On the eve of the Civil War, one soldier embodied the legacy of George Washington and the hopes of leaders across a divided land. Both North and South knew Robert E. Lee as the son of Washington’s most famous eulogist and the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child. Lee was a brilliant soldier bound by marriage to Washington’s family but ultimately turned by war against Washington’s crowning achievement, the Union. Former White House speechwriter Jonathan Horn follows Lee through married life, military glory, and misfortune. The story that emerges is more complicated, more tragic, and more illuminating than the familiar tale. More complicated because the unresolved question of slavery—the driver of disunion—was among the personal legacies that Lee inherited from Washington. More tragic because the Civil War destroyed the people and places connecting Lee to Washington in agonizing and astonishing ways. More illuminating because the battle for Washington’s legacy shaped the nation that America is today. As Washington was the man who would not be king, Lee was the man who would not be Washington.
- Tuesday, April 28, 7 pm: Barbara Berenson, author of “Boston and the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution”
Boston’s black and white abolitionists forged a second American revolution dedicated to ending slavery and honoring the promise of liberty made in the Declaration of Independence. Before the war, Bostonians were bitterly divided between those who supported the Union and those opposed to its endorsement of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act brought the horrors of slavery close to home and led many to join the abolitionists. March to war with Boston’s brave soldiers, including the grandson of Patriot Paul Revere and the Fighting Irish. The all-black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment battled against both slavery and discrimination, while Boston’s women fought tirelessly against slavery and for their own right to be full citizens of the Union.
- Wednesday, February 18: Jamie Malanowski, author of “Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War”
October 1864. The confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle had sunk two federal warships and damaged seven others, taking control of the Roanoke River and threatening the Union blockade. Twenty-one-year-old navy lieutenant William Barker Cushing hatched a daring plan: to attack the fearsome warship with a few dozen men in two small wooden boats. What followed, the close-range torpedoing of the Albemarle and Cushing’s harrowing two-day escape downriver from vengeful Rebel posses, is one of the most dramatic individual exploits in American military history.
Theodore Roosevelt said that Cushing “comes next to Farragut on the hero roll of American naval history,” but most have never heard of him today. Tossed out of the Naval Academy for “buffoonery,” Cushing proved himself a prodigy in behind-the-lines warfare. Given command of a small union ship, he performed daring, near-suicidal raids, “cutting out” confederate ships and thwarting blockade runners. With higher commands and larger ships, Cushing’s exploits grow bolder, culminating in the sinking of the Albemarle. Cushing served with bravery and heroism. But he was irascible and complicated—a loveable rogue, prideful and impulsive, who nonetheless possessed a genius for combat.
- Thursday, May 1: Lecture, 7 pm: Author Stephen Puleo discusses his book “The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War”
Early in the afternoon of May 22, 1856, ardent pro-slavery Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina strode into the United States Senate Chamber in Washington, D.C., and began beating renowned anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner with a gold-topped walking cane. Brooks struck again and again—more than thirty times across Sumner’s head, face, and shoulders—until his cane splintered into pieces and the helpless Massachusetts senator, having nearly wrenched his desk from its fixed base, lay unconscious and covered in blood. Brooks not only shattered his cane during the beating, but also destroyed any pretense of civility between North and South.
One of the most shocking and provocative events in American history, the caning convinced each side that the gulf between them was unbridgeable and that they could no longer discuss their vast differences of opinion regarding slavery on any reasonable level. While Sumner eventually recovered after a lengthy convalescence, compromise had suffered a mortal blow. Moderate voices were drowned out completely; extremist views accelerated, became intractable, and locked both sides on a tragic collision course.The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years: the meteoric rise of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln; the Dred Scott decision; the increasing militancy of abolitionists, notably John Brown’s actions; and the secession of the Southern states and the founding of the Confederacy. As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to war. Many factors conspired to cause the Civil War, but it was the caning that made conflict and disunion unavoidable five years later.