It is very touching to hear the negroes begging Mr. Pierce to let them plant and tend corn and not cotton. They do not see the use of cotton, but they know that their corn has kept them from starvation, and they are anxious about next year's crop. Mr. Pierce takes us to the different plantations as often as he can to talk to the negroes and make them contented, which they are not now by any means. The sight of ladies gives them a feeling of security that nothing else does.
Mr. Ruggles is a fine man, quiet, good, and easy. His men are contented. I went with him after church yesterday to his plantation to visit his sick, carrying my whole doctor's apparatus. It was my first purely professional visit out here.
Yesterday we attended the Baptist church, deep in the live-oaks with their hanging moss. It was a most picturesque sight to see the mules tied in the woods and the oddly dressed negroes crowding in. Inside it was stranger still, the turbans or bare heads, the jetty faces, and uncouth forms were all wild. We first had a Sunday School where the letters were taught principally, and then the Commandments and the Lord's Prayer read. Mr. Horton made an excellent sermon upon the text, “Hold fast to that liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free,” or something like that. He told them that liberty did not mean freedom to be idle, etc. But the sermon was an exhortation to preserve liberty, and was a good one. . . .
I saw at church, and on Mr. Gabriel Caper's plantation, a woman brought from Africa whose face was tattooed. She appeared to be of more vigorous stock than our own negroes. I find most of the negroes I have seen very weak and decidedly unhealthy and having bad teeth. What else could be expected on hominy and pork from generation to generation, and with such houses and such work?
Last night I was at the “Praise House” for a little time and saw Miss Nelly reading to the good women. Afterwards we went to the “shout,” a savage, heathenish dance out in Rina's house. Three men stood and sang, clapping and gesticulating. The others shuffled along on their heels, following one another in a circle and occasionally bending the knees in a kind of curtsey. They began slowly, a few going around and more gradually joining in, the song getting faster and faster, till at last only the most marked part of the refrain is sung and the shuffling, stamping, and clapping get furious. The floor shook so that it seemed dangerous. It swayed regularly to the time of the song. As they danced they, of course, got out of breath, and the singing was kept up principally by the three apart, but it was astonishing how long they continued and how soon after a rest they were ready to begin again. Miss Walker and I, Mrs. Whiting and her husband were there — a little white crowd at the door looking at this wild firelight scene; for there was no other light than that from the fire, which they kept replenishing. They kept up the “shout” till very late.
The negroes are pretty cunning. They pretend they want us to stay, that they would be in despair if we went away, and they tell us they will give us eggs and chickens. Indeed, they do constantly offer eggs and they feel hurt if they are refused, for that is equivalent to refusing to make any returns. Old Susannah, the cook, often sends to the table fish or other delicacies. When I ask her where she got them, she says a friend gave them to her and she gives them to us. She doesn't want pay — no, indeed. She always gave such things to her old “massas,” and then they in return gave a little sweetening or something good from the house. It was give and take, good feeling all around. All giving on one side, I should think; all taking, nearly, on the other; and good feeling according to the nature of the class, one only content in grasping, the other in giving. They transfer their gratitude to “Government.” One woman said to me, “I was servant-born, ma'am, and now 'cause de Gov'ment fightin' for me, I'll work for Gov'ment, dat I will, and welcome.” Another woman, to-day, just from “the main,” said to me that she had hard work to escape, sleeping in “de ma'sh” and hiding all day. She brought away her two little children, and said her master had just “licked” her eldest son almost to death because he was suspected of wanting to join the Yankees. “They does it to spite us, ma'am, ’cause you come here. Dey spites us now ’cause de Yankees come.” She was grateful to the Yankees for coming, nevertheless, but deplored that the season for planting cotton was over, because only the cotton-workers were to be paid and she was suffering for clothes. Another man said, “I craves work, ma'am, if I gets a little pay, but if we don't gets pay, we don't care — don't care to work.” Natural enough. One very handsome, tall, proud-looking woman came here to buy, but Miss Walker was too busy to sell. I told her she could have no clothes; when she and another woman, thinking I supposed them beggars, said — “We not dat kind, ma'am; we got our money here.” They object to going to the young gentlemen on the places for clothes, thinking it will be taken as a kind of advance for notice — such notice as the best of them have probably dreaded, but which the worst have sought. Women should be here — good elderly women. Miss Donelson was an irreparable loss. The men and women living together on this place are not all of them married. When Miss Walker asks them they say, “No, not married, ma'am, but I just tuck (took) her and brought her home.” They make not the slightest preparation for an expected infant, having always been used to thinking it “massa's” concern whether it was kept alive or not. The woman we saw yesterday, whose baby was dead, seemed perfectly stolid, and when I gave her a dollar was pleased as if she had no sorrow. Yet I think the negroes are not harsh to the children. They have a rough way of ordering them that sounds savage. When you speak to a child who does not answer, the others say, “Talk, talk. Why you not talk?” — in the most ordersome tone to the silent one.
