An Ex-Southerner in South Carolina

A JOURNEY due South in the midst of winter can hardly be otherwise than pleasant. It is a concentrated spring-time, and the traveller traverses with dream-like rapidity the whole series of changes by which the Northern year struggles out of its bondage of ice and snow. To be one day in the midst of snow deep enough to take away any lingering doubt of the arguments in proof of a glacial period, to pass on the next through a country where one sees first the dry fields, with the wrecks of winter on their colder slopes, and then the faint hue of green in the sunny spots ; to wake the third morning in an air of heavenly softness, and in a land which seems all flowers, affords, indeed, almost intoxicating pleasure. Were it not for the languor produced by the unaccustomed warmth, a languor which takes away all physical vigor, but leaves the indolent mind intensely sensitive to all physical delights, one would resolve to repeat again and again this enchanting journey, that he might live the best of many years in these repeated springtimes.

To the observant traveller each mile gives something noteworthy, but there is little that justifies extended description in what meets his eye in a run from Boston to Charleston. The most interesting points are those which he passes in traversing the old war-paths of Virginia. It is remarkable how rapidly all the physical evidences of the war have passed and are passing away. This change is particularly surprising to any one who was familiar with the condition of the country during the years of the war. Over the most of that almost continuous battle-field, along the railway from Washington to Richmond, any one a little inattentive could now pass without perceiving that it had been swept by war as never a region had been swept before.

Near Fredericksburg the railroad passes close to the scene of the worst part of the great battle. Here and there are the low earthworks almost worn down by the rain and frost of the few winters which they have withstood. The long escarpment of the plateau against which our army broke is bare and furrowed; and the deep-red soil seems stained with the blood which will not wash away. Here the traveller sees for the first time a military cemetery, with its spectral parade of uniformed tombstones arranged in martial order, the last and most distressing manifestation of American fondness for post-mortem show. Far more fitting would it have been to leave the ashes of these fallen braves in the ground baptized by their blood, where they were hearsed by their surviving comrades, than to have imposed on them this Egyptian perpetuity. The only physical result of the war in Virginia which remains at all noteworthy is the destruction of the forests. A camp is a great consumer of timber; and the five years in which this region was warred over served to sweep away a large part of the trees. The country around Petersburg retains more of the scars of war than any other part of Virginia. That the ugly gashes of the earth have not healed under the kindly ministerings of frost and rain is chiefly due to the fact that the African citizens of the neighborhood have used them as iron and lead mines ever since the war, and to this day they are always engaged like industrious crows in pecking away for these spoils of the battlefield. There is a certain hazard in this work which, maybe, serves as stimulus to them, for many of the percussion shells retain to this day their explosive properties. It seems indeed strange that these missiles should retain their deadly force so long. Six years ago the drollest man in the nation could not have imagined that at the end of the decade, before the powder had been damped in the unexploded shells or the percussion-caps lost their fire, Jefferson Davis would be keeping an insurance office in Memphis and Joseph Johnson a similar shop at Savannah, and that the great captain who stood so long at bay in Virginia would be master of a school maintained in part by contributions of Northern men. There is an almost theatrical fitness in the disposition manifested by the leaders of the great Rebellion to go into the insurance business. This occupation seems to suit very well to men who had suffered the most from vicissitudes of fortune.

In Virginia, although there is little sign of thrift and every evidence of poverty among the cultivators of the soil, there is evidently a good heart in the land, which secures a noble future to the agriculture of the State. But when we cross the State line we enter the most hopeless-looking region this side of the Alkali Desert. The Atlantic swamp belt is destined to exercise a great negative influence in the development of the country. A sea of sand which in any less favorable climate would be a desert, with much of its surface so little elevated above the sea that it is scarcely better than a swamp, and studded with marshy islands, it seems capable of producing little except miasma. With our frightful increase in population, it must soon swarm with the people for which the mosquitoes have been waiting for centuries ; and in time this inundated Sahara will doubtless prove as fertile as the lower valley of the Po, — a region it resembles in some regards ; but it sickens one to think of the generations during which it must bear an unhappy population, living like cranes until they are rich enough to dike the streams and end their amphibious existence. Let us hope and pray that some lucky geological accident may give this region a lift of fifty feet or so, or that the ocean may take back its imperfect work, and not return it until the task is worthier of its workmanship.

