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Frances Butler Leigh, 1838-1910
Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War
London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1883.

Summary

Frances Butler Leigh was born in Philadelphia in 1838 to Pierce Mease Butler, a slave-holding Georgia planter, and Frances Ann Kemble, a British actress and anti-slavery writer. Her parents' opposing views of slavery and the South contributed to their divorce in 1849. Leigh left Philadelphia for the Georgia sea islands with her father in 1866 in an attempt to salvage the remains of their rice and cotton plantations there. She assisted him with the management of his property on St. Simon's Island and Butler's Island until his death in 1867, at which time she became sole proprietor of the plantations. In 1871 she married English clergyman Reverend John Wentworth Leigh. They initially lived on her St. Simon's Island plantation. However, Frances Leigh's growing concern about the failure of Sea Island cotton and the difficulty of maintaining her rice fields probably influenced the family's decision to move to England in 1877. Settling there, Leigh published Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War in 1883.

In Ten Years (1883) Leigh provides an account of plantation life on the Georgia sea islands during Reconstruction. She begins the narrative with a description of the journey south that she and her father made in 1866, when they experienced first hand the chaos and destruction caused by the Civil War. Uncertain about where the railways had been dismantled by the Union Army, she and her father at times traveled by wagon, relying on the food they had brought with them from the North and resting in deserted houses. Leigh's early struggles and her ability to fend for herself set the tone for her narrative. During several subsequent, extended trips south, Leigh worked to reclaim and revitalize the family plantations by implementing a sharecropping system for their former slaves. In addition to documenting the lifestyle and customs of the African Americans who remained on the plantation, Leigh also describes the work habits of newly hired English and Irish workers. She speculates at length about the possibility of hiring Chinese immigrants to work in the failing rice fields. Taking a strong apologist stance throughout her narrative, Leigh justifies her decisions regarding the plantations, her treatment of hired laborers, and the benefits of the antebellum slave system. At the close of Ten Years, Leigh appends a collection of letters written to a friend in England in which she details the affairs of her plantation and offers her perspectives on the contemporary South. Scholars suggest that Ten Years was written as a refutation of her mother's published anti-slavery account, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (1863).

Work Consulted: The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Retrieved May 20, 2004: <http://www.newgeorgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-792>.

Armistead Lemon
Harris Henderson

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