Varina by Charles Frazier


Hmm.  This was an interesting idea for a book, but it didn’t quite work for me.  As the title suggested, it was about Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and therefore First Lady of the Confederacy.  She was a very interesting person – not the Southern belle you might expect, but someone who was very well-educated, partly in Philadelphia of all places, not a strong supporter of either slavery or secession, not particularly keen on hostessing and not at all convinced that her husband was the right person to be president of the Confederacy.

I was expecting the book to be set largely during the war years, and it wasn’t.  That was my fault, not the author’s: there was no reason why the book should have focused on those years, rather than on aspects of Varina’s life before and after the war.   So, OK, I can’t really moan about that.  But I can moan about the way it jumped about.  One minute, Varina was in her late 70s, living in New York.  The next, she was a teenage girl in Mississippi.  Then she was in her late 30s, on the run after the Confederacy surrendered.  Then she was in her 20s, living in Washington.  It just jumped about all over the place, and that really made it very difficult to get into the story.

That was really rather a shame, because her life story was very interesting.  And intertwined with it was the fascinating story of Jimmie Limber, a young free mixed race boy, who was  taken in by the Davises during the war after Varina saw him being mistreated by his guardian.  Sadly, he became separated from them whilst they were captured.  It’s not clear whether or not they ever met again, but this book imagined him and Varina being reunited years later.  That could have worked very well.

So it could have been a very good book.  But all the jumping about and failure to get into any one particular time in Varina’s life didn’t really work for me.  I wasn’t expecting Gone With The Wind or North and South – and I’m afraid that my idea of Varina was largely drawn from the negative opinion held of her by Ashton Main Huntoon in the North and South books, which, given what a nasty character Ashton is, was silly of me:-) – but I was at least expecting a coherent narrative!

Hmm …


As Far As Blood Goes and A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab


I originally picked A Different Sin, the story of two newsmen who fall in love in 1850s New York, and the experiences of one of the two – the protagonist, David –  as a war artist, from my extensive TBR American Civil War books pile, to mark Pride month.  Then I found out that there was an earlier book, As Far As Blood Goes, about David’s half-brother Michael, who was born into slavery in Virginia but escaped to make a new life for himself in Massachusetts, and decided that, given the present circumstances, it’d be a good time to read that as well.

The story in the earlier book, which I think was the author’s debut novel, is pretty far-fetched, but it does do a reasonable job of getting across some of the horrors of slavery.  The second book is far better written, and works well both as a war novel and as a novel of a relationship between two men at a time when Western society didn’t accept same sex love.  It also addresses the frustration of black men wanting to enlist in the Union Army, with Michael’s eldest son eventually enlisting in the famous Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, and the attacks on black people in New York during the Draft Riots.  However, whilst it’s pretty good on facts and figures, I felt that it could have explained the causes of the war better.  Also, it all but ignored the fact the main character was a Southerner living and working in the North, which was rather odd.  But nothing’s perfect … and I’m *extremely* picky about novels covering this period of history.

The first book’s told entirely from Michael’s point of view, and the second book entirely from David’s point of view.  That’s a shame in a way, because it means we don’t get to share anyone else’s thoughts or feelings. On the other hand, it *is* all about them – Michael’s position as a black man born into slavery, David’s as a gay man born into a society which doesn’t accept same sex relationships – and so it’s their thoughts and feelings which really matter. The author’s done a very good job of avoiding extremes or stereotypes or preaching, and, although not without some quibbles, I enjoyed both books.

At the end of the second book, the lessons of both are brought together when David sees how horrific it is that society will allow people to be mistreated because of the colour of their skin, and yet, at the same time, condemns two people for being in love.  It’s rather sad that, 155 years later, there are still some people who are guilty on both counts.  #BlackLivesMatter #LoveisLove.

As Far As Blood Goes starts in the 1820s, in the very lovely town of Alexandria, where I stayed for a few nights in 2001.  A Dr Carter has two sons – David, his son by his late wife, Anne, who died when David was little more than a baby, and, barely a year younger, Michael, his unacknowledged son by his slavewoman, Hetty.  Hetty dies a few years into the book.  Michael’s everything he would have wanted in an acknowledged son, academic and hard-working and interested in medicine: David is only interested in art.

