The idol of the frontier people

Posted by | December 20, 2012

Please welcome guest author Gordon Belt. Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. In the following piece, from his Posterity Project blog, Belt explores the work of fiction writer James Roberts Gilmore, “who endeavored to cross over into the world of non-fiction to explore the extraordinary life of John Sevier.” Reprinted with permission.

 

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 10, 1823, James Roberts Gilmore’s early career began as a businessman. By the age of twenty-five, he had worked his way up the corporate ladder to become the head of a cotton and shipping firm in New York City. His frequent business trips to the South provided Gilmore with the inspiration to become a writer, and by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Gilmore retired from his shipping business to focus his attention on becoming an author.

John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder

John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder

In the early years of the Civil War, Gilmore’s writings gained widespread attention for their realistic portrayals of southern life and graphic accounts of slavery. Writing under the pen name Edmund Kirke, Gilmore’s novels, Among the Pines (1862), My Southern Friends (1862), Down in Tennessee (1863), Among the Guerillas (1863), Adrift in Dixie (1863), On the Border (1864), and Patriot Boys (1864), resonated with his audience, and inspired many in the North to take up the Union cause of emancipation.

In 1862, Gilmore founded the Continental Monthly magazine to advocate for emancipation as a political necessity. By July 1864, Gilmore was so well-regarded that President Abraham Lincoln entrusted him to conduct an unofficial mission to Richmond to arrange for a peaceful settlement to the Civil War. Gilmore’s efforts, however, failed. Confederate President Jefferson Davis would not agree to any peace proposal that did not include a declaration of independence for the Confederate States. By the end of the Civil War, the Union had won, but Gilmore lost the fortune he had built up as a businessman prior to the conflict. He decided to enter into business again in 1873, but the desire to write never left him. By 1883, he retired again and applied himself anew to the pursuit of literature.

In 1880, he wrote a book entitled The Gospel History, which was a re-telling of  The Life of Jesus, according to His Original Biographers. In the same year, Gilmore wrote The Life of James A. Garfield, which during the presidential campaign and immediately afterward sold 80,000 copies.

The Rear Guard of the Revolution by James R. Gilmore

The Rear Guard of the Revolution by James R. Gilmore

Gilmore began to build a reputation as a writer of history, and soon embarked on a quest to chronicle the life of John Sevier. In 1886 he published The Rear Guard of the Revolution, an account of the early settlement of Tennessee, and later published two companion volumes entitled, John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder (1887), and The Advance-Guard of Western Civilization (1888).

In The Advance-Guard of Western Civilization, Gilmore described his goal for writing this three-volume history of the early American frontier:

“The three volumes cover a neglected period of American history, and they disclose facts well worthy the attention of historians — namely, that these Western men turned the tide of the American Revolution, and subsequently saved the newly-formed Union from disruption, and thereby made possible our present great republic. This should be enough to secure for their story an attentive hearing, had it not the added charm of presenting to view three characters — John Sevier, James Robertson, and Isaac Shelby — who are as worthy of the imitation of our American youth as any in their country’s history…

…In this and my two preceding volumes I have endeavored to rescue from oblivion her earliest and greatest heroes; and, if I have done my work as faithfully as I ought, historians will no longer ignore their existence, but be swift to assign to them the exalted places to which they are entitled in American History.”

James Gilmore singled out Sevier, Robertson and Shelby as men of “boundless courage, a constant fortitude, a self-devoted patriotism, worthy of the most heroic ages.” However, by Gilmore’s estimation, history had ignored these men. Of John Sevier, Gilmore lamented, “No other man of equal talents and equal achievements has been so little noticed in American history.”

Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey

Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey

In an effort to rescue John Sevier from oblivion, Gilmore constructed his narrative on the foundation of others. Gilmore relied heavily on the work of Dr. James Gettys McGready Ramsey for historical background. Ramsey’s The Annals of Tennessee (1853) was “used somewhat in the manner of a textbook” to provide historical background. Gilmore also claimed that Dr. Ramsey was “on terms of the closest intimacy” with John Sevier, “from early childhood till he was of the age of eighteen, when Sevier died.” According to Gilmore:

“Dr. Ramsey informed me that Sevier was very fond of young people, and that it was his custom in his old age to gather them about him and tell to them the story of his campaigns by the hour together. It was thus that Ramsey imbibed that fondness for pioneer history which bore fruit in his ‘Annals of Tennessee.'”

Gilmore also relied upon “traditions” gathered from nearly fifty descendants whom he met sometime between 1880 and 1884. Gilmore claimed that these direct descendants “had personally known John Sevier and many of his compatriots” and furnished him with letters from John Sevier himself, all of which, according to Gilmore, “helped to make the present volume more full and accurate.”

For those who might question Gilmore’s research methods, he stated, “Among many there is a prejudice against tradition as a foundation for historical writing; but it should be borne in mind that most history is, and was, originally tradition.” It was Gilmore’s sincere conviction that he had compiled an “authentic history” of John Sevier’s life, based on the stories and anecdotes told to him by his aged contemporaries.

In James Gilmore’s eyes, John Sevier could do no wrong. He was a galiant hero, “a providential man,” and a predestined leader of men. According to Gilmore, “I have conversed with a number of aged men who knew Sevier well in their boyhood, and they all agree in describing him as possessed of a personal magnetism that was nothing less than wonderful.”

