One might think that after one has written over 100,000 words on a subject–in this case, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife–one has said all there is to say on a subject. But that is not the case; there are any number of miscellaneous sources, topics or quotes which simply don’t fit into the book; similarly, for every question which one answers about this enigmatic American author, other questions arise as a result of new research or discoveries.
Here below, for example, is a classic bit of Bierce: Ambrose Bierce declaiming against a famous Civil War regiment whose fame Bierce felt was less than deserved. In the early days of the war, when Washington was virtually surrounded by Secessionists, the arrival of the 7th NY Militia was eagerly anticipated and they were widely viewed as the saviors of the Nation’s Capitol.
Bierce’s view of the regiment and its accomplishments may have been a bit jaundiced: for one thing the 7th was known as the “Silk Stocking” Regiment, because its membership included many of New York City’s social elite. Their service record mainly consisted of suppressing demonstrations and strikes by workers and organized labor–often mislabeled as “riots.” Bierce, who in later life was at pains to distance himself from his humble origins, may have harbored a bit of a grudge against the New York patricians. Also, Bierce was a member of the “Bloody Ninth”–the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry–who amply earned their nickname in the fierce battles of the western theater, which was in sharp contrast to the “Bloody Seventh” which Bierce emphasizes did most of its fighting in the hotels and taverns of Washington DC and precious little in the field. Their unwillingness to volunteer for the Spanish American War apparently summoned up old memories of their rather timid Civil War record in Bierce, whose prose rose to the occasion. Whatever one’s view of their war record, those who appreciate Bierce’s acid wit will certainly relish this prime example of his sarcasm:
Ambrose Bierce on the 7th NY
No matter “where rolls the Oregon,” the famous Seventh Regiment of New York is indubitably safe. And despite the lapse of time and mutations in its personnel, it is the same old Seventh Regiment of the Civil War period. True, it did not then unanimously resolve to merit the Humane Society’s great leather medal for saving life, as virtually it has now done; but as a matter of fact it then did save many lives, and all were lives of its own members. This noble benefaction it accomplished by governing its own temper—and he that subdueth his spirit is greater, and as a rule safer, than he that taketh a city. If the Seventh of that far day had suffered itself to fall into anger and uncharitableness offended Nature, who
“hides hr lashIn the purple-black of a dyed mustache.”
Might have sentenced that impetuous organization to be shot at and, if overtaken, hit. As it was, the Bloody Seventh advanced upon Washington, then held by a superior force of the regular army, captured and occupied some of the strongest hotels in the place, and after several weeks of brilliant and startling dress parades returned as grizzled veterans in New York without the loss of a man.The regiment did not re-enlist, but in Central Park a costly monument to its valor,“Like a tall bully, lifts its head and lies”; for it is inscribed with names of “members of the Seventh” who fell in battle. There is nothing to show that, righteously disgusted with their own regiment’s policy of peace on earth and good will to men, they had left it, and that they fell as members of less pacific organizations. It is not so very bad to be “dead upon the field of honor” if one have the good luck to be counted twice—a double patriot with twin renowns.
In unanimously voting to remain at home while Spain is abroad, and thereby drawing upon themselves a hot fire of patriotic reprobation, the star-spangled Quakers of the Seventh are especially blamable, for they compel many a war-willing patriot to remain at home also in order to deliver the fire. As members of the firing squad some of us are withholding from the service of our country military abilities of the highest order.
Today’s article was originally published in our sister blog about unexplained phenomena of the South, Dixie Spirits, itself based on my book by the same name. In that tome we investigated the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which still stands near Alexandria, Virginia, but we did not explore the many other Civil War related ghosts and haunts of Alexandria proper. Today let’s take a quick look at one well known Civil War haunted down in the city proper.
They say the first casualty of war is the truth. That may well be true, but in the early days of the war, neither side was much concerned with truth, but more with justifying their own actions, as well as portraying the opposite side as the aggressor. Regardless, by the time that Lincoln was inaugurated, the time for rational discussion was already over and the Secessionists moved quickly to surround Washington, DC in the weeks following his installation as President. Lincoln could call for 75,000 troops—but actually organizing, equipping and fielding them to defend the capitol was quite another thing.
Before the war, volunteer militia units were quite the rage in the US. In the antebellum era it was fun to be a soldier and many volunteer groups donned colorful costumes, learned to drill like real soldiers and above all, attract the ladies with their displays of martial virtue. Some militia groups developed a reputation for their skill at close order drill and toured the country performing for the public, especially those units who fashioned themselves as zouaves. The original zouaves had been recruited by the French in Algeria and wore colorful oriental style uniforms, but over the years their ethnic makeup was of less importance than their reputation for élan and aggressiveness.
