Civil War Naval Quarantines

History Behind the Story #3: Naval Quarantines

THE HISTORY: If you have read Northern Fire, you know that my historical male lead, John Thomas, makes the decision to quarantine his ship when Typhoid breaks out.  When I first wrote Northern Fire, I never imagined a quarantine in modern times.  Then when I did the first read-through edit, the quarantine scene felt eerily familiar to me.  I realized that this is an instance in which history could be very useful to us.  Our ancestors have experienced something that we never have.  I encourage you to look at historical pandemics to see what it was like for those in the past.

Naval quarantines have a long history.  Do any of you watch Outlander? Claire and Jamie are forced to contend with a quarantine on their way from Scotland to America, if you would like to see an example in film.  Of course, there were diseases in the Civil War which led to this necessity, too. 

Even though we’re fond of saying that the Germ Theory had not been accepted during the war, we too often leave it at that and imagine that people were without any sense that there was a possibility that diseases were transmittable from person to person.  This simply is not true.  There would have been no historical quarantines if it were.  People had witnessed too many epidemic diseases and the toll they took to be completely unaware that there were forces that they could not see at play.  You can find examples very far back in history of people being afraid they would “catch” something from someone else.  They just didn’t always know how. 

A lot of diseases were thought to be caused by inflammation (this was why bloodletting was popular, although it was going out of fashion by the Civil War).  There was also a Miasmas Theory which hypothesized that “bad air” caused illness.  Not always untrue, but wrong, of course, in relation to what we now know about viruses and bacteria.  But if you think about it, the Miasmas Theory, while primitive, may actually have been useful for preventing the spread of disease during the Civil War.  A lot of illnesses are airborne, so not breathing air near a sick person was not a bad idea anyway.

Unfortunately, a lot of times, being cautious of the air didn’t hit at the actual cause of disease.  For instance, in Northern Fire, the illnesses at play are Typhoid and Yellow Fever.  The first was caused by bacteria in drinking water, the second, by mosquitos.  For Typhoid, there was actually an American scientist during the Civil War which put forward the “unclean food and water” theory, but it hadn’t gained much traction, as you can see during John Thomas’s conversation with the doctor, who writes it off as a bunch of nonsense.

Okay, so let’s move on to actual Civil War quarantines themselves.  There’s not a lot out there on this subject.  I think Civil War quarantines have slipped through the cracks for a lot of historians.  I have found few to no mentions even in my books solely devoted to Naval history, so this is a subject where you have to piece together scraps from letters and use a little imagination. 

A lot of sources seem to indicate that Civil War Naval quarantines were used most commonly and effectively for Yellow Fever.  Robert F. Reilly says, rather boldly, that quarantines “virtually eliminated” Yellow Fever during the war.[1]  So let’s dig into why that might be. 

First of all, Yellow Fever really hit Union soldiers in the Mississippi Delta hard since they were newcomers who hadn’t built up an immunity to the disease.  As an example of contrast, Jefferson Davis had Yellow Fever as a young man, which would have given him lifelong immunity.  Therefore, the Union had a real problem on its hands and dealt with it swiftly.  The following is an extract from the Baylor University Medical Journal which explains what happened.

Outbreaks would often occur after a ship arrived from a Caribbean port. It could be prevented by quarantining newly arrived ships in most cases. Attempts at its prevention by Benjamin Butler in New Orleans may have been the first example of a medical incentive plan. Butler, with urging from his superior officer Rear Admiral David Farragut, told Dr. Jonathan M. Foltz: “In this matter your orders shall be absolute. Order off all you may think proper [ships to quarantine], and so long as you keep yellow fever away from New Orleans your salary shall be one thousand dollars per month. When yellow fever appears in this city your pay shall cease.” Dr. Foltz quarantined all ships for 40 days 70 miles below the city, and this virtually eliminated yellow fever in New Orleans.

Reilly, Robert F., “Medical and Surgical Care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.”

Yellow Fever is not transmissible from human to human except to the extent that mosquitos transmit it between them.  Mosquitos become infected by biting humans or monkeys which are infected and then pass it to other humans, and so the cycle goes.  That would be why this method of keeping people out of New Orleans was effective, even though mosquitos, and not humans, technically spread the disease.  New Orleans mosquitos didn’t have the chance to become infected as long as infected ships stayed quarantined.

A specific example of a quarantine was the USS Albatross (featured in the cover photo), which had a Yellow Fever outbreak while in service in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.  It was ordered to Pensacola, Florida, where it went into quarantine until the crew was healthy again.  The same thing happened the next year, and it was back to Pensacola for another quarantine.

What did a quarantine look like onboard a ship?  Total shutdown, out at sea, trapped in a ship.  During the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Venice established formal quarantines that lasted for forty days.  Forty days seems to have been pretty standard until more modern times when we were able to tailor quarantines to incubation periods for specific illnesses.

So for the Mississippi River, which is where John Thomas was, the situation was a little different.  You had huge Naval vessels in a river, not on the open sea.  They were closer to land and closer to other people.  The information is scant on how quarantines were carried out on the river.  There was a pre-war quarantine station south of New Orleans where river ships and boats would be stopped and kept in quarantine if there were disease on board.  The station was recaptured by the Union. However, at the point Typhoid and Yellow Fever break out in Northern Fire, the Union Army and Navy are still driving south toward Vicksburg by way of the Mississippi River.  There would have been no way to get the ship south of New Orleans.

Therefore, I used a little imagination and a little history of Army quarantines and had John Thomas actually order his men to be removed from the ship and taken high up on a hill to quarantine tents.

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Speaking of Army quarantines, there was a botched attempt at smallpox inoculation which led to an outbreak among the 20th Maine, of the Army of the Potomac.  A surgeon named Nahum P. Monroe grew really concerned at the possibility of an outbreak among the whole army, especially since they were on the eve of the Chancellorsville Campaign in the spring of 1863.  He said there was no telling where it would end if it ever got started.  He had to use persuasion to get anyone to listen. He pointed out that all a smallpox outbreak would accomplish would be to give aid and comfort to the Confederate Army.  He was effective: the regiment, sick and healthy, were quarantined away from the rest of the army on a hill.  Signs were posted around camp warning of danger if you got too close.  The 20th Maine, therefore, did not fight in the Chancellorsville campaign.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: If you do a search for “Civil War quarantines,” you can find all sorts of primary source references to many different types of quarantines (just not Naval!).  Some involve armies, while others involve civilian refugees.  There were outbreaks in certain cities.  Sometimes people would flee for that cause, while sometimes they would be displaced by the war.  In any event, there are reports of hotels quarantining against people coming from infected cities.  Quarantine seems to have been a common word, a common experience and way of life, then.  Do you find that thought comforting regarding our current pandemic?  Does it make you grateful most infectious diseases in America have become more manageable?

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: This is a portrait (not a photograph, sorry!) of Quarantine Station near Port St. Phillip below New Orleans.  Any Louisianans out there?  Tell us what you know!  This is a very interesting piece of American history that seems to have been lost.  It was built some time before the war, presumably to prevent the spread of disease as vessels entered from the Gulf and could potentially spread diseases all the way up the Mississippi River into Canada.  There were several buildings on site, including a hospital, a storehouse, and a house where the Union high command once had headquarters.  Some sources report that vessels were pulled into quarantine here during the war.

Photo Credit: Civil War Rx.

SOURCES:

“Civil War Rx: Quarantine,” http://civilwarrx.blogspot.com/2013/09/quarantine.html.

Lossing, Benson J., “Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America,” David McKay: 1866.

Reilly, Robert F., “Medical and Surgical Care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Proc (Bal Univ Med Cent) 2016, Apr; 29(2): 138-142, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790547/.

“The 20th Maine’s Quarantine Experience with Smallpox,” National Museum of Civil War Medicine, https://www.civilwarmed.org/quarantine/.

“Transmission of Yellow Fever Virus,” https://www.cdc.gov/yellowfever/transmission/index.html.

Photo Credit for Feature Photo: USS Albatross: Public Domain.


[1] Reilly, Robert F., “Medical and Surgical Care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.”

The Roper Hospital in Charleston

History Behind the Story #2: The Roper Hospital in Charleston

THE HISTORY: It all started with a bequest.  Colonel Thomas Roper, a former mayor of Charleston, left the Medical Society of South Carolina $30,000, which, along with other donations and city funds, was ultimately used  in 1852 to build the Roper Hospital.  The building was located on the corner of Queen and Logan Streets.  It proclaimed the following mission: “to treat all sick and injured people ‘without regard to complexion, religion, or nation.’”[1] I probably don’t have to tell you that this mission was pretty progressive for its time.  The Roper Hospital was intended to be charitable from its foundation.  In fact, it was specifically intended to benefit “paupers,” the word in that day for financially disadvantaged people.

Hospitals were a little different from today.  In the Victorian Era, those who could afford it were traditionally treated at home.  Therefore, any hospital was first and foremost a chartable institution, whatever else they might also do.  And the Roper Hospital did a lot!

There was a Medical College in Charleston, and Roper served as the teaching hospital for the new doctors/trainees.  The hospital was adjacent to the College, so that made it easy for students to go back and forth. This is quite a modern system, kind of like the university hospitals we see today. 

The hospital didn’t start out soft—its beginning constituted more of a baptism by fire.  Roper was forced to contend fairly quickly with various epidemics, including Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and Typhoid. There was also the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, which was covered in the last History Behind the Story article.  The Charleston fire doesn’t seem to have touched the hospital building, but it seems almost certain that the injured and burned were brought to the hospital.

And of course, there was the Civil War. Trustees are required to try to carry out the purposes for which the organization they serve (in this case, the hospital) was founded.[2]  Therefore, when he Civil War started, the Roper Hospital trustees were concerned about there not being enough room for its mentally ill and poor patients if thousands of Confederate wounded were allowed to be treated at the hospital.

You see, the Confederacy had a hospital problem.  While the Union was able to form a very cohesive medical system with hospitals specifically designated as military hospitals, the Confederacy had nothing really of the sort.  It had a system cobbled together from private donors and hospitals that were willing to open their doors.  I won’t say there was no effort to create a medical system that functioned cohesively, but there were never enough funds.

