Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The White Lies of Paula Deen

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on July 5, 2013

Deen

You’re all familiar with the dust-up over Paula Deen’s comments on race (admitted and alleged), and there’s no point rehashing that mess again here. But I would like to throw a little historical light on something she last year, referring to her g-g-g-grandfather, John A. Batts of Lee County, Georgia:

He had lost his son, he had lost his war, he didn’t know how to deal with life with no one to help operate his plantation. . . . Between the death of his son, and losing all the workers, he went out I’m sure into the barn and he shot himself because he couldn’t deal with those kinds of changes, and they were terrific changes. . . . I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.
 

Note that Deen can’t quite bring herself to use the word “slave” — they’re “workers.”

Now, a lot of white Southerners buy into this line. They insist that their ancestors had nothing to do with slavery, or if they did, their slaves “were like our family” and they were uniformly kind and benevolent masters. It’s a comforting rationalization, usually based on exactly nothing more than several generations’ worth of family lore. But as we saw with the case of Andrew Chandler and Silas Chandler, the beloved stories held dear by the descendants of slaveholders are often very different from those descended from those who were enslaved.

What’s surprising about Deen’s case is that she seems to have made up this tale about her ancestor on her own, and quite recently. Because until a year or so ago, when Georgia College Professor Bob Wilson laid it out for her, Deen had no idea her ancestor had “workers.”

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Wilson: The main source of wealth for Southern planters, when you see a figure like that, is gonna be in people.
 
Deen: [Pause] Oh.
 
Wilson: So let me show you this document here, see what it’s called right up there [at the top].
 
Deen: “Slave inhabitants.” John Batts. [Counting] Thirty-five. That’s a lot. I have said so many times, “well, my family was never involved in slavery, in any way. It’s horrific, and it’s sad.”

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She also said, “If I could go back and talk to [John Batts], I would do everything in my power to convince him not to participate in the heinous act of slavery.”

But that was way back in 2012, and since then she’s convinced herself that Batts’ bondsmen and -women “were like our family.”

Believe me, I understand how disturbing it is to learn from a slave schedule that your g-g-g-grandfather was a slaveholder. But there’s nothing to be done about that. Deal.

There’s a whole lot more to John Batts’ story, though, and it doesn’t mesh very well with her image of a simple farmer, caught up in the turbulent time that ripped apart his “family” and deprived him of his “workers.”

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John A. Batts was born in 1814 in Miller County, Georgia. He and his wife, Mary, relocated to Lee County sometime in the late 1830s, and John began to establish himself as a planter. By the late 1840s, Batts was representing Lee County on a regional committee to develop plans to build a railroad line through that part of the state to the Georgia Central Line at Macon.[1]

Batt’s service on the railroad committee may have been his entre into the political arena. From the mid-1850s, Batts ran for or served in a variety of elected offices. In 1856 he was a Democratic nominee to serve as a justice of the Georgia Inferior Court, which position may be where his title of “Judge Batts” was earned.[2] He served a term in the Georgia House of Representatives beginning in November 1857.[3] In August 1860, Batts was a Democratic delegate from Lee County to the state Democratic convention at Milledgeville, in support of the nomination of John C. Breckinrdige and Joseph Lane in the presidential election that year.[4] In the fall of 1860 Batts was elected to a seat in the State Senate. Batts was a member of the Georgia Senate when that state seceded from the Union, but was not a member of Georgia’s secession convention.[5]

With the coming of the war, John and Mary Batts’ eldest son, William, enlisted as a Private in Co. A of the 12th Georgia Infantry. After William was killed in action at the Battle of Cedar Run on August 9, 1862, Judge Batts was obliged to swear an affidavit that his dead son left no wife or heirs, in order to claim $111.30 in bounty and back pay owed to the soldier.[6]

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Judge Batts’ affidavit and power-of-attorney, filed to collect monies owed his deceased son, William.

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In August 1865 John Batts applied for a formal pardon from the administration of President Andrew Johnson. Among the seventeen classes of persons ineligible for the general pardon were former Confederate citizens worth $20,000 or more. Batts applied, his application stating that “thus tho [Batts] doubts [that] he is worth twenty thousand dollars, yet he may be worth those sum [sic.] or more.” The affidavit goes on, asserting

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that he admits himself to have voluntarily participated in the late rebellion, having been honestly convinced that he was acting for the best. Thus he now insists to the Government of the United States with equal honesty – thus he has taken the oath hereto attached in good faith, & with the honest intent to keep the same, & hereafter to obey the laws & Support the Government of the United States [.] That soon after the publication of Genl Gilmore’s [sic.] order in reference to the freedom of the slaves he informed his negroes [sic.] thereof and since then he has been employing them at full & proper wages. [7]

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John Batts had no trouble referring to his alleged “family” as his slaves; why does Paula Deen?

