Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Every once in a while I get outside of my reading comfort zone - not too far mind you - but a little outside. Such was the case with my latest read. Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia is a collection of thirteen essays that covers from the mid-eighteenth century up to the 1930s.

Since my graduate school days at Appalachian State University, where I had a class in the History of Appalachia, in which I received my lowest grade (A-), I have appreciated this region more and more in historical studies. So, I was happy to see this book on the shelf while I was perusing at my local public library recently.

Editor Bruce E. Stewart, who was not at ASU when I was there, has done a fine job of gathering a diverse yet cohesive set of essays for this volume. The theme that seems to run through them is not an uncommon one for those that have read historical studies on the region. Each essay seemingly discounts the misconceptions and stereotypes of Appalachia as a land prone to violence and that somehow the isolation and remoteness lends to a tradition of hostile brutality. But, rather, these essays make clear that mountain violence "was a reflection and result of deeper tensions within the fabric of all American society."

Only a couple of the contributing authors were familiar names to me, but since I am not the most well-read person in this particular subject that was not a big surprise. Despite my unfamiliarity with the authors, I found each essay well researched and noted. However, as one might expect, I found some personally more interesting than others, and its not shocking that those tended to do with the antebellum and Civil War eras and race issues.

"'A Possession, or and Absence of Ears': The Shape of Violence in Travel Narratives about the Mountain South, 1779-1895," was a fascinating look at how visitors to Appalachia viewed the region and its inhabitants. Author Katherine E. Ledford contends that "depictions of physical conflict tell more about the traveler, his personal worries, and his cultural expectations - and more about an emerging U.S. national identity (bound by place and race) - than about the people of the Mountain South."

Durwood Dunn's "Violence against Slaves as a Catalyst in Changing Attitudes toward Slavery: An 1857 Case Study in East Tennessee," was especially intriguing due to its obvious subject matter and geographic setting of Rogersville, Tennessee. This sad story of extreme slave abuse in a largely nonslaveholding community showed this area's "latent antislavery sensibilities," and, as the author conjectures, is possibly another factor into the many complex reasons East Tennessee largely remained Unionist in the secession crisis and Civil War.

Other essays that I especially enjoyed were "Race and Violence in Urbanizing Appalachia: The Roanoke Riot of 1893," by Rand Dotson; "Assassins and Feudists: Politics and Death in the Bluegrass and Mountains of Kentucky", by T.R.C. Hutton; "'The Largest Manhunt in Western North Carolina's History': The Story of Broadus Miller," by Kevin W. Young; and "The Murder of Thomas Price: Image, Identity, and Violence in Western North Carolina," by Richard D. Starnes.

I recommend Blood in the Hills to anyone interested in learning more about the history of this misunderstood region. It illuminates the reasons Appalachia has earned an unfair reputation for violence and aggression that has been part of its label since the early nineteenth century. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Conscription Anyone?

When I was in Washington D.C. back in June I took the above picture at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. I forgot I had it on my camera or I would have shared it earlier. Here is information on it from the NMAH's website:

"As part of the Armed Forces collections at the National Museum of American History, the Draft Wheel is an object that demonstrates the very beginning of conscription in the United States. It functioned as part of a procedure to select men for military service. The names of men eligible for the draft were written on slips of paper and dropped into holes inside the wheel. An official pulled out names to fill the ranks of the Union army.

Conscription was first used during the Civil War (1861-1865) to fuel the war effort and has remained a part of civil service ever since. Established in the South in 1862 for men between ages 18 and 35 and one year later in the North for men between ages 20 and 45, the soldiers were obliged to three years of military service. Most of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were volunteers or draftees unable to pay a substitute to go in their stead.

The lower class was particularly against the system of substitution, in which draftees had the possibility to pay a substitute to fight the war in their stead. The anger with the system provoked four days of riots in New York in 1863. Freed blacks were unfairly targeted as the cause of the war and several were beaten to death or lynched by the mobs; a black orphanage and church were set on fire. When the Emancipation Proclamation was made in the North, it included a provision opening enlistment in the military to African American men and more than 185,000 African American volunteers took up the call and fought to liberate those still held in slavery.

The wheel was transferred from the War Department to the Smithsonian Institution in 1919. It is six feet in diameter and 25 inches deep with one axle. The wheel itself weights 104 pounds and is completely made of wood. There are two holes in it where the names or numbers of eligible men for the draft were entered in. The bigger hole is five feet from the axle; above the smaller hole is written the word “numbers” in upper-case letters. The draft wheel is currently on display as the landmark object of the museum’s East Wing on the third floor."


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Invasion or Lincoln's Revocation of Fremont's Order?

Kentucky House Bill 36, "An Act to prohibit and punish rebellion by citizens of Kentucky and others in this State," proposed on Sept. 12, 1861, was fierce in its language against those citizens that had already or intended to serve the new Confederate States of America. Among its harshest suggested laws was this one: "...any citizen of Kentucky who, as a soldier or officer in the army of the so-called Confederate states, and as part of an armed force, shall invade Kentucky, upon any pretext whatever, shall be guilty of felony, and, upon conviction, shall be punished by death."

The timing of the bill coincided with the days earlier Confederate invasion of western Kentucky, so this particular law warning against invasion has largely been the reason given for the legislature's decision to declare for the Union. 

But possibly, there may have been an additional factor involved.

General John C. Fremont had issued a proclamation in the last days of August 1861 that freed the slaves of Missouri secessionists. Lincoln, ever sensitive to the slaveholding border states, quickly countermanded the order effective on September 11. Were the proslavery Unionists in Kentucky waiting for Lincoln's decision that upheld slavery in a sister border state before deciding to drop neutrality and side with the Union? Hmmmmm.

It could easily be argued that with the state election on Aug. 5, 1861, that brought an overwhelming Unionist general assembly, that a declaration for the Union was certain, but apparently something had hindered the law making body to drop neutrality earlier.

The bill passed both the house and senate by September 27. And, obviously by the handwritten addition in the top image, "The Bloody Bill," and the penciled addition "Blood Blood," in the lower image, it was not well received by everyone in the state.

It is ironic that these potentially felonious Confederates in 1861 soon became major political players in the immediate post war years, since Kentucky had remained loyal and the Rebel citizens had not been disenfranchised; they actually became heroes when the federal government and presidential administration added emancipation to the initial major war aim of restoring the Union.

