Then and Now

This afternoon I was researching a talk I have to give next week. I was reading about the pre-emancipation efforts by Northern businessmen to force Lincoln’s hand on the issue. As opposed to their more moralistic counterparts, men like John Murray Forbes and Amos Adams Lawrence focused on the practical, almost commonsense reasons for emancipation which were largely that free black laborers would contribute more to the nation in terms of production and consumption than they would as slaves: essentially a free labor argument. These were men who cared little for the slave, were often pejorative about those they met. Their real concern was their fear of the Slave Power in national politics and their sense that the institution of slavery undermined the free market system. And yet their money and enterprise was focused on proving the ability and the worth of slaves to survive and prosper outside of bondage at a time when most Americans doubted that possibility.

This evening the phone rang as I was listening to the debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy. The voice was that of a southern Afro-American woman phoning for a political solicitation. We danced around initially with me a little reluctant to get drawn into a phone conversation when I wanted to listen to the debate which was scratchy and substantive and exciting. But then she mentioned that pledges would be tripled. So I agreed to give some money. Soon she was calling me “Miss Carol” and we were upping my pledge by a symbolic $2.50 for the 25 seats needed to win in the House of Representatives. As we said goodbye she reminded me to vote as my vote was as important as my contribution.

Three days before I had stood in Mount Auburn Cemetery as the reconstituted Company A of the 54th Regiment laid a wreath at the restored memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. I had drunk a glass of wine with two re-enactors whose ancestor had served as enlisted men in the original 54th regiment. He had survived. Mine, an officer, had not. But the rise of the black Americans from slavery to full citizenship, begun more than 150 years ago as a mix of ideals, pragmatism and the most basic self-interest, is still part of our on-going history and the young volunteer who phoned me tonight brought it to life vividly.

A Southern woman of color, embracing both the flavor and heritage of the South as she spoke to me, a white northern woman, calling me respectfully, and deferentially, Miss Carol.  At the same time she was manning the phones, raising money and urging me to exercise my fundamental right to vote all in the interest of protecting her political interests.

Gotta love it!

Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Quite how to share my review in Wall Street Journal, isn’t entirely clear. Here is the URL

Or you can read below. What neither option conveys is that it was printed on the Opinion page along with a long piece by Karl Rove and F. W. de Klerk….In the immortal words of David Byrne “How did I get here?”

From Harvard to the High Seas

Dana’s experience sailing with ‘the scum of the sea’ led him to a career as a lawyer defending the rights of the downtrodden.

Aug. 19, 2015 6:50 p.m. ET

In 1834 a young and disenchanted Harvard undergraduate, Richard Henry Dana Jr., threw over the expectations of his family and social class and signed on as an able- bodied seaman. For two years he lived among the flotsam and jetsam of humanity in the holds of two ships, the Pilgrim and the Alert. To mangle Wellington’s famous phrase, these men were “the scum of the sea” at a time when to rule the waves was to rule the world. And it was from them that Dana acquired his less-than-formal education. Of one of his mentors Dana said that “every sin that a sailor knows, he had gone to the bottom of.” Along the way he came to admire these men, not for their sinning but for their fortitude in withstanding the hardships and privations of maritime life, terrible even at the best of times. At its most extreme was the arbitrary power of a ship’s captain to inflict vicious floggings that could leave a man permanently damaged.

Dana’s account of his time at sea, “Two Years Before the Mast,” was published in 1840 and has never been out of print. But it was as a lawyer that Dana made his living and his reputation and as a lawyer that he daily expressed how his experience among common men had affected him. He began, in the 1840s, by defending the rights of sailors under admiralty law, a task not unlike drawing water from a stone. It was not surprising, then, that in the 1850s he moved to defending the rights of fugitive slaves.

