The essentials of the family romance, Southern style, are the ancestral house and the founding father—and, of course, in a literal but less important sense, a founding mother. In the instance of the Hammond family of South Carolina, the house seems to have been essential to the romance aspect more than the four generations of inhabitants were, but there is no fiction about either. More improbable than fiction, this collection of family letters and occasional diary excerpts begins in the 1850s and runs for nearly a century. They are selected from huge collections and capably edited and annotated by Professor Carol Bleser of Colgate. She adds much to their intelligibility with her introductions to successive generations and by her brisk rattling of skeletons from family closets. No pussy-footer, Professor Bleser.
The house of the Hammonds did not come first in family chronicles since it was one of the creations of the founding father, James Henry Hammond, in the late 1850s. But it was first in importance, and turned out to be the most durable of his creations and the bond that kept his and future generations together. Set high on a clay bluff over the Savannah River and named Redcliffe, the house commanded a sweeping view of the river and valley from the South Carolina side seven miles from Augusta, Georgia. Built more for comfort and utility than for conformity to the myth of the planter mansion, it was a large white frame building with double-decked verandas on all sides. Yet when the last member of the tribe to own it got the place remodeled and floodlighted for a celebration in 1938 he described it, partly in pride and partly in embarrassment, as “a great white frosted wedding cake or a spectacular movie set.”
Carol Bleser gets right to the point in her own characterization of James Henry Hammond (1807-1864): “He can best be described as a tough son of a bitch.” In public life he is best identified as the author of the slogan, “Cotton is King,” and for his defense of slavery as the “mudsills of society,” the necessary foundations of a great civilization in the South as wage slaves were in the North. He was ready to extend these blessings and American sovereignty from the Isthmus of Panama to the North Pole, or to take the South out of the Union if slavery were threatened. For abolitionists he advocated the death penalty.
It was in private life, however, that Hammond did most to earn his reputation for toughness. In 1830 he paid court to a homely sixteen-year-old heiress, furiously resisted her family’s demand that the fortune hunter renounce her dower, and the next year married her. She brought him a plantation of 7,500 acres and 147 slaves. He exploited her property to the fullest, acting as his own overseer, and in ten years doubled the holdings in land and slaves. His wife also bore him five sons and two daughters, and since her sister was the wife of Wade Hampton II, endowed him with connections to a family of great wealth and political influence. Hammond instructed his oldest son Harry in the uses of matrimony for “bringing wealth and position,” and made it plain that he expected his example to be followed. For himself, he “never could bear poor girls [even] when pretty and pure spirited…. Even the sweetest pill of that kind should be gilded.” In his opinion “women were made to breed,” and as “a toy for recreation…one soon tires of any given one for this.”
One scandal came near ruining him while he was governor of the state. This was a two-year dalliance with his nieces, the four daughters of Wade Hampton II. Beginning when they ranged in age from thirteen to seventeen, the girls came regularly to the governor’s house and simultaneously engaged in “every intimacy but the ultimate” with their uncle. When word of this eventually reached Hampton relatives, the governor left town and his political career came to a halt for fourteen years under threat of exposure. His wife stood by her husband for a time, but after suffering through his liaisons with other women—free and slave—she took her children and left him when he refused to give up his affair with a slave, Louisa. Mrs. Hammond held out for two years and only returned with the children after he sent his slave mistress to Charleston—though Louisa was back within a few months.
Hammond’s friend, the novelist William Gilmore Simms, felt constrained to write him in 1857 that for years his friends had been “compelled to deny, almost daily, a variety of slanders” that pictured him as “a sot, utterly lost to society,” who “brutally abused” his wife. Simms advised him to end his “almost total withdrawal” from society and show himself with his family in Charleston and Columbia and “set at rest all slanders.” This strategy helped to restore Hammond’s reputation and political fortunes and send him to the US Senate. These successes, however, did not end his alienation from wife, children, and society, or his self-pity and his waves of hatred. If South Carolina stood on the brink of hell, he once said, he would push it over “before you could cross a ‘t.”‘
One of James Henry Hammond’s many troubles was his literal-minded and doctrinaire understanding and usage of planter paternalism. He was a totalitarian patriarch. He spoke casually of “all my family white or black,” and regarded the former, wife and children, as he did the latter—as possessions, extensions of himself, instruments of his will and purpose, as well as responsibilities. He once referred to them collectively as “pensioners.” Applied to beings of flesh and blood, the doctrine spelled misery to all concerned, patriarch included. Completely disappointed in his five sons, he wrote them off as “mere dilettanti—theatrical planters,” wastrels and incompetents, and let them know it. His wife felt “utterly useless—helpless in my family.” To Hammond it seemed that “an abyss separates us and there is no ground on which we can meet,” no conversation “except yea and nay.” Even the servants shunned him. Of his children he said, “We are nobody to one another and I have got to look upon them in no other light than as persons with whom I must divide my property.”
