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The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

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The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often w The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often were punctuated with mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery. These fights didn't happen in a vacuum. Freeman's dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities--the feel, sense, and sound of it--as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem, and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.


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The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often w The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War In The Field of Blood, Joanne Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, Freeman shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions often were punctuated with mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery. These fights didn't happen in a vacuum. Freeman's dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities--the feel, sense, and sound of it--as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem, and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

30 review for The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    I watched every minute of the Kavanaugh hearings, appalled at the procedural bullying of the Republicans, the cries of anguish from the female protestors, and I said to myself: could the atmosphere in Congress ever have been worse than this? It was then that I remembered my history, how—sometime in the late 1850’s--an abolitionist U.S. senator was caned by a Southern member of the House, beaten within an inch of his life on the Senate floor itself! If you read Joanne B. Freeman’s excellent histor I watched every minute of the Kavanaugh hearings, appalled at the procedural bullying of the Republicans, the cries of anguish from the female protestors, and I said to myself: could the atmosphere in Congress ever have been worse than this? It was then that I remembered my history, how—sometime in the late 1850’s--an abolitionist U.S. senator was caned by a Southern member of the House, beaten within an inch of his life on the Senate floor itself! If you read Joanne B. Freeman’s excellent history The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, you will learn all about this May 22, 1856 attack by Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) upon Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA). You will learn about Sumner’s fiery speech against slavery, a speech including derogatory references to Senator Andrew Butler (D-SC), Brooks’ second cousin, and of Brook’s resolve to avenge the honor of his family, his state, and his culture’s “peculiar institution.” And you will also learn about Republican anger, the intensity of their “resistance,” their determination to no longer be intimidated into silence by the bully boys and duelists of the South: Northern congressmen were rising up and their chief weapons were the right of free speech and their willingness to fight for that right. Massachusetts Republican Chauncey Knapp's constituents said as much in June 1856 when they saw him off as he headed back to Washington. Just before Knapp boarded the train, a small assembly of people gave him a parting gift of use in Congress: a revolver inscribed with the words “Free Speech.” You see, the Caning of Sumner was not an isolated incident, but a culmination, and because it was a culmination, it also functioned as a powerful symbol. Southern congressmen, ever quick to defend their honor, had been threatening their Northern counterparts with duels, street fights, and public beatings for a quarter of a century, and the Northerners—unaccustomed to the barbarous aspects of chivalry—endeavored not to offend their prickly neighbors from the South. And of course the thing that offended these gentlemen most was any criticism of slavery. When abolitionist agitation intensified in the early ‘30’s, the violence began to increase, and starting in 1836 a series of “gag rules” were passed to prohibit anti-slavery petitions from being read or discussed on the House floor. John Quincey Adams and Joshua Giddings of Ohio were the only congressmen who routinely defied this rule, probably because Adams was too old to attack physically and Giddings, the “anti-slavery toreador” was just too big and formidable to mess with. Still, the threats, the challenges and the fist fights continued. And the antebellum Whigs and Republicans, blocked at every turn by Southern bullying and procedural boondoggles, finally--like the progressive women of today--got mad as hell and refused to take it anymore. Joanne Freeman does an excellent job of painting, in vivid detail, the chaotic atmosphere of the House of Representatives: the widespread tobacco spitting, the drunkenness (particularly notable during evening sessions), the bowie knives and pistols