Hello, friends! It’s that time again: the announcement of the articles I will write covering the history behind the story series for my next book. This is always a fun announcement because it gives you, the reader, a little sneak peak into the historical framework of the book before the book is released.
This time will be a bit different. There will be three articles, which is less than usual, but the themes were broader in this book. Plus, there will be a special guest post from my sister on an ancillary theme in the book. So without further ado, I give you the History Behind the Story Topics for Charleston Tides!
Festivals of Freedom
Fame of Civil War Officers
Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
Special Guest Post: Elite Free Blacks in Charleston
History Behind the Story #5: The Fall of Charleston
THE HISTORY: Since the Jacksonian days of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina and Charleston, specifically, were known as the “cradle of rebellion” or the “hotbed of secession.” Many in the Union states felt that there would have been no war if the people of Charleston hadn’t agitated for one. Charleston was blamed primarily for three things:
For the divorce of the Democratic Party at the first Democratic Convention in 1860, which was hosted in Charleston and which ultimately led to the nomination of a Northern Democrat and a Southern Democrat. This ultimately led to a fractured party which didn’t stand a chance of defeating the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln.
For being the first state to secede, almost immediately after the election.
For firing the first shots of the war, which happened at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor.
We could have a discussion of whether it was entirely fair to pin these things primarily on one city. I could make an argument that Charleston was deeply involved in agitating for secession, and I could also make a counterargument that there were a lot of other factors at play. But what really matters is what people thought during the era, and Charleston was a sort of target for propaganda.
Charleston wasn’t, psychologically speaking, a great place to be during the Civil War, enslaved or free. The city was so heavily guarded that it didn’t fall until late in the war. Therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation had no practical effect for enslaved people within the city; slavery remained status quo. I imagine that must have led to feelings of desperation. Not only this, but with South Carolina having a majority black population, many feared uprisings. Sanctions were tightened and freedoms limited. On the eve of war, many Charleston residents sent their slaves out of the city, selling them or sending them to other properties, to prevent uprisings. This was the sort of action taken by owners that led to familial separations and uncertainties among enslaved communities.
For the citizens of Charleston, there were a lot of concerning threats to Charleston in Northern newspapers. I was surprised when I read a report calling for a “holocaust of Charleston.” I had actually thought the word was coined during WWII to describe Nazi actions against Jewish people, but it is actually a Middle English word. The definition of holocaust is: “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire.” So this was the language of genocide against a city. This is pretty heavy stuff for the Civil War, or for any civil war. It could probably make you a bit on-edge.
Then, to top it off, Confederate President Jefferson Davis took the stance that it would be better for Charleston to be reduced to “a heap of ruins” than surrender. So as a civilian, slave or free, you know you are in a strategically important city that the government is going to try to protect but that will be a sort of last holdout which may functionally be a shell by the end of the war.
Charleston became a real challenge for the Union, militarily speaking. The guns on the ironclad ships of the Union Navy made the old fort system that America had used to protect port cities more or less obsolete. But there was one exception to this: Charleston. Due to the geography and the heavy fortifications of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, the Union Navy never did break through those Confederate-manned forts until the Army broke into Charleston from behind on land just two months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Charleston was one of the first targets in the war. I’ll briefly go through failed Union attempts before we get to the final Union success.
Fort Sumter began the war with Beauregard taking the fort fairly easily from the U.S. military, which had not been sufficiently reinforced. The Battle of Port Royal, a fort versus naval battle, resulted in a Union victory and the fall of most of the Sea Islands between Savannah and Charleston. Most of the white population evacuated the area. The battle and the evacuation led to what has been called “The Port Royal Experiment,” during which the former enslaved people on the islands operated the plantations on their own.
After this, the Union sort of failed to “follow up” on the victory. There were a few other attempts to take Charleston. One was the Battle of Secessionville on June 16, 1862. Secessionville was an Army rather than Navy endeavor. Basically, the Confederates repulsed the Union attack, and the Union evacuated James Island (which is very close to Charleston).
Other than these attempts, the most important one included the continual bombardments of the city and its forts by the Union Navy. These were never successful, but Charleston was indeed slowly being reduced to rubble during the 587-day bombardment. Other amphibious and land attacks were planned or attempted, but they were always repulsed until late in the war.
