the frequently overlooked phenomenon of communities in secluded geographies that were populated by runaways who fled enslavement. These so-called “maroon communities” appeared mostly on the margins of settled areas across the upper and lower south, sometimes in tandem with the indigenous, with inhabitants eking out a living by hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming, supplemented by limited and surreptitious trading with the outside world. The origin of some of these maroon societies can be traced back to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, when the British offered freedom to the enslaved if they were willing to serve in the military. Many jumped at the chance. On both occasions, when hostilities concluded, those who were unable or unwilling to withdraw with British forces went into hiding to avoid recapture and a return to slavery. One such refuge in the Spanish Floridas became known as the “Negro Fort.”

My next out of state trip subsequent to Gettysburg brought me to a small town in southern Vermont that one lazy afternoon found me exploring a used bookstore—housed in, of all places, a yurt2—where I stumbled upon The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community [2019], by Matthew J. Clavin. Silkenet’s fascinating talk about maroons rang in my head as I bought the book, and I started reading it that very day.

Southern planters often held competing, contradictory notions in their heads simultaneously, while sidestepping the cognitive dissonance that practice should have provoked. On the one hand, they deluded themselves that their enslaved “property” were content in their condition of servitude. At the same time, they held them inferior in every sense and thought them nearly helpless, unable to successfully function independently. Slaveowners also dismissed the idea that African Americans could possibly make good soldiers, even though they did manage to fight on both sides during the Revolution. On the other hand, whites nursed a deep visceral fear of slave uprisings by armed blacks, whom despite their apparent contentment and incompetence might somehow team up and murder them in their sleep.

This heavy load of contradictions got hoisted menacingly above them to cast an ever-lengthening shadow when numbers of escaped slaves recruited into service by the British in what was then the Spanish colony of East Florida during the War of 1812 opted to remain behind after the Treaty of Ghent in a military fortification on Prospect Bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River heavily stocked with cannon and munitions and bolstered with support from allied Native Americans. These were not handfuls of fugitives out of reach in an unknown, inaccessible swamp somewhere, like most maroon settlements; this was a prominent, fully equipped, self-sustaining, armed camp, which even had the temerity to continue to fly the Union Jack—the so-called “Negro Fort.” This was an invitation to fellow runaways. This was not only a challenge to the white man’s “peculiar institution,” this was a thumbing of the nose to the entire planter mentality. This was an unacceptable threat. They could not bear it; they would not bear it.

In The Battle of Negro Fort, Clavin, Professor of History at University of Houston, deftly explores not only the origin of this community and its eventual annihilation through the machinations of then General Andrew Jackson, quietly countenanced by the federal government, but places the fort and its destruction in its appropriate context by opening a wider lens upon the entire era. This was a surprisingly significant moment in American history that for too long fell victim to superficial treatments that overlooked the significance of the multiplicity of forces in play, a neglect much more recently remedied by Pulitzer Prize winning scholar Alan Taylor, whose body of work points not only to the far greater complexities attached to the War of 1812 that have usually remained unacknowledged, but also identifies the broader consequences that rose out of the series of conflicts Taylor collectively terms the “Wars of the 1810s.” Taylor’s brilliant American Republics3 specifically cites actions against the Negro Fort, and connects that to a series of events that included the First Seminole War, sparked by attempts to recapture runaway blacks living among Native Americans, and finally to Spain’s relinquishing of the Floridas to the United States. While never losing focus on the fort itself, Clavin too walks skillfully in this larger arena that hosts war, diplomacy, indigenous tribes pitted against each other, related maroon communities, as well as overriding issues of enslavement and the predominance of white supremacy.

The Battle of Negro Fort is very well-written, but it takes on an academic tone that makes it more accessible to a scholarly than a popular audience. But it is hardly dull, so those comfortable in the realm of historical studies will be undeterred. And it is, after all, a stirring tale that leads to a dramatic and tragic end. Just as the Venetians blew up the Parthenon in 1687 by scoring a hit on the gunpowder the Turks had stored there, a gunboat’s cannonball struck the powder magazine located in the center of the fort, which exploded spectacularly and obliterated the structure. Scores (or hundreds, depending upon the source) were killed, the leaders who survived executed, and those who failed to make their escape returned to slavery.

The author’s thesis underscores that the chief motive for the assault on the Negro Fort by Jackson’s agents in 1816 was to advance white supremacy rather than as part of a greater strategy to dominate the Floridas, which strikes as perhaps somewhat overstated. Still, Clavin cites later antebellum abolitionists who reference the Negro Fort with specificity in this regard, so he may very well have a point. In any case, this contribution to the historiography proves a worthy addition to the literature and an understanding of this less well-known period of early American history will be significantly enhanced by adding it to your reading list.

