The Man and Brother: I
WHEN Major Niles, of the defunct Veteran Reserve Corps, was Sub-Assistant Commissioner in the Freedmen’s Bureau, he was confronted one morning, on emerging from his hotel, by a venerable trio.
There stood a paralytic old negress, leading by the hand a blind old negro, to whom was attached by a string a sore-eyed, limping, and otherwise decrepid bulldog. The aunty asserted that the dog sucked her hens’ eggs, and wanted him killed; the uncle denied the animal’s guilt, and insisted on prolonging his days; and the trio had walked eight miles “ to leave it out to de Burow.”
“ Ef she kin prove it agin him, let him be hung right up yere,” said the uncle, excitedly. “ But she can’t prove no sech thing ; no, she can’t.”
The Major had been pestered during his term of office with many absurd complaints, and he was annoyed now by the grinning and chaffing of several unreconstructed village jokers. Instead of issuing an order that a hen should lay an egg, and that the same should be set before the dog to test his proclivities in the matter of suction, he broke out impatiently,—
“Go away with your stupid quarrel. Go home, and settle it between yourselves. Pretty business to bring before a United States officer ! ”
To the Major’s labors and perplexities I succeeded, and thereby acquired some knowledge concerning the Man and Brother.
That the freedmen should be ignorant and unintelligent does not appear strange when it is considered that they were brought to us, not so very long ago, in the condition of savages, and that since they have been among us they have been kept down as bondsmen or cast out as pariahs. Walking in a wood a mile or so from the village where I held sway, I came upon a negro cemetery of the times of slavery. A headstone of coarse white marble, five or six of brick, and forty or fifty wooden slabs, all grimed and mouldering with the dampness of the forest, constituted the sordid sepulchral pomps of the “nameless people.” On the marble monument I read the following inscription : —
“ This stone is placed here by James M. burden, in memory of his wife, Viney, who died Dec. 21, 1860, Aged 29 years. — A good wife & faithful servant.”
Painted in black letters on the white ground of a wooden headpiece was the following: —
“to the memory of Claraca M. Ceth died on the 25 September 1850 Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord for they rest from their labors.”
It is a wonder that the word “servant” and the word “ labors ” were not put in italics. How much knowledge, or activity of brain, or high moral feeling can be fairly claimed of a race which has been followed into the grave’s mouth with reminders that its life was one of bondage and travail ?
Nevertheless, I brought away from the South some fine reminiscences of the negro. Among the elders of the colored people at my station — one of the persons to whom I trusted for information concerning the character of applicants for official favor — was a short, square-built, jet-black, decently dressed, well-mannered, industrious, worthy man of sixty-five or seventy, named Dudley Talley, commonly known as Uncle Dudley. Between him and Professor Charles Hopkins, the colored school-teacher, I was pretty sure to learn whether a negro who asked for rations was a proper object of charity, or whether another who brought a complaint was worthy of credence.
“ Did you ever hear of Uncle Dudley’s misfortunes in business ?” asked a white citizen of me. “Poor Dudley ! He bought the freedom of a son, and the son died; then he bought another boy’s freedom, and the boy was emancipated. Dudley will tell you that he has had heavy licks in his time.”
Yes, Dudley had sunk three thousand dollars in emancipating himself, his child, and another youth, only to see death and President Lincoln render his labors nugatory, leaving him dependent for his living upon a poor mule and cart, and scarcely able to pay his taxes. The story of his own manumission is a fine instance of the kindly relations which often existed between white and black during the days of slavery. Long ago, when his old master, Dr. Long, was living, Dudley was a pet servant. Hired out at the Goodlett House, he had charge of the stables, and was, moreover, allowed to keep his own bar, — a demijohn of corn-whiskey, whereat to quench the thirst of such tavern-haunters as might not, on account of their color, get drunk like gentlemen in the hotel. Those were his days of ignorance, at which we must do some charitable winking. From this elysian existence, in a healthy mountain district, surrounded by friends who had grown up beside him, he was awakened by the death of his master, the sale of the estate under letters of administration, and the appearance of negro-traders from Arkansas and Louisiana. It was rumored that Dudley was an object of especial desire to these gentlemen, and that his remaining days in the land of his birth were numbered. Terrified at the thought of separation from home and family, he looked about for some citizen of the village to buy him. His choice fell upon a gentleman whom he had always known, a lawyer by profession, Colonel Towns.
“ Dudley, I don’t like it,” said the Colonel. “ I never have bought a slave, and I have a sentiment against it.”