One of the more famous such show units was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Cadet Zouaves, originally based out of Chicago. Although he was never able to get into West Point, Ellsworth had studied military tactics with a passion and his fencing instructor in Chicago had been an actual French zouave. Ellsworth was a close personal friend of Lincoln’s and when the call went out for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Ellsworth wasted no time forming a regiment.
Ellsworth went to New York City, where he sent out a call for the bravest and the boldest, seeking out firemen in particular. Within an amazingly brief time received more than double the number of volunteers than he needed. Although rough around the edges and short on discipline, the 11th NY “Fire” Zouaves were shipped south in short order.
When, on May 23, Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Ellsworth’s regiment was ordered across the Potomac to secure Alexandria and Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river.
While securing the city, Ellsworth noticed that a Rebel flag was still flying over the Marshall House, a local inn. The flag had been something of a sore point for weeks, being visible from across the river and symbol of Lincoln’s inability to preserve the Union even within the shadow of the capital.
Not willing to allow this act of defiance to go unanswered, Ellsworth personally climbed up to the top of the Marshall House and tore down the offending flag from the large flagpole on the roof. As he was descending the stairs, however, the hotel owner, one James Jackson, suddenly appeared without warning and shot and killed Ellsworth with a shotgun at close quarters, for which action he was immediately rewarded with his own death at the hands of Ellsworth’s men. It was still early in the war and the death of a single officer, such as Ellsworth, was still notable news in the North. Ellsworth being a close associate of Lincoln amplified the importance of his death. Soon Ellsworth was hailed as a martyr—the first of many—to the cause of preserving the Union.
In the ensuing months and years following his death, rumors began to circulate that, although dead, Colonel Ellsworth was not really gone from the Marshall House. Some claimed to see him removing the Rebel flag from the rooftop of the hotel, others swore they saw his shade on its stairs, where he was murdered. It was also said that the ghost of the fire-breathing Secesh James Jackson also haunted the same stairwell in the old inn. The Marshall House and its ghosts stood on the same spot until the 1950’s, when it was torn down as part of a modernization trend in the city. Normally, that would be the end of the story, but apparently it is not.
Today the Monaco Hotel, a “boutique hotel,” occupies the same space where the old inn stood. It has all the amenities one expects in a modern hotel, plus one more: it is haunted.
There are those who claim that it is the restless shades of the Civil War who still roam the new hotel. Sometimes nothing is actually seen, but people claim to hear the sound of gunshots out in the hallways, as if the Rebel hotel owner and the zouaves who killed him are still having it out in the new building. On one occasion recently, a couple was riding the elevator when it unexpectedly opened at the fourth floor; no guests were there but they saw a glowing light appear on the wall opposite, then disappear. Later, the visitors found they were not alone in having uncanny experiences there.
According to some, it is the Monaco’s sixth floor that is most haunted, which could be a reflection of Ellsworth’s flag taking venture, although the reports are vague on that score. Regardless, the hotel embraces the site’s haunted heritage and in the Fall offers a “Ghosts of Alexandria Family Package” which includes discounted room rate, a stay on the “haunted sixth” plus tickets for the local ghost tour of the town. Not a bad deal and maybe Colonel Ellsworth will put in a personal appearance, but don’t hold your breath.
How far back does the history of Secessionism go? To the 1850’s? The 1830’s? 1820’s? As we saw in part II, there was a secessionist movement during the War of 1812, one which had nothing to do with slavery. But the earliest Secessionist movement goes farther back, back in fact to before the Constitution, to the early days of the Republic.
Historians of the early Republic are quite familiar with the so-called Western Conspiracy (sometimes referred to as The Spanish Conspiracy) but it is rarely, if ever, connected with the greater narrative of the road to secession and Civil War. In truth, there was more than one separatist movement in the years immediately after the end of the Revolution, some more serious than others.
In 1782, the Thirteen Colonies, united together as the Continental Congress, signed a peace treaty with the English Crown and the United States officially became a country—but not a nation. Wary of the way the King of England and his Parliament had tyrannized over the colonies, the newly independent states united in a loose union, called the Confederation. What had been the Continental Congress now became the Confederation Congress and while it had some powers, the thirteen states retained a great deal of autonomy and authority. On the other side of the Appalachians, the frontiersmen enjoyed a great deal of freedom, but they also felt abandoned by the states they were technically part of. Indian tribes, encouraged by both the English and the Spanish raided the settlements at will; more importantly, transporting their crops and other goods to sell at market back east across the mountains was difficult and costly. It was far easier to build flatboats from lumber, load them with crops, meat, whisky and other goods, float them downstream and sell them at Spanish New Orleans.
