One of the richest Americans of the mid 19th-century was a man by the name of Pierce Mease Butler — grandson and heir to the colossal fortune of Major Pierce Butler, a United States Founding Father and amongst the largest slaveholders of his time. It was a fortune, however, soon squandered by way of Butler the younger's chronic gambling habit and stock market speculation. In 1856, a group of trustees was put in charge of his financial assets in an attempt to return him to solvency. After a few years selling off various properties, and unable to raise enough, they decided to sell the “movable property” — the slaves from his Georgia plantation. The sale of approximately 436 men, women, children, and infants took place over the course of two days at the Ten Broeck Race Course, two miles outside of Savannah, Georgia, on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859. It was the largest single slave auction in United States history, earning it the moniker of "The Great Slave Auction". Amongst the slaves and their descendants it also went by another, more evocative name, "The Weeping Time" — an allusion to the incessant rains that poured from start to finish, seen as heaven weeping, and also, no doubt, to the tears of the families ripped apart. Although the organisers said they'd not break up families, it soon proved a hollow promise. The pain of these familial sunderings, as well as the appalling conditions and treatment to which the slaves were subject, was documented in a scathing article in the New York Tribune titled, “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation.” The work of Mortimer Thomson, a popular journalist of the time, writing under the pseudonym “Q. K. Philander Doesticks”, the piece was published as a stand alone pamphlet in 1863 (featured above). The subtitle "A Sequel to Mrs Kemble's Journal", refers to the book penned by Fanny Kemble, a noted British actress and wife to Pierce Mease Butler (though divorced by the time of the auction), who produced one of the most detailed accounts of a slave plantation in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839.
The event wasn't just notable because of the size of the auction. In 1859 the country was on the verge of a national bloodbath, and the historic threads that weave through the story of the Weeping Time are so far-reaching and remarkable, it's perplexing that more hasn't been written or remembered about this time.
Mar 21, 2017