Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"I Do Wish Sometimes That I Was a Man during the War:" the Strength of Family and Community in the Letters of Roxana Chapin Gerdine of Mississippi

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"I Do Wish Sometimes That I Was a Man during the War:" the Strength of Family and Community in the Letters of Roxana Chapin Gerdine of Mississippi

Article excerpt

Roxana Chapin Gerdine was a woman of both strength and char- acter caught between two worlds-the North and the South-during her lifetime. She was born Roxana Emma Chapin on April 3, 1833 in Chicopee, Massachusetts to a farmer, Titus Chapin, and his wife Emily McKinstry Chapin.1 After her mother died she managed all of the children in her family. She graduated from Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1854 and promptly moved to Athens, Georgia to teach at the Lucy Cobb Institute.2 While teaching in Athens she met widower William Louis Crawford Gerdine with nine children. Roxana and William wed on March 5, 1858 in Chicopee, Massachusetts.3 They started out their early married life in Athens and lived there for a few years but moved around 1860 to Ger- dine's plantation in West Point, Mississippi.4 The antebellum years for the Gerdine's were prosperous ones. They managed the plantation and owned at least forty slaves.5 However, Roxana's father was an ardent abolitionist who is reported to have been a stop on the underground railroad.6 Roxana's letters to her sister Emily, which comprise the main part of the collection, detail her conflicting views on slavery. In a letter written around 1859 to Emily, Roxana discussed the problems involved in taking a slave north to wait on her newborn son, Tom Cobb. She wrote:

I should get a sewing machine but prefer waiting until I go north which I expect to do in July "Providence per- mitting." but I am somewhat fearful how I shall get along if I could take Lina to take care of Tom Cobb. I would not hesitate a moment but I am not accustomed to having the care of him from morning until night and should see [sights] with him I expect for he is emphatically a spoiled child, he has so many to pet him here that he is not like northern children that can entertain themselves. The General says I shall not go to take care of him myself. I must hire some white girl for a nurse if I do not want to take Lina. I would take her but fear it would annoy father and people would make remarks to him about having a slave there. I would tell them she was a free negro which would be true for she would leave me if she pleased now don't you tell the people there that I think or have thought of taking a servant. Father could not induce her to go to Canada however if he tried ever so hard.7

Comments such as "it would annoy father" and "people would make remarks to him about having a slave there" point to Roxana's disconnect with her family and friends up North.

At other times Roxana takes a more paternalistic tone in her letters. In an 1859 letter to her sister, she wrote of the slaves looking at the fur- niture in the plantation home and their holiday dress:

You would be amused to see the negroes there stare at our furniture they have never seen the like in their lives and every Sunday when they get dressed up they come into see the house we are going to give them a big dinner and Christmas tree-they are like children very anxious for the time to come.8

Roxana equates the slaves with childlike behavior. In other letters she wrote of caring for the slaves of the plantation but very much in terms of the slave-master paradigm:

I can extol my sewing machine by the hour and the quantity of negro clothes made by it. Now if you do not believe it I will refer you to Callie who is sitting by my side. Nobody ever doubted her veracity. Well I forgot to tell you the fact-but myself, my machine, and seamstress made one hundred and sixty five garments for negroes in the month of Dec consisting of woolen coats pants dresses and cotton under garments. Beside thirty white bordered aprons I made for their Christmas gifts they thought there was never such times! We had a tree on Christmas placed in the parlor and loaded with aprons tobacco oranges and rag babies- and on Monday gave them a big dinner. I [illegible word] the cake for them and at night they had a dance. I wish you could have seen the performance such odd dressing and funny antics-well I have devoted too large a portion already of my letter to the colored portion of my family. …

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