Images and document information courtesy Kentucky Historical Society

Monday, July 23, 2012

Frankfort's Remnant of Reconstruction

The immediate post-Civil War period in the Commonwealth of Kentucky has often been referred to in historical accounts as "Readjustment" rather than "Reconstruction." I suppose readjustment has been used due to the fact that Kentucky did not secede from the Union and thus the state government did not need to be rebuilt. But, I have an issue with the term readjustment. To me, readjustment implies that the circumstances that were necessary in post-war Kentucky were somehow less demanding than those in the seceded states that received Radical Reconstruction. I would argue that, at least in terms of race atrocities, Kentucky was as extreme as almost any former slave state.

Not all that much remains of Reconstruction's footprint in Kentucky, but there are still a few traces of this tragic period to serve as reminders. One of these reminders that few people probably know about are the Frankfort Barracks. These structures in South Frankfort, are situated on Shelby Street between the Kentucky River and the "new" state capitol building. These buildings were constructed in 1871 by order of the federal government, and according to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) were built by Alexander Brawner, a local master mason, to house federal troops from 1871 to 1876.   

The nomination form quotes from the November 10, 1871 Frankfort Commonwealth newspaper: "A.G. Brawner is now engaged in erecting three brick barracks on the Coleman Spring lot which will be leased to the U.S. for the use of Federal troops for two years. The barracks are to be large and substantial and so arranged that at the expiration of the lease can be turned into tenement houses." The lease was renewed in two year periods as the article indicated at the rate of $200.00 a month. Apparently the troops were needed longer than initially expected, because as the nomination form explains, the lease expired in the summer of 1876. 

The NRHP nomination form researcher found a handwritten note in the National Archives files in Washington D.C. that stated, "The post at Frankfort, Kentucky, was established during the month of April 1871. From April until December, 1871, the men lived in tents; the officers resided at various places in the city of Frankfort. The command consists of Head Quarters of the 4th U.S. Infantry Staff and Band - Companies D & K., 4th Infantry and one medical officer. On the first of December the command moved into barracks situated in south Frankfort, about one half mile from the City. These barracks were built by a citizen of Frankfort on contract for the use of the troops. They are healthy and comfortable quarters."

It is doubtful that the federal government would have taken the time, effort and expense to have a garrison built and stationed for five years (a year longer than the Civil War) if there was not an expressed need for their presence and protection. The atrocities that were committed against freedmen and freedwomen of Kentucky were readily documented by the Freedmen's Bureau. The NRHP nomination form, completed in 1975, only makes a passing remark about the necessity for government troops' protection. It reads "By 1866 the Kentucky government was in the hands of ex-Confederates. The Radical Republicans had failed to gain a stronghold in Kentucky, as they had obtained in other border states. They [Radicals] interpreted Kentucky's reluctance to support the Republican Party as being disloyal and hostile to the Union. As a result the Radicals' were pressuring Congress to include Kentucky in the Reconstruction Act and make it into the sixth military district, although it had never left the Union. Even though Congress ignored the Radicals' requests, Kentucky's strong southern sympathies along with Congress' desire to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, providing for Negro suffrage (approved by Congress in 1869, but not effective until the 1870 congressional election) could be enough reason for stationing Federal troops in Frankfort as late as 1876. Perhaps the barracks were erected and troops located in Frankfort, like the proverbial shutting of the barn door after the horse has gone; the strategic importance of the capital city of a border state might have been belatedly realized."

Perhaps,  but perhaps not. There is little room to argue that the race situation was so desperate in the state after the Civil War that a long-term Federal presence was not necessary to protect the freed people and their newly won rights of citizenship. To see part of an 1867 report on Kentucky atrocities by a Freedmen's Bureau official see: http://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/images/10-mobs-report-kentucky-l.jpg&c=/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/images/10-mobs-report-kentucky.caption.html

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I had this particular book on my wishlist for several months when I saw it for 40% off at the Society of Civil War Historians meeting last month in Lexington and snatched up a copy. Having ancestors from North Carolina, I'm always interested in scholarly studies from that state, and this offering from UNC Press, like a number of others that I have recently read did not disappoint.

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina examines how black and white citizens from that state perceived these social maladies before, during and after the war. The book is divided into three section, each of which examines one of the facets of the subtitle.

Author David Silkenat, a professor at North Dakota State and who did his graduate work at UNC Chapel Hill, first examines suicide. His look at personal accounts and obituaries in period newspapers led him to some interesting conclusions and provided some well-told stories. Silkenat's evidence pointed to the conclusion that while suicide was quite uncommon and disdained by white North Carolinians during the antebellum period, it grew to be much more common, and while never fully socially accepted, self-destruction was viewed differently with the perspective that  the war provided. Quite the opposite, blacks, especially slaves, viewed suicide through a different lens before the Civil War, when the vast majority were without rights and freedom. Slaves sometimes used suicide to escape the oppression of the institution and did not place the religious condemnation on the practice that whites did at the time. After the war, when freedom was assured, but racism far from dead, black incidences of suicide became quite uncommon. It seems that after the war, freedmen now had a real purpose for living, while the world whites had known had disappeared and with it much of the economic and social well being ,which as well all know, helps determine our moods and how we view our world.

Divorce, like suicide, was viewed differently by white and black North Carolinians both before and after the war. Divorce was only considered by whites in extreme cases in the antebellum years, but due to the changes in society caused by the war it became much more common during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Blacks, whose marriage vows were not legally recognized in slavery, and whose family bonds were often disrupted through the domestic slave trade, went to great lengths when freedom was achieved to legalize their marriages through the Freedmen's Bureau. Probably in part due to the court costs that came with divorces blacks sought legal separations less often in the postwar years than whites. Another factor was the rise in importance of the church to African American communities after the war. The black church had a huge influence on what was perceived as moral and what wasn't, and African American preachers made it a point to speak on the importance of family and the devastation that divorce brought.

In the antebellum years wealthy whites often issued personal loans to those in their neighborhoods who needed money as a from of paternalistic benevolence. The practice became less frequent when war came, which made money and resources for gifting and repayment more scare, and as economic downturns brought widespread economic woes in the postwar period. Debt was a fact of life it the South in the antebellum years because the agricultural cycle determined personal economics. Money was prevalent after the harvest, but was most scarce as the fall reaping approached. Slaves of course were not so much effected by personal debt as whites except in that they could be a ready form of capital should crops fail or an owner meet with some other economic failure. I found chapter 9, "What the Landlord and the Storeman Chose to Make It: General Stores, Pawnshops, & Boardinghouses in the New South," especially fascinating. The part of the chapter that covered boardinghouses shows how much economic necessity changed citizens' perceptions of what was and wasn't socially acceptable. Widowed white women, who before the war would have never thought of opening their homes to borders due to the social taboo of having single men living in their homes, after the war often found that this was not only a way to make ends meet, but also get ahead economically.

