Fergus M. Bordewich

Fergus, Zooey Deschanel, and the Underground Railroad
September 4th, 2013

I RECENTLY had the pleasure of appearing with the multi-talented young actress Zooey Deschanel in a fascinating episode of Who Do You Think You Are?—which has been airing this summer on The Learning Channel (TLC).

Each episode of this extremely well-researched and entertaining show delves into the ancestry of a celebrity, and the history of the periods in which his or her forbears lived, usually with surprising results. Zooey discovered that she was directly descended from a Quaker who was active in the Underground Railroad, and played a central role in one of the most dramatic events of the pre-Civil-War era, the so-called Christiana Riot of 1851. In this violent episode, which is also known as the Christiana Resistance, defiant African-Americans drove off a posse of slave hunters and federal lawmen who were attempting to recapture two fugitive slaves who had been living peacefully for years in a quiet Pennsylvania hamlet. During the fight, slave owner Edward Gorsuch was killed, and other members of posse fled. Scores of African Americans were later charged with treason for daring to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, the largest treason indictment in American history. Thanks to the courage and quick thinking of Zooey’s ancestor, however, the leaders of the black resistance managed to escape to Canada.

I was asked to participate in the production as an expert on the Underground Railroad, based on my book Bound for Canaan, which includes an account of the events at Christiana.

We filmed on an unseasonably frigid day in Lancaster County, just a few miles north of the Maryland state line. Zooey, who was both charming to meet in person and much better dressed for the cold than I was, was learning about her family’s connection to these events for the first time as we talked and walked across the site of the confrontation. Although all traces of the house that once stood at the center of the battle have disappeared, the surrounding landscape remains almost completely unchanged after more than a century and a half. It was easy for us to evoke the sights and sounds of a collision between antislavery and proslavery Americans that was once as famous as John Brown’s raid.

 

The Rebel Yell
September 1st, 2013

DURING THE CIVIL WAR, Confederate soldiers were famed for delivering a shrill and unnerving battle cry as they ran to the attack. Just what the “Rebel yell” sounded like has perplexed many historians. However, more than seventy years after the Civil War’s end, veterans at a Confederate reunion were invited to perform the yell for a radio audience. It is not necessary to have sympathy for the Confederate cause—and I don’t—in order to be mesmerized by these voices speaking to us from the dark reaches of the past. I recently spoke about the Rebel yell with Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio.

“We Have Found One Another again as Brothers”
July 16th, 2013

Remembering Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938

 

LIKE NO OTHER battlefield of the Civil War, Gettysburg has lent itself to an iconic, almost mythologized, presentation of the war. It has served in this way for at least a century. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it was the site of a huge national celebration of reconciliation which drew 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from around the
country. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, the final “grand reunion” drew more than one thousand aged survivors from both North and South.

What exactly happened at these events, beyond the obvious socializing? What was “celebrated”? What “remembered”? What were the larger national (even international) meanings of the “reunions”? These are not simple
questions.

Both events were well recorded by the press, on film, and in 1938 on radio, and featured important addresses by the sitting presidents of the day, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. They offer
parallel windows into the changing ways in which the Civil War has been remembered and misremembered, the uses to which that history was put at different times, and into America’s conception of itself on the cusps of both World War I and World War II. Read the rest of this entry »

A Call for the Bold Pragmatism of 1850
August 13th, 2012

AS WASHINGTON steams in the summer heat, and the nation prepares for the November elections, Congress is no closer to overcoming the legislative paralysis that has hobbled its deliberations all year. Although the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law has temporarily heartened Democrats, it is likely to fuel a new and perhaps even more virulent round of ideological posturing during the upcoming congressional campaign.

For a roadmap through the legislative combat zone that almost surely lies in store, today’s senators and congressmen might look for inspiration to the supremely pragmatic lawmakers who piloted Congress through the longest, and arguably the bitterest, debate in American history to pull the nation back from the brink of war and craft the Compromise of 1850.

