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A Slave Woman's Troubles 1
I BELONGED to Mr. Sam Gordon, and I nursed and took entire care of his sister's children. They'd always go with me everywhere I went, and I loved 'em, and they were jus' as dear to me as my own. They e't with me and slep' in the room with me, and the little ones, up to three or four or five years old, slep' in my bed. I dressed 'em and waited on 'em, and their mother jus' come to see 'em when she felt like it. In them times, if the family went traveling, I went, too. I was kep' busy, and I seldom had any Sunday at all, But I had a good mistress and master. They didn’t push their slaves in work, and they didn’t put 'em to work young — not till they were fifteen.
I was raised right in the house with the white people. My mistress raised me jus' like she raised her own children, except that I didn’t get no book education, no, sir. I wish to the land I had some. But my old mistress learned me how to work and to be clean and genteel. When night come she'd say: "Now I'm goin' to learn you a few things for your own benefit. You'll thank me when you're big."
Sometimes she'd keep me working till about ten or 'leven o'clock. I didn’t like to work at night, but I'm glad I got to understand how to act and how to weave, spin, wash, iron, sew, knit, and everything of that kind.
I was nearly forty years old when the war begun. I'd been married a right smart while and was living in a cabin with my own family. Mr. Gordon's place was ten miles below the town. Befo' the battle it was jus' like a city. The Southern soldiers were camped all around us, and they had little old stoves back in the woods to keep them warm and to do their cooking. Often they'd exchange some of their army food for what I had. They'd bring me a bag of flour and I'd give 'em corn meal for it, and I'd let 'em have milk and buttermilk and all such things. Perhaps they wouldn’t have any tea or coffee to use with their sugar, and they'd give the sugar to me. A good deal of the time they didn’t have salt, and they were so pitiful I felt right sorry for 'em. Yes, the Southern soldiers were hungry. They e't every chicken we had, and a cavalryman got our hog — took it right out of the pen, then cut it in two, and hung half on each side of his horse and rode off.
I wouldn’t let the soldiers come into the house, and my mistress would say, "Fanny, you ought not to be so hardhearted."
"Well," I said, "I ain' gwine let 'em come in. I have a whole parcel of children hyar, and those men are lousy. They'd be droppin' their lice all around. Besides, the first thing they'd do they'd pick up my two little children that are twins and want to take 'em out to camp."
One day a soldier started to walk in, and I said, "Yo' cain' come in hyar."
He asked for a drink.
"What's the matter with yo' neck?" I says. "You've got diptheria. I cain' let yo' drink out of any of my cups."
So he went along to the next house, and drank out of a cup there. Some of the family used it afterward, and two of the children died of diptheria. Oh! we had terrible times in the war.
I tol' yo' we lost our chickens. Some Northern gunboats come up the Rappahannock a few days later and knocked off two or three tops of houses near hyar. A number of the gunboat people come to my house. I heard a rap on the do' and looked out, and there was three of 'em, standin' around the do'step and a whole row mo' was settin' on the plank fence next the gate. One of the three at the do' spoke and said they would like to buy a few chickens.
"Gen'lemen," I said, "there's the henhouse. Walk right in and he'p yo'selves."
Our soldiers had done wringed the chickens' heads off, and when the men looked into the henhouse, they called back, "We don't see anything hyar but chickens' heads."
"No," I says, "the Southern soldiers done took all my chickens and turkeys and geese, and put 'em in a bag and carried 'em off. That's what they done — and me with seven children to feed."
Then one of the men down on the fence said, "Come on, boys; no game hyar."
Another time some Confederates come to the house late in the night. I was the only one up, and the commander said, "Where is yo' husband?"
"In bed," I answered.
"Well," he said, "we want him to show us the way to yo' master's house."
So I tol' my husband to git up.
He had on a white nightshirt, and he was skeered and forgot to take it off when he put on his pants. They went along up the lane, and he was all the time watchin' for a chance to git away. Pretty soon he dodged through a gate, slipped his white nightshirt off and ran. They couldn’t see him in the dark after he got that shirt off, and he heard the officer sayin', "Where in thunder did the nigger go?"
He come home, and they didn’t trouble him no mo'.
The Northern soldiers lay over the river. Our men had burnt down the Fredericksburg bridges, and there wa'n't nothin' but a scow to git across from one side to the other. But when those Yankees got ready to come across they came. They were the wildest people I ever see. While the battle lasted we could hear the cannon and the musketry. Oh, yes! and it was a perfect judgment. The hills back hyar were jus' washed in blood, and the town was all filled up with the wounded.
The signal corps had a telegraph in a shop at our place, and they got the news every minute. Old Mr. Cobb lived up on the hill. He had been worth a million dollars, but now he'd spent it all and had to do his own garden work. He was deef, too, as yo' had to holler at him to make him hear. Mr. Gordon was gwine to carry him the news of the battle, and he started to ride up there on his horse. It was a right smart ways, and some very bad soldiers from North Carolina — Tarheels they was called — was up in the woods. Those soldiers wanted to have a little fun with Mr. Gordon, and they threw rocks at him and knocked off his hat. So he turned back and come home a-flyin'.
When the battle ended and I heard that the Union army had been defeated, I couldn’t believe it. My mistress said to me, "Yo' know the Northern soldiers cain' fight us hyar."
But I said: "Ain' God the captain? He started this war, and he's right in front. He may stop in his career and let yo' rest up a little bit now, but our Captain ain' never been beaten. Soon He'll start out ag'in, and yo'll hear the bugle blow, and He'll march on to victory. Where the Bible says, 'Be not afraid; yo' shall set under yo' own vine and fig tree,' that means us slaves, and I tell yo' we 're goin' to be a free people. You-all will be gittin' yo' pay sho' for the way you've done treated us pore black folks. We been killed up like dogs, and the stripes you've laid on us hurt jus' as bad as if our skin was white as snow. But I ain' gwine to run away or frow my children in the river as some slaves have, for I'm as certain this war will set us free as that I stand hyar."
