The Weeping Time

On March 3, 1859, journalist Q. K. Philander Doesticks (Mortimer Thomson) attended an auction of 436 men, women, and children formerly held by Pierce M. Butler. Butler’s slaves were auctioned in order to pay debts incurred in gambling and the financial crash of 1857-58. Doesticks’ account, What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?, includes vivid descriptions of the largest recorded slave auction in U.S. history. The grim sale, which took place over two rainy days on the eve of the Civil War, was referred to as “The Weeping Time.”

The Whole black family at the Hermitage, Savannah, Ga. c1907. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Many of the slave families described in Doesticks’ report were the subject of a series of letters, written twenty years earlier, by famous British actress and author Frances Ann Kemble. Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839, published in 1863 to galvanize English support of the North during the Civil War, is an unusual account of Southern planter culture from the perspective of an outspoken outsider who considered herself an abolitionist.

Kemble married Butler in 1834, retired from the stage, and spent time with him on Butler Island, the Georgia estate that he inherited from his father. She recorded her impressions of life on a large plantation, including her efforts to improve conditions endured by the slaves who lived there, in correspondence with her friend Elizabeth Whitlock.

Folger Library copy work. Portrait of Frances Ann Kemble…. Peter Frederick Rothermel, artist; Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Kemble made a successful return to the London stage in 1847 and was divorced from Butler in 1849. Pierce Butler was awarded custody of the couple’s two daughters and Kemble was granted visiting rights. One daughter, Frances Leigh Butler, later wrote an account of her attempts during the Reconstruction period to establish a relationship with her father’s former slaves. Although her mother was a sharp critic of the Georgia planter culture, Frances Leigh Butler penned a sympathetic defense of it.

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