Slavery was sadly familiar during the early decades of an independent America. Here, Ian Craig discusses the failure of compromise during the years from 1789 until the US Civil War. In particular he considers the sectional divide between the North, South, and – later – Western American states.

You can also read Ian’s series on President James Buchanan and the US Civil War here.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

In the history of the United States, the nation has long been divided along sectional lines, most notably North and South.  In 1789, when the Constitution became the law of the land, compromise had been used to get the states to agree on the new form of government.  The Three-Fifths Compromise was one such example.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the economy of the South, while the North began to rely heavily on its manufacturing industry. When it came time to decide representation in the new Congress, the Southern states demanded that their slave population be counted toward their population total.  Since the North did not support slave labor and had a growing abolitionist movement, it disagreed with the South’s proposal.  Instead, the authors of the Constitution, including James Madison, came up with a compromise.  The South’s total slave population would not count towards representation, only three-fifths of its slave population would be counted towards each southern states’ population.  This compromise managed to win support on both sides, but the debate and compromise over slavery did not end there.

When President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he had no idea that it would help spark further debates over slavery.  The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States with most of its territory lying northwest of the Mississippi River.  The acquisition of such a vast territory was seen by many Americans as progress for the young nation.  No one considered the idea that as more territory was added to the nation, that slavery’s expansion would take center stage.  In 1819, the first debate over slavery’s expansion into the western territories took place.  Missouri, which was relatively more north than south, wanted to enter the Union as a slave state.  However, this would upset the balance of power between slave and free states in the Senate.  The South needed to maintain this due to the fact that the North’s greater population often gave them more support in the House of Representatives.  In an attempt to put an end to the issue, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky came up with a compromise.  He called for slavery to be banned in the region northwest of Missouri and for Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) to enter the Union as a free state.  This compromise was agreed to and attempted to hold the nation together for another thirty years.  However, when the compromise was passed in 1820, it merely put a temporary fix on the growing issue of slavery.  It did nothing to settle the growing sectional divide the nation was facing as well.

 

Sectionalism in the US

Sectionalism was deeply rooted in the United States.  When the nation was founded in 1776, many Americans had more loyalty to their individual states rather than the nation as a whole.  This was because many felt that their own state governments represented their best interests because they were their neighbors and friends in some cases. In conjunction with this, many did not trust the new federal or central government.  This goes back to the trade off between having a king thousands of miles away to having many “kings” a mere couple hundred miles away.  It was for this reason that the original government of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was made relatively weak.  Under the Articles, there was not one single leader, but many in a representative body or congress.  This Congress was led by a president, but this person was by no means the President of the United States.  In addition, the government had no power to collect taxes or to raise them nor could it regulate trade or create a standing army and navy to defend the nation.  In these terms, the States had all the power as it was intended to be.  Therefore, the Continental Congress had to ask the states to raise funds and relied on the states to provide their militias in times of war.  The Articles left the federal government extremely weak, the Founding Fathers did not want to have a repeat of the rule they had under King George III and Great Britain.   

The federal government would become much stronger when the Constitution was passed in 1789; however, the individual loyalty to one’s state remained.  Often America was referred to as “these United States” instead of a single nation “The United States.” It is this sentiment that began to take hold after 1820. In 1848, when the U.S.-Mexican War came to an end, more territory was added to the nation through the Mexican Cession.  This included land that would become the American southwest and California.  When gold was discovered in California in early 1848, prospectors and settlers flocked to the territory causing its population to rapidly increase.  By 1850, California was ready to enter the Union and become the thirty-first state. However, the majority of the population had come from areas that did not support slavery and as a result, California had wished to enter as a free state.

 

The Compromise of 1850

This concept had re-opened the door for slavery’s debate in the nation.  Although it had never gone away, it now became a topic for discussion for many. President Zachary Taylor wanted to see California admitted into the Union as soon as possible.  He recognized the sizzling debate of slavery which was growing over the nation, but he felt that a quick admission would solve the issue. In contrast, allowing California to enter the Union as a free state would upset the balance of power in the Senate. Something had to be given to the South for compensation.  This led to the Compromise of 1850 which began under Henry Clay but was resolved under Senator Stephen Douglas.  

In order to appease both sides, Douglas was able to come up with five resolutions that would require a vote. They included allowing California to enter as a free state, the ban of the slave trade in Washington D.C., the creation of a new Fugitive Slave Law, that popular sovereignty be allowed in the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and that Texas’ border dispute with New Mexico be resolved.[1]  President Taylor threatened to veto the legislation if it came to him because he did not want any chance of slavery entering the western territories.  This surprised those in the South who believed that Taylor, a Southerner himself, had betrayed them.  In July 1850, the president’s unwillingness to compromise seemed to be taking hold.  However, President Zachary Taylor died of presumed food poisoning after eating cherries and drinking a pitcher of milk.  His vice president, Millard Fillmore, had no issue signing the Compromise of 1850 as he believed he had once and for all settled the question of slavery’s expansion.  Instead, he only made the issue much worse. 

 

Disputes in the 1850s

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that the North no longer became a safe haven for escaped slaves.  Instead, those in the northern states were required by law to aid slave catchers in their retrieval of runaway slaves.  Any violation of the law would result in fines and even jail time.  With this act in place, the federal government was essentially allowing slavery to continue while keeping it enforced.  In the eyes of the North, this was a betrayal by the federal government as it appeared to be helping the South continue slavery not end it.  By 1854, the debate which was thought to have ended with the Compromise of 1850 heated up again.  Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, governments were formed for the territories of Kansas and Nebraska allowing for popular sovereignty.  At the same time, the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in those territories for thirty years, was repealed.  This caused much concern for those in the North.

Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was also authored by Stephen Douglas, attempted to appease both sides, it ended up causing much violence in the region.  When Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a free state, pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally.  This resulted in the election of a pro-slavery government.  In what would become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces would battle for control of the territory.  This would continue until President James Buchanan sent the military to secure fare elections; however, it wasn’t until 1861 that Kansas was admitted as a free state.  

The sectional wound that the nation felt only became worse after the 1854 Act.  “Bleeding Kansas” was a snapshot of what would come during the US Civil War.  Compromise failed in many ways, but ultimately if failed because the sectional wound between the North, South, and eventually the West, was never resolved. Each compromise or act only put a temporary bandage on a wound that needed stitches to fully heal.  However, all sides refused to find that resolution because they all believed their point of view was correct.  They did not have any regard for the integrity of the nation, instead it was for their individual homes or states.  When the Civil War broke out and South Carolina seceded from the Union, a man who would go down in history was offered a much different path. President Lincoln authorized Francis P. Blair Sr., an advisor, to offer Robert E. Lee full command of the Union Army to put down the rebellion in the South.  Despite his loyalty to the United States, Lee refused because he could not help lead an invasion of his native home Virginia and the South.  Like Lee, many others felt the same way in taking up arms to either defend or fight against the United States.

 

What do you think of the article? Let us know below.      


[1]James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rded, (McGraw-Hill, 2001), 74. 

Over 150 years after its end, the American Civil War continues to provoke debate and controversy. One of the longest running debates is whether and how the South could have won the war. Here, Casey Titus explains some theories on this ever-topical subject.

The Confederate Cabinet from  Harper’s Weekly , June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Confederate Cabinet from Harper’s Weekly, June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. While both the armies of the Union and the Confederacy sustained devastating casualties, the American South bore the brunt of this carnage economically for years postbellum. Forty percent of the South’s livestock was killed. Over two-thirds of the South’s rails and bridges were destroyed. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenses, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age died during the war, which left alarming numbers of families destitute. The end of the Civil War saw a large migration of former slaves to the cities whose dislocations caused a severe negative impact on the black population, with large numbers of sick and dead. 

With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 the American Civil War had finally reached its conclusion. In just four years, the newly formed Confederate States of America that had so confidently entered the war in defense of what they viewed as state sovereignty had dissolved back into the Union. Debates among historians continue today on what the South could have done differently to achieve victory in a war in which time was on the side of the much more industrialized North. To better understand how the South could have possibly achieved its goal of a lasting secession it is important to first consider the in some ways overwhelming strengths of the Union.

 

The Power of the Union

General Lee himself recorded after his surrender, “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources…” There were 20 wholly Union/Northern states with 5 border “slave” states fighting against 11 Southern states. The passage of time on incomplete or lost records has made it difficult to estimate the exact number of soldiers on either side of the war. At best guess, the Confederate Army likely consisted of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 men. The Union was estimated to have 1,550,000 to 2,400,000 soldiers, clear numerical advantage. In addition to this, new conscripts were readily available for the North in the form of immigrants who faced such dire circumstances in their homelands that joining the Union Army seemed a better alternative. Immigration to the South was however limited due to the extensive blockade of its ports.

