Ten Years on a Plantation since the War was located on the internet at the archives managed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill named “Documenting the American South” (http://docsouth.unc.edu/index.html). As a book written by Frances Butler Leigh (1838-1910), it is a chronicle of the author’s experience after she and her father, Pierce Mease Butler (1806-1867), returned to the family plantation located off the coast of Georgia on Butler Island. The author accounts for the trip to Butler Island through an account of the conditions experienced by southerners after the Civil War. She then reports on the attempt to save the family plantation which was done by instituting a sharecropping system comprised of former slaves. The book might also be viewed as somewhat of a cultural anthropological account on the lives of former slaves who chose to remain on the island after emancipation.
It is difficult to determine who the audience may be for Ten Years on a Plantation since the War, but may have been published in England as a way for the general public in that country to gain an understanding of what life was like during Reconstruction. As a chronicle of her experience over a ten-year period, Leigh may have had the intention of conveying to a wider audience what the state of affairs was like throughout the southern states immediately after the war, and how people attempted to re-build, or even begin anew, after the end of the war as well as the end of the institution of slavery. This is an important work because it provides to historians an isolated view of the period, and of lives that had radically changed as a result of Reconstruction. The work also provides a glimpse into the psyche of someone who had lived a life of privilege until returning to a place that had greatly suffered and was on the brink of ruin. The book could also be viewed from the standpoint of feminist scholarship as it seems that Leigh, who would be forced to manage the plantation after the death of her father, was quite well-suited to the day-to-day task of running a relatively large agricultural enterprise.
Frances Butler Leigh has provided to readers a rather compelling report on the South immediately after the war. Her sympathies it would seem were with Southern whites who were treated by local governments, run either by the military or people from the North, as people living in a “conquered country.”1 She expresses her concerns related to the changes that have taken place and will occur in the future, especially as they relate to former slaves who she sees as having already gone through a transformation “the old traits of the negro slave have so entirely vanished, as to make stories about them sound like tales of a lost race….”1 Quite telling is that most, if not all of the former slaves owned by her father had returned to the island in order to work and live. However, they did make it clear they would only do so for her father under the guise of being sharecroppers willing to work for half of the rice crop. It would seem that Mrs. Leigh had her doubts as to the sincerity of this offer expressed by the former slaves, “…which agreement it remained to be seen if they would keep.”1
As a sharecropping enterprise, the agreement for half of the crop was for the group of workers and they were provided with the means to survive (food, clothing and money) until such time as the crop was sold after harvest. Leigh reports this system seem the best because if the sharecroppers had been hired workers she feared that being paid in cash would have adversely impacted their motivation to work. Life on the island appears to have been relatively harsh, especially during her first year when the author found a scarcity of provisions “The country was absolutely swept; not a chick, not an egg was left, and for weeks I lived on hominy, rice, and fish, with an occasional bit of venison.”1 She appears to have had a relatively low opinion of the people who worked as her personal servants whom she referred to as “savages.” In using the term, she cites examples where one housemaid used her toothbrush to brush her own teeth and a cook who had baked sweet cakes with their only flour and sugar and then proceeded to eat all of them. Both examples would be more indicative of people who were unaccustomed to living the fashion most familiar to the author, and, as former slaves who had worked in rice fields, were never exposed to proper hygiene or came into contact with refined foods unfamiliar to their normal diets.
The bulk of her efforts in writing the book was on the daily rigors of rebuilding the plantation and of life in-general. Leigh accounts for the manner by which her father, and the workers, went about repairing outbuildings and managing the rice fields. Throughout her work it becomes obvious she is a Southern sympathizer. One example of her leanings can be found in her reference the military commander in Charleston, North Carolina as “that respectable creature”.1 After the death of her father in 1867, Leigh was left to manage the plantation but she was not as adroit at growing rice, nor managing the workers; doing so with an iron will while eventually referring to herself as “supreme dictator”.1 Leigh married Reverend James Wentworth Leigh approximately a year after the death of her father. A minister from England, he not only took over the plantation but also writing chores as they concerned the book. The book’s tone changes considerably, becoming quite whimsical at times. Knowing that his wife referred to herself as the island’s supreme dictator, Reverend Leigh refers to himself as “monarch of all he surveys”.1 The arrival of the good Reverend is also a benefit to the reader because he had the presence of mind to categorize his writing in the form of letters sent mainly to friends and associates back in his home country of England. Ten Years on a Plantation since the War is a remarkable read, and being provided with two distinct perspectives during the period of Reconstruction, where a husband and wife share dissimilar views of life on Butler Island, their efforts to return the plantation to its former glory, and the inhabitants who had suffered under the yoke of slavery throughout their lives.
- Butler Lee F. Ten Years on a Plantation since the War. London, UK: Richard Bently and Son; 1883.