Archive | June, 2021

Review of American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Daniel Rasmussen

29 Jun

Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 or the Haitian Revolution on Saint Domingue in the late 1790s are common responses when anyone is asked about slave revolts in North America. The largest slave uprising in the United States occurred, however, in 1811 in New Orleans, but has been largely forgotten by historians and the general public alike. Daniel Rasmussen corrects this oversight and explains why this gripping story has been ignored with American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.  

Rasmussen sets the scene by discussing the harsh life of slaves working at sugar cane cultivation along the German Coast, located along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. Disgruntled slaves fed up with their life of servitude in such miserable conditions held secret meetings to foment their plans. They held these discussions during the annual Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations which distracted white plantation owners and determined a time for launching their assault. Charles Deslondes, a slave driver of a large sugarcane plantation, took charge of the uprising and chose his workplace as its first target. On January 8, 1811, Deslondes and others descended upon the Woodlands Plantation of Manuel Landy, murdering his son, but the elder Landy escaped and spread the alarm. The slave army grew to nearly 500 members, many of whom wore captured militia uniforms. Armed with pikes and guns, they marched towards New Orleans, leaving burning plantations in their wake. Eventually, local militia and other plantation owners overwhelmed the makeshift force. Many of the defeated slaves were killed and their heads were placed on pikes along the river as a warning to others. Rasmussen describes the events in riveting detail, events of which I had little knowledge.

As for why this epic event has not gotten more press, Rasmussen explains a concerted effort was made afterwards to change the narrative from a revolution for freedom to one of a crime by an inferior race. Territorial Governor William C. C . Claiborne focused on the event turning multicultural Louisiana into an American State as former Frenchmen banded together to end this criminal act, establishing more civil and institutional power. Other historians glossed over the event, mentioning the event in only a sentence or two, having no desire to tell a story of men fighting for freedom. No tales could be told that impacted the accepted doctrine of white supremacy. Rasmussen says it was not until communist leaning college professors in the 1950s began exploring the topic that it was brought to light. Even today, however, the event is barely known. For instance, there is only one historic marker, located at a busy intersection at the site of a plantation where the uprising began.

American Uprising provides a fast-paced account that speeds the reader (or listener as I experienced this via audiobook) through the revolt, its background, and aftermath. Rasmussen places this event in the context of the Old Southwest and the growth of the nation, providing plenty of information and insight about the political, cultural, and racial situation of the times. His explanation for the event’s lack of notoriety is fascinating although I wonder if the description in the epilogue of a black Civil Rights leader’s militant struggle in North Carolina in the 1950s is too much a stretch in its connection to events in the early nineteenth century. Anyone interested, however, in a strong narrative on early Louisiana history, its agricultural practices, and the horrifying slave revolt that grew out of it would do well to get this book.


Review of A History of Mobile in 22 Objects, ed. by Margaret McCrummen Fowler

22 Jun

The History Museum of Mobile recently staged a special exhibition showcasing some of its most compelling artifacts, entitled “A History of Mobile in 22 Objects.” Envisioned as an evocative introduction to the city’s incredibly rich history, the project explored the broad sweep of its past, including its founding as a colonial capital in 1702 all the way up to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill of 2010, through a thoughtful assemblage of objects from the museum’s collection. I picked up a copy of the exhibition catalog under the assumption it would be an interesting read and a unique keepsake. I was not disappointed.

The catalog contains short essays on each object chosen for the exhibition by some of the leading scholars who have sorted through Mobile’s rich heritage, ranging from professors to preservationists and authors to archaeologists. Including an eclectic mix of items, such as a handcart for moving cotton bales and an identification badge used by a World War II shipyard employee, the catalog is a veritable tour through the museum’s diverse and large collection of artifacts. Each essay is accompanied by beautiful color images of not only the object, but the context in which it was used or produced. The whole volume is introduced and concluded with thoughtful pieces by museum director Margaret McCrummen Fowler which both set the stage and point the way for the future of the museum in terms of its collection development.

A History of Mobile in 22 Objects is an entertaining read for anyone with an interest in the storied past of one of the South’s oldest and most intriguing cities. It makes no pretense that the objects chosen to be featured can tell the whole story of such a multifaceted community as Mobile, but it would be hard to argue that the grouping does not address some of the most vital aspects of its heritage. In concept and execution it is the very essence of the curator’s craft.


Review of The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, by Edward Cunningham

8 Jun

Port Hudson in Louisiana has always been the forgotten aspect of the Union’s campaign to gain control of the Mississippi River. Countless books and articles have been written about the attempts to capture Vicksburg, whereas works on the fall of Port Hudson are few and far between. Edward Cunningham, whose dissertation on Shiloh was only recently published, wrote The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863 nearly fifty years ago. Although a few more books have been written on the subject, Cunningham’s brief, but solid narrative of the gallant defense by a small Confederate force aided by poor Union leadership still stands as perhaps the best work on the subject.

Confederate forces established the bastion at Port Hudson in 1862 to not only provide another stronghold on the Mississippi River, but also to help monitor and control the junction of the Red River and the Mississippi. Many supplies came to the rest of the Confederacy from that source. While Ulysses S. Grant attempted to capture Vicksburg, Nathaniel Banks sought to secure Port Hudson’s fall. In March of 1863, Union Admiral David Farragut first tested the bastion’s strength when he attempted to run several ships past the fort’s guns. Only two ships made it past and he lost the famous USS Mississippi in the process. Banks’s Army of the Gulf eventually besieged the fort and tried to capture it with two major assaults (May 27 and June 14) that failed miserably due to poor planning and coordination. A third assault was in the works when word of Vicksburg’s capitulation was received and Confederate leaders knew there was no further need to hold the fortress as Banks could simply starve them out. Confederate leadership had hoped Banks would attempt another assault that they could beat back again which might lead to the dissolution of the Union force which was already threatened with near mutiny.

Cunningham provides a straightforward examination of this campaign. His narrative, although at times a bit dry and heavy with unit and commander names explains the harsh nature of the siege and the bitter, personal, fighting it featured. Cunningham offers numerous details about the fiercely contested assaults on the Confederate position and the close-quarters fighting in which the opposing armies were frequently in close enough contact to throw grenades at each other by hand. He also relates information on the constant skirmishing which resulted in sudden death for any who let their guard down for an instant and how the stifling heat and miserable conditions impacted the course of the siege. He is more matter-of-fact than one might expect about how the stench of decomposing bodies of Federal soldiers left in the summer sun or how Confederates being reduced to eating rats and dogs in the last days of the siege when their food supplies ran out impacted the course of events, but the whole story of Port Hudson is here. Confederate leader Franklin Gardner gets high marks for utilizing his small force expertly and Banks is criticized severely for his poor handling of troops. A better selection of maps would have helped the narrative immensely. Readers get the sense that had the Southern force been kept supplied, that they would have held on forever against the likes of Banks. The defenders of Vicksburg have long been praised by historians for their defense, but this book clearly shows how those at Port Hudson remained steadfast to the end.  Anyone looking for a quick read on the campaign that truly opened the Mississippi River will be satisfied.