I just get my pistol and shoot him right down

Eric Foner

  • The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey
    Cambridge, 197 pp, £19.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 316 64348 8

In pre-Civil War fugitive slave narratives – memoirs written by men and, occasionally, women who had escaped to freedom and hoped to convert readers to the cause of abolition – the most heart-rending passages described slave auctions and the separation of families that usually ensued. When the abolitionist journalist and underground railroad activist Sydney Howard Gay interviewed fugitives who passed through his office in New York City in the 1850s he found that the threat of sale was a major reason for the decision to run away.

Although most Americans today acknowledge the centrality of slavery to antebellum Southern life, the ubiquity of the buying and selling of slaves is less widely recognised. In 2016, many were shocked to learn that the Jesuit university Georgetown sold nearly three hundred slaves in the 1830s to remain afloat financially. A venerable myth survives that slave trading was of marginal economic importance and that slave traders were outcasts who operated on the fringes of Southern society. In fact, after the importation of slaves from Africa was outlawed by Congress in 1807, a massive commerce in slaves developed within the United States. This ‘internal middle passage’, as the historian Ira Berlin has called it, involved the sale of more than two million slaves in the decades before the Civil War, a large number of whom were sent from older states such as Virginia to the burgeoning Cotton Kingdom of the Lower South. Every Southern newspaper carried advertisements for the sale of slaves and every major town had slave dealers who drew attention to their business with signs proclaiming ‘Negro Sales’ or ‘Negroes Bought Here’. In Charleston and New Orleans, there were large public slave markets. Slave trading was essential to the survival and profitability of the system, as well as to the financial success of individual owners.

The largest slave auction in American history, the sale of more than four hundred men, women and children owned by Pierce M. Butler, took place in Savannah, Georgia in 1859. Butler was the grandson and namesake of the signer of the US constitution who proposed its notorious fugitive slave clause, which ensured that slaves who fled to another state were returned to their owners. He spent nearly all his time in a luxurious townhouse in Philadelphia and rarely visited his Georgia estates – a rice plantation near Darien and a plantation growing Sea Island cotton (the most sought after and profitable strain of the crop) on St Simon’s Island, just off the coast – leaving them to be run by overseers.

Butler is best known to historians for his tempestuous marriage to the British actress Fanny Kemble, whom he courted after seeing her perform in Philadelphia. They married in 1834; two years later, he inherited half of his grandfather’s estate. In 1838, Butler and Kemble embarked on a five-month visit to his plantations; she later published an account of their stay in Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, an eye-opening account of how slavery operated. Kemble held anti-slavery views, which grew stronger after witnessing the institution at first hand. Arguments, separations and reunions followed the couple’s return to Philadelphia. In 1849 they divorced, an event much chronicled in the society pages. In keeping with the laws of the time, Butler was given custody of their two young children. To Kemble’s dismay, their daughter inherited her father’s outlook on slavery and strongly supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

Before then, however, Butler’s gambling losses and financial reverses triggered by the Panic of 1857, the first worldwide economic crisis, led him to agree to a massive sale of slaves to satisfy his creditors. Some remarkable documents survive from the sale, held over two days in March 1859, beginning with the auction catalogue, which lists slaves by name, age and skill. The first entries read: ‘George, age 27, prime cotton planter; Sue, age 26, prime rice planter; George Jr, age 4, boy child; Harry, age 2, boy child.’ Listings for 432 other slaves follow. Another indispensable source is a 28-page pamphlet published soon after the auction took place. Its author was Mortimer Thomson, a reporter for the New York Tribune, the country’s leading anti-slavery newspaper, who posed as a potential buyer and wrote a detailed account of the proceedings, down to some of the conversations among the buyers. Thomson overheard one of them say that he could ‘manage ordinary niggers’ with the whip, but when he encountered a really recalcitrant slave, ‘I just get my pistol and shoot him right down.’ Others eagerly looked forward to the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade, which some Southern political leaders were advocating. Thomson mostly let the events speak for themselves but occasionally offered a sardonic comment. Some of Butler’s slaves, he reported, had been known to ‘inquire into the definition of the word liberty, and the meaning of the starry flag which waves, as you may have heard, o’er the land of the free’.

Half the slaves on the Butler plantations were included in the sale. Most were field hands, but there were also domestic servants and skilled craftsmen, among them coopers, carpenters and blacksmiths. The catalogue did not list prices, but Thomson recorded what many of the slaves sold for. The auctioneer announced the terms: buyers would pay one-third down in cash, with the remainder in interest-bearing instalments. The highest sum paid was $1750 for William, a carpenter – an immense amount at a time when the average working-class white person earned around $300 per year. George, Sue and their two young sons together went for $2480.