Therefore, it was really up to the Roper Hospital as to whether they would open their doors to wounded and sick soldiers.  But Roper did become an unofficial military treating hospital.  I can find no documentation as to why this happened over the objection of the trustees, but if I was guessing, I would say it was probably the pressure of public opinion.

Let me place the Roper Hospital in its place in history at the outbreak of the Civil War.  I tend to think of the leaders in the American medical field being located in Philadelphia or New York during the Victorian Era.  But Charleston was the largest and wealthiest city south of Philadelphia, so it was able to compete in the profession.

Roper Hospital was a teaching hospital, which means it was on the cusp of the latest innovations in medicine.  It also was only five years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, which means it was well-equipped and state-of-the art.  One source says, “Very modern for its day, it contained a library, a large amphitheater for clinical lectures, and living quarters for physicians.” So this was a pretty large operation.

There is not a lot in the way of comprehensive online records for Roper Hospital, so I had to be a bit of a sleuth, scrapping together mentions here and there of the hospital’s war years.  For Northern Fire, I had to base Shannon’s experience as a nurse largely off of the experience of other Civil War nurses, both Union and Confederate because I could find nothing on the actual experience of nurses for Roper specifically.

But here were a few things I was able to find about the war years.  One article says that “the hospital…served as a Confederate Hospital and prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War.” [3]  I did a double take when I saw the word “prison.” But I’m assuming that what is meant is that is, if there were wounded Union soldiers who fell into Confederate hands, they were treated at the hospital under a technical status of prisoner.  After they recovered, they would have been dealt with as would any other prisoner, which means they would have been paroled or sent to a Confederate prison.

We do know that women were instrumental in keeping the hospitals supplied.  The Soldiers’ Relief Association distributed supplies to the various hospitals in Charleston, including Roper.  There seem to have been at least nine hospitals in Charleston during the Civil War, and the Association provided supplies to them all.  Supplies would have included food, wine, clothing, bedding, and the all-important mosquito nets.  The number of hospitals would have caused, I imagine, competition for supplies as the blockade tightened over the war years.

Since my main character, Shannon, would have been of high social standing, let’s focus on the history of women in her position.  It has long been known that ladies provided help to hospitals in the form of letter writing and bringing baskets of food and the like to the soldiers.  However, necessity meant that their work was actually a little grittier than that.  They often became full-fledged nurses, which meant they had to contend with gangrene, lice, body lice, various contagious diseases, gruesome surgeries, and any other issue a patient might be facing.  In other words, they got their hands dirty, too.

It was fairly common for a female relative of an injured soldier to go and act as nurse to their family member, so I think it is likely that the Roper Hospital had family members in and out all the time, likely even staying on its premises wherever they could fit.

I won’t go into detail about all that women did as nurses and hospital staff during the war because that could take up several books.  But I will add that often it was enslaved or Free Black women who kept the hospitals running by cooking, cleaning, and providing support staff.  I can find no evidence in the Roper Hospital records available of who provided such services, but I think it is likely that Roper was no different from the norm.

When Charleston fell, Roper Hospital was taken over by Union forces.  Later, it was able to continue its operations.  The original Roper Hospital was damaged in a tornado in 1885 and destroyed in an earthquake in 1886 (geez, so many disasters in Charleston!). But the hospital was rebuilt and is still in operation today. 

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Since records were a little difficult to find on Roper Hospital, I thought we would do the Personal Spotlight on my fictional character, Phoebe.  If you’ve read the Series so far, you know that Phoebe was enslaved by the Ravenel family at one time.  However, Shannon’s husband insisted that she be freed if she went to the North with them as Shannon’s servant.  Therefore, Shannon’s father freed Phoebe around the time of Shannon’s marriage. 

As a condition of allowing Shannon to work at the hospital as a nurse, Shannon’s father insists that Phoebe accompany her.  Phoebe does so, where she works and encounters several instances of discrimination.  Phoebe was in a bit of an interesting role as a “Free Black” in Charleston during the war.  However, there had always been a fairly significant Free Black population in Charleston, and I don’t think it is stretching reality at all to think that women like Phoebe would have played a significant role in hospitals in the Confederacy during the war.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Have you ever imagined yourself as a nurse during the Civil War?  What must it have been like for elegant ladies to have to make that transition?  We tend to think favorably of those who acted as nurses and scoff at those who hesitated.  But have you pictured yourself, if you are like me and are not trained in medicine, leaving your parlor, assisting in multiple amputations per day, tending gangrenous wounds, and dealing with the lice and smells?  It had to have been a difficult adjustment!

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Look at this beauty! 

The Roper Hospital in 1865

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Archives

Italianate architecture was very much in vogue in the 1850’s.  You see it all over the South.  Notice how piazzas grace all three of its stories. There are also six towers, one at every corner and two at the main entrance.  I could definitely see Shannon (if forced to work) gracing such an establishment.

Stop by next time for some neat history on Naval Quarantines – something to which we can all, unfortunately, now relate!

SOURCES:

Brown, Jane McCutchen, “Roper Hospital,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/roper-hospital/, June 20, 2016.

Daughters of the Confederacy, “South Carolina Women in the Confederacy,” Big Byte Books, 2016.

“History,” https://www.rsfh.com/about/history/.

“Online Exhibits, Civil War Photographs by George Barnard,” http://archives.nd.edu/research/exhibits/barnard/39.html.

“Records of the Commissioners of the City Hospital, 1879-1907,” Charleston County Public Library.

“Roper Hospital,” Waring Historical Library, http://waring.library.musc.edu/exhibits/earthquake/Roper.php.

“Roper Hospital Records,” MSS 300, Waring Historical Library, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, http://waring.library.musc.edu/finding-aids/pdf/mss-0300.pdf.

Photo Credit for Feature Photo: South Carolina Encyclopedia


[1] “History,” https://www.rsfh.com/about/history/.

[2] The Medical Society of South Carolina was the trustee, which makes sense since the Society was initially left the bequest.

[3] “Roper Hospital.”

The Charleston Fire of 1861

Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series!  This is a series of articles in which I give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing the book.  There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, and the following is the first of the five articles that dig into the history of Northern Fire.  There are some fun new features to the series, including different sections called “The History,” “Personal Spotlight,” “Food for Thought,” and “Analysis of Photograph.”  Ready?  Here we go!

History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861

THE HISTORY: One thing that has always been difficult to remember when I am writing about the Civil War is the fact that other life carried on at the same time that the Civil War was in progress.  I know that the war was all-consuming and that its progress was probably one of the only topics in the conversation of the entire country for four years.  I once read a happy-go-lucky romance set in Tennessee during the Civil War that felt a bit off-base.  There was no real normalcy during the Civil War. 

But there was a certain business-as-usual aspect to certain facets of life that doesn’t initially occur to you.  Seasons changed, there were weddings, mothers still died in childbirth, ordinary people still came down with tuberculosis and typhoid, mental institutions still had to function, city governments still operated unless it was impossible, and, apparently, there were still accidental fires which wiped out huge portions of cities.

I was surprised when I learned about the fire.  There was already a blockade, the constant threat of bombardments and battle, and just add a destructive fire into the mix!  It must have felt like the Apocalypse!  Or maybe not.  I once read a first-hand account of a woman reflecting on the feelings of her enslaved butler as things got really bad in Charleston.  She said he sat by the door as serenely as though nothing had happened.  Maybe from his perspective it felt like deliverance!

In any event, things got pretty rough in Charleston before they got better.  The city was in a unique situation where it was protected by forts, and it didn’t fall until the last days of the war.  All of this will be covered in a later post dealing with the fall of Charleston.  But for now, just to set the stage for the fire, Charleston was carrying on in as business-as-usual fashion as possible.  There were no Union troops occupying the city.  Certain islands had fallen near the city, Union troops were on South Carolina soil, and naval vessels were angling toward its outlying forts, but there was no extremely substantial threat of Union troops getting truly near the city yet since it was so heavily protected. 

This was early in the war, so there was hardship but not the extreme poverty the later war years would see.  There was still something of a social season in the winter because there were many forts nearby, and people wanted to entertain all of the officers.  So we’re right in the middle of all of that on December 11 when a cold front moves in during the night.

I should note that the origins of the fire are unknown.  However, there are some theories.  One is that there were enslaved people who were refugees who started a fire for warmth or to cook, and the fire got out of bounds.  I am a little skeptical of this theory because we know that the fire started at the corner of East Bay and Hassell Streets, which seems to have been a business district.  I think it’s more likely that one of the other theories is true: that the fire began in one of the businesses in the area—either Russel & Co.’s Sash and Blind Factory or Cameron & Co.’s Immense Machine Shops. 

Apparently, it was one of those quick fires that starts to spread rapidly almost before you even know it has ignited.  The weather conditions were perfect to give the fire speed.  Confederate troops as far as 14 miles away could see the flames—whoa!  Union troops 6 miles out to sea could see the flames, too.

Picture the historical moment…

The wind is especially high. The fire is just eating these massive mansions, and the city officials get concerned about the fact that the fire is heading toward the Marine and Roper Hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphanage House.  They realize the fire isn’t going to stop spreading without some drastic measures, so they blow up 14 houses on Queen Anne Street to create a fire block in order to save those vulnerable buildings.   I haven’t heard that the owners of those 14 houses kicked up much of a dust about their houses being blown up. I think we would say the same thing today: save the kids, save the hospitals, we’ll deal with the rest later.  (And it probably helped that the houses were in the fire’s path anyway!)

There are firefighters on the scene, many of whom were enslaved men.  There is a 19th century equivalent of a fire engine.  But it is dead low tide, and the workers are unable to pull enough water from the bay to handle this out-of-control situation.[1]

People are saving what they can from the houses and businesses.  Locals bust into St. Andrews Hall to save the full-length portrait of Queen Victoria (which just goes to show Americans have long been Royal Addicts; I would probably have saved Victoria, too![2]).

It isn’t until noon the next day that the fire clears the peninsula and dies out.  The casualty tolls were as follows: hundreds of acres burned, 575 homes burned, 5 churches burned, and numerous businesses destroyed.  There are no recorded lives lost, but it has been speculated that there must have been some deaths, possibly including enslaved people.[3]

Some interesting building casualties: The Circular Congregational Church. (I say interesting because there wasn’t a huge Congregational presence in the South, but my historical New Englander John Thomas is a Congregationalist.)  The church was rebuilt and claims with pride to be one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South.  It was founded in 1688.  You can see its ruins here in a period photograph.  The graveyard in the foreground is rather eerie.