In his biography of Dana, “Slavish Shore,” Jeffrey Amestoy, a former attorney general of Vermont and chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, excellently reveals how Dana wrested from the text of the U.S. Constitution the acknowledgment that the African- American slave, a kind of property as far as the traditional reading went, also had rights. Dana explained the pleasure he took in advocating for the underdog: “There is nothing on earth nearer Heaven, than when judges of the land vindicate the rights of such a man against the popular sentiment, or popular interests of the hour.”

Dana’s decision to defend the rights of the downtrodden was courageous, particularly for a man who needed to earn a living. The Dana family, once the top-drawer of prerevolutionary Cambridge, Mass., kept their prestige after independence but lost their money. It fell to Richard Henry Dana Jr. to support father, brother, aunts, wife and many children—hardly the ideal conditions for a man to stand on principle. But that he did, and he was forced to take to the lecture circuit to supplement a legal career deprived of the lucrative retainers offered by New England’s wealthiest entrepreneurs.


By the mid-1850s and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when the tide of popular opinion in New England turned against slavery, Dana had the potential for a political career. When he finally held elective office, as a state legislator, his performance was compromised by the fact that, as Mr. Amestoy explains, he “had no instinct for the ‘politics’ of an issue—nor would he have followed it had he possessed one.” Honest to a fault, Dana never had the kind of influence he would have liked despite his prestige as an early opponent of slavery and his role as a founder of the Republican Party.

Mr. Amestoy goes out on a limb in a chapter titled “The Supreme Court Case That Saved the Union.” This concerns the Prize Cases, argued before the Supreme Court in 1863, when Dana was U.S. district attorney for Massachusetts. During the blockade of the Confederacy, ships were seized. Were these seizures piracy, or were the ships prizes of war? Congress had never declared war, nor did Lincoln wish to recognize the Confederacy and thereby acknowledge the right to secede. And yet to escape a piracy conviction, the government needed a state of war to exist.

Dana rather brilliantly argued that “war is a state of things, and not an act of legislative will.” The court accepted his argument and in its decision declared that “it is not necessary to constitute war, that both parties should be acknowledged as independent nations or sovereign States.” Hard to believe this case saved the Union, and Mr. Amestoy backs away from the grandiose chapter title to claim that it “saved” not the Union but its morale.

Dana’s other big case was the charge of treason against Jefferson Davis. William Evarts, the U.S. attorney general, brought in Dana after the war as a special prosecutor to build the case for the federal government. Once again, the problem was that the government did not wish to recognize the Confederacy. Set up to take the fall for the administration, Dana was able to stall and delay until it became politically possible for the government to abandon its case: “It will settle nothing in law . . . not now settled & nothing in fact which is not now history.” Hardly the way to build a law business, but imagine how much more livable life would be if all lawyers thought that way!

Mr. Amestoy is at pains to show Dana as uniquely in conflict with his class. But Dana was by no means the only young man of high birth in Boston to take to the sea, or the only antislavery member of the upper classes, or the only Brahmin to wander into dens of iniquity. Other such freethinkers existed, but Mr. Amestoy ignores them. Without this context, one of the most perplexing aspects of this complex man is made more so.

Almost every August until his death in 1882, Richard Henry Dana Jr.—author, lawyer, federal district attorney, state legislator, member of the elite intellectual society the Saturday Club, scion of a founding family and the financial mainstay of his immediate family—left all that behind and revisited his youthful days as a common seaman. He disappeared to some port city dressed up as a sailor and spent several weeks in the most dangerous neighborhoods that sailors were known to frequent. What was he doing? And why? Mr. Amestoy offers us only the most oblique glance at this annual ritual, leaving us to guess its meaning. It is an opportunity missed to unlock a brilliant and enigmatic man.

Psychology Goes to the Movies: The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) has been called “the best conspiracy movie made in the 1960s.” Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, and Laurence Harvey. Here’s a film clip. My friend Susan Pollak asked me to join her in talking about this fabulous movie for the 14th annual Psychology Goes to the Movies film series Power Trips: Journeys to the Self, a program put together by the Boston Institute for Psychology.

Click here the text for the talk I gave about the movie.

Inglorious Warfare: Fighting the Gray Ghost

A talk given July 5, 2014 at Mt. Zion Church, Aldie, Virginia at the 150th anniversary of the skirmish between John S. Mosby and his Partisan Rangers and a scouting party under the command of Major William Hathaway Forbes

I’m here tonight to talk about the men of the Independent Cavalry Brigade whose job it was between July 1863 and July 1864 to stop John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. I would like to start with a broad brush and then narrow down to the 150 men out on scout exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, ending with their commanding officer, Major William Hathaway Forbes. It hardly needs saying here in the heart of Mosby’s Confederacy that they had been given one of the most thankless jobs available to a Union soldier and they knew it. Mosby’s genius for “harassing from the rear” humiliated the Union Army in general and those tasked with “stopping” him in particular. “Inglorious Warfare” was the term used by the brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Charles Russell Lowell. His men called it police work. They spat the words out with contempt and felt gypped. After all, what would have constituted “stopping” Mosby? They did twice wound him. They did (for a time) restrict the Rangers’ area of operation. They did (for a time) destroy Ranger safe houses. But they did not capture or kill Mosby although on July 6th they came as close to doing so as was ever likely. Like the Hydra who grew multiple heads to replace the one whacked by Perseus, Mosby had a way of rising again and again.

But first a bit about the men. They were a motley crew and the vast majority were entirely unprepared for the job before them. The core of the Independent Cavalry Brigade was the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, a late regiment, formed after the first flush of volunteering. Its privates were not the eager patriots of 1861. Some had escaped prison by volunteering. Many had joined for the commission paid their families. Even more because there was no work for them and hundreds like them in the many small factory towns across New England. And so they were largely townies, strangers to both horse and gun, had never hunted, perhaps not even slept out in the woods before. Many would have been happier on sea than land. Many had a knack for heavy machinery but had no more idea how to track an animal or man than fly to the moon.

Their officers were idealistic, young and inexperienced. There had been considerable pressure brought to bear on Colonel Lowell to “look after” certain well connected young men who stubbornly insisted on doing their duty despite being under experienced. Lowell had done his best to avoid these child soldiers and political appointees—the myopic nephew of a close advisor to the governor, and the underage son of a powerful western Massachusetts abolitionist—but the pickings were slim and in the end he preferred to get his regiment into the field and then weed out the incompetent officers.   As it would turn out some of these seemingly hopeless cases matured into valuable officers.

What many of these scrawny city kids, officers and men, lacked in experience, they made up for in stamina. Disease was the bigger killer of men than battle, and the farm boys fell much faster to the childhood illnesses of measles, mumps, & chicken pox to which the townies were immune. And they were scrappy, having learned to fight and defend themselves in dark alleyways. Most significant, these men had extensive support structures having volunteered in packs of anywhere from four to fourteen, and as such these packs represented a town or a factory or another social unit. They brought with them into the regiment all the attachments from home as they bunked with neighbors, friends, work mates and fought beside men they had known their whole lives. Even if their commitment to the war had almost nothing ideological about it, their sense of connection to their company was deep, reinforced by the knowledge that whatever they did in the field had the potential to be reported home by any number of different letters written home by any number of different comrades… Thus a dense mix of loyalty, devotion, duty and potential shame motivated these soldiers.

A key element of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry was some 350 men, roughly a third, who were Californians consisting of Company A, an elite hand picked hundred of the cream of Californian manhood, and a California Battalion of some 250 other volunteers, also choice. Most of these men originated from Massachusetts or Maine but they took seriously, and were proud of, their years in the west which had been arduous, intensely physical, lonely, with a high failure rate as they searched for gold, and then fell back on ranching and logging. The Californians felt that stopping Mosby was a poor use of their skills. Some saw it as the latest and most hurtful twist of the knife of misuse imposed upon them by the effete east coasters who controlled their fate. They had volunteered to fight a proper war, and had drawn the short straw. The Major commanding the California Battalion, De Witt Clinton Thompson, had been the Sheriff of San Francisco and he went to enormous lengths pulling all sorts of strings in a futile effort to get his battalion seconded away on special assignment.

