The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman

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.

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9 Responses to The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman

  1. John Sinclair says:

    Thank you for bringing this book to our attention and for your interesting review.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      Thank you. This book was suggested to me by another historian, and it more than fulfilled his promises of a good read. With Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times out as well, perhaps scholarship in the antebellum political arena is looking up.

  2. Jeffrey Ross says:

    Absolutely great Piece Meg especially as it applies 2 today. It shows that this is not the first time our politics have become completely uncivil and in the end, there is hope. Very well written review thank you for bringing the book to my attention as I normally Focus on campaign-style books. God bless keep up the great work!

    • Meg Groeling says:

      The book reads well–for those who focus on camoaigns, etc. this puts a bit of meat on those oft-gnawed bones.

  3. BillGFL says:

    Great article. Let’s hope that the current incivility in Congress and elsewhere does not end in open conflict.

  4. rarerootbeer says:

    This is a very nice article. I can sense your voice as an author. It was smooth reading and had enough information to catch my interest. Im sure I would enjoy reading through this book and discussing it over a cup of coffee with you.

  5. Mike Maxwell says:

    Most everyone is familiar with the caning Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner received at the hands of Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina in May 1856 (in an attempted display of “Might makes Right.”) Just one more stepping stone on the path to Civil War.
    Less well known is the caning that took place AFTER the war, when General Lovell Rousseau (Congressman from Kentucky) took offense at Iowa Congressman, Josiah Grinnel, besmirching his war record during heated debate on 11 June 1866. Three days later, General Rousseau followed Grinnel outside, and beat the Iowan until his cane broke. As punishment, the Congress voted to Censure General Rousseau, who promptly resigned… leaving a vacancy from Kentucky. The Special Election was held soon afterwards; Lovell Rousseau stood for election to the seat he had vacated… and won back his seat (nullifying the Censure decision.)
    Fact is stranger than fiction.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      The “standing for election” deal was a fairly common way of getting one’s seat back at that time. Most candidates claimed that they were merely “representing their folks” back home by engaging in violence. Interesting and disgusting at the same time. At least we are merely calling names at the present. lol?

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