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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 134-137

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Book Review

The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson Edited by Christopher Looby. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. xix + 393 pp. $35

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) had a long and distinguished career as a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, abolitionist, and women's rights advocate, as well as editor, biographer, essayist, and literary critic. He is probably best remembered today as the man Emily Dickinson turned to for literary advice early in her noncareer. Eventually, he would co-edit (with Mabel Todd) her first volume of verse, Poems (1890). Very early in his intellectual development, Higginson fell under the spell of Emerson's Transcendental reformism; after graduating from Harvard College and the Divinity School, he served for three years (1847-50) as a Unitarian pastor in Newburyport, Massachusetts, until his radical abolitionist views alienated his congregation. He later took another position in Worcester, Massachusetts, but in 1858 he left that position to follow an antislavery career that would eventually take him to Kansas where he became a friend and confidant of John Brown and a member of the "Secret Six," notorious after Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

When the Civil War started, Higginson felt the call and noted in a letter to his mother, reproduced in this collection, "No prominent antislavery man has yet taken a marked share in the war, & as I am satisfied that there are a great many in this & other states who would like to go if I do, I have made up my mind to take part in the affair, hoping to aid in settling it quickly" (225). The comment is typical of Higginson's tone throughout his journal and letters, both of which were written with a larger audience in mind. (The journal, especially, would serve as the basis for his Army Life in a Black Regiment [1870].) He is at once high-minded and idealistic, [End Page 134] and also just a bit pompous. But there can be no doubt that he was always sincere. Like Emerson and John Brown, both of whom he admired, he believed that a true idealist must always put his creed into his deed. He had already shown this years earlier in his activities in Kansas and in his unsuccessful effort to force the freeing of fugitive slave Anthony Burns from a Boston courthouse.

Higginson's first effort at service, in November 1861, was to form a regiment of ninety-day recruits in Worcester. Very soon, however, he was asked to take command of the first regular Union Army regiment made up exclusively of freed slaves. This group, the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, was organized in the coastal island region of South Carolina, near Port Royal. Higginson saw immediately the significance of the experiment to the cause of emancipation, and he accepted the challenge without hesitation. At a time when racism was the rule throughout most of the country, there was general skepticism that blacks could ever make a significant contribution in the struggle for their own freedom. Higginson, perhaps because of his Transcendental faith in the divinity of all mankind, did not share these doubts, and he felt that it was his special calling to lead those who would provide a demonstration of black courage, skill, and determination.

In his journal he notes, "Here ... is a position of great importance; as many persons have said, the first man who organizes & commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important service in the history of the War." This command, he goes on to observe, "falls ... remarkably into the line of all my previous preparations" (42). Later, he would emphasize the importance of the enterprise, and his particular role in it, by invoking a bit of Emersonian philosophy from "Self-Reliance" "Emerson says no man can do anything well who did not feel that what he was doing...


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pp. 134-137
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