Representing the dregs of the brigade were two regiments of New Yorkers. One of the colonels was largely away on convalescence debilitated by a recurrent case of venereal disease, and the other was under investigation for nefarious activities with both the women of the area, and also the younger members of his own regiment. Not surprisingly the men of these regiments were largely ill-disciplined, and suffered low morale. The rest of the Brigade would have preferred to do without them.

By July 1864 the brigade had spent a year fighting Mosby. The year represented a steep learning curve as they had had a hard time adjusting to “police work” until they reckoned it was adjust or perish. Initially the brigade’s Colonel bemoaned their fate, writing “we take no interest in wars or rumors of war …” He believed that his real place was in the Army of the Potomac commanding a “brigade of five regiments in Gregg’s division,” meaning part of the Regular Army, the elite within the larger Volunteer force. Other officers also felt that advancement would not come to them unless they were attached to a real army. And the men complained that fighting Mosby wasn’t “real war.” They wanted to be “in the field.”

At first all the Federals knew was that they were loathed as an occupying force by the large majority of the Virginians they encountered. Letters are littered with comments such as how “the young ladies” of one town “looked like they could bite the head off a ten penny nail” or the way a beautiful young lady looked as “savage as a meat-ax,” while another muttered “Oh! If hate could kill!”

They stood out like sore thumbs, understood nothing about the geography or the people, and their every move was reported back to Mosby. As such, they knew they were playing a mugs’ game. They did not want to die on picket, or on scout, or by ambush. There was no glory in that. And sadly this is what happened. Not often, but it took only one or two such ambushes to seriously deplete the regiment, destroy morale and require months of recovery.

All the wiliness of guerrilla warfare, all the canny and crafty plotting that made Mosby so successful was reduced to its lowest possible interpretation by these men as they masked both their frustration and fear of The Gray Ghost. “Mosby is more keen to plunder than to murder…” they wrote home, explaining “He always runs if he can.” These Union soldiers groused, “They don’t want to fight but rob trains is their game.” And their Colonel referred to Mosby as “an old rat” with “a great many holes.” But this grousing masked their helplessness.

Mosby’s irregular warfare struck the men as a form of brigandism deserving of the status of pirate instead of combatant. In one sense they had a point, trains that brought the pay for Union soldiers, stealing horses, running off with barrels of whiskey and huge supplies of beef “liberated” from sutler wagons was certainly not warfare a la Napoleon, Wellington, and the Knights Templar. And yet, these northerners were not as far from piratical behavior as they claimed. Among the officers most had a ship captain grandfather or great-grandfather who had made a tidy fortune as a privateer in the Revolution or War of 1812. Their letter of marque was proudly framed. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps from close analysis of Mosby’s tactics, the Brigade’s Colonel Lowell came to recognize that “Mosby is an honorable foe.” And he wanted to be sure the rules of war—the right to due process—applied to the Partisan Rangers. Partly because he took Mosby seriously, Lowell, as the commander of the cavalry in the defenses of Washington, began to rationalize the department in an effort to reduce the odds of disaster. He put in place a massive systemization of the method by which escorts of paymasters, resupply of horses, new recruits, even sutler wagons (not technically the responsibility of the army), moved between Washington and the army in the field. This dramatically reduced the number of embarrassing attacks. A complex system of patrol, picket and vedette duty kept the roads more or less clear of Rangers. With their base of operation much further into Virginia than previous federal troops, Lowell’s men established a much stronger presence and were able to respond much more quickly. Things went quiet. Lowell was consistently able to report “everything quiet in this vicinity.” Success amounted to the title of one of the most popular songs among Union soldiers “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight.”

