In March 1859, 436 enslaved men, women, and children went on the auction block in Savannah, Georgia, the single largest slave auction in the [End Page 532] long, tragic history of slavery in the U.S. South. The event is tailor-made for the sort of microhistory that Anne Bailey, a historian of African American history at SUNY Binghamton, set out to write. That sale resulted from the financial difficulties of Pierce Mease Butler, who garnered over $300,000. The extensive Butler family papers are housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and historians including Malcolm Bell and William Dusinberre have demonstrated their historical value. Add to those records the diary of Fanny Kemble, the British actress who married Butler in 1834, whose diary of the time she spent on the Butler plantations is one of the most perceptive firsthand accounts of plantation life ever published. Some of the enslaved men and women Kemble met stood on that auction block in 1859. Bailey has organized her book into three parts: "The Breach," focused on the auction itself; "Linked Fates," which explores the intertwined histories of the Butlers and their chattel; and "Healing the Breach," which follows the efforts of descendants of the Butler slaves to trace their families' histories.
A reporter for the New York Tribune, Mortimer Thomson, disguised himself as a buyer and mingled with the crowd during the auction, providing a detailed and chilling record of the proceedings as potential buyers shouted and joked among themselves, immune to the human tragedy playing out before their very eyes. Bailey identifies only a few of the individuals sold over the two-day auction, honing in on families divided by the sale.
Butler's grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, a British army officer, acquired the plantations, located on isolated sea islands off the coast of Georgia, in 1774. Those plantations produced rice and Sea Island cotton, and the plantation communities established there remained remarkably stable until the 1859 auction. On the islands, the distinctive Gullah-Geechee culture flourished. Bailey does not explain what took the Butlers to Philadelphia, but the proceeds from their plantations allowed them to live there in high style.
Smitten with Kemble when he saw her on stage, Pierce Mease Butler embarked on a whirlwind courtship, where he flouted his wealth in grand, romantic gestures that hid his growing gambling debts. Kemble was ignorant of those debts and of the plantations that formed the basis of the Butler fortune when the two wed. Butler and his brother inherited the plantations in 1836, and Fanny begged her husband to take her to visit them, a request he denied until 1838, when he agreed to a visit, a trip that deeply shocked Fanny and doomed their marriage.
Bailey's discussion of rice and cotton cultivation is overly generalized and oddly divorced from the Butler plantations. Her descriptions of cotton culture, for example, are drawn from the Cotton South, where green-seed [End Page 533] cotton was king, a far different crop from Sea Island cotton. She claims that Eli Whitney's cotton gin enabled the Butlers to "make a healthy profit margin" (68), but the long, silky threads of Sea Island cotton could not be ginned with Whitney's machine. She focuses on music and religion as fixtures of the rich Gullah-Geechee culture on the islands, home to the strongest African retentions in the South, though her analysis of both lacks depth and overlooks important scholarship like Margaret Washington Creel's foundational work on Gullah religion and community.
The Civil War brought dramatic change to the Sea Islands, and two of the enslaved men sold in 1859, Noble Walker and Thomas Baker, served in the United States Army. The Sea Islands fell to the United States early in the war, and the Federal government launched an experiment to transition former slaves to freedom, an effort historian Willie Lee Rose masterfully recounts in Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964), another important secondary source...