“ But won’t you save me from being carried off, Colonel ? ” implored Dudley.
“I don’t like the idea of owning you,” was the answer ; then, after some reflection, “but I will manage it so that you shall own yourself. I will bid you off ; you shall repay me, principal and interest, at your convenience ; and, when the money is refunded, you shall be free. The law will not let me emancipate you ; but you shall not be my property, nor that of my heirs. We will call it an investment, Dudley.”
The purchase was made ; the agreement between the two was drawn up and signed ; the Anglo-Saxon waited, and the African worked. This bond between an honorable gentleman and an honorable slave was kept to the end. Every payment which Dudley made was indorsed upon the note, and, when the debt was extinguished, he received a quittance in full. From that time, although nominally and by law the property of Colonel Towns, he was practically his own master, and did what he pleased with his earnings. It was truly unfortunate for him that he should have invested them so as to be ruined precisely in the same manner as if he had been a slaveholding Rebel.
If all freedmen had the persevering industry of Dudley Talley, the race would have no cause to fear for its existence under the crucial test of free labor. But myriads of women who once earned their own living now have aspirations to be like white ladies, and, instead of using the hoe, pass the days in dawdling over their trivial housework, or gossiping among their neighbors. In scores of instances I discovered that my complaining constituents were going astern simply because the men alone were laboring to support the families. When I told them that they must make their wives and daughters work, they looked as hopeless as would Mr. Potiphar, should any one give him the same wholesome counsel. Of course, I do not mean that all the women are thus idle ; the larger proportion are still laboring afield, as of old ; rigid necessity is keeping them up to it. But this evil of female loaferism is growing among the negroes, as it has grown, and is growing, among us white men and brethren.
Another cause of trouble for the freed people is their disposition to seek the irregular employment, and small, bartering ways of the city and the village. Now and then one establishes himself as a drayman, or does a flourishing business as a barber or shopkeeper ; but what kind of success they generally attain in the towns may be pretty fairly inferred from the history of Cox, Lynch, and Company.
Edward Cox, an elderly mulatto who boasted F. F. V. blood, and Thomas Lynch, a square-headed, thorough-bred negro, formed a mercantile partnership with two other freedmen. The “ store ” was a single room in a deserted hotel, and the entire stock in trade might have been worth forty dollars. On this chance of business four families proposed to live. By the time the United States license of twenty dollars, the town license of five dollars, and certain, other opening expenses had been paid, the liabilities of the firm were nearly sufficient to cover its assets. In a week or so, the community were startled by a report that Cox, Lynch, and Company were in difficulties. The two minor partners sold out for nothing, and two others were taken in. Unfortunately, our merchant princes were ignorant of the Revenue Law, and formed a new partnership, instead of continuing the old one, thus exposing themselves to another tax for a fresh license. This mistake was fatal, and Cox, Lynch, and Company went to pieces.
Tom Lynch had meanwhile been studying at the freedmen’s school, and had acquired an intermittent power of writing his name. Sometimes he could lay it fairly out on paper, and sometimes it would obstinately curl up into an ampersand. He occasionally called on me to write letters for him, — mainly, as I believe, to show that he could sign them ; and I had become somewhat restive under these demands, holding that I could employ my time more profitably and agreeably. When the firm went down, however, and when Tom wanted me to indite an epistle for him to his late partner, Edward Cox, concerning certain articles in dispute between them, I reflected that such opportunities do not present themselves twice in a man’s life, and I consented to the labor.
It appears that Tom had borrowed a table, a balance, and a set of weights, wherewith to commence the business ; and that, when the crisis came, Edward had impounded these articles, and sold them for his own profit, leaving partners and creditors and lender to whistle. Such, at least, was the case which Tom stated to me, and which I wrote out in the letter. The day after the sending of the epistle Tom reappeared with it, explaining that he had forwarded it to Edward by a messenger, and that Edward, having had it read to him, had put it in a clean envelope, and returned it without note or comment.
“ I should like to know what he means ? ” observed the puzzled Thomas.
“ So should I,” said I, much amused at this method of managing a dunning letter.
“ It ’s mighty cirrous conduct,” persisted Thomas. “ 'Pears to me I’d like to get you to write another letter to him for me.”
“ Suppose he should send that back in a fresh envelope ? ” I suggested, not fancying the job. “ I think you had better see him, and ask him what it means.”
