The September release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a wide range of voices and perspectives. The documents include a discourse on slavery in reaction to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry prior to the war; a Confederate general’s report on a Union general during the war; and two retrospectives written years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Often these differing viewpoints provide details and nuances not found in other Civil War accounts.
Letter from General C.F. Henningsen in Reply to the Letter of Victor Hugo on the Harper's Ferry Invasion (1860)
Charles Frederick Henningsen was a mercenary who participated in conflicts in Spain, Nicaragua, and Hungary before joining the Confederacy and serving as a brigadier-general. Although it is unclear whether he was born in England or Brussels, his views on slavery and Africans, as espoused here, are unambiguous. He wrote this work the year after abolitionist John Brown failed in his attempt to seize the Harpers Ferry arsenal and start an armed slave revolt. Victor Hugo, a French writer and political activist, had written a letter asking the United States to spare John Brown’s life, but it was received after Brown had been executed in December 1859. Henningsen’s response to Hugo quickly moves past the specifics of Brown’s raid and his own approval of Brown’s execution. He instead turns to the overall condition of Africans and African-Americans, writing that their “race has a different, and, in some respects, inferior mental organization, certainly, to the Caucasian race, and probably to every other, and that he is wanting in natural capacity for freedom.”
Henningsen explained his understanding of the differences between the races, comparing slavery to European serfdom, before voicing a sentiment still echoed in some corners today.