Trick question: Who were the original “Boys from Brazil?”
A: If you answered Sir Laurence Olivier, playing Dr. Josef Mengele, and several Adolf Hitler clones, score yourself zero. If, however, you correctly stated that they were Col. William Norris of Alabama and a large group of southern expatriates determined to keep a remnant of the Confederate States of America alive, give yourself ten points.
Another trick question: Was Mississippi a Union or Confederate state?
A: Thanks to a stubborn Unionist majority in Jones County, MS, the answer is both!
Most mainstream studies of the American Civil War fail to address or even mention these historical oddities, yet a couple of forgotten nineteenth century juvenile series books used these situations as major plot elements.
Two popular and prolific writers for nineteenth-century teenagers were “Harry Castlemon” (Charles Austin Fosdick, 1842 or 1844?-1915) and Charles Asbury Stephens (1844 or 1847?-1931). Both men were outdoors enthusiasts, and filled their novels and short stories with tales of wilderness camping, fishing, hunting and trapping. Fosdick hailed from upstate New York, while Stephens was a real “daoun Easter” born in Norway, Maine. Although their interests were nearly identical, Fosdick only completed part of a high school education before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1862. Most of his military service with the Mississippi River Squadron under Admiral David Dixon Porter was as a receiver and superintendent of coal supplies, although he did spend some time aboard a “brown water” gunboat. He was mustered out in 1865 and went into clerical work near Cairo, Illinois. Inspired by the adventure/natural history books of Capt. Mayne Reid while a schoolboy, Fosdick wrote three volumes about the fictional “Frank Nelson”, the boy hunter and naturalist, before joining the navy and three subsequent volumes about Frank’s experiences in the Mississippi Squadron. With the encouragement of Admiral Porter he submitted the manuscripts to Cincinnati publisher R.W. Carroll and they appeared as the Gun-Boat Series. Under the pen names “Harry Castlemon” and “C.B. Ashley” he eventually produced 58 juvenile series books. Two further series followed Frank Nelson and his cousin Archie through various adventures out west, following their wartime naval service.
C.A. Stephens was too young to serve in the war, and spent those years working hard on his grandfather’s farm to earn tuition money. After attending the Norway Liberal Institute, he put himself through Bowdoin College in two years, graduating in 1869 at the head of his class. One of his instructors, the Rev. Elijah Kellogg, also a novelist, urged young Stephens to write for Ballou’s Monthly and the Youth’s Companion. The publisher of this venerable paper, Daniel Ford (a.k.a. “Perry Mason,” a name which later inspired Earle Stanley Gardiner’s paperback lawyer,) recognized Stephens as a wonderful asset and sent him off to travel and write up descriptive articles. Two decades of rambles through North and Central America, the West Indies and Europe resulted in dozens of factual articles and fictional pieces. These were recast as volumes in his popular Camping Out series of 1872-1874 and Knockabout Club series of 1882-1883. Like the novels of Mayne Reid and Harry Castlemon, they alternated adventures and natural history lessons in geography, geology, zoology, botany and ethnology. In addition to these loosely plotted travel adventures, Stephens wrote many sketches of life at “the Old Squire’s” based on his childhood at his grandfather’s farm. In 1884, publisher Daniel Ford made Stephens a unique offer: the magazine would subsidize him to enroll in Boston College’s medical school. Stephens received his M.D. degree in 1887 and supplied many scientific and medical articles. Always a visionary, he had two pet projects: a “floating university” as described in his series books, and research into prolonging human life.
Since the Civil War was the defining epoch in their lives, it figured largely in their fiction, including works that were studiously “not about” the war. Both men were original thinkers and dealt with issues not covered by most popular novels of the time. While Republican politicians in the north were dramatically “waving the bloody shirt” at defeated southerners and Democratic opponents, Castlemon set a number of his stories in the former Confederate states, and presented his boy heroes sympathetically. As a veteran of four years service, including the siege of Vicksburg, no one could doubt his patriotism to the Union cause, and his books may have assisted reconciliation in a modest way. His War Series told the story of two boys at a southern military academy. One is a dedicated rebel and the other a strong unionist, who is forced unwillingly into privateering service. Ultimately, the Union lad escapes his oppressor and the Rebel boy becomes disillusioned with “the Cause.” The Boy Trapper and Rod and Gun series concern two sets of southern boys representing the planter aristocracy and the southern “crackers.” Several other Castlemon books were also set in the south.
His most unusual novel appeared in 1897. Entitled A Rebellion in Dixie, part of the Afloat and Ashore series, it told the story of a large number of Union sympathizers in Jones County, Mississippi, who seceded from the Southern Confederacy and held Confederate forces at bay throughout the war! For a detailed history of this episode, see Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones; Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (North Carolina, 2003). Most Americans learned of this “Kingdom of Jones” for the first time during Ken Burns’ epic 1990 PBS documentary on the Civil War.