What it did mean I never learned. But Edward Cox, to whom I subsequently spoke on the general subject of justice in regard to those weights and balances, assured me that Tom Lynch was a liar and rascal. In short, the history of Cox, Lynch, and Company is as much of a muddle as if the firm had failed for a million, under the management of first-class Wall-Street financiers. Such is trade in the hands of the average freedman.
One great trouble with the negroes is lack of arithmetic. Accustomed to have life figured out for them, they are unable to enter into that practical calculation which squares means with necessities. Cox, Lynch, and Company, for instance, had not the slightest idea how large a business would be required to support four families. As farm laborers the freedmen fail to realize the fact that it is needful to work entirely through spring, summer, and fall, in order to obtain a crop. They do admirably in the planting season, and are apt to sow too much ground ; then comes a reaction, and they will indulge in a succession of day huntings and night frolics, and the consequence is a larger crop of weeds than of corn. If the planters were forehanded enough to pay their people day wages, and discharge a man as soon as he turns lazy, things would go better. But the general custom, dictated by habit and by lack of capital, is to allow the negro a share of the crop ; and as he thus becomes a partner in the year’s business, he is disposed to believe that he has a right to manage it after his own pleasure.
It was enough to make one both laugh and cry to go out to Colonel Irvine’s fine plantation, and look at the result of his farming for 1867, on land which could produce, without manure, an average of thirty bushels of corn to the acre. A gang of negroes, counting thirteen field hands, had taken a large part of his farm; and, as the produce of one field of thirty-five acres, they had to show about a hundred bushels of wretched “nubbins”; the weeds meanwhile standing four feet high among the cornstalks.
“ They neglected it during the hoeing season,” said the Colonel, “ and they never could recover their ground afterwards. It was of no use to order or scold; they were disobedient, sulky, and insolent. As for frolicking, why, sir, from fifty to seventy darkies pass my house every night, going into the village. The next day they are, of course, fit for nothing.”
And now, after the land had been used for naught, these negroes did not want to repay the advances of rations upon which they had lived during the summer ; they were determined to take their third of the crop from the fields, and leave the Colonel to sue or whistle, as he pleased, for what was due him in the way of corn, bacon, molasses, and tobacco. Fortunately for him, I had an order from the Assistant Commissioner to the effect that all crops should be stored, and accounts for the expense of raising the same satisfactorily settled, before the parties should come to a division. When I read this to the assembled negroes, they looked blasphemies at the Freedmen’s Bureau.
It must not be understood, however, that all freedmen are indolent and dishonest. A large number of them do their work faithfully and with satisfactory results. But with these I seldom came in contact; they had no complaints to make, and seldom suffered injustice. My duties very naturally led me to know the evil and the unlucky among both blacks and whites.
To show the simple notions of this untaught race as to what constitutes wealth, or, at least, a sufficiency of worldly goods, I will relate a single incident. A gaunt negress, named Aunt Judy, called on me with a complaint that Mrs. F——, an impoverished old white lady, owed her a dollar, and would not pay it.
“ Come, aunty, you must not be hard on Mrs. F——,” I said. “You must give her time. She is very poor.”
“ O, she ain’t poor, — don’t you believe that,” responded the aunty. “ No longer ’n two months ago my sons paid her eight dollars for rent. O, go ’way she ain’t poor ; she’s got money.”
Still convinced, in spite of this startling fact to the contrary, that Mrs. F— was not wealthy, I continued to plead that she might not be pressed, until Aunt Judy was graciously pleased to say,—
“ Wal, I won’t be hard on her. I ’se a square nigger, I is. I don’t want to do no hardness.”
The actual state of the case was this. Aunt Judy had hired, for five dollars a month, a cabin attached to Mrs. F——’s tumble-down house, and had paid up two months’rent, but at this very time owed for half a month. Having, however, done washing and “toting " for her landlady to the value of a dollar, she wanted to collect the money at once, instead of letting it go on the account.
Five months later, I found that this “ square nigger ” had not settled for the rent since the payment made by her sons, and was in debt twenty-four dollars to poor old Mrs. F——, who meanwhile had nearly reached the point of starvation. I was obliged to threaten Aunt Judy with instant eviction, before I could induce her to put her mark to a due-bill for the amount of her arrears, and enter into an arrangement by which the wages of a son-in-law became guaranty for regular liquidations in future.
