Border and Bastille, by George Alfred Lawrence


George Alfred Lawrence (1827-76) was an English writer who travelled to North America during the Civil War/War between the States in a bid to join the Confederate Army of Virginia.  At first sight he did not seem prime military material: he had abandoned a career as a barrister for literature and made his mark as a novelist with Guy Livingstone (1857).  Published in 1863, Border and Bastille is part travelogue, part commentary on the war, part moan about his misadventures.  Setting off from England in the autumn of 1862, he describes his journey across the Atlantic to New York and his efforts to break through the Northern blockade to reach Confederate States territory.  His repeated attempts were frustrated as one plan after another went awry, and in Dantean fashion he found himself back in Baltimore at frequent intervals.  He managed to penetrate as far as Maryland when his expedition was abruptly terminated one night at the hands of a trio of civilian pickets who shot him in the knee and killed his horse.

The result of his arrest was that he was transported to Washington where he was imprisoned for two months.  He was released after he signed an undertaking in June 1863 to leave the United States forthwith and not return for the duration of the ‘existing rebellion’.  He readily complied with the terms as his financial and physical resources had been drained, glad to shake Federal dust from his heels.  During his confinement he had begun drafting this book, which allowed its speedy publication shortly after his return to England, having completed it while recovering in Devon.

He had joined the militia in England, and does consider himself a good judge of horseflesh, but he does not specify what he thought he could have offered the Confederate cause in person, ‘pen-work or handiwork’ being as precise as he gets.  His sympathies are clearly with the South, however opportunities for adventure and a book describing it appear to have been the primary motives.  He also had a deal with the Morning Post to send reports once in Confederate territory, so this agreement was never implemented (Charlotte Mitchell’s entry on Lawrence in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that William Tinsley, who published Border and Bastille, claimed later that Lawrence had been sent out as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, but this is not mentioned in the book, only the Post arrangement).  Lawrence got his book out of it, though it seems doubtful that sales covered his costs as these must have been considerable, not least in the purchase of horses.

Perhaps he saw an element of the plucky underdog in the Confederates missing in the Unionists that appealed to him, the former fighting for ‘freedom’, the latter for ‘subjugation’ (though it was the South’s freedom to subjugate its slave population, and the North’s subjugation of that freedom to subjugate, which was at stake).   He is frequently dismissive of the North, though he has positive things to say about some of the individuals he met there, expressing contempt for the press and many of the politicians.  His description of life in Washington DC and the characters he met there bear similarities with the satirical portions of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit set in America, and it is fair to say Lawrence was unimpressed with the Northern capital.

The final 50 pages move away from his abortive trip to examine aspects of the war.  A chapter presents an analysis of the Unionist military and its prospects for victory.  Naturally he has strong reservations about its leadership, organisation and tactics, contrasting them unfavourably with those of the Confederacy.  At the time he was writing the latter was still holding its own; an upbeat Lawrence notes its successes, alongside reverses suffered by its adversary and failures to press home advantages.  A further chapter looks at the issue of the border states, particularly Maryland, how varying attitudes to secession within its population were affecting the balance of power between the two combatants, and the risks border states ran in declaring for the Confederacy.

The conclusion, after indicating the North’s advantages in population and resources, gets down to the matter, not touched on previously, of Lawrence’s attitude to slavery.  As is to be expected, he finds points in its favour.  Agriculture in the South can only be maintained by black labour, and as they are naturally lazy, without compulsion productivity would decline to subsistence level.  Slavery, he feels, is an economic necessity transcending moral justification.  He suggests that in any case, blacks in the North are not particularly well treated.  Most surprisingly, he claims ‘the ordinary slave-rations far exceed, both in quantity and quality, the Sunday meal of an English West-country labourer; and that the comforts of all the aged and infirm, whom the master is, of course, obliged to maintain, are infinitely superior to those enjoyed by the like inmates of our most lenient workhouses.’  That doesn’t say much for the standard of living of West country labourers or workhouse inmates, but it implies a first-hand familiarity with the conditions of slaves which Lawrence did not possess.  He believes that in their childish simplicity they are better off as things stand, because freedom would turn happy individuals into sullen ones.  Here any notion of Lawrence as a high-minded adherent of a romantic attachment to Southern chivalry and desire for self-determination is dissolved into racism based on his belief in the inferiority of non-whites.

He sums up by stating that whatever the outcome, there could not, except by complete subjugation of the South, be unity between North and ‘Secessia’, and never amity, as antagonism will run too deep after the brutality of the conflict and is based on long-standing historical developments.  Worse, by trying to enforce its will, the North is laying open the contradiction between union and state loyalty, and may create opposition within its own borders to what is seen as a corrupt federal tyranny.  Apparently there were suggestions that a method of uniting the two sides would be to find a common enemy, notably Britain or France, with Canada or Mexico as the prize (this was the period of the ill-fated Second Mexican Empire backed by the French).  Lawrence is sniffy about prospects for such a plan, firstly on the grounds that not all Southern states would be willing to participate, secondly because the forces of ’Federalia’ would not be up to it militarily, and if they tried to cross their northern border they would soon change their minds about the plan’s merits.  He concludes by characterising Northern ambitions as economic and territorial, by states that can hardly be characterised as a nation because of their admixture from various European countries.  The South on the other hand is relatively homogeneous; it may be numerically smaller, but ‘Anglo-Saxon blood flows almost untainted’ in its veins, and it is fighting not for expansion of territory but for liberty.  The black population is entirely absent from his analysis.


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