Lily Norton

Charleston, South Carolina, played a central role in the state’s headlong rush toward secession in December 1860, an act that led to the outbreak of the Civil War four months later. Journalist Paul Starobin explores the "mania" for war that gripped the city in Madness Rules the Hour, a lively and informative look at the political leaders, preachers and propagandists who inflamed Charleston in 1860—with dire consequences for the Union.

A former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, Starobin has been a contributor to The Atlantic, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. We asked him to tell us more about Charleston's pivotal role in the lead-up to war and the parallels between the pre-Civil War era and our current political climate of polarization.

What drew you to the subject of Charleston and the lead-up to the Civil War?
I have always been fascinated by the Civil War. When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, I made walking tours of battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam. So much has been written about the battles—I found myself drawn to the time before the shooting started. It started, of course, at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, and as I began to dig deeper, I came to realize that Charleston, the people who lived there, played a crucial role in launching the war. How did that happen? I felt driven to answer that question.

Why did Charleston have such an influential position in the South at that time?
Charleston had long played a dominant role in the slave trade and was more belligerent on the matter of protecting slavery than was any other city in the South. So radicals on secession, all over the South, were drawn to Charleston as a kind of lodestar on secession. The city personified the Old South—more so than Richmond or New Orleans, on a par with Savannah. Charleston also seemed to have a naturally immoderate personality—it tended towards extremes in its politics, in its revelries, in its opinion of itself. There seemed to be no middle ground in Charleston.

"I did find some people who feared the confrontation—but not as many as I expected. Charleston was on a bender."

Shed some light on your research process. Where did you start and what were your most rewarding sources?
I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to do the book would be in the form of a concentrated, granular narrative—so a reader could feel the pace, the urgency of the moment, as it was felt in Charleston at the time. I established a timeline for the year 1860 and by the time I was done with my research I had entries for just about every day and a file nearly 500 pages long. I needed to feel the year myself—the sights, sounds, smells, rhythms, all of it. Raw materials were crucial—I think to write history, you need also to feel your characters, to try to put yourself in their shoes, as hard as that can be for the more noxious characters. I put their portraits on my wall. Also maps, images of Charleston, pungent quotes, went on the wall. My best sources were in the archives of South Carolina's wonderful libraries—mainly in Charleston but also in Columbia, the state capital. They are a treasure trove of letters and diaries. And through the Google news archive, I was able to read on my home office desktop computer a full year's worth of The Charleston Mercury newspaper—an essential source for the book. I often began my day by reading a few days' worth of The Mercury. In my mind, at least, I was inhabiting a different time and place. Which was sometimes a welcome refuge from the present day.

What was the most surprising piece of information you unearthed while researching this book?
How joyful the secession cause was for so many ordinary citizens—the mechanics, the shopkeepers, the firemen, the ladies of all ages. It was like a party—the men marched through the streets singing martial songs and they drank innumerable toasts to the coming liberation of the South, the ladies wrote gushing poems to the bravery of their lads and stitched 'secession bonnets' and flags. White Charleston was so eager for a confrontation with the North, that when Lincoln's election was announced, in November, 1860, folks ran about the streets shouting, 'Hurra for Lincoln!' I did find some people who feared the confrontation—but not as many as I expected. Charleston was on a bender.

You catalog many forces that supported the rush to war. Is there one person or entity that deserves the most blame for leading the city of Charleston down this path?
It was a joint effort by a group of radical secessionists—really a collective more than any one person. In this group was a newspaper propagandist and his son, a gentleman merchant, a planter, and a federal judge. They are all to blame. So were the pastors who preached the gospel of secession from the pulpit. And more broadly, the white community of Charleston, which was overwhelmingly for secession—the community is also to blame. It somehow lost its capacity to think clearly.

Why were the citizens of Charleston so receptive to the calls for secession?
White Charleston experienced a crisis of fear and also what might be called a crisis of false hope. Fear in the sense that they believed, as they were told by the propaganda merchants, that their world was about to collapse with the election of Lincoln, the 'abolitionist' Republican, as President. So they had to break away from the Union. Immediately. False hope in the sense that they believed the fable that secession could be peaceful—because the cowardly Yankees would back away from a fight—and would lead to prosperity and security with the South taking its proud place as an independent nation of the world. I suppose they wanted to believe that very badly, so they did.

You write about many key figures in Charleston and in the Civil War. If you could sit down to dinner with one of the people in your book, who would it be?
I love this question! The answer is James Louis Petigru, a lawyer and town Elder—really a kind of social institution in Charleston. He was on the right side of the issue—he believed secession was utter folly, and told all of Charleston that, over and over—and he came up with with wonderfully barbed quips, like "South Carolina is too small for a Republic, but too large for an insane asylum." A man of immense charm, wit and vision. Ideal dinner companion.

