Monday, November 30, 2009

History and College Nicknames

While watching my beloved Oklahoma Sooners dismantle their hated archival, the Oklahoma State Cowboys this past Saturday afternoon, I got to thinking about the many people who have asked me what a Sooner is (or was). That led me to think about a number of college teams who got their names from 19th century events, people, or things.

The first college football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, so it is easy to see why many of the nicknames that developed on college campuses are related to that era. For example, the Sooners got their name from those impatient (and often dishonest) people who got a jump on their opposition in the Great Land Rush of 1889. OU started football in 1895; 12 years before statehood was even granted.

One of Oklahoma's conference rivals is Kansas University. KU goes by the moniker of Jayhawks. During the "Bleeding Kansas" years before statehood was granted, Kansas free-soilers were tabbed as jayhawkers for their guerrilla tactics. Kansas University is also located in Lawrence, Kansas, which was the strong hold of free-state activity and the target of proslavery Missourians before the Civil War and during war.

One story about how the University of North Carolina received the nickname Tarheels is attributed to their steadfastness in battle during the Civil War. It was claimed that Tarheels got their name because they stuck where General Lee placed them. The Louisiana State University Tigers also can attribute their name to the Civil War. During the war there were a couple of brigades from the Pelican state that were called Louisiana Tigers. Many of the men in those units were from the docks of New Orleans and were of the roughest sort; reportedly they fought like tigers even before getting into battle.

One team that got their nickname in the 20th century but had ties to the Civil War, is the University of Mississippi Rebels. During the war all of one company in a Mississippi regiment was made up of university students. When a contest was issued in 1936 to give a nickname to the team, "Rebels" won by an overwhelming majority to honor those that had served during the war from the state. The nickname remains, but traditions such as waving the Confederate battle flag at games and the old mascot "Colonel Reb," have all but gone with the wind.

The University of Tennessee Volunteers are named for that state's commitment to the call to armed service, especially in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, both of which saw large numbers of Tennesseeans participate. The South Carolina Gamecocks name goes back into the 18th century to honor native South Carolina Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter, who was known as the "Gamecock" for his boldness, daring, and courage. I found out that the Wisconsin Badgers got their name from lead miners in the 1820s, rather than for the borrowing ferocious animal. The Michigan Woverines were also not named so much for the animal than for the border dispute between Michigan and Ohio in the 1830s. No wonder Michigan and Ohio State usually makes for such a great game....the hate goes way back.

The next time you set down to watch an afternoon of college football explore the team's nicknames....there may be more to thos names than you realize.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just finished reading - The Fire-Eaters by Eric H. Walther

The term "fire-eater," brings to my mind, thoughts of an uncompromising partisan politician; a frothy-mouthed stump speaker of unbending principles and enthusiastic hatred for enemies. I was pleased to find that my interpretation was not too distant from that of the author of The Fire-Eaters. Although not all of the men that Walther examines would be considered great orators (some were much better writers than speakers), and not all came to promote secession by the same means; all did truly believe that the best way to ensure, protect, and perpetuate the South and its way of life was through the withdrawal of the slaveholding states from the Union.

Walther is a professor of history at the University of Houston and is a well known scholar on topics related to the coming of the Civil War. He has also produced a biography of one of the most venomous fire-eaters, William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War (2006), as well as a work on the umbrella theme, Shattering the Union: America in the 1850s (2004).

In The Fire-Eaters, Walther examines nine of the most well known promoters of secession: Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, William Lowndes Yancey, John Anthony Quitman, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Laurence M. Keitt, Louis T. Wigfall, James D.B. De Bow, Edmund Ruffin, and William Porcher Miles. These men were from diverse backgrounds and held many different thoughts from one another, but they all agreed on secession as the remedy to the South's perceived step-child status in the Union. Walther contends that it was this diversity in character that allowed them to appeal to the wide array of Southern sentiment during the years leading up to the Civil War and effectively lead the states out of the Union.

It is not surprising that a number of the men were natives of South Carolina. The Palmetto state bred disunionism like no other state in the South. But, one of the fire-eaters examined was born in the North (Quitman), and another spent much of his youth in the North (Yancey). The men were not all strict conservatives. Many of them were progressive thinking on certain subjects. Ruffin, for example, was widely known for developing agricultural practices that bucked the trend of abandoning nutrient deficient soils in the East for more fertile fields in the West. Others, such as Keitt, Miles, and Quitman promoted programs of progressive reform in their respective states.

