Cotton Prices–A Research Coup

Sometimes, small details trip you up, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You might find that the story demands a certain esoteric fact. You know all about this, that, and the other thing, but what you really need to know is the color of a particular bottle or the name of a very specific medicine: something super detailed but super important to the story.

You can either go hunting for the detail, or you can write around it.

As I wrote what I affectionately call The Prequel (even though its working title is The Cotton Wars and has been for a while now), I had a blast writing about the feud between the Daniels brothers. At one point, the price of cotton (by the bale, to be sold to factories) becomes important. Suffice it to say that Charles has a particular reason for wanting to sell his cotton harvest at a particular price, so he discusses it with his overseer-and-factor. He asks what the usual price is, then what the highest and lowest prices might be. But I didn’t have the least idea what the price of a cotton bale might have been in 1830. I could have cut out this discussion, or written around the numbers, but the scene was important and wouldn’t have the same impact without the numbers. So, as a place-holder, I plugged in my best guess–around a hundred dollars per bale–and told myself I would fact-check later.

Many moons later, I still had those numbers bolded as a reminder to myself to check them. I kept putting it off because I thought it would be a hard nut to crack. But this past weekend, I was reading a guide to Philadelphia (as some additional research for The Prequel) and found mention of the cost of storing cotton. This got my interest piqued, like a bloodhound on a scent. So I began to poke around Google Books, searching for “cotton” and “Savannah” (which is the port to which my characters, living on the Sea Islands, would have sent their cotton to be sold and shipped to factories in the North or in England).

And lo! I found what I was looking for: cotton prices! I was ecstatic.

What I found was in Niles’ Weekly Register, a newspaper that contained all sorts of shipping news from around the country and the world. There are fascinating details about ships being burned and confiscated, of prices of corn (and other commodities) rising and falling, and shipments of hats etc. coming into port.

The first bit of information I found was about a ship confiscated in 1814, 20151201_204510during the War of 1812. It was a very helpful start: The ship Victory was captured, including 464 bales of cotton at 300 pounds each, worth some
$41,760 (according to the article). Doing the math, that meant $90 per bale and $.30 per pound. This, however, was some fifteen years before my story, so I kept looking.

From April 1826, I found two helpful bits: At Charleston, upland cotton 20151201_204536bound for Liverpool would “not bear more than eleven cents per lb.” Keeping in mind that the cotton in my story would be the finest Sea Island cotton, the above means about $33 per bale. The second bit of information was that in New Orleans, the price was “from 8 cents ordinary, to 14 ‘fine'”, meaning that even the best cotton was selling for perhaps $42 per bale.

I had to ask myself, how could cotton be worth twice as much in 1814 as in 1826? I think this might have to do with the note in the 1814 article: the price they give is for cotton “clear of duties”. Meaning, this is before taxation. The two numbers20151201_204547 I got from 1826 might be after duties. The writer of Niles’ Review reckoned
that the duty on the entire cargo of the ship (including indigo, coffee, and wood) would be about $18,000, so no small sum.  I *believe* that is the solution here, though I’m still slightly uncertain. I’m guessing that it could partly be explained by natural fluctuations in prices. There is also the fact that the prices cited in 1826 were clearly not the good Sea Island stuff.

Another issue is the size of a bale of cotton. You’ll notice that I based my calculations on a bale of 300 pounds. Today, a standard bale is 500 pounds, but (no surprise) things weren’t as standard in the early 1800’s. The usual bale, apparently, was closer to 300 or 400 pounds, as evidenced by the statement above in Niles’ Review whereby the bales of cotton are reckoned at 300 pounds.

So, I had what I needed to put (accurate) words (or numbers) into my characters’ mouths. A bale of good cotton would be somewhere around $75 a bale, going with the number that’s closer to my date. For the best stuff, let’s say $100, for the rotten stuff, $50. These are rough numbers, based partly on the numbers above and partly on the fact that Sea Island cotton was better quality and worth much more than other cotton.

I wasn’t far off in my original guesses, especially given the slightly high number I found from 1814: I put the price of a bale of cotton at around $100 per bale.

So, that my friends, is a “day in the life” of a historical fiction writer…

Lincoln at Getysburg

One hundred and fifty two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood on a podium at a newly created national cemetery for those killed in the battle that had taken place four months earlier, in July. It was the largest battle to have ever taken place on American

Lincoln at Gettybsurg (he is slightly left and above center, with his head bare and slightly bowed). [Library of Congress]

Lincoln at Gettybsurg (he is slightly left and above center, with his head bare and slightly bowed). [Library of Congress]

soil, fought over three days and ending with over 50,000 casualties. His “few appropriate remarks” became some of the best-known words in the English language.

Then, the question was what these men had died for. Union? The Constitution? Freedom (and if so, whose)? One-hundred-fifty-two years later, people are still asking those questions and debating the root causes and the consequences of this momentous war.

When the Civil War began, most Northerners would have probably told you they were fighting for the Union. By the end of the war, most–though hardly all–might have said they were fighting for freedom. I bet that all the black soldiers would have said they fought for freedom–freedom for [all] the slaves. I’m sure all the black women wanted the same thing, though they couldn’t fight for it.

The Civil War was a reckoning for the sin of slavery, and a long-overdue one. It was the crisis point following several decades of unrest. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily evident to the people in the moment that this was a massive turning point. Sure, wars are always major events, but as Lincoln later said, both sides expected the war to have “a result less fundamental and astounding” than what it did. He was not the first to see that the war would become not just a war for union but for freedom, but he did see it by November of 1863. Though the Gettysburg is couched in heroic, transcendental terms, it isn’t too difficult to surmise what is meant by “the great cause”. Those who wanted to could comfortably interpret the cause as union, but this requires a kind of willful misreading (though it isn’t a reading that the politician Lincoln probably would have discouraged).

