A Southern girl in '61  

 

 

CHAPTER II. FROM VILLAGE TO CITY LIFE. The Writer's Home in Marshall - Anecdotes of Faithful Negroes -

        IT IS curious how the minor things in a life stand out against the background of the past like silhouettes. The great events are harder to remember than the trifles.

        The village of Marshall was not different from a thousand other little country towns throughout the South. The houses set back from the sandy street, with their front yards filled with roses and honeysuckles; the back yards with the servants' quarters and the wood piles; the well dug deep to reach the cool water; and in it the tempting bucket in which the luscious watermelon was sent down to its mysterious depths, and from which it emerged covered with a silver frost. The happy little darkies played in the background through the summer day, and gathered around the kitchen fire when the nights grew chill, and the white folks at "the house" sat by the roaring hickory logs at the chimney side.

        I never see a big wood fire but I remember my father and the way he constructed his: The huge back log, first; the light-wood knots in front, and on top the wealth of smaller hickory; and then the blaze, and the warmth, and the delight of replenishing!

        There is one little figure, that stands out in positive and pathetic prominence, as I think of those old days; little Emmeline, the small negro girl who was my constant companion. She loved me with a devotion that I have never seen excelled, and in her brief life (for she died when eight years old) she made an impression which has never left me, and which I am glad to record here. When she died, after a short illness, I grieved sincerely; and to this day cannot think of her without a pang.

        Strange to say, of our many plays together only two incidents can I recall. It was the fourth of July. The arrival of the day had been announced at dawn by the explosion of gunpowder placed in an anvil, this being the primitive method in vogue among the village patriots for ushering in the anniversary and producing the desired amount of noise. There was, of course, the usual popping of firecrackers, and the usual parade of the militia.

        When little Emmeline heard the shouts and the music, she left the enchantment of the approaching pageant, even at the risk of losing the sight, to summon me.

        "Oh! run, run," she screamed at the top of her voice, "run, and look; General Washington done come."

        We had a dear old doctor in the village, and he had one invariable method of diagnosis, which used to cause us all infinite amusement. Whatever the disease, and wherever situated, he always, before administering his remedies, would first proceed to feel our spines. We thought it very funny, but he was only a little in advance of his school. Nowadays, I believe, the osteopaths pursue the same practice and proclaim much the same doctrine, as to the general seat of disease. Now Emmeline, like the rest of her race, was imitative; she liked to play doctor. We saw her one day, having cornered a little piccaninny, named Hannah, proceed to poke and punch different portions of her anatomy in true medical style, accentuating her thrusts with the suggestive query as to the location of the supposed pain, her voice taking on an indescribable whine, supposed to be professional.

        "Hannah, Hannah, docker Baylor say your backbone hurt you, Hannah?"

        If she had lived in later days who knows in what new school of medicine she might not have been a burning and a shining light!

        Then there was the Court House in the middle of the square, where the voice of the crier was heard on Court days calling, "Oh yes, oh, yes, come into Court," and the long rack where the horses were hitched in patient rows, switching off the flies with their long tails. Fortunately for them "docking" was an unknown art.

        Then there was the tavern, with the wide front piazza, where appeared the benches and the split- bottomed chairs, with their leisurely occupants; and the inevitable accompaniment of elevated legs on the railing, which some cavilling Britisher has styled the attitude of the American Congressman.

        I can hear now the dinner bell, summoning the guests at the hour of noon. The boys had a song to fit the monotonous sound, suggestive of the quality and quantity of the repast.

                        "Pigtail done, Pigtail done,
                        If you don't come quick
                        You won't git none!"

        Then there were the churches of different denominations. The quaint Methodist buildings, where the men sat on one side and the women on the other; where, on Sunday evenings, however, the rules were not so strict but that the girls made themselves pretty and coquettish enough, in their sweet summer dresses land won many a sly glance of approbation from across the rigid dividing line.

        Then there were the hard-shell Baptists and the Campbellite Baptists; and from their pulpits the theologians of the different schools pronounced a sufficient variety of dogmas to daunt the souls and bewilder the minds of ordinary mortals.

        Many of the negroes were members of one or other of these denominations. "Dick" professed conversion and was taken into the fold by immersion. When "Marcia" heard of it her comment was congratulatory for two reasons, "One t'ing, Dick got a good washin'."

        It was against the rules for the negroes to be out at night without a "pass," and it was the custom to come to young "Massa" or "Missus" to write them for them. Many a one have I written. "Henry has permission to pass and repass until ten o'clock" was the usual form.

        There have been volumes written about the negro, generally by persons who knew nothing, by practical experience, of the subject of which they wrote. They theorized, from a false basis, on a condition of things which existed only in their imaginations; and they built up a fabric, which, in these later days, has tumbled down about their ears, and bids fair, in its fall, to work havoc, in more directions than one. It may be that out of the dirt and débris, a new structure will be erected in time; but that time is certainly not yet. Now I do not propose to theorize on the subject. I merely wish to relate two or three facts, to the truth of which I can bear witness - facts that exhibit the character of the negro, as shown during the War, under the then existing conditions of slavery.