Circular Congregational Church Ruins

Photo Credit: CircularChurch.org

Another notable building which burned was Institute Hall, where matters had really started to break down between the Democratic Party in 1860 and where South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession had been ratified.

Some of the buildings which had been lost were colonial structures, a real loss for lovers of architectural history.  The Charleston Mercury ran a series of obituaries to the mansions lost.  As someone who loves old buildings, I feel that!

Soup houses were set up to feed the homeless.  There were relief committees and lots of donors, and the Georgia Legislature generously voted to send $100,000 in relief aid to Charleston.  But even still, it was hard to dig out and rebuild with a war in progression, so a lot of the city just lay in ruins for the rest of the war and the years beyond. 

The fire was reported on across the country, including in Northern newspapers. (If you’ve read Northern Fire, you know this is how John Thomas finds out Shannon has made it to Charleston.)  If you have a membership, you can still find a New York Times article from December 29, 1861 here: https://www.nytimes.com/1861/12/29/archives/the-condition-of-charleston-ruins-of-the-great-fireold-landmarks.html.  You can also find a Harper’s Weekly article published in December of 1861 free here: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/december/charleston-fire.htm.[4]

Charleston, when it finally did fall, was not necessarily a good place to be.  Many in the North saw The Holy City as the main perpetrator of the beginning of the Civil War and wanted, ultimately, to make the city pay for the incredible expenditure of human blood.  And yet, “The vast majority of damage and destruction to Charleston during the Civil War was caused by The Great Fire of 1861, the worst in its history.”[5]  One source says, “…nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.”[6]

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Robert E. Lee was in Charleston on the night of the fire. He had not yet attained his ultimate fame or the position as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Instead, he had been sent to organize coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia.  He was staying at the Mills House Hotel, where he and some of his staff went up either onto the balcony or the roof to watch the progress of the fire.  It started to get too close to the hotel (see the picture below which shows just how close), and they were evacuated to Edmonston-Alston House (which is the house my fictional Ravenel House is based on) on East Battery Street.  These facts were what gave me the clue that Shannon and her family would certainly be coughing from the smoke nearby but that they would be thought to be in a fairly safe area of town.

The Mills House Hotel was reported to have been saved only by staff placing wet blankets on the walls and roof.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: It sounds like there were slave refugees in Charleston in December of 1861 if their presence was well-enough known that their actions became a principle/folk theory as to the source of the fire.  My question is: where had the refugees come from?  Some of the surrounding islands that had been invaded by the Union or abandoned by their owners?  From other abandoned towns of South Carolina?  And if the refugees had left abandoned or occupied properties, why do you think they would flee those places into the middle of a city that was still functioning as part of the Confederate government?  Wouldn’t they be afraid they would be captured and returned to their owners or sold at one of Charleston’s famous slave markets? 

What do you think motivated the slave refugees?  Do you think they were left alone by the authorities in Charleston?  If so, why?  I have some thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours!

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo showing the still-intact Mills House Hotel. 

Mills House Hotel in Background

Photo Credit: LowCountryWalkingTours.com

Several things strike me about this picture.  One is how close the Confederate officers were to the flames.  Do you see buildings that nearly touch it are totally destroyed?  You can see that the east side of the building is charred.  Another thing that strikes me is the man who is standing.  He appears to be an African American man.  He is carrying a number of items.  Can you identify any of them?  I’m not sure what some of them are.  What do you think his situation is?  Is he cleaning up the debris?  Just passing through?  I also notice the man who is sitting.  I believe he is in a Confederate uniform, but I’m not certain.  It might be a cadet’s uniform.  I think he has a gun in his right hand.  Does he strike you as rather forlorn?  Do you think he has some sort of connection to the building he is sitting on?

Stop by next time for a look at the Roper Hospital’s use as a military hospital in Charleston during the Civil War!

SOURCES:

Ferrara, Marie, Moses Henry Nathan and the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 4, (Oct., 2003).

Hicks, Brian, “Charleston at War: Charleston Beaten Down by Great Fire,” https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-at-war-charleston-beaten-down-by-great-fire/article_4c54dce2-de2e-591f-b6c4-357e1ec599ab.html, January 29, 2011.

Schreadly, R.L., “The Great Fire of 1861 Took a Devastating Toll on Charleston,” https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/commentary/the-great-fire-of-1861-took-a-devastating-toll-on-charleston/article_194f6588-3066-11e9-abee-a7ef909d7338.html, February 19, 2019.

“The Burning of Charleston,” Harper’s Weekly, December 28, 1861.

“The Great Charleston Fire of 1861,” https://lowcountrywalkingtours.com/charleston-stories/the-great-charleston-fire-of-1861/.

Photo Credit for Feature Photo: LowCountryWalkingTours.com


[1] Southern newspapers report that the efforts of the firefighters were really valiant, while at least one Northern newspaper reports that the enslaved men disabled two of the fire engines.  You can see in this split the ongoing debate about slavery during the war.  The Southern newspapers had an interest in showing that the slaves were happy enough with their lot to try to save the city, while the Northern newspapers had an interest in showing that slaves were deeply unhappy.  As a side-note, the Northern newspapers tend to tie what happened to slavery or to a retribution from Providence for secession.

[2] Do you think the portrait was special to the citizens of Charleston for a particular reason, or do you think this had something do to with the hopes that Great Britain would join the South as an ally?

[3] I wonder if there wasn’t a huge death toll because of the adequacy of the warning system within the city.  We hear that “the alarm rang out, calling the citizens to quell the fire.” (Schreadly.)  This is pure speculation, but I imagine that means that the bells from the steeples of Charleston’s many churches were pealed.

[4] This article references that the fire was started as part of a planned slave insurrection.  An interesting theory.  You hear rumors of that in several sources, but I could never determine whether they were fact or only speculation.

[5] “The Great Charleston Fire of 1861.”

[6] “Charleston at War: Charleston Beaten Down by Great Fire.”

New History Behind the Story Series Announced!

To celebrate the release of Northern Fire (Book 2 of the  Torn Asunder Series) I am launching a new series on the history behind the story for Northern Fire.  For Southern Rain, I ran a similar series that was really fun.  Readers got to learn all about the history upon which I built my storylines.  The topics I chose this time will give you the first glimpse into some of the events and subjects covered in Northern Fire!  If, after reading the book, you have any questions for me about the events in the book or the historical choices I made, let me know, and I am always happy to add an article!

Here are the planned articles:

  1. The Charleston Fire of 1861
  2. The Roper Hospital in Charleston
  3. Naval Quarantines
  4. Violence Against Women in the Civil War
  5. The Fall of Charleston

Rose O’Neal Greenhow

History Behind the Story #10: Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Spoiler alert! In Southern Rain, my historical heroine, Shannon, is recruited by a respectable society matron-turned spy for the Confederacy. I had always known Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a spy, but it had never really struck me how huge it was that she was at the top rung of society in Washington, D.C. and yet still doing quite a bit more than dabbling in espionage. She also always struck me as a bit shady, but is that accurate, or just a reflection of history-telling that has dubbed her as “unladylike?” Let’s delve into her story, shall we?

Maria Rosetta O’Neal was born in Maryland in either 1813 or 1814 (there is some dispute about this). Reports differ as to which of her parents died first, but we do know that it was upon her mother’s death when she was about 13 that Rose, as she was called, was sent along with her sister to Washington, D.C., to live with relatives.

When Rose was about 21, she married Dr. Robert Greenhow, “a federal librarian and translator with medical and law degrees.”[1] I have also seen him labelled as a historian.  Rose hobnobbed with the elite in Washington, including Dolley Madison. Rose was, apparently, involved in political intrigues, one involving Cuba, before the Civil War, and she made it a point to befriend politically powerful men, like John C. Calhoun and James Buchanan.

Robert was transferred to the West Coast in 1850, where Rose lived for a few years before returning to Washington, D.C. to give birth to her fourth child, understandable since she was by that time around 40, and she would want to be near friends and family. But tragedy struck when her husband fell from an elevated sidewalk in California and died from his injuries in 1854, leaving Rose to raise their 4 daughters alone.

Rose did get a pension, since her husband had been a Federal employee, so she bought a house not far from the White House and resumed her role as society hostess. She was a friend to politicians on both sides of the aisle, and she was always politically active. She campaigned for James Buchanan and helped him get elected.

Keep in mind that, at the outbreak of the Civil War, she was in the stage of life (her late 40’s) when most women in her era would be contemplating being grandmothers and slowing things down a bit. Not Rose. She instantly sided in her heart with the Confederacy and became a spy.  Some sources say that she was recruited by U.S. Army Captain Thomas Jordan, who set her up as a spy before leaving the U.S. military and going to join the Confederate military.  Rose stayed in Washington when most Southerners had evacuated, so she was obviously presumed to be on the side of the North. With her many political connections, she was in a position to hear anything a gentleman in power might accidentally let slip.

It was through Henry Wilson, a Senator on the Military Affairs Committee, that Rose heard that the Union Army was concentrating its forces in a plan to converge on Manassas, Virginia. It wasn’t Shannon Ravenel whom Rose ended up drafting, though. 😊 It was a young woman named Bettie Duvall, who allowed Rose to hide a ciphered note in her hair. Bettie then snuck out of Washington dressed as a lower-class farm woman and made her way to Fairfax Court House, Virginia, which was occupied by Confederate troops. She startled Confederate officers by unravelling her hair and pulling a note from its confines. They decided to trust her and, thus armed with knowledge of Union General McDowell’s plans, were able to consolidate their own forces and meet the attack at Manassas, and to win.[2]

I think one thing that I never really realized was how extensive Rose’s spy network was.  I always imagined her passing along notes when she could, doing a dab here and there. But her network consisted of 48 women and 2 men and spanned several states. That’s 50 employees – that we know of.  It was not at all unlikely that she would try to recruit someone like Shannon, a young woman with Confederate sympathies who was married to a Union officer.

In addition, Rose’s network wasn’t just extensive, it was sophisticated. She used an intricate cipher to code and decode messages. It survived and was able to operate through both of her imprisonments.

