Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Land of the Free

I'm told that after the Civil War broke out, three slaves crossed into the Union states and asked for amnesty. The decision on what to do with them went all the way up from the military unit that sheltered them to Abraham Lincoln himself. If the slaves were freed just because they crossed the border, it would undermine one of the major economic engines of the South by encouraging their workforce to jump ship. The call was made, the slaves were freed, and the rift that started the war got bigger.  Later, the Emancipation Proclamation made it bigger still.  One of the major sources of productive labour in the South was slavery - giving them a compelling reason to leave the South undermined the whole economy of the separatists. My cousin described the U.S. Civil War as a war around secession where slavery became a central issue, rather than a war around slavery specifically (the history textbooks support her on this one).

Slavery gave rise to some interesting architecture - plantation houses.

These properties were built to house the masters, to separately house (and control) the slaves, and to be an expression of wealth and privilege. As beautiful as plantation houses are, they're a strange sort of monument to the cheap/free labour that made such expressions of largesse possible. Families could afford this sort of excess because slave labour was cheap - buy a slave once and you got every productive hour that they would ever work for the rest of their lives.
Not only that, but they're built on top of land that was cleared of trees, wildlife and Native Americans, all of which were lumped into the same calloused category by the settlers of the time. This particular plantation manor (above) is built on top of an "Indian Mound (link)." It's beautiful, there's grandeur, there's a unique Southern style, and the buildings are tinted forever by the system that produced them.

Some are in better shape than others - this one (below) was rebuilt and refurbished. When the Northern states came through in the Civil War they either stole or destroyed a lot of wealth in the South. War is ugly.   This is the Cedar Grove Bed and Breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Cedar Grove still has some of the scars from the war, literally.

Just around the corner from a beautiful hall and doorway, "bohemian glass" and all, is a cannonball that's still embedded in an interior wall. You can trace the line through the door and some parts of the hallway where it shattered the wood. 

Cedar Grove was used as an impromptu hospital during the war, or it's likely that it would've been bombarded and razed along with the rest of the city. 

Many plantations ended with a bang - one of the functions of war is destruction of the enemy's economy. Many ended with a whimper. What wasn't destroyed by the end of slavery was often economically destroyed with the Great Depression. Even the Biltmore House (link) had to open its doors to the public after that era. Some that survived such intense trials have been left to ruin more modernly - two of which I was taken to visit in Mississippi. It was "urban exploration" without the "urban" - two beautiful houses allowed to fall gradually into disrepair.

This is what I mean...

This one, fallen almost completely into ruin. It could only be rebuilt from scratch. Ivy has overtaken the outside, and the inside has fallen to pieces. There were (weirdly) still some things intact... 

A piano, sitting in a hallway. Old photographs in picture frames scattered, broken, on the floor.

In another house, the bones are still intact but it would take significant financing and dedicated effort to ever get it back to its original state.

 You can still see some of the glimmer of the gilded age, underneath the ruin and mold.  It's easy to imagine Southern belles and their bustles, and the shadow of the slave trade just over their shoulders.

Plantations houses are part of history in the South, telling a story of a strange and shaded chapter of U.S. history.  They're a reminder of a time of slavery and excess, of the cruelty that's possible towards people we don't think of as people.  They're also a symbol of glamour, class and Southern hospitality.  Both things exist side by side, and walking through these empty places was uncomfortable, and revealing.

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