But the rub was that Spain claimed the same western territories that the United States did and after a few years began to tighten the screws on the frontiersmen, closing off the Mississippi to trade. Of course, depending on the custom official in charge at Natchez, a well placed bribe or two could grease the wheels of commerce and allow a flatboat pass downriver. In New Orleans, the Spanish governor was also eminently bribable. The goal of the Spanish government, however, was to wean the frontiersmen away from the new Republic and become subjects of the crown.
Frontier leaders were encouraged to pledge their allegiance the Spanish Crown; among their number we know were James Wilkinson of Kentucky, who later became the head of the US Army; another frontier leader was none other than Andrew Jackson in Tennessee; General James Robertson was also in contact with the Spanish. How many frontier leaders were in collusion with the Spanish is unknown; in later days, many of those who had been involved became prominent politicians and military leaders, and their dalliance with the Spanish an embarrassment, so much evidence regarding their collusion and secessionist activity was suppressed.
The weakness of the Confederation government extended far beyond the danger of the western territories below the Ohio being taken over by the Spanish; in the Northwest, the British had never abandoned their chain of forts, both to protect the fur trade with the Indians and also as bases of operation for the Indian tribes to raid the American settlements. The British had hopes of retaining the Northwest despite treaty obligations; when the Confederation fell apart, parts of the United States would be ripe for the plucking—or so His Majesty’s government hoped. While George Rogers Clark was not involved with the British, he did enter into a conspiracy with the French Revolutionaries in the 1790’s to invade British territory from the Northwest Territory, which President Washington took a dim view of.
On the northern frontier with Canada, Ethan Allen, the hero of the Revolution, also was part of the Republic of Vermont, organized in 1777, which had a running dispute with New York, which considered Vermont part of their state. In the 1780’s, Allen and others in Vermont undertook negotiations with the British governor of Quebec, with a view to establishing Vermont as a British province. During Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, Daniel Shay offered to make Ethan Allen “King of Massachusetts” but Allen turned him down.
As with the western territories, the weakness of the central government under the Confederation had a lot do with Ethan Allen and his compatriot’s secessionist movement; unlike the Trans-Appalachian secession movements, the Vermont Republic and the successive independence movements in Vermont were less motivated by economics than political autonomy, ultimately satisfied by the admission of Vermont to the Union.
There were other, less extensive, western secession movements; Aaron Burr’s little expedition down the Mississippi in 1806 could also be counted as one, although it may have been more a filibustering expedition than secession attempt.
By one account, Burr was going to separate parts of the American South and Spanish Texas to form an independent country; by another, he was intending to grab Texas for the US; by still another, Burr, along with General Wilkinson, were to grab a large chunk of the American South and deliver it back to Spain—a newer variant of the original Western Conspiracy.
What the truth of the matter really was has never been settled. In any case, Burr and his co-conspirators were up to something nefarious, although not proven in a court of law.
The Western Conspiracies of the early Republic had nothing to do with the institution of slavery, but most of them had everything to do with regionalism and economic self-interest. Was the Civil War about slavery? Yes. Was it ALL about slavery? No!
As noted in our previous essay, the notion that slavery “caused” the Civil War seems to be in vogue again these days as a matter of political dogma, although any serious historian of the era would, or should, know better. Journalist Ta-Nihisi Coates, influential editor at The Atlantic, in particular has pushed this as the solecause of the Civil War. No one can deny that slavery was an underlying cause or that many leaders of the Secession movement cited its preservation as a motive for dragging the country into war. But that is a far cry from saying that it was THE cause.
In the previous installment I argued, rather, that it was the economic system of the South—the Plantation Economy—that was the root cause, of which the enslavement of Negroes was but a means to an end. If good ole’ Artistotle were analyzing this, I’ll wager he would identify Negro slavery as a “formal cause” not as the material cause, the efficient cause and especially not the final cause. An economic oligarchy—at base a very small number of tremendously wealthy planters—had control of the South’s political and economic life and managed to impose their self interest over the greater good of the majority of its inhabitants and the good of the country.
But even the economics of the Southern plantation system was not the sole cause of the Civil War. The road to Secession was a long and convoluted process, much of it irrational and based on perceptions rather than facts. As I noted in the previous essay, Great Britain too had a substantial economic investment in Negro slavery, especially in the West Indies; yet when it finally abolished slavery, there was no rebellion by the sugar plantation owners in the Indies, no assertions of independence, no bloodshed.
In truth, the ideology of Secessionism in the US is far older than the debate over slavery and in this and following essays we will take a brief look at previous secession movements in the United States, most of which had nothing to do with slavery.
The War of 1812 has sometimes been described as the “Second American Revolution” as it was perceived by many as an effort to throw off the yoke of British dominion that many still perceived the country to be under. The western states were hot for war, looking towards expansion to the west and northwest and to many leaders in the burgeoning west the British to blame for much of their troubles with the Indians, both to the South and to the North along the western frontier.
