REVIEW: Liberty to the Downtrodden: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer

Liberty to the Downtrodden: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer
by Matthew J. Grow

Jan 19, 2009
368 p., 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
16 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300136104
ISBN-10: 0300136102
Cloth: $40.00

Matthew Grow’s new book Liberty to the Downtrodden: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer is a bio of one of the little known but more interesting figures of the nineteenth century. Grow, a history professor at University of Southern Indiana, was able to flesh out Thomas Kane’s life using a trove of newly-available family material. Scion of a prominent Philadelphia family, Kane was prominently and often passionately involved in the important issues of his day both in the halls of politics and on the battlefield. His father John Kane was an important Pennsylvania politician, later appointed to a federal judgeship (his son Thomas served as his clerk). Physically a small man, just over five feet tall, Kane was often troubled by hypochondria (common enough at the time) and real illnesses, especially after his war service.

One of the more interesting parts of the book was Grow’s description of the dizzying politics of the 1850s, which Kane exemplified. He began the decade as an anti-slavery Democrat, breaking with his family. This wing of the party despised slavery but did not think the question worth tearing the country apart over. Kane was active in the Underground Railway and, even though he was the clerk of his father’s court in which the cases were tried aided several violators of the Fugitive Slave Act, which his brother Pat defended.

The evangelical reformers of New England epitomized militant Protestantism. Once a moral evil was detected, it had to be immediately and mercilessly extirpated regardless of the cost. One of these evils was slavery, but the other, almost now forgotten, was polygamy as practiced by Mormons. Many evangelicals railed against these “twin evils” and demanded action, including military force. As Grow points out, lurid headlines about the Mormon question competed with those of Bleeding Kansas.

Nevertheless Kane did not join the New England abolitionists and went instead with the short-lived Free Soil movement, which focused on stopping the spread of slavery rather ending it. In the 1860 election, however, Kane supported John C. Breckinridge, not because he supported his pro-slavery stance but because he wished to avoid the all-out confrontation that Lincoln’s election provoked. Once the war began, however, he became a Republican, stowed his pacifist principles, and supported abolition.

Kane was at his best working behind the scenes at high levels, negotiating political deals and influencing public opinion. Grow does a very good job of showing How Things Were Done in the mid-19th Century. Kane wrote pamphlets and other propaganda, ghosted many articles and editorials in friendly newspapers to influence public opinion, and moved easily in the highest political circles. He was adept at what would now be called “backchannel” communications to politicians and newspaper editors at a time when it was not considered proper for gentlemen to enter the grubby world of journalism. He was extremely effective in countering anti-Mormon opinion in the 1850s by emphasizing a subject so familiar to us today—the suffering of the innocents. Grow points out that until the nineteenth century suffering was seen as God’s will and unavoidable. With the combination of the industrial revolution and enlightened thought, however, suffering was seen to be more human caused, entailing a duty to alleviate it. Kane thus emphasized the travails of the Mormon rank and file, moving the focus away from polygamy and the church’s theocratic structure.

In Utah he proved to be an adept diplomat, brokering a peaceful solution to the “Mormon War” of 1857-58. Although never a Mormon himself, he became a close and lasting friend of Brigham Young and other church elders, and is remembered (he has a statue in Salt Lake City) as a friend of the Saints in their time of need. Grow is right that the Utah confrontation is almost forgotten today because its peaceful resolution was overshadowed by the great sectional crisis two years later, but I think that Kane’s success led many at the time to believe that the latter emergency could also be settled without bloodshed. The Buchanan administration saw the Mormon rebellion in Utah in much the same way as the later one in South Carolina.

Kane had a much harder time working for with and especially for people, particularly in the army hierarchy. He considered himself a gentleman and had that exaggerated sense of honor more often seen in the South. In fact, Kane admired the Southern gentry and identified more with them than with the New England evangelicals, for whom he had little use. This sense of honor led to several challenges although no actual duels, including one delivered to the army commander in Utah, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston (it was resolved without shooting). Kane saw himself as a gentleman governed by chivalry and honor dedicated to reforming society along classically liberal lines, who was prepared to martyr himself for the good of others. To this end he advocated the emancipation of women (his wife Elizabeth was one of the first female doctors), the end of slavery, and numerous other causes. Grow characterizes him as a “romantic reformer”—a Byronesque figure always ready to leap into the fray on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. The down side of this was that given his upper-class consciousness, Kane’s efforts were invariably tinged with a strong element of noblisse. Grow also points out that while Kane could write movingly about the plight of Indians and slaves, he decried the evils of racial mixing  and even wrote a book about it. Like his contemporary Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes.