All of these fire-eaters had some role in politics at some time in their lives. Quitman was elected governor of Mississippi; Tucker, Keitt, Yancey, Wigfall, and Miles were all members of the United States Congress; publisher De Bow circulated at Southern conventions and served at head of the national census bureau; and Ruffin served in the Virginia legislature. They used their various positions to promote their beliefs and spread their cause.

Walther sums up the fire-eating theme quite well by writing, "By addressing the 'ills' of society, the fire-eaters saw themselves as preservers of basic American values. They invoked the revolutionary heritage and ideals of the Founding Fathers. They strove to perpetuate self-government as they perceived it and to correct abuses in the political process. Their concern with expansion, corruption, industrialisation, and romantic, millennial reform placed fire-eaters squarely within the mainstream of contemporary American society. All fire-eaters argued that they were defending their rights and values as Americans and, whether gleefully or with regret, came to believe that these aspirations could only be protected in a southern confederacy."

Of course, all the fire-eaters believed the institution of slavery was a benefit to both races. They all claimed that the North's disdain and unenforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act was justification alone for secession. Some promoted the idea of reopening the African slave trade to help expand slavery to territories to the west and lower slave prices to where even poor whites could benefit for the labor of blacks. They all wished to see slavery expand to other sections and territories, and Quitman even came close to leading a filibuster campaign to capture Cuba from Spain in order to expand American slaveholding interests. Their defense of slavery, their touchy sense of honor, and their perception that Northerners looked at them as un-American only contributed to their goal of a separate, independent, and sovereign Southern nation.

It is probably impossible to fully understand the secession movement without a close look at these nine men. Their similarities and differences indicate that secession, just like later support for the war effort, was not as monolithic as previously believed. I highly recommend this book to those interested in knowing the backgrounds of the men, and the similarity and the diversity of thought that was involved in the movement to remove the Southern states from the Union.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kentucky Freedmen Call for the Right of Suffrage

In March of 1866 a convention of freedmen (First Convention of Colored Men of Kentucky) gathered in Lexington, Kentucky to attempt to define where they currently stood politically, economically, and socially, and where they wanted to be in the future. At this meeting they outlined a number of resolutions. Included among these resolutions was one related to voting.

The freedmen fully understood that they had only recently been released from the bonds of slavery, and knew the constraints that slavery had placed upon their ability to receive a worthy education. Thus, they did not immediately seek the right to vote. While they claimed all other rights and privileges afforded to United States citizens, they knew that they would meet great resistance from whites of the Commonwealth if they sought the right of suffrage this soon after emancipation. They stated that sentiment clearly; "waiving for the time being, the ballot box and the doctrine of equality before the law..." But, they also made clear that they did "ask the opportunity, we demand the privilege of achieving for ourselves and our children, under regulation of impartial State and Federal law, the blessings which pertain to a well ordered and dignified life."

Just over a year later, another call for a convention of freedmen went out. The summer of 1867 saw smaller informal gatherings in preparation for a large state convention to be held in November in Lexington. The tone of these meetings and the subsequent state convention had changed dramatically over the past year. What they had "waived" in 1866, they now demanded in 1867."

So, what had developed over the period from the spring of 1866 to the summer and fall of 1867 that made freedmen make more bold calls for equality? In a word...lots!

In April of 1866 Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This new law gave freedmen the right to make contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court, and inherit, lease, purchase, sell, and hold real and personal property. Penalties for violating the law could be punished by a fine up to $1000 and or a year in prison. The Act was vetoed by President Johnson, but Johnson's veto was quickly overturned by Congress; creating bad blood between the executive and legislative branches of government during the early Reconstruction years.

In June 1866 Congress proposed the 14th Amendment. This potential change to the Constitution would make it constitutional law that former slaves were now citizens and were to be afforded equal protection under the law as that received by any and all other citizens. Although the amendment was not ratified and thus become effective until the summer of 1868, those Kentucky freedmen surely saw its chances of success as good under a Radial Republican congress, and the potential it held to their future improvement.

Finally, in March of 1867 Congress wrested control of Reconstruction policy away from President Johnson. Congressional (or Radical or Military) Reconstruction divided up the South into five military districts and placed demands upon the states in order to be admitted back into the Union, one of which included black suffrage.