The traveller soon loses interest in the prospect which shows him a monotonous woodland, only varying when the black water of the swamp is replaced by the occasional strip of white sand, with here and there the rude buildings of a tar-factory. He is sure to find in the car some more interesting and less monotonous material for study. In half a hundred Southerners you are sure to find a greater variety of men than among the same number of Northerners. They have grown up farther apart, and so have not shaped themselves on each other, like the cells in a honeycomb or the trees in a forest.

The war has made a material change in the character of the Southern people. Take almost any man you happen to meet, and enter into conversation with him, and you will probably find that his occupation has changed since the war, and that his views of life, and his whole existence in fact, have altered as well. The business spirit has sprung into activity with great suddenness. There is, despite a certain distrust of the present, a deep hope for the future, which is quite consoling. Nearly all those you talk with have been in the Confederate Army in some position or other,—or at least claim to have been. One hears numerous narratives, which it is much to be regretted cannot be preserved. I talked for some hours with a gentleman who commanded a division in the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg during Burnside’s attack. It seems, from his description, that the obstacles encountered by the Federal Army were wellnigh insurmountable, and any renewal of the attack on the left of the Confederate position would have been equally disastrous. Another young man told me that he was in the Confederate Army at the time of its surrender to Grant. He says that the men near Lee’s head-quarters had heard of the surrender, but could get no statement which made the matter clear. At length they saw Lee come out of his tent, mount a horse, and ride away. His men, actuated by regard for their old commander, and fearing he was about to leave them forever, ran across the fields to head him off. General Lee, divining their intention, tried to take another road and escape them ; but others of the mob, that had so lately been his faithful army, stopped his new way also. Finding himself thus at bay, the General dismounted and stood uncovered beside his horse, while his officers and men thronged in respectful sorrow around him. My informant told me that he climbed a tree within a few feet of the General, and could see that his face was very pale; tears were dropping over his beard, and his whole frame shook with strong emotion. At length, mastering his feelings, he spoke in a calm, strong voice to his men, telling them that he had sought to spare himself and them the pain of these parting words. They had been surrendered to an overwhelming force only after all resistance had proved hopeless, and a brave and generous enemy had granted them the conditions of an honorable capitulation. He bade them go to their homes and take upon themselves again the duties of citizens, each with the assurance that he had done his whole duty. When he ceased to speak, his men pressed around him with great emotion, but directly Lee mounted his horse and rode slowly away.

The narrator of this interesting event was no Thucydides, seemed to have no desire to tell a fine story, nor even to know why I felt such an interest in his narrative.

South Carolina has apparently a little poorer quality of sand for its soil than its sister on the North. It seems, indeed, inconceivable that the region traversed by the railroad should be able to produce the food of its own population under the double disadvantage of meagre soil and wretched cultivation. It owes the little fertility it possesses to the influence of the climate ; warmth and comparative freedom from droughts balancing certain other disadvantages.

The population, both white and black, which one sees along the railroad, live in a state of squalor which would indicate great misery in a Northern climate, but which here means only moderate discomfort. In fifty miles one may not see a comfortable - looking plantationhouse. On this country the worst form of war could exercise little effect by direct destruction ; the only blow given was through the overthrow of slavery. There was never much money here, nor had there grown up a complicated system of business which could be shocked by a great revolution. But for the social change it brought, these backwoodsmen might have felt the issue of the war less than did the ryots of India.

When the railway has brought the traveller to within a few miles of Charleston, he begins to perceive some evidences of accumulated capital which have been wanting hitherto. From Wilmington to within seven miles of the city it is hard to find evidence that any one has ever capitalized a dollar made out of the soil. The sudden evidence of thrift makes, therefore, a singularly pleasant impression.

