Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rough Enough by Richard H. McBee Jr.

Rough Enough by Richard McBee traces the life of Richard Clow from his time on his brother-in-law's farm in Massachusetts to his death in Eugene, Oregon. 

Battle of Petersburg
On August 18, 1864, Clow enlists in the 22nd Massachusetts and spends his 100 days at a training facility.   Unsatisfied with that brief taste of military service and attracted by an enlistment bonus, Clow signs on for another 3 years in January 1865.  He joins the 56th Massachusetts and is sent to the Union trenches at Petersburg.  During this period he writes home to his family about his adventures.  On February 15, 1865, he complains about camp on Gallops Island near Boston and tells his sister, "I am feeling alright and want to get where it rains bullets."  He is soon granted his wish and is transported in a overcrowded ship to Fort Monroe.  When thrust into service on the picket line at Petersburg, Clow writes with bravado, "I was on picket the other night and how the balls did sing around the pit was a caution." 

In this part of McBee's biography, the author skillfully complements Clow's letters with narrative that explains comments in the letters.  McBee's commentary provides a good model for author's wishing to publish dairies and correspondence. 

Sadly, McBee had few first person resources for the rest of his biography.  We have Clow's diary which is an interesting collection of songs, shopping lists, and notations.  Unfortunately, this notebook requires McBee to draw on secondary sources to develop a rough picture of Clow's life after the Civil War.  Happily, the author is able to use these references to recreate Clow's experiences in the west.

Fort Buford
After spending a couple of years with his family in Minnesota and Wisconsin, he enlists in 13th Infantry.  He begins his time in the infantry as a defender of the frontier from Indian attacks.  He is stationed at Ft. Shaw, Camp Cooke, and Ft. Buford.  The author does a splendid job of describing the dangers of life in these forts where Indian attacks, depression, and alcoholism took their toll.

Following his military career, Clow starts life as a civilian in 1870 when he goes to work for the famous trader Charles Larpenteur at Fort Buford. Clow marries Larpenteur's stepdaughter Mary Bingham. Tragedy strikes in 1872 after the family moves to Little Sioux, Iowa.  His new born daughter dies less than  two months after her birth in January.  Clow's wife soon joins her daughter when she dies in April.  His friend and mentor, Charles Larpenteur, dies that November.  Readers might want to read Larpenteur's Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872.

Following his losses, Clow moves to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory where he begins a new career mining for gold.  He meets his second wife, Melinda Story, and they have two children.  The Clows spend the remainder of the their life in Idaho and Oregon homesteading, mining, and running a hotel.  Clow died in 1926 at 79 after ably demonstrating that he was Rough Enough for all the hardships that life could place in his path.

Richard McBee has been a secondary school principal for over thirty years in schools in South America, Africa, Europe, and the United States.  He wrote Rough Enough to chronicle the life of his great grandfather Richard Clow.  He is the author of Kalahari, a novel about the struggle for Black African rule in southern Africa, that is based on Richard's experiences in Botswana in the 1970s.  Richard and his wife live in Hood River, Oregon.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

USS Monitor Sailors Buried with Honors

Two sailors found in the wreck of the USS Monitor were buried on March 8, 2012 at Arlington National Cemetery. 

USS Monitor Sailors Buried
at Arlington National Cemetery
(Courtesy of Yahoo News)
The remains of the men were taken to their gravesite by horse-drawn caissons, one pulled by a team of six black horses and the other pulled by six white horses.  White-gloved sailors carried the caskets to their final resting place near the cemetery's amphitheater.  A marker with the names of all sixteen men who died on board the Monitor will be placed at gravesite.

The remains could not be fully identified but researchers were able to narrow the possibilities to six men.  One of the men was between 17 and 24 years old and the other was in his 30s.  The older sailor is suspected to be Robert Williams, the ship's fireman who would have tended the Monitor's coal-fired engine.

Loss of the USS Monitor
The design of Monitor was well-suited for river combat, however her low freeboard and heavy turret made her highly unseaworthy in rough waters.  This feature probably led to her loss on December 31, 1862 when she foundered during a heavy storm and sank off Cape Hatteras.  Sixteen of her 62-member crew were either lost overboard or went down with the ironclad, while many others were saved by boats sent from Rhode Island.