With industrial superiority, the Union states possessed a much greater capacity to produce armaments and the infrastructure necessary to move supplies efficiently. Financially the North also possessed a great advantage as the South’s primarily export based economy was also greatly hampered by the Union blockade.

 

Theories from the South and North

Many Southerners however, were convinced that they possessed superior soldiers and leadership and were fighting in defense of their homeland. Yet, some modern historians attribute the Confederacy’s loss to Lee’s aggression in offensive tactics rather than the more successful strategies of defensive approaches or even guerilla warfare after Appomattox, one of the last battles of the American Civil War. Historians hypothesize that Lee should have held the North at bay until it got tired of the clash and instead sought the route to a negotiation. Others are certain that the Confederates could have won if Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama as well as the Shenandoah Valley, were held by them beyond the 1864 election. The Shenandoah was a strategy favored by the Confederates for its terrain that was west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stretching from the southwest to the northeast. This route conveniently funneled troops for deployment.

Early in the war, the Confederacy had the upper hand following repeated victories. While not a complete victory like the Union later on achieved, the Confederates wanted to negotiate rather than conquer the North. By 1863, President Lincoln and his cabinet were reduced to three strategies for winning the war. First, a massive area of the Confederate States needed to be conquered and occupied, preferably the size of the whole of Western Europe. Second, the South’s infrastructure had to be demolished. Third and possibly most difficult to achieve was annihilating the South’s armies as an effective fighting force. The Union may have possessed superior manpower and material resources, being industrial while the South was mainly agricultural, but the South still had at least four well-established advantages from the start of the war that counteracted the North’s manpower and material resources.

 

The South’s 4 Advantages

First, a psychological benefit was associated with the Confederacy’s need to protect their family, homes, and lifestyles. It can be observed that the South possessed a more determined fighting spirit than the North on many occasions. Second, the South was filled with rivers, mountains, and swamps that acted as fortresses combined with successful deployments of armies. Third, and surprisingly, the South’s resources in life’s necessities such as livestock and corn were greater than that of the North. Fourth and most well-known, the Confederacy was abounding with cotton. Cotton would have been considered an economic or diplomatic factor as the cotton was in the hands of the Confederacy as a cash crop of substantial value. However, as the war carried on, planting was reduced and bales prepared for shipments were burned, thereby discouraging overseas exports. 

Military leadership and experience, specifically those in their respective Commander-in-Chief, was starkly contrasting between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Union President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was lacking in military experience when elected president in 1860. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, he shortly served as an officer in the Illinois state militia, but saw no combat. During the Mexican-American War, Lincoln fiercely criticized President James K. Polk for hounding Mexico and engaging in western land grabs that only benefited slaveholders. During the Fort Sumter crisis, Lincoln issued conflicting orders to the navy, resulting in confusion. A humiliating Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run took place when he put pressure on the army to mount an immediate assault on Richmond in the summer of 1861 against advice. Despite his inexperience, Lincoln was a hands-on commander-in-chief, studiously learning the business of war, testing new weapons on the White House lawn, and reading books on military strategy from the Library of Congress. 

Davis, on the other hand, had a decorated political and military career. He was a West Point graduate with seven years of service in the frontier army, a Mexican-American War veteran (wounded in battle), and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Even during his time as the Confederacy’s first president, his hunger for war never left him. During the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in July 1961, Davis fled his office in Richmond and sprinted towards the sound of the fighting, some believe with the intent of assuming the command of the troops and leading them into battle. Despite his habit of micromanaging more than Lincoln, Jefferson Davis proved an effective administrator and motivator of men. He operated under a similar command structure as Lincoln in constitutional terms. Under the Confederacy’s constitution, Davis would serve a six-year term and was forbidden from running again after that term was up.

 

How the South could have won

With the backgrounds of respective leaders and war advantages and motivations established, it is time to overview options the Confederacy could have taken that may have well guaranteed victory over the Union, ending the American Civil War. 

If the Confederates exported cotton as much as possible to Europe, most notably Great Britain before it sought cotton elsewhere in India or Egypt for a cheaper price, before the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports, then the Confederacy could have established lines of credit to buy war material. This could have been utilized to construct and repair the broken-down railway system to move troops and goods to critical positions. This was possible before the failed alliance with European nations was realized and trade nations like Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton. 

Jefferson Davis had less consolidated power than his enemy and given his lack of men and resources, Davis was argued to have better served the cause by writing off large portions of the Confederacy’s scattered territory which would enable him to focus his armies around a few key areas important to the South’s survival. It has even been suggested conventional warfare should have been replaced with guerrilla warfare on Union occupation forces. Davis was never comfortable with guerrilla warfare and pursued this option to only a limited extent. For example, after the Union seized control of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1863, he permitted states west of the river to fend for themselves in the war and let “irregular” Confederate guerilla units operate without much intervention from his administration. 

The question of how the Confederacy could have won the Civil War has been debated and questioned endlessly by historians and scholars, professional and amateur. It should be recognized such a topic deserves far more discussion and study than noted in this article. Ultimately, the Union and its president won the Civil War. The Confederacy and its president lost the war and it is not difficult to foresee that a self-proclaimed nation with limited resources was bound to lose such a catastrophic war.

 

What do you think of this article? How could the Confederate South have won the US Civil War?

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark follows his first article in the series (here) and considers the naval battle between USS Constitution and HMS Java.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

USS Constitutionversus HMS Java

It was December and in the South Atlantic before USS Constitution caught the second British frigate. This time under the command of Commodore Bainbridge the Constitutionhad, in partnership with the much smaller USS Hornet patrolled to the port of Salvador, on Brazil’s East Coast. Leaving the Hornet to challenge the Royal Navy sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenneto a battle, Bainbridge had sailed northwards up the Brazilian coastline. The decision to leave the Hornet was taken because Bainbridge hoped that by withdrawing the Constitution, HMS Bonne Citoyennewould emerge from the port and fight. However, the Royal Navy sloop ignored the Hornet’s challenge. Ignoring a challenge might damage a ship’s reputation but HMS Bonne Citoyenne made the correct decision because her cargo contained bullion and specie, which was needed to sustain Arthur Wellesley’s Army in Spain.[1]By not fighting, HMS Bonne Citoyenne avoided USS Hornet’s Master Commandant James Laurence; the same man who would later reduce HMS Peacock to a shattered hulk but would go on to die in command of USS Chesapeake in the momentous fight with HMS Shannon

Aside from this matter, the important engagement occurred on December 29, 1812 as Constitution sighted HMS Java. HMS Java was identical to HMS Guerriérebecause they were both French warships originally, but pressed into British service after they were captured. Such similarities meant similar weaknesses because HMS Java, like Guerriére, had 49, 18-pounder cannons, whilst Constitutionmounted 55, 24-pounder cannons. 

Aboard HMS Java Captain Lambert decided to fight. This decision makes sense when we consider that Lambert was unaware of the destruction of HMS Guerriére; as communicating with ships at sea was extremely difficult.[2]The engagement began with Java chasing Constitutiontowards the open sea only for Bainbridge to suddenly turn towards the Java. Sailing parallel to one-another, Java on the left, or port and Constitution on the right, or starboard and the two ships remained out of range. Keeping the distance was certainly Bainbridge’s idea, knowing full well that 24-pounder cannon could outrange Java’s 18-pounders. By 14:00 PM Constitution andJava were ready for battle and the first shots boomed out across the calm sea; fired at long range by the Constitution these cannon balls struck the Java which was powerless to respond. 

 

The Battle Gets Fiercer

The battle was decidedly one sided for these first forty minutes. HMS Java made efforts to close the distance between the ships but each time Lambert steered to starboard, Bainbridge drew Constitution away and as a result the British cannon could not be brought to bear. Unlike the engagement with HMS Guerriérewhich Constitution began in a poor position taking heavy fire and then concluded at short range with broadsides, here Bainbridge shrewdly chose to bombard Java without putting Constitutionin harm’s way. 

