historian, author, film producer

Category: Reconstruction (page 1 of 1)

AMC’s Hell on Wheels: a brief review

AMC’s premier of Hell on Wheels aired last night, and it included beautiful scenes of the Union Pacific railroad building and the Nebraska Territory. The close-up view of the steam locomotive–the behemoth–and its cowcatcher, the explosions blasting the cut through the prairie, the soot and steam pouring forth from the engines, the lines of spike drivers and graders pounding the rails, all gave a visceral sense of what it took to build a railroad. The series offers great promise. And it is admittedly taking on big issues: race, expansion, corruption, and the aftermath of civil war. We should applaud AMC, the cast is terrific, the scenes gorgeous.

But three scenes in particular struck me as ones that raise problems for history and how we remember and understand 1865. These were matters of concern not because such individual behaviors did not exist–there were people like this–but because they run against the broader historical record, so much so as to be questionable. In many ways AMC is creating complex characters against type, a positive move. I hope the complexity is less one-dimensional in the coming episodes, and we can see more nuanced characters. I am only going to sketch what I consider to be the matters of concern. These are not critiques as much as questions.

  1. When the main character Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), the ex-Confederate guerrilla, admits that he was a slaveholder, he also declares that he freed his slaves one year before the Civil War broke out. And further that his “Yankee” spouse led him to this morally right decision. So, we have a man, our hero, who both freed his own slaves and fought for the Confederacy’s claim to protect slavery. The contradiction seems to make Bohannon more sympathetic, but it does so at the expense of larger questions. A braver move might have been to make him a slaveholder period, yet one searching through the aftermath of war and emancipation for away forward, one willing to take risks across the racial divide.

    We’ve seen this before with Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot, although in the Revolutionary age manumission was much more prevalent and therefore plausible, if strained and sappily rendered in that film. In 1860 the idea that Bohannon freed his slaves and employed them on his farm as wage-laborers is more fanciful–with slave prices at their highest in history, with slavery expanding across the South, and with pro-slavery opinion in the white South unopposed. This portrayal is a matter of concern.

  2. Immediately before Bohannon’s revelation about manumitting his slaves, the former Union soldier, now paymaster for the Union Pacific construction crew, is the first man to utter the n-word. Here too, we are meant to understand that Northerners were equally or more racist than their Confederate counterparts. Their racism is blind, unthinking, and at a distance. He’s the one who acts like the slave driver and beats and whips a freedman from his high horse. Yet, here too the scene runs counter to the volumes of Union soldier letters and diaries which clearly indicate growing appreciation for black soldiers and workers and disdain for the slaveholder class. Men who fought with Sherman came away from the war with mixed emotions. It is true that few wanted freedmen to move north and some reacted violently, usually over labor. It is also true that employers in the railroad industry were particularly segregationist and repressive–most railroads in the North hired absolutely no black men. But, this scene does something more. It puts racism–the electrifying n-work–in the mouth of the North and seems to disregard the widespread white supremacy of the Confederacy.
  3. When Bohannon, our heroic white ex-Confederate, tells the freedman Elam Ferguson (played by Common) to “let go of the past,” we have to pause and say, really? Just who had trouble letting go of the past? White former Confederates. This scene complicates our understanding–a good thing–but does so in a potentially damaging way. The ex-slave freedman is in his tent, sharpening the knife of vengeance, for all the past wrongs and now for the wrong perpetrated by the white Northern former Union solider paymaster. The feelings of frustration among some freedmen with the post war world of labor was plain–it looked like slavery. Yet we have few instances in the written records of history of former slaves acting with murderous vengeance, much less being talked out of it by former Confederates who tell them to “let go of the past.” Southern whites in December 1865 were, it should be pointed out, fearful of a massive plot by former slaves, one in a long line of nightmarish visions Southern whites had about slavery.
  4. I’ve written in The Iron Way about a more typical scene of racial conflict in 1865. Here’s a selection that might put some of what Hell on Wheels portrayed in perspective:

