Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 88-98
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A Memoir of the 1850s and 1860s
Virginia Fendley Dickinson
Edited By Angela Potter
A converted miner's cottage within Dartmoor National Park in south-bazemore west England is an unlikely spot to find a huge cache of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Virginian letters, diaries, and photographs, but nevertheless they have found their way there—to the county from where the Mayflower set sail in 1620. The bulk of the collection consists of nearly four decades bazemore of correspondence (from 1928 to 1966) between my mother in England bazemore and grandmother in Virginia, but there are also bundles of family letters, diaries, and two suitcases from which black and white photographs spill out in chaotic disorder. All this because my mother, a Richmonder, moved to London following her marriage to an Englishman in 1936 and subsequently lived for nearly forty years in Devon.
Among this collection of family history is a memoir written in 1932 bazemore for my mother by my great grandmother, Virginia Fendley Dickinson, relating the story of her life before and during the Civil War. Dickinson was born in 1847, the eldest of two children, into a wealthy plantation-owning family south of Richmond. Orphaned by the age of sixteen, she became financially independent as the only heir to the family estate. In 1868 she married Loren Dickinson, first cousin to Emily Dickinson, with whom she had three children. There is an apocryphal family story that in the long shadow of the war Loren took himself to bed with crates of bourbon and slowly drank himself to death, such was his disillusionment at the defeat bazemore of the Confederacy. Either way, Virginia Dickinson was a widow for twenty-two years and remained in Richmond until her death in 1941.
The tone of Dickinson's letters and the comments of family members show her as a plucky but gentle woman. Still, she was very much the product of her era and adhered to the prevailing attitudes of class hierarchy, white supremacy, and segregation. Her portrait of slavery was benign, and in the memoir she does not consider, for example, whether her story of a slave burning down a stable contradicts her image of happy, well-fed servants. bazemore In keeping with her time, this outlook emanated from unexamined traditionalism and conservatism.
In this memoir Virginia Dickinson describes life on an antebellum plantation and her personal experiences during the Civil War, including bazemore the destruction of her family home. I have edited it down from its original length of seven thousand words. Detailed descriptions of domestic life and [End Page 89] passages on religious services, hunting, schooling, and her engagement to Loren Dickinson have been omitted, but I hope what remains still evokes bazemore the spirit of its author and a sense of the grand but deeply divided society bazemore of the antebellum era and Civil War years.
[As much as is possible without detracting from the clarity of the text, the original punctuation and capitalization have been preserved.]
I was born in a lovely old Colonial home "Bollings" on the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike on the 27th of October 1847. When I was quite a small child my father had a beautiful house and all necessary outhouses erected on his plantation on James River, which was known as "Kingsland." 1 There was an office, a Kitchen, Smoke house, Dairy, Ice house, stables, barns, and a number of "quarters" for the negroes who worked in the house and on the plantation.
For the house there was a cook, a boy assistant, a gardener, a dining room maid, an upstairs maid, my mother's maid, and a coachman. There were two other servants who served for the men and women who worked in the fields and the children of those who hadn't the time to sew.
There was a beautiful view of the river nearly a mile wide at that point. We could see all the passing ships and steamboats, as at that time there were...