Congress had already struggled unsuccessfully for two years to decide whether to extend slavery into or ban it from the vast new territories the United States had conquered in the Mexican War. The crisis came to a head in 1849 when Gold Rush settlers in California petitioned for admission as a free state, upsetting the precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states in the U.S. Senate. Threats of southern secession were rampant. Congress was so badly deadlocked that many Americans expected civil war to break out within weeks. “We are on the very eve of bloodshed in the capital,” warned the New York Herald. “There is no telling when its crimson streaks may deluge the halls of Congress.”
The ten-month-long debate that extended until September of 1850 was not a pretty spectacle. Before it was over, mortal threats would be made, punches thrown, and guns drawn on the floor of Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

My new Civil War e-book
June 8th, 2012

MY NEW E-BOOK, The Looming Conflict, has finally arrived!  It will be available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other electronic outlets at a price of $2.99. For a writer like me who is a product of the age of print and paper, the very notion of a book that exists mainly in the ether of the internet was unsettling. But with a lot of good advice and a great deal of tinkering by my electronic publishing guru Neil Levin of Everpub and my brilliant web designer John Schmitz, “The Looming Conflict” has become a reality.

The six articles included in “The Looming Conflict” appeared at different times in Smithsonian Magazine. They all combine, to differing degrees, a narration of historical events with first-hand reporting, and commentary by noted historians, among them Harold Holzer, David Reynolds, Orville Vernon Burton, John Stauffer, and others. Three of the pieces focus on events that led up to the Civil War: the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the long rivalry between pro-southern President James Buchanan and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Two more are war pieces, on the attack on Fort Sumter and the events that led up to it, and on the heroic but ill-fated attack of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner, in Charleston harbor, in 1863. (Though a Union defeat, the battle was the heroic debut of African-American troops, and served as the climax of the 1988 film “Glory.”) The final article centers on the creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati. Although the Underground Railroad of course preceded the war, I saw the story of the museum’s creation as a way to look not only at the underground’s remarkable history but also at the way in which we may deal with the legacy of slavery and abolitionism today. Read the rest of this entry »

The Imperfect Union: A new blog
May 22nd, 2012

Dear Readers, Friends:

Many of you may already know that my latest book, America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union, was released on April 17th. With several other new publications in the offing, it seemed like the right moment to inaugurate this long-promised blog as a channel to communicate to you about my work, American history, and (occasionally) myself.

I’ll be delivering news about my current and upcoming writing projects, talking about history—mostly between the nation’s founding and post-Civil War Reconstruction—and ways in which the past continues to interpenetrate and shape the present.

When it seems apt, I’ll tie history to present-day events. I won’t shy away from controversy. But I promise not to rant, nor will I denigrate or insult anyone, present or past.

You’ll be hearing soon about my next work of history, American Dawn, a history of the First Congress, of 1789-1791, which I’ll be working on for the next couple of years, and which will be published by Simon & Schuster. The First Congress has often been overlooked in treatments of the Early Republic, but its importance was immense. It literally invented the United States government from the paper blueprint of the Constitution. What happened there, when it met in New York City still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War, is a dramatic political tale in which we see the Founding Fathers as hard-headed but immensely creative politicians who took the fragile idea of nationhood and made it real. Their success was by no means a forgone conclusion. Read the rest of this entry »

The Underground Railroad: Myth & Reality
July 22nd, 2007

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD occupies a romantic place in the American imagination that is shared by few other episodes in the country’s history. The term is so instantly recognizable that today it is automatically applied to clandestine routes of travel almost everywhere, whether we’re talking about downed Allied airmen escaping from Nazi-held France, or North Korean refugees trying to make their way to China or Japan.

The Underground Railroad has bred mythology like no other phenomenon in American history. From the archives People in almost any town in the Northern states have heard about some old house, or tunnel, or hidey-hole in which fugitive slaves were supposedly sheltered.

