I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.
Over at the New York Times‘ Disunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and
Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.
“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”
Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.
Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:
Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.
The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.
In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:
All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.
We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.
We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?
Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.
People in western Missouri wanted Kansas for themselves. To some of them, that meant also wanting it for slavery. To others, having it meant that slavery would come and they could live with that. To a third set, it meant keeping out interloping Yankees. But to all of these it meant taking what rightly belonged to them.
The Missouri river separates only a small part of Kansas from Missouri. The rest comes down, then and now, to a surveyor’s line. By 1854, the edge of the world might run down that surveyor’s line. But that line formed no flaming chasm or iron curtain to stop those living on the frontier from stepping across. If the law prohibited you from doing much across that surveyor’s line in the Indian Country, its officers rarely made the restriction stick. You could get rich with a plantation. You could get rich selling supplies to the emigrant trains moving on to California or Oregon. Both of those options kept you inside the law, more or less. But you could also get rich by laying down markers across the line so you would have fist claim to any new land opened for settlement.
An obscure, if well-connected, military man who missed out on the fighting in Mexico, William Tecumseh Sherman, passed through the area
in the spring of 1852 I had occasion to visit Fort Leavenworth on duty, partly to inspect a lot of cattle which a Mr. Gordon, of Cass County, had contracted to deliver in New Mexico, to enable Colonel Sumner to attempt his scheme of making the soldiers in New Mexico self-supporting
I found Fort Leavenworth then, as now, a most beautiful spot, but in the midst of a wild Indian country. There were no whites settled in what is now the State of Kansas. Weston, in Missouri, was the great town, and speculation in town-lots there and thereabout burnt the fingers of some of the army-officers, who wanted to plant their scanty dollars in fruitful soil.
I don’t know what edition of Sherman’s memoirs Allen Nevins worked from, but mine had this on page 117 to his 89. As a result I read a bit more than I planned, including Sherman’s similar account of land speculation in California. He even surveyed some land for a claimed “New York on the Pacific” that never panned out. Americans on the frontier just did that. Get in early, stake a claim, buy it cheap and wild, then resell it to the next wave of white settlers. Sherman himself did some of it and reported his profits in his memoirs.
While Missourians could not legally settle in Kansas before the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, they’d been there, by the hundreds before the bill became a law, and wasted no time scouting out and then staking out claims, law or no law. Less speculative, but no less land-hungry, many would have had an eye on expanding their existing holdings rather than reselling. Some would even have fit the standard image of a family leaving one state entirely to move to a new one for good. Likely which category each settled into depended as much on market forces as initial intentions.
Kansas might not have money just coming out of the ground like California did, but its ground was money. A bunch of rich Yankees with their Emigrant Aid Society planned to come buy it all up before an honest Missourian could get a chance at it? To give to a bunch of dirty Irish thugs and slave-stealing abolitionists? One did not need to have a large, personal investment in slaves or slavery to see a threat in that. The big chance had arrived, only for a big company to try taking it all out of their hands. Worse still, everybody knew that only so much of Kansas had any real value. The rest, part of the great American desert, could never support a farm and would never amount to much. Only the eastern third had any potential.
With so much at stake and so little of Kansas to go around, small wonder Atchison could find plenty of men prepared to sign on and do violence for his cause if it meant helping along their own. They had their American dreams at stake.
If yesterday’s post about how things in Kansas might all work out happily in the end left anybody nodding, rest assured that things did not work out anything like that. Kansas did not end up bleeding because it tripped and scraped a knee on the pavement. By turning popular sovereignty into an obvious vehicle for the expansion of slavery, Stephen Douglas did much to discredit the notion.
In The Impending Crisis, David Potter argues that the doctrine had the potential to replace geographic partitions as the standard, peaceable way to resolve sectional disputes. This might sound like a pipe dream from a dead historian, but popular sovereignty did amount to an invocation of American democracy. If white men decided by fair votes, then white men could live with the verdict. They might also make black men and women live with that verdict, but those people did not count at all to all save a few antislavery sorts.
The notion of kicking the can down the road, or over to a territorial legislature, has a certain appeal. One can wash one’s hands with it and proclaim slavery someone else’s problem. Maybe in time the climate and geography would resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. But all of that required a studied disinterest in the outcome. If one truly didn’t care whether or not slavery expanded west of Missouri, then that attitude made perfect sense. The Stephen Douglases of the world cared, at most, about the method by which slavery expanded or did not. Whether up in New England or down in the Missouri valley, many Americans did not share such disinterest. Rather they saw a combination of great personal opportunity for themselves and at least the future of Kansas and possibly the nation as at stake. They thus resolved to influence the outcome to suit their preferences, just as Seward and Douglas both came to expect.
