The Pecatonica River meanders its way across the northern section of Illinois as it works its way out of Wisconsin, slowly winding toward a junction with the Rock River west of Rockford. One would think that a stream hundreds of miles away from the action couldn’t be worked into a Civil War story, but author and historian John William Huelskamp succeeds in making this corner of Illinois a key player in the events surrounding the conflict. (Of course, it helps that the Commander-in-Chief at the time as well as the victorious Union general were both connected to that corner of the state in the years preceding the war.)
Huelskamp opens the tale by transporting us to the banks of the Pecatonica in 1857, introducing us to 16-year-old Will and 13-year-old Aaron as they discover the wigwam of the title along its banks. But the action doesn’t just occur there - in scenes around the region, from Chicago on the east to Galena on the west, we are introduced to a number of characters whose lives will eventually be intertwined in and around the conflict. The story moves quickly through a number of historical guideposts that set the stage for what’s to come, with some of the most interesting pieces being those where Abraham Lincoln is convinced to run first for Senate against Stephen Douglas and later for President as a Republican, with a band of supporters that came to be known as the “Wide Awakes.”
But the wigwam was the stage over the next two years to six major characters who became the friends of the wigwam – Will and Aaron, the 15-year-old tomboy Allie, the teenage sharpshooter T.J. Lockwood and his portly fisherman friend Patrick “Trick” Kane – who become part of the pact thanks to a rare errant shot from T.J. – and Allie’s 14-year-old friend Jenny Putnam. They come of age as the nation lurches closer to war, with the boys eventually joining the 93rd Illinois Regiment being recruited in the area by Jenny’s father Holden Putnam.
In truth, this book could have easily been subdivided into two parts, as the onset of war changed both the tone and the pace. The second portion opens with Elmer Ellsworth, a “friend and brother” of Allie’s – who she had teased about “actin’ so stiff and stuffy” in his military drill uniform at the Lincoln-Douglas debate a few years earlier - becoming the first casualty of the rebellion as he was ambushed taking down a Confederate flag from a hotel in Virginia, just across from Washington, D.C. As the hostilities escalate, several of the men of the area become part of what was the 45th Illinois Regiment, while the boys eventually join with the 93rd being formed under Colonel Putnam in August of 1862. A distraught Allie, who has fallen in love with Will, begs them not to go, but Will calmly tells her, “Allie, it is our duty to go. If we don’t fight this war, who else will?”
As the 93rd heads south and becomes entangled in the campaigns in Tennessee and Mississippi, we find Jenny and Allie back home, mortified at the prospect of losing their friends – so much so that Allie concocts a desperate plan with Jenny’s help to check on their welfare.
There’s no question that the warfare takes its toll on those in the small towns in that region of “the Sucker State,” with many of their best and brightest men never making it home or returning disfigured or mutilated. The friends of the wigwam are not spared those fates before the story ends with a reunion of some of the survivors along the Pecatonica in 1864. Huelskamp closes the loop with an afterword revealing what happened to many of the main characters, including the six friends of the wigwam.
The beauty of Huelskamp’s work as a historian and writer is how the characters are brought to life. There are some accounts from those with integral parts of the story brought to us through the text itself, with Huelskamp providing photos of the actual documents from the battlefield. We get a glimpse at letters sent from the front, military orders as presented, and other documents that explain bits and pieces of the account he puts together.
But much of the work comes from his imagination as to how events could have taken place, even if some of them seem too strange to be true. As an example, the overall story of Allie’s journey is one which reads as complete fiction but it was eventually documented as historical fact in the decades after the war came to an end. (However, Huelskamp had to take a measure of fictional license with her to make the overall story more clear.) It takes a long time and great deal of flipping back and forth, though, to recall where some of the characters had appeared before as the different regiments and divisions work their way through the battle southward. Huelskamp takes the broad strokes of how the battles were fought and adds in a mix of fact (based on the first-hand accounts of the letter writers and correspondents) and realistic fiction to tell a fascinating story of life as soldiers who were fighting for the cause of preserving the Union.
With the book being so full of characters, though, it seems to me a few weren’t fleshed out as well as they could have. One example was the Negro boy L’il Joe, who the clan discovered hiding in the wigwam as an escaped slave before they assist him on his trek northward. Although he’s later brought up in passing, we only get his story as he reports for duty (with his father and two other family members) in a colored regiment near the end of the war and in the penultimate chapter of the book. But since Joe’s story wasn’t followed upon, it’s possible the Negro and Underground Railroad facets of the story were added as fictional tales based on the real events of the era.