All of these events contributed to the Kentucky freedmens' calls for the right of the ballot box and to the jury box. One assembly of Commonwealth freedmen (many former soldiers among them) in July 1867 petitioned Congress to "grant us the right of suffrage." They made the argument that without the ballot and right to testify that, "Colored men have frequently been murdered in cold blood by white citizens, and as we have not the right to testify against them, the criminals go unpunished."

These freedmen made an interesting case. They said that, "It is objected by the opposers of Republicanism that we Negroes are too ignorant to prudently exercise the great boon of freedom" [suffrage]. But, they used history to explain that back in 1837 Governor Clark had claimed that one-third of the adult white population was illiterate, but had not been barred from participating in elections. In their final statement they said, "It is feared by friends and boastfully claimed by opponents, that if enfranchised, the negro would vote against the party that saved the Government. It is answered that many of your petitioners were Soldiers; they think that they were on the right side; they see no reason to change sides and vote against the Liberty for which they fought. It is believed by your petitioners that their enfranchisement will arrest the cruel spirit of robbery, arson and murder in Kentucky, as it most evidently has done in other Southern States."

In the convention held that fall of 1867, President W.F. Butler of Jefferson County exclaimed their demands even more forcefully. "We had the cartridge box, now we want the ballot box, and soon we'll get the jury box...We went out and fought the battles of our country and gained our liberties, but we were left without means of protecting ourselves in the employment of that liberty. We need and must have the ballot for that purpose."

It wouldn't be until 3 years later, in 1870, that the 15th Amendment was ratified and established universal male suffrage as constitutional law. Events would develop after Reconstruction that saw the newly acquired right to vote removed from African Americans in the South. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses all were used in the "Jim Crow" years of segregation to keep political and thus social and economic equality away from African Americans. Many of those practices would last well into the 20th century.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Freedmen and Information Wanted Ads

Reconstruction was a time of worlds turned upside down. For all white Southerners it meant the death of a way of life they had always known. For that part of the population that had owned slaves, they could no longer rely on the unpaid labor of others. For former slaves it was a time to test what freedom meant. It was a real chance to leave their old homes, and they no longer had to seek out permission from their masters to do so.

Freed people who had been separated over the years of slavery longed to know what had happened to husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and other relatives. Some chose to walk the roads in search of those long lost. Others felt the best way to locate estranged family members was to place advertisements in newspapers.

Black newspapers, North and South, were turned into vital tools to reunite families. Papers such as the Colored Tennessean (published in Nashville, Tennessee for two years starting in early 1865) ran small classified advertisements seeking any available information on relatives that had been separated by slavery and the war. The Colored Tennessean was a rarity in this age; a black newspaper in the South, but its readership spread over several states, and it employed agents to sell these ads. It is impossible to know how may family members were reunited due to the ads placed in newspapers during Reconstruction, but regardless of their success rate, they make for interesting and educational reading.

The following are a small sampling of ads that ran in the Colored Tennessean from 1865 to 1866:

SAMUEL DOVE of Utica, NY - Looking for ARENO, his mother, his sisters, MARIA, NEZIAH and PEGGY and his brother, EDMOND DOVE. Their former owner was GEORGE DOVE of Rockingham County, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. His mother and sisters were sold in Richmond, Virginia and he and his brother were taken to Nashville.

HENRY HILL of Nashville, TN - Looking for my wife, LUCY BLAIR, of Jonesboro (Washington County) Tennessee. Five years ago she was last living with WILLIAM BLAIR. I was raised by JOHN BLAIR.

HANNAH BARNETT of Nashville, TN - Looking for MARTHA JAMES, my daughter, last heard from in Montgomery, Alabama, but supposedly gone to Mobile, Alabama. She formerly belonged to DR. BARNETT of Princeton, Kentucky and was sold to John James of Nashville, Tennessee about 9 years ago.

SAMUEL WILLIAMS of Nashville, TN - Looking for SYLVIA WILLIAMS, my mother, formerly belonged to JAMES MAXWELL of Augusta, Georgia. Before him, she was owned by DR. DeGARR. I formerly belonged to JAMES MAXWELL. My father is HENRY WILLIAMS, now in Liberia.

ELIZA ANN RATLIFF of Williamson County, TN - Looking for GEORGE (18), WILLIAM AND BEARTY LEWIS (13), my sons, born in Culpeper County, Virginia. MRS. NOTTINGHAM took them to Eastern Shore, Virginia in 1858. In 1860, they were taken to Petersburgh, Virginia. In 1855, I came to Tennessee with MRS. HEMPS.