routinely carried onto the senate floor. She also does a good job of sorting out—from conflicting accounts, many of which euphemize the violence—what precisely happened in the halls of Congress, the D.C. streets and dueling fields beyond. Her most valuable source for such information is the diary of William Brown French, who served as a congressman, Clerk of the House, and Commissioner of Public Buildings, and observed congressional doings closely from the 30’s to the 60’s. One of the best parts of the book—besides the chapter on the Sumner Caning—concentrates on the only congressional duel in which a House member was actually killed, the Cilley-Graves Duel of 1838. Her account of how these two young men, neither of whom wished to fight or knew how to shoot, each constrained by his code and poorly counseled by his friends, stumbled inevitably toward destruction is at once pathetic and tragic. It was also a harbinger of things to come. Almost as good, though, are some of the comic melees. The Benton-Foote Scuffle (1850) is amusing, but my favorite is the donnybrook precipitated by Galusha Grow (R-PA) and Laurence Keitt (D-SC) in 1858, during one of those notoriously alcoholic evening sessions, an event which transpired directly in front of the Speaker’s platform, “featuring roughly thirty sweaty, disheveled, mostly middle-aged congressmen in a no-holds barred brawl, North against South. I will begin my account, in Homeric fashion, in medias res: . . . John “Bowie Knife” Potter (R-WI) and the fighting Washburn brothers—Cadwallader (R-WI), Israel (R-ME), and Elihu (R-IL) stood out in the rumble, with barrel chested Potter jogging straight into the scrum, thowing punches as he tried to reach Grow. At one point, he slugged Elliot Barksdale (D-MS), who mistakenly reeled around and socked Elihu Washburne in return . . . . Potter responded by grabbing Barksdale by the hair to punch him in the face, but to his utter asthonishment, Barkdsdale’s hair came off: he wore a toupee. Meanwhile, John Covode (R-PA) had raised a spitton above his head and was looking for a target . . . . Within a few minutes, people had settled back in their seats—thanks, in part, to the hilarity of Barksdale’s flipped wig—and the House went back to arguing until its adjounment at 6:30 a.m.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is an entertaining, well researched, and well-written examination of physical violence in U.S. Congress in the decades leading to the Civil War. Most of it stems from diarist B.B. French, who managed to be on hand or on the fringes for every major political and historical event of his lifetime. A New Hampshire native, French was highly active in D.C. politics, knew politicians and presidents, and often had a r Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is an entertaining, well researched, and well-written examination of physical violence in U.S. Congress in the decades leading to the Civil War. Most of it stems from diarist B.B. French, who managed to be on hand or on the fringes for every major political and historical event of his lifetime. A New Hampshire native, French was highly active in D.C. politics, knew politicians and presidents, and often had a ring-side seat to the debates and violence on the floors of Congress. Not merely a cataloging of duels, brawls, canings, and insults, Field of Blood examines the reasons behind the violence- both personal and cultural. Violence and duels were seen as honorable, manly codes of conduct in the South and barbaric and uncivilized in the North. Southern politicians would often use bullying and threats of violence to hold power in Congress. Politicians were seen as closely representing the constituents, their state, and their region and "fighting for the people's rights" was often taken very literally. Insult an individual and you insulted the region. Insult the region and you insulted the individual. Honor was often called into question and (usually) representatives settled things outside the halls of Congress. It was an interesting dynamic that the patriot French watched: people believed Congress to be solemn, serious, full of great men giving great speeches- if they saw what French saw, the general public might think very differently. Freeman presents readers with a little looked at slice of American history leading up to the Civil War, bringing 19th century political figures to life with a humorous and down-to-earth style of writing that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. Americans who believe today's political standoffs and partisanship are unprecedented may appreciate reading the literal stand-offs of the past, when people sent guns to their Congressmen so they could fight for their constituents' rights and pistols, rifles, and bowie knives were regularly carried "just in case." For anyone who imagines 19th century Congressmen as staid and boring old men, Freedman will introduce you to a whole new side of American politics. A great read!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sasha

    First I would like to state that I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the author for giving me this opportunity and honor in being able to read this book. When I received this book I began reading it at once. I really enjoy the authors writing style, the author pulls you into the book from the very beginning and makes it so you don't want to put the book down. It kept me on the edge of my seat reading from cover to cover. Thi First I would like to state that I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the author for giving me this opportunity and honor in being able to read this book. When I received this book I began reading it at once. I really enjoy the authors writing style, the author pulls you into the book from the very beginning and makes it so you don't want to put the book down. It kept me on the edge of my seat reading from cover to cover. This book was a very interesting read. I really enjoyed it! Everything was shown from very different perspectives. I do believe i will never look at chewing tobacco quite the same again. . This book is incredible. I loved it cannot wait to read more from this author. A must read!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michael Webb

    For a record of the activities of Congress in the period before and leading up to the Civil War, this succeeds in being a breezy and engaging read without sacrificing scholarship along the way. Freeman's contention is that the road to the Civil War was paved with sectional strife that was manifested most clearly in Congressional interactions, primarily in the House. While most of the surviving documentation excises it, Freeman contends, and has convincing evidence, that the House was a place of For a record of the activities of Congress in the period before and leading up to the Civil War, this succeeds in being a breezy and engaging read without sacrificing scholarship along the way. Freeman's contention is that the road to the Civil War was paved with sectional strife that was manifested most clearly in Congressional interactions, primarily in the House. While most of the surviving documentation excises it, Freeman contends, and has convincing evidence, that the House was a place of frequent physical conflict and threats. In essence, this started out as party-based conflict between the Democrats (who at that point were a country-wide party that had internal splits between the southern and northern membership) and the opposition parties (which started as Whigs and eventually became the Lincoln-Republicans). Over time, the split moved from being regional to sectional, and as attitudes hardened the violence increased to the point where Congressional members routinely wore sidearms in the Capitol building out of fear of becoming embroiled in an armed dispute that they weren't prepared for. Freeman contends that some of these difficulties were created by the free press innovation of the day: the telegraph, that made it much more difficult for representatives to deliver significantly different messages to the voters in different sections of the country. The other side of the increasing conflict, to her, was that over time, as violence increased, the voters back home increasingly supported and put into office people who were actually prone to these sorts of actions. When combatants were being awarded with honorary canes and knives from their constituents, it is easy to see how strife and violence could continue to increase. Freeman argues that the actual final straw to the CW conflict itself was that Southern members had been threatening disunion for so long in response to Abolitionist messages that they were no longer being taken seriously. Overall, I thought this was a solid work that has echoes of the present era. The theme of sectional differences and increasingly rigid divides certainly has echoes in the present times. Freeman's scholarship seems solid; she does rely on one narrator as a big primary source (B.B. French) but she states in the notes that for any actual conflicts covered that she used a triangulation method of major sources and requiring corroboration from at least 2 of the 3; and this stands as adequate given the nature of the sources and the difficulty in researching a topic of this type. This is recommended for anyone interested in political history who has a decent base understanding of the Civil War era.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Morrissey

    Joanne Freeman delivers a sweeping, vivid, and colorful history of the bruised and bloody days of the antebellum Congress, stretching from the Jackson years through the firing on Fort Sumter. Relayed through the diary entries and musings, sometimes poetic, of B.B. French, this narrative tells of the brutish and nasty personal politics that infected the Capitol before war broke out at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. While many Americans are familiar with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Joanne Freeman delivers a sweeping, vivid, and colorful history of the bruised and bloody days of the antebellum Congress, stretching from the Jackson years through the firing on Fort Sumter. Relayed through the diary entries and musings, sometimes poetic, of B.B. French, this narrative tells of the brutish and nasty personal politics that infected the Capitol before war broke out at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. While many Americans are familiar with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks, many (as I was) are likely ignorant of the many prior clashes that pitted Congressman against Congressman, often divided along sectional lines. Freeman paints a picture of duel-happy Southerners berating and beating Northern anti-slavery-mongers, including yelling down Representative John Quincy Adams and sometimes wielding bowie-knives and pistols against the more impassioned defenders of Black freedom. The duel between Cilley and Graves, both members of the House, is told in exquisite detail, establishing the theme of Congressional violence and its place in the increasingly-polarized political atmosphere of antebellum America. As the reader travels along the tobacco-stained floors of the Capitol with French, we are also privy to the New Hampshire native's changing politics, as he evolves from a died-in-the-wool Jacksonian Democrat to a staunch abolitionist and Republican. As the Republican Party coalesces and calcifies sectional feelings, French is there to report on the growing hostility in Congress, and how formerly doughfaced Northerners are less willing to submit to bullying and violence at the hands of certain Southerners. Freeman does a great service in this history: Congress should not be remembered as the stoic forum of orators such as Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, but perhaps more for its reflection of the rough-and-tumble world of 19th Century America. Congress, as the author reminds us, is a reflection of its constituents. Violence and polarization at the Congressional level are blurry but real reflections of how voters feel at home. There is no good "answer" in this book to how to salve a divided Congress. But it is worth reading, if only to remember that the nation has been divided, good men bloodied, good causes bullied for decades, and yet the Republic still endures. That is what French strove for, and what we should all strive for as well.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Casey Wheeler

    I received a free Kindle copy of The Field of Blood by Joanne B. Freeman courtesy of Net Galley  and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. I requested this book as I am an avid reader of american history and the description sounded very interesting. This is the first book by Joann I received a free Kindle copy of The Field of Blood by Joanne B. Freeman courtesy of Net Galley  and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. I requested this book as I am an avid reader of american history and the description sounded very interesting. This is the first book by Joanne B. Freeman that I have read. Overall, this is a very good book. It is based on the diaries and notes of Benjamin French who served in the Clerk's office of the House of Representatives in various positions and then in other positions in the Washington, D.C. area from approximately 1840 - 1868. The Congressional Globe (the forerunner to the Congressional Record) was very bland and neutral when it came to the many altercations that occured in Congress during this time. French's diaries and notes gives a much clearer picture of the evnets , but with his slant on the events. It was a time of fist fights, canings, duels and lots of alcohol. I found the author's writing style engaging which made this a fairly fast read. Congress has come a long way in that many of today's statements would have led to either a fight or a duel during the time period covered in the book. (some may think that may not be progress). As a warning the book paints southern congressman as the villians that created this atmosphere. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about the seamier side of politics.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Thorough and quite informative on the duress and violence in Congress leading up to the Civil War. This book goes much more in depth about the divisiveness in the country. Several of these incidents will be eye-opening, even for the most robust historians. This is a must read for anyone with an interest in US history or politics. Furthermore, the timeliness for this book and our current political climate could not be I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Thorough and quite informative on the duress and violence in Congress leading up to the Civil War. This book goes much more in depth about the divisiveness in the country. Several of these incidents will be eye-opening, even for the most robust historians. This is a must read for anyone with an interest in US history or politics. Furthermore, the timeliness for this book and our current political climate could not be better.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Trashy Dreams

    More interesting than entertaining, if that makes sense. I think I was hoping for a ____ vs.____ kind of thing. Instead, it was a pretty straightforward, chronological take, based mostly on French's writings and observations of congress. Overall, still a great insight into a part of history that never really gets any kind of direct attention.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Casey

    A thorough examination of the threats and acts of violence by congressmen in the decades leading up to the civil war. I was impressed by the author's ability to find the historical records detailing these events, especially when so many lawmakers tried to hide, downplay, or rewrite them. Only four stars because the book was very repetitive when discussing the motives behind the violence.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Jackson

    As a public historian/tour guide at the US Capitol, I will cherish this incredibly well-researched book as new foundation stone in my effort to educate the public about the tumultuous history of Congress.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Scott Lord

    Fascinating prelude to the Civil War Reading the prelude to the war through the lens of the Congress was very insightful. The bullying and stifling of free speech in congress is not something taught in school. Congress was a reflection of the nation as a whole. Well written

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    This book was more a biography of B.B. French than it was about fighting in Congress. At times the narrative seemed redundant and a bit pedantic. A good starting place for someone just getting into the Civil War era, but not terribly interesting to someone well versed in Civil War lore.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jack Goodstein

    Filled with references to less than well known figures, so that it is difficult to keep them all straight.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

    Nonfiction of the violence in congress before the Civil War. Dry story but interesting facts.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jim Ogle

    Well researched and well told story. How directly violent our politics were leading up to the Civil War.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amber Machado

    Loved it! Everything is shown from different perspectives and i learned a lot. However, i do not believe i will ever look at chewing tobacco the same lol

  17. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Behlke

    Great read and fascinating insight on a forgotten man and a forgotten era in congressional politics.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stacey Shapiro

  19. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brian Guillaume

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tina

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alexa

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tom Ratzloff

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ian Coleman

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Shoup

  26. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elena

  28. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jim Higgins

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sara Shocks

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