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My Life’s Birds: #462

January 19, 2011
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June 9, 2008Sandhills Gamelands, NC – Rev. John Bachman was nothing short of a revolutionary, which is saying something in South Carolina, a state known for its stridency in the years leading up to the American Civil War.  The port city of Charleston was a hotbed of anti-union sentiment, not least for its importance in the trade of the two industries that came to define the antebellum south, cotton and slaves.  When Bachman arrived in Charleston from New York in 1815 to take over the ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church he began a career that not only saw him become arguably the south’s most influential naturalists, but one of its most prominent social crusaders too.

Of the first, Bachman was involved in an informal club called the “Circle of Naturalists”, a group of Charleston physicians and natural historians, many of whom were affiliated with the College of Charleston.  The interests therein ranged from chemistry to marine biology to ornithology, but the work done by the group of amateur and professional scientists made Charleston as renowned in the natural history world as Boston or Philadelphia, and Bachman was right in the middle of it.  His reputation as a naturalist led him to a relationship with none other than John James Audubon, who spent a month at Bachman’s home while on his way to Florida to collect specimens and sell his book.  A lifelong friendship between the men developed, manifesting not only in their under-appreciated collaboration Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America, a book illustrated by Audubon and written by Bachman, but in the marriage of Audubon’s sons to Bachman’s daughters!

But it’s birds where Bachman’s name is remember by the binocular’d crowd.  In the almost certainly extinct Bachman’s Warbler, a bird discovered by the Reverend and first illustrated by Audubon, and Bachman’s Sparrow, one of the southeast’s signature birds and one no doubt found by the Reverend in his frequent trips into the country. Keen students of scientific names, may also note that Bachman also shows up in Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani), a bird specifically named for Bachman by his friend Audubon.

But not only was Bachman a famed naturalist, but his work as a social reformer put him far ahead of his time.  He was unable to avoid making the connection between the natural world and the world at large and as an early adopter of Charles Darwin’s brand new theory of evolution by natural selection, Bachman cited Darwin to make the unpopular, especially in South Carolina, claim that the Africans bought and sold in the Charleston markets were the same species as their masters, and slavery was therefore immoral.  As such, he spent much of his time ministering to and educating black Charlestonians, an act both illegal and socially unacceptable at the time.

His pro-unionist sympathies were little help in the aftermath of of the Civil War, however, and his celebrity brought him more trouble than triumph.  With Union troops occupying Charleston in the last years of the war, a meeting with one of W. T. Sherman’s officers over buried money left him beaten, with one arm paralyzed, and his science collections and library in ashes.  A tragic loss not only from a personal perspective, but for the science of natural history in the 19th Century.

How ironic then, that the little sparrow named for him relies on fire for its very existence.  History undeniably has a sense of humor, as from the ashes of a lifetime’s work in the southeast comes the Sparrow named for the quintessential southern naturalist.  Underrated and undeterred.

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6 Comments
  1. David permalink
    January 19, 2011 8:24 am

    Great post!

  2. January 19, 2011 8:40 am

    Absolutely one of your best posts.

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 19, 2011 9:21 am

    @David & Jochen – Thanks! Sometimes I wonder if people read these Life’s Birds posts. 🙂 Nice to know they do.

  4. January 19, 2011 9:41 am

    Thanks for this fascinating history, Nate. I don’t have a Bachman’s Sparrow yet but now when I do see one I will think of the Reverend.
    My great grandfather fought under Sherman, was left for dead and about to be buried on a hot July 4th battlefield when he suddenly rose from the dead, a victim of sunstroke and not a bullet. He wrote that the General was a hard taskmaster. So sad that Bachman lost so much to Sherman’s determination to obliterate the south.

  5. January 19, 2011 1:47 pm

    love it.

  6. Nate permalink*
    January 19, 2011 6:54 pm

    @Jane- Bachman was a somewhat tragic figure in the history of South Carolina. As the preeminent clergyman in the state he had to give the invocation at the legislative session in which South Carolina formally seceded, and by all accounts, it was a difficult period in his life and he had to curtail much of the work he had been doing in the black community. His interactions with Sherman’s army were merely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sherman may have been a brute, but he was a necessary one, and wielded to useful and essential effect by Grant and the Federal army.

    @Laurent- Thanks!

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