SUSAN HOWARD of Chattanooga, TN - Looking for WILLIAM HOWARD, my son, who formerly lived in Kingston, Georgia. Last heard from in Chattanooga. He is age 19 year old with a yellow complexion.

RICHARD GRAY of Macon, MS - Also looking for POLLY NOEL, who lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi up to the time the law was passed prohibiting blacks from living there. She moved to Nashville and no one has seen her since.

JOHN MELTON of Huntsville, AL - Looking for DICK RICHARDSON, my father, who formerly belonged to MASON ANDERSON of Pontotoc County, Mississippi, my brother EDWARD and my sisters, LUCY AND POLLY, who all belonged to the same man. My uncle, JOHN ANDERSON and his wife, FANNY ANDERSON.

I can only imagine the hope that these people must have felt as they placed these ads. Not knowing if they would ever see their relatives again, or not knowing if they had already passed away must have been a painful burden. Those that were reunited surely rejoiced at their fortune, and those that weren't successful must have been even more bitter about their past enslavement.

These rare ads survive to give historians and genealogists a small idea of what the freed peoples' existence was like. Few other relics of Reconstruction tell the tale so well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Texas Stated Its Reason For Secession

The debate on what exactly caused the Civil War has been going on since South Carolina first decided to dissolve the Union on December 20, 1860. In the years since then some have claimed that it was a states' rights issue that led to war; some said tariffs; and some said cultural and economic differences between the North and South brought about extreme sectional egocentricity, and eventually the guns of war. To my understanding its all pretty simple. The underlying reason for secession (and therefore war) was a fear that slavery would be cooped up in the states that allowed it, and thus, not allowed to expand by the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, the South's economic, political, social, and cultural way of life was in jeopardy. To solve the problem...start your own country and write your own constitution that allows your way of life to continue...just like the Revolutionary War generation did.

Several Southern states felt the need to explain why they were seceding. States such as South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas all spelled out why they wanted out of the Union, and the overwhelming reason was a desire to perpetuate slavery.

The Texas version of sentiments for secession is one of the most clear on this matter. On February 2, 1861, delegates put pen to paper to explain why they wanted out of the Union. They explained that, "Texas abandoned her separate national existence [indpendence in 1836]and consented to become one of the Confederated Union [annexed to the Union in 1845] to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-a relation that had existed from the first settlement of the wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and the other slaveholding States of the confederacy."

In spelling out their grievences delegates took time to berate the federal government's inability to protect Texas citizens from "Indian savages on our borders" and "murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico..." The Northern states, too ,were held responsible for not supporting the fugitive slave act, and thus creating animosity between the sections.

When push came to shove, the Texans' commitment to the institution of slavery was clearly spelled out. "In all the non-slaveholding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as negro slavery remains in these States."

The Texas delegates said that the abolitionists "have invaded Southern soil and murdered unoffending citizens [see John Brown's raid], and through the press their leading men and a fanatical pulpit have bestowed praise upon the actors and assassins in these crimes, while the governors of several of their States have refused to deliver parties implicated and indicted for participation in such offenses, upon the legal demands of the States aggrieved. They have, through the mails and hired emissaries, sent seditious pamphlets and papers among us to stir up servile insurrection and bring blood and carnage to our firesides."

Finally, they stated their firm belief. "We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, of the the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slaveholding States."

The vote to secede was not even close. Of the 174 delegates who voted, only 8 thought it unwise to leave the Union.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Maxcy Gregg

Many of those Southerners who cried the loudest for Southern independence, states' rights, and secession were not to be found in the army or on the battlefield when the war started in earnest. The fire-eating planter politicians often put self preservation ahead of military participation.
Maxcy Gregg though was one long-time proponent of secession that ended up giving his life to his cause.

Gregg was born in Columbia, South Carolina on August 1, 1814. He excelled in his studies so much at South Carolina College, a hotbed of states' rights and nullification ideology, that he tied for first in his class but refused to accept his diploma as he was unwilling to share the honor. After college he studied law under his father's supervision, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1839.

Gregg later received a healthy inheritance and used a great deal of it to study classical history and scientific subjects as a hobby. He was especially interested in ornithology and astronomy. Gregg even had a private observatory built to study the constellations. After serving in the Mexican War as a major in the 12th U.S. Infantry (without seeing action), he returned to the Palmetto State and went back into his law.

