The elder Pierce Butler, born the third son of an Irish baronet, could make no claim to title or family fortune and so determined to make his own way in the army. He became a major
As with many patriarchs, Pierce Butler's greatest dilemma proved to be the problem of succession. Butler considered himself a devoted father, but his devotion could be often compulsive and controlling. Writing to his son Thomas, Butler noted,
In certain respects, Pierce Butler did not die at all, ruling his family from beyond the grave. His will, a byzantine affair, cut some children out altogether and passed his Georgia estate directly to his grandsons—providing that they changed their name to Butler.
The divorce did little to sober Pierce; by 1859 he had made such a wreck of his finances that he decided to sell off some of his "property." On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States took place on a rainy racetrack in Savannah. Capturing the event for the New York Tribune, Mortimer Thomson, writing under the pen name Q. K. Philander Doesticks, noted, "On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned ... some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, ... their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled." When the sale was complete, 429 men, women, and children had been auctioned to the highest bidder, netting more than $300,000 and restoring Pierce Butler to his accustomed affluence.
After the Civil War the Butlers tried and failed, as did other Sea Island families, to plant without slaves. In 1867 Pierce Butler, unable to coax another redemption from his inheritance, died of malaria. His Confederate daughter, Frances Kemble Butler Leigh, picked up where he left off but gave up after a decade; she captured the attempt in her own journal—an odd companion to her mother's— Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War (1883). What was left of the estate passed to Leigh's nephew, Owen Wister, author of The Virginian (1902). Wister then sold the last of the Altamaha lands in 1923 for about $25,000, a fifteenth of what it was worth a hundred years before (in absolute dollars).
Malcolm Bell Jr., Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Catherine Clinton, Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
William Disinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Lewright B. Sikes, The Public Life of Pierce Butler, South Carolina Statesman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979).
Stephen W. Berry II, University of North Carolina, Pembroke
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