In later years, Douglas accused antislavery northerners of plotting to subvert popular sovereignty and so provoking equivalent retaliation by southerners. He damned both parties, but the North more so for starting the business. The South more or less accepted Douglas’ version of events. Antislavery northerners had other ideas, of course. They could always point their fingers at Stephen Douglas, Accomplished Architect of Ruin, and the Slave Power cabal that secretly ruled him. But they could also point to past efforts, real or imagined, by southerners to seize the territory.
Who had the right of it? Both. None other than Missouri’s Senator, David Rice Atchison, started in with the threats of violence a year prior. I’ve not found the speech anywhere online, but Allen Nevins quotes Bourbon Dave’s Westport Address:
you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.
The unwelcome neighbors would naturally hail from the North and come with dreams of slave-stealing, servile insurrection, and other monstrosities against which the inhabitants of western Missouri would rightly take up arms. The law partner of Atchison’s lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, went one better, again as quoted by Nevins:
I am ready to go, the first hour it shall be announced that the emigrants have come, and with my own hands, will help to hang every one of them on the first tree.
The first effort to move antislavery settlers into Kansas came from the North. On April 26, 1854, before the Kansas-Nebraska Act even hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Massachusetts legislature unanimously approved a corporate charter for Eli Thayer’s Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. The Society aimed to raise money and spend that money to promote Kansas settlement, recruit those settlers, and ship them off to the tune of five million dollars. Along the way, Thayer expected to make a profit and pay off his shareholders. He set off to tour the nation, traveling more than 60,000 miles and delivering hundreds of speeches.
When Thayer’s efforts hit the northern papers, who promoted him and called for sister societies in other northern states, word swiftly reached western Missouri. From there it appeared that Thayer already had the five million on hand and a small army ready to come in and take from Missouri men what they considered rightly theirs. If Yankee interlopers, later-day Hessians to a man, proposed to take what Missourians knew as their birthright, then they would fight for it.
What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.
But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.
Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.
The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.
Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.
But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.
Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.
If Stephen Douglas threw the future of Kansas as free soil into doubt with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he left open the possibility that freedom would prevail. At various points, he said that he expected it to do so and thus the tremendous strife in Washington, in the newspapers, and out in the nation at large over the fact amounted to much ado about nothing. If slavery would not flourish in Kansas anyway, why worry about the fact that Kansans could legally introduce it? They’d just waste their time.
Neither the Missouri slaveholders doing just fine a few miles away from Kansas, drained by the same river, and outraged by its potential as an abolitionist base for slave stealing nor the antislavery North though slavery in Kansas a bloodless abstraction. For both parties, to varying degrees, slavery in Kansas meant the possibility of slavery in Utah and New Mexico to say the least, and perhaps slavery all the way up to Canada. It could mean on one hand the regaining of lost parity for slavery in the Senate and on the other a wall of future slave states that would help turn the Union entire into an empire for slavery.
With its future, and by proxy the Union’s future, in doubt and subject to the verdict of elections in Kansas, antislavery men resolved to make a fight of it. Their threats, both political and otherwise, incensed Douglas greatly. They foretold an era of sectional parties that would pit North against South to the ruin of the Union. He rose to answer the fireworks in the Senate with dire warnings of his own:
No sane man can close his eyes to the fact that this great northern party, which is being organized on sectional issues, contemplates servile insurrection, civil war, and disunion! Sir, every man who joins this new organization with the black flag of Abolition floating over it; every man who prostitutes the pulpit to the advancement of demagogues and the encouragement of violence; every man who goes into this unholy, treasonable alliance, will be marked by the people for his treason.
By your speeches you encourage mobs, you instigate rebellion, you stimulate violence, and then shuffle off the responsibility upon others, and leave your simple, unfortunate instruments and tools to bear the odium, and in some cases suffer the penalty of the law for crimes which you caused to be committed.
Every murder that shall be committed, every drop of blood that shall be shed, every crime that shall be perpetrated must rest, with all its guilt, upon your souls; and I only regret that the penalty of the law cannot fall upon the heads of the instigators instead of the instruments who suffer themselves to be acting under their advice.
Antislavery rhetoric could get pretty wild, sometimes to the point where even sympathetic modern readers find their eyes rolling. I know mine have. But their standards of political speech differed from ours and we must allow that they did grapple with what they saw as existential concerns. Within a decade, they proved themselves right to think that the future of slavery and the future of the nation formed one and the same issue.
If antislavery men like Seward considered the gauntlet thrown down, in the manner of a romantic medieval duel, then so did Douglas. He picked it up on behalf of the Union, just his opposites believed they had:
I accept your challenge; raise your black flag; call up your forces; preach your war on the Constitution, as you have threatened it here. We will be ready to meet all your allied forces. The people will prove true to the Constitution, and true to their allegiance to the Union. You cannot carry out the programme threatened without an attempt to overthrow the Government. You cannot carry it out without destroying all fidelity to the Constitution. Now we are ready for the issue. “Self-government and the Constitution” is our motto, and under that banner we will fight the battle and achieve victory.
That all speaks for itself, but one bit warrants calling out. The black flag, in the parlance of the time, meant not just the flag of a hateful cause. Rather one figuratively raised the black flag at war to announce that one would give no quarter and expect none in return. It meant no mercy and no surrenders. The fight would go on until one side or the other ran out of people to kill.
What would happen to Kansas? Would it go free, as Stephen Douglas predicted? Would it go slave, as the Missouri slaveholders just over the river hoped? Douglas imagined that climate and geography would solve this problem and keep it free. He might have even believed it, as slavery qua slavery never meant much to him and thus he never had much occasion to think in detail about it. But William Seward, who cared quite a bit more about slavery, allowed that Kansas might go slave but expected the same thing to happen with Nebraska. I mention the two men on the way to returning to Kansas for the notorious and violent festivities.
Back at the end of May, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act came back before the Senate because the House had stripped from it an amendment banning immigrants from the land. The Senate could live with that and the act passed again but returning it to the floor occasioned another round of speeches where both sides fixed their eyes on the future of that now troublesome land adjacent to Missouri. Seward took the occasion to remark on what the Senate did:
We are on the even of the consummation of a great national transaction -a transaction which will close a cycle in the history of our country- and it is impossible not to desire to pause a moment and survey the scene around us and the prospect before us.
Seward saw that
what has occurred here and in the country during this contest, has compelled a conviction that slavery will gain something, and freedom will endure a severe, though I hope not an irretrievable loss.
this contest involves a moral question. The slave States so present it. They maintain that African slavery is not erroneous, not unjust, not inconsistent with the advancing cause of human nature. Since they so regard it, I do not expect to see statesmen representing those States indifferent about a vindication of this system by the Congress of the United States. On the other hand, we of the free States regard slavery as erroneous, unjust, oppressive, and therefore absolutely inconsistent with the principles of the American Constitution and Government. Who will expect us to be indifferent to the decisions of the American people and of mankind on such an issue?
Though he claimed otherwise, Seward clearly saw himself as a spokesman for the North when he issued his challenge. If popular sovereignty would decide the fate of Kansas, and thus the nation, then
Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave States. Since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it on behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.
If freedom must fight for Kansas, fight it would. If Douglas opened the door to a brawl over the future of the Great Plains, and thus the nation as a whole, then the burgeoning antislavery movement would walk through and fight it out. Replacing the Missouri Compromise’s settled line with an open-ended future for slavery invited it. The North would come for the fight.
We have yet to finish with 1854, that remarkable year when everything happened at once and flowed together into everything else into a confused mix where the South and the Democracy had their great triumph over Kansas and then found themselves nearly ruined by it. Doubling down, whether with new efforts to buy Cuba or with wild, irresponsible threats from the Ostend Manifesto only further got the increasingly antislavery North’s back up. Though meaning just the opposite, Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas sure knew how to wreck a party.
The Democrats paid at the ballot box, losing almost half the seats they’d held in the 33rd Congress. Only seven northern Democrats who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act survived the voters’ wrath. Those who voted against it paid a price too, but where pro-Nebraska northern Democrats found their numbers reduced to a mere seven, losing three quarters of their caucus, the anti-Nebraska northern Democracy came out with only a thirty percent, fifteen seat haircut. It could clearly have gone much worse for the latter. This came on the very heels of the Democracy’s best showing yet, a remarkable reversal of fortune. Douglas got his storm.
Looking back at this it can seem obvious that the new Republican party founded in 1854 picked up the pieces. The Democracy’s loss meant the Republican’s gain. We know what happened next, but people at the time did not have that luxury. In some states the Whigs survived. In others the whole party transitioned relatively smoothly into Republicans. That did not happen in Illinois, where the Republicans tried to draft Abraham Lincoln. He declined and stayed a Whig, interested instead in making Whiggery into the national antislavery party. In many corners of the North, antislavery Whigs, Republicans, and Know-Nothings competed for many of the same votes. The Republicans had only just come on the scene and did not even adopt their name until the summer. This all meant a dizzying array of choices at the ballot box, which David Potter summarizes in The Impending Crisis:
Voters in 1854, therefore, faced a stunning array of parties and factions. Along with the old familiar Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, there were also Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens, and assorted others.
