The Field of Blood

Joanne B. Freeman

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The previously untold story of the violence in Congress that helped spark the Civil War

In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.

These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities—the feel, sense, and sound of it—as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

Praise for The Field of Blood

“Absorbing, scrupulously researched . . . Freeman uncovers the brawls, stabbings, pummelings, and duel threats that occurred among United States congressmen during the three decades just before the Civil War…Men and women crowded the Congressional galleries with the expectation of seeing entertaining outbreaks, much the way fans of professional wrestling or hockey do today . . . But Freeman never loses sight of the fact that fighting in Congress was far more than a sport.”
—David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

“A superb, serious, authoritative, lively, occasionally amusing work of scholarly bravura . . . Freeman’s research is prodigious, her scholarship unimpeachable. By shifting her gaze from the conventionally cited causes of the Civil War, she has deepened our understanding of its coming. ”
—James M. Banner, Jr., The Weekly Standard

“Fascinating . . . [Field of Blood] demonstrates the historic truth of an observation by black activist H. Rap Brown in the 1960s: ‘Violence is a part of America’s culture; it is as American as cherrypie.’ . . . [Joanne B.] Freeman’s book goes far toward explaining why there was a Civil War.”
—H.W. Brands, The Wall Street Journal

Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, is a leading authority on early national politics and political culture. The author of the award-winning Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic and editor of The Essential Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton: Writings, she is a cohost of the popular history podcast BackStory.