What parallels do you see between our current political climate and the atmosphere in Charleston before the war?
Our current time, sadly, also is one of intense partisanship and polarization and venomous rhetoric. There is a lot of propaganda, on social media, on cable television—which was true of the highly partisan print press back then. Each side saying, thinking, the worst of each other. I don't think we are in a civil war at this point—we are obviously not in a shooting civil war. But are we on the threshold of such a moment? How would we know? I am keeping a running file called, New Civil War, to help me figure matters out.

As you describe in the final chapter of your book, Charleston was utterly devastated by the war—shelled daily by Union forces for 587 days and left in ruins. Did the people who pushed the city toward supporting secession pay a personal price for their actions?
Some of them did. The gentleman merchant, Robert Newman Gourdin, who organized a secret group to take the South out of the Union—he lost everything in the war and by life's end didn't even have the money to pay the laundress. The federal judge who tore off his robe and demanded 'secession now' after Lincoln's election—he was arrested by Union forces and thrown into jail. The editor of the pro-secession Mercury, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr.—his newspaper collapsed. The planter-propagandist, John Ferrars Townsend—his magnificent mansion burned to the ground and at the war's end he was living in a shed.

What lessons can we take today from what happened in Charleston in 1860?
There is a popular saying that the crowd can be wise—in this case, the crowd was mad. Reason took flight and existed in only a few sturdy individuals, who were not vulnerable to the wild passion of the masses. People must learn to think for themselves—to sift and sort what the media and politicians and pastors are saying and take nothing at face value. If you are in a media bubble, listening to all the same sources, pop it and find some contrary ones. Do your own homework, don't just go with the flow. To be a responsible citizen is not to be a sheep!

Paul Starobin’s Madness Rules the Hour is a lively and informative look at the political leaders, preachers and propagandists who inflamed Charleston with war fever in 1860.

Deborah A. Wolf makes her epic fantasy debut with The Dragon’s Legacy, the first novel in an ambitious trilogy about the Zeeranim, a tribe of fierce female warriors determined to protect their desert homeland. One of the brave young warriors, Sulema, is stunned to learn of her long-hidden connection to the powerful Dragon King who rules in a neighboring land. The novel traverses the sands of the Zeera desert and beyond as readers encounter dream-shifting shamans and terrifying mythical creatures.

Wolf has personal experience with wild landscapes and ferocious creatures, since she grew up in an Alaskan wildlife refuge. We asked her for some insight into what she calls her childhood as a “barbarian warrior”—with all its bumps and bruises—and how those experiences translate onto the page in her thrilling new novel.

How did you decide to create a matriarchal society like that of the Zeeranim? These characters pack some serious girl power. Are there any women in your life who should be ruling the world?
One of the things I’m having fun with as I write The Dragon’s Legacy series is trope-flipping. Desert tribes are overwhelmingly portrayed as male dominated and repressive of women and women’s sexuality, so I wanted to write that backwards and see what emotional impact it might hold for my readers. Also, I grew up in the middle of Alaska, and the women in my village were for the most part powerful and admirable, whether for their skills at hunting and fishing, jobs on fishing boats and in the oil fields, or for their abilities in providing for and raising families in a dangerous and awesome environment. My Granny should have ruled the world. It would be a much kinder place today had she a voice in making policy.

The Dragon’s Legacy is filled with all sorts of strange (and scary) animals. How did you come up with the creatures in the novel? Are they combinations of your favorite animals, your least favorite, or just animals that you think would look interesting blended together?
I grew up on wildlife refuges, so the natural world informed my development from an early age. I enjoy worldbuilding as far as imagining ecosystems and the life forms one might find, especially on a world born of a dragon’s dreaming.

World building is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Can you tell us how your experience as an Arabic linguist and your love of different cultures contributed to your talent for creating new worlds?
I can’t imagine how much more of a struggle this would be if my upbringing and early adulthood had been more homogeneous. Exposure to and appreciation for cultures different from my own have imbued me with a fascination for the breadth of the human experience; we are so strange, so wonderful and odd and funny and frightening as a species. Sulema is an intriguing and unique character. She is brave to the point of recklessness, fierce and strong.

Is there a little of you in Sulema? In a perfect world, would you like to live your life like hers?
There is a lot of me in Sulema, which is probably why I’ve had knee surgery, cortisone shots and some hearing loss. I regret nothing. Sulema is a good kid, and people who knew me as a young soldier will recognize many of her personality traits. That being said, I’m probably more like Hafsa Azeina [Sulema's adoptive mother] at this stage of my life.

If you woke up tomorrow as any mythical creature—including ones of your own invention—which one would it be and why?
A dragon, of course. Even the least of dragons inspires us to awe.

Which came to you first, the plot or the concept for the world of The Dragon’s Legacy?
The concept came first, though it was in the beginning a much simpler story, meant to be a quick sword and sorcery in the desert tale of Sulema’s journey to meet her father and create her destiny. Writing is much like parenting; you conceive a child and love it immediately with all your heart, and then kind of sit back and watch in awe as that child defies all your preconceived notions and grows into something more wonderful than you could have imagined. The novel has so many unique castes and occupations, from dreamshifters to First Mothers to vashai.