But the real peculiarities of South Carolina do not begin to appear until the seaboard is approached. The whole country being flat, the expression of the landscape depends entirely upon the vegetation. The most important elements of this expression, the live-oak and the palmetto, are limited to the littoral region. The train from the north gives the traveller some charming glimpes down the long avenues of live-oaks which lead from the highway toward some old plantationhouse. It is not too much to say that these oaks are to this level soil what the hills are to a region of more diversified surface. The solidity of their shade is unparalleled. To the sober gloom of the Northern pine forest they add a deeper shade, which seems to be penetrated with the mysteries of some strange worship. In its youth, the tree is commonplace in appearance, looking at a little distance like a flourishing cherry-tree, but as it passes its fiftieth year it gains a hoary dignity, as an Italian beggar does. Its branches close in until their overlapping leaves shut out the sun ; it locks arms with its neighbors, making with them one roof of shade. The long moss drops down from the branches, its spectral-looking festoons beautifully contrasting their ashy hue with the enduring green of the foliage ; and its pliant folds, swaying with the slight movements of the air which alone can penetrate this sanctuary, make the rugged branches seem the more unbending. It is, indeed, an experience deserving to rank with the first sight of the sea, of eternal snow, or the other great sensations which the world affords, to walk from the garish sunlight of a half-tropical sky into this abode of eternal shadow.

It is to the uncommercial traveller a great pleasure to tread the streets of Charleston. One seems at last free from the spirit of material progress which in most of the American towns walks always by one’s side with a tiresome tale about mere physical growth. It is a town that has not doubled its population in ten years, which does not hold its place in the affections of its people because of its mushroom growth, on account of its exports, its elevators, or its pork-packing. The war gave the city a great advantage in the way of associations over its rivals on the Atlantic : though it lost in trade, it gained in tradition. At present the main object of the city seems to be to preserve these as carefully as possible.

Even the bitterest enemy of the secession movement, if there be a trace of sympathy in his soul, cannot but leel a sense of pity when he thinks of the hopeless overthrow of all the bright hopes born here a decade ago. They were brave men, actuated by the same high impulses as those who gathered eighty years ago in Independence Hall. They proved their honesty of motive bygiving up their lives and fortunes to their cause ; and, however the cominggenerations may deplore their costly mistake, it must award them a place among those who risk all present good in struggling to attain what they believed to be the good of the future.1

In Charleston one first comes fairly in contact with the race question. The proportion between the races in the large cities to the Northward is such that the negro cannot have any considerable influence on society. He is there no element in the social structure, but only fits himself into the waste nooks, as the rats and swallows do. In this city, however, the negro vote is one half the total vote, and the negroes are a much more intelligent class than in the country districts. Nearly all the mulattoes in the South have found their way to the cities. The mixed races are quick-witted, but generally more unfitted and indisposed to hard labor than the pure blacks. They find in the cities the conditions which suit them best, and crowd out the pure blacks in many of the light occupations for which they have an especial talent. The result of this is unfortunate, and for the future promises to be a great obstacle to the progress of the race. The tendency is to crowd the towns with a dangerous population. The mulatto, like the man of most mixed races, is peculiarly inflammable material. From the white he inherits a refinement unfitting him for all work which has not a certain delicacy about it; from the black, a laxity of morals which, whether it be the result of innate incapacity for certain forms of moral culture or the result of an utter want of training in this direction, is still unquestionably a negro characteristic. The extreme Southern towns are thus crowded with barbers, hotel waiters, and house-servants of the mixed race, who are getting a training in vice and lawlessness which is simply deplorable. The worst of this is, that the pure negro is kept out of just those positions which are most likely to prove a good school for him. Whatever hopes we may have of the future of the pure black, there can be none for the mixed race ; and as the cities are the best places for the education of the negro, who is not to be elevated except by contact with the white race, we must regret that he has not now the best opportunity for such contact. It must be observed, however, that the mulattoes are a race at once short-lived and unfruitful, which, if the stock were not kept up, would soon pass away. The fact that the law of bastardy, which has hitherto had no influence in the South, is now tending to break down the peculiar relations which once subsisted between the races in this section, must be considered, if we would form any idea as to the future of the mixed race. From all I could see and learn, there are far fewer half - breed children born now than before the Rebellion. There seems, indeed, a chance that the production of original half-breeds may be almost done away with, in which case the mixed race, being too feeble to maintain itself, would in a few generations cease to be of any importance in the population.