But Rose did have a weakness: she wasn’t the greatest at storing her information. She kept extremely incriminating documents in her home, such as reports, maps, burned papers, and copies of messages to Beauregard.

So, this was all evidence against her, but how did she initially get busted? Thomas A. Scott, an assistant to the Secretary of War, received an anonymous tip that Rose was a spy. The North had just formed the Union Intelligence Service, with Allan Pinkerton as its director. He was assigned to personally monitor Rose, an indication of how much damage the Union felt she was capable of inflicting, since Pinkerton was also the go-to man for McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in collecting very important information like how big the Confederate armies they were going to face would be.

I am going to quote one of my sources, since it gives such a vivid account, on what happened next. “On August 22, 1861, Pinkerton cased Greenhow’s house and noticed a young Union officer entering. Standing on the shoulders of a fellow officer, he spied into the front parlor and noticed the officer and Greenhow speaking in hushed tones and looking over a map of Union fortifications. Pinkerton waited until the officer left the residence and tried to flag him down. When the officer ran, Pinkerton followed. Unfortunately, the officer ran to the provost-marshal station and had Union soldiers arrest Pinkerton. He was thrown into a holding cell in a nearby guardhouse. By bribing a guard, Pinkerton was able to send a message to Scott about what he just witnessed. Scott summoned Pinkerton to the War Department and, after confirming his story, arrested the officer immediately.

“The War Department then went after Rose. As she was returning from a walk the next day, Rose was approached by Union soldiers and arrested. The soldiers then searched her house. The map of Union fortifications that the officer showed her yesterday was found with other incriminating materials and Rose was placed under house arrest with her youngest daughter ‘Little’ Rose. Other raids of Confederate-sympathizers and spies were conducted in DC in the following weeks and suspected spies, like Rose’s friend Eugenia Phillips, were imprisoned in Rose’s home. The house became known as ‘Fort Greenhow.’”[3]  John Thomas’s fears for Shannon in that scene at the end of Southern Rain were very real, then: if she had been involved, it was quite likely she would have been arrested and imprisoned along with Rose.

Now, keep in mind, this imprisonment of Rose was in her own home, with her youngest daughter allowed to remain with her. That seems pretty gracious of the Union to me, given the swift and rough justice usually applied to spies. I think the trouble was that they didn’t quite know what to do with Rose.  You have this society lady in beautiful clothes, who knows all the “best people,” and she has connections everywhere. This probably put the authorities in a very difficult position. They would look like monsters if they imprisoned her in a real prison, and no one would ever believe how much damage she had done. If found guilty, hanging her was out of the question. It wouldn’t be until after the assassination of Lincoln that a woman would be sentenced by the federal government to die by hanging. And, if I’m not mistaken, the federal government would have had jurisdiction here, for two reasons: 1. Rose was living in D.C., which falls under the federal government’s wing; and 2. She could easily have been tried by the federal government anyway because she would have been accused of treason, espionage, and conspiring against the Union Army. Frankly, Rose could have been sentenced without a trial, since President Lincoln had suspended habeus corpus in certain areas or with certain people in cases involving far less evidence of treason than Rose had given them. “But she’s wearing a hoop skirt!”  Someone had to have said that, right?

My big question is: why would Rose have risked so much, especially after getting caught the first time? She was born in Maryland, a state that hadn’t even seceded. There was significant Confederate sentiment in certain parts of Maryland, but Rose hadn’t lived there in a long time. Her home was Washington, D.C.  Washington was, to some extent, thought of as a “Southern city,” but no one disputed that it by rights belonged to the Union, and if you were going to be on the Confederate side, you simply needed to leave, as most did (not that I don’t get the brilliance of Rose staying if she intended to become a spy). But I’m struggling to come up with why Rose identified with the South so much that she was willing to put her neck on the line. Her husband had worked for the federal government. One of her older daughters had married a Union officer and urged her mother to stay away from secessionists.

I think it had to be either that she was passionately attached to the South or she was bored. The latter is not impossible. She was a very intelligent woman confined by society to a very limited role. She couldn’t go out and use her skills in a job. She couldn’t openly offer her talents to either military.  Could it be that she liked feeling useful, as though her contributions accomplished something? Or at the very least, it seems possible that she liked the suspense and danger involved.

But there was no end to the trouble Rose caused the authorites, even after she was arrested. She continued spying, even after the military and government authorities made concession after concession to her.

Her friend, Mrs. Phillips, was able to convince the authorities to release her to the South, and she continued to communicate with Rose and send information via smuggled letters. She also continued to get information to Confederate authorities for Rose. Sometimes Rose’s Union friends (like Senator Henry Wilson) would drop by and still let information slip! I have to imagine that Rose was just that good at dragging stuff out of people.

Collecting information was her true strength as a spy. Rose continued to communicate with her network by using handkerchiefs of various colors that she would wave out her windows. Some say she used her window blinds and flickers from candles as signals later on.  She also smuggled a letter to Secretary of War Seward asking that she be released, a letter she proceeded to copy and send to the South, where it was printed in a Richmond newspaper, much to Seward’s annoyance. So a question arises here: Were the authorities being kind to her and Rose took advantage, or did the authorities never imagine Rose could, as a woman, do any damage while under house arrest and she took the initiative to prove them wrong? What a conundrum!

Anyway, the War Department got annoyed and transferred Rose and Little Rose to Old Capital Prison in January of 1862. Even there, Rose was able to smuggle in a Confederate flag, and she waved it from the prison window. Can’t you just picture her saying, in a honey-accent, “Officer, I’m just a widow in reduced circumstances, imprisoned, away from my home – wouldn’t you just let my friend in to see me, please?” And then, of course, he melts, and then next thing we have is Rose waving the Confederate flag singing, “La la la la la!” from the window. That kind of makes me laugh. And kind of not. She was really pushing it. Maybe she was really secure in the fact that they would never hang a woman? I mean, come on, she had a nine-year-old daughter to think of – she had to have been pretty confident they would never truly press charges.

And it seemed she had good reason. Two of the reasons given for not putting her on trial were that she was so dangerous that she could expose government secrets and that she might make a mockery of government officials. My guess is that the “mockery of government officials” part means that a lot of high-up gentlemen were squirming, knowing that they had let sensitive information fall in Rose’s presence. She had some dirt on people.

She was ultimately released in May, told to go to the South, and informed that she had better not leave the Confederacy. If that sounds crazy to you (the government releasing her and just expecting her to follow their orders), it wasn’t really crazy for the time. Soldiers captured as prisoners by both armies were often “paroled,” meaning that they were told to go home and stay put. Most resources I’ve read says most men followed the terms of their parole.

She was met with great enthusiasm in Richmond, the socialites taking her in, and she even had an audience with Jefferson Davis. But Rose did not stay put. She was sent by the Confederacy on a diplomatic mission to Britain and France. Again, I am torn. It was really bad to violate the terms of her release. On the other hand, she was a woman becoming a diplomat in 1862.[4] Whatever the circumstances, that was a huge accomplishment. And Rose did not twiddle her thumbs on her diplomatic mission!  In fact, she became engaged to the Earl of Granville, which is pretty major if you think about how rare marriageable nobility was, and how many ladies would’ve killed to have married into said nobility. While she was there, she penned her memoirs, entitled, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington.

I had been thinking that, while she might have had slaves, she didn’t have deep economic ties to slavery, like a planter would have. She had been born to a wealthy slaveholding family, but she simply had a house in the City of Washington. And yet, seeing the title of her book, and its snarky reference to abolitionists, her feelings began to be a little clearer to me. Rose was a huge advocate for the Southern way of life, and she was very pro-slavery in sentiment. If the Southern way of life was her abiding passion, that would probably be reason enough for her instantly to side with the Confederacy. Why she repeatedly put her neck on the line is still less clear, unless she just felt that passionately.

In any event, Rose didn’t let even her journey home go to waste. She brought back $2,000 worth of gold for the Confederate cause. She was travelling on a British blockade runner (if you remember from our last History Behind the Story post, the Union Navy formed a very effective blockade of Southern ports). When the ship approached Wilmington, North Carolina, the captain thought he saw Union ships. While he was attempting to escape, the ship became grounded.  Rose had two other Confederate agents with her, and all three were worried about being captured, so they requested a rowboat to paddle to shore in. (I’m definitely seeing Rose’s love for adventure coming through.)

But this is where Rose’s story ends. The boat capsized, and Rose drowned.[5] She was given full military honors by the Confederacy (another thing that was highly unusual for a woman), and she was thereafter a “revered symbol for the Confederate Cause.”[6]

I always hesitate to make moral judgments of people who lived in a different time period. But I’m curious: what do you think of Rose? Power woman or dastardly spy? Tell me what you think!

P.S. You can see all of Rose’s captured correspondence at archives.gov here:

https://www.archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/greenhow

Duke University also has a collection here: https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/greenhow/.  At that link is a list of four books if you are interested in pursuing your interest of Rose Greenhow.

P.S. Also, the featured photograph is Rose and Little Rose, captured while Rose was imprisoned at Old Captured Prison. It was captured by the Mathew Brady’s famous studio.

That’s a wrap on our History Behind the Story Series for Southern Rain. But never fear, I’m thinking of doing a similar series covering the history of Northern Fire! Thanks for hanging in there with the series! It’s been fun!

Sources:

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/rose-oneal-greenhow.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow: American Confederate Spy, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rose-ONeal-Greenhow.

Confederate Spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow Dies, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rose-greenhow-dies.

Seized Correspondence of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/greenhow.

Image Credit: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/rose-oneal-greenhow.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/rose-oneal-greenhow.

[2] There is some dispute among sources as to how vital this information was to the Confederate victory at Manassas. Some sources say everyone knew the Federals were converging on Manassas. I could see that. But I am also hesitant to believe those sources because there is a certain dismissive tone to them that I have found quite common when a woman’s role in history is the topic, especially if the woman stepped outside of a woman’s then-proper roles. It seems unlikely that Jefferson Davis and the entire South would have regarded her as a heroine if the information she passed along was common knowledge. Confederate General Beauregard later testified that he requested more troops because of the information the ladies passed along to him. If he hadn’t had enough troops, he might have lost the battle – who can say?

