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Desolate South

July 2024
2min read

A good part of the South was a wasteland by the summer of 1865. Where the armies had gone there was outright physical devastation; where they had not gone there was the desolation due to the collapse of an economy and a social system. Across this wasteland, a few months after Appomattox, went a Yankee reporter to take notes on what he saw and to try to render a report on what the war had left.

The reporter may have been oddly chosen. He was John T. Trowbridge, an antislavery reporter, magazine writer and editor, who during the war had served neither in the army nor as a war correspondent but simply as a propagandist safe in New England. The ground he was to cover, the fighting that had furrowed it, and the people who lived upon it were all new to him. But he wrote, finally, a book which was substantially better than anyone had a right to expect. Edited by Gordon Carroll, this book has now been reissued under the title, The Desolate South: 1865–1866 , and it is well worth reading.

Trowbridge seems to have begun by seeing what he expected to see. The battlefields themselves were monuments to northern valor and southern error. The recently freed Negroes were sober, hard-working, and orderly; the dispossessed southerners who had so recently owned them were idle, ready to subsist on government handouts, unwilling and unable to make their own way and rebuild their shattered country. Everything, in short, fitted the preconceptions of a stout abolitionist who had never looked at any of this before.

The Desolate South: 1865-1866 , by John T. Trowbridge, edited by Gordon Carroll. Duell, Sloan and Pearce-Little, Brown. 320 pp. $6.

But experience brought wisdom; furthermore Trowbridge was at bottom a first-rate reporter, a man of perception and understanding. Presently he found, in his editor’s words, that he was “more concerned about the future welfare of a restored Union than he was in recounting the fears and terrors of a cruel war so recently won by the cause in which he believed.”

As a result, this book—reduced to readable proportions by skillful editing—stands as a memorable picture of what the South looked like in the year immediately following the war. Southerners had not yet had time to become “reconstructed”; they had hardly had time to realize what had happened to them. Everything was in ferment, Union troops still occupied the area, and to most people—black and white alike—the mere task of getting enough to eat was all-engrossing. Trowbridge talked to everyone who would give him a word (some southerners, recognizing him as a Yankee, gave him some tolerably hard words) and he wound up with a story which was neither for nor against but simply about .

Following Sherman’s trail, he wrote factually and unemotionally about what Sherman’s men had done. In Columbia, South Carolina—still pretty badly charred from Sherman’s fire—he made no attempt to gloss over the behavior of the Union soldiers. And he could find room for one salty quote, from a South Carolinian speaking his mind about Yankees: “They’ve left me just one inestimable privilege—to hate ‘em! I get up at half past four in the morning and sit up till twelve at night to hate ‘em.”

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