The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War

“Memorable, too, was the election of 1860 to politicians; even to statesmen. Memorable, because Democracy, triumphant hitherto in the Federal elections, had been hurled from power. Not by the verdict of the people in their original capacity: a majority of them had cast their votes against the man who would be President of the United States by choice of the electoral college. A large majority had been cast against those who would represent the people in the Congress. But Democracy had been dethroned, because a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

First, a disclaimer of sorts: I’m a rank amateur when it comes to the Civil War. I’ve seen, and very much enjoyed, Ken Burns’ documentary series, but apart from that my knowledge is confined to viewings of the usual dramas, which use the conflict chiefly as a backdrop for their romance. Although there may be other novels that take this approach, and while I’m quite sure there are any number of non-fiction works on the subject, The Rebel’s Daughter is quite unlike anything I’ve previously come across. Published in 1899, a year before its author’s death, the novel is an acute and profoundly knowledgeable examination of the politics that led to the Civil War: the legality, or otherwise, of slavery and secession, and the factionalising of the Democrats that paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln; and the bitter and bloody division of the border states, forced not merely to take sides but to do so internally, person by person, neighbour against neighbour. I found this novel fascinating.

We’ve already taken a quick look at the life of John Gabriel Woerner, and from that it is evident that The Rebel’s Daughter is heavily autobiographical. Clearly, many of the places and people in this novel are sketches of the real thing, but I am insufficiently well-informed to recognise most of them. The novel begins with Victor Waldhorst, a young German-American, travelling from St Louis, Missouri, to the town of Brookfield, where he is to take up a position of shopman in a general store. On the way, Victor rescues a girl when her carriage horses bolt. She is Eleonora May – Nellie to her friends. The Mays, former Virginians, are one of the most prominent and wealthy local families. They are gracious, charming and hospitable – and slave-owners.

At first, Victor is profoundly shocked by this realisation, and unable to reconcile the warmth and generosity of the Mays with their involvement in what he considers an abhorrant institution. In his ignorance of local laws and conventions, Victor intrudes one night into one of the poor cottages of the Mays’ slaves, where he finds Nellie May’s own slave, Lucretia, known as Cressie, teaching the other occupants to read out of the Bible. Victor is caught in the cottage by the Mays’ overseer, Jeffreys, who has designs upon Cressie and immediately assumes that Victor is there for the same purpose. An ugly scene follows, in which Colonel May takes Victor’s side, and Jeffreys is dismissed. The overseer conceives a bitter hatred and resentment against the Mays and Victor, which will pursue them for many years. Almost immediately, Victor finds himself under arrest and charged with abolitionist activities, but thanks to a defence guided by Leslie May, the son of the household, who is studying law, he is triumphantly exonerated.

This outcome seals the bonds of affection between Victor and the Mays. He is, in a sense, adopted by the Colonel; becomes Leslie’s bosom friend; and is teased, laughed at and imposed upon by the imperious young Nellie. Under the Colonel’s political tutelage, Victor becomes a passionate adherent of the United States Constitution and all that it stands for…although he does puzzle over why, in a land priding itself on its guaranteed freedoms, including that of freedom of speech, the Colonel should warn him to keep his opinions on slavery to himself, if he knows what’s good for him. However, thanks to the Colonel’s teachings, Victor feelings on this point are somewhat softened, as he comes to accept that slavery is, if not right, at least constitutional.

Over time, Victor’s personal fortunes greatly improve. He moves from the general store to the offices of a successful German-language newspaper, first as a printer, later as its editor. Meanwhile, Colonel May is elected to Congress, and later receives a nomination for the Senate; a success in which Victor plays a significant part. With Leslie May’s encouragement and backing, Victor himself runs for Congress, and is elected. His entry into the legislature of Missouri occurs in 1860, the year also of a Federal election: an election in which the growing schism within the Democratic party allows the triumph of the Republicans and the inaugeration of Abraham Lincoln; events that bring with them the threat of secession of the southern states and even of civil war.