Moments of Despair makes an important contribution to social history and shows us again, just how much change the Civil War wrought in American society. I highly recommend it, especially to those interested in North Carolina history. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.                  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bitter Fruits of General Orders No. 59

Back on July 5 I posted about Union General and Commander of the Department of Kentucky Stephen G. Burbridge's General Orders Number 59. This order in part helped the general earn the unenviable sobriquet "Butcher" Burbridge. 

Burbridge was a native Kentuckian, born in Scott County in 1831, and like a number of Kentucky Union officers was a slaveholder. He had attended Georgetown College and the Kentucky Military Institute for his education and had made a living as an attorney and farmer before the war. He earned a name by fighting at Shiloh and Vicksburg, and then after returning to Kentucky, for battling John Hunt Morgan. In June 1864, Burbridge was placed in command of Kentucky and held the post until February 1865. In that short time he managed to stir up enough animosity among Kentuckians with harsh measures such as General Orders 59 and controversial political maneuvers that he was probably the most hated man in the state.

Some months back on the way to lunch with a colleague from work we drove by the Kentucky state capitol building and I noticed a state highway historical marker (pictured above) that mentioned a "Civil War Reprisal." I didn't stop to read the marker at that time and didn't make the connection until after doing some searching that it referenced General Orders 59.

On November 1, 1864 a unionist Franklin County man, Robert Graham, from the Peaks Mill community in the northeastern part of the county, was killed by Confederate guerrillas. The following day Burbridge ordered that four Southerners be executed in response to Graham's death. Detailed to be shot in a South Frankfort pasture owned by a Major Hunt, near where the present Kentucky state capitol building stands, were four innocent Confederates Thornton Lafferty, a Pendleton County political prisoner; Elijah Horton from Carter County, who had served in the 10th Kentucky Cavalry; Thomas Hunt and John Long of Mason County. After a spiritual word or two was given by Rev. B.B. Sayre, who was a Frankfort resident and the son-in-law of Edmund Ruffin. Apparently one prisoner managed to run before the command to fire was given, but was quickly shot down. The others were summarily executed. Hunt's body was taken back to Mason County for burial, while the other three were interred in the Frankfort Cemetery   

Doing some online searching for information about Burbridge, I ran across some mentions of monuments in the state related to General Orders 59. One such monument is located in the historic town of Midway, which is only about 8 miles from Frankfort. I was interested in seeing this memorial, so back on July 4 (a day off from work), I got up early to beat the heat and made the short drive to the Midway Cemetery. It was relatively easy to find the monument in the small graveyard. 

According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, the monument was placed around 1890, which was during the time of extensive Lost Cause memorialization in the South and Kentucky. In early November 1864, during a raid on Midway by Confederate guerrillas, a loyal citizen was killed. To uphold General Orders 59, four Confederate prisoners were selected and sent from Lexington to the small railroad town where the precipitating incident occurred. The four, two men named Jackson, a Rissinger and an Adams, were shot by firing squad in a public display on November 5. Initially the prisoners were buried in a shallow grave near the execution site, but later moved the cemetery at a local Presbyterian church, and then finally to the Midway Cemetery when the monument was placed in 1890.  

The "Midway Martyrs Monument" lists the names of the four victims of Burbridge's order. On the top of the obelisk it reads "Rest Soldiers Rest, the Warfare O'er." The base is engraved "Our Confederate Dead."

There is another "martyrs monument" in Eminence, Kentucky, which also is not too far from Frankfort, so I will try to cover it in a future post.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading

The University of North Carolina Press continues to impress me with the books they publish. It seems that each one I read is better than the last. And, while most of the credit must go to the scholar authors, UNC Press must have excellent editors and advisers who decide what gets accepted and what doesn't.

My latest read is yet another outstanding contribution to the fine family of UNC Press Civil War era books. Glenn David Brasher's The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom makes such a strong argument obvious it makes one wonder why someone had not explored this particular topic previously.

Brasher contends, and I agree, that African Americans in the James/York River peninsula region were active agents in bringing about social and political changes in the first two years of the war. Even before Gen. George McClellan began his famous campaign, slaves almost a year earlier flocked to Fortress Monroe where Gen. Benjamin Butler coined the term contraband. From the very beginning of the war the slaves knew the conflict was about slavery and that they had a high stake in the outcome.

It was the Confederate's use of slave labor to build fortifications and provide additional manpower to the Southern armies on the peninsula, Brasher argues, that prompted the Union to come to the conclusion that either they too must employ blacks or be beaten. Brasher musters an army of evidence from numerous perspectives to make his claims. Letters from both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as civilians, politicians, newspaper editors and the bondsmen themselves, all give insight into how African American slaves running away to Union lines brought about enormous and previously unfathomable changes.

Particularly intriguing and ironic was Brasher's use of numerous accounts of African American Confederates, many of whom were body servants of armed white soldiers, that were witnessed as picking up arms and killing and wounding Union soldiers. These accounts became widespread through the Northern press and prompted radical politicians to call with greater vehemence for the Federal government to at least use blacks in labor situations if not as strict soldiers.

White Union soldiers quickly found out during the Peninsula Campaign that the only reliable information they could depend on came from slaves and free blacks. In order to prevent slaves from conversing with Union soldiers slave owners told their chattels that the Northern soldiers would scoop them up and sell them to Cuba, or that Union soldiers had one eye like a cyclops and horns on their heads. The efforts to terrify slaves most often fell on deaf ears though as slaves reasoned if owners did not want them talking to the enemy then the enemy must indeed be their friends. Slaves knew the back roads and the waterways like no others and the Union army used this information to move their troops up the Peninsula. Brasher even posits that Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock earned his sobriquet "Superb" at the Battle of Williamsburg due to information gained from a slave that helped him find an obscure path that led to the Confederate flank.

