Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part one

‘The mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild unexplored country is very great.’
(David Livingstone Last Journals, 1874, quoted on page 248. Ironically, Livingstone suffered appallingly from a wide range of African diseases and was in almost constant discomfort and sometimes terrible pain during most of his journeys)

There’s quite a lot of overlap with his earlier books. Jeal published his ground-breaking biography of David Livingstone as far back as 1973. Sections of this were obviously recycled into his huge and meticulously researched life of Stanley (2007) which I’ve just read. I recognised not just facts and events but phrases from the Stanley book repeated in this one.

Jeal’s account doesn’t start chronologically, but plonks us in media res with Livingstone landing on the east coast of Africa in March 1866, and describing his journey to the interior, before going back to recapitulate his career, and then – after this warm-up – to recapitulate the entire history of exploration of the Nile going back to the ancient Greeks. (A lot later, Jeal explains that he opened the entire book with the Livingstone venture because it is virtually a compendium of everything which could possibly go wrong for a European explorer [p.253].)

The Greeks recorded rumours they heard about the Nile and were the first to talk about the ‘mountains of the moon’ (Ptolemy, p.26). Alexander commissioned an expedition which didn’t get far. Nero commissioned another one which got bogged down in the Sudd, the vast expanse of swamp and papyrus 2,000 miles south of Alexandria, fluctuating in size but averaging some 30,000 square kilometres (p.24, 25, ).

The existence of the Sudd explains why it was thought reasonable by the geographical societies of various European nations to try and ascertain the source of the Nile from the south by entering either from east Africa, whose most popular jumping off point was the town of Bogamoy opposite the island of Zanzibar; or, after Stanley had mapped it, from the river Congo in the west (though this remained the longer and more difficult route, because of the Congo’s many cascades and the way it was lined with violent tribes).

So Jeal’s book tells the stories of the (mostly British) explorers who tried to find the source, being:

  • David Livingstone, 1866 to 1871
  • Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, 1856 to 1859
  • Speke and James Grant, 1860 to 1863
  • Samuel Baker and Florence von Sass, 1862 to 1865

Judging and jurying

As in his biography of Stanley, Jeal’s narrative, on the surface, provides what are in effect BBC Bitesize summaries of the long books all these men published about their explorations. His narratives echo other narratives of their explorations for the simple reason that all later authors are reliant on their primary accounts. But another, important motor for the whole thing is his tendency to want to sort out controversies of the period. Thus the Stanley book is, in essence, a long attempt to rebut the many criticisms made of his hero and rehabilitate him.

Burton and Speke

Something similar happens here, especially in the several chapters about the ill-fated expedition of Richard Burton and John Speke, who ended up hating each other and expressing a vituperative feud via the letters page of the Times, in their various books and public lectures. Jeal doesn’t just tell us what happened, he goes to great pains to try and establish a final verdict on who was right, who was to blame, addressing what are obviously cruxes and key moments and then using thorough research to establish the rights and wrongs of each issue.

For example, one of the cruxes of the Burton versus Speke dispute is that Speke caught an earlier ship back to Britain and before the pair parted, in Aden, they made a pact to only present their findings to the Royal Geographic Society when Burton had joined him and they could do it as a pair. But no sooner had he arrived in London than Speke accepted an invitation to do just that and presented the expedition’s findings by himself, an act of perfidy, ‘a blackguard business’, which Burton excoriated Speke for in private and public, criticisms which were repeated by his widow in her biography of him and all six subsequent biographies. So Jeal devotes several pages trying to get to the bottom of the matter and reach a definitive judgement on the two men’s behaviour (pages 112 to 116).