Charleston officially fell on February 18, 1865. So what eventually caused the fall? It was late in the war, so Confederate resources were tapped out. When Sherman executed his famous march from Atlanta to Savannah, he showed what the Union military was capable of doing: basically, that there was no “interior” of the Confederacy anymore and that he could go anywhere he wanted. He threatened to raze the city of Charleston during his march. “Raze,” again, is a word with connotations of total destruction.
Three days before the fall, Beauregard ordered an evacuation of Confederate troops from Charleston. So as a civilian, this is your worst nightmare: a city that is the last holdout that has finally been abandoned by the military. Civilians were left alone to deal with the aftermath, and the mayor surrendered the city. That has always been an interesting concept for me. A mayor is by nature a civilian, not a military person. One tends to think of military officers or generals surrendering cities, but this was something that happened all over the South, an elected official having to become a quasi-military ruler and take the white flag out to the opposing army.
Union troops moved in, the first soldiers entering the city being United States Colored Troops of the 54th Massachusetts and the 21st Infantry. There is some fascinating history surrounding what happened among the freedmen in Charleston in the year after its fall. I don’t want to give anything away for Book 3 in the Torn Asunder Series, Charleston Tides, however, so that will be covered in a History Behind the Story article for that book.
So was there a holocaust of Charleston? Yes and no. Basically, you could argue that between the bombardments, the Fire of 1861, the blockades, inflation, and starvation, Charleston was already on its knees before it ever fell. Witnesses compared Charleston to Pompeii. There were lots of homes of prominent people burned. You can see that when you visit Charleston’s plantation district on Ashley River Road. But there wasn’t a holocaust in the since that people burned in their homes or the entire city was bombed, as the rhetoric had threatened. Why was that, given the threats?
I speculate that Columbia has something to do with it. South Carolina’s capitol was overtaken just before Charleston. A good portion of the city burned, and there are ongoing arguments about whether it was burned by Confederates or Federals. It seems like there is more evidence that the retreating Confederates burned buildings in an attempt to destroy war materiel. In any event, there does seem to have been a lot of looting and violence in Columbia.
All of this is to say, if vengeance was really wanted against a South Carolinian city, it was had in Columbia. And then imagine you get to a city, Charleston, that’s already reduced to a heap of rubble. There wasn’t much left to destroy in Charleston. Plus, surrendering cities always fared better under Sherman if they actually surrendered than if his army overtook them. His philosophy was that all he really wanted was their surrender.
I depicted a brutal take-over scene at Santarella in Northern Fire. Santarella was envisioned as being on an island really near to Charleston. Its fall happened a few months previous to Charleston’s fall, so it wasn’t part of the overall take-over of Charleston. Everything I depicted was based on actual stories of things that happened during overtaking raids – houses looted and burned, huge trees felled, people shot, land and property confiscated. Many historians say that if the brutality of Sherman’s March through Georgia has been somewhat overstated, it has probably been understated in relation to the march through the Carolinas. South Carolina, in general, greatly suffered during the war. These stories are complicated, though. You probably noticed in Northern Fire that the take-over of Santarella wasn’t purely a story of destruction; the Union soldiers also liberated hundreds of people who were held in bondage.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Mary Chesnut, a South Carolinian woman, kept a diary which historians have called one of the most important works of the Civil War. Her observations of the Confederacy were obviously limited by the times in which she lived, but she is thought to depict powerfully all levels of society and the intricacies of Southern culture. Here is what was recorded in her diary the day she learned Charleston had fallen:
“Charleston and Wilmington—surrendered. I have no further use for a newspaper. I never want to see another one as long as I live. . . . Shame, disgrace, beggary, all have come at once, and all are hard to bear—the grand smash!…
Rain, rain, outside, and naught but drowning floods of tears inside.”
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH:
These are photographs of Charleston’s ruins after the war. A great deal of what you see was caused by the Charleston Fire of 1861. Just take a moment to notice little details in the photos, things that give you a window into the past.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: These were the words of General Sherman about Charleston:
“I doubt any city was ever more terribly punished than Charleston, but as her people had for years been agitating for war and discord, and had finally inaugurated the Civil War, the judgment of the world will be that Charleston deserved the fate that befell her.”
This is an interesting statement, eloquent and involving both sympathy and ruthlessness. Did history prove him right? What do you think? He seems to include natural disasters, spontaneous fires, and acts of the Union military in the word “punishment,” indicating that he believed Charleston’s ultimate destruction was a culmination of fate. Do we still think of disasters and destruction like this today?