But to many of the privates, quiet did not mean success. It meant boredom. Further they interpreted the quiet to mean they weren’t needed. There is only one private who left a record showing that he “got it.” Samuel Backus, a Californian, only 19, wrote home, “We have to do all this to keep from being taken by surprise by the rebs, who are always ready to take advantage of any chance that presents itself to pounce on us.” Backus recognized that the arduousness of their labors was appropriate to the dangers they faced.

But for most of the men the thanklessness of the task was grinding them down. As winter set in, picket duty was “just killing men” who suffered from exposure and exhaustion. And the more contempt they had for Mosby, the less they were able to value their own efforts. As Rebels became “so scarce about here as $20,000 gold pieces,” many of the privates felt that Lowell’s system of eternal vigilance was overkill. Others recognized that it was an unobtainable ideal. During an especially cold winter, desertion rates began to mount.

And yet as they found their footing in the area, they did begin to figure out how to play a craftier game of counter-guerilla warfare. They owed much to a deserter from Mosby, Charlie Binns, whom they captured and persuaded to lead scouting parties to a variety of hideouts. His intelligence helped the brigade to understand how the Rangers relied on the local population, and whom among them were their strongest supporters. This meant the Federals could begin to strategize how to separate the Rangers from the civilian population that supported them: one of the most basic tenets of anti-guerrilla action.

As they began to capture Rangers, to dismantle hideouts, and to push the Rangers deeper into the back country, the men of the Independent Cavalry Brigade fancied that they were getting the edge on Mosby. But every clever move by Lowell’s men was countered by Mosby’s upping the ante. Over the winter the stakes kept rising. When the Federals figured out how to have a second, hidden picket that could respond to an attack, the Rangers then began to pick off more men. The Federals figured out how to stretch a thin wire about neck height across the road to knock Rangers off their horses, but this then caused the Rangers to plot with even greater stealth resulting in the massacre of a scouting party of Californians and the death of the Regiment’s favorite captain. Death, madness, capture, these were the fates of a considerable number of the Independent Cavalry Brigade. Men widely recognized as courageous were shot at point blank range, stripped not only of weaponry but all clothing. Perfectly well-liked young men were persuaded to drink too much and in that condition they were relieved of their horse or gun, only to face court martial and death when they returned to their regiment.

The truth of the matter was that the Federal learning curve was a gentler parabola than the toll such arduous duty was taking on the men. Physically, they were worn down by exposure. Morally, the anxiety of constant vigilance and also boredom combined with constant temptations, (some petty, some grave) was proving destructive. In small parties on patrol, vedette, picket and escort duty, the men found themselves constantly exposed to temptation. Drinking, whoring, gambling, illegal trade in horses and guns, or simply the innocent desire for a home cooked meal proved irresistable. Although the preponderance of Virginian womanhood loathed their occupiers, April saw one wedding between a Californian and a Virginian.

As the men got to know local people, and began to understand the nature of their lives, what had been black and white now mottled into shades of gray. It was this personalizing of their work that made it “police work” instead of “warfare” and ate away at their self-respect. Major Forbes complained after arresting a civilian whom he quite admired, “If we’ve got to be soldiers, Heaven send us soldiers’ work to do…” They had come to feel that the Virginian countryside was “hateful”. Almost to a man, greater experience did not change the near unanimous longing to be liberated from their duty.

In this mood, as the weather turned to full summer, it got hot. The fighting moved further south and very little was happening in this part of northern Virginia. “All Quiet,” again. A combination of boredom and the fetid heat of early July made the men both restless for action and lulled into inertia. After horseraces celebrating the 4th of July, Major Forbes set out with 150 men on a three day scout intended to show the Federal uniform and keep Mosby’s men, hidden in their haylofts, stills, and other backcountry hideaways.

