The Great Slave Auction ► Throwback Thursday

One of the largest slave auctions before the Civil War — alternately called The Great Slave Auction or The Weeping Time — took place 158 years ago today.

Pierce M. Butler inherited the slaves from his grandfather and namesake, Major Pierce Butler. The elder Butler no longer spoke to his son, so he willed his property to his 2 grandsons, one of which was Pierce.

The younger Pierce was a bad businessman and a worse gambler. Eventually creditors forced him to sell off his assets. When the land wasn’t enough to settle his extensive gambling debts, Butler agreed to sell his human chattel.

The sale lasted 2 days because there were 436 men, women, and children to be sold. From Unearthing the Weeping Time: Savannah’s Ten Broeck Race Course and 1859 Slave Sale:

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The “Weeping Time” brought much anguish to the enslaved. Families, who had been together for all of their lives on Butler’s Island or Hampton, were torn apart and dispersed; many of them never saw each other again. The Butler slaves were dispersed all over the southern states. The heavens seemed to weep in empathy as the four dry days during which buyers inspected the enslaved gave way to a brooding storm; it rained “violently,” and the “wind howled” for the two days of sale, letting up only after the last person had been sold.26 Outside the advertisements, the Savannah newspapers offered cursory mention that the sale had taken place as planned. Slavery and slave sales were a way of life and livelihood in Savannah, and much of the US South. After Mortimer Thomson’s Tribune article was published in the North, Savannah Morning News editor, William T. Thompson (1812–1882) castigated Doesticks as a spy, intimating that next time he came South, he would not get away.27

Detailing the callousness and heartlessness of slavery, Doesticks’ published exposé was a political blow to the South, at a time of escalating sectional animosity. Like the arrival of the slave ship Wanderer—which in November 1858 landed the last shipment of African slaves brought to Georgia, on Jekyll Island near Savannah, the Ten Broeck slave sale exacerbated tensions between northern and southern states.28

Who was Doesticks? The WikiWacyWoo answers that question:

Pierce M. Butler (far left) next to his wife Frances

Mortimer Thomson, a popular journalist during the time who wrote under the pseudonym “Q. K. Philander Doesticks” memorialized the event.[3] Initially, Thomson traveled to Savannah infiltrating the buyers by pretending to be interested in purchasing slaves. After the sale, he wrote a long and scathing article describing the auction in the New York Tribune titled, “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation.”[4]

Slavery is the country’s original sin.

Slavery is also a permanent stain on the flag of this nation, which will never wash out.

While the Founding Fathers wrote a Bill of Rights and Constitution filled with lofty words, it was an empty promise even before the ink dried. These Founders owned people — bought and sold people — and enshrined in these documents that a Black person was only worth 3/5ths of a White one.

Additionally, the institution of slavery is what allowed the fledgling nation to become so prosperous so quickly. Free labour allowed some families to amass great fortunes, which have been passed down from generation to generation.

Just as important is how — after Reconstruction was abandoned — the attitude of White folk towards their Black brothers and sisters barely changed. There would be no #BlackLivesMatter movement today if people were treated equally in the ensuing 15 decades.


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Headly Westerfield
Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.