Last American World War I Vet Calls For War Memorial

The last surviving American World War I veteran (or at least, his daughter is on his behalf) has called for the creation of a memorial to veterans of the Great War.  With the upcoming anniversary of World War I coming soon (2014 for Europe, 2017 for America) such a memorial is necessary.  Honestly, I can’t believe it’s taken this long for such a thing to gain attention.

For those of us who missed out on the war, it was the most devastating in world history.  It often gets short shrift in U.S. textbooks because America did not get involved until the very end of the war, where it played the crucial war in snapping the back of the German war machine.  In virtually every way World War I changed the way the world saw itself.  A generation of young men were murdered and gone, it triggered the rise of Communism and Socialism, sowed the seeds for Naziism, and brought American full throttle into world affairs.  The decades following the war saw America become deeply involved in world leadership, from the League of Nations to nation building in the Caribbean.   The destruction was so terrible that it would take nearly twenty years for many nations to rebound completely.  Germany only paid off her war debts completely this last November (in 2010!).  Literature took a much darker tone, idealism was all but slaughtered on the battlefields of the Low Countries and France.  Nearly 17 million people lost their lives from 1914-1918.

Despite having such a late part to play in the conflict, America should recognize the sacrifice her men and women made for that year.  They traveled far to participate in a war that was not theirs, a war that President Woodrow Wilson had turned into a crusade for democracy.  They faced the deadly weapons of modern warfare on a scale never before seen.  They bravely fought at Bellau Wood,  Cantigny, and the Marne.

Congress, while you’re ignoring the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, at least do the honor of building a memorial for the  millions of Americans who served during World War I.  The last American World War I veteran won’t be alive forever, preserve their memory before it truly does become a “Forgotten War.”

Book Review: In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Edward Ayers

Upon its release in 2003, In the Presence of Mine Enemies was a fresh take on the most written about American history topic: the Civil War.  Even today it stands as a fascinating take on familiar events.  Edward Ayers told the first half of the Civil War through the eyes of those who lived through it, focusing his history on a personal level through newspaper articles and personal letters.  Extensive local history research was done to paint an accurate and compelling vision of the counties these people lived in.  Ayers argued that the Civil War was a deeply personal experience.  Whereas most histories of the war explore the military history of the conflict, or focus on the personal letters of a particular individual, Ayers placed his narrative in the hands of lesser-known individuals from two border counties, one North, one South.  Ayers also explored the way the national attitude evolved during the first half of the war and how local views changed through personal experience in the war.  Ayers showed how attitudes toward North and South, slavery, capitalism and Union all changed over time due to external pressures.  The Civil War, America’s greatest tragedy, becomes the tale of countless personal tragedies in this new take on Civil War history.

An extension of the Valley of the Shadow Project, a collection of primary documents dealing with Virginia and Pennsylvania in the Civil War, In the Presence of Mine Enemies focused on the early war, from the dramatic events of 1859 up until the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863.  Edward Ayers stopped just short of the Battle of Gettysburg, because he considered that battle to be a final turning point of the war in which the defeat of the south was finally determined.  At scattered places throughout the book Ayers injects a traditional narrative (written in italics) to help the reader understand what is happening by keeping everything in context.  There is no omniscient narrator and the reader learns of major battles the same way 19th century Americans did, through newspapers and personal letters.  When the book finally comes to a conclusion as Confederate troops march into Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg, there is no closure.  What happened next is left hanging in the air.  Many Americans are familiar with the Civil War, but even a student of history will find Ayers’ approach intriguing.  Even those who know what happened next still find themselves caught up in narrative of uncertain outcomes.

Some parts of the nation experienced the war more profoundly than others, and Ayers narrowed his scope to include only Augusta and Franklin counties in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.  These two counties were close to the border and therefore were involved in more fighting, more occupation, and more contact with the opponent than most places.  Their citizens also appear to have left a treasure-trove of documents behind, which Ayers used to further his narrative.  By narrowing his scope to these counties Ayers guarantees the reader will only have access to what those citizens know, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty of the future.  This focus also allowed the Civil War to be told from a different standpoint.  This is a history of the soldier and the home front, not a traditional political or military history of the war.  The book is more of a “bottom-up” history, stories of home life (only relating the war, though), and of life in the Army camps.  The backbone of the book is the primary sources.  Ayers drew from personal letters of soldiers, officers, businessmen, slave-owners, and various other “home front” people.  In addition to the personal letters Ayers used the local newspapers to gauge attitudes toward the war.  For Franklin County the Valley Spirit and the Chambersburg Repository and Transcript gave detailed accounts of how the war touched their community.  For Augusta County in Virginia it was the Spectator and the Augusta Vindicator. All of the newspapers began as Unionists but as the nation slipped to war the Virginia papers became unapologetically secessionist.  In the North, the Valley Spirit continued as a Democratic paper, fiercely anti-Republican and in favor of reunion under the old order—including slavery.   Despite working off of these newspapers In the Presence of Mine Enemies still focused mostly on the southern county. Franklin County served more as an accent to the in-depth narrative of Augusta County and her people.  These counties show just how divided the nation was, even among otherwise similar communities.