John Sevier's portrait by Charles Willson Peale

John Sevier’s portrait by Charles Willson Peale

In describing John Sevier, Gilmore took great pains to express how important it was to come from what he perceived as a proper bloodline. In Gilmore’s Commonwealth-Builder, North Carolinians were cast as “wretched sand-hillers… with not one competent leader,” and runaway Englishmen “who could trace their lineage no further than the prisons and slums of London.” Sevier, however, “was not of the ordinary type of backwoodsman.” Gilmore wrote:

“He was a gentleman born and bred; and in his veins flowed some of the best blood of the French and English nations. He had the force and fire of the Navarre Huguenots combined with the solid Anglo-Saxon elements which have had here, perhaps, their highest expression in our venerated Washington. This peculiar blending of qualities was seen even in his face, which, while in contour and lineament strikingly like that of Washington, had the mobility of feature and delicacy of expression which belong to the French physiognomy.”

It seemed that John Sevier’s greatness was only limited by what little was written about him, and Gilmore believed it was his mission to deliver John Sevier to his rightful place along side the heroes of our republic.

As an Indian fighter, John Sevier’s reputation was amplified by Gilmore’s narrative. In The Advance-Guard of Western Civilization, Gilmore wrote that Sevier “was carrying fire and sword to the Cherokee towns among the Smoky Mountains,” and that the Native American population regarded Sevier “as well-nigh invincible.” Gilmore claimed that the Cherokee had a “superstitious dred… for the ‘Great Eagle of the pale-faces.'” “For John Sevier was at the head of the border militia,” Gilmore wrote, “and his name was a terror to the Cherokees.”

The white settlers of the region regarded Sevier as their unquestioned leader. Gilmore wrote, “The district had been largely settled by Revolutionary soldiers, and at this time, and for years afterward, they formed the bulk of its population. They retained their Revolutionary traditions, and still looked to their old officers as their natural leaders.” Gilmore further wrote, “there was something in the very name of Sevier to stir the pulses of the border.” He was “the beloved of all the people.”

James Gilmore’s admiration for John Sevier was only matched by his disdain for Sevier’s enemies. He described Joseph Martin as a “treacherous friend and a self-seeking demagogue.” His opinion about John Tipton was no less kind. Gilmore called Tipton “profane, foul-mouthed, turbulent, and of an irascible, domineering temper.” Gilmore further wrote of John Tipton:

“He lacked every quality of a gentleman except personal courage, and that nameless something which comes down in a man’s veins from an honorable ancestry. He had the ambition but not the ability to lead, and he could not understand why men should give to Sevier such unquestioning allegiance. He did not know that there is a ‘divine right’ in commanding talents, exercised unselfishly in a people’s service. He was greedy for office, and a born demagogue, and he had the natural jealousy of Sevier that men of low and yet ambitious minds feel for their moral and intelllectual superiors.”

In James Gilmore’s world, John Sevier not only triumphed over his enemies and conquered his adversaries, he also had the support of the frontier people. Gilmore wrote:

“Sevier was the idol of the frontier people. His captivating manners, generous public spirit, great personal bravery, and high soldierly qualities, had won him the admiration and love of every man, woman, and child in the Territory. For years, without pay or reward, he had stood sentinel over their homes, had guided them through terrible dangers, and led them to wonderful victories; and now, when a hand that should have been friendly was lifted against his life, every man felt it as a blow aimed at his own person, an outrage that could be wiped out only in blood.”

Following his death in 1815, memories of John Sevier’s historical significance to the region faded. He was overshadowed by the larger-than-life exploits of his bitter rival, Andrew Jackson. Years later, as the Civil War raged, thoughts of John Sevier’s importance to the state of Tennessee were buried beneath an avalanche of death and destruction. Following the end of the war and Reconstruction, at a time when the nation sought healing, John Sevier’s rediscovered notoriety as a key participant in the Revolutionary War and as a leader in his efforts to create a representative form of government west of the Appalachian mountains, gave writers like James Gilmore the ammunition they needed to not only resurrect John Sevier’s reputation as a regional hero, but also put him on the national stage. Suddenly, John Sevier’s name was mentioned in the same breath as our nation’s Founding Fathers, thereby reuniting North and South through a common bond of liberty. Through James Roberts Gilmore’s efforts, John Sevier became a “Commonwealth-Builder” once again, in life, in death, and in memory, for all of posterity.

One Response

  • Mark Curran says:

    Interesting, thank you! I will have to read a couple of Gilmores books.

    One thing I’ve learned from reading books from that period — now many of them are available online free, and searchable — is that they romanticize things, often absurdly.

    Gilmore, though he does not name the Southern leaders, says astonishingly, that Southern leaders are like Satan. Let me quote:

    Everywhere there are men in whom God has im-
    planted so much of the principle of goodness, that
    it cannot be dwarfed by the most barren soil, or
    chilled by the most icy atmosphere ; and there are
    such men — many of them — among the ^* chivalry ”
    of the South. But, as a class, they are all that I say.
    In all the traits I have named, they are the equals
    of Satan ; and in political cunning and dishonesty
    they outdo “the wild devil withal,” and almost
    equal some of our Northern politicians.

    And is it to these men, who are born aristocrats,
    who have no one principle or feeling in harmony
    with republican institutions, who are black with a
    blackness which is ingrained, — has struck inwards,
    and dyed their very souls, — that we would commit
    again the government of the South, while we deny
    to the other black men, whose skins only are col-
    ored, the right to say at the ballot-box that they
    are men, and that white men, with white souls,
    shall rule over them ?

    The guy was astonishing in his fervor, but left enough wiggle room you weren’t sure who exactly he meant. Davis and Lee? Were those the equal of Satan?

    Interestingly, George Mason predicted these kind of men, raised from birth in the “school of hell” — or as he called it, “infernal school” of slavery, to be born and raised thinking God ordained slavery and cruelty toward slaves, there would come a time when men who appeared at gentlemen, they would have nice clothes and speak like gentlemen, but they would be as cruel as any despot ever born. And they would insist on the spread of slavery, and push the country into a violent calamity.

    There were men who pretty well nailed Confederate leaders, whether you agree with them or not.

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