My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Douglass The history of America is dark at times, and those moments have been omitted or neglected for many years. However, they are crucial to understanding how and why the United States developed into the nation that it is today. As an American, I am constantly seeking to understand my own country and clarify the myths that have propagated with regards to its past. I am learning uncomfortable truths, but they have not diminished the love that I have for America. In the history of this country, the name of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) remains a reminder of the institution of slavery that degraded human beings, served as the backbone of an economic system, and led America towards a civil war. Douglass was born into the slave system and became a free man as an adult. This is his story of his time in bondage, freedom from oppression and evolution into a public speaker.

The story begins with Douglass’s early years at the home of his grandparents. He had not understood that he was born into slavery and had no concept of it. But that soon changed when he was taken to meet his siblings whom he had never met. They reside on a plantation owned by former Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd (1779-1834). And it was here that Douglass came to know the horrors of the slave system for the first time. His observation about the lack of connection to his siblings reveals a devastating effect of slavery. Douglass points out that:

“The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.” 

The family is the backbone for our journey through life and Douglass understood the tragedy that developed from its destruction. His words are tough to read at times and the cruelty he endures did not always come at the hands of slaveowners or overseers. In fact, the actions of his Aunt Katy are equally deplorable and the two of them never established a close bond. Douglass’ mother does enter the story but briefly and for reasons the reader will find disgust in. However, her life and role are also an example of slavery’s goal in breaking down the will and spirit of those caught in its grip. There is, however, something that Douglass points out which is interesting about slavery itself. During his time in bondage, he observed the lives of blacks and whites, and this statement regarding what he saw is interesting:

“I knew of blacks who were not slaves; I knew of whites who were not slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were nearly white, who were slaves. Color, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery.”

Racism was undeniably a contributing factor for enslavement, but revenue was the driving factor. The system of slavery did not see individuals, but property to be used until it was no longer useful.  The effects upon human chattel were disregarded by those in power. But slaves were not content with remaining in bondage, and it was not long before rebellions erupted across slave-owning territories. The names of John Brown (1800-1859), Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) and Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) stand out among the scores of men and women determined to destroy the system of slavery. Their actions were not lost on Douglass who keenly observed that rebellions would increase as the enslaved sought their natural born right to be free. As Douglass ages, he becomes more aware of the changing sentiment in America and the undercurrent of emotions by those in bondage and their allies in the abolitionist movement. As Douglass states himself:

“The insurrection of Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was present, that God was angry with the white people because of their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were abroad in the land.”

I warn readers that his experiences on Lloyd’s plantation are not for the faint at heart. The degradation he endures should spark the fire of anger in anyone who reads this book. I found myself becoming emotional as I read his words and I cannot imagine the humiliation inflicted upon him and others who lived on the plantation. And what is interesting is that the plantation was not located in the deep south but in the State of Maryland. And his life became even more difficult when he was given to Capt. Thomas Auld, a former Army Commander during the War of 1812. Auld quickly becomes the darkest figure in the book and his cruelty towards Douglass is abhorrent. He was determined to break Douglass down and nearly succeeded completely as readers will learn in the book. However, the relationship between Douglass and Auld’s wife Lucretia offsets the darker moments. During his time with Auld, Douglass grows into a strapping young man and becomes determined to escape slavery at all costs. He first refuses to be beaten and after learning to read, began to understand how slavery functions at its core and why illiteracy is a necessary component to keep slaves in line. Once he learns the truth, his path to freedom comes into full focus. However, Douglass never fully reveals how he escaped from Maryland, likely to protect those who had assisted him. He does discuss how he became a free man once in the North but is also careful in that regard.

Following his escape from Maryland, he arrives in New York City but for a short amount of time before moving on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, Douglass soon learns that prejudice is not solely a product of the South. As he explains, he had his fair share of humiliation in the North as well. However, he was now free and despite the treatment by whites, he continued to evolve and mature. And his spirit becomes unbreakable. He also learns that he has the gift of oration and soon explores that talent to its fullest extent. Today he is regarded as one of the most popular voices of his time but regrettably, none of us will ever have the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. The story takes yet another turn when he is invited to visit several countries in Europe. It is this part of the book in which Douglass learns important truths about America while away from its shores. And what he explains to the reader are supported by the statements from jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991), whose experiences in France had opened his eyes to the dysfunction in America. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was seasoned and armed with a better understanding of the world and the changes needed at home. He devoted the rest of his life the abolitionist movement and in 1877, he was confirmed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia after being selected by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). In later years, he attempted a run for president and held several posts in the U.S. Government. On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Washington, D.C. His wife Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903) lived several more years until her own death at the age of sixty-five.

I cannot overstate the importance of this work and why it is such a critical read. His story was the exception and not the normal course of action for thousands of enslaved people. He also revealed the contrast between the northern and southern parts of America, paying close attention to the prejudice against people of color across the nation. Frankly, life for Black people was short, humiliating and void of hope at times. However, Douglass and others like him, refused to live out their lives in bondage and were determined to gain their freedom even if it meant death. He is and always will be an icon for those who are oppressed and yearning for freedom.

