A Fool's Errand

by Albion Winegar Tourgée

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First published: 1879

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Polemical realism

Time of work: 1865-1877

Locale: Rockford County in a Southern state

Principal Characters:

Comfort (The fool) Servosse, a former Yankee soldier

Metta Servosse, his wife

Lily Servosse, their only child

Nathaniel Hyman, the county attorney

Jerry Hunt, an old black church leader

Melville Gurney, a former Klan member and the suitor of Lily

The Story

In 1861, Comfort Servosse went off to the Civil War as a volunteer. This, in retrospect, was his first action as an idealistic "fool." At age twenty-seven, he gave up a thriving Michigan law practice and a comfortable home. He considered it his duty to help fight against the wrong of slavery.

When the war ended, he was a colonel. He came back home to his wife Metta and daughter Lily. His war exertions had worn him out. Seeking a genial climate and not wanting to rebuild his law practice, he decided to move to the South and begin life afresh. Now that slavery was destroyed, the South was sure to flourish and become the pleasantest part of the country.

He bought the Warrington estate, a place Servosse had admired while stationed nearby. It was dilapidated, and the six hundred acres of land were worn out; but the price was cheap.

Located six miles from Verdenton, a small town, Warrington proved both a challenge and reward. The Servosses made extensive repairs. They found the countryside charming. The people seemed congenial. For Thanksgiving dinner, they invited six Northern girls who taught at a new blacks' school. The country judge, Squire Hyman, paid a visit soon thereafter and gave friendly notice that local residents disapproved of the teachers. Colonel Servosse sarcastically replied that his dinner guests were his own affair. The Verdenton newspaper labeled him a fanatical Abolitionist.

Undaunted, Servosse established a Sunday school for the blacks. He also cut up most of his estate into ten-and twenty-acre plots to sell to blacks, so that they could become self-sufficient property owners. The Servosses hoped the foolish prejudice of the townspeople would pass.

One summer day, an outdoor political meeting took place. There was a debate over the right of blacks to testify in court. Servosse attended only out of curiosity, but the people saw him and forced him to speak. His ideas were not secret, but he had never before intruded them on anyone. Now he publicly told the Southerners to give political rights to literate, property-owning blacks before the nation lost its patience. It was a bold and unpopular opinion.

Riding home, he encountered old Jerry Hunt, a black, who warned him that some angry white men were planning to ambush and whip him because of his speech. Servosse turned the tables on the conspirators, one of whom was injured. He reached home safely.

The next day, three blacks were accused of murdering the injured man, Savage, although his body had not been found. They were indicted by Judge Hyman and threatened with lynching; but Servosse stood up and said that Savage was alive and at Warrington. The charges were dropped. Soon thereafter, Squire Hyman, more open-minded than his neighbors, called on Servosse to talk. He admitted that perhaps the North had not really been vindictive. The war had occurred because neither side had understood the other.

Such talk was useless, however, and Servosse's speech had marked him as an Abolitionist and agitator. Blacks were beaten. After Servosse received an illiterate threatening letter, he bought arms and ammunition for his family and his black tenants and watched the...

(This entire section contains 2024 words.)

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town grow more hostile.

Christmas, 1866, came and went. At a black prayer meeting, the Servosses observed Jerry Hunt undergoing a mystical experience.

Meanwhile, the child Lily was growing and displaying marked intelligence. It seemed for the young girl that no local friendships, except with blacks, could ever be established.

Servosse lent support to the local Union League. He saw it as a training school in political responsibility for the freedmen. To his neighbors, it was a league of carpetbaggers and blacks united against the defeated Southern whites.

A constitutional convention was soon to meet. Servosse was unaware that people considered him the leader of the local Unionist sentiment. Attending the meeting of Unionists to nominate delegates, he found himself chosen. He issued a frank statement of his principles, and from that day he was ostracized in the region where he had hoped to make his home. The first point on his statement said: "Equal civil and political rights to all men."

Immediately Servosse received letters from the radical Republicans in the Senate. They demanded speedy reconstruction of the state government under the freed blacks and the Southern Unionists. Servosse argued that this measure would only keep the nation further divided because the government would be incompetent and the former white leaders would again rebel. Yet the "Wise Men" of the Senate got their way. Servosse viewed the future with great dismay.

In the winter of 1868-1869, his prediction of unrest was fulfilled. Bob Martin, a black, came to Warrington one day and told of a visitation the night before by thirty black-gowned horsemen. They had whipped Martin, abused his wife and daughter, and killed his infant. Local law officers said nothing could be done about the Klan. Letters to the colonel told of Klan atrocities all over the state; local incidents continued.

Now the white residents of the county, attempting to regain political control, held a mass meeting at the courthouse. John Walters, one of the outspoken Unionists of the county, attended the meeting to take notes. He did not return home. The next morning, his body was found in a courthouse office. Later a black servant told Servosse that the men who had threatened Walters and then killed him were respectable citizens of the community. News of this crime was all that Uncle Jerry Hunt could take. At a black prayer meeting, he suddenly stopped the service, told the details of the crime, and named the kidnapers. The following Saturday, several hundred Klansmen lynched him on the courthouse lawn. Again, the mob was made up of respectable citizens.