Brasher makes a point to say that if indeed McClellan had captured Richmond to cap off the campaign then the war would have probably ended with slavery intact, and that it was only through the repulse of the Army of the Potomac that made Congress, and finally Lincoln, realize that emancipation was a necessary war measure. I have a minor quibble with this point. In my opinion if Richmond had fallen to McClellan in the summer of 1862 the Confederates would have moved the capital to another city and would have continued to fight on. There was simply still too much to lose that early in the war for the Confederates to surrender with the loss of the capital city.

To me, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation is required reading for those who need evidence that whether or not Lincoln said it or believed it at that point, the end of slavery and the perpetuation of the Union was one in the same. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a full 5.          

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kentucky Woman on 1856 Slave Insurrection Scare, Part 2

Hopkinsville and Christian County, Kentucky slaveholder Ellen Wallace continued her thoughts on the potential dangers that she associated with news of a slave insurrection in her area in December 1856.

On December 13, Wallace wrote that her husband went to their farm in the county and that it had been raining all that day. On his return home she stated, "The accounts he brings back are truly awful. all the negroes in the neighborhood implicated[.] The leading negro in each family was to kill their owners wives and children the young girls to be made wives of. no exaggeration of imagination or language can equal reality. Such are the confessions. all agreeing in the same thing though examined apart[.] what heart rending scenes would have been enacted had their scheme been put in execution. The time had not yet arrived when their plan was to be put in effect. Christmas was the time set apart.. The punishments inflicted to extract information are terrible. But the occasion requires it and there is no alternative." It is thought provoking that Wallace wrote about the "punishments inflicted" in order gain confessions. Is it possible that the slaves confessed in order to stop the tortures inflicted upon them? She says they were questioned separately but had the same information. Is it possible that the slaves knew the information through their informal "grapevine" network, rather than being a part of the plan?

That evening she turned her thoughts to other concerns briefly by saying that she "did not attend Sabbath school" that morning, but quickly came back to the most pressing news. "we have heard no news today yet I have strong suspicious of one of our maids Coraline[.] I may do her injustice but I think her in the plot heart and soul." Was Wallace being paranoid or insightful? "Our negroes on the plantation it is said are implicated to what extent we have yet to learn the poor creatures have no doubt been instigated to such dreadful intentions by friends in the shape of white men." It never ceases to amaze me that slaveholders could switch at the drop of a hat from being fearful of the dangers slaves could bring to them, but in the next second call them "poor creatures." Similarly, slaveholders so misunderstood their chattels' ability to be agents of insurrection without the prompting of a white instigator-as if being a slave was not reason enough to rise up and strike for liberty. They believed that slaves were too ignorant to construct and carry out a detailed plan without the help of white friends.

On December 17, Ellen wrote her slave "Elijah has been implicated. is before the committee. I don't know what they will do with him. I hope he will be cleared. I doubt his innocence [?] he is fond of bad association. I was in great passion with my maid Coraline also this morning. The negroes have got to such a pitch of impudence that farther forbearance is degrading to the whites and a serious disadvantage to the servant." Two days later Wallace mentioned that the neighborhood was still in alarm and that the safety committees were still making investigations. Her slaves Elijah and William confessed during an interrogation that back in November a black preacher had taken up an offering in order to buy arms and ammunition. These meetings were held during times that overseers and masters were not present. She said "I hear of executions [of slaves] every day or two." She ended the day's entry by explaining that she is seriously thinking of finding another cook as her's [Coraline] was not obeying and "neither was she brisk or handy."

 These slave insurrections and rumors of uprisings turned the slaveholders' world upside down. They didn't know who they could trust or if they would awake in the morning. It must have been an extremely stressful situation for both master and slave and I am sure brought out the worst in both. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Have you ever waited and anticipated for a movie to premier and then finally gone to see it only to leave the theater a little disappointed and wanting more? Well, that is kind of how I felt about Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder by Civil War Memory blog author Kevin Levin.

As a youth, few battles captivated my imagination like the Crater. The audacity of the plan - to blow a hole in the Confederate line by digging under it and then packing the mine with gun powder - was the stuff a ten year old boy wishes he could recreate in miniature. The fact that plan did not ultimately work really was beside the point to me at the time. I wanted to know more, and, my then ever-ready reference book, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton, provided little assistance. It only mentioned that at the last minute USCT soldiers were "replaced by war-weary white troops." There was no mention that a whole division of those USCTs did in fact go into the battle and that a number were killed and beaten after they surrendered or attempted to surrender.

That last point, in fact, is Levin's point in writing the book. He contends, and correctly so, that until relatively recently the role of the USCTs at the Crater and their harsh treatment during and after the battle has been largely ignored in the public's memory of the fight.

If one searches "Battle of the Crater" on Amazon.com, at least eight books quickly appear, a number of which were written in the last few years. So, when I first heard about this book on Levin's blog I was happy to see someone finally exploring this perspective of the battle since so much has been written solely on the military aspects of this particular engagement. What drew me to the book was that Levin chose to focus on how the Battle of the Crater has been remembered, particularly in public history. But, I think to do that to the best effect, more needs to be told about those atrocities that occurred in the battle and also what coverage they received at the time. For example, I remember reading in another book that at one point in the battle a Confederate soldier was so incensed by having to fight African Americans that when he captured a USCT soldier he used his ramrod to brutally beat the black man. This act of whipping a man viewed as an inferior is symbolically significant and would have added to an understanding to why the Confederate soldiers reacted the way they did at the Crater, but this tragic account and others like it, which I think would have added to the story, are left out. And, while Levin does touch upon the subject of antebellum slave insurrections and their relation to the atrocities at the Crater, in my opinion this fascinating connection is not explored enough in the text. Too bad.

Another personal disappointment is that the author seems to stray from the Crater itself and focuses more often on a history of memory at the Petersburg National Battlefield (PNB). In one sense this may seem like splitting hairs since the Crater is indeed part of the PNB, but that is my point, it is only part of the PNB, and in my opinion the author probably should have stayed closer to the subject of the title. Surely there are enough accounts/sources specifically on the Crater's wartime and postwar story to provide a fuller telling from the Confederate, white Union and USCT soldiers that were there. For instance, pension records perhaps would allow the telling of more soldiers stories like USCT Louis E. Martin, who was vividly depicted on page 22.

Perhaps I am being too critical of what is not in the book rather than what is presented. But I personally think that much more could have been examined and discussed on this fascinating topic as the book only covers 140 pages of text and includes over 20 illustrations.

