Search View Archive

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

An Exposition Upon the Inspirations & Sources for my Historical Novel, “Row The Boat Ashore.”


Once upon a time, when I looked at the sky, I saw will. Today, the sky is the disappointments of my ancestors, as many lives as they had, as far as the eye can see.

In 1996, I wanted to publish a novel. I had already written a few, the third of which I believed was good enough to live on as a book—something which hadn't happened. It was not an easy time to publish, and I decided to distinguish myself with historical fiction, which is notoriously difficult to write—to research and invoke. I committed to reading about a period in America that interested me. That reading, principally concerned with a few years in the middle of the nineteenth century, would eventually turn into my first published novel, A Still Small Voice, which came out in 2000.

But the period research didn't start with the particulars of that story (a girl growing up through the Civil War, told in the style of a true fable). The first thing I researched was the song—spiritual, chantey, folksong—“Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” Not only did the song move me (it was a contemporary telling of the archangel Michael, who the Book of Daniel calls “the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people,”) it called from my familial memory, reaching back from New York to California to the American South.

“Blind” Alfred Reed, my great grandfather's first cousin, was an itinerant minister and musician. His songs were tales of love, tragedy and disaster, and jaunty Christian lyrics. Five of his songs—his renditions of popular folk songs—were meaningful enough to me that I aspired to write a group of novels based on them. Each novel would stem from his version of a popular American standard. Reed, who had the rare ability of singing while playing the violin, recorded several songs with the Victor record label in the late 20s; and his sheet music was published by J.L. Peters. Reed's interpretations of "Michael Row The Boat Ashore," "Gave My Love a Cherry," "Froggie Went a Courtin'," "O' My Darling Clementine," and "My Dear Annie," were my starting points. I began novels that expanded upon three of the songs.

Like many folksongs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Reed's songs were based on real-life episodes. The historical Michael was born in 1799, according to his certificate of ownership, but he may have been born as early as 1795. His country of origin was listed, synoptically, as "Africa." In 1917, along with 26 others identified as "mulatto," he was freed in the last will of Henri Beaujelait, who cited "faithful service." Michael remained on the estate, which passed to Henri Beaujelait's eldest daughter, Suzette Beaujelait. Suzette married Andrew Lovell in 1839; the couple jointly oversaw the agricultural interests of the estate, primarily rice and lumber. In 1850, Suzette died unexpectedly. Just weeks after her interment of his wife, Andrew Lovell challenged the freed status of the "coloreds hereto inhabiting," but his claim was dismissed, as he had been named a dependent, and not a beneficiary of his wife's holdings.

From 1996 to 1999, this sketchy outline of Michael's life occupied me enough to generate fitful attempts at novelization, but not until 2002 could I warrant my directionless fascination. In the early summer of that year, having abandoned a youthful vision of my future, writer, I left my adjunct courses at the University of Montreal, where I was teaching American literature, and returned to New York City, and the Graduate Center of the City of New York. There, I embarked upon a PhD in American Cultural Studies. My subject matter was "folk art and music as a people's history," which gave me license to resume my investigation of Michael, his known history, and "Blind" Alfred Reed.

I was not the only one revisiting Reed, who was inducted into the Folk Music Hall of Fame in 2007, right around the time my dissertation stalled, and I stanched my disappointments by delving into the sudden proliferation of information about him. The internet had arrived, and the scholarly task was not nearly as intimidating as it had been in the late 90s.

In 2008, a 1970 interview with Arville, Alfed's son, was reposted on Popmatters. In the interview, Arville revealed that Alfred's version of "O' My Darling Clementine" was based on a stage coach wreck of 1883, and told the story of two lovers who had perished, only to rekindle their romance as ghosts. The source for "Gave My Love a Cherry" (the nineteenth century American variant, which is what we know today) was also disclosed; in a headline grabbing Civil-War era rescue, a young girl had navigated battlefield terrain to save her father, a riverboat captain who'd been caught in a "pig pit," a military trap set on a forest path. And Alfred's interpretation of "Michael Row The Boat Ashore," according to Arville, was not derived from the observations of Charles Pickard Ware, who transcribed the song in musical notation in the mid 1860s, but a source closer to the original pre-Civil-War song. (Alfred’s version of this song is appended to this essay.) Independent of Ward, said Arville, his father's Michael dated back to a work song of West Africa—of the eighteenth century and perhaps much older than that. This was not a new notion to me; I first suspected a West African origin sometime around 1998, with the release of the documentary, The Language You Cry In, which tracked Southern spirituals back to Africa.

