Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Edward J. Thomas, b. 1840
Memoirs of a Southerner, 1840-1923
Savannah, Ga.: [s.n.], 1923, c1912.


Edward Jonathan Thomas was born March 25, 1840, in Savannah, Georgia. Outside of his own account in Memoirs of a Southerner, there is little published biographical information about him. When Thomas was still very young, his family relocated to "Peru," the Thomas plantation in McIntosh County, Georgia. In 1853, the family moved again so the six children could attend better schools in Liberty County, Georgia, although they retained Peru and at least two other plantations. Four years later, Thomas began attending the University of Georgia in Athens. He joined the Confederate cavalry nearly immediately after graduation and married Alice Walthour, a childhood friend, on April 2, 1862—only a month after his official enlistment. Thomas remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War and then returned to planting.

The first section of Thomas's short narrative concerns plantation life in Georgia. He describes this life as "master and slave in its prettiest phase" (p. 8). He writes in detail about the logistics of slavery on the plantation, including such topics as housing, rations, clothing allowances, distribution of tasks, chasing runaways, and church attendance. He notes, for example, that Peru's slaves were in charge of the same parcels of land every year, thus encouraging efficient work and thereby ensuring that "the industrious and diligent negro seldom worked after the noon hour" (p. 9). Thomas admits that there were cruel masters in the South who overworked and abused their slaves, but says that this never happened at Peru.

In fact, Thomas refers to his family's slaves as "our people" (p. 12). In one instance, he remembers being lulled to sleep by slaves singing work songs while grinding their corn and laments that "never more will such merry shouts be heard" (p. 12). He also suggests throughout the narrative that African Americans were happier under slavery, and that many did not understand the responsibilities that came with freedom. He gives multiple examples of former slaves who, after leaving "their duties" on the plantation for new opportunities in the North, eventually returned to the plantation asking "Mars' Ed" to take them on again (p. 18). After the war, many of Peru's former enslaved workers stayed on without compensation to restore the plantation with Thomas.

Although Thomas was not economically devastated by the Civil War, the personal and political upheaval that the conflict brought to the South is a central topic in his memoir. In particular, he is deeply wounded by the legislation enacted by "infernal fanatics" in the North (p. 40). Later, after he becomes a magistrate in Savannah, Thomas clashes with the Freedmen's Bureau over labor issues and generally objects to the political powers granted to newly emancipated African Americans. Thomas believes that Reconstruction deepened racial divides rather than heals them and speculates that "the real men of the North must have sympathized" when the Ku Klux Klan was created to show "that the South, of almost pure Caucasian blood, would not submit to this indignity" (p. 63).

Writing over fifty years after the end of the War, Thomas, like many other white Southern writers in the early twentieth century, romanticizes and elevates the Confederate cause. He is adamant that it was the South, not the North, that most faithfully adhered "to the teachings of the Constitution of the United States, and the highest decisions of our Courts" (p. 63). Thomas asserts that the glory of the South will live on in the stories that he and his fellow veterans tell their children and grandchildren, but that they have otherwise sworn "loyal devotion to the living Union" (p. 64).

Jennifer L. Larson

Document menu