Scott Graber

Re-reading Dennett reminds me of Theroux


There is a writer — Paul Theroux — who once took epic railway trips. His books Old Patagonia Express and The Great Railway Bazaar are two books that I have read, with enthusiasm, more than once. 

Theroux’s descriptions of ancient steam engines and open-windowed carriages are satisfying. But the passengers are the real reason to page through his non-fiction. 

Theroux let the passengers talk and then (back in his hotel room) wrote-up these conversations. And these conversations told one everything about the social landscape in Japan, India, Thailand, Argentina. 

I’ve always wanted to encounter complete strangers, get their stories, but when I’m on Amtrak, my aging face is usually planted in a legal file. 

Earlier this week I was reminded of Paul Theroux as I re-read John Richard Dennett who (in 1865) got a gig from The Nation to write on the defeated, destitute Confederacy. His interviews are collected in “The South As It Is.” 

In November of 1865, Dennett found himself on Hilton Head Island described as “a neat, whitewashed town, built there in the sand by the quartermasters and sutlers during the last four years, with its hospitals, and storehouses, and machine shops, and offices. … losing its importance and sinking back into the quiet dullness of its natural condition.” 

From Hilton Head, Dennett took a one-hour trip by packet boat to Beaufort, and then went over to St Helena Island. And on St Helena he talked with former slaves (called Freedman) as well as a just-arrived northerner entrepreneur who was attempting to cultivate cotton. 

“To them (Freedman) he proposed that they should work for him for wages in money; they proposed that he should give them half the crop as their wages, which he refused to do.” 

The Freedmen relied on Order No. 8 from General Saxton that specified that anyone working ‘shares’ should get one-half of the cotton raised. 

While this dispute was under way the former slaves had moved back into their homes on the plantation, and now the new owner demanded that they leave these homes or sign his contract. 

“The threat alone was sufficient, and the signatures of the laborers were at once given.” 

But the just arrived planter discovered their were other problems — a summer drought and an August invasion of caterpillars “made for a very unsatisfactory result.” 

In addition to natural setbacks, the Freedman did not want to go into the marshes and collect mud and marsh grass and use this mixture to fertilize the cotton fields. 

According to another northern planter, “The collection of marsh grass and marsh mud for manure is a branch of farm work comparatively disagreeable, and the Negroes will not undertake it except at a price which is altogether exorbitant.” 

While all of these factors reduced cotton production on St Helena, the Freedman’s Bureau was subdividing the large plantations and selling small tracts, 5- and 10-acre parcels, to the former slaves for $5 an acre. 

When the Freedman got their piece of land, they also got a measure of independence. They could grow corn, sweet potatoes and string beans and not be wholly dependent on their employer. They didn’t like hauling mud out of the marshes and now, for the first time, they could say “no.” 

“The gentleman who carried on this plantation was of the opinion that before cotton-raising in the Sea Islands could become either a profitable or pleasant occupation it would be necessary to make a complete change in the system of labor. The fault of the present plan lay in the fact that the employer had no control over his laborers. They worked when they pleased and at what they pleased and only so long as they pleased. It was a fault that made the system almost unendurable.” 

Cotton, as a crop, did not immediately leave Beaufort County but it began its migration to Texas and California where large tract, mechanically assisted farming made it profitable. Eventually the Boll Weevil arrived and forever ended the dominance of long staple, Sea Island cotton as a local export. These days India and China outproduce Texas, California, Mississippi and Arizona. 

After leaving Beaufort, Dennett traveled west to Louisiana, sharing railroad carriages with penniless planters, former slaves and former Confederate soldiers. He eventually sent 36 articles back to The Nation. He worked as an editor for The Nation until shortly before his death in 1874. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com. 

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