The vast majority of these have no documentable connection with the Underground Railroad; it’s clear from abundant references in period literature that fugitives—when they needed to be hidden at all—were usually sent simply to upstairs bedrooms, basements, barns, cornfields, or nearby woods. Nor is there substance to the most recent addition to the underground legend: the alleged use of coded quilts which fugitives supposedly followed to freedom. (Those interested in this particular myth may read Leigh Fellner’s debunking article “Quilt Code,” in the March 2003 issue of Traditional Quiltworks.) Read the rest of this entry »

Evangelical Religion, Liberalism, and Antislavery
February 10th, 2006

WHEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY at Calvin College in Grand Rapids protested the invitation of President George W. Bush to speak at commencement in 2005, it made national news. This wasn’t Harvard or Columbia, but an evangelical institition supported by the Christian Reformed Church—the president’s supposed home turf, at least spiritually speaking. After all, weren’t evangelicals the shock troops of the Radical Right?

The evangelical movement has never been a political monolith. In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals were most likely to be found on the radical left. From the archives Indeed, evangelical religion helped lay the groundwork for modern liberalism. Its contribution can most clearly be seen in the spiritualized politics of the abolitionist movement in the years before the Civil War.

Although Quakers always played an important role in abolitionism, they were soon joined by large numbers of both white and black Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The evangelical message of individual redemption through political action resonated deeply with Americans in a deeply pious era when Judgment Day was an event as real as the annual spring planting and autumn harvest, and the secularist passions of the Revolutionary generation had grown stale. Read the rest of this entry »

John Brown’s Subterranean Pass-Way
January 14th, 2006

JOHN BROWN believed that God himself had ordained him to bring an end to slavery. Achieving his goal hinged on a radical and deeply secret scheme: the establishment of an “Underground Pass-Way” that would extend the Underground Railroad more than a thousand miles southward through the Appalachian Mountains into the heart of the Deep South. This highway to freedom would drain the South of slaves, Brown believed; they would travel north to the free states protected by strongholds manned by armed abolitionists and freed slaves. Few abolitionists knew what Brown really had in mind. Brown’s dreams ended in the debacle at Harper’s Ferry.

What was John Brown’s Subterranean Pass-Way? As Brown envisioned it, it would be an underground highway that would reach 2,000 miles all the way down through the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and into the Deep South, as far as Georgia. From the archives It was the vision that Brown had in mind when he marched into Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This was the UGRR on an epic scale. Had it succeeded, today we’d all be talking about how the entire underground as we know it was just the lead-up to John Brown’s monumental plan.

What did Brown really have in mind? How would the Subterranean Pass-Way have worked? Was it was just a pipe dream, or something that could really have happened? Read the rest of this entry »

The Underground Railroad
in the New York Hudson Valley

July 28th, 2005

WE KNOW the Hudson Valley was one of the main arteries of the Underground Railroad.

We know that large numbers of fugitives were sent from Philadelphia to New York City, and up through the valley to Albany and Troy. Between 1842 and 1843—fugitives—virtually all, probably, from New York City. Most of them were sent onward to Central New York, Vermont, or Massachusetts.

But there is almost no record of how they traveled. Compared to other areas—for example, Central New York State, southern Pennsylvania, the Ohio River Valley, From the archives Detroit—the absence of records is deeply puzzling.

How did they travel? What routes did they follow? And who helped them?

 

Profile of the valley and slavery

Before we get to the answer, I want to go back in time somewhat. New York was once home to the largest number of slaves of any state in the North—more than Georgia, until the late 18th century. The heaviest concentration of them was on plantations in the Hudson Valley, many owned by the prominent Livingston family. At times, slaves had made up as much as 10% of the population. Slavery was cruel here as it was anywhere in the South. Slaves were branded with irons, and notched in the ears, like cattle. Sometimes they were punished with castration. Read the rest of this entry »