The clearest indication of this is the invocation of the Declaration of Independence. You know, the line about all men being created equal. For four-score-and-seven years, that promise had been hanging there, ringing with great possibility that was left unfulfilled (what Marin Luther King called a “blank check”). Lincoln was, again, not the first to see the almost limitless potential in that simple phrase, but he crystalized it into a pithy, moving, two-minutes speech:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It’s been said that we see the Declaration of Independence now the way that Abraham Lincoln wanted us to see it. He re-interpreted the meaning of the Declaration, challenging America to take it at face value–all men are created equal. In the decades before the war, it wasn’t read that way at all. It was read as meaning “white men”, or at least “most white men”. And besides, the Constitution was seen as the founding document. The Gettysburg Address recast the founding itself and articulated a new-old purpose for the United States: equality. We see the founding now through the prism of the Gettysburg Address. And all of that in 272 words.

Antebellum and Civil War Potpourri

I wanted to throw together a few fairly random Antebellum and Civil War thoughts and links.

First up, a link to a delightfully written blog post from The Slave Dwelling Project about a stay of Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation (I visited the plantation back in March). If you aren’t aware, the Slave Dwelling Project raises money for preservation of and awareness about slave dwellings and slave experiences. Volunteers spend a night (or longer) in dwellings that once housed enslaved people. Obviously, the circumstances are vastly different than when the slaves lived there, but that’s the point: the remembering and reflecting.

Here is the article about a stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield, which includes the story of a man named Sam:

You may notice that Butler Plantation is mentioned. It isn’t a positive mention in that the reference is to Pierce Butler and his financial problems (financial problems which forced him to sell off several hundred of his slaves, uprooting them and tearing them from their families). I visited Butler Island, where the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mill are still visible. What brought me to that part of Georgia, to see Butler Island and Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, was a memoir by Fanny Kemble: Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Fanny was an English actress who apparently didn’t realize the man she was marrying was the owner of a large plantation in Georgia. Her extraordinary recounting of her time there in the 1830’s caught my imagination, and eventually a novel was born: Channing (which snagged me representation by a literary agent). So, that’s a (far-too-long) explanation of why I so enjoyed this post.

Another thing I ran into this week: a short video via C-SPAN about Confederate flags. There was earlier in the year quite an uproar about Confederate flags (I wrote some of my own thought about it here), but not everyone was/is aware that what most people call the Confederate flag actually was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy. Here’s a full explanation (note: the link probably won’t be active forever): 

And last but not least, I was thinking recently about the following Lincoln quote, not very cogently or deeply. But it kept rattling around my mind like a pebble, as if modern politics–America in general–might all make sense if I could just tip my head a little further to the left–or right–and get that pebble to land in just the right spot. I might have to keep trying. There’s a lot of wisdom in these words, and they’re eerily prophetic. They were spoken in 1838, some twenty-three years before the nation nearly committed suicide:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? . . . All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Oh, one more thing, added after initial publication of this post: an interesting painting entitled The Lost Cause (with all the baggage THAT phrase carries!). It’s interesting in its romanticizing of the yeoman farmer turned Confederate soldier. In a more concrete way, it reminds me of a character I wrote about in a novella, an injured old Confederate soldier who meets a runaway slave and begins to change his tune about many things. The scene depicted in the painting is rather like the opening of the novella, when Hamilton Gray is returning to his burned out cabin and finds a few squatters . . .

The Civil War: On PBS and at Arlington National Cemetery

This week, PBS aired a remastered version of Ken Burns’s landmark 1990 documentary, The Civil War. I was very young when the documentary first aired–I was three. It’s been twenty-five years, and the documentary is still powerful. The imagery is beautiful, the music is an expert mixture of the uplifting and the contemplative (sometimes the same song is both, depending on the tempo), and the voice acting is both understated and moving. The narration, by historian David McCullough, adds a note of sophistication, occasional wry amusement, sometimes mild excitement, and–from time to time–sadness. The choices of passages–diaries, letters, speeches–and images–photographs, paintings, cinematography–is evocative. I think the best way to watch it is to commit, to sit down and watch straight through with no interruptions, so that you can get into the rhythm of it.

PBS has a lovely portal devoted to Ken Burns’s Civil War:

And you can watch the series here (most likely for only a limited time):

I can’t recall when I first saw the series, but I remember being mesmerized by it. Now that I’m older, I really appreciate the storytelling quality and the beauty of the series. I have it on DVD, but I was still excited to tune in to PBS to watch the remastered version–not so much because it’s remastered, which is nice, but just because it was on. I get caught up in my day-to-day research needs, and while I know I love the Civil War series, I never quite seem to get myself to sit down and watch it. The re-airing gave me a reason to get serious about watching it instead of just thinking I ought to. And if I missed an episode, I just put in the DVD to catch up!

The view from Arlington House. The House and the Cemetery are connected to the Lincoln Memorial by Memorial Bridge.

The view from Arlington House. The House and the Cemetery are connected to the Lincoln Memorial by Memorial Bridge.

