Book Review: Incidents in the Life of Cecilia Lawton: A Memoir of Plantation Life, War, and Reconstruction in Georgia and South Carolina

Southerners get short shrift from historians lately. They represent ignorant, mean-spirited, small-minded types of people who prefer to let others do their work for them (if aristocratically inclined) or make up excuses as to why it is alright for some folks to be rich and others to be poor, as long as no one is black. Sadly, Incidents in the Life of Cecilia Lawton: A Memoir of Plantation Life, War, and Reconstruction in Georgia and South Carolina, just about checks off every mark necessary to delineate the Lost Cause.

Young Cecilia Lawton was the daughter of a wealthy planter from Georgia, only fifteen years old when the Civil War began. Geographically, her family was removed from the war’s early action. Cecelia spent her days picnicking, visiting friends, and admiring their lovely homes and fashionable clothing. However, her father remarried at the beginning of the war. Cecilia and her sisters were sent to Lawton, South Carolina, to “refugee” with relatives. Not too long after she made this move, Cecelia met the man who would be her husband, twenty-seven-year-old W. Wallace Lawton. She was sixteen-and-a-half when the ceremony was performed. Cecilia lived at her husband’s plantation in South Carolina, but a few months later, she found herself fleeing from the Union army of General William T. Sherman. Her observations of the aftermath of Sherman’s campaign, one she considered “brutal,” are vivid in their detail. How often we in the 21st century forget the number of animals it took to get the 19th century even half-way.

Cecelia’s husband owned several plantations, but most were ruined after 1865. They moved from Georgia to South Carolina and finally to James Island in Charleston’s sea island area. Spoiled young Cecilia gave housekeeping a try, but even her husband suggested that perhaps a cook would be a worthy investment for their family. Instead, she proved much more adept at the management of hotels and businesses in Charleston itself.

This engaging book is a diary, edited by Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. Stokes helps southerner Cecilia Lawton tell her story of a very young woman who faced incredible challenges with determination and courage. Cecilia was a child of her times and geography, however. She was a white supremacist, often yelling racial epithets at the United States Colored Troops sent to investigate her home. Although a regular churchgoer, her charity and kindness went little further than the white people she had known since childhood. Even after the war was over, Wallace Lawton—“woke” enough to offer his formerly enslaved workers contracts with generous terms—could not help himself from continuing to whip and otherwise punish his tenants. By this same reasoning, he managed to join every Confederate veterans’ organization and gun club in the area.

It is not easy to like Cecilia and Wallace. However, it is easy to sympathize with a child married at sixteen-and-a-half being expected to navigate her new life with skill and aplomb. Even her pregnancies are merely referred to as “the beginning of another trouble…” (96). This Confederate miss seems more hopeless than capable until her husband finally invests in a series of large properties and hotels—ending with the St. John Hotel in Charleston, which Cecilia took over in 1901. In the hotels, Cecilia built a functioning staff and returned to her natural abode—giving orders to others and coddling her increasingly frail husband. Her journal ends in 1872, although the Lawtons were easy to keep track of. They still were considered “high society” in Charleston. The fifty years that remained after Cecilia ended her memoir included the deaths of two of her children, a gradual improvement in finances, and a seemingly never-ending disgust with carpetbaggers, scallywags, and free blacks. Malaria, liver cancer, and hatred finally killed the Lawtons in 1906 (Wallace) and 1923 (Cecilia), respectively.

Incidents in the Life of Cecilia Lawton is a diary of a southerner. In many ways, it is similar to other diaries and journals of elite southern women. Still, in other ways, it is not: Cecilia’s youth, her residences in South Carolina (blamed by many Northerners as the place where secession began), and her never-ceasing espousal of Lost Cause sentiments make it an entertaining and unapologetic read.

Karen Stokes, Ed., Incidents in the Life of Cecilia Lawton: A Memoir of Plantation Life, War, and Reconstruction in Georgia and South Carolina

Mercer University Press, 2020

140 Pages

Appendices 1-2, Bibliography, Index


5 Responses to Book Review: Incidents in the Life of Cecilia Lawton: A Memoir of Plantation Life, War, and Reconstruction in Georgia and South Carolina

  1. Thanks for your review! I read memoirs like this one because they help me understand how people experienced life in their place and time. Women’s memoirs are generally more insightful than ones written by men.

    1. Her age was especially compelling for me–She was just a kid herself. One tends to hold on to what has always worked, and at sixteen-and-a-half, Cecilia had little experience with much else.

  2. Interesting review. Overstates the Lost Cause narrative, in that in Celicia’s case there was probably less conscious ideology involved and more rage and grief. In addition, Steve Davis’ review earlier this week directly contradicts Meg’s opening salvo concerning the failure of modern historian’s to engage in detailed analysis of Southern political culture and regional nationalism. In fact, it’s a serious subset of historical work, harking back to Clement Eaton.

    1. I meant that Southerners are ending up being shown so negatively–I suspect today’s politics has much to do with this. This is why books like Cecilia’s need to continue to be published. No cancel culture, please. I certainly agree about the rage and grief. Thanks for your comment.

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