I had known that Reed's version of "My Dear Annie" was inspired by the 1861 hanging of Albert Hicks, who was put to death to spectacular fanfare in New York City after having killed the crew of a slave ship that impressed him into service. The surging information about Alfred Reed's Michael circled back to Hicks; Jeeves Pipes, a writer and performer who in 1869 was one of the first artists to consider Michael, had six years before written about and interviewed Albert Hicks, the deathrow celebrity. That Pipes had also written about the historical Michael was significant; I believed Pipes was Alfred Reed's authority on both histories, and I believed that Pipes was something very close to a reliable source; for two years, 2002-2004, I had worked on a novel based on Hicks and "My Dear Annie," and while Jeeves Pipes was full of ballyhoo, he was nevertheless conscientious in his coverage of the crime, court proceedings, and hanging (before an audience of some 13,000).

It's tempting to classify Pipes and Reed as showman, and to casually disregard Reed's claims of primacy as mere theatricality; his version of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" was no more than his version, a variation of a popular tune, based on a variation of an American tall tale. But that Reed died of starvation (the result of a state law banning blind street musicians) doesn't attest to a successful showman, and there's a scrupulousness to the musician—who couldn't even abide short-haired women—that belies facile dismissal.

Maybe the way to say it is that I sensed a greater integrity in Reed's version, as I did in the Jeeves Pipes epic poem of 1871, as I did in the WPA "Michael" series of prints overseen by the well known art deco illustrator, Rockwell Kent. (Kent's iconic print "The Drifter" was the first commission of the collection.) There was something to this story that was more than folklore; it had once lived.

I knew that my next stop was South Carolina. But my southern heritage engendered mixed emotions; on the one hand, through my childhood, I had been warmly received by my cousins in Georgia and Arkansas, but on the other hand, there were a few family members who had avoided me; my mixed blood was, if not scandalous, cause for hesitation. I wasn't just American, I was Irish and German, like they were, but then I was also a halfblood: Russian and Hungarian Jew.

My aunt Flora, however, thought me worth saving, and corresponded with me about my Christianity, which was heretical at best. Finding me responsive to her interest in Christian hymns, she supplied me with nineteenth century hymnals that she gathered on her archeological thrifting expeditions in North Carolina, where she lived.

In 2008, Flora passed away, and I was the proud beneficiary of her home, the sale of which, as it turned out, just precisely covered her debts. After I had managed the dispersal of the holdings, I drove two hours south for a week of on-site fieldwork pertaining to the Michael legend. On the drive back to New York, I stopped in Washington at the Library of Congress, a necessary fact-finding mission which I had put off for a decade. One of the more daunting aspects of the project was this stop, this dreaded descent into the national archives. My work on A Still Small Voice, just the research, had dragged on for years, and I expected a far greater challenge in Michael. Through my work on A Still Small Voice, I did have a grasp of the era, the way people lived and the events of the day, but 1860 was a long time gone, and I'd be assembling my outline from hundreds of sources.

Fortunately, at the Library of Congress, one of the very first things I found was the WPA interviews. The Work Projects Administration of the 1930s had interviewed former slaves and working people in multiple states of the union. The South Carolina archive was astonishingly complete. I couldn't have dreamed of a repository more on target. I had 90% of what I wanted, in a mere 1200 pages.

Alas, I had to compile the pdf, page by page. These were early years for digital files, and in all, I spent three days clicking "Print,"Save to PDF," and "next page." The best thing for me to do with the compilation? Once I got home, I spent two days printing it (two pages a minute), and took notes on the hardcopy. In 2011, with text recognition software, I had the materials converted and corrected to digital, which resulted in a massive, searchable database. I could word search, for example, the recurring names—Runnels, Behl, Reed—which were in fact the names of my own past, my own Southern family.

The myths of my family lore are myriad, and periodically convincing; one stitch of the Reed embroidery is a thread of Mayflower and Jamestown—I have met my proud cousin, Ayla, who is a member of, and seemingly lives for The General Society of Mayflower Descendants. When I was a boy, visiting Georgia, I was told that our descendants name was White, and Ayla, miss proud Massachusetts, confirmed that our progenitor was indeed William White. (My personal research confirms a familial presence in Jamestown, but there is a detail worthy of a qualification; my ancestors were among the original settlers, but, for most part, as indentured servants.) I've also heard—unconfirmed—that we were related to General Lighthorse Jackson, of the Confederacy, and that we lost a fortune in Confederate war bonds. I do know that my ancestors, well over a dozen men, fought in the Civil War, on both sides, and in Fayetteville, in Uncle Bud's old boxes of photos, I found a picture of Captain Smith. "Captain Smith," said the pencil note on the back of the photo, "fought for the North, died in Andersonville." I showed the inscription to Uncle Bud, who exclaimed, "he's no relation of mine!" As my father tells it, Captain Smith walked back from California, all the way to Kansas, to enlist in the Union cause. He made the journey with his wife and child. Smith, so the story goes, didn't really die as a prisoner in Andersonville—but he was never quite right after his time there.