So to sum up this reader's impressions: I was happy to see this book's subject explored and published, I only wish the coverage would have gone deeper and more direct context provided . On a scale from 1 to 5 I give Remembering the Crater: War as Murder a 3.5.    

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Over the past ten to fifteen years regional studies on slavery have proliferated and thus brought a better understanding of how geography, climate and different crops affected how the institution was practiced.

Due to cotton's extensive growth in the antebellum South, those studies have dominated the histories, but with increasing regularity the upper-South and other previously somewhat ignored areas are finally getting their just attention.

So, enters The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820-1860, by Richard Follett. This book  looks at a different kind of slavery; one that due to the processes necessary for growing and then refining its crop developed into an "agro-industrial" empire that used up its labor force at an alarming rate and increased demand for more.

The very nature of the labor that sugar cane growing, cultivation and processing demanded required a different type of worker than that of the cotton kingdom. Whereas cotton growers used males and females on a general somewhat equal basis to plant, hoe and pick cotton, sugar masters preferred a more male dominated workforce in order to handle the extreme physical demands of the work. In highest demand by the sugar masters were young male slaves of impressive height and size; these men brought the highest prices on the market and made up the vast majority of sugar plantation workers.

As America moved into the steam age the sugar masters moved with it. They expended huge amounts of capital to update their processing and refining equipment in order to produce more sugar and thus more profit, which was then spent on more slaves, more land and better equipment. This industrial efficiency had dire results on the workforce. Slaves were worked to their endurable limits and beyond, especially in cutting season - which had to be done before the first frost hit or the crop would be less valuable - and during the refining process.

In order to gain even more labor from their slave workers, masters often offered remunerated "overwork." When slave work was done for the day, either by gang or task assignments, slaves could earn extra benefits by doing additional labor such as draining swamps, cutting timber as fuel for steam production, erecting fences and growing grain crops or animals that were then sold to the master or other neighboring whites. Masters usually either kept log of overwork and rewarded the laborers with gifts, or sometimes they had plantation stores, where slaves could redeem their overwork credit for goods; not too unlike the sharecropping that would come about after the Civil War. While this practice did allow slaves the opportunity to improve their standard of living on some levels, one has to wonder if they had any energy left to enjoy the fruits of their labor after working so hard for the master and then for themselves. In reality their overwork often only reinforced the master's paternalistic dominance and their subservience and dependency.

The Sugar Masters is a very well written and researched look into the lives of Louisiana's profit-minded owners and their exploited laborers. I highly recommend it to those that wish to better comprehend yet another style and form of slave labor that proved to be adaptable to geographic requirements in the South. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Kentucky Woman on 1856 Slave Insurrection Scare, Part I

I apologize for the limited number of posts this past week, but I have been quite busy at work with our annual educator-focused Kentucky History Education Conference (Thursday) and field study bus trip (Friday). I was very pleased with both events, but their planning and completion left me pretty much too exhausted to think...at least I'll use that as an excuse.

A few posts ago I shared an excerpt from George Browder's 1856 diary in which he recollected the slave insurrection scare in western Kentucky that winter. At least one other diarist conveyed the uncertainty and fears at that particular time as well.  Ellen Kenton McGaughey Wallace, whose extensive diary is at the Kentucky Historical Society too commented - in much more detail than Browder - about this incident.  Ellen Kenton McGaughey was born in 1821 to a prominent Christian County family and married in 1846 to Albert Wallace, a man twenty years older. The 1860 census lists Albert and Ellen owning forty slaves.

On December 3, 1856, Ellen wrote about general life and some personal family news but then mentioned "...the town and county in a great state of excitement on account of the Negroes a general insurrection is feared.. Ammunition has been sent to Clarksville [Tennessee] and the citizens are preparing for any sudden alarm." She mentions that her husband has armed himself that evening, "something very strange fro him to do. "One who has passed such and awful trial during cholera as I did should be able to meet any crisis." The next day she again started her entry with family news, but quickly followed up on the previous day's news. "...dreadful things are coming to pass seven or eight negroes hung. The jails of the neighboring towns as well as this are crowded with negroes suspected. some have confessed their intentions to rise and murder the whites and in a body gathering strength or the go to fight their way to a free state. the whole town county and adjoining counties are in a perfect state of agitation and under [?] patrol. Uncle Robert Hume and John are with us to night Alfred some better. I do not feel alarmed. the danger may be greater than I imagine."

After skipping a few days Ellen returned to her diary on December 8: "Sunday this has been a day of great anxiety to the citizens, committees have been examining the negroes and committing to jail. Uncle Robert Hume and John spent they day with us and are with us to night Alfred has some appearance of thrush and sore mouth. The news still fearful with regard to the negroes Old men look serious and women fear. I fear I shall never feel safe after this"

On December 11, Ellen wrote "there has been six negroes arrested in town today At Newstead they are also making arrest danger seems to be thick around there was to be a general rising on the 24 of Dec. 1856. The plan universally known and freely arrayed Gentlemen who caught it to scorn at first are now active in endeavoring to ward off danger. I only wish I had half dozen revolvers and the heart and hand to use them but I am easily frightened as a kitten. I disgrace my ancestry my mother was as brave and courageous as these or any times could require, her spirit was equal to any emergency. She shrank from no duty however perilous and such also was my beloved sister Harriet." The following day Ellen mentioned "this day a Negro was hung for killing his overseer the excitement grows stronger and stronger had not the plot been discovered the region of country would have flowed with blood." There seems to have been a rumor floating that "White men who had fought in the Mexican War laid the plan and provided arms and ammunition for the negroes." Committees of the most able citizens in every neighborhood and town have been sitting for day to day making investigations and the disclosures are truly fearful"

The swift action on the part of citizens' committees and the efforts and desires of whites to arm themselves in defense against slave aggression shows how serious these threats were taken. Fascinating too is the belief that white men (Mexican War veterans) were the architects of the insurrection and thus the slaves were incapable of organizing such a plot.

A follow up post will continue to illustrate the fears expressed during this scare.

Ellen's 1856 part of the diary can be found online at:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Revelation of a Revolution

While reading This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place the author used a source to illustrate the long road home many Confederates had to take after the surrender. I had this read this specific account a number of year's back and fortunately I owned the book it came from: One of Cleburne's Command: The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Grandbury's Texas Brigade, CSA, so I can share it here.