On the whole, the condition of the negro population in the city of Charleston seems to be rather more satisfactory than might be expected by any one who knows how much this race suffers in all physical respects in being removed from the guardianship of the white owner. A few years ago they were watched over with all the care which invested capital commands. Thus unfitted for self-control, they have been suddenly thrown out into the world, where the race which so lately looked upon them with all the interest of possession now regards them with distrust— their lot has indeed been hard. There seems little doubt, however, that the negro population does not increase as rapidly now as before the emancipation; and although the births may be as numerous as among the whites, the actual increase, owing to the great mortality among the children, must be considerably less,— may, indeed, amount to an absolute decrease. This mortality cannot be actually determined, as there is no satisfactory statistical basis on which to found an assertion. The Board of Health of the city has some statistics tending to show a great excess in the mortality among the freedmen ; but the imperfect character of the census of all the Southern cities makes it impossible to take such returns as the basis of calculation. One has to gather It from observation of negro families or inquiry among those persons who have some opportunities of acquainting themselves with the facts. It is hardly to be believed, however, that this is a necessary or even natural condition of the negro in a state of freedom. There is reason to believe that the lessons of self-care and mutual assistance which his present condition is likely to teach may soon do away with the neglect of the infants and the sick, which is the most painful feature among the freedmen.

The condition of feeling between the two races in Charleston is not so bad as is generally supposed. The naturally docile negro makes no effort at unnecessary self-assertion, unless under the immediate instigation of some dangerous friends belonging to the other race, who undertake to manage his destiny. I could not see that thengeneral demeanor is strikingly different from what it was when they were slaves. They were quite as respectful now as then. They are perhaps less merry than before ; the careless laugh of the old slave is now rarely heard, for it belonged to a creature who had never pondered the question of where his next meal was to come from. The well-wishers of the negro race see with regret that they seem to have little inclination to take to mechanical pursuits. If success is to be won by them, it must be through the handicrafts. Nor are these of importance to them alone. Accumulation of wealth, which can only be brought about by ceasing to export raw products alone, is necessary to the South, is absolutely required as the basis of its development; and unless the negro, therefore, can handle something requiring more art than the hoe, he can take no part in this work. I have always thought that the race had some taste for the occupations of the artisan ; the mulattoes especially often show much talent as rough mechanics, and sometimes even as artists,—probably, on the average, more than would be found among whites in the same condition. But notwithstanding this, it is a rare thing to find a negro adopting the trade of blacksmith, or carpenter, or any other requiring skilled labor. Some there are in all these occupations, but they have apparently not been recruited under the new condition of things.

If one would form a good idea of the condition of the black population in the South, he should not limit his observations to the cities. Although he will there find some of the gravest defects of the negroes, he sees them at the same time where they are shaped by the white population. He should go to the Sea Islands and study the negroes, where they are the least under the influence of the whites. The Sea Island belt is on many accounts the most curious part of the South. At the bottom of the Great Bay of the Carolinas, — if we may give a name to the nameless bend of the shore which stretches into the land between Capes Hatteras and Florida, — the tides, which have only a foot or two of height on these points, have a rise of about eight feet. This tide acting upon the low shore, as it lifted itself above the sea, cut it into the most complicated system of islands and bays which can be found anywhere on our coast, not excepting the fiörd region of Maine or Labrador, which it somewhat resembles. Before the war the region was the seat of the most profitable agricultural industry of the South, — the Sea Island cotton culture. This variety of cotton requires for its growth an annual manuring of mud from the salt marshes, so that its cultivation is not possible except where all parts of the land can be readily supplied with that material. Before the war nearly every available acre of land here was employed in the cotton culture, and probably at least seventy-five thousand negroes were engaged in it. During the war the few native whites who belonged on the plantations were driven away by our armies, the plantation system quite broken up, and the lands confiscated by the government. The large native population of negroes was re-enforced by all the runaways who could find their way into our lines. This whole body of negroes was, during the occupation of our troops, under an industrious training in all the vices of the camp, diversified, it is true, by a certain amount of ineffectual schoolteaching. A noble piece of Quixotism sought to counterbalance the evil of the army by the school, and gave to every commander a vexatious body of camp-followers composed of teachers and preachers, who felt quite ready to build a new civilization on the ruins of that his army marched over; but it has left marks of its work little more permanent than the army itself. One sees now and then a school-house which seems to have withstood the elements, moral and material, warring against it. From one, I heard the drowsy hum which is apt to call up a variety of unpleasant recollections to every adult mind, and a certain difference of pitch in that woful inarticulate sound which comes from imprisoned youth struggling on the educational rack, told me that the school was full of negro children. I ought to have gone in and examined the social phenomenon, but one becomes strangely self-indulgent in this dreamy air, which seems always to wrap the Sea Islands, and I could not at that moment have left the sunshine to see the innermost workings of the most wonderful social machine. One finds now and then a negro who can read a little, — enough to get an idea of a few chapters in his Testament, or the stanzas of some song-book with which to spoil his wild native airs ; more frequently you encounter some correct figure, who gives you a military answer to a question, revealing at once that when the boy was growing to be a man he carried a musket long enough to acquire the spirit of the soldier. But school and army are fading away. There is a steady outflow of the white population of these islands, and their places are supplied ten times over by the blacks of the up country, who come down to the shore with the certainty that the sea will yield them a subsistence of “ raccoon ” oysters, and with a vague hope that they may find there the government officer who is to give them the “ mule and forty acres of land” which have bewrayed the negro’s steps ever since the Proclamation.

