Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

Podcast review: 1865

Since returning to Indiana, I’ve gotten more interested in Civil War history than I ever thought I would. In the mid-19th century, Indianapolis was apparently an up and coming town and Indiana a strong supporter of the Union (though arguably there were lots of divided families, especially in the southern end of the state). Historical sites in the state often hark back to Civil War days with some general or colonel in the family fighting in the Union Army.

In any case, given that experience and my interest in history, I was clearly primed as the target audience for the podcast 1865.

1865 is a serial podcast with a clear beginning and ending date given the subject matter: the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Think you know all about it? Well, probably not actually. At least I didn’t realize that Lincoln wasn’t the only intended target. Or that originally the plot wasn’t assassination but kidnapping Lincoln to demand the exchange for Confederate soldiers. Or, well, any number of points.

Rather than a rehash of facts or history, the episodes alternate between traditional radio dramas and a discussion about what was fact and dramatic license in the previous episode.

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is the central figure in this retelling of the time from Lincoln’s assassination through the conviction of the Lincoln Conspirators. Three final episodes are devoted to Booth. While some items, like private conversations, are conjecture, everything is based as much as possible on primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.). It is a fascinating look at a moment of crisis in our country’s history and dispels the tidy myths we were taught about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the assassination.

My only wish was that the serial did not need to end. Or that the assassination never happened. What if Lincoln lived and Andrew Johnson, a racist southern Democrat hadn’t ascended to the presidency? Would Reconstruction have been different? Would the scars from slavery still be so prominent and fresh even now?

Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.

Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

Carnegie Center for Art and History

After stopping by the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany, Indiana, I wandered down the road, closer to the center of town. I was looking for the Carnegie Center for Art and History.

New Albany was one of those towns in the US that was the recipient of Andrew Carnegie’s largesse. As is often the case (but not always), Americans particularly in the late 19th century who made ungodly amounts of money on the backs of fellow Americans often became philanthropists (to assuage their guilt? to refurbish their reputations?). Out of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built throughout the world, 164 were in Indiana.

The Carnegie library in New Albany served as the city library until 1969 and then as a local museum. Finally in 1998, the building morphed into its present incarnation as a center for art and history.

As I entered the building, I saw people hard at work revamping the two front galleries for upcoming exhibits. Never fear. All was not lost. The galleries may have been between exhibitions but the permanent exhibitions were still around…quite detailed and well done.

The first permanent exhibition I saw was Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men & Women of the Underground Railroad. The exhibition brings together statistics and human faces with bios, newspaper articles, quotes, and stories. At the end is an interactive display where you can dive deeper into certain topics. I could have easily spent an hour digesting all of the information on the interactive display.

As much as you think you know about the slave trade, the struggle of abolition, or the Underground Railroad, this exhibition will disabuse you of that notion.

The exhibition starts with a chronology of events and laws, a very sobering reminder of how the country was founded on slavery and how profoundly the rule of law upheld this “peculiar institution”. A Dutch trader, who robbed a Spanish ship of its human cargo in 1619, was the first to bring Africans to what would become the US. These kidnapped Africans would first be indentured, but by the 1660s, laws existed that defined slavery.

Jefferson’s famous Declaration of Independence in 1776 called out King George for “exciting domestic insurrection”. I never really thought about what “exciting domestic insurrection” meant. King George, Jefferson and our political forefathers argued, was encouraging slaves and free blacks to rise up and fight on the side of the British against their American masters.

In 1787, the Constitution contained three provisions that established the legal framework for the protection of the institution of slavery. In the same year, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north and west of the Ohio River. And the race to our collective schizophrenia about slavery was on.

The 1793 Federal Fugitive Slave Law made it a crime to aid or harbor slaves and it allowed owners or agents to apprehend runaway slaves. In 1843, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania weakened this law. The courts ruled that law enforcement officers could not be punished if they refused to help apprehend runaway slaves. (Anyone hearing echoes of our current situation about the federal government trying to force local and state authorities to aid in the apprehending of illegal immigrants?) In 1850, Congress reacted to this judgment with the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, which overturned a 1842 law; law officials MUST help apprehend runaway slaves.

Indiana was equally schizophrenic. Although slaves existed in the Northwest Territory as people moved to the area (even though the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery), Indiana’s first constitution in 1816 prohibited slavery. The territorial governor Harrison argued for slavery (he owned some), but others in southern Indiana who were advocating for statehood were opposed to slavery. Blacks though were by no means welcome in the state. Article 13 of the 1851 state constitution prohibited blacks in Indiana.

The exhibition quotes and highlights numerous people important in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana, focusing on the New Albany area. New Albany is situated on the banks of the Ohio River, ground zero for slaves escaping the south. Even though Indiana was technically a free state, inhabitants on the banks of the Ohio River were vehemently divided on the issue of slavery. And slaves were not free or out of danger once they reached the Hoosier side of the river. The Underground Railroad snaked through Indiana, taking escaping slaves to places further north and into Canada.

Although I knew of Levi Coffin, the President of the Underground Railroad, who was situated on the Eastern border with Ohio mid-way up the state, I was not familiar with names of people involved in the slavery debate (pro or anti), or of escaped slaves, along the Ohio River. The names of people in the exhibition were unknown to me.

The peak of the Underground Railroad ran from 1850 to 1865, the end of the Civil War. The exhibition covers the Civil War era and immediate aftermath, listing the immediate post-Civil War amendments that gave African Americans rights (in theory) equal to whites: the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. (One slight error, which irked me: the exhibit explained that the 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote. It actually gave black MEN the right to vote.)

Next to this exhibition was a related one: Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols. This was a fascinating look into the life of one African American woman during the Civil War. Lucy was uniquely positioned; she was a slave with medical training, invaluable skills to have during a war.

Lucy attached herself to the 23rd Indiana Volunteers Infantry Regiment, originally cooking and doing laundry for them, and eventually using her medical training. Her invaluable help in saving their lives endeared her to the troops. She was one of them, included in reunions and made a member of GAR (Grand Army of the Republic). After her death on January 15, 2015, she was buried with military honors.

Unfortunately, she was originally denied a military pension. The 23rd Indiana fought for years to get her a military pension. The ironic situation was that she needed to have paperwork proving that she had worked as a nurse, but of course, in the situation of the time, there was no paperwork. The exhibition chronicles the years of letter writing by important people attempting to secure a pension for her.

It took an act of Congress decades after the Civil War to get her a petition. HR 4741, signed by President McKinley (1897-1901!), legislated that she was to receive $12 a month (= $325 in today’s dollars).

The Carnegie Art and History Center website includes a short video about Lucy on their website: http://www.carnegiecenter.org/remembered-life-lucy-higgs-nichols/

The third permanent exhibition was a small gallery of portraits by George Morrison (1820-1893). Morrison was the portrait artist of Indiana governors and a leading portrait painter in New Albany and the environs.

The Carnegie Art and History Center is a wonderful gem nestled in New Albany, Indiana. I expected art on my visit but not the rich historical exhibitions about slavery, the Underground Railroad in the area, or the experiences of a African American nurse in an Indiana regiment.