The author’s tried very hard not to go to any extremes, as I said.  Dr Carter isn’t evil Simon Legree, but nor is he beloved Gerald O’Hara.  It’s made quite clear that Michael and Hetty despise their status and long for freedom.  We also hear that Hetty had a husband and three children but was separated from them when her previous owner sold her.  And we see Michael’s best friend, Sammy, being sold south by his owner, a neighbour.  But Dr Carter isn’t, at this stage, cruel.  We also learn that he didn’t physically force Hetty, but that she was only compliant because she knew she had little choice.

And, unlike a lot of novels about slavery, there are no plantations here: we don’t get dozens of slaves working in the fields, and others working in a grand home.  That’s probably the image most people have of slavery in the South; but it wasn’t all like that, and it’s good to see a book showing that. We’ve got middle-class, urban families who each own two or three slaves.  We’ve also got free blacks, and slaves who are allowed to earn money by working for themselves, and hope to buy their freedom.  And we’ve got slave children, free black children and white children playing together.  Rather unrealistically, Michael tricks some of the white boys into helping him learn to read by asking them to teach him a few letters at a time.  When Dr Carter finds out, he’s OK about it, and Michael helps him with his medical work … until his baddie brother-in-law  (BBIL), who’s convinced that his sister (David’s mother) died from the shock of learning that her husband had been sleeping with their slave, finds out, and convinces the authorities that Michael’s a rebel (this is around the time of the Nat Turner Rebellion), and Michael’s flogged.

After this, Michael’s determined to escape.  He does so once, but is recaptured.  Dr Carter sells him to a slave trader gang, but one of his white erstwhile playmates helps him to escape, and he makes it to Philadelphia, then New York, then Maine, where he’s able to enter medical school.  I did say that the storylines were rather far-fetched!  But, OK, plenty of slaves did escape.  And, rather than take the surname Freeman, or the surname of a prominent Abolitionist, or indeed the surname Carter, he takes the surname Mabaya, the name of his great-grandfather, who was brought from Africa to America by slave traders: that but was excellent.

He becomes best friends with Isaac, a Jewish student who also feels that he’s treated as outsider.  They both qualify as doctors, move to Boston, become involved with the Anti-Slavery Society there, meet and marry nice young ladies, and have children.  Some well-known names feature – Oliver Wendell Holmes snr and Charles Sumner.  I’m so used to associating Sumner with the Preston Brooks incident that I’m afraid I don’t always remember all the important work he did.  However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 means that all the former slaves in Boston are living in fear of capture: some are helped by the Underground Railroad to leave for Canada.

There’s quite a lot about the Compromise of 1850, and also about medical history. Michael and Isaac are very involved in trying to prove that microbes cause cholera … and who should turn up at one of their lectures but Dr Carter, having seen the name Michael Mabaya and put two and two together.  He seems pleased that Michael’s done so well for himself, and says that he’ll buy him back from the slave trader gang and formally free him.

But then slave hunters turn up, and Michael’s taken back to Virginia.  It turns out that, unbeknownst to Dr Carter, the BBIL had bought him from the slave traders, and now plans to sell him south. The BBIL stuff is pretty stupid, but we do get an excellent depiction of a man being torn away from his wife, his children and his job, and taken back into slavery, and of the divisions within white American society over whether or not this is right.  This bit is very well done indeed.

Then one of Michael’s old pals helps him to escape (a lot of escaping goes on in this book), with the help of David.  But the BBIL turns up and, in all the kerfuffle, David is knocked over by a buggy, and badly injured.  Dr Carter is too shocked and nervy to operate, so Michael saves David’s life, whilst the BBIL’s threatening to shoot them all.  The BBIL’s a bit unhinged by events, and, in the confusion, signs a bill of sale which the Carters have hastily drawn up, selling Michael back to Dr Carter.  Dr Carter sets him free, and there’s a love-in and Michael says that he wants his father to get to know his children.

As I said, rather far-fetched!   But it does make some very good points about the horrors of slavery, about people being sold away from their families, about how people who’d escaped and forged new lives for themselves could be recaptured years later … and also about how plenty of slaves were actually the children or half-siblings of their owners.

