“The Heroes of America.” That was the name taken by a group of Unionists — Southerners who rejected secession — early in the Civil War. According to historian Eric Foner, some 10,000 Unionist men in western and central North Carolina formed the Heroes of America and leapt into action. They actually set up an “underground railroad” to help spirit fellow Unionist yeomen to Federal lines. This is one of the many memorable facts I’ve been reading about in Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Foner says the Heroes exemplified the worsening class resentment in southern society. He cites a North Carolina newspaper editor’s words to that effect: “This great national strife originated with men and measures that were … opposed to a democratic form of government … The fact is, these bombastic, highfalutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think … that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride and suspicion the poor.” As Foner notes, white yeomen ended up comprising the bulk of Confederate troops — as well as most of its deserters and draft resisters.
“None can escape its stroke.” President Trump’s apparently brusque words to a soldier’s widow — “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it hurts anyway” — reminded me of a more tender and effective public condolence delivered centuries ago. The solemn duty that day fell to Timothy Pickering, President Washington’s emissary at a peace council with Native American leaders in 1790 in northern Pennsylvania. Several Seneca trappers had been murdered earlier that year by drunken whites, and Pickering’s assignment was to properly honor the grieving families and thus keep the Seneca warriors from taking up arms. Here is what Pickering declared at the tense treaty ground: “Mothers, brothers and sisters, let me endeavor to assuage your grief. You enjoy the satisfaction of remembering the good qualities of your sons and brothers, of reflecting that they were worthy men, and of hearing their names mentioned with honor. Let these considerations afford you some comfort. Death, you know, is the common lot of all mankind, and none can escape its stroke. Some, indeed, live many years, till, like well-ripened corn, they wither and bend down their heads. But multitudes fall in infancy and childhood, like the tender shooting corn nipped by untimely frosts. Others again grown up to manhood are then cut off, while full of sap, and flourishing in all the vigor of life. The latter, it seems, was the state of our two deceased brothers. But my friends, they are gone, and we cannot bring them back. When the Great Spirit shall order it, we must follow them: but they cannot return to us. This is the unalterable course of things, and it is our duty patiently to bear our misfortunes.” Pickering recorded his poetic (and successful) words in his journal. I was pleased to include them as a highlight of my 2014 historical novel Visions of Teaoga.
Say What?! My wife and I have been listening to the new Slate Academy podcast series about the Reconstructionist era, and we both rose up in amazement a few minutes into the opening episode. The featured guest was University of Kentucky historian Amy Murrell Taylor, who was a fount of insights. Then the hosts mentioned her forthcoming book — titled Embattled Freedom. Ack! Her subtitle is Journeys through the U.S. Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps, whereas mine is Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North. I emailed Dr. Taylor to say she and I are the parents of virtual twins and to warn of possible confusion ahead. She said the reading public can probably handle it, and I suppose she’s right.
Meanwhile, allow me to bask for a moment. Mark Bowden, New York Times bestselling author of Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo and his latest, Hue 1968, just reached out to say this: “I finished your book, Jim. It’s a fine example of serious local history, which fleshes out in particulars the larger social issues over a century. I was very impressed with the work that went into it, and the straightforward narrative, from abolitionists to Civil War battles to the lasting shame of Jim Crow. Congratulations on it. Sad but important. I am as impressed that you decided to do it as I am by the quality of what you’ve done.”
More Book News. I’ll be giving five author talks and signings this month in support of my Embattled Freedom. Four of them are to membership groups and not open to the public. But the fifth one, an endowed lecture at the University of Scranton, is open to all. I’m honored to be part of the university’s Schemel Forum lecture series, and will give my talk Wednesday, Nov. 29, in collaboration with the Lackawanna Historical Society. The program is at 5:30 p.m. in the Weinberg Memorial Library on campus, followed by a reception at the historical society. The event is free, but RSVPs are required.