It would probably be unfair to suppose that this “ square nigger ” seriously meant to be lopsided in her morals. But she had two or three small children ; the washing business was not very brisk nor very remunerative ; she had benevolently taken in, and was nursing, a sick woman of her own race ; and, finally, it was so much easier not to pay than to pay! My impression is that she was a pious woman, and disposed to be “ square ” when not too inconvenient. I should not have interfered to bring her to terms, had it not been a case of life and death with the venerable lady who let her the cabin, and had not, moreover, this evasion of rent-dues been a very common sin among the negroes. Indeed, I aided her to the amount of a dollar and a half, which was desirable for some small matter, conscious that I owed her at least that amount for the amusement which I had derived from her statement that Mrs. F—— “had money.”
The thoughtless charity of this penniless negress in receiving another poverty-stricken creature under her roof is characteristic of the freedmen. However selfish, and even dishonest, they may be, they are extravagant in giving. The man who at the end of autumn has a hundred or two bushels of corn on hand will suffer a horde of lazy relatives and friends to settle upon him, and .devour him before the end of the winter, leaving him in the spring at the mercy of such planters as choose to drive a hard bargain. Among the freedmen, as among the whites, of the South, the industrious are too much given to supporting the thriftless.
As I have already hinted, the negroes waste much of their time in amusement. What with trapping rabbits by day and treeing 'possums by night, dances which last till morning, and prayer-meetings which are little better than frolics, they contrive to be happier than they have “ any call to be,” considering their chances of starving to death. It is not entirely without foundation that the planters and the reactionary journals complained that the Loyal Leagues were an injury to both whites and blacks. As an officer, I wanted to see reconstruction furthered, and as a Republican I desired that the great party which had saved the Union should prosper : but, believing that my first duty was to prevent famine in my district, I felt it necessary to discourage the zeal of the freedmen for political gatherings. I found that they were travelling ten and twenty miles to League meetings, and, what with coming and going, making a three days’job of it, leaving the weeds to take care of the corn. The village was an attraction ; and, moreover, there was the Bureau school-house for a place of convocation ; there, too, were the great men and eloquent orators of the party, and the secret insignia of the League. I remonstrated strenuously against the abuse, and reduced the number of meetings in the school-house to one a week.
“Go home, and get up your own League,” I exhorted a gang who had come fifteen miles from a neighboring district for initiation. “ Let your patriotism come to a head in your own neighborhood. Do you suppose the government means to feed you, while you do nothing but tramp about and hurrah ? ”
My belief is that nearly all my brother officers pursued the same policy, and that there is little or no foundation for the charge that the Bureau was prostituted to political uses. On the whole, no great harm resulted from the Leagues, so far as my observation extended. The planters in my neighborhood made few complaints, and my district raised more than enough corn “to do it”
On the way from Charleston to my station I was amused at a conversation which went on behind me between a rough, corpulent, jolly old planter of the middle class, and a meek-looking young Northerner, apparently a “ drummer ” from New York. The old fellow talked incessantly, sending his healthy, ringing voice clean through the car, and denouncing with a delightful fervor the whole “ breed, seed, and generation of niggers.”
“They're the meanest, triflingest creeturs agoin’,” said he. “ Thar ain’t no good side to ’em. You can’t find a white streak in ’em, if you turn ’em wrong side outwards and back again.”
The six or eight Southerners in the car seemed mightily taken with the old man, and laughed heartily over his phillipic. Addressing one who sat in front of me, a tall, powerful, sunburnt young fellow, with a revolver peeping out from beneath his homespun coat, I said, —
“ Do you consider that a fair judgment ?”
“ Well, middlin’ fair,” he answered ; “it ain’t no gret out of the way, I reckon.”
“ I tell you the nigger is a no-account creetur,” went on the old planter. “All the men are thieves, and all the women are prostitutes. It’s their natur to be that way, and they never ’ll be no other way. They ain’t worth the land they cover. They ought to be improved off the face of the earth.”
Here the New-Yorker spoke for the first time in an hour.
“ You are improving ’em off pretty fast,” he said, meekly. “ Got some of ’em ’most white already.”
So unfair is the human mind that nobody but myself laughed at this retort. The planter turned the conversation on crops, and the audience looked out of the windows.
During the same journey I fell into conversation with an elderly Carolinian, a doctor by profession, and planter by occupation, who, it seems, resided in the village to which I was ordered, and whom I afterwards learned to respect for his kindly and worthy qualities. We talked of the practice of whipping slaves, and he assured me that the report of it had been much exaggerated.