When Servosse wrote a letter asking for federal intervention in the terror-ridden county, his request was denied; the principle of states' rights and local government had to be maintained. The reign of terror went on. The Klan was the law, and through it, the Old South now triumphed. Meanwhile the North deluded itself, thinking Reconstruction was complete and effective.

As the years passed, Lily Servosse grew to womanhood. Melville Gurney, the son of a Confederate general, was torn between Lily and his father's stern principles. One day, while her father was in another part of the county with District Attorney Denton, a warning message came to Lily. The Klan was to intercept Judge Denton on his way home and burn him to death on a railroad trestle. Riding desperately to warn the two men, Lily happened upon a Klan rendezvous at a crossroads. In hurrying away, she encountered one of their lookouts and fired a shot at him. It was Melville Gurney.

After warning her father and the judge, she returned home with them. Melville's friend Burleson came along also, and publicly repudiated the Klan, making it easier for Melville to do the same, and thus hopefully to win Lily. For Melville had recognized Lily and had covered for her while she escaped. Burleson's defection was the first of many. The Klan was no longer necessary. The state legislatures issued general pardons for all their heinous crimes.

By 1877, the feeble Reconstruction governments had thus fallen completely into the hands of the old secessionists. It was as Comfort Servosse had predicted. Looking back over the years, he began to understand, if not approve of, the Southern point of view. He saw the Southern genius for leadership reassert itself. He had had his fill of politics. With his neighbors once again running things to their satisfaction, they became more friendly. Reversal to the old status quo of the years before the war had been inevitable.

Melville Gurney, pursuing his courtship, won Colonel Servosse's approval of this. Because Melville's father remained opposed, Lily refused Gurney until his father should approve. Mr. Gurney was on the verge of relenting when Comfort Servosse decided to close up Warrington. Lily would go North to study, and the Colonel would attend to other business affairs. Melville Gurney followed her north.

One day Colonel Servosse visited Dr. Martin, the retired president of his college. For the last time, he surveyed his difficult years in the South. The struggle between North and South had only just begun, he told Dr. Martin sadly, and it had been a fool's errand to try to rebuild the South in the image of the North. Just as matters were before the war, the South would soon dominate and control the nation. Her people were united, and they were born rulers. Like the Israelites, the blacks needed a prophet to arise and bring them out of slavery. The nation would have to educate the black and the poor white, and the power of states' rights would have to be crushed. All would be the work of generations.

Colonel Servosse returned briefly to Warrington after a year, intending a brief stay before taking up a managerial post in Central America. He died at Warrington of yellow fever. Before his death, he wrote his own epitaph and called himself a "Fool."

Critical Evaluation:

In almost all literature dealing with the Reconstruction period in the South following the end of the American Civil War, the carpetbagger is depicted as a villain motivated by greed, vengeance, and opportunism. Albion Tourgee's novel A FOOL'S ERRAND is the exception; its plot revolves around the career of an idealistic humanitarian Northerner, Comfort Servosse, a retired Union soldier who buys land in the South after the war for the sole purpose of devoting himself to helping the blacks build their future. In its general outline, the plot is modeled on the postwar career of Tourgee himself, whose experiences closely paralleled those of his protagonist.

Ironically, both the strengths and the weaknesses of A FOOL'S ERRAND arise, in large part, from the fiery zeal and desire to impart the message that inspired it. Tourgee is at his best when he is simply narrating a gripping tale of terror and suspense. Yet the truly powerful narrative is constantly interrupted by the author, who uses the old device of letters to insert discussions of history, eulogies in praise of black people, or diatribes against the South. Likewise, the earnestness of Tourgee's message inspires him to write some of the most realistic and horrifying scenes of mob violence in Southern fiction and to depict with great effectiveness scenes of rabble-rousing and lynching, of conspiracy, secret meetings, and the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, however, the author presents a one-sided view of the total Southern situation through his omission of equally important facts concerning the corruption and shortsightedness of many Northerners involved in the Reconstruction government. Similarly, the realism that Tourgee achieves in describing the brutality of the Klansmen breaks down when he comes to write the love story of a Northern girl who redeems her Southern lover from his wrong ideas. The same novel that is starkly real and objective in some portions suffers from sentimentality and nearly miraculous turns of plot in others.

The chief merit of A FOOL'S ERRAND lies, however, not in its plot construction or scenario, but in its astute appraisal of the total failure of Reconstruction politics. Servosse himself is a pure and noble idealist, but he comes to realize that the Northern system of which he is a part is misguided and blind, and that the program it enforces is doomed to failure. The only solution to the Southern problem, Tourgee concludes, must come not from politics, but from mass education: "Let the Nation educate the colored man and the poor-white because the Nation held them in bondage, and is responsible for their education; educate the voter because the Nation cannot afford that he should be ignorant."