The who? The whats?
The Maine Law refers to that state’s 1851 prohibition law, which the powerful temperance movement wanted to see enacted in other states. The Anti-Nebraskaites took a somewhat stronger antislavery position than the Republicans. Hard Shell and Soft Shell Democrats disagreed over whether to reconcile the Barnburner Democrats who left the party for the Free Soil party back in 1854 but had since come back. Soft Shell Democrats and Silver Gray Whigs both took less of an anti-immigrant tone and worried about the growing power of the Know-Nothings.
The Democracy very clearly lost the 1854 elections, but out of all this mess who had really won? Had the Know-Nothings proved their strength over antislavery, or had it gone the other way around? Where did the Temperance movement fit in? If slavery might break the Union, then nativism could save it and serve as a counterweight to the great sectional tensions of the age. The fact that nativism overlapped with antislavery complicated, and ultimately helped thwart, hope but left matters still more confused. Potter counts
about 121 members who had been chosen with Know-Nothing support and about 115 who had been elected as Anti-Nebraska men, with antislavery support. About 23 were antislavery but not nativist; about 29 were nativist but not antislavery (most of these were Southerners); but some 92 were both antislavery and associated with nativism. This situation meant that most of the nativists were antislavery and most of the antislavery members were in some degree nativists.
Who had the majority? The antislavery men or the nativists? Both did, but they did not flow together seamlessly. Some nativists, like Massachusetts’ Henry Wilson, cared quite a bit more about opposing slavery than opposing immigration and Catholicism. Others went the other way. Given the natural affinities between the movements, one would expect them to stick together. Over time, one faction or the other would gain ascendance and the party would become their party, if with the other still a significant minority.
But that question did not resolve itself directly. The 33rd Congress remained in session until the start of March, 1855. The 34th would not take its seats until December. In the meantime, Kansas had its future in the air. Would it fall to slavery, as Northerners feared and Southerners hoped, or would Stephen Douglas’ popular sovereignty bring about his expected outcome through the hard laws of geography and climate?
The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.
Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.
What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.
How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.
In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.
All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.
We cannot recall any other public question with regard to which there has been such unity of opinion. Journals habitually opposed on every other subject representing every shade of party feeling, every divergence of interest, and every antagonism of nationality concur to declare the destruction of San Juan a needless, unjustifiable, inhuman exercise of warlike force. Conservatives and radicals, Whigs and Democrats, Americans and Foreigners all agree in this one thing-all express the same horror and disgust. Indeed, among all the papers which have yet spoken, we know of but one, and that an obscure and scurrilous sheet in this City, which has attempted to find an excuse for the measure.
Even the Washington Union, which dutifully followed the Pierce administration’s official line, could come up only with a plea to suspend judgment until all the facts came out. Those facts included the official correspondence, which had both George N. Hollins’ account of himself and the orders that brought him to Greytown. His orders contained this provision:
It is, however, very much to be hoped that you can effect the purpose of your visit without resort to violence and destruction of property and loss of life.
Way to follow orders, George.
While one might expect that sending in the military could lead to violence, and it carries the implicit threat of force, the Cabinet had as much of a shock as anybody else. Careful, conservative William L. Marcy might have felt it the worst. He wrote to James Buchanan in London that
The occurrence at Greytown is an embarrassing affair. The place merited chastisement, but the severity of the one inflicted exceeded our expectations. The Government will, however, I think, stand by Capt. Hollins.
Will Great Britain interfere in the matter? If she does, her course will tend to bring Central American affairs to a crisis. I am glad your reply to Lord Clarendon was in before the news of the bombardment of Greytown was received at London.
Lord Clarendon served as the Foreign Minister at the time.
Buchanan wrote back at the end of August, getting right to the heart of the matter:
I am sorry, however, to be informed that the Government will, you think, stand by Captain Hollins. I have read every thing with care in regard to that affair, and with the strongest disposition to excuse or justify him for burning Greytown; -and I still hope that after more mature reflection the Government will not adopt the act.