On a vaguely related note, I also went last weekend to Arlington National Cemetery. I’m always a little surprised that people aren’t aware of the Cemetery’s history. It’s a hell of a story. The land was owned by the Custis family, which Martha Daindridge married into. She was widowed but brought the land with her when she married George Washington. It was her grandson (and the Big Man’s step-grandson), George Washington Parke Custis, who built Arlington House (in 1802) at the center of what is now the Cemetery. Of course, it wasn’t a cemetery at the time; it was a family home. George Washington Parke Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna, grew up there. It was there in 1831 that she married a certain Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army officer. And it was there, thirty years later, that Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to command the Virginia state military (obviously, he went on to lead the Army of Northern

The view from the bottom of the hill up to Arlington House.

The view from the bottom of the hill up to Arlington House.

Virginia). As soon as Lee resigned, the U.S. Army crossed the river and occupied the house; it was too strategic a position, looking right down on the Federal capital, for it to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Lee had already left; Mrs. Lee vacated for Richmond. In their absence, the house was trashed, and then, in 1864, the Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs, proposed using the grounds of Arlington House as a cemetery. It was a convenient place to bury soldiers who were dying at hospitals in DC. And it was a particularly apt place, given whose home it had been. They started planting graves in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden shortly thereafter. The burials have never stopped. The Lees never returned.

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The first military burial at Arlington Cemetery was William Christman, buried on May 13, 1864:


Freed slaves lived on at Arlington at Freedman’s Village. Many of these freed slaves are buried at Arlington Cemetery, too, in the same section as Christman:


Also buried here is Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the man commemorated in the great memorial just across the river. He was an officer in Grant’s staff, after he finally convinced his parents to allow him to join the army:

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And here is a memorial to the crew of the ironclad USS Monitor:


And here are some pictures from around the cemetery on a beautiful day:

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Liberia Plantation

Liberia Plantation

Liberia Plantation

Last year, one of my fun day-trips was to historic Manassas for the Civil War weekend. Among the other activities–including a parade, living history, and book signings–there were hayrides to nearby Liberia Plantation.

As I’m sure anyone reading this blog will be aware, Manassas was the sight of two major Civil War battles: First and Second Manassas (or Bull Run, depending on which side you were on). First Manassas (July 21, 1861) was the first major engagement of the war; spectators came down from Washington City, just twenty-some miles away, but the spectators were scattered by the unexpected ferocity of the fighting. The losses that day (about 5,000 total casualties) would pale in comparison to later battles, even to the much large Second Manassas, fought August 28-29, 1862 (around 18,000 total casualties; for comparison, there were about 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg). At the time, it was considered a bloody fiasco.

Often lost in the action-packed stories of the battles are the stories of the civilians. People lived in houses in the midst of the fighting. Some were directly in the line of fire. Homes and lives were destroyed. In Manassas, eighty-five-year-old Judith Henry was killed during the First Battle of Bull Run; Union troops thought there were hidden sharpshooters in the house and blasted it with artillery, wounding the old woman fatally.

Not every house was directly in the line of fire. Some were used as field hospitals and headquarters. Liberia Plantation, located about four miles south of what was the main battlefield, was the home of the Weir family. It was built in 1825. The Weirs had about 90 slaves and a dozen children; they planted wheat and other grains and kept sheep and other livestock. It was a successful plantation when war broke out in 1861. In June that year, the ill-prepared armies clashed near Liberia, where the Alexandria and 20150726_123832Orange Railroads converged. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard made the house his headquarters. It was big, commodious, and impressive enough for a general. The Confederates won the battle of First Manassas, sending the Union troops fleeing ignominiously back to Washington City. It’s said that Jefferson Davis himself came to Liberia Plantation, where he spoke to his generals and decided his army wasn’t prepared to pursue the routed Federals.

The tides turned somewhat in 1862. The Weir family fled as the Union army closed in. Second Manassas was also a Union loss, but during the time the Union Army was there, General Irvin McDowell made Liberia his headquarters. President Lincoln apparently visited to check on General McDowell’s health, so both presidents set foot in Liberia during the war, along with many other luminaries (generals and cabinet members).

When the family returned to Liberia Planation, the surrounding area was devastated by the battle. The house and land were devastated; the house, although a headquarters, certainly was in a bad state, the trees lining their drive had been cut down, and soldiers had written graffiti all over the walls. In 1867, William Weir passed away and left Liberia to his son Walter.

The plantation became a dairy farm in 1888 and continued as such until 1947. Over the decades, the land that had once belonged to the house was sold off and developed until very little was left. In 1986, the house was donated to the city along with 5.6 acres of 20150726_123818land (the original plot of land was 1,600 acres). The city buffered the house by buying an additional 12.6 acres around Liberia.

Today, Liberia Plantation is still an impressive building. From the outside, it’s a handsome, proud-looking brick building. Inside, it’s currently in the middle of a restoration, but even so, it’s impressive. Downstairs, the entrance hall is high-ceiling and gracious, with broad decorative arches, big doors to the front and back (for a good cross-breeze), and lovely old floors. There are two parlors and a little kitchen (added sometime in the 1940s or 1950s) that was probably some kind of butler’s pantry leading to the service corridor and to the outbuildings beyond (most importantly, the kitchen).

The walls look a bit rough. During the restoration, the workers have removed layers of wallpaper and paint. Underneath, they found Civil War-era graffiti in almost every room. It wasn’t only generals who were there. It was soldiers, too, using the house as temporary shelter. For some reason, people in all time periods feel the need to leave 20150726_124536their mark; these men sure did. Their pencil signatures are still visible, though they’re generally faint and sometimes illegible. In one room, a soldier worked out a math problem on the wall. The amount of graffiti on the walls is an indication of just how poorly the soldiers treated the house.