“ Multitudes of planters never had a negro whipped,” he said. “ I have owned twenty or thirty, and I never punished but one. I 'II tell you the whole story, and I believe you ’ll allow that I did right. It was a girl named Julia, who was brought up in our house, a regular pet of the family. Finally she went wrong somehow, and had a mulatto child ; they would do that, you. know, no matter what pains you took with them. After that, I noticed that Julia didn’t have no more children; would n’t have nothing to say to her own color; would n’t take a husband. At last, I thought I ought to talk to her, and says I, ‘Julia, what does this mean ? ’ Says she, ' Doctor, I’ve had one white man’s child, and I’m never going to have no black man’s child.’ Says I, ‘Julia, that’s wrong, and you ought to know it.’ Says she,’Well, Doctor, wrong or not, I feel that way, and I ’m bound to stick to it.’ Now, I knew she was wrong, you see, and I couldn’t let the thing go on so. I felt in duty bound to get such ideas out of her head. I whipped her. I took her out, and I give her one right good switching with a hickory. I thought I ought to do it, and I did it.”
Whether the hickory reformed Julia of her wicked and unfruitful pride, so deleterious to the growth of the Doctor’s planting population, I was too fastidious to inquire. Whether Julia’s morals would have been in better hands than the Doctor’s, had her forefathers remained in Africa, is a question more important to my present purpose, and which must probably be decided in the negative.
First savages, and then slaves, it is evident that the negroes have had little chance to keep all the Commandments. They are now precisely what might be expected, considering their history. Illegitimate offspring are less common than formerly, but still disastrously abundant. A large proportion of the colored applicants for Bureau rations were young women with three or four children, and without the pretence of a husband, — this, although bigamy is fearfully frequent; although the average woman is apt to marry again if her " old man ” is absent for a year ; although the average man will perhaps take a wife in every place where he stays for six months. If I exaggerate in this matter, it is because, like most officers of justice, I saw chiefly the evil side of my public, — all the deserted ones coming to me for the redress of their grievances, or for help in their poverty.
An emigration agent, named Passmore, who collected a large gang of negroes in my sub-district for work in Louisiana, told me that one of his recruits had asked him to write a letter for him to " his Cousin Jane.” The man went on dictating, ‘‘Give howdy to little Cousin Abel, and little Cousin Jimmy, and little Cousin Dinah.” Suddenly Passmore looked up : —
“ You rascal, those are your children ; are n’t they your children ? ”
After some stammering, the man confessed it.
“ Then why did n’t you say your wife, instead of your cousin ? ”
“Bekase I didn’t want the ole womany yere to git to know about it.”
General Howard distributed a large number of ruled forms for temperance pledges to his officers, with instructions that they should endeavor to found total-abstinence societies among the freedmen. I soon discovered that if I wanted to raise a " snicker,” ending, when out of doors, in a hearty guffaw, I had only to exhibit one of these documents and explain its purpose to a party of my constituents. The blacks are unquestionably less addicted to ardent spirits than the Southern whites; but I suspect that it is mainly because, up to the emancipation, they were kept from it in a measure by police regulations, and because they are as yet too poor to purchase much of it. Like all uncultured peoples, they have a keen relish for the sense of freedom and grandeur which it gives to man, and already many of them have learned “ to destroy a power of whiskey.” Of General Howard’s temperance pledges they certainly thought very small beer. I never got a signature ; nothing but snickers and guffaws, — irrepressible anti-temperance laughter. If anything is done in this way, it must be through the medium of secret societies, with passwords, ceremonies, processions, insignia,— something to strike the imagination. To the Good Templars and the Sons of Temperance I recommend this missionary labor. It is needed, or will be.
In the matter of honesty the freedrnen are doing as well as could be expected, considering their untoward education, first as savages and then as slaves. Stealing, although as yet more common among them than even among the lowdown-whites, is far less known than when they held, not without reason, that it was no harm “ to put massa’s chicken into massa’s nigger.” Freedom has developed a sense of selfrespect which makes the prison more terrible than was the whip or the paddle. Planters still complain that their hogs and hens disappear; and, during my official term of fifteen months, I procured the liberation of, perhaps, twenty negro thieves from jail, on condition that they should take contracts to go to Florida or Louisiana ; while at least as many more were sentenced by the courts for various forms and grades of dishonesty. But, except where the population has been pinched by famine, this vice has diminished steadily and rapidly since the emancipation.
