Daniel Webster of Massachusetts

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Daniel Webster circa 1847Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was an outspoken advocate for the shipping and industrial interests of his state. He was a powerful orator and was nationally known for his speaking ability. Webster was a prominent Whig who championed the elites of his region. “He was a thoroughgoing elitist, and he reveled in it,” says biographer Robert Vincent Remini.

Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire in 1782. He and his nine siblings grew up on their parents’ farm, a small parcel of land granted to his father. His ancestors were among the early settlers of Salisbury.

Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a preparatory school in Exeter, New Hampshire, before attending Dartmouth College. After he graduated from Dartmouth (Phi Beta Kappa), Webster was apprenticed to the lawyer Thomas W. Thompson in Salisbury. But his career was short lived as he left to support his older brother’s studies by working as a schoolteacher.

After a year, he returned to the law in 1802 and two years later he moved to Boston where he clerked for Christopher Gore. Gore’s practice encompassed international, national, and state politics. Webster learned about many aspects of the law and met many Massachusetts politicians. In 1805, he was admitted to the bar.

He returned to New Hampshire shortly after being admitted to the bar due to his father’s declining health. He set up a law practice in Boscawen but after his father’s death in 1896 he handed over his practice to his brother and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Daniel Webster was a Federalist who had been educated at the Federalist-leaning Dartmouth College. In 1807 Thomas Jefferson had pushed through the Embargo Act of 1807, stopping all trade to both Britain and France. As New England relied on commerce with the two nations, the region strongly opposed Jefferson’s attempt at “peaceable coercion.” Webster wrote an anonymous pamphlet attacking it.

The trouble between the United States and Britain escalated into the War of 1812. Webster gave a speech in the same year at the Washington Benevolent Society, a speech that proved critical to his career. The speech condemned the war and the violation of New England’s shipping rights that preceded it, but it also strongly denounced the extremism of those more radical among the unhappy New Englanders who were beginning to call for the region’s secession from the Union.

Webster’s outspokenness led to his election to the House of Representatives in 1812. He would remain in the House until March 1817. He was an outspoken critic of the Madison administration and its wartime policies, denouncing its efforts at financing the war through paper money and opposing Secretary of War James Monroe‘s conscription proposal.

Notable in his second term was his support of the reestablishment of a stable specie-based national bank; but he opposed the tariff of 1816 (which sought to protect the nation’s manufacturing interests) and House Speaker Henry Clay’s American System.

Webster did not seek a third term and he returned to his law practice which he moved from Portsmouth to Boston. He had married in 1808 and was to have four children with his wife Grace.

Webster was one of the foremost constitutional lawyers of the early 1800’s. He argued 223 cases before the Marshall Court, winning about half of them. Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster’s briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.

With the help of a coalition of Federalists and Republicans, Webster was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in June 1827. His first wife died in 1828 and he remarried a year later.

Webster became New England’s champion in the fight over the Tariff of 1828. Webster changed his position to support a protective tariff in 1828 explaining that after the failure of the rest of the nation to heed New England’s objections in 1816 and 1824, “nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others.” The region was heavily invested in manufacturing and he would not now do it injury.

Webster’s speaking ability came to the fore during the Nullification Crisis when he famously summed up his position in opposition to nullification of federal laws “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”

In 1836, Webster was one of four Whig Party candidates to run for the office of President, but he only managed to gain the support of Massachusetts. This was the first of three unsuccessful attempts at gaining the presidency. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Webster was offered the vice presidency, but he declined.

However, Harrison appointed Webster as his Secretary of State, a position that he retained under John Tyler after Harrison’s death a month after his inauguration. In September 1841, an internal division amongst the Whigs over the question of the National Bank caused all the Whigs (except Webster who was in Europe at the time) to resign from Tyler’s cabinet.

In 1842, he was the architect of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved the Caroline Affair, established the definitive Eastern border between the United States and Canada (Maine and New Brunswick), and signaled a definite and lasting peace between the United States and Britain. Webster succumbed to Whig pressure in May 1843 and finally left the cabinet. Webster later served again as Secretary of State in President Millard Fillmore’s administration from 1850 until 1852.

Webster returned to the Senate in 1845,  where he opposed both the Texas Annexation and the resulting Mexican-American War for fear of its upsetting the delicate balance of slave and non-slave states.

In the United States presidential election, 1848, he sought the Whig Party’s nomination for the President but was beaten by the military hero Zachary Taylor. Webster was once again offered the Vice-Presidency, but he declined saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Taylor died 16 months after the inauguration, the second time a President who offered Webster the chance to be Vice President died.

