'Only in the shadowland of myths'

Published:May 23, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Mary Spear Tiernan (from 'The Tiernan Family in Maryland,' Baltimore: Gallery & McCann, 1898)Meriah L. Crawford has written a great entry for us on the Virginia novelist Mary Spear Tiernan (1836–1891). Because I’ve been dwelling on Nat Turner of late, I was interested to learn that Tiernan based one of her characters on Turner. “Whoop-de-doo,” you might say, but this is a big deal because a) the character is, at least in part, a sympathetic figure; and b) Tiernan was what we might call a proper southern lady. Her job was to write romances, not apologies for murder and mayhem, which is surely how most Virginians of her day would have described Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.

Tiernan was sly, though. She named her Turner character Gabriel and based the rebellion in her novel (which was titled Homoselle, by the way, and published in 1881) not on Turner’s but on Gabriel’s Insurrection, an aborted slave uprising in Richmond in August 1800. From our entry:

Although it was quashed before it began, the historical Gabriel’s Insurrection, like Turner’s rebellion later, managed to arouse considerable fear among the white population in Virginia and indeed throughout the South. Tiernan’s novel is distinguished by her marked sympathy for the slaves and her recognition of their longing for freedom. Her narrator describes Gabriel’s lined face “with reverence and pity” and wonders at how swiftly whites can expunge such a figure from history so that he survives only in “the shadowland of myths.”*

One last thing about Tiernan: Her third and final novel, Jack Horner (1890), was about life in Richmond during the Civil War. The full text is available online, and as I read the opening passage, I felt bad—once again—for that tragic figure, Ambrose E. Burnside.

“It was Christmas Eve in the year 1862,” Tiernan writes. “The bloodiest engagement of the advance of the Army of the Potomac on Richmond had taken place not many days before. Burnside, having fruitlessly thrown division after division of the flower of his army into the fire on the heights of Fredericksburg, had retired to count his dead, and eventually to be relieved of his command. Lee and Jackson behind their breastworks, thanking God for the repulse of the enemy, waited vainly for Burnside to make another attack, and there was a temporary lull in the hostilities.”

* To learn more about that “shadowland of myths,” you might turn to The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (2004) by another Encyclopedia Virginia contributor, Scot French.

IMAGE: Mary Spear Tiernan