[3] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/rose-oneal-greenhow.

[4] Some sources refer to Rose’s capacity as unofficial, but it seems pretty clear that Confederate President Davis sent her.

[5] Sources say that the gold was sewn into her dress or carried by her in a satchel and dragged her down into the water. I don’t know why, but that seems a little fanciful to me. I do not doubt the gold was on her person. I do doubt that she would have been able to walk in said dress if she had had enough gold to plunge her to and keep her at the bottom of the ocean. I feel like it’s more likely that she got caught in a current, either caused by the ship or the tides. Or perhaps she couldn’t swim. Or perhaps she got tangled in her hoop skirt. There seem to be so many possibilities.

[6] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/rose-oneal-Greenhow.

Rose Greenhow - battlefields.org

The Navy Before the Civil War

History Behind the Story #9: The Navy Before the Civil War

Spoiler alert! If you have read Southern Rain, you know that my historical male lead, John Thomas, attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland (which is how he met Shannon’s brother, and, ultimately, Shannon). From there, he goes on to enter the Navy and ultimately is a Captain before he heads off to war. Becoming a Captain seems like a bit of lightning-rise in rank, but considering the state of the Navy on the cusp of the Civil War, it wasn’t really. People with John Thomas’s education and a dab of experience were in high demand because if there was one word to describe the Navy when the Southern states began seceding, it was unprepared.

In 1843, the Navy was on the rise, technologically speaking. America rolled out the first propeller-driven steam warship in the world, the USS Princeton, but during a public relations cruise, one of its guns exploded, killing the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy, and that successfully halted interest in Naval expansion.

Further jinxing the Navy, its officer rankings seemed almost designed to stunt its prestige. The highest rank one could obtain at the outbreak of war was that of Captain, meaning that in any dealings with the army,  Generals would always feel like they outranked Naval Captains and had the final say. It wasn’t until 1862 that the ranks of Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore would exist in the U.S. Navy.

In addition, America’s geography did not seem to leave it much in need of a Navy. In consequence, there were fewer than 90 ships owned by the Navy at the start of the Civil War, and only 42 of those 90 were ready for action. Of those 42, most of them were overseas on a tour from Brazil to China. As a result, Lincoln had only 12 ships at his disposal at the outbreak of war.

Technology lagged, too. It wasn’t until 1854 that America built its last ship that would be propelled by wind (sailing) instead of steam – yikes! The government then started building steam frigates and naming them for American rivers. These new frigates still had sailing capabilities, meaning they weren’t exactly a giant leap towards modernity. They averaged only about 5 or 6 knots under steam. Also, they were huge, too big to pull into most American ports. This led to the production of “screw sloops,” which weren’t quite so deep (one would even be able to traverse the Mississippi River during the assault on Vicksburg). And finally, a new class of warships that was entirely steam-propelled would make up the third generation of steamers, and they would all be named after Indian tribes.

These new warships were revolutionary because they carried modern guns capable of immense damage. Explosive shells from ships were the Civil War’s equivalent of dropping bombs. The guns were also rifled, which meant the projectiles emanating from them had a spin, meaning in turn that they could hold their trajectory over longer distances. This made it possible during the Civil War for combat range to be 20 times what it had been in previous wars.

And so, while there had been some innovation, there was surprisingly little effort put into giving the U.S. a robust Navy.

Southerners were at the forefront of innovation. They hoped to extend American influence (and slavery) into the Caribbean and Central America and had been Naval-minded for longer than other regions. However, the Confederacy had absolutely no navy at all before the Civil War. They built their entire Navy from scratch with remarkable innovation and industry at the outbreak of war.

A few ships were seized by local authorities in the South as states seceded. While Confederate authorities urged Naval officers who were Southern-born to bring their supplies and ships with them when they returned home after secession, none of them did, handing their men and materiel over to federal authorities before going South (like John Thomas’s friend Shalto Hughes does in Southern Rain).

Lots of people know that in the first naval battle of the war, the South’s ironclad absolutely destroyed the North’s ships. If you’re like me, though, you never questioned how the South got its hands on an ironclad so early in the war. Ironclads were just being invented right at the outbreak of the war. These were the mother of all naval vessels and ultimately became the preferred vessel for almost every expedition. Picture the effect a spinning, flaming shell would have on a wooden ship (explosion) and then picture the same shell thunking off of iron into the water harmlessly, and you’ll get the idea. But how did the South get an ironclad into its possession?

I’m going to quote Craig Symonds from his book, The Civil War at Sea. “When Virginia seceded in April of 1861, the steam frigate Merrimack was in the Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk for an overhaul of her weak and unreliable engines.” The Secretary of the Navy ordered the commander to get it out of the yard, but the Commander broke nervous at the sight of a mob and sank it to keep it from falling into Confederate hands. “[The men] set fire to the masts…, still visible above the water…”

Okay, so if you’re like me, you don’t see a future for the Merrimack here. However, Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, ordered that, “The possession of an iron-armored ship…[was] a matter of the first necessity.” Now, Southerners, from my experience, don’t waste anything, and the Merrimack had already been hauled out of the river and salvaged. Mallory began to wonder if this new-fangled idea, an iron casemate, might not be possible to put on this conveniently left steam-powered ship the Confederacy had acquired. So they literally built armored casemate on top of the Merrimack.[1] The Virginia (the Merrimack’s new name) dealt a huge wound to the Union Navy and morale at Hampton Roads in March, 1862.  And that would alter naval warfare forever. “The London Times wrote: ‘Before the duel off Hampton Roads, the Royal Navy had 149 first-class warships.  After the battle, it has just two.’ Wooden ships were now obsolete.”[2] The Union got down to business, building 84 ironclads during the war, and, ultimately, it would be the more successful Naval force.

The Confederacy at first intended to rely on fortifications, but the new ship technology had made ships a winner against forts almost every time. Since the Confederacy didn’t have the resources to build a huge navy, it was always at a disadvantage, and (this is just me personally) I don’t think enough emphasis has been placed on the U.S. Navy’s ultimate contribution to victory. Historians are always careful to caveat those contributions with, “Of course, it was primarily a land war, so the Navy couldn’t really be the reason the Union won.” And that may be true, but I often wonder what the Civil War would have looked like had the Union not been able to bring its Navy up to speed. What would Vicksburg have looked like, or the ultimate fall of Charleston? What if the U.S. Navy hadn’t formed such a successful blockade of the Southern coasts, and the South had been able to resupply from Europe? I think the Navy played an exceptionally vital role in the Civil War and imagine that the war would have been prolonged for years without its ultimate successes.

If you would like to read more about the Naval War, there are several books out there. One which was surprisingly helpful was Grant, by Ron Chernow. I say “surprisingly” because Grant was an Army man, of course. But Chernow’s research shows how vital Grant felt the Navy to be in ultimately winning the war.

Sources:

Symonds, Craig L., The Civil War at Sea (Oxford University Press, 2009).

“The Naval War of the Civil War,” https://www.historyonthenet.com/civil-war-the-naval-war.

Image Credit: https://www.historyonthenet.com/civil-war-the-naval-war.

[1] They were literally ripping up rail roads to get enough iron for the Tredegar Iron Works to melt down.

[2] https://www.historyonthenet.com/civil-war-the-naval-war.

Charleston during the Civil War:

Charleston Navy
Charleston Naval War

Abolitionists in New England

History Behind the Story #8: Abolition in New England

A note to readers: I wasn’t quite thinking about how broad this topic was when I chose it, so this post is a little long – sorry! I would recommend reading History Behind the Story #7 on the Congregationalist Church in New England for a little backstory on the people of New England. In addition, I should mention that there were abolitionists outside of New England. They were all over – Quakers, Free Blacks, certain groups of other Christians, moral philosophers, etc. This post will focus mainly on the New England voices, since my historical male lead hails from New England.

I created my first abolitionist family in the Torn Asunder Series. This aspect of the slavery conversation was a little easier to write, since my historical male lead, John Thomas, has views that would actually be considered more modern than my average Civil War character.

Of course, there were varying degrees of abolitionist sentiment, from those who wanted to see slavery’s end for economic purposes but were willing to brush equality or voting issues aside, to those who wanted to reestablish the enslaved in Africa (The American Colonization Society), to those who envisioned fully enfranchised, equal freedmen America. The latter are the rarest to find in primary sources, but since I was dealing with New England, I decided to go full force and make the Haleys staunch moral abolitionists.

I hope I conveyed that this was a rather radical viewpoint at the time, even for the free states. Massachusetts was the only state to allow black men to serve on a jury, and there was a pretty staunch system of segregation in the free states. And the slave states, of course, even espoused slavery as a moral “good” that “civilized” an “inferior” race. I’m putting that in quotes in that sentence but not citing any sources for it because you can find all three of those statements in so very many speeches, letters, and statements of the Era. Shannon is not by any means an anomaly when she is appalled by John Thomas’s views regarding equality. I might have made Shannon a more popular character by making her see things his way immediately, but I wouldn’t have made her an accurate one.

So how did Shannon’s husband get so “radical?”

Obviously, the story of slavery and abolition go right back to the founding generation’s decisions and compromises. The founding generation thought that slavery would die out, but, of course, that was before the invention of the cotton gin. A particularly important decision that was made was the Northwest Ordinance, which decreed that slavery would be banned north of the Mason-Dixon Line. After the Louisiana Purchase, whether the new states would be admitted as slave or free was THE hot-button issue of its day. Of course, the Missouri Compromise temporarily solved that issue. However, it is important to remember that this particular slave/free state issue was largely about the balance of power in the Senate and House of Representatives. Slave states wanted there to be more slave states, complete with all of their common interests and needs, so that the South’s coalition of power in Congress would be greater, and vice-versa. You don’t hear a great deal of heart-warming equality sentiment in this argument, unfortunately.

However, there were voices proclaiming equality, and, of course, ultimately such voices would be on the same side as and could form partnerships with the Union cause during the Civil War. I should also mention that their numbers grew exponentially during the Civil War, and one wonders if, after arguing so long against slavery’s economic evils, a lot of people either finally saw the light or decided that a partnership with moral abolitionists was extremely advantageous.