Was there any real-world or historical inspiration for the hierarchy and cultural structures in place?
I am an avid reader of histories, biographies and faerie tales, and at any given time you might find me engrossed in a National Geographic magazine or BBC documentary. So the short answer to this question would have to be “Yes, all of it.” History, current events, and a big dose of ‘what if’. What if China had interfered with Roman expansion? What if Atlantis had sunk down into the earth instead of the ocean? What if the threat of earthquakes in California is actually a result of a restless dragon stirring in her sleep?

Elaborate a little about the connection between issues in the book regarding indigenous peoples and their struggles to find and keep their place in a violent world. What has been your real-life connection to this topic, and what do you hope the reader comes away with?
I grew up in a mostly Native village on the Kuskokwim River, and have seen firsthand the social issues that directly result from imperial expansion and cultural genocide. These observations were not from the viewpoint of a seasoned adult with preconceived ideas and a view of the Other, but as a child whose friends’ lives were (and are) directly impacted by forces outside any of our small spheres of influence. I hope that the reader might come away with the ability to see indigenous peoples as people, ordinary people, rather than as savages or museum displays or quaint, backwards societies in need of enlightenment.

How did growing up in Alaska influence your development as a writer?
Because I attended high school in McGrath, Alaska, I was blessed to have come under the tutelage of English teacher Deane O’Dell, who (because she has the patience of all the saints) was able to imbue the reluctant mind of a young barbarian with an unlikely love of culture and literature. Alaska is huge, it is limitless and ancient and powerful, and it is deadly. Alaska will put you in your place and teach you the meaning of insignificance. Alaska taught me to love this world, and hope for its continued existence.

Also, the fishing is superb.

Who inspires you as an author? Are you a longtime reader of epic fantasy, and if so, what are some of your favorites in the genre?
I grew up reading such greats as Katharine Kerr, Katherine Kurtz and of course Anne McCaffrey; I wanted to be a Dragonrider so bad, you have no idea. I used to hunt for fire lizard clutches on the beach. More recently, favorites and inspirations include Pat Rothfuss, Robin Hobb and George Martin. This is a short excerpt of a very long list. I feel fortunate to live in such times, and humbled to be published in such august company.

Can we have a few hints about the forthcoming books in the trilogy?
Keep an eye out for spiders, and trust no one—especially not the author.

Deborah A. Wolf makes her epic fantasy debut with The Dragon’s Legacy, the first novel in an ambitious trilogy about a desert tribe of fierce female warriors.

While most readers familiar with Roman history have heard the name “Praetorian Guard,” many will readily admit that their knowledge of the elite squad charged with protecting Roman emperors is incomplete. In fact, the Praetorians have been the subject of numerous conflicting and uncertain historical accounts in need of clarification.

To that end, British historian Guy de la Bédoyère’s Praetorian chronicles the rise and fall of the Guard, which both protected and destroyed many emperors during its nearly 350-year history. De la Bédoyère illuminates this important facet of Roman history with precision, style and plenty of intrigue as regimes rise, prefects fall and emperors descend into madness.

At first glance, the book appears dense and intimidating—with its broad cast of characters and ample appendices—but de la Bédoyère’s account reads more like an epic military drama than a textbook. The author brings to life stories like the multiple assassination attempts carried out on the insane emperor Commodus by his Praetorian prefect. Knowing his days were numbered, like a long line of slaughtered prefects before him, Quintus Aemilius Laetus conspired with the emperor’s mistress to execute a failed poisoning attempt before simply having him strangled.

Demonstrating a misguided sense of self-confidence, the emperor Caligula openly invited a host of his prefects, including some of his Praetorians, to murder him if they wished. In a show of loyalty and deference to absolute authority, the prefects swore up and down that they would never harm Caligula—and later stabbed him to death as he listened to a song composed in his honor.

In the early fourth century, after backing the wrong side in a civil war (and seeing many of their number drown in the climactic Battle of the Milvian Bridge), the Guard was permanently dissolved by the emperor Constantine.

Praetorian includes a photo section depicting ruins, tombstones and artistic renderings of many figures from the book, adding an interesting visual component to the text.

De la Bédoyère, whose best known work in the U.S. is The Romans for Dummies, has crafted a well-researched but accessible narrative that will appeal to those fascinated with the military, all-around knowledge seekers and especially those with a passion for ancient history.

While most readers familiar with Roman history have heard the name “Praetorian Guard,” many will readily admit that their knowledge of the elite squad charged with protecting Roman emperors is incomplete. In fact, the Praetorians have been the subject of numerous conflicting and uncertain historical accounts in need of clarification. To that end, British historian Guy […]

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