I first visited Arkansas when I was 7; and there was that feeling, even then, from the moment my cousins picked me up at the train station, that I wasn’t, couldn’t be, one of them. My grandmother was the daughter who left Arkansas, who married a "flyboy," which is to say a pretty boy who was distinctly not of the same working stock as her brothers, and I was partly things they couldn't comprehend—an immigrant, and a Jew. But in another way, I was one of them. At the country store, where I went with my cousins to buy a tub of bait, the shopkeeper recognized me. "You're Wilma's boy's boy, aren't ya?" the man said, and then he nodded to the other man in the store, as if to say: see, there he is, finally, Wilma's boy's boy. It was as if they'd been waiting for umpteen years to fill in the place on the family tree; they knew about me and my people for generations, and wanted to know, to tell the whole saga. Throughout my visit, people would talk about how I looked like my Grandmother's other brother, Joseph—and even if I only met him a few times, I could see there was some truth to that. I wasn't blond or blue-eyed, like my cousins, but still, in the heap of them, I mixed in like straw.

And then there is the untold history of New York. I had always imagined I was a Northerner, a carpetbagger, and when I married my wife, her family, from Alabama, teasingly called me those things. New York's part in the Civil War, however, is far from standard-bearer for the Union cause. New York City and New York State were in business with the South, and the Southern debts were massive. The presumption of the Confederacy was that New York would itself secede, which it came very close to doing—and when it didn't, three days of murderous draft riots (thousands of black people were killed), put an end to forcible conscription for New Yorkers. The only New York Union soldiers were volunteers, and there were just 1,500 of them.

This blurry of division of North/South, personal and historical, is typical of America and Americans, even 150 years after the Civil War. My thought, in Michael, was to temper our national trauma with the North/South romance that originally drew people to the Michael song. As a Civil War caretaker of a South Carolina plantation, Charles Pickard Ware took note of what is currently known as the oldest written record of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." As a Northerner in 1863 South Carolina, Ward was narrowly tolerated, but as a musician, he was harmless enough. In Boston, his time at the Spiotti Conservatory of Strings put him under the tutelage of Angelo Spiotti, who mentored Dale Haverford of Haverford Violin and Strings, which for thirty-five years—1846-1881—was a Main Street storefront in the wealthy port town of Golden, South Carolina, where Suzette Lovell found a series of tutors for her daughter, Arlin Lovell. It was this initial connection that led to an introduction and subsequent correspondence between the 17 year-old Arlin, known to Michael as Miss Lovell, and Ware, who was 20 at the time (1860), and completing his final semester at Harvard University. While amorous, the epistolary romance was overplayed in the Michael theatricals of the 1870s and 80s, which dramatized the 1864 imprisonment and sentencing of "Miss Arlin Lovell" for high treason against the Confederacy.

Like her mother, Miss Lovell was an active member of The Christian Benevolent Society, dedicated to spreading Christianity and charitable outreach. The group had also been a cover for a second agency, which, with the maturation of the war, smuggled blacks northward to emancipated states. That the Christian Benevolent Society was involved in these efforts at the outset of the war—before the confederate women had tired of death, depravation and worse—is more wishful thinking than actuality, and while Miss Lovell did indeed keep a notebook of troop positions, it's rather unclear that she was a part of anything.

Still, the Charlestown Bugle made a great deal of the maps—captured!—and she was pilloried by local politicians, and was one of six women sentenced to death by the Confederacy: an obvious heroine for a Northern theatrical of a decade later.

Of course, she was not executed—women were sentenced to death by both the Union and the Confederacy, but no women were executed during the course of the U.S. Civil War. She did, however, spend four months in the custody of Warden Sumner, who remanded her to, hmm, a room in his house. In Golden, where her trial and sentencing took place, there was no "suitable internment" for a woman, so the warden took the traitor home, where she quite peaceably resided with him, his wife, his two daughters, and his sister. In 1872, Arlin remembered to a local newspaper that she lodged in Golden "more as a favored niece than a prisoner." It was while she was in the custody of the Warden that her exchange of letters with Ware concluded; she swore to never leave the South, while Ware planned his return to Boston, and the conservatory.