    “The riot at Aquia Creek on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. In Virginia at the end of the war, the volatile mix of black and white workers, former Confederates, and Union soldiers combined in August 1865 to produce one of the first post-war race riots. A simple altercation between a freedman and a white worker who was a former Confederate escalated quickly. Organized mobs of whites and blacks with shovels and clubs threatened one another. The Fifth Maryland, a Unionist but nonetheless Southern regiment, was called in to break up the conflict. Led by an overaggressive lieutenant, the Union soldiers turned first on the black railroad workers and, according to newspaper accounts, began to “break in the doors and windows, and drag the negroes from their beds.” One black man was killed, shot down by the white mob armed with shotguns. Later, after other army units intervened, forty white workers–all of them discharged Confederate soldiers–were arrested, tried, and sentenced to the chain gang for sixty days. According to The Chicago Tribune, a radical Republican paper, “the negroes have been sent back to their work, confident of protection in their rights, and encouragement in their industry.” But the Aquia Creek Riot was a sign of a less secure future. Even The Tribune a few days later repeated an overblown rumor about the Aquia Creek incident: that the freedmen were plotting to “assassinate all the white laborers employed on the railroad” and that they had gathered up “scythes” and “knives” to carry out a massacre. In the fall of 1865 rumors flew around the South among Confederate whites that blacks were preparing for a major uprising in the new year. When Christmas 1865 came and went without an insurrection, nervous whites found other bogeymen.”

    I’m eager to see more of AMC’s Hell on Wheels. There are other questions the series raises about the portrayal of the railroad, its builders, and Native peoples. Of particular interest last night is Colm Meaney’s Thomas C. “Doc” Durant. We’ll take these up in a later post.

Tracking Dr. Alexander T. Augusta, black soldier and doctor

After five years, The Iron Way: Railroads, The Civil War, and the Making of Modern America is moving through copyediting and should be ready for publication in November 2011.

And I’m still finding new material to include or reference. The book will cover the way that Americans experienced the technological transformation surrounding the railroads and at the same time how these changes helped make the Civil War more likely, as well as more destructive. Railroads did not cause the Civil War, slavery did, but railroads were changing slavery, making its extension all the more possible into the West in the 1850s.

There are many new pieces of material I keep finding after the manuscript went in. One example is the story of Dr. Alexander T. Augusta, one of the highest ranking African Americans in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a surgeon and after the war became a prominent black physician in Washington, D.C. I was writing about his involvement in the case of Catharine (Kate) Brown, who filed a lawsuit in 1868 because she was violently thrown off of the Washington & Alexandria Railroad for attempting to sit in the ladies car. The railroad claimed segregation was common and lawful, yet Brown succeeded in taking the case to the Supreme Court where she prevailed.

I knew relatively little about Augusta, and began searching for more information. Then I found out that he had written a piece for The Christian Recorder on an 1863 incident in Baltimore, and on an streetcar confrontation in Washington, D.C., when he too was violently thrown out of the cars. Need to work this, and many other notes, into the next round of edits for The Iron Way.

Kate Masur’s new book, An Example for All the Land, fills in much of this important history of Washington, D.C., after the Civil War.

Sen. James Murray Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

On a recent research trip to the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, U.K., I was working through the papers of William Schaw Lindsay, the M.P. who was the most vocal supporter of the Confederacy in Parliament. Lindsay traveled widely in the U.S. before the Civil War. Indeed, he was in America during the 1860 Presidential election and as a leading British businessman and representative he met many U.S. politicians. Lindsay corresponded with numerous Americans during the secession crisis. In 1861 he gave a speech at the North Shields Mechanic’s Institute on “America and the Americans” in which he argued that the separation of the North and South was permanent, that war was avoidable if Britain and others intervened, and that while slavery was abominable the North had no intention of eliminating or abolishing the institution. Taking Lincoln at his word, Lindsay thought slavery would not be touched in the states in which it existed. As for the future promise of America, it lay in the west. He traveled the Illinois Central Railroad in 1860 and observed first-hand “as far as the eye could see” the open lands on the prairie. This was a land of huge potential, he told his British listeners, and separation without war was preferable to a tragic national bloodbath. On his tour through America in the fall of 1860, Lindsay met Virginia’s leading U.S. senator–James M. Mason. Then, during the war he hosted Mason who as the Confederacy’s lead diplomat sought British recognition for the Confederate States.

