I spent the last week immersed in this book. At times it felt like I was reading a classic Victorian novel, a family drama in an American setting rather than the more familiar worlds of Anthony Trollope or Charlotte Yonge. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading about real people - and that there was a large supporting cast whose voices were rarely heard.
The Children of Pride is a collection of the letters of the family of Rev. Dr. Charles Colcock Jones, written between 1860 and 1868. A prominent Presbyterian minister, he lived with his wife Mary south of Savannah, Georgia. The 129 slaves he owned worked the family's three plantations, raising cotton and rice. One son, Charles, was a lawyer in Savannah. The first letter in the collection announces his election as mayor of the city, in October of 1860. A second son, Joseph, was a physician in Augusta, Georgia. The only daughter Mary was married to a Presbyterian minister herself, who served a church in a small town close by. All three children were married and had their own children. They also owned slaves, who worked in their homes and on their own properties. The letters mention different slaves by name, sending news or greetings between family members separated, echoing the news and messages shared by the white writers. I was surprised to see older slaves referred to as "Daddy" (Daddy Andrew) and "Mom" (Mom Patience), rather than the more familiar "Aunt" and "Uncle."
This book, at 671 pages, is an abridgement of a much longer book. The editor Robert Manson Myers chose the letters included here to highlight the Joneses' various experiences in the Civil War. In one sense, the war dominates the book: the Joneses one and all hated the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln, whom they blamed for the war. Devout Christians, they saw the North as a godless place filled with evil men who desecrated the sacred soil of the South simply by setting foot on it. It has been a while since I read anything so virulently pro-Confederate, and I had to put the book down sometimes to get a break. I eventually printed out Lincoln's second Inaugural Address and stuck it in the book, just for a bit of balance. I know it is no use arguing with dead people, but I was surprised that the Joneses assigned the lowest possible motives to the North. They apparently refused to consider that Lincoln and his army were fighting to save the Union. They understood it only as a war by abolitionists, to crush not just slavery but the entire Southern way of life. Thus they were fighting a holy war, in which they fully expected God to give them the victory. To protect their human property from the Federal troops, the Joneses bought a plantation in northeast Georgia, planning to move their slaves away from the vulnerable coast (the previous owner sold the property so he could move his slaves to Texas). Rev. Jones wrote indignantly to one son that the slaves were deserting the plantations to cross to the Union troops. "The temptation of cheap goods, freedom, and paid labor cannot be withstood. None may be absolutely depended on." How dare they, sir!
Yet at the same time, the first three years of the war had little direct effect on the Joneses. Union naval forces blockaded the coast but landed only a small number of troops. The oldest son Charles became a lieutenant colonel in an artillery unit, but he was stationed around Savannah for most of war and apparently never fought in a battle. The second son Joseph became an army surgeon, and he was later sent to investigate the notorious Andersonville prison camp, but he spent much of the war caring for civilians and carrying out medical research. War came to Georgia with Gen. William Sherman's troops in late 1863. The daughter Mary was then living in Atlanta, where her husband was pastor of a parish. They fled Atlanta before it was taken, but by going down to the family's plantations they put themselves in the path of the March to the Sea. Mary gave birth to her fourth child while Sherman's raiders outside ransacked the place and threatened the family.
Though the violence of the war came late, the war itself was a constant theme in the family's letters. But they are also full of the events of their own lives. Children were born, and some died, as did spouses. The women writing often spoke of "expecting to be sick" at a particular time, estimating when a child was due. There were constant outbreaks of disease, from "break-bone fever" (which may have been malaria or dengue fever) to scarlet and yellow fever, as well as heart disease and the degenerating health of the elderly. Everyone wrote constantly about clothing - who was making it for whom, who was wearing what. Trade and food were other frequent topics, with goods coming from the cities crossing with home delicacies being sent out. There were also reports on the crops and other work carried out by the slaves (always referred to as "the servants" or "the Negroes"). Of course news was shared, from a large extended family. And there were constant references to church work, to services and preaching. Charles Junior was not a member of the church, though a believing Christian. But his parents worried constantly that he had not been saved, and they wrote regularly about their fears for his soul - apparently to no avail, at least in the letters here. I did note that no one in the family mentioned reading for pleasure. The only books mentioned besides the Bible were the spiritual works in Dr. Jones's library.
I found these letters, and the Joneses themselves, fascinating (and sometimes really annoying). Their personalities come through so clearly in the letters, which are well-written (though often verbose). The book includes photos of the main writers, which made them even more familiar. I was initially surprised at the lack of footnotes or of any explanatory notes, given how many people and places are mentioned in the letters. In his preface, the editor explained that decision, quoting Samuel Johnson: "Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils..." Dr. Myers went on to say, "I have preferred to keep the reader in the nineteenth century rather than force him to shuttle between the nineteenth and twentieth. I have let the story speak for itself." And it does, very strongly. I did appreciate his epilogue, where he tells us what happened to each of the family members, including the children born in those nine years.
This is a hefty books, particularly in the hardcover edition I read, but it held my interest to the very last page, because it is such a human story. The original edition of the letters, which covers six more years (1854-1868), is massive, over 1800 pages. I am looking for a copy - I want the fuller story.