I tol' her jus' what I thought, and my mistress said, "Fanny, you is foolish," and my master said, "You ain't got no sense."
And I said to my master, "When I was a young girl yo' sold ninety-six people at one time to pay a debt."
Then I sat down and cried, and the white people stood there and laughed at me. "Lord," I said, "I'd rather be dead than have my children sold away from me."
They sold my brother and three sisters down in Alabama, and I was left entirely. My brother would go around and preach, and the gen'leman that owned him didn’t want him to preach and wouldn’t have no meetin's or preachin' on the place at all. So they beat my brother and whipped him with a cowskin. That killed him tereckly. He couldn’t stand it. He was not used to that up hyar. His master was one bad man.
My oldest sister was owned by that same man, and she ran away from him. She had a baby boy that she left behind with a daughter who had been used so bad it made her crazy. While her mother was gone the baby died. They found him there in the cabin presently, and the foolish daughter said, "He's been sleepin' a week, and I'm glad of it, because I ain't bothered with him."
She was a field hand, but not much good. Once they put her to ploughing and gave her an old sleepy mule. The mule wanted to go slow, and she wanted to go fast. So she put a nail in a stick and struck him, and he jus' jerked the plough and her, too. That made her mad, and she drove him into a hornet's nest. The hornets lit all over him, and he ran. "Go to Jerusalem!" she said, and she give him the plough. He went jus' sailin', plough and all, as far as she could see him.
The overseer scolded her and said, "I'm goin' to kill you."
"Kill me then," she said, but he didn’t do anything to her at all.
After the war we was free and could go where we pleased, and I talked with my husband about movin' to Fredericksburg. He said, "If yo' live in the city yo' have to pay for the breath you breathe."
But I tol' him, "Yo' have to pay for yo' breath anywhere," and I got him to come because they had good schools hyar. Down there the children had to walk three miles to school. As soon as we moved I got all the washin' I could do, and me and my husband worked and got this house. I would be up half of the night ironing, but I didn’t mind that, for I was used to long hours. About the only time I'd leave my work was when some sick person needed my help. Once a neighbor woman had dropsy, and she was sick even unto death. Her children were wild and rattle-brained, and for quite a while I went to her house every night.
Some claimed that after dark they could see people in the soldiers' cemetery goin' along without any heads. Others said the ghos'es looked like cows or horses. Some told, too, of hearin' a band playin' over where the army had camped. The strangest story of all was that way about midnight a man in soldier's clothes was in the habit of ridin' a horse through the street back of the depot, People said they could see his buttons and everything, and that they could hear the horse's hoofs — ker-flop-up, ker-flop-up — jus' as plain as could be. They'd hear him a while, and then they wouldn’t hear a thing.
My husband said to me: "I should think you'd be afraid to go to that sick woman's in the dark the way you do. Some night that ghos'll skeer you to death."
"I'm gwine on jus' the same," I said, "for I never knew the dead to hurt the livin'. That ghos' can keep on with his racket and go on about his business."
So I done my duty, though sometimes I heard things and felt kind o' funny about it.
Of co'se people are often skeered by what they imagine. Once we had a revival hyar, and a young man attended the meetin's who couldn’t seem to git religion. So the old folks tol' him he sho' would git religion if he'd go and pray in the woods away from the wickedness of the town. He thought he'd try it, and he went way out toward the Wilderness onto an old battlefield. Then he got down on his knees, and he'd started praying when something tol' him to look behind him. He looked, and there was a skull, and he got up and flew. He didn’t try to git religion no mo', and he ain' got it yet — no, indeed!
There certainly was spirits in ol' times. I heard of a house where every night the china and other things on the sideboard kep' up such a rattling that the people who lived there couldn’t hardly sleep. "What is anybody gwine to do with this house?" they said.
By and by they went to some ol' prophet, and he had 'em turn every do' the other way up and make new keyholes. The ghos'es couldn’t find their way in after that, and the things on the sideboard stopped rattlin'.
I'm ninety years ol' now. When I was little some of the colored people lived till they got mighty near two hundred years ol'. But they're weaker these days and don't live half so long, Hyar I am crippled up so I cain' do anything, and I cain' see hardly at all. But never mind, I can take my stick and walk.
I've had twelve children and they all growed up. I ain't had no trouble with 'em. They were good children, and I call that a blessing. I learned 'em all to love the way of salvation and to hate the ways of sin. Now I've got twenty-two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
I 'fessed religion when I was fifteen years ol', and I got a strong belief in the almighty God, our Captain. He knew I meant to treat everybody right and myself right. So He let me live till I was ol', and He's goin' to take me to heaven. I ain't afflicted, and there's nothin' I ask for that I don't git it. I'm trustin' in the Lord. When night comes I kneel down and say: "I thank yo' Lord, that I've passed through one mo' day. Now I lay my head on the pillow, and I pray yo' will enable me to go through the night and see the light of day ag'in."
When morning comes I say: "Well, Lord, I'm hyar yet, no pain, and I don't wish nobody no harm in this world. I'm too ol' for that. I take it all with patience."
I'm happy, and I can't thank Him enough, and soon I'll cease from trouble, and then I will reap my reward.
1 She was a spectacled, kindly old body of whom every one in Fredericksburg spoke highly. All her family had the reputation of being self-respecting and industrious. Her daughter's house, where she lived, was very neat and suggestive of prosperity. There I spent an evening in the kitchen. The old woman sat in a corner by the stove. It was plain that she enjoyed recalling her early experiences, even if there had been much of sorrow and hardship in them.