In church on Sunday after service Mr. Horton came to me and said he was glad to see me there. I answered that I was much gratified by his sermon, but objected to two things — his qualifying their freedom rather too much, and his telling them that we had all come down to do them good, leaving homes and comfort for their sake. “I wanted to keep up their respect for these young men,” he answered. “I don't know that we shall do it by self-praise,” I said — and he looked annoyed. “I have heard them told so, so often,” I said again, “that I am sure that is well drilled into their heads.” One thing the soldiers did, notwithstanding all their wronging of the slaves by taking their corn, and that is, they made them fully sure that they are free and that they never again can be claimed by any master as property. Some of the superintendents threaten that they shall be reenslaved if they do not succeed and work as freemen. But I think the negroes know that it is only a threat, and despise the makers of it.
Mr. Hooper heard last night, from a special agent who was sent down here to convince the soldiers that Government is right in reserving their pay for their wives, that it is said at the North that the goods are sold here on private speculation, and that the money is put into the pockets of the superintendents. Also that the whole plan is a failure and is sure to break up. I think the latter very probable, for my part, for few can be found fitted for carrying out such purely benevolent plans as this was designed to be.
The negro men and women come crowding here at all hours, begging to be allowed to buy clothing, and, although they stand for hours in the hall, we have never missed the slightest thing.
Mr. Pierce begins now to pay a dollar an acre on account, which the negroes find it hard to comprehend and are not well content with. We women have to be borrowed and driven to the different plantations to talk to and appease the eager anxiety. This is quite a triumph, after having been rejected as useless.
On Sunday I was much pleased with one of the hymns the negroes spontaneously set up, of which the refrain was —
"No man can hinder me."
It was, I believe, saying that nothing could prevent access to Jesus. I heard them introduce the names of several men, as they do in improvising, but their pronunciation was so very imperfect that I could not hear fully. The men sing mostly, and have much finer voices than the women.
Another song is, “The Bell done ring.” Another, “Bound to go.” Another, “Come to Jesus.”
They sing the tune of “John Brown's Body” to other words, and in church or out of it, whenever they begin one of these songs, they keep time with their feet and bodies. It sounded very strange in the church.
Susannah has just been up here telling me about the flight of the rebels. She says that the day after the “Guns at Baypoint” (which is what all the negroes call the taking of Port Royal), her master went away, taking his family. He wanted Susannah to go with him, she being the seamstress of the family, but she refused. He then told her that if she stayed she would either be killed by the Yankees or sold to Cuba; but she said, why should they kill poor black folks who did no harm and could only be guided by white folks? After he went, his son came back once and told the negroes that they must burn the cotton; but they said, “Why for we burn de cotton? Where we get money then for buy clo’ and shoe and salt?” So, instead of burning it, they guarded it every night, the women keeping watch and the men ready to defend it when the watchers gave the alarm. Some of the masters came back to persuade their negroes to go with them, and when they would not, they were shot down. One man told me he had known of thirty being shot. This man is a cabinet-maker and schoolmaster among them, and says he reads all the papers. He is named Will Capers. He is very intelligent and self-respecting. He is in hopes he will be paid for teaching. While his master was here he had a secret night-school for men. He was very discontented because he was ordered to the field, there being no work at his trade to do. When Mr. Pierce harangued them from the porch, this Will said he did not think it right to have to go to the field. Mr. Pierce said, “What would you do? There is no cabinetwork for you, and every man must work. You want to be a soldier, I suppose, don't you?” “Yes, sah,” promptly. Then Mr. Pierce made two of them stand up and he drilled them a little. The other day Miss W. and I, sitting in the carriage, found this man standing by it. I said, “I remember your face, but I do not know where I have seen you.” “One of the soldiers, ma'am,” he