- A Tour of Reconstruction: Travel Letters of 1875 by Anna Dickinson
The South was invaded many times during the mid-nineteenth century by northern travel writers. Frederick Law Olmsted was the most influential in the antebellum period, contending in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856) that slavery negatively affected southern society.
Immediately after the Civil War in 1866 northerners such as Carl Schurz and Horace White published reports on how to help African Americans and quickly reconstruct the South. Less than a decade later northerner James Pike argued for the end of Reconstruction in The Prostrate State:
South Carolina under Negro Government (1874). Few of these writers, though, could compare with Anna Dickinson, whose keen eye and sharp pen analyzed such topics as Reconstruction, the legacy of the Civil War, and race relations in her 1875 travel letters.
Dickinson was one of the most famous women in America during the Civil War era. Born in Philadelphia in 1842 and raised as a Quaker, she started giving public addresses on abolition and women's rights as a teenager, impressing the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and leaders of the Republican Party. By 1863 Dickinson was one of the best-known speakers in the country and spent up to six months a year on the road crisscrossing the Northeast. She gave talks on a wide variety of topics, including campaign speeches for the Republican Party and lectures on the life of Joan of Arc. Economic necessity and curiosity led Dickinson into unfamiliar territory in 1875, a four-week speaking tour of the South. Dickinson wrote four long letters to her mother during the trip describing her experiences.
While Dickinson may have intended to use the letters as the basis for a book, they were never published. The unrevised and unfiltered letters provide an entertaining and enlightening tour of the South from the perspective of a politically active northern woman.
The letters remained in relative obscurity among her papers until Matthew Gallman found them while working on a biography of Dickinson. He realized the importance of Dickinson's 1875 travel letters and published them in a volume that should be of interest to both researchers and teachers. The well-written introduction not only provides a brief biography [End Page 155] of Dickinson up to 1875, but also succinctly discusses such various topics as Reconstruction and nineteenth-century travel narrative literature.
Gallman deftly brings together many different strands to prepare a student unfamiliar with the subject to engage the letters. He also makes a concerted effort to contextualize the letters, for instance, explaining that "Dickinson's observations and commentaries are an excellent illustration of how a radical abolitionist viewed the South after the war" (15). Still, anyone teaching these letters will have to discuss with students the limitations of an individual's perspective and observations, for Dickinson's vivid and unvarnished prose will leave a lasting impression.
Dickinson's letters connect the Civil War and Reconstruction, making them valuable in a Civil War-era course. She regularly comments on southerners' hard feelings, explaining how shopkeepers would tell her "with a deal of bitterness, of how the 'Yankees'—or 'the enemy' . . . had shelled" their shop (105) or that Memorial Day speeches are used "not really to do honor to the memory of the dead, but 'to fire anew' the hearts of the living to hatred.—There is not one word nor effort spoken, nor made towards a 'reconciliation'" (139). Of course, Dickinson also carried wartime scars. She visited numerous Civil War sites during her month in the South and spent about a fifth of her letters describing places like the site of the Battle of the Crater, Fort Sumter, and Andersonville. After visiting the site of Salisbury Prison she returned to her hotel room and felt "there was such a weight on my heart it almost crushed it.—I could not go into the parlor where these people were, nor onto their streets,—I hated them with such a loathing...