But there’s another bit of writing on one wall that wasn’t put there by the soldiers. In a small room upstairs that was converted into a bathroom (and is being converted back), the Weirs marked their children’s growth by making lines on the wall.20150726_124441

The outbuildings are gone now, though there is a well house down a short path, where items like butter would have been kept cool by the water. A Gone-With-the-Wind style porch was put on in the 19th century and has been replaced with more appropriate front steps. Near the house is also a family burial plot, which was moved from its original position because of encroaching development. A lot is missing, and a lot has changed, but the work being done is bringing Liberia back to life.

That work costs money, and right now, they don’t have the money they need. Very dedicated people are involved–our guide clearly cared very much about the place and its history–but they haven’t reached their fundraising goal. There seem to be a few things in their way. The city hasn’t okayed a Facebook/Twitter presence. The house is invisible from the street, and there are no 20150726_124431signs to indicate it even exists, even though it’s in the middle of a bewilderingly grown-up area. It belongs to the city instead of, say, the National Park Service. (That’s not to say that the city isn’t doing good work; it’s just that the NPS is much bigger and might have the resources to put it literally and figuratively on the map.) This house was an important component of two major Civil War battles, it was visited by both the Confederate and Union presidents, and it’s a beautiful example of an Antebellum plantation house, representing the lives of civilians and slaves before, during, and after the war. Perhaps most intriguing is the name of the plantation. Liberia is, of course, a country in Africa. In the Antebellum period, many white opponents of slavery advocated colonizing freed slaves to Liberia.The Weirs, while they owned slaves, advocated this plan, too. They also demonstrated a lot of trust in their slaves: when they left in 1862, they put an elderly slave couple in charge, and one of their mills was run by a slave. The story of the house, and the complicate relation of the owners to slavery, is itself worth preserving.

So, I am going to go ahead and ask any readers here to donate, it their able, to the preservation of Liberia Plantation. It is money well-spent, I promise.

You sent money to:

Manassas Museum System

Liberia Restoration

9101 Prince William Street

Manassas, VA 20110

Some links:

The official City of Manassas page for Liberia Plantation

The History of Liberia Plantation (PDF)

Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run

Battle of Second Manassas or Bull Run

Family cemetery.

Family cemetery.

Spring house.

Spring house.

Of Lost Causes and Confederate Flags

There’s been a hell of a lot of talk lately about the Confederate flag–that is, the Confederate battle flag, which actually wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy. [Some later versions of the Confederate national flag incorporated the Army of Northern Virginia’s square battle flag, the one we’re all familiar with. A different flag is referred to in the song The Bonnie Blue Flag.]

Just today, the governor of South Caroline signed a bill to take down the Confederate flag from their state house. Other states have removed it from their state buildings and license plates. An article from the Washington Post has an overview of what’s been happening:

Once Politically Sacrosanct Confederate Flag Moves Toward an End

The reason for this is pretty clear: the murder last month of nine people at a black church by a young white supremacist. The rationale is clear, too: the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate for some and pain for those who have been victims of that hate.

And that makes all the sense in the world. In fact, I believe that state buildings have no business flying the Confederate battle flag. The Confederacy is dead. Slavery is dead. Segregation is dead.

I do fear, though, that what’s been lost in the litany of places from where the flag has now been removed–the Gettysburg gift shop, for one!–is discussion of the issues at stake. I have heard a lot of calls for removal of the flag, and almost no one talking about why, and more importantly about the bigger issues of race in America and how we got to this point.

The most insidious truth of the Civil War is that while the Union won the war, the Confederacy, in many ways, won the peace. For a hundred years, African Americans didn’t have the same rights as whites in this country: in many places, they couldn’t eat at some restaurants or use certain bathrooms. Things have changed for the better. Yet even today, even among educated people, and in sometimes very subtle ways, the Confederate version of events, the so-called “Lost Cause” version, remains with us.

Let me give two recent examples. I was at Appomattox, watching a reenactment of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S.Grant. Confederate reenactors stacked their arms in the same spot where, exactly 150 years earlier, Lee’s troops had stacked their arms, which had been put to use against the Federal government for the prior four years. And as I stood there, a very chatty boy of about nine or ten years, said, “I always forget who won. Who was it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a tie, wasn’t it?” Maybe he was simply mistaken. He was young, after all. But he seemed to me old enough to know who had won the Civil War. And we were, after all, watching at that very moment a representation of the Confederates losing to the Yankees. Something about the way the boy said it, too, made me think that someone–his parents?–had told him the war had been a “tie.” Now, I didn’t think it was my place to grab the boy, look him in the eye, and set him straight. Apparently, neither did his parents, who weren’t standing far off.

The incident reminded me that for some people in this country, as Faulkner said, “not once but whenever he [or she] wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” The reference is to Pickett’s Charge, the “turning point” of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was a turning point in the war. This means, that for some, the war isn’t really over yet because they still carry a very old resentment against what they see as a different way of life. It also reminded me of the importance of history education.

Another incident, less striking but indicative nonetheless, was a discussion I had with someone I know. I respect him greatly and think of him as knowledgeable about history. I was discussing my trip to Savannah and mentioned the great fire that destroyed a lot of the city in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He said, “And there was also that other thing.” I was puzzled for a moment until I realized he meant the Civil War, especially Sherman’s March to the Sea. I was almost certain that Sherman had spared Savannah, and that the Southern version of the events made Sherman a Yankee devil of destruction all out of proportions with reality. I didn’t want to say something wrong at that moment, so I went back and double-checked to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, but yes, Sherman spared Savannah. There are several version of why, but basically it was because Savannah capitulated.

