A Fool's Errand

by Albion Winegar Tourgée

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Characters Discussed

Colonel Comfort Servosse

Colonel Comfort Servosse, the central character, who tries to help the South during the aftermath of the Civil War. Born in Michigan and schooled there as a lawyer, Servosse has little idea of the cultural opposition he will face as a Northerner trying to live in the same area of the South where he had served in the Union Army as it demilitarized the defeated Confederate Army. Colonel Servosse is identified repeatedly by the narrator as a fool because of his ambitions to change quickly an old culture. Convinced of the need for education for black people and of land reforms to enable emancipated slaves to buy small farms, Colonel Servosse sets about promoting both, doing the latter at his own expense. As he struggles to help the powerless blacks and the outnumbered Unionists, he often finds himself threatened with violence and isolation from all but a few of his neighbors. In the end, he earns the respect of his Southern neighbors but comes to recognize that in taking the advice of so-called wise men from the North, he has become a fool whose ideals cannot be fully realized in the South.

Metta Ward Servosse

Metta Ward Servosse, the wife of Colonel Servosse. Metta recognizes that her husband’s quest to fight in the Civil War and rebuild the South with equality for all is doomed to failure, but she still supports his efforts. She bravely shares his isolation from most of their neighbors and writes many informative letters to her sister, Julia.

Lily Servosse

Lily Servosse, the daughter of Colonel Servosse. Her heroic ride one night saves her father and Judge Denton from an impending raid by the Ku Klux Klan. By the end of the novel, she is being courted by Melville Gurney, the man she shot in the arm the night of that ride. Because of her respect for authority, she refuses to marry Melville until his father grants permission.

Colonel Ezekiel Vaughn

Colonel Ezekiel Vaughn, a self-proclaimed colonel. He sells Warrington Place to Colonel Servosse for nearly $5,000 in gold; the 600-acre property is worth far less than half this amount. Ezekiel also heckles and opposes Colonel Servosse for his radical views, but in the end he comes to respect his character.

Squire Nathaniel Hyman

Squire Nathaniel Hyman, a gossipy neighbor who lives one mile from Warrington Place. He gradually comes to accept some of Colonel Servosse’s views concerning the need to treat black people with respect. Squire Hyman’s son, Jesse, is whipped by the Klan for holding such views and flees to the West. Ironically, Jesse is helped by one of the very abolitionist ministers whom Squire Hyman had sent a mob to whip before the Civil War started.

Thomas Savage

Thomas Savage, a man who tries to bushwhack Colonel Servosse one night but ends up being caught in the trap set for the colonel. Colonel Servosse nurses Thomas back to health, and afterward Thomas becomes a staunch friend.

John Walters

John Walters, one of the white leaders who champions the political causes of the black community. Because he is a long-term member of this Southern community and a Unionist from the Civil War days, he is greatly despised by his neighbors. He is elected to office but later is brutally murdered by the Klan for daring to help educate black people and organize them politically. John leaves behind a young wife and two daughters; the daughters are playing on the front lawn of their house only a few yards away from John when he is murdered.

Jerry Hunt

Jerry Hunt,...

(This entire section contains 796 words.)

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one of the elderly leaders in the black church who reveals in a prayer meeting, attended by several members of the Klan, his knowledge about which people killed John Walters. In an effort to silence this report, the Ku Klux Klan raids Jerry’s home one night. Klan members hang him on a tree forty steps from the Temple of Justice in the middle of Verdenton.

The Reverend Enos Martin

The Reverend Enos Martin, a longtime ministerial friend of Colonel Servosse who encourages him to try reforming the South. At the end of the novel, he commiserates with the colonel about what he then perceives as his fool’s errand.

John Burleson

John Burleson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan whose open defection triggers a widespread renouncing of the Klan and its violence. He and other Klan members are given a general amnesty by the state legislature.

Melville Gurney

Melville Gurney, the son of General Gurney and the suitor of Lily Servosse. Because his father is an adamant opponent of Colonel Servosse’s politics, Melville has difficulty obtaining permission for marriage to Lily, even though General Gurney respects Colonel Servosse as a person.