Review of: Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine,
by Jim Downs
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in 2020, it left in its wake the near-paralysis of many hospital systems, unprepared and unequipped for the waves of illness and death that suddenly overwhelmed capacities for treatment that were after all at best only palliative care, since for this deadly new virus there was neither a cure nor a clear route to prevention. Overnight, epidemiologists—scrambling for answers or even just clues—became the most critically significant members of the public health community, even if their informed voices were often shouted down by the shriller ones of media pundits and political hacks.
Meanwhile, data collection began in earnest and the number of data dashboards swelled. In the analytical process, the first stop was identifying the quality of the data and the disparities in how data was collected. Was it true, as some suggested, that a disproportionate number of African Americans were dying from COVID? At first, there was no way to know since some states were not collecting data broken down by this kind of specific demographic. Data collection eventually became more standardized, more precise, and more reliable, serving as a key ingredient to combat the spread of this highly contagious virus, as well as one of the elements that guided the development of vaccines. Even so, dubious data and questionable studies too often took center stage both at political rallies and in the media circus that echoed a growing polarization that had one side denouncing masks, resisting vaccination, and touting sideshow magic bullets like Ivermectin. But talking heads and captive audiences aside, masks reduce infection, vaccines are effective, and dosing with Ivermectin is a scam. How do we know that? Data. Mostly due to data. Certainly, other key parts of the mix include scientists, medical professionals, case studies, and peer reviewed papers, but data—first collected and then analyzed—is the gold standard, not only for COVID but for all disease treatment and prevention.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the beginning, there was no such thing as epidemiology. Disease causes and treatments were anecdotal, mystical, or speculative. Much of the progress in science and medicine that was the legacy of the classical world had long been lost to the west. The dawn of modern epidemiology rose above a horizon constructed of data painstakingly collected and compiled and subsequently analyzed. In fact, certain aspects of the origins of epidemiology were to run concurrent with the evolution of statistical analysis. In the early days, as the reader comes to learn in this brilliant and groundbreaking 2021 work by historian Jim Downs, Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine, the bulk of the initial data was derived from unlikely and unwilling participants who existed at the very margins: the enslaved, the imprisoned, the war-wounded, and the destitute condemned to the squalor of public hospitals. Their identities are mostly forgotten, or were never recorded in the first place, but yet collectively the data harvested from them was to provide the skeletal framework for the foundation of modern medicine.
In a remarkable achievement that could hardly be more relevant today, the author cleverly locates Maladies of Empire at the intersection of history and medicine, where data collection from unexpected and all too frequently wretched subjects comes to form the very basis of epidemiology itself. It is these early stories that send shudders to a modern audience. Nearly everyone is familiar with the wrenching 1787 diagram of the lower deck of the slave ship Brookes, where more than four hundred fifty enslaved human beings were packed like sardines for a months-long voyage, which became an emblem for the British antislavery movement. But, as Downs points out, few are aware that the sketch can be traced to the work of British naval surgeon Dr. Thomas Trotter, one of the first to recognize that poor ventilation in crowded conditions results in a lack of oxygen that breeds disease and death. His observations also led to a better understanding of how to prevent scurvy, a frequent cause of higher mortality rates among the seaborne citrus-deprived. Trotter himself was appalled by the conditions he encountered on the Brookes, and testified to this before the House of Commons. But that was hardly the case for many of his peers, and certainly not for the owners of slave ships, who looked past the moral dilemmas of a Trotter while exceedingly grateful for his insights; after all, the goal was keep larger quantities of their human cargo alive in order to turn greater profits. Dead slaves lack market value.
A little more than three decades prior to Trotter’s testimony, the critical need for ventilation was documented by another physician in the wake of the confinement of British soldiers in the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta” during the revolution in Bengal, which resulted in the death by suffocation of the majority of the captives. Downs makes the point that one of the unintended consequences of colonialism was that for early actors in the medical arena it served to vastly extend the theater of observation of the disease-afflicted to a virtually global stage that hosted the byproducts of colonialism: war, subjugated peoples, the slave trade, military hospitals and prisons. But it turns out that the starring roles belong less to the doctors and nurses that receive top billing in the history books than to the mostly uncredited bit players removed from the spotlight: the largely helpless and disadvantaged patients whose symptoms and outcomes were observed and cataloged, whose anonymous suffering translated into critical data that collectively advanced the emerging science of epidemiology.
Traditionally, history texts rarely showcased notable women, but one prominent exception was Florence Nightingale, frequently extolled for her role as a nurse during the Crimean War. But as underscored in Maladies of Empire, Nightingale’s real if often overlooked legacy was as a kind of disease statistician through her painstaking data collection and analysis—the very basis for epidemiology that was generally credited to white men rather than to “women working in makeshift hospitals.” [p111] But it was the poor outcomes for patients typically subjected to deplorable conditions in these makeshift military hospitals—which Nightingale assiduously observed and recorded—that drew attention to similarly appalling environments in civilian hospitals in England and the United States, which led to a studied analysis that eventually established systematic evidence for the causes, spread, and treatment of disease.
