Thursday, October 07, 2021

Did Confederate die-hards start the Great Chicago Fire? New book suggests they did

Currier & Ives lithograph obtained from the Chicago Historical Society

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Chicago Fire. Although it is an event so important in our civic history that it merits one of the four stars on the Chicago flag, it is also shrouded in myth and mystery.

And maybe this is so for a very good, and hitherto unsuspected, reason: To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, perhaps we can't handle the truth.

That's a conclusion you may come to if you read a new book by Robert P. Hillmann, The Great Chicago Fire: The Southern Rationale.

Full disclosure: I've known Bob Hillmann since we were both history majors at Loyola University in the 1970s and I can vouch for his assertion, in the book, that it was many years in the making.

A goodly portion of the book is devoted to an utter demolition of a number of popular understandings of the fire. Mrs. O'Leary, and her cow, and Peg Leg Sullivan are all exonerated. What is compelling in Hillmann's step-by-step, moment-by-moment account, drawn from original sources, is the conclusion that there was no one Chicago Fire; there were many. And windblown embers or flying, flaming timbers did not kindle these many fires, or certainly not all of them: The immediate eyewitness testimony suggests that many buildings caught fire from within -- and in a pattern that had nothing to do with documented wind patterns.

And, yes, we all know that the Water Tower did not burn... but the nearby Water-Works (which should have supplied water to fight the fires) did. And it was supposed to have been fireproof.

Once you realize that there were not one, but many Chicago Fires that erupted on the evening of October 8, 1871, a number of uncomfortable questions arise.

To ease into this... back when I was representing insurance companies in fire cases I learned that multiple points of origin are indicative of arson. As it is with suspicious residential fires, so it is with burning cities. But... if all of these fires... or even if only some of these files... were set, who were the arsonists? And if the facts, then as now, pointed to arson, why did the authorities gloss over these facts, spreading malarkey about cows and hurricanes instead?

Hillmann's book suggests some new, intriguing, and very unsettling answers.

We all think of the Civil War ending when Lee met Grant at Appamattox Court House in April 1865. That's the way it was taught in school. But Joe Johnston was still in the field when Lee surrendered, as was Kirby Smith. The Juneteenth holiday commemorates the Federal reoccupation of Galveston, Texas (a full two months after Lee handed over his sword). The Rebellion did not end neatly or suddenly; it sputtered out here and there and (based on personal observations during a 2015 driving trip through the South) in some places maybe not at all.

And at least two types of Reconstruction followed. Andrew Johnson's personal Reconstruction policy allowed all the Rebel leaders to remain at large (even Jefferson Davis spent no more than a couple of years in custody). Though the "Radical" Republicans could and did overturn his equally lenient political settlement, requiring, if only for a brief time, the Southern States to allow Black votes and accept Black elected officials, the persons most implacably opposed to Congressional Reconstruction were free to work -- and work together -- to undermine it.

And, as Hillmann's book makes clear, the political and military leaders of the failed Rebellion had more tools at their disposal than sympathetic Democratic politicians and editors in the North. The Confederates had developed an extensive secret service during the war years, operating out of Canada, and arson was a favorite tactic for their covert operators. And Southern arsonists used a particular type of incendiary, referred to as "Greek fire," after the legendary superweapon of the Byzantines. The similarities in properties between these documented Confederate incendiary devices and incendiary devices discovered in Chicago after the Great Fire provides some important circumstantial evidence for Hillmann's hypothesis of Southern involvement.

And that's not the only evidence Hillmann offers -- but you may want to read about it yourself. Among the questions you may ask: What was P.G.T. Beauregard hoping to give President Grant on that train? An olive branch? Or a threat? Both?

We can never know for sure whether the Great Chicago Fire was really a die-hard Confederate werewolf operation. It's an explanation that fits a lot of the facts -- although not all of them, certainly. There were two other massive fires in the Midwest at the same time, one in Peshtigo, Wisconson, and the Great Michigan Fire. By some measures, both of these other fires were worse than the Chicago Fire. But the Southern Rationale checks a good many boxes. Hopefully Hillmann's new book will spark (if I can use that word here) further academic inquiry.

What we do know for sure is that the political will to support Reconstruction began to fade well before the disputed presidential election of 1876. Did the vulnerability of northern cities to organized bands of die-hard Rebel arsonists contribute to that erosion of political will? The abandonment of Reconstruction lead to 90 years of Southern White Supremacist domination in Congress and 90 years before the Reconstruction Amendments acquired any meaningful statutory teeth. The surrender of the promise of Reconstruction, for mere partisan advantage, is a matter of national embareassment, which continues to damage the nation today. If part of the explanation for the failure of the political will to support meaningful Reconstruction was capitulation to terrorist threats---if we shifted the blame for the Fire to poor Mrs. O'Leary's cow to preserve a fragile peace, at the expense of the nation's Black population---our national shame is even greater.

But, as my mother used to say, tell the truth and shame the Devil. The way forward requires looking back honestly. And accurately. And it may require looking South.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this very interesting and important post. I’m ordering the book now! - DMG