By David Gleeson
In November 1861 young Austin Reeks presented himself to Captain Peagram of the CSS (Confederate States Service) Nashville for service at the port in Southampton as Francis Warrington Dawson. The young Reeks came from a distinguished old English Catholic family, but his father had fallen on hard times, placing Austin and his siblings firmly in the lower-middle class. Austin wanted more and found that opportunity in his embrace of the Confederacy. Despite widespread opposition to slavery in England, many felt sympathy for the South, including Reeks. His parents, however, were not pleased that their twenty-year-old son wanted to join the Confederate navy and so he changed his name, choosing his favourite saint (Francis of Assisi), distinguished ancestors (the Warrens of Warrington), and an Uncle who had served with distinction in the British Army (Dawson).
Frank Dawson found naval life not to his liking because, among other things, it did not give much opportunity for glory, and he transferred to the army taking part in the major battles around the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 1862. He impressed his comrades with his enthusiasm and efficiency and received a commission as Lieutenant and eventually captain. His Englishness definitely helped him succeed as it naturally impressed native Confederates that this Englishman would join their cause. His articulate defence of the Confederacy gained him a lot of prominent friends.
He served with distinction until the end of the War and he used personal Confederate contacts to gain a position as a journalist on a Richmond newspaper. Partnering with an Irish American he moved to Charleston and bought the Charleston News and made it an instant success eventually taking over its main rival the Charleston Courier. Dawson made the new News and Courier one of the most important papers in the post-War South. He did it by endorsing what became known as the ‘New South’ philosophy, which while respecting the Confederate past, advocated the region embrace an industrial and urban future. The role model was the England of the late nineteenth century not the pastoral one of the seventeenth which many southern nationalists had advocated during the Civil War. Dawson also argued for cooperation with some of those ‘reconstructing’ the South in the North’s image. Though a supporter of white supremacy he did not, for example, believe that African Americans should be disfranchised.
This latter stance annoyed many South Carolinians including some of his admirers who put his naiveté on race down to his English background. His English ethnicity would cost him his life too. In March 1889 he went to the home of a neighbour who had been ‘interfering’ with an au pair in his household. Confronting this married man for his dishonourable behaviour; Dawson got into a fight with him and reportedly struck him. The neighbour responded with gunfire killing Dawson. In the murder trial that followed the assailant was acquitted ostensibly because Dawson had entered the man’s property and attacked him. To many in Charleston it was another sign of Dawson’s naiveté. In the South, as historian Stephanie McCurry has clearly shown, the property line was sacrosanct, and any man who crossed it without permission could expect violence. Despite his embrace of the South and his work to create a newer version then he forgot the values of the ‘Old South’ still held sway for many. Elements of these values were of the middle ages and not the modern industrial age he advocated. Dawson, it seems, no matter how hard he tried, could not escape his English origins.
Francis Warrington Dawson Family Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
Stephanie, McCurry. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Giselle Roberts, ed. The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.