The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom – David Williams

Williams

I may have stated this before, but I absolutely love history. However, I have come to realize that there is much about my own country that I still need to learn. Of all the subjects that remains often misunderstood and debated is the American Civil War.  There is the common belief that the war about ending slavery but to others it was a case of “Northern aggression”. The truth is that there were multiple reasons for the war and not solely because of one above the others. But I do believe that Major Gen. Smedley Butler (1881-1940) was correct when he said, “war is a racket”. The realization that conflict has a monetary value unsettles the mind and spirit. The truth is rarely pleasant but always required to set the record straight. Author David Williams does just that in this remarkable account of the conflict that tore America apart. It can be argued that the Civil War is still affecting American society. I agree to an extent but for us to understand how and why, a full understanding of America and the war is needed. We can start at the beginning with the issue of slavery which is labeled as the major reason for the war. The image of the Confederacy and “Deep South” was one of abundant slave owners and plantations across the region. But as a I learned here, that was not always the case. In fact, what Williams shows is that the South was nowhere near as coherent as one might think. Nor was the number of slave owner and plantations in existence as one might suspect. As I read the book, I was quite surprised to learn of the reality behind the slave owning South and how it affected morale and pride during the war. 

Slavery was a critical issue the country faced as tensions continued to rise. Abolitionist were determined to see it fall and rebellions such as the one led by John Brown (1800-1859) caused pro-slavery parties in the South to take notice. The election of Abraham Lincoln installed fear in the hearts of Southerners, some of whom were certain that he would “take their slaves away”.  Washington was aware of abolitionists efforts but what was the real role of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1965)? Apologists have long sought to absolve Lincoln for many things that do not portray him in the most positive light. What can be seen in the book is that Lincoln’s actions and beliefs did not always fall in line with the iconized version presented in history books. In fact, Frederick Douglass was more explicit in his view of the President following Lincoln’s re-election: 

Though they had succeeded in keeping McClellan out of the White House, Radicals were not enthusiastic about giving Lincoln a second term. “When there was any shadow of a hope,” wrote Frederick Douglass, “that a man of a more decided anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected, I was not for Mr. Lincoln.”

There is far more to Lincoln’s role revealed in the book and readers may be surprised. His plan for free Blacks will certainly cause readers to pause. However, his role in the conflict can neither be overstated or understated. He was a crucial part of the Union effort that ended in victory. And his actions, regardless of true motives, did help end the system of human slavery in the United States.  

Once the war begins, the course of battle is anything but predictable. However, the author reveals interesting facts about the Confederacy and its ability to achieve victory. When President Barack Obama won his second term, there was calls for “secession” by those unable to accept his re-election. To any rational individual, it was clear that would not happen. But what did happen when Southern States left the Union after Lincoln’s re-election? And what was the final straw that pushed them over the edge? The answers to those questions can be found within and the author also discusses another motive for secession that businesspeople in the North recognized and refused to accept. It soon becomes clear in the book, that slavery is only one of many reasons for the South declaring its independence.

One of the best parts of the book is the discussion about life in the Confederacy. I strongly recommend readers look at Janet Elizabeth Croon’s “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865″, which is an excellent read about life in a Southern family that supports the Confederate effort. Far from the united South we may have been led to believe, there was much taking place in the Confederacy that was far from encouraging. And as the author points out: 

By 1864, President Davis publicly lamented that two-thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent, most of them without leave

In the North, things were also not as unified, and the image of the “liberal” North is directly challenged by William’s work. Frankly, though the North was free territory, racial harmony was a myth and social conditions could be just as bad as the South. Blacks were free but still lived like slaves. Interestingly, even before Union victory, members in Congress began to think of how Blacks could be enfranchised. Their efforts and those of the Radical Republicans are highlighted to show the missed opportunities that presented themselves to a country at a crossroads and in need of change. Lincoln’s actions and those of his successor Andrew Johnson (1908-1875), left much to be desired. 

Surprisingly, what is left out of discussions about the Civil War are the true feelings of Southerners who have been painted with the broad brush of being “sympathizers” to the Confederacy’s mission. The truth is far more complicated and fare less glamorous. In fact, life for poor whites in the Confederacy was not much better and the dark reality is brought to life in the story told here. Desertion was a major problem but there were other factors at play that made the desirability of serving under Davis’ army plummet.  Further, battlefield conditions, life as a solider and death for any number of reasons made it clear that war is hell, and no one should take part. To drive home this point, I refer to this section in the book by the author who relays that” 

“In The Impending Crisis of the South, published in 1857, Helper argued vigorously that the “lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks . . . but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal.”