In Friends of the Wigwam, Huelskamp combines all the facts and tales into a believable, riveting story that has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing how the story of each participant will end. Perhaps it’s not the best summer beach book out there, but if you are into historical fiction or relish the legends of the Civil War, you will be fascinated at how interesting the people and places of this portion of the great state of Illinois became as the War Between the States played out. Those in our region who likely learned of Maryland’s place in the war should be fans of this different perspective on history.
It may not be as apparent to the average American as “vacation day” patriotic holidays like Memorial Day or Independence Day, but today a small band of Salisbury residents came to City Park along the Wicomico River and celebrated the 229th anniversary of the signing and delivery of our nascent Constitution to Congress for approval. Once approved, it was sent to each of the thirteen colonies for ratification (Delaware was first, on December 7, 1787) and by the middle of the next year the requisite nine states had ratified the document, which was not yet amended with the Bill of Rights. (That would come a few years later, in 1791.)
So I arrived fashionably on time and was pleased to see the turnout.
It seems like there were a few more people than last year’s gathering, and I think the morning start time (as opposed to afternoon last year) may have had something to do with that.
We were presented with a proclamation from Salisbury mayor Jake Day reiterating that the city would be celebrating Constitution Day today. Day is one of the few who could stand and say he was actively defending the Constitution as an Army officer on active duty.
The event also was the culmination of an essay contest where the top two winners were present to be honored with a certificate from the Maryland General Assembly, presented by members of the local delegation Mary Beth Carozza (who was speaking), Christopher Adams, Carl Anderton, and Johhny Mautz. The winning entry was read by Carys Hazel of Mardela High School, with runner-up Nathaniel Sansom of Salisbury Christian School also present to receive his award.
The keynote speaker was Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis.
I wasn’t really at the Constitution Day event to give blow-by-blow coverage, but I used the photos to both set the scene and cue up my own remarks, with the address Sheriff Lewis gave as a jumping-off point. Mike spoke at some length about the role of the military overseas and their fight against radical Islam. Certainly I understand the reason that they have embarked on such a mission, but to me it also begs a pair of questions for which we need an honest answer.
To a varying extent, the nation has been on a war footing since 9/11. In that time we have adopted the PATRIOT Act and sent thousands of troops overseas to fight against the proxy forces of radical Islam: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and the Islamic State known as ISIS (or ISIL.) But the first question I have is: where does the balance tip too far toward security at the expense of the liberty afforded to us in the Constitution?
This question isn’t really new, either: during the Civil War (or War Between the States or War of Northern Aggression, if you prefer) President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and arrested members of the Maryland General Assembly to prevent them from meeting as a means of preserving the Union. Eight decades later, President Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans as a result of their ancestral homeland’s attack on American soil. In both instances America was in an active war within its borders or territories, but against a nation-state rather than an ideology as we are today. However, being in a state of war such that we are should not be an excuse for excess and there are many who have pondered the “War on Terror” and its response in the PATRIOT Act and whether the government is using this Long War as a flimsy excuse to consolidate power.
The idea of the government consolidating power leads to the second question: are we truly following the Constitution anymore or is this all just lip service?
Surely there are some who believe the Constitution has been eroding practically since the ink dried on the parchment. Whether they point to Marbury v. Madison being the moment where the judiciary became the most powerful of the three branches, the Civil War being the death knell for state’s rights since they no longer had the right to secede if they were dissatisfied with the nation as a whole, or the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments that gave the federal government taxation authority on individuals specifically prohibited in the original and ended the practice of state legislators electing Senators to represent their interests in Washington, there are a fair number that think we need to start over - perhaps with a Convention of States, otherwise known as an Article V Convention. (Years ago I contributed a couple ideas for new amendments, which are still sorely needed. Back then I had good discourse, too.)
I don’t want to get into the weeds of determining the merits or problems of such a convention, but the fact that there are people who believe the Constitution needs a tune-up to fix excesses on one side or the other bolsters the argument that the government we have now is not the one originally envisioned by those men who toiled during the spring and summer of 1787 to write a replacement for the Articles of Confederation that the United States was bound to for the first decade or so of its existence. Granted, the Article V method is one prescribed in the document but there’s no guarantee the amendments proposed would pass or the resulting Constitution any better for the people.