answered quietly. So this man, an intelligent, reliable negro, who has gone sensibly to the field ever since Mr. Pierce's explanation, affirms that he knew of thirty men being shot down by their masters, and says the masters declared they would shoot down everyone they saw who remained. Nevertheless, a great part of them stayed; and many of those who went came back, or are coming every day. Others from the mainland come here daily for clothes and have pitiful tales to tell of how their masters whip those they suspect of wishing to join the Yankees. Susannah's master has never come back. He is probably afraid of his negroes, as he was a very cruel, hard master, who gave no shoes, salt, molasses, or Sunday clothes — neither would he allow the field hands any meat, nor permit them to raise pigs. Susannah once raised some pigs and her master threatened to shoot them. “No, massa, you cawnt do it. What can I do for our children's winter shoes and our salt if our pigs are shot? You cawnt do it — you cawnt do it.” He told her not to be impudent. “I don't mean impudence, massa, but you cawnt shoot my hogs”; and he couldn't. He used to buy and sell as suited him. Susannah's three boys (all she raised out of twenty-two that she had) were sent away from her, but when she had the fever from going in the sun to see the little one, and crawled out to beg her master to let her have one to hand her a drink of water in the night, he consented. He brought one from his son's plantation, where he had sent him, but told her that as soon as she was well she must part with him again. He also whipped, or “licked,” as they say, terribly. For the last year he was determined to make them work as mulch as they possibly could, because “he was afraid the Yankees were coming”; and so he kept them in the fields from morning till night and lashed them every day. Susannah herself never had a whipping after she was a child. Her mistress used to tell her she would “lash her,” and scolded her, but Susannah used to say “Whippin' never does me no good, ma'am. I’ll explain and I’ll do better next time. I only wants to know what you want and I’ll do it. If my pride and principle won't make me do right, lashing won't.” She spoke continually of doing things from pride and principle. She was sickly, and she made all the ladies' dresses — two reasons for her being spared. “I never axed no wagers,but my two clothes for the year. I was quite satisfy if dey didn't lick me. I would work or do anything for them if dey would n't lick me.” Her young “misuses” cried when they went away, and said “Oh, Zannah, the Yankees’ll kill you. If you see a Yankee it'll drive you crazy.” “Why, miss, ain't dey natural folks?” “Oh, no, Zannah, they don't look like us.” So, when Susannah saw soldiers coming, she ran out to Marcus, her husband, and said, “Oh, deys soldiers, deys come to kill us,” and her hands shook with trembling. But Marcus said they wouldn't hurt her and ordered her to go to them to see what they wanted. When they saw her fright, they said to her, “We are not going to hurt you. We only want you to get us something to eat, and we’ll pay you for it.” “Oh, such pretty men!” she said, “and so respectful.” They stayed some time; and Susannah used to parch peanuts for them every night. All of the negroes speak with tenderness and gratitude of our soldiers. Susannah says, when feeling grateful, “Oh, you from the Norf are all so patient. Such a patient people — never see notion' like it.’
We need patience. One day I came downstairs to make a cup of tea for an unexpected guest. No fire and no wood. No possibility of getting wood, as it was raining hard. No butter. Old Robert was sick and had the key of the dairy, and was away off somewhere; just as it was at breakfast-time, when we had no milk, and Robert was away at “the pen,” too far for return before we had done breakfast. I sent Lucy through the rain for Robert, who came after a time with the butter — and no bread, rations overdrawn and consumed, none to come till tomorrow. Hominy gone. Sent Lucy to ask Susannah why and where she had taken it. It came. Robert offered to lend us a little wood — so at last we got a fire (and a cup of tea with some hominy and butter).
I told Rina to come up and do our room and have not seen her since. Just now Aleck was idle and I sent him for wood to the pines with a little mule. I told him not to whip it. He yelled and doubled himself up with laughing, and lashed it before my eyes until quite out of sight, shrieking with laughter and paying no heed to my calls.
Rupert Sargent Holland, Editor, Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina 1862-1864, p. 21-30