War Breaks Out Behind Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe as painted in 1853 by Alanson Fisher. Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery
Harriet Beecher Stowe as painted in 1853 by Alanson Fisher. Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

by Ray Setterfield

June 14, 1811 — It seems unlikely that the strait-laced daughter of a preacher, herself married to a clergyman, could have been a trigger for the bloody and bitter American Civil War. But that was the fate of Harriet Beecher Stowe who was born on this day.

Her best-known novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, was a heart-wrenching account of the conditions faced by enslaved African Americans based on her own observations and research. It was immediately seized upon by slavery abolitionists to strengthen their cause, at the same time being furiously denounced by leading figures in the Southern states.

The book certainly enhanced anti-slavery feelings considerably; so much so that historians later cited it as one of the reasons behind the American Civil War.

The author was born in Connecticut as Harriet Elisabeth Beecher, the sixth of eleven children. Her father, Lyman, was an outspoken Presbyterian preacher, while her mother, Roxanna, was deeply religious. Tragically, she would die when Harriet was just five years old. Three of her brothers became preachers.

Harriet moved with the family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when she was 21. There, she was separated only by the Ohio River from Kentucky – a slave state. She met and talked with runaway slaves and learned about life in the South from them, from friends, and after making visits there.

Soon she met the Rev. Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower, whom she married in 1836. Like Harriet, he fiercely opposed slavery and on various occasions the couple illegally housed fugitive slaves in their home.

In 1851, Harriet’s 18-month-old son died. The tragedy helped her understand the heartbreak that slave mothers suffered when their children were wrenched from their arms and sold. She wrote: "Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathise with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions.”

Calvin and Harriet had moved to Brunswick, Maine, and it was there that she began writing her novel. After newspaper serialisation it was published in book form in 1852 under the title “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or Life Among The Lowly.” It sold 300,000 copies in its first year and in that time 300 babies in Boston alone were named after one of the book’s major characters, Eva.

In the New York Times Book Review, a critic wrote that Harriet had “baptized with holy fire myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave.”

But in the South slave owners felt attacked and were infuriated. They clung to their belief that slavery was necessary for the good of the economy and that slaves were inferior people who were unable to look after themselves.

After the success of the book made her internationally famous, Harriet wrote to a friend: “I am a little bit of a woman – somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best of days, and looking like a used-up article now.”

But she was not used-up. Harriet went on to write 30 books, including novels, travel memoirs, articles and collections of letters and was to be described by some as one of the most influential women of the 19th century.

Her final days came two years after those of her husband. Harriet died aged 85, probably from dementia. At the time she was staying in Hartford, Connecticut, and one of her neighbours was Mark Twain. He wrote of her:

Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. [In] our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it.

She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes.

And she had other moods. Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect.

Harriet would probably have rated her invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, just after the Civil War began, as one of her life’s major highlights.

There is no official record of what was said at the meeting but there are accounts of much joviality, and according to Harriet’s son the President greeted her with the words: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”

Published: May 7, 2020

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