As the war raged on, casualties began to rise from injuries and other conditions that brought death and destruction. Over six-hundred thousand men died in the American Civil War and the manners in which they perished were often barbaric and tragic. The author thoroughly examines the unsettling aspect of the soldier’s experience which included injuries in combat, inadequate clothing and supplies, famine, infections, viruses, and the lack of advanced medical knowledge. In short, life in the 1800s was rough and even rougher if you were an enlistee fighting in a savage conflict deemed to be a “rich man’s war”. Williams’ book should remove any notion of a valiant effort. On both sides, brutality was common, and desertion remained an issue throughout the war.  And the induction of both slaves and Native Americans into the war was not because those in power had a “change of heart”. The real reasons are far more sobering. The Native American experience has been discussed by other authors and their removal from their lands remains one of the darkest aspects of America’s creation. The experience of the Indian tribes is also discussed here in relation to the war and readers will shake their heads in disgusts and disbelief. 

After I finished the book, I had a moment of silence wherein I allowed myself to digest everything I had read. I had learned of things never presented to me before in any classroom that I can recall. American history is often difficult to accept because the image of America is designed to lift one’s spirits. And while there are aspects of life in the United States that are wonderful, our nation’s history contains dark moments. And it is imperative that we learn the truth so that they never again take place. This book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the truth regarding the American Civil War. Highly recommended. 

History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided” -Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) 

ASIN: ‎B007OWQN7Q

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Amazon Classics Edition) – Ulysses S. Grant

41HwlLK8+ILThe death of George Floyd (1973-2020) initiated a chain of events that have resulted in a criminal trial and more discussions about race in America.  It is a subject that will never go away and many still struggle to confront it with the honesty that is sometimes necessary.  I have noticed that when it comes to race in America and the nation’s history, it is almost impossible to grasp the entire picture without factoring in the effect of the American Civil War (1861-1865).  The conflict tore the nation apart over several issues, the most important of which was the topic of slavery.  Many states in the North had already abolished slavery, but in the South, it remained a way of life.  And because it was so critical to the South’s existence, the states that formed the Confederacy were willing to fight to the death to preserve what they felt was their right. Today we know with the benefit of hindsight that it was a lost cause from the start but the battle that ensued was a long and bloody conflict that left thousands dead and others critically wounded. Veterans who survived the conflict were forced to live with horrible memories of war that remained with them until their final days.  Among the war’s combatants was the Eighteenth President of the United States and former General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). In these extensive personal memoirs, he discusses the Civil War, the Mexican American War and his life which took him to places he could have never imagined, including his roles as a father and husband. 

I should point out that the book is quite long at more than six hundred pages.  However, at no point while reading the book, did I find myself bored with his writing.  From the start the book is engaging and Grant writes in a highly focused style that prevented him from veering off topic and employing rambling text.  The book is broken down into dozens of smaller chapters pertaining to a particular subject or time frame and it does help keep the reader’s attention from waning.  Readers will notice that Grant is very frank in his discussions of the events he witnessed during his time.  He does not mince words even at the expense of possibly offending some.  Although he fought on the American side of the Mexican War, he was not averse to giving his honest opinion and this quote should give readers and idea of the frankness in which the author gets his points across:

“The war was one of conquest, in the interest of an institution, and the probabilities are that private instructions were for the acquisition of territory out of which new States might be carved.”

The beauty in this book is that Grant does not hide behind patriotism and freely conveys his true feelings on various matters.  Some might be surprised that a former general and president is writing in this way but as can be seen in the book, Grant believed in transparency and the soul of the nation, even if it meant calling it out on its faults.  And make no mistake, he supported the Union unconditionally even if that meant his own life being taken from him.  Further, I feel that his words are crucial for Americans today in understanding the darker parts of our past including the founding of the United States. Grant’s account should help remove the mask of a “peaceful transition” between America and the continent’s native inhabitants.  Further, Grant makes an admission towards the end of the book regarding the future of Black Americans and the Caribbean city of Santo Domingo that will raise some eyebrows.

As the story progresses, we eventually come to the part in the story which every ready will be waiting for: The Civil War. Grant lays out the foundations for the war allowing the reader to understand just how important the issue of slavery was, and the threat Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) posed to the South.  I personally learned a couple of things and my eyes were glued to the screen when I read these statements by Grant:

“The Republican party was regarded in the South and the border States not only as opposed to the extension of slavery, but as favoring the compulsory abolition of the institution without compensation to the owners.” 

“The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out.”

For all intents and purposes, the stage was set for the war in which America was fighting to save itself from an enemy within.  And Lincoln would become a savior and a casualty before the war’s conclusion.  The discussions about the war and the individual battles are extensive and it might benefit some readers to take notes while reading what Grant has to say.  Maps are provided but I think that a paperback or hardcover version might be better for those wishing to see actual positions on the terrain. The Kindle display is acceptable but does not match the clarity of a printed version.  To be expected, Grant focuses on the technical aspects of the campaigns which military buffs will love.  He does not go into political discussions for the most part except for when he reveals who he voted for in the presidential race and what he thought of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875).  This is battlefield 101 and all its goodness. Grant was strategist and his brilliancy is on full display as the Union takes hold of the war and step by step, dismantles the Confederate Army.  Legendary figures on both sides enter the story as Grant knew nearly all quite well and he gives his assessment of them as military figures and leaders.  History buffs will find themselves unable to put the book down at times.

If there is one subject about which I wished Grant had discussed more, it is the assassination of Lincoln.  Grant mentions little about it largely mentioning his reasons for not going to Ford’s Theater that night.  As to why Grant avoided a lengthy discussion of the murder, I am not sure but it in no way detracts from the incredible story he is telling. What is clear though, is that he not only liked Lincoln but respected him highly as the nation’s leader. Lincoln in return, respected Grant’s abilities on the battlefield during a conflict the Union had to win by all costs.  Following Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency and Grant makes observations about that as well. Nothing slanderous will be found in his account but I strongly recommend that readers follow-up this book with material on Johnson’s impeachment trial in which he narrowly avoided conviction. The recent events of the past year will seem like history repeating itself.  However, America survived the Civil War and will continue to survive more challenges that lay ahead as we continue to correct course.  And if we need words of wisdom about our past and the dark side of war and human rights, we have this book by a former president that still stand the test of time. Highly recommended.

Readers interested in the viewpoint from the Confederacy might enjoy this diary by Leroy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) called The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865, which is a very good look at the conflict from the eyes of a southerner firmly behind the Confederate cause.  Gresham died not long after the war ended but his observations about the war’s progression are interesting for a young man who had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday.

“Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, never to turn back or to stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” – Ulysses S. Grant 

ASIN : B08CDW51LB

Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning: A Library of America Special Publication – Harol Holzer

LincolnThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), remains a pivotal moment in American history when the nation was truly at a crossroads.  A brutal civil war had just ended and millions of former slaves found themselves unsure of their future post-bondage.  The former Confederacy was left in shambles and the Radical Republicans were intent on reconstructing the south in the model of the Union as a whole.  Lincoln, was either loved or hated depending on who you asked. In the Confederacy, there was no love lost when he was murdered and as Jefferson Davis (1809-1889) bluntly stated: “Well, General, I don’t know; if it were to be done at all, it were better that it were well done; and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would then be complete.”  Investigators had tried to link Davis to the assassination but the former Confederate leader was never tried or convicted for Lincoln’s murder. The crime cast a dark cloud over the nation and millions of American went into mourning at the loss of the fallen leader.  Author Harold Holzer takes us back in time as we re-live the murder and events that followed as they happened in 1865.

The author opens with a brief description of events at Ford’s Theater as Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) watched the play Our American Cousin. Around 10:15 p.m, a stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) fired a single shot sending a derringer bullet barreling into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him and changing American history. The assassin made a quick escape as he jumped down to the stage and uttered the infamous words “sic semper tyrannus”. Pandemonium ensued as doctors and guards rushed to Lincoln’s side. But doctors quickly realized that the president was beyond help. He was moved to the dwelling of William A. Petersen and at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds. The shocking murder of the president sent shockwaves across the city and nation but before long, authorities knew the identity of the man they were looking forward and his conspirators including Lewis Powell (1844-1865) who had also attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). The chain of events comes roaring back to life through cables to Washington, newspaper articles and statements from witnesses and the even the officer who shot and fatally wounded Booth, Sgt. Boston Corbett (1832-1894), whose own life story is beyond puzzling.

At the beginning of the chapter’s the author provides relevant information to help the reader keep things in context but lets the writer of the letter or article presented do the talking. A majority of the statements are from those who knew Lincoln and loved him while at least who are from Southern sympatizers who rejoiced at the news of his death. Their statements are also included and some readers may find themselves filling with anger at the words. Remarkably, even those who had once mocked Lincoln, found the appropriate words of endearment for the fallen president. Journalists and politicians alike make amends in the book while offering their words to Lincoln’s memory. Today it may be hard for some to appreciate how loved Lincoln was by many during his time even in spite of his detractors. Included in the book is this statement by historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) that truly captures the majority of opinions at the time:

How shall the nation most completely show its sorrow at Mr. Lincoln’s death? How shall it best honor his memory? There can be but one answer. He was struck down when he was highest in its service, and in strict conformity with duty was engaged in carrying out principles affecting its life, its good name, and its relations to the cause of freedom and the progress of mankind. Grief must take the character of action, and breathe itself forth in the assertion of the policy to which he fell a victim. The standard which he held in his hand must be uplifted again higher and more firmly than before, and must be carried on to triumph. – George Bancroft (1800-1891)

What I did notice in many of the statements provided is that the issue of slavery always remained prevalent. Some speakers addressed it head on while others included as an addition to their main point. But what is clear in the book is that the issue continued to be a hot topic of discussion with many wondering how the United States would move forward with millions of freed black men and women. Reconstruction was the goal of Lincoln and his associates in Congress but their efforts would be undermined by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1865) who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868.

The constitution was weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of prominent figures who sought to carry on Lincoln’s legacy and make America’s black population a legitimate part of the American experience. But first, Lincoln’s funeral needed to be held and sadly, even with him lying in state and on his way to the grave, blacks would feel the wrath of discrimination as they were initially barred from the funeral procession. It truly is mind-boggling but did actually happen and the criticism leveled at the Common Council in New York City is included as well. The order was defied and reversed but left a sour taste in the mouths of blacks who had already experienced their share of indignations at the hands of bigots. Outrage ran so high that even the Secretary of War Edward Stanton (1814-1869) stepped in and personally ordered that blacks be permitted to march in the funeral procession. As I read this part of the book, I shook my head in disbelief. But this was America in 1865.

The amount of speakers who appear in the book is extensive and include Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) whose statements in tribute to Lincoln may surprise some readers. As to how sincere Stephens was in his words regarding slavery, we shall never truly know. However, he did show Lincoln the utmost respect in death even if they were at odds during the war and made the following proclamation:

Indulge me a moment upon this subject of the institution of slavery, so called, in the Southern States. Well, Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, it was not an unmitigated evil. It was not, thus much I can say, without its compensations. It is my purpose now, however, to bury, not to praise, to laud, “nor aught extenuate.” – Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883)

The above quote is just a sample of the extensive amount of statements in the book that are crucial in American history. They are voices in history who were guiding the republic as America split in half and nearly destroyed itself. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and had preferred to avoid conflict but was left with no choice but to wage war. The conflict had been a long and brutal campaign but the president had his eyes set on the future and how to move America forward. But on April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet put an end to his goals. The world would see a similar event take place in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Old Abe as he was sometimes called is fondly remember as the first Republican President and an astute politician who came from a simple background in Kentucky. And at the time of his death, he stood ready to move America forward. His death was a profound loss to the nation and that sorrow is captured here perfectly. As I read the book I felt as if I stepped back in time and had been provided with a ring side seat as a president was mourned and the hunt for an assassin was on.

The focus remains mostly on Lincoln but Holzer does discuss the arrests and fates of the conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold (1842-1865), George Azterodt (1835-1965), John Surratt (1844-1916), Mary Surratt (1823-1865) and Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883). Of the group, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death and she became the first woman in American history to be executed. The group mounted their defenses and the statements by their attorneys are included as part of the author’s discussion on the investigation and convictions that followed. The attempts by defense lawyers were admirable if not also quite ludicrous. Authorities had the guilty parties and left no stone unturned as they hunted Lincoln’s killers. It was a conspiracy in the making from the beginning and the trail of evidence is presented out in the book. However, neither at that time or in the years that followed, has there been any evidence conclusively linking anyone in the Confederacy’s highest level of government to the crime.

America continues to grapple with race and equality but we have the tools and the will to continue the goal of improvement life for all. And as we embark on our path for true equality we can look back at the life and death Abraham Lincoln as a reminder of just how far we have come as a nation and where we should want to go. Old Abe’s ghost will always be with us and he will continue to be lauded as one of the greatest presidents in Unites States history. Great book.

ASIN : B00SW8BNVM

Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror – Charles Lane

hiramYesterday America once again celebrated its independence from British Colonialism.  Cookouts and fireworks were held all over the country as people sought out even the smallest amount of happiness during what are surreal times.  The Coronavirus Pandemic and murder of George Floyd (1973-2020) have placed America at a crossroads.  As a nation we are forced with both an invisible enemy that spreads from person to person and a highly visible one which has festered in our nation for far too long.  But what is paramount to remember is that America has faced these enemies before but what we do moving forward will truly define what type of country we wish to have.  I found this book on Amazon while browsing through a list of daily recommendations and the cover caught my attention instantly. I do confess that did not have the slightest idea who the person on the cover was and why he is important in American history.  All that changed as I opened the pages of this book and learned a history lesson that I have never seen in any textbook.

As a person of color, I am sometimes placed in a tough position.  I love America deeply but I am sometimes ashamed of the image that we project to the rest of the world. Domestically, we all know of and may have even been to the region simply called “the South”.  For black men and women, the southeastern part of the United States was nothing short of hell on earth.  And the enslavement of people of color remains entrench in America’s dark past.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Republican Party had embarked on a path to eradicate all traces of the Confederacy and rebuild the South from scratch as a part of the Union in which freedom, liberty and equality held true for all.  In the state of Georgia, a Radical Republican named George W. Ashburn (1814-1868) had pushed for the reconstruction of Georgia and firmly believed that African-Americans were human beings and should have a part to play in a new society.  His actions and beliefs enraged former Confederate officers, slave owners and racists still seething from losing the war. On the night of March 31, 1868, several hooded men burst into the lodgings of Hannah Flournoy where Ashburn was staying and shot the politicaan to death.  The group that carried out the murder became known to the public as the Ku Klux Klan.

Founded in 1865 by a group of disgruntled Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan grew into a widespread organization that terrorized white and black citizens through horrific acts of violence. Their savagery however, was always saved for Black Americans and the atrocities committed by the Klan’s upon people of color is too extensive and disturbing to discuss here.  In Washington, D.C., President Ulysses G. Grant (1822-1886) took notice and the government created its plan to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. The division tasked with such a daunting objective was the Secret Service under the direction of officer and Second Chief Hiram C. Whitley (1834-1919), whom author Charles Lane calls Freedom’s Detective.

As I started the book, I kept asking myself how a figure like Whitley has gone unmentioned in history books?  It was clear that he was not a major political figure or military leader but after starting the book, I soon realized why he is important and his story should be known.  To be clear, Whitley will most likely never be seen as a “social justice warrior”. In fact, an incident in Kansas involving an abolitionist named John Doy initially put me on the defensive regarding his character.  However, I pressed on and as the story develops Whitley is transformed from deviant into a law enforcement officer willing to fight fire with fire.  Some readers may be surprised that he was a Secret Service agent and not a typical law enforcement officer.  The reason is that upon its creation, the Secret Service was mainly tasked with cracking down on counterfeit money which was a highly lucrative business.  And as Lane points out towards the end of the book, it was not until the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service was assigned to protect the president.  Prior to this, the agency had its primary area of investigation but was also asked to take action in other areas which are thoroughly explored in the book.  And interestingly, there is a surprising fact about its  creation that many of us might not be aware of.

Following Ashburn’s murder, Whitley is dispatched to Georgia to bring the assailants to justice. And what he accomplished marked the first successful infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan and proved to Washington that the organization was far from a myth as some right wing southern newspapers had proclaimed.  By no means was the task easy and there were many who still sympathized with the South and had no desire to see African-Americans on equal footing. However, Whitley was undeterred and believed in breaking down the Klan for good.  But he was not without his faults, some of which were exposed during the trial of New York City counterfeiter Joshua D. Miner.   The arrest of the highly respected Miner and the trial that ensued could have changed the course of history had the old veteran Whitley not been quick on his feet and armed with the support of Washington which was ramping up its war on the Klan.

On June 7, 1871, Senator John Pool produced witnesses from North Carolina to testify before the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.  The committee became known informally as the Ku Klux Committee and heard from witnesses, stories of the atrocities being committed in the south.  Washington was paying close attention as Whitley was joined by fresh faces including Joseph G. Hester, whose own past was just murky as Whitley’s. However, Hester figures prominently in the mission to defeat the Klan and Whitley’s agents dealt staggering blows to the Klan as part of their goal to see its extinction.  But as readers will learn in the book, silencing the Klan was as much a political issue as it was a social issue.  And what I learned caused me to hang my head in shame and disbelief.

You might be wondering, if the government had begun to eradicate the Klan, why did it not go all the way? I began to ask myself the same question and Lane provides the answer to it.  What should have been the moment for the U.S. Government to end the Klan once and for all, turned into a moment of the highest lack of foresight. And one result is that it paved the way for Jim Crow and the battle for civil rights that continues to this day.   Whitley, Hester and the other agents who fought valiantly against the Klan began to see the writing on the wall.  And the recapturing of power by Southern Democrats sealed the Radical Republicans’ fate and their mission to bring true equality to all people in the United States.

Towards the end of the book as the Klan fades away from Washington’s concern and Democrats take control of Washington, Whitley finds himself embroiled in a mind-boggling fiasco that left me speechless. The events surrounding Columbus Alexander felt as if I were reading an eerie premonition of what we now refer to as Watergate.  I can only imagine how many investigations would take place and how many hearings would be held if a Secret Service chief attempted what Whitley concocts.  The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction applies all throughout this book. And if you need more confirmation, play close attention to Whitley’s actions regarding James Ivins, the stepson of former Attorney General George H. Williams (1823-1910).  I cannot put into words just how mind-boggling this part of the book is.

Hiram C. Whitley was certainly an unorthodox figure and while he was far from a beacon of equality, he did lead the way in the battle against the Ku Klux Klan and had his vision prevailed, the organization might have met its demise as early as the 1870s.  But the rise in power of the Southern Democrats and the reluctance of Liberal Republicans to go after the Klan, allowed the South to reincorporate its power and for black people, life would become more burensome than any could have predicted.  Readers will be left with many what if questions regarding the aftermath of the Civil War. I firmly believe that every American should read this book.  And if all men are created equal, we have to understand where we went wrong as a nation so that we can actually do what is needed to correct it.  The past is always prologue. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B079S8XK5Q

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865 – Janet Elizabeth Croon

CroonI was browsing through recommendations on Amazon when this book caught my attention.  As one would expect, the words Civil War stuck on the cover.  However, the name LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) did not sound familiar at all.  My interest peaked and I decided to see why the book had earned a five star rating.  And to say that it is a hidden gem would be an understatement. It is indeed special and the author did a remarkable job of putting it all together.

Janet Elizabeth Croon admits early in the book that she had no idea who Gresham was.  I would wager that a majority of Americans are unaware of him as well. He was never mentioned in any of the history books I studied while in school. Nor is he mentioned in literature regarding the Civil War.  But I firmly believe that this journal is one of the most overlooked accounts of the war from the point of view of the Confederacy.  The story is told from the Gresham family home in Macon, Georgia.  LeRoy is what we would call an invalid, having survived a dangerous accident in 1856 in which his left leg was severely broken by a falling chimney. Following the injury, he developed a dangerous and persistent cough in addition to other symptoms that were later diagnosed as tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”.  LeRoy is never told of the diagnosis and the journal was written by a young man who did not think death was coming for him until his very last moments.

Readers will notice instantly that Gresham is highly articulate for a young man of his age.  It becomes obvious early on that his mobility is limited and he does not get out often.  However, he is a keen observer of the news and those around him.   His awareness and understanding of the raging conflict between the Union and Confederacy speaks volumes about his level of maturity.   And although he was not always correct in some of his observations, that can partly be attributed to faulty reporting in a time before social media and live news broadcasts.  In fact, news moved so slowly at times, that it could be an entire day or two before information reached its final destination.  Regardless, LeRoy follows the war closely, offering detailed insight into the war’s progression.

As I read through the journal, I did notice that most of his days were actually quite eventful with relatives and friends coming and going constantly.  Games are played,  the weather detailed, various foods eaten and plenty of conversation takes place.   Sadly though, LeRoy’s illness does not let up and he comments on his own physical condition nearly every day.  Readers have the benefit of the doubt in knowing what was wrong with him but he was unaware of his terminal diagnosis.  He mentions old medicinal treatments common during the time and some of the names will be foreign to some readers.  The reports of the war’s battles may also be unfamiliar to those that are not Civil War buffs. But the author provides a ton of invaluable footnotes at the end of the chapter to explain almost everything contained in the journal for each year.  Without these footnotes, the journal would have assuredly been a far more challenging read.

As a Black person, I could not ignore the “elephant in the room”.  LeRoy’s family were slave owners and supporters of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). As I started the book, I did feel a bit of uneasiness about what I would find.  I did not find anything extreme in the journal but I did notice he was not averse to using racial terminology that was commonplace at the time, in particular for a slave owning family.  However, he does not lace his journals with it and refers to family slaves by their first names in describing the day’s events.   But I was under no illusions that he believed in the abolitionist movement.  LeRoy believed in the Confederacy and was no fan of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), but as the journal progressed, I did notice a few changes in his beliefs that will cause the reader to take notice.   And had he lived, perhaps his views might have changed over the course of time.

The journal only covers between 1860 and 1865, so we do not know all of the details regarding the accident that caused him to break his left leg .  The author explains the accident but LeRoy does not talk of his leg much in the journal. In fact, his back is the main focus in addition to his hacking cough and the abscesses that would plague him as the tuberculosis raged through his body eventually reaching his spine.   As a bonus in the book, the author was able to get a doctor to examine what was known of LeRoy’s medical history, the medications he was taking and the care he received to render the most likely diagnosis.  At the end of the book, the doctor takes a very detailed look at the medications which explain even further exactly what LeRoy’s condition was and why he would have been given them.  Reading the journal did make me grateful for modern medicine.

I strongly advise and recommend that anyone interested in the Civil War to read this book.  It is by no means an authoritative source on the war but it is a very intimate look at the conflict through a very different set of eyes.

ASIN: B07D6QQT77

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy-David O. Stewart

ImpeachedThe American Civil War remains a key turning point in United States history.  The nation nearly tore itself apart as the Union and Confederacy engaged in deadly conflict over several issues including States’ rights, secession, and the system of slavery.  Prior to its conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) met his tragic end on April 15, 1965, falling victim to assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.  Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President and Democrat, succeeded Lincoln as the 17th President of the Unite States of America.  He would only serve in office through 1869 when Lincoln’s term would have ended, but in that short period, his administration would be the center of one of the most critical trials in United States history.

David O. Stewart takes a look back in this well-researched and well-presented investigative account of the trial of Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment by the Radical Republicans led by U.S. House of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868).  From start to finish the book is spellbinding and Stewart writes in a style that never bores the reader while presenting the material in an easy to read and streamlined format.  And as a result of his work, we now have one of the finest books on the attempted impeachment of a President who nearly pushed the nation into a second Civil War.

The book begins after Lincoln has passed and Johnson has become the next Commander-In-Chief.  And nearly instantly, the dark side of Johnson is put on full display as he commits the first of several acts that will turn the Radical Republicans against him and dictate the course of history for the deep south for decades to come.  It is not enough to say that Johnson was unfit for office.  Stewart realizes this and details the nefarious policies which Johnson advocated.   In time they would come to be viewed as the end of the legacy of Lincoln and an insult to those who truly believe that all men are created equal.   Further,  we come to learn about the personal side of Johnson or lack of it.  Generally viewed as cold and rarely in good spirits,  Johnson comes off as vindictive and in some cases delusional and out of his mind.  Actions such as circumventing Congress to deal directly with southern states, vetoing the Reconstruction Acts and Civil rights bill of Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896), are just several of many that earned Johnson the wrath of many Americans.  But his attempted removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Radical Republicans commencing impeachment proceedings against the despised President.

The impeachment trial is one of the best parts of the book.   Johnson came extremely close to impeachment from office, saved only by one vote.   Stewart revisits the trial and the events leading up to the trial as each Senator mulls over which way he will vote in deciding Johnson’s fate.   For some of them, we see why they voted in the way that they did and for others, the question remains, did they really feel that way or were the allegations of bribery true?  It may seem shocking to some to even think that bribery occurred.  And while Stewart does not convict anyone with his words, he examines the evidence available reaching a quite startling conclusion.

Today it would be fair to say that the Civil War still haunts America.  In the south, it is sometimes referred to as the war of “Northern aggression”.  The tearing down of Confederate monuments and the tragedy in Charlottesville remind us of the struggle we continue to deal with in confronting the war that divided our nation.  Reconstruction can been seen as a missed opportunity in American history. Millions of freed slaves and White Americans had their lives changed permanently by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s defeat. Congress realizing the opportunity before it,  attempted to seize the opportunity but was confronted by a President deeply prejudiced and intent on maintaining the social structure of the south.   His efforts would eventually come to pass in the system of Jim Crow that took decades and a Civil Rights Movement to finally defeat.   We can only guess what would have happened if Johnson had not only complied but encouraged Congress to pass more legislation to move the nation forward after a brutal conflict and protected the lives of newly freed and disenfranchised Americans.

America now finds itself at a crossroad as we grapple with a political climate that borders on surreal at times.  But regardless of what happens, America will survive as it always has.   But while we continue to maintain the nation that we have, it is imperative that we do not forget the dark legacy of Andrew Johnson and remember why it is imperative to have a President that is able to unify us all and serve each and every citizen of the United States of America.  Stewart’s book is an excellent place to start in understanding the rise and fall of Andrew Johnson.

ISBN-10: 1416547509
ISBN-13: 978-1416547501

Blood On The Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln-Edward Steers, Jr.

20180602_234541On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth changed the course of United History.  The murder of Abraham Lincoln marked the first time a sitting U.S. President had been slain by an assassin.  Tragically, Lincoln would not be the last to be assassinated.  John F. Kennedy would meet his tragic fate on the streets of Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.   Lincoln’s murder has become fodder for conspiracy theorist intent on proving that a web of deceit surrounded Lincoln paving the way for the tyrannical Booth to execute his plan.  But just how much of a conspiracy was there? And did it involve members of the Confederacy?  Was Edward Stanton complicit in pulling back Lincoln’s security detail?  And was Mary Surratt rightfully convicted? Edward Steers, through painstaking research answers those questions and more in what is the definitive examination of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

By all accounts, the general consensus is that John Wilkes Booth committed the murder and then jumped to the stage breaking a bone in his left leg in the process.  His declaration of “Sic semper tyrannis” remains some of the most remembered and chilling words ever recorded in American history.  Nearly two weeks later he was shot and killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett in a barn at the Garrett farmhouse.  Nearly four years would pass before Booth’s body was returned to his family for internment at Green Mount Cemetery Baltimore, MD, where it continues to rest today.  But with any famous murder, rumors, suspicion and misinformation arise leading to false conclusions and even more unanswered questions.  Drawing on statements by those with first hand knowledge of the crime as a witness or subsequent participant and government documents, Steers has masterfully reconstructed the events leading up to the murder, the night itself and the aftermath that followed.  And what is revealed, may change the way you look at an event that had a profound impact on a nation and helped shape the modern-day United States.

The facts of the murder and grisly details are scenery for those seeking gory bits of information.  But the key to viewing Lincoln’s murder lies in the reasons behind the venom that consumed Booth and his conspirators.  The Civil War in all of its ugliness, serves a predicate for the murder and in this book we are shown the treasonous acts carried out by members of the Confederacy as the Union neared closer to forcing it into submission.  Lincoln, the Republican star,is seen by many in the south as a deadly threat to the system of slave labor.  He forever changed the course of America with the emancipation of slaves, striking a severe blow to the southern way of life.  However, sympathetic supporters could be found throughout the country even in the north and it is among these groups of individuals that Booth is able to form his nexus of assassins.  And had the full plan been carried out, perhaps Steers would have been forced to write even more about the events of that night.

Many years have passed since Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth took their last breaths.  Their secrets went with them to the grave with each having never written a full autobiography.  The two had never met  before that night yet they are joined in death from a critical moment in time which remains with us today.  While the possibility of more unknown accomplices does exist, Steers has put to rest many unfounded rumors that serve to detract from the true story.  And doing so, he has given us a gift in the form of a book that does the most efficient job of telling us what happened on that tragic night.  It is often said that hindsight is always 20/20. In this case, it’s not only 20/20 but beyond crystal clear.

ISBN-10: 0813191513
ISBN-13: 978-0813191515