A reporter’s 1865 trip through the defeated Confederacy revealed a ravaged landscape and bitter people.
On a hot day in June 1865, young Harvard graduate John Richard Dennett boarded the steamer Creole for Richmond, Virginia. It was a scant two months since Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in New York City, bound on April 9; the war was over, but the shape of the peace to come had been thrown into turmoil and uncertainty by Abraham Lincoln’s assassination less than a week later.
For Dennett, 26, born in Canada, raised in Massachusetts, it was the start of a remarkable eight-month journey of discovery that would produce the most vivid set of portraits and depictions of the defeated South to emerge from the crucial months following the Civil War. On foot and horseback, by creaking trains and bumping stagecoaches, Dennett visited cities and back – waters, plantation houses and shanties, spoke to blacks and whites, rich and poor, Unionists and fire-eaters, and chronicled the complexities of a land and people that most Northerners had only the vaguest sense of after four years of bitter warfare. His reports, in the form of weekly letters to the newly founded journal The Nation, carried an immediacy that remains undimmed a century and a half later. Titled “The South As It Is,” they captured, frequently in cinematically evocative descriptions, the look and feel of an often bleak and wracked land—and of a growing determination by the ex-Confederates to resist efforts by the victorious North to dictate the terms of victory: most of all the granting of even the most basic rights of citizenship to the freed slaves.
Dennett was an unusual but inspired choice for the job. He had been class poet at Harvard, and his ear for language and dialect was pitch-perfect. He had begun his law studies in 1864 and had a lawyer’s eye for detail, as well as the lawyer’s trained habit of setting his own feelings aside while drawing people out and getting them to talk. During the war he had served as a superintendent of plantations on the Sea Islands of South Carolina as part of the famous “Port Royal Experiment,” which had educated and given plots of land to the former slaves who had remained and continued to work the soil after Union troops occupied the islands and their owners fled. “He is charged with the duty of simply reporting what he sees and hears,” The Nation’s editors explained to their readers in introducing their new correspondent, “leaving the public as far as possible to draw its own inferences.”
Creole was crowded with Union officers returning to their regiments, officers’ wives and children heading south to be reunited with husbands and fathers, excursionists curious to see the ruined Confederate capital, German Jewish peddlers, young New Englanders eager to settle in the South, and a few wealthy Southern planters. From City Point, Va., where the James River abruptly narrows, a small riverboat carried the journalist and others on to Richmond, past the hulks of sunken ships and ruined bridges.
In the former Confederate capital, cannonballs still littered the streets, and the fires set by Lee’s retreating army had left a quarter-mile stretch of the business district a ghost town, the skeletons of chimneys, and every now and then a ruined safe warped from the flames’ intense heat, lying amid toppling walls and heaps of bricks.
Half the city was subsisting on rations furnished by U.S. authorities. During the war, shortages of staples had sent prices galloping. Now the shops were full of merchandise, flour and meat. Prices were down, but no customers were to be had. “Our people have no money, sir,” was the phrase Dennett heard again and again.
A Northern Christian aid society, flying one of the few United States flags to be seen in the city, set up a tent in Capitol Square and handed out tickets for soup and flour.
Everywhere Dennett went, he listened, recorded and gently probed. On the first leg of his journey he sat on the deck of the steamer and struck up a conversation with a “Mr. K,” a Virginia planter. Mr. K farmed 1,500 acres in Amelia County, about 40 miles from Richmond, an area that had mostly been spared the ravages of the war. The wheat crop, already gathered, had done well; the oats were coming along and promising to be well above average.
But most of the planter’s 115 slaves had left him. “Less than a hundred years of freedom will see the race practically exterminated,” he averred. “The Negro will always need the care of someone superior to him, and unless in one form or another it is extended to him, the race will first become pauper and then disappear.”
The two men sat and talked of this and that, and at last Dennett asked the planter if he didn’t believe that North and South would soon come together again with the old friendly feeling and be one people again. The conversation thus far had been so cordial that Dennett was taken aback by the bitterness of the reply that followed.
“No, sir, never,” Mr. K bristled. “The people of the South feel that they have been most unjustly, most tyrannically oppressed by the North. Even Mr. [Daniel] Webster allows that one party to a compact having violated it, the other is released from all obligations. Now, the North has repeatedly violated the constitutional guaranties of slavery. Yes, sir, we had a most perfect right to secede, and we have been slaughtered by the thousands for attempting to exercise it. And yet it is the fashion to call us traitors! Now the people of the South are not going to stand for that.”
Mr. K allowed that he was shocked to learn that General Lee had applied for a pardon; it had lessened his opinion of the man that he should so tarnish a just cause by such a seeming admission of wrong.
South from Richmond to Lynchburg a ruined railway carried the traveler no faster than a man could walk. The two passenger cars were decorated with painted Confederate flags and covered with the yellow-red mud of the land. Window-frames were boarded up over long-vanished panes, a few tufts of horsehair and red plush offering the only reminders of seat cushions.
Where the railroad crossed the 1,200-foot-long trestle at High Bridge, the passengers got out; the far end had been destroyed by Lee’s men as they retreated before Phil Sheridan’s cavalry. For a dollar, a wagon carried a traveler and his trunk over a low bridge of logs to a train waiting for them on the other end. In the open wagon in which Dennett rode, an old man from North Carolina sat silently upon a coffin of rough boards holding the body of his son. Two wounded Confederate soldiers shared his seat.
Some of Dennett’s most vivid portraits were of Southern Unionists, the forgotten one-third of white Southerners who had bitterly opposed secession. They were generally hardscrabble farmers, living in wild and bleak backcountry in rough cabins, a stark contrast to the romantic image of the South as a land of gracious refinement and stately plantations. The poor farmers had little sympathy for the freedmen, even less for the freedmen’s former owners. “All they want is to git you to go fight for their infernal negroes,” said one poor farmer during the war, of the slaveholding class, “and after you do their fightin’ you may kiss their hine parts for all they care.”
South from Lynchburg, Dennett had gone by horse into the Unionist strongholds of western North Carolina. He rode for hours through forested tracks, encountering no one. Fearful he had lost his way, he stopped to study a signpost and found it covered with penciled notes left by traversing armies and more recent passers-by. “B.C., Captain Wofford’s Georgians will go by way of the Court-House”; “Captain Williams—Charlotte Battery—we will go through Pittsylvania C.H.”; “Jack, go the road with the pine branch”; “W.H.B., Raleigh, N.C., gone along April 5, 1865.”
In North Carolina’s poor hill country, he came upon a white woman and a little girl gathering sticks and rotten wood by the roadside and stopped to inquire of his way, and jotted down in his notebook afterward their wondering reaction to this apparition from a world beyond their ken.
“Mister, whar be ye frum?” the woman asked, looking hard at him.
“I’m from the North.”
“The North! Be you a—one o’ them—what they call Yankees? Don’t be offended, gentleman, that’s what they calls ’em; be you a Yankee?”
“I suppose I must be.”
“Excuse me, gentleman, but I must look at you, fur I heerd so much about the Yankees and I niver seed one yit. Lord! Lord! A ra’al Yankee! Maria, he looks most like our folks, don’t he? He sartin do. Well, I must praise the Yankees if they looks like you. Maria, don’t they look right nice?”
But between Unionists and secessionists, Dennett found, there was not a whit of difference in their contempt for the Negro, or the belief that the black race was doomed to extinction. The white loungers in every city hotel, the loiterers at the depot, the idlers gathered at every country store or tavern chewing tobacco, all struck a leisurely pose, sipped their apple brandy, peered out at the muddy road and declared that the Negro was lazy, indolent, ill-adapted for freedom, sure to die out.
In his weekly letters to The Nation Dennett nearly always refrained from offering comments or opinions, but this contradiction irked him. “In the country parts of Virginia I have seen at one time and another hundreds of white men,” he observed, “and I doubt if I have seen in all more than ten men engaged in labor of any sort.” And then most of the whites admitted that the Negroes in their neighborhood were doing “tolerably well,” performing all the manual farm labor that needed doing. Dennett looked at the lists of “destitute rations” handed out by the federal authorities in two Virginia counties for the month of June; in Bedford County relief was furnished to 961 persons, 13 of them colored; in Campbell County 530 persons, 12 colored.
On one 1,200-acre farm, Dennett listened while the owner, a wealthy former slaveholder and ex-Confederate colonel, railed against the new sys tem of labor. “Since mine were freed, they have become lazy, stubborn, and impudent,” he indignantly complained. “The Government has taken away all the coercive power from us; a Negro does what he likes, and I cannot inflict adequate punishment.”
How much did he pay his people, Dennett asked the colonel.
“No money wages. If you give money to a nigger he goes and spends it for whiskey,” was the response, to which Dennett wryly observed, “Having tried the new labor system, with the essential feature of it left out, he of course finds it a failure.”
Traveling in South Carolina in December, Dennett passed many parties of freed slaves, men, women and children, young and old, many in rags, footsore, obviously hungry. “These were sights that seemed to fill every white Southerner with anger,” Dennett reported, invariably triggering imprecations about “lazy nigger.” On the stagecoach the man next to him had erupted, “See those damned niggers! What do they want there?”
The Northern journalist asked them. A black man on a road in Virginia had come from Georgia on foot, hoping to find the wife he had not seen for years, since they had been sold apart while still in slavery. A half-naked old man he met in Columbia, one of those he had seen on the road from the stagecoach, told him he was hoping to return to Georgetown, on the coast, where he had lived before the war. The man who had hired him this year had turned him loose with no wages, just some bushels of corn he and his family had carried away on their backs.
Never in all of his travels, Dennett said, did he meet up with one freedman who thought “that freedom meant exemption from work.” On the contrary, many asked him, with meaningful and hopeful looks, if he thought they might be able to rent a piece of land of their own for the coming year and work it for themselves.
In his travels, Dennett often called upon the harassed and overworked Army officers who served as assistant superintendents of freedmen throughout the South. Most seemed decent men, overwhelmed by the impossibility of their job but trying their best to adjudicate endless labor disputes, to give the freedmen the hearing they were still denied in the state courts, which refused to accept the testimony of a black man against a white man.
Their offices were always jammed with supplicants; their subordinates varied from the sympathetic to the indifferent to the corrupt, and included more than a few who contemptuously sided with local whites—some who even pitched in on occasion to give an “impudent nigger” a good thrashing.
There was a raw and familiar edge, as old as slavery itself, to the outrages freedmen lined up to complain about. An employer knocked down the freedman who worked for him. When the man complained, his employer was called in to give his side of the case. Yes, he had struck the Negro; the Negro was insolent—he had called him “Mister Smith” instead of “master.”
In North Carolina, Dennett made a digest of recent cases brought to the assistant superintendent at Salisbury:
- By colored man, John: that G.S. whipped his wife’s sister because she left him, and forced her to go back and work for him.
- By colored man, Anderson: that his master whipped him because he went off the plantation to see his cousin, and threatens to whip him again when he comes back from making his complaint.
- By colored woman, Martha: That J.J. Parker overtook her while on her way to the office of the Superintendent of Freedmen, put one end of a rope around her neck, tied the other round the neck of his mule, and so dragged her more than two miles. Showed marks of rope.
- By colored man, Elias: That some citizens took his gun away from him and told him no nigger had a right to carry a gun.
The Freedmen’s Bureau reports for the month of October that Dennett perused in South Carolina told of worse deeds. In the Clarendon district, when six former slaves left their plantation, the overseer pursued them with a pack of hounds and caught them. He shot one attempting to escape and hung the other five by the roadside.
While he was in South Carolina, Dennett accompanied the chief officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau for the area, General Ralph Ely, to Edgefield Court House. The Edgefield district was a prosperous area of large plantations that had escaped the ravages of war. Its soil was light loam and level ground, good for cotton, unlike the sand and red earth of so much of the region. The old wealthy families were wealthy still and carrying on much as before the war. Word of the general’s coming had spread throughout the district. By 3 a.m., crowds of freedmen had already congregated in the village square before the courthouse.
A 30-year-old mulatto man waited patiently for his turn to tell his story. He lived 10 miles from the courthouse and made and sold brandy. The white people around there had been saying that the Negroes had guns. The previous Saturday 14 men had come to his house and demanded his gun. He had no gun, he told them. They insisted he did. Finally one of the men said, “I’ll get it out of him.” He left for a few minutes and came back with a chain. Then the men hung him; hung him “till I lost my sense, and when I come to, they asked me, ‘would I give up my gun, now?’ And I told them, ‘Gentlemen, I got no gun.’” And so they hung him until he again passed out, and again demanded his gun when he came to; and then a third time.
Still not getting satisfaction, they stripped him naked and gave him a merciless beating. The marks of the beating, and of the chain on his neck, were starkly visible as he stood before the general and the crowd in the courthouse square, quietly telling his story. “I don’t expect they’re agoin’ to let me live now I made this complain’ to you, general; but they may kill me for good as soon as they choose.” And then the man began to cry. “Which I hasn’t got anything in the world but myself, for I hasn’t got any family, nor any parents, nor any land, nor any money, and I know I is not to be any worse off in the grave than I is now.”Two other cases of hangings were reported.
Dennett continued on, through Georgia and Alabama, then by steamboat to New Orleans. Aboard the boat a handsome young mulatto man, fashionably dressed and fluent in French and English, deftly tended the bar for a steady stream of elegant customers through the afternoon and evening. Dennett decided to walk the hundred miles from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, sending his valise and overcoat on by express. When he asked after the road, he was met by incredulous stares. No one went by land, they all told him—they took the boat. And finally they directed him to the levee of the Mississippi River.
He walked mile after monotonous mile on the raised bank, an endless green ribbon beside the mile-wide yellow stream, the spring of sodden grass and clover beneath his feet, the glimpse of spreading live oaks and large white houses on the bank beyond. He spent a night among the Creoles, who made a bed for him on two benches in the billiard room of their village coffee house, falling asleep to the sound of his landlord’s voice reading aloud to his wife from Les Trois Mousquetaires.
Still among Creoles at lunch the next day, in a shop where he stopped to buy bread and cheese, Dennett was an object of sympathy and curiosity as he had been nowhere else in his Southern travels. A half-dozen men clustered around him, asking questions through the one person who knew English and acted as interpreter. Perhaps he was out of his work and seeking for a place? Perhaps he was a schoolmaster? Perhaps there was something wrong? Oh no, not that he was not all right. But a man traveling on foot, by himself—was there no trouble, no sweetheart?
Along the way he encountered more evidence of the violent resistance and social ostracism through which the ex-Confederates were reasserting control. An Englishman who had lived in Louisiana 35 years rented some land to freedmen. He received a warning: “We have been informed that you are ’lowing niggers to squat about your land; or, in other words, you are renting niggers land. One of our committee told you that you would be burnt out, but you would not pay attention to him. Now, sir, your gin-house is burnt for renting niggers land. If this is not sufficient warning we will burn everything on your place. If that don’t break it up, we will break your neck. If that don’t break it up, we will shoot the niggers. Beware, sir, before it is too late, or you will be waited on by A COMMITTEE.”
In Baton Rouge, Dennett had a long talk with a man from Ohio, who had come south to search for the remains of friends killed in a steamboat explosion. He had traveled for weeks in Mississippi and Louisiana—the bodies, it was believed, might have come ashore anywhere between Vicksburg and the Gulf. He was intelligent, Dennett observed, and his sad task had brought him into contact with men from many different walks of life. The Ohioan had made a point of finding out as much as he could about the opinions and feelings of the people of the South—and the experience had simply stunned him.
“You must understand,” the man told Dennett, “that in 1860 I was a strong Douglas man. I didn’t like Lincoln, and the abolitionists I hated; but, of course, I was Union. This journey has been the greatest that I have ever experienced. I came out with the kindest feelings for these people down here; I wanted to see it 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. They call us cut-throats, liars, thieves, vandals, cowards, and the very scum of the earth. They actually believe it. They won’t even allow that we won our own battles. ‘We were overpowered by numbers,’ they say. They’ve said that to me more than fifty times within the last few weeks.
“The only people 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. A Southerner would knock me down if I said that to him; but it’s true.
“I tell you I’m going home to be a radical. I’m going to help our people see two or three things: that the chivalry hate us and despise us; that a ‘nigger’ they don’t consider human; that whatever harm they can do us without getting another whipping, they’ve got the will to do, and mean to do, too.”
For his part, Dennett feared it was already too late to make a difference. If the native Unionists of the South had been immediately supported with all the might of the government, if treason had been made odious the moment the war had ended, then the men in the middle to be found in every community might have been emboldened to rally to their side, Dennett suggested. But instead, the Southern whites had coalesced around the same rebel spirits who had led them into secession, and what those men had considered worth fighting for they were determined to fight for yet.
“The South As It Is” would be Dennett’s only published work; it appeared unsigned, as was common at the time. He returned to Harvard to become an assistant professor of rhetoric, but grew restless with academic routine and rejoined The Nation in 1872. He died just two years later, at age 36.
So John Dennett did not live to see fully just how prescient his predictions would prove. “For some time to come,” Dennett wrote in his final report to The Nation, “the South will be a unit on all questions of Federal politics.” In particular, he said, white Southerners would use every means in their power to prevent Negro suffrage, and to neutralize it if it did come about. “I think that the Negroes un – protected by the military authority of the general Government would hardly be able to cast votes enough to alter the elections of any one Southern county,” Dennett wrote.
“Let the Negro vote,” Dennett quoted a Virginia lumber merchant, “and the Southern people will have to be kept down by a standing army.”
Stephen Budiansky is the author of 12 books. His most recent is The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, published by Viking in 2008, from which this article was adapted.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.