Charles and Arlin, torn apart by the tragedy of the Civil War. To feature the star-crossed lovers in Michael's story was self-serving, but neither would I be the first author to succumb. In his treatment, Love This Child: an Epic Poem of the Civil War, Jeeves Pipes leaned heavily on the romance, which served as, well, not the primary story, but something very close to it. Pipes had the pair running around in romantic comedy style, part heroes, part sleuths, part bantering duo. Their relationship was his reason—no vaudeville, no blackface—to put a black man center stage.

When I tote up the precursors to Row the Boat Ashore (now subtitled, Bless Our Father), I can't help but consider it a collective work. Even my title is recycled; before his epic version, Jeeves Pipes wrote a 50 line poem about Michael, entitled "Row the Boat Ashore," which was published in the New York Herald (1869) and extended into a pamphlet length ode that borrowed its new subtitle, "Bless Our Father," from a then popular patriotic poem. (This poem would in turn influence the 1910 song "America the Beautiful.") Pipes's full length stage play tracked Michael through the first act, then conveyed his adventure through the romance of Charles and Arlin, who, according to the Pipes saga, went unseen by Michael and history as they sacrificed their deep love for each other, and their very futures, so Michael could complete his journey, and deliver his charge, a child, to freedom. Though not authored by Pipes, another play, produced three years later, followed the same premise and structure, but added a Barnumesque spectacle of live animals, including an alligator. The inspiration for Pipe's poem, epic poem and play was likely an 1867 letter to the Charlestown Evening Viceroy, in which Doctor Brandt, a Charlestown undertaker (who appears in all tellings post-dating 1867) petitioned for "the sainthood of a Christian man," a phrase which came full circle as the title of the the last work in the cycle of Michael narratives. This publication of 75 years later was an unusual performance by the celebrated pseudonymous author, Grey La Spina, a begetter of occult magic pulp tales, who turned to the Civil War for her serialized novel, Saint Michael, which originated in the aforementioned sources as well as, I believe, a number of newspaper articles that I would first encounter at the Library of Congress. Saint Michael appeared in issues 7, 8, 9, 11 and 14, all 1943, of Stories of War, which was produced out of the same office as Stars and Stripes. (The work was part of a drive to enlist black men into the ranks of the war cause.) Ah, and one additional source may be worth mentioning: an 1872 epic poem penned by a french duke who wrote in English under the name of Zebidiah Rothschild. (The "Marquis" lived in Giverny, which is actually not too far from where I live as of this writing.)

Over the course of a decade, I was disposed to these tellings—there were others—because of their general consistency. The details and geography were congruous, as was the causality—the why this led to that. It is possible that all of the tales derive from one unknown source, but Michael's story is academically trafficked, and I've yet to see mention of a master text. More likely, all the versions, including Spina's later version, were culled from a hodgepodge of primary and secondary sources, many of which I've recovered, many of which have never been digitized, and may be lost forever.

At times, the writing of this project felt desperately solitary; here I was, of my own volition and perhaps without reasonable justification, working on a highly imagined story that had been, for nearly one hundred years, forgotten. It was not a project I was comfortable sharing in-progress; even talking about the project made me feel like I was betraying a ghost that had favored me. Still, there were other times when I felt that I was contributing to a crowdsourced process, working as a part of an historical and creative sit-in that had endured for over 150 years. All of our effort was the recitation of a psalm, a lavished labor, and we were right with heaven. In yet other instances, I felt like little more than a dramaturge, consulting the surviving texts, and assembling a variorum edition. Even structurally, I had my source, borrowing from the seven acts of Rothschild's Saint Michael. (In contemporary terms, the seven act structure is an expanded version of the five act structure that is default to today's storytellers, whether they are movie moguls, defense attorneys, or literary snobs; in seven acts, the systematic ABDCE—Action, Background, Development, Complications, End—is more generously developed as ABDCEFG—Action, Background, Development, Complications, Escalation, "Fix" and Grace. Rothchild's work even included a prelude, which was termed an "overture"; again, vis this introduction, I've taken his lead.)

