Local historian traces story of a slavecatcher

East Lyme — Local historian James N. Littlefield just came out with his third book and second novel, "Slavetaker: The Promise," the story of a Southern, mixed-race couple in the Civil War era.

The book, produced by small publisher Husky Trail Press in Gales Ferry, follows on his first novel, "The Slave-Catcher's Woman," which Littlefield said sold about 2,000 copies.

The first novel ends about the time of the Creek War in 1835, while his latest story picks up shortly thereafter, centered on the city of Milledgeville in Georgia, and the fictional story of white slavecatcher Coswell Tims and his wife, a light-skinned black woman named Cynthia. The couple met when Tims was hired to track down Cynthia, an esaped slave.

The new book includes a kidnapping, the retrieval of a stolen servant sold into slavery and a long trek to New Orleans as the Civil War begins.

"I have a lot of fun with dialects," Littlefield said.

Perhaps a little too much fun for the mainstream market, he said, considering some of the feedback he got from publishers. Mainstream readers also may be put off by use of the N-word throughout the book, but Littlefield said he was trying to be as accurate to the times as possible and wasn't making concessions to political correctness.

Littlefield also explores some of the biblical rationales for slavery, he said, and looks at the little-known and grisly practice of medical schools seeking out black cadavers — both freed and slaves — for research between 1780 and 1880.

The historical research Littlefield did for the book uncovered some surprises, such as how Samuel Colt of Connecticut firearms fame apparently sold weapons to the Confederates.

"War isn't what you think it is," he said. "It isn't about battles and glory. It's about bottom-feeders.

"It's like every man for themselves. It's not the good guys vs. the bad guys. God isn't on our side."

He chose an enlightened slavecatcher as the central character, someone who is "almost a hero" even though he's also involved in an unsavory trade. Coswell Tims is used as an honest chronicler of the slavecatching trade, which was a lucrative profession before and during the Civil War.

Littlefield himself used to dress up as Coswell Tims during his slavecatching days when he did Civil War re-enactments, but lately has been playing the part of a former slavecatcher.

"I don't want to defend slavery," he said. "I've had people upset."

Littlefield, a history teacher in East Lyme for nearly half a century, noted that he discovered his own family, traced to the 1600s on Block Island, apparently held slaves, another example of Northern culpability in America's original sin.

It's a legacy that continues today, particularly in the South where residents are still conflicted over the meaning of the Confederate flag, the conundrum of what to do with statues of Confederate heroes and even the notion of racially divided cemeteries.

That's why Littlefield introduced into his novel a modern side story about an interracial couple fighting to have the body of Cynthia Tims reunited with her husband in the white section of Memory Hill cemetery.

The effort to integrate the couple in death, of course, stirs up all the smoldering embers of the notion of white supremacy.

"I wanted a modern part people could relate to," Littlefield said.

He sees his book, written largely as a first-person diary of Coswell Tims, as something of an antidote to "Gone With the Wind," which he sees as a fable.

"This book is real," he said. "The language is real. The dynamics are real."

The nearly 300-page book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or locally at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Book Barn and Bayberries in Niantic and Laysville Center in Old Lyme.

l.howard@theday.com

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