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This Day in Georgia History

December 29, 1838

Fanny Kemble Arrived in Savannah

For more on Fanny Kemble, see the Digital Library of Georgia.

Frances “Fanny” Kemble Butler, husband Pierce Butler, and their two young daughters arrived in Savannah after an eight-day trip that began in Philadelphia and would end on Butler Island in the Altamaha River. Pierce Butler was a wealthy Philadelphian who had inherited several plantations in coastal Georgia. While in England, he met Fanny Kemble, who was a famous English actress. They married in 1834 and continued to live in England. However, for several years, Fanny had pleaded with Pierce to let her visit his Georgia plantation. Pierce opposed the idea but finally relented in 1838. During what was her first visit to America, Fanny began recording a journal from her arrival in Philadelphia to her trip to Savannah and then about life on Butler Island (from December 30, 1838 to February 16, 1839) and St. Simons Island (from February 16 to April 17, 1839). The journal consisted of a series of letters to a friend (though the letters were never mailed) that reveal how shocked she was based on her firsthand observations of slavery. The four-month visit to Georgia ended in mid-April, and the Butler family returned to Philadelphia. For various reasons, including Fanny’s opposition to slavery, Pierce grew unhappy with his marriage. They separated in 1845 and divorced in 1849, with Pierce gaining custody of the two girls. Fanny resumed her acting career on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1862, she returned to England, where she shared her 1838-1839 journal with a few friends. During her marriage, she had not considered publishing them as it would have been a violation of their marital relationship and could have been embarrassing to her husband. After the divorce, however, she no longer felt obligated to protect her ex-husband. Also, following the financial crash of 1859, Pierce Butler lost his Georgia plantations and 400 slaves, so she now felt freer to write about here experiences two decades earlier. Initially, the American Civil War was a fight over the future of the Union, not a war to end slavery. But after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the nature of the war changed - at least in the North. Because the South was hoping for an alliance with Britain, Fanny decided to publish her letters under the title, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839. The volume was first published in England in May 1863, followed by an edition published in New York in July 1863. Though originally written as a personal narrative, once published, Fanny’s journal effectively publicized the evils of slavery and quickly became popular among abolitionists in both England and America.