While all of the versions were miscellaneously but predominantly about Miss Lovell, Michael's movements through the landscape held constant, and I was cast in the role of the historical novelist—I knew there was truth in there, but the establishment hadn't been kind enough to the truth for me to call my story history. At the same time, I had to accept a 180° possibility: that my story, in provenance, was silly and tenuous. The nineteenth century concept of copyright was not what it is today, and Michael may have been a slow brew—a dash of this, a dash of that—simmered over several generations. That notwithstanding, the evolution of the story led me to suppose that the important history had collected, that over a span of one hundred years, the necessary connections and corrections had been made, and Michael's journey had finally, more or less, emerged. In Nathaniel Lovell, Arlin's brother, I did have a demonstration of this type of historical layering. The narrative element: Michael, as a spirit, turns Nathaniel away from the battlefield and an almost certain death. In the Pipes play, the boy is unnamed; a standalone encounter has Michael save a young man by discouraging his impulse to join the Confederate army. In later versions, the boy is identified as Nathaniel—Arlin's real life brother, as per the 1850, 1860 and 1870 census. In later versions still, Nathaniel takes on the roll of narrator, introducing the story, thanking Michael for his sacrifices, and exalting him as "Saint Michael." (Nathaniel's salvation is examined as a mythology with a real world genesis in the 1946 PHD dissertation of Mabel Edmonds.)

In a similar vein, Charles Pickard Ware's version of the song, published in the South Carolina Sentinel in late 1866, was likely to have been the impetus behind the Charleston Evening Viceroy publication of Doctor Brandt's account, which is as if in answer to the gaps and imperfections of Ward's brief entry (only 700 words). Not to say that Brandt's letter wasn't based on something, but it was nonetheless parcel to an ongoing construction, and established the shared telling that would eulogize Michael in a tradition of American folk.

Doctor Brandt was indeed a true personage, a regional undertaker familiar with the Beaujelaits and the surrounding geography and population. If it is reasonable to suppose that he does contribute some local insight, his characterization of Michael's family tree is revealing. (Brandt appears in the ensuing telling as "the undertaker"; in none of the extant plays, poems or narrative is the undertaker, though a consistent player, actually named.) Michael, wrote Brandt, was a "mulatto of the Beaujelait family." The phraseology "of the Beaujelait" family, is curious, especially in light of Brandt's inclusion of Michael's maternal heritage: "as a boy," wrote Brandt, "Michael's care was soon entrusted to his 'gramere,' who may have been a relation, but was in all probability just an elder."

Doctor Brandt's "Petition for sainthood and/or presidential commendation" as much as it is inherently untrustworthy, written in the bombastic paternalism of the era, also holds various anecdotal stories of Michael's childhood in common with Pipe's epic poem. Brandt takes these episodes as signs of divine presence: as a boy, Michael walked out onto a frozen lake and rescued a spooked horse; as a man, Michael ran "from the springhouse to the peach tree, across two fields, over a hill, and through the woods" while seven children clung from his body; as a timberman, Michael performed Bunyan-like feats, and fell fifty feet from an oak tree and survived; as a middle-age man, Michael miraculously discovered Nathaniel Lovell passed out in a field, thereby rescuing him (perhaps from heatstroke). Brandt also catalogued martyr-like suffering, describing instruments of discipline such as the bell yoke, which was something like an enormous cow bell harnessed overhead, and the brake, a horrific modification on a horse bit seen as an appropriate penalty for saying things that shouldn't have been said.

The Brandt account echoes history in other ways as well; Michael's outburst at the funeral of Suzette Beaujelait, for example, which was reported in the Golden Standard, a weekly broadsheet. (Michael commanded Andrew Lovell to love his daughter, to "love this child"; the scene was the titular scene for Pipes' Love This Child: an Epic Poem of the Civil War, and central to Rothschild's Saint Michael.) Brandt also tagged "City Hat," as he appears in the Pipes poem, as Marshal Robbert Visser, the notorious slave catcher, celebrated folk-hero and reviled outlaw, who was active as of the Fugitive Slave act of 1850. It was "Vesra," according to Brandt, who pursued Michael as he ferried his young charge Northward.

In all, Brandt included many of the more spectacular sequences that would come to be associated with the Michael story: the alligators, the flies, the logjams, a mounted posse hard, a race through the rice field, a dramatic hunt for wearable shoes amidst a river of civil war corpses, several perilous crossings of historical battlefields (associated with the the second Battle of Fort Sumter and the second Battle of Charleston Harbor). These tropes would recur in the theatrical stagings of the next two decades, as well as in the construction era issuance, The Remarkable Memoir of Miss American Spy, which was republished in 1968 by Readers Digest, in expurgated form.

Miss American Spy was a pseudonymous work, the implication being that Arlin Lovell hadn't wished to expose herself or her family to the indignity of publication. Historically, the pseudonym has been regarded as deflection for a lacking imprimatur. And yet, as a work of utter falsification, Miss American Spy is noticeably absent shocking revelations. In the whole of 400 pages, there's nothing of Brandt's whisper of Michael's paternal line. Miss American Spy does, however, discuss a mulatto field hand named "Horace," who has a major role in the Pipes narrative, and appears occasionally elsewhere. Horace, as Pipes and Miss American Spy christen him, was the son of Andrew Lovell and Anna, a black woman, and a former slave of the Beaujelaits. Michael's lineage, as indicated by Brandt, was of the same pattern, but one generation previous; Michael would be the son of Henri Beaujelait, which would make him the brother of Suzette Beaujelait, who would in turn marry Andrew Lovell. Backing up a step—if Brandt's indication were true, Michael was Arlin's uncle.

