By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation
While I was in graduate school, a fellow researcher gave me the gift of a nineteeth-century book that I continue to cherish (and use). A Picture of the Desolated States; and the Work of Restoration, 1865-1868, written by J.T. Trowbridge, is one of the most significant of the many travel narratives written about the South after the Civil War. Tennessee is well-covered in the book, so we’ve used some of the book’s illustrations for our Reconstruction-related exhibitions and other projects at the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the faded inscription, “Presented by Francella to Father, Dec. 25, 1868.” The book that passed between Francella and her father on Christmas in 1868 is quite a tome, numbering more than 700 pages, including appendices. First published in 1866 to give northerners a sense of the devastating effects of the war on the South and the ongoing efforts to rebuild society, Trowbridge’s chronicle was reissued two years later. The update included chapters on Reconstruction politics and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
The author, John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916), was a native of New York who had settled in Boston as a young man and established himself as a writer, eventually specializing in juvenile literature. Influenced by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, he spoke out against slavery and published two antislavery novels, Neighbor Jackwood (1857), considered his best work, and Cudjo’s Cave (1863), which takes place in East Tennessee.
Traveling through Tennessee by train, horse, and foot, Trowbridge described the landscape and the people, giving particular attention to how former Confederates were adapting to defeat and how former slaves were making the transition to freedom. Not surprisingly, Trowbridge’s northern prejudices are evident throughout the book–he lamented not finding New England village greens as he journeyed through Tennessee, for example–as are his Unionist and Republican sympathies. A firm supporter of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Trowbridge praised its schools and temporary courts.
In East Tennessee, Trowbridge found Greeneville “eminently disagreeable” on a rainy day, relayed that Knoxville had “received rough treatment during the war,” and described Chattanooga as “anything but a lovely town” despite the “strikingly bold and grand scenery” that surrounded it. He assessed East Tennesseans as “a plain, honest, industrious, old-fashioned people” and upheld the region’s unconditional Unionists as model men for the future of the South.
In the Midstate, Trowbridge stopped in Murfreesboro, toured the Stones River battlefield with General William B. Hazen, and noted the skeletal remains of horses still visible on the ground. He described the town and its surroundings as “laid desolate” by the war and occupation. In Nashville, Trowbridge found “the best system of roads I met with anywhere in the South.” He praised the city, using a rather unfortunate metaphor, as “a nostril through which the State has long breathed the Northern air of free institutions.” He took the opportunity to speak with legislators just dismissed for the holidays and made sure to meet Governor William G. Brownlow, “a tall, quiet individual of a nervous temperament, intellectual forehead, and a gift of language.”
From Nashville, Trowbridge visited Corinth, Mississippi, and the battlefield at Shiloh. Near the battlefield, he stayed with a poor farm family and was overwhelmed by their generosity. In Memphis, Trowbridge discovered a spirit of enterprise similar to that he had observed in Nashville. He confessed that Memphis “surprised me by its beautiful situation and commercial activity.” He then drew for his northern audience a romanticized description of the work of mostly African American laborers loading cotton and other exports onto steamships headed up the Mississippi.
A Picture of the Desolated States is by no means an objective look at postwar Tennessee. It is, however, a fascinating primary source that presents a colorful perspective on the state’s emergence from the trauma of civil war.