The lack of unity in the pre-war United States, largely due to varied individual ideology, hurried America along the path to war.  The “politics of grievance” drew stark lines between Americans in 1859 and 1860.  This type of politics “dwelt, first, on what [the leaders] portrayed as the fundamental differences in the character of the white people of the North and South.”[1] The distrust that was brewing made it easier for relations between North and South to break down.  Americans in one section of the nation increasingly regarded the other section as the enemy instead of as their countrymen.  Inflammatory rhetoric created intense paranoia in the South that the North was out to destroy their way of life.  Ayers used newspaper articles and personal letters to convey this paranoia at several points throughout the book by showing how frequently the North was perceived to be abolitionist.  In reality, only a minority of northern Americans agreed with freeing the slaves.  Even among the new Republican Party there was no agreement on getting rid of slavery.  The South did enjoy a disproportionate amount of national power, which created resentment in the North who also viewed slavery as a threat to free labor.  Decades of compromise had led to no stable peace.  After a few months of war, Americans North and South “learned to hate” quickly, dropping their previous relationship as countrymen as soon as Lincoln called for troops to respond to the takeover of Federal property throughout the South.[2]

This great divide that had formed over the years between regions also led to misconceptions among the population that possibly dragged the war out longer.  The South went to war convinced that the North would be consumed by division and class warfare, bringing the war to a quick and easy end.  In fact, many Americans in both parts of the country “wanted it to come, wanted to prove their patriotism and demonstrate that they held God’s favor.”[3] At the end of 1862 when President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, many Southerners thought it would end the war and that the American people would turn against the Republicans and refuse to fight a war for the freeing of slaves.  They also blamed Lincoln for trying to ignite a race war, believing that Emancipation was also the point of no return: the South could not negotiate a peace under abolitionist conditions.   Just before the war, Northerners felt that “slaveholders would vote against secession, would resist serving in the army, and would love the Union more than the Confederacy.”[4] Both were wrong and brought to bear enormous armies with terrible destructive power.

A combination of personal beliefs and national politics pushed the nation to civil war, and these conditions evolved during the course of the war as well.  Initially the Civil War was fought to reunify the states, and many Northerners were willing to allow slavery to continue.  There was very little talk of abolition at that time.  But as the war went and the North struggled for recruits and unity, pressure rose to make the war an ideological one.  The South was fighting to defend their “peculiar institution” and to defend their homes since much of the serious fighting was destroying Virginia.  The idea of fighting for freedom was appealing to many Northerners, even if they weren’t abolitionists before the war.  “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 was the first major turning point of the war, the point where the Confederates avoided defeat and embarrassed the Union.  By winning they prolonged the war, Ayers wrote, essentially making the Union more desperate than ever to win at any cost.  “In retrospect,” he wrote, “perhaps the best thing the Confederate army could have done for Southern slaveholders would have been to have lost in 1862.”[5] That way, slavery could have survived in a reunified America.  How different things would have looked had the war ended that summer.

Other factors contributed to the unfolding drama.  Particularly harsh northern measures when marching through Virginia emboldened the Confederates and brought more converts to their cause.  Escalation by both sides made it possible for the war to take on an even deadlier and hostile nature.  Upon discovering the questionable tactics used by Federal troops in the South, Pennsylvanians in Franklin County even began to feel they deserved whatever the Confederates did to them when their turn came for enemy troops marching down their own streets.  Ayers leaves the reader wondering if perhaps softer tactics could have created an easier path to reunion, instead of cementing stereotypes and hateful feelings for the other side.

Even poverty played a role in shaping events in the South.  Southerners prayed for Democratic victory in the Northern elections in the hopes that the anti-war crowd could bring about an end to the fighting and recognition of the Confederate States as an independent nation.  Joseph Wadell, a man from Augusta County, Virginia, wrote that Confederates had “more to fear from the scarcity of foodstuffs and clothing than from the Yankee armies.”[6] In 1863 poverty was hitting Confederates on the home front hard.  Loss of property, slaves, and devastation of crops and what little industry existed to begin with made many Confederates desperate.  Soldiers began deserting in droves to return home, poverty made Southerners even more resentful of their wealthier enemies.

Throughout the whole war, but especially during early 1863, slaves began fleeing through the Valley to reach freedom in the northern states.  Many women and children were left behind to be abused by Confederate soldiers who engaged in “Negro-hunting.”  This was a massive loss of “property” for the Southerners and a blow to their societal stability.  Some places along the so-called black belt were left untouched by war and continued to use slave labor to bolster the Confederate production levels, but in Virginia the number of slaves was severely depleted.  Once they were able, black men fled north and joined the war effort. “Black men enlisted at a speed and with a spirit that surprised their white neighbors.”[7] People in Franklin County initially had difficulty welcoming the influx of runaway blacks and were skeptical that they would actually fight.  In the South, their conversion to soldiers had whites fearing a race war would erupt.  If the war had not been so harsh on the Virginian economy and agriculture, Ayers would have readers ask themselves, could the war have been brought to an amicable conclusion?  In the Presence of Mine Enemies poses endless questions such as these, all supporting Ayers’ underlying theme about the unpredictability of events.

The issue of religion was also important to the soldiers and even more so to their families on the home front, if the letters Ayers used are any indication.    Soldiers were constantly reassuring their mothers, sisters and wives that they had found God and that their military camps were full of good, God-fearing men.  In uncertain times, Ayers argued, being good Christians could go a long way toward comforting the people back home.  It also gave soldiers solace, and many of the Augusta men fought under “Stonewall” Jackson, a deeply religious man who may have infected his troops with his devoutness.  In many cases “the only consolation was the most important consolation of all:” the declaration of faith that so many soldiers seemed to give once they reached the front.[8] At several points in the book descriptions of prayer meetings were given and as previously noted, care was given to tell the people back home about the level of faith in the camps.  Mothers especially could rest easy knowing that their children were in good, wholesome company.  Some men had more trouble than others in finding faith.  Henry Dedick noted that he had been trying, “but I tell you it is a hard place here in camp.”[9]

In the Presence of Mine Enemies showed that the Civil War experienced shifts in the way Americans viewed each other and how they thought about nationhood. The Virginia newspapers changed from pro-Union to fiercely pro-Confederate as the war began and continued.  Franklin’s Valley Spirit remained a Democratic pro-slavery paper throughout the first years of the war and reflected the division among northerners.  Though ostensibly Unionist, the paper supported Copperhead Democrats whenever it could and condemned nearly every step the Lincoln administration took in prosecuting the war.  The hatred between the North and South only grew as the battles became bloodier and the devastation covered Virginia.  This increase in hatred also led to a dramatic transformation in the perception of slavery.