The intensity of the Africanizing influences at work here can only be conceived by those who know how strong the race characteristics of the negro really are. Observations made upon the negro where he forms only a considerable element of the population are not calculated to show the features one finds here. It must be remembered that a large part of these blacks are sons or grandsons of slaves from the Guinea coast. I was informed that a number of the negroes brought over by the famous schooner Wanderer are still among the Sea Islands, so that this people is more closly linked in blood with the ancient and unalterable peoples of Africa than are the whites of the same region with their European stock. In this multitude, heir to the ignorance and superstitions of that original chaos of humanity, Atrica, there are only a few hundred whites, and these are mostly congregated about a few small trading towns. Some of the islands, with several thousand negroes upon them, are deserted by all the whites, except, may be, the storekeeper, who exchanges his wares for the products of the halfacre patches of cotton cultivated by the more industrious blacks, or the devoted Northern woman who toils her life away under the delusion that she can fight all Africa with a spelling-book and multiplication-table.

I had occasion to go a long journey in a row-boat with a crew of six negro boatmen. Our course lay through the intricate channels which lead from Bull River to Beaufort. For the first hour the stroke oar was sullen, and the rest of the crew chattered the vague, repetitive nonsense which forms the burden of all negro garrulity. There was an evident embarrassment on account of the presence of a strange white man. Seeing this, I feigned sleep, not a difficult task under the influence of the warm sun and monotonous clank of the oars in the row-locks. At length, after a moment’s pause, which showed a spontaneous impulse, one of the men began a sort of religious chant in a high-pitched voice, which the others joined in a sort of continuous accompaniment of four or five words, ending with a cry mournful enough to have been the expression of great pain. I have forgotten the words of the song ; it was something about going to Jesus, I believe ; but every time my thoughts go back to the Sea Islands, I see the intense, rapt faces of my crew, their eyes rolling, their heads swaying, their whole bodies swinging to the time of the music, until the boat, which before had only crawled against the tide, swept along by the successive leaps which their strong arms gave to the oars. It was a scene long to be remembered. Those sturdy forms and swarthy faces, which felt away from home when under the cold influence which one of the white race always brings among them, had found their way back to the spiritual Africa through their song. It was as if my feigned slumber had carried me away to that continent where reason is unknown, and life goes by impulse. In a moment I was with them in the home of their race. The low shores with their endless procession of palms, the warm glow of the afternoon sun, the responsive cry which came from some solitary black paddling slowly along with the tide, were well fitted to an African scene. For three hours I was farther away from my race than I have ever been before; and when we came in sight of Beaufort, I could not but feel that its houses, spectral-looking as they were in the twilight, were too real for the revery which had ended. It should have showed me the conical huts of a negro village; should have been, in fact, what the Charleston people call it, — the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Until one has had the good fortune to see how thoroughly exotic the negro is, one cannot appreciate the difficulties of making him a part of the social system which fits us. The negro is not easily read ; he hides himself, as is the habit of all oppressed races, quite adroitly sometimes. Under his covering of imitated manners or stolidity slumber the passions of a mental organization widely differing from our own. There are some superb qualities in him, and some which make his best friends almost despair. The firmest bases for hope we have lie in his strong imitative faculties.

