Must Read Book

Jordan, Winthrop, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993).

All good historical studies involve sifting and evaluating a wide variety of primary source material. Only a small number, however, incorporate a discussion of the process of analysis of the evidence as an important part of the story. Winthrop Jordan's study of a slave conspiracy, discovered and thwarted by planters in Mississippi in 1861, is such a work. Tumult and Silence is extraordinary in many ways. Although Jordan makes full use of pertinent diaries, letters, and government records to flesh out the story, the core of this work is based upon an analysis of a single document: the record of interrogation of suspected conspirators taken down by Lemuel P. Conner, one of the planters present. Such interrogations, when slave conspiracies in the Old South were uncovered, were not uncommon; but it is rare indeed for a written record of the proceedings to be preserved. This document, along with other manuscript material, are reprinted verbatim in appendices. Jordan uses the Conner record to uncover the means and ends of the slaves' plan, in the process illuminating many aspects of the lives of both slaves and masters. The result is both a fascinating detective story and a deeply informed, microcosmic study of slavery in the Deep South at the beginning of the Civil War. Jordan's truly original contribution, however, lies in the his methodology. He takes the reader through the Connor record, not just line-by-line but often word-by-word, even speculating at times on the possible significance of different forms of punctuation used in the document. Tumult and Silence superbly illustrates how historians can glean the most knowledge from refractory evidence, while also demonstrating the limits imposed by the "silence" that lies behind all historical documents.

Recommended by Ken Kusmer, Temple University

Kenneth L. Kusmer is professor of History at Temple University where he teaches American social history and recent American history. A graduate of Oberlin College, he received the M.A. from Kent State University, where he studied with August Meier, and the Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago, where he studied with Neil Harris, John Hope Franklin, and John Coatsworth. He is the author of (University of Illinois Press) and Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press).