Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (2007)

The workhouse boy in paradise… (p.104)

When news broke that the large and expensive expedition led by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and funded by the biggest newspaper in America, the New York Herald, had succeeded in locating the ‘lost’ Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone, in deepest darkest Africa (in fact, at the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871) it was telegraphed round the (developed) world and overnight made Stanley one of the most famous men on the planet.

Over the next 15 years Stanley would lead a series of epic expeditions through central Africa, making important geographical discoveries, drafting maps, establishing contact with local inhabitants, naming lakes and waterfalls and founding settlements which last to this day, especially along what developed into his main area of activity the enormous Congo river.

Stanley’s later expeditions were financed by King Leopold II of Belgium and played a vital role in marking out the territory which Leopold, at the epochal Congress of Berlin in 1885, claimed as his own personal demesne. The Congo Free State under Leopold’s personal rule had, by the turn of the twentieth century, become a byword for brutality and exploitation. Maybe as many as a million natives of the huge Congo region were killed, maimed or worked to death by white overseers intent on extracting rubber and other marketable commodities by any means necessary.

1. This association with the evil king, along with 2. numerous damning stories and rumours spread about him by his rivals (that Stanley was gay, his marriage was a sham, that he went to Africa to indulge a) his homosexual inclinations or b) his homicidal inclinations), and even 3. Stanley’s own writings in which he poses as a tough and merciless leader of men, exaggerating the battles he was in and the men he’d whipped or even killed, all these factors contributed to blackening Stanley’s reputation, from his own day down to ours.

In his introduction to this long, thorough and meticulously researched biography, Tim Jeal explains that these accusations were given their modern expression in Frank McLynn’s 1990 biography, Stanley: Dark Genius of African Exploration.

Young Stanley, aged 31, posing as the great white explorer with Kalulu, an African boy he bought out of slavery during the Livingstone expedition and took to London with him where he sent him to a church school in Wandsworth. A year later Stanley took Kalulu on the trans-Africa expedition, where the boy would die when his canoe was swept over a huge cataract on the Congo river

By sharp contrast, Jeal sets out to give a strongly revisionist account. He goes to lengths to explain that, unlike any previous biographer, he has been lucky enough to have access to the vast archive of Stanley’s papers held in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central in Brussels, some 7,000 items, including some 5,000 letters to him from a vast range of correspondents.

It is a close reading of Stanley’s unpublished journals, letters to  early sweethearts, to his wife, and masses of other unpublished documents which have led Jeal to take a much more nuanced approach to Stanley’s character and achievements and to actively rebut some of the traditional accusations made against him.

In addition, Jeal has spent most of his working life researching the classic Victorian explorers in Africa. His 1973 biography of Livingstone took the same approach, using private letters, diaries and archives to reveal the deeply flawed and troubled man behind the legend. And a few years after this book, Jeal published Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011), a group portrait of the key European explorers – John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Richard Francis Burton, Samuel White Baker, Stanley, Livingstone and many others from 1856 to 1878.

The point is that Jeal has devoted a lifetime to in-depth research of these figures and it shows – in the length and scholarliness and immense attention to detail of this biography.

The central premise of Jeal’s account is that Stanley exaggerated his own brutality and the violent means he used in his explorations for personal and commercial reasons. 1. On a personal level, Stanley had experienced a childhood of Dickensian harshness and deprivation. Short, unloved, abandoned by his family and brought up in a workhouse, he over-compensated with fantasies of power, projecting himself as an invulnerable tough guy. 2. On a commercial level, Stanley was a journalist writing for American newspapers and they, too, valued sensationalism and tough guy heroics.

So both personally and professionally Stanley was incentivised to exaggerate the number of hostile tribes he encountered, the number of battles he fought, the casualties on all sides, the brutal way he enforced discipline on his own porters, the cruel way he inflicted punishment on warlike tribes. Jeal’s extensive notes indicate the thoroughness with which he re-investigated every single one of these claims and found time and time again a pattern of exaggeration and embellishment.