Once satisfied that Java had been struck repeatedly by the heavier US cannonballs and damage sustained by the British gun crews, Bainbridge chose to bring the Constitutionalongside for the final reckoning. However, the maneuver did not go smoothly because Java was also attempting a similar move. The two ships came together with Java’s prow smashing into the rear port side of Constitution. Here was an opportunity that the British could not miss! Captain Lambert called for boarders to stream across the wooden bridge formed by Java’s jib-boom - the large mast rising above the prow - which was entangled with Constitution’s mizzen, or rear mast. This tenuous link was all the incentive the British needed as having endured an hour of maneuver where every attempt to engage was frustrated by Constitution pulling away, Lambert’s cry for boarders was eagerly answered. The pivotal moment approached as the British swept forward across Java’s deck. Faced with this charge the crew of Constitutionrose to the challenge and rapid musketry broke out from Constitution’s rigging. The British charge was doomed; not only had Captain Lambert and most of the boarders been smashed down onto Java’s deck by musket balls, the USS Constitution then pulled to starboard tearing Java’s jib-boom away and breaking free. 

With the range closed, the two ships began firing broadsides. Huge crescendos filled the air as smoke, fire and iron seared the gap between the warships. Aided by her thick wooden walls and larger cannons Constitutionkept the advantage. Below decks the cannon balls ripped great holes in the wooden walls and sent splinters through the tightly packed gun crews. The carnage was worse aboard Java as 24-pounder balls blew cannon from their mounts, smashed stairways and floors, but worse of all caused catastrophic damage to Java’s masts. By 16:00 PM Javawas a hulk, with masts down, rigging and sails draped across the deck and over the sides of the hull. Most of the crew was incapacitated including Captain Lambert, who was mortally wounded, and the British gunnery dropped away to sporadic single shots. Realizing that Javawas stricken Bainbridge turned out of range to assess damage to his own ship. 

Provided with time, the Java’s replacement commander, Lieutenant Chads, nailed the Royal Navy ensign to the stump that remained of the main mast and reorganized the ship. Unsurprisingly, Chads display of leadership was not enough and as the Constitution took up position for more broadsides, the Royal Navy ensign was hauled down. The time was 17:30 PM and HMS Java surrendered to USS Constitution.

The aftermath of the fight was a sorry affair; HMS Java was no longer seaworthy, 48 men were dying and 100 more were wounded. Due to Bainbridge’s decision to keep the Constitution out of range of the British guns for parts of the battle the US casualties were much lower, only 12 men being killed and 22 wounded. In this engagement with HMS Java‘Old Ironsides’ had once again protected her crew from the ravages of battle.

 

Analysis

The power of the Royal Navy was undisputed from 1805 until 1812 when the United States’ frigates targeted British warships. Here we see the primary reason for British defeat: unpreparedness. Professor Jeremy Black has suggested that the British warships were lacking a full complement of sailors which would reduce the frigates’ ability in battle.[3]This reduction in ability was due to the difficulty of firing and maneuvering a warship under fire without enough sailors for each role. The lack of sailors on board also suggests a lack of resources but the larger problem remains. By allowing the British frigates to patrol off the US coast whilst under-crewed shows unpreparedness because the US threat was deemed so weak that Royal Navy frigates were crewed for sailing rather than for fighting. This is demonstrated in the case of HMS Java which had an inexperienced crew as well as civilians on board. In light of these weaknesses, Phillip S. Meilinger concludes that HMS Javawas “hoping to avoid a fight”[4]which does not fit with the Royal Navy’s Nelsonian tradition of victory. 

The major inaccuracy in the story is the supposed equality of the USS Constitution and the British warships that she destroyed. Firstly, the Guerriéreand the Java were smaller in size and had thinner outer-walls, added to which the British cannons fired smaller projectiles which did less damage. In the case of the Guerriérethe US frigate had another advantage because the British ship was an elderly French warship and her masts were rotten and too weak for rapid changes of direction, such as tacking into the wind.[5]In another inaccuracy, the British gunnery is downplayed to the point of ineptitude. However, aboard HMS Guerriéreand HMS Java the traditional Royal Navy excellence was in place.[6]Despite this, George Canning MP and a previous Treasurer of the Navy spoke in Parliament of how the “sacred spell of the invincibility of the British navy was broken by those unfortunate captures”. Canning went on to stress that this war “may not be concluded before we have re-established the character of our naval superiority, and smothered in victories the disasters which we have now to lament, and to which we are so little habituated.”[7]

 

Conclusion

The Royal Navy had lost two warships in foreign waters and this shocked the establishment. The loss of HMS Guerriére and HMS Java to a fledgling US Navy was the 19thCentury equivalent to HMS Repulse andHMS Prince of Wales being sunk by the new Japanese naval air arm in 1941. With time the British overwhelmed the United States Navy, blockaded the coastline, retained Canada, and burnt the White House. Signed on Christmas Eve 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and arguably came just in time for the United States.[8]

For historians this is the tale that is remembered; for example in his magnum opus,The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy does not mention the US frigate victories at all. Instead Kennedy focuses upon the obvious limitations of British sea power, namely that in the future a large continental land mass like America could not be conquered by warships alone.[9]However, it remains ironic that the Royal Navy was held at bay by a warship named Constitution, evoking the document which had set North America apart from the British Empire. The British victory over the United States may have settled the relationship between the two countries, but the US successes at sea suggested an alarming future; a future which foresaw a rise of US maritime and naval power that would eclipse Britain in just over a century. 

 

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.


[1]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[3]Jeremy Black, A British View of the Naval War of 1812 (Naval History Vol. 22 Issue 4, August 2008, pp: 16-25)

[4]Phillip S. Meilinger, Review of The Perfect Wreck—“Old Ironsides” and HMS Java: A Story of 1812by Steven Maffeo (Naval War College Review

 Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp: 171-172)

[5]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[6]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77 and 99.

[7]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) 

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/18/address-respecting-the-war-with-americaDate accessed: 05/02/2019)

[8]Matthew Dennis, Reflections on a bicentennial: The War of 1812 in American Public Memory(Early American Studies Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2014), 275. 

[9]Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Penguin, 2017), 139.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig concludes his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He considers events around South Carolina’s secession in late 1860 and early 1861, specifically how conflict started and the role that Buchanan played.

You can read the earlier articles in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here, and preparing for secession here.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

Fort Sumter in April 1861, with the Confederate flag flying.

On December 20, 1860, James Buchanan’s fears had come true as South Carolina seceded from the Union. The President had long foreseen the possibility that the South would take such drastic measures.  As we have seen prior, Buchanan attempted to prepare for secession, but Congress had ignored his advice and request to prepare for such an event.  Congress never raised the five regiments that the President had asked for nor did they make any efforts to enforce forts in the South.  The debate over slavery and the inability for the nation’s lawmaking body to agree on the issue left America in a divided state.  

Once Buchanan became aware of South Carolina’s treachery, he immediately ordered Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the forts in Charleston Harbor, to do nothing to provoke the situation but to stand firm.  The President advised Anderson to stay at Fort Moultrie on the mainland and to only move to the heavily fortified Fort Sumter offshore if an attack was imminent.  Buchanan believed that his orders were quite clear, however, just six days later he received word that Anderson had moved his location to Fort Sumter.  The President was perplexed by Anderson’s decision to disobey his orders.  Despite this, he believed that the major would not have left his location at Fort Moultrie unless he truly felt threatened.  As he recalls in his memoirs “the president never doubted for a moment that Major Anderson believed before movement that he had ‘tangible evidence’ of an impending attack required by his instructions.”[1]He thought it unlikely that South Carolina would initiate an attack since it had sent commissioners to Washington in order to find a peaceful solution. With that he waited for Major Anderson to send word of his decision and why he had violated orders. 

Major Anderson’s explanation was examined by Buchanan and he determined that Anderson had moved on a false alarm.  However, he could not confirm what caused the alarm because once Anderson moved, the remaining forts and all federal property in Charleston were taken over by state authorities.  On December 28, two days after the siege of federal property, Buchanan (who had not been informed of what had happened yet) received the commissioners from South Carolina as private citizens.  This was because he did not recognize the legality of secession and could not see them as ambassadors of a foreign republic.   He would listen to their requests, but it was only Congress who could receive them in the role in which they were sent. After hearing their request Buchanan wrote that “to abandon all those forts to South Carolina, on the demand of the commissioners claiming to represent her as an independent State, would have been a recognition, on the part of the Executive, of her right to secede from the Union.  This was not to be thought of for a moment.”[2] In stating this, Buchanan made it clear that he did not accept the legality of South Carolina’s secession. His strict adherence to the United States Constitution supported his decision. 