On the second day disaster struck. What was to have been yet another lazy three-day scout of the Virginia countryside, ratcheted into madness announced by the shell of a twelve pound howitzer exploding above them: Mosby had acquired an artillery piece and it’s baptism couldn’t have gone better. Tomorrow we are going to hear a lot about this skirmish, so I will not even attempt to tell you about it, except to focus in on one small part of the field as the shell exploded too high, causing the federals’ horses to panic. As they bucked and bolted, the blue line broke. “Form in the trees!” shouted Union Major William Hathaway Forbes. It’s the sort of order no commander wants to give. Worse, the men had dropped their reins in order to manage with both hands their new, much heavier Spencer repeating rifles. Unable to dismount to use these carbines, and flailing to find their reins, the men of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry could only hope that somewhere in the mad dash of their horses they might regain sufficient control and reach the woods fast enough to dismount and fire upon their pursuers. But all bets were off, and in this race for the trees, the skirmish underwent a transformation.

In the midst of chaotic flight it lost all military or even historical value and the men found themselves in the part of war that doesn’t make it into the history books: a bloody nonsensical melee. As the federals turned to make a stand, the two lines, blue and gray, crashed into each other. What followed was savage hand-to-hand combat with Rangers and Federals hopelessly entangled. Forgotten was any larger cause, whether it was emancipation, union or states rights, or even any possible strategic advantage. It was only a fight for survival.

Amid this roiling mass of men and horses, the two commanders, Mosby and Forbes, found themselves face to face. Forbes’s first saber lunge cut through Mosby’s coat. As he tried to drive his second thrust home, another Ranger interceded, took the blow in his shoulder, and Forbes’s sword ricocheted twenty feet in the air. (Mosby always referred to this moment as the closest he came to death.) Now, less than five feet away, Mosby fired at Forbes whose horse, at that very moment, thrust his head up, took the bullet, and fell dead. Forbes’s leg was now pinned under the horse’s corpse, and in seconds several Confederate sabers were at his neck. He had no choice but to surrender. In less than two minutes combat, two commanders on opposite sides had nearly killed each other and, failing to do so, had instead planted the seed of a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives.

Of course the skirmish needed to play itself out, and tomorrow you will hear how it became the “perfect rout” — a spectacular example of Mosby’s brilliance, his “bravest and largest capture,” as the Washington Evening Star reported. Neither the dry, analytic accounts of warfare found in the history books, nor the thrilling derring-do recounted around campfires, quite captures the way that war’s randomness incomprehensibly threads itself through the lives of the men who undergo it. The trauma of war usually works as a toxic substance in soldiers. Demons are unleashed that cannot be subdued and the qualities of civil society are lost. And yet on occasion, as in this case, the reverse also occurs. Sadly, although Forbes and Mosby left substantial written archives, neither left an exact account of what passed between them in those two minutes in the woods outside Mt. Zion Church. We know that they had stalked each other for over a year, so each knew the other the way a hunter knows his prey, and yet they had never actually met. Although Mosby mostly mocked the Union officers he captured, in Forbes’s case he arranged for Forbes to spend his captivity in the relatively benign confines of Virginia prisons (only after a failed escape attempt was Forbes sent further south to the notorious stockade jails in Georgia and S. Carolina). At war’s end Mosby confirmed his legendary status as The Gray Ghost by refusing to surrender. And yet in 1866, Forbes and his father, an extremely influential industrialist and financier of the Union war effort arranged a pardon, he went to Boston to meet them. In 1872 Mosby became a Republican, in fact, was Grant’s campaign manager in Virginia. Vocal in rejecting the “lost cause” version of the South’s part in the war, Mosby, with the same cold clarity that had made him so brilliant a commander, insisted that of course slavery lay at the heart of the quarrel between North and South. His outspokenness cost him: he received countless death threats, and his family house was burned down. Then in 1878 after an attempt was made on Mosby’s life, Forbes’ father, on the executive committee of the Republican Party persuaded President Hayes to appoint Mosby to the United States Consulate in Hong Kong. At that time they met in Washington and, charmed by Forbes’ daughter, Mosby told her, “Miss Forbes, you have done something your father was never able to do. You have captured Mosby.”