In the theatricals of the 70s, a fondness between Michael and Suzette Beaujelait is highlighted. One theatrical has the story begin with a scene from their childhood; another scene places the matriarch at the center of the action (disregarding her 1854 death). Yet another had the Miss Lovell role (Arlin's role) recollect on her mother's lifelong "friendship" with Michael, and Michael's loyalty. "He remained true," she said, "despite that business with my father," which presumably referred to Andrew Lovell, and his real-life legal bid for ownership of the people residing on his wife's estate.

On the Michael shelf of fictive works, plays and other, there is very little about Suzette Beaujelait that is historically accurate. But she, like Doctor Brandt, was a historical person, and a moneyed one, and some genuine history has survived; she was a Christian, prone to spells of zealotry, which might manifest in alms for poor whites or poor blacks, or in attendance at Saturday foot-washing ceremonies. She died prematurely, was found one morning dead in the corn field; the circumstances of her discovery suggest either alcohol poisoning or pulmonary aspiration.

Of the historical Henri Beaujelait, Suzette's father, we have his military record; his Harvard education, in an age when even some gentlemen read and wrote haltingly, afforded him the rank of Colonel, and he commanded a troop of men that fluctuated in number from 50 to 250. He travelled with a mulatto boy that Charles Pickard Ware and others since have argued was Michael from the age of 11 to 16. In 1815, after a final bloody victory in Louisiana, Henri delivered his remaining troops to their states of origin, and returned to his estate, with his mulatto servant and Michael Myles in accompaniment. Michael Myles was a Sergeant who had been awarded a field command, a Brevat Colonship, which he retained until the end of the fighting. (After having broken his leg, the ragged bone showing, Myles pulled his boot back on, secured it with a leather lash, remounted his horse and rejoined the battle, commanding his shaken, disoriented troops.)

At the outset of Henri's journey, his mulatto servant was listed as "Spanish." A fair, "passing" appearance may explain why there are no known references to Michael prior to 1813. Later documentation of Michael includes a 1830 census reference, "Michael and Petunia, married," and a reference in the 1860 census: "Michael, freedman, deaf." The disability is picked up as Michael's "tragic flaw" in Jeeves Pipes' Love This Child, but the majority of the Michael works, maybe two thirds, set aside what presents a prohibitive narrative challenge, especially on stage. Perhaps, nevertheless, there is some nod to the physical impairment; Michael's lines are kept to a bare minimum in just about every interpretation, whatever the form. The consummate silent American hero. Also notable; he’s but infrequently bestowed a Gullah accent, which was a sales point of nineteenth century popular theater. To my mind, in the twentieth century, the Gullah idiom has been over emphasized in our historical memory. We’re perhaps inclined to oversimplify distinctions; but, as exhibited by the myriad published escape journals and diaries published in the nineteenth century, in the Michael library, class and wealth is as important a demarkation of spoken language as geography and race. The word "pinders," for example, is a colloquialism for peanuts that crossed racial boundaries, and was widely employed in all but the upper crust of South Carolina, even though the word traces back to Africa, the Kongo, circa 1700. "Uhoh," of West African origin, presents another obvious example. That the speech of black america, even former slaves, was typically outside the realm of the national vernacular is not borne out by the full spectrum of the historical record; we might, for example, look to Jourdan Anderson's remarkable 1865 reply to his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, who had requested that Jourdan return to Tennessee.

Dayton, Ohio,
August 7

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.

The creative impulse is a form of love, and we can't always control what we love, or who we love. With love, it's sometimes as if a story is being told to you, and that's how it is, sometimes, in the arts; the challenge is not to assert oneself—the challenge is to be humble, to listen, and to listen very closely.

In 2008, I abandoned my epistolary novel based on Arlin Lovell and Charles Pickard Ware, and refocused on Michael.