With the result that the Stanley who emerges from Jeal’s account is a much more intelligent, flexible and strategic figure, using violence where it was required, fighting back when attacked, but also encouraging his men and preferring to sign peaceful treaties with local chieftains, where possible. We have written evidence that he respected and admired Africans, wanted them to be treated fairly, and went out of his way to praise the lead porters who managed his extensive baggage trains. And he emerges as a much more psychologically damaged and vulnerable figure than the superficial history books suggest.

Stanley aged 44 in 1885, sporting the hat he designed to keep off flies and the sun, but which was widely mocked

Stanley’s early life

Accounts of Stanley’s three big Africa expeditions and his extended spell as explorer and negotiator for King Leopold can be found on any website about African exploration:

  • Livingstone expedition, 1871 to 1872, written up in How I Found LIvingstone, which single-handedly created the legend of the saintly missionary
  • African Great Lakes and Congo River, 1874 to August 1877 (999 days)
  • working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885
  • Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

Overall Stanley’s career in Africa covered some 18 years.

What is less well known and absolutely flabbergasted me was Jeal’s detailed description of Stanley’s early years. The young Stanley had one of the most action-packed and extreme lives I’ve ever heard of. So much happened to him that at several points I wondered whether I was reading a kind of spoof or parody of a life of derring-do. Surely nobody could have had so many adventures!

Stanley’s real name

For a start his name wasn’t Henry Morton Stanley and he wasn’t American. The boy was born John Rowlands in the town of Denbigh, north-east Wales, about 30 miles from the border with England.

Stanley’s mother

His mother was a teenager, Elisabeth Parry, who ended up having five children by three different fathers. Stanley never knew his father. He had suspicions and in later life tried to find out, but as a boy had no father figure in his life, and was haunted by the very real literal of abandonment.

Abandoned

His mother handed him over to his grandfather, Moses Parry, to look after but the grandfather died a few years later and the toddler John was passed onto cousins. They in turn fell on hard times and at the tender age of six, his uncle said he was taking him on an adventure, carried him on his shoulders the six miles to the nearby town of St Asaph and dumped him on the doorstep of the workhouse, rang the bell and walked away, abandoning him with no explanation. Imagine. Arguably John never recovered from these twin boyhood betrayals and the rest of his life can be interpreted by psychologists as a sustained attempt to regain the love and trust and sense of self-worth which he was robbed of at such an early age.

Workhouse

John Rowlands spent the next ten years living, eating, working in a workhouse where conditions were grim. Workhouses were inspected by local authorities and maintained a certain level of hygiene, food and education, and so young John was taught to read and write. He ended up as the equivalent of head boy and Jeal suggests that it was here, abandoned by parents and family, that he developed a taste for having younger, male followers, who he could order around, who gave him a sense of confidence and worth, which the Africa expeditions were to prove a an outlet for on a much larger scale.

Homosexuality?

In the St Asaph workhouse the boys slept several to a bed and contemporaries record that the older boys ‘took part in every possible vice’. Another Stanley biographer speculates that he was sexually abused there. Some of the girls were inducted into prostitution at an early age. Jeal quotes Stanley’s own writings asserting that this atmosphere had the opposite effect on him, putting him off sex, making him fastidious and disgusted. Maybe. There’s no doubt that his earlier, pre-Africa adventures and expeditions involved young male devotees. Was it platonic adoration or did it have a sexual tinge? This is the kind of psychosexual speculation beloved of modern biographers and encouraged by modern publishers because sex sells. Personally, I find it demeans the subject of this fruitless speculation and degrades the reader.

Jeal spends time producing the (limited) evidence and speculating. Personally, I don’t give a damn about anyone’s sex life except insofar as it directly effects their public actions or written works, and even then, most psychosexual biography seems pointless to me. Sexuality is so complicated, contradictory and chaotic that it seems to me presumptuous and generally futile to waste pages on idle speculation. I always skip these bits.

Liverpool

On coming of age Stanley left the workhouse and had to make his way in the world. His cousins arranged for him to go and stay with a relative, Uncle Tom Morris, in Liverpool (p.28). The family were friendly enough but turned out to be hard up and so John had to scout for work, eventually finding a job as assistant in a haberdashery. But the Liverpool docks were a romantic scene for a young man, full of sailors with stories of distant lands.