On Mosby’s return from China, Forbes arranged a position for him in California on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Forbes died in 1897 at the relatively young age of 57 from the lingering effects of his time in Confederate prisons, or so his family believed. Mosby wrote his father a letter of condolence: “For the generosity you have shown me I shall always cherish a deep gratitude.” To others Mosby explained “The news came to me like the tolling bell that announces a brother’s death for to me, he and his father were more than kind.” In 1913, Mosby’s 80th year, some fifteen years after Forbes’ death, all four of Forbes’ sons came to see him. Mosby entertained these now mature sons, arranging for his lieutenants to take them over the old battlefields and to visit the site of their father’s capture. Their generosity once again, softened the harshness of Mosby’s post-war years.

It is hard to understand the enduring connection between Forbes and Mosby. What did they see in the other? Mosby came from old Virginia stock but not great wealth. Sickly as a child, frail as a young man, he gained stature on horseback, and proved a genius at irregular warfare. And yet his own troops recognized him as a hard man with a cold and unsentimentally analytic mind. “cold as an iceberg, and to shake hands with him was like having the fire itching symptoms of a congestive chill” was how one of his more loyal men described him. Others saw him as “cold, indifferent, and utterly selfish.”

Not so, Forbes. The descendant of one of the most successful and powerful China Trading families, Forbes was swathed in the privilege of great wealth and would, after the war, marry the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson establishing a dynasty that merged two of the chief characteristics of New England, the pragmatic yankee trader and the high-minded divine. But despite the silver spoon in his mouth, Forbes was blessed with a first class temperament. He was an exceedingly well-liked man for no particular reason except he made people feel good. And it was this quality rather than great intellect behind his success after the war investing in and then becoming the first president of the Bell Telephone Company.

Why did Mosby who had refused to surrender, take the hand of friendship offered by his old enemy? How was it that Forbes, whose health was broken by his time in Confederate prison, held no grudge? And why were they, though not unique, a rarity among veterans? Was it their fundamental qualities of character that made the difference? One so realistic as to be freed from pride and sentiment, the other all generosity? Or was it the actual shared moment just yards from here when each man felt the hot breath of fate? History doesn’t attempt to answer these questions.

The Purchase By Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862

Exhibition: October 2011 to January 2012

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862 follows a small group of officers–husbands, brothers, and friends of the first families of Massachusetts–through the first years of the Civil War. This was my first attempt at curating an exhibition. I loved it.

here‘s a layperson’s appreciation of the exhibit. Click here for an online version of the exhibition.

New England Biography Seminar

The New England Biography Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society is a forum for writers and readers alike to engage in an ongoing discussion about the historical, literary, and methodological questions that make biography a challenging and rewarding undertaking. By providing an opportunity for those interested in the craft of biography to convene and converse, the seminar aspires to create a community that will support biographical works in progress and serve as a seedbed for future projects.

Click here to see the 2012-13 Schedule.

3 November 2011 was the inaugural session:

Michael Burlingame, Dean Grodzins, and Tony Horwitz
Sowing and Reaping: Biography and the Civil War: Theodore Parker, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln
Carol Bundy, Moderator

The opening session, featuring Michael Burlingame, Dean Grodzins, and Tony Horwitz and moderated by Carol Bundy, will address the rewards and challenges of looking at this historical moment from a biographical perspective.

Michael Burlingame is the acclaimed author of the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life, which won the 2010 Lincoln Prize, and The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, as well as several edited volumes of Lincoln primary source material. Burlingame splits his time between the University of Illinois at Springfield and the University of Connecticut at New London.

Dean Grodzins is a Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the author of American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. His current book-in-progress is A Civil War in Boston: Runaway Slaves and the Crisis of the Union.

Tony Horwitz is the author of Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. A Pulitzer prize winning journalist and former New Yorker staff writer, his Confederates in the Attic was a New York Times Best Seller.

Moderator: Carol Bundy is the author of The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr. She is now working on a book tentatively called McClellan in Boston: The Dark Underbelly of Boston’s War for Emancipation.

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