During the debates over the Compromise of 1850, Webster once again exhibited his eloquence on the floor of the Senate. Webster gave one of his most famous speeches, later called the Seventh of March speech, characterizing himself “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American…” In it he gave his support to the compromise, which included the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Webster returned to the State Department in July 1850 where he became embroiled in prosecutions of those who aided Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner. The juries convicted none of the accused. His popularity in New England fell to a low and he was passed over for the 1852 Whig nomination for the presidency.

A rump “Native American Party” put his name on the ballot without permission and he collected a few thousand votes, even though he died just before the election. Daniel Webster died on October 24, 1852 at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts, after falling from his horse and suffering a crushing blow to the head, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, which resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage.

The great irony was that his son Fletcher went on to serve as a Union Army infantry colonel in the Civil War that Webster tried to prevent. Fletcher Webster commanded the 12th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was killed in action on August 29, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run.



The Caning of Charles Sumner

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

The caning of Charles SumnerOn May 22, 1856, at the height of a heated debate over the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an event took place in the Senate Chamber that is nearly unique in American history. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was assaulted at his Senate desk by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Tempers had become so inflamed over the slavery issue that Brooks felt compelled to attack Sumner for a speech that he had made on the floor of the Senate two days beforehand. The story of those events illustrate the widening divide between the North and the South.

To understand the events surrounding the near-fatal beating of Senator Sumner, one must understand the events of the time and the two protagonists.

The debate over the Kansas-Nebraska had begun when the original bill was introduced in the Senate on January 4, 1854. Over the course of the next two bills the contents of the bill had been modified by its sponsor Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. By May the bill passed both chambers in its final form and was signed by President Franklin Pierce.

The main issue with the bill was its “popular sovereignty” clause. In the case of this act, it said that the residents of territories should be able to decide by voting whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory.

It ignited a rush of pro-and anti-slavery settlers into Kansas in an attempt to vote their position. The period following the movement of forces Charles Sumner“Bleeding Kansas”.

On May on May 19 and May 20, 1856, Sumner attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The long speech argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state, and went on to denounce the “Slave Power“, the political arm of the slave owners. Their goal, he alleged, was to spread slavery through the free states that had made it illegal.

In his speech, Sumner, a Free Soil Democrat, attacked authors of the Act, Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.

The main outside event leading up to the assault on Senator Sumner took place on May 21, 1856. A group of pro-slavery Border Ruffians Preston Brooksentered the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores.

On May 22nd, Representative Brooks entered the Senate chamber accompanied by fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt. Brooks was armed with a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. His companion carried a pistol. Sumner was working at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber.

Dueling was still legal in the nation’s capital but Keitt had advised Brooks that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing Both of the men considered  that Sumner was no better than a drunkard, due to the supposedly coarse language he had used during his speech. Brooks had decided to beat him with a cane.

Approaching his desk, Brooks identified himself as Senator Andrew Butler’s nephew. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began to beat him mercilessly with the cane, using the head to beat him about the head. Sumner attempted to hide under his desk but eventually he ripped the bolted desk from the floor.

Keitt quickly drew a pistol from his belt, jumped into the aisle and leveled it at the horror-struck Congressmen who were approaching to try to assist Sumner, loudly announcing “Let them be!”. He resigned in protest over his censure, but was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat by his South Carolina constituency within a month.

Sumner staggered into the aisle, blinded by his own blood. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness but Brooks continued his assault. Brooks Lawrence Keittcontinued to beat the motionless Sumner until his cane broke, at which point he left the chamber.

The episode revealed the polarization in America, as Sumner became a martyr in the North and Brooks a hero in the South. Northerners were outraged. The Cincinnati Gazette said, “The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the Bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.”

In addition to the head trauma, Sumner suffered from nightmares, severe headaches, and what is now understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder or “psychic wounds”. He spent months convalescing while his political enemies ridiculed him and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties.

The Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery. He eventually returned to the Senate in 1859. He continued to serve in the Senate until his death in 1874.

There was an attempt to oust Preston Brooks from the House of Representatives but it failed. He was fined $300 for the assault and resigned his seat on July 15, 1856. He was re-elected by his constituents but died the following January before the new Congressional term began.

Lawrence Keitt resigned in protest over his censure by the House, but was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat by his South Carolina constituency within a month. He was involved in a later incident in the House when he started a massive brawl in House on February 5, 1858.

Keitt insulted Pennsylvania Representative Galusha Grow calling him a “black Republican puppy”. Grow responded by telling Keitt that “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Keitt became enraged and went for Grow’s throat, shouting that he would “choke him for that”.

A massive brawl involving some 50 Representatives ensued. It ended when a missed punch from Rep. Cadwallader Washburn of Wisconsin upended the hairpiece of Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi. The embarrassed Barksdale accidentally replaced the wig backwards, causing both sides to erupt in spontaneous laughter.

Keitt served as a delegate from South Carolina to the Provisional Confederate Congress, 1861–62, and a colonel in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, commanding the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later Kershaw’s Brigade. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864, Keitt died the next day near Richmond, Virginia.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves in antebellum America-The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850The most divisive law of the antebellum period was easily the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 just as the Dred Scott decision was the most divisive court ruling. The law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 along with five other specific laws that attempted to maintain the balance between slave states and free states.

The act was passed by the was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76 on September 18, 1850. It was immediately signed by President Millard Fillmore. It was a successor to the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. That law  was written with the intention of enforcing Article 4, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which required the return of runaway slaves.

It sought to force the authorities in free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters. But officials in Northern states used a variety of means to circumvent the earlier law. They passed “personal liberty laws“. These laws mandated a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved and others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of alleged fugitive slaves. In some cases, juries refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under the Federal law.

The Missouri Supreme Court routinely held that voluntary transportation of slaves into free states, with the intent of residing there permanently or definitely, automatically made them free. The Fugitive Slave Law dealt with slaves who went into free states without their master’s consent. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), that states did not have to offer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, greatly weakening the law of 1793.

The Southern states saw the non-cooperation of Northern states as a means of gradually bleeding away their property rights. In some cases Southern slaveholders organized raids into Northern states in order to capture fugitive slaves.

In 1847 and 1849, planters from Bourbon and Boone Counties in northern Kentucky led raids into Cass County, Michigan to recapture runaway slaves. The raids failed of their objective but strengthened Southern demands for passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 gave the Southerners in Congress the opportunity to strengthen the earlier law. The new law made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $28,000 in present-day value).

Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.

In addition, the law made any person aiding a fugitive slave subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Meanwhile, officers who captured fugitive slaves were entitled to to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The opportunities for the abuse of the law were rampant. Being unable to testify in court many free blacks were captured and transported South to spend years in slavery even though they were free. The case of Solomon Northup, free-born black man from New York State is just one among many. His story was told in 12 Years a Slave, a book that he wrote after he was freed by a court in Louisiana.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court  declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional in 1854, as a result of a case involving fugitive slave Joshua Glover, and Sherman Booth, who led efforts that thwarted Glover’s recapture. Ultimately, in 1859 in Ableman v. Booth the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

In essence the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made every person who aided or assisted a runaway slave into a criminal. It’s enforcement in the North brought the issue of slavery home to citizens there. Abolitionists were faced with the prospect of breaking the law or going against their personal beliefs. Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 was one response to the law.

Abolitionists continued to aid runaway slaves and after the signing of the law Canada became a destination of choice. There the former slaves would enjoy absolute freedom without a fear of being returned to their former state of slavery.





Slave Revolts (Part 2)

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brotherSlave revolts were not a very common occurrence but they continued, on shore and on sea. From 1822 their were a number of revolts and conspiracies by slaves throughout the Southern United States. Slaveowners and state authorities responded by crushing almost all of them.

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a South Carolina freedman, supposedly plotted an uprising of slaves in that state. Vesey won $1,500 in a Charleston city lottery in 1799. He used the money to buy his freedom from his owner and began working as a carpenter.

Apparently, Vesey was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution and also the closing of his African Methodist Episcopal Church. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast.

The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

In August 1831 a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner took place in Southampton County, Virginia. We have a description of Turner from a reward poster that was circulated after his uprising:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow. 

Turner was highly intelligent and how to read and write at an early age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. Turner often conducted Baptist services and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet.”

On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered. Turner started with a small number of slaves but eventually 70 enslaved and free blacks joined in the revolt.

Turner and his followers used knives, axes, hatchets and other edged weapons rather than firearms since the sound of gunfire would alert the countryside. Traveling from one house to another, they killed almost all of the white people that they encountered.

The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children before Turner and his accomplices were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.

Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton. The state executed 56 blacks. Militias killed at least 100 blacks, and probably many more. Another estimate is that up to 200 blacks were killed. The number of black victims overall far exceeded the number of white victims.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion spread fear throughout the South. The fear and alarm led to whites’ attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause. The editor of the Richmond Whig, writing “with pain,” described the scene as “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity.” 

Turner eluded capture over two months. On October 30, a White farmer discovered him in a hole covered with fence rails, and Turner was arrested. A trial was quickly arranged. On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner’s corpse was flayedbeheaded and quartered.

In 1839 the slaves on the Spanish schooner La Amistad revolted, killed several members of the crew and took over the ship. They demanded to be returned to Africa but were deceived by the remaining crew members who steered the ship to the coast of the United States. The vessel was discovered off the coast of Long Island and was seized by the United States revenue cutter USS Washington.

This began a complex legal case that involved all of the participants including the American captain of the Washington, the owners of the slaves, the Spanish government, the British government and the Africans on board. The case eventually worked its way through the federal court system and arrived at the Supreme Court in February 1841.