The conclusions these early epidemiologists reached were not always accurate. In fact, they were frequently wrong. But Downs emphasizes that what was significant was the development of the proper analytical framework. In these days prior to the revolutionary development of germ theory, notions on how to improve survival rates of the stricken put forward by Nightingale and others were controversial and often contradictory. Was the best course quarantine, a frequent resort? Or would improving the sickbed conditions, as Nightingale advocated, lead to better outcomes? Unaware of the role of germs in contagion, evidence could be both inconclusive and inconsistent, and competing ideas could each be partly right. After all, regardless of how disease spread, cleaner and better ventilated facilities might lead to lower mortality rates. Nightingale stubbornly resisted germ theory, even as it was widely adopted, but after it won her grudging acceptance, she continued to promote more sanitary hospital conditions to improve survival rates. Still, epidemiologists faced difficult challenges with diseases that did not conform to familiar patterns, such as cholera, spread by a tainted water supply, and yellow fever, a mosquito-borne pathogen.
In the early days, as noted, European observers collected data from slave ships, yet it never occurred to them that because their human subjects were black such evidence was not applicable to the white population. But epidemiology took a surprisingly different course in the United States, where race has long proved to be a defining element. Of the more than six hundred thousand who lost their lives during the American Civil War, about two-thirds were felled not by bullets but by disease. The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was established in an attempt to ameliorate these dreadful outcomes, but its achievements on one hand were undermined on the other by an obsession with race, even going so far as the sending out to “. . . military doctors a questionnaire, ‘The Physiological Status of the Negro,’ whose questions were based on the belief that Black soldiers were innately different from white soldiers . . . The questionnaire also distinguished gradations of color among Black soldiers, asking doctors to compare how ‘pure Negroes’ differed from people of ‘mixed races’ and to describe ‘the effects of amalgamation on the vital endurance and vigor of the offspring.’” With its imprimatur of governmental authority, the USSC officially championed scientific racism, with profound and long-term social, political, and economic consequences for African Americans. [p134-35]
Some of these notions can be traced back to the antebellum musings of Alabama surgeon Josiah Nott—made famous after the war when he correctly connected mosquitoes to the etiology of Yellow Fever—who asserted that blacks and whites were members of separate species whose mixed-race offspring he deemed “hybrids” who were “physiologically inferior.” Nott believed that all three of these distinct “types” responded differently to disease. [p124-25] His was but one manifestation of the once widespread pseudoscience of physiognomy that alleged black inferiority in order to justify first slavery and later second-class citizenship. Such ideas persisted for far too long, and although scientific racism still endures on the alt-right, it has been thoroughly discredited by actual scientists. It turns out that a larger percentage of African Americans did indeed succumb to death in the still ongoing COVID pandemic, but this has been shown to be due to factors of socioeconomic status and lack of access to healthcare, not genetics.
Still, although deemed inferior, enslaved blacks also proved useful when convenient. The author argues that “… enslaved children were most likely used as the primary source of [smallpox] vaccine matter in the Civil War South,” despite the danger of infection in harvesting lymph from human subjects in order to vaccinate Confederate soldiers in the field. In yet one more reminder of the moral turpitude that defined the south’s “peculiar institution,” the subjects also included infants whose resulting scar or pit, Downs points out, “. . . would last a lifetime, indelibly marking a deliberate infection of war and bondage. Few, if any, knew that the scars and pit marks actually disclosed the infant’s first form of enslaved labor, an assignment that did not make it into the ledger books or the plantation records.” [p141-42]
Tragically, this episode was hardly an anomaly, and unethical medical practices involving blacks did not end with Appomattox. The infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” that observed but failed to offer treatment to the nearly four hundred black men recruited without informed consent ran for forty years and was not terminated until 1972! One of the chief reasons for COVID vaccine hesitancy among African Americans has been identified as a distrust of a medical community that historically has either victimized or marginalized them.
Maladies of Empire is a well-written, highly readable book suitable to a scholarly as well as popular audience, and clearly represents a magnificent contribution to the historiography. But it is hardly only for students of history. Instead, it rightly belongs on the shelf of every medical professional practicing today—especially epidemiologists!
Review of: Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Is your morning coffee moving? Is there a particle party going on in your kitchen? What makes for a great-tasting gourmet meal? Does artificial flavoring really make a difference? Why does mixing soap with water get your dishes clean? Why do some say that “sitting is the new smoking?” How come one beer gives you a strong buzz but your friend can drink a bottle of wine without slurring her words? When it comes to love, is the “right chemistry” just a metaphor? And would you dump your partner because he won’t use fluoridated toothpaste?
All this and much more makes for the delightful conversation packed into Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, a fun, fascinating, and fast-moving slender volume that could very well turn you into a fan of—of all things—chemistry! This cool and quirky book is just the latest effort by the author—a real-life German chemist who hosts a YouTube channel and has delivered a TED Talk—to combat what she playfully dubs “chemism:” the notion that chemistry is dull and best left to the devices of boring nerdy chem-geeks! One reason it works is because Nguyen-Kim is herself the antithesis of such stereotypes, coming off in both print and video as a hip, brilliant, and articulate young woman with a passion for science and for living in the moment.
I rarely pick up a science book, but when I do, I typically punch above my intellectual weight, challenging myself to reach beyond my facility with history and literature to dare to tangle with the intimidating realms of physics, biology, and the like. I often emerge somewhat bruised but with the benefit of new insights, as I did after my time with Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe and Bill Schopf’s Cradle of Life. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I approached Chemistry for Breakfast.
But this proved to be a vastly different experience! Using her typical day as a backdrop—from her own body’s release of stress hormones when the alarm sounds to the way postprandial glasses of wine mess with the neurotransmitters of her guests—Nguyen-Kim demonstrates the omnipresence of chemistry to our very existence, and distills its complexity into bite-size concepts that are easy to process but yet never dumbed-down. Apparently, there is a particle party going on in your kitchen every morning, with all kinds of atoms moving at different rates in the coffee you’re sipping, the mug in your hand, and the steam rising above it. It’s all about temperature and molecular bonds. In a chapter whimsically entitled “Death by Toothpaste,” we find out how chemicals bond to produce sodium fluoride, the stuff of toothpaste, and why that not only makes for a potent weapon against cavities, but why the author’s best buddy might dump her boyfriend—because he thinks fluoride is poison! There’s much more to come—and it’s still only morning at Mai’s house …
As a reader, I found myself learning a lot about chemistry without studying chemistry, a remarkable achievement by the author, whose technique is so effective because it is so unique. Fielding humorous anecdotes plucked from everyday existence, Mai’s wit is infectious, so the “lessons” prove entertaining without turning silly. I love to cook, so I especially welcomed her return to the kitchen in a later chapter. Alas, I found out that while I can pride myself on my culinary expertise, it all really comes down to the way ingredients react with one another in a mixing bowl and on the hot stove. Oh, and it turns out that despite the fearmongering in some quarters, most artificial flavors are no better or worse than natural ones. Yes, you should read the label—but you have to know what those ingredients are before you judge them healthy or not.
Throughout the narrative, Nguyen-Kim conveys an attractive brand of approachability that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with her, but unfortunately she can’t drink: Mai, born of Vietnamese parents, has inherited a gene mutation in common with a certain segment of Asians which interferes with the way the body processes alcohol, so she becomes overly intoxicated after just a few sips of any strong drink. She explains in detail why her “broken” ALDH2 enzyme simply will not break down the acetaldehyde in the glass of wine that makes her guests a little tipsy but gives her nausea, a rapid-heartbeat, and sends a “weird, lobster-red tinge” to her face. Mai’s issue with alcohol reminded me of recent studies that revealed the reason that some people of northern European ancestry always burn instead of tan at the beach is due to faulty genes that block the creation of melanin in response to sun exposure. This is a strong underscore that while race is of course a myth that otherwise communicates nothing of importance about human beings, in the medical world genetics has the potential of serving as a powerful tool to explain and treat disease. As for Mai, given the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, she views her inability to drink as more of a blessing than a curse, and hopes to pass her broken gene on to her offspring!
The odds that I would ever deliberately set out to read a book about chemistry were never that favorable. That I would do so and then rave about the experience seemed even more unlikely. But here we are, along with my highest recommendations. Mai’s love of science is nothing less than contagious. If you read her work, I can promise that not only will you learn a lot, but you will really enjoy the learning process. And that too, I suppose, is chemistry!
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program]
Until Jimmy Carter came along, there really was no rival to John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) as best ex-president, although perhaps William Howard Taft earns honorable mention for his later service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Carter—who at ninety-seven still walks among us as this review goes to press—has made his reputation as a humanitarian outside of government after what many view as a mostly failed single term in the White House. Adams, on the other hand, whose one term as the sixth President of the United States (1825-29) was likewise disappointing, managed to establish a memorable outsize official legacy when he returned to serve his country as a member of the House of Representatives from 1831 until his dramatic collapse at his desk and subsequent death inside the Capitol Building in 1848. Freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln would be a pallbearer.
Like several of the Founders whose own later presidential years were troubled, including his own father, John Quincy had a far more distinguished and successful career prior to his time as Chief Executive. But quite remarkably, unlike these other men—John Adams, Jefferson, Madison—who lingered in mostly quiet retirement for decades beyond their respective tenures, in his long career John Quincy Adams could be said to have equaled or surpassed his accomplished pre-presidential service as diplomat, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, returning as just a simple Congressman from Massachusetts who was to be a giant in antislavery advocacy. Adams remains the only former president elected to the House, and until George W. Bush in 2001, the only man who could claim his own father as a fellow president.
Notably, the single unsatisfactory terms that he and his father served in the White House turned out to be bookends to a significant era in American history: John Adams was the first to run for president in a contested election (Washington had essentially been unopposed); his son’s tenure ended along with the Early Republic, shattered by the ascent of Jacksonian democracy. But if the Early Republic was no more, it marked only the beginning of another chapter in the extraordinary life of John Quincy Adams. And yet, for a figure that carved such indelible grooves in our nation’s history, present at the creation and active well into the crises of the antebellum period that not long after his death would threaten to annihilate the American experiment, it remains somewhat astonishing how utterly unfamiliar he remains to most citizens of the twenty-first century.
Prominent historian William J. Cooper seeks to remedy that with The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (2017), an exhaustively researched, extremely well-written, if dense study that is likely to claim distinction as the definitive biography for some years to come. Cooper’s impressive work is old-fashioned narrative history at its best. John Quincy Adams is the main character, but his story is told amid the backdrop of the nation’s founding, its evolution as a young republic, and its descent to sectional crises over slavery, while many, at home and abroad, wondered at the likelihood of its survival. It is not only clever but entirely apt that in the book’s title the author dubs his subject the “Lost Founding Father.”
Some have called Benjamin Franklin the “grandfather of his country.” Likewise, John Quincy Adams could be said to be a sort of “grandson.” He was not only to witness the tumultuous era of the American Revolution and observe John Adams’ storied role as a principal Founder, he also accompanied his father on diplomatic missions to Europe while still a boy, and completed most of his early education there. Like Franklin, Jefferson, and his father, he spent many years abroad during periods of fast-moving events and dramatic developments on American soil that altered the nation and could prove jarring upon return. Unlike the others, his extended absence coincided with his formative years; John Quincy grew up not in New England but rather in France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Great Britain, and this came to deeply affect him.
A brooding intellectual with a brilliant mind who sought solitude over society, dedicated to principle above all else, including loyalty to party, the Adams that emerges in these pages was a socially awkward workaholic subject to depression, blessed with a wide range of talents that ranged from the literary to languages to the deeply analytical, but lacking even the tiniest vestige of charisma. He strikes the reader as the least suitable person to ever aspire to or serve as president of the United States. A gifted writer, he began a diary when he was twelve years old that he continued almost without interruption until shortly before his death. He frequently expressed dismay at his inability to keep up with his ambitious goals for daily diary entries that often ran to considerable length.
There is much in the man that resembles his father, also a principled intellect, whom he much admired even while he suffered a sense of inadequacy in his shadow. Both men were stubborn in their ideals and tended to alienate those who might otherwise be allies. While each could be self-righteous, John Adams was also ever firmly self-confident in a way that his son could never match. Of course, in his defense, the younger man not only felt obligated to live up to a figure who was a titan in the public arena, but he lacked a wife that was cut from the same cloth as his mother, with whom he had a sometimes-troubled relationship.
Modern historians have made much of the historic partnership that existed, mostly behind the scenes, between John and Abigail Adams; in every way except eighteenth century mores she seems his equal. John Quincy, on the other hand, was wedded to Louisa Catherine, a sickly woman given to fainting spells and frequent migraines whose multiple miscarriages coupled with the loss of an infant daughter certainly triggered severe psychological trauma. A modern audience can’t help but wonder if her many maladies and histrionics were not psychosomatic. At any rate, John Quincy treated his wife and other females he encountered with the patronizing male chauvinism typical of his times, so it is dubious that if he instead found an Abigail Adams at his side, he could have flourished in her orbit the way his father did.
Although Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was largely the force that drove the landmark “Monroe Doctrine” and other foreign policy achievements of the Monroe Administration, most who know of Adams tend to know of him only peripherally, through his legendary political confrontation with the far more celebrated Andrew Jackson. That conflict was forged in the election of 1824. The Federalist Party, scorned for threats of New England secession during the War of 1812, was essentially out of business. James Monroe was wrapping up his second term in what historians have called the “Era of Good Feelings” that ostensibly reflected a sense of national unity controlled by a single party, the Democratic-Republicans, but there were fissures, factions, local interests, and emerging coalitions beneath the surface. In the most contested election to date in the nation’s history, John Quincy, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford were chief contenders for the highest office. While Jackson received a plurality, none received a majority of the electoral votes, so as specified in the Constitution the race was sent to the House for decision. Crawford had suffered a devastating stroke and was thus out of consideration. Adams and Clay tended to clash, but both were aligned on many national issues, and Jackson was rightly seen as a dangerous demagogue. Clay threw his support to Adams, who became president. Jackson was furious, even more so when Adams later named Clay Secretary of State, which was then seen as a sure steppingstone to the presidency, something that further enraged Jackson, who branded his appointment by Adams a “Corrupt Bargain.” As it turned out, while Adams prevailed, his presidency was marked by frustration, his ambitious domestic goals stymied by Congress. In a run for reelection, he was dealt a humiliating defeat by Jackson, who headed the new Democratic Party. The politics of John Quincy Adams and the Early Republic went extinct.
While evaluating these two elections, it’s worth pausing here to emphasize John Quincy’s longtime objection to the nefarious if often overlooked impact of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which granted southern slaveholding states outsize political clout by counting an enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation. This was to prove significant, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president. He found focus on this issue while Secretary of State in the debate that swirled around the Missouri Compromise of 1820, concluding that:
The bargain in the Constitution between freedom and slavery had conveyed to the South far too much political influence, its base the notorious three-fifths clause, which immorally increased southern power in the nation … the past two decades had witnessed a southern domination that had ravaged the Union … he emphasized what he saw as the moral viciousness of that founding accord. It contradicted the fundamental justification of the American Revolution by subjecting slaves to oppression while privileging their masters with about a double representation. [p174]
This was years before he was himself to fall victim to the infamous clause. As underscored by historian Alan Taylor in his recent work, American Republics (2021), the disputed election of 1824 would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. When Jackson prevailed in the next election in 1828, it was the south that cemented his victory. The days of Virginia planters in the White House may have passed, but the slave south clearly dominated national politics and often served as antebellum kingmaker for the White House.
In any case, Adams’ dreams of vindicating his father’s single term were dashed. A lesser man would have gone off into the exile of retirement, but Adams was to come back—and come back stronger than ever as a political figure to be reckoned with, distinguished by his fierce antislavery activism. His abhorrence of human bondage ran deep, and long preceded his return to Congress. And because he kept such a detailed journal, we have insight into his most personal convictions.
Musing once more about the Missouri Compromise, he confided to his diary his belief that a war over slavery was surely on the horizon that would ultimately result in its elimination: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union … the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” [p173] He also wrote of his conversations with the fellow cabinet secretary he most admired at the time, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who clearly articulated the doctrine of white supremacy that defined the south. To Adams’ disappointment, Calhoun told him that southerners did not believe the Declaration’s guarantees of universal rights applied to blacks, and “Calhoun maintained that racial slavery guaranteed equality among whites because it placed all of them above blacks.” [p175]
These diary entries from 1820 came to foreshadow the more crisis-driven politics in the decades hence when Adams—his unhappy presidency long behind him—was the leading figure in Congress who stood against the south’s “peculiar institution” and southern domination of national politics. These were, of course, far more fraught times. He opposed both Texas annexation and the Mexican War, which he correctly viewed as a conflict designed to extend slavery. But he most famously led the opposition against the 1836 resolution known as the “gag rule” that prohibited House debate on petitions to abolish slavery, which incensed the north and spawned greater polarization. Adams was eventually successful, and the gag rule was repealed, but not until 1844.
It has long been my goal to read at least one biography of each American president, and I came to Cooper’s book with that objective in mind. I found my time with it a deeply satisfying experience, although I suspect because it is so pregnant in detail it will find less appeal among a more popular audience. Still, if you want to learn about this too often overlooked critical figure and at the same time gain a greater understanding of an important era in American history, I would highly recommend that you turn to The Lost Founding Father.
Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor work here: Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor
Early in the war … a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate, and he obviously didn’t own any slaves. He couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And said: “What are you fighting for, anyhow?” they asked him. And he said: “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” Which is a pretty satisfactory answer.
That excerpt is from Ken Burns’ epic The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause.” It was delivered by the avuncular Shelby Foote in his soft, reassuring—some might say mellifluous—cadence, the inflection decorated with a pronounced but gentle southern accent. As professor of history James M. Lundberg complains, Foote, author of a popular Civil War trilogy who was himself not a historian, “nearly negates Burns’ careful 15-minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war with a 15-second” anecdote. Elsewhere, Foote rebukes the scholarly consensus that slavery was the central cause for secession and the conflict it spawned that would take well over 600,000 American lives.
While all but die-hard “Lost Cause” myth fanatics have relegated Foote’s ill-conceived dismissal of the centrality of slavery to the dustbin of history, the notion that southern soldiers fought solely for home and hearth has long persisted, even among historians. And on the face of it, it seems as if it should be true. After all, secession was the work of a narrow slice of the antebellum south, the slave-owning planter class which only comprised less than two percent of the population but dominated the political elite, in fury that Lincoln’s election by “Free-Soil” Republicans would likely deny their demands to transplant their “peculiar institution” to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War. More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all, and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Most whites lived at the margins as yeoman farmers, although their skin color ensured a status markedly above those of blacks, free or enslaved. The Confederate army closely reflected that society: most rebel soldiers were not slaveowners. So slavery could not have been important to them … or could it?
The first to challenge the assumption that Civil War soldiers, north or south, were political agnostics was James M. McPherson in What They Fought For 1861-1865 (1995). Based on extensive research on letters written home from the front, McPherson argued that most of those in uniform were far more ideological than previously acknowledged. In a magnificent contribution to the historiography, Colin Edward Woodward goes much further in Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War (2014), presenting compelling evidence that not only were most gray-clad combatants well-informed about the issues at stake, but a prime motivating force for a majority was to preserve the institution of human chattel bondage and the white supremacy that defined the Confederacy.
Like McPherson, Woodward does a deep dive into the wealth of still extant letters from those at the front to make his case in a deeply researched and well-written narrative that reveals that the average rebel was surprisingly well-versed in the greater issues manifested in the debates that launched an independent Confederacy and justified the blood and treasure being spent to sustain it. And just as in secession, the central focus was upon preserving a society that had its foundation in chattel slavery and white supremacy. Some letters were penned by those who left enslaved human beings—many or just a few—back at home with their families when they marched off to fight, while most were written by poor dirt farmers who had no human property nor the immediate prospect of obtaining any.
But what is fully astonishing, as Woodward exposes in the narrative, is not only how frequently slavery and the appropriate status for African Americans is referenced in such correspondence, but how remarkably similar the language is, whether the soldier is the son of a wealthy planter or a yeoman farmer barely scraping by. In nearly every case, the righteousness of their cause is defined again and again not by the euphemism of “states’ rights” that became the rallying cry of “Lost Cause” after the war, but by the sanctity of the institution of human bondage. More than once, letters resound with a disturbing yet familiar refrain that asserted that the most fitting condition for blacks is as human property, something seen as mutually beneficial to the master as well as to the enslaved.
If those without slaves risking life and limb to sustain slavery with both musket in hand and zealous declarations in letters home provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance to modern ears, we need only be reminded of our own contemporaries in doublewides who might sound the most passionate defense of Wall Street banks. Have-nots in America often aspire to what is beyond their reach, for themselves or for their children. For poor southern whites of the time, in and out of the Confederate army, that turns out to be slave property.
One of the greatest sins of postwar reconciliation and the tenacity of the “Lost Cause” was the erasure of African Americans from history. In the myth-making that followed Appomattox, with human bondage extinct and its practice widely reviled, the Civil War was transformed into a sectional war of white brother against white brother, and blacks were relegated to roles as bit players. The centrality of slavery was excised from the record. In the literature, blacks were generally recalled as benign servants loyal to their masters, like the terrified Prissy in Gone with the Wind screeching “De Yankees is comin!” in distress rather than the celebration more likely characteristic to that moment in real time. That a half million of the enslaved fled to freedom in Union lines was lost to memory. Also forgotten was the fact that by the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)—and these men played a significant role in the south’s defeat. Never mentioned was that Confederate soldiers routinely executed black men in blue uniforms who were wounded or attempting to surrender, not only in well-known encounters like at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but frequently and anonymously. As Woodward reminds us, this brand of murder was often unofficial, but rarely acknowledged, and almost never condemned. Only recently have these aspects of Civil War history received the attention that is their due.
And yet, more remarkably, Marching Masters reveals that perhaps the deepest and most enduring erasure of African Americans was of the huge cohort that accompanied the Confederate army on its various campaigns throughout the war. Thousands and thousands of them. “Lost Cause” zealots have imagined great corps of “Black Confederates” who served as fighters fending off Yankee marauders, but if that is fantasy—and it certainly is—the massive numbers of blacks who served as laborers alongside white infantry were not only real but represented a significant reason why smaller forces of Confederates held out as well as they did against their often numerically superior northern opponents. We have long known that a greater percentage of southerners were able to join the military than their northern counterparts because slave labor at home in agriculture and industry freed up men to wield saber and musket, but Woodward uncovers the long-overlooked legions of the enslaved who travelled with the rebels performing the kind of labor that (mostly) fell on white enlisted men in northern armies.
A segment of these were also personal servants to the sons of planters, which sometimes provoked jealousy among the ranks. Certain letters home plead for just such a servile companion, sometimes arguing that the enslaved person would be less likely to flee to Union lines if he was to be a cook in an army camp instead! And there were occasionally indeed tender if somewhat perversely paternalistic bonds between the homesick soldier and the enslaved, some of which found wistful expression in letters, some manifested in relationships with servants in the encampments. Many soldiers had deep attachments to the enslaved that nurtured them as children in the bosom of their families; some of that was sincerely reciprocated. Woodward makes it clear that while certain generalities can be drawn, every individual—soldier or chattel—was a human being capable of a wide range of actions and emotions, from the cruel to the heartwarming. For better or for worse, all were creatures of their times and their circumstances. But, at the end of the day, white soldiers had something like free will; enslaved African Americans were subject to the will of others, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.
And then there was impressment. One of the major issues relatively unexplored in the literature is the resistance of white soldiers in the Confederate army to perform menial labor—the same tasks routinely done by white soldiers in the Union army, who grumbled as all those in the ranks in every army were wont to do while nevertheless following orders. But southern boys were different. Nurtured in a society firmly grounded in white supremacy, with chattel property doomed to the most onerous toil, rebels not only typically looked down upon hard work but—as comes out in their letters—equated it with “slavery.” To cope with this and an overall shortage of manpower, legislation was passed in 1863 mandating impressment of the enslaved along with a commitment of compensation to owners. This was not well received, but yet enacted, and thousands more blacks were sent to camps to do the work soldiers were not willing to do.
The numbers were staggering. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania, his army included 6000 enslaved blacks—which added an additional ten percent to the 60,000 infantry troops he led to Gettysburg! This of course does not include the runaways and free blacks his forces seized and enslaved after he crossed the state line. The point to all of this, of course, is that slavery was not some ideological abstraction for the average rebel soldier in the ranks, something that characterized the home front, whether your own family were owners of chattel property or not. Instead, the enslaved were with you in the field every day, not figuratively but in the flesh. With this in mind, sounding a denial that slavery served as a critical motivation for Confederate troops rings decidedly off-key.
While slavery was the central cause of the war, it was certainly not the only cause. There were other tensions that included agriculture vs. industry, rural vs. urban, states’ rights vs. central government, tariffs, etc. But as historians have long concluded, none of these factors on their own could ever have led to Civil War. Likewise, southern soldiers fought for a variety of reasons. While plenty were volunteers, many were also drafted into the war effort. Like soldiers from ancient times to the present day, they fought because they were ordered to, because of their personal honor, because they did not want to appear cowardly in the eyes of their companions. And because much of the war was decided on southern soil, they also fought for their homeland, to defend their families, to preserve their independence. So Shelby Foote might have had a point. But what was that independence based upon? It was fully and openly based upon creating and sustaining a proud slave republic, as all the rhetoric in the lead-up to secession loudly underscored.
Marching Masters argues convincingly that the long-held belief that southern soldiers were indifferent to or unacquainted with the principles that guided the Confederate States of America is in itself a kind of myth that encourages us to not only forgive those who fought for a reprehensible cause but to put them on a kind of heroic pedestal. Many fought valiantly, many lost their lives, and many were indeed heroes, but we must not overlook the cause that defined that sacrifice. In this, we must recall the speech delivered by the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass on “Remembering the Civil War” with his plea against moral equivalency that is as relevant today as it was when he delivered it on Decoration Day in 1878: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”
For all of the more than 60,000 books on the Civil War, there still remains a great deal to explore and much that has long been cloaked in myth for us to unravel. It is the duty not only of historians but for all citizens of our nation—a nation that was truly reborn in that tragic, bloody conflict—to set aside popular if erroneous notions of what led to that war, as well as what motivated its long-dead combatants to take up arms against one another. To that end, Woodward’s Marching Masters is a book that is not only highly recommended but is most certainly required reading.
Transcript of The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause:” https://subslikescript.com/series/The_Civil_War-98769/season-1/episode-1-The_Cause
Comments by James M. Lundberg: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/civil-war-sentimentalism/240082/
Speech by Frederick Douglass, “Remembering the Civil War,” delivered on Decoration Day 1878: https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/reconstruction/frederick-douglass-on-remembering-the-civil-war-1877/
Review of Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, by Stephen Kendrick & Paul Kendrick
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Several years ago, I published an article in a scholarly journal entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” that spotlighted the odd confluence of anti-Irish nativism and the struggle to desegregate Boston schools. The Know-Nothings—a populist, nativist coalition that contained elements that would later be folded into the emerging Republican Party—made a surprising sweep in the Massachusetts 1854 elections, fueled primarily by anti-Irish sentiment, as well as a pent-up popular rage against the elite status quo that had long dominated state politics. Suddenly, the governor, all forty senators, and all but three house representatives were Know-Nothings!
Perhaps more startling was that during their brief tenure, the Know-Nothing legislature enacted a host of progressive reforms, creating laws to protect workingmen, ending imprisonment for debt, strengthening women’s rights in property and marriage, and—most significantly—passing landmark legislation in 1855 that “prohibited the exclusion [from public schools] of children for either racial or religious reasons,” which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban segregation in schools! Featured in the debate prior to passage of the desegregation bill is a quote from the record that is to today’s ears perhaps at once comic and cringeworthy, as one proponent of the new law sincerely voiced his regret “that Negroes living on the outskirts . . . were forced to go a long distance to [the segregated] Smith School. . . while . . . the ‘dirtiest Irish,’ were allowed to step from their houses into the nearest school.”
My article focused on Massachusetts politics and the bizarre incongruity of nativists unexpectedly delivering the long sought-after prize of desegregated schools to the African American community. It is also the story of the nearly forgotten black abolitionist and integrationist William Cooper Nell, a mild if charismatic figure who united disparate forces of blacks and whites in a long, stubborn, determined campaign to end Boston school segregation. But there are lots of other important stories of people and events that led to that moment which due to space constraints could not receive adequate treatment in my effort.