Speke versus Petherick

Similarly, at the end of Speke’s separate expedition accompanied by Captain James Grant (1860 to 1863) Speke hurried through the last stages of the exploration because he was under the impression that John Petherick had been sent up the Nile by the Royal Geographic Society expressly to bring him much-needed supplies – and so was mortified and then livid to arrive at the scheduled meeting place of Gani and find no sign of Petherick or the boats or goods he was pledged to hand over. In the meantime Speke and Grant had been greeted, fed and watered by the freelance explorer Samuel White Baker. Only weeks later did Petherick arrive, with a harrowing tale of endurance and trials overcome to which Speke was obstinately unsympathetic.

This developed into another feud which Speke carried back to England, speaking badly of Petherick to the Royal Geographic Society (who had hired and paid him) in person, in lectures and in print, while Petherick and his feisty wife, replied in kind, fully justifying themselves and describing the terrible ordeals they’d undergone trying to deliver boats and supplies to Speke and Grant. Once again Jeal investigates the matter in detail in order to try and provide a definitive adjudication.

Speke’s suicide

Same again for a major biographical incident pertaining to this subject which was the death of John Speke by a gunshot wound as he was spending an afternoon out shooting on his uncle’s estate in the West Country. He had been scheduled to appear aT a massive, highly publicised debate with Burton the next day in Bath and, when he heard of Speke’s death, Burton immediately attributed it to suicide and fear that his (Speke’s) theories about the Nile would be refuted, an aspersion which has been repeated by Burton supporters down to the present day. Jeal, as you might expect, gives a detailed account of the gunshot, quoting the two eye witnesses on the spot, and uses this and other evidence (Speke had recently been enthusiastically talking about plans to return to Africa on a humanitarian mission to abolish slavery) to refute the suicide theory and promote the ‘death by accident’ theory – which is actually the finding the coroner returned at his post mortem. Jeal devotes an entire chapter to the subject, chapter 14, ‘Death in the afternoon’.

Frankly, I don’t really care and Jeal’s obsession with a careful, annotated forensic analysis of every one of these many contentious issues gets a bit wearing. Half way through the first expedition, Speke lost his temper with his loyal servant Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who had disobeyed a direct order, and resorted to punching him in the mouth, several times, knocking out some of his teeth. Well, it was a long time ago, in the middle of nowhere, when they’d been out of touch with normal Western manners for years, and were constantly ill and worn down, so it doesn’t surprise me very much. But it is typical of Jeal’s approach that he spends some time explaining all the extenuating circumstances to us in order to rehabilitate Speke’s ‘moral reputation’ (a phrase Jeal uses repeatedly, for example, pages 307, 324).

The endless vexations of African travel, and the hypersensitivity caused by repeated attacks of malaria, could sting the most patient of men into violent over-reaction. (p.146)

Jeal’s book contains a lot more explicating and justifying, judge and jurying than you might have expected.

Geography

he book is surprisingly light on the geography of its subject. If you want to find out out about the actual sources of the Nile, you’d do best to google it. This book only intermittently concerns itself with the actual geography of the river Nile, with maps of waterflow and so on. I learned a handful of things about the explorers’ theories: Livingstone thought the river Lualaba, which flows north parallel to Lake Tanganyika, was a source of the Nile. This is completely wrong. A tributary, the river Lukaga, flows out of the Lake Tanganyika west into the Luabala, which then flows north before making a huge curve round to the west to form the core tributary of the might river Congo. Nothing to do with the Nile.

Map showing the river Congo and its tributaries. At the far right is the long vertical blue strip of Lake Tanganyika and half way up on the left is the river Lukaga which drains it into the river Lualaba which flows north and, around Kisangani, changes its name to the Congo and describes a vast arch to the west and south. By contrast, you can see that Lake Victoria (over on the right) drains north, just to the east of Kampala, into Lake Kyoga (not named on this map), continues as a river to the northern tip of Lake Albert before emerging as the White Nile to flow north into Sudan, to Juba and beyond

Burton and Speke fell out because Burton speculated that Tankanyika flowed out into a northern river which must form an origin of the Nile, but he was wrong. The river he placed his hopes on flows into the lake. Lake Tanganyika, it turns out, drains westward via a river which flows into the Luabala i.e. the Congo.

