Today in History

Today in History: March 3

The Weeping Time

Slave family in front of their quarters
Former Slave Quarters of Hermitage Plantation, Savannah, Georgia, circa 1907.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

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."

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.

Frances Ann Kemble
Frances Ann Kemble, photograph of a portrait by Peter Frederick Rothermel
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington As It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

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.

  • Find more primary source material on the history of slavery, as well as many other aspects of the African American experience, in African American Odyssey. Included in the section on slavery is a mid-eighteenth-century map of West Africa, from whence came more than two-thirds of the African captives imported to the Americas. This section also features several items that document the Amistad mutiny.
  • Thirty Years a Slave, the autobiography of former slave Louis Hughes, tells of the institution of slavery as seen on the plantation and in the home of the planter. It may be found by searching on the terms slave or slavery in Pioneering the Upper Midwest. Other items retrieved by this search will include the 1878 Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
  • Search First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860 to 1920. This print collection from the University of North Carolina documents the culture of the American South. Search on the terms Butler Island, Pierce Butler, slave, plantation or a similar term to learn more from these diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives.
  • For an online overview of America's journey through slavery, see Africans in America (external link) presented by WGBH Interactive for PBS Online. This presentation contains a section, Antebellum Slavery (external link), with material on Frances Ann Kemble, Pierce Butler, life on Butler Island and "The Weeping Time."