C.A. Stephens wrote no war stories as such, but the “late unpleasantness” is always lurking in the background of his books. Camping Out, as Recorded by “Kit,” described the adventures of “Kit” (Stephens’ fictional alter-ego), G.W. Burleigh (“Wash”), J. Warren Raedway (“Raed”) and the son of a wealthy southern planter, Wade Hampton Additon (“Wade”). The six volumes of the series are “recorded” by one or the other of these characters, who were based on Stephens’ real-life friends and traveling companions.
When introducing “Wade” in the opening volume, Stephens dropped the bombshell that a strong community of unreconstructed ex-Confederates had established themselves in Brazil. “Wash” writes to “Kit” about his cousin:
His father was a pretty big rebel in the war: so my father says. Was one of those that went down to South America, Brazil. You know a lot of those rebels did. Meant to found a slave empire in the Valley of the Amazon — some such nonsense. Guess they never made out much; though old man Additon (that’s the name) is down there yet… But the Emperor of Brazil has rather gone back on them; talks of freeing all the slaves. Rough on these Rebs who went down there to keep up slavery! Serves ’em right, though, I say.
In the 1872 book, On the Amazons; or, The Cruise of “The Rambler” as Recorded by “Wash.” Stephens presented a fairly accurate picture of this expatriate settlement in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. At the time, the revelation was as unnerving as the rumors of a “Fourth Reich” re-forming in Paraguay, funded by the “Odessa” organization, would be during the 1950s. See Cyrus and James Dawsey, The Confederados; Old South Immigrants in Brazil (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1995). After their yachting adventures around the world, the four boys sail to Brazil so “Wade” can be reunited with his family on their wilderness plantation. In addition to the story narrative, the book presents a wealth of lore about the cultivation of rubber, agricultural products, and wild animals of the Amazon basin.
Like the Irish, who have served in almost every army but their own, many ex-Confederates became soldiers of fortune and staffed the military forces of warring European and South American nations. Most southerners who wished to make a fresh start were more peaceably inclined and sought only a friendly land. Perhaps 20,000 Americans immigrated to Brazil, welcomed by Emperor Dom Pedro II who was desperate for settlers. Nearly half of them were thwarted by the climate, tropical diseases and other hardships and returned to the U.S. A hardy core persisted and remained in the Santa Barbara D’Oeste and Americana regions of the State of Sao Paulo.
Every now and again a journalist or filmmaker will stumble on an isolated enclave of native Brazilians who solemnly raise the stars and bars and sing “Dixie,” or a thriving rural community of “Os Confederados” who wear grey uniforms and crinolines to the April “Festa Confederada.” Despite these festive trappings, the community considers itself to be purely Brazilian, and has no intention of subverting the United States or recreating a slave society.
Although both Fosdick’s and Stephens’ books tend to ramble and wander off into digressions, their original viewpoints are worth a second look. Stephens’ crackpot medical theories about a miracle anti-aging protein called “biogen” proved worthless, but his “floating university” concept has been realized successfully as “Semester at Sea” and similar projects. His stories of Maine farming life in the 1850s, and yacht travel in the 1870s, are a fascinating window onto a long-vanished world. Volume II of the Camping Out series, Left on Labrador; or, The Cruise of the Schooner-Yacht “Curlew”, is partially based on true stories of marooned whalers who enslave their Eskimo rescuers. (The stark 1974 Canadian film “The White Dawn,” directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett, Jr., based on James Archibald Houston’s novel of the same title, also deals with a similar incident.) The most serious criticism that can be leveled at Stephens’ books by modern audiences is the depiction of the “Ugly American” abroad, treating “foreigners” with more or less contempt.
During his lifetime, Charles Fosdick was subjected to harsh criticism from librarians, who lumped his books, and those of Horatio Alger, Jr., in with dime novels and other subliterary rubbish. “Harry Castlemon” became the whipping boy of some moral uplift reformers who claimed that reading inoffensive series books could “blow out a boy’s brains” and warp his imagination. In fact, many of his books carry stern object lessons about foolish lads who ran away from home to emulate Texas Jack or Buffalo Bill and learned some very harsh realities about frontier life.
A fairly representative selection of books by Harry Castlemon and C.A. Stephens is now available online:
Books by Harry Castlemon HERE.
Castlemon’s A Rebellion in Dixie may be read HERE.
Other books by C.A. Stephens HERE.
Stephens’ On the Amazons. HERE.