On Foster's 1500 mile trip back to to Texas from Greensboro, North Carolina, he stopped in Greeneville, Tennessee. Greeneville was the hometown of then President Andrew Johnson and had been a Unionist stronghold in Union sympathizing East Tennessee.

On May 17, 1865, Foster noted:
"Traveled about 12 miles and stopped at 11AM 2 miles from Greenville [sic] E. [East] T. [Tennnessee] where we expect to take the RR for Nashville (if the authorities will take us).

We are near a Yankee camp, and their officers are about our camp all talking freely and friendly with us. The feeling among our men is to go home and go to work and build up the country again, and have peace once more in the land.

After resting we pass through Greenville, and the house where Andy Johnson worked at the Tailors trade is pointed out to us. Also the house were Genl [John Hunt] Morgan was sleeping when the Yanks charged the house, from whence he fled to the Gardern where he was killed by them. As we came into town we passed through a negro soldiers camp or rather we pass near it -

They come out to the road to see us, and litterally [sic] line each side of the road.

Our men begin to make sport of them.

One man [Confederate soldier] wants a candle, 'Says it is so dark he can't see'. Another says 'If he owned all that gang of negroes he would put them to a better use' - One negro says - 'You used to be de top rail, but whar is you now' - Another says 'I used to be in de cotton patch hoin cotton, and now where am I.' - That kind of nonsense was going on while we were on the march along the road, and about the last of them was an old negro with a stove pipe hat on, with the mark of a Corporal on his coat. He says to the younger negroes who were talking so impudent to us - says he 'You'd better mind what you'se about, if one of dem dar white men gits hold on yer - dey will wear you off to a frazle. One o'dem will whip 5 or 6 of you if he catch you out o'sight.' Then shaking his head kinder knowingly at them 'Says you mind what yer unkle Joe is er sayin' fur I knose what ise talking 'bout.'"

This account is an interesting turn of events and shows to some extent the racial change that took place as the war progressed and then ended. While the Southerners were still comfortable to degrade African Americans - even armed soldiers - the black men felt confident enough to give as good as they took. The older corporal though would have none of it and sought to take a more deferential stance toward the defeated Confederates.

On May 18 Foster and his group were still in Greeneville, but he explained that "there has not been a negro seen near our camp yet." The black soldiers were on guard in Greeneville, but apparrently Foster and his men went about their business "without being molested by them."

The next day, the 19th, was in my opinion, the most fascinating entry of his post-war accounts. After a battle of Union and Confederate bands, in which apparently the Southerners got that last say, Foster got his first sight of black children being educated. "I saw some negro children going to school this morning, for the first time in my life. In fact I never hear of such a thing before, nor had such a thing ever crossed my mind. - I stoped a little negro girl about 12 years old dressed neat and clean, going to school with her books - I asked her to let me see what she was studying - She pulled out a 4th Reader a Grammer Arithmetic and a Geography - I opened the Grammer about the middle of the book and asked her a few questions - which she answered very readily and correctly. Same with her Geography and Arithmetic. I never was more surprised in my life! The idea was new to me.

I asked her who was her teacher. She said 'a lady from the north.'

I returned to camp and think over what I have seen. I can see that all the negro children will be educated the same as the white children are. That the present generation will live and die in ignorance, as they have done heretofore - I can see that our white children will have to study hard, and apply themselves closely, else they will have to ride behind, and let the negro hold the reins - I can see that the next generation will find lawyers doctors preachers, school teachers farmers merchants & c divided some white and some black, and the smartest man will succeed without regard to his color. If the negro lawyer is more successful than the white one then the negro will get the practice.

The color will not be so much in the future as knowledge. The smartest man will win - in every department of life. Our children will have to contend for the honors in life against the negro in the future - They will oppose each other as lawyers in the same case. They will oppose each other as mechanics, carpenters, house builders, blacksmith, silver and gold smiths shoemakers, saddle makers &c.

And the man that is the best mechanic lawyer, doctor or teacher &c will succeed."

I have to wonder when Foster would have come to this revelation if he had not run into that African American school girl in Greeneville, Tennessee. Would he have remained blind to the changes wrought by four years of terrible war? Regardless, of whether he would have or when he would have; he did. The light hit him that without the bonds of slavery, "The color will not be so much in the future as knowledge."  That's quite a revelation in 1865. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Every once in a while I pull a book off the shelf that has been there for years and wonder why I hadn't read it earlier. Such was the case with This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place. I bought this book over ten years ago and for some reason never got around to reading it until a couple of days ago.

We all know that Appomattox has long received the credit - however incorrectly - for ending the war, but Bennett Place probably has the more intriguing story; at least author Mark Bradley certainly makes a convincing case for it being so.

In This Astounding Close, the story of Sherman's veterans and bummers and Johnston's diehard Confederates finally get the coverage they deserve as they traveled from the Battle of Bentonville (March 19-21) until the final surrender agreement...and even beyond. Bradley makes good use of various perspectives to tell this not so well known episode of the Civil War. Of course, leading military figures such as Sherman and Johnston come in for their fair share of treatment, but so do lesser known individuals such as Union Major Henry Hitchcock and Confederate Major Joseph Cumming. Civilians caught between the armies such as Cornelia Phillips Spencer and University of North Carolina president David Swain also figure into the picture. African American chaplain Henry M. Turner's accounts provide a look into how the black soldiers experienced the end of the war here as well. Bradley's depth of research sources is quite impressive.

The telling of Sherman and Johnston's meetings would have been interesting on their own their own merit, but Bradley's writing makes them even more so. Few people outside of Civil War enthusiasts probably know that the first surrender agreement between the two generals was unaccepted by the Washington authorities and that it had be redrafted along the same lines as Grant and Lee's surrender at Appomattox because Sherman's terms were viewed as far too lenient. It was interesting to learn about the bad blood that developed between Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Chief of Staff Henry Halleck because of the surrender retraction incident. Bradley argues quite convincingly though that Johnston negotiated the surrender from a position of strength that Lee didn't have with Grant at Appomattox.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those interested in the Western Theater. It would be incomplete to study the Shilohs, Chickamaugas and Atlantas without knowing what happens to the cast of personalities on this their final stage. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give This Astounding Close a 4.75.      