Gregg was present for the secession vote in Charleston, and when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, the some-what deaf Gregg was made colonel of the 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment, which served at Charleston Harbor until Fort Sumter surrendered. Gregg and his men were sent to Virginia, but missed participating in First Manassas. By the spring of 1862, Gregg had been promoted to brigadier general and participated in the Seven Days battles around Richmond. Gregg's brigade was one of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson's command that received the brunt of the strong Union attacks at Second Manassas. He reported walked up and down his battle line wielding an ancient Revolutionary War sword and exhorting his command, "Let us die here, my men, let us die here."

Gregg's brigade was in the pack of troops that A.P. Hill brought from Harpers Ferry that participated in last part of the Battle of Antietam. In one volley a Yankee bullet hit Gregg in the hip while riding his horse and nearly knocked him off his mount. The bullet only penetrated his pants, and ended up in a handkerchief that was wadded up in his pocket. Gregg was only bruised by the spent ball.

Gregg would not be so fortunate in his next battle; it would be his last. While riding to a threatened spot on the right of the Confederate line at Fredericksburg, Gregg was shot in the side and the bullet went through his back. Gregg lingered at a nearby private residence where he died on the morning of December 15, 1862. Before he passed away, Gregg was visited by the pious Jackson who spoke to the irreligious Gregg about his spiritual life. Gregg's body was taken to his native Columbia to be buried five days later.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just finished reading - Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation, edited by John C. Inscoe

After recently studying John Brown and his plan to end slavery, I wanted to get a firmer grasp on the slavery situation in the Appalachian Mountains that he anticipated using as a conduit of freedom. I had purchased this book shortly after moving to Kentucky back in May, but I hadn't taken the opportunity to read it until now.

Appalachia itself has only within the last 25 years or so received the scholarly study it so justly deserves, so it doesn't come as a surprise the subject of race in the region has received very little attention. Although African Americans have been a part of Appalachia since the earliest days of its exploration and settlement by white Europeans, their role has not always been appreciated; probably due
largely to their marginal status then and at present. When Appalachia became, by the written word in the 1880s, the stereotypical place of hillbillies, moonshiners, and feuding families, it was the place of the staid Anglo-Saxon. It was believed there was little foreign intervention or racial diversity in the mountain holds. Appalachia was seen by many as the last racially pure region in America.

These ideas of stereotypical Appalachia have been debunked by historians and sociologists, and thanks to works like Appalachians and Race, the work continues. Editor John C. Inscoe has gathered 18 significant essays to comprise this work. Some of the most well known Southern and Appalachian historians are included. Historians such as Richard B. Drake, Charles B. Dew, Kenneth W. Noe, Wilma A. Dunaway, Kathleen M. Blee and Dwight B. Billings, Gordon B. McKinney, Nina Sibler, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage, among others, give the reader a better appreciation for the role African Americans have played in Appalachian life.

Of course, of special interest to me were the articles on slavery in Appalachia. Cecelia Conway's article, "Appalachian Echoes of the African Banjo" explains the part that lowland and Piedmont slaves played in spreading the use of this now universally known mountain music instrument. Who can image Bluegrass music without a banjo? Well, due largely to travel and movement by slaves in the antebellum period through the Southern Appalachians, this instrument was learned by local populations and became the popular instrument it its today in the region.

Charles B. Dew's article "Sam Williams, Forgeman: The Life of an Industrial Slave at Buffalo Forge, Virginia" was taken from his larger work Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, which is a book I highly recommend. It gives a vivid portrayal of life at the iron furnace operations at Buffalo Forge (just outside of Lexington, Virginia) through the accounts left by the forge owner, and later by its manager. For those who think that slavery would surely have died out with the mechanization of agriculture, Dew's article on industrial slavery will make you think twice.

John Cimprich's article, "Slavery's End in East Tennessee" is another example of the fine work that is contained in this book. His examination of the Freedmen's Bureau in East Tennessee is a real eye-opener. Political fights between Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee during Reconstruction often centered on what role freed slaves would play, and heavily Republican East Tennessee struggled with giving political rights to freedmen and keeping Democrats at bay.

As the title implies, the articles not only cover slavery in Appalachia, but they also cover the roots of segregation that emerged in Reconstruction and carried on into the early 20th century. I never knew there was a black missionary school at Elk Park, North Carolina; a little wide-spot-in-the-road-of-a-town that I often passed through on my way to and from graduate school at Appalachian State. I also was not aware that the lynching violence that so predominated in the South from the 1890s to the 1920s, was also being conducted in the Mountain South. Two well written articles also cover black coal miners. Ronald Lewis looks at "African American Convicts in the Coal Mines of Southern Appalachian" states of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama; while Joe William Trotter, Jr. examines "The Formation of Black Community in Southern West Virginia Coalfields."