The all-important question is, What should we do to secure to this people the highest cultivation of which they are capable ? Should we begin by trying to force upon them the last product of our civilization, — intellectual culture, — or should we first try and create in them the conditions of this intellectual culture ? It needs no argument to convince an average mind that you could not effect any great alteration in a Comanche by teaching him English grammar. He would be a fool, indeed, who expected that the consequences would be the immediate change in the nature and purposes of the Indian. Now the fact is, we have aototlmost as much to do in order to change the average negro into an intelligent citizen in a white society as we should have if we tried to embody the Indian into our government; and we have begun by teaching him English grammar. The school has its place in civilization, and, as a teacher, I should be the last to belittle its importance ; but it is the last step in the development of a race, not the first, and its value consists in the fact that it is the final result of the education of a thousand years of effort ; and when we undertake to civilize a race as foreign to us in every trait as the negroes, by imposing upon them this final product of our national growth, we wrong ourselves and them. Those who are clamoring for immediate high-school education for the negro will be the first to condemn him, when it is seen that this will not give him what he needs. And unless he is trained in thrift, unless his conception of life is enlarged, unless he is freed from the instincts which the savage life of a hundred generations have planted in his blood, this education can do nothing for him. The training which is to shape the sensuous, enthusiastic, fickle negro into a useful citizen must be the training which a society alone can give. This schooling must come from the combined example of his neighbors of the higher race, — men and women sturdily working out their careers, starting from the same level of fortune as he does ; give him the influence of this example, and you give him a chance which he has not at present, which he cannot have until those who have taken his destiny into their hands get some idea of the magnitude of their task.

To give the negro this chance two things need be done. First, every effort must be made to bring the best influence of the existing white population to bear upon him, by removing all barriers of hate which the revolution may have left, and starting that population at once on the road to prosperity. But this population is too small for its work, and is also in itself in need of teaching in its new condition, so that it is necessary to seek in the immigration of an industrious foreign population the teachers needed for the work. Every German family would be to the negro a school worth more to him, at the present stage of his career, than all the universities in the world. I saw at Beaufort a German of that admirable class well trained in both head and hands, who intended trying to found a colony on one of the islands. God grant him success! His hard-working countrymen may do for this black people what the Incas did for the old Peruvians.

Every move of the government has been clearly against the negro in this district. Confiscating the property of the whites, it cut him off from what would have been, on the whole, the good influence of his former masters. The whites who supplied their places were, perhaps, the worst specimens which could have been sent among the negroes. The property of the whites, taken under the law for the direct tax of 1861, has been absurdly held by the government, the negroes remaining upon it as tenants at will. They pay a tax equal to about fifty per cent on the cash value of much of the land, and have no certain future. In place of some practical teaching in the arts of life, the government has endeavored to civilize them with the alphabet. Besides this, the constant tutelage has fixed in the negro the belief that if he will just sit still and open his mouth, Uncle Samuel will sec that he is fed.

Experience, which would act in spite of the government, has taught the negroes something, so that they seem to be slowly gaining in some things. A gentleman of excellent judgment tells me they are more honest than they were just after emancipation. But there can be no real future until the North learns that they cannot exorcise all the evils here with that idol of our modern civilization, a primary school ; until they learn that, the negro, if he is to be lifted up to the level of ourselves, must be raised by strong bands and active brains, by helpers who, not seeking to ease the hard road he has to travel, toil with him, and give the real aid of example.

N. S. Shaler.

  1. 2 The writer having been a soldier in the Federal Army, and a member of the Republican party through the war, may claim a right to speak thus of the motives of those whose acts he combated with all his strength.