        When my parents left home in the autumn of 1860 to go to Washington, they anticipated returning in a few months. We had a faithful woman, named Sarah, whose family had belonged to ours for two generations. Before our departure the silver was packed away and the key given to Sarah. For nearly four years we were absent. During that time the house was occupied, on several occasions, as headquarters, by Generals of our own army in command at Marshall, permission of course being given. Sarah, for the credit of the establishment, as she told us afterwards, produced the silver and had it constantly in use. When we returned, not a single piece was missing; though, in the meantime the War had ended, and she was free to come and go as she chose, and could easily, in the lawlessness of the time, have decamped with her prize, with no one to gainsay her. When, on our return home after weeks of waiting in fear and anxiety for my father's safety, at last tidings were brought us that he was in our neighborhood - it was to Sarah that we confided the fact, and through her connivance, under cover of night, he entered his home. It was Sarah who watched with us and stood on guard through the long weary hours while we sat together and talked over the plans for the future - and it was Sarah who saw in the early dawn that the coast was clear for her master - her master no longer - to make his escape from his foes!

        Then again there was Henry, my brother's body servant during the War. In looking back it seems strange that officers in the army, at a time when they were barely existing on a third of a pound of bacon a day and a little corn meal, should have decreased their slender store by sharing it with servants. But those were the good old days and the good old ways, and I, for one, would never have changed them! Now one of my father's admirers in Texas had sent to him at Richmond a very beautiful Mexican saddle, heavily mounted in silver, and he, caring little for such vanities and always delighting to give to his children, promptly transferred the valuable present to my brother. Henry's pride in his young master's grandeur was unbounded, and he polished the handsome silver mountings with unwearied zeal, and I doubt if the suggestion ever occurred to his simple mind as to how sensible it would be to convert a portion of those jingling chains and buckles into some good digestible article to appease the ever-present hunger of both master and man. After General Johnston's surrender, and when my brother determined to make his way across the river to join Kirby Smith, he had to part from Henry. That Henry should leave him voluntarily never occurred to either of them. He left him at a point in Alabama and told him to wait with the horse and famous saddle until he should receive orders to come. And there he remained for weeks, faithful and obedient. When at last my brother wrote for him he sold the horse and the saddle, according to his orders, and with the proceeds made his way home, where he appeared one day to give an account of his adventures and expenditures. Can these instances of faithful service be matched in any negro to-day, after nearly forty years of freedom?

        The negro in slavery before and during the War, was lazy and idle - he will always be that - but he was simple, true and faithful. Whhat he has become since his emancipation from servitude is a queer comment on the effect of the liberty bestowed upon him. But that is going very far afield and away from our subject.

        The great events in the county were the barbecues and the commencements. The former were generally the means of gathering the politicians who made stump speeches, and instructed the people as to the proper way to construe the Constitution, and duly inculcated the doctrine of States' rights. Here, over a great pit, spanned by iron rods, were laid and roasted huge beeves and hogs, the dispensing of which savory viands, on immense tables spread under the shade of the branching oaks, was good to see, and better to smell, and best of all to taste.

        Then the Commencements were the events of the year. The "sweet girl graduates" in their filmy white robes and dainty ribbons, with compositions in hand, astonishing the dear old country papas and mamas, by "words of learned length and thundering sound", and blushing and simpering under the admiring gaze of the youthful swains. I knew of one of these, after an occasion of the sort, expressing his feelings of admiration in rather an original way, by sending his lady love a magnificent watermelon with its dear little curly tail tied with a blue ribbon! This youthful enthusiast bore the euphonious appellation of Alonzo Womack, and some cruel, unfeeling one, with a prophetic eye to the possible result of a mutual consumption of the luscious gift, made the following suggestive couplet:

                        "Alonzo Womack
                        With a pain in his stomach."

        From Marshall, my thoughts naturally drift back to Austin where we spent two winters before my father's election to the United States Senate.

        I wonder if my descendants, should they ever read these memoirs, will be shocked at the levity of an ancestress who frankly acknowledges that the most vivid recollection left on her mind is a grey merino pélisse and black beaver hat and plumes with which her small person was decked during the winter of 1859. At the house where we spent the winter I do remember several interesting people.

        One of these was "Tom" Ochiltree, whose name has since attained wide celebrity. He was then clerk of the Texas Senate, young and full of spirit and mischief and cleverness, of a kindly temper and fond of children.

        A little girl of six, staying in the house with him, became deeply enamoured, and used to weep bitterly when her elders, to tease her, would declare that his locks, which were of an intensified Titian tint, would set the house afire.

        At this date occurred the event, which was to transport me from the quiet life I had led into that vast theatre whereon was acted the greatest tragedy of modern times, and in which those nearest and dearest to me played prominent parts. From their intimate connection with the chief actors in those tragic days I have been taken behind the scenes, and enabled from tale of lip and pen to write this chronicle.

        I well remember the night we sat waiting together for news from the Capitol, when suddenly the sound of music was heard and the shouts of the crowd coming to announce the election of my father to the United States Senate. In a short time thereafter we went to Washington, by way of Galveston, where we took the steamer for New Orleans, and thence up the Mississippi River to Memphis, from where the railroad carried us to our destination.

Excerpt from "A Southern girl in '61 ; the war-time memories of a Confederate senator's daughter (1905) Author: Wright, Louise Wigfall, "Mrs. D.G. Wright."

 

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