For Victor, the situation is one fraught with horror in a personal, as well as a political, sense. The incumbent Senator for Missouri, General Hart, is like Victor himself an upholder of the Constitution and sternly opposed to Missouri’s secession. In opposing Hart in his run for the Senate, Colonel May, the man who infused Victor with his own belief in the Constitution, begins a pragmatic drift towards the secessionist faction. Leslie and Nellie, unshakably devoted to their father and fiercely protective of their state’s rights, go with him – and expect Victor to do likewise.

But Victor, in conscience, cannot. In spite of his profound feelings of affection and gratitude for the Mays, in spite of his standing promise to support the Colonel, and above all in spite of the fact that he is desperately in love with Nellie, now grown from a sprite of a girl into the reigning belle of Missouri, he casts his lot with General Hart and the Constitutionalists, knowing that in doing so he has at a stroke severed himself from everything in life that he holds most dear – except his principles. When war comes, it finds Leslie May in southern grey, and Victor in the blue of the Missourian militia…

As a Civil War novel, The Rebel’s Daughter is rather unusual, inasmuch as the war itself remains at all times tangential to the main story. We get a description of the firing of Fort Sumter, and an account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (here called Winslo’s Creek), which marked Missouri’s entry into the war proper; but otherwise, the story remains solidly within the personal and political boundaries it has drawn for itself. I didn’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I found the careful, logical descriptions of the step-by-political-step journey towards war absolutely rivetting: an answer, at least to an extent, to the eternal, post-war cry of dismay, How can these things happen? This novel also makes very clear the profound reluctance of the Lincoln administration to move against the rebelling states, and the misinterpretation of this reluctance by the South, which grew bolder and increasingly provocative upon the tragic misapprehension that, “the North would not fight.”

And if a Civil War novel in which the war itself barely appears seems unusual, what are we to make of a Civil War novel that does not deal in any significant way with slavery? This is an aspect of the story that possibly strikes readers today more forcibly than it did its contemporary audience, given the modern tendency to view slavery rather simply as what the Civil War was “about”.

(I’m reminded here of the episode of The Simpsons in which Apu gets his citizenship: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” “Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter—” “Just say ‘slavery’.”)

According to the biography written by his son, William, J.G. Woerner was strongly opposed to slavery. That may be so, but if it was so, you wouldn’t know it from reading this novel. Possibly this was a deliberate choice, in keeping with the overarching political framework of the story. From J.G. Woerner’s own strictly legalistic point of view, and with Victor Waldhorst acting as his alter-ego, there is a definite implication throughout the novel that since slavery is constitutional, that is all there is to be said upon the subject. Various characters do debate the issue, but again, almost invariably from a legal standpoint: arguments that highlight the inherently self-defeating nature of the course of action pursued by the South, and the pragmatic view of the situation of many in the North:

…Reverence for the constitution is, to this day, so deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, both North and South, that they will tolerate no tampering with it, either by Northern or Southern fanatics. Break it, as secession must do, and slavery is doomed. For it has no hold on the majority of the people, save as it is guaranteed by the constitution. In the war that must follow secession, the forcible emancipation of slaves will be too powerful a weapon against the South to be neglected by the Federal government. There will be nothing, then, to save this fated institution from annihilation; and when once extinct, it will be no more forever, on the North American continent at least. I am thoroughly sure, Colonel, that the immediate abolition of slavery is impossible in this country, unless the way be paved for it by the attempt to destroy the national government…”

As for Victor, his moral qualms never quite go away, but after his first naive forays, he makes no further attempt to argue the point. Only one character, Victor’s cousin, Woldemar Auf den Busch, ever really opposes the institution on the grounds of morality – yet there is no sense that we are supposed to admire him for it. Far from it: his stance is tainted by the echo of the word, fanatic. Not only are we not encouraged to like Woldemar as a person – although he does grow and improve over the course of the novel – but whenever he tries to raise a moral objection to slavery, he is immediately and sharply slapped down. Furthermore, there is an implicit comparison in this plot-thread of actual slavery to life under monarchy that, personally, I found both disingenuous and distasteful.