Cabin boy

Not surprising, then, that one day John announced to his relatives that he had signed up as a cabin boy on the Windermere bound for America. They warned him against it, it was a common practice to promise ‘cabin boys’ the equivalent of an apprenticeship but then treat them like dirt.

New Orleans

This is exactly what happened to young John and by the time the Windermere docked in New Orleans he’d had enough bullying and bad treatment, and jumped ship (p.31).

Hardware store

He wandered the streets and may have slept rough a couple of nights before getting into conversation with the owner of a hardware store and persuading him to take him on. In his autobiography John says the store owner’s name was Henry Hope Stanley and that he, John, needing a new identity in a new country, copied it. Jeal shows in meticulous detail that, as you might expect, the process was much more tentative than that: that the name might not have been that of the storekeeper himself (who Jeal identifies as a completely different person, James Speake) but certainly belonged to an eminent and successful New Orleans businessman and that John’s adoption of it was piecemeal and experimental over a period of years during which he experiments with variations on the names to create a new, American identity.

The Wild West

The store owner advised the man we can now call Stanley that he’d never make his fortune as a delivery boy, and to move up the Mississippi into the ‘the West’ where there were more openings for an enterprising man. So in August 1860 Stanley shipped up to Arkansas, to the small town of Cypress Bend fifty miles from Little Rock, where he got a job in another hardware store. Here he saw at first hand the violent, selfish, law unto themselves attitude of many of the settlers of what could be described as the Wild West. He gained in-depth knowledge of stores and supplies and provisions which would be of great use in his African adventures, and also of the very latest in guns and ammunition.

American Civil War

In April 1861 the American Civil War broke out. There was the usual rush of bellicose enthusiasm in both north and south. If young men didn’t volunteer for the army they came under concerted pressure, not least from young women, to show their manliness. Reluctantly young Stanley, still only 20, joined a regiment in the Confederate army (p.44). He fought at the famous Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where Jeal gives a vivid description of the mayhem and massacre around him. Miraculously, Stanley survived unscathed and was taken prisoner by Union forces (p.45).

Briefly back to Wales

Stanley spent several months in a POW camp in Illinois where the prisoners came under pressure to sign up to the Union army which, eventually, Stanley did, on 4 June 1862 (p.48). A few weeks later Stanley discharged himself, made his way to Baltimore and took a ship back to Liverpool, to go see his estranged family (p.49). His mother was now the landlady of a pub in Denbigh, and when he arrived, hungry and tired, having walked from Liverpool, she rejected him. He stayed in the area a few days before returning Liverpool and taking ship back to the States.

Merchant seaman

For the next year and a half he bummed around as a sailor on American merchant ships which visited ports in Spain and France (p.51). In July 1864, still at a loss what to do in life, Stanley enlisted in the Union navy. He was appointed ship’s clerk or writer on the USS Minnesota. He was an eye witness to the bombardment of Fort Fisher in December 1864, and wrote it up not only for official records, but managed to sell colourful descriptions to several local newspapers. This marked his debut as a journalist (p.52). In February 1865 he persuaded a younger shipmate, Lewis Noe, to desert the ship when it was refitting in docks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They escaped wearing civilian clothes he’d bought from some carpenters.

Rafting down the Platte river

Stanley returned to New York where he resumed working for a man named Hughes. But he wanted a life of adventure, he avidly consumed accounts of adventures, he wanted to see the West. In May 1865 Stanley travelled to St Louis and managed to wangle a job a freelancer for the Missouri Democrat. To supplement his income he got a labouring job at a smelting works. Here he picked up another acolyte, William Harlow Cook and managed to persuade him to go on an ‘adventure’ and navigate the Platte River some 600 miles from Denver to where it joins the huge Missouri river (p.57).