But for New England, moral abolition had been a real thing for years before the Civil War, and I think the beliefs of the Congregationalist and Unitarian churches, which we discussed in the last post, had a lot to do with it. It was one of those pockets of society where you could find people saying very controversial and pointed things about slavery that not just your average citizen was willing to venture.

I should back up and say that early New England colonists embraced the slave trade for both African and Native American slaves, according to Wendy Warren, the author of New England Bound. In addition, New England was home to many large textile mills that needed cotton to prosper, if you know what I mean. So I cannot say that there was always something inherent in all New Englanders that made them opposed to human bondage.

I do, think, however, that a large part of New England never really lost the abolitionist sentiment that swept all of the colonies during the Revolutionary Era. It matched up well with their religious beliefs of self-determination and confrontation of sin. John Adams seems to have felt himself to be on pretty solid ground in his gentle rebukes to Thomas Jefferson for his ownership of slaves. Abigail Adams admits in a letter that, while she knew she should not, she inwardly shuddered at an interracial couple’s embrace during a performance of Othello. I think this letter is key for understanding the more enlightened attitudes towards race in Massachusetts during the Founding for two reasons: 1) Abigail Adams seems to be genuinely horrified at her reaction in subsequent sentences. She is not a child of the Enlightenment for nothing. She says that there is everything to admire in Othello’s character and yet is unswervingly honest about the fact that she could not separate the person from his race. We might be judgmental of her for her reaction today. But that she could recognize this prejudice in herself at all is very nearly astounding for her era, and that she further knew herself to be in the wrong indicates some rather more elevated understanding of racial matters than we commonly see in this era. 2) She was a Massachusetts woman writing to a Massachusetts man, William Smith, with seemingly no belief that he would find anything at which to cavil in her letter, even when she ended her moral struggle with, “There is something I dare say esteemable in all, and the liberal mind regards not what Nation or climate it spring up in, nor what coulour or complexion the Man is of.”[1] Just take a minute to think how revolutionary that thought was, that a person shouldn’t be judged by his or her nationality or race, that there is some “esteemable” quality in every human. Beyond that, she was speaking on the issue of interracial love, a particularly taboo subject in most circles eighty years later on the eve of the Civil War.

So I do think the New England founding mothers and fathers handed down a heritage of abolition to succeeding generations. New Englanders seemed to speak with a boldness on the topic only possible if they 1) felt themselves to be called by a higher power to speak out or 2) had been raised in an environment that took a more enlightened view of race for granted. New Englanders knew about slavery and its horrors to the extent they could, having not been truly exposed to it, but I do not think they could have known how vastly different their views were from a vast swath of the country. I don’t think they knew that they were “radical” because I don’t think they knew just how differently many people felt. Picture your most closely held political belief that no one has ever truly questioned. Then picture someone espousing the opposite thing in the most shocking way possible. Then picture a slaveowner who just sent his slave to the field, who would go to church the next day and be told that what they were doing for the “barbaric race” was a real mercy, and then picture the same slaveowner reading a newspaper in which a New Englander says that same slave should be able to run for Congress. I picture wine sputtering across a dining room. And that’s how New Englander abolitionists got the term “radical.”

The Fugitive Slave Laws, which required Northern cooperation in returning escaped slaves to their masters, sparked a lot of anger in the North, and, when combined with stories of enslaved families being separated, you have the makings of an abolitionist movement. Slave-hunting was despised and resisted in New England (again, I’m speaking in general terms). There was a unified effort of many Bostonians to protect slaves who had escaped or to prevent those who had been recaptured from being returned to their masters. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they weren’t. There was a highly publicized trial which ultimately ended in a slave being returned to his master. One New Englander commented, “We went to bed old-fashioned conservatives and waked up stark, mad abolitionists.”[2]

So let’s talk about a few individuals from New England.

Charles Sumner

No conversation on abolition would be complete without a look at Charles Sumner, he of the caning, a staunch moral abolitionist, a brave and radical soul, apparently a real jerk to talk to. Sumner was unusually brave in calling out slaveholders and was a very real force to be reckoned with. I’m sure you all know about The Incident? After the violence of Bleeding Kansas, Sumner chose to call out Senator Andrew Butler publicly for being a slaveholder. Apparently, Butler was an older man who had recently been extremely ill, and Sumner’s comments sparked outrage, even in the North (doesn’t this sound like a modern political drama?). And Preston Brooks, seemingly otherwise a sane man, a loving husband and father and Butler’s cousin, beat the crap out of Sumner with a cane. I had always pictured it being a few strikes, but the caning was, in actuality, very horrifying. It was entirely premeditated (we’re talking Brooks specifically chose a cane to inflict the most damage), and Brooks beat the defenseless Sumner again and again and again in such a brutal fashion that it had Sumner out of commission in the Senate for four years. Massachusetts left his seat in the chamber vacant as a political statement. The Incident is one of those events that leave you just feeling horrified all around, but most especially for the violence, which was truly gruesome if you read accounts of it. It makes you wonder what the government had descended to, especially when you think of the delight the beating gave the slaveholding states. I will add – not in defense of Brooks, of course, but just as a side-note: apparently everyone found Sumner abrasive, insufferable, and arrogant. I remember reading in the biography of President Grant that Grant, who, with all he had been through in the war and during Reconstruction, never lost his temper, lost it on Sumner. Just an interesting dimension to the extremely horrible story that you don’t get from a history blurb.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison founded a newspaper in Boston called The Liberator, which was an abolitionist newspaper which espoused equality in strong moral language. He attacked proponents of slavery by calling them out as Christians, and he even publicly burned the Constitution for its toleration of slavery. Frederick Douglass described him thus, “unusually modest and retiring in his disposition; but his zeal was like fire, and his courage like steel… [He was] the man who was then and will ever be regarded as the chief apostle of the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all the slaves in America.”[3]

Frederick Douglass

After escaping slavery, Douglass lived in Massachusetts and became a leading abolitionist, forming a strong coalition with William Lloyd Garrison and accomplishing immeasurable strides for the enslaved and later for the freedmen. He was especially effective as an orator. In fact, he fictitiously appears in Southern Rain at an abolitionist rally!

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was from a prominent New England family. You probably know that she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to Fugitive Slave Laws and humanized individual slaves for the North in a way that likely would have been impossible otherwise. Literature is a remarkable, powerful thing. 300,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. There are rumors that Lincoln, who had been impacted by her book, called her “the little woman who made this great war.”[4]

The following is a block quote that summed up a few other aspects of abolition in New England that not many people know about, such as it being a rural movement and women being involved, and I thought it would be a good note on which to end. “By the 1830s, western Massachusetts was the epicenter of the state’s growing anti-slavery movement. Numerous towns in Franklin County founded anti-slavery societies, verifying the abolitionist Theodore Weld’s claim that ‘The springs [of the anti-slavery movement] lie in the country.’ Women, including those of color, proved particularly active, forming in Garrison’s words, a ‘great army of silent workers’ who wrote and shared anti-slavery literature, sponsored lecturers, circulated petitions, offered assistance to African Americans escaping slavery, and raised funds for the cause.”[5] That’s a wrap!

Hope you enjoyed this fascinating venture into New England anti-slavery history. I chose to craft characters who hailed from the Massachusetts and South Carolina. Massachusetts was the epicenter of abolition, just as South Carolina was that of pro-slavery sentiment. Both states were comprised of very passionate people with very firm beliefs. Since John Thomas and Shannon’s marriage represents the nation, those two states were the archetypes for their regions, and John Thomas and Shannon represent their states. Does that mean they are headed for their own Civil War? Guess you’ll have to read the Torn Asunder Series to see!

Sources:

Warren, Wendy, New England Bound (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016).

Abigail Adams to William Stephens Smith, September 18, 1785, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-06-02-011.

Slavery and Abolition in New England, https://dinotracksdiscovery.org/supporting/swapfull/context/abolition-new-england/.

The Civil War Podcast, Episode 10: Anti-Slavery Movement.

The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Civil War Podcast, Episode 13: Caning of Sumner.

Image Credit: Feature Image: Boston Abolitionists Await Emancipation Proclamation, https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/boston-abolitionists-await-emancipation-proclamation.html.

Image in Body of Post: Public Domain.  This is a poster for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which appeals to emotions to encourage donations.  A very powerful poster!

[1] Abigail Adams letter to William Stephens Smith. Note: Obviously Liberal meant something different in the 1850’s from what it did today, so I in no way intend this as a political commentary on today’s politics or issues, since this website is strictly non-political.

[2] The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[3] Boston Abolitionists Await Emancipation Proclamation. Note: Obviously Conservative meant something different in the 1850’s from what it did today, so I in no way intend this as a political commentary on today’s politics or issues, since this website is strictly non-political.

[4] The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[5] Slavery and Abolition in New England.

Abolition Society Poster

The Congregationalist Church in New England

History Behind the Story #7: The Congregationalist Church in New England

Who were they? The Puritans. What was their creed? To make themselves The City Upon a Hill.

As a Southern girl, I was largely unacquainted with the Congregational/Congregationalist Church, for most of my life until learning about it in a Religious Studies class during college. And of course, once someone clued me in that the older name for the church was “Puritan,” the pieces fell into place. According to Sara Georgini, who authored Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Puritans turned into Congregationalists by the 18th Century, and there was a bend toward Unitarianism among the more liberal wing by the 19th Century, although Congregationalism remained its own strain.

So I had two denominational[1] choices from which to choose (Unitarianism or Congregationalism) when carving out the background of my historical protagonist, John Thomas Haley. John and Abigail Adams, who are (fictional, of course!) ancestors of John Thomas, were Unitarians. Ultimately, I chose the Congregationalist wing because, having been raised in churches that believe in a Trinity, I didn’t want to misrepresent the Unitarians, who did not quite believe in a traditional Trinity.

This strain of Protestantism today is considered one of the more liberal churches in America, so, at first, the connection back to the Puritans was odd for me, until I really thought about it and realized that the Puritans have always been “progressive” during their eras throughout the generations. From breaking away from the Church of England to the abolition movement during the Civil War, it seems like you can always trace New England’s most famous voices back to a Puritan heritage.