As for driving sharp bargains, and downright swindling, I am reminded of the story of Dick Ross and Caroline Gantt. Caroline’s husband died toward the close of 1866, but not until he had harvested, and left to his widow, fifty-five bushels of corn. Dick Ross, a jet-black, shiny-faced fellow of twenty, saw a chance of providing himself with “ something to go upon,” and went to Caroline with a specious story that he was about to set up a store, that he had several boxes of goods on the way from Charleston, and that he could do well by her if she would put her corn into his business. The widow was led away by his smooth talk, and soon found that she had made a permanent investment. Dick wagoned the corn to the village, sold it, and bought himself some “store close.” Patient waiting and inquiry developed the facts, that no goods had arrived for him by railroad, and that he had hired no stand for business. Then Caroline came to me for redress. I sent for Dick, and bullied him until he refunded five dollars. As he had no property beyond what was on his back, nothing more could be collected; and, as imprisonment for debt had been done away with by order of General Sickles, he could not be punished. Caroline, however, sued him, obtained judgment against him for sixty-five dollars, and, when I left, had got two dollars and a half more, which had gone to pay her lawyer.
In short, I found that the negroes not only swindled the whites quite as much as they were swindled by them, but that they cheated each other. The same man who would spend his whole substance in feeding a host of relatives and friends would circumvent whatsoever simple brother or sister darkey might fall in his way. I was more edified than astonished by the discovery of this seeming clash of virtues and vices, for I had seen the same mixture of thoughtless generosity and dishonest cupidity among the Syrians, and other semi-civilized races. The explanation of the riddle is an imperfect moral education as to the distinction between meum and tuum : the negro does not feel that he has a full right to his own property, nor that his neighbor has a full right to his.
As for lying, I learned not to put faith in any complaint until I had heard both sides, and examined into the proofs. But this is a good general rule ; I recommend it to all officers of justice ; I presume that every lawyer has arrived at the same judgment. The human plaintiff, whether black or white, sees his trouble from his own point of view, and does not mean that you shall see it from any other. If he varies at all from the exact truth, it will surely be to exaggerate his griefs.
So fluent and brazen-faced in falsehood were many of my constituents, that it was generally impossible to decide by personal appearances between the blameless and the guilty. A girl of eighteen, charged with obtaining goods on false pretences, displayed such a virtuous front, and denied her identity with the criminal with such an air of veracity, that I confidently pronounced her innocent ; yet, by dint of keeping her for an hour in a lawyer’s office, putting the charge to her persistently, and threatening her with prosecution, she was brought to own her knavery, and point out the spot where she had secreted her plunder.
Another day I was kept in a ferment of uncertainty for a couple of hours by two boys of about twelve, — a black and a mulatto, — one or other of whom had stolen a valuable pocket-knife from a little white boy. The plundered youth, and his father, — a farmer, — agreed in stating that the black boy had borrowed the knife “ to look at it,” and had never returned it.
“Yas, so I did borry it,” admitted the accused, a shiny-faced youngster, glib, loud-tongued, and gesturing wildly in his excitement. “ But I did n’t steal it. Yere’s a good knife of my own, an’ why should I steal another knife ? I jes’ borry’d it to see it, cos it had so many blades. Then, this yere yaller boy asked me to let him take it to cut a water-million. So I handed it over to him, and that’s the last I see of it. That’s so, jes’ as suah as you’s bohn.”
The mulatto, a handsome, dignified little fellow, faced this accusation in the calmness of innocence. A citizen whispered to me, " The black boy is the thief,” and I also felt pretty sure of it. I had both the youngsters searched, but without result. Then, finding that the property had disappeared near the farmer’s wagon, I told him to take the accused back there to search for it, and, if they did not find it, to bring them to me again, to be sent to jail. In ten minutes the party returned without the knife. The mulatto still wore his calm front of innocence, while the negro was now quite wild with excitement.
“ I shall have to confine you both for trial,” I said, “ if you don’t give up the knife.”
“ ’Fore God, I dunno whar ’tis,” exclaimed the darkey. “ I’d lose a hundred knives ’fore I’d go to jail. He don’t care ’bout jail, he’s been thar so often.”
“ Oho ! ” said I, turning to the mulatto. “ You have been in jail, — have you? Then you are the thief. If you don’t find that knife in ten minutes, I will have you severely punished.”
There was another search ; the criminal was still obdurate, but his mother arrived on the scene of action, and “got after him ” with a broomstick ; and the result was that he pointed out the missing article amidst a pile of straw where he had contrived to secrete it. Yet so blameless had been his countenance during the whole transaction, that probably not one person in ten would have selected him as the guilty party.
