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THE CLASSICS: The Desolate South: 1865-1866 (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The Desolate South: 1865-1866
Reviewed by Peter S. Carmichael
By John T. Trowbridge

In the physical ruins of the Confederacy, Northern newspaperman John T. Trowbridge uncovered the irrepressible war spirit of the white South. He left Boston in the late summer of 1865 for a tour that would take him from Gettysburg to many of the important battlefields and cities in the former Confederacy. Along the way, he spoke to an array of white and black Southerners who were caught in a power vacuum left by the destruction of slavery. In A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration (1868), Trowbridge published his insightful observations and haunting descriptions of a people and a landscape shattered by war. This book was reprinted under a new title, The Desolate South: 1865-1866, and is an indispensable volume that brilliantly reveals the political and ideological battles between ex-slaveholders, former Confederates, poor whites, wartime Unionists and newly freed blacks.

In Richmond, Va., Trowbridge found African Americans in the most destitute condition, living in a city overflowing with white and black refugees desperate for work and food. The Federal government provided some relief with free rations, but the goodwill of the Yankees could not bring unity to a racially divided city. Trowbridge noted that blacks were reluctant to accept such support. More than anything, they wanted work and autonomy from their former owners, neither of which could occur easily in a devastated society that ex-Confederates ultimately controlled. Trowbridge also spoke with the white Richmonders waiting in line for rations. Whether they were rich or poor, they expressed the most bitter feelings toward the Federal government, insisting that they were entitled to such relief. "You ought to do something for us, for you've took away our niggers," a well-dressed white woman snapped at Trowbridge.

Trowbridge also ventured away from the cities to tour the famous battlefields of the war. At Fredericksburg, where so many Union soldiers were slaughtered before Marye's Heights on December 13, 1862, Trowbridge found deeper meaning in a battered landscape that embodied both the sacrifice of so many Union soldiers and the revolutionary consequences of the war. The terrain impressed upon him the futility of the Union attacks and the valor of the Northern soldiers, but when he left the Sunken Lane and walked up the hill to the Marye House, Trowbridge uncovered a revolution in ruins. The Marye House was the epitome of the Southern aristocracy before the war, but it was now a vanquished structure, nearly devoid of furnishings and people except for a lone black man. Trowbridge interrupted that man's work to ask about the white master. The African American bluntly responded that "I ha'n't got no master now….Now he pays me wages."

Battlefield tourists today are not much different from Trowbridge; they return to the fields searching for that mystical connection to the past. We should remember that Trowbridge never allowed romanticism to twist his view of the war as a tragedy among brothers. He knew what many Americans have forgotten today—that political and ideological differences had unleashed a terrible bloodletting that neither side could easily forget. Trowbridge, however, could not have anticipated a reconciliation movement that erased white American memory over the contested meaning of the war.

Along Fredericksburg's Sunken Lane stands a monument erected in the 1960s to pay tribute to Confederate Richard Kirkland, the "Angel of Marye's Heights." At great personal risk, Kirkland purportedly crossed the stone wall and gave water to the wounded Union soldiers. The monument's message of American unity and brotherhood amounts to an historical apostasy when compared to Trowbridge's findings in 1865. An unidentified Virginian reminded Trowbridge that the embers of resistance continued to burn in the hearts of the white South: "The war feeling around here is like a burning bush with a wet blanket wrapped around it. Looked at from the outside, the fire seems quenched. But just peep under the blanket and there it is, all alive, and eating, eating in." If Trowbridge were alive today, he would not be surprised to find the neo-Confederate blanket still smoldering, but he would be shocked to see that it now covered the entire nation.

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