Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Virtue of Cain

You say you don't know much about Reconstruction? Not to worry! There is an ever-growing list of books and documentaries focusing on this vital era of United States history. However, once people dive into Reconstruction, they sometimes get bogged down in concepts and terms like Presidential Reconstruction vs. Congressional Reconstruction plans, Black Codes, constitutional amendments, carpetbaggers, scalawags, and backroom compromises, too often forgetting about the people most impacted by all of these measures.

In my humble opinion, the true story of Reconstruction is that of those individuals who desperately tried to hold on to the changes wrought by the Civil War. And although in many ways they were initially unsuccessful against the violent backlash of white supremacy, their legacy provided roots for the long Civil Rights Movement. One of those individuals who found himself in the heat of Reconstruction was Lawrence Cain. If you have not heard of Lawrence Cain before, you are likely among the majority. But his story is a fascinating and inspiring one of long odds, many disappointments, yet persistence and internal fortitude. Fortunately, his story is now available for all to read about. Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator - Biography of Lawrence Cain by Kevin M. Cherry, Sr. examines an extraordinary life lived under extremely difficult circumstances.

Cherry, a descendant of Cain, happened upon his ancestor's story largely by accident. In the generations between Cain and Cherry, family members were able to relocate geographically and pass as white, virtually erasing their African American heritage and sometimes adopting a Native American interpretation of their family lineage. Extensive research and DNA testing told the truth, though.

Lawrence Cain was born about 1844 in Edgefield District (later county), South Carolina to a white father and enslaved mother. Edgefield is as Old South as Old South gets. It produced Preston Brooks, the antebellum congressman who beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the senate floor in 1856. Edgefield was also home to later-day segregationists like "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman and Strom Thurman. Lawrence Cain's biological father was likely Dr. S. V. Cain. Dr. Cain died at a young 49 years old in 1858 and Lawrence Cain was sold along with the rest of Dr. Cain's estate. Lawrence was purchased by Z. W. Carwile.

One of the things that I especially enjoyed about Virtue of Cain was Cherry's inclusion of historical events as supporting evidence of white southern sentiments. For example, during this chapter on Lawrence Cain's early life, Cherry shares a couple of fascinating quotes from speeches made by S. V. Cain in 1856 (after the Brooks-Sumner incident) and Samuel McGowan (future Confederate general). McGowan said in part: "The great question out of which rise the convulsions that disturb and shake the country as with an earthquake, is the question of African Slavery, in which our destinies are bound up forever. In comparison with this there is no other question worth attention."

When Z. W. Carwile's son, Thomas, went of to fight in the Civil War, Lawrence Cain went with him as a camp servant in the 14th South Carolina Infantry, which first served in Maxy Gregg's brigade, but after Gregg's death at Fredericksburg, Virginia, ended up commanded by Samuel McGowan. Incidentally, McGowan's Brigade was camped for about 6 months (October 1864-March 1865) where I work, Pamplin Historical Park, so Lawrence Cain was likely walking the same ground I see almost everyday. In the last days of the Petersburg Campaign, McGowan's men were pulled out and sent to a threatened sector a few miles away. Sometime in the last days of fighting, Lawrence Cain was wounded in the leg. Admitted to a City Point, Virginia, Union hospital, Cain recovered and returned to South Carolina.

Almost immediately Cain dedicated himself to the improvement of African Americans. He started a school and taught there. Again, as before, Cherry sprinkles in period newspaper accounts that reference Cain and which add significantly to his story's telling. Cain also founded a church for blacks, and soon entered Reconstruction state politics as a Republican. With a black majority population, and after ratification of the 15th amendment, political offices were claimed by black men in Edgefield, and other similar South Carolina counties. However, the black political rise was relatively short lived as white supremacists such as former Confederate cavalry officers Martin W. Gary and Matthew C. Butler led counter terrorist activities that severely curtailed black voting, but not before Lawrence Cain had served in the South Carolina state senate, served as Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue, and accomplished a tremendous amount for his constituents.

Lawrence Cain died of tuberculosis in 1884, being only about 40 years old. However, what he was able to accomplish, although forgotten by many over the years, lived on and inspired future generations of both black and white South Carolinians who continued Cain's quests for freedom and equality.

Well researched, and written in an engaging style, which includes a number of primary sources, Virtue of Cain is an important book, about an important man, who lived in a difficult and dangerous but important period. I believe that everyone would benefit from reading Virtue of Cain. I highly recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment