I once wrote in a review of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom that,
James McPherson is a master of prose and storytelling as evidenced in Battle Cry of Freedom. He has mastered the art that Shelby Foote noted many historians lack, that of telling history in a way ordinary men will read. However, for all his skills at penmanship McPherson makes several critical errors in Battle Cry, errors common to his generation. It is likely that the influence and ascendance of this work and the myriad of others in the same vein will be short lived in the realm of serious scholarship on the causes of The War.
James McPherson’s central theme within Battle Cry, in his words, “the multiple meanings of slavery and freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed in the crucible of war”. His work is typical of most historians of his generation in that it rejects the thematic and topical analysis of events utilized by previous scholars.
My opinion of his worth as a historian has not changed. He is an accomplished storyteller but he is a man of his generation, he shares flaws common across most historians trained the 1960s. There was a trend, beginning after WWII and the collapse of the academic and political old right, to tell the narrative of the United States from a more left and decidedly more centralist point of view. Much of the discussion and scholarship in the first half of the 20th century had dealt with the examination of sectionalism, original intent, and states’ rights. In the 1950s and going into the 1960s the standard narrative was less comprehensive, looked less deeply for the complexity of issues that divided America in the mid 19th century and came more and more to talk just of “rebellion and slavery”.
While I admire his ability to tell a story, I remain unconvinced of his view of American history in the 19th Century. It was, therefore, extremely curious to learn that McPherson and other historians publically called out the New York Times for errors in their 1619 Project. It seems the NYT journalist, that is folks that went to school to tell stories and master the written word as opposed to the study and analysis of history, went too far afield in the ever-evolving new American narrative. Painting American history essentially as one long list of events designed exclusively to dominate and manipulate black folks. That was too much, even for folks like McPherson. You can view their letter to the NYT here.
I applaud McPherson and his partners in this effort. It is dangerous, increasingly dangerous, to speak out against anything of the radical agenda. oftentimes those that are punished the worst, canceled the hardest and suffer the most, are left-leaning folks that fail to toe the line or speak up when things go too far astray.
It has caused a bit of a stir on Twitter, with half-baked defenses, incompetent lemmings and false historians and journalists coming out of the woodwork to defend the NYT.
The real story of the Hamburg Incident is that two groups of South Carolinians, each with much more in common than they possibly realized did violence to each other. They shared commonalities of misplaced hate, fear, insecurity and pride of principle. The events of 8 July 1876 shaped the future of South Carolina more significantly than any event to occur here before or since. The loss of life was tragic, but if a common narrative that binds us together as South Carolinians is to be found in this event is that of blood sacrifice on the eventual road to who we are today – it is our story. It should not be a story of this group versus that group, told from two sides. All involved were sons of our fair State.
As a one so recently introduced into the myriad of issues that seem to be inflaming passions related to monuments, interpretive plagues and the proper utilization of historic properties within the city I cannot say that I know all of the personal histories that may be fanning the current flames of emotional distress. I can say as a son of the State of South Carolina and a fellow that has been intently interested in the history of the state and her people coupled with the fact that I endeavor and pray for God’s wisdom in the application of critical thinking skills I do have a perspective to offer on this entire situation.
It is not my purpose here to discuss if the city council should have selected a different site for the new public safety headquarters. I suspect there are better properties from a logistical and access point of view but my intent here is to address the counter-arguments related to the Flythe house and the Hamburg Incident (or Massacre if you prefer). I submit that it is very important to discuss North Augusta’s history vis-a-vis Hamburg but that it is not helpful to conflate the discussion of the location of the public safety headquarters into that discussion. The bottom line is the city, could, if planned properly, construct a headquarters building that is architecturally true to the original Seven Gables design and accommodates some homage to Starkey Flythe onsite. If they are intent on building at that location, these points are for a separate discussion.
Something of a more weighty matter, that is lost in the conflation of political discussions and debate, is the narrative and history of this side of the river. I ask humbly that you bear with me through my argument, it may seem to offend sensibilities of all sides at one point or another but I believe there is an important common ground and story to be told. I contend that this is where discussions of monuments and historical interpretation should be aimed.
In terms of its greater impact what happened in Hamburg on July 8, 1876 was the most significant historic event to occur in North Augusta/Hamburg. That event set in motion a series of other events that fueled the eventual election of Wade Hampton and the end of the Federal Occupation of South Carolina and Reconstruction. We must be very careful to deconstruct what that meant and not merely jump to faulty conclusions. Ending the occupation of South Carolina was a positive good – independent of any and all of the other potentially negative impacts that followed. Those unfortunate reactionary measures should not be conflated with or tarnish the positive of being free of a foreign army of occupation. Arguments against Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of Blacks in South Carolina are valid but it would be a faulty analogy to argue that because bad things followed the end of occupation reconstruction itself must have been a good thing for South Carolina. It was bad for all South Carolinians, black, white, rich and poor.
To provide some idea of how bad reconstruction really was for South Carolina one need only look at the fraud and scandal surrounding the state legislature and the treasury from 1867-1874.
“…in 1870–1871, the state’s financial board secured the authority to print and sell $1 million in state bonds; there were to be $1,000 bonds numbered 1 to 1,000. Members of the board printed two sets— both numbered 1 to 1,000—and sold both sets. They kept no records of their transactions and were caught only when a New York investment firm came into possession of two bonds with the same number on both. Partly as a result of such malfeasance, and partly because of legitimate increases in expenditures such as the creation of a public school system from scratch, state budgets skyrocketed during Reconstruction and the state slipped further and further into debt. ” SC Encyclopedia
For many from the North, with an eye toward profit, Reconstruction served as a perfect mechanism to extract from the South and South Carolina treasure for their own purposes. The South, and her people black and white, became easy prey to anyone with an entrepreneurial and unethical frame of mind. Infrastructure was ruined, the social security provided by the former slave system was gone. Sharecropping became the economic model – a system that provided no security at all for the laborers at the bottom of the system. Northern investors provided high-interest loans to plantation owners, and when the price of cotton plummeted in the late 1860’s these loans could not be repaid. The first people to suffer under this system were sharecroppers. The only people to profit were Northern investors supported by an occupation army.
It is perhaps even more nefarious. Northern Republicans were only too happy to use the majority black vote to secure state offices. Even being so “kind” as to admit several black legislators don’t you know. Of course, they never allowed or conceived of allowing the black population to actually control state politics or hold the highest offices. This was paternalism coupled with manipulation and not so subtle disdain. They used the black population to attain power.
Additionally, rather than quelling racial animosity in the State, the policies and actions of the occupying army and Northern opportunist served only to incite it. I shall explain.
People often focus on racism as the cause of so many ills. I suggest racism is just a version of hate -sim. Hate based upon race is just easier to spot, it is obviously in the pigment of skin, it is easy to identify a target of one’s hatred. But hate -ism is really no different anywhere it is found. It is almost always a result of misplaced angst. People come to view the source of their problems in another group and begin to hate them. In the former Yugoslavia, we observed the exact same thing. Families that lived alongside each other for a couple of centuries turned to hate – ism and identified the source of their problems in the identity of another group. I suggest the real root cause of why hate – ism manifested in the South was more fundamental than the mere color of a person’s skin. Karl Marx was wrong about most things but argued that history is the story of economics. I tend to agree that people fundamentally get most invigorated over economic issues, particularity those related to survival. The political and economic policies of the Reconstruction government fed hate and animosity as opposed to building tranquility and harmony. Let’s dispense then, at least for the moment, of racism talk and perhaps acknowledge that there was a lot of misplaced hate going around. People hated their circumstances and their rulers but were powerless to change things.
By misplaced hate, of course, I mean, both the black and white population of South Carolina had good cause to be upset with the occupation, with the running of the state government, with finances and with the economy in general. Many whites had been outright disenfranchised, blacks could now vote but still did not really run the affairs of the state and both groups shared the burden of a failed economy and a dismal future if the circumstance did not change.
If my assessment of the Union occupation and Republican rule of South Carolina seems too harsh perhaps I can allow that the US was essentially an amateur at nation-building and occupation in the late 1800s. Many of the mistakes I personally observed in Iraq were the same mistakes the Union Army made – disenfranchising an entire population and leaving them with no political voice, failure to address economic issues etc. Obviously, those failures throughout the decade of the 2000s resulted in the formation and expansion of ISIS so after 130 years the US has really gotten no better at the task. That being said, the problems created by reconstruction and the violent reactionary movement that resulted from it still must be laid clearly on those that created the problem and not simply chalked up to the mysterious boogeyman of racism -it is so much more complex than that.
So we arrive on the fateful day of July 4th, 1876. The militia in Hamburg was conducting a 4th of July Parade. Consider, the South simply did not celebrate the 4th until the Spanish American War and not wholly until the First World War. It simply did not happen, it was a Union holiday. However, the predominately black population of Hamburg was celebrating that day, replete with their militia on parade.
Consider how inflammatory this entire circumstance was, Governor Robert Scott, a “real estate speculator” and former Union officer from Pennsylvania had armed the Hamburg militia with state arms. Whites were precluded from serving in or forming militias. Captain Doc Adams, proud of his position and the patronage shown by the Republicans in charge of the state proudly paraded his company that day in Hamburg. One cannot really fault him for this, the real culprit that set up this situation is the marionette occupying the state capital.
Then we have of course the two white farmers from Edgefield that confronted Adams on the road that day. Did these two likely know about the 4th of July celebration? Probably? Is it reasonable to assume they were out to make a scene or cause trouble? – Perhaps.
The events of the next four days are fairly well documented, and unfortunately, occupy much of the narrative and disagreement over how the events of 8 July 1876 ought to be remembered. I argue again, that the tragic outcome of that day should not be the keystone of the story.
The real story of the Hamburg Incident is that two groups of South Carolinians, each with much more in common than they possibly realized did violence to each other. They shared commonalities of misplaced hate, fear, insecurity and pride of principle. The events of 8 July 1876 shaped the future of South Carolina more significantly than any event to occur here before or since. The loss of life was tragic, but if a common narrative that binds us together as South Carolinians is to be found in this event it is that of blood sacrifice on the eventual road to who we are today. It should not be a story of this group versus that group, told from two sides. All involved were sons of our fair State.
If the city wants to tackle this issue and create a narrative that tells history in context we should create one near the old armory site and depict that day as a tragic but perhaps necessary part of South Carolina learning and growing to be who we are. This ought not be mixed in with talk of a public safety building.
I read The Fremantle Diary in college, I found a very old copy collecting dust deep in the recesses of the library at The Citadel. When I first read The Killer Angels I was amused by the quirky little British Lieutenant Colonel climbing a tree to get a better view of the action – that was of course Fremantle. The movie version of the book portrayed him much the same. I suppose the comical thing is later in life I myself ran into British “tourist” in the most bizarre places, places where people are killed, robbed, starved and kidnapped – but here these folks were going on about the wonderfully economical holiday they were on.
I truly believe it is impossible to go nearly anywhere without unexpectedly encountering a British tourist – well almost anywhere else in the world, most of the States seem not to interest them. They can be very audacious in their travels.
Lieutenant Colonel James L. Fremantle, formerly of her Majesty’s Cold Stream Guards, was no exception, except perhaps his travels had an official purpose as well as the ordinary and expected British curiosity.
I was personally struck by his description, as he sat along the bank of the Potomac River, of the Army of Northern Virginia marching north in 1863. It is not at all the description you may have received in history books. He described an army that was often barefoot, racially integrated, equally equipped or not equipped across the formation and in incredibly high spirits.
His account of armed soldiers of color marching along side white soldiers was the first I had ever heard or read of such. It was not until the mid-1990’s that I saw the full account of this fact in other primary source documents.
Fremantle is a fun and informative read and I am happy to await the arrival of this volume so I can enjoy it again.
I had the distinct pleasure and honor of having lunch with Dr. Clyde N. Wilson today. He is professor emeritus of history at USC, M.E. Bradford Chair at the Abbeville Institute, founding Dean of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, owner of Shotwell Publishing and a plethora of other activities. He is also the foremost historian alive and perhaps ever to live on the subject o John C. Calhoun.
I meet him ever so briefly, and purely by happenstance, in the mid-2000s at a book signing. Today I was privileged to break bread with him and spend time chatting.
I have read his work often throughout the years and wished greatly that I could have attended some of his classes while he was still actively teaching at the University of South Carolina. Today was a comfortable and familiar conversation.
He has graciously offered to assist and advise with the effort to stand up The Calhoun Institute. It is my hope that I can convince him to find time among his many other pursuits to accept the chairmanship of the inaugural board. Either way, I am overjoyed to be working with him.
Retirement surely has opened the doors to so many possibilities.
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