07 December 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 6 comments

About a month ago, Erik Calonius contacted me to see whether I’d be interested in getting a review copy of his new book, The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails. I hadn’t heard of either Mr. Calonius or his book, so I looked it up on Amazon. After doing so, I said sure, I’d love to have a look at it.

Let me begin by saying that this is not a book that I would normally have any interest in reading. As a general rule, the topic of slavery is of almost no interest to me, and I tend to avoid the subject due to lack of interest. However, this particular book sounded like it might be interesting, so I decided to read it. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve been engaging in an e-mail dialogue with Mr. Calonius after receiving the book, and have enjoyed my interaction with him.

Erik Calonius is a career journalist who has had some plum assignments in his journalistic career. The Wanderer is his first book, and he should be very proud of it. The topic got his interest on a visit to Jekyll Island, outside Savannah, Georgia, when he saw an exhibit to the Wanderer. Intrigued, he started looking into it, and decided to tackle a modern telling of the story.

The slave trade was made illegal in the United States in 1820. However, some of the Southern firebrands who were pushing for secession also strongly favored reinstating the slave trade. Charles Lamar, a relative of L.Q.C. Lamar and of the second president of the Texas Republic, led the conspiracy. Lamar and his co-conspirators purchased the Wanderer, a magnificent yacht, and took her to Africa to bring back a load of slaves in 1858. His crew managed to evade the British and American naval vessels patrolling the coast of Africa and safely made it back to the United States.

Even though their purpose was a very poorly kept secret, Lamar and his co-conspirators managed to evade justice through a combination of corruption and bullying. They made witnesses disappear, tampered with evidence, and made it impossible for the government to convict them of piracy (the crime of importing slaves was designated an act of piracy, and carried the death penalty). In three separate trials in 1859, Lamar and his co-conspirators were all acquitted and escaped justice, in spite of the best efforts of the Buchanan administration to convict and execute them.

There was poetic justice: Lamar was killed in action during the Civil War, and the Wanderer, which was seized and sold by the government, ended up in Union service during the war.

The book is well-researched and very well-written, which I would expect of a senior journalist of Mr. Calonius’ credentials. He has brought a topic which would normally not interest me to life with an engaging writing style that almost reads like a novel. The book does have one of my pet peeves: instead of providing specific end note references, they’re lumped together at the end by page, which drives me crazy. If one were interested in further research, or reading the primary sources for oneself, this style of footnoting makes it virtually impossible to do so. I absolutely despise that footnoting style. I suspect that was the publisher’s call–and not Mr. Calonius’–so I can’t necessarily fault him for it.

What I liked best about this book was how it so accurately and amply used the microcosm of this single incident to demonstrate how the agenda of the fire eaters directly caused the Civil War, and how they paid the ultimate price for their calumny. It also demonstrates how the inertia and passivity of the Buchanan administration allowed events to come to a crisis situation. The inactivity of the administration permitted a few fire breathers to flaunt the law for their own purposes, and their actions in doing so directly triggered the Civil War. Ironically, the prosecution of Lamar and his co-conspirators was left in the hands of Buchanan’s attorney general, Thomas Howell Cobb of Georgia, who later became a Confederate general.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the causes of the Civil War.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. James Epperson
    Fri 08th Dec 2006 at 9:08 am

    Eric, thanks for the semi-review. The book might make my
    Christmas list. Two minor quibbles:

    The slave trade was outlawed in 1808, not 1820. Perhaps the
    passage of some enforcement legislation confused you.

    Jekyll Island is not off Savannah, but 70 miles south, off of
    Brunswick (where my in-laws live).

    JFE

  2. Mark Peters
    Fri 08th Dec 2006 at 12:25 pm

    James,

    Technically you are correct, with Congress passing the Slave Importation Act in 1807. However, much of the friction between the UK and US was due to the inability of Jefferson to enforce his own legislation.

    1819 saw passage of the Slave Trade Act, wherby the US Navy was authorised to prevent the trade. However, the US would not allow searches of their ships until 1849; so one could argue that this was the date that the US seriously considered that the international trade in slavery should be outlawed.

    The date of 1820 is considered important due to legislation having been introduced in the UK, US, Portugal, and Spain. As with the US, the Portuguese and Spanish were loathe to give up the transportation of slaves.

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  3. Jim Epperson
    Fri 08th Dec 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Mike, not to be picky, but that doesn’t sound like I am
    *technically* correct, but actually correct 😉 I certainly
    agree that enforcement would have been an issue, and
    the reluctance of the Deep South politicians to allow strict
    enforcement is no doubt part of the story.

    JFE

  4. Mike Nugent
    Fri 08th Dec 2006 at 6:28 pm

    Congress began passing a series of laws as early as 1794 to limit and eventually ban maritime based slave trading. What the 1820 law did was to make maritime slave trading a capital offense under piracy laws.

    As an interesting aside, the only American ever convicted and executed for slave trading under the law was Captain Nathaniel Gordon, a native of Portland, ME. Gordon was captured off the West African coast on August 8th, 1860 and tried and convicted in NYC on November 9th, 1861. After President Lincoln issued one stay of execution (supposedly only to allow Gordon to put his affairs in order) he was hung at the Tombs Prison on February 21st, 1862.

    This incident is the subject of the book “Hanging Captain Gordon” by Ron Soodalter. Although like Eric I’m not particularly interested in the specific topic of slavery, Soodalter’s book is also an interesting read.

  5. Nora
    Fri 22nd Dec 2006 at 6:56 pm

    While reading this excellent book, it struck me that an enlightening comparison can be made between now and then in terms of the behavior of the great power of the time — England — with regard to the rogue-state behavior of the U.S. Clearly the English realized that their hands were no less bloody than those of the Americans, even though they had lately reached the conclusion that the slave trade was immoral and disgraceful. Of course, they had other reasons for their ultimate decision not to enforce the agreement to outlaw it. Still, it’s instructive as an example of a different way of handling the problem of rogue states.

  6. Ron Soodalter
    Sat 23rd Dec 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Mike – Thanks for the good word on my book!

    Best,
    Ron

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