The sale was managed by Joseph Bryan, a prominent slave dealer whose occupation does not seem to have impeded his acceptance by Savannah’s white residents – he was also the city’s chief of police. For several days, local hotels were filled with potential buyers, who made the three-mile trip to the Savannah racetrack, where the auction took place. There they closely examined the slaves (a procedure that involved the most intimate examination of their bodies), who were housed in stalls that usually accommodated horses.

The sale destroyed long established slave communities. Most of the slaves, and their parents before them, had lived their entire lives on Butler’s plantations. They were part of what is now known as the Gullah Geechee culture of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where African traditions survived more fully than in other parts of the South, partly because most of the owners, like Butler, were absentees and the slaves had little contact with whites. Slaves in this region spoke a dialect that mixed African and English words, which blacks further inland often could not understand. They told stories about slaves who learned to fly and made their way back to Africa. Butler’s slaves were required to attend religious services conducted by white ministers, who instructed them to serve their masters faithfully, but also had their own religious leaders. One day one of them, Sinda, prophesied that the end of the world was nigh, and with it emancipation. Butler’s slaves, the overseer reported, stopped working and refused to resume until the appointed day had come and gone.

Unusually, the auctioneer was instructed not to separate families, although as Thomson noted, this admonition was limited to not separating husbands from wives and parents from young children. Siblings, cousins, grandparents and grandchildren were wrenched apart, as were couples who had not been formally married. The night before the auction began, the slaves Dembo and Frances somehow located a minister who agreed to marry them so that they could be sold together; they were bought for $1320 each by a cotton planter from Alabama. Jeffrey, age 23, begged his buyer also to purchase Dorcas, proclaiming: ‘I loves her well and true.’ But they weren’t married so his plea was to no avail. With his business agent, Butler made the trip from Philadelphia to watch the auction, which netted more than $300,000, enough to wipe out his debts. He stayed until the final lot was spoken for and then, Thomson reported, handed out ‘one whole dollar, in specie’, to each of the slaves who had been sold.

The Savannah auction is the starting point of The Weeping Time by Anne C. Bailey, who teaches African-American and African history at Binghamton University in New York State. Her opening chapter recounting the sale of the Butler slaves is riveting but somewhat brief: one wishes that she had devoted more space to this harrowing story. But she seems anxious to move on to larger questions, to use the auction as a window into slavery itself. She discusses issues ranging from black culture in the Georgia low country to the way agricultural skills brought from Africa – especially complex methods of cultivating rice – enriched the slaves’ owners. She probes the way subsequent generations remembered (or forgot) the institution’s brutality and its centrality to American development. These are all weighty subjects, perhaps too weighty for a book of fewer than two hundred pages. Some of those pages cover subjects of dubious relevance, such as Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, and the presence of Islam in West Africa, where the ancestors of these slaves originated (although evidence for its presence on the Butler plantations is meagre). Bailey also spends too much time establishing points already widely accepted among historians. ‘This book affirms the view that the black family is a resilient institution,’ she writes, a finding demonstrated more than forty years ago by Herbert Gutman in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. Other aspects of the story cry out for further analysis. The book devotes considerable attention to establishing ‘links to the slaves’ African pasts’ in their work routines, religious practices and folkways such as ring dances. There is less on how Africans became African-Americans, or the extent to which they were influenced by the values of the society around them. When emancipation finally arrived, Bailey notes, the former slaves saw the right to vote ‘as the heart and soul of their freedom’. This outlook is more likely to have originated in 19th-century America than ancestral Africa.

During the Civil War, the slaves who had not been put on sale were moved inland, as Butler, like other local planters, acted to prevent them from running off to join the Union army, which occupied the Sea Islands early in the war. Once peace and emancipation arrived, former slaves throughout the South, including some from the Butler sale, set out to locate those from whom they had been separated. Only a few succeeded. Many of Butler’s former slaves returned to his estates, the only place they knew as home. They hoped to claim some of the land for themselves, an aspiration that seemed plausible in January 1865, when General Sherman set aside a large swathe of land on the Sea Islands and along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for the settlement of black families and barred whites entirely from the islands. Later that year, however, President Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln’s assassination, ordered that the confiscated territory be returned to its owners. Butler and his daughter travelled to Georgia, hoping to put the former slaves back to work, but soon complained about their ‘laziness’ – in other words, they were unwilling to work as if they were slaves. The frustrated Butlers eventually hired immigrants from China and Ireland to get their plantations running again.

