"[T]he ignorance of this lordly and insolent oligarchy is equaled only by its ineffable baseness."
So said Horace Maynard, a legislator from East Tennessee as the Civil War entered its final year. Maynard was referring to the "fire-eaters," a group of Southern businessmen and power brokers who had argued during the 1850s for secession in a growing ideological (and financial) battle against the North.
Here is one way the fire-eaters won that battle but lost the war:
In 1858, a richly outfitted racing yacht on the registry of the New York Yacht Club, a vessel called the Wanderer, served as the last ship to transport Africans to America as slaves -- despite the fact that such capture and shipment of slaves to the U.S. had been outlawed in 1818. The voyage of the Wanderer and the subsequent trial in Savannah of the ship's crew (and by association, its backers) galvanized the country, just as the voyage was designed to do by the fire-eaters, with states'-rights proponents in the South pitted against abolitionist forces in the North. Secession, which had not had a solid footing in the South, quickly gained that footing.
The full and fascinating story is told in The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails (St. Martin's Press) by Erik Calonius, former London-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, former Miami bureau chief for Newsweek, and, at the beginning of his journalism career in the late 1970s, former managing editor of Memphis magazine, the Flyer's sister publication.
If the story of the Wanderer is news to you, it was news to Calonius as well. As he writes in his author's note, Calonius was visiting the museum on Jekyll Island, Georgia (where the Wanderer made land after its trip across the Atlantic and up the Congo) when he saw the ship reproduced in a painting. The museum caption read:
"In 1858 ... the Wanderer delivered a cargo of African slaves to the coast of Jekyll. This action caused a scandal, and charges were brought against many people, including the ship's crew and its owner, Charles Lamar of Savannah. All of the defendants were found innocent, or charges against them were dropped." End of caption. But no end to Calonius' curiosity.
"There was an advantage in not being an expert on the Civil War," Calonius said in a recent interview from his home in Orlando. "It meant I was open to anything -- the accounts of slave captains, for instance, or even in 1858, the idea that New York City was a center of the African slave trade.
"I grew up on Long Island, and while everything boils down to a cliche, up North you learn that the North was against slavery and the South was for it. One side was good; one side was bad. But once you realize how involved the North was, not only in the slave trade but also skimming money off the work of slaves, you realize nobody was innocent.
"I also learned that there was a tremendous amount of reluctance on the part of the South to support secession. But there was a radical movement ... a laughable lot. No one had respect for [the fire-eaters] 10 years before the war, and yet, somehow they took hold of the agenda. Through intimidation and use of the press as a bully pulpit, they were able to pull it off."
The lesson taught, according to Calonius: "A group of extremists can take over and overwhelm the will of an unfocused and weak majority." You're welcome to draw your own contemporary conclusions.
No question, though, that Calonius has brought this underreported, at times shocking story to vivid life, and for that you have his reporting skills to thank and the freedom granted to him by his publisher.
"I had a good journalism background, but I had to overcome it," Calonius admitted. "Working for The Wall Street Journal, I had to be extremely accurate. They pound accuracy into you. In the first draft of The Wanderer, I could have gone before the Supreme Court and argued every fact. When I turned the book in to the publisher, however, they liked it but thought it was too dry. They gave me license to use the creative side of my brain, to bring the scenes to life. But I still stayed true to the facts."
Not the least of those facts: the horrendous conditions suffered by the slaves on a hidden second deck of the Wanderer during its transatlantic trip -- conditions that allowed the ship's 487 men, women, and children a space 12 inches in width, 18 inches in height, and less than five feet in length per person. This on a ship that, before its arrival on the west coast of Africa, featured Belgian carpets, linen tablecloths, and a library of leather-bound books. Eighty of those Africans were to die before the ship reached the U.S.
Among the Africans who survived was a man who took the name Ward Lee. His descendants eventually traveled north -- to Brooklyn, then to Long Island. By the 1980s, Lee's descendants included teachers and lawyers, and his great-great-granddaughters became widely recognized. You knew them on billboards as the Doublemint Gum Twins.
And what of the fire-eaters? As Calonius observed, "Once the Civil War started, none of them ascended to any position of power."
And as for the New York Yacht Club? "It's odd," Calonius said. "My publisher did send them some material on the book, but they didn't respond at all. It's a history they don't like to mention. Maybe they'll step forward."
Jekyll Island and Savannah already have. The state of Georgia recently announced a memorial to the Wanderer to be erected on Jekyll Island, and in Savannah, a walking tour of sites connected with the Wanderer is set to be in place next spring.
Erik Calonius has reason to be proud to have brought this troubling chapter in American history again to light. Readers have reason to learn from it.