The Court ruled that the Africans were in fact free and that the ship itself was lawful salvage. The Africans were taken in by abolitionists. The Amistad Committee instructed the Africans in English and Christianity, and raised funds to pay for their return home. Along with several missionaries, in 1842 the surviving 36 Africans sailed to Sierra Leone.

In 1841 the brig Creole was was transporting 135 slaves from Richmond to New Orleans for sale in the slave market there. While the United States had prohibited the international slave trade effective in 1808, it permitted the domestic slave trade among those states that authorized slavery. Many slave traders transported captives by the coastwise slave trade along the East Coast.

On November 7, 1841, Madison Washington and eighteen other male slaves rebelled. They overwhelmed the crew and killed John R. Hewell, one of the slave traders, with a knife. The crew and passengers had only one gun among them, which they never used. They ordered the crew to take them to Nassau in the Bahamas.

The Bahamas was a British colony and slavery had been outlawed by Britain. After a series of court rulings 128 slaves gained freedom. It has been termed the “most successful slave revolt in US history”.

The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur in the Cherokee Nation. The slave revolt took place on November 15, 1842, when a group of African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished. They were soon captured, after killing two pursuers. Five slaves were later executed for these deaths.

The event inspired subsequent slave rebellions to take place in the Indian Territory and throughout North America. Although the 1842 slave revolt participants were captured before reaching the Mexican border, the aftermath of this revolt led Cherokee Nation slave holders to create stricter slave codes, expel Freedmen from the territory, and found a ‘rescue’ (slave-catching) company to prevent further loss of slaves.

Perhaps, the most famous attempt at freeing slaves was led by John Brown who along with 19 followers attempted to capture The U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He intended to arm arms with the rifles from the arsenal. You can read about it here.


Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

In 1828 the Congress passed a new tariff that the Southerners immediately named the Tariff of Abominations. Northern industries were being driven out of business by low-priced imports and the Northern representatives felt that a higher tariff on low-priced goods was necessary.

However, the Southerners saw it as an attack on them because it forced them to pay higher prices on the goods that they didn’t produce. More importantly,  reducing the exportation of British goods to the US made it difficult for the British to pay for the cotton they imported from the South. The South saw this as a direct attack on their way of life.

The first protective tariff was passed by Congress in 1816; its tariff rates were increased in 1824. Southern states such as South Carolina contended that the tariff was unconstitutional and were opposed to the newer protectionist tariffs, but Western agricultural states favored them, as well as New England’s industries. The Southerners believed that they were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another.

The Tariff of 1828 had the desired effect. Britain reduced their importation of Southern cotton, weakening the Southern economy. THe South was forced to buy more goods from the North rather than Britain. These purchases strengthened Northern manufacturers.

John C. CalhounDespite the sufferings of the South, the US experienced net economic growth with US GDP increasing from $888 million in 1828 to $1.118 billion by 1832 largely due to growth of the Northern manufacturing base.

But the South did not accept the tariff and it created a split within the Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson had been elected President in 1828 with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina as his Vice President. The tariff’s opponents expected Jackson to push for significant reductions in the tariff’s rates but he didn’t address their concerns. In Washington, an open split on the issue occurred between Jackson and Vice-President Calhoun.

On July 14, 1832, Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832 which made some reductions in tariff rates. Calhoun resigned on December 10 of the same year.

The Tariff of 1832 had been substantially written by by former President John Quincy Adams, who had been elected to the House of Representatives and appointed chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. It reduced the existing tariffs to remedy the conflict created by the tariff of 1828, but it was still deemed unsatisfactory by some in the South, especially in South Carolina. South Carolinian opposition to this tariff and its predecessor, the Tariff of Abominations, caused the Nullification Crisis.

The Tariff of 1828 had pushed the duties on citizens to as high as 45 percent on the value of specific manufactured goods. The 1832 act brought the rate down to 35%. As an example, the duty on hemp, which had been $60 a ton in 1828, was reduced to $40. Even then southerners were not happy with it. Eventually, their unrest and dissatisfaction was what led to the nullification crisis. Along with that, another bill was passed, Tariff of 1833.

The tariffs caused the South Carolina legislature to pass the Ordinance of Nullification. This law declared by the power of the State that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina.

Southerners were violently opposed to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations but their opposition to tariffs had gone much further back. After the War of 1812 the national government had developed a policy of national tariffs to protect American industries from low-priced European imports.

By 1828 South Carolina state politics was increasingly organized around the tariff issue. When the Jackson administration failed to take any actions to address their concerns, the most radical faction in the state began to advocate that the state itself declare the tariff null and void within South Carolina.

In November 1832 a state convention declared that the tariffs of both 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina after February 1, 1833. Military preparations to resist anticipated federal enforcement were initiated by the state. In late February both a Force Bill, authorizing the President to use military forces against South Carolina, and a new negotiated tariff, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, satisfactory to South Carolina were passed by Congress. The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 11, 1833.

The tariff rates were lowered and the crisis was over but nullification would rear its head once again in the 1850s. Southerners would return to it under a new name: states’ rights.


The Constitution and Slavery

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brother-The Constitution and SlaveryDespite all of the state laws that regulated slavery when it came to creating a national governing document, a constitution, the Constitutional Convention almost came to a complete impasse over the issue of slavery.

The use of slaves in the new United States was pervasive. The 1790 census counted slaves in every state except the state of Massachusetts and the “districts” of  Vermont and Maine. (Vermont became the 14th state in 1791 and Maine became the 23rd in 1820.)

In the entire country 3.8 million people were counted, 700,000 of them, or 18 percent, were slaves. In South Carolina, 43 percent of the population was slave. In Maryland 32 percent, and in North Carolina 26 percent. Virginia, with the largest slave population of almost 300,000, had 39 percent of its population made up of slaves.

The previous national governing document, the Articles of Confederation, made no mention of slavery. The main reason was that representation rather than by population was by state with each state having a single vote. There was only a single house of representatives rather than a bicameral legislature.

In the 1780s there was no movement to abolish slavery. Abolitionists did not appear in the United States until the 1830s when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded with William Lloyd Garrison writing the organization’s nascent statement of principles.

However, a number of framers expressed opinions on slavery. John Jay of New York, an author of The Federalist wrote in 1786, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, one of the signers of the Constitution wrote, a few months after the Convention adjourned, “All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves.”

Virginian Patrick Henry who declined to attend the convention was opposed to slavery and wrote in 1773: “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery.” 

Thomas Jefferson who was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence and wrote that “all men are created equal” wrote about slavery: “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.”

Even George Washington who held as many as 300 slaves wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette: “[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view to emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.”

At the time of the Constitutional Convention it was a given that agriculture in the South could not be conducted without the use of slave labor. The unremitting labor of farming tobacco, rice, cotton and peanuts could only be carried out by African slaves due to the heat and humidity in the South. Accepted belief was that white men and women could not work under such conditions. Hanging over the deliberations was the threat that the Southern states might form their own country.

One of the major roadblocks in framing the Constitution was the issue of counting the slaves for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The Southern states wanted a full enumeration of their slaves which would increase their representation in the House. The Northern states wanted no slaves to be counted.

During the writing of the Articles of Confederation there had been a proposal to count slaves as 3/5th of a person but it had failed to be adopted. However, when the issue came up again during the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations it was a ready-made compromise for the sticky problem of counting slaves.

The 3/5th Compromise  would have an impact in antebellum political affairs due to the disproportionate representation of slaveholding states relative to voters. In 1793 southern slave states would have been apportioned 33 seats in the House of Representatives had the seats been assigned based on the free population; instead they were apportioned 47. In 1812, slaveholding states had 76 instead of the 59; in 1833, 98 instead of 73. As a result, southerners dominated the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War.

The 3/5th Compromise was formalized in the Constitution as the Enumeration Clause. It would later be amended by the 13th Amendment which was adopted on December 6, 1865 and formally abolished slavery. Here is the text of the amendment:

Slavery is mentioned in two other places in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, limits Congress expressly from prohibiting the “Importation” of slaves before 1808. The 1808 date, a compromise of 20 years, allowed the slave trade to continue, but placed a date-certain on its survival. Congress eventually passed a law outlawing the slave trade that became effective on January 1, 1808.

The final mention is the Fugitive Slave Clause. In it, a problem that slave states had with extradition of escaped slaves was resolved. The laws of one state, the clause says, cannot excuse a person from “Service or Labour” in another state.” The clause expressly requires that the state in which an escapee is found deliver the slave to the state he escaped from “on Claim of the Party.”

It is said that the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitution of the United States. Despite the belief that the Civil War was caused by economic issues, these issues were created at their root by slavery.



Solomon Northup: 12 Years a Slave

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series The Voice of the Slaves

Solomon NorthupThe new movie sensation, 12 Years a Slave, is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup. The original book was published in 1853 is subtitled Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.

It tells the story of free African-American who is duped into leaving New York for Washington. On the way he is drugged, bound and kidnapped into slavery. He is transported to New Orleans where he was sold into slavery.

Solomon Northup was born free in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1808. His father Mintus was born a slave but was manumitted by his owner Capt. Henry Northup and he took his former owner’s name. He married a woman that Solomon described as a quadroon meaning that she was three-quarters white. Mintus was a successful farmer who was able to meet the property qualifications to vote. Solomon was one of two sons that the couple had.

Like his father Solomon who was partly white, married Anne Hampton in 1829. Anne, like Solomon’s mother, was of mixed race, with African, European, and Native American ancestry. They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. They owned their farm in Hebron in Washington County, and worked at various jobs to provide a prosperous life for their children. Northup played the violin well, which is what led to his kidnapping.

In 1834 the Northups had sold their farm and moved into Saratoga Springs where the couple worked a variety of jobs. Solomon played the violin at a number of local hotels but he found the work to be seasonal. He also worked as a carpenter. His wife worked as a cook at a number of restaurants and hotels in the area.

Solomon’s 12 year ordeal as a slave began in 1841 when he was about 33 years of age. He met two men who introduced themselves as fellow performers. Telling him that they needed a fiddler they invited him to journey with them to New York to perform. His wife was working away from their town so Solomon never notified her thinking that he would return in a couple of days.

After the New York performances, the two persuaded Solomon to come with them to Washington for several more performances offering him a generous wage and the cost of his return trip home. They stopped so that he could get a copy of his “free papers,” to prove his status as a free man. After all, they were going to the capital where slavery was still legal. Due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, free blacks were at risk of kidnapping. Kidnappers used a variety of means, from forced abduction to deceit.

The two white men sold Northup to a slave trader in Washington, claiming that he was a fugitive. When Northup claimed that he was a free man the slave trader and his turnkey severely beat him. Claiming that he was a runaway slave from Georgia, the Washington slave trader shipped him to his partner at the New Orleans slave market. During the voyage Solomon caught smallpox but survived.

He convinced a sailor to send a letter to Henry B. Northup, a member of the family that had owned his father, explaining his plight. However, despite legal mechanisms that were meant to protect New York African-Americans, Northup couldn’t him without knowing where he was.

At the New Orleans slave market, Northup (who had been renamed Platt) was sold to William Ford, a planter on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River in Louisiana. Northup characterized Ford, a Baptist preacher, as a good man, considerate of his slaves. At Ford’s place, Northup proposed making log rafts to move lumber down the river, to get logs to market less expensively. His project was a success. He also built textile looms, copying from one nearby, so that Ford could set up mills on the creek. With Ford, Northup found his efforts appreciated.

However in the winter of 1842 the planter had financial difficulties, and was forced to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts. Solomon’s next owner was a man named  John M. Tibaut (the name is given as Tibeats in Northup’s book), a carpenter who had been working for Ford on the mills, as well as at a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford’s Bayou Boeuf plantation.

Tibaut was a cruel man who was soon at odds with Solomon. After running away and returning to Ford, the preacher convinced Tibaut to hire Solomon out to a plantation about 38 miles away, thereby limiting their conflict. Northup and other slaves do the heavy work of clearing cane, trees and undergrowth in order to develop cotton fields for cultivation. With the work unfinished, after about five weeks Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.

While held by Epps, in 1852 Northup secretly befriended Samuel Bass, an itinerant Canadian carpenter working for Epps. Bass wrote to Northup’s family with details of his location at Bayou Boeuf in hopes of gaining his rescue. After the intervention of the New York governor and several Louisiana politicians, Solomon Northup was returned to freedom on January 4, 1853. Epps cursed the man who enabled Solomon’s freedom. Northup later wrote, “He thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free.”

A New York court case ensued but after four years it was dropped because there was a question if the crime of kidnapping had been committed in New York or Washington, out of the jurisdiction of the New York courts.

Solomon wrote a book about his experience in three months with the assistance of David Wilson, a local writer. Within three years it had sold 30,000 copies. In his memoir Solomon provided details of slave markets in Washington, DC, as well as describing at length cotton cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon Northup became an active abolitionist and gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast on his experiences as a slave in order to support the abolitionist cause. He had returned to his wife and family but in 1857 he disappeared.  In 1909, John Northup, Henry’s nephew, wrote: “The last I heard of him, Sol was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book. All at once, he disappeared. We believe that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed.”

The contemporary historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes, his kidnapping being unlikely because he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers, but his 1857 disappearance remains unexplained.



The Gettysburg Address

This entry is part 27 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

Lincoln at GettysburgToday is the 150th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The President’s was advertised as a few appropriate remarks but it has come to be one of the most famous speeches in American history. The main speaker that day was Edward Everett who delivered a two-hour oration.

Click to enlarge.

The occasion for the speech was the dedication of the cemetery at the site of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. The official title of the event was the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg.

Everett was considered one of the finest orators in the country and on that day his two-hour speech was considered a masterpiece. Everett’s two-hour oration that was slated to be the “Gettysburg address” that day.

His now seldom-read 13,607-word oration began:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

And ended two hours later with:

“But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.”