So, how did they get their start in New England? Basically, the Puritans wanted to purify the practices of both the Catholic Church and The Church of England during the 16th and 17th Century. They were part of the Reformation movement that sought greater purity within the church. Their beliefs were “codified” in the Savoy Declaration in 1658, with the full title of: A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practiced in the Congregational Churches in England. For a more thorough look into the Reformation movement and the beliefs and ideas swirling around Europe during the Martin Luther era, see my post entitled History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina.

The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England and ended up having to worship on the down-low because dissenting was Not Allowed. Also, Puritans in Holland were being persecuted. Hence, the Mayflower. You’ve all heard of the Mayflower, I presume. English and Dutch Puritans made up a big chunk of the people who sailed for the colonies and eventually landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts after trying to land initially in Virginia. And it’s crazy to think of that moment, of the serendipity of events, and the impact they would have 250 years later during the American Civil War. But more on that next week!

The Mayflower Compact was signed before they disembarked, and if you read the text of it, it shows already these New Englanders’ commitment to order, peace, democracy, and religion. It feels like you could almost draw a straight line in history from the Mayflower Compact to the Massachusetts Colony’s extreme chafing under British dominion in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War.

Now, keep in mind that these “Pilgrims” were a particularly devout strain of Puritans called “Separatists,” who believed that they could not worship or find full expression for their beliefs by reforming any other church but needed to be a separate body from any existing church. Each local church in New England ruled itself and was not answerable to a higher denominational structure. However, Congregationalism became the “state church” in the colonies where Puritans predominated, in which taxpayers supported ministers and only church members could vote in elections.[2] This led to some pretty restrictive practices since authority can so easily be abused. And, of course, this kind of compulsory society was unsustainable just a generation or two out.

Luckily for the Congregationalists, though, was the emergence of the First Great Awakening. You all remember “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” Yeah, I bet you do! (*Shudders*) Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister. While ensuring the continuance of the Congregationalists, the First Great Awakening did lead to a split between the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” of the Church, but the depths of that chasm are beyond the scope of this post.

Not surprisingly, most Congregationalists sided with the Patriots during the American Revolution. I’ve noticed a tendency to confuse the Congregationalists with the Quakers, who were pacifists. However, Congregationalists were not pacifists and fought in the Revolution. (This was why I could craft the storyline of John Thomas building a career in the Navy later on in the antebellum period, and have his family be very much behind that career.)

Right from the beginning, Congregationalists were dedicated to education. They founded Harvard very quickly after landing in the colonies, and Yale was very much supported by the Congregational Church. Both seem to have placed an emphasis on training pastors and building a literate ministry in the early years. In order to give a nod to John Thomas’s Puritan roots, I had John Thomas’s brother-in-law, Jonathan, attend Harvard before entering the ministry.

In addition to higher education, there was an emphasis placed on the education of children. While reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, I was struck by the fact that one of John Adams’s first jobs while he was still a bachelor was teaching at a co-ed school. He noted that one of his sharpest pupils was a little girl. That admission alone would have been revolutionary in most places. And then, fast-forward a hundred years, and we see New Englanders pouring into the South after the Civil War to found schools for former slaves– men, women, and children. They had a strong commitment to the ideal that education was necessary both for advancement in the secular world and as Christians.

So, who were some famous New Englanders with Puritan roots? To name just a few:
-Louisa May Alcott (You may know that she was actually raised as a Transcendentalist, a movement which grew out of the Unitarian movement.)
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
-Emily Dickinson
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
-Henry Ward Beecher

Something that turned out to be really neat was that, while Shannon’s Huguenot roots which turned into Presbyterianism and John Thomas’s Puritan roots which turned into Congregationalism felt poles apart, they both arose out of Reformation Era movements.[3] Therefore, while their ancestors came from different countries and sects, both had a history of rebellion, of familial persecution, of commitment to faith, and of an unwavering confidence of beliefs. Likely the foundation for both attraction and turmoil!

Stop by next time for a look at how these roots and principles led to one of the strongest abolitionist movements in the world!

Image Credit: https://www.historicaltheology.org.

[1] I am using the term “denominational” in a way the Congregationalists probably wouldn’t have themselves. Rather, they saw each church as independent and autonomous from larger denominational ties.

[2] The Congregationalist Church wasn’t disestablished as the official church of Connecticut until 1818, of New Hampshire until 1819, and of Massachusetts until 1820! The Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts still received state funding until 1833, when, after the shift toward Unitarianism, the state constitution was amended to eliminate church taxes.

[3] There was even a Congregational-Presbyterian Union in the early 1800’s in which churches could hire pastors from either denomination, joint committees of Congregationalists and Presbyterians were formed, and there were even colleges born out of the union. This was largely due to the fact that in lesser-populated areas, it was difficult to get numbers or ministers for either denomination. Of course, the Union broke down due to theological and ideological divides, a major one being slavery.

Civil War Rhetoric

History Behind the Story #6: A Break-Down in Civilities: Rhetoric Before the Civil War

I have recently been reading Ron Chernow’s very famous biography, Alexander Hamilton. The more I learn about the founding generation, the more I see that the Civil War first began brewing while the ink was still wet on the Constitution. Tensions between the North and South and a possible Civil War were alluded to several times in Hamilton. The regions’ economic interests were simply so different that suspicions began to develop in the Cabinet of George Washington, finding their expression in the very real and yet often-hilarious hatred between Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) and Alexander Hamilton (New York). When viewed in this light, the Civil War can be likened to friction between two brothers which has been building for years and then finally explodes, leading to a slugfest until one or both are nearly wiped out.

But there was more to the Civil War than a feud which was a long time coming. Hostilities spilled from the floors of Congress to the battlefield when they did for a reason. There was a reason idle threats of war from the last eighty years mobilized into armies and navies, into two separate countries with two separate presidents, when they did. Shear Davis Bowman says that “not until the winter of 1860-61 did a critical mass of citizens in the states of the…South become willing to quit the Union.”[1]

The reasons were linked to the occurrence of several events in history, a disastrous stew that made the situation ripe for drama: the growing debate over the economic interests between the North and South (linked overwhelmingly to slavery and its spread into the West), the South’s fear that it would lose a voice in the government to an economically superior North, the rise of abolitionism, the North’s loss of patience in appeasements to the South that often took the form of protecting slavery, and of course, the ultimate, hysteria-inducing fact that Lincoln was elected without a single Southern vote. But facts alone rarely make a war. There has to be drama and hype and legal justification. There has to be precisely the right rhetoric to tip people over the brink. And I have found in my research that such rhetoric almost always begins, like a children’s squabble, with name-calling.

Here are just a few names the South called the North or certain groups of Northerners:

  • Black Republicans (because of their determination to end slavery and Southern power in the Union and promote racial equality)
  • Aggressive
  • Cruel
  • Unjust
  • Wanton
  • Tyrannical
  • Fanatics
  • Radicals
  • Power-hungry

And here are a few of the North’s loving epitaphs to the South or Southerners:

  • Slave Power Conspirators
  • Slavocracy
  • Doughfaced toadies (Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were called this for pandering to the South.)
  • Treasonous
  • Despotic
  • Dictatorial
  • Aristocratic
  • Privileged
  • Arrogant
  • Entitled
  • Rebels

The constitutionality of Secession was also put through the rhetoric grinder, with the South having to justify the legality of breaking away from the Union and the North having to justify making war on states which had seceded. While the arguments on both sides always seemed pretty even (except for the fact the North always had the moral upper hand in arguments pertaining to the slavery aspect of the War), I always had trouble understanding how the North sold its populace on taking war to the South and executing it over the course of four years and at a death toll eventually rising to the hundreds of thousands. We might understand a moral argument, but, unfortunately, the moral cause to end slavery did not, at least in the early years, form enough of a justification for the Northern populace to mobilize for war because the immediate abolition argument was just not taking hold. Obviously, the government had economic and territorial reasons to keep the South in the union, but how did they convince the populace of the legality of making war? Rhetoric. Not that it took too much convincing to fight in the early years. Both sides were positively chest-thumping for military battles (see brothers’ slugfest above). But it wasn’t until I really studied the North’s justification rhetoric for war that I finally understood.

To the North, simply losing an election or disagreeing with the new President was not cause enough to warrant the severance of ties to the union (a valid argument!). However, they still had to contend with the fact that the South had some pretty good legal arguments, such as the ability to revoke the states’ ratification of the Constitution and the principles enumerated of the Declaration of Independence. But the North itself could find nothing in the Constitution to justify secession and argued that secession had happened before the South’s interests had even been attacked. The South was sacrificing “a noble experiment in liberty” simply because they wanted to “perpetuate a distinct, distasteful, and anachronistic regional interest, black chattel slavery.”[2] That was a really good argument, and I imagine it was the one that convinced the North to mobilize for war and sustained them through its rigors. A simple argument of, “You just can’t do that,” is sometimes very powerful.

Both sides remained very “American,” tying their causes back to the American ideals which were fought for in the Revolution. Both sides talked of fighting for freedom. It was surprising for me to realize that “Americans in both North and South believed themselves custodians of the legacy of 1776.”[3] And there was also Christian rhetoric flying, with both sides preaching the justness of their cause, evoking God’s favor for their side, and using language of trusting that God would uphold them in their righteous endeavors.

The South (and I am generalizing here) believed that states had a sovereign right to secede and used the rhetoric of liberty (“the natural right of revolution against tyranny and despotism”) to back that up.[4] The North (generalizing again) simply didn’t believe that the Constitution created state sovereignty to the extent of powers to withdraw from the Union and offend the sovereignty of the real power, the United States. Therefore, any state which seceded, was technically in a state of treason.

While President Buchanan (the little-known President who was in office before Lincoln) didn’t think the Executive branch could coerce a seceded state back into the Union, Lincoln “did not rule out the propriety or necessity of ‘presidential and military coercion’ in response to palpable aggression against U.S. government sovereignty.”[5] You can see how semantics are everything: if the South acted aggressively, it provided the justification for military coercion back into the union. Similarly, the South would use military force if confronted with an unacceptable challenge from the U.S. government to their new government’s sovereignty. Hence, Fort Sumter. The bombardment was begun by the South because of the affront from the U.S. government in refusing to surrender the fort, which was in South Carolina’s waters. Likewise, the bombardment provided Lincoln with what he needed to constitute the South’s actions as an “unconstitutional insurrection ‘too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.’”[6] And here we have the perfect stew for war. In the words of Bowman, “A rage militaire swept across slave states and free states alike…the war fever ‘cut across social classes, creating a heady sense of solidarity.’”[7] The North had been OFFENDED. The South had been OFFENDED. And it just proved to both that all of the rhetoric, all of the stewing hatred, had been correct, and both sides were swept up in a consensus. That’s the stuff wars are made of.