 

A growing divide

Even though the President had received the commissioners in good faith, South Carolina’s representatives in Congress justified their actions in Charleston, stating that Anderson had committed an act of aggression by moving his location to Fort Sumter.  They had acted in “self-defense” in seizing the remaining federal property in the city.  For this they blamed Buchanan and discredited his honor in such a way that his cabinet wrote a reply to their allegations stating, “this paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to accept it.”[3]From this point on, hostilities between Buchanan’s administration and South Carolina would increase.  In a special address to Congress about the situation in South Carolina in January 1861, despite calls for him to take direct action by the public, Buchanan wrote “I certainly had no right to make aggressive war upon any state…to Congress (and) to them exclusively belongs the power to declare war or to authorize the employment of military force in all cases contemplated by the Constitution…I refrain them from sending reinforcements to Major Anderson who commanded the forts in Charleston Harbor, until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent…”[4]

Although his message was meant to reassure South Carolina that he would not take direct military action at the present, he still intended to collect tax revenue from the state because in his eyes, South Carolina was still part of the Union.  Senator Jefferson Davis argued against Buchanan’s failure to recognize his state’s right to secede and his ignorance to continue to collect taxes.  At that point, all of Buchanan’s hopes to negotiate with the state ended as “all friendly intercourse between them and the president, whether of a political or social character, had ceased.”[5]

 

Military build-up

Buchanan was not going to let the South leave under his watch. Although he strongly believed that many of the other Southern States wanted to negotiate with the North and the Federal Government, he recognized that military action may be required. Pending Congressional approval, President Buchanan had made preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter with an additional two hundred soldiers.  By December 15, the Brooklyn a heavily armed ship of war was prepared to be sent to Fort Sumter with supplies and reinforcements. Buchanan was well aware of its preparation sanctioned by the Secretary of the Navy and General Scott.  However, at the time, there was no call for alarm because the President had received a note from South Carolina insisting that they had no intention to attack the forts in Charleston Harbor.  In addition, the state had not officially seceded from the Union yet according to the Federal Government.  The Brooklynstayed ready in New York Harbor incase the situation changed in the state.[6]

When South Carolina officially cut off all negotiations with the President in early 1861, James Buchanan realized that war was imminent. He took immediate action in ordering the Brooklyn to Charleston Harbor via General Scott.  However, General Scott, after seeking the advice of a naval expert, transferred the orders to an unarmed merchant vessel Star of the West.  His reasoning was that a faster ship would provide for the element of surprise and a quick delivery of the reinforcements to Fort Sumter.  This was against the knowledge of the President, who was intent on getting troops to the fort as soon as possible.  General Scott, upon some consideration, recognized his error and immediately sent word to New York to transfer the orders back to the Brooklyn.  However, it was too late as the ship had sailed for Charleston and was beyond reach for communication.[7]

 

Charleston Harbor

When the Star of the West arrived in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, the batteries set up in the harbor opened fire on the ship forcing it to change course and return to New York.  Its captain had been instructed to land his troops at nearby Fort Monroe and to await the Brooklyn for support in the event he was unable to land at Fort Sumter.  These orders apparently were disregarded in the haste of the retreat to sea after the attack.  Major Anderson did not return fire because he believed that the guns had been fired by mistake and not by the South Carolina governor’s orders.  He was wrong, Governor Pickens had given the order and after the attack sent a message to Anderson demanding that he surrender the fort to him.  Anderson told him that he would not surrender by any means.[8]This marked the last time that the government of the United States under James Buchanan attempted to use military action to secure Charleston Harbor via Fort Sumter.  

Between January and February, before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, James Buchanan could only stand by and watch as the nation dissolved around him.  He grew irritated over Congress’s lack of action in declaring war against the South or in giving him the powers to do so.  Buchanan believed that Congress and Congress alone had the authority to authorize him as commander-in chief to take direct action.  He states that it was the “imperative duty of Congress to furnish the President or his successor the means of repelling force by force, should this become necessary to preserve the Union.  They, nevertheless, refused to perform this duty as much pertinacity as they had manifested in rebuilding all measures of compromise.”[9]

Unfortunately for James Buchanan, the South at the time still had a dominant presence in Congress and the string of events had created confusion within the other states.  Therefore, little could be accomplished as the nation’s governing body had been divided by secession.  It was only after Buchanan had left office, under a new Congress, the powers that Buchanan had wanted were given to his successor Abraham Lincoln.[10]

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during the secession of South Carolina? Let us know below.


[1]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 120. 

[2]Buchanan, 121. 

[3]Buchanan, 121. 

[4]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 82-84. 

[5]Buchanan, 85.

[6]Buchanan, 110.

[7]Buchanan, 126.

[8]Buchanan, 127

[9]Buchanan, 102. 

[10]Buchanan, 102. 

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark considers the background to the War of 1812 and the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

Background to war

The naval war was driven by the British Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of United States’ Navy sailors into British service.[1]In fact, the British warships would stop and send Marines aboard the American ship and forcibly remove Royal Navy deserters. In naval terms, impressment is the term for forced servitude on board ship and is best known from ‘press-gangs’ which searched harbor towns for Royal Navy recruits. In his popular study of the USS Constitution Donald Macintyre views the British infringement on the United States’ shipping as deeply wounding to American national pride.[2]Today this diplomatic incident may have resulted in increased naval activity or tense diplomatic discussions but in 1812 the only viable option for the US Government was war. This decision could not be taken lightly by the United States because the Royal Navy was not only highly skilled but also superior in size. For instance, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 83 warships in American waters, and by 1813 this number had increased to 129 warships, including a number of 74 gunned ships of the line.[3]Macintyre makes the point that only a fraction of the Royal Navy would be dispatched to the US; but regardless of British focus on Napoleon in Europe, victory against the United States seemed to be assured.[4]

In contrast to the Royal Navy, the United States Navy appeared woefully inadequate. However, whilst the US Navy was hopelessly outnumbered there were three initial advantages. Firstly, the US Navy was fighting in home waters in close proximity to friendly harbors which meant that repairing and resupplying ships was straightforward. Compare this to the British, who had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain or northwards to Halifax in Canada in order to reach home bases. This was a key component of A. T. Mahan’s famous thesis on sea power which predicted victory for a navy with closer port facilities.[5]Secondly, the crews of the US ships were well-trained and led by officers who possessed skill and ability. Captain Isaac Hull, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge are notable figures who each gained successes against the British and whose actions will feature shortly. Thirdly, the US had commissioned a new fleet of frigates whose size and armament was superior to the Royal Navy’s frigates. As an example, a typical British frigate HMS Java carried 49, 18-pounder cannons whilst the USS United States mounted 55, 24-pounder cannon.[6]Clearly, the American frigate, which was a sister-ship to the USS Constitution, possessed a firepower advantage in both numbers and size of shot. So with these local advantages the US frigate fleet put to sea; let us focus on the USS Constitution.

 

USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriére

Interestingly, the first confrontation between the USS Constitutionand the Royal Navy took the form of a wager back in 1798. Challenged by a Royal Navy frigate, Constitution agreed to race into the wind for one day and the winner would receive a cask of Madeira, a highly desirable fortified wine. The US trumped the British in the race, thus foreshadowing later US successes. 

The first battle under examination was fought by the Constitutionon August 19, 1812 when Captained by Isaac Hull, the USS Constitution met Captain James Dacre’s HMS Guerriére whilst patrolling off Nova Scotia. If the British were confident of victory before the battle, they certainly had a right to be pleased once the engagement began. With a better initial position, HMS Guerriére was able to fire broadsides at the Constitution whilst the US frigate was still attempting to maneuver alongside. The British held the advantage because whilst the Constitutionremained to the rear of the British frigate, the US crew held their fire. In contrast, the British loaded and fired but without much effect.[7]

At this point however the battle turned as Isaac Hull brought the Constitution alongside the Guerriéreand finally authorized the cannon to open fire. Having held a slim advantage up to this point HMS Guerriére was unable to out-maneuver the Constitution because Captain Dacre worried that his ships rotten masts would not handle the strain.[8]Unable to escape from Isaac Hull’s grasp, the greater size of the crew, armor and armament of the US frigate left the Royal Navy warship riddled with jagged holes. Furthermore, following deliberate targeting by the US cannon Guerriére’s masts had been felled and the British frigate was motionless. Having fired a number of broadsides into the stricken warshipHull accepted the British surrender from Captain James Dacre. The battle was over and the Americans’ had suffered fourteen casualties, compared to the British with seventy eight casualties.[9]

The imbalance in casualties can be attributed to superior US gunnery which was faster and more accurate, and the construction of the Constitution meant that British rounds did not penetrate. It is worth mentioning that USS Constitution’s nickname, ‘Old Ironsides’, was borne of her wooden walls which were thick enough to cause British cannon balls to bounce-off. The result was further illustrated by the need to scuttle the British warship because the damage was so severe that towing the prize back to the US was impossible. The once proud HMS Guerriére was set alight and left to burn in the lonely ocean.