My first novel, A Still Small Voice, was about a young woman who grew up during the Civil War; this girl was a hero, a non-military hero, and when my five-year-old daughter, in 2009, asked about "the old man novel," which is what I've always called the Michael project, that's how I described it. I was working on a novel about a very old man who was sent out to do an impossible thing, something he was really too old to do; I wanted to write about a hero, a war hero, who didn't hurt anyone. I was also drawn to Michael, I told her, because of his deafness; I started to go deaf in 2004. And then there was the love story of Michael and his wife, and the tragedy of his two children—a boy and a girl, two years apart, just like my children at that time. Since I first started considering Michael in the late 90s, ten years had passed, and my two children had arrived, and I was thinking about fatherhood differently, and I was thinking about the nation differently; I wanted to find an alternative founding father, not a general, not a politician, but a father, a a rightful father of America.

In writing Michael, first as the romance of Arlin and Charles, then as the story of Michael himself, I saw a number of elements I wanted to be careful about. The Arlin & Charles story rose obvious questions: was I choosing my protagonist based on what was convenient? Was I sugar-coating the story? Steven Spielberg, in Schindler's List, chose to tell the holocaust story through the heroic deeds of a single Christian. The model eased the holocaust onto the big screen, yes, but the compromise is considerable. Conversely, telling Michael's story without Arlin & Charles presented its own concerns. I worried—a weak word for my apprehension—that I wouldn't be able to fill out the details, to fill out the humanity of the character, that I didn't have enough in common with Michael to find him in spirit. How does a contemporary author writer about Cleopatra? How do we make movies about the nineteenth century? The problem of historical storytelling is always: how can I get it right? And we can't get it right. Not absolutely. Historical fiction is inherently anachronistic. And yet we know it can be more right than history. That's the reason to tell historical stories, isn't it? To find expression for a truer truth?

By 1863, Arlin wasn't the only woman who had made the long journey from Confederate crusader to Union sympathizer. She, like many Confederate woman, believed in Southern sovereignty, but the Confederacy had betrayed financial promises to the families of its soldiers; the honorable South was not so honorable after all. Arlin kept an up-to-date map of troop positions, which was discovered and presented as the principal evidence in the treason case against her. With these 150 year-old maps, along with two dozen other nineteenth century surveyor and coastal erosion maps—all xeroxed at the Golden County Archive of the Courts—I spent three days exploring rural South Carolina, incorporating the extant cartography, and plotting what I believed to be the most likely route of Michael's heroic passage.

Financially, I had been doing quite well until the, uh, letdown of 2008, and by 2009, my trips to South Carolina were digging me deeper into a hole of debt. I was hemorrhaging money; I still had the maintenance costs of my small production company, just accounting and rent by then, but on top of my family expenses, and as the only wage earner, I was in serious trouble. In an act of desperation, I sought last minute teaching gigs; I'd always taught one or two courses a semester. That Spring, I landed two additional courses at a local college—the pay was 2,000 per, for 30 three-hour sessions per. About 35 students per. My salary for the semester would almost meet my expenses for one month.

For the next year, I continued my downward descent; the year after that, I began to climb my way out. I wrote Michael's story paragraph by paragraph, in the spare seconds of days traversing the city to teach different pick-up classes at different universities. Mostly, I composed the novel in my head, and wrote down what I had come up after I came home and had dinner with my wife and three children (by now there were three), and they went to bed. I was writing about an old man, but I was also writing like an old man. The draft came very slowly. Months would pass when I didn't think any more was on the way; but then the trance would find me, and I'd have the next paragraph, the next 150 words, almost exactly as you will see them here. Hearing loss was new to me then, and this was a project during which I allowed the silence to subsume me, during which I conceded to my own mortality, and the void of deafness.

Writers of historical novels will tell you that theirs is a spooky art. It's not always clear where the information is coming from. While writing my first novel, I would often find I knew things I didn't think I knew. I figured, when I drafted it, I'd go back and make changes; but no, my lengthy description of nineteenth-century marble making was correct; no, the name Alma, which I used for a child born in 1854, was one of the three most popular names for girls in 1856. Even slang that I had made up, "mumper" was indeed an entrant in the nineteenth-century American lexicon. The word meant elegant beggar, exactly as I had utilized it.

For Michael's story, I had to be as sure as possible; the details herein have all been, at the very least, double-sourced. Examples: Michael's night vision was poor, probably cataracts, and he was unable to discern the difference between the Union blue and Confederate gray uniforms, believing them both to be "brown"; Michael battled the ocean tides as he conducted his rescue by "dory," a flat-bottomed rowboat; Michael exhibited tremendous physical bravery as, through the hours of his undertaking, he endured multiple wounds to his aging body; Michael died walking up a hill (in a requiem section of many of the plays as well as the La Spina novella, the story continues as Michael simultaneously performs one last heroic deed and moves into the hereafter); during the evening of Michael's rescue, a local "bottle tree," where dangling bottles contained the wandering souls of the dead, was struck by a canon ball, which dislodged the bottles, and released, locals testified, a bevy of ghosts.