So, here was a very intelligent, educated person whose perception of the past had been colored, without his really knowing it, by the mythology of the Lost Cause. There is a Southern vision of Georgia in flames–not all that far from the truth–and the Gone With the Wind image of Atlanta burning to the ground (in reality, largely the Confederates’ own doing). So he assumed that Savannah was put to the torch. But it wasn’t.

The most noxious lies are that the war wasn’t about slavery at all, and that the South didn’t lose because of moral and structural failures but because of the North’s superior manpower and materiel. That, by the way, was Robert E. Lee’s assessment of why the South lost, in his farewell address to his men. I strongly disagree with both points.

First, and let me be utterly frank, the war was about slavery, top to bottom, beginning to end. It was only after the war that survivors and apologists began to insist that it was “states’ rights” that caused the war. Of course, that’s nonsense. First of all, all you need to do is look at any documents of the time that explain the reasoning for secession. For example, there’s the Texas declaration of secession which flatly declares that their new nation is founded on the basic truth that blacks are an inferior race that must be enslaved. Or read the Cornerstone Speech of Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

How much clearer does it have to be?

What about states’ rights? That, actually, was an explanation that gained traction after the war rather than before or during the war. It came from people–Southerners–looking back retroactively. Slavery was dead by then, and Southerners wanted to pretend that the discredited “peculiar institution” hadn’t really been the root of the problem. They judged their Northern audience and decided that a states’ rights argument would advance their desire to be readmitted fully to the Union and to regain all their political rights. Of course, the idea of “states’ rights” begs the question (posed by a character in a novella I wrote): The right to do what? After the war, the question is: the political right to do what? The answer to the first is obvious: Southerners wanted states’ rights so they could perpetuate and maybe spread slavery. After the war, they wanted to return to political power so they could put the freed blacks into the same servile role as before the war but without the title of “slave”. As Lincoln might have said, it was the right of the wolf to eat the lamb. (Said Lincoln: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.”)

The second point is equally disconcerting. Lee and others have argued that the South didn’t lose because their cause was unjust or because they lacked bravery, but because of an accident of geography that made the North more prosperous and populous. As if it weren’t the inherently stultifying effect of slavery that caused the South to be far less developed than the North. As if it were accidental that the North was able to supply its troops while the South starved. As if the North threw its men into a meat grinder for which any lump of flesh was as good as the next, while one Southern soldier was worth ten Northern soldiers. As if maybe God were sleeping when he failed to give them the victory they deserved.

Of course, it’s frustrating that these ideas are still hanging around. It’s terrifying that racism still lives and that the Confederate battle flag is used as a symbol of hatred. This should spur a lot of discussion about why racism persists. There should be more discussion about the myths and culture that led that flag to become a symbol of hate. The flag itself is just a flag. In the zeal to tear it down, it’s important to remember that removing the symbol doesn’t remove the thing it stands for.

For good measure, here’s a link including a video of Ken Burns (the filmmaker responsible for the wonderful The Civil War miniseries that first aired on PBS int he early 90s).

The Sea Islands of Georgia, March 2015

At the end of March (yes, it’s taken me a month to get around to blogging about it), I visited Savannah, Georgia. When family or friends asked, I said I had always kind of wanted to go to Savannah (it’s supposed to be so pretty!) and I had a travel voucher (because American Airlines screwed up a connection for me last May). I said that because I don’t talk much about my writing (at least not in person, even with family and friends). The most fundamental reason I wanted to go? I wrote a novel set on the Sea Islands of Georgia. The timing couldn’t have been better (but that is a story for another time). The novel was completed years ago (it’s undergone several revisions since then), and I’d always wanted to visit the place that inspired my trip, but I kept putting it off. I finally got my ass into gear. I booked my plane ticket and hotel room, bought a guide book, and plotted out the high points of a relatively brief trip.

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

First, I should back up a bit and mention how I came to be interested in the Georgia Sea Islands. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. (I can’t imagine that anyone with a love of American History is NOT interested in the Civil War.) When I was in elementary and middle school, I started Dear America-style stories about the Civil War. I never got far. I started writing about different periods and for a while was pretty sure I wouldn’t ever seriously consider writing about the Civil War. But a lot of influences from my youth converged to make it inevitable, and when I ran across Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (actually a series of “letters sent to a friend”; here is a nice write-up from PBS, here is a link to it on Amazon, and here it is on Project Gutenberg), the cogs in my head started turning.

Fanny Kemble was an English actress born in 1809. Her family was a well-known acting family. At that time, acting was not a very well-regarded profession. Many people saw theatergoing as sinful and actors and (especially) actresses as especially immoral. Women who acted were little more than whores—or were simply whores, in the eyes of many. By the time Fanny took the stage, however, as a young lady trying to help keep her family afloat, these attitudes towards the theater were loosening. Fanny and her family were respected and were for the most part Shakespearean. Acting and the running of theaters was a notoriously precarious business venture. Fanny’s family had run into financial trouble, but Fanny became a sensation almost as soon as she took the stage. She and her father came to America to tour, and it was there (in Philadelphia) that Fanny met Pierce Butler, part owner of several rice plantations on the Georgia Coast.

Although it seems odd to us today, it appears that Fanny wasn’t aware of where her husband’s wealth came from before she married him. In part, this may be because the family were absentee and spent most their time in Pennsylvania and were even active in Pennsylvania politics. Partly, this is because it was considered very impolite to speak about money.

In any case, after years of cajoling, Pierce Butler finally allowed Fanny to come to Georgia with their two children, and thence Journal of a Residence. It is a beautifully written, compelling look at slavery. Fanny’s views and opinions are sometimes startlingly modern (most people wouldn’t expect a Victorian to be so forthright in her support of gender and racial equality).The way she describes Georgia also captivated me. It was clear she wished she could separate the beauty of Georgia from the darkness of slavery. But since she couldn’t, she returned to Philadelphia after several months in Georgia. She divorced Pierce Butler in 1849; the slaves were almost all sold off at auction in 1859 due to Pierce’s fiscal mismanagement; and during the Civil War, the Sea Islands of Georgia fell early to Union occupation. (For the better, let me be clear; the slaves were all freed.)

I won’t burden the readers with a description of my own fictional characters. Suffice it to say that Fanny was the starting point for them, and it was their fictional story (as well as Fanny Kemble’s real-life story) that inspired me to make the journey from DC to Georgia.

I wasn’t just there to see Butler Island, the scene of most of Fanny’s diary. I was also there to experience the city of Savannah. My plan was to spend one day south at Butler Island and the nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, then spend the other two full days exploring Savannah.

It was the end of March, but even the end of March is usually very temperate in Savannah. However, it was an especially cold snap; back home, temperatures barely rose about freezing. In Savannah, it was sunny and about sixty degrees. Not balmy, but definitely doable.

My first full day was almost surreally bright and clear. The sky was a fantastical kind of blue, and everything seemed so green when I stepped off the plane. It had been a long, cold winter in DC, and we hadn’t emerged from it yet. There in Savannah, spring was bursting at the seams. I got up early the morning after I arrived, hopped in my rental car, and drove south . . . along I-95. Yeah, it’s hard to escape I-95 on the East Coast. And it’s not exactly a romantic way to get around, but it is efficient. And it was such a beautiful day, and the drive was so lovely, that I didn’t even mind I was on an uninspiring 20th century highway.

It took about an hour to get to Butler Island. To get to the island, you get off I-95 the exit north of it, head slightly east and then turn south at the town of Darien, which was the closest town to the Butler plantation and which is mentioned multiple times in Fanny Kemble’s memoirs. Today, it’s a quiet little clutch of houses. Later, I would get turned around and find myself driving down enchanting neighborhood roads, only two lanes, no lines, a median of grass and flowering trees down the middle, small houses with bursting plant life all around. It had that pleasant, honeyed Southern charm you hear about—and that you can’t appreciate unless you see it.

20150329_102010Beyond Darien, over two bridges, there is a red chimney sticking up out the exquisitely green grass right by the side of the road. This is what I came to see: this is what’s left of the plantation that Fanny Kemble knew. The chimney is what remains of the steam-powered rice mill at Butler Plantation. There is also the stump-like ruin of the tide-operated mill. Time was, this was a thriving plantation sending flatboats laden with rice down the river to Savannah and further afield. But like everything

Tide-powered mill.

Tide-powered mill.

associated with slavery, it evaporated after the war. Today, it’s just these remnants. The pretty white house standing behind the chimney is twentieth-century; the house that Fanny stayed in is gone.

It made a striking image: the green, green grass, the brilliant sky, the red bricks , the white house.

By the road and the chimney is a historical marker telling visitors about Fanny’s daughter Frances, who came back to Butler Plantation after the war and tried to resurrect it, and about Owen Wister, who was Fanny’s grandson by her other daughter, Sarah. Oddly enough, Fanny herself isn’t mentioned, perhaps a pointed omission (who says the Civil War ended 150 years ago?).

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After taking entirely too many pictures (and many selfies), I started walking around. The remains of Butler Plantation are part of a wildlife refuge, so it has very much gone back to nature. I quite merrily walked along the paths, among hedges of jasmine just like the jasmine Fanny described in her memoirs. Ducks floated on the pond. Bees buzzed. There was no one there but me. I felt very much a part of this place. I couldn’t help thinking of the alligators and snakes that Fanny mentioned, and I kept an eye out for where I was stepping . . .

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I ate some lunch at a little boat launch near the house, then got back in the car to drive down a dirt road (Champney Road) just to the south of the plantation ruins. The road turns and wanders. A family was fishing in a pond, but otherwise, there was no one near. The road kept going west until it reached I-95. Yeah. I-95 actually cuts right across Butler Island. Considering that, it’s fairly unobtrusive. It glides by overhead, cars and trucks zipping by at 70 miles an hour. The pylons sink into the sandy earth. Otherwise, it doesn’t affect the island—no Mickey D’s, no off-ramps, no guardrails.


You can drive beneath I-95, but on the other side, the sign quite expressly says, “No vehicular traffic.” So I parked and jumped out and stated walking. I didn’t get too far, honestly. It’s a big island, and there’s nothing there except for the remains of dikes and canals. I stood at the beginning of one of these 170-year-old ditches and stared down the length of its regular course, where it disappeared into the vegetation. That’s all there is here, now: straight lines of water, and untended vegetation. I stood there, looking, taking it all in. Just imagine. Before it was a rice plantation, it was a cotton plantation.

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I wanted to stay, to explore it for days on end. I wanted to know so much more. But my time was limited, and there was more to do and see.