Grow’s treatment of Kane’s military service is brief, comprising only a single chapter, which will disappoint the Civil War student. Kane recruited four companies of backwoodsmen from western Pennsylvania, where he had relocated, and brought them east to form the nucleus of what became the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, the famous Bucktails (so called because each man wore a deer’s tail on his cap). Although initially elected colonel he dramatically stepped aside for fellow lawyer and Mexican War veteran Charles Biddle to take the job of lieutenant colonel. The two men soon clashed, and after Biddle left to assume political office Kane again ran for colonel but lost in a landslide to Captain Hugh McNeil, a former bank cashier and a man certainly not his social equal. I found it amusing to see Kane, master manipulator of public opinion, outmaneuvered in his own regiment. Indeed, the Bucktails often looked like a political party. When McNeil left on sick leave Kane “seceded” with four companies and left to operate independently in the 1862 Valley campaign. There he quickly earned a reputation for recklessness, garnered two serious wounds and was captured. Kane avoided another contest for colonel by finessing a promotion to brigadier general in September and led a brigade at Chancellorsville the next summer. His wounds continued to trouble him and he went on sick leave, but returned to lead his brigade briefly at Gettysburg, at which time his health broke down entirely, leading to his separation from the service for disability.

Although his service was limited to a militia commission, Kane was a tactical innovator and an early proponent of the rifle and the open order. One former officer, Captain John Bard, described their training as follows:

When exposed to heavy fire the Bucktails were instructed to scatter, and at all times were required to take advantage of whatever cover the ground afforded. If any part of the line was better protected than another, the men in that location would push forward and vigorously engage the enemy, under cover of their fire the more exposed part of the line would rush forward. Great responsibility was thrown upon the individual soldier. They were taught to take care of themselves and to take advantage of every opportunity for an advance of the line. In many instances the men had, of their own accord, without orders, rushed forward when under heavy fire and gained important advantage. They were taught to estimate distances on various formations, the estimates being proven by actual measurements, and, except when in general line of battle, to fire only when they had an object fairly in the sights of their rifle. In addition they were skilled marksmen and were constantly practicing at long range, from two hundred to one thousand yards. To their peculiar tactics, constant practice, individual responsibility and good marksmanship, can be credited the fearful punishment inflicted upon the enemy in every action in which they were engaged, without a proportionate loss to them.

Kane planned to publish a book on his “woodland tactics” and even took out a copyright on it, but alas Prof. Grow tells me that no drafts have survived, so Kane’s ideas must be deduced from the writings of others such as the excerpt quoted above. Although the Bucktails often fought on the skirmish line and were quite good at it, Kane’s superiors, both in the regiment and in the army at large, preferred a more conventionally-trained outfit. Like Hiram Berdan, his talents were better utilized in recruiting and organizing the Bucktails—after that his presence often proved divisive. Nevertheless, a current web site notes that “without a doubt, the Bucktails are Pennsylvania’s most famous Civil War unit.”

Physically the book is well designed and edited, as might be expected from Yale University Press, although pricey at $40. Grow writes well and the text is mercifully free of the political cant that infects so many academic tomes. Also much appreciated is Grow’s attempt to explain Kane as a man of the nineteenth Century and not as he would be seen today. In doing so he gives us an sharply-drawn glimpse of both the real person and his times.

For Civil War readers, this book will appeal most to those who would like a look at prewar Democratic politics (which were not so simple as they are sometimes made out to be) seen through the liberal upper-class ethos of men like Kane. It also provides a good look at the peaceful resolution of the “Mormon War,” which has been overlooked in the runup to the big show in 1860. Those interested in the actual conflict, however, will probably look elsewhere unless they have a special interest in the Pennsylvania Bucktails or General Kane himself.

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