John Trowbridge’s Visit to the Desolate South (Post-War Atlanta)


This illustration shows a group of freedmen in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1865, holding a “street convention” to discuss their political status in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
Source: The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people, by John Trowbridge.

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In the summer of 1865, and in the following winter, I made two visits to the South, spending four months in eight of the principal States which had lately been in rebellion. I saw the most noted battle-fields of the war. I made acquaintance with officers and soldiers of both sides. I followed in the track of the destroying armies. I travelled by railroad, by steamboat, by stage-coach, and by private conveyance; meeting and conversing with all sorts of people, from high State officials to “low-down” whites and negroes; endeavoring, at all times and in all places, to receive correct impressions of the country, of its inhabitants, of the great contest of arms just closed, and of the still greater contest of principles not yet terminated.

So began John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916) in his book The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people. (The full, ridiculously long title of the book is The South: a tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people; being a description of the present state of the country, its agriculture, railroad, business and finances; giving an account of Confederate misrule, and of the sufferings, necessities and mistakes, political views, social condition and prospects, of the aristocracy, middle class, poor whites and Negroes; including visits to patriot graves and rebel prisons, and embracing special notes on the free labor system, education and moral elevation of the freemen, also, on plans of reconstruction and inducements to emigration; from personal observations and experience during months of Southern travel.)

Trowbridge wrote The South under commission of L. Stebbins, a Hartford, Connecticut, publisher. Trowbridge’s “tour” of the post-war South was one of several such first hand accounts of the region that were produced by the press. His book won praise for its impartial, fair-minded approach to the subject, and the detail and breadth of his study.

I purchased a copy of The South during a recent visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and found it an interesting and compelling read. The original version is in the public domain; it can be viewed by going here: http://www.archive.org/details/southtourofitsba7228trow

Below, I have provided an interesting excerpt from the book about post-war Atlanta. Large swaths of that city were devastated during Sherman’s march to the sea in late 1864, and the ruin was still evident when Trowbridge visited the area the following year. This excerpt touches on several subjects, including:
• the harshness of post-war life in the South, especially for freed blacks
• Union support among poor southern whites
• relations between blacks and poor whites in the South
• views on who was responsible for some of the ruin in Atlanta (this differs from the view that Sherman’s Union forces were to blame for all of the burning in the city)
• African American dialogue concerning their political future in the post-war South.
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From John Trowbridge’s The South:

IN AND ABOUT ATLANTA (Chapter LXIII)

A sun-bright morning did not transmute the town into a place of very great attractiveness. Everywhere were ruins and rubbish, mud and mortar and misery. The burnt streets were rapidly rebuilding; but in the mean while hundreds of the inhabitants, white and black, rendered homeless by the destruction of the city, were living in wretched hovels, which made the suburbs look like a fantastic encampment of gypsies or Indians.

Some of the negro huts were covered entirely with ragged fragments of tin-roofing from the burnt government and railroad buildings. Others were constructed partly of these irregular blackened patches, and partly of old boards, with roofs of huge, warped, slouching shreds of tin, kept from blowing away by stones placed on the top. Notwithstanding the ingenuity displayed in piecing these rags together, they formed but a miserable shelter at the best. “In dry weather, it’s good as anybody’s houses. But they leaks right bad when it rains; then we have to pile our things up to keep ‘em dry.” So said a colored mother of six children, whose husband was killed “fighting for de Yankees,” and who supported her family of little ones by washing. “Sometimes I gits along tolerable; sometimes right slim; but dat’s de way wid everybody; — times is powerful hard right now.”
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