The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is a strong and enlightening new book by Joanne B. Freeman, professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. She is not necessarily known as a Civil War historian, but this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil War and its important political underpinnings. Between the 1830’s and the beginning of the Civil War, the United States Congress was a place under the threat of violence at every level. This violence emanated from geographic and social differences and was covered up from public view by a strange set of media-approved Congressional “code words,” and sometimes a flat denial of instances.
Author Freeman uses as her central source the notes and diaries of Benjamin Brown French, one of those fascinating “B List” Civil War players about whom more should be known. French was a congressional insider who began his career as a clerk in Washington in 1833. He was a Democrat from New Hampshire. His career was not always stable—he lost his clerking job once or twice, and by the end of his career he had gone from a “loyal Democrat eager to appease Southern allies” to a “devoted Republican with a deep-seated hatred of the Southern ‘slave-ocracy.’” As a Republican, he was one of the men who planned Lincoln’s 1861 Inauguration and continued to be a fly on the wall in both houses of Congress and the Executive Mansion.
The amazing detective work of the author in unraveling the code words, looking at Washington arrest records, and combing the Congressional Records of the time period make for riveting reading—the Code Duello was far from fading, and attacks upon political enemies on both the spit-and-tobacco-stained floors of Congress and the city streets were very, very common. So was drinking, especially during Congressional work days, which often went into the small hours of the next morning. The famous caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks was just one event in a series of craziness that went down in Congress almost daily. Joanne B. Freeman minces no words and spares no side of the aisle, but the overwhelming conclusion the reader must come to is that doing business with the South was a dangerous prospect for the North.
Readers who continue to believe in Lost Causes and southern righteousness will not care for this book, but there is ample primary source evidence to support the sad fact that many southern members of Congress were bullies and beat the northern politicians into submission whenever possible, either physically or psychologically. As the anti-slavery cause gained more followers, the political chivalry upped their game in a desperate attempt to hold on to their base. After reading this book, there is almost no way to see the Civil War as anything but inevitable. Flipped desks, threats of violence, canings, duels, and mob fistfights accompanied by the waving of pistols and Bowie knives were common Congressional occurrences. Freeman’s The Field of Blood gives the reader a front-row view of congressional anarchy. It sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Hannibal Hamlin, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but still fascinating men. Familiar names become fleshed-out images of the politicians they really were, creating a much clearer understanding of their contributions and their resulting rewards. Readers will gain a new, fresh understanding of how American democracy functioned prior to the war, and of how the bonds of Union were interpreted in ways that made that war possible. This story is both fascinating and compelling. It seems to echo current times in the same eerie way that much of Civil War history does, reminding us that times may change, but people rarely do.
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
Illustrations; Appendices A-B; Notes; Selected Bibliography; Index
480 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2018), $28.00, hardbound.