On the other hand, there are negroes as truthful as the sunlight, — negroes who will bear honest testimony in a matter, though it be against their interest, — negroes whose word passes for as much as that of a white man. I have often heard Southerners say, “ I would much sooner believe a decent nigger than one of these low-down white fellows.” As witnesses before the courts, the freedmen have astonished their friends, as well as their detractors, by the honesty and intelligence with which they give their testimony. They feel that they are put upon honor by the privilege, and they are anxious to show themselves worthy of it. Great was the wonder and amusement of the community in which I was stationed at the superiority which Aunt Chloe, the first negro ever placed upon the stand there, exhibited over her former master and present employer, a wealthy old planter, whom we will call McCracken.
Mr. McCracken had brought suit against a so-called Union man, named Bishop, for plundering his house after the proclamation of peace. The indictment was for theft; the case was tried before the Court of Common Pleas; the counsel for defence was the well-known Governor Perry. Mr. McCracken, a sanguine, voluble old gentleman, who had held such public trusts as magistrate, foreman of a jury, and commissioner of the poor, was called and sworn as the first witness.
“ Well, Mr. McCracken, what do you know about this case ? ” inquired the solicitor.
“ I know all about it,” answered McCracken, smiling in his confident style. He then stated that he was away from home when the theft happened, but that on his return he missed two hams and some bunches of yarn, and was told that Mr. Bishop had taken them.
“ But did you see Mr. Bishop take them ? ” demanded the counsel for the defence.
“ No, sir.”
“ Did you see Mr. Bishop at your house that day ?”
“ No, sir.”
“ Did you ever see those hams and bunches of yarn in his possession?”
“ No, sir.”
“Then, Mr. McCracken, it appears that you don’t know anything about this case.”
McCracken fidgeted and made no reply.
“ Mr. McCracken, you may come down,” was the next remark. “Sheriff, call Chloe McCracken.”
Amidst suppressed tittering from the audience, Aunt Chloe took her place on the witness-stand. She gave a straightforward, simple story, — told what she had seen, and no more, — said nothing which was not to the point. When she came down, there was a gentle buzz of admiration and wonder, and the question of believing negro testimony was no longer a mooted one in that community. Surely we may hope something for a race which, in spite of its great disadvantages of moral education, has already shown that it appreciates the solemnity of an oath. We could not fairly have expected thus much virtue and intelligence from manumitted slaves, under half a century of freedom and exercise of civil rights.
Of course, such new acquaintance as the negro and law do not always agree. Wat Thompson, when called on to testify against a brother freedman, who Was charged with assault and battery upon a white man, refused to say anything at all, holding that he was not bound “to swear agin a friend.” The judge dissented from this opinion, and sent Wat to jail for contempt of court. Lame Ben, a black busybody who had put Wat up to his blunder, took exceptions to this mode of treating it, and wanted me to interfere. I advised Lame Ben that he would make a reputation for better sense by minding his own business. Another freedman, a spectator in this same case, came to me in great indignation, complaining that the jury, had believed the evidence of the prosecutor, and not that of the defendant ; and that the court had sentenced the latter to jail, and done nothing at all to the former. I was obliged to explain that the prosecutor had not been on trial, and that the jury had a right to decide what testimony seemed most credible.
As chief of a sub-district I made a monthly report headed, “ Outrages of Whites against Freedmen ” ; and another, headed “ Outrages of Freeelmen against Whites.” The first generally, and the second almost invariably, had a line in red ink drawn diagonally across it, showing that there were no outrages to report. After three small gangs of white robbers, numbering altogether ten or twelve persons, had been broken up by the civil and military authorities, few acts of serious violence were committed by either race against the other. The “high-toned gentlemen,” a sufficiently fiery and pugnacious race, were either afraid of the garrisons, or scorned to come to blows with their inferiors. The “ low-downers ” and small farmers, equally pugnacious, far less intelligent, and living on cheek-by-jowl terms with the negroes, were the persons who generally committed what were called outrages. They would strike with whatever came handy ; perhaps they would run for their guns, cock them, and swear to shoot; but there was no murder. There had been shootings, and there had been concerted and formal whippings ; but that was during the confusion which followed the close of the war; that was mainly before my time. Such things were still known in other districts, but mine was an exceptionally quiet one.
The negroes themselves were not disposed to violence. They are a peaceable, good-tempered set, and, except when drunk, are no more likely to pick a fight than so many Chinamen. Whether it is a virtue to be pacific I cannot say. Anglo-Saxons are the most belligerent race, whether as individuals or as peoples, that the world now contains ; and yet they have been of far greater service in advancing the interests of humanity than negroes or Chinamen; at least they will tell you so, and whip you into admitting it. But if peaceableness is a virtue, and has any promise of good in it, the negro is so far admirable, and gives hopes.