Bailey’s book is as much about memory as history. In black communities the memory of lost children, husbands, wives and other family members was seared into the culture of post-emancipation generations. How did the Butler slaves and their descendants, and African-Americans more generally, confront and try to overcome the trauma of slavery and to reconstitute families that had been torn apart? Bailey pays tribute to ‘the noble efforts of modern-day descendants … to restore the pieces of their fragmented past’, despite not only a paucity of documentation but also the silence of former slaves and their immediate descendants about their experiences. Remarkably, however, ten families have managed to map out their ancestry, representing 15 per cent of those sold at the Savannah auction. Over the course of generations, some of these families thrived. They learned to read and write, and became property owners. Several served in the armed forces, following in the footsteps of two Butler slaves who enrolled in the Union military during the Civil War. Some families suffered the kinds of loss all too familiar in the Jim Crow South. One 18-year-old was killed with an ice pick in Texas in 1940 by a white man who had been overheard earlier in the day saying he was ‘going to get him a nigger’.

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As Bailey notes, the heroic attempts of these families to reconstruct their lineages form part of a much broader effort among African-Americans, many of whom have turned to companies that analyse DNA samples to identify their ethnic and geographic ancestry. Bailey tells us that she has had samples of her own DNA examined in order to locate her forebears’ origins in West Africa. Although no direct evidence exists, she believes she ‘may have an ancestral link to the people of this study’. She rightly insists that such genealogical explorations can lead to increased historical knowledge. She does not, however, take into account some of the problems raised by genetic testing, which has become big business, even spawning genome-themed tours of ancestral African homelands. The sociologist Alondra Nelson’s recent book The Social Life of DNA explores these themes in depth and raises questions about both the scientific credibility of DNA findings and whether science can really be the vehicle for healing old wounds and answering questions about personal identity and heritage.[*] Nelson points out that relatively few of the many hundreds of ethnic groups in West Africa have had their DNA studied, yet companies offer definitive-sounding findings about an individual’s ethnic ancestry. She wonders whether the reliance on DNA is reviving the long discredited biological understanding of race as something inborn and immutable that determines a person’s capabilities. For her part, Bailey seems to believe that the impact of traumatic experiences, such as the Holocaust and slavery, can be transmitted genetically, that descendants can ‘unconsciously’ inherit ‘environmental stresses akin to historical trauma’. Studies of rats, she reports, reveal the reality of ‘transgenerational stress’.

If Bailey’s account of the transmission of memory borders on the metaphysical, she occupies solid ground in pointing to the inadequacy of public understandings of slavery. Of course, the way the Civil War is commemorated in public statues and monuments has become a highly controversial matter in the United States. There is nothing uniquely American about these debates. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe such artefacts have been removed with increasing frequency. Many Americans who oppose taking down statues of Confederate leaders applauded when Muscovites upended the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a founder of the Soviet secret police, when Hungary shifted its communist-era monuments to a museum outside Budapest, and when US troops toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Generally, as regimes change so does the public presentation of history. But this hasn’t really happened in the United States. The problem isn’t simply the nostalgia for the Confederacy (and its underlying raison d’être of white supremacy) inscribed in many hundreds of monuments scattered across the South, but that the public commemoration of the history of the region, and the US generally, is entirely one-dimensional. As Bailey notes, the experience of slavery is conspicuously absent from public representations of history. One might add that there are few, if any, statues of the black leaders of Reconstruction – the period of biracial democracy that followed the Civil War – or of the white Southerners who remained loyal to the Union. What is needed, she writes, is a ‘democratisation of memory’.

Some progress is being made. Bailey chides the National Park Service for having ‘obscured’ the significance of slavery at its Civil War sites. This seems somewhat unfair since at the direction of Congress the service has in fact included discussions of slavery at many locations, even at Gettysburg, where until recently visitors could learn intricate details of the battle but not what the soldiers were fighting about. And in 2016 the Obama administration designated Beaufort, South Carolina, just up the coast from the Butler plantations, as the site of a national monument devoted to the history of Reconstruction. But Bailey’s larger point is correct. It’s hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in American history. But too many white Americans continue to view it as a footnote, an exception to the larger story of the expansion of freedom. A few years ago, President Sarkozy dedicated a monument in the Luxembourg Gardens intended to commemorate both the long travail of French slavery and the slaves’ own contributions, through their struggles for freedom, to ‘the universality of human rights’ and to French traditions of liberty. A historical marker now stands in Savannah showing the site of the ‘Largest Slave Sale in Georgia History’. But to this day there is no monument anywhere in the United States to the millions of victims of American slavery or to the ways their labour helped to produce the world we live in.

[*] The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation after the Genome by Alondra Nelson (Beacon, 216 pp., £17.99, September 2016, 978 0 8070 2718 9).