And so civilities began to break down and while, from our 21st Century seats, war seemed avoidable, with the provocative and sometimes hysterical language prevailing, it must have seemed inevitable at the time. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that in 1860, America was a united country, with an integrated economy and citizens who travelled back and forth freely across the Mason Dixon line and engaged in debate and attended the same universities. And then within a year they were killing each other. But that shows the power of words, doesn’t it? If you’re feeling depressed, we can console ourselves with two things: I don’t believe either side thought the war would be so long, or exact even a tenth of the toll it did. That seems to have been an entirely unintended consequence. And, of course, the institution of slavery did come to an end, even if the struggle for equality was just beginning– oh, no, I’m depressing you again! History can be like that: compelling and horrible all at once.

Stop by next time for a look into the Congregational Church in New England, in which my historical male lead, John Thomas, was raised. Adieu for now!

Photo Credit: New York Historical Society/Getty Images

[1] Bowman, Shearer Davis, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), pp. 10.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Kissing Cousins?

History Behind the Story #5: Kissing Cousins: Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?

The simple answer is: yes.

This is taboo in a lot of cultures these days, isn’t it? I remember my mom telling me as a child that Victoria and Albert were first cousins and thinking… Whoa. And yet, for most of history, and across all cultures that I have studied, cousin marriage has been a common occurrence.

If you’ve read Southern Rain, you’ll know that (spoiler alert!!!) Shannon’s brother marries their first cousin. This may have been a jolt for some of you. When I was looking about for something to ground the story in the historical era, I thought: yep, that’ll do it! You might think life wasn’t much different (and I do have a theory that people have been the same since time began), but boy howdy were their practices different.

I read a lot of British literature and novels, and I think the book that really pushes it on this subject is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, where the couple not only share a set of grandparents but were also raised in the same house. When I read the book as a teenager, I thought, “Whew, that was odd!” and kind of filed that away in one of those unexplainable-historical-things-that-perhaps-never-existed folders. And then I got into Georgette Heyer. She plays not just with cousin marriage, but also with cousin love a lot. In Frederica, they’re distant relations, perhaps not really related, so you think, “Okay, no biggie.” But she goes for it full blast with The Grand Sophy and The Unknown Ajax. Keep in mind that Heyer was writing from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, so she was obviously looking back on the Regency Era and finding the same thing as Austen: cousin marriage was a way of life. I suppose I always heavily emphasized that was until I found a little-known short story by Heyer online called A Proposal To Cicely that was actually set in the 1920’s. The second line of the story lets you know that Richard is Cicely’s “first cousin once removed.” They were an extremely modern, fun couple, and the guy was hung up on his cousin. And that was when it hit me: it’s only very recently that this has not been a thing.

The temptation is really there for me to say that this happened a lot more in Britain and Europe than America. I certainly see it a lot more in European fiction, and it would make sense, given that the need that royalty and nobility engendered to make prudent political and financial choices often seem to push the same families into alliances over and over. That would, in turn, make the practice socially acceptable and even in vogue. And yet… Every time I formulate an argument to that effect, I find a strong counter-argument or example from American history that proves that the exact same thing was happening here.

For example, did you know that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes were cousins? Gone With the Wind has a character say that the Wilkeses and Hamiltons always marry their cousins. And it was actually set up for Ashley’s sister to marry Melanie’s brother (before Scarlett got her claws in him!). This isn’t hugely important on its own. I know these were fictional characters. But what is fascinating are the social implications Margaret Mitchell makes. She is trying to convey, I think, that the Wilkeses are a cut above the other gentry, the American equivalent of a British “old family.” They are supposed to be exquisitely cultured and naturally gracious. The only person in the community who is like them is, I think, Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, who was from Louisiana. Ellen ends up in this odd marriage to Scarlett’s father because her marriage to her cousin, Phillippe Robillard, with whom she was deeply in love, doesn’t go through. I think Mitchell is using cousin-love as the same plot device to convey the same thing: they were like royalty and had strong reasons for cousin marriage or were high enough up the ladder to be eccentric. And I have to say, it was effective: I knew exactly where the Wilkses and Robillards stood.

There is a lot of discussion in Gone With the Wind about whether cousins ought to marry, mostly having to do with washing out the blood and including some very humorous comparisons to horse breeding. But I actually think those conversations had more to do with Mitchell writing in the 1930’s than any real qualms people would have felt in the 1860’s. While cousin marriage wasn’t appalling in the 1930’s, I do think this general feeling may have begun to grow that it was much better to at least be second cousins. This would be supported by Heyer (in England, of course) making a point to add the “once removed” language for Cicely when she was writing just a few years before. Also, in the movie (but not in the book) Ashley goes on a long ramble about wine having been his father’s uncle Hamilton’s, who married so and so, who married so and so and later on connects it with the Wilkeses again. I remember watching that a few years ago and thinking that it was odd. This was during the war, so the only sense I could make of it was that Ashley was suffering from PTSD or very severe homesickness. But one of my sources suggests that, basically, the screenwriters needed to get it in there that Ashley and Melanie were distant cousins so that audiences wouldn’t be morally squeamish. That seems very plausible to me, given that the movie does seem to paper over the fact that Mitchell indicates they were very close cousins.  She just apologizes to her generation for it in another way in the book: by having the characters’ peers discuss it reasonably so you would know that she hadn’t gotten carried away with this idea or anything.[1] Apparently, some doctors today attribute the current bias against cousin marriage to the eugenics movement in the early Twentieth Century, which was obsessed with genetic perfection.[2] It would make sense that Mitchell was being sensitive to that.

So I think societal disapproval of first cousins marrying began in the 1920’s and has only grown stronger with every passing decade. In fact, in my childhood in the1990’s, I remember hearing that it was okay to marry your tenth cousin, because you were, you know, basically back to Adam at that point. But I’m not sure anyone would say even that today. In my lifetime, I have only heard of, and never known personally, two couples who were first cousins, even though it is legal for first cousins to marry in Tennessee.

Okay, so what’s my historical background for having Frederick and Marie marry? First of all, I used the same plot technique Mitchell did: nothing says really fancy Southern family in the Nineteenth Century like having cousins marry. I needed you to know that the Ravenels have a certain status, and regardless of history, I knew that would convey it. But there is history to back cousin marriage up.

John and Abigail Adams were third cousins. Their grandson, John Adams II, married his first cousin in 1828. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, married her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. in one of those dynastic alliances. Jefferson’s other daughter married, apparently for love, John Wayles Eppes, whose father was her cousin and whose mother was her mother’s half-sister. (In case you were keeping count, that’s probably closer than first cousins.)

John C. Calhoun married his cousin, Floride, who was, you know, before their marriage, Floride Calhoun. Andrew Jackson’s adopted son, married his first cousin (yes, by blood), and when she died married another first cousin (yes, by blood). As one does.[3] We all know about Edgar Allan Poe. Robert E. Lee was married to his third cousin, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. I could go on and on. Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt was a Roosevelt before she married? Okay, I’ll stop.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: what about the kids??? When Charles and Sophy kiss and ride off into the sunset in The Grand Sophy, they are So Not Thinking Their Kids Could Have Six Fingers. Heyer almost seems to throw it in your face, her complete lack of concern or mention of genetic hazards. Obviously, we know a lot more today about the mutations that don’t get erased if there’s never fresh blood. But come on, they knew a lot about it when she was writing, and they had to have known a little about it throughout history. If you read biographies of some of the people I listed above, or novels like Mansfield Park written in the era in which they were set, I have to tell you that this really doesn’t seem to cross their minds. There’s a rather interesting conversation in Gone With the Wind about the fact that, if one really knew what one was doing, one could breed horses that were even closer than first cousins, if you know what I mean. So if you could do that with no harm, that may have been the only science they had to base it off of. Certainly, no one seems to have linked hemophilia with a straight-line family tree. There are even reports that Queen Victoria’s son’s hemophilia was blamed on her using morphine to ease her pain during childbirth.

And then there’s the question of whether this pre-conceived notion we have of mutations with cousins marrying is completely accurate. Did some of the above people have unhealthy children who died in childhood? Yes, they did. But so did everyone else. The above people also seemed to have had a lot of healthy children, too. A very fascinating New York Times article came out in 2002 stating that, yes, first cousins are somewhat more likely to have a child with health problems, but that “the increased risk is nowhere near as large as most people think”.[4]

There are certain communities where the rate of autosomal recessive disorders are extremely high, such as among the Amish of Lancaster County and Britain’s Pakistani community. Without a thorough scientific knowledge, my guess is that in such communities, rates are higher because there has been a tradition of first cousin marriage for many generations, and there’s almost no chance that an allele can mask and skip a child over. This could also explain the hemophilia with which royal families throughout history have struggled: those dynastic alliances stretched back for centuries. It was unlikely that you would ever marry someone who wasn’t your cousin, or that your children would.

And, there we are. It all comes back to politics and money, doesn’t it? And sometimes it would seem, love. Hope you enjoyed! Stay tuned for the next installment of History Behind the Story in which we experience the break-down in civilities between the North and South on the brink of war.

Also, here is a link to A Proposal To Cicely: (Note: some of the editing is a bit off because it seems to have been copied from an old serial newspaper, so just ignore that.):

https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/audio-visual-e-text-media/a-proposal-to-cicely-tweets-by-georgette-heyer/.

[1] Side-note: She may also have been sensitive to the common stereotype that Southerners marry their cousins. I don’t know when this stereotype started, but it certainly still persists today, since my Southern mama, when she heard I was writing this article, said, “Make sure they know it wasn’t just Southerners!”

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html

[3] See Jacob son of Isaac being married to two first cousins at the same time.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html.

Sources:

https://relatedhowagain.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/104-o-cousin-what-art-thou/

https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html.

The Genetics of Cousin Marriage

Photo Credit: JSTOR Daily: https://daily.jstor.org/the-genetics-of-cousin-marriage/