In March of 1859, the largest sale of human beings in the history in the United States took place at a racetrack in Savannah, Georgia. During the two days of the sale, raindrops fell unceasingly on the racetrack. It was almost as though the heavens were crying. So, too, fell teardrops from many of the 436 men, women, and children who were auctioned off during the two days. The sale would thereafter be known as “the weeping time.”
The owner of the slaves, Pierce Butler, had inherited the family’s Georgia plantations some twenty years earlier, along with his brother John. But Pierce had squandered away his portion of the inheritance, losing a rumored $700,000; now he was deeply in debt. Management of Pierce Butler’s estate was transferred to trustees. The trustees sold off Butler’s once-grand, now-neglected Philadelphia mansion for $30,000. Other Butler properties were sold as well. But it was not enough to satisfy creditors, much less to ensure that Butler would continue to live in luxury. So the trustees turned to the Georgia plantations and their “moveable” property — their slaves.
At the time, the overall holdings of the Butler family included 900 slaves. These would be divided into two groups of 450. Half would go to the estate of John, who had since died. These slaves would remain on the plantations. The fate of the other 450 — Pierce’s half — was more precarious. About 20 would continue to live on Butler property. The remainder, some 429 men, women, and children, were boarded onto railway cars and steamboats and brought to the Broeck racetrack, where each would be sold to the highest bidder.
There were naturally differing viewpoints regarding the auction, Pierce Butler, and the large fortune he would gain after paying his debts. Philadelphia socialite Sidney George Fisher noted in his diary, “It is highly honorable to [Butler] that he did all he could to prevent the sale, offering to make any personal sacrifice to avoid it.” Of the auction, Fisher wrote:
It is a dreadful affair, however, selling these hereditary Negroes. . . . Families will not be separated, that is to say, husbands and wives, parents and young children. But brothers and sisters of mature age, parents and children of mature age, all other relations and the ties of home and long association will be violently severed. It will be a hard thing for Butler to witness and it is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South. It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization, our Christianity, or Republicanism. Can such a system endure, is it consistent with humanity, with moral progress? These are difficult questions, and still more difficult is it to say, what can be done? The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result.
Mortimer Thomson, a popular newsman of the day known affectionately as “Doesticks,” wrote a lengthy, uncomplimentary article about the auction for the New York Tribune entitled “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation.” He reported how the slaves, eager to impress potential masters who they perceived as kind, would sometimes cheerfully respond to buyers “pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound. . . .” And Thomson commiserated with the unfortunate slaves after the sale, stating, “On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of Fortune that had torn them from their homes, and were sadly trying to make the best of it; some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled. . . .”
The two-day sale netted $303,850. The highest price paid for one family — a mother and her five grown children — was $6,180. The highest price for one individual was $1,750. The lowest price for any one slave was $250.
Soon after the last slave was sold, the rain stopped. Champagne bottles popped in celebration. And Pierce Butler, once again wealthy, made a trip to southern Europe before returning home to Philadephia.
The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History
In 1859, at the largest recorded slave auction in American history, over 400 men, women, and children were sold by the Butler Plantation estates. This book is one of the first to analyze the operation of this auction and trace the lives of slaves before, during, and after their sale. Immersing herself in the personal papers of the Butlers, accounts from journalists that witnessed the auction, genealogical records, and oral histories, Anne C. Bailey weaves together a narrative that brings the auction to life. Demonstrating the resilience of African American families, she includes interviews from the living descendants of slaves sold on the auction block, showing how the memories of slavery have shaped people’s lives today. Using the auction as the focal point, The Weeping Time is a compelling and nuanced narrative of one of the most pivotal eras in American history, and how its legacy persists today.
Non-fiction. By Anne C. Bailey. 2017. 288 pages
Time Periods: Civil War Era: 1850 – 1864
Reading Levels: Adult, High School
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About the Author:
Bailey is committed to a concept of “living history” in which events of the past are connected to current and contemporary issues. She is also concerned with the reconciliation of communities after age old conflicts like slavery, war and genocide. Her non-fiction book, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Beacon Press) and her current work, The Weeping Time: History, Memory and the largest slave auction in the United States, (forthcoming Cambridge University Press, fall 2017) reflect that commitment.
‘Here is a graceful chronicle of a wretched moment in history. This is a work of restoration, culling a crucial narrative from the silences of the past. But most crucially, this is a restoration of the humanity to those enslaved black people who were so commonly denied it.’ William Cobb, Columbia University
‘The Weeping Time offers a remarkable prism through which to explore the human dimensions of slavery and reconstruction in the American South. Using the March 1859 auction of some 440 slaves in Savannah, Georgia as a focal point, Anne C. Bailey explores the history of the slave owning Butler family, the history of the Butler plantations on the Georgia Sea Islands, and the post-slavery experiences of the slaves sold at that auction to illuminate broader themes of race in American history. She offers a moving and engaging social history of an understudied aspect of American slavery.’ Thomas Dublin, Co-editor, Women and Social Movements in the United States and Bartle Distinguished Professor, State University of New York, Binghamton
‘Bailey’s engrossing saga reminds us that the auction block was a crucial shared experience that shaped the consciousness of millions of African Americans. The Weeping Time is about the largest slave auction in American history, but it is also a remarkably vivid story of individual lives forever transformed when people are treated as property.’ Clayborne Carson, Stanford University, California
‘A meticulously researched and beautifully told story of slavery. Bailey makes us see and feel the experiences of those enslaved on the Butler plantation and their descendants.’ Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Professor of History, Professor of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania
‘The black body on slavery’s auction block was at once commerce, exhibit, and spectacle; it was also the stuff of mourning, memorialization and mobilization. Such is the grand and grave subject of this absorbing book on the mother of all slave auctions in the United States, a tale told with verve and an eye for detail. A bedrock work.’ Michael West, Binghamton University, State University of New York
‘Bailey has written a powerful study of African chattel slaves sold at huge profit, on the eve of the Civil War, to brokers from New York to Louisiana. Her approach to the experience of the auction block, like her portrayals of the modern black family, intent today on assembling fragments of their fractured past, is both interdisciplinary and humane. This outstanding contribution to understanding American capitalism should be compulsory reading in American history courses.’ Herbert P. Bix, Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology, Binghamton University, State University of New York