Indeed, in the northwest the British had encouraged Tecumseh and his followers and even appointed the Shawnee leader a “brigadier” giving him a shiny gorget and a redcoat officer’s uniform, complete with epaulettes.
There was also the issue of the impressments of American sailors by the British Navy. Employment by American merchant fleets was better paying and the treatment of sailors far better than in His Majesty’s Navy, where commoners were treated as less than dirt by the officers, who were often as sadistic as they were incompetent. To make up for the lack of willing recruits, the Royal Navy often resorted to stopping ships on the high seas and stealing as many sailors as they needed to make up a full ship’s complement. The British government justified this by arguing that they were merely drafting English citizens into military service. Since most Americans had been citizens of the British Empire before the Revolution, there was an element of truth in this argument, although the US disputed the claim.
As a note of caution, however, I should point out that historians still haggle over the causes of the War of 1812 just as they do over the Civil War and there were a number of motives at work in the period leading up to the war as well. But our present interest is not so much in the causes of this war as one of the consequences.
Not everyone in the US was eager for war with Britain, no matter the provocations. In particular, the New England merchants were less than pleased with the disruption the war was causing their trade with England. New England may have led the movement towards independence in 1776, but once independence was achieved, the thrifty Puritan merchants of the northeast were quite happy to trade with the London merchants and visa versa. The wealthy merchant traders of New York and New England may have resented the impressments of sailors as high handed, but they resented the embargos Presidents Jefferson and Madison had placed on trade far more and then, when the US declared war in 1812, the British blockaded American ports, which hit them in a very sensitive spot—their pocket books.
As the war dragged on and their profits diminished, the New England shippers and merchants became quite vocal in their opposition to a war which not only benefited them nothing, but which the US seemed to be losing.
The Democratic-Republicans (today just the Democratic Party) had been the party of laissez faire economics and small government—except that no sooner was Jefferson elected President than he started wielding Federal power like a club.
The Federalist Party, in contrast, had originally been the party which had advocated a strong Federal government and policies that involved government intervention in the private sector. But in the face of Jefferson and Madison’s adverse trade policies and then the declaration of war, the Federalists of the northeast became more and more opposed to Federal policies. New England governors even refused to supply militia regiments to fight the war with the British. Things came to a head in 1814, when delegates from New England attended the Hartford Convention.
As early as 1804, some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive. By 1814, many in New England and not few in New York came to regard the “small governent” Democratic-Republican Party as oppressive and that the Northeast’s best solution was secession from a Union dominated by the South and the West. The New England governors and legislatures called for a regional convention, ostensibly to propose constitutional amendments to protect their region’s interests and to make arrangements for their own military defense against the enemy. In theory the “enemy” was the British, but implicitly many New Englanders were viewing the Federal government as more an enemy than the British.
The amendments that were proposed by the Hartford Convention seemed more aimed at galling the opposing party than ensuring any basic liberties. For one thing, they wished to abolish the “3/5th Compromise” which gave the Southern states a disproportionate share of representatives in the House of Representatives. In terms of the original Constitution, the Southern states were fine with regarding Negro slaves as people (or at least 3/5 of a person) so long as it gave them political clout. Another amendment would have prohibited not only a person serving more than one term as President, but also prohibiting someone from the same state succeeding him—clearly aimed at Virginia, from whence most of the Presidents had come up to that point. Other amendments would have restricted the Federal government’s ability to declare war and impose embargoes.
The delegates met in secret from December 14, 1814 to January 5; no notes were kept and even the votes were not recorded. It is believed that secession was actively discussed in these meetings, even if their official proposals made no mention of it. Much of what went on during these sessions was very hush-hush and even to some fellow New Englanders their activities were regarded as treasonous. In the end their activities came to naught: by the time three commissioners from Massachusetts reached Washington, news of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty—The Treaty of Ghent—had both reached Washington.
In the celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, most people in the country forgot the string of defeats the US had suffered—Generals Hull’s and Winchester’s humiliating defeats in the Northwest territories and General Wilkinson’s bungled Canadian invasion. Even though Jackson fought his battle after the peace was signed, in the public mind he “won” the war.
With the return of peace, trade between America and Great Britain was restored, the Napoleonic Wars were over and the British no longer needed to impress seamen, and the Federalist Party, its reputation now blackened by accusations of disloyalty, extremism and advocacy of Secessionism, had been discredited.
But had the war not ended when it did and the Madison administration summarily rejected the convention’s proposals (which they were fully expected to do), who knows what would have happened next?
Much of New England and perhaps even the state of New York might have lined up against the South and West in a bitter sectional conflict—a conflict which had nothing to do with slavery, but everything to do with economics.