In the beginning, most northerners were not willing to fight to free the slaves, but many Southerners felt that the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party would try to destroy the institution.  They defended their “peculiar institution” by claiming it was the most beneficial institution for black people and that the role was made for them by Providence.  They had “no doubt, that the worst form of Slavery that can possibly exist may be found among the negroes of Pennsylvania.”[10] Franklin County’s Valley Spirit agreed, citing the example of a traveling band of free blacks they assumed were slaves who returned home to bondage willingly at night.  Over time the attitudes of northerners changed.  Despite support for pro-slavery Democrats in the elections of 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation converted many over to fighting to free the slaves.  Despite a lot of rhetoric claiming that the war effort would collapse if the war was to be fought to free slaves, soldiers’ letters seemed to indicate they agreed with fighting for a high ideal.  Certainly it was a divisive issue, but no longer did the North consider slavery to be the best situation for blacks, especially after Chambersburg in Pennsylvania experienced Confederate invaders hunting down runaway slaves.  Soldiers traveling through plantations and witnessing slavery firsthand turned against slavery as well.  Ayers wrote that “as Union soldiers fought to destroy an enemy which drew its power from slavery they grew to hate slavery itself.”[11] All of these details support Ayers’ argument that the Civil War did not follow a predestined course.  Individual perceptions of their neighbors, the enemy, slavery, politics and religion all affected how the war played out.  There was any number of points when the war could have followed a drastically different course.

Ayers brought home the uncertainty that Americans experienced during the terrible conflict, which is of tremendous value to the field of Civil War study.  Though there have been many instances of books detailing personal letters of soldiers, none have been as effective as In the Presence of Mine Enemies.  Instead of focusing on one single family, Ayers focused on the two border counties places them in the middle of the action and reflects the wide variety of views on the war.  Ayers wrote that the traditional view of Civil War was infused with “an understandable and useful desire to see American history as a path, albeit strewn with challenges, to the realization of our best selves.”[12] Another excellent work that dealt with the uncertainty of the conflict was April 1865 by Jay Winik.  An excellent writer in his own right, Jay Winik’s narrow focus on the tumultuous proceedings of April 1865 pair up well with In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Winik’s work was not based on personal letters, and follows a more traditional view of the Civil War, but by only giving the reader small pieces of information at a time, as Ayers did, he allowed the reader to understand that at any point things could have gone differently.  April 1865 covered the final month of the war, the assassination of Lincoln and the fear of guerrilla warfare.  His cast of characters was vast, including military leaders and political leaders who have a wide range of motives.  The Confederate soldiers who want to take the fighting into the woods, General Lee who wanted the fighting to end, and the Northerners fearing a second Civil War after Lincoln’s assassination all bring the uncertainty of the times to the forefront.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a useful book.  Based on personal letters and newspaper accounts Edward Ayers successfully created a new narrative for the Civil War, one that introduces uncertainty and rumor into a historical field that is traditionally based on an idea of historical progress.  Where many historians argue (unintentionally in many cases) that the war could not have ended any other way, that the war was a march toward a brighter future for America, the reality was much different.  In his work Ayers considered the unpredictability of the Civil War as his main point, which he supported by analyzing the personal experiences of the war and the changing views and ideas of those who lived through the conflict.  The work is well researched and by including the traditional narrative style in italics at various points he helped the reader keep everything in context.  By doing so he showed that the war wasn’t just a set of battles that could have turned out differently, but that the personal viewpoints and the experiences of individuals played a large role in creating the nature of the war.  Well written and well researched, there is little to contradict or criticize.  In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a valuable contribution to a field that too


[1] Edward Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America 1859-1863 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), 92.

[2] Ayers, 232.

[3] Ibid., 187.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] Ayer, 276.

[6] Ibid., 334.

[7] Ayers, 414.

[8] Ibid., 352.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Ayers, xx.

Book Review: Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver

Terror, violence and mistrust characterize Peter Silver’s thrilling account of Indian warfare in America’s middle colonies during the 18th century.  In Our Savage Neighbors Silver attempts to present the relations between ethnicities in a new light, rejecting the notion that racism drove early anti-Indian sentiment and instead arguing that fear was a prime motivator.  According to Silver, the Indian wars that dominated the 18th century came to influence not only relations between whites and Indians, but relations between the various European ethnicities in Pennsylvania and the other middle colonies.  He breaks down his main theory into three recognizable narratives.  First, he casts the Indian wars as a form of terrorism while outlining the creation of the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” an anti-Indian side of popular culture.  Second, he details how propaganda wars broke out between whites thanks to the budding American fascination with pamphleteering.  Finally, he expertly presents the creation of race-consciousness and modern racism in colonial and early United States history to present a fascinating story that makes us look at early American society in a new way.

