The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction

By William B. Hesseltine | Go to book overview
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Slaves and War Times

Susan Dabney Smedes

On the day after our mother's death one of the daughters went to the kitchen to attend to the housekeeping. She found the cook in a flood of tears. "I have lost the best friend that I had," she said. She spoke the truth, for few besides the mistress who was gone could have had patience with Alcey. She was the cook who had been bought from Mr. Dabney's mother's estate, and had been treated with marked kindness on account of her being a stranger; but she seemed to be vicious and heartless, and nothing but the untiring forebearance and kindness of this mistress had touched the hardened nature.

When one hires servants and they do not give some sort of satisfaction, redress is at hand. The servant is dismissed. But with slaves, at Burleigh, and with all the good masters and mistresses in the South -- and I have known very few who were not good -- there was no redress.

It may be thought that Southerners could punish their servants, and so have everything go on just as they pleased. But he who says this knows little of human nature. "I cannot punish people with whom I associate every day," Thomas Dabney said, and he expressed the sentiment of thousands of other slave-owners. It was true that discipline had sometimes to be used, but not often, in very many instances only once in a lifetime, and in many more, never. George Page, who in his youth, and in his middle age, was about his master's person and knew him well, said: "Marster is a heap more strict with his children than he is with his servants. He does not overlook things in his children like he does in his people."

Apart from the humane point of view, common sense, joined with that great instructor, responsibility, taught slave-owners that very little can be effected by fear of punishment.

SUSAN DABNEY SMEDES, A Southern Planter; Social Life in the Old South ( New York, 1900), Ch. xvi.

Not all the slaves, even in the Mississippi Valley, fled to the Union lines to be cared for by John Eaton and the Freedmen's Department, which he created. Many remained at home. The adjustments to the war made in plantation life are simply stated in Susan Dabney's account of life at Burleigh in Mississippi.


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