 

The second and final part of the series is here.

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.


[1]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) 

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/18/address-respecting-the-war-with-americaDate accessed: 05/02/2019)

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 36.

[3]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 196 and 243.

[4]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 36.

[5]Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783(The Project Gutenberg eBook: September 26, 2004, accessed: 22/04/2019. Originally published: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 535.

[6]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39 and 43.

[7]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77.

[8]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[9]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

In mid-to-late nineteenth century Victorian Britain, ‘freak shows’ were popular exhibitions where the general public could pay to go and observe individuals with physical abnormalities and deformities. By their very nature these shows were underpinned by exploitative institutions designed to make money from those rejected by society. However, when the bigger picture is scrutinized, it becomes apparent that the situation facing those involved within ‘freak shows’ wasn’t as straightforward as it might initially seem. Stuart Cameron explains.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Usage of the word ‘freak’

Before diving into the historical details of this subject it is important to justify the usage of the word ‘freak’ within this article.

The word likely conjures up different feelings to different people. By modern standards, most would agree that much of the language used by Victorians towards individuals exhibited within ‘freak shows’ - ‘freaks’ - would be considered distasteful, uncomfortable, and politically incorrect to say the very least.

Robert Bogdan, author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, produced a list of words that have been used to describe ‘freaks’ throughout time. Terms like ‘lusus natrae’ (Latin for ‘freaks of nature’), ‘curiosities’, ‘oddities’, ‘monsters’, ‘grotesques’, and ‘nature’s mistakes’ are a few of the many examples that carry clear negative implications. In contrast to those, terms like ‘wonders’, ‘marvels’, rarities’, and ‘very special people’ carry considerably more sympathetic connotations, but were almost only exclusively used within marketing and advertising materials for shows.[1]

Based on this non-exhaustive list, what is clear is that ‘freaks’ were not solely seen as something negative, but at times were actually valued based on the rarity of their existence. Such a variety of jargon exists towards ‘freaks’ as a result of blended scientific terminology and show-world hype, muddied further by the progression of time.[2]Regardless of whether the connotation was negative or positive, ‘freaks’ either way were seen as something different and non-compliant with social ideas of normality.

On top of that, ‘freaks’ came in all shapes and sizes. Some were born as ‘freaks’, some became ‘freaks’ at a point in their lifetime as a result of an accident or a medical condition, and others altered their bodies and became ‘freaks’ by choice. This in turn makes the word ‘freak’ a term that covers a lot of territory. It’s a word that has been used to refer to bearded ladies like Julia Pastrana (dubbed as ‘the Bear Lady’); conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins like Chang and Eng; and to people with full body tattoo coverage like George Burchett (dubbed as the ‘King of Tattooists’). The only trait these three very different people have in common? That they were physically not ‘normal’.

As such, this makes the concept of a ‘freak’ one that transcends gender, racial, economic, social, age, medical, and scientific boundaries. Naturally, however, this throws up some obstacles for historians examining the ‘freak show’ industry. As uncomfortable as the continued usage of the word ‘freak’ may be, it is used solely on the grounds that there is no modern equivalent that accurately represents the diversity of the men and women involved within the shows.

 

'Freak Shows' within Victorian society

‘Freak Shows’ were exhibitions of biologically abnormal humans and animals that members of the public could pay a small fee and observe a physical manifestation of something quite drastically different from themselves. The shows were at their peak in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and appealed to people across the economic and class spectrum of the United Kingdom. As well as that, private “for ladies only” viewing rooms were provided so that women had safe spaces within potentially dangerous urban places to attend shows.[3]The contemporary humor magazine Punchdubbed Britain’s “growing taste for deformity” as the ‘Deformito-Mania’, claiming that ‘freak shows’ were an “unhealthy admiration for the monstrous”.[4]Regardless of the social background of the audience, the reaction from those who attended shows was often a combination of shock, horror, andfascination.

The shows could be set up quickly, and at very low cost. In the same way that the circus travelled between towns and cities across the country, ‘freak show’ owners deployed a similar strategy. As such, the mobility of the shows proved a fundamental part of their popular appeal. Being able to set up quickly in community halls and in the back rooms of public houses kept outgoing costs at a minimum and helped to make the shows accessible to the working classes. Joseph Merrick, known more famously as ‘The Elephant Man’ was regularly exhibited in the back room of an east London pub known as a “penny gaff”. As well as these ‘pop-up' style shows, certain venues became infamous for their ‘freak show’ exhibitions. The Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London hosted a number of different ‘freaks’ throughout the nineteenth century including the ‘Living Skeleton’ (being a man who consisted of little more than skin and bone) and the ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng (who were conjoined by their stomach).[5]

 

The Showmen

To the showmen in charge, ‘freaks’ were undoubtedly their business commodities – and their way of turning a profit. In his memoirs, British showman Tom Norman (also referred to as ‘the Penny Showman’) admitted: “There was a time, in my career as a showman, when I would exhibit any mortal thing for money”, adding “there were always large crowds who were only too eager to pay and see anything that aroused their curiosity, no matter how repulsive, or how demoralising.”[6]From a twenty-first century perspective, seeing the ‘freak show’ industry as anything but exploitative can prove to be difficult. But, in a perplexing sort of way, ‘freak shows’ gave ‘freaks’ a platform to exhibit their bodies and make a small income – more than anything else in Victorian society offered to most of them.

It was common that ‘freak shows’ were advertised through promotions that established narratives and origin stories of the ‘freaks’ on display – which in most cases were totally fictitious. Storytelling was a common technique used by the showman in the knowledge that the audiences who came to view the exhibits were susceptible to believing the tales, no matter how whimsical or fantastic they were. This made the showman an understated, yet integral part of the entertainment success of his shows. It wasn’t just a case of ‘freaks’ taking the initiative to exhibit themselves and receiving the entirety of the profit without the showman. A massive part of their success lay in the way that the showmen marketed them, told their “stories”, and highlighted the rarity of their existence to the audience.

At their very core, ‘freak shows’ were exploitative. They were underpinned by an inhumane business model that capitalized on the misfortune of people rejected by society, and with no opportunity to make a living on the basis of them being physically different. Victorian society left ‘freaks’ in a situation with little option in life, and as a result their involvement within the ‘freak show’ industry was one that they themselves had little control of.

 

What do you think of the 19th century ‘freak show’ industry? Let us know below.

Author Bio

Stuart Cameron is a freelance copywriter and blogger on a mission to harness the past to better understand the now. More of his blog posts, his writing portfolio, and details about his copywriting services are available at http://writersblick.com/.


[1]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[2]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[3]Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). 7.

[4]“The Deformito-Mania” Punch Magazine. (4 Sept 1847). 90.

[5]Mayes, Ronald. ‘The Romance of London Theatres No.87. The Egyptian Hall’ Lewisham Hippodrome Programme, March 1930. (no further bibliographic details provided)

[6]Norman, Tom & Norman, George. The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman “Silver King”. (London, 1985). 23-24.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig continues his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He argues that Buchanan had prepared for the possible secession of states in the South – and that it was almost impossible for him to avoid South Carolina’s December 1860 secession following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860.

You can read the first article in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

Perhaps the most trying period in James Buchanan’s career came when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 a month after Abraham Lincoln was electedpresident.  It has often been recollected that the nation’s fifteenth president simply let the nation dissolve under his watch - that the nation’s president was too weak and tired from age to effectively stop the secessionist threat in the South as President Andrew Jackson had thirty years prior during the Nullification Crisis. However, this was certainly not the case as President James Buchanan had prepared for such a scenario in October 1860.

 

Preparing for Succession

Before Lincoln was elected, Buchanan knew that if the Illinois Republican became president the South would most likely secede.  On the election he stated that, “throughout the presidential canvass, the cotton states openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected.” This caused much alarm for Buchanan, who turned to General Winfield Scott, the commander-in chief of the armed forces for a review of the military and its outposts in the South. This was not the action of a weak president. At the time, the President only had sixteen thousand troops to defend against secession should the South decide to do so.  When General Scott completed his review, he warned Buchanan that many of the forts in the South including Fort Sumter and those along the Mississippi River lacked sufficient troops to defend against secession.  He writes that “Fort Moultrie and Sumter, (in) Charleston Harbor, the former with an insufficient garrison, and the latter without any…should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise ridiculous.” General Scott also advised Buchanan to send five available companies to reinforce five of the eight forts that he mentioned in his report. However, they would still be understrength in repelling an attack against their station.  