Now and then there was a bad boy of this stock in my district. There was one such called Wallace, a bright, restless mulatto of seventeen or eighteen, who stole hens, overcoats, &c., and occasionally fought. Tom Turner, a lowdown white man, getting jocosely drunk one day, thought it a fine thing to slap this youth in the face with a meal-bag. Wallace collected a party of his comrades, chased Turner nearly half a mile, dragged him from his wagon, stabbed him in the shoulder with a jackknife, and was hardly prevented from killing him. All the parties in the scuffle, including the white man, were arrested, fined, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Wallace became a convert to the Baptist Church, and was let out of jail one Sunday to undergo immersion.
“Well, have you got the wickedness all out of you ? ” I heard an unbelieving citizen say to him. " I reckon you ought to have hot water.”
“ O yes ! all out this time,” returned Wallace, with a confidence which I thought foreshadowed a speedy falling from grace.
Whether many Wallaces will arise among the negroes, whether the stock will develop aggressive qualities as it outgrows the timidity of long servitude, is not only an interesting, but a very important question. If so, then there will be many riots and rencontres between them and their old masters ; for the latter are as bellicose as Irishmen, and far more disposed than Irishmen to draw the life-blood. It is desirable, in my opinion, that the freedmen may be moderate in their claims, and grow up with some meekness into their dignity of citizens. Their worst enemies are such leaders as Bradley and Hunnicutt.
Meanwhile most negroes are overfearful as to what the whites may do to them. A freedman from St. George’s Creek, Pickens District, shut himself up with me in my office, and related in a timorous murmur, and with trembling lips, how he had been abused by two low-down fellows, named Bill and Jim Stigall.
“ I never done nothin’ to ’em,” said he. “ They jes’ come on me yesterday for nothin’. I’d finished my day’s job on my lan’, an’ was gone in to git my supper, — for I lives alone, ye see, — when I heerd a yell, an’ they come along. Bill Stigall rode his mewl right squar’ inter the house. Then Jim come in, an’ they tole me to git ’em some supper, an’ take care of the mewl. While I was out takin’ care of the mewl, they eat their supper, an’ then begun to thrash roun’ and break things. I stayed outside when I heerd that. But my brother Bob come down that day to visit me, an’ walked inter the house ; an’ then they got kinder skrimmagen with him, an’ wanted to put him out. But when Bob pulled out his pistil, they clar’d out, an’ as they were gwine away they threatened me. Says they, ‘ You leave this settlement, or we ’ll shoot your brother an’ you too.’ An’ sence then, they’s been hangin’ roun’ my place, an’ I’m afeard to stay thar.”
“ Have they done anything to you ? ” I asked, doubtful whether the affair was more than a rough frolic.
“ Yes. They sont word to me sence, how they was gwine ter shoot me ef I did n’t leave the settlement.”
“ But they have n’t shot ? ”
“ No. But I’m afeard of ’em. An’ some of the folks thar tole me to come over yere an’ name it to the Bureau.”
Thinking that some harm might come if I did not interfere, I wrote a note to the magistrate at St. George’s Creek, requesting him to examine into the complaint, and, if it seemed important, to bind the Stigalls over to keep the peace. The negro went off with it, evidently disappointed that I had not used the military force against his persecutors, and fearful of venturing back into their “settlement.” Three days later the magistrate called, and stated that these Stigalls were a nuisance to his neighborhood ; that they had persecuted whites as well as blacks with their rowdyism ; that he had issued a warrant for their apprehension ; and that they had taken refuge in the swamps. In a day or two more the negro reappeared in a state of great terror.
“ Well, what is the news ? ” I asked.
“ I took your ticket to the Square,” he said; “ but he don’t seem to do nothin’.”
“ But he tells me that he has done all he can. The fellows have run away, haven’t they ? ”
“ Yes,” he admitted, sheepishly “ not to say run clear away. They’s thar somewhar, lyin’ out, an’ waitin’ roun’ ? Las’ night I heerd a gun fired in the woods back o’ my house.”
“ Come, you are too much of a coward,” I protested. “You want more protection than there is to give. Do you suppose that I can send a guard of soldiers to watch over you ? ”
He probably had supposed that I could and would do it. Very unwillingly and fearfully he retraced his steps to St. George’s Creek, and I heard no more of Jim and Bill Stigall.