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A Rustic Slave Woman 1
I BELONGED to ol' Doctor Tyler. He was President Tyler's brother. Early in the war he died, and then I belonged to his son, the young doctor. I was raised in the house and waited on the white folks thar. They always called my mother "Mammy."
At the time the war began I was married and I had several children. We lived in a log house the same as the other slave families did. I reckon the Tylers had as many as ten of those log houses. They was built like a street. At one end of each house was a chimbley made of sticks and mud. The fireplace inside was so large we could burn logs in it and have great big fires to keep us warm. Clay mud was thrown between the logs to stop the cracks, and it hardened and stuck thar. Oh! a log house can be made mighty comfortable.
Everybody had to work if they was slaves. The little children would pick cotton. I used to weave and spin and all like of that. The looms and spinning-wheels was in the shop and washroom.
Each family had a garden, and we had pigs and chickens. Master used to allow us to raise one hog. He'd give us a little pig, and when it had grown to be a hog and the time came to fatten it, Master would have the hog put in his pen and we'd get it when it was butchered.
He let us have 'bout three or four hens and furnished the feed for 'em, and when we killed a couple of hens one would be for him, and he had half the chickens.
The first Yankee raid down hyar was in the summer of 1862. It was then that the children came running one day to Doctor Tyler and said: "Master, thar are lots of men on horseback up the road, and they have blue clothes on. Come and look."
The children had never seen nobody dressed that away. In fifteen minutes the yard was full of Union cavalry, but they soon went on, and they didn’t do no harm.
We fared very well through this country till Sheridan's cavalry came in 1864. His men was quite troublesome and we saw hard times. They didn’t tarry long — only one night, but they swept the deck and burned the broom, If a cavalryman come across one of the hogs that ran in the woods he'd kill it and throw it up on his horse and carry it away. They got Mother's hog right out of the pen. I reckon it weighed over a hundred. They took every hen they could find. We thought they had got all of ours, but one ol' hen was settin' in a gully in the orchard. She was under a brush pile and nobody didn’t know she was thar till after the battle. Then she come to the house with fifteen chickens.
The raiders drawed the clothes off my mother's line, and they took a new country-wove counterpane and a dress. The farmers had all their corn and fodder stolen or destroyed, and those men actually would go into your kitchen and take the bread out of the skillet. They come into our house and pointed to a featherbed, and one of 'em said to Mother, "Is that your bed?"
"Yes," she told him.
"I believe it's a blamed ol' Reb's bed," he said, and he went off with it. We found it afterward up hyar at Cold Harbor all ripped open.
Some told us that Uncle Sam would pay for everything that was taken or destroyed, but we poor slaves never got any pay for what we lost.
Sheridan's men went into the white people's houses and took the silverware and carried it off, and they'd take the bolsters off the beds and empty out the feathers so they'd have bags to hold corn or wheat or anything they wanted to put into 'em. If they saw pretty and nice things that they couldn’t carry they just broke 'em up. The Widow Tyler owned some very costly silverware. It was gilted with gold. But the Yankees didn’t have a chance to steal that because she had taken it to Jefferson Davis for safe keeping. I don't know whether she ever got it again.
The raiders come to the Tylers' house just as the family was settin' down to the dinner table. Thar hadn’t any one eaten a mouthful, and the soldiers walked in and took hold of the tablecloth and pulled it off so everything on it went right down, and the china and glassware broke up on the floor. Then they caught a lot of hens, and after cutting off the heads with their swords, put 'em in the tablecloth. They tied those hens up just like clothes that was goin' to be sent to wash, and carried 'em off on one of their horses.
The Tylers had some great big books with leather backs, and the soldiers carried off all of those that they could, and they mashed up two looms and all the spinning-wheels.
When Grant's and Lee's armies got hyar, we kept watchin' which way they was movin', and the officers promised to tell us if thar was any danger. On the morning of the big battle it looked as if they might fight right on our place and tear things all to pieces. So the Union officers told us to take the children and every one and go away back in the rear. We all went. Most of us traveled on foot, and the women toted the children that couldn’t walk. My mother was afflicted with the rheumatism, and we hitched a horse into a market cart and carried her. Young Doctor Tyler's wife had a baby only a few hours old, and we fixed a bed in a carriage and took her thataway.
We went 'bout a mile and a half to another house, and the battle was goin' on. Lord 'a' mercy! it seem like the guns shook the whole earth, and we could see the smoke rise as if thar was a big fire. Thousands and thousands was killed, and if the Yankees captured a Rebel who could do anything at all to assist they made him come and help the wounded.
Doctor Tyler's house was used for a hospital, and guards were posted all around the place. Next day we colored people come back. When I got thar one of the wounded men was settin' on the steps of the big house beggin' for water. I went to the well, which was right in the yard, and got some. He was leaning back too weak to move, and I put my arm behind his head and gave him a drink. But the water and some blood come right out of a wound in his chest, and he fell over dead.
Well, I helped what I could. Some Sisters of Charity were thar, and they was nice ladies and certainly tended to the wounded good. I went around, too, and if I see a man suffering I would give him water, and I made coffee and cooked and washed. They brought the bundles of clothes to my house.
Monday I went on the battlefield. Hundreds of people was lookin' around thar, and some of 'em was what we called "grave robbers" and was goin' along pullin' off coats and boots. I took my oldest child with me. She was big enough to comb her own hair, and she could sweep up a floor very good, and tote chips, and stay in a room and keep the fire. We come to whar a lot of dead soldiers was buried. They was in great long trenches and not very well covered, and some hogs was down thar eating of the dead bodies. Pretty soon a dog that belonged on our place ran past us with a man's foot in his mouth.
"Oh, Mamma!" my girl said, "look what Tige has got."
Then she fainted and fell. Thar was a branch near by, and some of us older people got water and threw on her. She come to, but we had to tote her all the way home. Thar were five or six of us, and we took turns. As soon as we got her in the house I sent for the doctor. He was thar in a very short time, and he said: "You deserve to lose the child. You had no business to take her to the battlefield." Anyway, I never did go to it no more.
They buried the dead soldiers as fast as they could, and they tore the fences to pieces and used 'em to burn up the dead horses and the ol' stinkin' beef and the like of that.
The Tyler barn was filled with guns stacked up thar, and the wagons come and took 'em away. Besides, the wagons took away a whole parcel of things that the children had picked up. My little boy had an army blanket and overcoat he had brought from the battlefield. He wanted me to make him a suit of clothes out of 'em, and when he saw the wagons comin' he took the blanket and overcoat and ran down the hill to the swamp and hid 'em in the bushes.
As soon as the Union army retreated back most of the colored people went away with it. They didn’t like bein' slaves. Often they had masters who drove 'em so they fared mighty bad — mighty bad! So off they went with the Northern army, and some got kilt and some didn’t. A good many come back when the war was over.
Not long after the battle hyar the Widow Tyler moved to town, and she took the oldest child from each of the slave families. That was pretty hard on us, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The young doctor wanted to get out of the way of the army, and he went off with his family and left us with nothing. We just had to shift for ourselves.
The Tyler house was a Union hospital for the rest of the war, and the people in charge paid us for everything we did. They paid us for work, and they bought peas, onions, lettuce, and such things from us. I've gathered many a lot of vegetables from the garden for 'em.
Every Sunday the soldiers had meetings on the lawn — preaching, you know, for the hospital. A little drummer boy beat his drum to call the soldiers to the meetings. I certainly did fall in love with that little feller. He said that when the war ended, he was comin' down South to see me, if he didn’t get killed. I used to cook for him. I've give him many a mouthful to eat. He was mighty fond of cornbread. So was all the soldiers. They'd give you hardtacks for it. I had good teeth and I could bite them hardtacks, but ol' people would soak 'em in water. One while we couldn’t get anything else in the world to eat but beef and hardtacks.
We used to parch rye and wheat and corn and sweet potatoes for coffee. Sometimes we'd grind meal and parch that and make meal coffee. Some liked it and some didn’t. It went very well with milk.
Thar was a number of different kinds of leaves that did for tea, such as sassafras and sage and pine needles. Then thar was holly. That was healthy.
We hardly ever seen sugar, but we could get molasses.
If we had plenty of corn we'd take some of it and boil it in a weak lye, and then wash it and rub it between our hands to get the hulls off. It would wash out right white. After that we'd put it on the fire to cook and make hominy. Perhaps we'd boil a piece of pork in with it. Some people would eat butter with the hominy if they could get any. The hominy was good with molasses, and if you fried it and fried some meat, too, it was good that way. Sometimes we made bread out of it.
Oh! but we were glad when the cruel war was over. The white people said it was a civil war, but we slaves called it cruel.
1 I did not find her at the tiny house on the borders of some thin pine woods where she lived, but by dint of searching discovered her at a white neighbor's. She was stalwart of frame, but slow of movement, very black, and with a countenance that beamed amiably as she told her story. She sat in the doorway of the outdoor kitchen, an ugly new structure of unplaned boards, and I sat close by under a tree in a chair.