by Donald E. Reynolds
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2007. Pp. xii, 237.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $45.00 . ISBN:0807132837
In July of 1860, fires destroyed central
and portions of two nearby towns. Although the fires were probably the result of an unusually dry spell coupled with temerpatures that climbed to 114° F, in the aftermath of John Brown's "Raid" on Harper's Ferry, and in the midst of a ferocious presidential campaign which many Southerners believed might lead to the installation of an abolitionist administration in Washington, the disaster was immediately blamed on an abolitionist conspiracy to instigate a slave rebellion. A number of slaves were subject to brutal interrogations, and 'evidence' of such a conspiracy was soon forthcoming.
There followed a widespread hunt for anyone suspected of "abolitionist" sympathizers and "rebellious" slaves. The result was numerous deaths, how many remains unknown, and increaed restrictions of slaves and free black people.
This "insurrection panic" sparked considerable unease across a large swathe of the slave states, and directly fueled the rush to secession of
and other states in early 1861.
The author, a specialist in
history, provides an excellent analysis of these events. Although he sympathizes with the victims of the panic, he is quite even-handed. In his overall conclusions, Reynolds notes how both pro-slavery advocates and apologists seized upon this incident, and presumably others, to "prove" that slave unrest was being caused by "outsiders," anti-slavery advocates and historians have also treated these events as "evidence" of systematic slave conspiracies which probably did not exist.
A very good read for anyone interested in American slavery and the causes of the Civil War.