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Slave Poet of Chapel Hill

Another fascinating story that was included in Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves was that of George Moses Horton, who belonged to a Chatham County, North Carolina master. This master leased Horton out to earn extra money and many times the educated slave worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill writing poems and compositions for students for pay. In 1829, with the help of some white benefactors Horton published a book of poetry, The Hope of Liberty, desiring to earn enough money to buy his freedom. His dream proved failure though and Horton had to wait for the end of the Civil War to gain his liberty. Here is one of his beautiful poems:

The Slave's Complaint

Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune's rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride
For ever?

Must I dwell in Slavery's night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,
For ever?

Worst of all, must Hope grow dim,
And withhold her cheering beam?
Rather let me sleep and dream
For ever!

Something still my heart surveys,
Groping through this dreary maze;
Is it Hope? - then burn and blaze
For ever!

Leave me not a wretch confined,
Altogether lame and blind - 
Unto gross despair consigned,
For ever!

Heaven! in whom can I confide?
Canst thou not for all provide?
Condescend to be my guide
For ever:

And when this transient life shall end,
Oh, may some kind, eternal friend
Bid me from servitude ascend,
For ever!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Milo Thompson Writes a Letter to His Lover

I preface this post by saying that I am not a big fan of speculative history, but at times one has to infer based on the information available. This week I finished reading a great little book titled Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves, which was edited by the late Robert S. Starobin.

While I don't think it is necessary to do a book review on a collection of letters, I think I would be negligent if I didn't share a few of the gems from the book.

One that stuck me as quite interesting was written on October 15, 1834 from Harrodsburg and came presumably from the pen from a Kentucky slave named Milo Thompson. The letter was written in Harrodsburg, Kentucky and was intended for a Miss Louisa Bethley. The letter comes from the collection of the letters of James Gillespie Birney, and the noted abolitionist and future Liberty Party candidate for president in 1840, is referenced in the missive.

By doing a little searching I found that Birney apparently freed his slaves the same year this letter was written. And perhaps Milo Thompson foreshadowed the fate of Mr. Birney. In the letter Milo wrote:

"I have got greatly disappointed in my expectations on next Saturday. I will be compelled to disappoint you at that time but I regret it very much. Master says I must put it off a little longer, until he can see farther into the matter. he says probably Mr. Birney may break up house keeping or something of the kind and he dont know what may become of you, for that reason we must defer it a little longer. I will come up and see you shortly and then we will make some arrangements about it. it is with great reluctance that I put it off any longer, but I am compelled to do it owing to the circumstances I have related. I shall remain your affectionate lover until death."

Was Milo Thompson preparing to marry Miss Louisa Bethley?  Was the marriage called off by Thompson's master? What does his master mean when he says "Mr. Birney may break up house keeping or something?" Is that a reference to Birney's antislavery work and a foreshadowing indication that he would later the next year be asked to take his abolitionist sentiments and plans to print an antislavery newspaper in Danville to Ohio? Did Milo write this letter or did his master write it for him? It would not be impossible, but would seem somewhat strange for a slave to be so literate and use such varied vocabulary words such as "defer," "arrangements," "reluctance," "circumstances," and "affectionate." What happened to Milo and Louisa?

What seems to be for sure is that Milo Thompson does not want to delay whatever it is he wants to do, whether it be marriage or something else, any longer, but is compelled to do so by the will of his master. Thompson knows he ultimately will have little say in the matter. To me, that is what was so terrible about slavery. Perhaps Thompson's master was kind and treated him well, well, to me, that's not the issue. The issue is that Milo Thompson was unable to make a "pursuit of happiness." He was not allowed to make a decision that he clearly felt was in his best interest and would make him content.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

Thursday, July 5, 2012

General Orders No. 59

On July 16, 1864, Union Major General Stephen Gano Burbridge issued General Orders No. 59 from the headquarters of the District of Kentucky in Lexington. The order was an attempt to curb the violent guerrilla actions that the Commonwealth had been experiencing. In reality, its issuance and prosecution may have caused more problems than it cured. It read:

"The rapid increase in this district of the lawless bands of armed men engaged in interrupting railroad and telegraphic communications, plundering and murdering peaceful Union Citizens, destroying the mails, &c., calls for the adoption of stringent measures on the part of the military authorities for their suppression. Therefore, all guerrillas, armed prowlers, by whatever name they may be known, and rebel sympathizers are hereby admonished that in future stern retaliatory measures will be adopted and strictly enforced, whenever the lives or property of peaceful citizens are jeopardized by the lawless acts of such men. Rebel sympathizers living within five miles of any scene of outrage committed by armed men, not recognized as public enemies by the rules and usages of war, will be arrested and sent beyond the limits of the United States, in accordance wit instructions from the major-general commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi. So much of the property of rebel sympathizers as may be necessary to indemnify the Government or loyal citizens for losses incurred by the acts of such lawless men will be seized and appropriated for this purpose. Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered four guerrillas will be selected from the prisoners in the hands of the military authorities and publicly shot to death in the most convenient place near the scene of outrage."

Burbridge's order was carried out on more than one occasion as will be shown in future posts. The order, when enacted, was viewed by conservative Kentuckians as overbearing and unnecessary hard-handedness on the part of the federal government and Burbridge, a native Kentuckian. Along with Lincoln administration measures such as the Emancipation Proclamation, enlistment of African American Union soldiers and other crack downs like General Orders 59, white Kentuckians slid further and further away from their once beloved sense of Unionism.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I am on quite the roll with my selection of reading material of late. Everything I seem to pick up and read I find well written and very informative. My latest read certainly didn't disturb the trend.

Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky & Missouri, by Maryville (TN) College professor Aaron Astor is all that I had been anticipating since finding out about its then forthcoming release this past spring.

In Rebels on the Border, Astor covers so much ground so well, it is difficult choose a place to begin. So, let's start chronologically. Astor provides excellent context to help the reader understand why the slaveholding border states of Kentucky and Missouri chose the direction they did in the Civil War. A lot of the similarity between the two states in politics, economy, agriculture and society has to do with lateral migration. Simply put, many Kentuckians migrated to Missouri. As they did, they naturally brought their understanding of things with them.

Slavery was one important thing that both states shared, but it was not simply slavery, but a similar system of slavery.  Both states' slaveholders for the most part held small numbers of slaves and produced similar crops such as grains, tobacco and hemp. And, although at the outbreak of the war Kentucky had a much larger population of slaves than her sister state to the west, the main areas that Astor concentrates on - the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and "Little Dixie" of central Missouri - were close in demographics.