It was at moments like this that I began to wonder whether Jeal was pulling the reader’s leg, but then I realised he is taking these accounts directly from Stanley’s own autobiography. As Jeal is a tremendous stickler for accuracy and devotes pages of text and extensive footnotes to even tiny details of the expeditions, one assumes he has cross-checked and verified Stanley’s accounts of his early adventures, too. And Stanley and Cook did have adventures, rafting during the day, camping in a tent at night: the raft capsized, losing a lot of their equipment, they were arrested by an army officer looking for deserters till Stanley threatened to shoot it out, the righted the raft and continued the journey, till it overturned again, Cook held on and was quickly carried away while Stanley had to make his way by land to Nebraska where they were eventually reunited.

Adventure in Turkey

Stanley returned to New York with Cook in tow and was reunited with Lewis Noe and his family. Somehow Stanley now managed to persuade both Cook and Noe to accompany him on an expedition to Turkey. They sailed from Boston to Izmir where, funds being low, Stanley could only afford two horses: one of his young acolytes had to walk. The journey turned into another ruinous farce. Noe set fire to some bushes to scare Cook but started a major conflagration which saw the three Americans get arrested.

Securing a release they continued inland till another controversial incident took place where Stanley tried to murder a Turk they met with a sword: he claimed he was fighting off the Turk’s sexual advances to Noe, Cook claimed Stanley meant to murder the Turk and steal his horses (p.59). The fight attracted ten other Turks who robbed our guys of all their belongings, dragged them to a nearby village, tied them up. Noe was gang-raped at knifepoint. A local magistrate heard of their situation and had them conveyed to a proper gaol. The local judge found the alleged assailants in possession of what was obviously Stanley’s American goods and so our guys all Stanley’s were released from prison and then spent some time suing the Turkish government for compensation. Stanley contacted the American ambassador at Constantinople who reluctantly lent these shabby American chancers £150, enough to pay Noe and Stanley’s fares to Marseilles, then to Paris, London and onto Liverpool (Cook had to stay behind to give evidence in the trial).

(Later we learn that much of the substance of these adventures were ratified by Lewis Noe himself who sold his version of events, from jumping ship in Portsmouth through the Turkey debacle, to the New York Sun, when Stanley returned from the Livingstone strip and was famous.)

Denbigh again

Stanley detoured, once again, from Liverpool to Denbigh to track down his mother the publican, this time wearing an officer’s uniform he’d had knocked up in Constantinople, to impress her with what a success he had become. Once again, she was less than impressed. He stayed over Christmas, visited other relatives, tried out his new persona of Henry Morton Stanley, moped around Liverpool, again, then took ship back to America.

The Wild West

In February 1867 Stanley arrived back in St Louis and wangled a full-time job on the Missouri Democrat at the princely salary of $15 a day. The very next day he was given the assignment of reporting on General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Indian campaign against the Kiowas and the Comanches (p.67). He covered the whole campaign, describing Indian atrocities and scalpings, the army’s destruction of native villages, he interviewed Wild Bill Hickock. He was right there in the Wild West.

The imperialist principle

Jeal makes the important point that it was here, watching the native Americans being harried, murdered and burnt off their ancestral land, that Stanley imbibed the key principle of imperialism – that backward nations and peoples will fall ineluctably and unpreventably before the forces of ‘civilisation’, industrialisation and economic development. In his writings Stanley sympathised with the Indians but thought that nothing could be done to save them; modernisation was an inevitable process; if not this general then another one. And this was the hard-headed, ‘realist’ attitude he took to Africa.

The New York Herald

But a fire burned in him to see the world, to have great adventures, to go to Africa. In December 1867 he travelled to New York, to the offices of the best selling newspaper in America, the New York Herald, where he bluffed his way into an interview with the tough editor James Gordon Bennett Junior, the hard-driving editor of America’s most successful newspaper, the New York Herald. Stanley pitched his idea of going in search of Dr Livingstone, but it was too speculative for Bennett who suggested a more practical assignment – reporting on the British military expedition into Ethiopia.

Journalist in Ethiopia

In 1867 the emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, had taken a British envoy and others hostage the British government despatched a force to release them. Stanley arrived in Suez in January 1868 and promptly bribed the telegraph operator to transmit his despatches before any other journalist (p.71). accompanied that force as a special correspondent of the New York Herald.

He made several big discoveries on this trip. First was that, by posing as an American, he sidestepped the wretched British class system, and was treated as an equal by the lofty British officers. He was impressed by their cult of nonchalance and aristocratic indifference and cultivated the same pose. He also discovered how to be a success, ensuring that his account of the Battle of Magdala in 1868 (where the British, predictably, whipped the Ethiopian forces) was the first to be telegraphed back to Europe and America. It was a sensational scoop which made his reputation as a journalist and secured him a permanent job at the Herald (p.72)

Spain

Bennett now treated Stanley like any foreign correspondent and sent him to trouble spots to report. In October 1868 he was sent to Spain which was experiencing a civil war between monarchists and republicans. Taking a break from reports he returned to London, where he invited his mother and half sister to visit him, now staying in a grand hotel and unambiguously a successful man of the world. He returned to Spain in 1869 and Jeal uses Stanley’s autobiography to describe Stanley’s hair-raising adventures in Madrid, running across streets as the bullets flew and barricading hotel windows to stop stray bullets in scenes reminiscent of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (p.82).

Through Asia

As you’d expect, Jeal deals with his customary thoroughness with the thorny question of who had the idea to go looking for the famous British missionary, Dr David Livingstone, who had departed for central Africa several years earlier, who nothing had been heard of for years, and who was feared dead. Was it Bennett’s idea or was it, the preferred option, a long-standing ambition of Stanley’s which he pitched an at-first sceptical Bennett?

Either way, although Bennett agreed it was a good idea, he decided to leave it on the back burner while public interest in Livingstone’s mysterious fate grew. Instead he paid for Stanley to go on journalistic assignments through ‘Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Crimea, Persia and finally India’ (p.85). During this year of travels Stanley reported on the opening of the Suez Canal, examined excavations in Jerusalem, visited Odessa and the battlefields of the Crimea, interviewed the governor of the Caucasus at Tiflis and travelled to the Persian Gulf via Persepolis.

Go ahead for the Livingstone expedition

He ended up in Bombay in October 1870, which is where he finally received the go-ahead from Bennett to proceed with the expedition to find Livingstone who was, still, ‘lost’, his whereabouts unknown. With promise of full funding Stanley set sail from Bombay across the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar, the traditional provisioning and jumping off point for east central Africa, in January 1871 (p.91).

It’s important to emphasise that there had been some news about Livingstone. In November 1869 the Bombay Gazette had published a letter Livingstone had sent from the interior, dated 6 months earlier and stating he was at the town of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. And this was, indeed, where Stanley was to find him.

Provisioning an African expedition

But the journey inland was perilous and logistically challenging. In the absence of any roads or wheeled vehicles or pack animals who could survive the dreaded tsetse fly, all provisions had to be carried by porters, hundreds of porters, who as well as food and drink carried the trade goods and gifts which had to be doled out liberally to all the tribal chiefs whose territory had to be crossed.

Jeal goes into characteristic detail about the funding, recruiting and provisioning for the great adventure. He hired local porter managers who had helped other explorers with their expeditions, and four white men to act as companions. Stanley led his large force out of Bagamoyo, the coastal port opposite Zanzibar, and into the interior on 21 March 1871. He had just turned thirty years old.

Summary of Stanley’s early life

What a life he had led! Just reading about his exploits is exhausting. Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his family, workhouse boy in a swamp of depravity, self educated, runaway to America where he acquired a new identity and reinvented himself as a buccaneering journalist in the Wild West, leader of absurd adventures on rivers and into faraway Turkey before bluffing his way into a top job as foreign correspondent with America’s premier newspaper, reporting from all over Europe and the Middle East. And only now, aged 30, embarking on the great adventure which would make his name and which, in turn, inaugurated 16 years of exploring, trekking, fighting, signing trade deals and mapping out huge swathes of unexplored central Africa.

He had packed more into his life before he set out to find Livingstone, aged 29, than many adventurers could claim to have experienced in their entire lives. (p.469)


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Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

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