Buchanan recognized the threat to the nation but being a man of the Constitution, realized that he had little power to move troops without the approval of Congress.  If he did so without congressional approval, he feared that he would only provoke the South and start the secession movement.  Buchanan did not want to start a war that he knew he was ill prepared for. He sent a request for Congress to raise five additional regiments that could be used to reinforce the Southern garrisons, but his request was ignored by Congress. Leaning on the advice of his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, he did not pursue the matter to find out why. However, Floyd was being investigated by Congress for spreading troops thinly throughout the South to render the army useless if war did break out. The trial was suspended for lack of evidence.  Just before he resigned, Buchanan recalled that Floyd had ordered federal artillery sent to a Southern fort, but the President himself stepped in and revoked the order. Floyd had resigned because Buchanan refused to order Major Anderson from Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. 

 

Buchanan’s Dedication to the Constitution

In his December 3, 1860 annual message to Congress, Buchanan put emphasis on the impending desire of South Carolina to secede from the Union upon Lincoln’s election that November.  He stated that the “election of any of our fellow citizens to the office of president does not itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union…how then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution.” In a deep effort, Buchanan tried to clarify the seriousness of secession to the integrity of the Union and what the Constitution represented.  He also stated, “in order to justify secession as a Constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of states, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” At this point, Buchanan called out the legality of secession as unconstitutional, but his role as president gave him no power to take action against it.  This again, demonstrates his sincere dedication to the Constitution and the powers it gave.  As Buchanan explains, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as they may be practiced, the Executive has not authority to decide what should be the relations between the federal government and South Carolina…he possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less acknowledge the independence of that state.”

In Buchanan’s defense he was correct, his oath of office required under Article Two Section One of the Constitution states that the president will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of (their) ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” James Buchanan lived by the oath he took as president and executed the laws of United States as given to him by the Constitution, no powers were given against slavery and secession.  If those actions were considered acts of war, only Congress would intervene to put an end to that situation.  Buchanan urged the nation to put an end to the secessionist cry but felt as if his actions were misinterpreted. As Buchanan recalls of himself, “his every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility.  No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position…without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong.” At that point, in December 1860, only a few weeks before South Carolina officially declared its secession, James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States, felt powerless to prevent the impending Civil War.

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions before South Carolina’s secession? Let us know below.

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig takes a look at Buchanan’s presidency. He starts by arguing that, in spite of his Democratic Party generally favoring slavery, what are often seen as pro-slavery actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1861), actually led to Kansas becoming an anti-slavery state.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

1859 portrait of President James Buchanan. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, none have been as ridiculed as the man who became the fifteenth president on March 4, 1857. Having secured the Democratic nomination in 1856, James Buchanan had little trouble defeating the Republican Party’s first candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore. At the time of his election, Buchanan was the nation’s most qualified person to hold the office of chief executive. Having been a lawyer, state legislature, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, minister to both Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State, Buchanan remains one of the only presidents in U.S. history to have an extensive public service background.  The question then remains is, why he is considered the worst president in history and why is he blamed for the Civil War? These questions will be answered over a series of articles sequencing key events in Buchanan’s presidency.

 

Kansas-Nebraska Act

In his last message to Congress on January 8, 1861, Buchanan stated that, “I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.”[1]Since that time, over one hundred and fifty years have past since he left office and the Civil War concluded. However, his legacy remains plagued by the questions posed above.  To really understand the actions taken by Buchanan leading up to the outbreak of Civil War, one must look into the political climate of the time as well as the personal beliefs that shaped Buchanan’s governing style.

One particular event that would have a direct impact of Buchanan once he became president was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  This allowed for Kansas and Nebraska to create governments and decide for themselves the slavery question while also repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally into Kansas, heavily influencing the election of a pro-slavery government in Kansas. This led to violence in the territory as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups fought for control.  It also led to the creation of two governments, one at Lecompton (pro-slavery) and one at Topeka (anti-slavery).  This series of events later became known as “Bleeding Kansas” for the violence and death that occurred.  Even the United States Senate was not spared from the violence. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten over the head with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate.  Sumner had called out a relative of Brooks regarding the slavery issue offending his honor. Lecompton was also recognized as the legitimate government despite hostilities.

 

Dealing with Bleeding Kansas

Upon assuming office, Buchanan had to deal with the crisis in Kansas left to him by his predecessor Franklin Pierce.  Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act believing that territories were “perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions in their own way.”[2]However, Pierce would come to favor the pro-slavery legislation over that of the anti-slavery actions.  James Buchanan’s views of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were not favorable. He wrote that “Congress which had commenced so auspiciously, by repealing the Missouri Compromise…reopened the floodgates of sectional strife.”[3]The governing style of James Buchanan was one based on that of a diplomat.  Having an extensive background as a negotiator, he used his prior experience in his many diplomatic and legislative roles as chief executive.  He also heavily relied on his days as a lawyer and his knowledge of constitutional law to formulate his opinions.  This is how he dealt with the crisis in Kansas.

As president, Buchanan believed that he did not have the authority to interfere in the elections which took place in Kansas despite the fraud that had occurred there.  He wrote that “it was far from my intention to interfere with the decision of the people of Kansas wither for or against slavery.”[4]Essentially, Buchanan felt that the people of Kansas could settle the matter themselves without government intervention. Despite his intentions, Buchanan took military action in sending federal troops to Kansas in 1857 to secure the legitimacy of a state constitution without fraud or violence.  His justification for this was that it was his duty to protect the recognized government and the people’s wishes as President of the United States.  Buchanan recalls, “under these circumstances, what was my duty? Was it not to sustain this government (in Lecompton)? To protect us from the violence of lawless men, who were determined to ruin or rule? It was for this purpose, and this alone, that I ordered a military force to Kansas.”[5]

In doing this, Buchanan was criticized for appearing to support the pro-slavery party in creating a slave state.  This, however, was not the case as he attempted to perform his duties in executing the laws and by preserving and protecting the Constitution.  He states in a broad question to such people, “would you have desired that I abandoned the Territorial Government, sanctioned as it had been by Congress, to illegal violence…this would, indeed have been to violate my oath of office.”[6]Standing firm on his beliefs, Buchanan was convinced that his action would help to support a positive and legal result at the next election.  To him, it was still up to the people to decide on the manner.

 

1858 Kansas Election

In early 1858, a new election was held to elect state officials based on the passage of the constitution in November.  This election for governor, lieutenant governor, and other officials, resulted in the election of several members of the anti-slavery Topeka Convention.  The balance of power shifted towards them and they were more determined to vote in the creation of a constitution with some aspects of the Lecompton Constitution.  James Buchanan took this as a victory because he had wished that the anti-slavery party would take part in the elections.  Buchanan, writing in the third person, states that “it had been his constant effort from the beginning to induce the Anti-Slavery party to vote.  Now that this had been accomplished, he knew that all revolutionary troubles in Kansas would speedily terminate.  A resort of the ballot box, instead of force, was the most effectual means of restoring peace and tranquility.”[7]Buchanan, keeping to his constitutional beliefs, used force only to enforce the rights of the people to vote under the Constitution. Essentially, Buchanan gave the anti-slavery party the tools to vote in a free and fair election without fear of violence.  It only took them a while to take him up on his efforts before they would vote in the government.  James Buchanan recognized that they were in effect the majority of the population and in accordance with the law, it was up to them to decide the slavery question.  

On February 2, 1858, James Buchanan gave a message to Congress regarding the constitution of Kansas.  The newly elected government (with a large majority of anti-slavery supporters) had sent the Lecompton Constitution (with slavery elements) to the president for Congressional approval.  In Buchanan’s message he stated that “slavery can therefore never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no manner can this be obtained so promptly.”[8]Although this may be interpreted as pro-slavery, to Buchanan it was not, because the people of Kansas had elected their leaders and had submitted a constitution in forming a state legally.  It was his duty to ensure that their wishes were carried out. He warns that, “should Congress reject the constitution…no man can foretell the consequences.”[9]In Buchanan’s eyes, the admittance of Kansas into the Union in a timely manner would “restore peace and quiet to the whole country.”[10]  In closing his message to Congress, he admits that he had been forced to act in Kansas on behalf of the people to ensure fair elections and opportunities for both sides. He states of the matter, “I have been obliged in some degree to interfere with the expedition in order to keep down rebellion in Kansas.”[11]

 

Buchanan and the Constitution

Although Congress would reject the Lecompton Constitution due to the slavery elements, James Buchanan could not interfere as it was not in the powers of the executive granted in the Constitution.  In 1861, Kansas became a free state. In looking at the situation in Kansas, James Buchanan’s actions were in accordance with the Constitution and his role as chief executive.  Since the Lecompton government was established by Congress it was the legal government in Buchanan’s eyes.  He recognized that voter fraud and violent intimidation had elected pro-slavery delegates that did not speak for the majority of Kansas.  It was for this reason that he urged them to have new elections which were fair.  When that advice fell on deaf ears, he sent federal troops to defend the rights of the people at the ballot box.  This action was taken as his support of the pro-slavery election results.  However, it gave the anti-slavery party the ability to vote in unbiased elections which would lead to their control of the government.  In the words of James Buchanan, “I have thus performed my duty on this important question, under a deep sense of responsibility to God and my country.”[12]

 

What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during Bleeding Kansas?


