Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Mudsills vs. Chivalry

Writing home from Alabama in November 1863, an Ohio cavalryman celebrated the overthrow of the Southern aristocracy: “The mud sills of the North roam at will over the plantations, burn rails, forage on the country, and the negroes flock into our camps, leaving their lordly masters helpless and dependent,” he rejoiced. “Alas! for the pride and boasting of the chivalrous subjects of King cotton!”[1] He described not one, but two intertwined revolutions unleashed as slavery collapsed and elite pretensions crumbled. Especially illuminating was his triumphant reference to “mud sills,” a loaded term which connected wartime upheaval to antebellum politics.

“Mudsill” became a political catchword in 1858 thanks to an infamous speech by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina. A separate southern nation, he proclaimed, would thrive, thanks to its control over cotton production and its stable social order. According to Hammond, every civilization needed a class of manual workers: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” he proclaimed. “It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.” Northerners consigned whites to this degraded status, but the South had “found a race adapted to that purpose” and built a society on the bedrock of black labor. “We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves….I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.[2]

Northerners, convinced that proslavery ideologues threatened the dignity and liberty of all working people, were outraged. Workers appropriated the mudsill label, transforming an insulting epithet into a badge of pride. Across the North, “high-spirited mechanics and laborers” organized “Mud-Sill Clubs” and urged workingmen to vote Republican in the 1858 midterm elections. A banner hoisted at one of Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas read: “Small-Fisted Farmers, Mud Sills of Society, Greasy Mechanics, for A. Lincoln.”[3] As Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson recalled, Hammond “opened the eyes of [northern] men to the spirit, aims, and purposes of the Slave Power as perhaps no previous demonstration had been able to effect.”[4]

This “demonstration” shaped popular understandings of the crisis that followed A. Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860. Northerners readily attributed secession to the same elite class that espoused the mudsill doctrine. One Illinois soldier commenced his wartime diary by writing that the “slave olagarchy of the southern states…having lost their former political control of the government and not being minded to submit to the humiliation of sharing that control with the mud sills of the north…determined to suceed from the federal union and form a confederacy of their own based on the foundation rock of slavery.”[5]

E. Bowers and G.L.J., “Mudsills Are Coming: A New Army Song” (Boston: Russell & Patee, 1862). Songs like “Mudsills Are Coming” reminded northerners of the insulting implications of proslavery ideology and sustained their enthusiasm for the war. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Hammond’s epithet also spurred northern workingmen to enlist. “‘I am a mud-sill’ is now a common expression of the Soldiers who fight for liberty,” reported the New York Tribune in June 1861.[6] Patriotic songs and poems amplified this theme. The song “Northmen, Come Out!” encouraged recruits to come “Out in your strength and let them know/How Working Men to Work can go./Out in your might and let them feel/How Mudsills strike when edged with steel.”[7] The poem “March of the Mud-Sills” exhorted northern workers to vanquish southern oligarchs and reconstruct a truly democratic Union, so that “the class that built the nation, from their energy and skill/Shall be free to mould its progress by the edict of their will.”[8]

Northern recruits itched to prove themselves in combat. While idling on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, one soldier wrote that all his comrades wanted was a chance to “teach the rebel scoundrels a lesson which will convince them that the ‘mud sills’ of the north are fully equal to any chivalry the F F V’s [First Families of Virginia] can produce.”[9] Battlefield victories were especially sweet for Union soldiers like Charles Harvey Brewster who relished seeing the “chivalry and the cream of everything in the United States…break and run like sheep before the Mudsills” at the Battle of Malvern Hill.[10]

Mudsill-related resentments also shaped Union soldiers’ interactions with southern civilians. They inspired some soldiers to assist fugitive slaves, not least because they savored opportunities to humiliate lordly masters. A New York artilleryman reported on a Virginia planter who boarded his transport ship in search of runaway slaves: blue-collar soldiers seized the “fine Virginia gentleman” and tossed him overboard. Imagine, the soldier wrote to his parents, “a F[irst] [F]amily [of] V[irginia] being tossed fifteen feet in the air, three times, by Union solders – Northern mudsills.”[11]

“The Pending Contest.” Published in 1864, this political cartoon depicts the Civil War as a battle between secession and popular rule. The caption throws the mudsill epithet back at the humbled secessionist, who laments: “I will kill him if I can, and yet, this Mudsill, whom I have despised as a mercenary coward, insulted, and would have trodden under foot, has proved to be a very giant in courage and resources.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Similar sentiments also goaded Union soldiers to target wealthy households for pillage and destruction. While campaigning in Mississippi, a group of Illinois volunteers spared the home of an impoverished Unionist and raided a larger estate owned by a Confederate matron who denounced them as “mudsills” and “Lincoln hirelings.” To the Illinoisans who emptied her larder, she was triply implicated by her wealth, allegiance, and conceit.[12]

Union vengeance against South Carolina aristocrats was especially severe. As William T. Sherman’s legions prepared to march into the Palmetto State in early 1865, Union General Henry W. Slocum mused that Sherman “will soon introduce his mud-sills of the north to the cream of southern aristocracy.” “The meanest private soldier,” Slocum added, “knows the history of this contest and the part played by South Carolina. She will pay a fearful penalty.”[13] Slocum was right. Weeks later, a Massachusetts officer surveyed with satisfaction the ruined homes of “rich, aristocratic, chivalrous, slaveholding” Carolinians who had started the war to “gratify their aristocratic aspirations…and to indulge in their insane hatred for us Yankee mud-sills.”[14]

Unionists expected that mudsill ingenuity would rebuild the South on a foundation of freedom and progress. “The South will yet blossom like the rose over the grave of slavery,” wrote one eager editor in 1864, “and ‘Northern mudsills, greasy mechanics, and small fisted farmers’ be the media through which her regeneration shall be accomplished.”[15] Some called for dividing plantations into small farms worked by northern mudsills and emancipated slaves.[16]

Reconstruction did not fulfill these hopes, but attention to mudsill rhetoric reminds us that words matter. Intending to celebrate southern strength, Hammond provoked a storm of northern fury that raged until much of the South lay in ruins. A generation later, an Indianan remembered Hammond’s speech as a turning point:

It is hardly possible to estimate the power which may be concentrated in a word, or a phrase. In March, 1858, in the Senate of the United States, the haughty J.H. Hammond christened the laboring men of the Free States as “Mudsills,” and the sneering and insulting epithet burned the quick sensibilities of the mechanics, the artisans, the farmers and the laborers of the nation, as molten lava might burn their physical frames, and they never forgot nor forgave the atrocious and cowardly insult, until they lit their pathway through South Carolina by the light of blazing homes and burning palaces.[17]

Living in a digital age in which we are bombarded by ephemeral text, it is worth remembering that words can stick, and ideas can take hold – and have consequences far into the future.

 

[1] “B” to Dear Harper, November 12, 1863, Gallipolis Journal, November 26, 1863.

[2] Cong. Globe, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., appendix, 71.

[3] Eugene Fitch Ware, The Lyon Campaign in Missouri: Being a History of the First Iowa Infantry (Topeka: Crane & Company, 1907), 33-34; “The Ground Tier Moved!” Lewisburg (PA) Chronicle, August 20, 1858; Bangor (ME) Whig, reprinted in the Randolph County (IN) Journal, August 19, 1858; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 196-198.

[4] Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), II, 550.

[5] William Wiley, entry for August 1862, in The Civil War Diary of a Common Soldier: William Wiley of the 77th Illinois Infantry, ed. Terrence J. Winschel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 1.

[6] “Mud-Sills,” New York Tribune, reprinted in (Findlay, OH) Hancock Jeffersonian, June 14, 1861.

[7] “Northmen, Come Out!” Vanity Fair 3 (May 4, 1861), 215.

[8] [G.P. Stevens] “The March of the Mud-Sills,” Harvard Magazine 8, no. 68 (October 1861): 59-61.

[9] Charlie to My own darling wife, May 3, 1862, in Dear Friends at Home: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, First Battalion, 1861-1864, ed. Edward K. Cassedy (Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 2001), 82.

[10] Charles Harvey Brewster to [?], ca. July 4, 1862, in Charles H. Brewster, When This Cruel War Is Over: The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster, ed. David W. Blight (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 343.

[11] Edmund Evarts to My Dear Parents, September 9, 1863, in Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battle-Field and Prison, ed. Lydia Minturn Post (New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1865), 191-192.

[12] Daniel O. Root, War Time Stories: An Illinois Soldier’s Civil War Experiences, ed. Richard A. Chrisman (n.p.: Trafford Publishing, 2011), 59-62.

[13] Quoted in Brian C. Melton, Sherman’s Forgotten General: Henry W. Slocum (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 193.

[14] Charles Fessenden Morse to [?], January 31, 1865, in Letters Written During the Civil War 1861-1865 (n.p.: Privately Printed, 1898), 210-212.

[15] “The Demand for Men,” Daily Union, reprinted in (Brattleboro) Vermont Phoenix, April 22, 1864.

[16] “Rewarding the Army,” Continental Monthly 2, no. 2 (August 1862): 161-165; Daniel M. Holt to My dear Wife, February 7, 1864, in A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., ed. James M. Greiner, Janet L. Coryell, and James R. Smithier (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994), 171-172.

[17] Corydon E. Fuller, Reminiscences of James A. Garfield with Notes Preliminary and Collateral (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1887), 309.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

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