Only about half a dozen slaves in total appear in this novel, all of them owned by the Mays, and only one who can rightly be called a character. This is Cressie, Nellie May’s own slave, who is referred to throughout as “the Octoroon”, on account of skin so pale, she is often mistaken for white; who is so beautiful, so graceful in her behaviour, so proper in her speech, that she is sometimes taken for a guest in the Mays’ house. When, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Mays’ other slaves depart in an instant, Cressie stays behind: the thought of leaving her former owners never crosses her mind.

This, then is the face of slavery in The Rebel’s Daughter; and we remember, too, that J.G. Woerner once wrote an anti-slavery play called Amanda, The Slave, in which the title character is white. How do we interpret this pattern? Perhaps Woerner believed that many white people could only understand the horrors of slavery if they saw them being inflicted on other white people; or perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, he felt that slavery became more wrong as the people enslaved were more white. It is impossible to say. While the oblique, to-one-side treatment of slavery in this novel is never less than intriguing, and quite in keeping with its political focus, I have to admit that the handling of this aspect of the story made me rather uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the relationship between Victor and Nellie is entirely conventional Civil War drama stuff, their romance acting as usual as a symbol of the relationship between North and South. Ever noticed how it nearly always is a Northern man and a Southern woman in these things? – or that when it is Southern man / Northern woman, it’s more likely to end unhappily? All sorts of implications in that, of course, including the North being coded “masculine” and the South “feminine”; the ensuing romance involving her being brought to the “right” way of looking at things, and her “rebellion” inevitably ending in “submission” – and absorption. I suppose, too, it’s a consequence of the convention that a proper woman adopts her man’s beliefs, and to have it the other way around would either mean her adopting beliefs that were wrong, or holding opinions different from her husband’s – and we couldn’t have that, now, could we?

The almost-not-quite romance of Victor and Nellie, which begins when they are little more than children, with his calf-love and her blithe acceptance of his homage, winds itself around the novel’s political content. Nellie is passionate in all her feelings: in her devotion to her father, to her state, and to the southern cause; so that Victor’s adherence to his constitutional principles, and his necessary separation from Colonel May, strikes her as an act of vile dishonour and betrayal. Victor himself is introverted and often self-doubting, though equally passionate when roused; and ironically, it is only in the face of Victor’s agonised renunciation of her that Nellie comes truly to understand and appreciate his character. By then it is too late, of course: the next time they see each other, Victor is wearing a blue uniform.

Back when I reviewed Philip And Philippa I asked the question, When did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? Well, The Rebel’s Daughter was published two years earlier, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find J.G. Woerner using extravagant and deeply sentimental language to tell his love story. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to a love story, or even to happy-ever-after; but while I don’t for an instant doubt Woerner’s sincerity, I have to admit that I found his verbal torrents rather hard to swallow. Here, for example, is Victor saying goodbye to Nellie. Can you actually imagine a man under extreme emotional duress making a speech like this?—

“…My glorious paradise, like some resplendent, sun-painted image in the clouds, has vanished into somber gloom. The bright ideal, that but now refulgently lit up my pathway, is intercepted by destiny’s mighty arm, snatching from me my soul’s crowning desire. Should ever, in the future, your thoughts recur to me, then, Nellie May, think of me as one, whose love for you, was so unbounded and unselfish, that he elected rather to be worthy of you, than to possess you unworthily…”

Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. I prefer Woerner’s cool, reasoned politicking. Not very “feminine” of me, I suppose, but there we are. And truly, in the end it is the politicking that makes The Rebel’s Daughter such an interesting novel; one which deserves to be a great deal better known than it is.

(And our Word Of The Week, people? Refulgently. RE-FUL-GENT-LY. Try to use it in a sentence!)

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13 Responses to “The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War”

  1. re “Just say slavery”… there’s a lot of folderol been spread about about the origins of the Civil War, some of it by revisionists whose hidden agenda, as far as I can see, is to sway people toward the idea that the South was on the right side, without ever openly saying so. And there are more legitimate points and details that historians bring up which are relevant to the issue and illuminate aspects of what went on that aren’t immediately obvious… there’s plenty to be said about what was really going on in the disputes that led to the war…….