In A Different Sin, with everyone now one big, happy family, and Dr Carter and David both regularly visiting Michael and his wife and children, we see David give up his job as a not very successful lawyer in Alexandria, and move to New York to work for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and become involved with Zach, a reporter for the Tribune.  They meet on a train: it’s amazing how many romances in books begin on trains!  Again, we meet several well-known names – Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman, Thomas Nast.  (Incidentally, Louisa M Alcott later had stories published in what was by then called Leslie’s Newspaper.)

Although the main plot is the relationship between David and Zach, it’s a Civil War novel (or whichever alternative name you prefer to use for the war between the United States and the Confederate States) and we do see military action, hospital scenes, and the Draft Riots.  Without writing an essay on the issues between the different groups of people in New York, amid rivalry for jobs and general racism, the Draft Riots, whilst New York was unique because of its “melting pot status”, say a lot about racial tensions within the cities of the Union states at the time.  We also, as I’ve said, hear about Michael’s son enlisting.

There’s a lot of factual information about the war and about political events, but the book does go too far down the road of the myth that the war was all about slavery and that Lincoln was some great civil rights hero.  It’s made clear that most white people in the Union states don’t regard black people as equals, and that a lot of them wouldn’t be fighting a war just about slavery, and the prejudice of the white soldiers against black soldiers is certainly made clear.  However, the Southern characters don’t talk about states’ rights, and the Northern characters don’t talk about the Union, and I wasn’t overly impressed with that.

Also, even after war breaks out, no-one seems very bothered that David’s a Virginian (albeit a Union sympathiser and opponent of slavery) working in the Union.  He does a lot of talking about “Rebs” and “Secesh”, so, OK, I think we can accept that he supports the Unionist cause, but he doesn’t ever seem to have an issue with the fact that his home state of Virginia’s on the other side.  I didn’t find that very realistic.  And he seems able to move between New York and Virginia remarkably freely!

It was actually more of a war novel and less of a romantic novel than I’d expected, because David and Zach are apart, and not even in touch, for much of it.  This is David’s choice.  Zach’s comfortable with who he is, but David’s convinced that it’s a sin and a “perversion”, and hates himself for it.  That doesn’t make for easy reading, but I think the author does do a good job, and certainly a very sympathetic one, of depicting his struggles with himself.  The issue is far more his struggle with himself than the views of other people, because hardly anyone else knows: most people keep asking him why he isn’t married, and – in another of the less realistic plots! – he meets a fellow war reporter who turns out to be a woman dressed up as a man because she wants an adventure/to be involved, and gets a bit involved with her.

Anyway, to get back to his time in New York,  he and Zach are caught by a mutual friend (it’s amazing how people in books, films and TV programmes never think to lock doors!), and it’s after that that he decides that he can’t cope with their relationship.  He and Zach fall out big time.  Zach has tried very hard to make him accept that it’s OK, but he can’t. So, to get away, he volunteers to be a war reporter/artist at the front – following General Meade, whom I feel I’ve “known” ever since I read North and South, in which he’s at West Point with Orry and George, when I was 11, and then General Grant in the long and eventually decisive campaign against General Lee. I’ve read both North and South and Gone With The Wind so many times that I was expecting him to be reporting on Sherman’s March, but that’s probably just me!

It does then become primarily a war novel, with a lot of detail about battle and camp life, but we do frequently see David thinking about the fact that he’s attracted to men and not attracted to women, and thinking about Zach.  Then, after a lot of blood and guts, and seeing the way the white soldiers treat the black soldiers – he saves the life of a black soldier who was about to be murdered in cold blood – the lessons of the two novels are pulled together when David sees how ridiculous it is that his society treats black people so badly and yet condemns two men for loving each other.  He goes back to New York, is reunited with Zach, and, presumably, they live happily ever after 🙂 .

But Dr Carter, who’d accepted and acknowledged Michael as his son, wouldn’t accept David’s homosexuality, and cut him off.  This all happened in rather a rush at the end, and maybe it could have been developed more fully, but, sadly, it’s – unlike some aspects of the books – very realistic.  And the ending was certainly interesting – I was expecting his experiences during the war to make David realise that life was too short not to be with the one you loved, etc, but the idea that it was seeing the way the black soldiers were treated that made him realise what was and wasn’t a sin actually worked much better.