My next stop was south of Butler Island, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. Unlike Butler Plantation, which succumbed to the ravages of time, Hofwyl-Broadfield was lovingly preserved by the family who lived there. It was a rice plantation, then a dairy, and then a family home until the last woman to own it died at an old age and left it intact to the state of Georgia. Everything in it came with it: furniture that dated back to the Antebellum period, IMG_1652farm equipment from every time period, various outbuildings. It is now an exceptional place to visit and learn. The visitors center has a great video about how rice plantations operated and has a wonderful selection of books (I would have bought four or five but had to think about how much space they would take up in my suitcase!). There is a loop for a nature walk, which takes you past the ruins of the tabby-built rice mill and to an overlook of the salt marsh. (It’s incredible how high those grasses are! They’re at least ten feet high, though you wouldn’t expect that from a distance.) I had way too much fun setting up my camera with a timer and taking pictures of myself in the clearing with the ruins of the rice mill. The house tour was informative and immersive—like I said, pretty much all the family possessions from every period remained there in the house. It was a quirky little place, not at all reminiscent of the romantic visions some people have of plantation houses. It was comfortable but not large or grand. Beyond the house, there was a bevy of outbuildings, from the barn to the garage to slave quarters.

But perhaps the very best part of the place—for me!—was the trees. That sounds a little weird. Let me explain. I’m not what you call a huge tree person. My dad can instantly name most any tree you can point to. I can’t. I can tell a beech from a maple from an oak, but that’s about it. I do, however, know what a live oak is. Or at least, I had some conception of it, but until I really saw one of these ancient, magnificent beauties there at Hofwyl-Broadfield, I didn’t really understand. The trees there are said to be as old as eight hundred years. They’re massive, dwarfing the house. And what’s more, they aren’t just large and old; they’re also twisted and moss-covered, with their broad boughs like little ecosystems of their own. They’re almost magical. I was so enamored of the way one them leaned to the side, twisted around itself, and then leaned back the way it came, that I took about thirty pictures. It was absolutely beautiful.

Once I’d done the nature walk, toured the house, seen the museum, and gotten a few goodies at the gift shop, it was back in the car to head back for Savannah . . .

And since it occurs to me that I’ve expended a lot of words on one day of travel, I’m going to save the remainder of my trip for another post.

Civil War Sleuthing: James C. Huhn

Want to feel like an amateur historian? Go to the National Archives.

There are few more “D.C.”, that is to say “bureaucratic”, experiences than visiting the main National Archives building here in Washington, D.C. First, there’s the mixture of tourism (the front of the building is a museum holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), a practical purpose (records that cumulatively tell the story of America), good old-fashioned bureaucracy (you have to go through an orientation, get a photo ID card, and sign several forms to look at the original records), and 21st-century jumpiness (you have to go through security on your way in and your way out). I could have easily been intimidated by the rigamarole, but I was determined to go through all this for the sake of one particular purpose: I was there to find the pension file for James C. Huhn, my 3-times-great-grandfather.

I had found through an online search that a certain James C. Huhn, a relative of mine, had fought in the Civil War. James was born in 1833 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I found him in the U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index (I need to investigate his service record some fine day, too), and then I found him in the U.S. Civil War and Later Pension Index. Both of these indicated that James enlisted as a private in Company E of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry. These files are not available in their entirety online. They are kept in the Archives in D.C. Lucky for me, I live in the D.C. area. I mean, what’s the use of living in D.C. if you can’t bop on down to the National Archives on a lark, looking for some Civil War records?

So, on a snowy Monday, I took off work and bopped on down to the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. There is a separate entrance for researchers. I went through the process described above (security, orientation, photo ID, putting in the form to have the file pulled). I had some time to kill before the file would be available. Someone had to go retrieve it from the stacks, which obviously takes some time. I entertained myself by using the computers (free access to!) to do a bit of genealogy research. It turns out the relatives on my father’s side who moved in Kansas in the mid-19th century came from New York. One of them was a physician. I found an ancestor of mine who immigrated from England in the mid-19th century. And I found some delightful high school yearbook images of my grandmother.

After about an hour and a half of that fun, I went upstairs to pick up the file I’d requested. Just to enter the room, I had to hand over my brand new photo ID to be scanned. I also had to leave pretty much everything—purse, wallet, coat, scarf, pens—in a locker downstairs. They aren’t allowed anywhere near the records. Once I was admitted to the inner precinct, I picked up the file from the desk and sat down. There were quite a lot more documents than I’d imagined. I’d pictured two of three pieces of paper, probably a pension application and perhaps a few explanatory notes. But there were various applications (most of them dating to after 1890), affidavits, and records. It was a real treasure trove of information, and it gave me a very interesting look at my great-great-great grandfather’s time as a soldier and his life following the war. I knew that he was in the cavalry; I knew he’d probably been injured since he applied for a pension; and I knew his unit had not taken part in any of the blockbuster battles of the war (I looked up the service record of the 14th Pa. Cav. online). I wanted some more details on what James’s experience was like 150 years ago.

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A Post-election Reflection

Tuesday night was election night here int he United States–not for president, but for various state offices and congressional seats (governors, Senators, and Representatives were elected, as well as representatives to the state legislatures). I voted, quite proudly. Since it was a mid-term election, the turn-out was poor, which is a shame. Just because the president isn’t being elected doesn’t mean that the election is unimportant. Both houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican party, for instance, as a result of this mid-term election. There will be all kinds of consequences to that.

But, quite honestly, I’m not especially exercised by the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong: I voted, and it’s incredibly important for everyone to get involved, learn at least a little about the issues, and vote. It’s important for people not to get too jaded and think it doesn’t matter. Put into a broader perspective, though, while this election is interesting and noteworthy, it isn’t exactly world-shattering.

Politicians are quite fond of painting the current time as one of strife, discord, and great import. We as human beings tend have tunnel-vision and quite naturally think of our own times in superlative terms: this is the most divisive time in history, this election has been the nastiest on record, Americans are more deeply divided than ever. It’s a chicken-egg question whether politicians use this kind of rhetoric because it’s human nature to think that way or whether we think that way partly because the politicians are telling us that’s the way to think.

I am especially irritated by the claim that these are the most divisive times in American history. Have the people who say these things ever heard of the Civil War? This nation was so divided that it was literally divided in two. Six hundred fifty thousand men died as a result. Even before then, though, the nation was perpetually divided. It wasn’t just north-south. The early nation was divided between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and the kind of vitriol spewed at that time makes the polite, sedate rhetoric of today look like a child’s tea party. A few decades later, North and South were beginning the slide to war. Henry Foote pulled a gun on fellow Senator Thomas Hart Benton. A few years later, Senator Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. A few years after that, states began to leave the Union one by one.

So forgive me if I don’t find today’s spats to be believably extreme. That’s not to say there’s nothing at stake here, or that we shouldn’t care. It’s just that we should keep a perspective on things.

I try not to be cynical, though my thoughts sometimes come out that way. Whether this will go down as a memorable election or not, what’s important is America–the idea of America. What we’re seeing today is nothing new, and we’ve weathered worse as a nation.

Living as I do in Washington D.C., having been born as I was an American citizen, I often forget just what it means to be American and what wonderful things that entails. This American experiment is still a work in progress. When it stops being such, it will have stopped being. As my favorite historical personage ever (ever!) said presciently in 1838, as a nation of freemen (and women) we will live through all time or die by suicide. As long as we don’t take it for granted, we’ll avoid the suicide part.

When I start feeling a little jaundiced about things, I like to think of good old Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) coming to Washington DC. It’s healthy to reflect and to shake the scales from your eyes, so to speak. Like “Jeff”, I find one of the best places to remember these things is the Lincoln Memorial:

And so I leave you on that optimistic note.

On National Anthems

This past weekend, I visited Baltimore for the week-long Star-Spangled Spectacular. Tall ships and navy vessels were moored in the Inner Harbor, open for tours from the public; there was a small carnival, a beer festival, concerts, and crafts; and on Saturday, they put on the biggest fireworks display in Baltimore’s history. The festivities were in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. During the War of 1812, the British, who had wreaked havoc up and down the Chesapeake Bay, were repulsed as they tried to sail past For McHenry and into Baltimore. It was on the morning of September 15th that Francis Scott Key, on a ship in the harbor, witnessed the twenty-five-hour-long bombardment of the fort and then saw the “star-spangled banner” still waving in “the dawn’s early light.” The day had been won by the Americans. Key penned the words that would become our national anthem.

All this stuff about the US national anthem naturally got me thinking of the Marseillaise, which is France’s national anthem.

The Marseillaise was created during the French Revolution (which the Affair of the Diamond Necklace played no small part in sparking). The song was first popularized by a group of young volunteer revolutionaries from Marseilles. It quickly caught on (hey, it’s catchy). Its strains are familiar all over the world. It’s even part of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. (The 1812 Overture commemorates Napoleon’s defeat in Russia; ironically, at the same time an ocean and a continent away, America was declaring war on Great Britain. That war—which was waged from 1812-1814, in spite of being called the War of 1812—would give birth to our own national anthem.)

Some people seem to think that the Star Spangled Banner is too marshal and bloodthirsty. I have to disagree. I mean, have these folks read the lyrics of the Marseillaise? Because the good old Star Spangled Banner ain’t got nothing on the Marseilles for bloodthirstiness. The Marseillaise is all about spilling the blood of “impure” folks and raising the “bloody banner”. The words are literally bloody. It’s intensely aggressive. This was hardly empty bluster. Thousands of people were basically murdered for their political beliefs during the Revolution. They call it The Terror because it was, well, terrible.

The first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner,  by contrast, mentions bombs and rockets but is really just an extended question: is the flag still flying over Fort McHenry? The answer in the coming stanzas (which are admittedly less innocuous, but are also rarely sung) is yes. The flag was still there. This, also, wasn’t empty bluster. The Americans braved out the War of 1812, which they were woefully unprepared to fight, and in spite of some humiliating moments like the burning of Washington, came out intact. In this case, that was basically a win. Unlike the Marseillaise, the words aren’t a war rally but a cheer for the end of a battle.

So, I don’t really hold with those who might want America the Beautiful to be our national anthem, or any other song. The most valid reason to ditch the Star Spangled Banner is that it’s hard to sing. Fair enough, but frankly, I can’t sing America the Beautiful very well, either, because I am a terrible singer. Besides, the Star Spangled Banner is so much more rousing! There’s a special something that sends shivers up your spine. How much of that is conditioned? Who knows, but it’s there, and it’s there to stay.


The Marseillaise [from Wikipedia]:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,

[Arise, children of the Fatherland,]

Le jour de gloire est arrivé !

[The day of glory has arrived!]

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

[Against us tyranny]

L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)

[Raises its bloody banner (repeat)]

Entendez-vous dans les campagnes

[Do you hear, in the countryside,]

Mugir ces féroces soldats ?

[The roar of those ferocious soldiers?]

Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras

[They’re coming right into your arms]

Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes !

[To cut the throats of your sons and women!]


Aux armes, citoyens,

[To arms, citizens,]

Formez vos bataillons,

[Form your battalions,]

Marchons, marchons !

[Let’s march, let’s march!]

Qu’un sang impur

[Let an impure blood]

Abreuve nos sillons ! (bis)

[Water our furrows! (Repeat)]