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Susan Dabney Smedes, 1840-1913
Memorials of a Southern Planter
Baltimore: Cushings & Bailey, 1887.

Summary

Susan C. Dabney Smedes was born August 10, 1840, in Raymond, Mississippi. She was the eighth child of Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney and Sophia Hill Dabney. The Dabney family home, Burleigh, was a sprawling 4,000-acre cotton plantation with nearly five hundred slaves and was finished soon after Susan's birth. After attending school in New Orleans, Louisiana, Susan helped manage the family's servants. She married Lyell Smedes, of Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1860 and settled in Vicksburg, Virginia. He died only eleven weeks after the wedding. Her mother also died during this time, so Smedes returned to Burleigh to supervise the household. Forced to leave Burleigh after Federal troops camped near the home in 1862, the family spent the rest of the war traveling throughout the South, trying to evade Union forces. When the family returned to Burleigh, the home was in extreme disrepair. Because their finances had been severely depleted, Smedes was forced to take on the slaves' former household tasks. She also started the Bishop Green Training School at Oak Grove and taught there while working as a newspaper correspondent. Despite the family's efforts, however, Burleigh was lost to creditors in 1882, and most of the remaining family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. After her father's death in 1885, Smedes decided to write Memorials of a Southern Planter, a chronicle of his life.

In 1887, Smedes began teaching Indian children at the Big Oak School of the Rosebud Agency in Dakota Territory. Failing health forced her to resign after fourteen months, however, and she convalesced at her sister's home in Montana before returning to work as a clerk in her brother-in-law's office and then for the Bureau of Pensions in Washington, D.C. She later traveled to England and, against her doctor's orders, Jerusalem. She retired with three of her sisters to Sewanee, Tennessee, where the women built a home they called Gladstone Cottage in honor of British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, who had praised Smedes's writing. She died July 4, 1913.

Smedes originally intended Memorials of a Southern Planter for her father's grandchildren, but, upon the urgings of her brother Virginius, a writer, she incorporated revisions suggested by her family and began searching for a publisher. Cushings and Bailey printed the book in 1887 to popular acclaim. The text was reprinted nine more times from 1888 to 1914. As Fletcher M. Green noted in the introduction to his 1965 reprint of the book, Smedes had two main goals in mind when writing Dabney's story. First, "she wanted to leave a record which would show that her father was a good master who cared for his slaves affectionately, that there were many planters like him, and that slavery was in general a paternalistic, humanitarian institution." In addition, "she hoped to spread her message among the English people and help the Southern people retain the friendly relations that they had long enjoyed with the English" (p. xi), so in 1890 she published an English edition of the book, A Southern Planter, in London.

The introduction establishes the family's French Huguenot heritage, tracing a long line of notable family members back to the original d'Aubignes. The Dabney family, as they came to be called, includes Revolutionary War heroes, lawyers, and writers, among them Rev. Robert Louis Dabney, author of True Courage: A Discourse Commemorative of Lieut. General Thomas J. Jackson (1863). Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney was born January 4, 1798, at Bellevue, the family's home in King and Queen County, Virginia. He was one of two sons born to Benjamin Dabney and Sarah Smith, a descendant of Captain John Smith. Smedes explains that little else is known of her grandmother's heritage because one of her relatives, John Bull Davidson Smith, was an adamant American and distrustful of English traditions: "Seeing that some of his family took more interest in genealogy and family records than he thought becoming in a citizen of the young republic, he made a bonfire of all the papers relating to his ancestors and family history" (p. 13). Smedes shares anecdotes about her grandfather, a highly regarded attorney, and about her father's childhood experiences, including his heroism in running into a burning building to save a child and his leaving home to fight in the War of 1812 when he was only fourteen.

On June 6, 1820, Thomas married Mary Adelaide Tyler of Williamsburg, Virginia. The couple had two children: one died in infancy and the other in early childhood. Mary died only two years after they were married. Four years later, Thomas married sixteen-year-old Sophia Hill of Mantua, Virginia. The couple would remain married for thirty-four years and have sixteen children, nine sons and seven daughters. In writing about the Dabneys' life at Elmington, the family plantation in Virginia, Smedes writes not only of her family, but also of their interactions with their loyal servants, who in most cases had been "inherited for generations" (p. 47). She notes that her father's slaves were so loyal that they were even willing to protect Sophia Dabney during Nat Turner's revolt when most of the African Americans in the area joined the insurrection or fled. In fact, when Dabney grows concerned over the cost of living in Virginia and decides to relocate the family to Burleigh in Hinds County, Mississippi, many of the family's enslaved African Americans decide to move with the family rather than be sold to the masters of their husbands or wives who could not be purchased for the journey. Smedes also includes a chapter that records "Mammy Harriet's Recollections" of the trip and her master.

Smedes writes of Burleigh as a model Southern plantation and her father as a model Southern gentleman. He is effusively generous with his Mississippi neighbors, who often view his charity as haughtiness, and he expects all of his sons to get master's degrees at the University of Virginia. When the Civil War begins, Dabney—who abandons his unionist views to defend the honor of the South—sends all of his living sons, including fourteen-year-old Thomas, Jr., into battle and changes his cotton crops to corn to help provide food for the Confederacy.

Throughout the text, Smedes portrays her father as a benevolent and paternalistic slaveholder and insists that there were many in the South like him, despite abolitionist assertions to the contrary. Dabney, "troubled by the conflicting duties to his children and to his servants," often puts the well-being of the slaves over the well-being of his family (p. 231). When he feels sectional tensions rising, for example, he decides to move the family to England. He soon changes his mind, however, when his wife and daughters raise questions about the fates of Burleigh's slaves. During the war, Dabney leaves his daughters alone at the plantation—which had recently been occupied by Federal troops—to check on slaves he has hired out in Alabama.

Other incidents Smedes records may strike many readers as odd. She recalls for example, the "singular coincidence" of two of the family's tutors committing suicide. She also writes of occasions when Dabney offers individual slaves their freedom, but they refuse it because they do not want to leave their kind master. Even when Dabney tells the slaves that they are free after Lee's surrender, many refuse to leave Burleigh, and he thus offers to pay them "such compensation for their labor as he thought just" (p. 228).

Dabney's questionable financial decisions lead to the family's post-war destitution. Although Smedes portrays her father as an excellent judge of character, he nevertheless co-signs on more loans than he could possibly secure for a man who turns out to be corrupt. Smedes's authorial voice is equally puzzling, as she oscillates between third and first person perspectives and mixes narration with family letters to and from Dabney.

The letters near the end of the narrative—written predominantly to his daughter "Emmy" and her family and William H. Dabney, a Boston relative—tell much of the story of Dabney's life after the war and after the family leaves Burleigh for Baltimore. In these letters, Dabney gives a summary of his family history, expresses his disgust for carpetbaggers, and his nostalgia for the politics of Henry Clay. He even recommends Destruction and Reconstruction, the Civil War and Reconstruction narrative of Richard Tyler, son of President Zachary Tyler, with whom Dabney visited on many occasions. Smedes's memoir of her father ends with a collection of excerpts from eulogistic letters written to the family upon her father's death.

Works Consulted: Green, Fletcher M., "Editor's Introduction," Memorials of a Southern Planter by Susan Dabney Smedes, Ed. Fletcher M. Green, New York: Knopf, 1965, ix-xlvi; Smedes, Susan Dabney, Memorials of a Southern Planter, Baltimore: Cushings & Bailey, 1887; Willard, Frances E., and Mary A. Livermore, eds., A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life, 1893, Detroit: Gale, 1893, 659.

Jennifer L. Larson

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