From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In her memoir, Frances Butler Leigh provides an account of the changes in plantation life during the chaos and uncertainty of the Reconstruction period. Leigh's family had significant holdings on the Georgia Sea Islands that had relied upon slave labor. In this excerpt, she describes her attempts to reinvigorate the plantations owned by her family and to navigate a strange new racially-charged and ethnically-divided postwar reality. Leigh strongly defended slavery and bemoaned the difficulty of managing a paid labor force, one that was not as deferential as she felt was appropriate. Describing her efforts to set up a sharecropping system on her family's plantations, Leigh also comments at length on her views of various ethnic groups, such as the Irish and Chinese, whom she describes in terms of their fitness and willingness to perform certain types of labor.

Summary Overview

In her memoir, Frances Butler Leigh provides an account of the changes in plantation life during the chaos and uncertainty of the Reconstruction period. Leigh's family had significant holdings on the Georgia Sea Islands that had relied upon slave labor. In this excerpt, she describes her attempts to reinvigorate the plantations owned by her family and to navigate a strange new racially-charged and ethnically-divided postwar reality. Leigh strongly defended slavery and bemoaned the difficulty of managing a paid labor force, one that was not as deferential as she felt was appropriate. Describing her efforts to set up a sharecropping system on her family's plantations, Leigh also comments at length on her views of various ethnic groups, such as the Irish and Chinese, whom she describes in terms of their fitness and willingness to perform certain types of labor.

Defining Moment

At the end of the Civil War, most of the land seized in the South was returned to its former owners. Many landowners in the former Confederacy, who had previously owned plantations worked by slaves, returned to try to reestablish their livelihoods. Many plantation owners attempted to set up sharecropping systems with their former slaves. This was not necessarily a smooth transition, as Frances Butler Leigh records in her memoir. Former slaves were reluctant to work as they had before and harbored a deep distrust of these landowners. Former owners and plantation managers were often unable to accept the new status of the people they had considered their property and ingrained hostility and racism tainted these relationships. Some white Southerners attempted to return black laborers to a condition of servitude by force or by refusing to pay wages that had been earned. Some found it difficult to accept any change in race relations, let alone having black men in public office or positions of authority. When combined with the loss of a generation of young white men in the former Confederacy and the influx of relief workers, teachers, politicians, and profiteers from the North, there was a nostalgic feeling on the part of many white Southerners that life had been much better before the war and that the proper relationship between black and white was as it had been then–that of slave and master. Leigh herself believed that black men and women were only fit for this. “I confess I am utterly unable to understand them, and what God's will is concerning them, unless He intended they should be slaves.” This belief, and the unwillingness of many white Southerners to accept the rights of newly enfranchised black citizens, undermined social interactions in the Reconstruction period.

In addition to the perceived threat that a free black population posed to the rebuilding of the South, there was the very real problem of establishing a profitable management model when plantations had previously relied on unpaid slave labor. Former slaves now had options other than manual labor and could leverage their labor for greater pay and better working conditions. Leigh bemoaned the fact that “we have a gang of Irishmen doing the banking and ditching, which the negroes utterly refuse to do any more at all.” Throughout former Confederate states, former slaves and their former masters negotiated the terms of labor, with both sides wary and resentful of one another.

Author Biography

Frances Butler Leigh was born in 1838 to Pierce Mease Butler, a slave-holding Georgia plantation owner, and Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble, a famous British actress and an antislavery activist and writer. Leigh's parents' incompatible stances on slavery led to their divorce in 1849, when Leigh was eleven. Pierce Butler gained custody of their two daughters, and Leigh spent the Civil War years in the North, traveling to the Georgia Sea Islands with her father in 1866 to try to save their interests in cotton and rice plantations there. After her father died of malaria the following year, she became the sole proprietor of the plantations on St. Simons Island and Butler Island. She married Reverend John Wentworth Leigh, an English clergyman, in 1871, and they lived on St. Simons Island until moving to England in 1877, after more than a decade of struggle trying to return the plantation to profitability. In 1883, Leigh published Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation since the War, a book that many believe was written as a direct response to her mother's antislavery treatise, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, which had been published in 1863. Leigh died in England in 1910.

Document Analysis

Leigh's memoir examines a political and social world in flux and portrays the struggle of white Southerners to accept the changed status of their former slaves. Many Southerners staunchly believed in the inherent inferiority of black people, and it was this deeply ingrained belief that had been used to justify the institution of slavery, enabling slavery to spread to the western territories. Part of this ideology was the belief that slavery was a positive influence on people of African descent, and without the structure that slavery provided, they would slip into moral degeneracy. Leigh assumed that her former slaves would welcome the chance to do the same work they had done before–work that she deemed white laborers would not perform. She was quite appalled when her former slaves sought to negotiate the terms of their relationship with their employers, and she quickly decided that slavery had been a better, more “natural” state of being for them. The “effects of freedom,” she writes, was “sullen unwillingness to work.”

Leigh expresses her relief that she did not need to rely on black laborers for her winter projects, as she had managed to find Irish men willing to perform the work. She is very concerned with her rice plantations, as rice farming was particularly onerous work, and for the most part, “on the rice lands white labour is impossible.” Leigh also feels deceived by her former slaves, whose initial relief and pleasure at the “novelty of their getting back once more to home” to their plantations as wage-earners after the war failed to produce the placid, reliable work force that Leigh and others had envisioned. They often failed to agree to the plantation owners' proposed terms, and Leigh worries that the owners would “lose two or three months every year while the negroes are making up their minds whether they will work or not.” Leigh and other plantation owners contemplated bringing in Chinese laborers to work on the rice plantations, an idea that many former slaves welcomed. “Their newspaper in Charlestown, edited by a negro, published an article the other day on the prospect, and said it would be the best thing that could happen to the negroes if the Chinese did come, as then they too could get them as servants, and no longer have to work even for themselves,” Leigh writes, shocked to see her former slaves adapting to the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.

Leigh and other plantation owners also worried about violence in uncertain times, and when rumors circulated about a potential insurrection, she asked for soldiers to be sent over to protect her. The soldiers proved to be more trouble than they were worth, and Leigh wound up “preferring to take my chance with my negroes than with my protectors.” Note Leigh's continued use of the possessive when referring to the freedmen working on her land. This attitude permeates her writing, and indeed, the biggest strain on Leigh's well-being seems to have been the insolence and disrespect of her former slaves, who dropped titles of respect and no longer removed their hats as she walked by. When she felt disrespected by her workers, she dismissed them, using their freedom as the reason for doing so: “You are free to leave the place, but not to stay here and behave as you please, for I am free too, and moreover own the place, and so have a right to give my orders on it, and have them obeyed.”

In the book's addenda, Leigh writes of her impressions of the freedmen upon visiting the South after an absence of six years, noting, “I cannot help thinking things are worse than when they were disciplined and controlled by a superior race, notwithstanding the drawbacks to the system, and, in some cases, grave abuses attending it.” Throughout her memoir, Leigh maintains a strong apologist stance for slavery, arguing that the abuses that took place under the slave system were balanced out by the resultant subservience and efficiency of her slaves.

Essential Themes

Leigh's memoir offers a fascinating perspective into the minds of former slaveholders in the years following the Civil War, as they attempted to adapt not only to the drastic economic changes that occurred with the abolition of slavery but to the dramatic social changes as well. Leigh's memoir provides insight into the challenges plantation owners faced in managing their holdings after the war, with Leigh seemingly less upset about the expense of having to pay her laborers than with the inconvenience of having to negotiate with them. Despite Leigh's decade-long struggle to return the plantation to profitability, her account seems less preoccupied with the economic changes that occurred with the abolition of slavery than with the changes to the power dynamic between former slaves and slaveholders.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bell, Malcolm, Jr. Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987. Print.
  • Berry, Stephen W. “Butler Family.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.
  • “Frances Butler Leigh, 1838–1910.” Documenting the American South. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.
  • Leigh, Frances Butler. Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation since the War, 1866–1876. Savannah: Beehive Press, 1992. Print.
  • Morsman, Amy Feely. The Big House after Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2010.
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