Not long before the war he wrote, “My heart drops. I have no object now in life.” All his efforts had come to nothing, and for the life of him, he could not understand why people blamed him for what had gone wrong. In the dark days of 1864, one son who was with him when he died wrote another, “He seemed to succumb to the fall of Atlanta…. He seemed not simply desirous, but determined…as if he sought and hastened his death, not by any act, but by force of will. ‘It is time for me to die,’ he said; ‘death will be a relief.”‘
Carol Bleser presents James Henry Hammond as a “prototypical Southern planter,” but there is reason to see him as a deviant rather than as a prototype. Here fiction illuminates fact, and the novelist seems to have a clearer vision of history than the historian. I have in mind William Faulkner’s Colonel Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! The parallel with Hammond is far from exact, but resemblances are often striking.
“You see, I had a design in my mind.” This is Colonel Sutpen talking to General Compson in 1864. “I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family—incidentally of course, a wife. I set out to acquire these, asking no favor of any man.”
Congressman-Governor-Senator Hammond also had a design in mind, a design he described in 1858 as that of “establishing a rich, educated, wellbred, and predominant family, here or anywhere of our name.” Incidentally, of course, he also required a wife—though Hammond did not see fit to mention the incidental.
Both Sutpen and Hammond proceeded relentlessly, and to their own minds at least logically and rationally, to fulfill their designs. Both labored heroically and succeeded phenomenally in acquiring “the ingredients” (as Quentin Compson called them) of the design: money, house, plantation, slaves, family—all. Yet both seemed destined to destroy what they desired, if they ever really knew what it was. Both understood that they somehow failed, but neither could comprehend why, or how they themselves could be blamed.
“Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent this would indicate?” asks Sutpen of General Compson.
“What have I done or omitted to do to deserve this fate?” asks Hammond of his diary.
Neither really expected an answer, and each was sure that it was not his fault.
“Sutpen’s trouble was innocence,” said General Compson, and he elaborated: “abysmal and purblind innocence.” The innocence that afflicted Sutpen (and Hammond), as Faulkner saw it, and as I think Cleanth Brooks correctly interprets it, was “a trust in rationality—an overweening confidence that plans work out, that life is simpler than it is.”
Both Sutpen and Hammond were interlopers, geographically and culturally, both of a modern rather than a traditional ethos. Hammond was one generation ahead, for it was his father Elisha, from a Massachusetts family that dated from 1634, who landed alone in Charleston in 1802, “sick and a stranger to everybody,” with a quarter in his pocket and the dismal prospect of making a living as a schoolteacher. James Henry was certainly not to the manner born, and he took a jaundiced view of the “chivalry and poltroonery and meanness” of the salt-water aristocrats. But he embraced their goals and values insofar as he comprehended them, and he clearly had a leg up on young Sutpen, offspring of poor mountain whites, in this and other aspects.
At the outset I remarked that in this book fact was more improbable than fiction. One evidence of this is that James Henry Hammond fancied himself as an intellectual and had impressive credentials to support the claim. He read widely, wrote and published extensively, traveled for a year in Europe collecting works of art, and was in regular correspondence with a group that included some of the foremost minds of the region. This consisted of William Gilmore Simms and another novelist, Beverly Tucker, as well as Edmund Ruffin and Professor George Frederick Holmes, in addition to Hammond. They called themselves “A Sacred Circle,” considered themselves unappreciated geniuses, and felt alienated from their society. The Virginian Ruffin considered Hammond’s mind “the most powerful” in the South.1 If this story were fiction instead of history we would think the novelist was saying that intellectuals are the most innocent of innocents. But history does not say things like that.
After the founder of Redcliffe came the preserver, Harry, oldest son of James Henry, who bore deep scars of paternal disdain and contempt. Harry aspired to be a scientist, but his father had refused to support him at Harvard. From there he wrote James Henry that at Redcliffe he “had failed at everything,” was “the living, walking realization of utter incompetency,” and had entertained suicidal thoughts.
Harry got a start as a scholar on the faculty of the University of Georgia and married well and fairly happily before Confederate war service claimed him. He emerged from the fighting in 1865 with “a pipe, some tobacco, and literally nothing else,” save unsalable land that had to be sold to settle his father’s estate. His mother salvaged Redcliffe and 400 acres and turned them over to Harry. The rest of the 14,000 acres slipped out of family hands, and the other children went their separate ways, mainly into business and industry. Harry carried on as master of a deteriorating Redcliffe and a planter often on the brink of insolvency. He was bailed out by inheritances and windfalls, mainly those of his wife, but he was barely able to hang on.
Harry Hammond’s intellectual ambitions found some expression in writing in 1883 a book commissioned by the state on the resources of South Carolina. But he was robbed of credit for authorship by politicians whose names appeared on the title page in place of his. Frustration and disappointment seemed Harry’s lot all along. As one failure piled on another he grew more despondent, disagreeable, and petulant and came to rely on the bottle for consolation. His brother Paul took to morphine, an addiction that proved his undoing at the age of forty-nine. Harry’s father-in-law committed suicide in 1866. His wife Emily, on the other hand, proved as strong a pillar of stability for Redcliffe as had his mother.