John Batts was not ruined financially by the war. Although he undoubtedly went through hard economic times like everyone else in the region, he had gone into the war period as a wealthy man, and remained so afterward. By the time of the U.S. Census of 1870, after a decade of war and Radical Reconstruction, John Batts still was able to list assets amounting to $18,000, $13,000 of that in land. He owned 2,250 acres, making him one of the largest landholders in Lee County. In the 20 years since the 1850 census, his real property holdings had more than doubled (up from 1,000 acres), and the amount of improved land tripled, from 350 acres in 1850 to 1,100 in 1870. In that latter year Batts’ holdings produced 1,500 bushels of corn, 300 bushels of oats, 141 bales of cotton, 300 pounds of wool and 500 bushels of sweet potatoes, with smaller amounts of other products, with an aggregate value of around $16,000.[8]

Beyond the hard numbers collected by the census enumerator, we also have a good narrative description of Batts’ plantation. That same summer, the Weekly Sumter Republican ran a letter describing the place:

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On Monday last I stopped at the plantation of Judge John Batts, where I was cordially received and well taken care of by Mr. Joseph Batts, his son, under whose able management the place is conducted, and where the general thrifty appearance of things reflect credit on his energy and superintendence. In his company I rode over considerable [part] of the plantation, and partook plentifully of the fine watermelons for which his place is noted. Of his cotton crop too much cannot be said in praise, and I venture to say there is not a finer prospect anywhere in Southwest Georgia. I saw plenty waist high, and full squares. He informed me that he expects to make on the greater portion of the place, if not on all of it, a bale to the acre. We also rode over a 60 acre field of corn, some of which I could not reach when standing on a tall horse’s back. Mr. Batts says, unless the season proves unfavorable, he expects a yield of 25 to 30 bushels to the acre. I did not go over the balance of his corn, but he assured me that all on the place was good, and he would, in all probability, make more than he needed for his own use. [9]

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At this point, it seems, many of the day-to-day operations of the farm were being handled by John Batts’ second son, Joseph, then aged about 25. (Joseph would go on to inherit the bulk of his father’s land holdings.) Nonetheless, John Batts appears to have remained active and engaged in his community during his last years, including participation in the Smithville Grange, a sort of farmer’s promotional group. [10]

But then, early one Sunday morning in the spring of 1878, Judge Batts put a pistol to his right temple and pulled the trigger. According to his surviving family members, he’d been suffering from depression “for months past,” and had tried several times to kill himself by ingesting morphine. According to one account, the old judge had “had many family troubles, which had partially dethroned his reason.” He was 63 years old.[11]

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Batts’ death came thirteen years after the end of the war, thirteen years after emancipation, and seven years after the end of Reconstruction. The Redeemers, hard-line white conservative Democrats, again controlled the Georgia State Assembly and had purged its Republican, African American members. Batt’s farm – plantation, as it was still referred to – was bigger than it ever had been, and noted for its success.

Whatever torments haunted Judge Batts’ thoughts when he went out to the barn that morning in May 1878, we cannot know. I don’t know, you don’t know, and Paula Deen doesn’t know, either. It’s a personal tragedy that, at this distance, is probably impenetrable. William’s death at Cedar Run, all those years before, may well have played into John Batts’ deep and ultimately fatal depression. But beyond that, it’s speculation, without any real evidence at all. Paula Deen’s rationalization that Judge Batts’ suicide must have had something to do, fundamentally, with emancipation robbing him of his “family” is a perversion, a twisting of the story to make Batts – and by extension, herself — a victim of the end of slavery in the South. It’s selfish, and it’s shameful.

Even Judge Batts deserves better.


[1] Southern Recorder, May 25, 1847, 3.

[2] Albany, Georgia Patriot, April 3, 1856, 2.

[3] Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Georgia (Milledgeville: Stare of Georgia, 1861).

[4] Federal Union, August 14, 1860. 3.

[5] Albany, Georgia Patriot, September 22, 1859, 2; Journal of the Senate of the State of Georgia (Milledgeville: Stare of Georgia, 1857), 5.

[6] Batts, William. Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Georgia, 12th Georgia Infantry, 1861-65 (NARA M266), National Archives.

[7] Batts, John. Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67 (NARA M1003), National Archives. “Genl Gilmore” is probably a reference to Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore, Commanding Officer of the U.S. Army’s Department of the South (South Carolina, Georgia and Florida) in the first half of 1865.

[8] 1870 U.S. Census for Lee County, Georgia; Schedule 1, Inhabitants, 12; 1870 U.S. Census for Lee County, Georgia; Schedule 3, Productions of Agriculture, 4-5; 1850 U.S. Census for Lee County, Georgia, Schedule 3, Productions of Agriculture, 147-49. At the time of the 1870 census, there were 19 landowners in Lee County, Georgia with farms amounting to 1,000 acres or more; Batts’ was more than twice that size. University of Virginia, Historical Census Browser. Retrieved July 4, 2013, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center: http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/index.html.

[9] Weekly Sumter Republican, July 15, 1870, 3. The writer’s impression of the overall efficiency of Batt’s farm seems to be correct, as the 1870 census suggests it had above-average production. While Batts’ 1,100 acres of improved cropland made up about 1.34% of Lee County’s total, his $16,000 in product made up about 1.58% of the county’s total agricultural production.

[10] Sun and Columbus Daily Enquirer, August 20, 1874, 3; Macon Telegraph and Messenger, August 18, 1874, 1

[11] August Weekly Sumter Republican, May 24, 1878, 3; Georgia Weekly Telegraph, May 28, 1878, 8; Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, May 23, 1878, 3.

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