Silver claims his book focuses on the middle colonies, and sometimes this is even the case.  But most of the time his effort is spent bringing to the reader the concerns and experiences of the Pennsylvanians. Other places are mentioned only in passing.  It is in the “back country” of Pennsylvania that Irish and German settlers were having trouble with the Indians at the beginning of his narrative.  The first portion of his book is devoted to the experiences of these people, both their encounters with the Indians and their outsider status in relation to other whites in the colony.  In the second half of the book the larger cities like Philadelphia shift to the forefront.  The back country settlers and the city folk had very different experiences with the Indians which helped drive their own conflict.   Pinning a label on Silver’s history proves a difficult challenge.  Within the covers of his work Silver deals with a bit of political history, military history, and a kind of social history.  However, this is not an elitist history.  Though political leaders play a role, the phenomenon of frontier terror and ethnic relations is very much driven by a minority of people pulling the masses into line behind them.  Often the catalysts for events are average people and we learn about their fears, their thoughts and their actions more than anyone else.  In this sense Silver’s work is a social history.  Despite this, extended segments are devoted to people like Benjamin Franklin, the political leaders of Pennsylvania and especially the budding media in Philadelphia.  What concerns Silver are the social reasons whites came to fear the Indians and how the Germans, Irish, and “native” colonial Americans came to consider themselves of one white race.

While much time is devoted to the psychological condition of whites, the Indians are denigrated to boogeyman status in Silver’s work.  Unlike Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, Peter Silver does not tackle presenting the Indian side of events.  His focus is mostly on white identity in reaction to Indian provocations.  Because of this Our Savage Neighbors cannot be considered a complete treatment on ethnic relations, but it goes a long way toward bettering our understanding of such relations nonetheless.  Much of Silver’s research appears to rely on first-hand accounts of people who experienced Indian attack.  Since very few records would exist on the Indian side of things, Silver should be given a pass for omitting an in-depth analysis of Indian reactions.  When evidence is available, like records of several brutal massacres of Indian families, Silver makes use of them.

Usually these first-hand accounts paint a terrifying image of frontier war.  Silver presents the Indian wars of the 18th century in a new light.  Fear is the driving force behind Indian and white conflict, not simple racism as often thought.    In his introduction Silver notes that “racial thinking had no coherent existence, let alone an independent ability to determine people’s beliefs and actions, before the scientific racialism of the nineteenth century.”[1] In fact it was the Indians first who developed a concept of “redness” to unite their tribes, an idea that probably transferred to white consciousness in later years.  Racism as we would recognize it today didn’t appear until after the American Revolution, when revivalist movements among the Indians would try to force the white people out of their recently acquired lands.

Then what made the Indian Wars such brutal affairs?  Silver argues that it was fear that influenced actions among the whites.  His neglect of the Indian side of events prevents us from safely guessing what the Indian motivations were, but Silver does note that whites would attempt to turn the tables by employing fear tactics of their own.

Using emotional first- and second-hand accounts Silver makes the fear palpable.  During the wars Indians intentionally employed tactics to terrorize white settlements into submission.  They would often sneak into homes at night and murder isolated families or ambushing farmers or villagers when they were most vulnerable.  After the attacks the Indians would mutilate the bodies and pose them so that their discovery would have the maximum shock value.  They would scalp their victims and dismember the bodies, even putting bodies in trees in awkward positions.  Naturally this would enrage and frighten whoever discovered the bodies.  Instead of reacting with courage and out of a spirit of revenge, settlers grew fearful of the dark woods.  Their isolated and scattered location made them hard to protect, and they were at the mercy of seemingly random Indian raids.  In the 1740s these raids grew constant, overwhelming the frontier settlements and often paralyzing the communities.  In several cases Silver describes how those who murdered Indians were often prosecuted and convicted by their neighbors out of fear of Indian retribution.  Early on there were very few retaliatory raids conducted by whites, and when they were they were ill-conceived, cowardly and inefficient.

The level of fear was ratcheted up by the development of what Silver calls the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” a hatred of Indians stemming from frustration and fear.  The dismembered and mutilated bodies were especially shocking to whites, and the bodies were often put on display as testament to the brutality of the enemy.  Silver argues that this activity became a powerful symbol of a “Bleeding America” that was clearly a victim.[2] There was little heroic defiance in the face of Indian raids, at least in the beginning.  This was also a way to bring the terror to the cities that weren’t attacked.  Where the frontier families suffered and lived in terror every night of a surprise attack, the people in the cities had little reason to fear or expect Indian attacks.  Certainly the raids posed a problem but it wasn’t a personal experience to those in the cities.  The bodies brought some of the message to them when letters and cries for help went unheeded.  It would have been interesting for Silver to investigate why the Indians attacked where they did.  Were the raids random?  Were they retaliatory?  Instead, we jump right in at the beginning of the mid-century wars.

Soldiers cracked under the tension, isolated in their woodland forts, often surrounding by Indian communities for long periods of time.  Even friendly Indians could pose a threat.  Like today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing the difference between “Good Indians” and “Bad Indians” wasn’t always easy.  This put the soldiers under considerable stress and they eventually lashed out against the Indians in several ways.  When violence wasn’t permitted, the soldiers would loudly harass Indians who came into camp or stayed nearby.  During treaty negotiations Indians were driven out by hostile soldiers in defiance of the intent of their officers.[3] This hostility was just symbolic of the greater tensions between the races.  The conflict escalated over time and the rhetoric and violence grew more intense.  Whites turned the tables on their attackers and used terror tactics against Indians.[4] At Gnadenhutten whites mercilessly slaughtered Moravian Indians in retaliation for Indian assaults.  Discerning between the different bands of Indians appears to have been quite a problem for angry whites during this time.

