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In the prewar South a Yankee traveler discovered a world best rendered in shades of gray.

Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the visionary behind such green space masterworks as Central Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. But had he never  become a landscape architect, he still would have made his mark on history—as a journalist. In 1852, a startup publication, the New York Daily Times (it would later drop the Daily), hired Olmsted to report on slavery and the South. Olmsted was surprisingly well qualified. Just prior to landing the Times assignment, he had been working as a scientific farmer. And the South in this era was nothing if not an agrarian society. Olmsted even had a book to his credit, covering a walking tour he had taken of the English countryside.

Over a two-year period, Olmsted blanketed the South for the Times, traveling by coach, horseback and on foot. At a time of ratcheting tensions, when Northern abolitionists were inflamed by polemical works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Olmsted provided a much-needed contrast. As a reporter, he was a natural. His 48 Southern dispatches were balanced and humane, distinguished by a keen eye for telling detail.

When the Civil War broke out, the ever-restless Olmsted moved on to yet another role. During the conflict, he served as head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a battlefield relief outfit that was a forerunner to the Red Cross. But he left a far more personal record with his antebellum reportage on slavery. Not only did his dispatches create a powerful record of the slaveholding South, but a collection of his work, The Cotton Kingdom, published in England shortly after the outbreak of the war, helped sway British public opinion against the Confederacy. Today, 150 years after its first publication, The Cotton Kingdom remains in print. Historian Arthur Schlesinger once described the book as “the nearest thing posterity has to an exact transcription of a civilization which time has tinted with hues of romantic legend.”

Olmsted set out on his journey in December 1852, timing his departure for after the fall harvest was done. Though he’d  landed a newspaper assignment, he was still a farmer by trade. He planned to be gone for the winter, when nothing of great import was likely to occur. Olmsted traveled first by train to Washington, D.C. There, he experienced something akin to culture shock. While selling slaves had been outlawed within the district, owning slaves was still permitted. This was the U.S. capital, yet Olmsted was stunned by how much it seemed a Southern town. From Washington he made forays into the Maryland countryside, then down into Virginia.

There was something immensely lonely about this first leg of his journey, as he described it in his accounts. Olmsted ate alone in roadhouses, eavesdropping on fellow diners, trying to gather bits of scuttlebutt. From the town of Richmond, he tailed a funeral procession of slaves as they walked out into the countryside. Standing at a distance, Olmsted watched them heap dirt on the coffin, listened as they broke into a call-and-response dirge, soon broken by wails of grief.

Before coming south, Olmsted had been furnished by friends with letters of introduction to various plantation owners. But plantations proved to be maddeningly absentee operations. Whenever Olmsted called, the owners weren’t home. Drawing strangers into conversation, meanwhile, proved immensely difficult.

Olmsted made no effort to disguise either his voice or appearance. He simply identified himself as a traveler, a suitably valid explanation. If someone pursued with further questions, he readily conceded that he was from New York. This was almost a point of honor; Olmsted figured people would open up if he was honest—well, to a point. He stopped short of revealing that he was a reporter. No matter, because at the outset he was rarely able to get anyone to say boo. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to get hold of a conversable man,” he wrote to his friend Charles Brace, “and when you find one, he will talk of anything else but slavery &c.” Of Southerners, he added, “They are jealous of observation of things that would tell against slavery.”

The South was proving hard to penetrate. Olmsted was amazed by how like a foreign country it was, much more so than anyplace he’d visited during his recent tour through Europe.

For his dispatches, Olmsted used a pseudonymous byline, as was common practice in those days. “Yeoman” served as a veiled reference to farming, at this point the only profession Olmsted had managed to stick with for any amount of time. It was also an assertion that this particular correspondent could be counted on for earthy, no-nonsense commentary. The convention of using a pseudonym was doubly sensible because it kept Olmsted’s identity secret. As a Northerner writing about slavery, he would be in grave danger if his cover got blown.

Olmsted kept at it. He tried everywhere to engage people—waiting on train platforms, inside general stores, working in open fields. The law of averages dictated that some would talk. These conversations, in turn, landed him fresh invitations to other plantations, ones where cotton was grown as well as corn, rice, sugar—even a turpentine plantation.

Gradually, the South began to open up before Olmsted. He found it a place of uncommon beauty and strange customs. Cornbread was served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he grew to hate it, describing it as “French friterzeed Dutch flabbergasted hell-fixins.”

Most of all, the South was complicated. This was a world best rendered in shades of gray. On visiting a plantation along the James River in Virginia, what struck Olmsted most was how harried the owner appeared to be. He was beset by worry about money and crops, forced to manage his slave laborers even on the most trifling matters.

