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book reviews265 "Broke by the War": Letters of a Slave Trader. Edited by Edmund L. Drago. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Pp. xi, 152. $24.95.) In February 1865, the Union army at last forced its way into Charleston, quickly followed by a flood of newspaper correspondents. Among them was James Redpath, an ardent abolitionist who must have taken particular delight in expropriating some 652 letters from the offices of Z. B. Oakes, an extremely successful slave broker and auctioneer. Several weeks later Redpath presented the correspondence to William Lloyd Garrison during his visit to South Carolina. The letters, however, remained generally unknown until the Garrison family presented them to the Boston Public Library in 1891. From this superb collection, Edmund L. Drago of the College of Charleston has selected 135 letters written to Oakes between 1852 and 1857 by his agent A. J. McElveen from rural Sumter County. Six additional letters concern the agent himself. Although McElveen frequently kept his employer informed about various investment opportunities in the South Carolina backcountry, his main task was to find, evaluate, and purchase suitable slaves for shipment to Charleston and profitable sale. Like so many itinerant slave traders that crisscrossed the South, McElveen hoped to please his employer and perhaps one day strike out on his own. It was a hard road: he constantly remarked on his absences from home, fretted about his fiscal responsibilities, worried about transporting his human inventory, and second-guessed his own purchases. "The fact is," he wrote in October 1853, "I cant find negros for Sale that will pay a profit" (58). Still, he labored on, thereby leaving us with a remarkable record of the slave trade. Several recurring themes stand out. First, the slave traders and their agents saw themselves as practical businessmen engaged in the sale of a commodity. Thus McElveen remarked of an eighteen-year-old female that she "never was abused" and carried "no Surplus flesh" (52); that he "could not Get one dollar nocked off" (44) the price of a young male who had lost a toe; and that although a sixteen-year-old girl was "cross Eyed" she was nevertheless "likely otherways" (121). Occasionally , however, McElveen was affected by his African-American charges. In August 1853, for example, he remarked of a frequent runaway that despite his rebellious nature he should not be punished "if you can help it" as he "is very Easy fritened." "If you can sell Edward in the city," he added, "do So . . . his wife is there" (48). Second, like so many others', McElveen's employment and fate were dependent on the peculiar institution. But he enjoyed no independent sphere of action. He was not a merchant, certainly not a planter, not even a farmer. His letters thus provide glimpses into the dependent and deferential relationship between white wage-employee and employer. 266civil war history McElveen's regular correspondence is peppered with such reassurances as "I never wish to deceive" (81) or admissions that "I am troubled very much a bout this matter" as "I have never failed before" (142). Finally, McElveen was unusual, seemingly an honest man in a fraternity of connivers. "They are," he wrote in 1854, "very few men you can rely on" (96). His own forthrightness allows us to see something of the African-Americans themselves. The barely literate trader who never used the word "slave" had to admit some of the laborers were smarter. Many resisted; McElveen seems constantly distracted by their clever deceptions; there were always runaways. Many, he observed, had suffered the lash, and others were to be sold only to distant buyers. The outbreak of the Civil War sealed McElveen's fate. By 1863 he was serving in the state militia; he reenlisted the next year but by the autumn was absent without leave. After the war he attempted farming but never succeeded. Simply put, he was, as a credit investigator reported in 1871, "Broke by the war—old man" (22). With Edmund Drago's superb introduction and careful editing, the collection deservedly emerges as a fascinating addition to the history of slavery. Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr. Virginia State Library and Archives Republicans and Reconstruction in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 265-266
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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