    But my analysis is that no matter how much other material you bring into the question, the cause of the war still begins and ends with slavery. Not a single shot would ever have been fired except that slave owners desired to defend their claim of ownership, even though the threats they wanted to defend it from were often just hypothetical.

  2. “octoroon” was the designation for someone who was 1/8 black – in other words, had 1 African great-grandparent. They had terms for every possible fraction of ancestry.

    • I don’t think they had a word for five-eighths-oroon.

      • Oh, I bet they did. 🙂

        Hi, Sunrise, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I know what the term octoroon means. My point here is that Cressie kept being called that in the narrative, instead of by her name. It’s another of the novel’s choices that I found a bit dubious.

  3. Which begs the question of what would have happened with respect to slavery if no shot had been fired. As you point out, and as the novel suggests, the perceptions and misapprehensions of the slave-owners essentially became part of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I suppose my objection is to the paring of this issue down to “the North fought the Civil War to abolish slavery”. It’s like when I hear “the United States entered WWII to defend democracy”. Having hugely complex, multifactorial situations reduced to a nice-sounding sound-grab always sets my teeth on edge.

    However, you’re quite right about the dangers of the it wasn’t about slavery at all crowd. I’ll take oversimplification to agenda-ed revisionism any day.

    • There were lots of other countries in the Americas that had slavery. Most of them ended it peacefully. Often there was some program for the government compensating slaveowners for their loss of capital. I can’t think of any others that settled it by a war… unless you count Haiti, the one place where slaves successfully freed themselves by revolution.

      The case of Haiti might be accounted for, in part, by the fact that US slaveowners were in the habit of shipping their toughest and most intransigent disciplinary problems there. Because Haitian conditions were harsher and deadlier than any on the mainland… which also gave the people there nothing to lose by rebelling.

      • I read something while I was reading around this novel that suggested that the Missourian slaves alone represented an investment by their owners of $40 million. When you multply that out, it’s hard to think that a program of dismantling and compensation would have been possible.

    • It would indeed be wrong to say that the North fought the South to abolish slavery… though the South fought the North to preserve it. The North mainly just fought to put down rebellion and insurrection, at least at first. One thing that Lincoln probably gets a lot of credit for was managing to attach abolitionism to the war cause, so that by the war’s end, it gradually became a mainstream value instead of a fringe lefty cause.

  4. I was just reading a bit about how slavery ended in Brazil, which apparently was the last country in the Americas to allow it. They did it incrementally: first ban the foreign slave trade (something the US also did), then allowing slaves to have free children, allowing slaves over sixty to retire free, etc. Lincoln was an advocate of this kind of incremental approach before the war, starting with preventing any new slave states from being added to the union.

    • The suggestion in the novel is that the plan was not to oppose or dismantle slavery, but to prevent any further expansion, in the hope that it would wither and die of its own accord.

  5. It seems to me that some of the attitude to slavery seen here is similar to the attitude to Imperial duty of Kipling. Someone sufficiently far outside the mores of the time to be easily palatable to a modern reader would probably have been, by the standards of the time, a fanatic or a lunatic. It was very easy to say “abolish slavery now”; but as Reconstruction demonstrated amply, nobody really had a good idea of how that might be done instantly without a total economic collapse, nor what might replace it. The various schemes used elsewhere might well have worked in the USA… except that the abolitionists of the North were pushing for an end to all slavery instantly, and it’s hard to say that they were wrong except by looking at the senseless carnage that resulted.

    (Just to confuse matters further, there’s some evidence that slavery was starting to fade anyway – because it was uneconomic. Once you have machines, you can’t have slaves running them, because sabotage is just too easy and someone with training in machine operation and repair has a valuable, and marketable, skill. But again, that was a solution to slavery that would have taken effect by perhaps 1890, not right-now-this-minute.)

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