The Old Public Functionary (They really called him that!) further told Marcy that he’d met an Indian prince the British had just given a handsome pension in exchange for his kingdom. The British let him know that they might have to do the same for the King of the Mosquito Coast. London did not, however, care for the fact that the United States and United Kingdom exchanged ratifications of a treaty over Canada in the wake of news of Greytown’s destruction. It gave the impression that
we have discovered the mode of dealing with the British-we went down to Greytown and smashed it, whereupon they became alarmed and gave us all we wanted.
Buchanan answered that he needed to talk with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, about the complicated Central American situation. Buchanan let on that he saw Aberdeen as more friendly to the United States. Lord Clarendon did not take the suggestion of going over his head, especially in this situation, well at all:
Lord Clarendon then seized me by the lapels of my coat and shook me, and said, “I am as good a friend of the United States as Lord Aberdeen, or any man in three Kingdoms.”
Even in a rougher age, one diplomat did not simply seize and shake another over light and trivial matters. Buchanan had not previously expected the British to take their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast seriously, but now he had reason to think otherwise.
At the end of May, 1854, the minister to Central America, Solon Borland, and the United States commercial agent at Greytown, Joseph Fabens, both wrote to the Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, about recent events in Greytown. Fabens declined to mention how he’d tried to burn the town to the ground in the wake of Borland’s alleged injury. Marcy might not have known about that until the newspapers reported it late in the summer. He did know that if anybody hit Borland with a bottle, it happened because Borland intervened to protect an accused murderer from arrest.
Borland himself declared that he cared not at all about whether or not Captain Smith, the murderer in question and an employee of the Accessory Transit Company, had killed the man. Considering Borland talked him into the killing, that took some cheek. Borland demanded justice for an injury that left not a mark upon him which he suffered in a confrontation that he initiated, based on a murder he encouraged.
Fabens, working more for the Transit Company than the United States, dealt with Borland’s injury as almost an afterthought in his letters. But the murky real estate disputes between the Transit Company and Greytown had gone on for some time. For more than a year the Company refused to recognize Greytown’s jurisdiction. All its protests and lobbying through Fabens did not bring the George N. Hollins and the USS Cyane down from New York. Borland’s injury, and Faben’s dispatches declaring that the people of Greytown tried to seize and detain the minister, did. To hear Fabens tell it, a mob of “Jamaican negroes” formed to seize Borland and the broken bottle struck him in the face, drawing blood. Borland must have been a fast healer if this really happened, as others saw an uninjured face the next day.
Whatever happened, the Navy issued orders to Hollins dated June 10. He would sail down with the Cyane and get satisfaction from Greytown. He should not spend too much time there, but should consult with Joseph Fabens to get the latest facts on the ground before acting. Whatever he did, he should try to prevent any loss of life or destruction of property. The Cyane arrived on July 11 and Fabens and Hollins conferred. Fabens shared that he’d told the Greytown authorities the Navy would soon arrive and they should have some kind of restitution for Borland’s injury and the Accessory Transit Company’s complaints ready. The Greytown government declined to give Fabens an answer. Possibly they felt less than sociable toward him due to his late plan to burn their homes and property to the ground. Furthermore, Fabens had it that the mob that injured Borland now entirely controlled the town.
The amount of restitution that Fabens suggested to Hollins, which the latter accepted, went well beyond the agreed value of the property in question for the Transit Company. It certainly exceeded any reasonable sum one could ask for Borland’s uninjured face. After repeated demands brought no answer Hollins accepted, he gave twenty-four hours’ notice that he aimed to disregard his instructions to avoid violence and destruction of property by bombarding the town. But Hollins had something of a soft touch and abided by one third of his instructions by trying to avoid killing anybody. He instead set up facilities for everyone to relocate to safety before the shooting started.
The pleas of the commander of a much smaller British warship present did nothing to move Hollins. He had it in his power to destroy Greytown and destroy it he would. That Greytown had no defenses against a naval bombardment did not enter into it. Nor did Greytown’s position in the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast protectorate. Nor did American commitment in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to maintain the neutrality of any route for a canal across Central America matter. The next morning, Hollins performed an intermittent bombardment, with frequent breaks for someone from Greytown to come over with cash on hand, or at least promises to pay. No one did and over the course of a few hours Hollins fired into the town and then ordered a party ashore to burn the rest.
The United States Navy, on behalf of Solon Borland for injuries he probably did not suffer and on behalf of the Accessory Transit Company, for grievances where the facts generally stood against it, destroyed Greytown entirely. It did so over the protests of the British and wildly out of proportion to any injuries suffered. Borland might call Greytown a nest of pirates, but George N. Hollins destroyed a defenseless town because it refused to pay tribute.