After Everett finished speaking Lincoln rose to deliver his few appropriate remarks. In them he was able to sum up the war in just ten sentences. There are more than a few versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But this version, known as the Bliss Version, is the only one that the President signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Each of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address is named for the associated person who received it from Lincoln. Lincoln gave a copy to each of his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay.  Both of these drafts were written around the time of his November 19 address, while the other three copies of the address, the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies, were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. In part because Lincoln provided a title and signed and dated the Bliss copy, it has become the standard text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The reaction to Lincoln’s remarks was mixed. In 1931, the printed recollections of 87-year-old Mrs. Sarah A. Cooke Myers, who was 19 when she attended the ceremony, suggest a dignified silence followed Lincoln’s speech: “I was close to the President and heard all of the Address, but it seemed short. Then there was an impressive silence like our Menallen Friends Meeting. There was no applause when he stopped speaking.”

On the other hand In contrast, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin maintained, “He pronounced that speech in a voice that all the multitude heard. The crowd was hushed into silence because the President stood before them…It was so Impressive! It was the common remark of everybody. Such a speech, as they said it was!”

Public reaction was divided along partisan lines with one Republican newspaper praising it as “a perfect gem” that was “deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.” On the other hand the Democrat-leaning Chicago Times said: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

Perhaps the best compliment that Lincoln received was from Edward Everett who wrote the President: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln replied that he was glad to know the speech was not a “total failure”. One hundred and fifty years later we can attest to that fact.


The Impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Union Civil War Literature

Harriet Beecher StoweUncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second-best next to the Bible. Many historians say that the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War”, according to Will Kaufman. The novel was subtitled, Life Among the Lowly and depicted the life of slaves in Kentucky who were about to be sold to pay their master’s debts.

Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, the author was a wife and mother who resided in Cincinnati met former and fugitive enslaved people. Cincinnati, then the western frontier of the United States, was an ethnically and culturally vibrant city. On the Ohio River across from Kentucky, a slave state, the city exposed Stowe to the public face of slavery.

Stowe knew about slavery before she moved to Ohio. Her own grandmother kept African American servants who had probably originally been enslaved, and her father had preached in favor of the colonization movement, supporting the creation of Liberia as a settling point for freed people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky as two enslaved people, Tom and 4-year old Harry, are sold to pay Shelby family debts. Developing two plot lines, the story focuses on Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and 3 young children, and Eliza, Harry’s mother.

When the novel begins, Eliza’s husband George Harris, unaware of Harry’s danger, has already escaped, planning to later purchase his family’s freedom. To protect her son, Eliza runs away, making a dramatic escape over the frozen Ohio River with Harry in her arms. Eventually the Harris family is reunited and journeys north to Canada.

Tom protects his family by choosing not to run away so the others may stay together. Sold south, he meets Topsy, a young, black girl whose mischievous behavior hides her pain; Eva, the angelic, young, white girl whose death moved Victorians to tears; charming, elegant but passive St. Clare; and finally, cruel, violent Simon Legree. Tom’s deep faith gives him an inner strength that frustrates his enemies as he moves toward his fate in Louisiana.

The novel ends when both Tom and Eliza escape slavery: Eliza and her family reach Canada; but Tom’s freedom comes with death. Simon Legree, Tom’s third and final master, has Tom whipped to death for refusing to deny his faith or betray the hiding place of two fugitive women.

The novel was a sensation, selling 10,000 copies in the first week and 300,000 in its first year of publication. In Great Britain, a country that had abolished slavery in 1834, the book sold 1.5 million copies in one year.

The America of the 1850s saw the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. Among the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 were the end of the slave trade, but not slavery, in Washington D.C., and the creation of a new, stricter, Fugitive Slave Law.

Helping runaways had been illegal since 1793, but the 1850 law required that everyone, law enforcers and ordinary citizens, help catch fugitives. Those who refused to assist slave-catchers, or aided fugitives, could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for six months.

Stowe was furious about the two laws that she considered unfair and immoral. While she and her husband were living in Brunswick, Maine when he taught at Bowdoin College, Stowe disobeyed the law by hiding runaways. She was encouraged by her sister in-in-law who wrote: “…if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an impact far beyond the borders of the United States. It personalized both the political and economic arguments about slavery. Stowe wrote in an easy, informal style that drew readers into the lives of her characters. In an era of more-formal political speeches, tracts and newspapers accounts, it attracted millions of readers to explore the institution of slavery.

By the 1850s slavery in the Northern states was almost non-existent. The vast majority of white Northerners had no experience with African-Americans and many had never met a person of color. Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave them that window into the world of slavery that they otherwise would never have experienced in their everyday lives.

Stowe was both lauded and criticized almost immediately after the publication of the novel. Extreme abolitionists thought that the book was not strong enough with its call for the immediate end of slavery. Stowe who believed in colonization was also criticized for advocating that policy. They also thought that her main character, Uncle Tom, was too weak.