All of the article are relatively short and each can easily be read in a sitting. I believe that you will not be disappointed by the scholarship and content you will find here. The book is also available in paperback at low cost, so if you are looking for a fascinating group of essays on the diversity of Appalachia, be sure to pick up a copy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Knights of the Golden Circle

It is no secret that during and after the Mexican American War there were distinct efforts by Southerners to increase the slaveholding territory of the United States. Filibustering became the term by which these men and their missions were known. Tennessean William Walker attempted to take rule in a section of Mexico, and later proclaimed himself President of Nicaragua. For all of his efforts he was captured and executed in Honduras in 1860. John A. Quitman, a former governor of Mississippi, and a general in the Mexican War, attempted to raise men to capture Cuba but later dropped the plan at the federal government's insistence.

A secret organization of filibusterers emerged in the 1850s known as the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). The group was founded by George W.L. Bickley in 1854. Bickley was born in southwest Virginia in 1819 and claimed to have been a doctor, but was later discredited. He had moved to Cincinnati in 1851 to take a position as a professor in a medical college and also wrote for a living. He started the first "castle," or local branch, in 1854 in Cincinnati, but quickly took his efforts to the South after being harassed by his creditors.

The mid to late 1850s was the peak era for filibustering and Bickley was well received in the South. Bickley's plan was to develop colonies of Southern slaveholders in the West Indies, Central America, and South America; with the already strong slaveholding region of the Southern United States, these other three would form a "golden circle" of prosperity. Bickley believed that Mexico was the place to start his mission. Apparently, realizing that their proximity to Texas, and their relatively easy defeat in the recent war, made annexing northern Mexico the prime target. Bickley received his heartiest support for his organization in the Lone Star state, where he founded over 30 castles.

Ironically the quest for Southern independence ,and thus Civil War, brought the end of the KGC. With all efforts being made to defend the Southern states and win its independence, there was little time, money, or effort to be made in attempting to seize land in neighboring Mexico. Although, there were some KGC members that took part in the 1862 west Texas and New Mexico campaigns of General Henry Sibley, a man who also had ties to the KGC.

The KGC received some significant support in the lower North (southern Indiana, Illinois and Ohio) and border states (Kentucky and Missouri), especially among the Copperheads (Democrats opposed to Radical Republicans and carrying on the war) during the war. In late 1863 the KGC was reorganized as the Order of American Knights, and then in 1864 it was known as the Order of the Sons of Liberty. As the Confederacy's military success wained in 1864, and as Lincoln was reelected to a second term, the organization lost much of its interest and was officially disbanded.

A number of conspiracies have developed around the KGC since the end of the Civil War. Some credit the KGC with General John Hunt Morgan's raid into Southern Indiana and Ohio in 1863, and with involvement in Lincoln's assassination in 1865, as depicted in the recent movie American Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

There are a number of commonalities that can be seen between the KGC and the later Ku Klux Klan. The secretiveness of the organizations and use of mysterious symbols such as skulls and cross bones, along with their commitment to white supremacy, would lead one to believe that the KKK, organized in 1866, relied on the KGC for some of its inspiration.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Personality Spotlight: John Mercer Langston

O.K., I will finally try to get away from posting on John Brown and his place in American history for a few days. But, it isn't surprising to find out that John Brown's tree of influence did touch many lives in the mid-19th century who attempted to bring citizenship and political rights to African Americans. One such man was John Mercer Langston.

Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. His mother, Lucy Langston, was a free woman with an Indian and African heritage. Like many blacks that would eventually make the fight for abolition and equality, John Mercer Langston was the son of a white man. Ralph Quarles, a wealthy Virginia planter, was Langston's father. When Langston was about five years old both his mother and father died of unrelated illnesses and he was left with a sizable inheritance.

A friend of Quarles, William Gooch, who lived in Ohio took in Langston and his two brothers Charles and Gideon and cared for them. In 1838 Gooch moved to Missouri; a slave state. It was determined that it would be best for Langston to stay in free state Ohio, so he settled in the tight knit free black community in Cincinnati. He enrolled at Oberlin College at age 14, and graduated in 1849. In 1848 he made his first public speech at the request of Frederick Douglass. Langston was admitted to graduate school at Oberlin and obtained a Masters degree in Theology, but unable to gain admission to law school, he read law under Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854; making him the first black lawyer in Ohio.