Header from James M. Mason December 21, 1869 letter to William Schaw Lindsay from "Clarens"

William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


The story of Mason’s failed diplomatic overtures is well known. His capture aboard the R.M.S. Trent prompted an international storm over the U.S. violation of Britain’s neutral rights. But Mason’s life after the collapse of the Confederacy was lived out of the public gaze.

I was surprised to see in the Lindsay papers a letter from Mason dated December 20, 1869 from “Clarens, near Alexandria.” Because I grew up at Clarens in the 1970s, the heading on the letter jumped out and caught my eye. I knew that Mason once owned Clarens. In fact, the legend of the place was that Mason never sat on the north-facing front porch because it looked out over the Potomac at Washington, D.C., the capital city Mason despised so much. Mason told Lindsay that while Clarens was a beautiful property, “the feature that mars all is that we are but eight miles distant from Washington, that nest of serpents + which is in full view but I have no communication with them.” So part of the Clarens legend had been confirmed–Mason had no love for the nation’s capital.

Mason’s home before the war broke out was in Winchester, Virginia, and, as he explained to his friend Lindsay, it was “destroyed, or rather obliterated, by the invaders.” After the war Mason stayed in Britain into 1866, a Confederate without a country, then went to Canada, where he and his family waited. Their waiting, according to his daughter Virginia Mason’s account, was an “exile” from their homeland–the South. But Mason, like Jubal Early and the other former Confederate leaders and officials waiting in Canada, waited because they were officially not extended amnesty until July 1868.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.

James M. Mason, photograph, William Schaw Lindsay Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K.


Deciding in 1869 to return to Virginia, Mason bought Clarens. The property adjoined that of his friend, the former Confederate General Samuel Cooper and was near the Episcopal Seminary, where other friends resided. “I gave for the whole establishment nine thousand dollars” in greenbacks, Mason told Lindsay in his letter about the purchase of Clarens. The greenbacks were his only remaining money, he confessed, and came from his wife’s family assets held in Pennsylvania through the war.

Mason described Clarens in this way: “an old residence, large + commodius home well built of brick + in good repair, ample lawns with venerable trees, and the garden (we call here the garden that which is appropriate to vegetables for the kitchen), good orchards of fruits pertaining to the South, including grapes with their trellises, The whole comprises nearly thirty acres of land. The side on the first high lands receding from the Potomac River distant two miles and of which on its summits commands a view of many miles. Our nearest town is Alexandria, one of the oldest towns on the Potomac, where there is good society and at the distance given above.”

Although he said nothing about whether he intended to rock on the front porch overlooking Washington or not, Mason did make a particular vow in his letter to Lindsay. “The poor negroes since they were manumitted are of course worthless, or rather worse than worthless,” Mason declared, “I have none of them in my service, and do not, however deeply I regret the necessity, intend to have.” Mason had brought “domestic servants (women) from Canada” and he intended to hire whites only. Negroes, he believed, were “the great curse of the country.” The fact that Reconstruction brought black voting particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the “end of the republic.”

With such convictions and with such vows, Mason lived another two years and died at Clarens in April 1871. Whether he rocked on the front porch or not, he likely did not employ any freedmen. Years later in 1906 Mason’s daughter Virginia compiled his letters into a published account of his life, and she passed on her father’s views to the next generation. She presented the plight of Southern whites as the main drama of the post war South–“their former homes reduced to ruins, and to be themselves reduced to the condition of quiet submission while ignorant and irresponsible negroes elected men to fill all the offices.” (The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason, p. 589)

James M. Mason’s strongly-held convictions about Clarens and the all-white labor force he employed there after the war set in motion a range of stories and ideas that suggested the limitations of Reconstruction and the profound resistance to change many Southern whites would exhibit in the coming years and decades. The war itself had been fought over the control of black labor–in the form of slavery. The post war South too would fight over the control of black labor. Newspapers were filled in the years after the war with urgent pleadings from the white South that it must have black labor or its entire economy would not move. It may not have occurred to James M. Mason that with their emancipation Alexandria’s blacks might share similar convictions and make similar vows as well–that they might never work for him even if he wanted them to.