Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom by Brian McGinty

Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom

by Brian McGinty

Review by Paul Finkelman for The Los Angeles Review of Books

At one level, this is fine legal history. McGinty has sorted out an enormously complicated case involving a Mississippi-born slave, Archy, whose master, Charles Stovall, brought him to Gold Rush California, a free state. Stovall then tried to ship him back to Mississippi. Friends of Archy intervened. There were at least four sets of legal proceedings in different courts, with Archy in and out of jail for safekeeping, hidden by his friends, seized illegally (kidnapped) by Stovall, and also returned to Stovall after a court proceeding. At one point, Stovall was formally charged with kidnapping, and was bailed out, while his victim, Archy, remained in jail because he was possibly a fugitive slave. Confusing? You bet. But McGinty does a fine job of sorting it all out.

This book is also, at least in part, a saga of the Wild West woven into the culture of the antebellum slave South. There are vigilantes lynching alleged “bad guys” (who are white). There is a duel provoked by a fanatical and violent transplanted Southerner — and sitting justice on the California Supreme Court — who kills a United States senator. The California justice was later shot dead by the bodyguard of a United States Supreme Court justice when he physically attacked him. There is a quick-tempered proslavery Southern lawyer who threatens to pull his gun in a courtroom when he does not like the arguments of the opposing counsel. Mobs help rescue Archy from his owner. And there is a helpful businesswoman and real estate investor, who is a stalwart of San Francisco’s black community. She harbors Archy for a while.

At another level, this book reminds me of Forrest Gump, except that it all really happened. Parading across the book are many of the key figures in California’s first decade as a state, as well as some significant national figures. We encounter, for example, Edward Dickinson Baker, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and an Illinois congressman before moving to California. He served as Archy’s lawyer for part of the saga. After the case, Baker relocated to the new state of Oregon where he was elected to the US Senate and then killed in action serving in the United States Army at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. He thus became the only sitting US senator to die in service of his country. President Lincoln, who personally grieved the death of his friend Baker, makes a cameo appearance in the book. We meet David C. Broderick, a US senator from California (and friend and colleague of Baker) who became the only sitting member of that body to die in a duel. His challenger (and killer) in the duel, Justice David S. Terry of the California Supreme Court, was later himself shot to death when he attacked his former colleague on the California bench, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field. Justice Field’s brother, Cyrus Field, also makes a cameo appearance as the multimillionaire entrepreneur who laid the Atlantic cable in 1858, allowing for international telegraph communication. We run into Henry Halleck, who would be the highest-ranking Civil War general in the US Army until Ulysses S. Grant superseded him. There is also Edwin Stanton, who despised Halleck, but during the Civil War, as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Stanton would be Halleck’s immediate supervisor and would have to work with him. Edwin B. Crocker, a dedicated abolitionist who fled Indiana after being successfully sued for helping Kentucky slaves escape and then served on the California Supreme Court, passes through the book. So too does Charles Crocker (Edwin’s brother), who was briefly one of Archy’s lawyers and later one of the Big Four (along with Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins) who built the Central Pacific Railroad; and Mary Ellen Pleasant (better known as Mammy Pleasant), a successful San Francisco black entrepreneur and real estate investor, who hides Archy at her home. Swirling around all these people was Archy Lee, an 18-year-old Mississippi slave.

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Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March Toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty

by Brian McGinty

Published 12.17.2019
Lyons Press
264 Pages

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