In the years between earning his position as an attorney and the Civil War, Langston organized efforts to resist the fugitive slave law and assisted slaves making their way to Canada from the slave states. He married Caroline Wall in 1854, also an Oberlin student of similar background, and stated a law office in Brownhelm, Ohio. Langston moved back to Oberlin in 1856 and started a practice there. He became active in Republican Party politics, advocated armed resistance to slavery, and supported John Brown's antislavery operations.

During the Civil War Langston served as recruiter of black troops when they were finally allowed to serve in the Union army. He helped recruit Ohio for the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry as well as Ohio USCT regiments. The Reconstruction years saw Langston as active as ever. He organized efforts for citizenship, black suffrage, and served as an eduction inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1868 Langston established the law department at Howard University in Washington D.C. In the 1870s he served as consul to Haiti for eight years, then returned to the United States to be named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) in Petersburg.

In 1888 he briefly served in the United States House of Representatives before losing the following election. In his last years Langston wrote his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital, before passing away on November 15, 1897.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

John Brown's Hired Martial Help: Hugh Forbes

John Brown was called "Captain" Brown by many of those familiar with him and his operations, but Brown in fact had no real military training. His operations in Kansas were guerrilla in nature...surprise your enemy and instill them with terror by your presence. I can only speculate that when Brown read the title page of Hugh Forbes's book, which like many 19th century books, had a title that stretched forever, Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer; On Active Service in Regular and Irregular War; Being the Art and Science of Obtaining and Maintaining Liberty and Independence, he read what he thought was a perfect sentiment. On that title page is a quote that states, "To form an army, it is not sufficient to collect men and put arms in their hands."

Although that was exactly Brown's plan for the slaves he hoped to free, he fully understood the importance of having a solid core of properly trained men that were guided by discipline and a commitment to a cause. To that end he eventually secured the services of Colonel Hugh Forbes, an act that would eventually cause him no little discomfort in his abolitionist mission.

Forbes was a former British soldier that had fought in the European revolutions in 1848-49. He had fought under Garibaldi in Italy, and after the failed effort had ended up a silk merchant in Florence. Forbes had left his wife and family behind in Italy around 1855 seeking his fortune in America. He landed in New York City where he struggled to make ends meet as a fencing instructor, part-time journalist, author, and speaker.

Brown had read Manual for the Patriotic Volunteer (published in 1856), and Forbes's pamphlet Duties of a Soldier while in Kansas and discussed it with another English emigrant turned writer William A. Phillips. Brown was impressed with the work and when he came east in March 1857 on a fundraising mission, he looked up Forbes in New York. Forbes appeared to Brown to be like-minded. Much of Forbes's writing in the book bore this out. Forbes had written, "Right is that which is good true honorable just humane self-sacrificing - it is the opposite of wrong." Brown could not have agreed with a sentiment more. Brown saw Forbes as being yet another believer in the wrongness of slavery, even though Forbes did not share Brown's unyielding belief in equality of the races.

At that initial meeting Brown contracted with Forbes to train his men back in Kansas and Iowa. The mercenary demanded a $100 a month salary to help support his family back in Italy and an expense account. Brown, feeling that his plan was finally moving forward, readily agreed. After a delay to tie up loose ends in New York, Forbes showed up at Tabor, Iowa in August to find only Brown and his son Owen as his sole "Patriotic Volunteers." From this rough start, things only got worse for Brown and Forbes. They were in disagreement over how best carry out Brown's plan of a slave revolution. Added to the lack of men and means, and Brown's inability to pay any more salary to Forbes, the deal snapped and Forbes left to go back east to New York by early November, but promised to set up a training camp for men in Ohio if they could be raised and he would be paid. Ironically, Brown's Iowa forces increased dramatically after Forbes departed.

When Brown traveled to Ohio in January of 1858 to check on progress there, he learned that Forbes, disgruntled over not being paid, had turned against him. Forbes did not know who specifically was funding Brown's antislavery operations but he attempted to contact many he believed were Brown philanthropists (including some of the Secret Six) in attempt to discredit Brown, reveal Brown's potential future plans, and in effect blackmail them if he was not paid. This action caused Brown to contact his benefactors and assure them that he still had things in control; but it did delay his plan.

Brown initially wanted to keep momentum going and hoped to pull off his Harpers Ferry raid much earlier than it actually happened, but with Forbes stirring up so much commotion both in New England and in Washington DC, Brown was forced to postpone the raid and let the recent dust settle. He assured his supporters that he would do nothing rash and that he would strike when the time was right. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was one of the few that demanded that Brown not delay his plan. In an effort to hide his identity, now that Forbes had "outed" him, Brown grew a long beard and used different aliases.

Brown used the delay to recruit and train more men, and to gather arms and information on Harpers Ferry by sending one of his men to live in the community a number of months before the raid was committed.

Interestingly, Forbes's presence would still be a part of the raiders' lives in the weeks before the raid. As they waited at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland they often read the collection of Forbes's books that Brown had purchased to pass the time. Copies of the books were found still at the Kennedy farmhouse when it was searched in the aftermath of the failed raid.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

John Brown on PBS

If you aren't the reading type and still want to learn about John Brown and his impact on American history, I would suggest you start with the PBS American Experience episode John Brown's Holy War that came out in 2000. This 90 minute DVD is quite well done and in standard documentary form covers Brown's life failures, his obsessive battle against slavery, and a close look at his most well known battle; Harpers Ferry.

In addition, PBS also has an accompanying web site for even more information and resources on Brown. On the site there are some interesting special features such as a virtual tour of the Kennedy Farm in Maryland where Brown would start his raid on Harpers Ferry; a history of the fire engine house that would become known as "John Brown's Fort;" an examination of the inspirational song "John Brown's Body;" and a look at Brown's life failures. There is an excellent timeline of Brown's life, and an interactive map that helps clear up Brown's confusingly rapid movements from place to place in the years leading up to Harpers Ferry. Also afforded are concise biographies of key individuals in Brown's life story such as the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Virginia governor Henry A. Wise. Finally, significant events such as the Pottawatomie Massacres, the 1858-59 winter Missouri slave raid, and Brown's hanging at Charles Town, Virgina on December 2, 1859 are also provided. The site is located at:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Just finished reading - John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds

Much of the material in my recent posts on John Brown have come from thoughts that I had while reading this 500 page cultural biography. Author David S. Reynolds, an English and American Studies professor at New York University has produced a very solid look at Brown's life and his lasting impact on America's history and culture.

John Brown failed at nearly everything he did career- wise in life; as a farmer, tanner, and wool salesman he hemorrhaged money, lived in debt, and had a constant bad luck streak that fortunately few other men could claim. His one success was where his true passion resided; his antislavery work. Brown's hatred of slavery was inherited from his father and was spurred by an experience when he was a boy, when he saw a young black man beaten for no other reason than being of darker complexion.

That deep hatred would eventually drive Brown to drastic measures to stop slavery. Reynolds discusses in-depth Brown's fundamental Calvinistic and puritanical religiosity and how that abiding faith led him to a wage a holy war against slavery and those that practiced it. On the surface Brown's ties with the liberal Transcendentalist movement seem strange, but they become clearer as Reynolds explains the common connection between Brown and Emerson, Thoreau and others. Brown and the Transcendentalists both believed in a sense of "higher law." Man's laws were not to necessarily be obeyed if they conflicted with what they believed was God's laws. Brown believe above all others that human equality was God's all supreme law.

In the aftermath of the Harpers Ferry raid many Northerners changed their opinion of John Brown. He was often lauded as martyr, they wrote songs about hims, and even those that condemned his actions, held him personally in high esteem for his unwavering commitment. On the other side Southerners hated him and the trouble he stirred up. He helped create a fear of slave insurrections that wouldn't end until slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment; six years after Brown's death. African Americans from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B DuBois to Malcolm X all held Brown up as the model that all whites should emulate. Brown would always hold a special place in hearts of black Americans.

One aspect that Reynolds missed was the centennial observation of Brown's raid. In 1959 racial tensions were on edge as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to evolve. There are some very interesting stories that relate to the Brown Centennial and race issues that would have made this "cultural biography" even more revealing. Another issue that I found was that Reynolds named the free black Baltimore and Ohio Railroad worker that was the first casualty in the raid as Shepherd Hayward. From what I have found in research is that he has it backward; it is Hayward Shepherd. This is certainly a small point but one that should have been caught by an editor or peer reader and corrected.

Undoubtedly the controversy will continue over whether Brown was a freedom fighter or terrorist; madman or martyr; committed servant of God or condemned anarchist. I recommend you read this book and others about Brown and make the decision for yourself.