Oscar Lieber: Southern Scientist, Southern Patriot
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Oscar Lieber: Southern Scientist, Southern Patriot James O. Breeden Early in my career, I became acquainted with War's Aftermath, written by David Starr Jordan and his son, Henry Ernest Jordan. This pioneer study of the eugenics of the Civil War in America vividly depicts not only the enormity of the conflict's carnage but, even more important, the tragic meaning of the human toll. "In spite of its thousands of examples of heroism and self-sacrifice," the Jordans concluded, "it was plainly a strife between brothers, and a strife in which no one gained through his brother's loss."1 This little-voiced perspective on America's most celebrated conflict was recalled to mind several years ago when, researching the history of southern science, I happened upon, in the University of South Carolina's South Caroliniana Library, the Civil War era correspondence of Oscar Montgomery Lieber and his parents. The contents—the story of a loving family torn apart by the sectional hostilities and the tragic loss of a budding intellectual—poignantly personalize the Jordans's message. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Oscar Lieber was one of the Old South's most promising young scientists. Lieber's intellectual bent in a region where cotton and slaves took precedence over matters of the mind is largely attributable to the influence of his father, Francis Lieber, one of the nineteenth century's best known educators and political philosophers. The elder Lieber was born into a successful Berlin business family in 1798.2 His boyhood was spent in a Europe ravaged by 1 David Starr Jordan and Henry Ernest Jordan, War's Aftermath: A Preliminary Study of the Eugenics of War as Illustrated by the Civil War in the United States and the Late Wars in the Balkans (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 79. 2 The standard biographies of Francis Lieber are Thomas Sergeant Perry, ed., The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber (Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1882) and Frank Freidel, Francis Lieber: Nineteenth Century Liberal (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1947); see also "Letters written by Francis Lieber to his little son Oscar while the latter was at school in Germany and also a few letters from the little schoolboy to his father," 1-4, Francis Lieber Papers, University of South Carolina Library (hereafter cited as FLSC ); Francis Lieber to Oscar Lieber, June 20, 1843, June 22, 1844, "Letters from South Carolina, from Washington, New York and Boston to his little son Oscar at School in Germany from 1839 to 1844 by Francis Lieber," ibid. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, e 1990 by the Kent State University Press oscar lieber227 Napoleon's wars of conquest. At fifteen, he fought with the Prussian Army during the Waterloo campaign, and received near-fatal wounds at the battle of Namur. After the defeat of Napoleon, the youth returned to his studies. But as a follower of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a leading exponent of Prussian nationalism, he was, in 1819, briefly imprisoned by the repressive monarchy before completing his education at the University of Jena. This eye-opening experience spawned an intense and lifelong hatred of tyranny. It is not surprising, then, that when the Greeks revolted against Turkish occupation and repression in 1821, Lieber rushed to the war zone. The appalling reception of the foreign volunteers and the cowardice and ineptness of the Greek revolutionaries, however, quickly transformed his fervor into disillusionment. Lieber left Greece after only three months and made his way to Italy, arriving penniless and in rags. He was befriended by the Prussian minister and prominent historian of Rome, Barthold Georg Niebuhr. Touched by the youth's misfortunes and impressed with his intelligence, Niebuhr made him tutor to his son. Lieber returned to Berlin in 1823, only to encounter renewed political oppression for his liberal leanings. Even the well-placed Niebuhr could do little to protect him. In 1826, frustrated and disillusioned, Lieber secretly made his way to England. A year later, he sailed for Boston. Life in America was a struggle until Lieber devised a plan for an encyclopedia patterned on Friedrich A. Brockhaus's well-known Conversations -Lexikon, the German...