1Note: David Silkenat is the author of Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South.

2The used bookstore in the yurt is West End Used Books in Wilmington, VT

3Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor book here:  Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor





Review of: Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, by Megan Kate Nelson

As a child, one cartoon that habitually had me glued to our black and white TV set was the Yogi Bear Show, which spun a recurring comedic yarn starring that eponymous suave if mischievous anthropomorphic bear and his best bud Boo-Boo who routinely sparred with a ranger as they poached picnic baskets. It was set in Jellystone Park, a thinly veiled animated rendering of Yellowstone National Park. As I grew older, I wondered what it would be like to check out the natural wonders of the real Yellowstone, but many decades later it yet remains an unfulfilled checkbox on a long bucket list. Other than passing views of documentaries that splashed spectacular images of waterfalls, geysers, and herds of bison across my 4K screen, I rarely gave the park a second thought.

So it was while attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College that I learned with no little surprise that there was to be a scheduled segment on Yellowstone. I was puzzled; beyond the scenic imagery recalled from episodes of Nat Geo, what little I knew about Yellowstone was that it was established as our first national park in 1872—seven years after Lee’s surrender! What could this possibly have to do with the Civil War?

Fortunately, I got a clue at the conference’s opening night ice cream social when I was by chance introduced to Megan Kate Nelson, author of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America [2022], who was slated to give that very presentation. As we chatted, Megan Kate—almost nonchalantly—made the bold statement that without the Civil War there never could have been a Yellowstone Park. Agnostic but intrigued, I sat in the audience a couple of days later for her talk, which turned out to be both engaging and persuasive. I purchased her book along with a stack of others at the conference, and it turned out to be my first read when I got home.

History is too frequently rendered in a vacuum, often isolated from the competing forces that shape it, which not only ignores key context but in the process distorts interpretation. In contrast, and hardly always immediately apparent, every historical experience is to some degree or another the consequence of its relationship to a variety of other less-than-obvious factors, such as climate, the environment, the prevalence of various flora and fauna (as well as pathogens), resources, trade networks, and sometimes the movements of peoples hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It is so rewarding to stumble upon a historian who not only identifies these kinds of wider forces in play but capitalizes upon their existence to turn out a stunning work of scholarship. In Saving Yellowstone, Megan Kate Nelson brilliantly locates a confluence of events, ideas, and individuals that characterize a unique moment in American history.

The Civil War was over. The fate of the disputed territories—the ill-begotten gains of the Mexican War that sparked secession when the south’s slave power was, by Lincoln’s election, stymied in their resolve to spread their so-called “peculiar institution” westward—had been settled: the Union had been preserved, slavery had been outlawed, and these would remain federal lands preserved for white free-soil settlement. This translated into immense opportunities for postwar Americans who pushed west towards what seemed like a limitless horizon of vast if barely explored open spaces, chasing opportunities in land or commerce or perhaps even a fortune in precious metals buried in the ground. Those in the way would be displaced: if not invisible, the Native Americans who had occupied these places for centuries were irrelevant, stubborn obstacles that could be either bought off or relocated or exterminated. Lakota Sioux chief Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, also known as Sitting Bull, would have something to say about that.

Ulysses S. Grant, the general who had humbled Lee at Appomattox, was now the President of the United States, and remained committed to a Reconstruction that was on shaky ground largely due to the disastrous administration of his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, who had allowed elites of the former Confederacy to regain political power and trample upon the newly won rights of the formerly enslaved. The emerging reality was looking much like the south had lost the war but somehow won the peace, as rebels were returned to elective office while African Americans were routinely terrorized and murdered. Postwar demilitarization left a shrunken force of uniforms stretched very thin, who could either protect blacks from racist violence or white settlers encroaching on Native lands—but could not do both.

Meanwhile, the landscape was being transformed by towns that seemed to spring up everywhere, many connected by the telegraph and within the orbit of transcontinental railroads that would perhaps one day include the Northern Pacific Railway, a kind of vanity project of millionaire financier Jay Cooke that nearly destroyed him. All of this sparked frenetic activities that centered upon exploration, bringing trailblazers and surveyors and scientists and artists and photographers west to determine exactly what was there and what use could be made of it. One of these men was geologist Ferdinand Hayden, who led a handpicked team on a federally funded geological survey to the wilderness of the Yellowstone Basin in 1871 and charted a course that led, only one short year later, to its designation as America’s first national park.

