An engrossing account of life in the American South during its most momentous era.

Pulliam assembles an epistolary history of a Southern family’s experience before, during, and after the Civil War.

The editor furnishes a remarkably illuminating account of the David family’s experience in Georgia, one that ranges across a historically tumultuous time for the United States, from the 1840s to the 1880s. The story is almost entirely told through correspondence, mostly sent to James Horatio David and Thirza Bowen David, the husband and wife at the head of the family, from their seven children. The David family owned a sizable farm in Georgia—it spanned approximately 1,000 acres in Jackson County—and in most respects lived a life that was typical of a Southern family in the middle of the 19th century, one devoted to work, religion, and the support of each other. Simeon, one of the sons and the most prolific writer among his siblings, writes from his own home in Cherokee County about the school he owns, boasts proudly that he possesses, with his sister Mary, the “finest body of land in the neighborhood,” and cheerfully reports on the “pleasant life that we all live.” However, beginning in 1859, Simeon’s letters begin to note the “political troubles in the land,” alluding to the tensions between the North and South over the issues of slavery and the possibility of a Southern succession. When war broke out in 1861, all of the brothers were drawn into it, a perilous commitment movingly acknowledged by Horatio, Simeon’s brother: “Mother, if the South whips the North I expect to see you on this earth, but if the reverse, I can’t meet you this side of the grave. I will try to be prepared to meet you there.” The reader is granted an uncommonly intimate look into the lives of a Southern family—a slave-owning one—as they experience one of the most terrible crises in the nation’s history. The letters convey a sense of the family’s evolving judgments and fears; after succession becomes an issue, Simeon reassures his parents that all will be well: “You need have no apprehensions of war. I have never believed there would be any war of consequence. It will be a bloodless revolution for the hand of Providence is in it all.” Later, Simeon would die in the very same war whose emergence he doubted.

This collection spans more than 500 pages and could probably stand to be condensed to a more digestible length—it includes needless letters from “far-flung relatives,” and there is too much discussion of the uneventful and prosaic (in one letter, Simeon confesses, “I have nothing very interesting to communicate to you”). As a result, the reader can become lost in an ocean of information that sometimes seems indiscriminately included, as if the aim is encyclopedic comprehensiveness. However, as a whole, the book paints a fascinating portrait of life at the time, more immediate and unfiltered than most historical accounts. Pulliam contributes a helpful running commentary providing all of the historical background and explanation necessary to fully comprehend the correspondence. This is a marvelously edifying work of historical scholarship.

An engrossing account of life in the American South during its most momentous era.

Pub Date: today


Page Count: 582

Publisher: Mercer Univ.

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2023

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