This is the final History Behind the Story post for Northern Fire! It has been a pleasure to be on this journey with you! Thanks to all who have taken the ride. I plan to write a similar series of articles for Charleston Tides, which will release late this autumn.
 Oxford English. The definition says: “by fire or nuclear war.” It has been modernized to include modern technology. I think just “fire” is more appropriate in the historical context. The interesting thing was that a good portion of Charleston was destroyed by fire without intervention of the Union military. See “History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861” on this blog.
 There were some islands closer to Charleston that didn’t fall until the end of the war, which is the route I chose to go for the fictional Santarella.
 This was a fascinating “dress rehearsal” for Reconstruction. It is beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage you to look up history on the Port Royal Experiment.
 With the exception of head-shaving, a historical choice which was discussed in “History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War.”
 Chestnut, Mary Boykin, “A Diary From Dixie,” D. Appleton and Company, New York: 1905.
Cover Image Credit: Bonanza.com. This depiction is of Union ironclads bombarding Fort Sumter.
History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War
*Please note: This article recounts history involving violence, which may be disturbing for some. It is a good idea for parents of children under 18 to read first and then decide whether to let your child read. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
THE HISTORY: When I first decided to write The Torn Asunder Series, I made the decision not to sugarcoat the past. This was a tough decision because so much of history can be disturbing for readers. Slavery was a rough and violent institution. The freedmen after the war faced extreme hardships and violence. Women, black and white, slave and free, faced horrors from enemy invaders during the war. I decided that to gloss over any of these truths would be to dishonor those who suffered and tell a falsehood about history.
While I do talk mostly about violence by members of the Union Army directed toward Southern women, it is simply the nature of history that women in war zones are vulnerable to enemy combatants, and most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil.
The Confederate Armies did stray into Union territory on a large scale twice: for the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee issued orders that there was to be no violence or looting against civilians as a PR measure: a sort of “show that we are morally superior” plan. This seems to have also been his personal preference. But the novel, Widow of Gettysburg, by Jocelyn Green, imagines what it must have felt like for women in those areas who had escaped slavery, knowing that Confederate Armies were coming through and could round them up and take them back to their former owners. This did happen to hundreds near Gettysburg, and I am sure there were other accounts of Northern women who felt threatened or were abused.
There is still a lot of silence around violence against women, North and South, during the Civil War. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that the women themselves had various reasons not to be vocal about it. This was the Victorian Era, which placed a premium on a woman’s chastity and gave women few legal rights or redresses. And, of course, there are always political reasons for violence to be hushed up by militaries or governments.
But I think the main reason for the silence is that the history of the Civil War as we know it is the history of men, whether they be of the political or military persuasion. You can read an entire one-thousand-page book without a single woman ever being mentioned. In those books which do mention women, a woman’s role is usually considered in connection to men: seeing men off to war, how useful they were to men as nurses, whether they were supportive of their powerful husbands, etc. Rarely does a historical work ever focus on the actual life of a woman as she lived it during the war. Crystal Feimster, who wrote Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, has said that we need to see women as combatants during the war. They were combatants. They were not safe. They were actively engaged in the struggle. And yet, very rarely are women viewed as active players or victims during the Civil War.
That being said, there are hints on the topic of violence if you look for them. Most are scant references to military history. You’ll see something like: “Rape, looting, and murder occurred as the army came through.” And then, of course, the narrative will continue with the army itself and move on. You usually have to seek out the whole story on your own, but a few individuals’ stories have made it to light.
Violence and the threat of violence against women drove more of what happened in the war than has been adequately stated. Of course, a lot of the fear of violence was fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear an enemy army is coming through your town, you know only two things: 1) That they are the enemy; and 2) That they could hurt you if they wanted to. So much of how things would go in the Civil War came down to the personality of the officers. Some Northern officers were almost gallant in their treatment of enemy women. Some were kind, some were indifferent. But, as in any population, some were cruel, and some looked the other way while their subordinates were cruel.
Anne LeClercq details a story from one of her family members’ diaries in An Antebellum Plantation Household. The woman, then a child, remembered a Federal soldier going up to her mother and ripping the necklace from her neck. The mother eventually convinced him to give it back, and she wasn’t physically harmed, but such events could definitely cause the imagination to spiral out of control.
And, unfortunately, women didn’t have to rely on imagination. Feimster, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale, has said, “that sexualized violence was ‘common to the wartime experience of Southern women, white and black. Whether they lived on large plantations or small farms, in towns, cities or in contraband camps, white and black women all over the American South experienced the sexual trauma of war.’”
Federal records show that there were over four-hundred-fifty federal court martial trials for rape or attempted rape committed during the Civil War. It would be a mistake to think that this number represented anywhere close to an accurate reflection of how widespread the violence was. Kim Murphy, the author of I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, said, “[When] I uncovered several hundred cases [of rape], I think that speaks loudly because very few women would have come forward. Very few women come forward during peacetime; it’s even fewer that come forward during wartime, so we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s being reported.”
She goes on to make a point about how difficult it was to report even if a woman wanted to.
“Also, the thing that most people don’t recognize is that most of the records, like the court-martial records that we do have, were reported during times of occupation. That means that the troops were there, they weren’t in an active battle situation. That’s when women could find someone to go forward to. During times of battle, the chances of them even knowing who they could report to would be almost nil, and even if they did find someone, the chances that the officer in charge would be able to find enough officers to take on a court martial at that time would be next to impossible. In the book, I mention [a rape that occurred during] Sherman’s March, when the army was on the move. The victim did report it. But by the time the case made it to court martial, they were 100 miles away, so she could not testify. That’s what people don’t understand—it was totally against the women to even be able to report it.”
Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
A few studies have shown that Southern black women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the war. Already, a lot of states had legal systems that offered them no protection from violence. So to the extent wartime psychology makes people think they can get away with crimes, that would have been multiplied tenfold when applied to an enslaved or a free black woman. Rape and violence of all forms against black women were already extremely common to slavery, making wartime violence all the more tragic.
A lot of times, there were isolated events when certain troops or groups of them would happen upon a home, commit violence, and then just get away with it. Sometimes, violations occurred in the chaos of a place being overrun by enemy invaders or during times of battle. Violence also continued during occupations of towns or regions. Other times, violence against women was used as an officer-sanctioned military tactic of suppression.
As example of the latter, General Benjamin Butler gave General Order No. 28 during his occupation of New Orleans. The text is, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
A leap was made so quickly from insults to sexual violence. Logically speaking, there really isn’t a connection between the two things. But during the Civil War, a woman was most always defined in reference to her sexuality.
There was a huge outcry both in the United States and worldwide against Butler’s order. Even though the implication of sanctioned rape is plain, even some newspapers and commentators who condemned the order were unable to say so, pretending that being treated as a prostitute would mean that women would be imprisoned. However, if you look at rape trials from the time, to prove rape had occurred, a woman had to physically fight off a man even to the point of being killed or almost killed by him. And of course, during that time, a prostitute could never prove that by the very nature of her being a prostitute, so any “woman of the town plying her avocation” (read: asking for it) would be seen as open to sex and ineligible to claim rape. Butler himself said that he meant that the women should be ignored. If he had wanted them to be ignored, however, it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have issued the General Order at all. And a look at venereal disease rates (183,000 reported cases were treated) among the Union Army indicates that the automatic response to a prostitute wouldn’t always be ignoring her.
It is hard to know whether this Order led to heightened instances of violence. In keeping with Civil War history being mostly men’s history, most sources just state that the General Order solved the problem of women insulting the military and move on. But it seems likely that some violent episodes arose out of this. If it was happening when the government and officers had strictly forbidden it, violence seems much more likely when actively encouraged by authorities.
There are other examples of officer-sanctioned civilian suppression. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl” was a promise of total warfare, a strategy to take the war to homes to finally bring the South to its knees. It may have been a sound military tactic, but it was women who ultimately suffered from it. A lot of individual stories of violence arise out of the March to the Sea. Sources debate whether the violence which ensued was sanctioned by General Sherman or simply committed by stragglers off the radar. I do think the plan to “make Georgia howl” certainly had undertones of civilian violence from its inception, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to set a mood.
President Lincoln did issue General Orders known as the “Lieber Code,” which laid down rules for dealing with enemy combatants and civilians. Basically, the gist was that “if you couldn’t do it at home, don’t think you can get away with it there.” The Lieber Code encouraged very strict punishment for violence against civilians, particularly women civilians. The part of The Code that got the most notice, though, was how to deal with prisoners of war.
Historians have suggested that Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Orders was to send a message to the Confederate government. The Confederacy had made the decision to treat captured black Union troops not as prisoners of war but just as captives, which usually meant sending them back to slavery (if not killing them outright, as often happened). So while the Lieber Code addressed one huge problem well, the part that addressed civilian violence was a side-show. There is some evidence that many Union commanders never consulted the Lieber Code for rules on their actions toward civilians.
That isn’t to say that the effects were not good for women’s history: the Lieber Code was used as a template for international law moving forward, and with WWI and WWII not too far down the line, that was a very good thing. It also provided grounds for any court martials that did occur during the Civil War or after, and some did occur. Particularly, this was the first time many black women had any protection under the law at all, and some were able to prosecute their attackers successfully. However, whether the Code actually prevented violence during the war is more questionable.
In Northern Fire, I chose various ways to represent what women lived through during the war. [The following contains a few spoilers for Northern Fire. Skip the next five paragraphs if you would haven’t read the book yet and hate spoilers!]
Shannon and Phoebe met with Confederate troops who assumed they were prostitutes on their way back to South Carolina. Prostitution was so widespread during the Civil War that one soldier called his camp “a perfect Sodom,” and it is known as one of the few professions to cross enemy lines. And Shannon and Phoebe were crossing enemy lines where there were numerous camp followers who were prostitutes, as well as brothels nearby. Therefore, there was a real danger that women travelling alone and unkempt from travel could be deemed prostitutes and taken into camps as such or sent back across to the lines to the enemy camp.
Another depiction of this history is that Phoebe is tragically killed during the chaos of the takeover of Santarella by Union troops. After all of my research indicated the depth of violence black women faced during the war, I knew I had to convey that truth. Even though I cried, along with readers, I think Phoebe’s story translates the extent to which the law was no protection for women in her situation. Which, sadly, was nothing new, since slavery had perpetuated violence and nonchalance for it under the law for decades.
The other instance is that Shannon and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, have their heads shaved by Union officers during the confiscation of Santarella. You may have only heard of this form of wartime violence in relation to French women in WWII. But this was a common practice perpetrated against women who were considered traitors dating far back in history. I first learned that this was the case when I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Ulysses Grant witnessed Mexican women’s heads being shaved during the Mexican American War. I knew immediately that I wanted to use this little-remembered piece of history in Northern Fire, so I set out to find if there were specific instances of head-shaving during the Civil War. But as I said, much of the violence against women has been covered in silence. It is hard to track down specific instances because they were muted so thoroughly. So I found no recorded instances of head-shaving during the Civil War in my research.
I think it is possible, and even likely, that this did happen, however, given the widespread violence that was occurring. For one, many officers and soldiers of the Civil War had been in the Mexican American War. They, too, had seen this happen to Mexican women for giving aid to the Americans. There are many instances of officers drawing on their Mexican wartime experience during the Civil War.
This particular type of violence is a little different from outright revenge violence or lustful violence. It is driven by a desire to humiliate and subjugate the victim and the populace, so the psychology is a bit more nuanced. In fact, it is psychological warfare. Even though I wanted to use head-shaving as a plot device, I decided I wouldn’t do so unless I could find specific instances of that kind of subjugation psychology during the war. I found plenty. There are numerous reports of Union troops forcing white women to watch while they raped black enslaved women. Feimster says, “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property.” This was violence for a purpose: to get into the enemy’s head. A message of subjugation was sent. I think that is very similar to the message sent by head-shaving, except that head-shaving has an added ingredient of woman-shaming—sort of this idea that you have stepped out of your role as a lady, and you’re going to be punished for that. We see a lot of that in the Civil War, too.
I want to reiterate that I do not mean to degrade whole armies on account of the acts of some men who were in those armies. There are always two dangers to any researcher of the Civil War. There is the Lost Cause Theory, which was a body of history that developed after the war to make the Southern cause appear noble and heroic in every aspect, while conversely degrading Northern causes and actions. Conversely, on the other side of the coin, Feimster, writes that “there are people who work on the Civil War and Reconstruction who have been committed to writing the narrative as one of progress, of liberty, and of freeing the slaves.” Particularly, as it relates to violence, she adds, “and to suggest that the soldiers would have raped black women goes against this narrative. It’s hard for historians to grapple with this because it changes the way people see the war, and most people don’t want to see the war as one of occupation.” Please know that I am always cognizant of both theories and vet every story I come across for the taint of each.
I think the greatest danger on this particular topic is that women’s stories have been covered up, whatever the reason for doing so. The more we can uncover, the more we will know about women’s experiences and about the war itself.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Minerva Cook lived at Hardtimes Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Union occupation. The situation during occupation was volatile between the civilians and the military. General Grant gave the Cooks a paper guaranteeing safety from harassment. However, orders do not always translate to individual soldiers’ behavior. Union soldiers came to the house at night to loot, tossing the Cooks’ young sons out of bed to look in their mattresses. Minerva and her husband, Jared, were dragged out of bed, and arguments escalated to the point that Jared Cook was shot in the shoulder, a wound from which he survived, and Minerva was shot fatally. The perpetrators were dealt with swiftly: they were court-martialed and executed. While this story is little-known today, it must have loomed large during the war. One report calls it the largest mass-execution of Union troops during the war, so I have a feeling the story would have been widely circulated.
Reports say that there were as many as twenty-five men who went to the plantation that night. Most say that they were all USCT (United States Colored Troops), although I think that would be hard to say at this distance. Ultimately, nine USCT soldiers were executed. Race was instantly a factor in the discussions. There is no evidence that USCT troops were more violent than regular army troops. But I imagine this incident was used by people already inclined to prejudice to promote the idea that the populace was especially endangered by the USCT. I speculate that the perpetrators were dealt with so swiftly and comprehensively to soothe the populace. Possibly, the swift reaction was even to protect other USCT who would have been more at risk for something like Fort Pillow (where USCT troops were killed after they surrendered) happening if the populace didn’t feel that the Union had fully punished the perpetrators.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There seems to be a deep political connection to violence against women and how prisoners of war would be treated. One historian has suggested that the killing of the men who should have been treated as prisoners of war at Fort Pillow was motivated in part by violence against local women. We already discussed how the Lieber Code addressed both prisoners of war and women civilians together. Another connection was that Jefferson Davis issued a statement that General Butler and his officers would be executed if captured following the General Order about treating women as prostitutes. Again, there is the same link between violence against women and treatment of male prisoners of war. This is a perfect example of women being combatants, or active participants, in the Civil War.
What do you think? Were women being used as political pawns, or was the link made to prisoners of war an honest effort to police violence against women? Perhaps it was considered to be the only way to protect civilians in that era?
In Benjamin Butler’s Orders, he shamed women for not acting like ladies (he sneers: “calling themselves ladies”). There was overwhelming societal pressure for women to be docile, and this political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly illustrates that well.This is a depiction of New Orleans before the Women’s Order and New Orleans after the Women’s Order. The women in the first, one of whom is turning her back to the Union soldier and the other of whom is spitting in his face, were drawn to look ugly, and, of course, the whole thing is unflattering. In the picture on the right, after women are acting submissively, they are drawn in a flattering light—pretty and meek. The implication was: if you make noise, you are ugly and socially unacceptable; if you are submissive, you are pretty and accepted. What a tough world it was!
 There are also many incidents of recorded violence against civilian men, which I do not seek to ignore. Those incidents are merely beyond the scope of his paper.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War.”
 Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
 Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.”
 Historically speaking, a woman’s hair was regarded as caught up in her womanhood. So when her head is shaved, she is “unwomaned” in a way, or defeminized, which would have been a penance to a Victorian woman. She had to wear her shame for all to see.
 Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open.” This may or may not be true. The book does not go into great detail or explore the charges of violence. Still, the connection was made.
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. 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.
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.’” 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. 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.”  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!
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!
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.” One source says, “…nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.”
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.
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!
Ferrara, Marie, Moses Henry Nathan and the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 4, (Oct., 2003).
Photo Credit for Feature Photo: LowCountryWalkingTours.com
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.” 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.
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.’” 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. 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. 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.”
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:
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!
 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?
 Some sources refer to Rose’s capacity as unofficial, but it seems pretty clear that Confederate President Davis sent her.
 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.
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. 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.” 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.
Symonds, Craig L., The Civil War at Sea (Oxford University Press, 2009).
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.” 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.”
So let’s talk about a few individuals from New England.
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.”
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.”
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.” 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!
Warren, Wendy, New England Bound (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016).
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!
 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.
The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
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.
The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.