Supporters of Stowe praised the book for putting a human face on those held in slavery, emphasizing the impact slavery had on families, and helping the public understand and empathize with the plight of enslaved mothers.

Pro-slavery advocates claimed that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, that Tom was too noble, and accused Stowe of fabricating unrealistic, one-sided images of Southern slavery.

Stowe responded to her critics by writing The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an annotated bibliography of her sources. Researching and writing The Key reinforced Stowe’s anti-slavery sentiments and turned her into an abolitionist. Her second anti-slavery novel, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), was much more forceful and advocated an immediate end to slavery.

During the Civil War, Stowe criticized British businesses that continued to trade with Southern cotton suppliers, and was impatient with President Lincoln’s willingness to postpone freeing people held in slavery.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is believed to have been inspired by Josiah Henson, a Maryland slave, who escaped to Canada and returned on a number of occasions to lead slaves to freedom. He published his autobiography in 1849. Our next post will cover his life and exploits.


Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Union Civil War Literature

Ambrose Bierce 1862Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was a writer, journalist and editorialist. But before his writing career he was a soldier in the Union Army for most of the American Civil War and his experience during the war had a great deal of influence on his writing. Bierce later became known as “Bitter Bierce” because of his harsh social criticism and sardonic view of human nature.

Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842 and grew up in Indiana. He was the tenth of thirteen children whose father gave all of them names beginning with the letter “A”. At the onset of the war Bierce joined 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. The unit began the war in Western Virginia where they fought at the “first battle” at Philippi. Bierce was cited for bravery for rescuing a comrade under fire at this engagement. They were also at the Battle of Rich Mountain.

By February 1862 Bierce had been promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. In April he was at the Battle of Shiloh, a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir, “What I Saw of Shiloh”.

Bierce was in many of the battles in the Western Theater. He was in the Atlanta Campaign where he was badly wounded in the head at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He spent the rest of the summer on medical furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865. However, he returned to the Army the following year, again serving under General Hazen.

They crossed the Great Plains inspecting military outposts and arrived in San Francisco by the end of 1866. Bierce was promoted to brevet major before resigning from the Army. It was in San Francisco where Bierce began writing in earnest. He was a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News LetterThe Argonaut, the Overland MonthlyThe Californian and The Wasp. A selection of his crime reporting from The San Francisco News Letter was included in The Library of America anthology True Crime.

Bierce wrote in England from 1872 to 1875. Returning to San Francisco he continued to write his usual variety of pieces. Bierce had married in 1871 to Mary Ellen Day and they had three children. Unfortunately, two of them predeceased Bierce and by 1888 the couple separated, divorcing in 1904.

In 1913, Bierce traveled to Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. While traveling with rebel troops, he disappeared without a traceCarlos Fuentes‘ novel The Old Gringo is a fictional account of Bierce’s disappearance. It was adapted to film in 1989, Old Gringo, starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, and Jimmy Smits.

Bierce was considered a master of pure English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres. He was a prolific writer who wrote war stories, horror stories and tall tales.

Bierce is perhaps best known for The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of satirical definitions (first published as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906). Here’s are some sample definitions:

  • LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.
  • CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
  • CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.

He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, “The Boarded Window“, “Killed at Resaca“, andChickamauga among others.

Here’s a brief excerpt from “Chickamauga”. A young boy emerges from his home, wooden sword in hand, and proceeds to kill imaginary enemies. He is unaware that a real battle – the namesake blood bath that gives the story its title – is taking place just a short distance away. He is deaf, and therefore can’t hear the approaching gunfire or the groans of dying soldiers.

He waved his cap for their encouragement and smilingly pointed with his weapon in the direction of the guiding light — a pillar of fire to this strange exodus. Only when he sees that the pillar of fire is, in fact, his home, and finds his mother’s mangled body lying in the grass, does the reality of war seep into his childish comprehension. Mute, the boy can only make “wild, uncertain gestures” and utter “a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries.

The best known of Bierce’s Civil War tales, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is a kind of ghost story. The hero, a Confederate civilian about to be hanged for attempting to sabotage the bridge, apparently escapes his fate and makes his way home to his family, but the final, curt paragraph reveals that his deliverance, which Bierce has so meticulously and so movingly described, is no more than a dying man’s fantasy.

In “What I saw at Shiloh”, Bierce described the dead and wounded after the first day of battle.

Hidden in hollows and behind clumps of rank brambles were large tents, dimly lighted with candles, but looking comfortable. The kind of comfort they supplied was indicated by pairs of men entering and reappearing, bearing litters; by low moans from within and by long rows of dead with covered faces outside. These tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet were never full; they were continually ejecting the dead, yet were never empty. It was as if the helpless had been carried in and murdered, that they might not hamper those whose business it was to fall to-morrow.

There are numerous works by and about Ambrose Bierce for those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating writer.