Indians weren’t the only enemy to be confronted.  The second stage of Silver’s argument deals with divisions between the whites in Pennsylvania and the propaganda war that pitted them against each other with the Indian wars as a backdrop. Instead of being a mass movement, anti-Indian sentiment was driven largely by a small portion of the population, a combination of early pamphleteers and Indian-haters.  Increasingly a small part of the people pulled the masses into a more intense anti-Indian attitude.

The white people of Pennsylvania were far from united during this time.  In fact, murders between whites increased during Indian conflict.  The murderers would scalp their victims and claim they were Indian in order to collect rewards offered by Pennsylvania’s governor.[5] Others turned on ethnic groups and accused them of siding with the Indians.  The Quakers especially came under fire for their close and friendly relations with the Indians, especially those Moravians at Gnadenhutten.  Catholics also came under fire, and churches all over Pennsylvania were burned by people who used the climate of fear for political ends.[6] Some stood up to defend the Quakers only to have their own reputations sullied.  Benjamin Franklin rejected the Anti-Indian Sublime in his Narratives of the Late Massacres, turning traditional stories of massacres upside down by casting the whites as the villains.[7]

Indian conflict also opened a new theater of war between the people and the Pennsylvania Assembly.  Indian war was a much more exciting and useful political tool than debates over the use of land which had dominated politics before the wars.  In this way opponents of the Assembly used anti-Indian rhetoric to weaken their opponents and gain the political upper hand.  Naturally the German allies of the Quakers would come under fire as well.  Being “outsiders” in society made them prime targets until somebody realized they constituted a large voting bloc that could be wielded as a weapon.  Until that time, some argued that “the best solution was to cut out all German participation from the public sphere.”[8] Articulated by one of the early pamphleteers, Reverend William Smith, this movement would further isolate the ethnic Germans, even going so far as to take away their right to vote.  This incident shows just how divided the ethnic communities were and how intense their battles were becoming.  Rhetoric like this eventually came back to bite anti-German press once the language barrier was broken down by German translations.  By that point it was decided that the Germans should be pre-empted to oppose the Quakers and their pro-Indian attitudes.  Clearly the political battles and the violence on the frontier involving a minority of citizens was used to draw hesitant colonials into supporting the vigilante raids, murders and political destruction of the Quaker community.  From then on the reactions of whites to Indian raids would be carefully watched to determine which side their loyalty lay.  Stereotypes abounded.  Indians were brutal monsters, Quakers were seen as opponents to European civilization, and the Irish and Germans felt ignored by the government.

Silver notes that “Europeans would fall out among themselves further, looking inward at a supposedly Indian-tainted elite for traces of guilt instead of outward at more obvious enemies.”[9] Early on in his book Silver states that contrary to conventional wisdom, having so many ethnic communities living close to each other in Pennsylvania didn’t make them more peaceful neighbors.  Instead they retreated inward into their communities and eyed outsiders with distrust.  The Irish and Germans on the frontier felt that the elites in Philadelphia were ignoring their suffering, and many in Philadelphia blamed the settlers, especially the Irish, for provoking the Indians by constantly encroaching on their territory.  Interestingly, when the conflict hit a fever pitch the settlers fled their small towns and sought shelter among higher population densities in the cities.  The process of distrust started all over again according to Silver, leading to more inter-white conflict.[10]

Silver’s argument holds water, but he inadvertently admits an exception later in the book.  Moravian Indians were driven into conditions similar to a reservation in central Philadelphia and were initially met with extraordinary hostility.  The longer they were there, however, the more peaceful their interactions became.  Fear and anger turned into curiosity and for a brief time peaceful coexistence within Philadelphia.  Silver tried to make a definitive statement that living in close quarters bred conflict but he never really builds a strong enough argument to stand up under scrutiny.  Indeed, before long their close proximity and having a common enemy would eventually drive the whites together into a greater awareness of their own whiteness.

The development of this concept of whiteness is the third pillar of Silver’s original premise that fear drove ethnic relations in the mid-18th century.  As previously mentioned, the Germans and Irish often felt neglected by their government.  There was a language barrier between the Germans and the other colonists which kept both groups isolated and distrustful of one another, which left the Germans virtually ignored as a voting bloc.  It wasn’t until the rhetorical battles against the Quakers and the Assembly and then the translation of English news into German that their voting potential was harnessed.  Opponents of the Assembly who felt it were too soft on the Indian issue made sure to exploit the Irish and German feelings of abandonment.  These two ethnic groups on the frontier were cast in the role of victims of brutal Indian assaults and they began to identify more with one another than they had before.  The Assembly was cast in the role of villain with its opponents rallying into a united front.  The back country began to demand more of a say in government, which Silver notes led to a birth of direct democracy.[11]

The early conflicts between whites faded into background noise as the Indian wars increased in intensity.  Once the United States won independence from Britain the British became the new focal point of American anger along the frontier, which allowed the Pennsylvania whites to put their differences behind them to a degree, though many accused their neighbors of secretly being loyal to the British and Indians.  Silver dismisses the idea that living in close proximity to one another doesn’t necessarily breed familiarity, and he makes a strong argument for this throughout his book.  It wasn’t until years of fighting a common enemy had made them see a value in uniting together that they began to think of themselves consciously as whites opposed to the red race.[12] In a way the whites adopted the Indian belief that the Creator had created the races separately and intended them to live separately.  This was a shift in their thinking to view the Indians as not only culturally different but racially different as well.  Both Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia and Philadelphia’s American Magazine articulated theories about from where the Indians descended.  Jefferson took the curious route of explaining that early Europeans could have easily reached North America in the centuries before the traditional discovery of America.  American Magazine took a decidedly less scientific route, claiming that the Indians descended from “the race of cursed Cain.”[13] The whites began to think about how one could move between these diametrically opposed races.  Some said that the Indians were only different because of what they environment had made them.  Poverty especially had a way of darkening the skin, they said.  Others argued that your race was determined by choices you made.  Those that rejected the “white” way of living could become Indians before long, but an Indian would have a harder time becoming a white.  The barriers between the races that would become so prevalent in the 19th century were being constructed in the post-Seven Years War era.

