Charles Dickens visit to Richmond, 1842
CHAPTER IX (circa 1842)
RICHMOND, BALTIMORE AND HARRISBURG
DICKENS left Washington on Thursday, March 16,
at four o’clock in the morning, having gone aboard the
steamer the night before. He arrived at Richmond in
the evening. He has given in American Notes a full
account of the journey, but in the following, Mr.
Putnam relates some instances that Dickens does not
“Leaving Washington, Mr. Dickens took the steamer
down the Potomac to Potomac Creek. He rose early in
the morning to get a glimpse of Mount Vernon, for he
cherished a profound respect for the great man who lies
buried there. On arriving at Potomac Creek we found
stages to take us to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and as
usual Mr. Dickens secured his favourite seat on the box
beside the driver. This ride and the negro drivers of the
seven coaches is most graphically described in his Notes.
The roads were bad past all description, and seemed to
be impassable, but the negro drivers possessed great skill
and drove through without accident.
“At Fredericksburg we took the cars for Richmond.
After travelling a while we came to a very lonely and
dismal-looking country. We passed plantations long
ago deserted, the houses and barns rotting down, and
the ground as barren of soil as a New England street.
A gentleman told me that the vast pine barrens, stretch-
ing miles away, through which we were occasionally
passing, were, years ago, the same as these barren fields,
for only pines of the most meagre growth could grow on
this slavery-cursed soil. I called the attention of Mr.
Dickens to the sterility and ruin all around us, and he
seemed astounded at the fact that the land was once fertile,
178 CHARLES DICKENS IN AMERICA
and the very ‘ garden of America ‘ ! Turning to his
wife, he exclaimed, ‘ Great God ! Kate, just hear what
Mr. P. says ! These lands were once cultivated, and
have been abandoned because worn out by slave labour ! ‘
At sight of this widespread desolation his already deep
detestation of slavery became intensified.
“An incident upon the road added, if possible, to this
feeling. Stopping at a lonely station in the forest for
food and water, we noticed a coloured woman with
several small children standing by, who seemed to be
waiting for passage. After a little time we heard the
woman and children weeping, and some one in the car
asked the cause. A bluff, well-dressed man near us
answered: ‘It’s them d d niggers; somebody has
bought them and is taking them down to Richmond, and
they are making a fuss about it.’
“Dickens heard the answer, and what impression this
separation of families made upon the mind of one who
loved so well the freedom and happiness of all human
beings may be imagined.
“At Richmond Mr. Dickens took rooms at the ‘Ex-
change.’ Here, as elsewhere, large numbers of the most
prominent people called upon him, and a dinner was
given in his honour. Here, too, he visited the tobacco
factories, and saw ‘ the happy slaves singing at their
work.’ But it was a useless task to attempt to blind the
eyes or corrupt the heart of this friend of humanity. All
that was praiseworthy in our people and their institutions
he praised without stint; but he would not endorse any
wrong, especially that of slavery.”
The morning after his arrival the Richmond Enquirer
contained the following mention of his arrival
“Mr. Dickens at Richmond. Mr. Charles Dickens
and lady reached Richmond Thursday evening on the
cars from Washington, and will remain with us till
Sunday morning, when he is compelled to return to
Baltimore. Thence he will go to Pittsburgh and the
north-western section of the United States. He has not
time to visit Charleston at the farther south. He will
return to England early in June after visiting the Cataract.