So the occasion of Constitution Day is bittersweet. Yesterday I wrote on the subject for the Patriot Post, noting that:
Contention over – and advocacy of – limitations to government based on constitutional principles has become a theoretical exercise at best, perhaps in part because few understand the ideas and arguments that were made during the drafting of our government’s founding document.
Those who have sworn an oath to enlist in the military or (in my case) to take public office know that we swear to support and defend the Constitution as opposed to an oath to the United States. This is a clear distinction because the interests of the United States may vary by whoever occupies the offices of government at the time, but the Constitution is the set of ground rules which are supposed to define our nation. The key reason I resigned from the Central Committee was because I could not trust the Republican presidential nominee to support or defend the Constitution – rather, I believed he would tear the GOP from what few limited, Constitutional government roots it had remaining. Thus, I felt as a public official that supporting him was a violation of the oath I swore to the Constitution.
Many of those same men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the American nation and survived the war that brought us independence were those who argued and debated the contents of the pieces of parchment that we consider our supreme law of the land. I pray that a group that is just as divinely inspired can lead us back to a nation that more closely reflects the intentions of these earliest Americans with respect to restoring a government that seeks the consent of the governed, and that those who are governed understand their responsibility in the equation as well. The fact that so few seem to have this inspiration or the desire to take this responsibility as citizens seriously may be what was most troubling about this day in the park.
It’s billed as a non-political event, but something tells me that they’re not going to sit around sipping on Coca-Cola.
I got the invitation from Robert Broadus, who will be a speaker at the Take Back Maryland Rally on Saturday in Federalsburg. It’s organized by a group I was heretofore unfamiliar with called the League of the South, and I’ll get to them in a little bit.
First of all, the topics seem quite interesting: during the three-hour Saturday afternoon event, Broadus will speak on “Defending Marriage in the Old Line State,” State Senator Rich Colburn talks about “A 51st State: Partitioning ‘Red’ Maryland from ‘Blue’ Maryland,” and David Whitney of the Institute of the Constitution pondering “Is the 14th Amendment Legal?” All seem like intriguing topics worth listening to, particularly since they don’t seem to come from an orthodox point of view in Maryland.
The sponsoring organization bills itself as maintaining the spirit of the Confederacy, noting ”We seek to advance the cultural, social, economic, and political well-being and independence of the Southern people by all honourable means.” Obviously this brings up the familiar images of the rebel flag, white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members, and separate but equal facilities. And of course we’ve already fought one War Between the States that their side lost.
Still, if you ignore the racial portion of the equation (as Broadus is apparently doing, since he is a black man) there are some aspects of Southern life which could stand a revival. A couple in particular are the restoration of state’s rights and the Southern emphasis on family and community – the definition of which comes from achieving the greater good through local, privately-based efforts rather than a government program. Taken in that context, the selection of speakers makes a lot of sense.
Without question, this will be the kind of event that liberals fall over themselves condemning because they see almost everything through a lens of perceived racism. But the League of the South contends (and I think to a significant extent rightfully so) that southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and lower Delaware are bastions of the old South trapped inside northern states; on the other hand portions of Confederate states like Florida and Texas are no longer “southern” as they define it because of Yankee and Latino influences.
And while there isn’t a shooting war going on between the blue and the gray, there’s no denying we have a cultural and social war going on between the principles being stood for by the League of the South and ideologically similar, socially conservative and even libertarian groups versus those promulgated by their perception of government policy and the influence of Hollywood and the mainstream media.
Just witness the GOP Presidential primary schedule – Mitt Romney didn’t win any states in the Deep South except Florida, and Florida was won only because Romney carried the urban areas. The northern tier of the state and panhandle was Gingrich country, as was Newt’s adopted home state of Georgia and South Carolina. Rick Santorum carried Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee during his Presidential bid.
They didn’t call the South the Bible Belt for nothing, and over the last many decades it’s been Hollywood’s task to sell the idea of Southerners as white trash while government enforces policies which many evangelicals in the South disagree with. Yet Southerners are proportionally more likely to fight and die for their country.
But I guarantee that some of those who read this article are going to shake their head and think to themselves that these speakers are making a mistake appearing before such a group, one which believes the South should rise again and eventually secede from the rest of the Union. I have news for them: we already live in a polarized and divided nation, made so because it benefits certain people and groups at the expense of the rest of us. We don’t have to agree with everything the League of the South says, but we should give it the respect due any other group of citizens who have a political or social view to express. A country which allows both the hatred of Fred Phelps and the perversion of the Folsom Street Fair (just Google both, I’m not linking) definitely should make room for a group advocating a return to the better points of tradition.