The racial tone also took on a decidedly more hostile sound.  Those pamphleteers in the cities didn’t have to co-exist with Indians like the frontier towns did.  These writers led the way in anti-Indian rhetoric and made sure to cast the Indians in as bad a light as possible.  They simply felt no need to restrain their actions and by writing anti-Indian pieces they made sure public feeling turned against the Indians to a greater degree than ever before.  Silver goes on to prove his point by using the words of those who lived it.  Benjamin Franklin noted that the only crime the Indian race committed was being red in the eyes of the back country, and Franklin clearly opposed such racial judgment.[14] By the end of the century race had become the chief difference between racially conscious whites and Indians, and whites had abandoned the idea of a Middle Ground advanced by historian Richard White.

In all, Silver presents a solid argument in Our Savage Neighbors.  His greatest flaw was in how he presented the Indian side of events.  Presenting a one-sided account inadvertently casts the Indians as villains.  Silver does describe horrific massacres by the whites and through his writing condemns how back country fighters and pamphleteers hijacked the policy of the Pennsylvania people in order to hunt Indians, but the lack of Indian coverage leaves the reader wondering what their own motivations might have been.  A work like this might have done well to consult a book like Looking East from Indian Country by Daniel Richter.  His subtitle “How Indian War Transformed Early America” really indicates that he is narrowly focused on those people we traditionally consider Americans in early accounts: the white people.  Otherwise, his research and theories are convincing and his use of first- and second-hand accounts of massacres, terror and hatred make for compelling reading.  Secondary reading of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia really serve to prove his point.  Neither discusses ethnic relations in too great of detail, but Franklin appears very much as Silver describes him, a defender of the Quakers in the face of anti-Indian fervor.  Jefferson’s piece is a bit more interesting, if even briefer.  Jefferson dismissed the principal complaint of the Indian:  “That the lands of this country were taken from them by conquest, is not so general a truth as is supposed.”[15] He went on the describe how land was lawfully acquired by treaty, completely ignoring or misunderstanding the cultural element of what those treaties may have meant to the Indians.

One could easily see how fear drove those living on the frontier into an anti-Indian fervor thanks to Silver’s adept reading of primary sources.  Similarly we can see how fear could evolve into hate and from there into budding racism.  From a wave of Indian terror attacks, to divisions between the white communities and the birth of racism in America, Silver’s work is compelling to the last detail.


[1] Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors, New York, 2008, xxi.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Ibid., 131.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Ibid.,, 162.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 225-26.

[12] Ibid., 115.

[14] Silver, 203.

[15] Jefferson, 221.

 

 

Book Review: ‘Damned Women’ by Elizabeth Reis

In Damned Women, author Elizabeth Reis tackles the issue of women’s experiences in the 17th century witch trials in New England.  In a fairly short work, Reis discusses how Puritan women’s views of their souls affected their experiences in the tragic hysteria of the time.  According to Reis women in Salem, Massachusetts and the surrounding region were targeted more than men by accusers trying to convict witches.  This was largely because women had a particular view of themselves that defined their souls and very being as evil, and that sins were just an extension of this.  In contrast, men felt that their sins were what corrupted their souls and were therefore able to resist the temptations of Satan to a much great degree, at least in the eyes of the Magistrates trying to find witches in Satan’s service.  While making this argument Reis also includes astute observations about changes in how the devil was perceived by both clergy and lay congregations over time.  By doing so she successfully puts the Salem trials in their proper context as an important turning point in Christian theology.  She also includes explanations for why women so often confessed or were convicted for being witches.

Reis’s work is a compelling narrative of the struggles of average church-goers in Puritan New England.  The subject could easily get bogged down in the minutiae and her message could easily have been lost, but Reis maintains a steady focus throughout the book and presents a clear narrative that relies heavily on first-hand accounts by those who lived through the century of witch-hunting.  The book is organized in such a way as to allow readers to understand the context of the things she discusses.  The reader can stay focused easily and not lose track of the purpose of her work, a trait every good historian should develop.

Damned Women centers entirely on the late 17th century witch trials, with a brief journey into the early 18th century to show how views of witches and Satan had changed since the trials.  The scope of her work narrows further onto the role of women in the trials, using their own words and the words of their supporters and opponents to paint a picture of the religious fervor that unfairly attacked the souls of women.  Reis writes a spiritual history, attempting to explain the actions of women during the trials.  Some confessed, some denied, but virtually all felt their souls were inherently evil according to Reis.  She ignores economic reasons for the trial (the desire for land possessed by widows), and does not give any space to political history.  This is a very narrow work, aimed like a laser beam at the women of Salem and its immediate surroundings during the witch hysteria.

Reis walks a fine line, never outright condemning the witch trials, and she admirably tries to stay above the fray and bring to the reader an accurate history.  But her bias is clear from her choice of subject and sources.  While there have been many reasons advanced for the existence of the witch trials, Reis ignores all of them except for the spiritual.  To Reis, the witch trials were purely spiritual.  She restored the devil’s role to the trials, something that has been missing from works on the Salem trials according to comments Reis makes throughout her book.  Her choices of sources also indicate a bias in her work.  There are hardly comments from the magistrates conducting the trials.  The primary sources stem almost entirely from confessions and denials, with occasional comments from the Mathers and other clergy in Boston condemning the trials.  In the view of the author, the trials unfairly targeted women who were filled with self-loathing.  Through the words of those who suffered we can feel sympathy for their troubles.  Reis uses their own words to tell us how miserable the women felt about themselves and how easily they could be made to feel worthless and even evil.

 

The Inherent Evil of a Woman’s Soul

The primary focus of Damned Women is that women were targeted more than men because of their belief in the inherit evilness of their soul in contrast to the male focus on actual sinful activity.  In her introduction, Reis writes that Puritan women were damned and that “many women believed they were and. . . New England culture as a whole regarded women as more likely to be damned than men.” Religious preaching about the dangers of cooperating with a devil that could appear in the physical realm struck home with women who considering themselves “depraved” and “rebellious.”[1] It is a tragic thing that one half of society was filled with enough self-loathing to feel so sure of their own damnation, but Reis makes a strong case for this argument.

For women of the Puritan era it was not enough to renounce their sins or lead good lives.  They were inherently corrupt and wicked and essentially on the fast track to hell.  While both genders were capable of feeling this way, Reis argues that the feeling was much more prevalent among women, who at the time were becoming much more deeply involved in their religion.  She noted how a man named George Willows confessed that he saw himself as doomed because he had broken the Sabbath, yet a woman named Jane Winship “was convinced simply that her own passivity and inherent evil would sentence her to an eternity in hell.”[2]

Seen as the inferior gender, society simply felt that women were prime targets for the devil’s temptations.  But why did society feel that they were inferior?  What exactly made women such obvious targets for witch accusers?  Reis argues that women were seen as unfulfilled and insatiable, traits that the devil could play on when recruiting his army of witches and minions.

Religious society believed that the body was the guardian of the soul.  The stronger the body, the safer the soul, so it went.  Men were the physically stronger of the two sexes, and so Reis argues that men were seen as less easily corrupted by Satan.  Women were more prone to the temptations of the devil because their bodies were too weak to resist.  “The representation of the soul in terms of worldly notions of gender and the understanding of women in terms of the characteristics of the feminine soul, led by circular reasoning to the conclusion that women were more likely than men to submit to Satan.”[3] The belief that women were perpetually “unfulfilled” naturally made them “primed for the devil’s intrusion.”[4] Reis makes a clear argument here, though she runs the danger of overgeneralizing the views of society.  It seems reasonable to agree that society viewed women as the weaker sex, but certainly not all women felt unfulfilled.  And since so many women felt their souls enslaved to Satan, it would follow that most women would also feel unfulfilled which simply can’t be proven.  Her argument here meanders into the realm of speculation but she can probably be forgiven since the argument plays a mere supporting role in her general point that society viewed women as more susceptible to Satan.  She quotes Reverend Samuel Willard as saying “It is the Souls destruction the Devil mainly aims at: it is the precious Soul that he hunts for.”[5]

Reis argues that both men and women had what is referred to as “feminine souls.”  Men could differentiate between their soul and their actions whereas women had a harder time doing so.  Men maintained their outward masculinity while only submitting to Jesus as a spiritual spouse internally.  Though she admits there are exceptions Reis makes the case that women felt mankind’s original sin on a very personal level.  In their confessions, they would often deny the charge of witchcraft but admit to being corrupt beings.  In some cases this was enough for the Magistrates to justify execution.  But if some women denied being witches, what exactly did they confess to?

Whereas men could defiantly declare “You my judge your pleasure, my soul is clear” and live, women were often “damned regardless of her response.”[6] Reis makes the point that that Magistrates, already inclined towards viewing women as witches more so than men, simply took whatever a woman said to be a sign of witchcraft.  A flat out refusal would be seen as a deceitful sign of a pact with the devil, and admitting to living a less than saintly life would also be viewed as proof.  It was an unfortunate place for a women to be in, and Reis has a talent for making us feel the pain they must have felt, often using their own words to carry the story.

 

The Conflict Between Boston Clergy and the Salem Justices

Another point Reis makes is that the religious establishment was divided over the issue of witchcraft, especially in the 1690s.  While the justices in Salem vigorously tried women and a few men for witchcraft, the clergy consisting of men like Increase and Cotton Mather increasingly had doubts about the good the court was doing.  The Mathers felt innocent people were being convicted and killed, and made their opinions known.  The opinion of the clergy was essentially that it would be better to let one witch free than to kill innocents.  They also condemned the court for using spectral evidence to obtain convictions.

According to Reis, the clergy argued that Satan could possess completely innocent people without their permission.  No pact with the devil was necessary.  The justices of Salem naturally disagreed and had been using the fact that some people felt possessed by the devil to convict.  To the justices, to feel the presence of Satan was to have signed his book, a symbolic bonding of Satan and his slaves.   For example, when an accuser said they had been confronted by a shadow in the shape of an accused witch, the justices saw it as proof the accused had made a pact with the devil.  The clergy denied the legitimacy of this kind of evidence and eventually shut the Salem proceedings down.  Many of the people involved would later regret their participation in the trials, although Cotton Mather would reverse his previous opposition to become somewhat of an apologist for the trials.

