Saturday, May 31, 2014

John Alexander Logan

The burning of Columbia, South Carolina; February 17, 1865
Toward the end of Life on the Mississippi, Twain sums up the transformational nature of the Civil War as succinctly as anyone could.  "In the South," he writes, "the war is what A. D. is elsewhere:  they date from it."  The war affected those in the South much more deeply and personally than it did those in the North--suddenly the Old South was a civilization gone with the wind, as a lesser writer than Twain put it.   But though the physical and economic devastation of war happened where the war was fought, which is to say in the South, a four-year bloodbath fought over the great moral and practical issues of treason and slavery could hardly fail to strike at the core of the whole country, and to transform that core.

Which brings us to John Alexander Logan, remembered today only in passing each May as the former Union general and U.S. senator from Illinois who originated Memorial Day (commemorated for generations on the day Logan picked, May 30, until Congress decided to cheapen most national holidays by moving them to the nearest Monday so they would merely extend our weekend rather than do what holidays are supposed to do--interrupt our routine.  But I digress).

Logan served as a Democrat representing the southern tip of Illinois, known as Egypt, in the Illinois House of Representatives, where in his first term he led the successful campaign to pass the racist Black Code of 1853.  It carried over certain Illinois laws already in effect, barring blacks in the state from voting, serving on juries or in the militia, suing whites, testifying in court on any matter, and assembling in public in groups of three or more.  Logan's innovation was to bar blacks residing outside Illinois from moving to the state:  the new law prohibited any free black entering Illinois from remaining for longer than ten days.  After that point, the person was subject to arrest, fine, and imprisonment, followed by physical removal from Illinois.  If it were possible to single out a worst feature of the law, it might be the provision that the labor of a person convicted under the law who was unable to pay the fine would be auctioned off by the sheriff to the bidder willing to pay the fine and court costs, and the winning bidder would be entitled to work the African American as a slave for a limited period of time until he had recouped his investment plus a little extra for his trouble.

In 1858 Logan made the jump to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he earned the nickname "Dirty Work Logan" for his defense of the Fugitive Slave Act:  "You call it the dirty work of the Democratic Party to catch slaves for the Southern people.  We are willing to perform that dirty work.  I do not consider it disgraceful to perform work, dirty or not dirty, which is in accordance with the laws of the land . . ."

A few years later, with Lincoln elected and secession proclamations being passed by Southern state legislatures, Logan was one of the voices arguing against going to war to stop them.  His epiphany came not on the road to Damascus but to Bull Run.  Tagging along with a Michigan regiment so he could get a look at the upcoming battle most Northerners expected the Yankees to win easily--picnickers, including other government officials, drove out from Washington to watch--Logan was shocked when the rebels routed the Federal troops.  As the picnickers and other spectators scrambled back to safety, Logan instead picked up a fallen musket and started shooting at Confederates.  Shortly afterward, he resigned his seat in Congress and entered the U.S. Army as a colonel, recruiting and organizing his own Illinois regiment.

He made clear at this point that he was a Unionist, not an abolitionist.  Many, perhaps most, of his regiment were from the Egypt section of Illinois, where Logan's positions on the Black Codes and the Fugitive Slave Act had been very popular.  He promised his men that if the war became a war to free slaves, he would resign his commission and "lead you home."

He did not keep that promise.  As with most Northerners, what he thought he knew about slavery was rooted in a lack of contact with it.  The war changed that, as it did so much else.  Letters home from Union soldiers attest to this particular change.  When I signed up, a number of letters say in essence, I was clear that I was not doing so in order to fight for the freedom of slaves; but now that I have seen slaves and slavery up close, I have become more of an abolitionist.

After Logan's conversion, his former allies used his previous positions against him.  In this 1884 cartoon, "John A. Logan in 1859," Logan prevents William Seward, Abraham Lincoln (shouldn't he be taller?), and  Charles Sumner from saving a family of fugitive slaves.
Given Logan's national stature, and his personal history, his transformation on this point was bound to be more visible than the average soldier's.  In February 1863, a month after Lincoln proclaimed emancipation as a war goal, with discontent over the new policy so pervasive that another Illinois regiment was under arrest for mutiny, and desertions increasing in his own regiment, Logan--bedridden with wounds from Fort Donelson--sent a letter to his men through division commanders encouraging their loyalty and referring to the full set of war aims as "our cause."  This was enough to get him denounced by Democratic papers back in Egypt.  That spring he demanded the resignation of one of his officers who said in front of him that he had not joined the war "to fight to free the niggers."  In April he gave a public speech to his regiment, saying that the war had changed his way of thinking, and endorsing not only emancipation but black enlistment:  "So we'll unite on this policy, putting the one who is the innocent cause of this war in the front rank and press on to victory."

Back in 1861 he had called Lincoln's election "deplorable," but in 1864 Logan took a leave from Army duty and campaigned for the president's re-election.  Once the war ended and Logan re-entered private life, he proclaimed himself a Republican, saying he had left the Democrats when they became "the party of treason."  He campaigned in Kentucky for ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery, and in 1866 was elected again to the House of Representatives.  He aligned himself with the radical branch of the Republicans, who pressed for expanded rights for freedmen, and he helped draft impeachment articles against President Johnson for--well, actually, for trumped-up charges, but really for not pursuing Reconstruction with a strong emphasis on protecting the rights of blacks--then served as one of seven impeachment managers who prosecuted the case during Johnson's trial in the Senate.

Logan's fame during his lifetime, and for decades thereafter, was universal.  When he died in 1886, he became only the seventh person to lie in state under the Capitol dome; his funeral was held in the Senate chamber.  Counties are named after him in four states.  In the 1920s, Illinois adopted a state song that mentions him by name, along with only Lincoln and Grant.  Since then, however, he has slid into relative obscurity.  Other than the obligatory passing reference to him each Memorial Day, his only claim on public attention in the last fifty years was as a result of his Grant Park statue's cameo appearance in the  antiwar demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention here in Chicago.  The video, despite the trendy modern-day editing, is still kind of shocking:

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Kevin Gladish as Tony Horwitz in Confederates

Excerpts from reviews for the show, with links to the full pieces:

RATING: “Heckuva Good Show”
Since seeing Confederates in the Attic on Sunday evening, I’ve written and rewritten this column more times than I care to count, let alone admit to.  In truth, I’m struggling with the material of the show, and more importantly with the questions that the play itself poses.  Which means, I suppose, that this play works remarkably well and does exactly what it sets out to do. . . .

Terry McCabe has adapted Tony Horowitz’s memoir/non-fiction opus Confederates in the Attic into a play that follows a relatively common travelogue model (i.e. protagonist goes on journey and the audience sees a number of vignettes that assemble into some sort of whole). . . . The man making this journey, Tony (played with mild-mannered inquisitiveness by Kevin Gladish) . . .collects the pieces while talking to hardcore reenactors, old men who have lived through the country’s greatest changes, young men who still think the South should have won, a young black man who killed a white redneck for flying the Confederate Flag, a classroom at an African-American school that teaches alienation (if not hate), and many others.   The play is a whirlwind tour of the American South . . .

The play changes locations so frequently that it seems it is a constant parade of newly-changed costumes.  And kudos goes to kClare Kemock for pulling together what must have been a veritable mountain of clothing.  Those outfits were the primary way through which the setting of any given scene was established, and I didn’t become lost on this journey thanks to their guidance.

The acting company was filled with good performances, but a couple of folks stood out.  Peter Goldsmith played Tony’s sometimes-sidekick-sometimes-tour-guide Rob.  Rob is a character whose repeated arrival on the stage is always welcomed.  Goldsmith’s infectious energy makes one almost believe that it would be fun to spend every free weekend out roughing it in a ditch somewhere pretending to be a soldier from the 1860s.

LaRen Vernea also firmly claimed the stage whenever she was on.  She played a number of characters, much like most of the cast (other than Gladish and Goldsmith), and each of hers were clearly drawn and well developed, even when they were only on for a few lines.

McCabe’s staging of the action flowed seamlessly from scene to scene.  The scenery itself was very simple, and because of that the content of the show was more in focus.  Which brings us around to the topic of the questions that are raised by Confederates in the Attic. . .

I can’t really distill the show down to a simple list of questions.  But they are asked of every person who comes in to the audience.  They aren’t always directly posited (though sometimes they are), but through the action of the play one is called upon to look at how we view the events of the Civil War . . . The journey came to a sudden end without a clear conclusion, but I think that makes it better than if it had tried to provide some discovered truth. . . .

A kind of volatile but compassionate mix of Deliverance, Killer Angels, and Gone with the Wind:
It looks humorously and non-judgmentally at a war that, at least in the South, never really ended. 

Richly adapted and faithfully staged by City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe, these 130 minutes teem with scary revelations about the unreconstructed territory below the Mason-Dixon Line where "it's still half time" in the War Between the States. . . 

The impressive and well-cast 14-member cast describe the tragedy of Michael Westerman (Christian Isely), a punk white teenager shot by black kids for flying the Confederate flag from his pickup truck.  Horwitz testifies to K.K.K. rallies in Kentucky and hateful white-supremacist incitements to race war to preserve an "Aryan nation." Horwitz talks to African-Americans, like Freddie Morrow (Johnathan Wallace), who shot Westerman for reasons he can't ken. . . .

. . . To his credit, Horwitz does not minimize the unhealed wounds that fester a century and a half later.

The show closes May 25.  Here is the all-important link to buy tickets.