The Civil War in Georgia Commemorating 150 years Civil War Georgia Sesquicentennial

Butler Island Plantation

Slavery and abolition clash in McIntosh County

Butler Island Plantation
Butler Island Plantation

On U.S. 17 about a mile south of the port town of Darien, Ga., stand the remains of a former rice plantation depicted in one of the most influential antislavery books published during the Civil War. Butler Island Plantation was one of the largest rice plantations in the South at the peak of the rice industry in McIntosh County in the 1850s, worked by more than 500 enslaved African Americans. But, a private war between slaveholder Pierce Butler and his wife Fanny Kemble, a British actress and abolitionist, caused controversy in the marriage and had international ramifications in the years to come.

Pierce Butler was a member of the landed gentry and grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, his namesake. On his maternal side, Butler was part of the powerful and wealthy Middleton family of South Carolina. Before the Civil War, Butler was one of the richest men in America and noted for the large number of slaves he owned.

In 1834, Fanny Kemble, from England’s most prominent family of actors, was on a two-year theater tour of the United States when she met and married Pierce Butler. Butler was infatuated with her beauty but probably unaware of her education, independence and the sheer strength of her personality. Early in the marriage, two daughters were born.

In late 1838, the Butler family left their home in Philadelphia to winter at the rice plantation on Butler Island. It was during that stay that Fanny Kemble became aware that the source of the Butler family wealth was the labor of the slaves toiling in the rice fields of Butler Island.

Kemble spent four months on Butler Island. During that time, she was shocked at the treatment, living and working conditions that the slave workforce endured. She was further dismayed by plantation manager Roswell King’s callous treatment of the slaves. She noted that King was credited with having fathered a number of mulatto children with slave women whom he sometimes took away from their husbands for periods of time. The firsthand experiences of the winter residence greatly affected Kemble’s growing abolitionism, and she documented her experiences through letters and journal entries.

Tension between Butler and Kemble increased over the issue of slavery, highlighting their basic incompatibility. The family returned to Philadelphia in 1839 with the marriage in turmoil. Separated in 1845, the couple divorced in 1848. Butler threatened to deny Kemble access to their daughters if she published any of her observations about the plantation and working conditions of the slaves.

Kemble waited until 1863, when her daughters had come of age, to publish her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. The book was widely read and further discouraged Great Britain’s involvement in the American Civil War on the side of the South. Today, it is considered one of the finest primary sources from the point of view of the slave owner of slave life on an early 19th century plantation.

By mid-century, Pierce Butler had squandered much of his fortune through bad investments and questionable business deals.  To pay off creditors, he sold 436 of his slaves at the Ten Broeck Racetrack outside Savannah on March 2-3, 1859. It was the largest single slave auction in United States history and was a national news story. Butler returned to Philadelphia during the Civil War and moved back to Butler Island at the war’s end with his eldest daughter, who would also write a book on her experiences at Butler Island. He was unsuccessful at adapting the plantation to a share-cropping model and died of malaria in 1867.

The plantation site is now owned by The Nature Conservancy, and the land (excluding the house) is open to the public for picnicking, fishing and birding. From the road, a 75-foot-high brick chimney stands on the front lawn, part of an enormous rice mill that was constructed in 1850. A still-operational system of dikes and canals, designed by engineers from Holland, remain, though the house in the distance was built after the war.

A historical marker in front of the property reads:

"Pierce Butler and his daughter, Frances, who shared his interest in the South, returned to Butler Island in 1866 and worked to rehabilitate the plantations. Pierce died in 1867, but Frances continued for several years to manage the island acreage. She wrote a book Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation, an interesting and valuable account of life in this region during Reconstruction. Owen Wister, famous author of The Virginian, and other novels, was the son of Sarah Butler, sister of Frances. He often visited Butler Island Plantation."