In general, the Hammond women of the post-bellum years proved stronger and more resilient than the men. As Bleser suggests, the war’s outcome meant less of a loss in status and privilege for women than it had for men. They simply had less to lose. Another advantage of women was that since less had been expected of them, they had less difficulty than men in meeting expectations and in earning selfesteem. If Harry had meant to give the haunting ghost of his father a turn by declaring in 1875 that “Cotton will never be called King again,” he might have given him another and possibly worse turn by announcing the end of patriarchal absolutism.
In the third generation at Redcliffe—the children of Harry and Emily Hammond—it was the two girls, Julia and Katharine, who were the dominant and interesting personalities rather than the three boys. For one thing, the boys got no advanced education and the girls did. Their father had the unusual idea, for that time, of encouraging them both to become doctors. Julia made a stab at it at Harvard, but after a few months the pull of Redcliffe and her mother became too strong and she returned home to stay, married late, and brought her husband to live at Redcliffe. Katharine carried the struggle for professional status and independence further by coming within a few months of graduation at the Johns Hopkins school for nurses before she was irresistibly drawn back to Redcliffe.
Neither sister seemed to regret her return home, but Katharine was torn between the demands of her professional ambitions and those of a more traditional role—that of Southern belle. The girl was literally besieged from an early age by importunate and persistent suitors. She capitulated at the age of thirty and in 1897, at a big wedding staged at Redcliffe, married one of the wrong ones. This was the handsome Dr. John Sedgwick Billings, son of a prosperous New York medical family, whom Katharine had met at Johns Hopkins and who proved the most ardent suitor of all. He established her in New York, where he built a flourishing career and fathered three sons, two of whom survived to maturity. “I am afraid of Redcliffe,” he wrote his wife, while professing love for it; “it always comes between us.” The marriage soon went badly wrong, and Katharine, who was accustomed to being the center of the scene rather than the neglected and mistreated wife she became, spent more and more time at Redcliffe.
Katharine’s older son John Shaw Billings took up the Oedipal war of the fourth generation at Redcliffe, where he was born in 1898, by identifying with “the warm humanness of my mother’s family” rather than the “cold remote” Northern grandfather for whom he was named and “his descendants.” In the marital strife of his parents he passionately took his mother’s side and broke completely with his father, for whom he confessed his hatred. In his own profession of journalism John soared to the top as managing editor of Time in 1934, Life in 1936, and editorial director of all publications of Time, Inc. in 1944. But at the peak of it, he was writing in his diary, “I long to chuck my Time job and go to Redcliffe for good…. I hate all these lying, thieving Yankees and would gladly never see one of them again. I work for Time, but my heart really isn’t in it.” That, he repeatedly proclaimed, remained in Redcliffe.
In the first nine years of his life John Shaw Billings had paid ten visits to Red-cliffe with his mother, and there were more in later years. In 1922, after a week there without her, he wrote his mother:
There is happiness at Redcliffe. It is the corporate Present symbolizing the Past—and I don’t want to leave it…. If only you could be here with me, dearest mother, to share this strange felling of devotion and crazy idealization. The whole place strikes a booming chord on the strings of my ego. I forget my realism, my mundane sophistries—and am carried away on a wave of sheer emotionalism by being there, with the ghosts. Why aren’t you here? I confess that I think I could love you more deeply, more rapturously, more poetically, at Red-cliffe than anywhere else under the sun!
In 1935, ten years after his mother’s death, he bought the place from his uncle and persuaded his wife to help him restore and renovate it. He continued at Time, Inc., but his thoughts remained with Redcliffe and his discontents with Yankeedom increased. In 1954 at the age of fifty-six he resigned and moved to Redcliffe, where he spent nearly two decades putting together family correspondence, records, and history. After the death of his first wife he married a mutual friend of theirs with whom he lived until his death in 1975. Without surviving children, John left Redcliffe to the state of South Carolina.
The Hammonds of Redcliffe invites comparison with other works of the sort, and the first thing that comes to mind is the most notable of them, the correspondence of a Georgia family of Joneses in the Civil War period. The Children of Pride.2 Covering a much shorter period, this huge collection is four or five times the length of the Hammond book. As letter writers the Joneses of Georgia have the advantage, for epistolary gifts were simply not as widely distributed among the Hammond tribe. That may be attributed to the predominance of correspondence among the latter in the post-bellum period, when standards in letters declined pretty generally. Nor did there appear among the Hammond connection a writer of the skill, detachment, sophistication, and literary gift that made Mary Boykin Chesnut’s account the classic statement of the South’s Civil War experience.3
What makes The Hammonds of Red-cliffe distinctive is the self-revealing character of the letters, the unselfconscious exposure of the horror and devotion and tragedy and delusion that four generations of family life can produce. History sweeps over Redcliffe in floods, but its inhabitants are too absorbed in their own lives and their relations with each other to take much notice. In the end, however, it is the editor’s skill that mainly accounts for the richness of this collection of correspondence. The letters published are chosen from vastly larger numbers, and only a mastery of the whole could guide the selection so intelligently and make the book so absorbing.
October 22, 1981
Drew Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). ↩
Robert Manson Meyers, ed., The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War (Yale University Press, 1972). ↩
C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (Yale University Press, 1981). ↩