Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just finished reading - The South As It Is, 1865-1866 by John Richard Dennett

One of my favorite types of history books are period travel accounts. I have read a number of these that deal with the South. Some cover the antebellum era, others cover after the Civil War, and some even cover the war itself. One of my favorites is Frederick Law Olmsted's Cotton Kingdom. Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City, traveled extensively through the Southern states before the war and wrote down his experiences and impressions. Many of his comments are culturally biased, but he writes in such great detail it almost feels like you are there with him. Another favorite is John T. Trowbridge's The Desolate South, 1865-1866, which originally appeared as A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration. Trowbridge sat out the war, writing in Boston. After the war Trowbridge was commissioned by publisher L. Stebbins to journey to the South and write about his experiences there. What Trowbridge produced is an amazing look at the war-torn South from many different angles and locations.

Much like Trowbridge, Dennett did not join the Union army. But, Dennett did participate in the Port Royal, South Carolina Experiment. Port Royal was captured early in the war (November 1861) and the freed slaves flocked to the Union army supply base there. Northern missionary agencies and various organizations came to Port Royal too. They set up schools, and hospitals, and some started cotton planting with the Freedmen as wage laborers.

Dennett was an educated man who had graduated from Harvard and was also known as an amateur writer. He had started back to Harvard to attend law school when he took the assignment to travel throughout the South as write what he saw "...as it is." Dennett's kept mostly an unbiased view as he completed his travels through the South, but one fellow Northerner who Dennett met while in the Louisiana had changed the way he felt about the South and Southerners. This Northerner told Dennett, "I believed what we used to hear, that the North didn't understand the South. I believe it yet, but in a very different sense....I came out [started] with the kindest feelings for these people down here; I wanted to see it [Reconstruction] made easy; we had whipped them, and I wanted it to rest there. I thought the South wanted it to end there. But I was tremendously mistaken. They hate us and despise us and all belonging to us....The only people that I find that a Northern man can make a friend of, the only ones that like the Government and believe in it, are the Negroes. I'm convinced they can vote just as intelligently as the poor whites...I've learned to hate Southerners as I find them, and they can hate me if they want to."

Dennett started his tour in Richmond, Virginia; then went west to Lynchburg. After Lynchburg he turned south through the piney woods of North Carolina and into South Carolina, where he visited Columbia and Charleston. Then he went to Georgia visiting Augusta, Macon, Atlanta, and Columbus. He visited Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, and then to Mobile. From Mobile he went to New Orleans, then to Baton Rouge, and finally to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I don't know how many miles he traveled, but he used just about every means of transportation available in those days; by railroad, stagecoach, walking, horse riding, and by steamboat.

The most interesting part of the book, as it is with most travel accounts, was Dennett's conversations with the local people at each stop. He interviewed a diverse sample of individuals along the way. Dennett talked with former planters, former Confederate soldiers, old and young white men and women, and freedmen and freedwomen. His conversations with poor whites were especially interesting. They almost universally could not believe that the newly freed slaves would survive. They did not believe that the freedmen would work to support themselves and would be exterminated through starvation or would be killed by the whites for stealing and other mischief. The more prosperous whites often felt the same way. The following is one such quote, "The Negro," said Mr. K___, "I sincerely hope may disappoint my expectations. But if he does not, he is doomed to undergo extinction. Less than a hundred years of freedom will see the race practically exterminated. The Negro will not work more than enough to supply his bare necessities. There isn't a county of Virginia where we haven't had some hundreds of free Negroes, and they have been always perfectly worthless and lived in wretchedness. The Negro stands as much in need of a master to guide him as a child does. When I look at my servants, I feel weighing upon me all the responsibilities of a parent."

Dennett ran into many whites concerned that blacks would get to vote and be able to testify in courts of law. One black man that Dennett met understood his circumstance quite well, and although labeled by whites as ignorant, Dennett was amazed at his intelligence. "Yes, yes, we are ignorant. We know it. I am ignorant for one, and they say all niggers is. They say we don't know what the word constitution means. But if we don't know enough to know what the Constitution is, we know enough to know what justice is. I can see for myself down at my own court-house. If they makes a white man pay five dollars for doing something today, and makes a nigger pay ten dollars for doing that thing tomorrow, don't I know that ain't justice."

Travel accounts make history real. They are the real observations of real people in real situations commenting on what they see, hear, feel, and smell around them. It doesn't get much closer to being there than reading some of these eye-witness accounts, and those that are written well are true treasures.

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