[1]Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 84.

[2]Michael F. Holt, Franklin Pierce, (New York: Times Books, 2010): 77. 

[3]James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 13. 

[4]Sloan, 35. 

[5]Buchanan, 18. 

[6]Buchanan, 18. 

[7]Buchanan, 24. 

[8]Sloan, 47. 

[9]Sloan, 47. 

[10]Sloan, 48. 

[11]Sloan, 49. 

[12]Buchanan, 26.

Modern-day China differs greatly from its days of imperial monarchy. The origins of this change are rooted in the events of the 19th century. Here, Chris Galbicsek explains how Empress Dowager Cixi played a key role in resisting internal attempts at Westernization in 19th century China.

Empress Dowager Cixi  by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Katharine Carl. 1904.

Today, we know China as a modern communist colossus, and yet we also know China as a nation steeped in a long history of imperial monarchy. In our busy lives, most of us carry around these two images of China without really thinking much about the connection. But how and why did the Chinese monarchy fall in the first place, prior to taking its modern form? Given that China looms so large on the world stage, and given that the Chinese political transformation occurred so recently in history, this lack of public awareness is striking. A closer look reveals some important insight into the ideological and political forces at play in the world around us, as well as a fascinating chapter in the human story.

By the eighteenth century, China had been a remarkably insular empire for hundreds of years. The British had long tried to gain access to the Chinese market by reaching out to the Manchu dynasty, but had little success. However, British merchants eventually did find an effective entry point with the illicit sale of opium. As the Chinese addiction to opium grew to staggering proportions, so did the British addiction to the profits.

By the time Chinese officials finally got around to enforcing its opium prohibition with more seriousness, British merchants were not cooperative. When the Chinese then seized huge stockpiles of opium contraband, this only prompted an indignant British response. As the British demanded reimbursement for their seized property, conflict quickly escalated into violence, and then came war.

 

The Opium Wars Changed China

The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its terrible effects.

As a result, the Chinese empire, which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to humbly bear witness to a very different geopolitical reality. No longer could China deny the wide margin of military superiority in the hands of the Western "barbarians". Nor did China any longer have the luxury of choosing its preferred level of economic involvement vis-à-vis the West. If China had indeed been the center of the Earth, then the Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.

The situation represented a critical precipice for China, and the nature of the Chinese response was to be enormously consequential. Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into this new phenomenon of "Westernization".

 

The Response

The Chinese leadership, in contrast to Japan, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. While there were some voices that did urge immediate adoption of Western technology and institutions, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian worldview, which had proven so enduring.

When the Chinese emperor died in 1861, he left only a four-year-old son to take the dragon throne. The resulting power vacuum only magnified the challenges for an imperial court which already lacked a unified voice.

Nevertheless, in 1861, Prince Gong managed to spearhead an initiative known as the "Self Strengthening Movement", in an ambitious effort to bring about Western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, modern schools were formed, and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Additionally, Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion, along with railroads and telegraph lines. Initially, the program seemed to be creating meaningful change in China.

 

What Went Wrong?

But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-Western voices like his, were soon drowned out by others, and most notably by the young emperor's mother: the Empress Dowager Cixi. Virulently anti-Western, the empress soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, and managed to thoroughly consolidate power around herself within the royal leadership. It has been reasonably presumed that part of the motivation behind Cixi's strong ideological stance, resulted from her calculation that Western governmental reforms would only serve to reduce her influence. In the endCixi would prove so politically irrepressible, that she would go on to profoundly influence China for an astonishing forty-seven years.

While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued, Cixi (pronounced "tsuh-shee") and her cohorts steadily undermined (and even outright sabotaged) various aspects of the project, and set out to marginalize its proponents. As a result, critical momentum was stymied.

On one occasion, Cixi refused to approve construction for an important railway line from Beijing, and when the project finally did move forward, she insisted that the train cars be pulled by horses, so as not to disturb the souls resting in nearby tombs with engine noise. On another occasion, Cixi sent for seven de-commissioned British warships, but then for seemingly trivial reasons, ordered the ships to turn around and head back to England upon their arrival.

In 1893, Cixi continued to frustrate national affairs when she allegedly embezzled thirty million taels of silver, which had been set aside for naval shipbuilding. Instead, Cixi redirected the badly needed funds toward the restoration of the imperial summer palace. Significantly, it was the case that no new Chinese naval ships were put into service from that point forward.

But the tactics of the empress included more ruthless measures as well. Historians widely believe that Cixi was responsible for the poisoning of her own emperor son in 1875. Likewise, she pushed Prince Gong (the architect of the Self Strengthening Movement) into semi-retirement in 1884. And when the subsequently installed emperor (who had replaced her son) later attempted another sweeping national reform movement (known as the "Hundred Days' Reform") in 1898, the empress again intervened. This time Cixi led a coup to overthrow the young reformist emperor, banishing him to house arrest on an island for the remainder of his life.

As might be expected, with all of this internal resistance, China did not fare well when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in Indochina. In 1895, China was again beaten badly by the Japanese, losing its hold on Korea and Taiwan, and revealing just how much more industrial progress Japan had managed to achieve.

After orchestrating the coup against the emperor in 1898, reactionary conservatism, atavism and xenophobia were ratcheted up by the Manchu government. Soon Cixi was cracking down on reformist-minded intellectuals, and even blaming natural disasters on Westerners.

When the empress openly endorsed the "Boxer Rebellion" at the turn of the century, the Manchu dynasty further alienated itself. Believing themselves to be invulnerable to Western weapons, over ten thousand “boxers” rampaged throughout the country against anyone and anything pro-Western. After great loss of life, the rebellion was soon put down, and the resulting war reparations exacted by the West left the Manchu royalty desperately in debt. Not long after, with the dynasty barely hanging on and the situation now increasingly precarious, the mighty Cixi died in 1908.

 

Revolution

Within three years of her death, the spark of revolution caught fire, and spread across China. Province after province began to declare independence. Having been continually rebuffed, the impulse toward reform gave way to revolution. The weakened dynasty was now powerless to defend against the wave of resistance, and the monarchy was soon toppled. In 1911, the two hundred and sixty-eight year Manchu dynasty had come to an end.

What followed for China was nothing short of disaster for most of the twentieth century. After a valiant attempt at republicanism failed, China fractured and fell into a chaotic decade of rule by warlords, followed by a bloody national civil war, and then by the now infamous (though not infamous enough) communist reign of Mao Zedong. The result for the Chinese people was more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history over a similar span of time.

 

Hindsight

Looking back, it is hard not to wonder how much longer the Chinese monarchy might have lasted, had pro-Western technology and political institutions been more fully embraced within the royal court. Even after the British shamefully imposed the scourge of opium upon China, the Manchu dynasty was left standing for another half century. And while it may not be fair to lay responsibility for the fall of the monarchy directly at the feet of any one individual, the outsized nature of Cixi's direct and decades-long personal anti-Western impact certainly was a key contribution which invites attention, and begs questions. Under different guidance, how much longer might the monarchy have lasted? How much of the political turmoil and human suffering in the century that followed might have been mitigated? How much differently things might have turned out for China and the world, both in the twentieth century and today.

  

Chris Galbicsek studied Philosophy at Colgate University. He came to intensely appreciate history in the time since, and has recently launched a historically-themed t-shirt site, Exoteric Apparel, which aims to raise historical awareness through fashion.

 

Bibliography

Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.

Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf Publishing, 2013.

The American Civil War produced many outstanding figures. One of those was the nurse Hannah Anderson Ropes. Ropes had an intriguing life before the Civil War, and fought to improve the conditions of soldiers during the war. Joshua V. Chanin explains.