Of the characters: over sixty people lived on the Beaujelait estate in 1863, and while story that has sprung up around Michael recounts dozens of personages, I have chosen to represent only those who have been historically substantiated, whether there or on neighboring properties. Beyond census notations as to labor status and family relations, tallies of livestock, and asides in the WPA interviews, precious little remains of these lives—and I have borrowed somewhat from the plays and poems to give weight to their characters.

I would be hard pressed to thank everyone who has worked on the sources for this project; the U.S. census takers might top the list, with their contributions of names and facts about people who once breathed and wept and wanted, like you, and like me. The lines rendered in nineteenth century Mende language required the collaboration of professors here in the United States and in Africa; to them I am eternally grateful for their expertise, generosity and hospitality.

For the placement of the battles and their times—the geography of death and corpses—I owe a great deal to Dr. Philbane of South Carolina, and his graduate students. For the history of "Stocking Foot," Henri Beaujelait's prize war horse, with whom you will be acquainted, I am indebted to the late Stephen Z. Starr, and his article "Cold Steel: The Saber and the Union Cavalry" (Civil War History, Volume 11 #11, June 1965). I mustn't forget Dr. Dana Danovitch, who helped me to identify the mumps epidemic that struck the port town of Golden in 1827, killing 72; casualties in the outlying countryside were listed in the 1830 U.S. census as "poor children, many." (According to Miss American Spy, nine children on the Beaujelait estate were lost to the outbreak.) Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, by Judith Carney, went a long way to explicating the relationship of African rice to Carolinian rice, and the the concerted abduction and favored status of Africans who were knowledgeable keepers of desired strains of rice. Herman Melville's story, "White Rum & High Stakes," as well as the Francis Meadows notations on, are heavily observed, furnishing the context to evoke a childhood incident in Michael's life. (Francis found an entry in the journal of her grandmother which unfavorably referenced the La Spina novella, which drastically alters not only Michael's childhood, but the role and persona of Henri Beaujelait: "Uncle Bob dug in a pit of of burning, murdered men for Henri Beaujelait, which colors Henri's portrait as a kindly emperor in a rather ghastly light.") Brando Skyhorse's beautiful essay, "Light and Requiem," explains the American folkloric leitmotif of day as night and vice-versa, and the West to East sun—a backwards course—in respect to the supernatural, and in the case of the Michael story, his ghostly acts … I will stop there, far shy of where my list of gratitudes should end, and vow to those I have shorted that I will pick up the tab next time we meet.

In 2011 or early 2012, I had my draft; and with the seemingly endless patience and assistance of my authorities, by early 2015, I had a revised draft, fact checked. Since then, I've asked myself, over and over, "How can I make this better?" and my only idea has been to tell you, to promise you, that this is the best I can do. This is the best I could give. And yes, perhaps it would have been better to withhold my inspirations and reasons and investigations, which are admittedly ordinary and inadequate, and to, instead, just thank you sincerely, and effusively, for any interest you show in my novel (now available at bookstores and online1). As far as my ability to research and understand our nation, this is our American story of Michael, part folklore, part history, and part song—our beautiful, tragic song.


              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Sister help him with the oars, hallelujah.

Father help him to the shore, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Ho, YATEEWAAEE, the trumpet horn, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

River is deep, and the river is wide, hallelujah.

Hear the angels in paradise, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Ho, YATEEWAAEE, the trumpet horn, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Mansions green, Jehova tends, hallelujah.

And like a flood, rains he amends, hallelujah.

              O' poor sinner, sweet is land, hallelujah.

Brother lend a helping hand, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

River runs and darkness comes, hallelujah.

Mother waits for all her sons, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Ho, YATEEWAAEE, the trumpet horn, hallelujah.

              Bless our father, stow his oars, hallelujah,

For he has made us of his work, hallelujah.

Ho, YATEEWAAEE, the trumpet horn, hallelujah.

              Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Ho, YATEEWAAEE, the trumpet horn, hallelujah.

              In laurel groves, of crowns to reap, hallelujah,

Sleep we all in heavenly peace, hallelujah.

Sleep we all in heavenly peace, hallelujah.


  1. Editor’s Note: To the best of my knowledge, "Row the Boat Ashore" has not been published, or even written. While some of the references are historically extant, the story presented here is a fictional account of this subject and its "author," and the version of the historical song is likewise a new variation attributable to the writer. —Donald Breckenridge


John Reed

John Reed is a NYC writer and author:


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

All Issues