OK, I seem to have written way too much here – 19th century American history specialist since I was 11, OK – so I shall shut up now!  But these were two very thought-provoking books, and I’m glad that I’ve read them.




Song of the Shuttle by Christine Evans


This is local history month, and, in any case, I’m always on the lookout for books about the Cotton Famine, my university dissertation topic.  There aren’t many of them around, so I was very pleased to find this one.  The author had obviously done a huge amount of research into the subject: there was a lot of information in this, and a lot of lovely descriptive passages as well.  The storyline got rather far-fetched, with everyone whizzing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in the middle of a war, and marrying people from different backgrounds, and there were a few other niggles too, but, overall, it was an entertaining read, for a 99p Kindle download.  My house is built on the site of an old reservoir, which was constructed as one of the Public Works projects which provided employment for people who were out of work as a result of the Cotton Famine.  That has got absolutely nothing to do with this book, but I like telling people about it 🙂 .

Our characters live in a town called “Gorbydale” (odd choice of fictional name!), somewhere on the moors near either Oldham or Rochdale.  There are a lot of references to an old Roman fort, and the only one I can think of round there is at Castleshaw, near Oldham; but the fact that it’s a weaving area rather than a spinning area, the use of “dale”, and the reference to an outing to Hollingworth Lake suggest that it’s more the Rochdale side.  And some of them live in “Doveton”, which I think’s meant to be more towards Oldham, maybe round the Delph area.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that a family of weavers would have been entertaining guests in the parlour and serving tea in the best china cups – although you never know, as wages in the cotton industry were pretty high in the 1850s, and this family was clearly meant to be relatively prosperous -, there were some excellent descriptions of the town, the mills, the homes, and Methodism which was (and is) quite big in the area.  Our heroine is Jessie, the daughter of the family.  Also featured are the family who own the local mills, which have glorious names like Invincible Mill and Endurance Mill.  Perseverance Mill was the more common one, but same general idea!  The millowners have got a handsome but idle son, Robert, and a spirited niece, Honora living with them.

There’s an unpleasant sub-plot in which an American business associate visits the millowners, and rapes their maid, who becomes pregnant.  The narrative makes out that it was all the maid’s fault.  Whilst that’s how people would probably have seen it at the time, I wasn’t very impressed that the narrative seemed to go along with that.  Another niggle was the mis-spelling of Fort Sumter as “Fort Sumpter”, but that can be forgiven.  The attitude towards Dolly the maid can’t.  One of Jessie’s brothers, Arden, is wrongly accused of being the father of Dolly’s baby … whereupon he takes off to America to fight for the Union, the war having begun by this point.

OK, there were certainly cases of men from Lancashire going to fight in the war.  So that was fair enough.  Less realistically, Robert, who’s got a bit involved with Jessie, then also takes off to America, to run the blockade and get himself to Louisiana, so that he can get some cotton and bring it back!   Twice.  This was where it started getting rather silly.  He then gets press-ganged into the Confederate army, is seriously injured, makes his way to the rapist business associate’s plantation, and is cared for by the slaves there.

Back in Gorbydale, it’s all rather more realistic – and very well-portrayed, with a lot of narrative about the problems caused by the infamous Surat cotton, and also about the establishment of sewing schools for unemployed women.  Jessie and Honora both get involved with a local sewing school and become friends.  They then head off to America, to look for Arden and Robert!   They just happen to find Arden.  Then they find the rapist business associate, who’s lurking around Washington as a spy, and help Allan Pinkerton to catch him.  And then they volunteer as Union nurses … despite the fact that Dorothea Dix was after women who were plain, over 30, and, presumably, American.  To be fair, it did mention that they didn’t exactly meet the requirements!  And who should somehow end up in their hospital but, you guessed it, Robert.

Robert recovers, and returns to England with Jessie (chaperoned by one of the former slaves, who then goes back to America.  There wasn’t half a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic, in the middle of a war!), everyone is apparently OK about him marrying a mill girl, and they get married.  Honora stays on in America to train as a doctor, as you do, and gets together with Arden.

By this time, it’d all got so far-fetched that I wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee had all rolled up in Gorbydale, to be served tea in the best china cups in the parlour.  However, it was a nice enough read, and the information about the effects of the Cotton Famine, the damage that it did it to the regional economy and the efforts that were made to ameliorate them, had obviously been researched in a lot of detail.  It really isn’t easy to find novels set during the Cotton Famine, and, for 99p, this one was certainly worth a go.



Copper – alibi


I don’t usually watch crime dramas, but, seeing as this one’s set in Civil War-era America – which I started reading up on when I was 11 – I thought I’d give it a go; and I’m quite enjoying it. It’s set in New York City, in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, and it’s not so much about the war or about crime as about the interactions between the Irish community, the black community and the wealthy WASP community. The three main characters, an Irish policeman, a black doctor and the son of a wealthy WASP industrialist, all served in the Union Army, and saw action together at the Battle of Chancellorsville … the site of which I dragged my long-suffering family round when I was a teenager. It also features Prussian prostitutes, political corruption and a lot of dead bodies.

It was shown in the US, by BBC America, in 2012-2013, but has only now appeared on British TV. And, sadly, there are only two series. I’m so sick of this happening! OK, some things do get past their sell-by date, but there’ve been so many good programmes which have been pulled after only one or two series.

Anyway. Our main guy is Kevin Corcoran, an Irish policeman based in the working-class, multi-ethnic Five Points area of New York City. At the start of the series, his daughter has just been murdered, and his wife is missing … although he doesn’t actually seem that bothered about his missing wife, and is quite happy with his mistress, the Prussian madam of a brothel.

There’d long been a substantial black community in Five Points, and, especially during and after the Potato Famine, large numbers of Irish immigrants, fleeing hunger and poverty, moved into the area. The other big group of immigrants in New York City at this time were the Germans, but they don’t really feature in this (apart from running brothels!). Racial tensions grew due to competition for jobs, and increased considerably after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, with many white working-class people believing that black people from the South would flood into the city, looking for employment.

The (in)famous “Tammany Hall” Democratic Party political machine had encouraged Irish immigrants to register as US citizens so that they could vote. When the draft for the Union Army took place in July 1863, black men were generally excluded as they weren’t regarded as citizens, and wealthy white men could buy their way out of it by paying for a substitute. This left white working-class men, many of whom, in New York City, were Irish. Violence broke out, and the rioters targeted black people – who were hardly to blame for the grossly unfair draft system. Tragically, over 100 people were killed, and considerable damage was done to homes and businesses.  Many black people then moved away from the area, into Upper Manhattan – the violence changed the area for ever.

Going back to the draft system itself, talk about a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.  And it was the same on both sides.  OK, plenty of rich men did fight, most of them volunteering, but the draft system was appalling.  The list of draft-dodgers who paid for working-class men to take their places includes Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.

The series starts the following year, but the shadow of the Draft Riots hangs over it. The wife of Matthew Freeman, the black doctor, lost her brother in the riots. There’s been some criticism over the character of Freeman, with people saying that there wouldn’t have been any black doctors in the US at this time, but he’s actually based on a real person – James McCune Smith, who was born into slavery, freed when New York state finally emancipated its slaves in 1827, qualified as a doctor in Glasgow, and then returned to New York – moving out to Upper Manhattan after his apothecary’s shop was destroyed during the Draft Riots. However, Freeman, unlike Smith, wasn’t freed: he ran away. He does a lot of forensics work for his pal Corcoran, and it’s interesting to see what forensics were like in the 1860s.

Then there’s Robert Morehouse, who’s from a wealthy WASP family, and whose life Freeman, his one-time valet, saved. Quite a bit of the action is set in the Morehouse home, and most of it involves his British wife, who’s very supportive of the black community – the white elite in New York City provided a lot of aid to black people affected by the Draft Riots – and her circle.

It is intended as a crime drama, and people do keep being murdered! But the murders always take us into the complexities of these different communities, and the interactions between them. Sadly, not much is said about the actual war and its causes and effects, although there’s been one interesting argument between Corcoran and Freeman about whether the war was to free slaves or force the seceded states back into the Union.  I’m with Freeman on this one: no-one is telling me that the war was fought to free slaves.

It’s not exactly deep and meaningful, but I think it works quite well even so. This isn’t some silly little spoilt snowflake saying that all pictures of white men should be ripped off university walls just purely because they’re of white men, and thinking that that shows how “woke” she is. This is an accurate portrayal of a time and a place, and of how things were in that place at that time. We see that, whilst some of the Morehouses’ friends are of the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” country club sort, the tensions between different groups are arising mainly because of socio-economic conditions. One thing that hasn’t really been gone into is how it’s unscrupulous employers who benefit from this – when the working-classes are divided, it’s far easier to keep wages low and working conditions poor.

There’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of swearing – the language used is of the time, so it includes the use of words that are now seen as highly offensive but are historically accurate. The N-word is used to describe black people, and Jews are referred to as “Hymies”. It’s not for the faint-hearted. And it’s not the best series ever, but it’s not bad. I’m just sorry that there’s so little of it. Why do TV companies keep scrapping things so quickly?! Mercy Street, The Crimson Field, Home Fires … bring them back, please!!

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira


I was very sorry that both The Crimson Field and Mercy Street were cancelled – having been interested in the history of nursing in wartime since I read the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was in the third year infants 🙂 – and I’m always up for an American Civil War book. So this book, about a young woman working in a Union army hospital in Washington DC, definitely appealed. I didn’t find it nearly as good as it was hyped up to be; but it was quite interesting, and it certainly depicted the horrific conditions in wartime hospitals very well.

The basic storyline was that Mary Sutter, a 20-year-old woman from a well-to-do middle-class family in upstate New York, was a skilled midwife who wanted to become a surgeon. I’m not convinced that, in the 1850s and 1860s, a young single woman from a wealthy family in the eastern US would have been working as a midwife, but never mind!  She was repeatedly turned down for apprenticeships (the idea of applying to medical college doesn’t seem to have come into it), but, when war broke out, ran away from home to apply to become a nurse.

Being very young and quite attractive, she was turned down by Dorothea Dix, the Union Army’s Superintendent of Nurses. I first came across Dorothea Dix when I was 12, in John Jakes’s wonderful Love and War, in which Virgilia Hazard became an army nurse. Virgilia was plain-looking and over 35, so she met Miss Dix’s requirements!  Mary didn’t, but she eventually persuaded a doctor to let her work in his hospital, by agreeing to see to the cleaning and supplies and so on as well … and, of course, she did a great job, and assisted in some surgery.

What the book did well was to make a point about the lack of opportunities for women, and also about the appalling conditions within the wartime hospitals. Just going off the point slightly, one thing that never comes up in discussions about Gone With The Wind is that Scarlett and Melanie both worked in a hospital in Atlanta almost throughout the war. And, looking at real life people, Louisa M Alcott worked as a nurse during the war, and she was actually at the front. Er, where was I? Conditions in wartime hospitals. As the author pointed out, it didn’t seem to occur to the authorities – and you can say the same about both the Union and Confederate sides – to try to learn from Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War. The book really did get that across very well.

However, some of the plot was more than a bit daft. Everyone kept falling in love with everyone else. Mary and a new neighbour fell in love after about two minutes, then two minutes later he fell in love with and married her twin sister. There was this whole cliched twin thing going on – Jenny got the looks, Mary got the brains. Two surgeons also fell in love with Mary, and she seemed to be in love with both of them as well. And one of her midwifery patients left her husband two minutes after meeting Mary’s brother.

There was also a rather melodramatic plot in which Jenny died in childbirth and everyone blamed Mary for not having been there – and Mary felt particularly guilty as part of the reason she’d run away was that she was in love with Jenny’s husband. Not to mention a bizarre back story about how all Mary’s matrilineal ancestors had been midwives and one of them had delivered a dauphin of France. And, although the actual military campaigns were mentioned, no-one seemed very interested in the actual causes of the war, or what they were fighting for.

So it’s not the greatest book you’ll ever read, but it’s not bad, and it does tackle the important subject of medical treatment during wartime. I’m rather confused by some of the reviews which seem to put it in the same league as Gone With The Wind and North and South, which it most certainly is not, but I’ve read worse … and it’s only the author’s first published novel.   And I do wish the TV companies would bring back The Crimson Field and Mercy Street


American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4


It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!