The book  Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes  by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here:  Amazon US  |  Amazon UK . Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

The book Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK. Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

I currently work at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where the university is expecting to christen a state-of-the-art nursing facility in the fall. I have known several nursing students during my undergraduate and graduate studies, who have told me that their major is one of the toughest offered at the university due to the lab classes after school hours and the numerous reports they have to write—I agree (sometimes they look like they do not decently sleep). To celebrate the tough, rewarding, and sometimes overlooked work of nurses, I have decided to write about Hannah Anderson Ropes, a nurse during the Civil War who was dedicated to improving her craft.

 

Early Life

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. As her parents were prominent state lawyers, young Hannah was privately educated and raised in a wealthy household that championed Christianity. Hannah’s religious faith grew stronger as she aged, coinciding with her developing opposition to slavery. Although she was more vocal than many other women—a displeasure to the patriarchy—Hannah attracted the attention of William Ropes, an educator who believed the sexes were equal. The couple married in January 1834 and had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. 

The marriage was fruitful until in 1847, citing health concerns, William abruptly moved to warmer temperatures of Florida, leaving his wife and children behind. Abandoned by her spouse, Ropes moved to the Kansas Territory with her children. Ropes, along with her daughter, played a major role in spurring support for the 1856 abolitionist movement in the region, cooperating with male abolitionist leaders in local meetings. As she became more involved in the growing fight against slavery, Ropes strengthened the close bond she had with her children. Amidst the violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas,’—where pro-slavery raiders from Missouri were a threat to anti-slavery families—Ropes always went the extra mile to protect her children as she kept “loaded pistols and a bowie knife upon my table at night, [and] three sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Ropes did not let the disappearance of her husband upset her. Hannah Ropes became a liberal-feminist, a woman who vocally championed for the elimination of slavery while dutifully (and passionately) attending the household needs.

 

An Interest in Nursing

Hannah Ropes—who described the Kansas fighting as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”—moved back to Massachusetts in 1857, where she knew her family would be safe. It was in New England when Ropes became an author. Her unique writing talent led to the publication of her first book, Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady, which compiled a collection of letters Ropes wrote to her ailing mother while she lived in the mid-west. Ropes would later write a popular paperback of prairie life, Cranston House: A Novel, in 1859. Still active in political movements, Ropes desired an opportunity to help people. Her interest in nursing stemmed from reading literature by English nurse, Florence Nightingale. After Ropes’s nephew gave her a copy of Nightingale’s 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, which depicted the English’s nurse’s account of the Crimean War, Ropes’s career trajectory changed, foreshadowing the professional role the New England woman would play in the next stage of her life.   

 

A New Position at the Union Hotel Hospital

At the start of the Civil War in spring 1861, the Union Hotel in Washington D.C.—which had been built in 1796 and hosted many prominent citizens including Robert Fulton and George Washington—was seized by the government and converted into a Union Army hospital. After Edward enlisted as a private in May 1862, Ropes quickly offered her services to the Office of United States Army Nurses, and was subsequentially placed at the former capital tavern. During this era, the nursing occupation was linked with a negative stigma—woman nurses were associated with prostitutes or ‘fallen women.’ However, as blood was shed as a result of several major Confederate victories, nurses became heroes of the Union Army. ‘Women of good conduct’ were speedily recruited to care for the sick and wounded. Ropes rose through the ranks because of job dedication, and in the autumn she was named the head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital. Her job responsibilities included training the hospital’s nurses and monitoring the general operations of the institution.

Upon taking the managerial post, she actively criticized the appalling conditions of the building and the former management—the complaints included lack of sanitation in the wards, the building’s decay, an absence of necessary supplies, and the cruel treatment of soldiers. Ropes strongly believed that every man in uniform (of every rank) deserved healthy surroundings, good food, and humanitarian treatment. This belief is evident by a diary entry she wrote in the first week of her new appointment in October 1862: “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Rather than ignoring the problems at hand—as elected officials did at first—Ropes swiftly picked up the mantle, restructured the hospital’s management style, and brought real change to the depleted building. The head matron selected women who were eager to enter the nursing field, and trained them to treat all their patients with compassion. Moreover, the nurses were taught to ignore long hours of work (often without decent pay) because the soldiers were first priority and a nurse could not leave the building until their patients were comfortable. Discipline among the staff was introduced by the new management, as Ropes was not afraid to terminate nurses if they failed to address the needs of the wounded soldiers.

 

Strong Leadership 

Head Matron Ropes quickly found out that most of the male staff at the D.C. hospital, including the surgeons, wanted to only help those who would survive—some argued that they did not have enough supplies for all the wounded soldiers. Ropes took disagreement with this belief as she wanted to save all the soldiers—she cited the laziness of men. Thus, she personally took extensive actions against staff who were cruel to the patients. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!” Subsequentially, Stanton wrote an order forbidding anyone from removing the head matron from her post. As she pressed on with her progressive nursing agenda, breaking down gender barriers, Hannah Ropes constructed an identity that emulated masculine traits—she was professional and dutiful in the toughest times. Although military generals often resented the sight of strongly opinionated women in hospitals, Ropes constantly butted heads with male colleagues, and held her ground with the best interests of the wounded soldiers at heart.

 

Comfort Among Chaos

In her position, Ropes worked longer hours than her colleagues—writing reports, ordering supplies, tirelessly advocating for hospital infrastructure improvements, and keeping a daily activity log. It was not uncommon to see Ropes tending to soldiers in the late hours of the night, only then to see her again at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Moreover, the head matron took an interest in writing letters to elected officials, politely asking them to either send extra blankets and supplies to the hospital or coaxing them to try and advocate politicians to pass funding stipends for the hospital. Ropes was in contact with a powerful figure in Congress. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—the elected official who is famous for being nearly caned to death by South Carolinian politician Andrew Butler in 1856—was an established supporter of Ropes’s hospital reforms, and continuously tried to push parts of the head matron’s agenda on to the Senate floor.

Hannah Ropes’ passion for nursing and devotion in monitoring the wounded (day and night) are evident from several diary entries written by nurse Louisa May Alcott, who joined the staff at the hospital on December 13, 1862, shortly after her 30thbirthday. At this time, the Union Army was heavily engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, which resulted in over 10,000 wounded soldiers. The hospital’s staff was overwhelmed during the five days of conflict as nurses dispensed food and medication, changed smeared dressings, bathed patients, wrote letters to loved ones for soldiers, and held the hands of those who were dying. Although chaos occurred in the wards and bloody carnage littered the hospital’s floors, the steady hand Ropes provided her staff and the patients brought some assurance to those who were stressed. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till dully ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on…and in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.” Alcott also recalls a time when she suggested the idea of drastically rationing the wounded’s meals after food was in short supply—Ropes, a selfless patriot, thought otherwise: “When I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: ‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one [bowl], and, if there’s not enough ready tonight, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.”

 

Sudden Illness and A Life Remembered 

During the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. Ropes’s health continued to fade. On January 19, Ropes’s daughter, Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital to her brother: “Mother has been ill for some weeks and indeed all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little.” The next day, January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old. Family and colleagues mourned. The Union Hotel Hospital was draped in black and a moment of silence took place among the wounded soldiers. Senator Sumner eulogized the matron’s life in a letter addressed to the family: “Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers.”

In an era where women were expected to master the roles of domesticity, keep their mouths closed, refrain from accepting educational or employment opportunities outside of the home, and sexually satisfy their spouses, Hannah Ropes convincedly (and tirelessly) blended the two spheres of a woman’s life together—nurturing and protecting her household while progressively crafting the nineteenth-century nursing field.

 

What do you think of Hannah Anderson Ropes’ life? Let us know below.

 

Finally, you can read about US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here).

References

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. New York: Applewood Books; Reissue edition, 1991. 

Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. First edition was written by Hannah Ropes.

Granstra, Pat. “Hannah Ropes: The Other Woman Behind ‘Little Women.’” Civil War Primer. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.civilwarprimer.com/2012/03/hannah-ropes-the-other-woman-behind-little-women/

MacLean, Maggie. “Hannah Ropes: Head Matron at Union Hotel Hospital.” Civil War Women. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/hannah-ropes/.

New England Historical Society. “Hannah Ropes Spends Six Months in Kansas with Loaded Pistols and Bowie Knife.” Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/hannah-ropes-spends-6-months-in-kansas-with-loaded-pistols-and-bowie-knife/

Nightingale, Florence. Notes On Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Harrison, 1859.  

Ropes, Hannah Anderson. Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1856.