Astor contends that Kentucky and Missouri rejected secession in large part due to tradition and order. He writes, "If one ideal characterized late antebellum border state life more than any other, it was the desire for order - social, economic, racial, and ultimately political order. The thirst for order in a region challenged by both abolitionism and secessionism stood as the central pillar to antebellum upper South social thought. It would trump all concerns about sectional honor in the ensuing crisis, revealing a population that embraced slavery and Union..."  These two border states to a large degree viewed the Confederacy as shaky ground, a fledgling government without the stability that the Union had delivered over decades of agitation on the slavery question. Astor quotes a Bourbon County Kentuckian who explained that his fellow Bluegrass brethren would never submit to secession. "They [Kentuckians] love order, peace and freedom, and these priceless blessings can be secured only by sustaining the Union, the Constitution and the laws."

Astor's study focuses on the evolution of African Americans in these border states too. He argues that due to the upheaval of war blacks sought out ways to turn their methods of resistance during slavery into ways to have a political say after freedom came. He writes, "Before most black Kentucky or Missouri soldiers fired their guns for the Union army, the system of slavery had collapsed in many parts of the slave-rich Little Dixie and Bluegrass regions. Guerrilla rebels against Unionism colluded, ironically, with black rebels against conservatism to usher out the social and political order that had prevailed for decades in the border states. Only through complete social revolution and a veritable race war between 1864 and 1866 would the border states confront and create a new social and political order."

Understanding these issues then, it is not difficult to see how many people in these border states migrated from a Unionist sympathy to a more Confederate outlook in the last years of war and into Reconstruction and beyond. Upheavals such as the Emancipation Proclamation, enlistment of black soldiers and the usurpation of state laws by the federal government went a long way toward destabilizing these border states citizens' worlds.

The stories that Astor uncovered to tell the Reconstruction story in these two regions are fascinating and tragic. The violent degree to which Kentuckians and Missourians sought to maintain social, economic and political control despite legislative enactments such as the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments are disturbing to us today, but to whites in those areas at that time they were seen as viable and justifiable attempts to maintain that ordered society that had been so important to them for generations.

I highly recommend Rebels on the Border to those who wish to understand the crucial and unique place that the border states of Kentucky and Missouri played in the Civil War era. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a full 5!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Kentucky Master Recounts 1856

On New Year's Eve 1856, slave owner George Browder of Logan County, Kentucky recounted his thoughts on the year just past in his diary. His recollections of the year included a significant amount of comment on his slaves and the insurrection scare that has gripped his region earlier that year.

"This year I have had trouble with my negroes. Poor Ann always perverse, insolent, illnatured, behaved so badly, that I yielded to her wishes & her husband's request & sold her - offering him the privilege of going, which he declined - & in mercy to him & his little boy I kept them here intending to take good care of them & treat them kindly - but Isaac quarreled I think unjustly with Ellen a very good woman and requested to be sold not wishing to stay with her. I promised to gratify him & having received a letter from the owner of his wife, requesting me to sell him Isaac to be with his wife - & Isaac being willing to go, I wrote to Mr. Villine to come and get him and Peter.

This winter will be long remembered on account of the great excitement throughout the South in consequence of the discovering a plot among the negroes to murder their owners & escape to free states. Several negroes have been hung at the iron works, some at Pembroke near Hopkinsville & some at Gallatin Ten[nessee]. Many people are buying guns & revolvers & threatening to shoot the poor negroes on very trifling pretexts. Some negroes - Billy Smith & Peter Newton were sent to jail from Volney charged with plotting to kill capt Hawkins & family. Many think that Bill will be hung. Several negro preachers have been implicated & there is a growing prejudice against them - their religious meetings will be broken up & their liberties otherwise restricted. Poor unfortunate creatures! to be deluded in to such a futile effort."

From the Heavens are Weeping: The Diaries of George R. Browder 1852-1886, edited by Richard Troutman, 1987.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Wow! What an amazing story! I have read a number of slave narratives over the years, but Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup is by far the best account so far. Reading any amount of slave studies, it is almost impossible to not find references to Northup's story, however a true appreciation for it can not be formed without reading it in total.

Several reasons make Twelve Years A Slave a remarkable book. First, it is an amazing story told well. The circumstances of free man of color Northup's fated kidnapping, transportation to New Orleans and then purchase by a kind master and then by two harsh masters is captivating and tragic all at the same time.

Secondly, Northup provides a detailed insight on the enslaved experience in Louisiana like few other narratives. For example, his explanation of slave diets, runaways and cotton and sugar cultivation give the reader an intimate look of slavery in a region where it was considered to be the worst.

Thirdly, Northup wrote his account very soon after his rescue, so the details are clear and his experiences are backed up with documentation provided in the appendix lest one should doubt his incredible tale.

One particular aspect of Northup's account I found especially intriguing was his mention of insurrections. Being born a free man he had known liberty - to not have to answer to another man - and to make decisions for oneself. But, upon being enslaved, he desired a return to freedom as much as his slave-mates that had never breathed the air of freewill. On the ship voyage from Washington D.C., - where he had been drugged and then sold - enroute to the New Orleans market, he contemplated insurrection with a fellow slave. "Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly. Until they have been chained and beaten - until they find themselves in the situation I was, borne away from home and family towards a land of bondage - let them refrain from saying what they would not do for liberty." Once located on a cotton plantation in Louisiana, Northup again mentioned the proclivity of slaves to consider an uprising. "Such an idea as insurrection, however is not new among the enslaved population of Bayou Boeuf. More than once I have joined in serious consultation, when the subject had been discussed, and there have been times when a word from me would have placed hundreds of my fellow-bondsmen in an attitude of defiance. Without arms or ammunition, or even with them, I saw such a step would result in certain defeat, disaster and death, and always raised my voice against it." He continued later that, "They [proslavery proponents] are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come - it will come, if his prayer is heard - a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy."

I don't want to give away the story, and as an encouragement for you to read the book, I will not go into detail on how Northup was rescued and returned to freedom, but I will say it continues his amazing story.

I can't recommend Twelve Years A Slave enough. On a scale of 1 to 5, I have to give it a full 5. On a side note: Northup's story was made into a TV movie for American Playhouse in 1984. In it Northup was played by Avery Brooks.  And, it appears that Twelve Years A Slave will be released as a feature film in 2013 starring such notables as Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup.