October 17, 2009

The Desolate South

I recently returned from a business trip to the metro Philadelphia area which also meant a mandatory stop at the George MacManus Bookshop in Bryn Mawr, just down the street from Villanova. If you find yourself anywhere near the City of Brotherly Love, you simply owe it to yourself to stop there, especially if you’re an avid Civil War or history book lover.

I picked up a couple of books including an interesting primary source titled “The Desolate South” by John Townsend Trowbridge (1827 – 1916). Trowbridge was a well-known Northern author and journalist of his day and his book is an on-the-scene report of his lengthy journey throughout the South in the year following the Civil War.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, few Southern pens or publishers had the means or desire to describe the physical and emotional devastation that the hostilities brought to their lives and homes. Trowbridge undertook the task by traveling from his home in Boston to Gettysburg and then into the South where he played the role of intrepid observer, sociologist and psychologist in his reporting of the South’s desolation. For four months and in eight key states, Trowbridge spoke to whites from a variety of socio-economic levels as well as freed blacks. The author noticed that many whites were obviously humbled and bitter by what the war had brought them but surprisingly for many, an irrepressible war spirit still remained. The result of Trowbridge’s long-forgotten journey was a 200,000 word, 690-page tome that may well be one of our greatest national Iliads.

This important post-war primary source also stands as a useful resource for modern memory studies for as this Historynet review of the book points out:

"Battlefield tourists today are not much different from Trowbridge; they return to the fields searching for that mystical connection to the past. We should remember that Trowbridge never allowed romanticism to twist his view of the war as a tragedy among brothers. [No "Moonlight and Magnolias" here. - PT] He knew what many Americans have forgotten today—that political and ideological differences had unleashed a terrible bloodletting that neither side could easily forget. Trowbridge, however, could not have anticipated a reconciliation movement that erased white American memory over the contested meaning of the war.

Along Fredericksburg’s Sunken Lane stands a monument erected in the 1960s to pay tribute to Confederate Richard Kirkland, the ‘Angel of Marye’s Heights.’ At great personal risk, Kirkland purportedly crossed the stone wall and gave water to the wounded Union soldiers. The monument’s message of American unity and brotherhood amounts to a historical apostasy when compared to Trowbridge’s findings in 1865. An unidentified Virginian reminded Trowbridge that the embers of resistance continued to burn in the hearts of the white South: ‘The war feeling around here is like a burning bush with a wet blanket wrapped around it. Looked at from the outside, the fire seems quenched. But just peep under the blanket and there it is, all alive, and eating, eating in.’”

The first edition of this important travelogue was titled A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration and was published by Hartford in 1868. Bound in brown cloth with gilt lettering, it is indeed a scarce book, especially in collector’s condition, and there have been few reprints since. The most notable perhaps was a hardcover version published by Little Brown in 1956 and retitled as The Desolate South: 1865 – 1866. This newer edition replaces the original’s steel engravings with a broad selection of period photographs that amply illustrate that devastation that Trowbridge reported. The copy I acquired is the scarce “Reunion Edition” signed by editor Gordon Carroll on a special tipped-in sheet for members of the Civil War Book Club. (Despite being targeted for members of a book club, this version retains the words “First Edition” on the copyright page as well as the $6.00 price on the front jacket flap.) This copy is also housed in a matching slipcase but it may be a custom addition after the fact and not issued by the publisher. Mercer University Press has also recently reissued the book as seen here.

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