More than six hundred thousand years ago, a massive super volcano erupted and begat the Yellowstone Caldera and its underlying magma body that produces the extreme high temperatures that power the hydrothermal features it is well known for, including hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, and more than three hundred geysers! Reports of phenomena like these preceded Hayden’s expedition, but most were chalked up to tall tales. Hayden sought to map the expanse and to separate truth from fantasy. Unlike white men on a quest of discovery, of course, there was nothing new about Yellowstone to neighboring Native Americans, who had inhabited the region into the deep mists of time.

The best crafted biographies employ a central protagonist to not only tell their story but also to immerse the reader in a grand narrative that reveals not only the subject but the age in which they walked the earth. Nelson’s technique here, deftly executed, is to likewise write a kind of biography of Yellowstone that lets it serve as the central protagonist amid a much larger cast in a rich chronicle of this unique historical moment. A moment for the United States, no longer debased by the burden of human chattel slavery, that on the one hand had it celebrating ambitious achievements on an expanding frontier that boasted not only thriving towns and cities and industry and invention but even the remarkable triumph of posterity over profit by creating a national park and setting it aside for the benefit of all Americans. But not, on the other hand, actually for all Americans. Not for Native Americans, certainly, who at the point of the bayonet were driven away, into decades of decline. And not for African Americans, who in the national reconciliation of whites found themselves essentially erased from history and forced to live under the shadow of Jim Crow for a full century hence. Later, when the “West was Won” so to speak, both blacks and Native Americans could very well visit Yellowstone Park as tourists, but never on the same terms as their white counterparts.

Saving Yellowstone is solid history as well as a terrific adventure tale, attractive to both popular and scholarly audiences. There are times, especially early on in the narrative, that it can be slow-going, and the quantity of characters that people the storyline can be dizzying, but as the author lays the groundwork the momentum picks up. You can perhaps sense that Nelson, as a careful historian, is perhaps sometimes holding back so that the drama does not outpace her citations. But it is, after all, a grand theme, and such details only enrich it. This is the rare book that will keeping you thinking long after you have turned the last page. Oh, and for Civil War enthusiasts, I should add: it turns out that Megan Kate was absolutely correct—for both better and for worse, without the Civil War there indeed never could have been a Yellowstone Park!

Review of: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton

In 2016, Jack Lew, President Obama’s treasury secretary, announced a redesign of the twenty-dollar bill that would feature on its front a likeness of Harriet Tubman, arguably the most significant African American female of the Civil War era, while displacing Andrew Jackson, who not only owned slaves but championed the institution of human chattel slavery, and was likewise a driving force behind the Indian Removal Act, one of the most shameful episodes in our national saga. Immediate controversy ensued, which was ratcheted up when Donald Trump stepped into the White House. Many have correctly styled Trump as having almost no sense of history, but he did seem to have had a kind of boyhood crush on Jackson, who like Trump did whatever he liked with little regard for the consequences to others, especially the weak and powerless. Trump relocated a portrait of Jackson to a position of prominence in the Oval Office, and his new treasury secretary postponed the currency redesign, almost certainly an echo of Trump’s campaign grievance that putting Tubman on the bill was nothing but “pure political correctness.” Meanwhile, resistance on the left grew, as well, as many pointed to the disrespect of putting the face of one who was formerly enslaved on legal tender that is a direct descendant of that once used to buy and sell human beings. Then there is the paradox in the redesign that puts Tubman on the obverse while maintaining Jackson’s presence on the reverse side of the bill, perhaps reflecting with a dose of disturbing irony the glaring sense of polarization that manifests the national character these days, much as it did in Tubman’s time. Still, the Biden Administration has pledged to accelerate the pace of issuing the new currency, but there remains no sign that anyone will be buying groceries with Tubman twenties anytime soon. We can only imagine what Harriet Tubman, who was illiterate and lived most of her life in poverty, would make of all this!

A dozen years before all this hoopla over who will adorn the paper money, acclaimed historian Catherine Clinton published Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom [2004], a well-written, engaging study that turns out to be one of a string of books on Tubman to hit the press nearly at the same—the others are by Kate Larson and Jean Humez—which collectively represented the first scholarly biographies of her life in more than six decades. (There have since been additional contributions to the historiography.) Surprisingly, Tubman proves a tough subject to chronicle: a truly larger-than-life heroic figure who can be credited with verifiable exploits to free the enslaved both before and during the Civil War—admirers nicknamed her “Moses” for her role in spiriting fugitives to freedom, and she was later dubbed “General” by John Brown—her achievements have also long been distorted by myth and embellishment, something nourished early on by a subjective biography of sorts by her friend Sarah Bradford that is said to play loose with facts and events. Then there is the challenge in fashioning an accurate account of someone who spent much of her consequential years living in the shadows, both by the circumstance of anonymity imposed by her condition of enslavement, as well as the deliberate effort to wear a mask of invisibility by one operating outside the law where the penalty for detection would be a return to slavery or, much more likely, death. For the historian, that translates into a delicate—and precarious—balancing act.

Clinton’s approach is to recreate Tubman’s life as close to the colorful adventure it certainly was, without falling victim to sensationalism. She relies on scholarship to sketch the skeletal framework for Tubman’s life, then turns to a variety of sources and reports to put flesh upon it, sharing with the reader when she resorts to surmise to shade aspects of the complexion.  In this effort, she largely succeeds.

Born Araminta Ross in Maryland in perhaps 1822—like many of the enslaved she could only guess at her date of birth—Tubman survived an especially brutal upbringing in bondage that witnessed family members sold, a series of vicious beatings and whippings, and a severe head injury incurred in adolescence when a heavy metal weight tossed by an overseer at another struck her instead, which left her with a lingering dizziness, headaches, seizures, and what was likely chronic hypersomnia, a neurological disorder of excessive sleepiness. It also spawned vivid dreams and visions that reinforced religious convictions that God was communicating with her. By then, she was no stranger to physical abuse. Tubman was first hired out as a nursemaid when she herself was only about five years old, responsible for rocking a baby while it slept. If the baby woke and cried she was lashed as punishment. She recalled once being whipped five times before breakfast. She was left scarred for life. Tubman’s experiences serve as a strong rebuke to those deluded by “Lost Cause” narratives that would cast antebellum slavery as a benign institution.

Despite her harsh treatment at the hands of various enslavers, Tubman proved strong and resilient. Rather than break her, the cruelties she endured galvanized her, sustained by a religious devotion infused with Old Testament promises of deliverance. Still enslaved, she married John Tubman, a free black man, and changed her first name to Harriet shortly thereafter. When she fled to freedom in Philadelphia a few short years later, he did not accompany her. Tubman’s journey out of slavery was enabled by the so-called “Underground Railroad,” a route of safehouses hosted by sympathetic abolitionists and their allies.

For most runaways, that would be the end of the story, but for Tubman it proved just the beginning. Committed to liberating her family and friends, Tubman covertly made more than a dozen missions back to Maryland over a period of eight years and ultimately rescued some seventy individuals, while also confiding escape methods to dozens of others who successfully absconded. In the process, as Clinton points out, she leapfrogged from the role as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to an “abductor.” Now known to many as Moses, she was a master of disguise and subterfuge; the illiterate Tubman once famously pretended to read a newspaper in order to avoid detection. To those who knew her, she seemed to be utterly fearless. She carried a pistol, not only to defend herself against slavecatchers if needed, but also to threaten the fainthearted fugitive who entertained notions of turning back. She never lost a passenger.

At the same time, Harriet actively campaigned for abolition, which brought her into the orbit of John Brown, who dubbed her “General Tubman.” Unlike other antislavery allies, she concurred with his advocacy for armed insurrection, and she proved a valuable resource for him with her detailed knowledge of support networks in border states. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was, of course, a failure, and Brown was hanged, but her admiration for the man never diminished. With the onset of the Civil War, Tubman volunteered to help “contrabands” living in makeshift refugee camps, and also served as a nurse before immersing herself in intelligence-gathering activities. Most spectacularly, Tubman led an expedition of United States Colored Troops (USCT) on the remarkable 1863 Combahee River Raid in South Carolina that freed 750 of the formerly enslaved—then recruited more than 100 of them to enlist to fight for Union. She is thus credited as the first woman to lead American forces in combat! She was even involved with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in his preparations for the assault on Fort Wagner, later dramatized in the film Glory. When the war ended, Tubman went on to lobby for women’s suffrage, and died in her nineties in 1913—the end of a life that was given to legend because so very much of it more closely resembled imagined epic than authentic experience.

In this biography, Clinton the historian wrestles against the myth, yet sometimes seems seduced by it. She reports claims of the numbers of the enslaved Tubman liberated that seem exaggerated, and references enormous sums slaveowners offered as reward for her capture that defy documented evidence. There’s also a couple of egregious factual errors that any student of the Civil War would stumble upon with mouth agape: she misidentifies the location of the battle of Shiloh from Tennessee to Virginia, and declares Delaware a free state, which would have been a surprise to the small but yet enduring population of the enslaved that lived there. For these blunders, I am inclined to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt; she is an esteemed scholar who likely relied on a lousy editor. Perhaps these mistakes have been corrected in later editions.

In June 2023, shortly after I read this volume, I had the pleasure to sit in on Catherine Clinton’s lecture on the life of Harriet Tubman at the Civil War Institute (CWI) Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. Unlike all too many academics, Clinton is hardly dull on stage, and her presentation was as lively and colorful as her subject certainly must have been in the days when she walked the earth. During a tangent that drifted to the currency controversy, she noted that one of the more superficial objections to the rebranding of the twenty was that there are no existing images of Tubman smiling, something Clinton—grinning mischievously—reminded the audience should hardly be surprising since Harriet once dealt with a toothache while smuggling human beings out of bondage by knocking her own tooth out with her pistol, an episode recounted in the book, as well. Harriet Tubman’s life was an extraordinary one. If you want to learn more, pick up Clinton’s book.

I reviewed an earlier book by Clinton here: Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton

Review of: The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, by Robert S. Levine

As President of the United States, he is ranked at or near the bottom by most historians, a dramatic contrast to the man whose untimely death elevated him to that office, who is consistently ranked at or near the top. When some today bemoan the paradox of a south that lost the Civil War but yet seemed in so many ways to have won the peace, his name is often cited as principal cause. While he cannot solely be held to blame, he bears an outsize responsibility for the mass rehabilitation of those who once fomented secession and led a rebellion against the United States, a process that saw men who once championed treason regain substantial political power—and put that authority forcefully to bear to make certain that the rights and privileges granted to formerly enslaved African Americans in the 14th and 15th amendments would not be realized. He was Andrew Johnson.

As foremost black abolitionist, as well as vigorous advocate for freedom and civil rights for African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War, he is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest figure of the day in that long struggle. Born enslaved, often hungry and clad in rags, he was once hired out to a so called “slave-breaker” who frequently whipped him savagely. But, like Abraham Lincoln, he proved himself a remarkable autodidact who not only taught himself to read but managed to obtain a solid education that was to shape a clearly sophisticated intellect. He escaped to freedom, and distinguished himself as orator, author, and activist. Lincoln welcomed him at the White House. He lived long enough to see much of the dreams of his youth realized, as well as many of his hopes for the future dashed. He was Frederick Douglass.

At first glance, it seemed a bit odd and even unsettling to find these two men juxtaposed in The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson [2021], but it was that very peculiarity that drew me to this kind of dual biography by Robert S. Levine, a scholar of African American literature who has long focused on the writings of Frederick Douglass. But back to that first glance: it seemed to me that the more elegant contrast would have been of Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, since the latter was the true heir to Lincoln’s (apparent) moderate stances on reconciliation with the south that also promoted the well-being of the formerly enslaved—which at times put Grant uncomfortably at odds with both Johnson and his eventual opponents who controlled Congress, the Radical Republicans, who were hell-bent on punishing states once in rebellion while insisting upon nothing less than a social revolution that mandated equality for blacks in every arena. Meanwhile, while Johnson was president of the United States in 1865, Douglass himself had neither basic civil rights nor the right to vote in the next election.

Still, with gifted prose, a fast-paced narrative, and a talent for analysis that one-ups a number of credentialed historians of this era, Levine sets out to demonstrate that Johnson’s real rival in his tumultuous tenure was neither Grant nor a recalcitrant Congress, but rather Douglass who—much like Martin Luther King a full century later—unshakably occupied the moral high ground. In this, he mostly succeeds.

The outline to his story of Johnson is a mostly familiar one, yet punctuated by some keen insights into the man overlooked in other studies. Johnson, who (also like Lincoln) grew from poverty to prominence, was a Democrat who served as governor of Tennessee and later as member of Congress. A staunch Unionist, he was the only sitting senator from a seceding state who did not resign his seat. Lincoln made him Military Governor of Tennessee soon after it was reoccupied, and in 1864 he replaced Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s running mate on the Republican Party’s rechristened “National Union” ticket in an election Lincoln felt certain he would lose. Johnson showed up drunk on inauguration day—sparking an unresolved controversy over whether the cause was recreation or self-medication—which tarnished his reputation in some quarters. Still, there were some among the Radical Republicans who wished that Johnson was the president and not Lincoln. Johnson, a former slaveowner who had first emancipated his own human property and later Tennessee’s entire enslaved population, had an abiding hatred for the plantation elites who had long scorned men of humble beginnings like himself, and a deep anger towards those who had severed the bonds of union with the United States. He seemed to many in Congress like the better agent to wreak revenge upon the conquered south for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to war than the conciliatory Lincoln, who was willing to welcome seceded states back into the fold if a mere ten percent of its male population took loyalty oaths to the union.

The inauguration with an inebriated Johnson in attendance took place on March 4, 1865. On April 9, Lee surrendered at Appomattox. On April 15, Lincoln was dead and Johnson was president. Quietly—very quietly indeed—some Radical Republicans rejoiced. Lincoln had led them through the war, but now Johnson would be the better man to make the kind of unforgiving peace they had in mind. Moreover, Johnson—who had styled himself as “Moses” to African Americans in Tennessee as he preemptively (and illegally) freed them statewide in 1864—seemed like the ideal candidate to lead their crusade to foster a new reality for the defeated south that would crush the Confederates while promoting civil equality for their formerly chattel property. In all this, they were to be proved mistaken.

Meanwhile, Douglass brooded—and entertained hopes for Johnson not unlike those of his white allies in Congress. While there’s no evidence that he celebrated Lincoln’s untimely demise, Levine brilliantly reveals that Douglass’s appraisal of Lincoln evolved over time, that his own idolatry for the president was a creature of his later reflections, long after the fact, when he came to fully appreciate in retrospect not only what Lincoln had truly achieved but how deeply the promise of Reconstruction was irrevocably derailed by his successor. In their time, they had forged a strong relationship and even a bond of sorts, but Douglass consistently had doubts about Lincoln’s real commitment to the cause of African American freedom and civil liberties. Douglass took seriously Lincoln’s onetime declaration that “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” and he was suitably horrified by what that implied. Like some in Congress, Douglass was deluded by the fantasy of what Johnson’s accession might mean for the road ahead. This serves both as a strong caution and timely reminder to all of us in the field that it is critical to evaluate not only what was said or written by any individual in the past, but when it was said or written.

The author’s analysis of Johnson proves fascinating. Levine maintains that Johnson’s contempt for the elites who once disdained him was genuine, but that this was counterbalanced by his secret longing for their acceptance. And he reveled in freeing and enabling the enslaved, but only paternalistically and only ever on his own terms. If he could not be Moses, he would be Pharaoh. Levine also argues that whatever his flaws—and they were manifold—Johnson’s vision of his role as president in Reconstruction mirrored Lincoln’s. Lincoln believed that Reconstruction must flow primarily from the executive branch, not the legislative, and he intended to direct it as such. Lincoln’s specific plans died with him, but Johnson had his own ideas. This suggests that it is just as likely there would have been a clash between Lincoln and the Congress had he lived, although knowing what we know of Lincoln we might speculate at more positive results.

Levine breaks no new ground in his coverage of the failed impeachment, which the narrative treats without the kind of scrutiny found, for instance, in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart. But there is the advantage of added nuance in this account because it is enriched by the presence of Douglass as spectator and sometime commentator. And here is Levine’s real achievement: it is through Douglass’s eyes that we can vividly see the righteous cause of emancipation won, obtained at least partially with the blood of United States Colored Troops (USCT), a constitutional amendment passed forever prohibiting human chattel slavery, and subsequent amendments guaranteeing civil rights, equality, and the right to vote for African Americans. And through those same eyes we witness the disillusion and disgust as the accidental president turns against everything Douglass holds dear. Those elite slaveholders who led rebellion, championing a proud slave republic, have their political rights restored and later show up as governors and members of Congress. The promise of Reconstruction is derailed, replaced by “Redemption” as unreconstructed ex-Confederates recapture the statehouses, black codes are enacted, African Americans and their white allies are terrorized and murdered. Constitutional amendments turn moot. The formerly enslaved, once considered three-fifths of a person, are now counted as full citizens but despite the 15th Amendment denied the vote at the point of a gun, so representation for the former slave states that engineered the war effectively increases after rejoining the union. That union has been restored with the sacrifice of more than six hundred thousand lives, and while slavery is abolished Douglass grows old observing the reconciliation of white men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon along with an embrace of the “Lost Cause” ideology that sees the start of a process that enshrines repression and leads to the erasure of African Americans from Civil War history.

That Levine is a professor of literature rather than of history is perhaps why the story he relates has a more emotional impact upon the reader than it might have if rendered by those with roots in our own discipline. The scholarship is by no means lacking, as evidenced by the ample citations in the thick section of notes at the end of the volume, but thankfully he eschews the dry, academic tone that tends to dominate the history field. This is a work equally attractive to a popular or scholarly audience, something that should be both celebrated and emulated. As an added bonus, he includes as appendix Douglass’s 1867 speech, “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” which argues for constitutional reforms that nicely echo down to our own times. Among other things, Douglass boldly calls for eliminating the position of vice president to avoid accidental presidencies (such as that of Andrew Johnson!) and for curbing executive authority. It is well worth the read and unfortunately not easy to access elsewhere except through a paywall. The Failed Promise is an apt title: the optimism at the dawn of Reconstruction holds so much appeal because we know all too well the tragedy of its outcome. To get a sense of how it began, as well as how it went so wrong, I recommend this book.


Here’s a link to a rare free online transcript of Frederick Douglass’s 1867 speech: “Sources of Danger to the Republic”

I reviewed Stewart’s book here: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart

Review of: Love & Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss, by Angela Esco Elder

In 2008, one hundred forty-three years after Appomattox, ninety-three-year-old Maudie Hopkins of Arkansas passed away, most likely the final surviving widow of a Confederate Civil War soldier. Like her literary counterpart Lucy Marsden, the star of Allan Gurganus’s delightful novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Maudie married an elderly veteran decades after the war ended and benefited from his pension. The widows are gone, but their legacy is still celebrated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a neo-Confederate organization comprised of female descendants of rebel soldiers that promotes the “Myth of the Lost Cause” and has long been associated with white supremacy.

But for students of the Civil War curious about the various fates of southern women whose husbands were among the many thousands who lost their lives at places like Shiloh and Chancellorsville, or in some random hospital tent, there is little to learn from the second-hand tales of either the fictional Lucy Marsden nor the real-life Maudie Hopkins—and even less from the pseudohistorical fantasies peddled by the UDC.  For that, fortunately, there is the outstanding recent work by historian Angela Esco Elder, Love & Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss (2022), a well-written and surprisingly gripping narrative that brings a fresh perspective to a mostly overlooked corner of Civil War studies.

Something like 620,000 soldiers died during four years of Civil War, far more of disease than bullets or bayonets, but for most of the estimated 200,000 left widowed on both sides, the specific cause was less significant than the shock, pain, and lingering tragedy of loss. This they shared, north and south alike. But for a variety of reasons, the aftermath for the southern widow was substantially more complicated, often more desperate, and for many bred a suffering not only persistent but perhaps chronic. Southern women not only lost a husband; they also lost a war and a way of life.

Building upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s magnificent and groundbreaking study, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Elder yet carves her own unique corridor to a critical realm of the past too often treated superficially or not at all. In the process, she engages the reader on a journey peopled with long-dead characters that spring to life at the stroke of her pen, enriched with anecdote while anchored to solid scholarship. I have read deeply in Civil War literature. While this topic interested me, I approached the book with some trepidation: after all, this is a theme that in the wrong hands could be a dull slog. Instead, it turned out to be a page-turner! Thus the author has managed to attain a rare achievement in our field: she has written a book equally attractive to both a scholarly and a popular audience.

In war, the southern woman endured a reality far more difficult than her northern counterpart. For one thing, the war was either on—or potentially on—her doorstep. Other than brief, failed rebel incursions on the north, the American Civil War was fought almost entirely on the territory of the seceded states that formed the Confederacy. A certain menace ever loomed over that landscape. With imports choked off, there were critical shortages of goods, not simply luxuries but everyday items all households counted on. This was exacerbated by inflation that dramatically increased the cost of living.

And then there was the enslaved. Today’s “Lost Cause” proponents would insist that the war had nothing to do with what the south once styled as its “peculiar institution,” but the scholarly consensus has long established that slavery was the central cause of the war. For those on the home front, that translated into a variety of complex realities. While most southerners did not themselves own human property, communities lived in fear of violent uprisings, even if these were imagined ones. For that segment whose households included the enslaved, there was the matter of managing that population held in bondage, large or small, with their men away at war. And most of the men were indeed away. In such a slave-based society, labor to support the infrastructure was performed by the enslaved, freeing up a much larger proportion of military age males to go off to war.

For women, all this was further complicated by a culture that disdained manual labor for white men or women, and placed women on a romantic pedestal where they also functioned primarily as property of sorts: of their husbands or fathers. As if all of that was not challenging enough, when the war was over, the south lay in ruins: their economy shattered, their chattel slaves freed, their outlook utterly bleak. Even bleaker was the reality of the Confederate widow.

Elder succeeds in Love & Duty where others might have failed in that she launches the story with a magnetic snapshot of what life was like for southern women in the antebellum era in a culture of hyperbolic chivalry and courtship rituals and idealistic images of how a proper young lady should look and behave. Like James Cameron in the first part of the film Titanic, she vividly demonstrates what life was like prior to the metaphorical shipwreck, showcasing the experiences of a cast of characters far more fascinating than any contrived in fiction.

Among these, perhaps the most unforgettable is Octavia “Tivie” Bryant, a southern belle in the grand style of the literature whom we encounter when she is only fourteen, courted by the twenty-six-year-old plantation owner Winston Stephens. Tivie’s father objects and they are parted, but the romance never cools, and a few years later there is a kind of fairy-tale wedding. But life intervenes. In 1864, a sniper’s bullet takes Winston and abruptly turns twenty-two-year-old Tivie into a widow. She is inconsolable. She lives on with a grief she can never reconcile until she finally passes on in 1908, more than forty years later.

But those who have read Catherine Clinton’s brilliant Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend are well aware that most southern women could not boast lives like Scarlett O’Hara—or Tivie, for that matter. Clinton underscored that while there were indeed women like Scarlett from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her demographic comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women. In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women. And for others, it could be brutally demanding, before the war and even more so during the course of it, for wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Many of the widows that Elder profiles represent this cohort, providing the reader with a colorful panoramic of what life was really like for those far from the front as the Confederate cause was gradually but eventually crushed on battlefields west and east.

Elder’s account is especially effective because she exposes the reader to the full range of the Confederate widow and how they coped with their grief (or lack thereof), which of course ran the full gamut of the human experience. In this deeply patriarchal society, a man who lost his spouse was expected to wear a black armband and mourn for a matter of months. A woman, on the other hand, was to dress only in black and be in mourning a full two and a half years. Not all complied. We might have empathy for poor Tivie, who wallowed in her agony for decades, but on the other hand, her station in life permitted her an extended period of grieving, for better or worse. Others lacked that option. Many struggled just to survive. Some lost or had to give up their children. Some turned to prostitution. Some turned to remarriage.

In war or peace, not every woman is devastated by the death of their spouse, especially if he was lecherous, adulterous, or abusive. Nineteenth century women, north and south, were essentially the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. In reality, this was even more true for southern women, subject to the sometimes-twisted romantic idealism of their culture. Some deaths were welcomed, albeit quietly. Elder relates that:

In 1849, one wife petitioned the North Carolina courts for a divorce after her husband continuously drank heavily, beat her, locked her out of the house overnight, slept with an enslaved woman, and in one instance, forced his wife to watch them have sex. The chief justice did not grant the absolute dissolution of the marriage, believing there was reasonable hope for the couple’s reconciliation. Another wife, in Virginia, would flee to the swamps when her husband drank. If he caught her in the kitchen seeking protection from the weather, he attacked “with his fists and with sticks” …  And within the patriarchy, men maintained the right to correct their wives … Alvin Preslar beat his wife so brutally that she fled with two of her children toward her father’s house, dying before she reached it. Three hundred people petitioned against Preslar’s sentence to hang, arguing his actions were not intentional but rather “the result of a drunken frolic.” [p29]

A woman who managed to survive a marriage to men like these likely would not mourn like Tivie if a bullet—or measles—took him from her far from home.

Some of the best portions of this book focus upon specific individuals. One of my favorites is the spotlight on Emilie Todd Helm, a younger sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband General Benjamin Hardin Helm was killed at Chickamauga. Emilie sought to return home from Georgia to the border state of Kentucky, but was denied entry because she refused to take a loyalty oath to the Union. Her brother-in-law President Lincoln himself intervened and an exception was made. Elder reports that:

When Emilie approached the White House in 1863, she was “a pathetic little figure in her trailing black crepe.” Her trials had transformed the beautiful woman into a “sad-faced girl with pallid cheeks, tragic eyes, and tight, unsmiling lips.” Reunited with Abe and Mary, Emilie wrote, “we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech…. We could only embrace each other in silence and tears.” Certainly, the war had not been easy on the Lincolns either. The Todd sisters had lost two brothers, Mary had lost a son, and Emilie’s loss of Benjamin gave them much to grieve over together. “I never saw Lincoln more moved,” recalled Senator David Davis, “than when he heard of the death of his young brother-in-law, Helm, only thirty-two-years-old, at Chickamauga.”… ‘Davis,’ said he, ‘I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom. Would to God that I had died for thee, oh, Absalom, my son, my son?’” … Emilie and Mary found comfort in each other’s company, but their political differences divided them. [p91]

When Emilie, still loyal to the Confederacy, later petitioned to sell her cotton crop despite wartime strictures to the contrary, Lincoln refused her.

No review can appropriately assess the extent of Elder’s achievements in Love & Duty, but there is much worthy of praise. Are there shortcomings? In the end, I was left wanting more. I would have liked Elder to better connect the experiences of actual widows with the myths of the UDC that later subsumed these. I also wanted more on the experiences of the enslaved who lived in the shadows of these white widows. Finally, I thought there were too many direct references to Drew Gilpin Faust in the narrative. Yes, the author admires Faust and yes, Faust’s scholarship is extraordinary, but Elder’s work is a significant contribution to the historiography on its own: let’s let Faust live on in the endnotes, as is appropriate. But … these are quibbles.  This is a fine work, and if you are invested in Civil War studies it belongs on your bookshelf—and in your lap, turning each page!


I reviewed the Drew Gilpin Faust book here: Review of: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust

I reviewed the Catherine Clinton book here:  Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton