Moses’ Last Exodus

Wilmington, Del., Nov. 30, 1860

The knock came after dark. Hastening to answer it, the old Quaker found a familiar figure in the doorway: a tiny, dark-skinned woman, barely five feet tall, with a kerchief wrapped around her head. Someone who didn’t know her might have taken her for an ordinary poor black woman begging alms – were it not for her eyes. Wide-set, deep-socketed and commanding, they were the eyes not of a pauper or slave, but of an Old Testament hero, a nemesis of pharaohs and kings.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1860s.

Five others followed her: a man and woman, two little girls and, cradled in a basket, the swaddled form of a tiny infant, uncannily silent and still. They had braved many dangers and hardships together to reach this place of safety, trusting their lives to the woman known as “the Moses of her people.”

As politicians throughout the country debated secession and young men drilled for war, Harriet Tubman had been plotting a mission into the heart of slave territory. She did not know that it would be her last. Over the past 10 years, she had undertaken about a dozen clandestine journeys to the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, the place from which she herself had escaped in 1849. She had managed to bring some six dozen people – most of them family and friends – across the Mason-Dixon Line into freedom, then across the Canadian border to safety. But Tubman had never managed to liberate several of her closest relatives: her younger sister Rachel and Rachel’s two children, Ben and Angerine. In the autumn of 1860, she decided to rescue them.

Slave ads from a newspaper on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 1859.

Although it lay on the border between North and South and had few large plantations, the part of Maryland east of the Chesapeake Bay was an especially hazardous place to be a slave. Soil depletion and economic stagnation had left many local planters with more field hands than they needed – as well as chronically short of cash. By the mid-19th century, the Eastern Shore had become known as one of the nation’s principal “breeder” regions, where slaves were frequently sold to slave traders, speculators who sent them south to the burgeoning cotton and sugar plantations of the Gulf Coast. As a child, Tubman had seen two of her own sisters sold away, and heard her parents’ anguished tales of others taken before her birth. Four of her remaining siblings had escaped, three of them helped by their sister Harriet. Only Rachel had remained.

By this time, Tubman was well connected to the nationwide abolitionist movement, and before departing, she raised money for the trip (and for possible bribes along the way) from Wendell Phillips and other activists. She set out from her home in Auburn, N.Y., and by mid-November she was in Maryland.

Tubman arrived to learn that her sister would never know freedom: Rachel had died a short time earlier. There were still the two children, her niece and nephew, to rescue. Here too, Tubman failed. She set a rendezvous point in the woods near the plantation where the two were held, but they failed to appear at the appointed time. Tubman waited all through that night and the following one, crouching behind a tree for shelter from the wind and driving snow. At last she gave up. Ben and Angerine’s fate is unknown.

Ad for a runaway slave, in Macon (Georgia) Daily Telegraph, Nov. 30, 1860.

Tubman had, however, found another family that was ready to seek freedom: Stephen and Maria Ennals and their children, six-year-old Harriet, four-year-old Amanda and a three-month-old infant. (One or two other men may have joined them as well.) The fugitives made their way up the peninsula, traveling mostly by night. Once, they were pursued by slave patrollers alerted to their presence. The escapees hid on an island in the middle of a swamp, covering the baby in a basket. Eventually a lone white man appeared, strolling casually along the edge of the marsh, seemingly talking to himself. They realized he was an agent of the Underground Railroad, telling them how to reach a barn where they could take shelter.

As they continued on their journey, Tubman would go out each day in search of food while the Ennalses hid in the woods, their baby drugged with an opiate to keep it from crying. Returning at the end of the day, Tubman would softly sing a hymn until they heard her and reemerged:

Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
Grief nor sorrow, pain nor anguish,
Shall no more distress you dere.

Even as the group approached Wilmington, it was not yet out of danger: Delaware was still officially a slave state. In fact, due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the escapees could have been recaptured anywhere in the North and returned to bondage. Tubman herself could have been re-enslaved, or – as an abettor of fugitives – sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a Maryland prison. But at last, on the night of Nov. 30, she reached the house of the elderly Quaker, Thomas Garrett, a leading Underground Railroad “conductor” who would smuggle the Ennals family to relative safety in Philadelphia.

Although the Underground Railroad had already become famous – and, for many Americans, infamous – only a tiny percentage of slaves managed to escape to the North: estimates have put the number at just a thousand or so each year out of a total enslaved population of some four million. Still, these fugitives were a major bone of contention for disgruntled Southerners. An adult field hand could cost as much as $2,000, the equivalent of a substantial house. To Southerners, then, anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief. But more infuriating than the monetary loss it occasioned, the Underground Railroad was an affront to the slaveholders’ pride – and a rebuke to those who insisted that black men and women were comfortable and contented in bondage.

In an 1860 speech, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia thundered against Republicans “engaged in stealing our property” and thus “daily committing offences against the people and property of these … States, which, by the laws of nations, are good and sufficient causes of war.” As secession loomed, some Northerners attempted to soothe such fears. A New York Times editorial suggested not only that stronger efforts be made to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but that the federal government compensate slaveholders for their escaped “property.”

Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: “My people are free! My people are free.”

Sources: Kate Clifford Larson, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero“; William Still, “The Underground Rail Road”; Sarah H. Bradford, “Harriet, the Moses of Her People”; Catherine Clinton, “Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom”; Fergus Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America”; James A. McGowan, “Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett”; “Speech of Robert Toombs, of Ga., Delivered in the Senate of the U.S. January 24, 1860”; New York Times, Dec. 10, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Cleopatra’s Guide to Good Governance

LET’S say you can’t readily lay your hands on “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” or those of Winnie the Pooh. And let’s say the political mood around you is bleak; gridlock is the order of the day. Why not turn to a different management guru, a woman who left some 2,000-year-old teachable moments, each of them enduring and essential?

At 18, Cleopatra VII inherited the most lucrative enterprise in existence, the envy of her world. Everyone for miles around worked for her. Anything they grew or manufactured enriched her coffers. She had the administrative apparatus and the miles of paperwork to prove it.

From the moment she woke she wrangled with military and managerial decisions. The crush of state business consumed her day. Partisan interests threatened to trip her up at every turn; she observed enough court intrigue to make a Medici blush. To complicate matters, she was highly vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Oh, and she looked very little like the other statesmen with whom she did business.

Herewith her leadership secrets, a papyrus primer for modern-day Washington:

Obliterate your rivals. Co-opting the competition is good. Eliminating it is better. Cleopatra made quick work of her siblings, which sounds uncouth. As Plutarch noted, however, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families.

The royal rules for dispensing with blood relatives were as inflexible as those of geometry. Cleopatra lost one brother in her civil war against him; allegedly poisoned a second; arranged the murder of her surviving sister. She thereafter reigned supreme.

Does this suggest by extension that a family business is a bad idea? It does.

Don’t confuse business with pleasure. The two have a chronic tendency to invade each other’s territory. But what were John Edwards, Mark Hurd, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer thinking?

If you’re going to seduce someone, set your sights high. Cleopatra fell in with the most celebrated military commanders of her day, sequentially allying herself and producing children with her white knights, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As she demonstrated, the idea is to kiss your way up the ladder. Along the same lines, there was an ancient world equivalent of the hire-an-assistant-of-whom-your-spouse-can’t-be-jealous wisdom. Cleopatra surrounded herself with eunuchs. They got into less trouble than did other aides, or at least different kinds of trouble.

Appearances count. As President Obama has learned and unlearned, theater works wonders. You may campaign in poetry, but you are wise to govern in pageantry. Deliver carnivals rather than tutorials; a little vulgarity goes a long way. Just wear the flag pin already.

Leadership is a trick of perception, a bit of wisdom Shakespeare lent Henry IV, to pass along to Prince Hal. And if you intend to command, look the part. Work boots with a suit are always a nice touch when you’re the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in an occupied Middle Eastern country, for example. Make something of a spectacle of yourself. Yes, you can do that in jeans and a black turtleneck. In a televised world as in a pre-print era, it’s the stage management that counts. Literally or not, the idea is to create and star in your own reality show.

Go big or go home. Cleopatra appeared before Antony at an age when, according to Plutarch, “women have most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power,” a moment every woman knows to be several years behind her. But no matter. Cleopatra took with her extravagant gifts, chests of money, rich textiles. She left behind the boxed sets of DVDs and scale models of Marine One. She traveled on a gilded barge with purple sails, amid a cloud of incense. She laid out carpets of roses. To Antony’s officers she handed around gem-studded vessels, couches, sideboards, tapestries, horses, torch-bearing Ethiopian slaves. It was not surprising that the most astute of Antony’s generals should several years later vouch for her military genius.


Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Millenniums before Wallace Shawn delivered up that pearl of wisdom in “The Princess Bride,” Cleopatra seems to have intuited as much. She nonetheless financed Antony’s military expedition to the restive area east of the Tigris, a multiethnic, multicultural region of shifting alliances, one that had resisted 30 years of Roman efforts at organization. The Roman general who had last ventured that way had not returned. His severed head wound up as a prop in a royal production of Euripides. His legions were slaughtered. Antony fared only marginally better. Asian allies double-crossed him. Guerrilla tactics and treacherous geography undid him. At the conclusion of a demoralizing campaign and a disastrous retreat he had lost some 24,000 men. Cleopatra bailed him out.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Cleopatra comported herself flamboyantly and delivered on drama. But occasionally — despite a huge staff that included pages and scribes, masseurs and tasters, lamplighters and pearl-setters — something slipped through the cracks.

Alas such was the case in her dealings with Cicero, who left only damning lines about the Egyptian queen, whom he would not deign even to mention by name. He had little reason to be inclined toward a rich and foreign female sovereign. But the animus derived from something else. Cleopatra had promised Cicero a manuscript — it may have been one from her library in Alexandria — on which she failed to deliver. The oversight sealed her fate for posterity. No one has ever paid so lasting a price for a forgotten library book.

It pays to sweat the details, as Newt Gingrich reminded us when he shut down the federal government in 1994, after he was assigned a lousy seat on Air Force One.

If you can’t pay your debts, debase your currency. Egypt’s economic affairs were dismal when Cleopatra ascended to the throne. She devalued the currency by a third. She issued no gold and critically lowered the value of her kingdom’s silver. And she ushered in a great innovation: she introduced coins of various denominations. In an early prefiguring of paper currency, the markings rather than the metal content determined their value. A coin might feel light in the hand, but if Cleopatra said it was worth 80 drachmae, it was worth 80 drachmae. The arrangement was both lucrative to her and encouraged an export-driven economy.


A friend of a friend may well be an enemy. Cleopatra’s charm was said to be irresistible, her presence spellbinding. But one person on whom she failed to work her magic was Herod.

Well before religion clouded the picture, the Queen of Egypt and the King of Judaea were rivals for Rome’s friendship. Cleopatra did everything in her power to frustrate Herod. She kept him as far from Antony as possible and claimed proceeds from Judaea’s most lucrative natural resources. At one point she incited a war between Herod and his Arab neighbors the Nabateans, ordering her commander in the region to prolong the contest as long as possible. She counted on them to destroy each other, which they did not. Cleopatra did supply Herod with further reason to malign her in Rome, however.

Good neighbors make good fences. Shortly after the war between Herod and the Nabateans, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian soundly defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. She retreated to Alexandria, from which she attempted several escapes. In one particularly bold maneuver, she dragged her Mediterranean fleet 40 miles overland in order to relaunch it, via the Gulf of Suez, into the Red Sea. Both the bravado and the engineering were staggering. Cleopatra essentially anticipated the Suez Canal.

The tribe on the far side of the Gulf was unfortunately the Nabateans, newly recovered from their costly war with Herod. They set fire to each of Cleopatra’s ships as it reached their shore.

Unsurprisingly, Herod was happy to escort the conquering Octavian directly to the Egyptian border. He saw to it that the Romans lacked nothing for the desert march ahead. Several weeks later Cleopatra was dead.


Control the narrative. Cleopatra understood well that the storytelling mattered as much as the decision-making, and that the best narrative is the easy-to-follow narrative.

She discovered early on that it helps to have a god on your side — or to claim to speak for one. She remained at all times on-message, truthfully and not. She cruised the Nile with Julius Caesar, a splendid advertisement of Egyptian abundance to her Roman visitor and of Roman military might to her people. After her defeat at Actium, she sailed back to Alexandria with head high, passing off a mission entirely botched as one expertly accomplished.

She astutely manipulated the nomenclature; as mission statements go, you can’t do better than the title she adopted at 32: “Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-Loving and Fatherland-Loving.”

The problems came later. Her enemies wrote her history, reducing her shrewd politics and managerial competence to sexual manipulation. As one contemporary noted, “How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!” It’s rarely about the library book, but so much easier to claim it is. And you never know who’s going to end up addressing posterity.

It could be Newt Gingrich.

Stacy Schiff is the author of “Cleopatra: A Life.”


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Famine in Kansas

Atchison, Kansas Territory, Dec. 9, 1860

Street in Atchison, Kansas.

They converged from far and wide on the dusty border town: grim-faced men and women driving teams of staggering oxen; children whose bare and filthy feet were blistered by the hard-baked earth. Not long before, these same trails and same oxen had brought the settlers westward into new lives, new lands, the promise of plenty. Now misery and starvation drove them back, exiles retracing their steps east – fleeing, in the words of a New York Times writer, “as if Death were in the rear.”

A Chicago Tribune correspondent, freshly arrived in Atchison that day, found dozens lined up with their wagons along the Missouri River levees, awaiting handouts of free foodstuffs. “Such a scene!” he wrote. “Great, stalwart men, gaunt, lean, hungry, looking weary, sad, tired, and dispirited; poorly clad, and in all respects filling one with the conviction of suffering patiently borne and long repressed – men, some of whom I recognized, and all of whom bore the unmistakable character of sturdy industry and independence common to our western pioneers.”

An appeal from the Chicago Tribune.

Spotting the stranger’s notebook, the Kansans crowded around to share their stories. A settler from Butler County, G.T. Donaldson, told of crops devoured by grasshoppers, cattle felled by disease, and relentless drought that sealed the overall ruin. A “small, keen eyed” farmer named A.V. Saunders had driven his ox teams more than 200 miles to fetch provisions for his beleaguered rural community; after a week of waiting, he had finally been issued just 12 sacks of meal and eight sacks of potatoes for the 400 inhabitants. Another “forlorn looking man” made a particular impression on the curious journalist:

He was literally clothed in rags. Such a tatterdemalion one can scarcely conceive of. His garments, originally home-spun, had been patched with so many different materials, mostly varieties of bed-ticking and sacking, that the feeble threads would no longer hold together, and the shreds were flopping about him as he walked. His face was haggard and hunger-worn; cheek-bones protruded; flesh had shrunk away, and his eyes were hollow and eager, and had the terrible starved look in them which I saw once in a famine-stricken party of Irish, in ’47, and which I shall never forget. I will tell his story, as near as may be, in his own words:

‘My name is Abraham Huck. I’m from Ilenoy. Came to Kansas last March, and hired a place on Deer Creek, Anderson County…. I’ve got a wife and eight children. Left home last Sunday (six days before). Wife and one of the children’s with me. Left seven at home, with some turnips and a peck of meal.’

‘What,’ I said, ‘a peck of meal for seven?’

‘That’s all, Sir, and we’ve had nothing to eat on the road for three days, except the little I’ve begged. … I planted fifty-five acres [this year], and harvested five bushels of wormy corn.’

The reporter added, by way of comparison, that a peck of meal represented a week’s rations for a single slave in the cotton South.

Kansas seemed cursed by both nature and man. Beginning in 1854, the nation had watched in horror as struggles between pro-slavery and free-soil pioneers devolved into a nightmare of torched and looted towns, murdered civilians and anarchy cloaked in the false trappings of justice. The nation’s leaders, cynically viewing the territory as nothing but a square in the political chess match between North and South, had conspired in its ruin. “The game must be played boldly,” urged the town of Atchison’s namesake, a senator from neighboring Missouri. “If we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” In another letter, to his Senate colleague Jefferson Davis, he wrote: “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over.”

There had indeed been shooting, burning and hanging – but the thing had not ended as quickly as Senator David Rice Atchison had anticipated. Nor had the pro-slavery forces won the game. In October 1859, a popular referendum finally declared the ravaged territory to be free soil, and a bill for statehood began making its way through Congress. At last peace came – along with settlers by the thousands.

And then the elements themselves conspired against the land. Like a modern-day version of plague-ridden Egypt, “Bleeding Kansas” became Starving Kansas. Rains ceased; from the spring through the autumn of 1860, barely enough fell to dampen the surface of the soil. Temperatures reached 105 degrees in the shade. “The hot wind sweeps over the land blinding one with the dust or blistering the skin,” one settler wrote. “The poor squatter looks to his withered crops and sits down in despair.” Another Kansan described the conditions as “only fit for a Hottentot, accustomed to the ardors of the Sahara.” As many as a third of the territory’s 100,000 white inhabitants packed up their scanty belongings and trudged back toward the eastern states whence they had come.

Some blamed politicians for these latest calamities, scarcely less than for the bloodshed of years past. “The ills which Kansas endures are very largely derived from the misgovernment of [James Buchanan’s] administration,” declared an editorial in The Times. “Drought is not a visitation of Presidents but of Providence; but the poverty which preceded the bad harvest, and which renders the people wholly unable to support the deficiency of breadstuffs, is well known to have originated chiefly in the … savage and vindictive mismanagement [that] the affairs of the Territory have been deliberately subjected to.” Other critics charged that Republicans shared the guilt: party leaders had initially downplayed the emergency’s severity, allegedly because they did not want to undercut political fundraising while the presidential election hung in the balance. (Campaigning in Lawrence at the end of September, William H. Seward declared sanguinely that he had “carefully examined the condition of … the river bottoms and the prairies” and concluded that “there will be no famine in Kansas.”)

In the weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s election, as the chill of impending winter began gripping the heartland, Americans had finally begun paying attention to the disaster in the Midwest. (Savvy Kansans whipped up interest by sounding the alarm that pro-slavery raiders – known as “pukes” – were once again preparing to invade.) From New York, Chicago and other cities, donations poured into Atchison, the western terminus of the railway and designated base of the relief efforts. On Dec. 12, at the urging of such leading antislavery Republicans as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, citizens held a rally at the Cooper Union in Manhattan and raised the respectable sum of $1,200 toward the cause. Even President Buchanan closed his annual message by turning his attention from the secession crisis and asking Congress to aid the Kansas sufferers, “if any constitutional measure for their relief can be devised.”

The grim headlines from Atchison, side-by-side with those from secession-mad Charleston, fueled Americans’ forebodings that their nation had entered its end times – perhaps even that God was meting out a terrible judgment for their sins, just as he had done to Pharaoh and the slaveholding Egyptians. The image of free American citizens emaciated and in rags – apparently fed and clothed even worse than Southern slaves – was terrible to contemplate.

“The men whom I see waiting here for their scanty supplies, are the bone and sinew of the West,” wrote the Tribune correspondent. “They are men who are blazing the way of the American people across this Continent, and are laying broad and deep the foundations of free institutions. It is a question for Americans to consider whether these men shall be sustained in this their hour of dire misfortune.” If they could not be, what hope was there for those free institutions themselves?

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13, 1860; New York Times, Oct. 3, Nov. 1, Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Dec. 13, 1860; Craig Miner, “Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000”; Joseph G. Gambone, “Starving Kansas: The Great Drought and Famine of 1859-60” (American West, July 1971); James McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”; Lynda Lasswell Crist, ed., “The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 1853-1855”; Jay Monaghan, “Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865”; Sheffield Ingalls, “History of Atchison County, Kansas”; George W. Glick, “The Drought of 1860” (Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1905-1906); Thaddeus Hyatt, “The Prayer of Thaddeus Hyatt to James Buchanan, President of the United States, in Behalf of Kansas”; William H. Seward, speech at Lawrence, Kans., Sept. 26, 1860; James Buchanan, Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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On Mrs. Kennedy’s Detail

IT was with great trepidation that I approached 3704 N Street in Washington on Nov. 10, 1960. I had just been given the assignment of providing protection for the wife of the newly elected president of the United States, and I was about to meet her for the first time.

I soon realized I had little to worry about. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, just 31 years old at the time, was a gracious woman who put me immediately at ease. She was the first lady, but she was also a caring mother; her daughter, Caroline, was nearly 3 years old, and she was pregnant with her second child. Three weeks later, she went into early labor with John Jr., and I followed her through the entire process. It would be the first of many experiences we would have together.

Being on the first lady’s detail was a lot different from being on the president’s. It was just the two of us, traveling the world together. Mrs. Kennedy was active and energetic — she loved to play tennis, water-ski and ride horses. She had a great sense of humor, and we grew to trust and confide in each other, as close friends do.

In early 1963, Mrs. Kennedy shared with me the happy news that she was pregnant again. She had curtailed her physical activities and had settled into a routine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., for the last few months of her pregnancy. I was on a rare day off when I got the call that she had gone into early labor. I raced to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, arriving shortly after she did.

The president, who had been in Washington, arrived soon after she delivered their new baby boy, whom they named Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.

When Patrick died two days later, Mrs. Kennedy was devastated. I felt as if my own son had died, and we grieved together.

The following weeks were difficult as I watched her fall into a deep depression. Eventually, it was suggested that she needed to get away. In October 1963 I traveled with her to the Mediterranean, where we stayed aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the Christina. The trip to Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, along with a short stop in Morocco, seemed to be good therapy, and by the time we returned to Washington the light had returned to her eyes.

I was surprised, however, when not long after our return Mrs. Kennedy decided to join her husband on his trip to Texas. It was so soon after the loss of her son, and she hadn’t accompanied the president on any domestic political trips since his election.

Nevertheless, when we left the White House on Thursday, Nov. 21, I could tell that Mrs. Kennedy was truly excited. I remember thinking this would be a real test of her recovery, and that if she enjoyed the campaigning it would probably be a regular occurrence as soon as the 1964 race got into full swing.

The first day of the trip was exhausting. We had motorcades in San Antonio, Houston and finally Fort Worth, where we arrived around midnight. It had been a long day for everyone, and Mrs. Kennedy was drained.

On the morning of Nov. 22, I went to her room at the Hotel Texas to bring her down to the breakfast where President John F. Kennedy was speaking. She was refreshed and eager to head to Dallas. She had chosen a pink suit with a matching hat to wear at their many appearances that day, and she looked exquisite.

The motorcade began like any of the many that I had been a part of as an agent — with the adrenaline flowing, the members of the detail on alert. I was riding on the running board of the car just behind the president’s.

We were traveling through Dallas en route to the Trade Mart, where the president was to give a lunchtime speech, when I heard an explosive noise from my right rear. As I turned toward the sound, I scanned the presidential limousine and saw the president grab at his throat and lurch to the left.

I jumped off the running board and ran toward his car. I was so focused on getting to the president and Mrs. Kennedy to provide them cover that I didn’t hear the second shot.

I was just feet away when I heard and felt the effects of a third shot. It hit the president in the upper right rear of his head, and blood was everywhere. Once in the back seat, I threw myself on top of the president and first lady so that if another shot came, it would hit me instead.

The detail went into action. We didn’t stop to think about what happened; our every move and thought went into rushing the president and Mrs. Kennedy to the nearest hospital.

I stayed by Mrs. Kennedy’s side for the next four days. The woman who just a few days before had been so happy and exuberant about this trip to Texas was in deep shock. Her eyes reflected the sorrow of the nation and the world — a sorrow we still feel today.

Clint Hill, a former assistant director of the Secret Service, served under five presidents.

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Drama in Milledgeville

Nov. 16 – 22, 1860

With ardent secessionist activity in South Carolina having a week ago reached a heated peak, a pregnant pause has followed. Until the secession convention comes to order in December, the focus of the disunion crisis last week shifted elsewhere.

In Georgia, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

In Washington, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

And in Springfield, Ill., a man of probity and wisdom reached a firm decision. By all accounts, the beard is coming in nicely.

Lodged between the deep South’s slave-rich Atlantic coast states and the just-developing Mississippi Valley states, rich, large Georgia is key to most of the secessionists’ plans. But with two regions that are relatively slave-free — the pine barrens in the southeast and the mountains in the north near Tennessee — Georgia’s appetite for secession is not everywhere so keen.

Knowing that it can’t treat this issue like South Carolina has, Georgia’s state legislature decided that before it deliberates on the question of secession, it wanted to hear the views of its brightest minds, or at least the brightest minds that don’t happen to belong to state legislators. And so last week, two dozen men traveled to the state capital in Milledgeville to offer their views.

Almost immediately two main schools of thought emerged, the Separatist and the Cooperationist. The Separatists support the idea that Georgia can and should leave the union on its own, regardless of what any other state does. The Cooperationists have mixed views about secession, but are united in their opposition to unilateral action; whatever Georgia does, they say, Georgia should do in concert with the other Southern states.

Some cooperationists favor secession, while others support secession as a last resort, pending the outcome of negotiations with the North, and still others support secession if and only if the North offers a military response to the South’s demands or to a southern state’s departure. The Separatists, too, have internal divisions. Most are urging the departing states to combine into a new nation, but some support secession as a mere tactic. They believe the South should rejoin the union once the North offers concessions on slavery, as they are confident it will.

The presentations took place over five evenings, and the flickering candelabras heightened the feelings of drama in the chamber. Right at the outset, the separatists boldly seized the rhetorical heights of the debate and in truth, never relinquished them. Disunion or dishonor — that’s how their first speaker, the legal scholar Thomas R.R. Cobb, starkly defined the legislature’s choice.

Momentarily modulating his emotions, Cobb argued that wisdom, not passion, should guide the legislators’ decisions, but then called upon them to think — wisely, mind you, not passionately — of their families. Remember the parting moment when you left your firesides to come to the capital. Remember the trembling hand of your beloved wife as she whispered her fears from the incendiary and the assassin. Recall the look of indefinable dread from your little daughter. “My friends, I have no fear of servile insurrection . . . Our slaves are the most happy and contented of workers.” But the “unscrupulous emissaries of Northern Abolitionists’” may turn the disgruntled few. “You cannot say whether your home or your family may be the first to greet your returning footsteps in ashes or in death.”

Robert Toombs

This sanguineous theme connected the comments of other Separatist speakers. Senator Robert Toombs noted that the slave population has quintupled from 800,000 in 1790 to four million at present, a rate that would result in 11 million slaves by 1900. What would we do with them? he asked. If we can’t expand our borders, extermination will be required.

The lawyer Henry Benning also had population growth on his mind. He pointed to the North and to rates of immigration, and argued that free states would soon outnumber slave states and abolitionist forces would dominate Congress. And what will happen then? Soon there will be a constitutional amendment that would require southerners “to emancipate your slaves, and to hang you if you resist.” This will be followed by a war in which emancipated slaves will “exterminate or expel” all southern white men. “As for the women, they will call upon the mountains to fall upon them.”

Alexander Stephens

In opposition to these dire visions were a few voices of skeptical calm, most notably that of Alexander Stephens, the 48-year-old former Whig congressman, whose corpus consists of a mere 98 pounds of ashen flesh that rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, cervical disc disease, bladder stones, angina, migraines, pruritis and chronic melancholy disease had not wasted away.

Wrapped in scarves and shawls, the cadaverous, mummified Stephens accepted the thankless task of trying to staunch the hyperbole. Lincoln is no dictator, Stephens argued. Constitutional checks hobble him. Democrats have majorities in both the House and the Senate. Lincoln cannot appoint any federal officers without the consent of the Senate. There are but two Republicans on the Supreme Court. “The president has been constitutionally chosen. If he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. Do not let us break the Constitution because he may.”

Of course, Stephens agreed, slaveholders have genuine grievances, and the North has to acknowledge them. Yes, there is a federal fugitive slave law, but too many northern states have personal liberty laws that prohibit state officials from apprehending runaway slaves. A slave can just walk off the farm in Virginia or Maryland or Kentucky, and no sheriff or constable in Pennsylvania or Ohio will lift a finger to apprehend him. Stephens argued that as a condition for remaining in the Union, northern states had to repeal those laws.

It was a canny and reasonable argument, the basis of a compromise many northerners might well accept. But with separatists conjuring the image of that Black Republican Abraham Lincoln unleashing troops of militant Wide Awakes to invade the South and liberate hordes of slaves who will rampage throughout the cotton belt like Mongol barbarians, poor Stephens might as well have brought watering can to quench an inferno. As sturdy a rope as Stephens’s proposal may be, it stands little chance of restraining the headstrong Separatists; it may, however, be the line they will try to grasp to save themselves if later they realize they have plunged into disaster.

James Buchanan

In Washington, meanwhile, the lame-duck Buchanan administration is responding to the threat of crisis with a combination of weariness and irresolution. Never a particularly dynamic leader — with more insight than he perhaps intended, Buchanan once referred to himself as an “old public functionary” — the president has always preferred to make policy by reaching consensus with a cabinet he balanced so carefully by region that he seemed like teamster packing a mule.

But the Solons of his cabinet are failing him. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi and Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia (yes, brother of the wise, dispassionate Thomas cited above) believe secession is a fait accompli and are eyeing opportunities with the new government. Secretary of War John Floyd of Virginia is torn between his southern sympathies and pro-union convictions. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the 78-year-old secretary of state, is showing signs of mental feebleness; Connecticut’s Isaac Toucey, the secretary of the Navy, has never demonstrated much mental capacity to enfeeble.

Buchanan proposed to respond to secessionists with an ingenious proposal: to call a convention of the states, as permitted under Article V of the Constitution, to discuss an amendment that would permit secession. It was a shrewd idea: the hotspurs in South Carolina have already dispensed with talking, but the serious men of the South would have looked unreasonable if they refused an open-handed invitation to discuss their problems. And yet a national convention might well provide a place where pro-unionists of every stripe could come together and exhibit their considerable strength.

The Cabinet offered Buchanan scant support. Thompson and Cobb, participating in a government they no longer believed in, inveighed against the idea as too little, too late. Floyd, as is his custom, was non-committal. The others, unable to plan ahead to coffee until they’ve had their pie, objected to the scheme because it might offer legitimacy to the possibility of secession.

Faced with these nattering advisers, a stronger leader might have sacked the lot and pressed on with his proposal. But Buchanan is spent. Exhausted and fearful, he settled for a watered-down version of a statement against secession written by Attorney General Jeremiah Black. Black had argued in Cabinet meetings in favor of the government’s duty to defend itself against disunionists — “meet,” “repel” and “subdue” were the words Black used — but the timorous Buchanan scrapped Black’s vigorous language and issued a mild condemnation of secession that declined to so much as wag a disapproving finger at the ultras of the South. In two weeks the president is scheduled to present his annual message to Congress; perhaps that will still be enough time for him to look in the White House attic to see if Andy Jackson left behind some backbone he could use.

With the outgoing president marking time, many are looking for the incoming chief executive to show some leadership. Apparently they will have to wait until Mr. Lincoln is actually on the federal payroll and starts collecting the $25,000 a year he earns for the job.

Lincoln has made no comment about slavery or disunion since before the election, maintaining that his positions are already crystal clear — he’s against expansion, and regardless of his personal opinion, he is Constitutionally incapable of affecting slavery where it already exists. Repeating these positions could only give fodder to those who would twist his views, and he’s powerless to do anything for another three months anyway. As the editor of The Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill, put it, “He must keep his feet out of all such wolf traps,” and Lincoln surely agrees.

Still, insiders paid particular attention last week to the address delivered in Springfield by Senator Lyman Trumbull at the Great Republican Jubilee celebrating Lincoln’s election. Despite the fact that Trumbull snatched his senate seat from Lincoln’s grasp five years ago, an act that earned both Trumbull and his wife the eternal enmity of Mary Lincoln, the two men are great friends.

Indeed, they are such great friends that it sometimes seems that they speak with one voice. Thus, when Trumbull told the crowd that under Lincoln, all the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs, including the protection of property, those in the know believed they were hearing the words of the president-elect. And when Trumbull said that secession is not only impractical, it is a constitutional impossibility, it was like hearing from Lincoln himself. What good it will do is another matter. The New York Herald cheerfully predicted that “The speech will go a great ways in clearing the Southern sky of the clouds of disunion.” But whoever wrote that probably hadn’t heard any of the speeches in Milledgeville this week.

Meanwhile, the president-elect continues to prepare for his presidency. Springfield has proven to be a magnet for eager office-seekers, most of whom depart in disappointment. Perhaps the saddest of those who have departed Springfield is not an office-seeker but an artist, Jesse Atwood of Philadelphia, who painted Lincoln just before the election. The portrait, described as “perfect in feature and delineation,” was generously praised when exhibited in the capitol in Springfield.

Unfortunately for Atwood, Lincoln decided that he would look more presidential with a beard, and after a day or two, Atwood’s portrait was out of date. Atwood, who had left Springfield, raced back and filled in some whiskers, but he wasn’t working from life, and he surmised the wrong style, and now has a picture that resembles Lincoln neither then nor now. But apart from Atwood, most people like the beard.

To read more about this period, see “The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant,” by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press, 2007; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; “Lincoln: President-Elect,: by Harold Holzer, Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”


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‘Fort Madness:’ Britain’s Bizarre Sea Defense Against the Germans

Three of the seven forts linked together in the Thames Estuary photographed on Sept. 29, 1945. The towers were originally designed as first line invasion defenses and each was armed with a 3.5 artillery gun. The constructed forts were towed out to sea, sunk on sandbanks and then linked together by cat walks.

Clusters of steel huts and manned triumphal arches: From bizarre fortresses off the coast, the British military fought German mine layers in World War II. The huge forts weren’t just a thorn in the side of Hitler’s air force, but also drove their British crews insane.

Perhaps the captain of the Baalbeck did see, through the dense fog, the bizarre shape jutting out of the water in the Thames River estuary, but it was already too late to stop the engines. Traveling at full speed, the Swedish freighter slammed into a group of strange steel hulks. The accident happened about six kilometers off the east coast of England in the late afternoon of March 1, 1953. The steel structures were boxes the size of two-story apartment buildings, each of them perched on massive concrete piers and connected by walkways. Guns were mounted on the roofs.

When the fog lifted the next day, the scope of the catastrophe was clearly visible from the shore. The outline of the British Army’s damaged Nore Fort was visible on the horizon, but now it was missing two of its seven towers.

The accident dealt a serious blow to Great Britain’s plans to defend its air space, striking at the heart of a project that the country’s army and navy had forcefully pursued since the beginning of the Cold War in the 1950s: The construction of at least a dozen sea fortresses around the island to protect strategically important ports and shipping channels. The British wanted to be prepared. The Admiralty had no doubts as to the military effectiveness of the unusual air defense system. After all, the massive steel towers had already served as a frontline defense against Hitler’s Wehrmacht, though not from the very beginning of the war.

In the Stranglehold of the German Navy

Soon after World War II began, the German navy had already managed to strike the island kingdom in its most vulnerable place: shipping. About 2,500 freighters were sailing at any given time to bring goods to Great Britain from around the world. The British also used ships to handle the bulk of their domestic flow of goods. The busiest route ran along the east coast of the island, a lifeline that the enemy was already threatening to cut off only a few weeks into the war.

German destroyers relentlessly laid mines off the east coast and the Thames estuary. More than 100 ships sank in the first few months of the war, and their cargos, so vital to the British and their war effort, sank along with them. The situation became even more menacing when the Germans began dropping their bombs in mid-November 1939. British commercial shipping was brought to a virtual standstill.

Mine sweepers were constantly in operation, but the results remained unsatisfactory. Many losses were simply inexplicable. It appeared as if the Germans had mines that the British were unable to detect. To address the problem, the head of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered the navy to obtain a sample of Germany’s new weapons — whatever the cost.

A Deadly Competition

As luck would have it, British searchlights illuminated a German Heinkel bomber on the night of Nov. 21, 1939, just as it was dropping an unknown object attached to a parachute off of Britain’s east coast. Experts salvaged and examined the object, which turned out to be a magnetic mine.

Although the British were now able to adjust their mine sweepers to search for the devices, the risk to shipping would continue, as a competition erupted between mine layers and mine searchers, as well as between scientists and engineers on both sides as they continued to develop new mines — and new countermeasures. The Admiralty became convinced that its only hope to free itself of the deadly flotsam was to shoot down or at least deter the mine layers.

At this time, ministry officials remembered a civil engineer named Guy Maunsell who had apparently been thinking about an imminent invasion for some time. Maunsell had originally presented the Admiralty with his designs for unmanned diving capsules. According to his plan, these submersible stations would be permanently anchored in positions surrounding the British coast, and from there would be able to observe all enemy movements above and below the water surface. No one knows whether any of these bottle-shaped devices were ever built, but the original design apparently convinced the Admiralty to work with Maunsell.

A Manned Triumphal Arch

To fend off the mine layers in the Thames estuary, Maunsell initially proposed the building of offshore structures that resembled the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, both in shape and size. The Admiralty approved the design after a few changes were made. Under the modified design, two hollow reinforced concrete towers, each of them seven meters in diameter, would be mounted on a floating pontoon. Each of the seven-story towers would provide enough space for a crew of about 120 men, including equipment and food. Two 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns and two 40 mm Bofors guns were to be mounted on a platform at the top.

Between February and June 1942, four of the structures, which measured 33 meters (108 feet) tall and weighed 4,500 tons each, were finally towed out to the sites, some 6 to 12 nautical miles off the coast. Once the pontoons had been flooded, the structures settled on the ocean floor and the crews were able to begin their work.

In early 1941, while these so-called naval sea forts were still being built, Maunsell was asked to design an anti-aircraft defense for the Mersey estuary near Liverpool. Because of the difficult ocean floor conditions there, Maunsell chose a different model. He placed four hollow reinforced concrete legs, each with a diameter of 90 centimeters (about three feet), on a reinforced concrete foundation in the shape of a picture frame. Each leg was to support a two-story steel structure with a footprint of 11 by 11 meters.

Seven of these 750-ton towers, spaced 30 meters apart and connected by walkways made of steel pipes, formed a fort. The arrangement of the towers was patterned on the land-based anti-aircraft batteries, with a control tower with radar at the center, surrounded by four towers with 3.7-inch guns and one tower with two Bofors guns and, slightly away from the core arrangement, one tower with searchlights. In 1943, the army ordered three structures similar to those in the Mersey estuary for the Thames, including the Nore Army Fort.

Madness Under Water

Living conditions on the artificial islands were extreme, with each of the seven-tower fortresses housing up to 265 men at a time. The isolation and close quarters were hard to bear, especially in the concrete legs of the naval sea forts. While the officers’ sleeping quarters were in the upper part of the cylinders, where there was adequate light and oil heating, it was intolerable for the crews, who spent their nights below the surface of the water.

To distract themselves when there was nothing to do, the men were convinced to take up hobbies. Psychologists recommended painting, knitting or building models. The men remained on board for six weeks at a time, spending 10 days on land in between deployments. Many required psychiatric treatment, and the soldiers soon came up with their own name for the manmade platforms: “Fort Madness.”

At the end of the war, the crews had chalked up an impressive list of successes. Some 22 aircraft and 30 V-1 flying bombs where shot down from the Thames forts, and one was involved in the sinking of a German speedboat. But the use of the forts in the Mersey estuary had proved to be difficult. Because of their location on a constantly shifting sandbar, the structures on stilts repeatedly sank into the ocean floor. In 1948, the Admiralty had them dismantled because they posed a danger to shipping.

A Secret Expansion Project

But there were different plans for the forts in the Thames estuary. In July 1948, a delegation from the War Office paid a visit to the Nore Army Fort to look into possible uses for the existing forts. A year later, a secret meeting was held at the War Office to discuss the need for additional Maunsell army forts.

The group agreed that another 11 forts were needed to secure all key points and shipping lanes around the perimeter of the United Kingdom. After several changes had been made, the sites had been determined, and so had the costs. The entire project would cost an estimated £2.8 million British, an enormous sum in the postwar period. The “Baalbeck” accident at the Nore Army Fort in early March 1953 didn’t exact enhance the popularity of the project, and in July 1953 the decision was made to suspend it.

There was another accident at the Nore Army Fort in late 1954, which prompted the War Office to discontinue all maintenance work on the forts in 1956. The sea forts attracted attention once again in the 1960s, when British pirate radio stations occupied the platforms. Today private initiatives are underway to preserve the four remaining Maunsell sea forts as curious relics of World War II.


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Travels of a Teenage Prince

English Channel, Nov. 14, 1860

 Handkerchiefs waved as the prince graced New York with his royal presence.

Amid heavy fog, a red signal rocket flashed across the night sky, and the captain of the HMS Himalaya breathed a sigh of relief. The queen would rest easier now.

Victoria, waiting at Windsor Castle for word of her eldest son, had felt her anxiety turning slowly into panic. His little squadron, crossing the storm-wracked North Atlantic from Portland, Me., was more than a week overdue. Several days earlier, she had asked the Admiralty to send out search vessels; the first one had returned without success. But now all was well: at breakfast, the queen received news of the rocket sighting. By then the ship carrying her beloved Bertie was safe inside the breakwater at Plymouth.

Punch In an English cartoon from Punch, meanwhile, young Bertie is shown transformed into a typical American boy, much to the consternation of his father, Prince Albert.

The doughy-faced teenager, known more formally as Prince Albert Edward, had just become the first British royal to visit the United States since the Revolution. (In 1782, his great-uncle, Prince William Henry – later King William IV – had been stationed as a Royal Navy midshipman in New York, where he eluded a plot by George Washington to kidnap him as a hostage.) At an endless round of balls and receptions – in Detroit, St. Louis, Harrisburg, Albany and other unlikely locations – the once-defiant colonials had fallen over themselves to bow and curtsy at this rather nondescript twig on the world’s most famous family tree.

Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, hardly a royalist, gushed about him as “an embodiment, in boy’s form, of a glorious related nation” – going on to mention Milton, Spenser, Bacon and Shakespeare, all in the same breath, as if these luminaries were stuffed into Bertie’s vest pockets. His tour eclipsed even that of the Japanese envoys earlier in the year, and pushed news of the presidential contest into the back pages of the major papers. (Abraham Lincoln, then still a candidate, however, declined to meet the prince when the royal train passed through Springfield, Ill.; he felt it would be presumptuous.)

There had been a few glitches, to be sure. In Richmond, Va., paying his respects to a statue of Washington, Bertie was greeted with jeers of “He socked it to you in the Revolution!” and “He gave you English squirts the colic!” In New York, the 69th Regiment of state militia – soon to win fame in the Civil War as part of the “Irish Brigade” – refused to turn out for a parade in his honor.

On the return crossing, headwinds and heavy seas left the royal entourage wallowing in the mid-Atlantic troughs. The dignitaries passed the time as best they could; Viscount Hinchingbrooke later fondly recalled dancing in the evenings “with the midshipmen for partners.” On Nov. 9, the prince turned 19, an occasion marked with double rations of grog and a festive dinner – but dampened, literally, when a large wave drenched the birthday boy in ice-cold seawater.

Among the souvenirs that Bertie was bringing home from the New World were two gray squirrels and a mud turtle, gifts for his animal-loving mother. All of them survived the journey safe and sound – like the prince himself, who would live to succeed Victoria more than 40 years later, and reign as King Edward VII.

Sources: Ian Radforth, “Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States”; Stanley Weintraub, “Edward the Caresser: The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII”; The Independent, Oct. 18, 1860; New York Times, Oct. 8, 1860 and Nov. 17, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Tea-Partying Like It’s 1860

On Nov. 8, 1860, the secessionists who published The Charleston Mercury greeted the news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president with righteous defiance: “The tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

Sound familiar? It turns out that tea-party revivalism is nothing new; it’s been in the public parlance for a long time. But not forever: in the decades after the Revolutionary War public figures aggressively avoided the “tea party” analogy, considering it an act of collective passion beneath the civility of the young republic. It took the clash over slavery and states’ rights to return the “tea party” to respectability and breathe lasting life into one of our country’s most potent political analogies.

From the start, politicians have invoked the words and deeds of the Revolutionary era for their own purposes. When William Jefferson Clinton made his way to Washington as president-elect in 1993, he stopped by Monticello and paid tribute to the man who supposedly inspired his middle name. (Detractors snickered that this couldn’t be true; for a white boy born in Arkansas in 1946, they said, the more likely namesake was Jefferson Davis.)

It was only natural that Northerners and Southerners would try to manipulate the iconography of patriotism as the United States lurched toward its constitutional crisis over the meaning of freedom. Both abolitionists and slaveholders wanted to portray themselves as the real descendants of the Founding Fathers and the proper inheritors of their legacy.

The Boston Tea Party, however, presented a challenge. Benjamin Carp, a historian at Tufts, points to the conundrum in his excellent new book, “Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.” “The American Revolution was in many respects a rite of passage for the new nation,” he writes. “Seen in this light, the Boston Tea Party was a national moment of adolescent rebellion.” In other words, George Washington and peers were trustworthy grown-ups, but the tea partiers were a bunch of teenage misfits who couldn’t be trusted with the buggy whips. 

For half a century afterward, Mr. Carp reports, a code of silence gripped Boston: nobody wanted to confess that they had tossed tea into the harbor in 1773. Part of their motivation sprang from a desire to escape justice. “For a long period apprehensions are said to have been entertained,” wrote the novelist James Fenimore Cooper in 1839, “by some engaged – men of wealth – that they might yet be made the subjects of a prosecution for damages, by the East India Company.”

No less important was a sense of shame, a belief that the Boston Tea Party was an act of hooliganism. In 1823, William Tudor, the co-founder of the North American Review, warned of how the tea party flirted with mob rule: “Their irregular action was salutary and indispensable at the time, but the habit of interfering in this manner with public affairs was a dangerous one, and it proves the virtue of the people that it did not produce permanent evils.” In his view, it was a good thing the tea party was a single episode of attention-grabbing mischief rather than a continuing movement devoted to violent mayhem.

To the ongoing consternation of historians, most of the original tea partiers took their secrets to the grave; Mr. Carp likens their behavior to a kind of gangland omertà. After they were gone, Edward Everett Hale – a relation of the man who declaimed at Gettysburg for two hours just before Lincoln spoke his 272 words – recalled the environment: “If, within the last seventy-five years, any old gentleman has said that he was of the Boston Tea Party, it is perfectly sure that he was not one of the party of men who really did throw the tea into the harbor. If, on the other hand, any nice old gentleman, asked by his grandchildren if he were of the Tea Party, smiled and put off the subject and began talking about General Washington, or General Gage, it is well-nigh certain that he was one of that confederation.” (Hale’s comment recalls the controversies surrounding two of this year’s senatorial candidates, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, who were accused of embellishing their military service records. Neither man was tied to the tea-party movement; both won on Election Day.)

South Carolinians were among the first to see the tea party in a different light. When South Carolina had its first fling with secession during the 1831 nullification crisis, its governor, James Hamilton, compared his state’s actions to those of the “Boston Tea Affair.” Anti-slavery crusader William Lloyd Garrison denounced the comparison – not for besmirching the hallowed memory of American patriots, but because he feared it was entirely too accurate. The tea party, he said, invoked “the demon of civil discord.”

Yet abolitionists eventually had second thoughts about this comparison. As they fought fugitive slave laws in the 1850s, they came to see the tea party a model of enlightened civil disobedience. When a group of Boston vigilantes freed a runaway slave from federal authorities in 1851, the minister Theodore Parker – a man whose words are embroidered into President Obama’s new Oval Office rug – celebrated. “I think it the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773,” he wrote.

The temperance movement also got in on the act. In 1854, several women in DeWitt County, Ill., were arrested for trashing a saloon. Their prairie lawyer, who took the case on a moment’s notice, argued that they were simply acting in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party. The jury found the women guilty, but the judge decided to let them off with fines of $2 each. Local legend says that they weren’t even made to pay, so the ladies were probably satisfied with their legal representation – provided by one Abraham Lincoln.

By the time Lincoln was elected president, the tea-party trope had become an acceptable part of mainstream rhetoric, a statement of civic-minded frustration and protest. The 21st-century Tea Party is simply an extension of that development. Its detractors are likewise trying to return to an older habit and marginalize the movement as crude and dangerous – a position some modern-day Tea Partyers have inadvertently helped reinforce. Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, was unwise to hint that his state might become so aggravated by federal overreach that it would consider secession. And in post-election recriminations, many conservatives have criticized Tea Party activists in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada for nominating weak, unpracticed Senate candidates in races that were otherwise winnable for Republicans.

Yet none of these blunders is serious enough to warrant an earlier century’s sense of embarrassment. The Tea Party of 2010 hasn’t engaged in the crime of property destruction and its greatest provocateurs limited their incitements to asking pointed questions at the town-hall meetings of congressional incumbents. On the contrary, by tapping into a storied political analogy, the movement shows a more sophisticated grasp of American history than its critics give it credit for possessing.

Indeed, when they haven’t been trying to popularize vulgarisms like the insult “teabagger,” those critics have at times displayed their own lack of historical acumen. After Sarah Palin warned her listeners at an October rally that it wasn’t yet time to “party like it’s 1773,” several commentators accused her of getting her dates wrong – when in fact Mrs. Palin meant the date of the Boston Tea Party, not the Declaration of Independence. “She’s so smart,” sneered Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.

By misunderstanding the reference, the movement’s critics advertised their unfamiliarity not only with one of America’s great political events but also one of its age-old traditions – and proved that there’s something to be said for silence.

John J. Miller writes for National Review. He is the author of “The First Assassin,” a historical novel set in 1861.


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Lincoln’s Mailbag

The election of Nov. 6 was big news, to put it mildly. In the days following, newspaper headlines screamed it from one city to another, across the not very united states. As Adam Goodheart wrote earlier, the telegraph allowed the results to be known nearly as quickly as we would know today. Now, thanks to another marvel of technology — the Internet — we can see the private telegrams and letters that Lincoln himself was seeing, as Americans exhaled and realized, to their amazement, that he had pulled it off. In the days following the verdict, an enormous range of Americans, from all walks of life, wrote to their president-elect to express their feelings about where the country was headed. These letters present a remarkable documentary portrait of a nation at a crossroads.

Most of Lincoln’s correspondence is housed in the Library of Congress, just off the East Portico of the Capitol, where he gave his two great inaugural addresses. (They are there, too.) The Library is a national treasure, both for its holdings and for its robust commitment to make these priceless artifacts available to all. That means putting them online, for free, which the Library has been doing since February 2000, with scholarly support from the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College.

By visiting the Library of Congress Web site, you can now read Lincoln’s mail more or less as he did. What a story these pieces of paper tell! They recreate the drama of election night, from anxiety over the election (will he win?), to joy at the result (he did!), to a new kind of anxiety (now what?). As Americans from all backgrounds wrote to Lincoln, you realize just how much depended on this one man. They bared their emotions to him, sometimes in surprising ways.

William F. Smith, a proud citizen from Germantown, PA, wrote in to say that his wife had given birth as the results were being announced, and their son would be henceforth be known as “young Abe.” A neighbor of Lincoln’s in Springfield, Henry Fawcett, wasted no time asking for a job, as his personal servant in the White House, the first of a torrent of similar letters to come.

An anonymous person, who identified himself only as “one of those who are glad today,” wrote, “God has honored you this day, in the sight of all the people. Will you honor Him at the White House?”

More disturbingly, “a citizen” in Pensacola, Fla., sent a telegram to say “you were last night hung in effigy in this city.” Undoubtedly many regretted the words “in effigy.”

This online collection is all the more astonishing for the fact that its contents have often been severely restricted from view. Robert Todd Lincoln supervised the removal of his father’s papers immediately after the assassination, and asked a trusted judge in Chicago, David Davis, to take care of them. Judge Davis stored them in a bank vault in Bloomington, Ill., but they were moved several times after that, by order of Robert T. Lincoln; to Washington, to Chicago, back to Washington, to Manchester, VT (Lincoln’s summer home). In 1919, he finally placed them in the Library of Congress, but on condition that they not be revealed to be there.

In the confused aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lincoln’s documents were removed again for safekeeping. Most went to the University of Virginia, but several documents were deemed so central to American history, and therefore to national security, that they were sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky (these included the two inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address). All of the papers were returned in 1944, and the entire Lincoln collection opened to the public for the first time in 1947.

But still they were not as open as they could be. The people granted access to these precious papers, generally, were the small number of specialists in the highest stratosphere of Lincoln scholarship. It is only in the last decade that they have been truly open, in the sense that the Internet provides, allowing every American — indeed, every person on Earth — to access them from home. The collection contains both soaring oratory and the ordinary dross of everyday governance. But its unfiltered availability to all is itself a tribute to Lincoln’s insistence that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

Source: The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”


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Jim Crow on West Broadway

New York, Nov. 17, 1860

Streetcars on Park Row, circa 1860. The large building in the background is the headquarters of The New York Times.

The young man saw the horse-drawn streetcar coming from up the block. It didn’t have the necessary sign in the window – “Colored People Allowed in This Car” – but he was in a hurry that Saturday morning, so he hopped aboard anyhow. The conductor, according to a brief report in The New York Times, “told him that he must either get off or ride on the front platform. He said that he would do neither, but he would stay where he was.” A scuffle ensued, a constable hurried to the scene, and 23-year-old Charles Sanders was hauled off to face charges of assault and battery.

Records reveal little about Sanders: it is unclear whether he was an early civil rights activist – a 19th-century Rosa Parks – or just an impatient and hassled New York commuter. In any case, he was no mere Bowery ruffian. Sanders resided on one of the most elegant blocks in Manhattan, in the home of a wealthy dry-goods merchant for whose family he worked as a domestic servant. (The house, 55 West 9th Street, still stands; it is currently on the market for $10 million.) Next door lived an army officer named Irvin McDowell, who would soon gain notoriety along an obscure Virginia stream called Bull Run; just up the block stood the mansion of Henry J. Raymond, founder and publisher of the Times.

Such exalted connections availed him little. As far as the streetcar company and the police were concerned, Charles Sanders was just another “colored” man who needed to be shown his place. But in the years before the Civil War, New York was already the battleground of a civil rights struggle that has been nearly forgotten: a hard-fought conflict foreshadowing events in the Deep South a century later.

Segregation was an old story in New York. Although the state had abolished slavery in 1827, most public transportation, schools, theaters, restaurants and churches still enforced a strict color line, as they did throughout the free states. In the 1830s, omnibus drivers sometimes used their whips to keep African-Americans from boarding. As the renowned Southern historian C. Vann Woodward would write, “one of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force.”

Separate and unequal facilities were hardly the only injustice confronting New York’s African-Americans. State law restricted blacks’ voting rights to men owning at least $250 in real estate, a tiny percentage of the total population.

Segregated streetcars, however, remained powerful, ubiquitous symbols of everyday racism in the city. In the 1850s, after decades of intermittent civil disobedience, a bold cohort of black New Yorkers made a concerted effort to integrate them. On July 16, 1854, a young African-American schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings was violently ejected from a trolley at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets. The black community rallied to raise money for a lawsuit and hired a young attorney named Chester A. Arthur – the future president – to represent her. Remarkably, the judge decided in favor of Jennings, awarded her damages of $250 and decreed that transit companies were “bound to carry all respectable persons” regardless of race.

When most trolley operators simply ignored this ruling, black leaders redoubled their efforts, forming a group called the Legal Rights Association (which included a special “female branch”) to continue the fight. A well-known minister, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, deliberately got himself arrested for boarding a whites-only car. A few prominent whites lent support; in September 1860 Horace Greeley, The New York Tribune’s famous editor, asked his readers: “Can anyone doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, if now on earth and in New York, would reject more indignantly and rebuke more sharply our negro-cars [and] negro-pews in churches that evoke his name?” By that point – thanks less to messianic intervention than to the activists’ tenacity – almost all the streetcar lines had accepted integration.

The timing of Charles Sanders’s act of defiance, just 10 days after Abraham Lincoln’s election, may not have been coincidental. Across the nation, indignant whites were reporting that blacks seemed suddenly, frighteningly rebellious. One unsettling story told of a Georgia slave who refused to chop wood for his master and mistress, telling them that “Lincoln was elected now, and he was free.” The black man, according to a newspaper, “after being sent to the whipping-post, gained new light on the subject of Lincoln and Slavery, and returned to his duty.” Yet the portents of revolution continued.

The final outcome of Sanders’s prosecution went unreported in the newspapers and is, for the time being, lost to history. (It may await discovery in New York’s vast criminal court records). Not until after the Civil War, in 1873, did the state legislature pass a bill sweeping away the last vestiges of segregated public transit – three years after abolishing the property requirement for voting.

Sources: New York Times, Nov. 19, 1860 and Nov. 13, 2005; 1860 Census; “Trow’s New York City Directory, for the Year Ending May 1, 1859”; Leslie M. Harris, “In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863”; C. Vann Woodward, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow”; David N. Gellman and David Quigley, eds., “Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877”; John Hewitt, “The Search for Elizabeth Jennings, Heroine of a Sunday Afternoon in New York City” (New York History, October 1990); Edward Spann, “Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865”; Judith Ann Giesburg, “Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front”; Leon F. Litwack, “North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860”; New York Tribune, Feb. 25, 1858 and Feb. 20, 1861.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Female Partisans

New Orleans, Nov. 16, 1860

On fine afternoons that week, throngs of strollers promenaded on Canal Street. The thoroughfare, one newspaper reported, “was crowded with an unusually large and brilliant array of the beauty of our city – the stately matrons and lovely damsels of the South. What gave peculiar interest to this grand display of beauty, grace, and elegance, was the exhibition of blue [secessionist] cockades worn on the shoulders of nearly all the ladies who appeared in public. All our ladies are for the South, and for resistance to the aggressions, outrage, and insult of an Abolition dynasty. No man will merit their favor who is not ready to sacrifice everything for that cause.”

Much had changed in recent months in the Crescent City. At the corner of Canal and St. Charles, the promenading citizens passed an imposing statue of Henry Clay – the Great Compromiser, whom many said had single-handedly held the Union together – that had been installed, amid the usual patriotic fanfares, just that past April 12, Clay’s birthday. (Next spring, the first shot fired at Fort Sumter would give the date a new and very different significance.)

All across the South – as in New Orleans – “stately matrons and lovely damsels” seemed more eager than men to split up the nation that Americans had so long struggled to preserve. On an Alabama steamboat, a passenger took an informal poll: in the gentlemen’s cabin, there were still five votes for acquiescing to Lincoln’s election, while the ladies’ cabin was unanimous for disunion. “Secession was born in the hearts of Carolina women,” one Charlestonian went so far as to write in her diary.

On the cover of an 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, a “Southern belle” parades through Baltimore in a dress sewn with a Confederate flag.

This outburst of female political fervor took husbands, fathers, and sons by surprise. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, even more than in the rest of the country, women had long been expected to refrain from involving themselves in, or even commenting on, public affairs. But no longer. One young North Carolinian, Catherine Edmondston, described arguing with her Unionist parents and sisters when they expressed their attachment to the American flag. “Who cares for the old striped rag now that the principle it represented is gone?” she wrote bitterly. “It is but an emblem of a past glory.” On the day of Abraham Lincoln’s election, four sisters in Florida wrote a letter to the local newspaper calling for resistance to the “Abolition Emissaries of the North.” Women, they said, could not remain “idle spectators of the passing scenes and excitement,” but should “reserve their crinolines to present to our Southern Politicians who have compromised away the rights of the South.”

Some were yet more militant – even military – in declaring their sympathies. At one all-female high school in Columbia, S.C., students emulated the secessionist militia units called “Minute Men” by forming a company of “Minute Girls.” They turned out en masse for a nighttime rally with the letters “M.G.” emblazoned on the fronts of their dresses.

Even more widespread tokens of secession were the cockades – usually made with blue ribbons – that women stitched together and wore on their clothing or hats: “a token of resistance to abolitionist rule,” as one observer noted. Many, too, pinned them to the coats of husbands and sweethearts who had already begun drilling for battle. A Charlestonian named Mary Walsingham Crean even wrote a song entitled “The Blue Cockade”:

There’s many a gallant laddie who wears a blue cockade,
Will show them what it is to dare the blood of Southern braves!
And God be with the banner of those gallant Southern braves,
They may nobly die as freemen – they can never die as slaves.

Any incongruity in the last line of Crean’s song was apparently unintentional.

Not all secessionist cockades were blue. This red one from North Carolina may represent the color of a local militia regiment’s flag.

Not everyone in the South, let alone the North, was delighted by the sudden incursion of women into American political life. “Woman has not business with such matters,” sniffed Ada Bacot of South Carolina. The Nov. 16 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, featured an article headlined “Female Partisans.” “It is with much regret that we have seen, in various papers, notices of the prominent part taken by Southern ladies, as agitators in this (to all true Americans) sad state of affairs,” wrote the anonymous male author. “The Greeks thought it so improper for women to interest themselves in contests and contentions, that they forbade them, under pain of death, to be present at the Olympic Games …. Our ladies, who have so many accomplishments, should distinguish themselves as tender mothers and faithful wives, rather than as furious partisans.”

American women – both Northern and Southern – would end up sacrificing more for “the cause” than anyone could have predicted on that bright afternoon in New Orleans. In the process, however, many would also find new horizons opening up. Even before the first shots of the Civil War were fired, some heard amid the war cries a different call to arms. In another newspaper article that ran on Nov. 16, 1860 – this one in the San Francisco Bulletin – a California woman addressed herself “solely to ladies,” writing: “The opposing questions of Northern and Southern rights naturally suggests to me OUR RIGHTS.”

Sources: Baton Rouge Daily Advocate, Nov. 15, 1860; Leonard Victor Huber, “New Orleans: A Pictorial History”; The Constitution (Washington, D.C.), Nov. 14 and 24, 1860; Anya Jabour, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South”; Catherine Edmondston Diary, North Carolina Office of Archives and History; Tracy J. Revels, “Grander in Her Daughters: Florida’s Women in the Civil War”; Richmond Dispatch, Dec. 27, 1860; Frank Moore, “The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events”; Drew Gilpin Faust, “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War”; Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 13 and 16, 1860; Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), Nov. 16, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Never Mind Neutrality, Our Friends Are in Trouble

David van Epps, in a duffel coat, with members of the 894 Royal Naval Air Squadron. He and other Americans chose to fight for Britain before the U.S. entered World War II.

Between the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939 and Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. in December 1941, 22 American citizens ignored the country’s Neutrality Act and joined the Royal Navy to fight for Great Britain. They flouted the law despite the draconian sanctions threatened by the act, including imprisonment, heavy fines and the loss of citizenship. These motives of these volunteers varied—some were gung-ho Anglophiles, others wanted to battle Nazi tyranny and still others joined up simply for the adventure.

The volunteers were given dangerous duty in the Atlantic and in the Murmansk convoys that skirted the Arctic Circle to supply the Soviet Union. Two of the Americans were eventually put in command of British vessels. Other equally brave American volunteers served with the Royal Air Force; the story of Eagle Squadron is relatively well known. Their compatriots at sea are now the subject of “Passport Not Required,” a slim but occasionally deeply moving book by Eric Dietrich-Berryman, Charlotte Hammond and R.E. White.

The book’s title refers to the fact that the Royal Navy, in its struggle against the German U-boat menace, was not about to quibble over paperwork when it came to enlisting any Americans who stepped forward. To help the volunteers avoid trouble over citizenship, the navy waived the requirement to swear allegiance to King George VI, and other British legal considerations were organized for the Americans’ convenience.

The U.S. Justice Department, after all, was unbending: In July 1941, a U.S. citizen, Philip Stegerer, who had volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force at a time when taking an oath to the king was still required, was refused re-admission to the U.S. His family, Stegerer told the press, had lived in America since before the Revolutionary War. He went to Canada, he said, “to fight for democracy and I wind up a guy without a country, without a job and without a dime.” The authors say that Stegerer’s later fate is unknown.

Eventually the U.S. allowed Americans who had volunteered for its allies to come back and fight for their homeland. But the U.S. military did not appear to place much value on their wartime experience. Boston-born William Homans, an idealist who is described in the book as “a crusader who left simply to fight a colossal evil,” found his hard-earned Royal Navy experience entirely set aside in March 1943 when he joined the U.S. Navy. Homans had served two years in the Royal Navy and been promoted to lieutenant; the U.S. Navy made him an ensign, as if he were a landlubber going to war for the first time. He ended his wartime career as the garbage-supervision officer on the Boston docks, then went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1948 and pursue a career in criminal law.

As the authors note, Americans have a long history of volunteering for British fights. Adm. Nelson’s command in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar included 23 Americans; a U.S. citizen won the Victoria Cross in the Royal Navy in Japan in 1864; and 20 Harvard men died on the battlefields of World War I before America entered the fray. But never was the British need for a few good Americans more urgent than in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1939 to 1943.

Winston Churchill said after the war that the struggle against German U-boats—and the threat of national starvation posed by their attacks on shipping—worried him more than any other front. By war’s end the German submarines had sunk 175 Allied warships and 2,603 merchant ships, killing 30,246 Allied merchant seamen. But the cost to Germany was also staggering: More than 700 U-boats were destroyed, out of a total of 1,162 commissioned; of 39,000 German submariners, 27,491 died.

The 22 Americans who forsook their country’s isolationism and braved its legal sanctions came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Remarkably, few of them had maritime experience and only three—Draper Kauffman, William Taylor and Henry Ripley—had professional military backgrounds. Otherwise the volunteers represented the American Everyman. In addition to the idealistic William Homans, there was Derek Lee, whose family owned a textile company; Charles Porter, who was in real estate; John Stilwell, in theater advertising; Carl Konow, a New York yacht broker and mail pilot; and John Parker, a Boston sales executive and former Navy enlistee.

The volunteers included three bankers: Edmund Kittredge from Cincinnati, Alex Cherry (a fierce Anglophile) and Edward Ferris, both from New York City. Oswald Dieter and Francis Hayes were doctors; Edwin Russell, a journalist; Gurdan Buck, a Maryland farmer. George Hoague, a naval architect; John Hampson, a California rancher. Peter Morison built warships at Bath Iron Works. Three of the volunteers—David Gibson, John Leggat and David van Epps—were too young even to have careers. “They were romantics prospecting for adventure,” the authors write.

The one thing these men had in common was a willingness to step forward and risk their lives for a good cause without being asked. As Prince Michael of Kent, honorary rear-admiral of the Royal Navy Reserve, writes in his introduction to this fascinating book: “No man can do more for another country than to volunteer to fight for it.”

In October 1941, a German U-boat wolf pack attacked a 50-ship convoy in the North Atlantic. One of German subs fired a torpedo at HMS Broadwater, a destroyer protecting the supply ships. “The detonation blew away the upper bridge works and bow,” the authors write. Forty-five officers and crew members died aboard the Broadwater, including Lt. John Parker, the Boston sales executive. He was serving bridge watch when the torpedo struck and was killed instantly.

At age 51, Parker was among oldest lieutenants in the Royal Navy, although his superiors didn’t know it. He had lied about his age, and the British were not inclined to probe his story: They needed good officer material, and Parker had served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Of the 22 American volunteers for the Royal Navy, Parker was the only fatality. “He died as he would have easily chosen to die,” wrote his school friend and cousin Charles Curtis in the Groton School Quarterly, “killed in action, and among the first because he was among the most gallant.”

Lt. John Parker was old enough to have two adult sons, both of whom also fought in World War II. The eldest, Frank, followed his father’s example and signed up to fight Hitler before America did, enlisting in the Canadian army in 1940. He was taken prisoner during the misbegotten Dieppe Raid in France in 1942; he later escaped from his German POW camp and made his way to England. Parker’s other son, also named John, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was killed in 1945 during a mine-clearing operation on Okinawa. These Parker men, the authors note, pursued different routes into the war but shared the same desire: “to fight a great menace.”

Mr. Roberts is the author of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945.”


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Would the South Really Leave?

Nov. 11, 1860

With nearly half a year to prepare for the possibility of a Lincoln election, the editorial writers of the South had ample time to sharpen their rhetoric, and the arias of wroth and venom unleashed after last Tuesday’s decision proved that those months were not idly spent.

“If we submit now to Lincoln’s election,” said the Fayetteville North Carolinian, “your homes will be visited by one of the most fearful and horrible butcheries that has cursed the face of the globe.” Said the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, “Here [is] a present, living, mischievous fact. The Government of the Union is in the hands of the avowed enemies of one entire section. It is to be directed in hostility to the property of that section.” Added The Atlanta Confederacy, even more emphatically, “Let the consequences be what they may — whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of human liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.” Concluded a pithier Augusta Constitutionalist: “The South should arm at once.”

Hot words, those, but in South Carolina, there were even hotter deeds: the day after the election, fire-eaters lowered the Stars and Stripes flying above the state capitol, and raised the Palmetto flag. Three days later, the legislature voted to convene in December to decide whether to secede.

Southerners, of course, have called this tune before. They threatened to bolt in 1820, floated the divisive theory of nullification in the 1830s, and angrily convened in Nashville in 1850. (The governor of South Carolina, William Gist, even has a brother whose name is States Rights — yes, his actual name is States Rights Gist — who was born during the nullification crisis; Father Gist was evidently a fervent Calhoun man.)

Whatever the time and whatever the provocation, the story has always been the same: threats, indignation and outrage, followed in the end by placations from the North and reconciliations that left the South wealthier and the institution of slavery more entrenched. Most assume that past will be prologue. The South seceded last year when the Republicans elected William Pennington as Speaker of the House, jibed pro-Lincoln newspaperman Carl Schurz earlier this year. “The South seceded from Congress, went out, took a drink, and came back. When Old Abe gets elected, they’ll go out, and this time they’ll take two drinks before they come back.”

And yet, this time they might really mean it.

Is it all due to Lincoln? Certainly, but that his mere election would incite secession is not so obvious. Though an opponent of slavery, he is measurably more moderate than Senator Seward or Senator Chase, rivals for the nomination whom the Republicans, for all their abolitionist ardor, plainly did not prefer. Nearly a month has passed since Lincoln spoke in public about the issue of slavery, and all he did was repeat that he was constitutionally powerless to interfere with the institution of slavery in any state where it existed. “What is it I could say which would quiet alarm?” said Lincoln, his exasperation evident. “Is it that no interference by the government with slaves or slavery within the states is intended? I have said this so often already that a repetition of it is but mockery.”

But to the South, Lincoln is but the tip of the spear. “He rides a wave he cannot control or guide,” observes a perceptive editorialist for The Atlanta Daily Constitutionalist, who predicts that Lincoln’s “very restraint will give new strength to its pent up fury, and it will carry into the same office, four years hence, a man of more revolutionary ideas.”

Republicans come to Washington not just with an eye to stopping the expansion of slavery. Their program also includes higher tariffs, which will increase the power of Northern manufacturers; support for the railroads, which will lead to the settlement of the West and to the creation of who knows how many anti-slavery states between the Mississippi and the Pacific; and unrestrained immigration. Eighty percent of new arrivals settle in the North, swelling its power with their labor and their votes. The Constitution may prevent the Republicans from abolishing slavery now, but Southerners are concerned that the great unsettled Dakota prairies will be carved into a dozen states that will become full of Republican-loving Italians and Poles and Irishmen and escapees from the revolutions of 1848. See what happens then.

These developments might sit differently if the South felt weak, but in fact, it feels stronger than ever. Cotton production is at an all-time high; perhaps two billion pounds will be produced this year, enough to account for nearly 60 percent of the country’s exports. Almost half the crop will go to England, where a fifth of the population of the world’s greatest power works in the textile industry. Two years ago Senator James Hammond of South Carolina proclaimed, “The slaveholding South is now the controlling power of the world.” With an increasingly abundant cotton crop earning ever-rising prices, no one down south feels obliged to argue, unless it is with the abolitionist who wishes to cast moral aspersions upon him and deny him the labor force that is the underpinning of this ever-increasing wealth.

And so, inevitably, the South thinks of secession — and expansion. The South has long believed that unless slavery keeps expanding, it will die, and take the slave-holding elite with it. As Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi recently said, “We of the South are an agricultural people, and we require an extended territory. Slave labor is a wasteful labor, and it therefore requires a still more extended territory than would the same pursuits if they could be prosecuted by the more economical labor of white men.” Limiting slave territory, Davis says, would “crowd upon our soil an overgrown black population, until there would not be room in the country for whites and blacks to subsist in, and in this way. . . reduce the whites to the degraded position of the African race.” Oddly, Senator Charles Sumner, the ardent abolitionist from Massachusetts, has in a rather different way reached the same conclusion: limiting slavery will kill slavery.

And so the slaveholders seek to expand, although whether they can go further north and west is more than a political question; there is much doubt whether the climate and crops of western America would sustain slavery. But all doubts vanish when they turn their backs to the north, and see rimming the Gulf of Mexico verdant lands that could, and have, enriched slaveholding planters. “To the Southern republic bounded on the north by the Mason and Dixon line and on the south by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including Cuba and all the other lands on our southern shore,” toasted one Texan at a convention in 1856, and that sentiment burns at the heart of many of the fire-eaters now crying secession.

Don’t forget that not very long ago, such sentiments burned brightly in Washington as well. The Polk and Pierce administrations tried to buy Cuba. Just six years ago, the current president, James Buchanan, who was then Minister to Great Britain, was one of the three authors of the Ostend Manifesto, which maintained that if Spain wouldn’t sell us Cuba, we would be justified in seizing it. Accompanying these official efforts were unofficially encouraged forays by slaveholder-supported filibusteros to invade Cuba, foment a rebellion and grab the island on behalf of expansionist-minded southerners.

Expansionists north and south initially supported William Walker’s campaigns to seize control of Nicaragua, but it was the southern expansionists who were his true constituency. The south’s moral and financial support sustained Walker when he seized Nicaragua’s presidency in 1856, and though he governed only briefly, he managed to re-establish the legality of slavery before a coalition of Central American powers defeated his cholera-ravaged army and sent him scampering. Walker made further attempts to conquer Nicaragua, the last of which ended last September in front of a firing squad in Honduras. But southerners backed every one.

A mere freebooter, Walker nearly succeeded. The ultras dream of what could be accomplished in Nicaragua, and Cuba and northern Mexico and the West Indies if a cotton-rich American government should seek its destiny in commanding a tropical empire that would dominate the world’s supply of not only cotton but the staple of sugar as well.

So here, then, is the South’s choice. Does it select a future in which the southern slavocracy is less powerful; more isolated; consistently subjected to moral castigation by northerners for an economic system that profits not just planters but innumerable northern shippers and insurers and mill owners? Or does the South choose to establish a new nation that will sit at the center of a rich and powerful slaveholding empire that will dominate the hemisphere?

There are plenty of people in the south who oppose disunion and wish to move slowly or not at all. But most of the South’s leadership — its money and its political establishment and its opinion-makers — know that the South is at a crossroads, and they mean for it to choose independence.

(To read more about this period, see “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” by James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 1988; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”

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Enthusiasts for Hard Power

On the day that Harry S. Truman left the presidency in January 1953, he and senior members of his administration enjoyed a long, bittersweet luncheon at the Georgetown house of his secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Truman then took the train back to Independence, Mo., wrote his memoirs, established a presidential library and spoke out sharply on the politics of the Ike Age. Acheson stayed in Washington, however, pursued a lucrative career as an attorney, published his own recollections and thrived as an elder statesman. Yet of all the associates who had gathered that January day, he remained closest to Truman.

Surface appearances would have predicted him to be among the most distant. Truman was the son of a failed Missouri farmer and livestock trader, Acheson the offspring of a prominent Episcopal cleric. Truman’s formal education had begun and ended with the Independence public schools; Acheson attended Groton, Yale and Harvard Law. Truman was a marginal middle-class striver who failed in one business venture after another before turning to politics. Acheson moved from Harvard to a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, joined a leading Washington law firm and made his way into government through the good offices of Harvard professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Truman enjoyed friendships with bourbon-drinking pols; Acheson, a martini man, hobnobbed with scholars and intellectuals.

Yet each panders after the other’s good opinion in this extensive correspondence. The letters reveal that both men, for all their differences in experience, shared common values and possessed similar temperaments. Both were ideological liberal Democrats, suspicious of big business and devoted to civil liberties. Both were Cold Warriors, convinced that their great achievement was the North Atlantic alliance and the postwar structure of containment that had blocked Soviet expansion into Western Europe. While detesting demagogic anti-communism of the McCarthyite variety, they had no patience with the squishy negotiate-without-conditions faction of their own Democratic Party. (Acheson to his dying day believed that the proper response to Soviet missiles in Cuba would have been to unleash Gen. Curtis LeMay’s bombers.)

After office, Acheson and Truman criticized both parties.

Both also put great stock in personal loyalty and practiced it to the point of impetuosity. Acheson needlessly did grave damage to himself and his policies by ostentatiously declaring, after the conviction of former State Department official (and covert Soviet agent) Alger Hiss for perjury in early 1950: “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.” He offered his resignation to the president, who promptly declined it.

Truman recalled that he had been harshly criticized during his short tenure as vice president when he had commandeered an Air Force bomber to attend the funeral of “a friendless old man just out of the penitentiary”—his unsavory political patron, “Boss Tom” Pendergast of Kansas City. Truman’s enemies never let him forget the alleged misdemeanor; he remained proud of it. Acheson, never persuaded of Hiss’s guilt, was equally adamant.

Both shared the belief that to govern was to make firm decisions after due deliberation and to act. Neither would have been impressed by today’s oft-bruited concept that nations can advance their interests through the deployment of “soft power.” When Truman was informed by Acheson of the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, he recalled his immediate reaction as: “Dean, we’ve got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what.” (Neither he nor Acheson ever fully confronted the probability that the attack was prompted by Acheson’s public exclusion of South Korea from America’s Asian “defense perimeter” six months earlier and facilitated by Truman’s skimping on military spending.)

Truman often told Acheson he was the greatest secretary of state in U.S. history; Acheson dedicated his imposing memoir, “Present at the Creation” (1969), to Truman, “the captain with the mighty heart.” Their mutual regard permeates these exchanges, surviving even Truman’s request for a critical reading of the final draft of his memoirs.

Acheson was a thorough and firm editor, concerned with both substance and the proper use of the English language. He frequently began his comments with such words as “Here, Mr. President, I shall try your patience and good nature.” At one point he declares: “The reader feels stuck on the fly paper for thirty pages.” Elsewhere he chides Truman for leaving “the impression of a two-gun man in the White House shooting with both hands in all directions at the same time.” Truman responded almost as if he were a dutiful doctoral student thanking a mentor for his “generosity.” Like many a doctoral student, however, he did not make every change suggested. Acheson would not ask Truman to critique his memoir.

Truman and Acheson left office distinctly out of favor with the public but confident in their policies. Inevitably they comment disparagingly on their successors, both Republican and Democratic. Eisenhower and Dulles can do no right. Acheson despairs of Adlai Stevenson—”this paunchy quipster is no Marcus Aurelius.” Truman calls John F. Kennedy immature; Acheson sees him as an “Indian snake charmer.” Dean Rusk is unable to give the State Department a sense of direction. Even Lyndon Johnson, whom both had admired, disappoints. “He could be so much better than he is,” Acheson tells Truman. “He creates distrust by being too smart. He is never quite candid. He is both mean and generous, but the meanness too often predominates.”

The critiques had merit, but the constant emphasis on the negative leaves an impression of petulance. Perhaps this can be forgiven, coming as it did from two men who, whatever their own mistakes and weaknesses, created a world order that gave breathing room to the forces of liberalism and democracy. There were giants in those days.

Mr. Hamby, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at Ohio University, is the author of “For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.”


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A Senator Secedes – Reluctantly

Charleston, S.C., Nov. 12, 1860

Almost everyone in Charleston, it seemed, had gone wild for secession. Flags with the state symbol, the palmetto tree, flew on every street, and even from ships in the harbor. Abraham Lincoln was burned in effigy. News agents throughout the city vowed never again to sell Harper’s Weekly – the most widely circulated magazine in America – when they saw that its post-election issue featured a large woodcut of the president-elect.

Mass meeting at Institute Hall, Nov. 12, 1860.

That night, several thousand people packed the floor and galleries of Institute Hall on Meeting Street; one witness wrote, “every part of the building was crowded to suffocation.” Many noted with satisfaction that members of the state’s social and financial elite – previously somewhat resistant to the swell of revolutionary fervor around them – were present tonight. Presiding over the assemblage was Judge Andrew Gordon Magrath, who, on the day after Lincoln’s election, had walked out of his courtroom to become a secessionist hero, the first of numerous federal officials in the state to resign his office in protest. “The Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States, is now closed,” he had theatrically informed the jury before slipping off his robe and departing.

Now, in Institute Hall, spectators “rose to their feet, threw up their hats, and cheered until hoarse,” a newspaper reported. Their cheers grew even louder when Magrath announced that Senator James Henry Hammond – the very embodiment of South Carolina’s political establishment – had just cast his lot with the rebellion, resigning his seat to join the secessionists.

Senator Hammond was not present in the hall that night. In fact, he had little stomach for celebration. He had given up his office very reluctantly, ultimately doing so only from a politician’s instinctive fear of seeming out of touch with popular feeling and out of step with his colleagues. (The state’s other senator, James Chesnut, had resigned the day before.)

The imperious, aristocratic senator was no bleeding heart, to say the least. Master of more than 300 slaves, he did not hesitate to flog them when they transgressed, wielding the whip with his own hand. Nor did he hesitate to take sexual advantage of the women under his power, fathering several children with them. (In one instance, he did so with a household servant, and then with her teenage daughter.) In politics, he had popularized the phrase “cotton is king,” and gave a notorious speech in 1858 arguing that every society, even a republic, needed an inferior “mud-sill” class to “do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” Few men had been fiercer than Hammond in championing slavery and states’ rights.

Senator James Henry Hammond

Now, however, faced with the reality of the nation he knew – and perhaps even the society he knew – coming apart at the seams, the senator hesitated. “The scenes of the French Revolution are being enacted already,” he fretted as he watched the clamor in Charleston’s streets. The crisis might bring a new class of demagogues to power in the South; unless this was averted, “we shall soon have the guillotine at work upon good men.” In his private diary, Hammond went so far as to confess that if given a choice between saving the Union and saving slavery, he would choose the Union. But in any case, he did not think it needed to come to this. The South was wealthy and powerful enough to protect its interests without seceding. The election of Lincoln represented little more than a slight to its honor.

Yet in the end, Hammond chose to surrender to what seemed the tide of history rather than resist it. Trying to justify his decision in a letter to a close friend, the best he could come up with was this sardonic explanation: “You know the Japanese have an ancient custom, which therefore must have its uses, of ripping up their own bowels to revenge an insult.”

Hammond was far from the only eminent man to feel inward qualms – but almost no one else dared speak them openly. Among the few who did so was Magrath’s fellow judge, the elderly James L. Petigru, whose life coincided with the Union’s: he had been born just days after President Washington’s inauguration in 1789. “South Carolina is too small for a republic,” Judge Petigru said, “and too large for a lunatic-asylum.”

Sources: New York Herald, Nov. 13, 1860; Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 13, 1860; Baltimore Sun, Nov. 15, 1860; Charleston Courier, November 8, 1860; Charleston Mercury, November 8, 1860; Harper’s Weekly, January 19, 1861; William W. Freehling, “The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant”; Robert N. Rosen, “Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People During the Civil War”; Drew Gilpin Faust, “James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery”; Jon L. Wakelyn, “The Changing Loyalties of James Henry Hammond: A Reconsideration” (South Carolina Historical Magazine, Jan. 1974); Abner Doubleday, “Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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A Slaveholder’s Diary

Nov. 12, 1860

On Friday morning, Nov. 9, 1860, Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, a 57-year-old widowed plantation mistress, who lived some 10 miles east of Columbia, SC, wrote in her diary, “Oh My God!!! This morning heard that Lincoln was elected.” In the breathless entry that followed, she recorded her thoughts and fears:

I had prayed that God would thwart his election in some way & I prayed for my Country — Lord we know not what is to be the result of this — but I do pray if there is to be a crisis — that we all lay down our lives sooner than free our slaves in our midst — no soul on this earth is more willing for justice than I am, but the idea of being mixed up with free blacks is horrid!! I must trust in God that he will not forget us an unworthy as we are — Lord save us — I would give my life to save my country. I have never been opposed to giveing up slavery if we could send them out of our country — I have often wished I had been born in just such a country — with all our religious previleges & liberties with none of them in our midst — if the North had let us alone — the Master & the servant were happy with out advantages — but we had had vile wretches ever making the restless worse than they would have been & from my experience my own negroes are as happy as I am: — happier — I never am cross to my servants without cause & they give me impudence if I find the least fault, this is of the women, the men are not half as impudent as the women are. I have left a serious & what has been an all absorbing theme to a common one but the die is cast — “Caesar has past the Rubicon.” We now have to act. God be with us is my prayer & let us all be willing to die rather than free our slaves in their present uncivilized state.

There is much to unpack here. Southerners viewed the Republicans as an abolitionist party and, coming just a year after John Brown’s raid, they considered Lincoln’s election intolerable. Lincoln won by carrying every Northern state except New Jersey, which he split with Stephen Douglas; he was on the ballot in only five slave states.

Clearly, Brevard was deeply religious. Like many Americans, she would come to understand the war as God’s direct judgment on the nation. She sought in her life, she writes elsewhere in the diary, to “practice truth & love to God.” She often addressed God directly and hoped that by striving against sin and serving faithfully “thou wilt save us.”

On this date, her country was still the United States, but she knew what Lincoln’s election portended. The next day, the South Carolina legislature called for a convention to consider secession, and on Dec. 20 the state seceded. “I wish Lincoln & Hamlin could have died before this & saved our country disolution,” Brevard confessed. She would support secession in order to defend her way of life.

Brevard owned more than 200 slaves, and her entry illuminates the tensions in proslavery ideology. She was terrified of liberating her slaves because she believed they were uncivilized and could not possibly live side-by-side with whites in freedom. She says she would give up slavery, as long as blacks could be removed from the country — and, indeed, various schemes of colonization had been promulgated for decades; until 1863, Lincoln avidly supported colonizing blacks and even requested funds from Congress to do so.

Brevard believed that under the firm but benevolent tutelage of the master (or mistress), slavery transformed uncivilized blacks into contented servants. It was outsiders — Northern abolitionists — who made the slaves “restless.” She begins in her entry to distinguish between male and female slaves, and finds female slaves more “impudent,” by which she means not only saucy but sexually promiscuous (at another point she refers to females “meddling with the husbands of others”) — but then she drops the subject. It is taboo to speak of such things. She concludes again with her fear of the slaves being emancipated.

But at other places in her diary, she recognized that the slaves are not childlike, and that they are not happy in slavery. She erupted in anger “when I find out their feelings to me — with all I have done for them . . . I am every now & then awakened by the fact that they hate me.” She at times wished she could “cast them off without scruples of conscience,” but she believed she cannot do so “without a rebuke from my Heavenly father.” And yet she knew that all her slaves, if given a chance, “would aim at freedom — ‘tis natural they should & they will try for it.”

Brevard concluded “my Southern Sisters and brothers who think their slaves would be on our side in a civil war, will, I fear, find they have been artfully taken in.” The slaves feigned contentment to endure enslavement, but they dreamed of freedom. Many slaveholders also feigned contentment with the institution, but knew not what to do and so carried on.

Over the next four years, not only slaveholders but also non-slaveholders, in the North as well as South, would be challenged to reconsider their assumptions about the institution. Brevard expresses the feelings of one individual, a member of the planter elite. In 1860, one quarter of Southern families owned slaves, and more than half of those who did possessed fewer than five. Less than 1 percent of the slaveholders owned as many slaves as Brevard, though these slaveholders owned approximately one-fourth of all the slaves and held political power.

It is difficult to say how typical her experiences were — there probably were not many widowed plantation mistresses responsible for 200 slaves spread over several properties on the eve of the Civil War. There were even fewer who wrote with such candor and verve. But it is safe to say that many slaveholders, male as well as female, shared Brevard’s political and religious beliefs, and, over the course of the war, would also express growing ambivalence, and even bewilderment, about slaves and slavery.

Later in the day on Nov. 9, a cloudy, damp, drizzly afternoon, Brevard returned to her diary and concluded: “Nature seems to be weeping o’er our cause.”

The diary is published in John Hammond Moore, editor, “A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War: The Diary of Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, 1860-1861″ (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).

Louis P. Masur chairs the American Studies Program at Trinity College (CT) and is author of “The Civil War: A Concise History” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).


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The Abolitionist’s Epiphany

Boston, Nov. 7, 1860

Throughout most of the nation’s history, it had taken weeks for votes to be counted and for Americans to find out who their new president was. But by 1860, telegraph lines – more than 50,000 miles of them – had spread so far and wide across the country that the results were in the morning editions of the next day’s papers.

Wendell Phillips

In Boston that night, Wendell Phillips strode onstage to address a large audience of abolitionists in the Tremont Theatre, just off the Common. Phillips, one of the nation’s most prominent antislavery leaders, had been skeptical of Abraham Lincoln from the beginning. To him, the unknown Midwesterner – born in Kentucky to Virginian parents, he must have noted with alarm – was going to be just one more mediocre politician to warm the presidential chair for another four years, while black Americans continued to languish in bondage. Addressing an anti-slavery meeting that summer, just after the Republicans announced their nominee, Phillips had sneered: “Who is this huckster in politics? Who is this county court advocate? … What is his recommendation? It is that nobody knows anything good or bad of him…. His recommendation is that his past is a blank.” In an article he wrote for The Liberator, the leading abolitionist newspaper, a month later, Phillips went further still: he turned in a manuscript headlined “ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SLAVE-HOUND OF ILLINOIS.”

From “Bowen’s Picture of Boston, 1838″

But by November, his feelings had changed. It wasn’t anything the candidate had said – for he had said almost nothing. Rather, it was how Americans had rallied around Lincoln with an outpouring of antislavery feeling. A few weeks earlier, Phillips had watched Republicans parade through Boston carrying banners reading “No More Slave Territory” and “The Pilgrims Did Not Found an Empire for Slavery.” But the most welcome sight of all was the company of “West Boston Wide Awakes”: two hundred black men marching proudly in uniform, keeping stride in perfect tempo with their white comrades, under a banner that said “God Never Made a Tyrant or a Slave.”

So now, less than 24 hours after Lincoln’s election, it was a chastened Phillips who addressed the crowd at the Tremont Theatre. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned as the hall fell momentarily quiet, “if the telegraph speaks truth, for the first time in our history, the slave has chosen a President of the United States.”

Sources: Ralph Korngold, “Two Friends of Man: The Story of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and Their Relationship with Abraham Lincoln”; Henry Mayer, “All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery”; Boston Evening Transcript, November 8, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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A Superabundance of Velocity

Nov. 9 -15, 1860

The day after Lincoln’s election, revolutionary fever breaks out in South Carolina. Nearly all of the state’s federal officials resign, and the state legislature speedily passes a bill authorizing a state convention to meet on Dec. 20 to consider, and if it desires, to authorize, secession.

“The greater number is generally composed of men of sluggish tempers, slow to act . . . and so disposed to peace that they are unwilling to take early and vigorous measures for their defense, and they are almost always caught unprepared. . . .A smaller number, more expedite, awakened, active, vigorous and courageous, make amends for what they want in weight by their superabundance of velocity.’” — Edmund Burke

In the deep south of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, where the idea of disunion is taken most seriously, three main groups of secessionists can be identified. There are those who are talking about talking; those who are talking about walking; and those who have already stopped talking and started walking.

The first group includes men like former congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia. He wants to express the South’s grievances to the North, and give the new Lincoln government a chance to respond. In the second group are men like Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He’s been sounding out his fellow southern senators about participating in a collective leave-taking some time after the new year. Davis seems to envision an almost ceremonious exodus from the union, a solemn departure embarked upon more in sorrow than in anger, the better to encourage among northerners a reaction itself more sad than belligerent.

South Carolina, however, is the home of the ultras, men like William Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett, and they all belong to the third group. For two decades Yancey and Rhett have shouted secession whenever so much as an ominous raincloud drifts down from the North. Lately, however, they have been joined by men of a different sort, prominent men of wealth and influence, grandees who heretofore have disdained agitation. This past week, these men succeeded in inflaming passions that might well have been safely jawed to death.

The first to act was Robert Gourdin, a wealthy 48-year-old cotton broker who resides with his brother, business partner and fellow bachelor Harry in one of Charleston’s more magnificent mansions. Gourdin is one of the leaders (chairman of the executive committee, officially) of the 1860 Association, a group of Charleston’s most prominent citizens who have taken it upon themselves to promote secession among their fellow gentlemen of the South.

On the morning after Lincoln’s election, Gourdin was in the U.S. District Court in Charleston, where he was undertaking the prosaic task of serving as the foreman of a grand jury. When Judge Andrew Magrath asked him for the grand jury’s presentments, Gourdin, who with his white hair and white beard is reminiscent of Clement Clarke Moore’s St. Nick, shockingly declined. Your honor, we cannot proceed, he said. The results of yesterday’s balloting has brought to an end federal jurisdiction in South Carolina.

Of course, it did no such thing, and Judge Magrath was not about to tolerate this usurpation. It is not appropriate for the citizens of a grand jury to shut down a federal court, Magrath sternly responded. Such a decision must come from legitimate authorities. The judge paused, then rose to his feet: Given the probable action of the state, we must prepare to act on its wishes. This Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States, shall not be desecrated by a mob. Instead, it will be closed by a duly-authorized federal officer — me. Whereupon he declared the court closed, removed his robe, folded it over his chair, and announced that he had just administered the law of the United States for the final time.

A dramatic moment, shocking to be sure, but one perhaps better suited to an amateur theatrical than to the great stages of London or New York, let alone the pages of history. Andrew Magrath, after all, is not just a federal judge. He is also the legal adviser to the 1860 Association, and was as well a classmate of Robert Gourdin in South Carolina College’s thinly populated Class of 1831.

Still, an impressed Charleston Mercury gave the performance a rave review: “There were few dry eyes among the spectators and auditors as Judge Magrath divested himself of his judicial robe.” Within hours, and with less fanfare, the U.S. District Attorney, the U.S. Marshall and the U.S. Collector of Customs Duties also resigned. Throngs celebrated in the streets. “The tea has been thrown overboard,” pronounced The Mercury.

But even a revolution requires its formalities. To authorize secession, a state convention must be held, and to do that, the state legislature has to vote to call one to assemble. Rhett and Yancey and the other hotspurs pressed legislators to act quickly; as Rhett has been saying, “Successful revolutions leave no time for reaction on the part of the people.” They have been pressing the ultras in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama to drive the slow-moving legislators in those states to also call conventions, but they have needed South Carolina to go first.

This posed a problem: in every controversy with the federal government since 1830, South Carolina always started by going first, and always ended having gone alone. Learning from their headstrong mistakes, South Carolina’s cautious legislators in the capital in Columbia demanded convincing reassurance that at least one other state would follow South Carolina’s lead. Until then, the bill calling for a state convention would be scheduled for the customary trio of readings. Already one could feel the fervor of rebellion cooling in the torpor of the legislative process.

Reenter Robert Gourdin. The prominent businessman has long been one of the prime proponents of the construction of just-completed railroad tie between Charleston and Savannah, and was one of several dozen pillars of Charleston who went to Savannah a couple of days before election day for the festive grand opening.

At the welcoming dinner, Georgians left and right encouraged South Carolina’s secessionist inclinations, although Savannah’s Francis Bartow, the dinner’s keynote speaker, was circumspect. Handsome, Yale-educated, a leading member of the bar, son-in-law of a U.S. Senator, captain of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, Bartow was on record as opposing separate state secessions. Like any good lawyer, however, he left a loophole. If you think the time has come for disunion, we differ, he said. But if you choose to break up the union without consulting us, you have the power of precipitating us into any kind of revolution that you chose.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it looked to Gourdin like a blank check. As it happened, on Friday, two days after the resignation of Magrath et al, Bartow and his fellows from Savannah were arriving on a reciprocal visit to Charleston. Gourdin laid on a spread, treating 77 Georgians and 123 South Carolinians, august and important men every one, to a banquet consisting of turtle soup, turkey, mutton, capon, ham, tongue, lamb chops, duck, shrimp, oysters, turtle steak, pies, pastries, ice cream, figs, coffee, sherry, bourbon, scotch, wine, champagne, claret, port, brandy and Madeira.

After dinner, Bartow, full of delicacies and fervent fellow feeling, went further in his remarks than he had just days earlier in Savannah. I am a Union man, he said, eloquently enumerating the virtues of the republic. But I am tired of this endless controversy. But since the storm is to come, be its fury ever so great, I court it now, in my day of vigor and strength. Put it not off until tomorrow, for we shall not be stronger by waiting. With escalating fervor, Bartow’s neighbors rose and endorsed his sentiments.

“A wild storm seemed suddenly to sweep over the minds of men,” said The Mercury. “Every man recognized that he stood in the presence of the Genius of Revolution.” Guests stormed the telegraph office to send messages urging the legislature to act, and a deputation from the dinner saddled up and headed for Columbia with news of the Georgians’ staunch devotion. On Saturday evening, little more than 24 hours after Gourdin’s waiters started ladeling the turtle soup, and pretty near as swiftly as two houses of a legislature can move, a bill was passed that scheduled a convention on secession for Dec. 17, with delegates to be elected on Dec. 6.

In Charleston and Columbia, caution had been routed, and in a profound way, the dynamic of the situation has been altered. In all other the states throughout the South, the question is no longer whether we should leave. It is whether we should join.

To read more about this period, see “The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant,” by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press, 2007; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”


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Silence Before the Storm

The words of a president can convey — or conceal — a great deal of meaning. As the United States approached the central crisis in its history, there was no reason to expect great eloquence from the man whose election had precipitated that conflict. Abraham Lincoln was often described as an uncouth barbarian, and had received the least education of any presidential nominee in American history, save Andrew Jackson. Yet there he was in the fall of 1860, standing before the American people, the embodiment of their hopes and fears. In this politically charged atmosphere, the words that flowed from his pen, and his equally expressive silences, did a great deal to define the conflict coming into view. This occasional feature in the Disunion series will probe Lincoln’s language, looking at his speeches and public pronouncements during the long transition between his election eve on Nov. 5, 1860, and his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861.

Nov. 5, 1860

The history books are relatively quiet about how Abraham Lincoln spent the night before the great election. But we can be relatively certain that he was quiet, too. There were no speeches given in Springfield that election eve, in keeping with his self-imposed exile from the public realm for many months now. Public silence was a new approach for Lincoln; he had already given many hundreds of speeches in his career: according to his private secretary, John Nicolay, he gave some 100 in 1858, when he failed in his quest to become a senator, and more than 50 in 1856, when he stumped for John Frémont, the Republican candidate.

A Lincoln campaign photograph taken on May 20, 1860, by William Marsh.

That he was a candidate at all stemmed from an eloquence that never failed to surprise people, for the simple reason that he looked so unlikely to give a good speech. His appearance was awkward and ungainly, his voice undistinguished and full of Western twang. We are used to hearing it, in our mind’s ear, as a basso profundo (so Hollywood always interprets it, from Raymond Massey to Disneyland’s animatronic Abe to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). But his law partner, William Herndon, called it “sharp — shrill piping and squeaky.” An audience member at his famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union wrote, “the first utterance of the voice was not pleasant to the ear, the tone being harsh and the key too high.”

Yet it was his words that counted: this prairie lawyer got to the nub of an issue like no one else. In 1858, when so many Americans were willing to accept compromise after compromise to maintain the union, he solemnly predicted that the United States would have to choose between one version of itself or another. At Cooper Union he dazzled a well-heeled New York audience with an exhaustive examination of the limits the founders had placed upon slavery. These oratorical triumphs had brought the great prize of the presidency within his grasp — first, the nomination at Chicago in May, and now, in November, the final days of a campaign on the verge of victory. Nicolay wrote that he quietly felt “a considerable confidence that [Lincoln] would be elected.”

It was a remarkable ascent for someone who had hungered for glory as long as his close friends could remember, but who had always mocked his own chances of achieving it. Only two years earlier, the candidate had confessed to a journalist that his wife hoped he might someday be president. Then: “Those last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. ‘Just think,’ he exclaimed, ‘of such a sucker as me as president!’”

But as Lincoln approached the prize, a curtain of silence descended around him. There were no speeches at all, save utterly perfunctory ones, when he could not avoid them. He was barely involved in his nomination, except to verify that a rail dragged in by his cousin might have been split by him, decades earlier. The New York Times, nonplussed by this non-entity who had seized the prize from local hero William H. Seward, published the news of his nomination with a gigantic misspelling, presenting “Abram” Lincoln as the Republican standard-bearer.

To an extent, this self-imposed exile descended from tradition. George Washington’s silences were often louder than his words, and Lincoln was vividly aware of his precedent. By an old rule, candidates did not campaign for the office they had spent their entire lives seeking; instead, the work was done by proxies. But Lincoln had more reason than most to remain mute. On all sides, Americans strained to misrepresent him, to declare him weak, or tyrannical, or unwilling to abolish slavery, or unwilling not to. In a highly electric atmosphere, it was essential to speak precisely, and if necessary, not to speak at all.

The candidate understood this perfectly; according to his secretary, “his self-control was simply wonderful” as he achieved “an enforced idleness” completely out of character. Day after day Americans clamored to learn more about this cipher, yet no news flowed from his office. The torrent of mail that arrived was answered with the most perfunctory replies. Autograph requests were acceded to; but requests for speeches were declined, with the lame excuse, “I am not a professional lecturer — have never got up but one lecture; and that, I think, rather a poor one.”

Lincoln enforced this discipline on his closest advisers as well. To John Nicolay, charged with a difficult interview to sound out a possible supporter, he wrote a short note that ended “commit me to nothing.” Other fragments from that frantic year reveal an almost maniacal commitment to secrecy, such as a May 17th note that read “make no contracts that will bind me” or a May 30th note that said, more to the point, “burn this, not that there is any thing wrong in it; but because it is best not to be known that I write at all.” All summer and fall, as the noise around him grew, the silence within him deepened.

But that did not mean he wasn’t paying attention. On the contrary, he monitored all communications in and out with the greatest attention to detail, like a spider feeling the most minute tugs on an intricate web. To a New York printer reproducing a copy of his Cooper Union speech, on May 31, he wrote exacting instructions, explaining why tiny words such as “quite,” “as” and “or” were essential to his argument. In short, everything had to be perfect for this most discriminating of editors: “I do not wish the sense changed, or modified, to a hair’s breadth.” It was one of the longest letters he wrote all year; a rare departure from silence, for the higher purpose of enforcing exactitude.

And yet silence did not convey uncertainty, as so many accused. The candidate was already amassing ammunition for the struggle to come, one that would be waged with written and spoken words, along with blunter instruments of persuasion. His secretary could not be certain, but left open the tantalizing possibility that the candidate was already at work on his inaugural address, well before the election confirmed that he would deliver one. As the final results came clicking across the telegraph to the Illinois State House on Nov. 6, he may already have been writing out the first sentences of the speech that would emphatically break the silence.

Sources: John Nicolay, “Lincoln in the Campaign of 1860″; George Haven Putnam, “The Speech that Won the East for Lincoln”; Henry Villard, “Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61″; Harold Holzer, “Lincoln: President-Elect“; David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer, “Lincoln in the Times“; “Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.”

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”


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An All-Time Great Marine

After it emerged in the 1990s that Madeleine Albright, Wesley Clark and Christopher Hitchens—notable goyim all—had discovered the existence of Jewish ancestors, I formulated Boot’s Law of Genealogy: Everyone is Jewish; some people just don’t know it yet. Further confirmation, if any were needed, comes courtesy of this new biography of Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak, who died last year at 95.

Before reading “Brute,” I had no idea that the famous Marine was a hebe like me. Krulak was born in Denver in 1913. His father, Morris (originally Moschku), had emigrated from Russia in 1890. His mother, Bessie Zalinsky, had arrived two years earlier. Yet by the time Krulak entered the Naval Academy in 1930, he was telling everyone, Robert Coram reports, “that his great-grandfather had served in the Confederate army, that his grandfather had moved from Louisiana to Colorado to homestead 640 acres, and that his father had been born in the Colorado capital.” He claimed to be an Episcopalian, associating himself with the most socially prestigious religious denomination. His children were raised as Episcopalians; two even became ministers. (Another son, Charles, became Marine Commandant in the 1990s.)

Krulak was so determined to put his past behind him that when he married the daughter of a Navy officer from “an old, genteel East Coast family,” he did not invite a single one of his relatives to the wedding, for fear that his Jewishness would be discovered. Nor did he tell anyone that he had been married once before. At 16, he had eloped with his girlfriend. The marriage was annulled after just nine days but, if discovered, it would have kept Krulak from entering the Academy, which barred students who had ever been married.

The 1933 Naval Academy rowing team tower over their coxswain, Brute Krulak.

Krulak figured, no doubt rightly, that in the starchy, snobbish officer corps of his day, a Jew with a failed marriage would not have gotten far. There was nothing he could do to hide his other handicap—his tiny size. When he entered the Academy he was 5’4” and 116 pounds. On his first day, Mr. Coram writes, “a towering midshipman looked down at him, smirked and said: ‘Well, Brute.’ ” Thus was born the nickname that Krulak loved.

He was so small that he did not meet the Marine Corps’ minimum size requirements. To get his commission, he made use of high-level connections. At Annapolis he had cultivated Holland Smith, who would go on to become a famous World War II general nicknamed “Howlin’ Mad.” Smith and future commandant Lemuel Shepherd would turbo-charge Krulak’s ascent.

Brute rewarded their trust by becoming one “squared-away” Marine. You do not have to be convinced by Mr. Coram’s overblown claim that Krulak was “the most important officer in the history of the United States Marine Corps” to recognize his signal contributions.

In 1937, while stationed in Shanghai, Krulak observed Japan’s use of landing craft with “large, flat bows” that opened on a beach, “allowing the boats to disgorge vehicles and personnel on dry land.” At the time the U.S. had nothing comparable. Krulak was a prime mover in getting the Marine Corps to adopt similar boats made by an obscure shipyard (Higgins Industries of New Orleans). The Higgins boat would make possible all of the American amphibious assaults of World War II, from Normandy to Iwo Jima.

Having a major role in the development of the landing craft would, by itself, have been enough to secure Krulak’s place as a military innovator. But he further burnished his reputation when, immediately after World War II, he pushed the Marine Corps to adopt helicopters ahead of the other services. He realized their potential not only to evacuate wounded and move supplies but also to outflank the enemy in battle. Krulak, still only a colonel, also played a key behind-the-scenes role in rallying Congress to defeat President Truman’s efforts to severely trim the Marine Corps’ size and mission. This led to Truman’s famous complaint that the Marine Corps has a “propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.”

Krulak’s combat exploits, while distinguished, were far too brief to put him in the company of such Marine legends as Lewis “Chesty” Puller or Dan Daly. He commanded a battalion sent in 1943 to raid the Pacific island of Choiseul to distract the Japanese from the invasion of Bougainville. He won the Navy Cross, his service’s second-highest decoration, but the raid was a minor affair that lasted just seven days. It is remembered primarily because one of the PT boats that evacuated Krulak’s men was commanded by a young officer named John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy became a senator, Krulak claimed to have gotten chummy with him during the war. This was just another of Krulak’s tall tales; the two never met in the Pacific. (The Marine contingent that Kennedy evacuated was led by Krulak’s second-in-command.)

It would be easy to condemn Krulak for his dissembling were it not for the fact that he wound up sacrificing his career by telling a painful truth. In the 1960s he was commander of Fleet Marine Force-Pacific, which oversaw the Marines fighting in Vietnam. The most successful Marine program, known as the Combined Action Platoons (CAP), sent squads to protect villages alongside South Vietnamese militia. This was a more effective counterinsurgency approach than the big-unit sweeps favored by Gen. William Westmoreland. After initially claiming that conventional tactics were a big success (a part of his history that Mr. Coram glosses over), Krulak became an ardent convert to counterinsurgency and a big booster of CAP.

In 1967 he told President Johnson that if the U.S. approach did not change, “he would lose the war and . . . the next election.” It wasn’t what LBJ wanted to hear, and it probably cost Krulak a chance to get four stars and become commandant. He was forced to retire the next year. He could take solace, however, in having displayed more moral courage than his seniors who went along with the administration’s failed strategy.

Mr. Coram, a reporter turned biographer, does a good job of telling Krulak’s story in clear, simple prose. His account is marred only by relentless Marine boosterism. The Battle of Belleau Wood was a notable Marine victory in World War I, but contra Coram, it does not belong alongside Cannae, Gaugamela and Agincourt—three of the most significant battles in history. Mr. Coram also claims that the roots of the new counterinsurgency doctrine produced by Gen. David Petraeus “could be found in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.” The Marine experience was significant, but other wars where the Marines didn’t fight (e.g., Algeria and Malaya) were more influential—as was Gen. Petraeus’s own experience in Iraq.

These are the sort of exaggerations you expect of a retired gunny. Mr. Coram, however, isn’t a “devil dog” himself. He writes that he was often asked by Marines: “How can you write about the Marine Corps when you were not a Marine?” His answer, apparently, is to adopt a Mariner-than-thou tone. That annoying tic aside, he has produced a valuable work that significantly revises our understanding of—but does not diminish our respect for—one of the all-time great Marines.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, won the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award for “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power” (2002)


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Return of the Samurai

Tokyo Bay, Nov. 10, 1860


A contingent of some 60 Japanese ambassadors and their staff returned to Tokyo on Nov. 10, 1860, after a long trip to the United States.

Strange music, discordant to local ears, echoed across the harbor: a brass band playing “Home, Sweet Home” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Dozens of small craft, bright banners fluttering at their sterns, clustered around the great black hull of the foreign frigate. On deck, ranks of blue-coated Marines stood at attention; high overhead, cheering sailors lined the yardarms and clung to the rigging. One by one, the boats began drawing away, each carrying a little group of silk-robed men who fluttered paper fans in farewell. Tears shone on the faces of the Japanese. American eyes – to judge from the newspaper accounts – were dry.

“Amerikakoku”: print by a Japanese artist, c. 1865. Clearly the balloon ascension in Philadelphia had left a strong impression on the travelers.

Almost 10 months after departing from their homeland, the shogun’s six dozen envoys had returned from visiting the United States. They had eaten ice cream in San Francisco, gone on a shopping spree through New York, watched a balloon ascension in Philadelphia and been feted at the White House by President James Buchanan. Their enjoyment of the trip had been dampened somewhat by the fact that their “translators” spoke only broken English and not a single American citizen, as yet, spoke Japanese. (Since Dutch traders had been coming to Japan for centuries, a number of educated Japanese spoke that language – so communications with English-speakers usually required two interpreters: one of them Japanese-to-Dutch, the other Dutch-to-English.)

Still, the travelers had been impressed by how frequently Americans combed their hair and by the ingeniousness of Western bathroom facilities – though the envoys caused a near-scandal at their Washington hotel when several were found naked together in the same bathtub: a Japanese, though apparently not American, custom. (Some of the envoys, for their part, were shocked when they visited a Washington brothel and found multiple couples having sex in the same room – apparently an American, though not Japanese, custom.) Several kept diaries of their journey; it is clear from these that despite linguistic and cultural differences, they quickly grasped certain peculiarities of local politics. One diarist noted perplexedly that in the United States, “anyone of good character except a Negro may be elected president.”

Americans’ fascination with the island nation on the other side of the world – the “double-bolted land,” as Herman Melville called it – which had been growing ever since Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced it open to Western trade in 1854, now reached a crescendo. Japanese words even entered English slang; Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, used one of them as a nickname for their boss behind his back: “The Tycoon.” Taikun was a title of the chief shogun, and it suggested – at least to the minds of Hay and Nicolay – not just a wise and powerful ruler but one of deep Asiatic inscrutability.

A sketch of Washington, D.C., by a member of the Japanese delegation, 1860. The Capitol is visible (the artist has finished its incomplete dome), along with the base of the Washington Monument and the Long Bridge across the Potomac to Virginia.

Not all Americans were enthralled with the diplomatic visit, though. One editorial in the Times complained about the Japanese being given information on the latest military technology. “Our Government has expended nearly two millions of dollars in this attempt to cultivate the good will of the Japanese,” the article noted sourly. “We shall be agreeably disappointed if it does not cost us, some day, ten times that sum to avert the results of our excessive civility.”

“Shosha – Amerikajin” (“True Picture of Americans”), c. 1861.

Meanwhile, Japanese were becoming fascinated with Americans as well. Artists created woodblock prints depicting life in the far-off land, basing them on the envoys’ accounts and sketches, observations of Western visitors and a healthy dose of imagination. The results – some of which can be seen on this page – were fanciful, but no more so than Americans’ impressions of Japan.

The steam frigate USS Niagara departed New York on June 30, its cargo holds packed with the envoys’ souvenirs and with official gifts – including, for the shogun himself, a gold medal from Tiffany’s bearing President Buchanan’s likeness. The ship traveled eastward via the Cape of Good Hope, Djakarta, and Hong Kong. Though far from home and cut off from news, its American officers were not unmindful of current events. On Nov. 6, amid a gale in the East China Sea, they celebrated Election Day aboard ship by circulating a ballot box; some even posted placards with anti-secession slogans or racist slurs against Republicans.

Election results from that far-off precinct crossed the Pacific via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and traveled over the Great Plains by Pony Express to reach The New York Times almost three months later. In early 1861, the newspaper dutifully reported the tally. The Constitutional Union ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett took first, with 14 votes; Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, winners on land, received just three votes at sea.

Sources: New York Times, Oct. 6, 1860; Jan. 28 and 29, Feb. 12, 1861 (news report and editorial); Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 9, 1861; Masao Miyoshi, “As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860)”; Masayiko Kanesaboro Yanagawa, “The First Japanese Mission to the United States”; Dana B. Young, “The Voyage of the Kanrin Maru: To San Francisco, 1860” (California History, Winter 1983); Dallas Finn, “Guests of the Nation: The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House” (White House History, 12).

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Premonition at Vicksburg

Vicksburg, Miss., Nov. 3, 1860

Antebellum Vicksburg

During the last days of the campaign, while Lincoln stayed close to home and held his tongue, another man who would soon be president played somewhat less coy.

For six full weeks, Senator Jefferson Davis had been barnstorming through Mississippi on behalf of the Southern Democrats. The state was ablaze with excitement, even though — or perhaps because — most knew that the party’s candidate was bound for defeat. Amid torchlight marches, barbecues and fireworks shows, orators were preaching less about what would happen on election day itself than on what might follow it. At Vicksburg on Nov. 3, Davis told a crowd:

If Mississippi in her sovereign capacity decides to submit to the rule of an arrogant and sectional North, then I will sit me down as one upon whose brow the brand of degradation and infamy has been written, and bear my portion of the bitter trial. But if, on the other hand, Mississippi decides to resist the hands that would tarnish the bright star which represents her on the National Flag, then I will come at your bidding, whether by day or by night, and pluck that star from the galaxy and place it upon a banner of its own. I will plant it upon the crest of battle, and gathering around me the nucleus of Mississippi’s best and bravest, will welcome the invader to the harvest of death; and future generations will point to a small hillock upon our border, which will tell the reception with which the invader met upon our soil.

Not all of his state’s “best and bravest” shared Davis’s apparent eagerness to welcome federal troops to “the harvest of death.” The Vicksburg Whig’s editor denounced the senator’s oration as showing “how inordinate vanity, operating upon a moderate intellect, flattered by past successes, may influence its possessor to the most inflated of self-laudation.”

But death would indeed reap its ample harvest at Vicksburg, less than three years later.

William J. Cooper, “Jefferson Davis, American”; Percy Lee Rainwater, “Mississippi: Storm Center of Secession, 1856-1861”; Vicksburg Whig, Nov. 7, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Lincoln Wins. Now What?

Nov. 7, 1860

A cartoon from the campaign.

Yesterday, the start of the most exciting day in the history of Springfield, Ill., could not wait for the sun. At 3 a.m., somebody got Election Day started with volleys of cannon fire, and after that there were incessant and spontaneous eruptions of cheering and singing all day long. A moment of delirium erupted in mid-afternoon, when the city’s favorite citizen emerged from his law office and went to vote, taking care to slice his name off the top of the ballot so as to prevent accusations that he had voted for himself.

Abraham Lincoln’s campaign button.

After the sun went down, he joined other Republican stalwarts in the Capitol building, where they eagerly received the early returns that were trotted over from the telegraph office.

There were no surprises: the long-settled Yankees in Maine and New Hampshire and pioneering Germans of Michigan and Wisconsin delivered the expected victories. And then came news from Illinois: “We have stood fine. Victory has come.” And then from Indiana: “Indiana over twenty thousand for honest Old Abe.”

The throngs in the streets cheered every report, every step towards the electoral college number, but news from the big Eastern states was coming painfully slowly, and finally the candidate and his closest associates decamped the capitol and invaded the narrow offices of the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company. The advisers paced the floorboards, jumping at every eruption of the rapid clacking of Morse’s machine, while the nominee parked on the couch, seemingly at ease with either outcome awaiting him.

It wasn’t until after 10 that reports of victory in Pennsylvania arrived in the form a telegram from the canny vote-counter Simon Cameron, the political boss of the Keystone State, who tucked within his state’s tallies joyfully positive news about New York: “Hon. Abe Lincoln, Penna seventy thousand for you. New York safe. Glory enough.”

Not until 2 a.m. did official results from New York arrive, and the expected close contest in the make-or-break state never appeared: the one-time rail-splitter won by 50,000 votes. His men cheered, and broke out into an impromptu rendition of “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?” Outside, pandemonium had been unleashed, but Abraham Lincoln partook of none it, and instead put on his hat and walked home to bed.

“The Republican pulse continues to beat high,” exulted a correspondent for The New York Times. “Chanticleer is perched on the back of the American Eagle, and with flapping wings and a sonorous note proclaims his joy at the victory. The return for the first Napoleon from Elba did not create a greater excitement than the returns for the present election.”

Well should he sing, for the days of song will end soon enough. Mr. Lincoln is indeed the president-elect, but barely by a whisker, and what exactly one means by “the United States” any more is apt to become a topic of some heated discussion. Lincoln won his parlay, taking 16 of the 17 Northern states that he set his sights upon, including the hard-fought New York, and most by a solid majority.

But there were states where he was more lucky than popular, like California, where all four candidates polled significant numbers. Lincoln won only 32.3 percent of the ballots, but managed to eke out a victory and capture the state’s four electoral votes by the wafer-thin margin of 734 votes. A similar, if slightly less dramatic story played out in Oregon, where Lincoln’s victory margin was fewer than 1,200 votes. In his home state of Illinois, facing Mr. Douglas, Mr. Lincoln won by fewer than 12,000 out of 350,000 votes cast, a clear win but hardly a romp.

The Lincoln and Hamlin election ticket from 1860.

The South, of course, presents a vastly different picture. In the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana. Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas Mr. Lincoln received a combined total of no votes. None. True, his name wasn’t even listed on the ballot, but that seems to be a mere technical oversight that would have had no great consequence. After all, in Virginia, the largest and wealthiest southern state, Mr. Lincoln was on the ballot, and there he tallied a total of 1,887 votes, or just 1.1 percent of the total cast. The results were even worse in Kentucky, his place of birth. One might have thought that sheer native pride should have earned him more than 1,364 of the 146,216 votes cast, but perhaps Kentuckians resented that he deserted them at such a tender age.

All told, Mr. Lincoln will assume the presidency in March on the strength of his muscular 180 electoral votes, and despite the puny 39.8 percent of the popular vote he accumulated.

The narrowness of this fragile mandate (if that word can even be used) naturally invites speculation about what might have been. The year began with Mr. Douglas standing, like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan before him, as an electable anti-slavery Northerner who could be depended on to maintain southern prerogatives. But from the moment last April when fire-eating Southern Democrats made it clear that they would rather punish Mr. Douglas for his vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years ago than win the White House in the fall, it was ordained that the Little Giant, so long touted as a certain president-to-be, was steering a doomed vessel.

Yet there were times when his campaign picked up speed, and at such moments Mr. Douglas seemed very close to capturing enough support to thwart Mr. Lincoln’s northern sweep and deny him his electoral college majority. Had that happened, Mr. Douglas would be sitting solidly in second place. He would have demonstrated support both north and south, and he would offer the South preservation of the status quo. That might well have been enough to pacify the reckless Southern Democrats who shunned him in the spring, and to win their support in the House of Representatives.

But for every Douglas surge there was a Douglas blunder. Final tallies show that wherever Mr. Douglas actually campaigned in New York, he won more votes than President Buchanan took when he captured the state four years ago. But instead of investing his time in the Empire State, Mr. Douglas headed into the inhospitable South, where he did the seemingly impossible — he managed to make southern voters dislike him even more than they already did. Appearing before a crowd in Virginia, he was asked if the election of Mr. Lincoln would justify secession. A politician of Mr. Douglas’s experience should have known how to handle this kind of question with finesse, but instead he offered the one answer certain to damage him. No, he told the crowd.

He might have stopped at that, but perhaps figuring that, having jumped the fence, he may as well have a picnic, he told the crowd, It is the duty of the president of the United States to enforce the laws of the United States, and if Mr. Lincoln is the winner, I will do all in my power to help the government do so. With that answer, Mr. Douglas dismissed the purported right to secede that the south so cherishes, and surrendered his claim as the only man who could be counted on to keep the union together.

Now that task falls to a president who received fewer than four votes in 10; a president who is purely the creature of only one section of the country; a president who, apart from one undistinguished term in the House of Representatives a decade ago (and a period in the state legislature), has no experience in public office; a president who comes from a Republican party that has been stitched together from various interests, who will be asked to work with a Congress whose two houses are controlled by Democrats.

The fire eaters in South Carolina have already announced that they will immediately introduce a bill of secession. But that has been something they have been itching to do for years; as any doctor or fireman will tell you, sometimes the best way to end a fever or a blaze is to just let the thing burn out. Not everyone in the South is a slave owner, and not every slave owner is a disunionist. If any of the firebrands would take the time to listen to what Mr. Lincoln has actually said, they would see that he is no raving abolitionist like Sen. William Seward and his ilk. (Indeed, anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips sneeringly calls Mr. Lincoln a “huckster” and William Lloyd Garrison says he has “not one drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.”)

Mr. Lincoln has made his position clear: while he is against slavery and calls it evil, he would not do anything — more to the point, that he is powerless under the Constitution to do anything — to end slavery where the Constitution already permits it. The line that he has drawn is against an expansion of slavery in the territories, but look at a map: there are no more territories held by the United States in North America that are in dispute. On every other matter relating to slavery he has been silent. And ultimately, they ought to realize that Mr. Lincoln may not be an experienced politician, or have strong political support, but that by training and avocation, he is a lawyer, and a good one. And almost every lawyer will tell you that it is cheaper to settle a matter quietly than to fight it out in court.

(To read more about these events, see “Lincoln for President,” by Bruce Chadwick, published by Sourcebooks, Inc., 2009; “Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography,” by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1993; and “The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865,” edited by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds, published by Black Dog & Leventhal, 2010.)

Note: An earlier version of this piece failed to mention that Lincoln had served in the Illinois State Legislature.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”


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Against Rebellion

Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king?

Thomas B. Allen begins “Tories” with an anecdote that the author apparently considers a useful way of illustrating his theme. A column of American rebel soldiers was marching through a Virginia town in 1777, he tells us, when a shoemaker rushed out of his shop and shouted: “Hurrah for King George!” None of the soldiers paid attention to him. When the troops stopped to rest in a woods, the shoemaker pursued them, hurrahing for King George. Once more the men ignored him. When the loyalist shouted his defiance virtually in the ear of the commanding general, he ordered him taken to a nearby river and ducked. When that ordeal failed to silence the shoemaker, the general ordered him tarred and feathered. His weeping wife and four daughters pleaded with him to be quiet. He was then drummed out of town.

The reader may wonder: Was the shoemaker drunk? Suicidal? Insane? Mr. Allen is less curious—he sees simply “an act of casual cruelty upon a stubborn Tory,” adding: “How many other Tories were taunted, tortured or lynched we will never know.”

It is unfortunate that Mr. Allen frames “Tories” as the tale of early victims of American political rage, because there is something to be said for focusing on the loyalists of the Revolutionary era. It is a fascinating and relatively neglected subject, one that the author tackles with verve as he spins a narrative starting with a nascent antitax insurrection in Boston in 1768. When British soldiers arrived to clamp down on restive Bostonians, Mr. Allen says, “Loyalists welcomed the Redcoats as protectors; Patriots and their supporters in the streets saw the soldiers as an occupation force, sent by Britain to tame or even punish dissent.”

By 1775, Boston was a garrisoned city where Loyalists courted trouble by fraternizing with the Redcoats. Mr. Allen relates the story of merchant Thomas Amory, who invited a few British officers to his house one night in nearby Milton, Mass. “Word reached the Patriots,” and soon “a brick-throwing mob attacked the house.” One of the bricks, Mr. Allen writes, “smashed a windowpane in his young daughter’s room and landed on her bed.”

The officers scooted out the back door while Amory tried to calm the crowd. He would later move to Watertown, about eight miles west of the city. Countless other loyalists also “fled real or imagined mobs.” How many Tories resided in the colonies at the outbreak of war? Using the latest research, Mr. Allen reports that the old estimate—a third of Americans—is outdated; under scrutiny, the number has dwindled to about 20%, or roughly half a million people. But they were a combative minority: When war came, loyalists formed more than 50 military units that often fought well beside their British allies.

“Tories” ably evokes the sense of fear felt by the loyalists, but Mr. Allen neglects to look at why the rebels took an increasingly angry view of those who sided with the British. The rebels knew they were risking their lives and property to defy King George, and they were enraged by loyalists’ eagerness for the sort of awful vengeance that the crown had previously unleashed on Scottish and Irish rebels. After the Continental Army narrowly averted total collapse in 1776, gloating loyalists—noting that the three sevens in 1777 looked like gibbets—began calling it “the year of the hangman.” The rebels, they hoped, would soon be swinging from British rope.

Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king while most did not? Mr. Allen does not dwell on the subject—he is more interested in what happened than why. But others have considered the loyalists’ motivations. Historian Leonard Labaree, in a pioneering study in 1948, found seven psychological reasons, including the belief that a resistance to the legitimate government was morally wrong and a fear of anarchy if the lower classes were encouraged to run wild. Another important factor: Unlike the rebels, who tended to come from families that had lived in America for several generations, many loyalists were born in England. These first-generation immigrants brought with them a sense of British liberty, steeped in obeisance to the king and his aristocrats, while in the colonies a longing for a “more equal liberty”—John Adams’s declared goal for the rebels—had already taken hold.

One of the book’s themes is that the conflict between the loyalists and rebels amounted to “America’s first civil war.” But not until the later pages, when the fighting with the British shifts to the South, does a semblance of civil war become evident. The Irish Presbyterians of the Southern backcountry had a history of feuding with wealthy coastal planters, who supported the insurrection. The ingrained antipathy for the planters, more than any fondness for King George, prompted the backcountry boys to ally themselves with the British—leading to vicious seesaw fighting.

A climax to this war within the larger war came in late 1780 with the battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, a purely American versus American, loyalist versus rebel fight. The rebels won a total victory, and in the process quashed British dreams of creating a native-grown loyalist army that might provide a decisive advantage.

The best section of “Tories” deals with black loyalists, the thousands of runaway slaves who responded to a British offer of freedom in return for military service. The British used these men largely as laborers, not fighters. In making peace at war’s end the politicians agreed to return the runaways. But Gen. Guy Carleton, the last British commander in America, refused to do so. About 3,000 blacks were among the 80,000 loyalists who retreated to Canada and the West Indies when hostilities ended.

A thousand-strong contingent of these former slaves in Halifax, Nova Scotia, became disenchanted with their treatment there, Mr. Allen notes. The black loyalists sailed for West Africa—present-day Sierra Leone—where in 1792 they established a settlement they called Freetown. For these Americans, the yearning for a more equal liberty did not end with the treaty of peace.

Mr. Fleming’s books on the American Revolution include “Now We Are Enemies,” recently republished in a 50th anniversary edition by American History Press. He is the senior scholar at the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia.


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How (and Where) Lincoln Won

The Civil War was the largest, bloodiest conflict fought on American soil, but today its geography — from elections and secession to the back-and-forth of military struggle — is often obscure. This article is the first in a series in which Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver, uses maps to illuminate the secession crisis and the war it produced.

Abraham Lincoln won a decisive victory on Nov. 6, 1860, with more than double the Electoral College votes of John C. Breckinridge, the runner-up. The election also sparked a crisis where 11 Southern states left the union, formed a new country and fell into a disastrous war with the North, all within six months of Lincoln’s win. In other words, to understand the origins of the war, we have to understand not just why Lincoln won, but how and where.

Most importantly, Lincoln’s victory came entirely from the states of the North, Midwest and far West. He failed to win a single slave state, and 10 of the 15 even refused to place him on the ballot. Such a sectional win, following decades of growing sectional tensions, seemed proof to many that the country was irredeemably divided.

Normally a candidate with such geographically limited appeal wouldn’t stand a chance. But Lincoln had a few advantages. For one, he benefited from a deep divide among the Democrats and between the Upper and Lower South. Many Democrats in the South refused to support northerner Stephen Douglas as the party’s nominee; following a convention in Charleston, these Southern Democrats formed a separate party and chose Breckinridge as their candidate. Meanwhile, members of the defunct Whig Party in the South — unable to support a Democrat or a Republican and hoping to defuse the crisis — formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell as their candidate.

The result was essentially two separate races, with Lincoln and Douglas vying for supremacy in the North while Breckinridge and Bell split the Southern vote. Lincoln trounced Douglas, conceding only Missouri and three of New Jersey’s seven electors to his opponent. In the South, the Southern Democrats won every state except Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, which supported the Constitutional Union Party.

The Democratic split certainly widened Lincoln’s margin of victory, but what really mattered was sectional division and the national population distribution. Few Northern Democrats voted for Breckinridge, certainly not enough to have put Douglas over the top in any of Lincoln’s states. Nor would it have mattered if the Democrats had united behind Breckinridge and thus delivered him Missouri and the three New Jersey votes. Even if Breckinridge had captured all of Bell’s votes as well, Lincoln’s victory in the populous states of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania made his election all but certain.

Given the divided electorate, few observers were surprised when South Carolina began the secession process just weeks later, and announced its break from the Union just before Christmas. By Feb. 1, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had done the same. Each of these seven states had voted Southern Democrat in 1860, outraged by the prospect of a president opposed to the extension of slavery.

Yet voting patterns were more complicated than the map indicates. In Georgia and Louisiana, Unionists provided a powerful counterweight to the Southern Democrats. Similarly, a vote for Southern Democrats did not always predict secession. While a majority in Delaware and Maryland voted Southern Democrat, those states remained loyal. Conversely, in Tennessee Bell actually defeated Breckinridge, even though that state seceded in early June. Kentucky and North Carolina were split between the two parties, and while the former remained in the Union, the latter did not. The winner-take-all model of the Electoral College obscures this complexity.

Equally intriguing is the relationship between secession and slavery. The pace of secession roughly correlates with the proportion of the slave population in each state. The first six states to secede enslaved well over 40 percent of their respective populations. The seventh—Texas—is an interesting outlier: though slaves made up only 30 percent of the population, the institution was rapidly growing, and fostered a secessionist spirit that overwhelmed Gov. Sam Houston’s Unionist sentiment.

After Texas voted to secede on Feb. 1, months passed without another state joining the Confederacy. The strong showing of the Constitutional Union Party in the Upper South further convinced Lincoln that secessionists were a distinct minority. But the crisis at Fort Sumter ended hopes of a rebellion limited to the Lower South, and soon Americans found themselves in one of history’s bloodiest wars.

Sources: Two works that do particular justice to the complexity of the sectional crisis are David Potter and Don Fehrenbacher, “The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861“; and Daniel Crofts, “Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis.”

Susan Schulten is a history professor at the University of Denver and the author of “The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950.” She is writing a book about the rise of thematic mapping in the United States.


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Hearing the Returns with Mr. Lincoln

In 1860, a cub reporter named Samuel R. Weed scored the assignment of a lifetime when his St. Louis newspaper sent him to spend Election Day with the man who might become America’s president. Surprisingly, no one else had thought of it, and Weed arrived to find a relaxed Abraham Lincoln, greeting him “as calmly and as amiably as if he had started on a picnic.”

He dutifully recorded the ordinary ways Lincoln spent this extraordinary day; sitting on a chair tipping backwards, endlessly dispensing witticisms as if from a secret rivulet inside him, avoiding crowds at times, and perhaps avoiding Samuel R. Weed as well (he checks out for lunch at one point).

The result is a riveting, human portrait. Here is Lincoln getting the news that New York, the swing state, has swung; there he is, smothered with kisses by a bevy of young ladies, curiously unsupervised. The reporting is crisp; we hear shouting, and church bells, and the occasional cannon. That is not the only premonition of war — Lincoln says no fewer than six times that his troubles have just begun. Quite an election night.

But for all this good reporting, the piece was not written until 1882, and not published until 1932, when it appeared in The New York Times on Valentine’s Day (was it the kisses?). It also appeared in a 1945 compilation of Lincoln memories, with no explanation for the long delay in bringing an essential Lincoln story before the public.

Sources: The New York Times, Feb. 14, 1932; Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed., “Intimate Memories of Lincoln.”

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”

Note: The 1932 article has not been reproduced (see the blog).


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Head-Stompers, Wrench-Swingers and Wide Awakes

New York, Nov. 2, 1860

Young Republicans with axes! New York firemen run amok!

Welcome to election week, 1860.

Hurled brickbats, smashed glass and howled curses were the soundtrack of American electoral politics a century and a half ago. The oratorical eloquence that most people today associate with the 19th century — those resonant fanfares of prose carved upon monuments, enshrined in history textbooks, hammered into the brains of 10th graders — often provided little more than the faintest melodic line, drowned out amid the percussive din. Last week’s notorious “head-stomping” incident outside a Senate debate in Kentucky, footage of which has drawn nationwide condemnation and half a million views on YouTube, seems almost gentle in comparison.

On the last Friday night before the 1860 election, Senator William H. Seward delivered a rousing Republican campaign address to a large outdoor gathering on 14th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, crowds of pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” fanned out through the surrounding area. Wide Awakes, members of an organization with strong paramilitary overtones, could be a menacing sight: they wore military-style caps and shrouded themselves in long black capes made of a shiny fabric that reflected the flames of the torches they carried. Some strapped axes to their backs, in tribute to their rail-splitting hero.

New York Wide Awakes marching, autumn 1860.

According to the next day’s Times and other papers, things began to spin out of control when supporters of a rival presidential contender, John Bell, charged toward the Lincoln men, “calling them ‘negro stealers,’ ‘sons of b____s,’ &c.” At the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue, several dozen volunteer firemen — members of Engine Company 23 — joined the fray, swinging roundhouse blows with clubs and heavy iron wrenches that the Wide Awakes tried to parry with their torches. But the tide of battle turned when the young Republicans brought their Lincoln axes into play. They chased the enemy back into the company firehouse and promptly began smashing down its barricaded doors, as other idealistic marchers flung bricks and cobblestones. (News reports are vague about what finally ended the fracas.)

Similar disturbances happened almost daily in various East Coast cities. In Baltimore the previous night, Republican marchers had been pelted with stones and rotten eggs. (That city was justly known as “Mobtown”; dozens sometimes died in a single campaign season there.) In Washington on Election Day itself, pro-slavery forces stormed a Wide Awake clubhouse a block or two from the Capitol. The attackers practically demolished the building and were only narrowly prevented from burning the ruin — along with several Wide Awakes trapped on the third floor — by the timely arrival of police.

There was little talk of bipartisan civility during that particular election cycle.


New York Times, Nov. 3, 1860; New York Tribune, Nov. 3, 1860; New York Herald, Nov. 5, 1860; Baltimore Sun, Nov. 2, 1860; Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Nov. 3, 1860; Jon Grinspan, “‘Young Men for War’: The Wide Awakes and Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign” (Journal of American History, September 2009); David Grimsted, “American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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Trying to Show the Unknowable

The ordeals, strategies, problems and triumphs of Holocaust literature.

‘A novel about Auschwitz,” Elie Wiesel once wrote, “is not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz.” The testimony of Holocaust survivors, he seemed to imply, is inherently true, while literary representations of the Holocaust are, at some level, inherently false.

Of course, it is not a simple matter. As Ruth Franklin argues in “A Thousand Darknesses,” her superb study of Holocaust literature, every canonical work, including “Night” (1958), Mr. Wiesel’s famous book about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, blurs the distinction between fiction and reality. If the best works do so self-consciously, as she contends, there is always the danger that certain works will cross the line into bad faith, inviting charges of distortion or fraud.

And indeed, in recent years, a number of Holocaust stories have been exposed as hoaxes. The case of Binjamin Wilkomirski stands out. After being lauded by survivors for faithfully conveying their ordeal, his purported memoir, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” (1996), became a scandal when it was discovered to be, like the author’s name and personal history, a fabrication. Ms. Franklin does not discuss “Fragments” in detail, but it offers a touchstone for her investigation, showing the tension between Holocaust testimony and the fiction derived from it—in this case, fiction posing as lived experience.

Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material. There is the case, for instance, of the postwar German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, who rewrote an obscure Holocaust memoir by one Jakob Littner and turned it into a superior work of art. For “Schindler’s Ark” (1982), the novelist Thomas Keneally based his narrative on careful research of Oskar Schindler’s life, almost to the point of making the book (as one critic said) a “workaday piece of reportage” rather than a textured work of fiction. For the film “Schindler’s List” (1993), as Ms. Franklin observes, Steven Spielberg more freely manipulated the factual history to create, for his audience, the potent illusion of “witnessing” the Holocaust.

Ms. Franklin is especially drawn to difficult cases. Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jewish Pole, was a prisoner at Auschwitz and served in the camp’s Sonderkommando—the squad that processed the dead and their belongings—if only for a day. Although fellow survivors reported that he acted heroically in the camp, he suffered, Ms. Franklin concludes, a “psychological wound.” In the stories collected in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” published soon after the war, he adopted the voice of a cynical narrator who alternately mocks Jewish victims and recoils in disgust at their suffering. By implicating himself in the workings of the camp, Ms. Franklin says, Borowski found a powerful way to explore the tangled roles of victim and perpetrator.

In other cases, fiction’s autobiographical core is even more perplexing. Imre Kertész draws on his own experience in Auschwitz for his novel “Fatelessness” (1975), but the naiveté of his narrative voice denies us the consolation of straightforward testimony. “We can never be certain,” Ms. Franklin says, “of an episode’s truth-value.” In his quasi-autobiographical novel “Blood From the Sky” (1961) the Ukrainian-born French writer Piotr Rawicz presents two capricious storytellers who deliberately obscure facts and recount brutality in language at once florid and sardonic. Together they create a form of “anti-witness”—not false witness but witness whose immersion in evil has made mental and moral clarity impossible.

Nonfiction writers may seem to be more trustworthy, but we must not always take their words at face value, Ms. Franklin warns. Primo Levi, whose profession as a chemist helped him survive Auschwitz, presented his own experience—in “If This Is a Man” (1947)—in language of scientific clarity. But he also took many liberties in telling the stories of his comrades. In W.G. Sebald’s mesmerizing blend of fiction, encyclopedic detail and travelogue in “Austerlitz” (2001) and “The Emigrants” (1993)—both grounded in the experiences of Jewish children in the Holocaust—Ms. Franklin finds a painstaking strategy for restoring people and places to life. “Restitution,” Sebald called it.

Questions of authenticity became acute once therapists and cultural theorists asserted that trauma was transmissible, permitting readers (and filmgoers) to “bear witness” to events they had not experienced. The archetypal test case is Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” Because Kosinski cagily led readers to believe that his story of an unnamed boy wandering through a violent Eastern European landscape was based on his own childhood, Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller, among others, hailed it as a Holocaust masterpiece. Once it became known that the story’s incidents were invented—and that Kosinski’s family had hidden safely from the Nazis during the war—the book was condemned as a sadomasochistic fairy tale. By exploring the gray zone between witness and voyeurism, however, Kosinski had suggested that the lies of literature could provide surprising access to horrific events.

If the documents on which historians depend can prove unreliable, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.) Still, by scrupulously defending the integrity of literature, Ms. Franklin has offered her own eloquent testimony.

Mr. Sundquist is a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.”


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Georgia to U.S.: ‘Don’t Tread on Me’

Nov. 9, 1860

Across the country, the day’s headlines blazed with reports of Southerners’ response to Lincoln’s election. Perhaps most disturbing to many Americans, though thrilling to others, was news of a mass meeting in Savannah, Ga., the previous afternoon. Thousands of citizens – the largest gathering that the city had ever seen, newspapers said – had filled Johnson Square at the heart of downtown, thronging around a monument to Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene to launch a revolution of their own. The crowd cheered wildly as a speaker declared that “the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States, ought not and will not be submitted to.” The shouts and whoops redoubled as a flag was unfurled across the white marble obelisk: a banner with a coiled rattlesnake and the words “SOUTHERN RIGHTS. EQUALITY OF THE STATES. DON’T TREAD ON ME.”

Library of Congress The first flag of Southern independence, raised in Savannah, Ga., on November 8, 1860.  

Probably no one mentioned the ironic fact that this Southern banner, one of the very first flags of secession, was raised atop a monument to a Northerner: General Greene had been born and raised in Rhode Island. Like many Americans of the founding generation, he had harbored mixed feelings about slavery – to say the least. “On the subject of slavery, nothing can be said in its defence,” he wrote to a Quaker acquaintance in 1783, while he was in the process of moving to Georgia to take possession of a large plantation and its hundreds of enslaved African Americans, a gift from the state of Georgia. Greene justified this acquisition by claiming that he planned to treat his new chattels kindly. Two years later, just before his early death, he still harbored vague plans to free his slaves and keep them in a system resembling medieval feudalism.

Cleveland Plain Dealer headline, Nov. 9, 1860

In 1860, however, Georgia’s leaders felt no such ambivalence about human bondage. As the secessionists gathered in Savannah, Governor Joseph E. Brown issued a proclamation vindicating Georgia’s right to withdraw from the Union rather than submit to “proud and haughty Northern Abolitionists.” Brown, who came from a family of hardscrabble farmers in northern Georgia, struck a populist tone, as he often did, reminding the South’s poor whites how much better off they were than Northern factory workers:

Here the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family are treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. Be feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. …

These [laborers] know that in the event of the abolition of Slavery, they would be greater sufferers than the rich, who would be able to protect themselves. They will, therefore, never permit the slaves of the South to be set free among them, come in competition with their labor, associate with them and their children as equals – be allowed to testify in our Courts against them – sit on juries with them, march to the ballot-box by their sides, and participate in the choice of their rulers – claim social equality with them – and ask the hands of their children in marriage. …[T]he ultimate design of the Black Republican Party is to bring about this state of things in the Southern States.

But the crowd in Savannah on Nov. 8 probably needed no reminder about the current state of race relations. One of the largest slave pens in Georgia – a business establishment where hundreds of people at a time were often imprisoned, awaiting sale – faced the Greene Monument across Johnson Square.

Sources: New York Times, Nov. 9 and Nov. 12, 1860; Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 9, 1860; Macon Daily Telegraph, Nov. 12, 1860; Terry Golway, “Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution”; Gerald M. Carbone, “Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution”; George Washington Greene, “The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution”; William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, “Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860”; Walter J. Fraser, “Savannah in the Old South”; Malcolm Bell Jr., “Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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The Last Ordinary Day

Nov. 1, 1860

Seven score and 10 years ago, a little Pennsylvania town drowsed in the waning light of an Indian summer. Almost nothing had happened lately that the two local newspapers found worthy of more than a cursory mention. The fall harvest was in; grain prices held steady. A new ice cream parlor had opened in the Eagle Hotel on Chambersburg Street. Eight citizens had recently been married; eight others had died. It was an ordinary day in Gettysburg.

It was an ordinary day in America: one of the last such days for a very long time to come.

In dusty San Antonio, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army had just submitted a long report to Washington about recent skirmishes against marauding Comanches and Mexican banditti. In Louisiana, William Tecumseh Sherman was in the midst of a tedious week interviewing teenage applicants to the military academy where he served as superintendent. In Galena, Ill., passers-by might have seen a man in a shabby military greatcoat and slouch hat trudging to work that Thursday morning, as he did every weekday. He was Ulysses Grant, a middle-aged shop clerk in his family’s leather-goods store.

Even the most talked-about man in America was, in a certain sense, almost invisible — or at least inaudible.
On Nov. 1, less than a week before Election Day, citizens of Springfield, Ill., were invited to view a new portrait of Abraham Lincoln, just completed by a visiting artist and hung in the statehouse’s senate chamber. The likeness was said to be uncanny, but it was easy enough for viewers to reach their own conclusions, since the sitter could also be inspected in person in his office just across the hall. Politically, however, Lincoln was almost as inscrutable as the painted canvas. In keeping with longstanding tradition, he did not campaign at all that autumn; did not so much as deliver a single speech or grant a single interview to the press.
An ad for Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

Instead, Lincoln held court each day in his borrowed statehouse office, behind a desk piled high with gifts and souvenirs that supporters had sent him — including countless wooden knicknacks carved from bits and pieces of fence rails he had supposedly split in his youth. He shook hands with visitors, told funny stories, and, answered mail. Only one modest public statement from him appeared in the Illinois State Journal that morning: a small front-page ad, sandwiched between those for a dentist and a saddle-maker, offering the services of Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

Article in The New York Herald.

The future is always a tough thing to predict — and perhaps it was especially so on the first day of that eventful month. Take the oil painting of Lincoln, for example: it would be obsolete within weeks when its subject unexpectedly grew a beard. (The distraught portraitist tried to daub in whiskers after the fact, succeeding only in wrecking his masterpiece.) Or, on a grander scale, an article in the morning’s New York Herald, using recent census data to project the country’s growth over the next hundred years. By the late 20th century, it stated confidently, America’s population would grow to 300 million (pretty close to accurate), including 50 million slaves (a bit off). But, asked the author, could a nation comprising so many different people and their opinions remain intact for that long? Impossible.

Writing about the past can be almost as tricky. Particularly so when the subject is the Civil War, that famously unfinished conflict, with each week bringing fresh reports of skirmishes between the ideological rear guards of the Union and Confederate armies, still going at it with gusto.

In many senses, though, the Civil War is a writer’s — and reader’s — dream. The 1860s were an unprecedented moment for documentation: for gathering and preserving the details of passing events and the texture of ordinary life. Starting just a few years before the war, America was photographed, lithographed, bound between the covers of mass-circulation magazines, and reported by the very first generation of professional journalists.

Half a century ago, as the nation commemorated the war’s centennial, a scruffy young man from Minnesota walked into the New York Public Library and began scrolling through reels of old microfilm, reading newspapers published all over the country between 1855 and 1865. As Bob Dylan would recount in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume 1,” he didn’t know what he was looking for, much less what he would find. He just immersed himself in that time: the fiery oratory, the political cartoons, the “weird mind philosophies turned on their heads,” the “epic, bearded characters.” But much later, he swore that this journey deep into the Civil War past became “the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

In the months ahead, this part of the Disunion series will delve like Dylan into the sedimentary muck of history, into that age of unparalleled American splendor and squalor. Several times each week — aided in my research by two of my students at Washington College, Jim Schelberg and Kathy Thornton — I will write about something that happened precisely 150 years earlier. My subject may be as large as a national election or as small as a newspaper ad. I won’t be trying to draw a grand saga of the national conflict (much less searching for any all-encompassing templates). Instead, I’ll try to bring the reader, for a brief present moment, into a vanished moment of the past — and into a country both familiar and strange.


The Compiler (Gettysburg, Pa.), Oct. 29, 1860; Adams Sentinel and General Advertiser (Gettysburg, Pa.), Oct. 31, 1860; Robert E. Lee to the Department of War, Oct. 30, 1860; William T. Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, November 3, 1860; Jean Edward Smith, Grant; Brooks D. Simpson, “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865″; Illinois State Journal, Nov. 1, 1860; Harold Holzer, “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861″; Michael Burlingame, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life”; New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1860; Bob Dylan, “Chronicles: Volume 1.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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