Speke was correct in speculating that the main source of the white Nile was a river leading from the northern end of Lake Victoria and via a succession of smaller lakes. He was, however, prevented from directly following the course of these rivers because the tribal chieftains he stayed with on uneasy terms wouldn’t let him.

On the map below you can see how the stretch called the Victoria Nile flows north from Lake Victoria into Lake Kyoga, then curves north and west to flow to the northern tip of Lake Albert. Here it forms a marshy delta and out of this a river exits Lake Albert flowing north which, for this stretch, is known as the Albert Nile, before crossing the border from Uganda into South Sudan, at which point it becomes known as the White Nile.

But for me the most striking thing about this map is it vividly shows how bewilderingly complicated the river networks of the region are, so that you can fully understand why the handful of white men who were the first to explore it, in incredibly patchy ways, limited in where they could go by rival tribal chieftains or lack of porters or food, and the fact that most of them were very ill most of the time (Burton was too ill to walk for most of his expedition, Speke had to be carried in a litter for months at a time, Baker and his mistress nearly died of fever on several occasions, as described, for example, on pages 230 to 235) found it so hard to arrive at a definitive answer.

Rivers and lakes of Uganda. Source: Wikipedia

It was Baker who proved that most of the flow of the Nile actually derives from the so-called Blue Nile which flows out of the mountains of Ethiopia. It is the heavy rains which falls in theses mountains in late summer which account for the annual influx of the Nile.

Violence

Instead Jeal’s narrative is very much about the human relations between the leaders of the expeditions, their men, being (the often Arab) ‘captains’ of the huge numbers of native African porters they hired (they were contracted and paid in a regular way).

And most vivid of all with the many tribal rulers and kings that they encountered on their long, arduous, and highly dangerous ventures. All kinds of anecdotes, stories atrocities leaped off the page at me.

In July 1870 Livingstone was forced back to the Arab slave-trading depot of Bambarre where he witnessed the rapacious violence of the Arab slave trade. Forty Manyema were killed one day, nine another, a hundred the day after that. He saw the smoke curling up from distant villages and distant shots as settlements were massacred (p.20).

While there one of the six who had deserted him was killed and eaten. Cannibalism was rife in all the experiences of the explorers.  Livingstone learned that slaves who had died of illness or famine, were being exhumed, cooked and eaten (p.22).

Alexandrine Tinné, born 1835, was a rare female explorer. The richest heiress in Holland, she embarked on a well organised expedition up the Nile and got as far as Khartoum where her mother and aunt, who’d accompanied her, died of disease. In 1869, in an attempt to cross the Sahara, she was hacked to death by Tuareg tribesmen, aged 33.

In both books Jeal describes the massacre of Manyema women in the market square of the village of Nyangwe on the right bank of the river Lualaba carried out by Arab slavers keen to spread terror, which Livingstone witnessed at first hand and vividly described (p.32).

Three men of Dugumbé ben Habib massacre women at the market of Nyangwe on the river Lualaba, 15 July 1871. Illustration from the Journals of David Livingstone (p.255)

Johann Ludwig Krapf (b.1810) was a German missionary in East Africa who explored East Africa with Johannes Rebmann. They were the first Europeans to see Mount Kenya, in 1850. He narrowly escaped being killed by a group of Masai warriors who butchered their African porters (p.40).

Richard Burton was immensely talented and clever, speaking half a dozen languages, but never fit in, and was very precious about his reputation, one of the causes of his feud with his companion on the expedition of 1856-59, John Speke. Burton is quoted as describing the society created by the British in India as: ‘like that of a small county town suddenly raised to the top of the tree [where it lost its head] accordingly.’ (p.37).

Jeal gives a full description of the incident on Burton and Speke’s expedition into Ethiopia when their camp at Berbera was attacked and Burton received a spear through the mouth, entering one cheek and exiting the other, shattering several teeth, and how the captured Speke was tied up and then punctured with a spear for entertainment (pages 50 to 54).

To give them a sense of the world they were entering, the British consul on Zanzibar took Burton and Speke to prison to meet an African locked up because he’d been found guilty of playing a drum while tribesmen had tortured, mutilated, then beheaded an explorer named Lieutenant Eugène Maizan. They were Zaramo tribesmen under Hembé, the son of Chief Mazungera, and they tied Maizan to a calabash tree, amputated his limbs and sliced off his genitals while still alive, before beheading him. He was 25 (pages 67 and 129).

Broadly speaking, Burton despised Africa’s blacks, appalled by their illiteracy and lack of culture, and thought the widespread slave trade was their own fault for failing to fight back. Fluent in Arabic, he admired Islamic culture and got on well with the Arabs they met. He thought Britain’s anti-slavery efforts were futile and despised the bien-pensant anti-slavery activists back in Britain who knew nothing of the real conditions of Africa.

Speke, on the other hand, also initially dismissive of black Africans, came to admire and respect them and to loathe the Arabs they met, almost all of whom were involved in the slave trade and implicated in dire atrocities, village burning, massacres, enslaving women and children. Travelling the same route years later, Stanley found many of the African leaders he met spoke warmly of Speke and his respect and sympathy.

That said, Burton did take a five year old slave away from one of the head porters, Mabruki, because he continuously beat and mistreated him, and gave him to the kindlier Bombay (p.105)

None of the locals the explorers met understood their obsession with knowing about lakes and rivers, their names and size and position and flow. For all the Africans they met, these water features were just there. Instead a lot of the locals were made suspicious about the white men’s endless questions, suspecting them of spying or, on a less educated level, were made anxious that their incessant questions and requests would lead to bad luck and disaster (p.87). It was best to say they’d come in search of particular goods or treasures; Africans immediately understood material motives (p.96).

On Burton and Speke’s return journey to Zanzibar (when they both had to be carried in litters, they were so ill) one of the head porters they’d taken on at Ujiji (on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika) had been loitering behind because his woman was too footsore to keep up with the caravan’s pace. Eventually she could go no further and so he cut off her head to prevent her becoming another man’s property (p.105).

Mutesa king of Baganda and his palace on Mengo Hill were the most impressive ruler and royal compound Speke and Grant encountered, an entire hill covered with giant huts (p.147).

Mengo, capital of the Kingdom of Buganda in the time of King Mutesa I (1837 to 1884). Engraving by A. Sargent from Unexplored Africa by Henry Morton Stanley (1887)

Speke was struck by how tall, noble and handsome Mutesa was and drew a sketch which survives to this day. It was only as the days passed that they began to witness sights of casual brutality and murder. They witnessed servants and even some of the king’s 400 or so wives being dragged off to be executed on the slightest whim (p.153). A favourite wife prompted an outburst of psychotic rage when she offered the king a piece of fruit when it was the job of a specified court functionary. Mutesa began beating her with a stick and yelled for his executioner to drag her off and behead her, till Speke intervened to save her life. A royal page who misinterpreted a message from Speke to the king had his ears cut off. A woman ran away from her cruel husband and was sheltered by an old man. They were discovered and both imprisoned, fed and watered while parts of them were amputated each day and fed to waiting vultures. And so on (p.162).

Though they didn’t learn it till later, Mutesa had sacrificed over 400 people in a vast ritual sacrifice to celebrate the coming of the white man (p.144). Every day Speke and Grant walked past the hut of Maula, Mutesa’s chief enforcer, and heard the cries and screams of torture victims (p.164). The longer they stayed, the more nervous they became about the safety of themselves and their porters. And the continuity between the brutal lack of respect for human life of rulers like Mutesa and of post-independence African rulers, for example, Idi Amin, strikes the modern reader. Later on we learn that when Mutesa was dying of illness he had thousands of his subjects killed in ritual executions to appease the ancestral spirits. ‘As many as two thousand were executed in a day.’ (p.374).

One of the features of Mutesa’s court was how fat his wives were. They were force fed milk and goodies until they swelled up like balloons. Speke became very friendly with the women of the court, unashamedly falling in love with one (Méri, pages 158 to 162), and developing a close friendship with Mutesa’s mother, who he treated for her various medical ailments, thus acquiring a reputation as a doctor (p.154). And the fat women allowed him to get a tape measure and take their dimensions.

King Mutesa I affected a stylised way of walking, designed to copy the gait of a lion, which Speke found unintentionally hilarious (Ministry of Silly Walks). He had sense enough to keep a straight face, as did every other member of the king’s court for fear of being dragged off for execution.

When Samuel White Baker and his enamorata Florence von Sass travelled deep into Bunyoro, Baker repeatedly thought he was so ill he was going to die. Florence was so sick of fever she almost stopped breathing and the porters started digging a grave outside her tent. The couple were kept in a form of house arrest by King Kamrasi. On the way into Bunyoro and back again to the Nile, Baker was forced to keep company with the much larger caravan of a slave trader, Ibrahim it was the only way to guarantee protection from attacking tribes. They tried to mitigate the slavers’ habitual cruelty. Baker intervened to prevent a girl slave and her mother who had tried to escape from being hanged; Florence cared for small slave children.

When Baker and Florence finally made it to Khartoum in 1865, it was soon after some 500 of the garrison of 4,000 had died of the plague. Incurable, virulent disease was everywhere (p.240).

On  his 1866 journey along the Rivola river Livingstone saw evidence of the Arab slavers’ brutal treatment of enslaved Africans everywhere: a woman tied round the neck and to a tree and left to die; groups of corpses, some shot, some stabbed to death, some tied together and left to starve and rot. He wrote extended letters to the British Foreign Secretary demanding that the slavers’ island of Zanzibar be blockaded by the Royal Navy (p.249).

African words

Jeal uses these words without explaining what language they’re from. Maybe they are from a variety of languages since they appear derive from various tribes, some from India.

  • banians – merchant (254)
  • bomas – hedges
  • dahabiya – large Nile pleasure boat
  • kabaka – king
  • lukiiko – Mutesa’s senior advisers (150)
  • machilla – hammock for sick white men carried by porters (84)
  • mbugu – triangular bark-cloth bikini bottoms worn by African women (208)
  • omukana – traditional title of the kings of Bunyoro (170)
  • nganga – witch doctor (159)
  • namasole – title of the king’s mother (154)
  • nyasa – large body of water, lake (98)
  • nganga – witch doctor (159)
  • pombé – beer (154)
  • wakil – agent (175)
  • wakungu – courtiers (154)
  • wangwana – name given to free Africans originally brought to Zanzibar by slavers, who gained their freedom and hired themselves out as porters for pay

African kings

  • Fowooka, an ally of Riongo (237)
  • Kabarega, king of Bunyoro in 1871 (338)
  • Kamrasi, ruler of Bunyoro (225)
  • Katchiba, chief of the Obbo (222)
  • Mahaya, the chief at Mwanza
  • Machunda, king of Ukerewe and Mtiza
  • Mutesa, king of the Baganda people
  • Nchuvila of Kinshasa (355)
  • Sekeletu, chif of the Kololo (246)
  • Commoro, chief of the Latuka

According to Speke, Kamrasi of the Bunyoro was a much better ruler than Mutesa of the Baganda, a lot less brutal (p.238).

Summary

You learn something but not that much about the actual geography of the river Nile, although repeated mentions of the names of the major lakes does build up a good mental image of the region. You learn an awful lot about the squabbles and fallings out of the various explorers, and the rivalries and small p politics of exploration, which set them all at loggerheads. More than these, you learn all about the gruelling journeys, the many illnesses they endured and the difficulties of dealing with local tribes and chiefs.

But above all, to open this book is to enter a realm of astonishing brutality, violence, murder, torture and cannibalism.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


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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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