Arguably the most significant one, which my article references but does not dwell upon, centers upon a little black girl named Sarah Roberts. Her father, Benjamin R. Roberts, sued for equal protection rights under the state constitution because his daughter was barred from attending a school near her residence and was compelled to a long walk to the rundown and crowded Smith School instead. He was represented by Robert Morris, one of the first African American attorneys in the United States, and Charles Sumner, who would later serve as United States Senator. In April 1850, in Roberts v. The City of Boston, the state Supreme Court ruled against him, declaring that each locality could decide for itself whether to have or end segregation. This ruling was to serve as an unfortunate precedent for the ignominious separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson some decades hence and was also an obstacle Thurgood Marshall had to surmount when he successfully argued to have the Supreme Court strike down school segregation across the nation in 1954’s breakthrough Brown v. Board of Education case—just a little more than a century after the disappointing ruling in the Roberts case.
Father and son Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick teamed up to tell the Roberts story and a good deal more in Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, an extremely well-written, comprehensive, if occasionally slow-moving chronicle that recovers for the reader the vibrant, long overlooked black community that once peopled Boston in the years before the Civil War. In the process, the authors reveal how it was that while the state of Massachusetts offered the best overall quality of life in the nation for free blacks, it was also the home to the same stark, virulent racism characteristic of much of the north in the antebellum era, a deep-seated prejudice that manifested itself not only in segregated schools but also in a strict separation in other arenas such as transportation and theaters.
Doctrines of abolition were widely despised, north and south, and while abolitionists remained a minority in Massachusetts, as well, it was perhaps the only state in the country where antislavery ideology achieved widespread legitimacy. But true history is all nuance, and those who might rail passionately against the inherent evil in holding humans as chattel property did not necessarily also advance notions of racial equality. That was indeed far less common. Moreover, it is too rarely underscored that the majority of northern “Freesoilers” who were later to become the most critical component of the Republican Party vehemently opposed the spread of slavery to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War while concomitantly despising blacks, free or enslaved.
At the same time, there was hardly unanimity in the free black community when it came to integration; some blacks welcomed separation. Still, as Sarah’s Long Walk relates, there were a number of significant African American leaders like Robert Morris and William Cooper Nell whom, with their white abolitionist allies, played the long game and pursued compelling, nonviolent mechanisms to achieve both integration and equality, many of which presaged the tactics of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights figures a full century later. For instance, rather than lose hope after the Roberts court decision, Nell doubled down his efforts, this time with a new strategy—a taxpayer’s boycott of Boston which saw prominent blacks move out of the city to suburbs that featured integrated schools, depriving Boston of tax revenue.
The Kendrick’s open the narrative with a discussion of Thurgood Marshall’s efforts to overturn the Roberts precedent in Brown v. Board of Education, and then trace that back to the flesh and blood Boston inhabitants who made Roberts v. The City of Boston possible, revealing the free blacks who have too long been lost to history. Readers not familiar with this material will come across much that will surprise them between the covers of this fine book. The most glaring might be how thoroughly in the decades after Reconstruction blacks have been erased from our history, north and south. Until recently, how many growing up in Massachusetts knew anything at all about the thriving free black community in Boston, or similar ones elsewhere above the Mason-Dixon?
But most astonishing for many will be the fact that the separation of races that that would become the new normal in the post-Civil War “Jim Crow” south had its roots fully nurtured in the north decades before Appomattox. Whites and their enslaved chattels shared lives intertwined in the antebellum south, while separation between whites and blacks was fiercely enforced in the north. Many African Americans in Massachusetts had fled bondage, or had family members that were runaways, and knew full well that southern slaveowners commonly traveled by rail accompanied by their enslaved servants, while free blacks in Boston were relegated to a separate car until the state prohibited racial segregation in mass transportation in 1842.
Sarah may not have been spared her long walk to school, but the efforts of integrationists eventually paid off when school segregation was prohibited by Massachusetts law just five years after Sarah’s father lost his case in court. Unfortunately, this battle had to be waged all over again in the 1970s, this time accompanied by episodes of violence, as Boston struggled to achieve educational equality through controversial busing mandates that in the long term generated far more ill will than sustainable results. Despite the elevation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court bench, and the election of the first African American president, more than one hundred fifty years after the Fourteenth Amendment became the law of the land, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reminds us that there is still much work to be done to achieve anything like real equality in the United States.
For historians and educators, an even greater concern these days lies in the concerted efforts by some on the political right to erase the true story of African American history from public schools. As this review goes to press in Black History Month, February 2022, shameful acts are becoming law across a number of states that by means of gaslighting legislation ostensibly designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) effectively prohibit educators from teaching their students the true history of slavery, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. As of this morning, there are some one hundred thirteen other bills being advanced across the nation that could serve as potential gag orders in schools. How can we best combat that? One way is to loudly protest to state and federal officials, to insist that black history is also American history and should not be erased. The other is to freely share black history in your own networks. The best weapons for that in our collective arsenal are quality books like Sarah’s Long Walk.
My journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” and related materials can be accessed by clicking here: Know-Nothings
For more about the Know-Nothings, I recommend this book which I reviewed here: Review of: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by John R. Mulkern