Please see Civil War Ironclads for pictures of the Monitor turret.  Also read more about the Monitor's famous battle with the CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads.  Plan a live or virtual visit to the USS Monitor Center at the Mariner's Museum.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Dark Prince of the Confederacy

Judah Benjamin - 1856
Little is known about the life of Judah Benjamin, the Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America.  The fact that he was considered one of the greatest legal minds of the 19th century is nearly forgotten by historians.  The man, who helped Jefferson Davis run the Confederate executive office and who Davis called "The Brains of the Confederacy," scarcely earns a mention in Davis' autobiography.  He is demonized in Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem John Brown's Body as a "dark prince." [1] Benjamin's role in the Confederacy seems to have been minimized by Northern and Southern anti-Semitism.

One of the most interesting chapters in his life concerns his role as attorney in a case of "one of the most celebrated insurance cases in American history involving slavery."  Benjamin represented a group of insurance companies who were being sued by slaveholders to recover the cost of slaves that were lost during an uprising on the brig Creole.  During the voyage from Virginia to New Orleans, nineteen slaves seized control of the ship and forced the captain and crew to sail to Nassau.  The British authorities arrested the slaves who took over the ship but set the other slaves free because slavery was outlawed in the British territory.  The slave owners wanted the insurance companies to compensate them for the loss of "property," but the companies refused.   In response, the owners brought suit in New Orleans for $150,000.

Benjamin argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court that the British did not have to recognize the status of the slaves on the ship.

The position that slavery is a contravention of the law of nature [2] is established by the concurrent authority of writers on international law and of adjudications of courts of justice, from the era of Justinian to the present day ... View this matter as we may it at last resolves itself into the simple question - does the law of nations make it the duty of Great Britain to refuse a refuge in her domains for fugitives from this country, whether white or black, free or slave?  It would require great hardihood to maintain the affirmative as to whites but the color of the fugitive can make no possible difference.  It will scarcely be pretended that the presumption of our municipal law, that blacks are slaves, is to be made a rule of law of nations. [3]

Benjamin began his line of reasoning using the classic Abolitionist rationale of the laws of nature.  He urged the court to make a decision regarding race and continued to insist that the law of nations should determine the case.

It is obvious that the only criterion by which they can be governed is that which is insisted on by the American government, viz.: if the blacks reach there uncontrolled by any master and apparently released from any restraint on the part of the whites, to consider them as free.  These are the principles on which by the law of nations Great Britain has the right to regulate her principles.

However, Benjamin's boldest contention was that the risk of mutiny was inherent in the slaveholders' decision to pack the slaves into the ship and the crew's cruelty toward the slaves created the conditions that caused the mutiny.  The treatment by the slaveholders and their agents produced the loss.  In a very bold statement, he asked:
What is a slave?   He is a human being. He has feelings and passion and intellect.  His heart, like the heart of the white man, swells with love, burns with jealousy, aches with sorrow, pines under restraint and discomfort, boils with revenge and ever cherishes the desire for liberty.  His passions and feelings in some respects may not be as fervid and as delicate as those of the whites, nor his intellect as acute; but passions  and feelings he has, and in some respects, they are more violent and consequently more dangerous, from the very circumstances that his mind is comparatively weak, and unenlighted.  Considering the character of the slave, and the peculiar passions which, generated by nature, are strengthened and stimulated by his condition, he is prone to revolt in the near future of things, and ever ready to conquer his liberty where a probable chance presents itself.

Benjamin concluded by asking, "Will this court be, disposed to recognize one standard of humanity for the white man and another for the Negro?"  The Louisiana Supreme Court said no and ruled for clients against the slaveowners.
Benjamin's arguments have a familiar ring to them.  William Shakespeare offered a similar argument in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock asked:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Perhaps the well-read Benjamin drew his inspiration from that text.
Judah Benjamin 1860-65
Benjamin's arguments were quickly adopted by abolitionists.  However, in spite of Benjamin's pronouncements, he was not in favor of emancipation.  He was merely presenting the best arguments to win the case.  His comments also indicate the widely held belief in both the South and the North that slaves were not as intelligent ("intellect as acute" and "mind is comparatively weak") as whites.   In making this statement as justification for violence Benjamin rather astutely noted that this lack of intelligence could be attributed to the slaves being "unenlighted" or uneducated. [4]

[1] "The mind behind the silk-ribbed fan/Was a dark prince, clothed in an Eastern stuff/Whole brown hands cupped about a crystal egg/That filmed with colored cloud. The yes stared, searching" From John Brown's Body by Stephen Vincent Benet (1927) as quoted in Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate.
[2] Natural law, or the law of nature is a system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature—both social and personal—and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it.
[3] International law describing the rights and obligations between nations.
[4] Evans, Eli N., Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate,  The Free Press, New York, c 1988, 37-39.