 

Putting the Witch Trials in Context

Though not her main point, one of the more interesting aspects of Damned Women is how Reis places the witch trials and hysteria in the context of American religious experience.  Whatever the body of literature on the topic has already established, to a reader new to studying the witch trials, their place as the turning point in how the colonies viewed the devil is probably a revelation.  Comparing first-hand accounts of temptation and sin we can see how the devil transformed from a very real, very physical creature capable of enslaving people to his will to a more ethereal idea.  He became a tempter who could lead people to sin, but no longer a shape carrying around a book to be signed with the blood of his victims.  Fear of witches declined and the devil became the more abstract idea many Christians hold to this day.  Almost immediately after the witch trials of the 1690s, people rejected the idea that Satan stalked their woods and held witch meetings and built an army.  During the witch hysteria it was even believed that Satan was stockpiling weapons to assault Salem.  After the turn of the 17th and the dawn of the 18th century Satan’s weapon became simple temptation and internal doubt. Reis’s chapter “Satan Dispossessed” is probably the most interesting part of the book.

It also depicts how the clergy altered their tactics in preaching to their congregations.  Reis argues that they were largely to blame for women viewing themselves in such poor light and driving society to such extremes as the witch trials.  They instilled such fear in the people that they began to see the devil around every corner and behind every shadow.  They bought into the hype that the devil was assaulting their community in a very real sense.  After the trials and after the clergy in Boston shut down the Magistrates the clergy had to find another way of keeping their flock in line with God’s will.  And so they reigned in their portrayal of Satan as a physical enemy and adopted the idea of Satan as tempter.  He became the ruler of hell and not someone actively stalking for victims.  Cotton Mather called hell a prison where “miserable Prisoners have an uneasy Confinement upon them.”[7]

Puritan life also became less harsh.  No longer were many pre-destined for eternal damnation, but with the focus returning back to actual sins instead of the sinful nature of the soul it was within the power of the individual to clean up their lifestyle and return to God’s favor.  As Reis put it, “the laity seemed more optimistic and assured about their salvation than had seventeenth-century sinners.”[8]

In an interesting epilogue Reis details how by the mid-1700s the fear of Satan and witches had declined so much that they were used in comical political cartoons and used to demean enemies like Great Britain during the colonial crises.  The role of the witch trials in the transformation of the image of the devil is something that has seldom been touched upon in my admittedly limited readings on the 1690s, but Reis again uses first-hand accounts to show just how attitudes toward the devil did indeed change.  Her point in detailing this transformation was to show how gender roles merged a bit.  Men came to embrace the “feminine soul” and women viewed themselves as slightly less inherently evil.  The gap between sexes with regards to witchcraft and sin narrowed considerably by the mid-18th century.

 

The Weaknesses of Damned Women

Damned Women is an intriguing work, but it has one major flaw.  After making compelling arguments for why women were targeted more than men in witch trials—all of which based on religious and social reasons—she omits the most obvious explanation.  That women were targeted because they would inherit valuable land from their husbands upon their death is an argument often given when talking about the witch trials.  Yet Reis completely ignores it.  The focus of her work was the spiritual realm, certainly, but it hurts her thesis that she doesn’t give any space to a more direct cause of the trials.  Presenting half the evidence and calling it an explanation isn’t enough.   It creates a biased and narrow view of the events she was trying to make us understand.

Her argument is also based on a generalization of women at the time of the trials.  Her arguments are certainly well supported by testimonials and primary sources relating to the trials.  But it would be interesting to see how the proceedings were viewed by women outside of the immediate religious community.  The best we can infer is that the outside world didn’t approve of the trials, and this we can gather from the conflict between the clergy in Boston consisting of men like Increase and Cotton Mather, and those Magistrates and Salemites who vigorously convicted innocent people of the crime of witchcraft.  A chapter devoted to reaction from the outside would have helped make Damned Women a more completely analysis of events.

The chief danger a work like Reis’s risks is her reliance on the words of the women who were wrapped up in the witch-hunts.  She takes them at their word, their confessions reflecting their true feelings.  Reis briefly acknowledges the possibility that the confessions were simply what women thought the justices wanted to hear.  But then she continues to build her case on these same words.  If we cannot be sure women felt exactly the way they said they did, there’s no telling if Reis’ argument  is actually based on reality.  It’s always risky when an author tries to see the inner-most thoughts of a historical figure.  Yet her credibility hinges on her capability of explaining those inner-most thoughts.

Her reliance on such primary sources also colors her work.  There’s simply no telling what was twisted by supporters of the trial to prove their point, or if women actually believed the things they said.  But it is clear Reis did the best she could with the primary resources at hand.  The topic of religious fervor is always difficult to write about and overall she does an admirable job of explaining her views of why women were targeted for the witch trials more than men.

 

Conclusion

In short, Damned Women is an interesting read with good arguments.  Though there are inherent weaknesses in the primary sources, Reis does the best she can with her material and presents a compelling case for the role of the spiritual in the witch trials. How women’s views of themselves affected their experience during the trials, the conflict between clergy and justices, and the context of the trials are all things Reis soundly explained.  If the work is a little narrow in scope at the expense of other valid explanations of the trials nothing is stopping the reader from reading more traditional works on the topic.  I cannot recommend this book as a comprehensive study on the trials, but is valuable in helping the reader obtain a well-rounded view of the witch-hunts of the 17th century.


[1] Reis, 1.

[2] Reis, 47.

[3] Reis, p. 94.

[4] Reis, p. 107.

[5] Reis p. 99.

[6] Reis, 105-106.

[7] Reis, 189.

[8] Reis, 191.

Buy this book from Amazon.