“This is a hard life,” the man told him. “You see how constantly I am called on, often at night as well as day. I did not sleep a wink last night till near morning; my health is failing and my wife is feeble, but I cannot rid myself of it.” Why not hire an overseer? “I cannot trust an overseer,” the man continued. “I had one, and paid him four hundred dollars a year, and I had almost as much work and anxiety looking after him as in overseeing for myself.”

Visiting a rice plantation, Olmsted was intrigued by the generous considerations given to the slaves. The slaves here were comfortably dressed and lived in well-appointed cabins, and there was a nursery where infants were tended while their mothers worked the fields. On this particular plantation, he learned, many of the slaves even owned guns. Apparently, they used the guns to hunt for game in the nearby woods, a perk that allowed them to supplement their usual food rations.

Olmsted was dumbfounded. Here was a white family living in tremendous isolation, miles from the next-nearest white family, and surrounded by 200 armed slaves. The family didn’t even bother to lock their doors or windows, Olmsted noted. When questioned, the owner laughed as though Olmsted were the crazy one.

The rice plantation didn’t prove to be an isolated case, either. Strange as it was, a genuine regard seemed to exist, sometimes even approaching familial love, between some owners and their slaves. Meanwhile, it was hypocrisy to pretend that the North’s economic system was free of ruthlessness. “Oh God! Who are we to condemn our brother,” Olmsted demanded in a Times dispatch. “….No slave freezes to death for want of habitation or fuel, as have men in Boston. No slave reels off into the abyss of God, from want of work that shall bring it food, as do men and women in New-York. Remember that, Mrs. Stowe. Remember that, indignant sympathizers.”

Olmsted remained constantly on the move in the South. Even traveling short distances proved unduly complicated. Olmsted soon concluded that the South was almost comically inefficient. Nowhere was this more evident than with slave labor. At any given time, Olmsted observed, only a portion of the slaves on a plantation were capable of work—the rest being either too young, too old or ill. Add up all the slaves that couldn’t work, Olmsted found, and at any given time only about a third remained that could. Yet masters had to house and clothe and feed their slaves, every last one. Moreover, the few slaves working didn’t exactly go all out. Olmsted encountered several slave owners who also had experience running farms in the North. All conceded that slave labor was drastically less efficient than hired farm labor. Olmsted did a rough average of the men’s varied assessments and concluded that a slave accomplished about half the work of one of the hired hands on his Staten Island farm.

Olmsted tried to get an umbrella fixed and was stunned by the ineptitude of the white repairman. The very concept of work had been degraded. This went a long way toward explaining the rutted roads and constant delays encountered everywhere while traveling. Nobody wanted to do anything. Whites didn’t value work because work was fit only for slaves. Slaves—lacking incentive—didn’t do much of it, either. Only a select few plantation owners, blessed with fertile land or good luck, really benefited from this system.

But the very idea of aristocracy, the notion of one type of person being naturally superior to another, was so seductive to many plantation owners that they kept at it, inefficiency be damned. Other plantation owners were simply trapped in a system that didn’t really serve them. In unguarded moments, several admitted as much to Olmsted. For most, it was a hardscrabble life.

Passing the night at a planter’s “mansion,” Olmsted couldn’t help but notice that the floors were uncarpeted and the windows covered in paper curtains. On the wall hung a clock, manufactured in his home state, Connecticut. (Everything that required manufacturing came from the North.) The clock was stopped dead. Thus, there wasn’t even a ticktock to punctuate the long stretches of silence between Olmsted and his taciturn host. After a modest meal, Olmsted decided to turn in. He asked for a candle. To Olmsted’s puzzlement, the host followed him upstairs to the bedroom and stood there holding the candle. Olmsted reached for it, but the host’s grip tightened. That’s when it struck him. For thrift’s sake, the household was skimping on candles. With the host standing there, Olmsted changed into his nightclothes. Then the man blew out this lone candle and left with an abrupt “Good night, sir.”

This episode was one of many that led Olmsted to another of his unique observations: Not only was slavery a flawed economic system, but it promoted cultural deficiency as well. Sure, this beau ideal existed: the Southern gentleman, possessed of perfect manners and impeccable breeding, enjoying the leisure to pursue refinement in all things. It was a myth, Olmsted concluded. Why, his host had talked of guano (fertilizer), when he talked at all. Plantation owners simply lived too far apart from one another for any cultural commerce. They were consumed by the mere act of subsisting. This was such a contrast to Northern city life, including his own upbringing in Hartford, where density forced people into contact with each other, and with new ideas. As he traveled the South, Olmsted noted that he rarely saw a book of Shakespeare or a pianoforte or even a picture hanging on a wall.

By March 1853, Olmsted was several months into his journey. He had covered an immense amount of ground, traveling across Maryland and Virginia, wending his way through the Carolinas and Georgia. He was now deep into the Mississippi Delta. There was one thing Olmsted hadn’t yet seen. But that would change soon enough.

An overseer was giving Olmsted a tour of a cotton plantation on the banks of the Red River, about 30 miles southeast of Natchitoches, La. As they rode on through a gully, the overseer suddenly pulled up his horse. Someone was lying in the brush, trying to hide.

“Who are you there?” the overseer called. Through the brush, Olmsted could just vaguely make out a figure.

“Sam’s Sall, Sir.” Her name was Sall. And she belonged to Sam.

The overseer demanded that Sall provide an explanation for why she wasn’t at work in the fields. She said that her father had locked her in her bedroom. When she woke up in the morning, he had already left. She had pushed on a loose plank and finally had been able to crawl out. As to why she was now hiding in a gully, she was vague.

“That won’t do—come out here.” Sall emerged and stood facing Olmsted and the overseer.

Olmsted could now see that Sall was a young woman, about 18 years old. “That won’t do,” repeated the overseer. “You must take some—kneel down.”

Sall lowered herself to her knees. The overseer got down off his horse, carrying a rawhide whip in his left hand. He struck the girl repeatedly across the shoulders. Sall did not cry out, but merely winced, occasionally saying, “Please, Sir!”

After he had lashed her about 30 times, the overseer demanded again that Sall explain why she was hiding in the gully. Again, Sall repeated the same story.

“You have not got enough yet,” said the overseer. “Pull up your clothes—lie down.” Sall drew up her garments to about her waist and lay down on the ground. She turned on her side, facing the overseer. The man began to strike her again with the rawhide whip, this time lashing her across her thighs and back.

“Oh, don’t; Sir, oh, please stop, master; please, Sir, please, Sir! Oh, that’s enough, master; oh, Lord! Oh, master! master!”

The South was a region best rendered in shades of gray, but Olmsted couldn’t help but perceive the episode in stark black-and-white: This was so very wrong.

Olmsted’s Southern reporting for the Times was collected in three books, a trilogy that sold maybe 25,000 copies. Not so many people read Olmsted, but the right people read him—politicians, professors and journalists. While numerous abolitionist titles were available, many of them full of fervent moralizing, Olmsted’s readers valued his nuanced firsthand accounts of plantation life and his sophisticated critique of slavery on economic grounds. Charles Eliot Norton, the noted critic who would later become a friend of Olmsted’s, described the books as “the most important contribution to an exact acquaintance with the conditions and result of slavery in this country that have ever been published. They have permanent value, and will be chief material for our social history, whenever it is written.”

Olmsted’s books also found a small but influential audience in England. Charles Dickens, who had traveled widely in the American South, was impressed with the accuracy of Olmsted’s reporting. Karl Marx, who lived in London from 1849 onward, cited Olmsted’s writings in Capital, his monumental three-volume work. Charles Darwin was so horrified by some of the incidents described by Olmsted that he couldn’t sleep at night. This was at the time when Darwin was writing Origin of Species, so Olmsted’s work had special resonance. Given Darwin’s thesis that all humans shared common ancestry, the idea that one person could enslave another seemed grotesquely contrary to nature.

Right before the Civil War started, Olmsted was approached by a London publishing house about whether he would be willing to abridge his trilogy into a single volume that might find a fresh audience. He jumped at the opportunity, even though Sampson Low offered no payment. Meanwhile, Olmsted updated the data used in the earlier volumes. He changed the average price of a slave to $1,400, adjusted for inflation from $1,000, the figure he’d used a few years before.

While work on the volume was underway, the Civil War broke out. Early in the summer of 1861, just as Olmsted began his tenure as an administrator with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, he finished the book. In a new introduction, he stated that his “impression” about the South had hardened into a “conviction.” He also framed this new introduction so as to specifically address British readers: “It is said that the South can never be subjugated. It must be, or we must. It must be, or not only our American republic is a failure, but our English justice and our English law and our English freedom are failures.” As a final touch, Olmsted repositioned the brutal whipping of the slave Sall. He placed it at the end of the new volume, making it the dramatic climax. He titled his book The Cotton Kingdom.

Though the book was no best-seller, he managed to reach the opinion leaders in English society. In an essay in Fraser’s, John Stuart Mill argued that Britain and the Confederacy were at odds—cotton be damned—and if the South was victorious, he predicted war with England within five years. As to what had led him to such conclusions, Mill credited the “calm and dispassionate Mr. Olmsted.”

In the end, not only would Britain withhold its military support from the South, but it also refused even to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government. Crediting Olmsted with convincing England not to side with the South would surely be going too far. But it’s clear that he helped shape the debate. And the truly remarkable thing: He did so by means of a book, The Cotton Kingdom.


Adapted with permission from Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin, now available from Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, ©2011. Martin, who writes from New York, has also authored bios of Ralph Nader and Alan Greenspan.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here