St. Helena's, Sunday, April 27,1862.
I have been hoping from day to day for a chance to give you a good long letter, but I never was so busy in my life, except just after we moved to Frog-Hollow, and it is in pretty much the same style — a struggle for the food of the day. To be sure, we fare very well, but that is one trouble; we have a large family and not an abstemious one, and I am housekeeper, with Southern servants, and those irregular, and only half under my control, being at every other body's beck and call. . . . Miss W. it was who told me we were to pay no wages for the work we have done, and at first, supposing she knew, I tried to reconcile myself to it by specious reasoning. But Mr. Pierce says we have no right at all to take their labor and leave Government to pay, or to pay our servants here out of the goods sent by the commissioners. He will pay the cook and driver. I have hired a washerwoman and chambermaid for half a dollar a week extra. That is, she gets food from Government, as all do (the corn, that is, that was left on the estate), and she has her house as before, but for attending to my room and doing my washing I pay her half a dollar a week. Little enough, but I dare not give more, as it would make the field hands and others discontented. . . . I am quite charmed with Miss Winsor. She is doing a good work quietly and efficiently. I envy her her school, but some one must keep house. . . . I have a good deal of satisfaction too, in housekeeping, for comfort is coming out of chaos; so I did not come here for nothing. I can do, too, what I always wanted to come for specially, and that was to strengthen the anti-slavery element. . . .
The blessed soldiers, with all their wrongdoing, did this one good thing — they assured the negroes that they were free and must never again let their masters claim them, nor any masters. I think it is very touching to hear them begging Mr. Pierce to let them cultivate corn instead of cotton, of which they do not see the use, since they worked it last year for pay which has not come yet, while their corn has saved them from starvation. Next week they are to be paid a dollar an acre for the cotton they have planted under Mr. Pierce. They do not understand being paid on account, and they think one dollar an acre for ploughing, listing, or furrowing and planting is very little, which of course it is. Mr. P. wants to make it their interest to tend the cotton after it is planted, and so he pays on it just as little as he can, until it is all ready for the market. Meanwhile, if the masters drive us off, no return will ever be made for their work, to the people who are planting for us. Nothing is paid for the cultivation of the corn, and yet it will be Government property. The negroes are so willing to work on that, that Mr. P. has made it a rule that till a certain quantity of cotton is planted they shall not hoe the corn. This they take as a great hardship, for the corn wants hoeing. Several boxes of clothing have lately come here for distribution, and from early morning till evening the negroes are flocking here to buy. I do not like the prices fixed on the goods at all. They are in some cases higher a good deal than the retail Philadelphia prices. Be sure if Mrs. Hastings sends her box to me to mark it”Private” and then I can dispose of it as I please. . . . Miss Winsor insists that her children shall be decently clad, or she will not teach them. After the buyers have been to the cotton-house where the goods are stored, they often come and ask for me at the mansion house, so as to get a needle and a little skein of thread — great treasures in this region. They will give two or three eggs — which the soldiers buy at two cents apiece here — for a needle and a little wisp of tangled cotton. When that box from our sewing-circle comes along, I want you to put into it for me especially, at my cost, of course, a lot of coarse needles, some black and white linen thread, some coarse spool cotton of various colors, and some large size porcelain buttons. . . . One luxury I want you to send me. It is about five pounds of pulverized sugar. We have had some of Mr. Pierce's and it has gone, to his great regret, in this blackberry season. The fields are black with them, and we have them three times a day, a needle and thread paying for a quart or two. I bought yesterday a little plague for a quarter of a dollar. It was a young mocking-bird which I had to get to keep a negro boy from undertaking to “bring it up.”
I have begun my professional career. On the next plantation to this a good many negroes are sick, and at church this morning the young man in charge, a Mr. Buggles, asked me for some medicine for them — so he came for me, and this afternoon I doctored the half-dozen families who had measles and mumps. The church was in the midst of splendid live-oak trees hanging with moss, and the services were impressive only because they were so unusual, especially the singing. The garments seen to-day were beyond all description. One man had a carpet, made like a poncho, and he stalked about in such grandeur. There was an old woman there who came from Africa in a steamship. Her face was tattooed a little. Mr. Horton, who was one of our fellow passengers on the Oriental, a Baptist minister, preached a sermon upon true freedom, and I think the negroes liked it. We heard of one old negro who got up in meeting, when one of the young superintendents was leading the services, and said, “The Yankees preach nothing but cotton, cotton.” The fact is that every man has thought it his duty to inculcate the necessity of continuing to work, and the negro can see plainly enough that the proceeds of the cotton will never get into black pockets — judging from past experience.
To-night I have been to a “shout,” which seems to me certainly the remains of some old idol worship. The negroes sing a kind of chorus, — three standing apart to lead and clap, — and then all the others go shuffling round in a circle following one another with not much regularity, turning round occasionally and bending the knees, and stamping so that the whole floor swings. I never saw anything so savage. They call it a religious ceremony, but it seems more like a regular frolic to me, and instead of attending the shout, the better persons go to the “Praise House.” This is always the cabin of the oldest person in the little village of negro houses, and they meet there to read and pray; generally one of the ladies goes there to read to them and they pray. I went to-night and saw Miss Nelly Winsor sitting ready to read to them; but as she seemed embarrassed I did not stay. I shall go again next week. They meet at the house of old Aunt Phillis, a real character. But I have no time to tell you of her to-night.
I wish I could sketch. This country would make S. wild with delight, the trees are so picturesque. I think the palmetto as ugly a tree as ever was planned. I have seen no strange animals except white cranes or herons and turkey buzzards. There is the skin of an alligator lying in the yard. It was shot in the creek here, but was not more than five or six feet long. The flowers are not very beautiful, that is, the wild ones, but I never in my life saw such garden roses.
We have been riding around all week to different plantations to cheer up and reassure the rather downhearted negroes, or rather the negro women. It is not a cheering thing to do, except as it is gratifying to be so able to give comfort. They think a white lady a great safeguard from danger, and they say they are “confused” if there are no ladies about.
Rupert Sargent Holland, Editor, Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina 1862-1864, p. 17-21